The main reason I hunted down
a copy of Raising
Poultry on Pasture
was to figure out which pasture plants are best for chickens to
eat. The unfortunate answer is that most people raising chickens
on pasture just use typical forage grasses and legumes, assuming that
chickens eat the same thing as cows, even though their stomachs and
dietary needs are entirely different. Small wonder that one
chapter's author basically said that chickens don't get much except
vitamins and minerals from pasture.
Unimproved pastures are
quite common. In other words, farmers put their chickens on some
kind of low grass/weed mixture that's probably been kept tree-less
through annual bush-hogging and/or grazing with other animals.
One unimproved pasture listed in Raising Poultry on Pasture
was made up of fescue, thinning brome, broadleaf weeds, and lespedeza.
Legumes are cited by many producers as
being favorites of their chickens. Specifically, white clover
(New Zealand and other varieties) is mentioned by several chicken
keepers as a good long term cover. Subclovers (subterranean
clovers) are useful in very poor soil and are commonly grown in
Australia, Texas, and California. One farmer mentioned growing
peas in an early spring pasture, but said that the chickens didn't get
as excited about the succulent peas as he thought they would.
Broadleaf plants, in
general, are preferred by chickens over grasses. No wonder ---
chickens aren't ruminants and they aren't able to digest grass any more
than you can. I wonder if there are weeds like dock, plantain, or
others that stand up well to heavy chicken scratching and browsing and
are still tasty for our chickens?
Grasses are usually mixed
in with broadleaf plants on permanent pastures to hold the soil in
place, even if the grasses don't do much for the chickens. Common
the chicken pasture include orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass, tall
fescue, and annual ryegrass. Although I don't think grasses
much food for chickens directly, Joel Salatin wrote that grass provides
habitat for grasshoppers, which his chickens love, so perhaps these
nearly inedible plants have a place in the chicken pasture after all.
Grains are used by many
chicken producers for early spring pasture, especially by farmers who
use the chickens in rotation with row crops and thus till the pasture
every year. Oats and annual rye are both listed as early spring
pasture crops. On the other hand, grains are grasses, and
chickens don't tend to get much out of them once the leaves age and
Pasture management is
another important point to consider when planning for your chickens'
needs. When plants get over four to eight inches tall (depending
on who you talk to), the leaves become higher in carbon and less
digestible by chickens. Many farmers advocate mowing or heavy
grazing to keep plants short and always producing more green
shoots. On the other hand, I wonder whether taller grass would
provide a more diversified habitat for the insects chickens crave?
Have you planted a
traditional pasture for chickens? What did you put in it?
Which plants did your chickens gravitate toward?