Forest Garden Poultry - Organic Feed for Free, Forage - An Overview Part 1

If you are setting up a forest garden and intending to run your poultry through it, then you are probably going to be short of certain wild 'pasture-type' elements in their diet. I've already looked at bringing in grass, not only as a great source of nutrient and essential dietary fibre but also, as an additional resource, the uneaten greenery aids in the creation of the forest floor layer. This will in turn engender a suitable environment for invertebrates and foster the emergence of weed seeds.

Black-laced gold Polish hen in the meadow

Feeding foraging poultry c1940On small farms raising poultry was often the preserve of the farmer's wife and 'egg money' went directly to fund the household budget. There was very little cost involved in keeping fowls as they were on what could be classed as a hen 'paleo' diet with table scraps, vegetables and some soaked or sprouted grains fed as the additional feed. With a small flock and a relatively large acreage, this feed was often only used as an enticement to get the birds into the coop in the evening and away from the fox. Organically raised poultry maybe today's recherché foodstuff but up until the First World War, all small farm country
Raising poultry on a farm c 1930
-bred birds were kept this way. There was also a symbiotic arrangement in that the cattle kept on a farm would graze the grass to a level useful for the foraging poultry to find insects and other invertebrates. Old pasture also had a mixture of plants, with differing nutrients, there were also edible wild flowers and seeds and hedges providing further rich veins of nutrient. Once the hedges were grubbed out to make way for modern machinery that ecosystem vanished too.

In the handbook,  Practical Poultry Management written by James E. Rice and Harold E. Botsford, pastured 'green food' was already being referred to  as an additional foodstuff, in much the same way as organic food, once the only sort of farmed food available was/is relegated in mainstream supermarkets to the 'diet' or 'health food' section. In the 1947 edition of their book, the authors wrote this of green food:

'It is rich in vitamins and should supply any that are lacking in the other ration ingredients. In this sense it is a protective feed. A lack of it is often a cause of ill-health and low production. It acts as a tonic, stimulating the appetite and also aids the digestive tract in functioning properly securing for the bird a larger utilisation of the feed consumed.' 

Poultry bantam chicks foraging in a forest garden
It is interesting to note that although poultry had been pastured for centuries and the above book was first published in 1925, it would not be until a decade later or more from this date, that some of these vitamins would finally be identified and that one of the consequences of their having been so, was to usher in a packaged food for hens in the way of layer pellets.

poultry feed sack 19th century
The ability to analyse the nutrients; vitamins, minerals and amino acids, bioflavenoids etc.,. contained within the forage the bird selected for its diet, would eventually permit the rise of the synthetic vitamin, farm-cultivated protein, industrial minerals and feed additive enzymes. This in turn would enable the chicken to be removed from pasture onto deep litter and finally to be shut away completely severed from the land in the battery or broiler house. Intensive poultry production would also allow for the CAFO system to be self-perpetuating with skimmed milk, blood, bone and feathers becoming a major part of poultry food protein, vitamin and mineral content. In the U.K., for example and within a few short years of the World Wars poultry had gone from a peripheral farming exercise to one of intensive 'monoculture'. Even the linguistics had changed from Poultry 'Husbandry' to Poultry 'Science' and the Poultry 'Industry'. The idea of a bird foraging in a meadow for the whole or even a major part of its diet was out, now man would dictate what it was to eat. For most part too it would be the end of the meadow, hedges and pastured cattle, with vast fields of monocrop cereals, wheat, corn and in the U.S. ubiquitous soya, which was to become the next major alien ingredient to the poultry diet

The concept of using the products from 'rendering', however, was nothing new. The image of the feed bag above is reputed to come from a poultry breeder directory from 1891.

Organic chickens eating chickweed
The idea of a food forest to me is not only to supply food for us but also to provide a return to as near as possible free-range foraging for our birds. Within the walls and hedges of our garden, there are several levels of potential foodstuffs from the floor, the sub canopy and the canopy itself. However, due to the actual size of our forest (1000m²) I am very much aware that green foods need to be brought in. To this end, we have over the years established various contacts which have allowed us to make up this shortfall. This includes 'harvesting' green-stuff from neighbouring gardens and fields.

Most people when they think about forage and free food will be thinking about the economic angle and of cutting feed bills but this is only part of the equation. At one of the organic farm open days we went to some years back, the main interest expressed by the conventional farmers, was in the minimal cost of veterinary bills per farm animal. The words of Hippocrates, of food and medicine being interchangeable should perhaps be taken to mean that food and medicine are one and the same because what good nourishing food does is prevent the necessity for ever needing the other. Green food such as chickweed, stellaria media is a medicinal herb, presently being trialled for all kinds of conditions and diseases but the chicken knows it as food. From observation, my birds also know not to over consume it, nor any other food item I present them with, which I find fascinating. That is of course unless there are special circumstances which I will discuss in the following article.

If you have enjoyed this blog and found it interesting then please think about subscribing, sharing it and/or commenting. Please also feel free to ask questions. 

All the very best,


Providing Forage for Organic Poultry Part 2

Continuing an in-depth look into forage and discussing the what, when, where from and more


Food for Free. Fabulous Forage Part 1 Grass

For centuries farmers and homesteaders raised poultry on a forage-based diet supplemented only by a handful of grain and the occasional table more
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 2016


  1. Wow!
    You have so much information and this has been a great read for me. I am looking into providing a more efficient "forage yard" for my poultry, I always knew that chickweed was special when my quail would eat it faster than the mealworms I provided them! Thanks for posting these great articles!

    1. Hi Erin and thank-you for your lovely comments, most appreciated! I have 7 articles on forage on here and I have a lot more material, both photographed and filmed, so more to come. Do think about roses, particularly the ramblers and scramblers and tree fodder because these are obviously vertical growth so give an added forage space. It's a goal for me to get my birds off cultivated grain, albeit sprouted and back on a 'paleo' diet but at the moment I have limited space but am hoping to change that this year. I'm also raising organic mealworms and will be writing that up too. There is a film already up on my YouTube channel about our initial mealworm experiment but things have moved on since then and now with the help of Andy's pallet wood mealworm boxes, we now have quite a sizeable population. Once again thanks for taking the time to comment and please feel free to share anything on here that might be of use to others. All the very best from Normandie, Sue

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