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Fur & Feathers: Herbs & Chicken Keeping

A Q&A with Lisa Steele from Fresh Eggs Daily

How can herbs play into your chicken keeping regimen? Lisa Steele’s philosophy is that though few scientific studies have been done into the use of herbs with poultry, if an herb is good for a human, she reckons it’s good for a chicken, too.  

“In the whole evolution of our DNA, 99 percent of ours is the same as a chicken’s or a mouse; our DNA is so close!” Steele says. Western medicine is not interested in having people be healthy, she explains, but she has done a lot of research on the benefits of herbs, and the studies she has found have confirmed her beliefs.

“Seriously my chickens don’t get sick,” she says. “I dry herbs and add them to their feed through the winter. I use herbs to build strong immune systems in my flock. I think herbs make a huge difference.” 

And, she adds, why not use herbs? They’re easy to grow, and different herbs provide a wide variety of health benefits. Sage and rose petals are antitoxins; garlic and nasturtium are natural wormers; tarragon and peppermint act as anti-parasitics; oregano is an antiobiotic; thyme and basil can help respiratory problems, echinacea, astragalus, elderberry, and ginger can boost the immune system; and the list goes on and on and on.

“I believe in a lot of preventatives instead of waiting until something is wrong,” Steele explains. “It’s hard to spot a sick chicken, as they hide their symptoms, and few vets will work with chickens.” And, if you don’t practice preventative care, your chickens have a good chance of getting sick.

“Respiratory issues are super common because chickens have convoluted respiratory systems,” she explains. “And, because you almost always have numerous chickens, when one chicken gets sick, there’s a good chance the others will as well. And by the time you realize something is wrong, it’s usually way too late. When things go bad, they go bad really fast.”

Over the past decade, she has spent a lot of time watching her chickens to figure out which herbs work the best, and which herbs they choose over others.

“I started reading about it,” she says. “They don’t eat herbs known for being calming, such as lavender and chamomile. But they do eat the ones that are super high in nutrients, such as parsley, basil, and cilantro. Clearly they know what they are doing. As I started watching them more, I learned more. They are actually using them the way I thought they should be using them.”

Steele isn’t 100% against the use of Western medicines, if that’s the only way to help your animals. However, as with peoples’ use of antibiotics, they have been way overused on poultry. She’s pleased with the new laws limiting the distribution of “Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD)” drugs (read more here), as it means fewer people will just give their chickens antibiotics for no reason.

“I get emails all the time with people saying, ‘my chicken doesn’t really look like herself today, so I dosed all the chickens and gave them a wormer; what else should I do?’ or ‘I gave my chicken antibiotics because she was limping, and it’s not helping!’ First of all, those people probably just killed their chickens. There are so many people who just don’t know what they’re doing! And it has become so commonplace to just give them antibiotics. I really try to impress upon people that, from the start, they have to work on boosting the immune systems of their chickens. They can use garlic, apple cider vinegar—those are two things that can make a huge difference for your chickens’ health! That’s the way to raise animals and yourself! Don’t just wait until you or they are sick to go to the doctor.”

On the other hand, Steele says, many people just don’t think about living naturally, raising their chickens or other animals naturally, or using herbs as preventative care.

“I work so hard to get people to think about not using commonly-used chemicals,” she explains, but people are used to what they are used to.

“My husband is the total opposite of me; if something doesn’t have a skull and crossbones on it, he doesn’t think it works,” Steele says. “But I still like to give people options. You can buy Green Goo Animal First Aid and slather it on your chicken’s comb, and you can use it on yourself or if your dog got a tick. It’s healthier than using a petroleum-based product. You can use herbs to boost your flock’s immune system instead of resorting to antibiotics. Part of it is just educating people and helping people realize there are better options here.”

The bottom line, Steele explains, is to just keep your chickens and ducks healthy in the first place. Give them plenty of space, let them roam around, don’t go to chicken swaps and add random chickens to your flock, become familiar with chicken symptoms of illness, use natural products when healing cuts and scrapes, and, grow and feed them herbs!

“We raise our chickens and ducks naturally because we are eating their eggs,” Steele explains. “I don’t apply chemicals to our animals because they’re actually producing something. For a lot of people this is really important, and for those for whom it’s not important, they just haven’t thought about it. I just think raising chickens naturally is a better way. Is it the best way? If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

If you want to learn more about chicken or duck keeping, check out Steele’s information-packed website, Fresh Eggs Daily, or buy one of her books.