12 Grasses and Cover Crops to Plant for Your Chickens

Free-ranging chickens is a great way to give them exercise, engagement, and plenty of extra nutrition beyond what you feed them. But there are risks. Your chickens can wander off, and they can certainly get picked off by predators from above and on the ground. It seems sad to keep your flock cooped up in the run, though!

two six months old freedom ranger hens
two six months old freedom ranger hens

But you might be able to let your chickens roam free, eat better, and get a little bit of protection from predators if you use cover crops.

Cover crops have long been used in farming to reduce erosion, improve soil structure, and promote fertility but they have benefits for chickens too by providing them with extra food and also a safe place to roam and hide when they are out of the coop or run.

Below I’ll tell you about my experience with growing cover crops for chickens and also what the best choices are.

Why Plant Cover Crops for Chickens in the First Place?

There are quite a few good reasons to plant cover crops for your flock, whether you let them at free-range all the time or just let them out periodically to get a little exercise. 

For starters, giving your chickens a large patch of cover crops will better simulate the environment that they would actually live in in the wild. Ancient, wild chickens are jungle birds, meaning there is plenty of foliage growing at ground level.

That’s quite a big difference from the short, nearly featureless manicured lawns or pastures that most of them run around on today!

This is important not only for enriching the day-to-day lives of your birds but also for giving them a very practical advantage against predators in the form of cover.

If chickens have a place to hide or some dense foliage to bolt into, they have a better chance of dodging a predator that swoops in for an attack. Everything helps in this regard, and cover crops can serve as concealment and, in some cases, as meaningful shelter.

And then you have another entirely practical advantage and what cover crops will do for your soil. Cover cropping was extensively practiced all around the United States for many decades.

Plus, cover crops were simply non-cash crops that were grown in addition to the main cash crop, used to increase organic matter levels in soil, reduce erosion, and improve soil structure- especially during crop rotation.

Cover crops can even naturally suppress plant and insect pests that can affect other plants and even your chickens! Plus if you are sick and tired like I am of the bald spots in your yard turning into mud holes because your chickens have scratched all the grass away, cover crops will help prevent that.

The Best Cover Crops for Chickens

The following plants and grasses are great choices when it comes to chicken-beneficial cover crops. Any of them can give your chickens a good source of food, and they will also help your soil in various ways. 


Kale is one of the most famous and nutritious of the leafy salad vegetables, and because most varieties grow very large, it provides plenty of ground cover and shade.

Your birds can nibble on kale and get a huge boost of various vitamins and minerals, and so will your soil after these plants break down and decompose. Kale is also known as an excellent weed suppressor and mature plants provide a good barrier against erosion.


Believe it or not, chickens like mustard and mustard greens, and don’t seem the least bit affected by its bracing, peppery taste.

Mustard also benefits the health of your chickens by giving them a great shot of vitamins A and C and also a surprising amount of calcium. Mustard is fast-growing and, like kale, is good at suppressing weeds and preventing erosion.

Most important to some of us, it also naturally eliminates various harmful microorganisms and soil-dwelling pests when it decays into the soil. Like a natural, chicken-safe antiseptic!


A popular cool-weather forage crop, rye can provide excellent ground cover while easily outcompeting weeds and other nuisance plants at the same time. Its extensive roots lock down soil, which in turn prevents erosion and improves soil structure for future use.

Chickens can benefit from rye by nibbling on the young and tender parts of the plant and it can supply a lot of calcium and other minerals.


two chickens eating alfalfa
two chickens eating alfalfa

Well known as a protein-packed legume used as forage, pasturage, and in all sorts of animal feeds, alfalfa is also a known nitrogen-fixing plant, meaning it will add nitrogen to the soil over time.

Your chickens will love alfalfa leaves, which are tasty and packed with protein along with an assortment of other essential minerals that they need like calcium.

Note that you generally don’t want chickens to eat too much alfalfa, but assuming you are giving them a well-rounded diet and letting them free range they are unlikely to overindulge.


chicken eating oatmeal
A red hen eating oatmeal

You probably already know that chickens absolutely love oats, and they’ll love them even more when they can nibble them right off the plant.

Oats are primarily thought of as a cash crop in and of themselves but they can also make for an effective cover crop because they grow quickly and can squash weeds and other pest plants with little difficulty.

Plus, you don’t have to worry about harvesting them or taking them up in this capacity because when these plants decompose they will dramatically increase the nutrient levels in the soil.


cowpeas growing in raised bed
cowpeas growing in raised bed

Another legume family plant that can provide chickens with a big boost of protein and other nutrients as part of a balanced diet, cowpeas can likewise restore nitrogen levels in neglected soil and have other fertility benefits besides.

They can also attract various insects that your chickens will eat in turn. Talk about a beneficial ecosystem unto itself!


Another cereal grain and another cash crop in different settings, barley seeds are favorites of chickens. Packed with good carbohydrates, a little bit of fiber, and a good assortment of essential minerals that chickens need.

This is a natural and interesting food for your flock and they will love to forage through any barley that you plant. Barley can also provide your birds with good cover since it grows reasonably tall and fairly quickly, and if left to break down will enhance soil nutrition levels for subsequent plantings.


Not to be confused with rye, above, ryegrasses can make for excellent forage for your chickens just as they are.

Compared to other types of grass they will provide you with considerable benefits for improving overall soil structure and reducing the likelihood that your chickens will eventually scratch it into a muddy pit thanks to its sturdy, spreading roots.

Ryegrass can also be a good ongoing part of your flock’s diet, if a supplemental one, thanks to its great nutritional profile of protein, carbs, vitamins, and minerals.


chickens eating some turnips

If you’re dealing with compacted, hard soils, turnips might be just the cover crop to kill two birds with one stone. Actually, I’m sorry, poor choice of words! Jokes aside, turnips can easily loosen up compacted soil and grow in conditions where other root vegetables would struggle.

Chickens also love those tasty, tender greens that grow on top, and they will occasionally eat tender, young roots and benefit greatly from their nutritional content. Turnips rarely grow large or tall enough to provide significant physical cover for chickens, but they still can for smaller breeds.


You might not care about growing weed as a cash crop, but it can work wonderfully as a cover crop for chickens, especially while it is young. Mature plants tend to be too tall, however, and chickens will be unable to reach the grains over time.

Nonetheless, it provides an excellent cover for your birds and if it is left to decompose will recharge soil levels over time.


a hen eating clover
a hen eating clover

Often used as a substitute for grass, assuming it isn’t taking over your grass already, various clover varieties can be a great cover crop for chicken owners. The tender leaves of clover are high in protein and provide other needed vitamins and minerals, namely calcium, vitamin A, phosphorus, and manganese.

Like alfalfa and other plants, it’s also a wonderfully effective nitrogen-fixing plant thanks to specialized bacteria that live in its roots. Plus this stuff is tough enough that it will invariably grow back even if your chickens seemingly wipe it out.

Even better, lots of insects and worms like to shelter beneath clover, meaning your birds will have a veritable buffet thanks to it.


Another grain that can give chickens some fun foraging opportunities and plenty of carbohydrates for energy along with various minerals. Buckwheat grows fast and will outcompete weeds and other nuisance plants that you probably want to get rid of already.

Although it’s not known as a big nutrient-boosting choice or as a noteworthy improver of soil structure, left to decay the nutrients that it has will still go back into the earth and improve your follow-on plantings.

Our Experience With Building a Run

Last year we built a nice big run, to protect our chickens from hawks and foxes that unfortunately picked off most of our free-range flock. It was full of grass and so nice to have them foraging around in without the worry of being attacked.

Unfortunately, it took about a week for them to completely destroy all vegetation in their yard, and they were down to bare dirt. And when it rained, mud… for days.

I LOVE the idea of free-ranging our flock, but I’ve come to realize that for us it just isn’t practical

The chickens don’t know how to stay out of my garden beds, or my flower bed. And so, we have got to get them back under a protective cover. But we have to find a better way of doing things…

My Brilliant Idea…

I was thinking we could section off their run, plant grass on both sides, and then rotate them around so they have a constant supply of forage. But it would take a lot of materials to build a run like that.

I also thought about building a chicken tractor (a moveable coop), but I don’t really wanna have to worry about lugging a chicken coop around the yard every so often.

Plus, the only place I’d really want them digging is in the garden where they would benefit the soil, which just wouldn’t be practical.

These options sound like a lot of trouble to me. Not to say I won’t end up trying them one day, but for now, I’d just like to have the coop and the run and leave the chickens there.

I was trying to figure out which grasses (or other cover crops) would be most beneficial to plant for chickens, when I came upon a fantastic idea: building raised beds of fresh feed crops to put in the run with the chickens.

Instead of planting grass in the chicken run and having them tear it all up in a matter of days, you would build some shallow raised beds to put in with the chickens, plant the crop of choice in the beds, and cover them with a poultry wire.

Kind of like what I’ve got pictured below, only this was a chainlink fence we used to cover our strawberry bed. You get the idea.

strawberry bed covered with chicken wire
strawberry bed covered with chicken wire

When the grass or whatever you plant grows, the chickens will only be able to eat what comes through the wire on the top of the box. They will still get their fresh forage, but won’t be able to scratch it to oblivion.

Isn’t this genius?

Well, I think so, anyways…

So I’m gonna try it.

It may turn out to be a total failure. But it’s plan A for now.

To deal with the mud in the rest of the run I’m gonna cover it with a constant thick layer of leaves and grass clippings. Not only will this help to keep the run sanitary, but it will also provide a perfect breeding ground for worms and other little bugs for the chickens to scratch and peck at.

Now… to get Jerry to work on that chicken run!

It may be months before you see pictures of this project finished folks. But I was so excited about the idea I wanted to share it with you now.

As far as the beds are concerned, I’ll probably have two or three covered raised beds in their run. So, what do you think? Don’t you just love this idea?

cover crops for chickens pin

17 thoughts on “12 Grasses and Cover Crops to Plant for Your Chickens”

  1. I am in the planning stages of making a run for my 5 chickens I will get next spring. My problem is I have grass with a sprinkler system. I like the idea of the chicken wire over the grass, but this will be a permenant run. Will it soon turn muddy? Thank you for all your great information on your blog!

    • Cressie,

      Chickens will scratch up grass in no time unless they are rotated and the ground has time to recover. If it’s a permanent run that isn’t rotated, you can bet it’ll be bare ground over time, depending on how many chickens you have and how much of an area they are in.

  2. Hmmm, just a comment about the grass and leaves your’re planning to put in the runs to prevent mud and to give worms and bugs a breeding ground. Good luck with that. My chickens are in small coops and no matter what I have put in there to cover the ground, they do their scratching ‘thing’ that they do and decimate it very quickly. Then it’s back to bare dirt. And forget about the idea of worms….the chickens will make sure no worms have a chance to survive. My favorite thing to put in the coops is old hay for a ground covering, but they soon (very soon) take care of that. I think they are eating it. I suppose if you have an unlimited supply of grass, hay, clippings, etc and add it every day you might be able to keep the dirt covered but the way they love to scratch around, I can’t see worms or bugs ever having a chance to survive. Chickens can be such nuisances but I love them just the same.

  3. We also have trouble with losing chickens when letting them out to forage.
    A chicken scratching and foraging is a happy chicken though so we came up with a compromise. We let them out a few hrs. before they would normally go in to roost. In the summer we usually let them out after dinner and in the fall it’s when I start to put dinner together. Since it’s close to their “bed time” they don’t stray too far from the coop and they really enjoy that couple hours of freedom.
    As for the muddy run…we threw a tarp over the top of the run which is also fenced. This worked well but there should be some slope so the water from rain or snow doesn’t accumulate.

  4. Hi Kendra – My husband is in the process of building a chicken coop, my friend is giving us four red hens. Can’t waite!!! love your idea of the raised beds so the chickens have a supply of greens. Going to try this and will let you know how it goes.

  5. That sounds like a really great idea. Not to mention that the chicken poo will fall down and fertilize the plants. Did you install a sprinkler system, or how do you plan to water the plants?

  6. We are in the process of building our coop and run and THIS solves so much of my problems. I am very happy I found this thanks!

  7. Aha! You may have just solved my problem, and I may successfully win the argument over chickens (our place is in the woods, so free-range won’t work). I second the Alfalfa idea– seems practical beyond anything the chickens could want.

  8. You should check out Joel Selatin’s self-sufficient farm, called Poly-Face Farm. We started our new little farm adventure about the time you guys did, and now we’re seeing how we seriously need some expertise to go learn from. They offer field trips with kids free, and we’re just making a fun family vacation of it. But he also has lots of videos to be viewed freely on the internet. The guy is a genius!! (And btw, a Christian homeschool family)

  9. What a clever idea!

    I’d just make sure that you have a very generous and enticing roosting system otherwise I could see them roosting on the wire and then you’d have droppings burning/caking up on the plants before they have a chance to flourish.

    I like the idea of alfalfa. It has the same about precent protein found in commercial laying mash/crumbles, will fill in the area, responds well to many cuttings, and is attractive.

    I think the grains come in at about 12% protein and the legumes at 24%.

  10. That sounds like a good idea! We put pasture our chickens and havn’t had but a couple taken by the chicken hawks…they dogs keep the away usually…but we always put them back in at night. Once ours are used to laying in the hen house they will come in all the way from the fields to go back in to lay…We planted alfalpha orchard grass mix a few years ago the goats chickens and turkeys like it…the pigs just like to root it up LOL…


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