It’s no big secret among small-flock owners that we might spoil our chickens every now and then. We can’t help it; their antics and backyard adventures are so endearing, and we simply want to show them our affection in return. Because many of our chickens don’t readily submit to cuddles and hugs, we bend an old adage: The way to a bird’s heart is through its stomach.
Buying bags of chicken treats can become a bit pricey, however. Similarly, regularly adding chicken items to your family’s market list can increase your grocery budget, not to mention a few eyebrows. Fortunately, three treats your birds will love might be growing right outside your door. You might consider them weeds, but your chickens will consider them delicious treats to eat. Harvest when they are young and tender; not only will the plants regenerate but also, when plucked at an early stage, chickens can more easily digest them. An added bonus: Because these leafy plants contain plenty of xanthophyll, an orange-yellow pigment, the eggs your layers produce will feature rich, golden yolks.
One crucial note: If you apply pesticides or herbicides to your garden or treat your lawn chemically, do not feed these plants to your chickens, because ingesting these chemicals can potentially harm your birds.
Short of that, here are three weeds your chickens will absolutely eat.
1. White Clover
Once a part of popular lawn-seed mixes, white clover (Trifolium repens) is a legume that originated in Europe and Asia and is now widespread throughout the United States. Its triple leaves are drought tolerant and stay a bright green during the most arid summers, providing poultry with fresh, tasty forage that rapidly grows back in pretty much any soil condition.
Besides being beneficial to your birds, clover attracts pollinators including bees and butterflies with its pink-white flowers. Clover also naturally fertilizes your lawn by taking nitrogen from the air and depositing it in the soil. Growing it in your yard will not only decrease your lawn-maintenance costs but will also provide your flock with close to continual forage.
Very few homeowners are ever happy to see the spikes and yellow flowers of dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) pop up in their yards—few except flock keepers who reach for the kitchen shears to harvest those tender lion’s teeth leaves and flower heads that chickens love. Collect the leaves while they are young, as they become tough and bitter once they surpass four inches in length. The flowers are at their tastiest when they’ve just blossomed; simply snip these off their stem and offer them to your hens. You can even toss the leaves and heads together to make a fresh salad for your flock.
In addition to the golden-yellow xanthophyll pigment that enriches egg-yolk color, dandelions are also rich in vitamins A, B2 and K. In fact, when picking dandelion leaves for your layers, consider harvesting some for yourself.
In a beautifully manicured lawn, crabgrass (Digitaria varieties) presents a less-than-desirable appearance with its wide blades and clumpy growth. Most varieties of crabgrass can quickly reach heights of two feet, easily dwarfing domesticated grasses and making lawn maintenance a challenge.
You might dislike how crabgrass looks, but your chickens love how it tastes, eagerly eating tender young shoots. Besides being palatable, crabgrass also contains a lot of fiber and crude protein, nutrients essential to a chicken’s diet. Harvest the tips of the crabgrass sprouts when they reach about six inches in height to allow for re-establishment. Once crabgrass is firmly established, it should reseed itself for the following year. Commercial varieties, including Red River and QuickNBig, are also available if you’d like to grow crabgrass for forage.