For those of us who do not live in a temperate region, fall can signal a change in diet for backyard chickens. Hens with a summertime free-range lifestyle, may now be sequestered to their coop and run and be subjected to a diet consisting of grains and layer mash, with nary a leafy green in sight. And if you don’t raise your own grains, fall and winter feeding costs can rise compared to spring and summer due to the lack of free-range foraging which can make up a substantial part of their diet.
But chicken keepers, take heart. You can take matters into your own hands by giving them fresh produce without spending a small fortune. Consider planting a fall garden (and if the weather is mild, a winter garden) for your girls. Imagine feeding your hens homegrown produce well into November and even December (and possibly beyond based upon the USDA zone you live in) If you are uncertain what zone you are in, click on this link for map of the hardiness zones. And for those of you who live in a temperate region, you can provide homegrown produce nearly year round.
To be successful with your fall garden, selecting the proper produce is essential. Cool season crops are the way to go. According to Iowa State University, a cool season crop is defined as one that grows best at a temperature range of 60F – 65F. These same crops can also tolerate a light to moderate frosts. (A light frost occurs in a temperature range of 29F – 32F while a moderate frost happens between 25F – 28F.)
Examples of cool season crops include: spinach, radish, lettuce, peas, and produce in the Brassicaceae family. Types of Brassicas include: cabbage, kale, turnip, kohlrabi, savoy, and brussels sprouts. These vegetables are high in vitamins A, C, and K as well as soluble fiber. Broccoli in particular can also be a good source of protein.
As a point of reference, cool season crops can be planted late summer or early fall after you have begun to clear out some of your warm season vegetables, such as peppers, potatoes, or eggplants. Or maybe you had some space available where you had an earlier crop of lettuce or spinach?
If you are concerned about sub-25F weather, considered planting in a cold frame. A cold frame is a structure that has an open bottom so plants can be grown in the ground. The cover of the cold frame is transparent so as to allow in sunlight. Think of it as a mini-greenhouse. It is a great season extender and will allow you to raise more produce for your chickens throughout the fall and possibly well into winter based upon your USDA plant hardiness zone. Just remember to raise the lid on the cold frame on days that the temperature gets above 40F (raising it about 6″ is fine). This keeps the interior of the cold frame from getting too hot. Remember, it will be warmer inside the cold frame than what the external air temperature states. Before you settle down to dinner, close the lid before temperatures dip significantly, otherwise you may lose your produce to a sub-10F evening. (To the right is a photo of a simple cold frame with the lid removed.)
Since transplants typically aren’t available for fall plantings, buy packets of seed. Depending on the vendor, packets can range in price from approximately $2.50 to $4.25 each. The number of seeds also varies based upon the vendor and may range from 20 to more than 50, making seeds a very economical choice. If you are able to find transplant, they may range in price from $1.50 – $2.25 per plant.
When fall rolls around, think beyond the grocery store. You can feed your backyard chickens homegrown produce. Remember to think cool season crops. If you are uncertain about how cold your nights may get, use cold frames. Your chickens can continue to have a varied diet even as the temperatures drop.