By Amy Fewell – Chickens are the gateway livestock to every homestead, and if you’re a natural chicken keeper, you’ve probably wondered what are some good herbs and plants for chickens to eat. From edible weeds that grow right in your own backyard, to a more extensive healing herbs list, there are plenty of options for natural foraging all around you and your chickens.
Newman Turner coined it best when he shared his knowledge of seeding cow pastures with herbs and natural foraging plants in his 1955 published book, Fertility Pastures. Today, we can use some of those very same methods and seed. We can plant herbs in our own backyards and pastures as a natural way for our chickens to self-medicate and live a holistic foraging lifestyle.
As natural chicken keepers, we’re constantly aware and wondering what can chickens eat as a treat, or what herbs work best for their delicate systems. The great news is that not only can we offer healthy treats to our chickens through offering them herbs from the garden, but we can plant our very own herbal mixes on pasture for our flocks that are pasture-raised and free-ranged, rather than having to worry about mixing up herbs for their feed bins each day.
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Seeds for Herbal Pasture
Planting herb seeds along with regular pasture grass is an increasingly common technique throughout the world, but especially in the United Kingdom and Australia. As chicken keepers trend toward a more natural way of raising their chooks, this method is something just about every chicken keeper can implement.
Whether you live on 50 acres or a small half-acre in town, you can offer plenty of healthy and herbal plants for chickens to eat right in your own backyard. This can happen one of two ways — seeding with pasture grass and herbal seed mixes, or planting mature herbs strategically around your property, backyard, and chicken run.
Herbal pasture grasses can be bought online or from your local feed store, and they typically contain wild herbs, grasses, and edibles such as yarrow, red and white clover, chicory, plantain, echinacea, and black-eyed Susans. However, you can enhance the herbal mix by adding a few of your own medicinal herbs. Buy these seeds in bulk from your favorite seed store and mix them into your premade herbal pasture mix before spreading throughout your backyard or pasture.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) — Oregano is a natural antibiotic and antibacterial. It detoxifies the body, aids in respiratory health, and helps the reproductive system. In fact, large commercial meat and egg producers have switched to offering oregano and thyme in their chicken feed on a regular basis instead of chemicals and antibiotics. This is a great herb to add to your flock’s foraging areas, as it spreads quickly and is a perennial herb that will come back each year.
Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) — This natural wild herb pops up all over the place on its own in the spring. Allow this herb to grow naturally or plant it yourself. Purple dead nettle is a natural antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-fungal herb that helps enhance the overall health of your chickens. It is also packed full of nutrients!
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) — This wild edible is a no-brainer for your chickens. Purslane contains more Omega-3 fatty acids than many fish oil supplements. The Omega-3 fatty acids that your chickens eat are then transferred into that glorious orange yolk that you eat! Not only are Omega-3 acids healthy for you, but they are great for your chickens’ overall health as well. Purslane is also high in vitamins A, C, and B complex vitamins, and minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and manganese. It is an incredible source of natural antioxidants.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) — This common herb enhances brain function, reduces stress, promotes liver function, aids in digestion, and improves circulation. It is a powerhouse antioxidant and a natural anti-inflammatory. It is a good source of vitamin A, C, and B6, as well as folate, calcium, iron, and manganese.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) — Thyme is a natural antiparasitic, antibacterial, aids the respiratory system, relieves infection, and is packed full of omega-3 fatty acids that support brain and heart health. Thyme is also rich in vitamins A, C, and B6, as well as fiber, iron, riboflavin, manganese, and calcium.
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea or Echinacea angustifolia) — If this herb isn’t already in your pasture mix, make sure you add it. It’s is an amazing immunity boosting herb, easily grows in the wild and comes back as a perennial each year. It is full of antibacterial and antiviral properties. It’s also great for respiratory health and fungal overgrowth.
Planting Your Herbal Pasture Seeds
Once you’ve narrowed down some of the perennials you’d like to add to your mix, choose a warm early spring day to aerate your soil. Doing this when your soil is still moist will work best. After aerating your soil, spread out your pasture mix evenly throughout the entire area that you’re seeding.
You’ll need to keep your seeds in place, so add a very thin layer of straw over the seeds if you’re starting from raw land (dirt). If you already have a pasture in place, the seeds should naturally fall below the vegetation that’s already there and will be protected without much need for straw.
Your seeds will begin to germinate after about seven to 14 days. You should keep your chickens off your newly seeded area for at least two months, allowing your pasture to establish good roots. Once your herbs have an established root system, you can allow your chickens to forage freely. I always suggest rotational grazing when possible, as not to overwhelm your newly planted herbs and edibles.
Planting Mature Herb Plants Around Your Property
Seeding your own yard or pasture may not be an option for you when it comes to offering herbs and plants for chickens to eat. If this is the case, purchase some mature herb plants and place them strategically throughout your property. Allow at least a couple of weeks for your newly planted herbs and wild edibles to establish roots before allowing your chickens to begin picking from them. You can protect them with wire cloches or by simply keeping your chickens away from the herbal areas of your property.
And just like that, you’ve successfully added plants for chickens to eat! These herbs will come back every single year, and with each year’s new growth, your herbs will be bigger and healthier, ready to be plucked by your chickens!
Author Bio: Amy Fewell is the head chicken wrangler and homesteader of The Fewell Homestead. Along with her family, she resides in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia. She is the Founder of the Homesteaders of America conference and organization, and the author of the books, The Homesteader’s Herbal Companion and The Homesteader’s Natural Chicken Keeping Handbook (to be released Spring 2019). www.thefewellhomestead.com