Chickens – Nature’s Compost Piles
Now that Spring is here, everything has begun to bloom. If you have allergies, you probably noticed this already. My wife and I usually get excited when the weather finally gets nice, go outside, and get so thoroughly attacked by mosquitoes that we wonder why we ever leave the house. But with a little homemade insect repellent (witch hazel and lemon eucalyptus oil) it gets better, and so I can sit outside and take in all of Nature’s glory. For better or for worse, Nature’s glory contains weeds. It used to be that I would just mow them, or ignore them altogether. I don’t take pride in having a pristine lawn, and mowing the lawn actually tends to fill me with existential dread. Oddly enough, weeding doesn’t bother me as much. I actually kind of like it, even though it’s very time consuming. I’ve heard that the hand motions used in weeding are hard wired to some sort of evolutionary rewards center, which is why gardening is so enjoyable. It gets us in touch with our inner chimp. Just keep the dung throwing to a minimum, please.
Aside from any sorts of feelings of getting back in touch with our primacy, weeding is also a good way to supplement your chickens’ diet. We actually get so many weeds that we even have too many for the chickens. Luckily, we also have a compost heap for the overload. I found when they were baby chicks that they loved dandelion greens, but those seem to be pretty popular across many species, save for the homo perfectlawnicus. I’d pull them out, rip them into tiny pieces, and watch those goobers go nuts for greens. It also helps give them variety in their diet, which improves egg flavor. Everyone wins. I’ve read that if you pick the weeds and give them to the chickens, rather than letting the chickens pick the weeds on their own, there is some risk of the weed getting stuck in the chickens’ crops. The crop is where they store their food right after eating, before it heads to the stomach. If things aren’t torn into pieces, there may be a bit of a digestive traffic jam. Like people, you need to take sensible bites. What I usually do is either toss a pile into the run, where they rip them to shreds in a frenzy, or I poke them through the hardware cloth, and again, in the competition for the weeds, they rip them into smaller chunks. The chickens don’t seem so interested in eating the weeds on their own, so I have to do the work of pulling them out, and then do what I can to insure clear crops.
Weeds aren’t the only plants chickens like to eat. I have heard chickens referred to as “living compost piles,” as they’ll eat all sorts of vegetable scraps. I prefer to call them “Nature’s compost piles,” since that doesn’t really make any sense, and that’s how I roll. But when the farmer’s markets start opening and I find myself buying more kale than I can handle, it’s nice to know I can give the extra to the chickens as a treat. We’re growing our own kale this year, so I suspect even more excess than usual may find its way into the run. Most vegetable scraps can be fed to chickens as long as they’re raw and oil free. There are a few that are off-limits, so it’s not a bad idea to check online to be sure something is o.k. before tossing it into chicken town. Green potato peels can be bad, as well as the leaves of tomato plants. The list goes on, so be safe, rather than sorry. (Here’s a good list of acceptable treats and things to avoid.)
I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t tell you the one crop chickens excel at eating. As you know, every summer our nation squirms in the grip of what has come to be known as “The Zucchini Problem.” Our gardens, homes, and workplaces sag under the weight of this most prolific of green beasts, and friendships can be strained by being overly generous in an attempt to be free of the surplus. My friends, the chicken is here to help. Last summer, my coworker brought in a crop of zucchinis that were the size of human legs. I brought one home out of politeness, but had absolutely no idea what I would do with it, save for possibly beating an intruder to death. I thought to myself, “well, maybe I’ll cut a hunk off and give it to the chickens.” You may have heard stories about piranhas skeletonizing a cow in seconds. I can assure you that in this part of the world, the chicken is the piranha and the zucchini is the cow. Chickens will skeletonize a zucchini in record time, and act as though they want more, even if it was a small green blimp like the one I had. We do need to be cautious of overfeeding, so let’s not go nuts with our extra veggies. Think of them as treats, and we’re all set. But woe be to the inexperienced zucchini who innocently wanders into the chicken run.