Plants in traditional chicken pastures

Chicken on pastureThe 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.

In a previous post, I’ve written about ways of combining chickens with cows or vegetable gardens to spice up rotational pastures, so I won’t repeat that information here.  Instead, I thought I’d list the plants various medium-scale producers have planted in their pastures:

  • 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.
  • SubcloverLegumes 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?
  • Grasshopper in cornGrasses 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 grasses in the chicken pasture include orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, and annual ryegrass.  Although I don’t think grasses
    provide 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 firm up.

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?

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  1. Andrew March 28, 2011
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