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Heat wave stressful for poultry farmers
Battle to keep chickens cool proves to be challenge

By Paul Huggins 340-2395

HARTSELLE — When Hal Lee's chickens get hot, he uses computer monitors and hydrating cool-cell technology to help save his investment.

When Charles Rich's chickens get hot, he gives them something to fear more than the heat — his feet.

Both have been busy during the heat wave.

Friday's temperatures reached 103 in Decatur, the third straight day of triple-digit readings and the eighth straight of 97 or higher, according to the National Weather Service in Huntsville.

Huntsville also registered 103 Friday, breaking the record of 102 set in 1956. Florence was the hottest in the region at 104.

The Decatur-Huntsville area needs seven more days of 100-plus temps to tie the record set in August 1952.

A little cooler Saturday?

The forecast today calls for 95- to 100-degree temperatures.

"It should feel a little less soupy," said Michelle Parcus, NWS meteorologist. A cold front that passed through Friday night will lower the humidity, she said.

That's probably not much comfort to local poultry farmers.

Rich has a pasture-raised poultry operation, meaning his chickens can roam about the farm.

That sounds less stressful than a crowded chicken house, and customers say it makes for better-tasting meat, but when the temperature climbs into the 90s, the chickens would be less heat-stressed if raised in a traditional chicken house.

Lee's six chicken houses, which together cover 140,000 birds, feature cool-cell systems that pull outside air through watered-down corrugated fiber (which cost about $28,000 to install in 1998) into the chicken house, lowering the temperature, ideally to no more than 72 degrees.

"We have been as high as 75," Lee said. "And you say that's only 3 degrees; well, 3 degrees is enough on a chicken to make it grow good or not grow good."

Stressed chickens eat less

When chickens get heat-stressed, they don't eat as much and therefore don't grow as quickly. This disrupts scheduled sale dates, he said.

Lee has a 2-inch-diameter water line running full speed from about 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day to keep the houses cool, as well as using electric fans.

His water bill was $1,000 last month, twice the normal rate, he said, but partly because the drought has forced him to feed his cattle with piped-in water.

"When it's 100 degrees, raising chickens is stressful," Lee said. He's usually awake from midnight to 5 a.m. ensuring his poultry is OK.

Rich's pasture-raised chickens have shaded shelters to hide from the sun, but that's not much relief when it's about 100 degrees, he said.

The real problem, Rich said, is that when heat stresses chickens, they instinctively huddle close together, which is the last thing they should do.

By congregating, they're combining their body heat to make a small area even hotter.

"We just go through and stir them up to stop that," Rich said.

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