Chickens thrive on a varied diet that includes grain, forage greens and protein. Free-ranging chooks can get some of their
protein from insects, slugs, snails, worms and grubs. Poultry that are confined to a pen will need to get protein from
another source in addition to kitchen scraps. A good diet results in better health for the chickens and improves egg
A chicken will typically eat about 400g of commercial feed (mixed grain or pellets) per day (about a double handful per
bird). If they have access to food scraps and lots of green pick, then about 200g is enough. Feeders and dispensers should
be vermin-proof and keep the grain or mash dry;
smooth PVC feeders
make it harder for mice and rats to get at the feed.
Vermin are a major problem as they also attract snakes.
Cool, clean water needs to be available all the time. Hens drink about 250ml each per day but this can double in very hot
Hens usually lay about 4 hours after being fed, so it works well to feed them early in the morning, wait for laying to
finish and then let them out to free range. Collect the eggs straight away as leaving them in the nest can encourage
egg-eating and may attract reptiles. Feeding them early also keeps the neighbours happy as well-fed chooks are quieter. A
regular schedule is important, once the chooks are used to it they will be easier to manage. Using a particular call when
feeding also helps to train them to follow you, so if you need to put them away early, you can. Lock them in securely for
the night as the sun goes down.
Designing Poultry Forage Systems
It is to your advantage to grow some food for the chooks as this will reduce feed bills and provide the chickens with a
healthy, varied diet. A wide range of nutrients enhances egg quality and lifts omega-3 levels, one of the reasons that
home-grown eggs taste so much better. Chooks need plenty of greens and as anyone who has watched chickens free-ranging will
attest, they love their veges! A well-designed forage system can also provide shade, vital in our hot summers and shelter
from hawks. There are various forage patch options, depending on the number of chooks and the space available:
This is useful where there is no space available for free ranging. Grow forages where it is easy to harvest an armful of
greens every morning on the way to the chook run. Also plant forages where they are harvestable by the chooks, alongside
the run. The chooks can eat whatever pokes through the fence. Additionally you can set aside one or two garden beds for
long-lived poultry greens like
that can be cut multiple
Multiple runs attached to the chook house
A chook area with multiple runs will allow you to cycle crops of forage greens for the chickens, in rotation. Even in a
small backyard this can be achieved by using the external property fence as one boundary and then fencing a narrow runway
1.5 - 2 m wide on both sides of a chook house. By placing the chook house in the middle of the runways, with access to both,
greens can be grown in one runway while the other one is being used. The runways are a good place to grow narrow fruit trees
like bananas and pawpaw or dwarf stone fruit.
Any fruit trees planted in a chicken run will need protection from the chooks and their continuous scratching. Provide
protection by placing wire cages around young trees. Scattering logs, concrete pavers or rocks across the top of the root
zone of trees will prevent the roots being damaged by constant scratching. Fencing off areas of the chicken run will allow
time for plants to establish.
A movable chook tractor
If you are using a chook tractor or portable coop it should be moved regularly onto fresh grass. It is a great help in
keeping pest problems to a minimum if you move the chook tractor onto a vege bed once the crop is finished. The chooks will
hunt down any pests, eat the last remnants of veges, scratch up the bed and manure it. Afterwards, with fresh mulch and a
few weeks rest, it will be ready to plant again.
A poultry forage system combined with fruit trees
A larger poultry forage system can be combined with an orchard, simply by placing extra plants for chicken forage in amongst
the fruit trees. The fruit trees will need to be well established before the chooks are allowed to free range, to prevent
damage to young trees. Maintain the number of poultry at a level where a continuous groundcover is always present. If the
ground is being completely bared, then you have too many chooks for the area.
If you turn your orchard into a poultry forage system you will reduce your need for fertiliser, mowing and pest control. The
chickens will be happier provided with both shade and entertainment. Chooks are very industrious when it comes to catching
insects, particularly fruit fly and codling moth.
Choosing Forage Plants
Chickens love greens and will eat a wide variety. Don't underestimate the sheer quantity they can get through. It is a good
habit to always give them the outside leaves of any big, leafy vegetable you have harvested from the garden such as cauliflower,
cabbage, bok choy, mustard or old broccoli plants. They will not only eat the leaves but clean up any caterpillars or snails
lurking amongst the foliage. Greens also supply chlorophyll, one of the reasons free range eggs have such a lovely deep yellow
Weeds as Greens
When weeding the garden it is worthwhile becoming familiar with the chook favourites and putting them into a bucket for the
chooks to enjoy. Some of the names are a good indicator - like Fat Hen Chenopodium album
and Chickweed Stellaria
. Other weeds like purslane syn. pigweed Portulaca oleracea
, Cleavers Galium aperine
and Stinging nettles Urtica dioica
will readily be eaten.
Clucker Tucker™ Seed Mix
This is a hardy
collection of leafy greens
Green Harvest has specifically designed so you can grow the plants your flock will enjoy. It includes favourite forage foods such
as bok choy, buckwheat, barrel medic, forage chicory, clover, cocksfoot, linseed, lucerne, millet, forage plantain, silverbeet,
subclover and sunflower. Most have vigorous root systems that will quickly regrow leaves that are cut or eaten. It is a blend of
annual and perennial plants, many of which will self-sow. In a forage area, seed can be broadcast; the chooks will need to be kept
off the area for the plants to establish. After they have grazed it down, the chooks should be taken off to allow the plants to
reshoot. Where space is limited, grow the mix in seedling trays and once grown, place it in the chook run or bird cage. In
temperate areas sow March - May or August - October. In subtropical areas sow August - September or May - July. In tropical areas
sow April - August.
Perennial plants can be grown wherever you can tuck them in around the garden. When planted on the outside of the chook run, along
the fence edges, they can be self-service greens but the fence will prevent the chooks demolishing the whole plant in one go. If
you plant downslope of the chook run it will help to capture nutrients that wash out of the run during heavy rain.
Good choices for hardy perennial greens:
Trees and Shrubs with Fruit
- Comfrey is easily the best herb to grow for chooks.
- Queensland Arrowroot: an essential plant in warmer
climates, as it provides a cool refuge on hot days. The high moisture-holding stems create an air-conditioned effect inside a big clump.
The leaves are an attractive forage and you will need a big patch to prevent it being demolished by hungry hens.
- New Zealand spinach syn.
Warrigal greens is a highly nutritious tonic food, rich in protein and B12. A very useful year-round groundcover for temperate areas; it is
only vigorous in winter and spring in the subtropics. The juicy leaves are appreciated by poultry and it self-sows readily.
- Nasturtium and
Sweet Potato vines are useful groundcovers in
frost-free areas for under fruit trees and are relished by the chooks.
Mulberry (useful deciduous tree for chook runs as it will let winter sun in), lillypilly or other native bushfoods, persimmon, pawpaw, feijoa,
, custard apple, peach,
banana (old stems can be chopped up too), fig, jaboticaba, grumichama, Brazilian cherry and pears.
Trees and Shrubs with Seeds or Pods
Some plants are useful for planting in larger areas as the seeds are a high protein food source:
tree lucerne / tagasaste
, wattle and
Vines for Fences and Trellis
These vines planted on chook fences can provide shade as well as food: banana passionfruit,
, choko, grapes,
Seeds for Sowing in Rotation Runs
Clucker Tucker™ seed mix
, sorghum, wheat,
You can find books on poultry care here