One of those things that you get used to when having a backyard chicken flock is trying to come up with ways to improve the nutrition they get without increasing your actual feed costs. It is the nature of livestock in general that what they it will directly affect what you eat.
Raising your own chickens, as my wife does, means a remarkable amount of control over where you are in the food chain. Particularly in quality of both taste and nutrition.
There is also the ethics / moral issue; you know the animal has lived well. Factory-farm animals do not live well.
When we purchased the home that we’ve got now, the place had been empty for around 18 months, spanning two summers. That meant that little was done with the 1.2-ish acres of lawn. Naturally, in absence of chemical and mechanical controls, “weeds” moved in.
This has turned out to be a very good thing. Beyond two types of “standard lawn grass”, our “mow zone” contains dandelions(1, see Linkliography below), wild carrot(2, see Linkliography below), wild rosemary(3, see Linkliography below), wild thyme(4), timothy hay(5), clover(6) and broadleaf plantain(7). My guess is that the lawn is about 2/3 grass and 1/3 weedstock.
By conventional wisdom, this is a nightmare. This lawn needs to be seriously reworked with a lot of time and money. However, in our eyes, it’s a green bounty.
My wife routinely goes and pulls up a bucketfuls of weedstock to toss into the two chicken runs as treats. The birds absolutely love the stuff. They play in it, they toss it around, they devour piles of the stuff and generally have a great time at the buffet. My wife calls it “chicken salad”.
With 0.5 hectares / 1.2-ish acres of mow-zone to deal with, we have a small lawn tractor with a 1.2 m / 48″ cutting swath and a side discharge. Recently, when I was mowing the lawn, I noticed my neighbour on his lawn tractor towing a “lawn sweeper”(8) behind his. Essentially, its the same concept as a combine-harvester, in which the blades counter-rotate to the direction it is towed. The blades themselves are replaced with stiff bristled nylon brooms. These pick the grass, leaves, twigs, etc up and toss it into a 0.5 cubic meter nylon bag directly behind the spinning harvester bristles. I walked over and chatted with my neighbour about it, and arranged to borrow it from him for a couple of hours.
What a great little piece of kit this is when you have a mow-zone like ours. I estimate it was averaging above 95% pick-up on tall damp grass per pass. While in theory you can put 0.5 m3 / 17 ft cu into the bag, in practice it’s getting heavy at about 1/3 that level. So, while running this thing around the front yard alone, I harvested about 0.5 m3 / 17 ft cu total of “chicken salad”.
That’s a big enough pile to need a pitch fork to move easily, for perspective. It was likely about 23 kilograms / 50 pounds, total. That works out to probably in the vicinity of 7 kg / 15 lbs of excellent nutritional suppliment for “free”. That’s pretty much a bonanza for both the egg-layers and the meat birds.
Even the “standard lawn grass” is good for the chicken run, since it keeps the run itself from turning into a mud pit if it rains. As the grass and other greens compost down, it gives the soil bacteria that deal with the chicken manure an excellent environment to thrive in. Potentially, next year the top soil in the run itself will get shaved down 30mm and used as topsoil for the garden, which will move all that excellent stack of nutrients and minerals into the food production chain.
We pretty much have to mow the whole lawn once a week or it starts looking like a weed bed instead of a nice green lawn. That’s impolite to our neighbours. So what that means is that we could likely be harvesting 12 to 15kg / 26 to 33 lbs of feed suppliment for the chickens every time we mow. That’s a significant input.
Now, clearly, our situation is a bit unique. We’ve got 0.5 hectares / 1.2 acres of mow-zone. Most folks with a backyard flock don’t have that blessing / curse. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in purchasing a bag of red and white clover mixture and seeding your backyard with it. Or not considering the dandelions in your backyard a scourge upon the earth. Mow ’em and rake ’em. That’s salad for chickens, no matter what the scale.
Have you ever made dandelion wine? My father read “Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury to me once…what a great book. As soon as the dandelions covered our Maine yard that year, we made some wine with the dandelions and blood oranges, and I was so happy when I was allowed to have one sip. Lots of love and great memories filled that bottle.
It’s actually something my wife is working towards doing. She’s being patiently collecting dandelion petals for a little while now. The good news is that they freeze just fine for this sort of application … so, hopefully we’ll set a batch down this fall. I’ll let you know how it works!