How to protect turkey flocks from heat stress

The key aspect of protecting birds from the heat is maximizing their hours of comfort while minimizing their hours of stress. This requires close attention to detail for the grower. Often, these actions and management techniques are not the easiest.

Austin 70x70 Headshot
(Austin Alonzo)
(Austin Alonzo)

Turkey growers and integrators can’t control the weather, but they can control the comfort level of their flocks on hot days.

Christy Puffenbarger, vice president of technical services for Aviagen Turkeys, shared her experience in how farmers can help their turkeys do better under high heat conditions. She spoke on March 14 as part of the 2019 Midwest Poultry Federation Convention in Minneapolis.

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Christy Puffenbarger, Aviagen Turkeys | Photo by Austin Alonzo

The key to protecting birds from the heat is maximizing their hours of comfort while minimizing hours of stress. This requires close attention to detail from the grower. Often, these actions and management techniques are not the easiest.

But, she said, it’s not about convenience. It’s about looking after the welfare of the turkeys and maintaining a healthy, high-performing flock. Heat stress can lead to worse performance and higher mortality, which ultimately means lower profits.

Poult care and managing the brooder house

Young birds like, older birds, can be susceptible to heat stress and dehydration due to their small size and high growth rate. Puffenbarger said it can be harder to start birds in the summer than the winter because the farmer has less control of outside conditions on hot days.

Poults want to feel heat on their backs. So even if it’s warm outside, it’s necessary to heat the house before the birds arrive and keep heating when they are present. If the temperature is inconsistent, birds can pile up leading to potentially catastrophic outcomes.

Along with keeping the house warm enough for the poults, the birds must be given an adequate supply of clean, fresh water. In warmer conditions, the birds can dehydrate quickly. Farmers should check their drinker lines before the arrival of poults to ensure they are in working order.

There may be a few instances when the farmer needs to cool the brooder house. This is particularly true right before the birds are ready to move to the grower house. The turkeys are larger, so the brooder house will be more densely populated and will probably need to be cooled to keep the birds comfortable.

Protecting adult flocks

Tunnel ventilation: The best way to control heat stress on older turkeys is using tunnel ventilation, Puffenbarger said. However, there are plenty of conventional turkey houses that will continue to be used, so growers need to manage what they have and use tools like fans and foggers to minimize heat stress.

That said, using a tunnel ventilated house is not a surefire way to avoid heat stress. The fans must be run and operated in accordance with the ambient environmental conditions.

Water: In both conventional and tunnel houses, access to water is essential for the birds under heat stress. The drinker lines must be operational and set to the correct height. Moreover, they need to be supplied with the appropriate amount of drinkers for the population of the house. If birds need to work hard to get water, there can be higher mortality and worse performance. Water needs to be cool, fresh and sanitized.

Water lines should be flushed regularly to prevent biofilm build up and keep water cool for the flock. If there is a drip pipe extending from a water system, it should not touch the ground as that is a route for pathogens into the house. Farmers can also add electrolytes to the water supply during the hottest part of the day to help increase hydration levels.

Controlled flock distribution: Growers generally do not like migration fences because of the inconveniences they create. However, Puffenbarger said, they are designed to maximize turkey comfort and performance by keeping birds evenly distributed through the house so they have equal access to feed and water. This can lead to greater performance.

Stocking density: Reducing stocking density by 10% in the hottest months can help reduce heat stress. Puffenbarger said growers may be opposed to this but it will pay off in terms of growth rate and lower mortality.

Hanging fans: Fans help move air around and distribute heat in the house. They must be the right size for the job and there needs to enough in the house to achieve the proper circulation. Farmers need to keep their fans clean, working and ready to go. Otherwise they may run into a situation when they are not prepared for heat stress.

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Fans are useful tools for circulating air and managing heat but they need to be kept in good, working condition to be the most effective. | Photo by Austin Alonzo

Foggers and cooling cells: Foggers and cool cells needs are variable depending upon environmental conditions. Like fans, they need to be ready to go when needed. These tools are useful for additional cooling in the house but they must be used with care. Adding extra moisture in the house can make litter wetter and lead to unintended consequences.

Timers, lights and generators: Maintenance of these systems is essential to ensure they work when needed and work correctly. Puffenbarger recommended regularly inspecting timers and clocks to see if they are set properly. Lights should be checked to make sure they are on the correct schedule. As for generators, they are helpful in adverse conditions but they are not a license to relax. Even if a farm uses a generator, the grower should check to make sure it’s working and the mechanisms in the house are working properly.

Tips for integrators

Integrators can help their growers out in two important ways: by sending out reminders of expected high heat and by visiting farms.

Puffenbarger recommended setting up a robocall system to notify growers when high heat is in the forecast and to remind them of management steps they can take to reduce heat stress on the birds. Using an automated system reduces the amount of time staff would spend calling each grower individually.

An integrators’ live operation and technical staff can also show their support, and protect their growers from heat stress by paying regular visits to farms on those hot days. Packing a cooler with cold water and sports drinks and showing up shows the grower they are appreciated and supported and provides the integrator an opportunity to check conditions on the farm, too.

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