You'll read elsewhere on the internet that chickens should never be given lentils. That's inaccurate.
Chickens should never be given dried lentils. That's different.
As long as they're properly prepared, lentils are not only safe for your flock, they're low in fat and an excellent source of protein, potassium and antioxidants.
This article covers the scientifically proven facts about poultry and lentils with a description of why they're good for chickens.
There's also a poultry-friendly recipe based on the traditional Italian "cotechino con lenticchie" – pork sausage with lentils – eaten as a dinner on New Year's Eve to bring a prosperous year ahead. And there's a vegetarian version for anyone not able to face cooking sausage...
Full of goodness which will help your chickens through cold, wet months, it can be offered to your flock as an occasional treat at any point during the winter.
Remember though: any treat should be viewed as just that – a treat to be given occasionally, not a substitute for a nutritionally balanced feed.
A member of the legume family, lentils have been part of the human and animal diet for centuries.
Inexpensive and nutritious, they were considered "poor man's meat" and in Catholic countries like Italy, when people couldn't afford to eat fish on a Friday (and meat was forbidden), lentils were a regular substitute.
The most common you'll find in shops are the dried, flat, brown lentils. They retain their shape well and have quite a coarse texture.
Green lentils also keep their shape and are more peppery in flavour. Red and yellow are sweeter; they tend to cook to more of a mash so they're best used in soups.
Low in fat and sodium, high in protein, they're now considered a "superfood". Rated second only to soy beans in the amount of protein they supply(2), they're an excellent source of...
In humans, studies have shown that the antioxidants present in lentils can help reduce the chance of diseases such as obesity, diabetes, some cancers and heart-related disease such as high cholesterol levels(1).
But chickens are not humans. So what does research say about the effect of lentils on chickens?
There weren't many studies on the impact of feeding lentils to chickens until fairly recently.
The need to find natural ways of adding protein and antioxidants to poultry diets has now become more pressing, fuelled by a public tired of food being chemically treated and pumped full of antibiotics.
All in all, then, studies show the introduction of lentils into a chicken's diet is a natural way of promoting good health.
Lentils are a common crop in the Mediterranean, Asia, and cooler parts of North America.
In central Italy, the plains of Castelluccio di Norcia are a popular destination for a few short weeks in summer, because of their amazing summer show of lentil fields.
Planted alongside poppies and cornflowers, the patchwork of colours is well worth a visit.
The dried lentils you'll find easily in supermarkets (always try to buy organic and GM free) are the seeds of the lentil bush.
Planted inside or out, they will grow in stages to sprouts, microgreens and finally bushes with slender, not particularly striking vine-like stems.
The plants grow to between 30 and 50 centimetres (12 and 20 inches) before they begin flowering. Pretty white flowers are followed by tiny pods, usually no bigger than a couple of centimetres (half an inch) long.
Inside each pod are just two or three lentil seeds.
Of course it's possible to grow your own. The question is: why bother, since lentils are so readily and inexpensively available in supermarkets?
Well, they're a relatively easy crop and they do add nitrogen back into the ground, which makes them environmentally very beneficial.
They can be grown inside by simply soaking the seeds for 24 hours before planting into seed-compost filled trays, covering with another layer of compost, watering and leaving.
Lentil sprouts will grow within three to four days. They are packed with protein at this stage and can be fed to chickens as a good source of healthy greens in the winter months.
For an even easier method of growing lentil sprouts, see my detailed article, here.
If growing outside, plant at one inch deep and one inch apart in well-drained soil, in an area of full sun about three weeks before the last frost date.
If you're growing them inside, once you see the pale-coloured sprouts appearing, cover them with more compost and keep watered.
The shoots that appear after a few more days are microgreens. They're quite bitter, so not as good for eating now.
Plant them out and leave them to grow into the bush.
As the plants grow, it can help to use trellises to support them. They will keep a good air flow between the plants which helps lessen the possibility of disease or pests.
As you notice pods growing, watch for the bottom pods turning hard and brown. Stop watering now and allow the rest of the pods to develop.
Once all the pods are brown, harvest and shell them, keeping the lentil seeds in an airtight container. They will last for about a year.
Lentils have been a sign of prosperity in Italy since Ancient Roman times. Cooked with cotechino sausage, they form a traditional New Year's Eve recipe here in the Marche region.
Eating the round, coin-shaped lentils and the sausage cut into round "coins" ensures prosperity for the forthcoming year. Apparently.
I generally take the classic recipe, given to me by a friend and based on her family's generations old method, and make it more chicken friendly by basically leaving out salt and onions, and lessening the amount of garlic.
These ingredients are plenty for a flock of ten chickens. Traditionally this is an incredibly simple recipe with few ingredients.
Traditional cotechino is hard to get hold of outside Italy, so this recipe uses thick, good quality pork sausages instead.
Not sure whether chickens eat meat?
If you've ever seen a chicken chase an earthworm or even a mouse, you'll know that chickens are not vegetarian! They love meat.
However, sausages – like most processed foods – are high in salt. Feed only very, very occasionally, and try to buy organic sausages without added sodium. Salt is not good for chickens.
Alternatively, use (if possible) unsalted mozzarella cheese cut into rounds. Even the salted version has a very low sodium content.
Or serve the lentils by themselves.
If you don't want to add garlic, just leave it out. However, garlic is excellent for chicken health and in these quantities will not make your eggs taste!
A lot of "facts" you'll find on the internet are often people's individual views, based on inaccurate information repeated from poor quality sources.
The information I provide in this article and others is based not just on my own experience, but on evidenced facts from scientific, peer-reviewed research and books from highly respected and experienced poultry keepers such as Gail Damerow.
Some of the trusted sources I have used in this article are these.
1. Ganesan, K, and Xu, B: Polyphenol-Rich Lentils and their Health Promoting Effects. Pub. International Journal of Molecular Science, 2017.
2. Ware, M: What are the benefits of lentils? Pub. Medical News Today, 2019.
3. Cabuk, M et al: Effects of Dietary Inclusion of Lentil Byproduct on Performance and Oxidative Stability of Eggs in Laying Quail. Pub. Scientific World Journal, 2014.
4. Ciurescu, G et al: Effects of dietary lentil seeds inclusion on performance, carcass characteristics and cecal pH of broiler chickens. Pub. Indian Journal of Animal Sciences, 2017.
5. Surai, Peter: Antioxidants in Poultry Nutrition and Reproduction: an Update. Pub. Journal of Antioxidants, 2020.