PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock
Lisa Munniksma
April 3, 2017

While there’s no such thing as “grassfed chicken,” there is such a thing as chickens that feed on grass. More specifically, chickens feed on the seeds, grubs and insects they find in the grass, but they do consume a bit of the grass itself, too. (A quick chicken anatomy lesson: These birds are mono-gastric, meaning they have one stomach that is not designed to ferment and digest forages the way ruminants, like cattle and sheep, are able to.) “Poultry will consume up to 30 percent of their body weight in forage when it is available,” according to the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture, based in Oklahoma. Knowing what the chickens are really after in their forages helps you to plant forage types that are most beneficial to them.

Try out some of these grasses and legumes for your pasture-raised poultry flock.

1. Kentucky Bluegrass

What It Is

A cool-season, perennial grass that grows well in the central and northern U.S.

Why It’s Good For Chickens

“Kentucky bluegrass has a large proportion of its leaves close to the soil surface and below the grazing height in managed pastures,” according to the PennState Extension, meaning it’s at prime chicken height.

How To Grow It

Plant 1 acre with 10 to 14 pounds of seed in late summer or early fall, when temperatures begin to come back down and rains are more frequent. It takes about two weeks to germinate but establishes quickly, as it spreads by rhizomes underground. Bluegrass grows well in a diverse pasture with white clover, red clover or birdsfoot trefoil.

2. Perennial Ryegrass

What It Is

A cool-season, perennial grass found across the U.S.

Why It’s Good For Chickens

Perennial ryegrass produces seedheads in the late spring and may also flower again in mid-summer, depending on your climate, according to the PennState Extension, offering chickens seeds for their diet.

How To Grow It

Fifteen to 20 pounds of seed per acre is recommended when seeding alone or 4 to 8 pounds per acre when seeding with a legume, according to PennState. Plant seeds with a grain drill or by broadcast seeding and following with a cultipacker. University of Kentucky researchers Ray Smith, PhD, and Jacquie Jacob, PhD, caution against planting turf-type perennial ryegrass, as it’s “been developed to have high levels of toxins to reduce insect and grub damage. This is great for yards and sports fields, but not good for grazing poultry.”

3. White Clover

What It Is

A cool-season, perennial legume found across the U.S.

Why It’s Good For Chickens

White clover is the legume of choice for poultry, as its fibrous root system give it the greatest tolerance to grazing, say Smith and Jacob.

How To Grow It

The USDA National Resources Conservation Service says white clover likes cool, moist-climate clay and silt soils with ample lime, phosphate and potash. Seed at 2 pounds per acre using a seed drill.

Whatever forages you choose to grow for your chickens, the University of Maryland Extension recommends 1 acre of quality pasture for every 400 chickens in your flock. And make those forages diverse, both to provide a range of nutrients to your chickens and soil and to attract a range of insects that your chickens will find more enticing than the forages. A diverse diet like this could very well reduce your feed bills and help keep your chickens healthy.


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