For the last few years I’ve been a member of several Facebook farm and chicken groups. I also check out other chicken blogs. I’m curious about, and frankly sometimes question, some of the claims that are made.
Recently I posted an article on Feeding Chickens. I know something about basic nutrition and filled in my knowledge gaps with some online research. I wanted to do a follow-up piece on using herbs to improve the health of your flock.
I use herbs, but I’m not a herbalist. My online research proved a bit frustrating. There is a long history of the beneficial use of herbs for people, but not as much regarding chickens. We can extrapolate from our experience, but we don’t always know how or why things work in other species. It makes me uncomfortable when folks assert that the use of a particular herb will prevent, or even cure, medical conditions. So I’ll confine my discussion to what I do know. If you are interested in more detail there are loads of trained herbalists and books that can help.
Herbs can be used in a wide range of applications: essential oils, sprays, salves, tinctures, dried or added to feed. I’ve never made tinctures or oils, but there is lots of information online, including recipes, if you want to give it a try.
I have a large ornamental garden surrounding my 1940s log house. I haven’t planted anything specifically with the chickens in mind, but I do use what’s there. I harvest nettles from a large patch that grows over my septic tank. I walk through the garden and collect leaves, flowers and seeds all through the summer and early fall. I cut everything into smaller pieces and dry them in paper bags, transferring to one gallon glass jars when ready.
I also get large amounts of herbs, including bunches of mint, basil, thyme, oregano or cilantro, from the food recovery program I am part of. The girls happily eat some and I dry the rest, which I sprinkle in the nest boxes year round.
Some of the herbs I use include:
- Bee Balm (antimicrobial)
- Calendula (antifungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory)
- Chamomile flowers
- Comfrey (pain relief)
- Fennel Seeds (digestive aid)
- Garlic (antifungal)
- Lavender (insecticide)
- Lemon Balm (aromatic)
- Marigold (insecticide)
- Mints (deters insects & rodents)
- Nasturtium (vitamin C)
- Nettles (vitamins A, B, C, calcium)
- Oil of Oregano (antibiotic, can be added to water)
- Plantain (vitamins A and C)
- Rose Hips (vitamin C)
- Rosemary (anti-inflammatory)
- Sage (anti-parasitic)
- Tea Tree Oil (antiviral, antibiotic, antifungal)
- Wormwood Powder (natural anti-parasitic)
- Yarrow (anti-inflammatory)
New chicken keepers often want to beautify their chicken pen by planting flowers and herbs. They soon come to realize that chickens either eat or scratch pretty much everything. I have several fruit trees and comfrey plants in my pen, but they are all ringed with wire cages so the birds can do minimal damage to the plants and their root systems. I cut the 4′ comfrey down at the end of the season and the chickens happily eat it all.
If you’ve got a garden plant a few herbs for your chickens. If not, find someone willing to share their excess harvest or join a food recovery program that distributes unsellable produce from grocery stores to farmers, which often include herbs.
There are some online sources for buying herbs – in my quick scan I found nest box herbs ranging from $45USD – $72CDN per pound! I know that collecting and drying plants is time consuming, but I’m all about saving money. I encourage you to find a way to obtain herbs through freecycling whether from your own, or a friend’s, garden or a food recovery program. Many herbs are perennials so once you’ve planted them they’ll come back year after year.
Ask your local grocery store what they do with their unsold herbs. Most likely they toss them in the garbage and would be happy to pass them on to someone who could make use of them.
Try offering some herbs to your girls and if they don’t eat them, dry them and add them to their dust bath, their nest boxes or in the coop. Herbs are just one component, along with balanced nutrition, good husbandry and biosecurity, that help to build the overall health of our flocks. The side benefits are they can also be used to treat medical conditions, deter insects, make our gardens look beautiful and our coops will smell fantastic.