- Providing Natural Poultry Feed
- Garden Cover Crops, Insects and Weeds
- Comfrey and Other Feed Crops
- Orchards, Forests and Tree Crops
- Composter Chickens
- Making Alliances with ‘Recomposers’
- Surplus Foods, Dairy Products and Eggs
- What Do You Feed Your Flock?
- My Top Twelve Plants to Grow for Chickens
- Poultry Pastures
- Best Grass Seed Mix for Chickens – Poultry Pasture Seed Mix
- Best Grass Seed Mix for Chickens
- Commercial Poultry Pasture Seed Mixes for Small-scale Keepers
- More on Feeding Chickens
- Connect With Us!
- A Yard With Purpose
- Growing A Yard Chickens Will Love
- Make The Chicken Garden Work For You
- An Alternative To The Polyculture Lawn
- Go Wild
- Nature’s larder
- Mother Nature provides your chickens with so many healthy goodies. Start making use of her medicine cabinet!
- Feed Chickens Naturally For Free with 12 Perennial Weeds
- Cover Crops Chickens Eat: Using Cover Crops For Chicken Feed
- Best Cover Crops for Chickens
- Benefits to Growing Cover Crops for Chicken Feed
- Size Of Flock
- Type of Crop
- A Few Thoughts on Organic Gardening
- 3. Soil Care: More on Cover Crops
Providing Natural Poultry Feed
Other easy-to-grow seed crops include millet, sorghum, and sunflowers. Simply throw the whole seed heads to your chickens.
Garden Cover Crops, Insects and Weeds
Many common garden cover crops — alfalfa, clover, annual rye, kale (and its close relative, rape), turnips, mustard, buckwheat, and grain grasses — provide abundant feed for poultry. All can be cut and carried to the chickens, or the chickens can graze these crops.
The biggest challenge with conventional feed grains is not growing them, but harvesting and threshing (which are labor-intensive), plus finding the space to store them. You can eliminate these issues by growing grains as cover crops and allowing them to mature before sending in the chickens. Cowpeas and buckwheat are similar double-duty cover crops with nutritious seeds for chickens.
While eating these high-quality feeds, chickens till in the cover crops, improving the soil with both plant residues and their droppings.
Electrified net fences (available through Premier 1 and Kencove) and natural feeding strategies intersect in the garden, as well as the pasture. A net can surround the winter squash patch and enclose a few guineas to provide 100 percent control of squash bugs. Fencing chickens (and/or ducks) in the garden before the planting season largely eliminates the slug population for months. “Weeder” geese rid certain crops (corn, grapes, onions, potatoes, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and asparagus) of weeds.
If you want to selectively target smaller garden areas, park a chicken tractor on individual beds. Adjacent beds are protected from the chickens.
Regulations governing certified-organic production specify a waiting period of 120 days between the application of raw manure and the harvest of crops in contact with the soil — 90 days in the case of tall crops, such as corn and trellised pole beans, where there is no direct soil contact with the harvested part. I personally think the droppings of a well-managed home flock are unlikely to be a vector for pathogens. It is my standard practice to replant a bed immediately after it has been worked by the chickens, and to harvest the resulting crop without regard to any waiting period.
Comfrey and Other Feed Crops
Comfrey, rich in protein and minerals, is a sturdy perennial that can be cut and fed to the birds, or a moveable pen can be rotated over a comfrey patch so the birds can harvest the plants themselves. Geese and ducks especially love comfrey. Questions have been raised about the potential for long-term liver toxicity due to the alkaloids in comfrey. If you want to explore the subject further, search for “pyrrolizidine” online. My research has convinced me that whole comfrey leaves do not present health risks to livestock.
Certain “people-food” crops also can be used as poultry feed: potatoes, pumpkins, winter squashes, sweet potatoes, plus mangel or fodder beets. All these crops store well in the proper conditions.
Dandelions and yellow dock stay green into winter. As long as I can push a spading fork into the ground, I dig these highly nutritious plants and throw them to my winter flock by the bucketful. Geese are especially fond of wild chicory. And how do you suppose chickweed got its name?
Orchards, Forests and Tree Crops
Poultry fenced in the orchard consume a lot of protein as they help control damaging insects. They also help control diseases by cleaning up dropped fruit. Geese are particularly diligent at gleaning dropped apples and pears.
Historically, farmers allowed flocks of turkeys to range in wooded areas to fatten on windfalls of acorns, beechnuts, and persimmons. I feed my flocks wild hickory nuts and black walnuts after smashing the nuts on a rock with a hammer.
Mulberry trees in the pastures provide shade and dropped fruit in abundance. Chestnut trees provide shade for chickens, and the chickens garner protein by eating chestnut weevils at various stages of development, breaking the life cycle of the weevils and protecting the trees.
The typical static chicken run — bare of green cover and dotted with poop — should be anathema to everyone concerned about flock health and avoiding runoff pollution. I recommend using a thick cover of organic duff on the run to absorb droppings, prevent runoff and retain fertility for garden applications. Fall leaves, grass clippings, wood chips, old hay or straw make great bedding for the run. As this organic debris field becomes more biologically active, it proliferates with feed for your chickens: insects, earthworms, fungal strands, and health-promoting metabolites of microbes.
This strategy works in winter and summer. In winter, pasturing is usually not a possibility because dormant pasture sod will be destroyed by the chickens. Releasing the flock onto a heavily mulched winter yard is vastly better than confinement. If the mulch is heavy enough, the ground won’t freeze and the chickens will have access to live animal foods (worms, slugs and pill bugs). In the summer, those who cannot pasture their flocks will find that a run covered with deep, mixed organic matter is the best possible alternative to the bare chicken run.
Making Alliances with ‘Recomposers’
Organic wastes can be turned into resources through use of decomposer organisms, which I like to call “recomposers.” Bins of cultivated red worms convert kitchen castoffs, garden residues, and manure to a valuable soil amendment (worm castings), and you can harvest the worms as feed for the flock.
The black soldier fly, native in the United States in Zone 6 and warmer, is an especially fascinating ally. I began managing a colony of soldier grubs (the larval stage of this insect) last year, feeding them dense, succulent wastes such as food scraps, manure, and culled fruits and vegetables. The grubs are high in feed value (42 percent protein and 35 percent fat, dry weight). The chickens and ducks love them.
Surplus Foods, Dairy Products and Eggs
Most culled fruits and vegetables make good feed for the flock. People who have extra space in a greenhouse can grow cut-and-come-again grain grasses, rape, turnips, and other fodder crops for the winter flock. If I have an abundance of Japanese beetles, I shake off clusters of them (in the cool of the morning and evening, when they are less apt to fly) into a 5-gallon bucket with a gallon of water . Imagine the feeding frenzy when I give them to the chickens!
Sprouting the seeds you feed (purchased or homegrown) boosts nutritional value (enzymes, vitamins, and protein). Sprouting is an especially useful strategy in winter, when fresh foods are scarce.
Excess milk and dairy byproducts, such as skimmed milk and whey, make excellent feed for the flock. Fermenting the milk using live cultures such as kefir makes it even more beneficial.
If you have them, cracked or dirty eggs make excellent feed, especially for growing birds with higher protein needs. Just boil the eggs, crush by hand, and feed — shells and all. Feeding eggs in this way will not encourage your chickens to eat raw eggs.
Finally, one of the best strategies for achieving greater independence from commercial feeds may be to reduce flock size. The fewer birds you support, the greater the share per bird of feed resources you’re able to offer. As I get more serious about feeding from home resources, I’m trying to find the ideal compromise between reducing the flock to a more supportable size and producing the amounts of eggs, dressed poultry, broth, and rendered cooking fats we need.
Most chickens want to forage natural feeds if given the opportunity. But how can you know whether your hens are getting enough to eat, and how much you should supplement with commercial feeds or those you formulate yourself? If your flock is ranging an area with plenty of natural feeding opportunities, don’t be afraid to “push” your birds to maximize their foraging by being a bit stingy with the prepared feeds you offer.
What Do You Feed Your Flock?
Have you experimented with ways to produce more of your flock’s feeds from your own resources? Do you have ideas to share? If so, please post a comment below. If you advocate growing particular crops for home feeds, please specify the types (e.g. single-head sunflowers with large seeds, or multi-headed types with smaller seeds) and/or varieties you have worked with.
Certain strategies are so obvious and commonly used (feed kitchen scraps to the flock), they don’t need to be mentioned. But your unique twist on such ideas could be useful, for example: “I’ve arranged with a nearby sandwich shop to save their food scraps for me.”
Remember to include your location and (if you know) your climate (plant hardiness) zone.
For more information on raising poultry, see these other articles by Harvey Ussery: Anyone Can Raise Chickens and Incredible Homestead Chickens.
My Top Twelve Plants to Grow for Chickens
This year when you’re planning your garden, why not plant some extras for your chickens? Planting from seed is extremely economical and a great way to reduce both your family’s and your chickens’ feed bill a bit.
Supplementing layer feed with a varied diet of healthy produce is beneficial to your flock. Here are my top twelve choices for garden plants our chickens love:
Berries (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries)
Our chickens love all kinds of berries. Too expensive to buy on a regular basis, berry bushes are super easy to grow. You might even have some wild berry bushes on your property, which is a bonus!
Broccoli is a nutrition powerhouse that your chickens will love and a wonderful spring and late fall cold crop. They will love the crowns, leaves, stems and roots.
Our chickens love cukes sliced in half or into rings. They eat the seeds, flesh and skins. Cucumbers are a great summer treat because of their high water content.
Garlic is a great immune system booster with overall health benefits that can be added fresh minced into water or fed free-choice. If you’re like me, you also love to cook with it, so be sure to plant extra! Garlic is really easy to grow and is generally planted in the fall.
Greens (Kale, Cabbage, Spinach, Swiss Chard, Romaine, Collards)
Leafy greens of all kinds are super healthy and a flock favorite. One nice thing about them is that you can continue to harvest all through the growing season.
Herbs (various types of culinary herbs)
Herbs are also very easy to grow – in fact many are perennials depending on where you live – and they all offer lots of health benefits. Herbs also benefit from regular pruning, so you can plan on harvesting all through the growing season. My chickens seem to especially enjoy nibbling on dill, basil, parsley, oregano and cilantro.
Melons (Watermelon, Cantaloupe, Honeydew)
Melons are a great source of hydration especially in summer but, like berries, can be too expensive to buy on a regular basis, so growing your own makes a lot of sense. Slice the melon in half and your chickens will eat the seeds, flesh and skin.
Nasturtium are really easy to grow from seed. They’re pretty and the seeds and flowers are believed to be a natural wormer for poultry and other livestock.
Peas are another early spring crop that make a fun bite-sized treat for your flock. And if you raise ducks, peas floating in their water tub is an especially fun treat which also provides them the niacin they need to grow strong bones.
Like nasturtium, pumpkin seeds are thought to work as a natural wormer. Your chickens will happily eat the seeds, flesh and rind.
Unlike the white potato which can be toxic, sweet potatoes are perfectly safe for your chickens: leaves, vines, skins and flesh. Although normally considered a warm climate crop, there are some varieties of sweet potatoes that can be grown even here in Maine.
Sunflowers are so cheerful and pretty and the seeds are a great protein source and favorite treat of chickens and wild birds. Sunflowers come in lots of different varieties and are easy to grow from seed.
So there you have it, a dozen of my favorite suggestions of fruits, veggies, herbs and flowers to plant for your chickens. They will thank you!
And don’t forget to pick up a copy of my book Gardening with Chickens (Voyageur, 2016) for all kinds of ideas of other things to plant for your flock.
Choosing Forage Plants
Chickens love greens and will eat a wide variety. Don’t underestimate the sheer quantity they can get through. It is a good habit to always give them the outside leaves of any big, leafy vegetable you have harvested from the garden such as cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, mustard or old broccoli plants. They will not only eat the leaves but clean up any caterpillars or snails lurking amongst the foliage. Greens also supply chlorophyll, one of the reasons free range eggs have such a lovely deep yellow colour.
Weeds as Greens
When weeding the garden it is worthwhile becoming familiar with the chook favourites and putting them into a bucket for the chooks to enjoy. Some of the names are a good indicator – like Fat Hen Chenopodium album and Chickweed Stellaria media. Other weeds like purslane syn. pigweed Portulaca oleracea, Cleavers Galium aperine, Dandelion Taraxacum officinale and Stinging nettles Urtica dioica will readily be eaten.
Clucker Tucker™ Seed Mix
This is a hardy collection of leafy greens Green Harvest has specifically designed so you can grow the plants your flock will enjoy. It includes favourite forage foods such as bok choy, buckwheat, barrel medic, forage chicory, clover, cocksfoot, linseed, lucerne, millet, forage plantain, silverbeet, subclover and sunflower. Most have vigorous root systems that will quickly regrow leaves that are cut or eaten. It is a blend of annual and perennial plants, many of which will self-sow. In a forage area, seed can be broadcast; the chooks will need to be kept off the area for the plants to establish. After they have grazed it down, the chooks should be taken off to allow the plants to reshoot. Where space is limited, grow the mix in seedling trays and once grown, place it in the chook run or bird cage. In temperate areas sow March – May or August – October. In subtropical areas sow August – September or May – July. In tropical areas sow April – August.
Perennial plants can be grown wherever you can tuck them in around the garden. When planted on the outside of the chook run, along the fence edges, they can be self-service greens but the fence will prevent the chooks demolishing the whole plant in one go. If you plant downslope of the chook run it will help to capture nutrients that wash out of the run during heavy rain.
Good choices for hardy perennial greens:
- Comfrey is easily the best herb to grow for chooks.
- Queensland Arrowroot: an essential plant in warmer climates, as it provides a cool refuge on hot days. The high moisture-holding stems create an air-conditioned effect inside a big clump. The leaves are an attractive forage and you will need a big patch to prevent it being demolished by hungry hens.
- New Zealand spinach syn. Warrigal greens is a highly nutritious tonic food, rich in protein and B12. A very useful year-round groundcover for temperate areas; it is only vigorous in winter and spring in the subtropics. The juicy leaves are appreciated by poultry and it self-sows readily.
- Sweet Potato vines are useful groundcovers in frost-free areas for under fruit trees and are relished by the chooks.
Trees and Shrubs with Fruit
Mulberry (useful deciduous tree for chook runs as it will let winter sun in), lillypilly or other native bushfoods, persimmon, pawpaw, feijoa, cherry guava, tamarillo, custard apple, peach, banana (old stems can be chopped up too), fig, jaboticaba, grumichama, Brazilian cherry and pears.
Trees and Shrubs with Seeds or Pods
Some plants are useful for planting in larger areas as the seeds are a high protein food source: tree lucerne / tagasaste, wattle and pigeon pea.
Vines for Fences and Trellis
These vines planted on chook fences can provide shade as well as food: banana passionfruit, black passionfruit, choko, grapes, cucumber, beans and Ceylon spinach.
Seeds for Sowing in Rotation Runs
Clucker Tucker™ seed mix, amaranth, sunflower, corn, millet, buckwheat, chicory, chickpea, plantain, sorghum, wheat, oats, barley, lucerne, soybean, clover and linseed.
You can find books on poultry care here.
Pastures are for the birds – literally. The benefits of raising chickens on pasture forage are well known to both full-time poultry producers and backyard chicken hobbyist alike. Pasture-raised chickens require little initial investment, help improve soil fertility, provide eggs rich in vitamins and omega-3s, eat pesky insects, and offer a sustainable approach to meat production.
To be beneficial to poultry, pastures should be naturally low-growing and rich with legumes and other forbs. Grasses are of little value to chickens when it comes to edibility. Here at Nature’s Seed, we’ve collaborated with poultry producers from around the country to bring you the best possible mix of legumes and forbs that produce abundant seed and attract tasty insects. We’ve also included common flax in all our poultry blends; a well-known source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Our Poultry Pasture Blends are easy to establish and will return year after year. Ideal for large acreages or small backyard plots, they can also be used as cover crop. In dry climates these blends should be irrigated for best results.
Best Grass Seed Mix for Chickens – Poultry Pasture Seed Mix
In this article we consider the best grass seed mix for chickens and poultry pasture seed mixes.
Allowing hens to free-range on an ordinary grass lawn or standard pasture will let them express their natural desire to wander, scratch and peck but is not going to be very nutritious for them.
Best Grass Seed Mix for Chickens
From the chicken’s point of view, the best grass seed mix should be one that has a diversity of species to provide a wide variety of nutrients. The grasses should tiller well, providing a wealth of young, tender shoots, rich and sweet.
Long stalks of tough grass aren’t very palatable for hens and can cause crop problems. If the pasture has grown long it should be topped before running hens on it.
The grass should be fairly hard wearing and vigorous so that it can recover from the birds scratching. Incidentally, chickens being kept for a few days on a patch of lawn will do it a lot of good. They not only fertilise with their nitrogen rich droppings but scarify the dead thatch from the grass with their scratching whilst devouring pests like leather-jackets.
Usually the grasses will be a mixture of ryegrass and fescues. Rygrass is tough and hard wearing. Fescues establish quickly and spread by creeping from rhizomes.
Clover is an essential part of the pasture mix. Although included because it fixes nitrogen, it is a good source of protein and promotes the production of omega 3 in the eggs.
Lucerne or Alfalfa
An essential part of a poultry pasture providing protein along with various vitamins and trace elements. These include: phosphorus, vitamin H, vitamin K, manganese, zinc, potassium and selenium. Lucerne also helps increase the omega 3 in the eggs.
This is a forage legume often included in hay mixes. It may be used as an alternative to alfalfa in poor soils. It can survive fairly close grazing, trampling, and mowing.
These perennial plants increase palatability and provide a wide range of additional vitamins and minerals. Some, like chicory, are deep rooted and bring minerals up from the subsoil.
Commercial Poultry Pasture Seed Mixes for Small-scale Keepers
There are many retailers and seed merchants offering ready formulated seed mixtures which can easily be found with a search. A typical mix will contain between 85% and 90% grass seed, made up of a mixture of fescues and ryegrasses. 2% to 4% clover (50% red and 50% white) Lucerne (alfalfa) at 2% plus various forage and other herbs.
Example grass pasture seed mix for sowing at 30 to 50 g / M2
- 30% Hybrid Ryegrass lolium x bouchaenum
- 20% certified Sheeps Fescue
- 20% certified Hard Fescue
- 15% certified Red creeping Fescue
- 2% Bitter Blue Lupin
- 2% Lucerne (Alfalfa)
- 2% Birdsfoot Trefoil
- 2% ABERPEARL certified White Clover
- 2% MERULA certified Red Clover
- 2% Agricultural Mustard
- .8% BURNET Forage Herb
- .4% CHICORY Forage Herb
- 1.4% VETCH Forage Herb
- .2% RIBGRASS Forage Herb
- .2% YARROW Forage Herb
If the soil pH is above 6.2 (Slightly acid to alkaline) it is well worth adding sainfoin to the mixture. It’s a forage legume that will grow on very poor soils but most importantly has anthelmintic properties. It actually helps control parasitic worms. This has been demonstrated with lambs and is likely to be the case with poultry
It may be more economic, especially when sowing larger areas, to purchase the various seeds separately and produce your own mixture.
More on Feeding Chickens
- Best Grass Seed Mix for Chickens – Poultry Pasture Seed Mix
- Feed Your Back Garden Chickens More Greens
- Feeding Chickens – Nutritional Requirements & Sources
- Feeding Chickens Eggshells, Crushed Oyster Shell & Grit
- Feeding Chickens from Chicks to Laying Hens for Backgarden Keepers
- Feeding Chickens on Food Scraps and Waste Food
- Growing & Feeding Sprouted Wheatgrass Fodder to Hens
- Herbs For Hens – A Useful Dietary Supplement
- Pasture Feeding Hens for Better Eggs
- Why we should avoid Soya in Animal & Poultry Feed
When we first got chickens, I was told that they would be thrilled to eat our table scraps. But I wasn’t really sure what chickens could eat, or what they would like and dislike. Then I found a great list at Backyardchickens.com, which tells you everything that is safe to feed your chickens, and what you should never give them. I was glad to learn that our flock could eat almost anything we had to throw at them! Here’s what the experts recommend…
Safe Food For Chickens:
- Peeled Bananas
- Herbs, such as basil, nettles, chives, comfrey, chickweed, and cilantro (basil in particular boosts the immune system)
- Cooked Beans (though I read this can make the eggs taste funny.)
- Breads (feed bread and other starches in moderation, as they have little nutritional value)
- Brussel Sprouts
- Cereal (not a sugary kind)
- Cheese (including cottage cheese, not too much though)
- Cooked meat, including chicken
- Cooked Eggs
- Seedless Grapes
- Cooked Grits
- Lettuce and other Leafy Greens
- Oatmeal (raw or cooked)
- Cooked Pasta
- Popped Popcorn (no butter or salt)
- Cooked Potatoes (no green skins!)
- Winter and summer squash (cut them in half and let the chickens eat the seeds and flesh)
- Sprouted lentils and grains
- Cooked Rice
- Duckweed (exceptionally high in protein and easy to grow)
- Sunflower Seeds
- Black soldier fly larvae or Japanese beetles (you can easily make traps and bags to contain these and then feed them to your birds)
- Garden weeds (such as dandelion, lambs quarter, and purslane)Gar
- Fermented feed
- Cooked Turnips
- Yogurt (plain is best, and a good source of probiotics)
- Milk (sour or curdled is fine)
- Sweet potatoes
- Pet or livestock food, such as dog, cat, or goat feed (wet cat food, in particular, is a great option when hens are molting, as it provides necessary nutrients)
- Bone meal
- Garlic (beneficial for immune functioning)
- Grass clippings (do not use clippings when pesticides or fertilizers where applied)
- Cover crops (such as alfalfa, oats, sorghum, or buckwheat)
- Butchering scraps (ideally cooked)
Do NOT feed your chickens:
- Raw potato peel (while these aren’t necessarily toxic raw or cooked, any green parts of potatoes can be dangerous to chickens, just as they are to humans)
- Citrus (very little is okay, but go easy on it)
- Dried or undercooked beans
- Avocado skin or pit
- Raw eggs (encourages them to eat their own eggs)
- Sugary stuff
- Butter (too fatty)
- Really salty stuff
- Rotten or moldy food
- Chocolate or candy
- Anything containing caffeine
- Leaves from tomato or eggplant leaves (these are part of the nightshade family, and while the fruits of these plants are fine, unripened fruits or the plant itself should be avoided)
- Seeds or pits from fruits like apples, apricots, peaches, and pears (these contain cyanide)
- Wild mushrooms
- Spinach (fine in moderation, but only as an occasional treat)
- Maggots (many people buy these commercially, which is typically fine, but be careful as maggots carry the risk of botulism)
Consider growing your own cover crops or extra perennial plants within your chickens’ reach so that they can graze freely on low-maintenance foods. To save money, you might also consider checking with local farmers’ markets and grocery stores to see if they have any produce or other chicken-friendly foods to throw away. Chickens will also enjoy pecking through your compost pile if given the chance, as this gives them access to scraps and nutrient-dense bugs while also helping to aerate your pile.
You can string up larger pieces of food (like a head of cabbage) for the chickens to peck at for fun, or you can put them in a wire container that they can peck the food through. Alternatively, you can also throw scraps into a large tray or bowl, or container of some sort. Whatever you do, it’s best to try to keep the food off of the ground to keep it out of manure.
You might also consider building a grazing box. If you have limited space and aren’t able to allow your chickens to free range, these can be a great way to feed chickens confined in runs. Grazing boxes allow chickens to eat freely or rotationally even while they are protected from predators.
Feeding your chickens table scraps is a great way to save a little money on feed, and your chickens will go crazy for your leftovers! In addition, providing your chickens with scraps and leftovers is a great way to add variety to their diets, especially during a cold winter where free-range nutrients are scarce.
In general, chickens won’t eat something that will harm them or that is toxic. Don’t worry too much about trying different foods. If a particular food is unpalatable, your birds will typically ignore it.
updated by Rebekah White on 05/03/2018
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PHOTO: Oregan Department of Agriculture/Flickr by Rachel Hurd Anger July 25, 2016
A commercially ideal lawn is a monoculture turf: one type of grass, cut to an optimal length, whose perfection requires maintenance with chemical applications, fossil fuels and a lot of water. The monoculture lawn became the homogenizing face of suburbia decades ago, and today, a lawn is often legally mandated in municipalities across the country, with gardening restricted to areas out of sight. Beyond cultural aesthetics, the manicured monocrop lawn has no useful function, nor is it environmentally sustainable.
Enter polyculture: gardening that mimics a natural ecosystem with many different kinds of organisms growing together in one place. Adding chickens into the polyculture mix creates a symbiotic system, where the chickens rely on the land and the land relies on the chickens.
A Yard With Purpose
In Joel Salatin’s book Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World (Center Street, 2011), Salatin describes his livestock pastures as a source of bursting nutrition:
“Each morning, I step out into the dew-speckled pastures, each drop a rainbow-studded diamond adorning orchardgrass, red clover, white clover, plantain, chicory—a whole salad bar bedazzled in morning’s solar glory.
I have thousands of expectant animals waiting for a fresh salad bar. They love me.”
Most of hobby farmers and chicken keepers don’t have thousands of livestock on acres of rolling beauty, but even for keepers of small flocks, it’s possible to shift expectations from a conformist lawn to growing a yard rich with nutritious forage for every egg in the nest box.
Growing A Yard Chickens Will Love
With chickens, what grows in the yard becomes their food, and, via the egg, eventually becomes our food. The more diverse an egg’s ingredients, the more complete the egg’s nutrition will be. Chickens have individual preferences for different foods just like we do, and giving them variety gives them choice, satisfying their natural chicken behaviors, personal tastes and individual dietary needs.
Inviting diversity into your living space increases chickens’ access to nutrition, reduces feed costs, invites and sustains beneficial pollinators, improves soil, builds rich compost through green manure mixed with chicken manure, and, in turn, grows better gardens to start the process all over again.
Rumor has it that one can’t garden with chickens because the chickens will lay waste to any and all growing plants. While chicken gardening does indeed pose some challenges, this isn’t entirely true. Author and chicken keeper Jessi Bloom motivates chicken keepers to create a garden one can tend successfully along with a flock of free-range chickens in her book, Free-Range Chicken Gardens (Timber Press, 2012). One chapter is even dedicated to plants with direct benefits to chickens, designed to create a supportive and self-sustaining environment that meets the flock’s needs. Ultimately, Bloom has created a tutorial for a chicken garden—that is, a garden directly for the chickens.
Chickens don’t disturb most plants once they’re well-established, especially deep-rooted bushes or hardy plants with deep taproots. If they can’t easily tear up the roots, they move on, so protecting plants at their most vulnerable is key.
Transforming a yard from monoculture to polyculture or permaculture—aka, permanent agriculture—takes time and even trial and error to find what plants work well for your space. As you begin raging against your monoculture, let these three chicken needs be your diversity guide: shelter, food and forage.
All chickens are at risk of predator attacks, but the free-range flock is the most vulnerable. If our domestic chickens were wild like their jungle-fowl predecessors, living in a natural environment would provide natural shelters from would-be predators. Imagine a forest floor, thick with diverse undergrowth, protein sources living under the leaf litter and fallen trees providing shelter: This is one type of environment you can try to replicate. Living on a well-kept monoculture, chickens are more visible to predators. While some breeds are more predator-savvy than others, some plants can provide adequate free-range protection, especially from aerial predators.
Evergreen trees and shrubs, such as gooseberry, juniper, rugosa rose and wintergreen barberry, are excellent choices for garden shelters. Raspberry and blackberry canes eventually spread and can become large over time to fill space. Thorny bushes and canes will provide protection even when their leaves are lost.
“Large predators, especially airborne ones, will avoid getting tangled up in a mess of thorns,” Bloom says.
She also recommends using plants with spiny-looking leaves as another deterrent.
Because chickens are omnivores, they’ll eat just about anything in the garden that’s edible. Growing a variety of seedproducing plants, grains and seeds can supplement their diet and help save on feed costs.
Plants that go to seed offer grain and essential fatty acids to a flock’s diet. Chickens like to peck seeds from the tops of long grass. Wheat is a great seed-producing grass, and chickens can eat these seeds whole without any processing. If you’re starting a garden with poor-quality soil, Bloom suggests growing winter rye, a hardy plant that tolerates poor soil environments. Rye can often be found in cover-crop mixes, and it can germinate in cool temperatures below 50 degrees F.
Corn is fun and easy to grow, and chickens love pecking at the kernels. Corn also stores well on the cob, and its high concentration of carbohydrates helps keep chickens warm through cold winter nights.
A sunflower patch can grow enough seeds to supplement a flock’s diet through winter, and provides them with something to do during the off months. Cut off the flower heads when the leaves turn brown and hang them to dry, or cover the heads with netting to keep wild birds from eating the seeds while they dry on the plant.
Many of the things we grow in the garden can be shared with chickens, with the notable exceptions of raw onions, green-skinned potatoes and unripe nightshades. Excess, broken, damaged or leftover watermelon, zucchini, cucumbers and tomatoes are just some of the garden foods that can help feed a hungry flock.
When chickens aren’t eating feed, they will forage from dawn until dusk, sweeping a yard and garden clean of ticks, pest larvae and the occasional whole mouse. Not only will chickens chase buzzing pollinators for amusement and eliminate weed sprouts from the garden, but they also enjoy hardy perennials (i.e., weeds) that are impossible for them to destroy.
- Clover is a legume found easily in yards that aren’t treated with chemicals. However, if you do find your yard without clover, seeds can be scattered or confined to one area, but wherever it’s grown, it will always remain. Clover grows well where grass tends not to grow well. It doesn’t grow as tall as grass, so it can be mowed less often. Clover is a great nitrogen-fixing groundcover that fertilizes plants and grasses growing near it.
- Alfalfa is another forage legume, but it can grow up to 3 feet tall. For foraging, alfalfa is best when it’s young or later when it’s mowed down for forage or mulch. Annuals, such as salad mixes, can be scattered and allowed to grow several inches until they’re ready for foraging.
- Fruit trees work double duty in the yard. Aside from producing many pounds of food for humans, fruit trees provide both shelter and forage for chickens. Whatever falls to the earth will become chicken food, and the chickens will be more than happy to eat both the fruit and any pests that inhabit it. Apple, cherry, peach and plum trees are great additions to any diverse chicken garden.
- Edible flowers, mints and herbs can be valuable in the chicken garden for medicinal purposes when eaten. Perennials are hardier, and once established, chickens will use them as cover or forage, their roots strong enough to deter scratching. Many aromatic plants deter pests from the garden and the coop, too. However, many annuals aren’t strong enough to stand up to chicken abuse. Nasturtiums, for example, are edible and healthy snacks, but they should be grown in hanging baskets and allowed to cascade into reach.
Make The Chicken Garden Work For You
Chickens are motivated by food, but they’re also realists. Chickens will eat what they can reach or what falls to the ground, but they’ll leave the rest, opting for something that’s easier to get. To grow vegetables within your polyculture, grow vertically whenever possible and protect plants from the flock until they’re well established. Continue growing foods and forage for the chickens within their reach so they’re deterred from eating your veggies.
The more diverse a yard and garden, the less likely the flock will bother garden vegetables. Given enough low-lying options planted for them, chickens tend to stick with their personal favorites. If you happen to share favorites, plant enough for everyone.
An Alternative To The Polyculture Lawn
If you can’t give up the monoculture lawn for a more natural landscape, you can create a polyculture chickenscape in raised beds. For confined chickens, grazing frames made of shallow raised beds can grow forage right inside the chicken run. When the top of the bed is framed with hardware cloth, chickens can’t reach the roots of the plants, but they can forage as greens grow through the wire.
With a little controlled anarchy, nature will decide what your yard is missing, because it’s programmed for biodiversity. Continue mowing the areas you want to keep for yourself, while giving other areas back to nature for your chickens.
Start small by bringing in one new plant or seed at a time, scatter seeds in a protected spot, or block off a small section and plant a self-sustaining garden all at once. Soon, clover, dandelions and plantain will be growing wild among other so-called “weeds.” Your chickens will amuse you by plucking seeds from the tops of plants you’ve yet to name, and they’ll race to win their favorite berries that fall to the ground.
A polyculture yard is more carefree than a monoculture one, and it can be just as beautiful and enjoyable. It’s also more nutritious for chickens and for eaters via the egg. So say goodbye to the monoculture and hello to your new polyculture ecosystem.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Chickens.
PUBLISHED: 13:05 02 September 2015 | UPDATED: 13:06 02 September 2015
A rooster ripping at a freshly dug dandelion root
Mother Nature provides your chickens with so many healthy goodies. Start making use of her medicine cabinet!
With the pumpkin season just around the corner, its the perfect time to make your own natural dewormer.
Whilst many urbanites view invasive perennial weeds as a bane to their lawns and gardens, the savvy chicken keeper should embrace them with open arms. It couldn’t be easier: the weeds grow and you harvest — it’s something you would do in any case; it’s called weeding!
The humble dandelion is one of the best known medicinal herbs in the world, flourishing in rich, moist soil almost everywhere. They’re one of the first flowers to appear in spring and one of the last plants to go dormant in the winter. As every part of the plant can be used, there’s no wastage either.
All parts of dandelions are bitter; the bitterness comes from the flavonoids that give dandelions their blood purifying properties. These pigments stimulate the digestive system, acting as a diuretic without leaching potassium and thus keep parasite overloads in check and maintain a healthy balance of microbes in the gut naturally.
Dandelions are high in beneficial fibre as well as vitamins A, B, C, E and K and are a great source of calcium (beneficial for laying hens) as well as iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc, all of which make it a pretty complete herb. It’s good for general energy building and nutritive tonics. However, its effects are dependant on when and where it is harvested. For example, raw leaves are ‘sweeter’ and much less bitter in spring than autumn so leaves harvested in autumn will aid digestion more than those harvested in spring. As the plant draws from its immediate environment, no two preparations will be identical. With this in mind, you should only harvest dandelions from your own property as these plants will be drawing the nutrients from the soil which your flock will find most beneficial. Never collect dandelions sprayed with chemical pesticides or those growing near the roadside.
Clover is packed with protein which is needed to build muscles, organs and all other tissues.
Dandelion leaves can be fed fresh or dried. If you feed your flock more grains in the winter, treat them to dandelion leaf tea to aid food digestion. Make sure that leaves are completely dried before storing to prevent mould.
The roots are a great liver tonic. Dry and grind the long tap roots to mix in with your flock’s feed during the winter.
My flock love eating the roots raw, so I hold the whole fresh plant for them to rip at the root. Roots harvested later in the year contain the highest concentration of nutrients. If you break the plant at the top of the root and base of the stem, you’ll see a white latex milk oozing out. This latex is packed full of proteins, alkaloids, starches, sugars, oils, tannins, resins and gums which are readily devoured by my flock.
If you give your flock the juicy hollow stalks, they’ll eagerly suck them up like a piece of spaghetti!
Holding the fresh dandelion plant for my flock to eat.
With the pumpkin season just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to make your own natural dewormer. Chop up some dandelion leaves, add some finely diced garlic, grated carrot, ripe pumpkin flesh and pumpkin seeds and give to your girls. Of course, there’s no withdrawal period as everything is natural so you can continue eating the eggs.
Clover is another beneficial invasive perennial, packed full of nutrients and medicinal properties. It’s particularly beneficial during the winter when the grass is dormant and contains little nutritional value.
A member of the legume family, clover is the king of protein production. Legumes are unique in the plant world because they house bacteria, Rhizobia in their roots that take nitrogen from the air and convert it as a nitrogen fertiliser source for the legumes. The abundant nitrogen production leads to elevated nitrogen-rich protein in these plants.
Protein is needed to build muscles, organs and all other tissues. Proteins are comprised of amino acids of which there are over a dozen types. Scientific research has shown that poultry are able to utilise the majority of amino acids that they consume on forages.
Clover is not only protein rich, it’s high in calcium, niacin, potassium, iron and vitamin A and B. Like dandelion, clover is a detoxifier, stimulating the liver and digestive system whilst also aiding respiratory and circulatory health.
But clover isn’t just beneficial to your flock, it’s beneficial to you too. A recent scientific study set out to find the best pasture plant species for optimal nutrition for hens that could also be passed onto the human consumer.
Hens were rotated from grass to red and white clover to alfalfa, grazing for two weeks on each species. Egg samples were taken and analysed for levels of unsaturated fat and vitamins in their yolks. The samples were compared against eggs from indoor commercially raised hens on typical grain diet.
The results showed that the pastured birds produced three times more omega-3 fat in their eggs than the commercial birds. The pastures dominated by legumes (clover and alfalfa) produced 18 per cent more omega-3 fat than grass alone. This is an important finding given that omega-3 fatty acids are thought to lower risks including cancer, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disorders.
You may have seen clover listed on poisonous plant lists for poultry. The reason for this is that coumarin, a chemical contained in clover is associated with a reduced blood clotting ability to animals that eat it, but it is in fact caused by a chemical (dicoumarol) derived from coumarin during heating for silage that is responsible. Feeding fresh raw clover presents no health issues to your flock.
If your flock don’t range on pasture, you can hand feed freshly cut clover mixed in with other weeds and grasses to your flock — they’ll know how much to eat to get the nutrients they need.
It’s time to start making good use of the medicine cabinet gifted to us by Mother Nature; your flock will love you for it!
Feeding chickens can be expensive, especially when you buy organic or non-GMO feed. Learn what chickens eat naturally to help save on your feed bill.
With a little planning and creativity, raising chickens doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Like us, you may have realized that the cost of chicken feed is largely outweighing the cost of eggs and meat. I mean, you probably got into this hobby to try to save money on fresh eggs, right? Lucky for you, there are lots of ways to cut down on chicken feed and even feed chickens for free!
Free-ranging your flock and specifically planting perennials your chickens would eat naturally are great ways to drastically cut down on the cost of chicken feed.
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Save Money by Free-Ranging
The cost to feed chickens can be astronomical, largely outweighing the benefit of their “free” eggs, especially when you buy organic or non-GMO layer feed.
And the very best way to feed chickens for free is to let them out to free-range. When chickens free-range they can find insects, weeds, and small animals to eat all on their own, saving you big bucks.
While chickens free-range, they search their environment for edible weeds, grasses, bugs, small animals, and seeds. By allowing your chickens outside to free-range, they get some great exercise and fresh air. But it also allows them to feed themselves, so you don’t have to!
Depending on your location and how often you let your flock out to free-range, you can cut your feed bill by more than half just by letting your chickens eat the already plentiful foods growing on your property.
Still unsure if you want to take on free-ranging? Read our article on the pros and cons of free-ranging your flock, it’s sure to help you make the right decision.
Feed Chickens Naturally For Free with 12 Perennial Weeds
If you want to seriously up your free-ranging game, perennial weeds are the way to go. Free-ranging your birds is a great first step to saving money on chicken feed, but you can take it to the next level by not killing the perennial weeds that are already growing on your property. Those are what chickens eat naturally if left to themselves!
There are hundreds of perennial “weeds” that are common in backyards and woodlands. Many of these plants are edible for chickens, and even for you and your family!
I say “weeds” in quotes, because I personally think a lot of these plants get a bad rap. Do they spread easily? Yes. Are they hard to kill? Yes. Does that mean we need to start a war against them with chemicals and poisons? No.
While a lot of the plants on this list can be invasive and will certainly not be approved by your Homeowners Association, these plants are packed with nutrition, and I wholeheartedly encourage you to leave them be, if only for the sake of feeding your chickens for free. Your flock’s love of eating these weeds will naturally keep the population under control.
Don’t want to encourage “weeds” on your property? A nice alternative is to forage for these plants on public land or in the yards of your family and friends. Just make sure you have permission, and make extra sure they weren’t previously sprayed with chemicals!
This weed has gotten a bad rap, due mostly to the fiery painful type, Stinging Nettle. In truth, this perennial weed is pretty miraculous. It’s edible for humans and chickens alike, and chock full of nutrition. You can even eat stinging nettles if you cook or blanch them first! Nettles can be found on the edges of woodland and in scrappy areas of the yard.
This cute little weed is often seen popping out of the most unlikely places, like the spaces in between patio bricks, and out of cracks in the pavement. Purslane is a great treat for your flock!
Plantain is another miracle plant that most of us try to eradicate from our yards. This plant can be eaten by chickens (and people!) and can also be used medicinally and herbally to treat ailments. You don’t need to do much to encourage plantain in your yard, as this weed loves to spread!
4. Mouse-Ear Chickweed
This type of chickweed is a perennial weed and, as you can guess by the name, the chickens love it! Mouse-ear chickweed and its more common relative, chickweed, are both beloved by poultry and should be encouraged in your yard rather than killed.
Wild violet is drought tolerant and spreads like crazy through underground stems. We encourage you not to kill your violets, but use them instead! Violets are beautiful in the spring, one of the first signs of warmer weather and more sunshine. They are edible for chickens and people alike!
6. Bee Balm
While it’s true this plant is not generally considered a weed and is prized in many gardens, we put it on here because it’s easy, grows quickly, spreads rapidly, and is well-loved by chickens.
Grapes are an excellent perennial to grow for your chickens, or even yourself! In the ideal soil, grapes grow quickly and take very little effort to maintain. They can certainly be weedy, and if not cared for, this plant will take over, climbing trees or your house if you let it! Follow proper grape growing techniques to tame your wild grapes, and you and your chickens will be happy campers!
Strawberries are perennial fruit and are super easy to grow. You may even have perennial strawberry already popping up on your property. While wild strawberry is not technically considered a weed, it does spread quickly and is quite a stubborn plant. Strawberries are appreciated by humans and chickens alike, so whether you already have them growing wild or want to plant them, this is an excellent choice!
9. Oxalis / Yellow Wood Sorrel
This perennial weed is our chicken’s absolute favorite treat. They fight over who gets to decimate patches of it that pop up in the yard. The chickens love it so much that I pick bunches of it when I’m visiting my family camp to bring home to the birds.
10. Perennial Clover
Clover is an excellent replacement for grass, especially in areas that are resistant to grow grass. It is a great ground cover, it’s nitrogen fixing, and it’s drought tolerant! This amazing plant feeds the local wildlife, including bees and rabbits, and your chickens will thank you a thousand times over for growing it.
Clover is one of the first plants to pop up in the spring, so your free-ranging flock will be thrilled for some early greenery to snack on.
If you want to grow clover for your flock, consider a mixed blend of clover and grass seed, as clover all on its own isn’t a great choice for high activity areas of the lawn.
Want to read more about feeding clover to your chickens? Don’t miss this article from Grit, The Lowdown on Feeding Clover to your Chickens!
I know many of you may cringe at the thought of purposely growing dandelion, but hear me out.
Dandelion got a bad rap somewhere along the line, but truthfully, this is a straight up miracle plant. Every part of the dandelion is edible and has incredible nutrition to boot. You can make coffee and tea from the roots. You can eat the flowers or use them to make salves, tea, or even wine! The leaves can be tossed in salads or sautéed in butter.
Now, dandelion isn’t just a good plant to grow for YOU, it’s good for your chickens too! In fact, chickens love eating dandelion leaves and will do their part to keep this weed under control if you let them free range in your yard.
12. Raspberry / Blackberry
Raspberry and blackberry brambles are commonly found on property lines and on the edge of woodland. If you have raspberry or blackberry already growing on your property, don’t pull it out! These berries make excellent treats for humans and chickens alike!
Obviously, not all of the plants on this list are considered weeds where you live. But the point is that they’re wonderful free food that your chickens naturally love to eat! You only have to do the work of planting them once, or maybe not at all if they’re already growing in your yard!
Want to read even more about planting perennials to feed chickens? Check out this article from Reformation Acres about 12 awesome perennials to plant to help you feed chickens on the cheap!
I hope this has encouraged you to “leave the weeds be” and let your chickens eat them to save you some serious money on your chicken’s feed!
Cover Crops Chickens Eat: Using Cover Crops For Chicken Feed
Got chickens? Then you know that whether they are in an enclosed pen, a well-layered landscape or in an open environment (free range) such as a pasture, they require protection, shelter, water and food. There are many options for providing these necessities to your chickens, but an environmentally friendly, sustainable, low impact method is by growing cover crops for chickens. So what are the best cover crops for chickens to eat?
Best Cover Crops for Chickens
There are a number of garden cover crops suitable for chicken feed. Among these are:
- Annual rye
- New Zealand clover
- Grain grasses
The height of the cover crop is important since chickens, due to their size, forage at a different height than other livestock. Chicken cover crops should be no taller than 3-5 inches tall. When plants grow over 5 inches tall, the carbon amount in their leaves increases and is less digestible for chickens.
Of course, chickens can over forage an area as well bringing the cover crop down to less than 2 inches, making it difficult to re-grow and replenish. This isn’t always a bad thing, as I discuss below.
You can plant just one cover crop for the chickens to eat, create a blend of your own, or purchase poultry pasture seed online. Chickens can be allowed to free range and may look like they are eating grass (they eat a little) but they are mostly foraging for worms, seeds and grubs. While that’s great, adding in the additional nutrition garnered from foraging on cover crops is even better.
Chickens need a diet rich in Omega 3 fatty acids to transfer that source to their eggs, which in turn is good for humans. A combination of grains planted as a cover crop for the chickens to eat, broadens the amount of nutrients the fowl uptakes and makes for a healthier chicken and, hence, healthier eggs.
Benefits to Growing Cover Crops for Chicken Feed
Of course, growing cover crops for chickens can be harvested, threshed and stored to feed the chickens, but allowing them to roam and freely forage has distinct advantages. For one thing, you aren’t putting in your labor to harvest and thresh and there is no need to find the space to store the feed.
Cover crops such as buckwheat and cowpea are often naturally tilled into the soil while the chickens’ forage, saving you valuable time. It may take a little longer, but avoids the detrimental effects of using fossil fuels and mitigates the damage a power tiller can do to the soil structure. Chickens are a gentler, eco-friendly method to till the crop in. They eat the vegetation, but leave the cover crop roots in place to provide organic matter to microorganisms and increase water retention all while loosening the first top inch or so of the soil.
Oh, and the best yet, poop! Allowing the chickens to freely forage for their food among the cover crops also results in the natural fertilization of the field with high nitrogen chicken manure. The resulting soil is nutrient rich, aerated, well-draining and, all in all, perfect for planting a successive food crop or another cover crop.
The decision to free range your chicken flock is not one to be taken lightly. There are so many positives to having your flock happily roaming the property, picking and scratching the most nutritious bugs and plants they can find. Happy chickens, healthy chickens, and productive chickens are all things that come to mind when I think of a free range flock. The part about not taking the decision lightly? This is due to the fact that a significant amount of prep work is involved to ensure your free range endeavour does not result in a scattered, underfed and endangered flock.
At the very least, free range chickens need water, supplemental food, protection from the many predators that will enjoy an easy dinner, and of course motivation to ‘range’. While protection can come in the form of fencing or natural cover, the engineering of an environment to best suit your free range flock should be tailored to the size of your flock, the size and terrain of the range area, and the extent to which you want your flock to be wandering.
Size Of Flock
A smaller free range flock may be perfectly happy to roam their run, plus a segment of garden space customised for optimum chicken nutrition and taste preference. An appropriately built chicken coop and run is in order for keeping chickens enclosed. There are numerous DIY chicken coop ideas that can be built to accommodate every size of flock.
If a level up as far as space or complexity is desired, create a plan that involves a small herb garden section, some appropriate ground cover, and some shrubs. This will give choice as well as protection for chickens that have a larger area to roam.
Finally, armed with a lot of space, time and energy, a project that involves more or diverse acreage, levels of planting spanning from ground cover to specific tree planting, and several layers in between could be undertaken. The complexity of this scenario may serve the interest of a chicken farmer who intends to make free range foraging a large percentage of their flock’s diet, and give their chickens the most variety of space to live comfortably and perhaps more naturally.
Type of Crop
How about starting with an easy planting like a ground cover crop? Alfalfa, clover, mustard, buckwheat, rye, and legume crops, among many others, provide abundant feed for chickens. Cover crops generally grow quickly, and optimal height (around 3-5 inches) is reached for some of these in early spring.
This is a nutritious and easy way for your chickens to enjoy foraging in spring and summer, and a good way to start your free range system. Companies like Urban Farmer have entire pages dedicated to chicken forage seed. A quick Google search will lead you to its webpage with many different types of forage seed to choose from.
As spring moves forward, so does planting in our garden. We like to plant some herbs and easy lettuces near our chicken run then move a temporary fence to extend the run and incorporate the veggies and herbs into their range area. Timing is important here, as chickens will devour young plants at a surprisingly quick rate, so you’ll want to give them access to only certain planted areas at certain times.
A crop rotation sort of plan is a good idea. Another trick is to plant in tubs and then add the tubs to the run so that the birds don’t destroy the crop while it is establishing. Depending on your planting zone, you might want to plant some herbs like parsley, lavender, rosemary, sage, nasturtium, and fennel. Greens such as lettuce, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and mustard work well and give your flock choices according to their individual palates.
Different chicken breeds will not necessarily impact the type of cover planted, so do so freely without the concern of breed type. Additionally, a combination of various grains planted as a cover crop, herbs, and greens broadens the nutrients the hens take in, and so transfer over to their eggs.
There is some planning involved in providing your flock with free range crops that can grow aggressively and also provide necessary nutrients. Though the importance of proper dieting for your flock cannot be stressed enough. The eggs we consume are directly impacted by the diet of our flocks, taking extra effort in providing a wide variety of veggies and herbs to a chicken’s diet is providing us with premium quality eggs and healthy chickens.
A Few Thoughts on Organic Gardening
3. Soil Care: More on Cover Crops
When to sow cover crops
There is a cover crop for any need and for any season of the year. Planting cover crops in the fall to cover garden beds over the winter is excellent practice—beds under a cover are protected from erosive effects of winter weather. In addition, even if we do not see any obvious growth during the dormant period, root growth continues except when the ground is frozen. Generally an overwintered cover produces a good deal of spring growth before it is time to turn it under in preparation for planting. Good overwinter crops might include wheat, barley, oats, and crucifers. Some will survive the winter, some will winterkill, all will benefit the soil. Rye and vetch are the cover crops that can be started the latest in the fall and still make a cover before the dormant season. Neither will winterkill in Virginia’s climate, so will furnish that lush spring growth. In addition, the vetch, a legume, sets nitrogen in the soil.
In the spring, good covers include the grain grasses, the crucifers, clovers, alfalfa, and cold-hardy peas. Buckwheat, though extremely sensitive to frost in the spring, is a wonderful quick cover anytime in the frost-free period, easy to start even when it is hot and dry in summer, flowering in as little as thirty days! Soybeans and peas of the cowpea and blackeye group are also excellent covers to use in the heat of summer. (And remember they are legumes, so you can use the nitrogen they fix in your cropping strategy.)
Removing cover crops
Some cover crops are hard to kill, hard to turn under with the tools at hand for the home gardener. Rye, for example, with its matted, tough, extensive root system, is tough to turn in, even using a power tiller. Since I prefer to minimize tillage (see below), I try to find alternatives to chopping or cutting a cover crop into the soil.
Winter-killed covers A great way to go with overwinter covers is to grow those which do not have to be tilled in at all, because they have already been killed by the more severe cold spells of winter and are now lying on the beds as a beautiful mulch, grown in place. My favorite winter-killed covers are oats and peas. Both will reliably winter-kill in our climate. Oats should be easy to get locally—whole oats such as are fed to horses, for example, will do just fine. The peas referred to are pisum arvense, feed or cover crop pea varieties in the same family as the common garden pea. I use such peas to make my poultry feeds, so simply draw some out of the bin and plant when I need a pea cover crop. For those without access to my sources, though, winter peas are not easy to find locally. They can be purchased from FEDCO. Getting the timing right for winter-killed covers can be tricky. I like to start mine by the third week of September. However, if I have to wait to finish the harvest of a previous crop, I can start as late as early October. I usually use a mix of both oats and peas. An early start is important to get a lush, vigorous stand which—because these species are relatively cold hardy—will grow through the early frosts with no problem, becoming quite thick and tall. Then, when the seriously cold weather comes in, they die and collapse—leaving a beautiful mulch-in-place to cover a bed of asparagus, say, or through which you could set transplants of broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, etc. come spring. Cutting below the crowns Using a hoe, you can cut off living cover crop plants at ground level. The roots decay in place, improving soil structure, and the tops can be left in place to dry and serve as a mulch. Uprooting by hand With a cover such as rye, with its tough, matted root system, killing it with a hoe would be a pretty tough job. I sometimes use a broadfork to loosen the soil, then pull the plants out by hand, again simply laying them on the beds to dry and serve as mulch. Poultry power! The above two are obviously labor-intensive, involving an attack on a tough living sod with hand tools. (Don’t think it will be much easier with a power tiller. I have many times attacked a robust rye cover with a power tiller—the job took about as long as with the hand tools, the tiller was noisy and stinky, and it beat me half to death! I prefer hand-to-plant combat.) There is an easy way to turn that cover crop in, however. Let your flock of chickens do it! You do have a flock, don’t you? If not, and if it is at all possible for you to have one on your homestead, you would find there are a number of ways to use the flock to help with the work of the garden, the orchard, and other homestead projects. When I want to “chicken-till” a plot with a cover crop, I set a small portable shelter in the middle and surround it with electric net fencing energized by a solar-powered fence charger. I feed, water, and collect eggs—exactly as I would if they were on the pasture, or even locked in a henhouse—and forget about breaking my back with that cover crop. The chickens do what chickens love to do—scratch, and scratch, and scratch. They never tire, they don’t break down, they don’t require gas and oil, and the sounds they make are much more pleasant than a tiller. After a week or two—varying with the type of cover, the size of plot, and the number of birds—they completely turn in the cover crop, and I can move them elsewhere and plant. Please note that in the process they have:
- Eaten nutrient-dense foods (living green plants, earthworms, etc.) of a quality I cannot hope to match, boosting their health and vitality.
- “Sanitized” the area for slugs and slug eggs. It will be months before the slug population can recover to damaging levels.
- Tilled in the tough over-winter cover crop while I was busy with other projects.
- Incorporated their droppings, now finely dispersed, boosting the biological activity in the top few inches of soil and hastening the breakdown of the cover crop. (Talk about multi-tasking!)
Undersown cover crops
Described above is the practice of cover cropping when there is no food crop on the given space—over winter, in the spring before a bed is planted, between crops in the middle of the growing season, and in the fall after harvest of the main crop. However, it can be quite difficult fitting in a cover cropping program around the needs of the main crops. Buckwheat is a rapidly growing cover, but cannot be planted in early spring or fall because of sensitivity to frost. Clovers are excellent fixers of nitrogen, but need to be in place most of the season in order to do so. By the time we get the main crop off a bed in the fall, it may be too late to start an effective cover crop. Fortunately, there is a strategy for combining cover cropping with the growing of the main crop: undersowing an appropriate cover below the main crop.
In my experience, Dutch white clover is probably the best choice for such use. It is low-growing, thus will not interfere with harvest of the main crop (pole beans, peppers, tomatoes, etc.). It makes an amazingly fast start with the cooler temperatures and greater soil moisture of spring—indeed, along with buckwheat it is the fastest germinating cover in my experience. It provides a tight cover which smothers out most weed growth. At the same time, since it fixes its own nitrogen, it doesn’t compete heavily with the main crop for soil nutrients. And it does not deprive the main crop of water—indeed, because of its tight cover on the soil, it helps preserve soil moisture and keep it available to the main crop as well.
Dutch clover is best suited to undersowing large and/or tall crops with a relatively small “footprint.” Pole beans on a trellis, for example, place almost no “footprint” on the bed. We can sow the clover at the same time we plant the beans. The pole beans grow all season until shut down by frost, and all that time the clover is growing, setting nitrogen, shading the soil and helping retain moisture, and suppressing weed growth. When we remove the bean trellis, we have a bed of fully mature clover that has set a good deal of nitrogen that will be available for a heavy feeding crop the following season.
Other smaller-footprint crops that allow for a successful Dutch clover cover include tomatoes (if trellised), peppers, and broccoli.