Al Fresco Dining
The modern hen’s meal times often consist of commercial feed fed straight from a bag, but should they still be foraging as nature intended, asks Julie Moore
Foraging as nature intended, by Julie Moore
In bygone days, farmers and smallholders raised poultry on a forage-based diet supplemented with a handful of grain and a few kitchen scraps. With the advent of the industrialisation of chickens and the enormous battery farms that ensued, the forage-based diet became impractical and poultry diets changed to an almost exclusively grain-based feed. Many smallholders jumped on the commercial bandwagon, too, buying into the convenience of ready-made feed despite their low flock densities.
Today, backyard keepers and commerce place huge demands on hens, expecting eggs each day. Processed chicken feeds often contain added nutrients that have been developed in a laboratory to provide the ‘ideal’ nutrient formulations to get maximum output from feathered egg machines.
It is only in recent years that chicken keepers and consumers have become more keen on the necessity of providing forage as a nutritious and optimum food source as well as roughage for digestion and maintaining healthy gut flora in their flocks. From my point of view, watching my own flock forage, I am convinced that they know more about their optimum nutrition than a laboratory scientist.
Nutrition is not the only reason to eat. The ritual of finding food and then eating that food isn’t lost on most chickens. Like a human going out for a slap-up meal, foraging for plants and animals makes for an equally indulgent meal experience for chickens. The caveat is that many hybrids, with their altered behaviours and digestive systems, neither have the mental willingness to seek out or the physical ability to extract as many nutrients from wild foods as their pure breed cousins.
The nutrient value of pasture changes according to the time of year and growth stage as well as the plant species sown. Plant material is typically high in vitamins and minerals, while it also provides fibre, protein, energy, carotenoids and omega-3 fatty acids. Forages are high in vitamins A, B6, E and K; exposure to sunshine allows chickens to readily synthesise vitamin D in their skin; while worms, insects and other invertebrates provide a source of B12.
Proteins are needed to build muscles, organs and all other tissues. Legumes, such as clover, are the kings of protein production, providing valuable nitrogenrich protein. Grasses are a good source of fibre which helps to maintain a healthy digestive system.
Poultry like their forages relatively short. Forage height has a direct correlation to palatability — younger and more succulent plants tend to be shorter. The highest quality and most palatable forage that can be offered to your flock is a blend of grasses and legumes, including clover.
Giving access to forage through every season will provide satisfying diets for chickens and it is essential for raising a healthy flock.
Delicacies on which to dine
There are plenty of delicacies on which your chickens could be dining this coming year:
Natural winter foraging opportunities are limited due to the weather. As such, it is important to reduce seasonal stresses of inactivity and boredom and the subsequent impact on emotional health that confinement can bring. At this time of year, grass and other plants are dormant and low in some essential nutrients, particularly protein. As well as being less nutritious for your flock than at other times of the year, it may well be out of bounds and buried beneath snow.
But just because it is winter, doesn’t mean that your flock cannot enjoy some fresh, nutritious greens. For very little effort you can sprout grains which will be gratefully received by your girls. By starting the germination process, the dormant seed not only starts to become a live plant, its
composition changes in ways which are beneficial to hens compared to its dried embryo counterpart. After sprouting, a grain becomes 40-50% more digestible to a hen, which means that she will get more nutrition and fibre than from the same amount of unsprouted grain.
Scattering the sprouts in the run will stimulate the mental and physical exercise of foraging while providing entertainment for bored chickens. Likewise, hanging heads of cabbage in the run will provide nutrition from ‘real’ food while acting as a boredom buster.
Insects and other animals are in short supply at this time of year. To satisfy your hens’ carnivorous cravings, why not let your flock turn your compost for you. In doing so, they will dine on the protein smorgasbord they find as they work. Alternatively, leave some piles of dried logs and leaves for your hens to hunt out hibernating prey.
As the days lengthen, the lush greenness of spring provides welcome forage for chickens. In spring, the grass has a higher sugar and protein content and a relatively low fibre content. While you might despair at the sight of dandelions on your lawn, your chickens will relish the nutritional benefits of the fresh young leaves.
Spring affords plenty of foraging opportunities in the vegetable garden. If you garden organically, you can enlist the services of your flock to help prepare the beds for the coming season. While chemical pesticides and herbicides are potentially harmful to your chickens, your flock are low-cost, energetic organic pesticides and herbicides all in one. Simply put a chicken tractor (essentially a small, lightweight, portable bottomless pen) on a specific area of the plot for the chickens to ‘work’ while the adjacent beds remain unscathed. They will happily till the soil and, in return, dine on a banquet of nutritious food, such as earthworms, insects and fresh greens, including chickweed, in return for their hard work. And don’t forget to sow some crops that your flock will like too, such as lettuce, pumpkin and courgettes.
If you have an orchard, let your flock patrol the area to clear up damaging insects that are particularly prevalent at this time of year.
The heat of summer can be a stressful time, particularly for heavy breeds, such as Brahmas. You may have noticed that your hens eat less at this time of year — digesting food creates more internal heat and they are already feeling uncomfortable from the hotter temperatures. Your flock will find juicy berries and soft fruits particularly refreshing.
Creating a ‘chill out’ area can help your flock through the longer days. Allow a shady part of the garden to go wild — the longer grasses and weeds will help to retain moisture, keeping the area cooler than the surrounding air. As an added bonus, your hens will love foraging for the grass seeds later in the year.
Summer is a prime hunting time for animal protein. My chickens love to hunt for termites, lizards, snakes, snails, mice, grasshoppers and butterflies. If I uncover an ant or termite nest, my hens will eagerly hoover up both the adults and the eggs.
As the days grow shorter, there are fewer daylight hours to forage on the bounty of food that autumn brings. My flock has an affinity with fruit — anything pilfered directly from the tree, vine or bush seems to bring added pleasure. My birds enjoy juicy fruits, such as grapes, melon and raspberries, as well as pears and apples. At this time of year, they clear up any fallen fruit in the orchard and, in doing so, help to break the lifecycle of damaging insects and also diseases, the spores of which may overwinter in the decaying fruit.
Your flock will willingly help you to tidy the vegetable plot at the end of the growing season. Not only will they finely till the soil, clearing it of weeds, they will unearth a bounty of damaging insects that are starting to head underground for winter and fertilise the garden as they go.
Much like some modern humans have abandoned their traditional diets, so the human race in turn has tended to abandon the natural diets of Gallus gallus. Scientific research acknowledges that the development of novel nutritional approaches to closely fit the requirements of pullets and laying hens has actually led to modern birds having a weakened immune system and therefore an increased susceptibility to disease.
BD Humphrey, for example, writing Immunity Lessons and Actions: Practical Implications in 2010 concluded that there is no one universal feed that fits all situations “because of the diversity of immune response and the effector molecule production that occurs in response to various pathogens and stressors”.
By returning hens to a more natural diet, there is a school of thought that says they will be healthier and will provide you with more nutritious eggs. Remember, you are what your chickens eat — when you eat their eggs or meat
Summer is a prime hunting time for animal protein
Snails collected from the vegetable garden make a tasty meal for hens
My birds enjoy juicy fruits, such as grapes, preferably pilfered directly from the vine
In winter, the grass and other plants are dormant and low in some essential nutrients, particularly protein
There are plenty of foraging opportunities in the vegetable garden in spring