The Real Deal on Oatmeal

Christina DiCarlo – Certified Veterinary Dietician, Chicken Mama & Host of Coffee with the Chicken Ladies Podcast

Holly Callahan-Kasmala – Freelance Writer, Chicken Mama & Host of Coffee with the Chicken Ladies Podcast

Have you been oatmeal shamed? Not sure if you should be slipping your girls a bit of warm porridge in the morning? Have no fear – the Chicken Ladies are here to help! We’ve done tons of research and we’re going to break down the facts about beta glucans – the part of oatmeal that may cause digestive problems – and what it can and cannot do to your chickens.

What’s a glucan? Beta glucans are simply soluble fiber. At first it sounds a bit scary and just a bit too much like “gluten.” And we now know that much of the human population can have serious reactions to gluten. But beta glucans, as soluble fiber, are an integral, even beneficial, component of your flock’s feed. That’s right. Your chickens are already eating plenty of beta glucans. That’s because beta glucans are polysaccharide chains that make up the structural components of cell walls. They’re the building blocks of the non-animal world.

Beta glucans are found in virtually every grain as well as fungi and yeast. Wheat, barley, oats, and rye all contain beta glucans. Some mix of these grains are found in most every layer pellet or crumble on the market. Organic layer, grower, and chick feeds will list all ingredients so that you can see exactly which grains your ladies and gents are eating. But if you check the labels of the big commercial feed brands you’re likely to see ingredients listed vaguely as “grain” or “grain byproducts.” These are generally wheat, oats, and barley as they’re the most plentiful and accessible cereal grains on the US market.

By now you’re probably wondering why in the world oats could be bad for your chickens? People have been safely feeding them to chickens for hundreds of years – or longer – and we know they’re already a staple in commercial feed. And we know that beta glucans in oats are practically a super food for humans. They help lower cholesterol and ward off heart disease, among other positive things. So, what does science say about oats in the chicken diet?

Before we delve into the science, we just want to mention that the vast majority of poultry studies are conducted in industrial settings, often on chickens intended for meat, and the results are geared towards commercial poultry operations and their feeding practices. Large scale studies on backyard flocks are rarely undertaken so the best we can do is extrapolate from analysis of the existing studies and apply it to our pet chickens’ care. 

We read several recent studies to get a handle on beta glucans in the chicken diet and this is what we’ve learned;

A 2016 study found that various sources of beta glucan in the diet of broiler chickens had a positive impact on their growth and development, and performed just as well as the group that was fed prophylactic antibiotics.

A 2017 research paper from the University of Kentucky offers a preponderance of evidence that beta glucans from various sources are beneficial to the poultry digestive and immune systems and can be used as a preventative, lessening the need for antibiotics.

Studies in both 2010 and 2018 found that beta glucans from yeast had a positive effect on the immune system of broiler chickens and helped ward off coccidiosis and salmonella, as well as other bacterial and viral pathogens. 

There are several more studies along these lines that all come to the same conclusion. So where does oatmeal come in to all of this? While we found no actual studies on the effects of beta glucans from oats in the poultry diet, we did find an article about the effect of barley. 

A 2014 study found that meat chickens on a corn based diet (which we already know isn’t the healthiest for chickens!) had reduced nutrient uptake when barley was added to their feed. And we’re guessing that a lot of the anti-oat advice stems from this study and the fact that the beta glucans in oats are similar in composition. The molecules have fewer “branches” than yeast beta glucans. However, a 2021 study found that hull-less barley (as opposed to whole grain) was the problem, but the negative effects of it on the digestive system were easily corrected by the addition of beta glucanase in the diet. (Beta glucanase is an enzyme that breaks down the complex beta glucan molecule.)

Our Conclusion

We found no scientific studies that specifically track the effect of oat beta glucans on chickens. Oats and barley are similar but not the same, and processed barley seems to be an issue. All of the studies were conducted on meat chickens and their usual diet, which is based on fattening or “finishing” the birds. Pet chickens generally eat a much more varied diet that includes greens and insects, and if they eat commercial layer feed they’re probably already getting some oats. 

Based on all of these factors, we’re going to continue feeding oatmeal as a treat. As long as our chickens are healthy and thriving we see no problem with warm oats occasionally. If you’re still nervous about adding more oats but you want to feed your chickens a cold weather treat – try wetting their layer feed with hot water and topping it with a few grubs or some warm corn. They’ll love it!

Sources

Benefits of Application of Yeast Beta Glucans in Poultry, September, 2018

https://www.ohly.com/media/4317/applicationinfoyeastbetaglucanspoultry.pdf

Glucans and the Poultry Immune System, October, 2017

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316987224_Glucans_and_the_Poultry_Immune_System

Effect of Dietary Beta Glucan on the Performance of Broilers and the Quality of Broiler Breast Meat, March, 2016

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC481179

Beta Glucans as Immunomodulators in Poultry: Use and potential applications, December, 2010

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263305676_Beta-Glucans_as_Immunomodulators_in_Poultry_Use_and_Potential_Applications