When you order 20 lbs or more of any 1lb, 5lb, or 25lb size products. 40lb to 50lb sizes not included
* When you order 20 lbs or more of any 1lb, 5lb, or 25lb size products. 40lb to 50lb sizes not included





Historically, chickens and other poultry were raised on pasture. Forages were an essential part of their diets before the advancement of poultry nutritional science and the resulting widespread availability of well-balanced rations.


Forages are still a key component in chicken diets, and putting your chickens on pasture has many benefits. If you’re new to pasturing your chickens—even if you’ve raised cattle or horses on pasture—it’s important to understand what to look for in a forage crop and choose one that is ideal for your birds. 

Benefits of Allowing Chickens to Forage

Putting animals out to forage on pasture certainly makes life easier. It helps to cut down on the amount of commercial feed needed, and grazing keeps areas of your land from looking overgrown. 


From your chicken’s point of view, being able to forage on pasture is much more than just eating grass; doing so is superior to solely consuming feed.

Photo Source: PickPik


It may look like your chickens are only grazing and consuming grass (or legumes, depending upon your planting), but they’re also eating insects that supplement their diet and reaping the benefits of sunlight exposure. 

Advantages of Eating Insects

One of the most important benefits of allowing your chickens to forage and eat insects is the methionine they get.


Chickens crave methionine, an amino acid, and may peck each other or show signs of cannibalism when they have a deficiency. Some feed companies supplement poultry feeds with plant-based methionine, but it isn’t as good of a source as methionine from animal proteins.


So, when given the chance to eat insects, your chickens get a natural, animal-based source that keeps them from becoming deficient and may stop them from pecking each other.


Insects also contain several types of vitamin B and protein. When your chickens’ diet also includes insects they find while foraging, they get their daily fill of vitamin B, and the protein from the bugs can be enough to replace protein from chicken feed. 

Vitamin D from Sunlight Exposure

Like humans, chickens need vitamin D, and their bodies will produce it when exposed to adequate sunlight. When vitamin D is lacking, they can develop rickets, which shows up as deformed beaks or soft, pliable, rubbery bones. This leads to significant, serious leg issues.


Many feed companies add Vitamin D to their poultry mixes as they assume more chickens are raised indoors with little access to natural sunlight. Allowing your chickens to forage means they’ll make their own! 

Qualities to Look for When Choosing a Forage

Photo Source: PickPik

Grazing Tolerance

If you have chickens or have had them, you know that they feed pretty differently than other animals. Their “grazing” isn’t the typical munching you see with cattle, sheep, or horses but includes quite a bit of biting, pecking, and scratching. So, when choosing a forage species for chickens, you must look for something that holds up to chicken behavior.


Forage plants also need to recover well from trampling and close grazing. The best plants typically initiate new root growth after defoliation and have a high vegetative-to-reproductive shoot ratio.  

Nutritional Value

While poultry doesn’t rely as heavily on forages and grazing as ruminant animals, they still obtain some nutrition when put on leafy pastures. Hence, your chickens must still feed on crops with good nutritional value.

Ability to Attract Insects

Chickens also consume invertebrates as they forage—which is one of the benefits just mentioned—making it important to pick a forage species that attracts insects. There is limited research showing which pasture crops attract certain insects, but some studies show different insects are attracted to alfalfa pastures versus grasses. 


Interestingly, when entomologists collect various insects for research, they tend to head to alfalfa fields with their sweep nets. 

Which is Better: Forage Legumes or Forage Grasses?

There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to this question. Both legumes and grasses offer great forage potential, yet both have disadvantages. Because of this, many producers opt to plant forage pastures that are a mix of legumes and grasses to reap a wider range of benefits.


Mixtures perform as well as legume mono stands. Growing a blend of grass(es) and legume(s) increases total yields, provides a superior sod, and reduces the risk of losing a pure legume stand to stress kill or heaving.

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pros of Legumes

✓ High in protein

✓ High grazing tolerance

✓ Nitrogen fixation lowers fertilizer costs and improves soil fertility

✓ Typically have improved digestibility and palatability

✓ Can be grazed or used for hay

✓ Useful as a green manure crop

Cons of Legumes

✗ Less tolerant of weather extremes

✗ Higher management requirement

Photo Source: Jeffrey Surianto | Pexels

Pros of Grasses

✓ High fiber content

✓ Quick establishment

✓ Tolerant of frequent grazing

✓ Can be grazed or used for hay

✓ Long growing season

✓ Tolerant of a broader range of soils

✓ Better drought tolerance

Cons of Grasses

✗ Lower protein content

✗ Less tolerant of trampling

✗ Lower yields

Ideal Forages For Chickens

Many species of grasses and legumes make excellent forage choices for chickens, helping cut back on food costs while creating more nutritious eggs or broilers.


  • Alfalfa, ladino, white clover, red clover, lespedeza, and vetches make excellent forage choices for chickens because these legumes are higher in protein, fiber, calcium, and carotene than grasses. High protein levels help maintain your flock's productivity, while fiber is essential for digestive health. Alfalfa and ladino are the favored options; ladino doesn’t produce as much but has a higher nutritional value. Clover also has a dense, fibrous root system, making it incredibly tolerant of poultry grazing. 
  • Borage contains many minerals, trace elements, and high amounts of vitamins A and C and beta-carotene. The vitamins are said to support mucus-membrane and immune system health, making borage an excellent boost for animals recently recovering from winter respiratory problems.
  • Chicory contains various vitamins and minerals that help stimulate the immune system and benefit laying. Chicory consumption can also be linked to improved digestive health in broilers, and different parts of the plant are active against pathogenic microorganisms.
  • Kentucky bluegrass is a good turfgrass for grazing because it is a prime height for chickens to forage on, with many leaves close to the soil surface. Forage Kentucky bluegrass is also very palatable, highly nutritious, and tolerant of frequent, close grazing.
  • Peas are another fantastic forage legume because they contain 20 - 29% crude protein. They have better protein content in hot, dry climates compared to cooler, wetter areas. Broilers can tolerate diets with 20% to 30% forage peas without seeing adverse performance effects. 
  • Rape is a common cover crop due to its rapid growth, and it also makes an excellent fodder for chickens and other animals. Plants are highly digestible and contain 14 to 17% protein. It can be grazed or made into hay or silage.
  • Perennial, annual, and intermediate ryegrasses are highly nutritious, establish quickly, and recover rapidly from frequent, close grazing. Perennial types are better for cooler, northern climates; annual ryegrasses are not cold-tolerant. Forage ryegrasses are useful as grazing fodder or haylage.


Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Forages to Avoid

Conversely, you should keep a few forages out of your poultry pasture.


  • Buckwheat has been shown to lower the feed efficiency potential in chickens, and it contains fagopyrin. This crystalline compound triggers UV sensitivity and may lead to sunburn in pastured birds. 
  • Tall fescue KY 31 and naturally occurring grass stands contain endophytes, bacteria, or fungi that live naturally within the plants. They produce toxins known to be detrimental to ruminants; while the research on chickens is limited, some evidence shows when hens consume seeds containing the endophyte, they are more prone to laying shell-less eggs.

Forages to Feed in Moderation

  • Cowpea is a great forage crop and excellent green manure, but it doesn’t provide adequate nutrition when grown as a monostand. Mix cowpea with other forages to meet dietary needs.
  • Flax is highly nutritious for chickens in moderate amounts. When laying hens overeat flax seed, it imparts a strong flavor to their eggs. Long-term flaxseed use may also increase liver hemorrhaging levels in laying hens. 

Forage Quality Analysis

When feeding forages to your chickens (pasture, hay, and silage), it’s essential to do routine forage testing to determine its nutritional value. When you know the quality and nutrient content, you can decide on a mineral supplementation program, if needed, and create an efficient, balanced feed ration.


There are three principal forage quality parameters used when evaluating chicken feed: crude protein (CP), neutral detergent fiber (NDF), and acid detergent fiber (ADF). 


In ruminants, parameters such as total digestible nutrients (TDN) and net energies (NE) are also commonly analyzed, but they aren’t typically considered valuable for chickens.

Understanding Crude Protein (CP)

Protein is vital in livestock animal feed as it contributes energy and provides essential amino acids and nitrogen for the animal. 


Crude protein is the combined percentage of true protein and non-protein nitrogen. This number deciphers the forage’s ability to meet your chicken’s protein needs and is useful when developing a ration of your livestock.


  • Legume forages have approximately 20 to 24% CP.
  • Spring and summer grass pastures typically have up to 20% CP. 

Understanding Fiber Content: Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) & Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF)

The amount of fiber in plant material is the predominant factor in forage digestibility, making it another critical measure of forage quality. 


As the amount of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin (the main structural components in plants) increases, forage digestibility decreases. Especially in chickens since they’re non-ruminants that don’t have cellulose-digesting bacteria. 


Generally, lower fiber levels mean higher digestibility. In turn, this higher digestibility means higher energy value and forage quality. Low fiber values also mean the forage is more palatable. It’s easier to chew, allowing the chickens to consume more.


Neutral detergent fiber (NDF) and acid detergent fiber (ADF) are used to measure the forage’s cell wall composition. NDF measures hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignin levels and is typically used to predict intake potential. ADF measures cellulose and lignin and is commonly used to calculate digestibility.


Grasses typically contain more NDF and ADF than legumes because of the greater lignification in grasses. However, you see a wide range of NDF and ADF within grasses because species are so diverse and utilized at extreme maturity ranges. As they mature, hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignin typically increase in both forage types.


  • In grass forages, NDF < 50% is considered high quality; NDF > 60% is low.
  • In legume forages, NDF < 40% is considered good quality; NDF > 50% is considered poor. 
  • Forages with less than 35% ADF are typically considered high-quality.

Understanding Moisture and Dry Matter (DM)

Dry matter (DM) is the non-moisture portion of a forage or feed ingredient containing the essential nutrients. It indicates the nutrient concentration available to your chickens. The higher the dry matter, the higher the nutrients in a food source.


  • Pastures typically have a moisture content of 75 to 90% or 10-25% DM. 

Rotational Grazing for Better Efficiency

Even though chickens are much smaller than cattle and horses, rotational grazing is still an essential aspect of putting animals out to pasture. 


Rotational grazing gives forage plants a rest from repeated defoliation by grazing chickens, and the chickens continuously have access to fresh, good-quality plants.


Continuous grazing on a single pasture—or small paddock—leads to poor grazing efficiency (25 to 35%) and poor use of inputs and land resources. When a move is made to rotational grazing, and the system is well-managed, grazing efficiency increases to 65%. 


As chickens are much smaller than most other livestock, rotational grazing can be much easier to manage. There isn’t a need for large paddocks (chickens need about ten square feet each), and moving animals may be more straightforward. But let’s be honest, too. Herding chickens is far from an easy process at times


There are three common ways to incorporate rotational grazing into your poultry program. Your systems can be simple and rotated weekly or complex with more frequent rotations. The aim is to create strategic disturbance in areas for limited periods.


  • Chicken tractor — a simple, lightweight outdoor enclosure that can easily be moved from one location to the next. Many times they’re constructed using lumber, PVC, and poultry netting, or hoops similar to those used in gardening, and are drug around. If you have a larger flock, bigger enclosures can be pulled using a tractor or ATV.


Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons


  • Movable fencing — an inexpensive way to move chickens from one area to another. Instead of moving an enclosure, use poultry netting or snow fencing and move the fence as needed. This system is best when grazing a smaller flock where a large grazing space isn’t required.


Photo Source: ph


  • Paddock system — a traditional yet highly effective way to implement rotational grazing. Separate the larger pasture (or grazing area outside the coop) into several smaller paddocks, then move animals from paddock to paddock. 

Looking at Hay Quality Versus Grazing Quality

If you cut forages to your chickens for later use as hay, there will be some nutritional differences between the two. Much of this is because pasture legumes and grasses have a considerably higher water content, affecting other dietary components. 


These differences should be noted when creating a ration program.

Moisture Content

Pasture plants typically contain 75 - 90% water versus hay that has dried down and only contains 10 - 12%. This is one of the most significant differences and why hay can be stored successfully without going moldy. However, because of the lower moisture content, it’s vital to increase water intake when feeding your chicken hay versus pasture. 

Crude Protein

Pasture typically has higher crude protein levels than hay, and the overall quality is better. Legumes and grass pastures' protein content declines as the season progresses. 


Legume pastures contain approximately 20 to 24% protein; legume hays contain 12% to 20%. Grass pastures contain between 10 and 20%, depending on the species; grass hays contain 6% to 10%.


After being harvested, proteins go through proteolysis, where they are broken down into nonprotein nitrogen compounds like ammonia and urea. This breakdown also changes the amino acid profile of hay compared to fresh pasture.

Fiber & Digestibility

Overall, early pasture forages have better digestibility than older crops, and fresh pasture is more digestible than hay harvested at the same time. This digestibility is inversely related to fiber content. Lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose increase as plants age, decreasing their digestibility.

Vitamin Content

Pasture has higher vitamins A, C, and E than hay.


Once the forage is harvested for hay, exposure to sunlight and air contributes to the degradation of these essential nutrients. When hay is stored, this degradation continues, leading to significantly lower vitamin levels than fresh pasture.

Non-structural Carbohydrates

Fresh pasture forages generally have higher sugar and starch content than hay. Once a forage is harvested for hay, the plants continue to undergo respiration until they are completely dried, using up the remaining non-structural carbohydrates (NSC). Hay is typically around 11% NSC; pasture is generally 15% NSC.

Deer Creek Seed Can Help With Your Forage Needs

Whatever your forage needs are, look no further than Deer Creek Seed! Our high-quality seed selection will help you grow the perfect pasture, and our experts are here to answer any questions about seed selection or crop management.


Deer Creek Seed’s purpose is to provide you with the highest quality seed at competitive prices and exceptional customer service. Our staff works diligently to serve our customers

Additional Resources

  1. For more information on selecting forage crops for chickens, The University of Kentucky has a fantastic guide on what to look for in a forage crop and how to establish it. 
  2. We just barely scratched the surface of forage quality analysis. Head over to Oklahoma State University’s guide on interpreting forage quality values for everything you need to know.
  3. Forage quality testing results are only as good as the sample you take. The University of Minnesota Extension teaches you how to sample correctly.
  4. The University of Florida has a helpful article on maximizing foraging behavior in your chickens.