Raising free range chickens is always an adventure. Especially when your birds are as spoiled as mine! My rooster seems to instinctively know when I want to sleep in and crows so early and loud that I am fairly sure he would wake the family on the farm next door if their rooster wasn’t having a crowing contest with him. Once Beakey the rooster starts his hollering, my fine feathered ladies are quick to get moving, which means they want me to spring them from the coop, like now! Whether I am ready for it or not, my day on the homestead has begun. So I throw on my housecoat and step into my mud boots so I can trudge out to the barn to liberate my chickens. Luckily they always cackle a quiet thank you as they shuffle past me on their way to find breakfast. All except for Beaky. He has to stop and give me the stink eye for a second or two (I tell him every day that I came as fast as I could, but I don’t think he believes me) before he lurches off after the ladies in his distinctive jerky gallop.
This ritual is only part of what I love about allowing my chickens free reign of the place. It all works together in the perma-culture symphony we are creating on the homestead. And it makes for super healthy chickens that are so inexpensive to feed that it is almost ridiculous!
With a little extra planning in the garden, you can provide nearly all of the nutrients your feathered friends need to be healthy and happy. It is important for chickens to have a diet consisting of a variety of different foods to ensure proper nutrition. Your birds need about 1 part protein for every 4 parts of carbohydrates to ensure proper egg production. Keep in mind that calcium is also a very necessary component in their diet. They need at least 3% of their total intake to be calcium.
BUGS – Chickens love bugs like a rabbit loves carrots! Your chickens will constantly be on the lookout for a nice juicy bug or two or ten, which gives them the majority of the protein they need. And that my friends, makes it a snap to control insects in your garden. They can clean out a pack of potato bugs in no time flat! It is rare to see a chicken choose to eat your prized tomato when there is a bug to be chased down and eliminated.
COVER CROPS – Yup! I’m talking about weeds. Really more like plants that we see as weeds and chickens see as a smorgasbord of yummy greens and flowers. If you strategically plant things like Comfrey, Clover, Nettle and of course Chickweed around your garden, your chickens will gravitate to those plants instead of wiping out your strawberry patch. The best thing about these plants is that they provide the exact nutrients your chickens crave and need.
GARDEN VEGGIES – It is a simple concept. But it is dang hard to let happen. A free range chicken IS going to partake of all the yummy vegetables growing in your garden. After all, a chicken has to do what a chicken has to do! But there are a few things you can do to mitigate the damage they inflict on your main food crops. One of the biggest things you can do is to plant extra. If you have planted a perimeter of cover crops around the garden (especially on the end of the garden that the little cluckers will hit first) then this little bit extra ‘for the chickens’ should be enough to keep them satisfied. Not to mention that one of the cutest things I have ever seen is watching my chickens jump up to reach the beans I planted especially for them!
CALCIUM – This is a BIG deal! It takes a lot of calcium for a hen to crank out nice, strong shelled eggs. She simply must have the extra calcium left over to keep her own structure strong. Luckily, it relatively easy to supply all she needs naturally. Those weeds we were talking about earlier? They have tons of calcium. No oyster shells needed, especially in the summer months.
I could go on forever about my feathered flock. Certainly they are not just food. They are an integral part of this homestead and it’s constant evolution toward a self-sustaining eco culture. They are a true pleasure to care for in a natural way. And it is wonderful to only have to run to the chicken palace instead of driving all the way to town when I run out of eggs! Please comment or leave questions below. I always love hearing your best chicken stories as well. Also stay tuned…next time I will show you how to feed your chickens on the cheap in the wintertime!