Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Chickens Eat My Weeds

by Kate
Living The Frugal Life

I've only had my tiny backyard laying flock for just over a year. So perhaps the zeal that grips me is merely a phase peculiar to the newly converted. I find myself curbing the desire to proselytize to friends, family, and total strangers about the merits of backyard poultry. All that deferred preaching needs some outlet, and blogging such things usually nets me positive feedback as opposed to politely bemused stares. So today it's another post on things chookish.

If you don't have chickens or are new to keeping them, you may not realize how well their omnivorous natures suit them to life on an organic homestead. We haven't treated our lawn with anything other than milky spore to control invasive Japanese beetles since we moved in almost three years ago. That means we have plenty of weeds around our property. The longer I live here, and the more I learn to identify the weeds we have, the more free feed I find for our girls. Here's a sampling of the weeds common to our northeastern US residential lot that our chickens like to eat. I've ranked these more or less in order of the chickens' preference, though this is an inexact estimation based purely on observation. (Click on any of the pictures for more detail.)

Prickly lettuce - The leaves of prickly lettuce resemble dandelion leaves, especially when young. But as the plant grows it shows a much taller habit and growth along a central stalk. It will grow in partial sun, but does best in fairly deep shade. The underside of the rib of each leaf bears prickles, which, despite the name, are quite soft and untroublesome when I pick them. The girls absolutely relish these leaves, and we don't have nearly enough to feed them generously from this plant.

Mustard greens - These emerge in very early spring and set seed by late spring. The greens become increasingly bitter as the plant grows, but the greens are edible for humans and quite tasty when the first emerge. The hens will eat the leaves at any stage and prefer them to almost any other wild green I have offered them.

Purslane - This is a sprawling, succulent plant that emerges in late spring. It is edible for humans as well, and many people enjoy it in salads or stir-fries. Purslane has one of the highest concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids of any land-based source. An extremely prolific weed that will volunteer enthusiastically for several months in garden beds. The girls enjoy this green but will show some indifference to it if I feed them too much of it. (As shown, the plant is upright at emergence, but quickly becomes prostrate as it grows.)

Dandelion - A well known and easily recognized weed. The hens will readily eat the leaves, but not the flower heads, stalks, or roots. They seem to enjoy it most in the spring, when the leaves are less bitter. The leaves are clearly second-tier delicacies compared with the first two weeds listed above. Nonetheless, dandelion's long season means that the leaves are a staple weed for the girls for much of the year.

Wild rocket - This "weed" shows up in surprising locations around my garden each year. It is easy to recognize both by its distinctive, deeply serrated leaves, as well as by its pleasant but strong aroma when stepped on or picked. Close relatives of this plant (arugula, rucola and rocket) are grown by gardeners and also show up in salads at fancy restaurants. So I was surprised to find that my chickens eat this with only moderate enthusiasm compared to their favorites.

Lambsquarters, a.k.a. Fat Hen - A common garden weed that indicates good soil fertility, this plant can be eaten by humans in much the same way that we eat spinach or other greens. It is identifiable by its angular arrowhead leaves, which sometimes show splotches of purple, and its upright habit. It is also rather easy to uproot, for a weed. Our girls readily eat this weed so long as they are not overloaded with other choices. It seems to be less tasty to them than "Fat Hen" would suggest.

Hairy bittercress - This rather unassuming weed emerges as a low rosette in very early spring, sets seed early, and disappears for the rest of the year. The hens will eat the very small green leaves that the plants have when young, but they do so rather unenthusiastically. They show an equal or better interest in scratching apart the roots to look for chance grubs or bugs among them. (Sorry, no picture for this one.)

I have no doubt at all that chickens will readily eat weeds that grow in areas other than mine. And I'm fairly certain that there are a few more weeds in my region that I haven't yet identified as chicken feed. Because zoning laws in my area forbid me from allowing my hens to truly free range, they can't show me by demonstration what they would be happy to eat. I bring them freshly harvested weeds at least three times each day, and usually pause to watch their reaction to the offerings. It's both amusing and gratifying to watch them consume things that are free for the plucking.

Chickens will also happily eat a great many things that we grow deliberately in our garden. They invariably get a few outer leaves from each head of lettuce I cut, sometimes with a few bonus slugs included. Homegrown lettuce leaves and damaged tomatoes seem to be the twin holy grails of chook fine dining. Spinach showing signs of leafminer activity or their tiny white eggs are springtime fare for the girls.  Swiss chard (silverbeet) leaves that get beaten up by heavy weather are gratefully accepted by the girls. They would happily devour my beet (root) greens too if I chose to share them. Needless to say, they also enjoy most of our kitchen scraps as well. Peelings from beets, carrots, and stone fruits send them over the moon, as do fish skin, baking failures, or leftover cooked grains of any type.

Last year I also managed a squash bug infestation by brushing the pests into a plastic container twice a day and then feeding them to the chickens. I think this was the poultry equivalent of chocolate bon bons raining from the heavens. The girls enjoyed it so very much that I had real incentive to collect the bugs for them. I'm half hoping that we have a similar infestation this year, since the bugs didn't seem to hurt my harvest quantities.

All of this free chicken fodder has several beneficial effects. Firstly, it lowers my expenses in keeping chickens, because I don't have to purchase as much chicken feed. Secondly and most importantly, it vastly improves the taste, nutrition, and appearance of the eggs. The egg yolks from my girls have a deep golden orange coloration, indicating a high content of beta carotene, which comes from green plants. You'll never see that color in store bought eggs from factory farms. My girls' eggs have more of the "good" things in eggs (Vitamins A, B12, &; E, omega-3 fatty acids, beta carotene, folic acid), and less of all the "bad" things (total calories, total fat, saturated fat, LDL cholesterol). (See the full article at Mother Earth News.) Thirdly, it keeps my girls from being bored. Though they enjoy fresh air and sunshine, the ability to walk around, flap their wings, and scratch in a new patch of lawn each day, they still are limited in the space they have. My daily weed offerings are wild cards that I believe they look forward to eagerly. Finally, there's some value to me in continually patrolling my residential parcel of land, looking for things to feed my girls. It gives me a little extra exercise, and it means I know what's going on in every square foot of my property.

If you've considered setting yourself up with a small backyard poultry flock, keep the issue of free food and all its attendant benefits in mind. If you already have a flock, I'd love to hear of any weeds or freely available foods you feed to your chooks, geese, turkeys, guineas, or ducks. Please share in the comments!

Related posts:
Going Mobile with a Backyard Flock
In Further Praise of Domestic Poultry
Putting the Livestock to Work
Using What the Land Provides