When I was younger and wanted to find the answer to a question I trotted off to the library and hoped it would be amid all the stacks of books. Fast forward a few decades and with the click of a mouse we can find an overwhelming, and often conflicting, amount of information.
I’m on a number of Facebook chicken groups and I do surf the internet as well. One of the contentious topics is whether oatmeal is bad for your flock. Some time ago, I scrolled by the Chicken Chick’s article entitled “The Shocking Effect Of An Oatmeal Breakfast On Chickens” which struck me as a bit of fear mongering. Issues are often more nuanced, and less black and white, than many folks treat them. This is a case in point.
When you Google chickens + oatmeal the first thing that appears in the feed is the above-mentioned post. This time, I took a deeper look. One of the things that struck me (after the sensational title) is the Avian Nutritionist who acted as the expert consultation works for Purina Mills, one of the largest suppliers of manufactured poultry feed.
Following his comments are a number of graphic photos of necropsies of birds with necrotic enteritis (implied as a result of eating oatmeal) and a ‘dramatization’ photo of the effects of beta glucan on the avian digestive system. And guess what? All roads lead back to the solution of providing your birds Purina feed. Sorry if I sound skeptical, but I don’t believe that’s the whole story. (FYI: Purina is owned by Nestle, the world’s largest food company with a net worth of $315 billion as of June 2020).
It’s not surprising that an employee of a large corporation would support their viewpoint. It might sound like sour grapes on my part, but it often follows when folks are sponsored by business they are beholden to those interests. It’s unrealistic to think there won’t be some bias towards those who supply your paycheque. I consider my blog an undiscovered gem and as long as I have no ties to money I am free from outside influences. There may be some bias, but at least it’s my own, and I do endeavour to base my work in science.
The second post in my Google search was from Fresh Eggs Daily, another popular chicken site. Interestingly enough, she recommends oatmeal, purporting that “Adding a 3% ration of oat hulls to chickens’ diets can reduce pecking and aggression which often will lead to cannibalism in flocks – and oats are proven to make chickens more resistant to heat stress and exhaustion.” She cited no studies to back up that claim, but did mention that “oats do contain beta-glucan, like many other grains including barley, rice, millet and maize. There is some indication that beta-glucan – especially that in barley – while helpful in immune system health, can be detrimental to poultry in large enough amounts, so like all other treats, oatmeal should be fed in moderation”.
I then looked at a number of science based posts and studies on the issue. Here’s what I found:
Beta-glucans are naturally occurring polysaccharides and soluble fibres, which are most abundant in raw foods and found naturally in cereal grains (oats, barley, wheat and rye), yeast and some mushrooms. Whole grains, as close to their natural states as possible, such as steel-cut oats and pearl barley, contain the highest levels. Any processing done to the grains actually reduces the amount of beta-glucan.
As a soluble fibre, beta-glucan is not digested, but works to slow food transit in the intestines. This seems to be the sticking point around why oatmeal isn’t good for your flock: it can potentially inhibit nutrient uptake. That’s quite possible, but beta-glucans have a long list of benefits, such as slowing the absorption of carbohydrates, resulting in steadier blood sugar levels, and as it moves slowly through the small intestine it takes cholesterol-rich bile acids with it.
Beta-glucans are a catalyst for immune system function by activating every immune system cell in the body: macrophages, neutrophils, basophils and natural killer cells. In vitro studies have shown that beta-glucans can enhance the activity of macrophages as well as activate antimicrobial activity of some immune system cells.
Their extracts have been found to be effective in preventing performance decline in broiler chickens challenged with coccidia and Clostridium perfringens. Birds fed yeast beta glucan supplements had significantly increased body weight, improved feed efficiency and a decrease in weight loss that is associated with necrotic enteritis. Beta-glucans have also been shown to prevent the colonization of bacteria such as Salmonella and E.coli.
They are a number of nutrients in oatmeal that are beneficial to chickens: antioxidants, copper, folate, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, protein, vitamins B1 (thiamine) and B5 (pantothenic acid). In winter a cooked bowl of oatmeal is a great way to warm your flock.
One study reported: “The energy content of naked (hulled) oats is 17% and similar to that of wheat. Oats (both regular and naked) contain beta-glucans, which can cause digestive problems and sticky litter when fed to poultry. Researchers have reported that up to 40% of naked oats could be included in broiler diets with no adverse effect on growth, feed efficiency, shrinkage, dressing percentage or bone strength.”
A 1940 article in an Iowa State University publication titled “Oats Rank First For Poultry Feed” studied various grains – oats, wheat, corn and barley – on chicken health issues. They concluded that birds fed an oat diet had higher growth rates, were more vigorous, had a lower incidence of slipped tendon and mortality than those fed other grains.
I think like many contentious topics there is probably some truth to both sides of the argument. There wasn’t overwhelming evidence to suggest that oatmeal was harmful, except in large quantities. On the contrary, in focusing on beta-glucans detractors often minimize the nutritional value and benefits of oatmeal. Like with most things, moderation is key.