Can Chickens Eat Weeds in Your Garden?
by Doug Ottinger
If you are a poultry owner, there is a good chance you might also have a garden. If your garden is healthy and growing, the weeds are probably doing the same thing. What is a gardener to do? There is only so much time in a day. How do you get rid of all those weeds?
First, stop stressing and worrying about getting rid of the weeds! If you are plagued with many of the common garden weeds that seem to come back time after time, consider yourself fortunate. Many of those common weeds are actually highly nutritious, green plants that contain proteins, calcium, carbohydrates and vitamins. In short, they are a bonus crop of free poultry feed. Instead of stressing about keeping the garden totally weed-free, set a harvest-schedule for your home-grown chicken treats. Pull one or two rows of weeds every other day. When the weeds come back again, fantastic. More free chicken-feed to pick at a later date!
New poultry owners might ask, “Can chickens eat weeds? Which ones will they eat? How do I know if the weeds are poisonous? Should I let my chickens run loose and eat the weeds out of the garden? Do chickens eat clover? What about pigweed and dandelions?” These are all very legitimate questions. This article will answer some of those questions and give a little insight on just how nutritious many of the common garden weeds are.
Chickens are very adept at foraging for themselves in a pasture setting. There are many different thoughts on feeding backyard chickens. Some people feel that commercially-produced, perfectly-balanced feeds are best, with treats or added greens only being allowed on a minimal basis. Others prefer a combination of balanced, commercially-produced feed and pasturing, for their birds (or fresh greens and garden weeds brought to the birds, if they cannot be allowed to run). Others want their poultry to forage all they can, in a natural setting, and would not have it any other way. Each method has its merits, as well as trade-offs. If you are looking for maximum egg production from laying hens, or maximum weight gain in a short period of time from your meat birds, commercially-formulated feeds are probably best. However, if you are an adherent to natural feeding methods, providing pasture or garden weeds, along with grain or commercially-produced feed, might appeal to you more. Just remember that chickens need concentrated carbohydrates, such as grain or grain-based commercial rations, along with their green feeds.
Before we discuss edible garden weeds for poultry, or pasture plants chickens eat, let’s briefly talk about pasture settings and turning chickens loose in your garden: If you have a lawn or pasture to let chickens run on during the daytime, that is predator and danger-free (No marauding neighborhood dogs, no hawks or coyotes and no busy streets for them to make their way to chicken-heaven upon), you have an ideal setting. However, many of us do not have this luxury. Even though I live in a rural area, there are neighbor dogs that always seem to show up whenever I let the chickens out to roam. After three or four losses of chickens, I have found it a much better option to bring the green feed to my poultry. What about the actual garden? Can chickens be let loose to eat the weeds? I suppose the correct answer to that would be yes, but it is a recipe for disaster. I strongly recommend that you avoid this option. Chickens will eat the weeds, as planned. They will also eat everything else in sight, including your young garden plants. If the plants are mature and producing, they will help themselves to the tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, berries, and lettuce. They will peck holes in your pumpkins and melons. Your potatoes may also be dug-up and pecked-apart. In short, nothing is safe. It is a far better option to pull the weeds and bring them to the birds yourself.
Try to pick the weeds when they are no more than four to six inches tall. The young leaves and stems are most digestible to poultry before heavy fibers develop. Also, allowing the weeds to get any bigger will draw nutrients from the soil that your garden plants need. I find a stirrup-hoe works very well in the rows, with quick hand-weeding between most of the plants.
Believe it or not, young green grass clippings are also very nutritious. Besides being something fun for the chickens to scratch in, they are very high in sugars as well as protein. According to Gustave F. Heuser, in Feeding Poultry (first printed in 1955), young green grass can contain protein levels as high as thirty percent (calculated on a dry-weight basis).
Some of the commonly occurring weeds, as well as many cultivated herbs, are believed to have some medicinal properties for poultry and livestock. In fact, when you are planning your garden, why not throw-in a few herbs for your chickens as well. Thyme, oregano, and echinacea all have antibacterial properties. Thyme also contains concentrated omega-3s. These herbs can be harvested and free-fed along with the weeds.
There are some weeds which can be poisonous to poultry, so avoid these. While there is not space to list them all, a few of the more common ones include common bindweed or field morning glory, various weeds in the nightshade family and jimson weed. If you live in a mountainous area where lupine grows, or an area such as the Pacific Northwest where foxglove is found, keep these away from your poultry also.
Here are a few common garden and pasture plants that chickens eat, and some of the nutritional levels they contain:
Amaranth or pigweed. There are numerous species of amaranth. Some are grown commercially for the flowers, green leaves or seeds. However, many more species are common weeds. Not to worry, however. They are edible, and a palatable source of nutrition for poultry and livestock. On a dry weight basis, the leaves contain thirteen percent protein and more than one-and-one-half percent calcium.
Dandelions are very high in total digestible nutrients. On a dry weight basis, the leaves contain about twenty percent protein.
Clover. Depending on the species, clover can contain 20 to 28 percent protein, on a dry weight basis. Calcium levels run about one-and-one-half percent. Clover is also high in phosphorus, potassium and trace minerals.
Common cheese weed and other Malva, or mallow, species. The leaves of cheese weed and various other Malva plants are high in minerals and several vitamins. They also contain anti-oxidant properties, as well as mucilaginous polysaccharides that can be soothing to the digestive tract.
Kudzu: This bane to the South does have a few redeeming qualities. The leaves are highly palatable to poultry and other livestock. They are high in protein, calcium and other necessary nutrients.
There are many other nutritious and palatable weed species. What weeds do you have in your garden that your chickens, or other poultry, might like?