What are weeds?
The definition of a weed is any plant that's not somewhere you want it to be. Some are invasive and need controlling, but many plants we've come to view as weeds are actually beneficial and nutritious.
An obvious is example are dandelions. Viewed as a pest when they appear in well-manicured lawns, they're full of nutritional value, loved by bees for their pollen, and can be used in salads, as a supplement to chicken feed - even in wine making!
Here, we look at six weeds which can add value to your flock's feed.
The chances are you have at least one of these weeds growing on or near your property.
All of them are stashed with vitamins and nutrients. And of course, unlike shop-bought vitamins and some other healthy treats, they're free for you to pick!
It's not hard to identify them. Most are common and easily recognisable. There are photos of every one in this article so you can be sure.
Harvest only from areas you know are free from pollutants, especially weed killer, and try to avoid those growing on busy roadsides where pollutants are airborne. Growing them in a patch of your own garden is the best solution, so you know for sure they're not contaminated.
Most are best fed fresh to your flock, so pick and process only the amount you're going to use within two or three days at most. Harvest when they're young and tender when easier for chickens to digest.
And always leave some. Weeds provide cover for insects, and pollinators like bees use many of them to produce the tastiest honey.
It's not called chickweed for nothing - chickens love this common garden weed!
A hardy annual plant which can survive the coldest winter, you'll find it spreading quickly from February onwards. It loves bare, damp ground, preferably where you've recently dug, and is especially fond of spaces under trees.
It doesn't like heat though, so in hot, dry areas it will quickly die back.
You can identify it through its prolific, small, heart-shaped leaves which tend to be larger at the top than the bottom of the plant.
It has tiny, white rosettes of flowers sitting on five open petals which blossom in the early spring.
Recognised by the Greeks and Romans as an early "super food" for its nutritional and medicinal value, chickweed is particularly high in minerals, particularly potassium, without which chickens will fail to thrive.
Got a baby chick in trouble? Try feeding a small amount of chickweed in your brooder.
It's also high in Vitamins A, B complex, and C, all of which are essential for normal growth. They're also an immune system boost.
Chickweed is also known to have high amounts of gamma-linoleic acid - better known as Omega 6(1). Omega 6, along with Omega 3, not only provides essential fatty acid for hen health, it adds nutritional benefit to their eggs which, in turn, improves our own and our family's health as we eat them(2).
Use it as a winter feed. Although it reseeds quickly so in cool climates is available all year round, you'll probably find your chickens love it in the winter but aren't so keen in summer, when there are so many other delicious berries and fruits available.
Simple. Pull some up by the roots and throw into the run, or hang a bunch and leave them to it. No need to chop or prepare it - they love it just as it comes.
You may read that chickweed contains oxalic acid, which can interfere with calcium absorption. That's true - but it only prevents calcium absorption from plants which themselves contain oxalic acid.
So if your flock is eating nothing but chickweed, you have a problem.
But if they're getting a balanced diet, and have calcium from other sources - oyster shell, for example - you have nothing to worry about.
As in everything, aim for balance and moderation.
Everyone knows the common nettle plant - most of us have been stung by one at some point in our lives! It's another hardy perennial, appearing as early as February and it grows more or less anywhere, although it ideally prefers a rich soil with plenty of nutrients.
They're an ideal plant for attracting wildlife to your garden. Butterflies use them as an important source of food, while ladybirds (ladybugs) hide in their foliage until they're mature enough to go out and eat all those aphids which would otherwise eat your plants.
Encourage a cluster of nettles in your garden as a wildlife corner and feed your chickens (and your family) at the same time.
It has characteristic heart-shaped leaf with serrated edges on a deep green stem. Both leaves and stem are hairy, and it's those tiny hairs or barbs which penetrate the skin and inject venom.
Always wear gloves when you're harvesting them!
Nettles, particularly in the form of nettle tea, have been used since Roman times (and probably before) as a cure for everything from gout to arthritis.
They're packed with nutrients, especially vitamins A and C and the B complex, and iron, potassium and magnesium, all of which are essential for normal growth, and excellent boosters for the immune system. Vitamin intake is increased by around 70% when nettles are used as a supplement to chicken feed.(3).
And importantly, the leaves contain a high level of protein, so they're excellent as a non-fatty, high protein treat for your hens when the need arises.
March and April are good months to harvest, when the plants are still young and tender. Some people feed them as is to their flock; I prefer to allow them to wilt, which takes the sting out, by simply leaving them in the sun after picking.
Other people like to boil them. Nutrients tend to leech out into the water when boiled though so, unless you're going to try your flock with nettle tea, feed nettles uncooked.
You can also freeze them in the spring when they're fresh for feeding later in the year. Blend in a food processor, put into freezer bags and throw into your freezer drawer.
By later spring, nettles will have grown massively - sometimes to 6 feet or more - and they'll start to produce flowers. The flowers quickly go to seed, and you'll then see clusters of seeds hanging from the stem.
As soon as you notice that the plant has started to flower, stop picking.
The plant at this point starts to produce calcium carbonate. And whilst calcium is a must for laying hens, it can be dangerous for chicks and chickens under 18 weeks old.
So feeding additional calcium as a treat is to be avoided. Just free feed oyster shell - your layers will instinctively take it while the rest of the flock can safely ignore it.
The purslane plant is one of those that you have probably seen in your garden but thought anything other than that it's a highly invasive weed.
But it has amazing benefits for both humans and chickens, making a great addition to family salads as well as to chicken food. It's one of my favourite weeds to cultivate for my flock.
Known also as red root or pursley (not parsley!), it's an annual plant which, if you don't already have, you can sow from seed as early as March and harvest a couple of months later. It grows best in a poor soil, and it can withstand drought so it's good for hot, sunny climes.
Its characteristic features are small, green, succulent leaves on a bright red stem which spread across the ground. In the summer it has yellow or pink flowers which open for just a short time, usually in the morning.
Listed by the World Health Organisation as one of the most used medicinal plants, purslane has been mentioned in ancient works as far back as 372 B.C. as a remedy for conditions ranging from sore throats to heart failure.
Low in fat, enriched with iron and high in vitamins B and C, a study specific to chickens demonstrated that including purslane in poultry diets saw eggs enriched with omega-3 oils(4).
And omega-3 in our diets is scientifically proven to have multiple health benefits, including raising good cholesterol levels, helping fight anxiety and depression and maintaining a healthy immune system(5).
So, good for your chickens and good for you and your family!
All parts of the purslane plant are edible, including the flowers.
It doesn't keep well so only harvest as much as you need.
Scientific studies using purslane have fed by drying in a very cool oven for several hours. Or you can just pick bunches and throw into the run - chickens like eating it raw.
No. As with everything, though, feed in moderation and use as part of a balanced diet, not as their only food.
If you don't have purslane growing naturally in your garden, why not grow some? It's one of the best ways of increasing the amount of omega-3 in your hens' eggs.
And it's easy to sow, grow and maintain, even in hot climates.
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It's known by different names in different places: pigweed, fat hen, goosefoot and lambs' quarters.
It grows freely round the edge of cultivated land, so if you're picking it from there be careful to check that pesticides haven't been used.
It's also commonly found by roadsides, in hedgerows and in gardens. It's in season generally between April and October.
This is an annual, upright plant with dull, blue-green leaves which sometimes have a hint of white underneath. The edges of the young leaf are serrated or "toothed", but not as sharply defined as the nettle. As the leaf gets older the serration tends to disappear and the leaf edge becomes smooth.
If you look closely at the leaves, you'll see a waxy substance which can make the leaves appear to have a silvery sheen.
Between June and October spikes of tiny white-green flowers grow from the junction between the leaf and stem. The plant can (but rarely does) grow as high as 150 centimetres (5 feet) but after flowering will tend to drop to the ground with the weight of the flowers and seeds.
Fat hen or pigweed is a member of the spinach family, and both the leaves and seeds are edible.
Used as a crop for different types of animals, it's very high in Vitamin A, phosphorous (critical to the egg-laying process) and potassium, and a good source of protein, iron, trace minerals and fibre.
It's another plant high in omega-3, too, so enhances the nutrition of your eggs.
Its seeds, which are produced by the tens of thousands, are very like quinoa seeds - a close relative (Chenopodium quinoa) from south America. They're particularly loved by wild birds including the Greenfinch and Yellowhammer.
As with most weeds, feed when they're young. As they get older, both the leaves and the seeds become more bitter.
Either feed the leaves as they are or, if you like to spoil your flock, steam them. Be careful not to over-feed these, as they do contain oxalic acid.
The seeds can be sprouted to release even more nutrients. See this article for instructions (clue: it's not difficult!).
This is probably my favourite "weed", but for gardeners who love a pristine lawn it can be a nuisance - hence it's known generally as a weed.
It's a perennial plant that's easy to grow either as a lawn or part of a lawn. It will do well on any type of soil, including the poor soil often found around new houses.
Usually three-leaved - if you find a four-leaved clover it will supposedly bring you luck - it's bright green and because it's drought tolerant, you'll find it even in the driest summers.
It grows low to the ground in a mat, and feels spongy underfoot. It will grow back well after harvesting.
There are different types of clover: the clover you want for poultry is either white (trifolium repens) or red (trifolium pretense). The colour refers to the distinctive flowers which blossom in the early summer.
High in vitamins A and B complex and in niacin, potassium and iron, clover's big claim to fame is protein. Like dandelions, it improves the digestive, circulatory and respiratory systems.
And once again, eggs from hens fed on this weed have been found to be 18% higher in omega-3 fat.
Simple. Let them graze on lawns containing clover as soon as it appears in the late spring and early summer. The entire plant is edible, including the flowers when they blossom around early June.
You may see information online saying that clover is poisonous for poultry. Not true, but...
So, don't feed sweet clover to your flock, and avoid any feed getting wet. Feed fresh, raw clover and you'll be fine.
Clover is so easy to grow, and so full of nutrients at times when other greens are lacking. Not only that, the flowers are a huge attraction for bees and butterflies.
Sow the seeds by scattering into your existing lawn, use them to create a new clover lawn, or sow in a box for your chickens, keeping the young plants under cover until they're well established.
As always, make sure your seeds are certified organic and non-GMO.
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I'm not going into much detail here about dandelions, because I cover them in a whole chapter in my free, downloadable book: "Raising Healthy Chickens" which you can get for free when you join my newsletter group.
Suffice it to say that dandelions are an amazing source of calcium (critical for laying hens), Vitamins A, B, C, E and K, and trace minerals including potassium and iron.
Not only that, but they're prolific - there are very few gardens that don't have dandelions! What's more, they're one of the first weeds to appear in the early spring, and one of the last to disappear in winter. So your flock need never go wanting for the goodness of a dandelion!
Chickens love the entire plant: leaves, stem, flowers and root.
They prefer dandelion leaves and flowers when they're young, during the spring and summer. Once they're older they become bitter and tough.
Snip the flowers off as soon as they blossom, and toss them into the coop.
The root is best fed later in the year when it's full of nutrients. If you break it open in late autumn (fall), you'll see a milky ooze - it's full of protein, at just the time of year when your chickens most need it as they moult and wind down for autumn and winter.
It will be hard to get out of the ground - it's a long taproot. But it can be done!
No. As long as, of course, your flock has a balanced feed and dandelions, like the rest of the weeds, are fed as a supplement to their diet.
It's good to feed your flock a mixture of weeds once in a while. I use the following amounts, together with some other ingredients I know my flock like. This is enough for a one-off treat for a flock of about 24.
But you can use any of the weeds on this article, and any other plant-based favourites of your own chickens.
Simply mix everything together and serve in a bowl, separate from their usual feed. I tend to rip (not chop) the larger leaves.
This mix without the garlic will keep in a cool, dark place for a couple of months. But if you use garlic, don't keep it - the moisture form the garlic can create mould amongst the weeds.
Everyone loves buttercups. When I was young, we'd hold a buttercup under our chin to see whether we liked butter. If we did, we'd have a yellow shadow on our chin.
Of course, it would be easier just to taste butter... The yellow shadow happens simply because the buttercup's petals reflect light well.
So lots of people have fond memories of this common garden and meadow weed. But not chickens.
All species of ranunculus are poisonous if they're eaten fresh, but the fact is they taste bitter and in mammals, cause mouth blisters. So most will go uneaten.
When it's squashed or even just handled, the plant releases protoanemonin which causes diarrhea and has been known to kill mammals, particularly sheep and cattle(6).
There are no specific studies about chickens and buttercups, but given that they cause dietary problems in other animals, they're best avoided.
No need - even if you could!
Chickens are generally very good at knowing what not to eat, certainly in terms of naturally growing foods (they're not so good at distinguishing things they don't instinctively recognise, like polystyrene for example).
They may have a peck at the flowers, attracted by the bright colour, but they won't carry on eating them.
So, don't actively offer buttercups to your chickens but don't worry if they grow wild on your land.
A lot of "facts" you'll find on the internet are people's individual views, often 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 evidence from highly respected and experienced poultry keepers such as Gail Dammerow.
Some of the sources I have used are these.
1. Defelice, M: Common Chickweed: Mere Chicken Feed?. Pub. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
2. Alagawany, M, et al: Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids in Poultry Nutrition: Effect on Production, Performance and Health. Pub. US National Library of Medicine, 2019.
3. Wetheril, H: Nutritional evaluation of the Urtica species. Pub. CRC Press, 2003.
4. Aydin, R and Doogan, I: Fatty acid profile and cholesterol content of egg yolk from chickens fed diets supplemented with purslane. Pub. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 2010.
5. Hjalmarsdottir, F: 7 science-based benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Pub. Healthline, 2018.
6. Israel, T, and Rhodes, Professor G: Buttercups. Pub. University of Tennessee, Institute of Agriculture, 2015.