Some folks think that natural chicken-keeping means letting the birds fend for themselves, rustling up their own food and roosting at night in trees, because “that’s how they kept them in the old days.”
Except that it wasn’t.
Great-grandma and great-grandpa fed their flock on grain and goodies from the milk house and garden. They treated sick or injured birds with home remedies, and safely housed their chickens at night.
The hardy breeds they raised—we call them heritage breeds—produced luscious meat for Sunday dinners and eggs all through the week. We can raise our birds that way, too.
Because natural chicken-keepers don’t use antibiotics and chemical dewormers, it’s important to keep a natural flock in the pink rather than treating chickens once they’re sick. To that end, provide nourishing food, fresh water and a clean, roomy henhouse with a fenced-in chicken yard.
Also, handle your birds often to check for external parasites, body condition and injuries.
If possible, free-range your chickens to supplement their diets with nourishing wild things. You’ll also provide mental stimulation and relaxation, vital for good health and harmony in the henhouse.
The best way to make sure chickens get the nutrients they require is to feed a commercially-produced ration formulated for their needs: starter, grower, layer and so on.
There are wonderful GMO-free, organic feeds on the market. But if you can’t afford them, feed a quality product that you can. Make sure your birds have grit, and oyster shell is a must for layers. These are the foundations of a healthy diet.
If you can’t free-range (and even if you do), consider weeds. Bring your birds nourishing plants they enjoy. Dandelions, for example, contain vitamins A, B, C, E and K, as well as manganese and calcium.
Other vitamin- and mineral-packed wild plants that chickens savor include
- bee balm
- bitter cress
- dead nettle
- fat hen
- miner’s lettuce
- Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot)
- wild geranium
- wild strawberry
- wood sorrel
Avoid These Plants
Many cultivated plants, however, are toxic or poisonous. Don’t give them azaleas, daffodils, foxglove, holly, lily of the valley, lobelia, lupines, monkshood, mountain laurel, nightshade, poke, rhododendron, trumpet vine or wild mushrooms.
If in doubt about a plant, take a sample to your county extension agent for identification and advice.
More Options (and Cautions)
Chickens love bugs, and bugs are nourishing, too. Fat grubs and potato beetles from the garden, aphids, caterpillars, centipedes, cockroaches, crickets, grasshoppers, june bugs, millipedes, moths, slugs, spiders and termite larvae are all good choices.
Kitchen scraps, garden refuse and leftover milk can augment the natural diet you provide your chickens. If you’re raising organic birds, don’t give them nonorganic extras. Make certain scraps aren’t moldy or rotten, and don’t give them avocado, citrus, junk food, potatoes or potato vines, tomato leaves or vines, rhubarb, salty or sugary foods, sweets and uncooked beans, pasta or rice.
Grow produce specifically for your chickens. Pumpkins and squashes are easily grown in home gardens. Crack a pumpkin, and toss it in with your girls every few days for a couple of weeks in the fall. They’ll love it.
Be a Part-time Vet
It’s difficult to find a veterinarian who treats chickens, especially if you choose to avoid antibiotics and mainline medicinals. To possibly find one, search using the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association’s VetFinder feature.
If that doesn’t work, choose one or more holistic complimentary medicine modalities to pursue. The key word is complimentary. These can also be used alongside standard remedies, if you choose.
Herbs are a good choice because they’re easy to grow, even in containers. And there’s a great deal of information about using them with chickens online.
Fresh or dried oregano is popular. It strengthens the immune system and has proven antibiotic properties effective against avian flu, coccidiosis, E. coli, infectious bronchitis and salmonella. Oregano oil is approved by the USDA for use on organic chicken farms.
Ground cinnamon is an antioxidant that has antibacterial properties and reduces inflammation. Parsley boosts egg-laying capacity and is rich in vitamins A, B, C, E and K.
Garlic is another widely heralded herb for chickens raised the natural way. It, too, strengthens the immune system and, as a preventative, boosts respiratory health. It’s said that chickens that consume garlic are less bothered by mites, lice and other parasites than untreated birds.
Add fresh, crushed garlic to your flock’s water, or offer treats that include fresh garlic. Garlic seeps through the skin from the inside out. Because mites can’t tolerate it, they won’t want to make your flock their home
In The Chicken Health Handbook, 2nd edition, author and chicken-keeper Gail Damerow says to add garlic power to chicken feed “at the rate of 1 1/2 pounds per 50 pounds of ration,” as it “has been found to neutralize the odor of manure, but apparently it does not affect the flavor of eggs.
“Taste testers, in fact, preferred eggs from hens fed garlic, claiming they tasted milder. Researchers speculate that garlic somehow reduces the eggs’ sulfur content.”
Also, choose chickens that do well in your climate and with noted hardiness and foraging ability to raise the natural way.
Some of the hardy and productive heritage foragers that The Livestock Conservancy recommends include:
- Plymouth Rocks.
A great way to find the breed best suited to your situation is to consult The Livestock Conservancy Pick-a-Chick Chart.
Sidebar: Flower Power
Flower essences are water-based and come in tiny bottles. Only a few drops are used at a time, either directly from the original bottle or in a further diluted form.
A 1/4-ounce bottle holds 175 drops, so at two to four drops per dose, it goes a long way.
Flower essences address emotional issues. Aspen calms fearful chickens, so it’s great for calming birds that panic when handled. Holly is the choice for mean biddies who peck your hand when you gather eggs or for roosters that terrorize your children.
There are 38 individual remedies in all.
To see if flower essences are right for you, try a bottle of Rescue Remedy, a combination of cherry plum, clematis, impatiens, rockrose and star-of-Bethlehem. It’s meant to be used to treat emergencies and crisis of all kinds, particularly shock or trauma.
Try it on yourself when you’re anxious about something. It works!