Pastured Poultry Nutrition and Forages: Summary and References

This publication explores the important role that forages play in pastured poultry production for either meat or egg production. Research on the effects of raising poultry on pasture has increased greatly in recent times, with an ever-growing body of scientific work. Special attention to the nutritional benefits of poultry foraging on pasture: regarding is paid to both the birds’ health and the impact that forages have on the nutritional and flavour qualities of the meat and eggs. By Terrell Spencer, Agriculture Specialist with the US National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT).
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Introduction: Forage’s Historical Role in Poultry Rations

Raising poultry on pasture is a time-established method of farming quality chickens, turkeys, waterfowl, and other poultry. Historically, before the maturation of poultry nutritional science and the widespread availability of balanced rations, forages were an important component of poultry diets. Access to vegetation was a way of providing a multitude of critical vitamins and minerals, many unknown until the middle of the 20th century, to meet a flock’s nutritional needs.

The importance of the vegetation that poultry consumed while on pasture can be seen in the following excerpt from a 1930 poultry-production textbook: “At all times of the year, an abundance of green feed is necessary. A lack of it is often a cause of ill health and low production. It acts as a tonic in functioning properly, securing for the bird a larger utilization of the feed consumed. The principal value, therefore, is in maintenance of health. The importance of abundance, as well as a variety, of green feed is seldom fully realized.” (Rice and Botsford, 1930)

For hundreds of years, small farm flocks were allowed to roam and scavenge most of their diet from a farm’s pastures, barnyards, orchards and fields, with occasional supplementation from scratch grains and table and garden scraps. The leaves and seeds the birds ingested, as well as the insects that were quickly gobbled up (often full of freshly consumed plant matter), helped balance out any of the unknown deficiencies in the feed ration. Indeed, before the middle of the 20th century, forages were the only reliable source for necessary nutrients like vitamin A, critical in preventing devastating diseases.

As poultry farms grew larger as the 20th century progressed, the ways that farmers incorporated greens into the diets of their birds were as varied as the farmers themselves. Many farmers would let their flocks freely graze around the colony houses/coops where the hens lived and laid their eggs.

Where climate, space, and economics allowed, other farmers would plant grains such as barley, oats or winter wheat for the birds to graze while the grains were young and still appetising. This practice was especially helpful in the winter, when few other forages were present. Similarly, some farmers managed poultry-friendly pastures - filled with ryegrass, clovers or other highly palatable forages - for laying flocks. By midsummer, when the flocks had consumed most of the available forages and the invertebrate populations become scarce, greens or fodder crops would be supplied from a truck patch or even garden pickings.

On many farms, greens - primarily kale - were grown specifically to harvest as poultry feed. Reviewing old poultry accounts, one variety of kale is frequently referenced: 1,000-headed kale. This kale was prized by many poultry farmers over other greens due to its prolific and hardy nature. Plants could easily approach six feet tall, and the large leaves were harvested as needed in a “cut and come again” fashion.

Lavelle Donovan, who grew up on a poultry farm in California in the 1920s, recalls: “Chicken greens were kale or a low vine called rape which was cut with a scythe. I can still see my father in the kale patch. He'd pick a kale leaf and tuck it under his arm until he collected a bunch. Then he'd put the bunch in a burlap bag he dragged along tied to his waist. Then he chopped up the leaves with the kale cutter in the barn.” (Lowry, 1993)

The larger and more confinement-based the farm, the more greens were needed. The largest farms grew at least a couple of acres of kale and other greens, usually transplanted by hand, for their poultry rations.

Other farmers used different strategies to get greens into their flocks when forages became scarce.

Supplementing rations with green additions like alfalfa or grass meal - a strategy still well-advised today - was considered essential to provide sources of unidentified nutrients (Blair, 2008). Sprouted grains such as oats or wheat (see Appendix 1 – Oat Sprouter), or vegetables like kale and cabbage, were also fed to the flock at regular intervals.

Feeding rootstocks like mangels (a type of large beet for livestock) or carrots during the winter, along with winter-hardy greens, was a routine practice, providing a nutritional boost and also helping to reduce excessive pecking in flocks during the winter by keeping the hens preoccupied.

Chapters in Pastured Poultry Nutrition and Forages


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Appendix: : Sprouted Oats

Source: Practical Poultry Management by J. Rice and H. Botsford. 1930.

October 2013

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