I once heard an upbeat fellow talking about what chickens should eat. He said their diet should be composed of one-third grains, one-third greens and one-third bugs. I’m not sure whether it always adds up that way for most chickens—wild or domestic. However, it made sense for him to say that. He was trying to sell his product for growing bugs to feed chickens.
Regardless of how accurate that ratio might be, I figure what my chickens most lack are greens. They get plenty of grains from their feed, and they get to scratch under mature shrubs for bugs in corralled areas linked by chunnels (my chicken tunnels). That said, my wife and I don’t let them forage in our small garden, in order to avoid the destruction they would cause. They can scratch our lawnlets down to bare dirt in less than a day, and in the ornamental beds, they are as likely to eat a favorite perennial as a hated weed.
But bugs and greens provide the nutrients that make the yolks of eggs from backyard hens so nutritious and beautifully orange. So I always look for easy ways to make sure they’re getting enough greens in their diet. If you have a small garden or limited areas for your chickens to forage for greens, try a few of the following tips.
My weekly lawn mowing is normally bag-free. I just let the clippings fall where they will. Leaving clippings on the lawn allows that organic matter to shrivel up, sink to soil level, feed the worms and return nutrients to the grass plants. It saves a lot of time to forgo bagging, and it also reduces the amount of fertilizer your lawn needs.
But I believe the lawn can afford to give up one bag of clippings a week for the sake of the chickens. So I slap on the bag attachment, and when it’s full, I dump the clippings inside the hen pen or inside the corralled area under the shrubs. Either way, the chickens attack that grass pile with rapid strikes of their claws and beaks. They love sucking up the grass leaves like they’re slurping up spaghetti. They quickly scratch their way through the pile looking for any weed seeds or unlucky bugs.
By the next day, the pile is 90 percent gone. I believe at a certain point the grass dries out and is less appealing, or they just get sick of so much greenery. Either way, I know they’ve had their fill for a while without wrecking our lawn.
When I noticed the guy at my neighborhood grocery stripping the outer leaves from some cabbage and lettuce, I had one thought: chicken food. When I asked him about getting a box of vegetable castoffs for our chickens, he was happy to oblige. To him, it’s one less box to carry to the trash bin. And for the climate, it’s one less batch of methane leaking from the landfill.
He wasn’t able to reserve anything for me, but he did say that if I came by around 4 p.m. most weekdays, he might have a box I could take. So when it’s convenient, I schedule my shopping around that time. Late afternoon works only about half the time for my shopping trips. He has a box of scraps ready a little more than half of that time.
When I get a load of greens, the hens make quick work of it. It’s not only greens. Sometimes there are overmature melons and fruits, but the chickens don’t complain about that. They’re too busy chomping away.
If anyone is out there with a garden that doesn’t require some hand weeding, please tell me how you’re doing it (short of moving to a desert). Even with good practices—such as annual mulching and close planting—weed seeds find a way to get started in our gardens. But with the addition of chickens, any hand weeding I do also becomes an episode of crop harvesting, which leads to some excellent egg gathering.
To make weed harvesting easy, we keep big, black, used nursery pots around. Depending on the season and the size of harvest, we might need one or several of the 5-, 10- or 20-gallon pots. The larger pots have handles at the top, so it’s easy to carry one in each hand even when they’re full. They also nest, so you can stack several partially filled pots for easy carrying. Plus, after a weed-harvesting session, you can stack and store the empty pots outdoors.
While other types of plastic break apart in the sun and create a mess, nursery pots have an ultraviolet inhibitor to protect them and keep them whole. Drainage holes also keep them from holding rainwater and becoming a vector for mosquito production. Nursery pots are a fantastic no-cost, no-maintenance garden tool. With enough rough handling, some will tear, but some cities and big-box stores recycle them. If you don’t have pots left from your own projects, call a nursery or landscaper; most will be happy to let you pick up their excess pots.
Now, which weeds to feed the chickens? Any and all! Chickens pretty much know which plants are bad for them, so don’t sweat it. Some say wild buttercup (Ranunculus) is poisonous to chickens, but others say their chickens eat it and are fine. Buttercup tastes bad to people and will make grazing animals sick, but birds apparently aren’t affected by it. So feed them whatever you have, and let your hens sort it out.
A number of the weeds that chickens like are also edible for people, so I’ll point those out as an encouragement to let them grow, harvest them regularly and learn what some foods taste like for your hens.
- Chickweed: When you put some of this plant down, you’ll see how it earned its name. This cool-season plant goes well in salads and also in pesto when basil is out of season.
- Bedstraw: As a kid, you probably threw this at people because it would stick to their clothes. It also makes a delicious tea.
- Lamb’s-Quarter: Also known as fat hen, this is a delightful green, whether raw, steamed or stir-fried.
- Pigweed: Pigs like it even more then chickens do. It’s an amaranth, and I like it better than lamb’s-quarters; it can be prepared the same way.
- Sour Grass: This sorrel has a sour, lemony taste, which is great on salads.
- Violets: Leaves and flowers are edible raw in sandwiches and salads.
- Dandelions: Young leaves make a good cooked green.
- Purslane: Like portulaca plants from the nursery, succulent leaves and flowers are great in a salad or sandwich.
Here are some common weeds that you won’t like, but your chickens will find delicious: burweed, cat’s-ear, clover, cudweed, dead nettle, evening primrose, hawkweed, mugwort, plantain, Queen Anne’s lace, shotweed, wild geranium and, of course, any weedy grass such as crabgrass and annual fescue.
Some landscapers jokingly call a weedy lawn a “freedom lawn.” If your birds eat those weeds, maybe you could call it a “feed ’em lawn.” Any way you cut it, there are a lot of greens free for the taking that’ll keep the egg yolks a bright orange. You just need to think about “harvesting” in a slightly different way.
This story originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Chickens magazine.