Hops are the flowers of the Humulus lupulus plant, a member of the Cannabinaceae family, which also includes cannabis (marijuana and hemp). It’s a fast-growing climber with numerous rough, prickly stems that produce scaly, pale yellow-green, cone-like fruits that develop from the female flowers. It contains high amounts of estrogen and numerous bioactive compounds, essential oils, alpha-acids and beta-acids, like lupulone. For centuries they have been used in herbal medicine as an anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, sleep aid and to promote appetite.
If you’re a beer drinker you might be familiar with it as one of the four main ingredients in that beverage. They’re used to keep beer fresher and longer; add aroma, flavor, and bitterness; and to retain its head of foam.
I’m neither a beer maker, nor drinker, but have grown hops because I like how they look. I also found out along the way that they are good for chickens.
Brew masters know about the preservative qualities of hops flowers and beer drinkers have learned to enjoy the subtle bitter flavors. It turns out that the antimicrobial bitter acids contained in hop flowers may also prevent pathogenic bacteria from taking hold in your chickens’ digestive systems.
According to an Agricultural Research Service report, adding lupulone to chickens’ drinking water appears to be a viable alternative to low-level antibiotic additives in their feed. Studies have shown lupulone therapy was associated with controlling Clostridium perfringens in the chickens’ intestinal tracts. Certain bacteria in the intestines of chickens not only can cause contamination of meat during processing, but may also cause disease in broiler chickens.
- C. perfringens counts were significantly reduced (30%-50%) in the lupulone-treated group compared to untreated chickens.
- Broilers fed 30 mg/kg of hops beta-acids showed a decrease in C. perfringens strains that cause necrotic enteritis in chickens.
- Currently, in some countries, commercial poultry producers use small amounts of antibiotics in feed as growth promoters and to control bacterial pathogens or parasites, which can lead to antibiotic resistant bacteria. Using hops could be a healthier alternative.
I found hops incredibly easy to grow. They like well-drained, rich soil; full sunlight and 120 days of growing season. The recommendation is to train them on vertical poles or string so that at harvest time you can cut them at the base and the whole plant – which can reach 20’-25’ in a season – drops to the ground. I made the mistake of growing them on a 6’ high fence and then weaving them in and out of the mesh, which was more work to extricate them at harvest time.
Be forewarned that the stems are a bit prickly and the flowers, like marijuana, contain resin so your fingers will get gummy. It took me a couple of hours to harvest two plants. I removed all the flower heads and composted the stems and leaves.
Since hops are a leafy, fast-growing plant they would be suitable to grow outside your chicken run to provide shade during the summer. It’s also a perennial, so once it’s established it will come back year after year.
You can also use your chickens as garden helpers. They eat bugs and grasshoppers that can destroy your crop, deposit nutrient rich poop, scratch soil surfaces to help keep weeds down and promote aeration. If your flock is free-ranging, cage the bottom of your plants so they won’t get damaged.
- It’s important to protect your crop from heat, air and light, which all degrade the plant faster.
- Time is an issue as well. Their alpha acids and essential oils begin degrading soon after the hops are picked, but further damage can be prevented with careful storage.
- Keep your hops chilled in dark, airtight containers.
- Mylar/foil re-sealable bags are great at preventing light damage.
- Press out the air or use a vacuum sealer.
- If using clear bags, put them in a second, darker bag or container.
- Hops can also be stored in the freezer for up to a year.
You can give hops to your chickens in a number of ways: dried or fresh flowers added to their feed; tinctures or as an addition if you ferment your own feed.
Credits: Botanical.com; Food Bloggers of Canada Grit; Poultry DVM; USDA Agricultural Research Service. Featured Photo: Modern Farmer