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!

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.