Forage or Feed? Nutritional Benefits of Chickens that Forage

April 5, 2019

There are many benefits to having chickens that are able to forage and don’t rely on just chicken feed.  Allowing chickens to forage helps reduce your carbon footprint and is great when you want to cut back on your feed costs.  There are also nutritional benefits for both you and your chickens when you provide them with access to forages.

Chicken Nutrition

Before we go any further, let’s talk a little bit about chicken nutrition.  There are many aspects to nutrition that we need to be concerned with- protein, energy, vitamins and minerals.  Chickens that are being raised for either meat or eggs will need ample protein in order to stay productive.  All chickens need to be able to meet their minimum daily energy requirements in order to stay healthy. Vitamins and minerals are important for any animal’s diet. 

Proteins are made up of molecules called amino acids.  You can think of amino acids like Legos or building blocks for making proteins.  There are 21 different amino acids that are used to make proteins.  Sometimes, the body can make these on their own.  In other cases, the animal must consume the amino acid because the body cannot make it.  Amino acids that are required but cannot be made by the body are called essential amino acids (because they are ‘essential’ in the diet and must be consumed).  An essential amino acid for chickens is methionine.  Chickens literally crave methionine, probably because their body has to have it and cannot make it!

Chickens require vitamins D and B.  These are vitamins probably sound familiar because we require them in our diet as well.  The absence of these vitamins can lead to disease in poultry.  Chickens also need ample calcium.  This is especially true in egg-laying hens as they need the calcium for their egg shells and their own bodies.

Why Foraging is Better- From the Chicken’s Point of View

Chickens that are foraging on pasture aren’t just eating grasses.  It may look like that’s what they’re doing, but grasses only count for a small part of their foraging diet.  Chickens will eat insects, vegetation, seeds and berries (if available) while they are foraging.  In fact, you can expect about half of a chicken’s foraging diet to consist of insects! Who needs to treat their yard for bugs when you can get chickens to do it for you?

When chickens are on forage or pasture, they’re going to consume both the grasses and the insects that are attracted to the grasses.  Remember when I said that chickens crave the amino acid methionine?  The only source of methionine is in animal proteins.  Feed companies will add methionine to poultry feeds that are usually plant-based.  Naturally, chickens get this methionine from eating insects that are full of methionine.  If you’ve ever noticed that some of your chickens peck each other or even show signs of cannibalism, more than likely it’s due to a methionine deficiency.  Foraging chickens are cannibal-free chickens! 

Chickens that are on pasture also have access to sunlight.  Just like humans, chicken’s bodies can produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight.  Chicken feed manufacturers usually add vitamin D to chicken feed because they assume the chickens are going to be housed indoors.  Get those chickens outside and let them make their own vitamin D! Chickens that lack vitamin D will develop a condition called rickets.  Rickets causes the bones to develop incorrectly and can lead to serious leg issues.

Chickens that are allowed to consume insects will also get their daily fill of vitamin B.  Insects don’t just contain methionine, but several types of vitamin B that chickens need also.  To top it off, insects are rich in protein and can completely replace the protein found in chicken feed if there are enough available. 

From the chicken’s point of view, foraging is superior to commercial feed by far.  Research has shown that not only can foraging replace chicken feed, but it can also increase the amount of unsaturated fats the chicken consumes but the vitamins as well.  The only nutritional downfall to foraging for chickens is the lack of calcium.  If you plan on putting your chickens on pasture, make sure that you provide them with oyster shell or limestone. This will ensure that your chickens don’t develop a calcium deficiency.

Forage Grasses and Nutritional Information

A really popular concept right now is sprouting grains for livestock consumption.  It’s a really efficient way of taking a grain and producing a potentially superior nutritional product and increasing the bulk amount while not increasing the feed costs.  However, research has shown that it’s not as effective for chickens as other livestock species.  Don’t get me wrong, it won’t hurt them to eat sprouted grains if you’re already growing them.  It’s just not any better nutritionally for them. 

Planting forages for your chickens is an excellent idea if you want to cut back on costs and create more nutritional eggs or meat for your family. There are several species of grasses that make excellent forage for chickens and there are a few that aren’t the best option for chicken.

Ideal Forages

  • Flax
  • Peas (Peas make an excellent forage because they are about 23% protein.  The protein in peas is usually increased in areas that are hot and dry when compared to cooler, wetter areas.
  • Alfalfa, lespedeza, clover and vetches- These forages are all considered legumes.  Legumes make excellent an excellent forage source for chickens.  They are high in protein and fiber.  Protein helps maintain the productivity of the chicken and fiber helps everything run smoothly in the digestive system.
  • Rye grass
  • Rape seed- Rape seed grows rapidly, making it an ideal forage for smaller areas.

Forages to Avoid

  • Rye grain (Secale cereal) – Unfortunately this crop doesn’t provide the nutritional needs for chickens.  Avoid this grain crop when choosing forage seed.
  • Buckwheat- Buckwheat has been shown to lower the feed efficiency in chickens.  It also contains a compound called fagopyrin.  Fagopyrin increases skin sensitivity to UV light, which can lead to sunburn in pastured chickens.
  • Cowpea- Cowpeas don’t provide adequate nutrition for chickens and should be avoided.

Human Benefits of Chickens That Consume Forage

            One of the biggest benefits of chickens being on forage is the impact that it has on meat and egg quality.  Multiple research studies have been done that tested the nutritional value of eggs from chickens raised on forage.  Pastured chickens have an increase in amounts of Vitamins A and E, beta-carotene, and Omega-3 Fatty Acids.  Pasture eggs also have lower amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat.  To be more specific, the USDA states that pasture-raised chickens produce eggs with 1/3 less cholesterol, ¼ less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, twice the amount of Omega-3 Fatty Acids, 3 times the amount of Vitamin E and 7 times the amount of beta carotene when compared to eggs produced from hens raised indoors on feed.

            There are so many benefits to raising chickens on pasture and forages, so why aren’t you doing it yet?

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More about Shelby DeVore

Shelby is an agricultural enthusiast that shares her love of all things farming with her husband and two children on their small farm in West Tennessee. She is a former agriculture education teacher and is also the author of the blog Farminence, where she enjoys sharing her love of gardening, raising livestock and more simple living. You can see more of Shelby's articles at: www.farminence.com

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