…and any other fowls you may care for.
Credit for much of the information in this article must go to Kath Irvine, a passionate permaculture-transition gardener, and Ali Sutherland, herbalist and pharmacist, who have both been inspirational contacts since my family’s relocation to New Zealand. Over here many homes have a few chooks scratching around to provide them with healthy, affordable eggs. Kath’s years of hard learned experience is shared by her through her workshops – and website, www.ediblebackyard.co.nz .
Whether you already have (or aspire to have) a few feathered and hopefully egg-laying friends, the information contained herein will provide a guide to maintaining a healthy flock, with a few hemisphere-specific plants thrown in, so common sense adaptations are allowed. Hopefully feeding herbs to chickens escapes whatever crazy regulatory frameworks various governments try to impose. (Telling chickens what herbs they can or cannot eat would be an interesting dance to watch). Not all the advice below is strictly herbal but is all good holistic natural stuff.
Chickens eat green plants! So why not grow plants they need to keep them in top health, and reduce the likelihood of worms and mites, etc? As a wise Greek chook keeper may have said, “let food be their medicine and medicine be their food”. Whilst on a philosophical note, chickens are happiest and healthiest in the rare circumstances where they are able to range freely during daylight hours – fencing them in is only for the convenience of humans, and/or to keep predators out. So do try to give them as much space as is practicable, with plenty of mixed flora to keep them well nourished and interested. I could have written more about chicken housing and land management from a permaculture perspective, but it’s not strictly herbal so you can explore these further by reading on the subject – Kay Baxter is a Kiwi who has written from experience on these matters… and the use of “chook tractors”.
All the following suggestions can be adapted according to how much land and space you have. Plants can be grown specifically in chicken runs as a food crop, or alongside protected runs that chooks can peck at through chicken wire – or plants can be grown in trays and taken to them. A word of sensible advice to stop the total destruction of perennials is to cage the base of the plants, thus letting the plant grow up through it and the happy hens only get to peck the top layers. Also plan the usage of land and growing according to seasonal needs.
Essential herbs are chickweed, comfrey, elder, feverfew, garlic, hyssop, lavender, nasturtium, southernwood, tansy and wormwood. Also valuable are cleavers, clover, kale, rocket, silver beet and spinach – and for us Kiwis, kikuya, puha and Wandering Jew. Recommended grains are barley, buckwheat, maize, millet, quinoa, and wheat. To complete the list, consider sunflower, Jerusalem artichokes and fruit trees.
N.B. Garlic is often recommended, and for many purposes – but it will impart its flavour to eggs – nice in omelettes, not so nice in cakes!
- The chicken house needs to be kept clean and dry, with a regularly cleaned water trough (away from wild birds), adding a little garlic and cider vinegar.
- Feed with nettles regularly.
- If you can get hold of fresh unpasteurized milk left to curdle overnight, this is a great preventative – 50mls per bird.
- Mix vermifuge herbs into feed monthly – or little and often – horseradish leaves, garlic tops, wormwood, tansy, elder leaves, carrots, and the seeds of mustard, pumpkin and nasturtium.
If a cure proves necessary, garlic is the primary treatment, and 2 cloves per bird is the required dose. To ensure they take the required amount then you need to feed by hand… if possible – my wily Bantams will not indulge such contact! Alternatively, crush half a kilo of garlic and place in a stocking or muslin, hanging this in their drinking water – once a fortnight for two months.
Kath’s Super Anti Worm Mash: for a really poorly bird…
1 handful wormwood tips
1 handful tansy tips
1 comfrey leaf
1 clove garlic chopped
1 cup oats
Mix with water to make a thin paste. Give as their only food every other day for six days.
LICE & MITES
Lice are worse in wet springs and cooler months, (and if the birds don’t have access to dry dust-baths), while mites come in the warmer months.
Preventative measures to try for both are: -
- Dry dust baths can be enhanced with some shredded leaves of wormwood, lavender, hyssop, rosemary, and southernwood.
- Aromatic herbs grown around the hen house will deter pests, and the birds can also nibble them.
- Add aromatic herbs to the bedding and house.
- Regular doses of garlic – place a crushed clove in their drinking water on a weekly basis.
- Dust the birds with diatomaceous earth (kielsegur) or add a mix of potash and dried powdered aromatic herbs to their dust bath. On the same day scrub the chicken house out, leave to dry then dust with the above or spray with neem oil or dilute tea tree oil.
- No More Lice Brew: (for 1 bird) ⅔ cup bran, 1 tsp brewer’s yeast, 1 tbsp molasses, and 1tsp kelp. Stir together and add hot water to achieve the consistency of porridge. Stand for 2 hours. When cool add 1 clove of crushed garlic and 1 tbsp cider vinegar. (This can also be used as a monthly preventative, making up enough to feed the whole flock for a day).
Thankfully I haven’t had to try this advice yet on my crazy chickens. When a mite burrows into a chicken’s legs, crusty, warty growths appear and the poor bird will get very irritable and may go lame. The cure is to get an assistant to hold the chicken while you soak the leg(s) in warm soapy water and gently scrub in with a toothbrush one of the following:
- Diluted Neem oil
- Nit shampoo
- Olive Oil with a few drops of Tea Tree.
Whichever you choose, it needs to be repeated daily until the crusts fall off, and the scabs must be meticulously cleared away to prevent re-infection. The house and perch must also be cleaned at the same time.
The above are all suggestions – others are bound to have their own tried and tested favourites. Also in my limited experience to date I think the breed of chickens you have makes a huge difference to their health. My bantams seem a sturdy lot on the whole, the worst dose of worms they’ve got was when they gorged themselves on the earthworms that emerged when we were digging a trench – apparently earthworms carry eggs of parasitic worms? However this was soon sorted with a mixture of cider vinegar and garlic in the water, plus grated carrot and pumpkin seeds in their feed.
Also, what chooks are fed is a big factor in their health, and I must say I am highly impressed by Kath’s three day process of soaking grains, (e.g. a mix of wheat, pea and corn) and then feeding them the fermented end-product – the liquid you are left with is rejuvelac – a naturopathic wonder. The regime for the soaked foods is to have three buckets of the same size, and one smaller one perforated with holes to sit inside one of them. Fill bucket one with water, insert smaller bucket filled with required foodstuff to be soaked, leave for 24 hours, drain, and transfer it to the second bucket. Repeat this process on day two and three, and now you have your system up and running. The third bucket is thus the day’s food, to which you can add extras like kelp & brewer’s yeast to keep birds in extra tip-top condition. Just keep your system of buckets flowing and every third day, refresh bucket number one’s water – the discarded water makes an excellent garden feed/compost activator.Keep the buckets covered, (e.g. a heavy plank) to keep rodents, etc out.
I also swear by my Grandpa’s Chook Feeder, (do Google it, this originated in NZ but is now distributed worldwide). It’s really great for cutting down mess and keeps wild birds and rodent off, thus avoiding infections and unnecessary feeding thereof.
Well, that’s enough on Herbal Chicken Health. Which is easier to treat with herbs – chickens or humans? I’m not saying at the moment!