August 22, 2014

Last week, when I’d take the chicks outside to their makeshift playpen—a 4-by-8-foot rabbit guard fence we built to keep the hens out of a raised garden bed—the chicks were afraid of the big world, snuggling up together in a corner or trying to escape. Yesterday, though, I saw a sudden change in their behavior. The chicks flew back and forth, chasing one another, playing.

Then in one extraordinary moment unlike any other I’ve seen in my chicken-keeping experience, the chicks discovered clover. Rainbow, the Easter Egger, sampled it first. She made a huge fuss, so the others ran over and began eating, too.

Foraging is a natural chicken behavior, but I never gave thought to when the instinct kicks in. Nearly 4 weeks old now, Mother Nature has flipped a switch inside the baby chicks.

I spent some time watching the chicks forage, and I noticed that they have definite preferences. Clover wins, hands down. Runner up is a spindly, awkward and unknown weed. (I simply don’t know my weeds.) Grass is the chicks’ least favorite, though grass is what the hens prefer.

The hens were reared through fall 2010. Because the days were cooler then and I was inexperienced, I didn’t let them forage like the new flock. In fact, the hens were laying eggs before they could forage the following spring. Maybe that explains their preference for grass over other forage. Even though my first flock hasn’t had any real health issues, I’m curious to see if the earlier nutrition from forage makes any difference in the young birds’ health and longevity.

After a day of foraging in one 4-by-8-foot patch, the clover has been picked over thoroughly. Fortunately for my lawn, the chicks only like the leaves. The clover will come back quickly.

How to Let Your Backyard Chickens Forage - Photo courtesy Leo Papandreou/Flickr (HobbyFarms.com)

Monoculture Lawn vs. Plant Diversity

I’ve never cared much for the monoculture lawn with just one variety of grass, in which herbicides are used to obliterate any other plant life that pops up. However, my husband, a believer in an “ideal” lawn back in our pre-chicken days, waged war with the clover for several years and spent hours plucking out dandelions every spring. (This was before I learned how to use dandelions. Now, we love dandelion season!) Thankfully, he’s given all that up and now peruses other interests.

Before consumers were convinced they should buy chemicals to eradicate “weeds,” which are perfectly acceptable green ground coverings, clover was a regular part of commercial grass-seed mixes. What I love about the clover in our yard is that it doesn’t grow as tall as the grass, and when it flowers, it feeds the bees passing through. What’s not to love about clover?

Build Grazing frames

Maybe you’re a chicken keeper who loves a monoculture lawn. Hey, that’s OK! You can diversify your flock’s forage with grazing frames.

Plant clover or other plants your flock likes to munch, in a 4-by-4-foot shallow raised bed. Line the bottom with landscape fabric to keep the roots from creeping into your lawn, then cover the top with framed hardware cloth. The frame will protect your flock’s feet from the sharp wire edges. The hardware cloth is sturdy enough to hold up adult hens, even heavy breeds like the Wyandotte. As the chickens eat the greens growing through the hardware cloth, the barrier protects the roots below to keep it growing tall again.

If you can’t free-range, but your chickens’ run is large enough, consider a building a grazing frame right inside the run. Inside the run, you can skip the landscape cloth. Your flock will be happy to destroy anything that grows outside of the frame.

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