Organic Poultry in a Food Forest Garden - Free Food - Forage Part 1 Grass

For centuries both farmers and smallholders/homesteaders alike raised poultry on a forage-based diet supplemented only by a handful of grain and the occasional table scraps. This meant that rather than feed their fowls, farmers expected poultry to find their own food. This is something very dear to my heart as having observed our own flocks, I am convinced that they know more about their optimum nutrition then we ever will.

Farming during World War 2
Our farm during WWII with Landgirls feeding table scraps

At the onset of the the 20th century with the increase in the size and density of commercial poultry flocks and the resultant decrease in space available per bird, poultry diets followed that of the captive urban human population and changed to an almost exclusively grain-based one. It was due to the success of the commercialisation of this ready-made feed that many smallholders and homesteaders followed suit, even though their own flock density did not warrant this. It is only in the last few decades that we have rediscovered the necessity for forage, not only as a highly nutritious and optimum foodstuff for birds but also in its role in providing roughage for both digestion and the maintenance of healthy gut flora. As with humans, my tenet is that good nutrition is crucial for the function of the immune system and thus the prevention of disease. In fact recent medical research has shown that there is a direct link between the gut microbes, the brain and the immune system.

How Hens Forage

It is extremely interesting to observe my poultry when put out into an open space, such as a field, to forage, which was something offered to me by a neighbour with an unused meadow. With one or two exceptions they were very unhappy on the occasions we tried it. This is supported by much anecdotal and academic research, showing that in a strip grazing or chicken tractor system, birds prefer to forage near to the chicken coop or hen house, where they feel safer and out of range of predators. For my hens the situation is more acute, as they are used to a forest environment. When I free-range my quail out in the meadow, I need to leave an area of long grass, in which they can run and hide and/or forage in peace.

Making hay the traditional way by hand

The length of grass is also important from the point of view of both nutrition and choice, it should be short and juicy. As with cattle, the optimum nutrition from grasses is before they go to seed, thus in the early months of the year. There is of course also the secondary but equally important nutritional value from pasture, in particular in an old-fashioned meadow, in that it provides a home to a whole host of invertebrates. I find it interesting, given the synergy between many of  the micronutrients, that grass provides most of the fat soluble vitamins and some of the water soluble ones and invertebrates the remaining water soluble ones. So with the exception of vitamin D3, which they will get whilst roaming about in the sunlight, pasture provides poultry with the ultimate 'free' meal.

Feeding grass to poultry

There is also the question of when hens forage and it is true that whenever I bring in the cut grass, it very much depends on the time of day as to whether my hens begin to eat at once or, whether they just lie about on this nice soft carpet of greenery. Several studies I have read reveal that hens prefer to consume grass and greenery either in the early morning or in the few hours prior to going to roost. The latter, it is believed,  gives them the optimum length of time in which to digest the plant material. As the stalks and woody parts of the stems are used both to create bacteria for optimum gut flora and control digestion, this seems logical. 

Feeding forage to organic poultry in the morning

Hybrid versus Heritage versus Types of Poultry

Farming in England in the 30s and 40sMost people who raise geese and ducks on pasture are aware not only that this is one of the most healthy ways to raise birds but as we are what we eat, that these are also two of  the healthiest forms of meat. Geese in particular can get virtually all their nutritional requirements from grazing. With chickens however, there seems to be distinct differences in conversion rates of nutrition from forage between both breed and sexes. Studies I have looked at show the heritage hens coming out on top of the charts and with hybrid cockerels at the bottom. The greatest of all poultry foragers to my mind is the turkey and a bird I would love to keep, not only out of nostalgia (as seen here with my Grandma and Great Aunt) but also because I find them fascinating. 

Nutritional Value of Forage

One of the main reasons for feeding forage is that it has always been known to have a high level of both vitamins and minerals.

Fat soluble vitamins - A, E and K
Water soluble vitamins B2, B5, B6, B7 B9 and C
Water soluble vitamins in invertebrates (found in forage) - B1, B3 and B12

Minerals - as already expressed above, forage is mineral-rich, including bioavailable forms of calcium.

Protein - One of the greatest deficiencies in grain-fed birds is that of the amino acid methionine - a personal favourite of mine and one, which if deficient will cause a whole host of physical, nervous system and behavioural problems. My years of keeping quail have taught me the necessity of this protein and how it is actually craved by quail and chickens alike. The protein level in forage changes with type, thus the higher the levels of clovers and other legumes, the higher the amount of amino acids. However, wild invertebrates are methionine-rich and thus even legume-poor forage can provide these in abundance. If you are intending to grow your own forage then you might want to research this even further as there are differences even between the types of clovers, for example and their value in and digestibility of, three of the most important amino acids Lysine, Methionine and Cystine.

Fats - Omega-3, a fatty acid important for immune system support and thus the prevention of disease

Organic Pigments - Carotenoids, these are free-radical scavengers, which give protection from diseases such as cancer and are also, like beta carotene, important for the overall health of the eyes.

Digestible Fibre - an excellent foodstuff for beneficial gut bacteria, furthermore as the fibre ferments it lowers the pH and is believed to create a difficult environment for certain pathogens.

Indigestible Fibre - Helps in the absorption of water, particularly in the large intestine  and also aids the bird to control the digestive process by slowing down the passage of foodstuffs.

Mother hen and two Polish chicks

In conclusion 

Organic chickens and the importance of forage
Bringing grass in to a forest garden would seem to give my hens the best of both worlds. It gives them a safe environment in which to consume forage and as it is mown, it is at optimum length. Coming from a meadow rather than a lawn it has a good mix of grasses, legumes and wild flowering plants and it will also contain a certain amount of invertebrate life. This however, will be minimal in relation to the amount of woodlice, earwigs etc, which will be drawn to and proliferate in the remaining 'mulch' as it dries out. The grass also provides a soft and relaxing bed on which to stretch out in the sun. However, we spread an equal amount of the clippings under the bushes and shrubs, where it will remain green until such times of the day the chickens are ready to consume it. This way, kept in the shade it also remains fresher and greener for longer.

Warning - Always make certain that if you obtaining forage from source other than your own land, that it is organically raised and within the letter and the spirit of that adverb. Also be careful if you are introducing a hen to cut grass, who has never had access to vegetation before, i.e. an ex batt, as she may stuff herself silly with it because she is so happy to get some real food at last!

...and now, if you'd like to, sit back and watch the film:

Organic hens and gardening
Thanks for dropping by and if you have enjoyed this piece and found it useful think about sharing it and also maybe about joining this blog. Please also feel free to ask questions or make comments in the section below.

All the very best,


Feeding chickweed to hens

Food for Free. Fabulous Forage Part 2 Chickweed

Stellaria media an incredible food and medicinal for poultry, an in-depth look at this ubiquitous more
Tree fodder - leaves as food for organic poultry

Food for Free. Fabulous Forage Part 3 Tree Fodder & Tree Hay

The idea of tree fodder is inextricably linked with the changing landscape, the full domestication of animals, the concept of farming and the clearance of the forests... read more
Growing roses in a forest garden to feed poultry 

Food for Free. Fabulous Forage Part 4 Roses for Food & Forest

For me the rose is the quintessential forest garden plant, from canopy to ground cover there are so many to choose from ... read more

Food for Free. Fabulous Forage Part 5 Rose Petals

One of the main roses I use for both cooking, medicinals and which my hens very much enjoy is, not surprisingly, rosa gallica Officinalis, or The Apothecary Rose... read more

©  Sue Cross 2015


  1. Very useful. Thanks for all your hard work

    1. Hi there, I was just going through my blog to back up everything on external memory (Christmas present) and I noticed I had not replied to your kind comments. I am really sorry about this but it does not mean I haven't read and appreciated it! All the very best from a very stormy night in Normandie, Sue

  2. Absolutely great! Thank you for sharing your wealth of information. I started my backyard flock and your page has been my inspiration and resource. My chickens forage in about an acre of grass and weeds, there are three peach trees, two pear trees, and three native Pawpaw fruit trees. I still feel as if my yard is bare. I am taking note of some of the plants you have, the roses are a great idea for the " woodwork". Thank you again for sharing. Javier Amador, Hillsborough, North Carolina.

    1. Hi Javier and thanks for your comments. I am so happy to have been of help and that you have been inspired too! We started off here with a bare field and an area of orchard but the roses really made a great deal of difference and very quickly. Of course we have a lot of water here, Normandie is known for its rain and roses love that, plus we have a heavy clay soil which helps. The great thing also about roses and I am about to write this up, is that they are an excellent food plant, both for us, the birds and the wild life in the garden. Chickens eat the fallen petals and sometimes the leaves but this year they actually started eating the hips when they were very ripe and fell in the Winter storms. There is a interesting definition of forest gardens and the difference between them and orchards is that with the latter people are always commenting that you have planted too much and too close together but with forest gardens they complain you haven't planted enough and it is all too far apart! I think it is a good idea to take time to chose exactly what you want and using native fruit trees is a great start. The doyenne of English gardening, Gertrude Jekyll wrote that creating a wilderness (forest garden) and having it look natural is quite an achievement, as it is so much easier to make a formal one! All the very best and hope you will write about and/or film your project, I look forward to it. All the very best, Sue

  3. You are adorable, Sue. Thanks so much for your thoughts and findings on your journey. I am preparing for my own, very soon. Cheers from Canada.

    1. Aaww thank-you for your kind comments and you are very welcome. I wish you all the very best for the future, from way across the ocean in Normandie, La Baie de Mont Saint Michel, Sue