The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Plants chickens like to eat

Chicken eating chickweedWhat do chickens eat on pasture?  Invertebrates are their favorites, but I'm still working out methods of attracting tasty insects and worms for the flock to consume.  (Keeping a compost pile in each pasture is a good start.)  Meanwhile, I did some research and then kept notes on the plants our chickens enjoyed.

Traditional chicken pastures tend to be either unimproved pastures (ie whatever survives repeated close grazing), or mixtures of legumes (white clover and subclovers), grasses (orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, and annual ryegrass), and weeds.  Some Chickens eating grassfarmers plant annuals like oats or rye in certain plots for winter forage.

Our pastures are currently a mix of native woodland and whatever popped up when we mowed other reclaimed woods for a few years.  That gave me a chance to watch our chickens explore quite a range of habitats, and I discovered that they showed seasonal preferences for plant foods.

Chickens on spring pasture

Ground cherry fruitsIn the winter and early spring, most plants are dormant, but our flock still found some tasty wild food.  Ground cherry fruits hung on the plants until February and were thoroughly enjoyed, even though the chickens had to find a way through the papery husks.  Chickweed leaves, of course, were a huge hit --- whenever we turned chickens into fresh pasture in early spring, they ran straight to the chickweed before eating anything else.  The chickens were willing to eat tender young grass leaves, but only after all of the tastier Rooster eating cloverplants were gone.

As spring advanced, our chickens started chowing down on clover and fleabane leaves.  Although I'd read that most people plant white clover in their chicken pastures, red clover seemed to be preferred by our flock.  Our rooster fell in love with violet flowers, but no one else seemed interested. 

Chickweed was past its prime in mid April (at least according to our snobbish chickens), so they turned to small-flowered crowfoot seedsChicken with crowfootChickweed was still their second favorite food, though, and they also enjoyed other tender young plants for the rest of the spring period.

Come late May, the pastures were changing --- the "weeds" were starting to get too woody for chicken digestion and the grasses were going to seed.  Now the flock enjoyed a smorgasbord of grass seed heads, sedge seed heads, cranesbill seeds, clover leaves, and violet leaves

And then we hit the summer lull.  Drier weather slowed down the tender new growth chickens crave, big weeds shaded the ground, and suddenly grass leaves were a favorite because they were the only non-lignified plants within reach.  Our one patch of warm season grass was especially hard hit since it kept producing throughout the summer.  In contrast to our traditional pastures, the forested pasture became a virtual desert from a chicken's point of view.

In late August, Mark fenced in a new forest pasture.  In this previously fallow land, there was still fresh growth on the forest floor, and our flock enjoyed Japanese stiltgrass leaves and various seed heads...for two days.  Then they asked to go back to the perennial grasses.

Chicks on pasture

As a side note, I should mention the foods preferred by our chicks, since they were quite different than those consumed by adult chickens.  Chicks have tiny beaks, so they can't eat Chicks eat tick trefoil flowersanything large and they can't break anything tough up into bits small enough to eat (without a hen's help.)  Our spring batch ate everything in sight since the greenery was all so succulent, but our fall chicks had more trouble finding tasty food they could actually eat.  Tick trefoil flowers and sourgrass flowers and young seed pods fit the bill even at the beginning of September, and then the chicks branched out into eating sourgrass leaves and clover leaves as they got a bit older. 

Finally, I should mention that I tried out planting various annuals in the pastures throughout the year.  In the long run, I've decided that planting annuals only makes sense to give the chickens fresh food during the summer and winter lulls --- otherwise, leaving the planted ground chicken-free for a few weeks or months as the cultivated crops get established just slows down rotation speeds and does the pastures Learn more about cover crops in my 99 cent ebook!more harm than good.  And it turns out that our flock only really enjoyed one cultivated plant I tried --- butternut squash.  The vines were able to survive moderate chicken scratching, and the fruits were happily hollowed out by our hungry chickens.

I went into the year thinking that I'd see what our chickens' favorite foods were and then plant pastures in just those plants.  However, as the year progressed, I started to realize that I need to think of the pasture as an ecosystem rather than as a collection of plants.  Next year, I'll be experimenting with traditional pasture plants along with perennials that provide off-season feasts.

Our chicken waterer served as a way to draw chickens to the far end of pastures, helping even out their grazing.

This post is part of our 2011 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I never thought about the chickens liking ground cherries, but makes perfect sense. I've grown them for the past couple years. This year I didn't plant any, but I had MANY ground cherry plants come up. For me, I doubt I'll ever need to plant them again.
Comment by Greg S. Wed Oct 5 14:44:05 2011
Ground cherries are weeds around here --- no need to plant them. They were actually part of many Native American gardens, so having them in your garden is a bit like finding a volunteer tomato!
Comment by anna Wed Oct 5 15:20:14 2011

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