Our Gluten-Free Chicken Adventure at One Year

We come to the first year anniversary of our adventure in raising chickens and feeding gluten-free. The line from Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie springs to mind: “We’re not dead yet.”

Could they really have been so tiny? Oh, how I worried, would even get up in the night to check on them.

Could they really have been so tiny? Oh, how I worried, would even get up in the night to check on them.

Last year at this time we were preparing for our first ever chicks, and discovered with sizable dismay and discouragement that all commercial chicken feed contains wheat. I have celiac disease, an auto-immune condition that makes me sick if I get even micro amounts of gluten protein from wheat, barley, rye grains. I almost died of it. Those were hard years. Only by maintaining a strict gluten-free environment have I reached my current good health, which I do not take for granted. My husband and I looked at each other. Dark clouds grew over our heads, filled with pictures of wheat gluten on hands, beneath fingernails, tracked on shoes, billowing all over our yard and house. Ingesting even a speck of the feed could put me under. No, we could risk it. An alternative would have to be found.

All the so-called experts say, “get a good commercial feed,” and with the attitude that should you do anything else, you are asking for trouble, that your chickens will die, or be inferior, which to them is the same thing.

Thankfully there are people with years of experience at raising backyard and small farm flocks the old-fashioned way on grains and seeds, and who are generous enough to share their knowledge. I scoured the web and books and thought back to my great-Uncle Willy, a farmer who was, shall we say, thrifty, and raising chickens in the early part of the 1900s; I seriously doubted he used commercial feed, a fairly modern phenomenon that came on like gang-busters in the affluent and industrial time after WWII.  My uncle raised mainly corn and milo; I eat some corn and a whole lot of milo, in the form of sorghum flour. Works for me. I devised my own feed– you can find recipes and links here. [Edited: you can find gluten-free chick starter mash recipes here.]

 I have been making all my own feeds going on 10 years, with results more than satisfactory to me, but cannot pretend to be an expert in the field of poultry nutrition, and indeed consider every one of my formulations a snapshot of a moving target-that is, an ongoing experiment. ~Harvey Ussery

Our Elvira turned up unable to walk at 8 months. I considered killing her, didn't, soaked her feet, coddled her for weeks, in which she never stopped laying eggs, and today she walks stiffly but still rules the other girls, and lays daily.

Our Elvira turned up unable to walk at 8 months. I considered killing her, didn’t, soaked her feet, coddled her for weeks, in which she never stopped laying eggs, and today she walks stiffly but still rules the other girls, and lays daily.

Do I get as many eggs as those fed on commercial egg-laying ration? I have no way to tell. I just this week began to record the number of eggs I’m getting and from which girls. Thus far, from eight hens–2 each Ameraucana, Barred Rock, Buff Orpington, Rhode Island Red– I will get 4-7 eggs a day. My girls have a fair sized yard they roam, and each evening they are let out into our pecan orchard to forage beneath trees and in leaf piles for an hour. The shells on the girls’ eggs are so hard you have to really hit them to crack them. We have had no breaking of eggs, even when they are kicked from the nest, no pecking out each other’s feathers or any other annoying behaviors. I have not wormed them, either. I guess I’m firmly in the natural path of pumpkin and other squash seeds and garlic as natural wormers. So far all are fat and sassy.

As Mr. Ussery says above, I cannot pretend to be an expert, but my results are thus far satisfactory to me. I’m still learning, still experimenting, but the chicks and I are not dead yet, and in fact, we are walking in tall cotton, as they say down here in the South. Proud girls with tail feathers high.

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Gluten Free Chicken Feed II

 

My Elvira, my first layer. Maybe extra love helped her produce.

Yes, you can easily raise your chickens on your own homemade gluten-free chicken feed, have healthy hens, and get very good eggs. I am so happy to write that. Especially that easily part.

Those of you who joined me at the start of this adventure back in February may remember my fears the chickens would all die under my inexperienced hand and choice to make homemade gluten-free feed. But here we are, I’m still healthy, and the girls are not only still alive, but thriving in a beautiful manner! They have at last begun laying fine-formed eggs with good hard shells. We believe we may have even gotten an egg from our little Princess Puny.

Thank you to all who wrote to encourage me, to all the people online who shared their knowledge– you can see the links in the previous posts on our chicken adventure.

They are still wet from rinsing. Our first day to get 4!

Now, there might be some question as to whether or not gluten goes through the feed to the egg, but, astonishingly, (my people might say, “Well, shut my mouth!”) it has been shown that soy is present in sizable amount in the yolk of eggs from hens fed heavily on soy. I saw the research paper online, but have lost the link — Google it for yourself, I don’t have time right now. Suffice to say, there are now producers of organic soy-free eggs, and I did save that url– Soy-free eggs here. As I find I’m sensitive to soy, I’m grateful I decided not to bother with adding soy to my recipes.

Here are my current recipes:

Basic Gluten-Free, Soy-Free Grain and Seed Mix
16 cups cracked corn
16 cups milo
6 cups rolled oats
13 cups hulled sunflower seeds

The above recipe makes approximately 30 pounds. I put a few cups in their feeders about twice a day, and they throw it all around (I think they holler whoopee!) in order to peck it off the ground.

Morning Mash
8 cups of the Basic Mix
1 heaping cup white rice, cooked (makes about 2-3 cups)
1 cup green split peas, thrown on top of the rice to soften while it steams.
1/2 cup brewer’s yeast
1/2 cup powdered milk
3 Tablespoons unsulphured molasses stirred into a cup of warm water, then added to the mix.
I make this in a Kitchenaid mixer about every 5 days. The stainless mixing bowl holds the amount comfortably. I make it up, put it in a large plastic zippy bag and store it in the refrigerator. I then feed approximately 3 cups each day to 8 chickens.

Notes:
I theorize the Morning Mash provides extra protein and nutrients. I cook the rice because, well, the chickens seem to like it, and I’ve read some stuff that indicates maybe cooking makes the nutrients more available in digesting. I use white rice bought in a 50 pound bag from Sam’s. I’ve been using hormone-free, fat-free, powdered milk but want to find whole- fat powdered milk. Molasses is listed in a number of commercial starter feeds. I discovered it excellent to bind the milk powder and the yeast to the grains, and it contains good amounts of iron and calcium and other nutrients. I long for feed peas for my basic mix like another woman might long for diamonds. Peas are far superior to soybeans, but not easily available in my area. I make due with the green split peas, bought from Walmart, and put it only in their Morning Mash. Peas with the other grains make a whole protein. The girls like the green, I think.

If you can get organic in all of these ingredients, do so! I cannot, and we see that we’re all still here.

In addition to this feed, the hens receive vegetable and fruit kitchen scraps. For a time, I had raw fish for them. Me and Sweetie-Pie love watermelon, and so do our girls. Often I have raw goat milk, or goat yogurt– they love it! The girls also free range each evening for a couple of hours. Once they form the firm habit of laying eggs in the hen house, I’ll be letting them free range often throughout the day. They adore the compost pile–worms and bugs, yumm!

Big Sister, our Ameraucana, who lays the blue-green eggs.

Today we have retrieved three eggs from the hen house. The excitement remains. It is like getting little jewels. The incredible, edible egg…out of a chicken’s butt. Amazing.

 

National Celiac Awareness Month– and the Gluten-Free Chicken Adventure Continues

May is National Celiac Awareness Month. I don my celiac advocacy hat. Darlings, do you have migraines? Tingling hands and feet? Gained or lost a lot of weight. Chronic fatigue? You have my prayers, and urge to get yourself over to check out the info on celiac disease at the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness website. You can read my own compelling story about discovery of my celiac disease here.

Do gluten-free chickens look the same as other chickens when they cross a road? Or in this case, sit on a perch?

I had a letter from a reader, Miss Deb, who is gathering information for starting up her own gluten-free backyard chicken adventure. Below is my response. (I never want to waste good writing or advice.)

Hello, Deb. Thanks so much for writing. It is always heart-warming, dare I say instant-friend-producing, to meet another celiac/gluten-intolerant person and backyard chicken enthusiast. I know you know, as no other person can know. Everyone in my household is either celiac or gluten-intolerant, too, so I maintain a gluten-free haven.

You have asked for my thoughts on the matter of keeping gluten-free chickens, and here they are: As far as I know, neither eggs nor chicken meat contain gluten. What might be happening to you and your family is a not at all uncommon allergy to eggs. Eggs are one of the top 8 allergens. I am not only gluten intolerant, but also soy intolerant, mildly dairy intolerant, and I am find I can be sensitive to chicken meat, too, a fact which may be caused by all the eggs I do eat.

My dear hens are 13 weeks old today. I don’t know how the darlings compare in size and maturity to same-age hens fed commercial wheat-containing feeds, but they and I are perfectly happy. I get my hands in the grains and seeds when mixing, and never have a worry that I’m going to be ‘glutenized’ by dust or anything under my fingernails or on my clothing. Certainly my hens show no harm whatsoever. My little Princess Puny, who seemed to have a deformity and I did not think would live, has grown and is feisty as all the others. I do not find making their feed a chore; it is quite simple, and I suspect the whole grains and seeds may be instrumental in keeping the hens parasite-free.

Thanks so much for writing. I will keep posting my gluten-free chicken raising adventure on the blog. Do let me know how your own adventure in gluten-free backyard chicken keeping goes. As far as I know, we’ll be the only ones.
Warmly,
CurtissAnn

Princess Puny, moving fast at eating breakfast.

The Chicks and Me, Gluten-Free

We have made it together– five weeks today on our adventure in raising chicks on a homemade gluten-free ration. I am happily feeding and touching everything without paranoia that I’m going to get smacked with a gluten-hit. (For the uninitiated, a gluten-hit is to a celiac like having unknowingly taken poison, resulting in anything and everything from stomach upset to days in bed.)

For the chick’s part, they appear to be thriving. Two have figured out how to fly out of the brooder cage when the lid is up. Princess Puny, our little special needs chick, is still alive and slowly growing, although the genetic defect has become even more evident when comparing her to the others. What inspiration and interest she provides!

I have noticed that the chicks might be pecking each other’s tail feathers. I’ve heard one woman say this is lack of protein, but read it can be anything from crowding to normal. I have done what I can, and not make myself crazy, to get protein into their feed. I have used as a basis information from poultry expert Harvey Ussery, and his article in Backyard Poultry Magazine, along with recipes found at the websites of Avian Aqua Miser, Greener Pastures Farm, and 3 Peas Bird Farm. A generous chicken owner on the Backyardchickens.com forum, who lives in a celiac household, shared her gluten-free mash recipe.

I have been amazed at the number of books on raising chickens that address the feeding issue with one sentence, amounting to the advice: “Buy a good chick-starter feed at the feed store.” I agree with Mr. Ussery, who states in his wonderful article that he found it odd that a reader who wrote to ask about homemade feeds, “…was so willing to experiment with her own diet, but is unwilling to do so with that of her chickens.”

How can we on one hand be convinced without a doubt that processed foods are not at all the best for us as humans, but that something that comes in a bag, who knows how long from the plant to our homes, is best for chickens? Does anyone recall the melamine poisoning in pet and animal feed that occurred back in 2007 from food additives made in China? The melamine was, of all places, in the added wheat gluten.

But I digress. I’m reporting here on my experiment, and I do have to remind myself all the time that this is an experiment. I have not been able to get some of the ingredients recommended, such as feed peas not being available in our area. Other ingredients were just too troublesome. I have begun making cornbread for the family weekly, and there’s plenty of left-over for the chicks; this is a way to get egg protein easily.

When I brought the brand new chicks home, I put together what I had on hand:
2 cups corn meal, 1 cup millet, 1/2 cup steel cut oats, 1/2 cup alfalfa pellets put through the blender (makes it too powdery) 1/2 cup brown rice, 1/4 teaspoon salt. Mixed it all with 3 Tablespoons molasses, which has a lot of minerals, anti-mold properties, and I saw listed on several packages of commercial feed, so it seemed a good idea. The molasses seems to hold the dust down and tiny bits of feed together.

The chicks went at it in something of a gratifying frenzy. I noticed, however, that they were far too small to eat even the tiny millet seeds, and the rice was thrown aside, too. The next batch I made, I still used the millet seeds, but substituted Bob’s Red Mill uncooked brown rice cereal for the whole rice.

In addition to this feed, I began to make them a mash three times a day of mixed corn grits, uncooked brown rice cereal, steel cut oats and powdered milk with a bit of water. I learned my chicks do not like wet mash. I’ve tried several recipes from the web, and I have to make the mash far more like crumbles, or they won’t eat it.

Within five days, I obtained a grinder attachment for my Kitchenaid mixer and was able to grind cracked corn, split peas, alfalfa pellets, and rice, each to the consistency the chicks could eat, but not too fine.

My recipes have progressed. This is what I’m currently mixing:

Gluten-Free Chicken Mash, 2 – 3 times daily:
1 cup ground cracked corn
1 cup coarse ground split peas or lentils and brown rice
1/4 cup coarse ground rolled oats
1/4 cup (scant) rice bran
1 1/2 Tablespoon brewers yeast
1 Tablespoons molasses
3 Tablespoons powdered milk (Bob’s Red Mill hormone-free)
1+ cup hot water, added a little at a time, until the consistency is crumbly, but everything is wet.
All measurements are more or less. I’m not a rocket scientist. Keep refrigerated.

Gluten-Free Chick Feed Dry mix kept in feeder at all times:
2 cups ground corn
2 cups ground split peas or lentils
1/2 cup millet
1/2 cup ground rolled oats
1/2 cup rice bran
2 Tablespoons flax seed
4 Tablespoons brewers yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons (approx.) molasses
Put it all in the electric mixer and mix on slow speed while drizzling in the molasses.

I sift the coarse oyster shell over it all to get some in for calcium, but I think I can just begin giving them the oyster shell as it is soon. I also put poultry vitamins and probiotics in their water daily, and several times a week I will add a bit of fresh crushed garlic to the water.

Let me confess that I do not intend to keep grinding grain and peas. Raising these chickens is not my life’s calling. I do intend to keep reading and experimenting to find what suits best both the chickens and I. Taking care of me is of primary importance, as I am the one who has to do the work of feeding them, in hopes that they will feed me.

What came first: the chicken or the human who feeds?

Post Script: Just discovered chickens adore Gluten-Free Bisquick Baking Mix biscuits!

Chicks Are Home…

…still alive and so am I.

I have worried over them like, well, you have to say it– a mother hen. I believe I’ve had more stress than they have. Are they eating? Why is that one sleeping so much? Is it too hot? Is it too cold? Are they pooping right?

They were peeping at the store, they peeped all the way home, and when they had been in their cage about ten minutes of sort of standing around, they all piled together and passed out. I, of course, feared some sort of instant death. I took myself off to keep busy. Fifteen minutes later my husband reported, “They’re all peeping and eating like crazy.” My response was, “Oh, they are not.” He’s such a one to tease.

Chicks first gluten-free meal

But they were. I’ve been watching them ever since, can hardly get anything done for watching them. They are chickens, for heavensake! Why are they fascinating? And the strangest thing– their little peeping makes me happy. The sound is for me like happy comfort.

They arrived earlier than expected to St. Elmo Feed and Seed, so by the time I picked them up Friday morning, they’d received over 12 hours of water and commercial chick starter. I’m sure God gave this to me so I could feel more confident. I can report, however, that they went at my gluten-free ration with eagerness. I was thrilled.

Let me pause and explain the gluten-free feed is for me– so that I don’t have to be immersed in commercial chicken feed which is filled with wheat and barley. As a celiac, I can eat all the chicken and eggs that I want to, but messing around with the feed presents hazards.

Basically, here’s the mixture we started with: cornmeal already on hand (Bob’s Mill stone ground), millet, steal cut instant oatmeal (McCann’s from Ireland that I haven’t been able to eat and could bear to toss out), alfalfa pellets put in the food processor (doesn’t work too well), brown rice, table salt, then added molasses to make sort of crumbly. They ate it quite happily, as you can see above.

Since then, I’ve learned that the babies love cracked corn softened with a small amount of water, but they do not like the feed mix dampened. I should have gotten alfalfa meal. A dish of milk did not fare well. The chicks very favorite by far, and easy, has been a mixture of cracked corn, Bob’s Red Mill cornmeal, Bob’s Red Mill rice cereal, and McCann’s steel cut oats (Bigstreetrod says, “If this keeps up our eggs will only cost us $15 a piece.”), soaked for a short while in water. Scarfed that stuff right up, as you can see.

So far, so good. We’re all learning, and we’re not dead yet.

Another Chicken Hurdle in Progress– looking for gluten-free feed

The coop progresses. All a learning experience. My husband is a saint.

My son telephoned. “How’s the chicken coop building comin’ along?”

“Good…only we discovered that all the chicken feed has wheat and barley in it.”

“Oh, yeah?” Great laughter ensues on the other end of the line. “You know, I guess you could expect that. I just never thought of it. Can’t you use gloves…oh, man, the dust.”

“Yep.”

I asked a gluten-intolerant friend how she handled the feed. She uses the commercial chicken starter crumbles and pellets, all with wheat, and doesn’t have too much of a problem. Her husband empties the pellets into a container for her, to hold down her exposure to the dust.

I thought: Okay, I can do that.

But I could not be easy about it. The feed–chick starter, grain, and pellet– contain what is known as wheat middlings. This is ground everything from the wheat kernel, and lots of dust. It would be around our place. I’d be cleaning the baby chicks’s cage daily, with the feed all over the newspapers and the chicks themselves. Might as well be putting poison all over and expect me to be just fine. Maybe I would wear a haz-mat suit?

Dear husband and I researched, and researched. I found a  commercial feed company that made a feed without wheat and barley, only the company was all the way out in California; price and shipping precluded this option. I actually discovered several other celiacs who wanted to raise chickens and had the same concerns. One woman chicken-raiser had discovered her celiac and that of her child last year. Being unwilling to expose gluten-containing feed to her child, she had started her spring chicks in the hen house, only to lose them to a predator.

We found more and varied homemade feed recipes than Carter has pills, and all but a couple contained wheat and barley, and most recipes seemed complicated beyond measure. Now, just where does one buy dried kelp? How natural is that for a chicken to eat?

I came to Greener Pastures website, whose author, Ronda Jemtegaard, wrote that it would be unlikely to find consistent information on making feed anywhere, since all chicken raisers have their own opinions. She advised reading all that one could, taking the information and coming up with a trial recipe that suited you. I really did not want to go to so much trouble. I wanted something easy, grabbed off the shelf in two seconds.

But I kept thinking of all the celiac and gluten-intolerant children (not to mention myself and my family) who might benefit from having a solid gluten-free recipe for their chickens and avoid a lot of worry.

And so, throughly reluctant, I am smack dab in an experiment on how to make starter gluten-free chick feed as easy as possible. Show me how, Lord.

Enter Miss Madelyn of St. Elmo Feed and Seed, St. Elmo, Alabama. Yesterday I explained my conundrum and desire. “Do you think I can make a starter feed without the gluten?”

“Of course you can,” she said. It turns out that her grandson is gluten-intolerant, and she completely understood my situation.

I gave Miss Madelyn my list of ingredients. She explained what would be best for a couple of them. She said, “You’re gonna have healthy chicks.” St. Elmo Feed and Seed dispenses the most invaluable of products– confidence.

So, the experiment begins. We get our chicks on Friday! I’ll report on the feed recipe in a month, providing I have not killed the chicks.

Dear hubby so irreverently says, “I know where they sell more.”

Wish us, and the chicks, well.