Feeding Chickens the Easy Way

Feeding chickens is easy when you let them peck around your pastures, garden and yard clippings.

  • free-range chickens scratching on a lawn
    While they have a tendency to overgraze on favorite greens, chickens can be put to use mowing the lawn, plus they’ll devour any number of unwanted insects.
    Photo By iStockphoto/George Clerk
  • a hen has free range in the garden
    Allowing your hens to have free run of your garden — with supervision, of course — can help build the soil, keep pests at bay, and clean up any harvest leftovers.
    Photo By iStockphoto/Maurice Van Der
  • a rooster standing in a cluster of daffodils
    Chickens forage among spring daffodils.
    Photo By iStockphoto/George Clerk
  • free-range chickens exploring the garden
    Chickens left to roam freely will till the soil in your perennial beds and keep insect pests at bay as well as add beauty to the landscaping.
    Photo By Oscar H. Will III
  • Plowing With Pigs book cover
    "Plowing with Pigs" by Oscar H. Will III and Karen K. Will
    Photo Courtesy New Society Publishers

  • free-range chickens scratching on a lawn
  • a hen has free range in the garden
  • a rooster standing in a cluster of daffodils
  • free-range chickens exploring the garden
  • Plowing With Pigs book cover

Back in the day, fowl fanciers and farmstead owners all over the country kept chickens because they were beautiful, particularly suited to a specific region’s environment, and for the services they could offer and/or products they could supply.

Did you know that some fancy fowl were kept to supply the fashion and fishing-fly-tying industries with incredibly beautiful feathers, which were often harvested without ending the bird’s life? Others were kept for the eggs or meat they could provide. And all the while, the birds kept their premises free of all manner of pests, including flies, ticks, grubs, caterpillars, and even mice and snakes in some instances. Plus, chickens are an end-of-the-day entertainment that rivals the best Broadway show or blockbuster movie. You’ve heard the expression “sit and watch the chickens peck.” For the homesteader, there may be nothing quite so soothing at the end of a fulfilling day of work than to sit, cool beverage in hand, and watch the chickens just do what chickens do.

So, what is it that they do? Well, if the chickens in question happen to be one of the small handful of over-bred industrial breeds, those poor animals will have few social skills and may grow so fast and so out of proportion that they break bones or die of heart attacks just eight weeks after hatching. Watching these chickens do their thing may be more depressing than relaxing or uplifting — especially if they’re in a horrific factory-production setting — but that’s not their fault. It’s the fault of animal science’s morally questionable conclusion that animals such as chickens are nothing more than cogs in a moneymaking machine. As such, laying hens may legally be crowded into small cages where they cannot scratch, cannot interact socially with one another, and cannot lay eggs in the privacy of a nest box or other “secret” place. On top of all of that, most of the top halves of their beaks have been cut off to keep the overcrowded animals from pecking one another.

Thankfully, a sufficient number of folks interested in animal husbandry eschewed the entire industrial poultry production model and have maintained many of the old chicken breeds and lines. Thus it is that some of those sturdy, older breeds are available today. Birds like the Jersey Giant will net you some eggs and grow to sufficient size to produce a fine table fowl. But more importantly, old breeds like the Jersey Giant thrive out-of-doors, and they will entertain you beautifully while performing tasks you’d rather not do and doing the work of agricultural poisons and synthetic chemicals you’d rather not use.

Feeding chickens in the yard

Whether you live in town or out in the country, keeping a small flock of chickens in the backyard is not only fun, it’s also rewarding in a number of ways. As omnivores, chickens will gleefully seek out and devour all manner of insect, bug, grub, larva, worm, mouse, etc. They also will mow your lawn — to an extent, anyway. Chickens relish fresh greens, including grasses and forbs. When they are confined in relatively small areas, they can keep the lawn trimmed (though, when left to their own devices, they have a tendency to overgraze their favorite things, like clover and dandelions, and spend less time on the Kentucky bluegrass). If you enclose your birds in a portable pen, you can move it around the yard in a rotation, and your chickens will do a much more uniform mowing job than when they are completely free ranging. So, moving them around in a pen can either keep the birds from overgrazing their favorite vegetation or it can encourage them to do just that — to help you prepare a new garden patch. As the chickens graze, they’ll fertilize the lawn with some of the finest organic material out there, but they’ll do oh-so-much more.

If you are a lawn purist, you might dethatch your yard every spring. This arduous task involves hard soil-scratching raking that pulls up the thatch of dead grass that collects just above the soil surface each year. Alternatively, you might rent an expensive gas-guzzling power dethatcher that will scratch the soil, while bringing all that dead grass to the surface for easier collection with a leaf rake or power vacuum of some kind. In either case, you are expending all kinds of calories to undo something that mowing does every year. Plus, dethatching can make some turf grass crowns more susceptible to various pests. Here’s where the chickens come in.

3/26/2014 6:39:26 PM

Can anyone identify the breed of the rooster in the above photo? We have one exactly like him that we assumed was a mutt since it was a bonus chick. He's the best roo we've ever had - great with people, the hens & quiet. We really would like to know his breed. Thanks!

Hans Quistorff
2/23/2013 7:34:05 AM

They will even jump on the shovel if they don't think you are spading fast enough.

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