Weeding for chickens (Don’t weed what they like!)
Many plants that people would consider “weeds” in the garden, can actually serve valuable purposes. They can be great nutrient accumulators, nitrogen fixers, beneficial insect attractors, or great chicken feed. Lately, I have tried to be much more selective in my weeding. I think it is a big benefit to know your “weeds” so you can determine whether or not you want to let certain weeds thrive in your garden.
As you may know, I like to let my chickens graze my garden plots as soon as they are finished for the season. At this point, I will have let all the weeds grow, so they have some greens to eat while they till, fertilize, and do their insect patrolling. This all sounds well and good, but some of the greenery that is left for them to clear is probably somewhat toxic to them. This is not a problem when they have lots of greens to graze, as they will avoid the stuff that is not good for them, but if you are expecting them to clear your plot of weeds, they will eventually eat the toxic green stuff, if that is all that is offered. This led me to think that maybe I should encourage the weeds they like, and get rid of the toxic stuff, so they have a better grazing experience, and I get better soil and less feed costs. If I do a good job of this, these encouraged weeds will eventually make up the bulk of my “weeds” in my annual garden beds. So I would get the added benefit of less weeding to do.
The key is to know which weeds are good for them and which weeds are toxic. An easy way to do this is just to experiment and observe. Watch your chickens graze, see what weeds they seem to like. The ones they eat, provided there is adequate diversity and abundance in their grazing areas, are going to be the ones that are good for them. The weeds that they don’t eat are probably toxic to them. If I am weeding my garden and I am unsure about a weed, I will take it to them, and see if they like it or not. They let me know pretty quickly if they approve or disapprove. This does take a little thought and time at first, but after you have seen the bulk of your local weeds throughout the season, you will recognize the good ones quickly. Let those grow, and save your back.
Here are some examples of some of the “weeds” that my chickens like:
Alfalfa – is a great nitrogen fixer with a deep tap root for improving soils. It also makes good feed. The hens will eat alfalfa, but it is not their favorite.
Chickweed- This winter annual is one my chickens really do like. I guess they don't call it chickweed for nothing.
Clover- a legume and also a great nitrogen fixer. The hens will eat clover, but it is not their favorite.
Dandelion- Provides a deep tap root, and is a great nutrient accumulator. The hens like it OK, but it’s not at the top of their list.
Henbit- This winter annual is a member of the mint family. I love winter annuals, because they provide greens at a time of year when there is not much greenery around.
Lambsquarters- Some people call this weed “Fat Hen”, although I doubt any hen ever got fat off of this plant. The hens like it OK, but they prefer other plants. It is an indicator of good soil, so if you have this plant, you probably have fertile soil.
Wild Radish- They really like wild radish. They prefer this plant over most other greens.
Plantain- This is in the OK category for them. It is pretty common, so they are not that excited about it, but they will eat it, and it is good for them.
Two different types of plantain
Purslane- This prostrate growing weed is more of a delicacy for them, especially when the plant is young.