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Raising meat chickens on no grain?

 
pollinator
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We sell heritage breed meat chickens at a local farmers market, and recently had a customer approach us and ask if our chickens were fed grain. I responded that yes, they are, because chickens are not ruminants, and grass-fed chicken is simply not an option. They are granivores, meaning that they consume seeds, which can include corn and wheat and oats and such. She was adamant that there is a way to raise chickens for meat without feeding grain, and referenced, I think, a farm in Wisconsin doing just that. (I might mention that English was not her first language, and she had a tendency to mutter, so after asking her to repeat herself a few times I finally gave up and just did the best I could to understand. Thus, I didn't get all the details.) My assumption was that a grain-free diet would produce meat birds that grew incredibly slowly and laying hens whose egg production was intermittent at best. Maybe I'm wrong.

Now, of course, chickens eat lots of bugs. They will forage on plant material a good bit. They will happily eat milk and milk products (whey, yogurt, etc.). Fruits and veggies and garden waste, yes. But I'm wondering if anybody here has any idea how one might go about raising chickens with no grain and getting respectable gains at a price that isn't absolutely exorbitant. This customer mentioned that the chickens she was referring to were, if I recall her words correctly, "Expensive like hell," but I don't know what that means exactly.

In my brainstorming, I assumed to offer grain-free chicken I would give the birds free range of the pasture and woods. This border area is full of mineral-rich plants and is a great location for creepy crawlies, not to mention a fair bit of mast. Then I figured I'd likely want to supplement with, perhaps, purchased grass seed, mealworms, and milk or milk products. Maybe tree nuts as well. I would think that calorie-rich garden veggies (pumpkins and winter squash?) would make good feed too. I don't have access to large amounts of compost, so that's out, and to do this it would have to actually be profitable. Any ideas? Could I even substitute 100% grass seed for all the purchased grain in my current ration, and bring the protein up with a sufficient amount of nuts and dairy? Fish meal would obviously be a grain-free way of upping the protein content, but I'm afraid that much fish meal in a ration might negatively affect the flavor.

Anybody?
 
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It depends on your definition of grain-free. Karl Hammer of Vermont Compost Company raises over 1000 chickens without purchasing grain or growing it. However, food waste is a major component of their compost, and it contains some grain products. They also feed extensively on the products of the composting process-- mycelium, bugs, fungi-- but by a strict definition, they aren't grain-free.

Our farm (BeetDown Pharm) does something similar with 100+ chickens, but we don't sell our compost-- we use it to build terraces on our clay hillside. We also have a small amount of grains in our compost, but it's mostly overripe fruits and vegetables. The birds are also very happy when we bring in landscape waste. They dig through piles of leaves and shrubbery to find snails, slugs, pill bugs, and other tasties.

In our case, and that of Vermont Compost Company, we're raising chickens for eggs, not meat, but meat should be doable. You're looking at a much longer process-- 4 to 6 months, I'd think-- but your feed bill should be non-existent. If you have a broody mama to hatch them, she'll have them foraging for themselves in 2-3 days.
 
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The permaculture orchard guy (can't remember his name) raises birds without grain. He gets $50 for a chicken and only raises one batch per year, timed with the food availability (which also gives a harvest in about the right time for Thanksgiving). They get grain in the seedheads of grass, they get bugs, and then they get windfall fruit just as they are finishing off.

But not everyone can do that immediately, and often you can't support the number or schedule you want. You have to adapt to the land to do it.

There are legal issues about feeding food waste to meat animals, and having fresh animal waste in a compost product--but I don't know the details.
 
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Wes,
Of course you can raise chickens without grain. But there is no real advantage to it. Chickens are not picky eaters. They'll eat pretty much anything you give them. Stop feeding them and they'll hunt down pretty much anything. I had a rooster once that was better at catching mice and snakes than most cats! Big mice and big snakes too. Might take him hours to get it down. But they do it. Funny to watch a chicken walking around the barnyard with 1/2 a snake tail hanging out it's beak because it wouldn't fit in his craw! hahahaha

Anyway, chickens are omnivores. They'll eat anything. And there is nothing wrong with feeding them grains, as long as their diet is balanced. Just because it is bad to feed grains to cows, doesn't mean it is bad to feed grains to chickens.
 
pollinator
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Scott Strough wrote:Just because it is bad to feed grains to cows, doesn't mean it is bad to feed grains to chickens.



True, except for the damage to the environment caused by growing grains. I feed my pigs & chickens grain but try to feed as much perennial based foods I can.
 
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Let them eat giant ragweed
The seeds of giant ragweed are 47% crude protein and 38% crude fat.
 
steward
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I think that this boils down to the fine line definitions between cereals vs. grains.
By definition, all cereals are grasses.
Grains can be cereals, or seeds from plants that are not grasses (such as buckwheat).

A chicken raised without any grains is, in my opinion, an animal raised on an unnatural diet.
To be totally grain-free, such a critter would need to be raised where nothing grows.
On any natural surface, that bird will find (and eat) some grains. Fact of life.

Perhaps, you should forget about that one customer, and concentrate on the customers who wish a natural chicken.

 
alex Keenan
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How to you go from an animal that was a jungle bird where insects and fruits were as important as tree and brush seeds to "A chicken raised without any grains is, in my opinion, an animal raised on an unnatural diet". You don't see a lot of grains in the jungles.

Are the carbohydrates from grain that superior to root crops or fruit? My turkeys dig up my sunchokes to eat the roots.
Are the fats in grains superior to the fat in insects? Never seen my birds pass up a worm.
Should grains be the only source for proteins? Is it unnatural for poultry to feed on high protein greens? Given a chance my chickens will ravage a number of green plants I grow.

Please clarify, because I must have unnatural poultry.
 
John Polk
steward
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Seeds are grains. They have been a part of a chicken's diet throughout their known history.

 
Cj Sloane
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We should distinguish between purchased and non-purchased grains!
 
John Polk
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The OP was looking at the notion of raising meat birds with no grains in their diet.

Every homestead that I have seen chickens ranging on, the chickens are going to find and eat some grains.
Their nature tells them to gobble up any that they find on the ground.

I believe that to honestly market chickens as 'no grain feed', you would almost need to raise them in confinement - with concrete floors.
Drop a single grain of rice, wheat, or whatever in their run, and see how long it stays there.

In a tropical rain forest, they may not find any cereals, but they will still find plenty of seeds (grain).
Besides being omnivores, they are also great scavengers. Nothing eludes their beady little eyes.

 
Cj Sloane
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Wes Hunter wrote:She was adamant that there is a way to raise chickens for meat without feeding grain, and referenced, I think, a farm in Wisconsin doing just that.



Feeding grain is not the same as them foraging for grain. Wes, is that what you meant?
 
alex Keenan
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Below is a recipe that is being used for poultry that are sold as Grain-Free. You may notice all the seeds in it

Grain-Free Chicken Feed Recipe
45 lbs white proso millet
27 lbs safflower seed
20 lbs sunflower seed chips
8 lbs black or red flax seeds
total: 100 lbs feed
approximately 15-18% protein content

http://hopecentric.com/grain-free-chicken-feed/
 
John Polk
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I don't see how that recipe can be called 'Grain Free', since each of the ingredients is a grain.
They could not even call it "Cereal Free', since millet is a cereal grain.

From WIKIPEDIA:
Grains are small, hard, dry seeds, with or without attached hulls or fruit layers, harvested for human or animal consumption. Agronomists also call the plants producing such seeds "grain crops". The two main types of commercial grain crops are cereals such as wheat and rye, and legumes such as beans and soybeans.


 
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What about raising small chickens grain free? I mean it in a way that folks at Vermont Compost do it or Geoff Lawton with his chicken tractor on steroids. I have about 40 chickens, they are currently 4 months old and have not started laying eggs yet. How should I transfer them from being grain fed to grain-free?
 
alex Keenan
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Check out

Mulberry leaves
Black Locust leaves
Sweet potato vines
for protein sources for poultry.
I have collected a number of studies were there three items were used for chickens, rabbits, etc.

My birds also like Giant Ragweed leaves and Jerusalem Artichokes leaves and roots which are both members of the sunflower family.
 
Wes Hunter
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A few clarifications.

One, I'm not intending to bend over backwards to provide a certain type of chicken for this one customer, who in my estimation is misguided to begin with. We should perhaps look at this as more of a theoretical exercise that might have practical implications. It seems her issue is perhaps that of gluten sensitivity, and with a "you are what you eat" mentality she seems to be equating chickens eating grains with her eating grains. Not sure if that's legitimate, but that seems to be her take, and it's not my business to argue her out of it.

Two, I talked to her again last Saturday and she said this farm she mentioned was feeding coconut oil or some other coconut product. Like I said, it's a farm in Wisconsin, and she clarified that it has a name that involves the word "Tradition" or some derivation thereof. I haven't tried looking it up yet.

Three, foraging for grains would, in this scenario, be a no-no, since the chickens are still eating grain. This would include running the birds over fields growing wheat, oats, corn, etc. The point is that of consumption, not feeding. Since we're raising them on pasture, I am unconcerned with the possibility of these theoretical chickens picking up bits of grain lying around the barnyard or chicken run or what have you.

Four, seed heads of non-cultivated grasses (fescue, orchardgrass, bluegrass, timothy, etc. etc. etc.) would have to be acceptable. As to whether or not the seed heads of pasture grasses are significantly different than seed heads of cultivated grasses, in an objective sense, I don't know, but I can only assume that for this particular woman they are. That is, I think we might say that all grains are seeds, but not all seeds are grains.

Five, the point of this thread was not to discuss the legitimacy of a grain-free diet for meat chickens, but whether or not such a diet could produce a table-worthy product at a reasonable price. Perhaps this isn't very permie of me, but I'm working from the assumption that I'm doing this on a small commercial scale and that I'm purchasing all feeds inputs (not including forage). I don't intend to scavenge mulberry leaves, locust pods, walnuts, and so on. Yes, I could, but I'm assuming that I'm not.
 
Cj Sloane
pollinator
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Wes Hunter wrote:...It seems her issue is perhaps that of gluten sensitivity, and with a "you are what you eat" mentality she seems to be equating chickens eating grains with her eating grains. Not sure if that's legitimate, but that seems to be her take, and it's not my business to argue her out of it.
...

Three, foraging for grains would, in this scenario, be a no-no, since the chickens are still eating grain. This would include running the birds over fields growing wheat, oats, corn, etc. The point is that of consumption, not feeding.



I've heard that people who are allergic to eggs are often really allergic to the grain being fed - often soy based so it would be legit for her to avoid chickens being fed wheat but not other types of non-gluten grains.

What could be the objection to non-gluten grains?
 
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alex Keenan wrote:Below is a recipe that is being used for poultry that are sold as Grain-Free. You may notice all the seeds in it

Grain-Free Chicken Feed Recipe
45 lbs white proso millet
27 lbs safflower seed
20 lbs sunflower seed chips
8 lbs black or red flax seeds
total: 100 lbs feed
approximately 15-18% protein content

http://hopecentric.com/grain-free-chicken-feed/




what are sunflower seed chips
 
Mountain Krauss
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What could be the objection to non-gluten grains?



Well, all grains (and legumes) contain lectins, which can bind to cells in your digestive tract, causing digestive distress and autoimmune reactions just like gluten can. I don't know whether lectins can make their way through a chicken's gut and into her eggs or meat, but that could be a concern for someone who's had a serious reaction. Personally, I have not had much of a reaction to non-gluten grains, so I don't worry if a small amount of grain makes its way into our chickens' diet. But everyone's different, and I understand the concern some people have.
 
Scott Strough
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Cj Verde wrote:

Scott Strough wrote:Just because it is bad to feed grains to cows, doesn't mean it is bad to feed grains to chickens.



True, except for the damage to the environment caused by growing grains. I feed my pigs & chickens grain but try to feed as much perennial based foods I can.

Surely you know that there are a few ways to grow grains in permaculture that are not damaging to the environment? Sepp Holzer has a great method, but it is for small scale and harvested by hand. Colin Seis developed even a way to do it large scale and the permaculture guys down in Australia are flocking to that permaculture method.

Why Pasture cropping is such a big deal
 
Cj Sloane
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Scott Strough wrote:Surely you know that there are a few ways to grow grains in permaculture that are not damaging to the environment?



Yes but feeding and growing are 2 different beasts! Personally, I can't imagine it's worth it to grow 50 lbs of grain when you could grow 50 lbs of almost anything easier. Pumpkins, sunchokes, apples, acorns...
 
Tokunbo Popoola
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Cj Verde wrote:

Scott Strough wrote:Surely you know that there are a few ways to grow grains in permaculture that are not damaging to the environment?



Yes but feeding and growing are 2 different beasts! Personally, I can't imagine it's worth it to grow 50 lbs of grain when you could grow 50 lbs of almost anything easier. Pumpkins, sunchokes, apples, acorns...



they grow grains because it stores for years. without issues. if you burry a jar of grain you could probably pull it out 5 years down the line and still sprout it at the very least and most definitely feed it. i dont believe in feeding chickens grain tho. waste streams like brewers grain so forth is another thing
 
Cj Sloane
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Tokunbo Popoola wrote:they grow grains because it stores for years.



But it is processed in order for it to store so well. It's an issue I'm running into as I'm collecting feed for my animals but storage &/or processing is an issue. It's my bottleneck, ATM.
 
Tokunbo Popoola
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Cj Verde wrote:

Tokunbo Popoola wrote:they grow grains because it stores for years.



But it is processed in order for it to store so well. It's an issue I'm running into as I'm collecting feed for my animals but storage &/or processing is an issue. It's my bottleneck, ATM.





there is a great video that talks about feed storage options fermentations lemme try and find it

you're not getting get 5 years of storage but you might get a year of it. ive also heard of people from india using this same tactic

 
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Wes Hunter wrote:
Two, I talked to her again last Saturday and she said this farm she mentioned was feeding coconut oil or some other coconut product. Like I said, it's a farm in Wisconsin, and she clarified that it has a name that involves the word "Tradition" or some derivation thereof. I haven't tried looking it up yet.



Tropical Traditions sells coconut oil and I guess they also sell pastured poultry, which is probably what your customer was referring to. They use a feed they call "cocofeed" which contains coconut pulp which is a byproduct of their coconut oil production.

http://www.grassfedtraditions.com/pastured_poultry.htm
 
pollinator
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I've been raising a dozen chickens on a largely acorn diet for the last several months, and the largest are just about ready! Leached smashed cooked acorn, plus some peas, and some soldier fly grubs, and garden and kitchen scraps and weeds. Labor intensive (1 hour plus prepping the acorn every day), but I made a commitment to try to do this when they were small. See our blog at udanwest.blogspot.com for the details.....
 
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Phil Rutter of Badgersett Nursery in Wisconsin talks about hazelnuts in his breeding program that are small enough for turkeys and possibly chickens to manage. Conceivably any nut crop could replace grain crops as livestock and human food.

http://www.permaculturevoices.com/podcast/hazelnuts-a-viable-broadacre-crop-for-the-midwest-almost-with-phil-rutter-pvp079/
 
Cj Sloane
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Alder Burns wrote:I've been raising a dozen chickens on a largely acorn diet for the last several months, and the largest are just about ready!



Are they ready/harvested? How'd they taste? Pics? Cost?
 
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No question it is possible, I come pretty close all year. I do feed my chickens grain, and don't see a problem with it, but I could easily raise chickens without grain. Speed isn't a concern of mine, I also have never raised a meat bird unless you count Jersey giants. All my birds are dual purpose and are fed on reject produce through most of the winter. On days I don't have any produce I feed them a mix of whole grains that are mostly grown on my small farm. I will be raising around 150 chicks through the winter this way as well as my foundation flock of about 100 birds. In the growing season most of my birds feed themselves, in winter they are put to work destroying anything left in the garden and turning mountains of produce into a high quality soil amendment.

The produce is very diverse from every kind of apple, pear melon and squash to lettuce and tropical fruits. All grocery store rejects. I also feed outdated bread, cereal and any other edible store reject. My birds are very healthy and grow plenty fast, although I am sure a meat bird grows faster. I could easily cut out the breads and any other grain product to have a grain free chicken which would be cheaper to raise than a grain fed rival as long as you don't count my time. If you count my time opening chopping the produce and gathering it may not be very competitive. It works very well for us, and the chickens are happy.
 
Alder Burns
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Haven't gotten around to updating the blog lately, but we had 2 of the young chickens for Thanksgiving and they were yummy. They were a bit small, once I'd plucked them out, but that could simply be due to the fact they were only hatched in May. But even a full-size standard chicken, like my Buff Orpingtons, are going to be smaller than one of those hybrid meat birds, which I refuse to raise any more, for several reasons I've gone into elsewhere. So I'll let the rest grow on till at least the end of the year and save out four or so of the hens to replace the old layers and process the rest.
 
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Here is what I am about to try out. We only started feeding grains to chickens since industrial agriculture.
 
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Black soldier fly larvae, duckweed, and algae are all good ways to get more protein (amino acids) and fats while offsetting grain consumption. Chickens love hunting the wiggling bsfl and the ease of harvesting them is a big plus.
 
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Mountain Krauss wrote:

What could be the objection to non-gluten grains?



Well, all grains (and legumes) contain lectins, which can bind to cells in your digestive tract, causing digestive distress and autoimmune reactions just like gluten can. I don't know whether lectins can make their way through a chicken's gut and into her eggs or meat, but that could be a concern for someone who's had a serious reaction. Personally, I have not had much of a reaction to non-gluten grains, so I don't worry if a small amount of grain makes its way into our chickens' diet. But everyone's different, and I understand the concern some people have.



I am going to be raising broilers this summer, and I'm faced with this challenge for the exact reason stated by Mountain Krauss. The lectins do indeed get taken up and stored within the meat, and our whole family is about to eliminate lectins from our diet which leaves me with a significant challenge.

I think I have the protein side of the broiler's diet covered. The carbohydrates are a different issue since I can't feed them corn, wheat, barley, oats, rye, sunflowers, soy, potato etc. The list I have to work with is pretty small - boiled white rice?

I have sunchokes and I hear chickens like them. But I don't have enough to raise 75 broilers.

Any thoughts and suggestions are appreciated.
 
pollinator
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Nick, I haven't raised chickens without grains, so this is opinion only.  I guess my first question is how much of a chicken's diet needs to be carbs and can that carb energy be replaced by energy from fat?  I would suspect it could, though I haven't delved that deeply into the mechanics of how chickens use protein, fat and carbs in the body.  

The old adage is 1/3 each of greens, grains and protein.  Personally, I'd like to see if I can raise cornish X without grain by using BFSL and/or duckweed.  The BFSL contains around 30% fat, which is a substantial amount of calories.  If they're pastured, they'll get the greens, so I think the only thing you need to do is look at energy needs.  If the amount of fat from the BFSL covers that, you may be fine.  You may also be able to feed a higher protein level as well.  Commercial feeds keep the protein as low as possible as those ingredients are the most expensive.  In a small scale, getting away from grain, you may be able to get the same performance from a high protein-high fat diet with pasture.  Before doing this, you would need to understand what problems could arise from a diet too high in protein or fat, if there are any.

Strictly for energy, you could feed fruits and starchy vegetables.  Personally, I understand the concerns with lectins, but I'm unsure if the amount I'd get from chicken meat would be an issue for me.  

Are you any relation to the Lord Kitchener whose name replaced Berlin?
 
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I'd be worried that they were not getting enough calories or minerals.  My birds free range and don't need a lot of grain, but they still need it to produce eggs with strong shells and maintain a healthy weight.  

I'm sure you folks know, but what many people don't understand is that not all feed/grain is equal.  A lot of feed is not made with the whole grain, so the chickens are not getting the nutrition that they would from a feed made with whole grain.  Many feed companies also add fillers or byproducts to keep their costs down, but nutritionally they may be inferior to the feed your great-grand parent was feeding their critters.  So, I think a better question for this "grain free" person to ask would be "What do you feed your chickens."  

We grow our own grain and make our own feed.   It's all natural, non-GMO, whole grain with no byproducts or fillers.  We add different mineral packs for the layer feed and grower feed and we grind the grower finer for little beaks and tummies, but otherwise it is only corn, oats and soy.  I haven't had any problems with my chickens... other than the wildlife seem to find them extra tasty, but that is a conversation for another thread.  
 
Nick Kitchener
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Timothy Markus wrote:Nick, I haven't raised chickens without grains, so this is opinion only.  I guess my first question is how much of a chicken's diet needs to be carbs and can that carb energy be replaced by energy from fat?  I would suspect it could, though I haven't delved that deeply into the mechanics of how chickens use protein, fat and carbs in the body.  

The old adage is 1/3 each of greens, grains and protein.  Personally, I'd like to see if I can raise cornish X without grain by using BFSL and/or duckweed.  The BFSL contains around 30% fat, which is a substantial amount of calories.  If they're pastured, they'll get the greens, so I think the only thing you need to do is look at energy needs.  If the amount of fat from the BFSL covers that, you may be fine.  You may also be able to feed a higher protein level as well.  Commercial feeds keep the protein as low as possible as those ingredients are the most expensive.  In a small scale, getting away from grain, you may be able to get the same performance from a high protein-high fat diet with pasture.  Before doing this, you would need to understand what problems could arise from a diet too high in protein or fat, if there are any.

Strictly for energy, you could feed fruits and starchy vegetables.  Personally, I understand the concerns with lectins, but I'm unsure if the amount I'd get from chicken meat would be an issue for me.  

Are you any relation to the Lord Kitchener whose name replaced Berlin?



Yeah I'm not sure exactly how much lectin uptake actually happens in reality and it looks like nobody knows. My guess is that if it happens at any significant level it likely doesn't happen on a linear basis throughout their life.
I think I'm going to take the approach of moderation and by that I mean feeding them grains in a limited capacity and try and give them as broad a diet as possible to offset the calorific deficit. It wouldn't surprise me if the chicken's metabolism has some level of "flushing" capacity and our artificial feeds exceed that threshold.

Lord Kitchener was a distant relative, with my family branch having immigrated from Ireland before he was born.
 
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Not this year as I haven't been able to prep the land, but hopefully next year I want to plant a forage plot for the meat chickens.  Ideally I'd like to eventually be able to raise them with no more than 1/3 of their feed being purchased rations.  Mostly because I think that would be more economical, and should result in healthier and tastier meat along with letting the chickens be more like, well, chickens.  

I'd think that if you needed to reduce the amount of certain types of feed in your chickens you could plant a forage crop for them that excludes such items.  Might not be a 100% replacement but if it got the levels below some threshold it might make it more tolerable to especially sensitive folks.
 
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If this is a gluten issue, I’m curious if the concern is truly diet or a contamination issue. As a celiac myself, I’ve often wondered how much gluten is in meat. By USDA definition, meat is gluten free and doesn’t have to be tested to be labeled gluten free. However, what percentage of animals butchered have a butchering mistake which spills crop or gut contents onto some part of the meat? Commercial slaughterhouses handle this by washing with a bleach solution, but bleach (while effective against microbes) does nothing for gluten. In general, washing off a contaminated food does not make it safe for celiac consumption. Then if they dump those birds into a common cooling tank, do tiny particles of gluten get suspended in the water and contaminate other birds? I don’t know, but I wonder if the celiacs who are following a strict gluten free diet and still having problems might not be dealing with cross contamination from meat. I wonder if there might be a market for gluten free birds (and potentially other livestock) that are guaranteed to not be contaminated by gut contents, leftover feed on their skin/feathers/feet etc.
 
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