As Na­ture In­tended

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

Your Chickens - - Contents -

For­ag­ing, 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 ni­tro­gen-rich 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.


There are plenty of del­i­ca­cies on which your chick­ens could be din­ing this coming year:

Win­ter 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.

Spring 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

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

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.

Summer 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.

Au­tumn 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.

ABOVE: Summer is a prime hunt­ing time for an­i­mal pro­tein.

ABOVE LEFT: In win­ter, grass and other plants are dor­mant and low in some es­sen­tial nu­tri­ents, par­tic­u­larly pro­tein

TOP RIGHT: Don’t forget to sow some crops that your flock will like, too, such as pump­kins

ABOVE RIGHT: Grass is dor­mant in the win­ter

ABOVE MID­DLE: Clover is the king of pro­tein pro­duc­tion, pro­vid­ing valu­able ni­tro­gen-rich pro­tein

TOP RIGHT: Snails col­lected from the veg­etable gar­den make a tasty meal for hens

ABOVE RIGHT: There are plenty of for­ag­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in the veg­etable gar­den in spring

BE­LOW: For­ag­ing for plants and an­i­mals makes for an equally in­dulging meal ex­pe­ri­ence for chick­ens

ABOVE: My birds en­joy juicy fruits, such as grapes, prefer­ably pil­fered di­rectly from the vine

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