Raising A Better Foraging Chicken

June 13, 2013

Raising Chickens

A white free range chicken.

It seems to me that one of the most effective ways to become more self sufficient at producing and growing our own food from chickens, is to use chickens that find as much of their diet from forage as possible; while still maintaining good egg production or weight gain (whichever you prefer).

So with those thoughts ever in my mind, I became very curious when both a clutches of chicks I hatched this spring seem to be MUCH better foragers then my clutch last spring.

The strange thing was that these better foraging chicks are the children of my first batch, so there was no new blood or foraging DNA mixed into the new clutch, yet they are incredibly more likely to forage.

To give you an idea, my first clutch, which I bought at a store would not eat worms if thrown into their little pen; where the second group gobbles them up.

On top of that I also got another clutch of chickens that I purchased who have the same foraging desires.

So this begged the question…

Why Were My New Chickens Better Foragers?

For starters neither of these groups of chicks were hatched the old fashion way; with a mother who could have taught them some things.

As far as I can tell, the only difference is that while the original clutch of chicks was raised on a very new and very clean pile of wood shavings, or rose hips or some thing I no longer remember, but that was recommended by the feed store…

This years clutch of chicks are all being raised on deep litter.

If you do not know what deep litter is, it is a way of managing the chicken droppings in a coop that does not require more then one cleaning a year.

Instead of regularly cleaning out the chicken coop, one simply keeps adding dry ‘carbon’ based matter like straw, or in my case dry maple leaves.

This turns the floor of your coop into something very much like a compost pile.  This has the side benefit of making the coop NEVER stink!  Plus a few other things I’ll go into in another post some time.

Basically its very bio-active and full of life.

Now… I decided to use this method of managing my chickens poo because one, I’m lazy, and didn’t want to clean the coop every few days.  And secondly, I have seen research that suggested the chicks are more resistant to diseases when raised on deep litter, as well as grow faster.

However, I think there is another benefit.

I see my new 3 day old chicks digging and eating bugs that live in this deep litter.

So I have a theory.

*Intelligence Disclaimer

What I’m about to say could be complete bullshit.  And I very well may have no idea what I’m talking about.

But it seems to me that raising chickens using a deep litter method, where they have bugs they can eat, living in the ground they stand on at an early age teaches them to be better foragers then chicks NOT raised on deep litter.

I wonder if there is actually a window of opportunity that chickens learn how to forage, or at least how to forage well.

A window that if no foraging for bugs is experienced during this period, drastically reduces a chickens foraging ability.

If you’ve never studied windows of opportunity they are very interesting, and very real.  I’ve just never heard them talking about windows of opportunity when it came to foraging.

And if my little theory is correct, and these new chickens of mine are better foragers… I wonder how much even better they would be at foraging if they were raised by their mother who taught them herself.

So that’s my little theory on improving your chickens foraging skills. I would appreciate any feedback from any chicken veterans out there who might have some insights into a new theory I have on raising a better foraging chicken, or in pointing me towards articles and research on this topic.  Seems to be worth exploring.

10 Responses to “Raising A Better Foraging Chicken”

  1. Practical Parsimony Says:

    Four years ago, I got ten chicks. They were a noisy, competitive bunch. They shrieked at banana peels given to them at about three weeks old. Then, one would approach and peck. Soon, they fought over it. They were kept in the house for two months and then kept on grass from then on. They scratched when on paper. I think they learned from each other to eat anything.

    Then, I got three this spring. One died immediately. Those two just hung out and would not eat oats, corn meal, or much of anything. They were entirely uninterested most of the time in anything but chick feed which was put on the paper. The first and larger group ate everything, including the letters off the newspaper. I put the last two outside in the heat of the day when there was no wind, only for thirty minutes. The least of the chicks scratched, pecked, ran about, and seemed to “get” it.

    My theory is that they learned from each other. The larger group was just trying to outdo each other! I don’t really know. However, battery hens who have never set foot on the earth do learn to scratch and forage. Scratching in innate with chickens.

    Maybe your group that does not forage does not get hungry enough?


    • Chet Says:

      Well you bring up the interesting part Practical Parsimony, I’m not talking about the types of foragers they became… I’m talking about foraging while still in their little box at just a few days old, before they go outside in the pen.

      My first batch did learn to eat worms eventually, but at 8 weeks they still wouldn’t, and these new ones do immediately. It’s not an ‘Observational Learning’ situation, it appears to be innate.

      Every group was raised the same, except for clean litter vs. deep litter with no access to adult chickens to teach them.

      I do find Wolfgang’s explanation interesting, that might explain their differences in behavior.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion, it is certainly peculiar to me.


      • Practical Parsimony Says:

        My first ones were very active foragers in the box. They also came from a farm where they were sold to me when they were day old and not with Mama. Little chicks are so cute and so crazy competitive. It only took one doing something to have them all wanting to do it. I could put a hundred grains of oats, but if one got a piece and ran, they all ran after and tried to take it away. I don’t think the second group (3) had enough to set an example. I have no comparison as to what the second bunch would have been as far as foragers.


  2. Wolfgang Kühn Says:

    Maybe there is an alternative explanation: Could it be, that the chickens you originally bought were hybrids?

    In the selection of typical “industry” chickens, keeping them from picking at each other and from taking up anything else besides their designated food is a very important factor.

    As hybrid races are unstable by design, the offspring reverts back to traits of the original races, which were combined to form the hybrid breed.

    Basically, the second generation becomes “normal” healthy chickens, with natural feeding habits. They also tend develop a natural urge for breeding, which too is practically absent in hybrid chickens.


  3. Greg Says:

    I have watched in amazement as one of our older chickens taught younger chickens to forage. She would scratch then peck. Next she would scratch for the younger ones then step away while they pecked. It was fascinating to watch the younger chickens learn. There seemed to only be one older chicken teaching; the rest were busy doing.

    I am sure that instinct has a lot to do with foraging too. I think most chickens would figure it out eventually.


  4. GWSprepper Says:

    Thanks for the very interesting article and all of the comments that added more information/observations. All of this makea me wonder: If we all start free grazing and home breeding our chickens, will we once again have “full fledged chickens”? By that I mean most of the hens will be willing to brood their eggs, they will forage better and regain all of their natural activities and behaviors that the big boys are trying to breed out of them.


    • Chet Says:

      When I look at all the amazing things breeding has accomplished when someone sets their mind to it… I think it would still take some real work, and a good understanding of breeding/genetics but I tend to think like you, that there might be a lot of potential in this area, especially self foraging. That foraging instinct is in those chickens, they used to have it… therefore it must be something that could be improved.


  5. americuhh Says:

    Solve your foraging problem by having your chicks raised by a hen. You will save on litter, labor, feed, and electricity when you don’t have to incubate or brood chicks.
    Many dual purpose hens will set, heck we even have one of those Polish hens that sets. My guess is she just followed the other hens’ examples.
    Most of our chickens are crossed with New Hampshire, Australorp, White Rock, Cornish, (even Cornish Rock), when the hens are done raising the chicks they are ready or nearly ready for butchering. (about 10 to 12 weeks)


  6. Joy Says:

    Wow, I loved your observations, they do make sense to me. My chickens also live in deep litter when not out foraging the pasture and barnyard and are very healthy without overdoing the constant cleaning thing. (Now I won’t feel so guilty for that!) they lay well in this arrangement until the very bitter dec and January temps of our Wyoming home set in.


    • Chet Says:

      Its so awesome. They take every maple leaf from two trees right next to their coop and convert it into compost for a large chunk of my system. It has been amazing. Glad you like it too!


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