On Oatmeal: Is It Good or Bad for Our Chickens?

Do you remember when all the nutritionists said that butter was bad for us and that the whipped margarine stuff was so much better? Well, I do. I ate that whipped crap for my entire childhood, only to learn as an adult that the nutritionists were wrong.

“Oops,” they said.

And this was neither the first nor the last time we would be led astray by the experts and nutritionists telling us that something humans had been eating for thousands of years was bad for us.

If you’ve read anything written by Michael Pollan, you know that you have to be very careful of nutritional fads and trends. It seems the wisest way to eat is to remember to look to our human culture and history and be careful of fads and trends.

Today, much to my surprise, I read in a blog post that oatmeal is bad for my chickens, even though I had read so many experts recommend it. I give my chickens oatmeal with blueberries as a special treat every couple of weeks in the winter, usually on the worst days, the days of the “deep freeze” here in Maine.

oatmeal

So I read with great intent to try to learn what I was doing wrong and why oatmeal was so harmful when so many people, including some multi-generational farmers, use it as snacks for their chickens.

After reading through the post that included testimony from a nutritionist from Purina, I felt much better about my decision to feed oatmeal with blueberries as a treat in the winter treat. I would never want to contradict anyone’s beliefs about chicken raising, as I have learned over the years that there is very little reliable research out there on chickens and that the experts disagree ALL THE TIME.

If you’re like me, this can leave you feeling a little lost, stuck, and confused. But I’ve been studying writing and rhetoric longer than I’ve studied chickens (I have a PhD in Rhetoric), and I do know a few things we should all be aware of when it comes to discerning reliability and credibility in the “chicken literature” that’s out there on the web.

Here are some tips for you to consider any time you’re reading articles, blog posts, and the like:

1. Be wary of people who use click-bait-like headlines or titles. As bloggers, we all have to try to write engaging headlines that get your attention. We want you to read our stuff. But, if you feel like a headline or title is sensationalistic, it should be a red flag.

2. Be careful of experts who have strong bias one way or another. Experts who are being paid by companies may be letting business bias them; in fact, history has taught us that this is most likely the case. We all have biases, but some are bigger and more obvious–and should give us pause.

3. Read carefully. Sometimes, writers will mislead readers with headlines and opening paragraphs but then address things more honestly quickly, kind of in the fine print. After reading the piece about oatmeal carefully (as well as the comments, including comments by the author) I realized that I don’t know a single chicken keeper who is using oatmeal for entire meals.

Everyone I know uses oatmeal as a treat, and that seems to be the best bet with anything and everything that is a treat. You have to give it in moderation. So how relevant is this expert information anyway? How many chicken farmers are actually using oatmeal as a big part of their chickens’ diets? Probably not many.

In the end, I like to go back to the basics of our culture. Humans domesticated chickens 8,000 years ago. They didn’t have layer pellets back then. My great grandmother kept chickens for decades, and her chickens ate scraps and free ranged. She didn’t buy feed in a bag.

Now, I’m not saying it’s wrong to buy feed in a bag. I do it myself, but I’m skeptical of any company that tells me I don’t need to use anything but their products. That’s just a big worry to me.

So, when all the dust had settled today, and I read through more information, including tips from Lisa Steele at Fresh Eggs Daily, a fifth-generation chicken keeper here in Maine, as well as the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, I realized that I’m probably just fine using oatmeal as an occasional treat in the winter. The University of Maine site actually lists oatmeal as an acceptable treat.

Now, of course, no one is saying you want to run out and feed your chickens oatmeal for their meals every day. But as long as you’re maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet, treats are acceptable.

And, remember, everything in moderation, including “research” from “experts” who work for a company that will benefit from said “research.”

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On Chickens and Salmonella: Are the CDC Warnings Real or Hype?

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Even if you’re not a chicken person, you’ve probably heard about the rise in salmonella outbreaks in the United States in the last few years. This rise in the number of salmonella cases directly corresponds with the rise in the number of people keeping chickens. But every time this issue comes up–and it does keep coming up–many backyard chicken owners dismiss the CDC reports as conspiracy.

I’ve written about the rise in salmonella cases myself and wondered about my own chicken-keeping practices. When I first wrote that I would have to stop kissing my chickens and shared my post in chicken communities, some readers were downright angry with me. “It’s all a conspiracy” was the gist of the comments.

I have to admit that it’s hard to know what’s real and true about anything these days, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there about chickens. I can spend weeks researching something about my chickens, only to get conflicting answers from all the experts I can find. Plus, I totally understand the urge to have at least a little mistrust of government agencies who have very strong ties to agribusiness.

But I don’t think that’s the end of this story.

In the middle of all of those posts in the chicken forums about how all of this salmonella talk is just a lot of hype, I also read a few stories from chicken owners who had contracted salmonella from their chickens. It’s not fun. The women telling their stories were very, very sick.

But where does that leave us?

I always find myself somewhere in the middle on most issues and this one seems to be no different–and this is after researching this issue quite a bit for about a year. In 2016, I first read about the CDC report linking the rise in salmonella cases to the rise in backyard chicken keeping. Since then, as more people continue to get backyard flocks, the issue comes up again and again.

Most recently, NBC news reported on the rise in salmonella in the U.S. According to the numbers, the cases of salmonella continue to rise, and in 2017, we’ve already had more cases than we had in 2016 total. We’ve had 961 reported cases so far in 2017. But these numbers do seem kind of low to me considering how many people in the U.S. keep chickens. I can’t find any definite numbers on the number of people who keep chickens, but it must be hundreds and hundreds of thousands. One chicken forum on Facebook alone has about 100,000 members.

Still, I can’t help but think it would be terrible to get sick from my chickens, and for the people who have gotten sick, I’m sure it is terrible.

This summer, we had to keep a baby chicken in the house for two weeks to keep it alive, and while I wouldn’t change a thing and am so glad I did it for that little sweetheart, I understand that I was taking a risk. For those two weeks that my baby chick, Buttermilk, was in the house, I was worried and super careful. Was I careful enough? Well, I didn’t get sick. Did I just get lucky? Maybe.

But I think the thing we can all agree on, whether we think all of the salmonella reporting is just a bunch of hype or a serious issue to be addressed, is that some good common sense when it comes to keeping chickens is always a good idea. Here are some key takeaways from both the reports and from people who have kept chickens for years:

1. Just wash your hands.

Really, anytime you’ve had contact with your chickens, it’s good to wash up. It’s a good habit to get into, though it can be tough to get kids into this habit. I know our little boy often forgets. I can see why young children have the highest risk of contracting salmonella.

2. Use different shoes for visiting your chickens.

This is something we really have to work on in our house. Thankfully, we don’t have babies crawling around on the floor anymore, but, if we did, this would be a bigger issue for us. We really should wear different shoes out to visit the chickens.

3. Be aware that keeping chickens in your house is going to make things tougher.

Of course, the CDC says to never keep a chicken in your house, but people do it. Plus, even though I’m not a house chicken kind of chicken lady, I ended up having to keep a chicken in our house because the baby was sick and needed care. But it’s a risk. I think we have to know that.

4. Finally, don’t kiss your chickens–if you can help it.

I always forget about this one, and I realize that I’m never going to stop snuggling my chickens as the CDC recommends. But, if I forget and kiss a chicken, I clean up. And, after I snuggle a chicken, I never wear those same clothes to cook meals in.

I honestly think it’s ridiculous to expect people not to snuggle their chickens, but I also think that maybe there are some good points behind all the hype. I’m going to try to be more careful, just in case.

But I’ve also had a chicken give me a hug, so I’m always going to keep chickens.

10 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Got My Chickens

I did my very best research before we became chicken owners. I had wanted chickens for years, so I had plenty of time to read books and research online. Mostly, all the information out there is the same, and some of it’s really good.

But there are so many things I wish I had known going in. I wouldn’t change a thing about being a chicken mama, of course. Getting chickens has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life, and they give me hope for our family during tough times.

Still, I think there’s a lot of information that seasoned chicken farmers forget to tell us when we’re just starting out. Even after just 3 years with our chickens, I’m already thinking of things I’ve learned and then forgetting to tell others about them.

But, for the end of 2017 and the end of my third year as a chicken mama, I wanted to put together a list of lessons I’ve learned—some of them hard lessons. My hope is that it can help others who are considering chickens or who have recently become chicken farmers.

  1. Getting chickens that are awesome layers can come with some costs.

When you’re researching breeds, sources often do not tell how you much variation there can be within a breed. And, if you’re like me, when you’re researching a chicken breed for egg-laying potential, you are really just thinking about egg laying potential. While some people do keep chickens just as pets, most people who raise chickens are also in it for the eggs. They’re extremely nutritious, and chickens are very generous to us.

However, what I didn’t know is that chicken breeds that have been bred to be extreme layers also sometimes come with health problems associated with being a layer who can lay at commercial levels. Even within a breed, such as Rhode Island Reds, the hens we started with, there can be great variation. I wish I would have looked for a heritage version of the RIR. Our girls have laid like commercial layers, and they’ve struggled with some genetic issues as a result.

  1. It may be better not to add light and extend the day for your hens during the winter.

If you live in a northern climate like I do, one way to keep your hens from really slowing down on the egg laying in the winter is to add light to the coop in the mornings to help extend the day and the daylight. It takes about 14 hours of light to make an egg, we started out adding a little light to our coop each winter to extend the day and keep our girls from taking a break.

After three years, much research, and making connections to some farmers who are a little more “old school,” we decided not to light the coop this winter. The rest can be really good for them.

Of course, for families who can’t afford to be without the food or income from the eggs, lighting the coop may be essential. But if it’s not essential for you, I would recommend letting them rest. Others will disagree, and I honestly don’t care. I’m a careful study of my birds, and I believe letting the girls take a break if you can is a good thing.

  1. Chickens hide their health problems.

Chickens are very easy to care for—until they’re not. And the issues come from the fact that chickens will hide their health problems. They don’t want to get picked off by a predator, so they’re extremely stoic. This can make it difficult to diagnose health issues in your chickens.

  1. Winters can be tough on your flock, but it’s not as bad as you might think.

If you live in the north, all you have to do is get breeds that do well in the winter. You don’t have to heat the coop, and you don’t have to keep them cooped up and never let them outside. In fact, never going outside is what makes winter so difficult for your chickens. They’ll start to go stir crazy. I’ve seen this on blizzard-like days here in Maine. When the girls can’t go out, it’s hard on them mentally. So we shovel the snow and get the outside as soon as we can.

If your chickens don’t like walking on the snow, put down leaves for them to walk on and scratch around in.

Key problems in winter are ventilation issues, coop fires, and chickens hurting each other from being literally “cooped up.” I know there’s an urge to “baby” our chickens. I feel the same way, but I’ve seen what works best for our girls. They have tough feet and thick feathers. According to my research, most chickens can handle temperatures down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

  1. Predators are going to stress you out.

Predators are an issue, and they come from overhead and on the ground. Neighborhood dogs are also a serious issue for many backyard flocks. Keep your chickens in a fence with plenty of space to run around if you can.

  1. Chickens are wicked smart and very social.

I figured chickens were smart, but I had no idea how smart. They are social, interactive, have friends, and have chickens they don’t like. They solve problems and know people. If you’ve never had chickens and are thinking of getting some, you’re going to be highly impressed—and highly entertained. They’re also downright funny.

  1. No matter how many chickens you start with, you will want more.

This is just a reality. Start preparing for it. We really need a second coop.

  1. It’s difficult to research care for chickens because even the “experts” disagree.

I’ve seen people have knock-down drag-out fights on chicken forums over the best ways to care for chickens. Even the “experts” will disagree quite a lot to the point of having completely opposite opinions. It’s also tough to find research on the web about chickens because so much of the research focuses on chickens as a part of the food industry. Find someone you can trust who’s been raising chickens for a long time. It’s my best advice.

  1. Genetics are important, so hatchery chickens you order online can be risky.

I’ll never order online from a big hatchery again, though I know this is how a lot of people get started. It’s how we got started, but I quickly saw genetic issues coming up. I’ve learned that it’s best to buy your chickens locally from someone who has a good reputation for breeding for the healthiest birds. The best way to do this, if you’re new and don’t know any chicken breeders, is to join online chicken groups on Facebook in your state or area.

  1. You’ll fall in love with your chickens in ways you can’t imagine and will learn so much about animals and nature that it may change you as a human.

I knew I wanted chickens, but I had no idea how much I was going to love them and how much I was going to learn from them. Being close to my chickens has made me a better person. I’m kinder and more open minded. I’m thankful to them for the food—and the wisdom.

Lucy and Poe Baby Day 1
This is Lucy and her first baby. Watching Lucy raise babies this summer taught me so much about chickens and about myself as a mom.

 

Final Thoughts

I know I have so much more to learn, but I’m making progress. I hope you find this advice helpful to you or someone you know. Others will disagree and that’s okay. See number 8. But I hope my list will at least help start a conversation.

What do you wish you had known before you became a chicken person?

Why I’m Not Adding Light to My Chicken Coop This Winter

I’ve been keeping chickens for three years now, and I’ve learned so much during that time. I’m a researcher and a studier of all things by nature. And, for the most part, for the last three years, I’ve been obsessed with chickens.

It doesn’t help that there’s so much conflicting information out there in the world. When even the experts disagree, what can you do? For me, I’ve realized that I’ve had to turn to a whole lot of observation.

Now, I have to confess that I don’t always have time to study my chickens as much as I would like. I mean, I teach and home school my son and have a fairly busy life. But, this summer, my teaching load was reduced, and I was able to do some fairly intense study of my girls.

I learned some key lessons from my summer of study, and one of them was that egg laying is hard on these girls’ bodies. Of course, chickens have evolved to lay eggs, but they haven’t evolved to lay eggs at the rate in which humans have bred them to lay eggs. In fact, wild chickens lay just about 15 eggs per year, which is, of course, a long way from 250-300 eggs per year.

Of course, I am thankful we get more than 15 eggs per year, but you have to wonder, in our eagerness to make chickens into what we want them to be, if we considered the health of the chickens. I think the answer is a resounding no.

I mean, it’s this is not what humans are generally known to do, and you need only look at the situations in factory farms to see that it all too often the case that we put our needs above any consideration for the animal. And, of course, when I say “we,” I don’t mean all of us, but the humans “in charge” have a long history of this kind of behavior.

When we bought our girls from the hatchery online, we researched birds that would be intelligent, hardy in the winter since we live in Maine, and really good layers.

And good layers they were. I just didn’t realize laying this much was costing them. The first year everything was great! We had more eggs than we could deal with and were selling them left and right. I noticed that some of our girls seemed to kind of be born with some health issues, but it didn’t seem to bad and it didn’t stop them from laying.

I had so much to learn.

My epiphany came after we had a broody hen this summer, Lucy, who went broody and was able to sit on some fertilized eggs, as we finally got our first rooster. She was one of our Reds who had struggled with her health from the beginning, so I was really, really worried about her. I thought about trying to break her from being broody, but she was stubborn—and I was selfish. I wanted some babies and thought I could just help Lucy stay healthy with a lot of extra care.

We gave Lucy extra treats and vitamins in her water while she was sitting on her clutch. She took her breaks but always went right back to her eggs. When it was time for the babies to hatch, we ended up with just one baby but were able to add one more baby for her to adopt. With two babies, Lucy was in heaven, but she looked worn.

And with the babies now taking up so much of Lucy’s attention, I was worried that she wasn’t eating enough. She wouldn’t take any treats anymore because she was saving them for her babies. I was really worried about her health, and I remember telling my husband I was worried we might lose her.

After all, she wasn’t in the greatest health when this whole thing started. But over time, Lucy became healthier–much healthier. And, by the time Lucy’s babies were big enough to be on their own, Lucy looked better than any Rhode Island Red I had ever seen. I mean, she was calendar worthy.

It didn’t take long for me to realize why Lucy looked so much different. Maybe some of it was just that motherhood agreed with her, but I feel certain the biggest asset to her health was the 2 to 3 month break from egg laying. I couldn’t believe the difference.

Beautiful Lucy
This is Lucy post babies. She looks so healthy after her summer break from laying eggs. I’m sure her molt helped, but she has molted before and never looked this robust and healthy.

Now, I have to admit that I didn’t just come to this conclusion without reading a lot about chickens and egg production. We had always added light to our coop in the winter, just a few additional hours, to keep egg production up. However, as our hens aged, I could see they were just kind of wearing out, which, thanks to my research, I’ve now learned is a common problem in hens bred to lay 300 eggs per year. Essentially, those girls don’t usually live very long lives, and, of course, the chicken industry in general doesn’t care.

But I care.

That research, plus my experience with Lucy, was all the evidence I needed. I talked to my husband about it, and I began to learn that other chicken keepers did not light their coops in the winter. They believe their chickens need the rest, and I now believe the same thing.

I understand that some people may have no choice but to light their coops. Some people rely on the eggs for income, and I can see that feeding your children or providing for your family would take precedent over the longevity and health of your chickens.

But, if you’re like me and thought that lighting your coop in the winter was completely harmless and without consequence, please know that it’s not that simple.

This winter, for the first time, we’re not adding light to the coop. We have 18 laying hens and, yesterday, we got 4 eggs. That has been our lowest number so far. I thought my husband might be having his doubts because our family eats a lot of eggs. But, no.

“I don’t mind,” he said. He agrees that our hens could use the rest.

We’re thankful to our hens for our food, but they are more than food to us. It seems giving them a rest is the right thing for our family. Though I know it’s not right for everyone, it may be the right thing for your family, too.

*Please note, if you have been adding light to extend the days for your hens, please do not just stop the lighting all at once. Lighting should be reduce gradually (about ten minutes a day) to protect the health of your layers.

On Keeping Chickens and the Dangers of Salmonella: Are the Warnings Real or Just Hype?

Even if you’re not a chicken person, you’ve probably heard about the rise in salmonella outbreaks in the United States in the last few years. This rise in the number of salmonella cases directly corresponds with the rise in the number of people keeping chickens. But every time this issue comes up–and it does keep coming up–many backyard chicken owners dismiss the CDC reports as conspiracy.

I’ve written about the rise in salmonella cases myself and wondered about my own chicken-keeping practices. When I first wrote that I would have to stop kissing my chickens and shared my post in chicken communities, some readers were downright angry with me.

I have to admit that it’s hard to know what’s real and true about anything these days, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there about chickens. I can spend weeks researching something about my chickens, only to get conflicting answers from all the experts I can find. Plus, I totally understand the urge to have at least a little mistrust of government agencies who have very strong ties to agribusiness.

But I don’t think that’s the end of this story.

In the middle of all of those posts in the chicken forums about how all of this salmonella talk is just a lot of hype, I also read a few stories from chicken owners who had contracted salmonella from their chickens. It’s not fun. The women telling their stories were very, very sick.

But where does that leave us?

I always find myself somewhere in the middle on most issues, and this one seems to be no different–and this is after researching this issue quite a bit for about a year. In 2016, I first read about the CDC report linking the rise in salmonella cases to the rise in backyard chicken keeping. Since then, as more people continue to get backyard flocks, the issue comes up again and again.

Recently, NBC news reported on the rise in salmonella in the U.S.

According to the numbers, the cases of salmonella continue to rise, and in 2017, we’ve already had more cases than we had in 2016 total. We’ve had 961 reported cases so far in 2017. But these numbers do seem kind of low to me considering how many people in the U.S. keep chickens. I can’t find any definite numbers on the number of people who keep chickens, but it must be hundreds and hundreds of thousands. One chicken forum on Facebook alone has about 100,000 members. Still, I can’t help but think it would be terrible to get sick from my chickens, and for the people who have gotten sick, I’m sure it’s terrible.

This summer, we had to keep a baby chicken in the house for two weeks to keep it alive, and while I wouldn’t change a thing and am so glad I did it for that little sweetheart, I understand that I was taking a risk. For those two weeks that my baby chick, Buttermilk, was in the house, I was worried and super careful. Was I careful enough? Well, I didn’t get sick. Did I just get lucky? Maybe.

But I think the thing we can all agree on, whether we think all of the salmonella reporting is just a bunch of hype or a serious issue to be addressed, is that some good common sense when it comes to keeping chickens is always a good idea.

Here are some key takeaways from both the reports and from people who have kept chickens for years:

1. Just wash your hands.

Really, anytime you’ve had contact with your chickens, it’s good to wash up. It’s a good habit to get into, though it can be tough to get kids into this habit. I know our little boy often forgets, and I have to stay on him. I can see why young children have the highest risk of contracting salmonella.

2. Use different shoes for visiting your chickens.

This is something we really have to work on in our house. Thankfully, we don’t have babies crawling around on the floor anymore, but, if we did, this would be a bigger issue for us. We really should wear different shoes out to visit the chickens.

3. Be aware that keeping chickens in your house is going to make things tougher.

Of course, the CDC says to never keep a chicken in your house, but people do it. Plus, even though I’m not a house chicken kind of chicken lady, I ended up having to keep a chicken in our house because the baby was sick and needed care. But it’s a risk. I think we have to know that.

4. Finally, don’t kiss your chickens–if you can help it.

I always forget about this one, and I realize that I’m never going to stop snuggling my chickens as the CDC recommends. But, if I forget and kiss a chicken, I clean up. And, after I snuggle a chicken, I never wear those same clothes to cook meals in.

I honestly think it’s ridiculous to expect people not to snuggle their chickens, but I also think that maybe there’s some good points behind all the hype. I’m going to try to be more careful, just in case.

But I’ve also had a chicken give me a hug, so I’m always going to keep chickens.