Several years ago, Mother Earth News published an article with the results of nutritional analysis done on the eggs from true grass-fed, pasture-raised chickens compared to store bought eggs. Read the whole article HERE.
The results showed that chickens allowed to roam freely and eat grass and bugs lay more nutritious eggs that contain 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more Vitamin A, two times the omega-3s, three times the Vitamin E and a whopping SEVEN times the beta carotene of store bought eggs!
While I would love to let my chickens roam our six acres foraging for food all day, if I did soon we wouldn't have any chickens left. There are just too many predators to allow that, so they are confined to a large run all day with plenty of feed, clean water, sun, shade and spots to take dust baths. However, there hasn't been a single blade of grass in the run since the week after the chickens were introduced to it nearly five years ago.
I give our chickens healthy treats, mostly kitchen leftovers or garden trimmings, and cut herbs. But with food prices rising and a ever-growing flock of hens and ducks, its just not economical to purchase commercial treats or produce at the grocery store for them very often.
With the cost of chicken feed going up also, I started wondering if there were any way I could simulate a little free ranging for our chickens inside the run, while saving some money and also resulting in more nutritious output from them (eggs!).
So I did a bit more reading. Eggs laid by chickens who consume grass have a better hatch rate. The eggs have darker yolks and literally taste better.
Grass can actually provide one-quarter of a hen's overall daily nutritional requirements and fulfill ALL of her protein needs in the form of amino acids that are converted to protein in the body as well as nitrogen molecules from the soil. Ryegrass, for example, has a 12-16% protein content.
Grass also provides Vitamins C and E, magnesium, iron and phosphorus.
Typically, grass has 33 calories per 100 grams (roughly 4 calories per ounce) and 3.3 grams of carbs, 2.2 grams of protein and a whopping 4.6 grams of fiber. And therein lies the one downside to grass - the fibrous consistency. The long fibrous strands can get stuck in chickens' crops and lead to sour crop or impacted crop. Read more about both potentially fatal conditions HERE.
But I was sold on the benefits of grass-fed chickens. So I started cutting grass every day to feed to our flock. The keys to hand-feeding grass are:
- Never feed grass that has been treated with fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides
- Cut grass strands into very small pieces shorter than 1"
- Try to cut very young tender blades instead of thicker, rougher blades of grass
Did you know that free ranging chickens rarely suffer impacted crops? That's because they nibble a tiny bit of the grass off the end of each blade. So grass needs to be fed straight from the ground, or cut into short pieces. Never grab a handful of grass and toss it into the run. You are just asking for trouble.
I have been cutting and feeding the grass to our flock for a few weeks now, bucketfuls at a time. I toss it on the ground for the chickens and into a tub of water for the ducks.
And lo and behold, they are eating less feed. They still need access to layer feed, as well as a calcium supplement (either crushed oyster- or egg-shell), but they eat noticeably less feed. In addition to providing a super healthy food source for them, I am cutting back on our feed bills as well.
'Green' treats can be fed in unlimited amounts to your chickens, so go ahead and liberally cut grass and weeds for your chickens, every day if you want to, as much as they will eat. They won't get fat. Weeds are also a very nutritious food source. Read more HERE. Here in Virginia, we pretty much have grass year round and also some nice winter weeds.
In the coming weeks and months as food prices are expected to rise, I know I can depend on a FREE nutritious supplemental food source for our chickens.