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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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?

On Preparing to Get Your First Backyard Chickens

Chickens are awesome. They just are.

And, as more people begin to figure this out, the word is spreading. I know many people who are considering backyard homesteading and want to start with chickens, and with good reason. Chickens are great producers of food, highly efficient, relatively easy to care for, sweet, interesting, smart, funny, and quirky. They’re a good homesteading animal to start with.

I dreamed of having our own chickens for years before we finally had a place where we could give them a nice coop, plenty of space, and would have the time to care for them. And, when we did get our chickens, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with them.

guiniveve

This is Guiniveve, and she has more personality than I thought a chicken could have. She’s also a great layer and just a sweet hen.

We started with 17 Rhode Island Reds, and I loved those girls from the start. They were my babies, and they changed my life. But I won’t go on and on here about how much I love my chickens or how much they have taught me; I want to focus this post on helping you answer this question:

What happens when you finally decide you can get those backyard chickens you’ve been thinking about?

I learned fairly quickly that, while chickens really are relatively easy to take care of, there’s a lot than can go wrong. So you have to be prepared going in. Preparedness is going to be especially helpful if you find that you love the little girls like I do and can’t bear the thought of losing one.

And, I’m just going to assume right now, if you get chickens, you will love them and want to learn as much as you can about them because, well, you’re probably just going to love them.

With that in mind, here’s a list of 5 tips I have for being prepared to get chickens for your backyard homestead.

Do some research about keeping chickens with good books and sites.

I’m a slow mover, so I read books and sites for about two years before we finally got our girls, but I think that’s probably a little overboard. Still, I recommend going to this site, Fresh Eggs Daily, and reading every single link on caring for chickens. The site is awesome, and Lisa Steele really knows her stuff. Her advice has saved more than one of my girls, and I am forever thankful! You can also order some helpful books here.

You should also check out these helpful resources from your local university extension office. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension office here in Maine provides a number of helpful publications on chickens as well as a number of web resources on everything from selling eggs to chicken nutrition.

Give them a home safe from predators.

Thanks to our neighbors who already had chickens, I learned about the high number of predators in our area. While it helped that my husband had grown up with chickens, I think having an awareness of the types of predators in our area also helped us make good decisions about the chicken coop.

We decided to keep it as close to the house as possible. This makes daily chicken chores easier, but it also adds protection. I have seen coops out near the woods, and those people tend to lose a lot of chickens.

Keep your coop close if you can, and having dogs around seems to help a lot. Make sure your coop is sturdy and can be closed up at night. There are just too many predators that can get at your chickens at night.

We also have two roosters, and they really do seem to help guard the flock. There are pros and cons to roosters, though, and one of them is the crowing. I like the crowing, but you should check to see if roosters are allowed in your area. Some towns will allow hens but not roosters.

Consider breed and number.

You want to consider climate, temperament, your space, and your goals as a chicken farmer when you’re choosing your choosing breed and making decisions on how many chickens you’ll get. We wanted a smart breed that was winter hardy and great layers, so we chose Rhode Island Reds for our first hens. They have been wonderful! But there are other breeds that work very well in Maine.

Here’s a link from The Livestock Conservancy that will let you download a chicken breed comparison chart. But you should also ask around; ask friends and neighbors for their experiences and recommendations.

Be aware you will have chores.

So, yeah, chickens are easy farm animals to care for, but they’re still work. As you do your research, you’ll find this out, which is why that research is so important. Chickens need fresh water every day and clean food and clean facilities. This means you will have some daily chores, which can feel a little tougher in the winter. We also shovel a run for our chickens in the winter, so it adds to my husband’s snow shoveling duties.

You’ll also need to do health inspections on your chickens to make sure all is well. But I’ve found that, if you spoil your chickens, the health inspections are easier. They don’t run too much when you try to catch them and don’t make too much of a fuss as you are investigating vents, legs, eyes, feathers, etc.

Get connected to chicken communities.

I’ve found that being connected to some excellent chicken communities has been so helpful. If I’m having a health issue with a chicken that I just can’t figure out or I’m just worried about, I can post a picture and description to the Maine Poultry Connection, a Facebook group, and get tons of help and advice. I’ve also learned so much by just following the threads and reading. There are MANY chicken communities online, and you’re likely to be able to find a community particular to your state on Facebook.

There’s a lot to consider, but I found that, once you’ve done your research and done your best to be prepared, don’t be afraid to just dive right in. There’s a lot that we’ve learned along the way and things I couldn’t have been prepared for, like the time I was running around the yard trying to shoo away a hawk or the way my girls stole my heart.

Once you’ve made your decision and are ready to purchase, I recommend purchasing local if you can, but you can purchase from national hatcheries. Just be aware that some post offices seem to be more prepared for handling boxes of live chickens than others. Ours is great, but I’ve heard stories about boxes of chickens arriving without many survivors. So local purchases are really a good way to go if you can.

I wish you the best with your backyard flock, and I hope they bring you as much joy and breakfasts as our girls have brought our family!