Grass.  We curse when we have to mow it.  We curse when it invades the garden and we have to spend multiple Saturdays trying to get all those kikuyu roots out. And I curse when the frost kills it and everyone spends the winter walking dead grass into the house.

Could we live without it though?  It feeds and shelters the soil life, releases acids that break down rock, protects the soil from heat and erosion, and aids the infiltration of water.  Plants, including grass, were the original food created for all living things to eat, and in recent years, there has been a remembrance of the fact that grass is what our farm animals are supposed to eat.  Even chickens.  Who’d have thought.  (And yes, I’ve met people with degrees in the agricultural sciences who were unaware that hens ate grass!)  Enter the boom of “grass-fed” and “free range”.  And about time too.

Many conventional books I’ve read on poultry care caution against allowing birds constant and unrestricted access to plant material.  It is often termed a “treat”, much like you’d view chocolate.  Apparently grass is something the birds love but shouldn’t be allowed to gorge on.

I have a feeling this view comes from the old “maximise production” ideal – perhaps a wise business ideal but when used in food production, an ideal that always comes with a cost in taste, quality, or health.  Yes, you can get a lot more eggs if you pump in the grain, put the birds in a shed – snug out of the sun, wind and rain – and turn on the lights to keep the laying cycle going.  In this paradigm, it all just comes down to proteins and carbohydrates in the right proportions and who cares what form they take or where they come from.

Or maybe we could assume the birds know better than us what they need to eat and adjust our production and price expectations accordingly.  Judging by the excitement of each new batch of birds on their first experience with the green stuff (or brown, depending on our delightful weather), I think they quite like constant and unrestricted access, thank you very much.

The effect of eating grass quickly becomes apparent.  I’m sure you don’t want to be treated to a dissertation on chook manure… but that’s too bad.  It’s the first thing I notice because it’s rather hard to avoid.  Our birds are currently bought at 12 weeks of age.  When they arrive their manure is sloppy and reeks with a odd sweet smell.  After a week or two on grass it changes and becomes like mini cow-pats.  The smell changes too and while I wouldn’t dab it behind my ears, it’s just a plain animal smell.  At the very least, it is the magic of fibre at work in the digestive tract.  I guess the old “internal broom” analogy used in all those health magazines applies to chooks too.

But what other benefits are there to eating grass?  More next time …about grass, not poops!