What do chickens eat on pasture?
Doesn't this look
idyllic? Chickens, waist deep in grass. Surely, they are in
Now here's the truth about
what our chickens did when we moved them into their new, sunny
pasture. First, they headed straight for the small patch of bare
earth with chickweed growing in it and snarfed that tender green
down. Next, they ran over to the edges where leaves had drifted
against the fence, providing a damp, protected nook for worms.
Finally, our chickens started scratching through that one bare earth
patch looking for more worms. They didn't eat the grass.
I posted over on our
chicken blog about plants
grown in traditional chicken pastures. Most poultry farmers
are using their pasture as a source of vitamins and minerals and don't
expect their flock to get much nutrition from pasture, so they plant a
mixture of forage grasses, grains, legumes, and (occasionally) other
broadleaf plants. We're looking for a pasture that will feed our
flock a significant portion of their daily nutrition, so we're going to
have to think outside the box.
I plant to continue to grow grains
and legumes in our
original two paddocks, in hopes of storing up some chicken feed for the
winter. I have winter
wheat growing in one
paddock where I have also interseeded clover, and will be planting the
other paddock in oats, clover, and field peas now that the chickens
have moved out. In May, I'll add in amaranth, millet, alfalfa, sunflowers, cowpeas, and corn, and will
round out the year with a late crop of wheat and rye. I suspect
I'll be able to graze the chickens in those paddocks once the grains
are tall, but I don't think the chickens will get much food value
(until I feed them the fruits in the winter, of course.)
The rest of our pastures
are going to be wilder, and I suspect my plans for them will change
drastically as I continue to observe what our chickens like to
eat. In at least one pasture, I'd like to experiment with letting
the grass grow tall to see if the prairie-like environment attracts
enough bugs to keep the chickens happy. Elsewhere, I want to let
the chickens scratch bare patches to promote the more weedy plants they
enjoy. In addition to chickweed, tick-trefoil seems to be a favorite of
our flock, and I need to put some thought into how to get this weed to
take over their pastures.
Our chickens are big fans of
fruit, not only because the hens like the sweet, succulent food
themselves, but also because insects are attracted to the sugar.
I've planted an everbearing
mulberry and some bush
cherries in one pasture, but it will be several years until that
experiment pays off. I'm also working on collecting and starting
seeds from persimmons that fruit all the way from
early fall to mid winter. Meanwhile, I'll plant ground
cherries in some of
our pastures since our chickens were happily eating those fruits in
As much as I like to grow
plants, though, I'm starting to realize that chickens are far more
attuned to invertebrates. I'll continue to keep a compost
pile in each active
since the flock loves to nibble on our food waste and to scratch
decaying organic matter in search of worms. Another way to
attract invertebrates for the chickens is to keep the pasture at least
partially wooded since leaf mulch provides a perfect habitat for worms
and other creepy crawlies --- two of our new pastures for 2011 are
slated to be in existing woodland.
I'm starting to suspect that
the best chicken pasture doesn't look anything like the pastoral scene
most of us would envision. It probably has some green grass and
clover, patches of weeds, bits of bare earth, trees, shrubs, and
perhaps other factors I've yet to discover. I'll be posting our
weekly observations of chicken pasture year two over on our chicken blog, but will be sure to sum up
over here in the fall or winter for those of you who are just
interested in the big picture. I hope some of you will be
inspired to give chicken pasturing a try on your own farm and will
report your observations as well.
When our hens get tired of
scratching for bugs, they head back to the coop for a long, refreshing
drink from our chicken waterer.
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