Ferment Your Feed for Healthier and Happier Chickens

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Sprouting fodder for your chickens to eat is a great way to diversify their diet, and it is also a great way to increase the overall health and immune strength of your flock.  Leslie Parsons provided a long list of seeds that are good for sprouting in various conditions in her article “Growing Your Own Chicken Feed the Easy Way.” I’d like to draw some attention to another method for improving your flock’s diet: fermenting.

Fermented food has picked up a lot of traction in popular media these days, with the success of Sandor Ellix Katz’s books The Art of Fermentation and Wild Fermentation. People have become more and more aware of the benefits of ingesting healthy living cultures of microflora. “Probiotics” has become a household word, and you can pick up a bottle of fresh kombucha at the corner convenience store.

Active cultures are helping people maintain good digestive health, enhance their immune systems, and even lose weight. But did you know that fermented food is good for your chickens too?

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Fermented Chicken Feed Can Improve the Health of Your Flock

Fermented chicken feed has been shown to increase weight gain in growing chicks. Chickens whose diets include fermented foods develop healthier intestinal tracts than those that eat a strictly dry diet. Moist fermented feed helps defend against dehydration, and it even promotes a healthy genetic profile for mother hens.

Fermenting chicken feed can significantly improve the nutrients that are available to your flock.

In an Aarhus University study about Fermented feed for laying hens, fermenting layer rations reduced the concentration of dietary sugar by more than three-quarters, from 32.1 to 7.3 grams per kilogram. Fermented food also has high concentrations of lactic acid bacteria, and small amounts of beneficial yeasts and fungi; so you’re basically creating some homemade probiotics for your flock. If you’ve got a chicken with IBS, maybe some fermented food could help her get regular.

Moist fermented food is easily digestible and its nutrients are more easily absorbed by the chicken than dry feed. Chickens will get more B vitamins, more vitamin K2, and more of several beneficial enzymes from fermented food.

Fermented foods help with immune function in chickens. Chickens with a fermented diet develop a highly acidic barrier in their upper digestive tract that blocks several acid-sensitive bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella. One study, published by the African Journal of Biotechnology, considered using fermented foods as a replacement for antibiotic growth promoters in commercial poultry production.

There are also benefits for egg production and egg quality in laying hens.

Incorporating fermented food can help improve the number and size of eggs you’ll get. Yolk size frequently increases when a hen is fed a diet that includes fermented food. A diet that incorporates fermentation can help with problem egg shells too, improving shell quality, weight, and stiffness.

Why You Should Start Feeding Fermented Food

In addition to the health considerations outlined above, there are some benefits for you, the human, as well.

The biggest thing is that fermenting allows you to buy less feed. Chickens eat a little less dry feed when the feed has been fermented. The chickens are able to get more nourishment out of the same volume of feed. So, this is one way to make those expensive bags of organic layer rations last a little longer.

The chickens will also waste less of their food. As soon as a bowl is filled with dry feed, the first thing many chickens do is jump right in and start scratching. They throw the larger grains all over, leaving only the inedible fine dust at the bottom of the bowl. They don’t do that with a moist fermented food. They might still get in the bowl, but they won’t be able to disperse the food like they normally do with dry feed.

Finally, fermentation is an easy way for anyone to diversify their flock’s diet.

Chickens have an adventurous pallet at the table. They like to eat all kinds of things. Many of us don’t have the room to keep our chickens at pasture where they can get a good mixed diet of bugs and greenery.

Growing fresh chicken fodder is a great way to diversify your flock’s diet, but some people don’t have enough confidence in their green thumbs to begin starting seed for their birds. Fermentation is one way that any chicken keeper can mix things up for their chickens to begin improving health and immunity.

How Can I Start Fermenting My Chicken Feed?

fermenting-chicken-feed-in-a-bucketThe type of fermentation you’re going to do is called lactic acid fermentation. I’m not wearing a lab coat, but I think this means that good bacteria digest the available sugars and leave lactic acid as a by-product. You might recognize the sweet/sour smell of the lactic acid from yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi.

  1. Use any non-metallic container to create the ferment. I have been using a food grade plastic five-gallon bucket from the big box store and it works well enough.
  2. Start with a small amount of dry feed, about two days worth.
  3. Cover the feed with non-chlorinated water. Lactic acid fermentation is an anaerobic process, and it is important that you keep the food completely covered with water, so that it is not exposed to the open air. When the feed soaks up so much water that the feed is exposed to air, cover it back up with more water.
  4. Stir the mixture regularly, several times a day, and add more water as needed. Well water, distilled water, or rain water are fine, but fresh city water contains chemicals that are specifically designed to kill bacteria—so don’t use fresh city water. If all you have is city water, treat it to remove the chlorine or chloramines. [A Guide for Using Tap Water in Your Garden]
  5. IMG_5885Keep the fermenting container in a warm place; keeping it above 65 degrees F will get the best results. Warm temperatures speed up the process and increase the odds that the right bacteria will flourish when fermentation begins.
  6. You can add a starter culture if you want to, to make sure you get the right bugs. Allow at least 24 hours to begin producing a culture of lactic acid bacteria, but allow several days to significantly drop the pH.
  7. The end product should have a sour smell like sauerkraut. If your feed smells rancid or rotten, don’t use it. You might not have kept the mash covered with enough water, allowing air in to the mix. If this happens, throw it out to resolve in the compost, and start again.
  8. Dip a scoop or ladle down to the bottom of the container to get the moist feed. Try to include a little of the water in each scoop, but always make sure that the feed in the bucket remains covered in water. You can add more dry feed to replace the fermented feed you take out, if you want to keep the process going for a while. If you prefer to use up the first batch before starting the second, just rinse and repeat when the fermented feed is used up.
  9. IMG_5898If all of this sounds like too much work for you, consider trading with a friend for something they are fermenting. A neighbor of mine makes beer at home. We worked out a barter agreement where he receives fresh eggs and in exchange I get his fermented grains. My chickens love these grains and fight over them every time I put them out. Just make sure that the grains aren’t being fermented in a toxic metal container that could harm your chickens or you.

Common Problems with Fermented Chicken Feed

The biggest problem with fermented chicken feed is that chickens don’t really love to eat it.

In the Aarhus study I referenced above, the authors attribute irritability in the flock to a distaste for the fermented food. My chickens don’t seem to mind it that much, but I think they do prefer their normal dry rations. I know that they definitely prefer fresh bugs and green plant growth when those are available.

In nature, chickens will eat just about anything that’s small enough to eat. That includes a lot of bugs, a lot of plants, some invertebrates, and lots of odds and ends.

A very diverse diet is the best diet you could possibly feed your chickens.

If you’re someone who feeds only layer rations and nothing else, adding in some of that same feed after fermenting is an easy way to begin mixing up your flock’s diet and working your way toward the diverse diet they crave.

There is also a chance that you could accidentally grow the wrong bacteria, or grow yeast instead of bacteria. Always smell the food before you give it to the chickens. If it smells off, just throw it out.

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(This post is an updated version of an article originally published on February 17, 2015.)

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