Imagine someone comes to your door selling a brand-new chicken feed they developed. This feed, they explain, is loaded with vitamins, minerals and immune-boosting probiotics that lead to vibrant, healthy birds. Because the chickens have access to better nutrition, they eat less, which in turn saves you money.
At this point, you might be rolling your eyes and inching the door closed. But, wait, there’s more!
This salesperson goes on to say that because your chickens digest this new feed more effectively, they produce fewer and much drier droppings. So, you save time on coop cleanup every week. Switching to this new feed, they claim, will even help your chickens lay more eggs. And, those eggs are better quality, with thicker shells and more nutrients.
You’re now ready to close the door on this snake-oil salesman because—after all—what kind of feed could do all that?
But this magical feed is already sitting out in your barn—no salesman needed. All you have to do to give your flock all these benefits is to ferment your chicken feed.
Fermentation is the same technique used to make wine, beer and sauerkraut. You can ferment chicken feed the same way your local brewery creates your favorite brew and give your flock an impressively long list of health benefits in the meantime.
I do a lot of fermenting on my homestead. My family makes our own probiotic-rich kombucha, sourdough, kimchi, sauerkraut and jars of mixed pickles. More importantly, our flock gets plenty of probiotics, because I ferment their chicken feed, as well.
Fermenting chicken feed might sound a bit strange to some folks. But this is one chicken health strategy that reaps far more benefits than the time and work involved to make it happen.
Humans have been using fermentation to preserve foods for thousands of years. Evidence suggests Neolithic people practiced fermentation by making cheese more than 7,500 years ago.
Fermentation occurs when natural yeasts and cultures in the air are encouraged to grow and interact with a food source (in this case, chicken feed) under specific conditions. During fermentation, beneficial microorganisms such as the Lactobacillus bulgaricus bacteria break down sugars and starches and turn them into lactic acid. This promotes the development of healthy probiotics, changes the taste of the food, lowers the pH and aids in preservation by killing off harmful microorganisms.
It also changes the food’s nutritional profile for the better.
Benefits of Fermented Feed
You can encourage these good bacteria to grow by soaking chicken feed in water for several days. But you’ve got roughly three dozen other chores to do. Why on earth would you want to take the time to do this? There are several good reasons why fermentation is worth the few extra minutes it will add to your chore list.
Better Nutrient Absorption
When you soak grains, you soften them up and make it much easier for the chicken’s body to digest all the available nutrients. That’s common sense, right? But, if we peek under the surface we see there’s more to the story.
All grains, beans, seeds and legumes contain phytic acid, which impairs the absorption of some nutrients. In “Reduction of phytic acid and enhancement of bioavailable micronutrients in food grains” (Gupta RK et. al, Journal of Food Science and Technology, 2015), researchers called phytic acid a “food inhibitor” because it limits the bioavailability of nutrients.
If we remove the phytic acid in foods, we’re free to absorb all the wonderful nutrients found in whole grains and seeds. And the fermentation process removes phytic acid. This means when your chickens eat fermented feed, their bodies can utilize the full range of protein, vitamins and minerals that chickens on dry feed can’t.
Moreover, the fermentation process actually enhances the nutrition of the feed. It adds B vitamins that weren’t in the feed before.
Stronger Immune System
In “Fermented feed for laying hens: Effects on egg production, egg quality, plumage condition and composition and activity of the intestinal microflora” (Engberg et. al, British Poultry Science, 2009), researchers found that hens on fermented feed had a stronger immune system than the control group. The fermented feed increased acidification in the upper digestive tract, which helped form a natural barrier against acid-sensitive pathogens like E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter.
The process of fermentation also produces lactic acid, which helps promote the growth of healthy microbes called probiotics. A robust immune system can help your chickens fend off a variety of illnesses and diseases.
Less Waste in the Coop
Chickens that eat fermented feed produce less waste than chickens on dry feed. And the waste is drier than birds on a regular feed diet. For you, this could mean fewer coop cleanings throughout the year.
Higher Output & Better Quality Eggs
Fermenting feed for your flock may also result in better-quality eggs and improved health outcomes long-term.
That aforementioned study in British Poultry Science found that hens on fermented feed had heavier eggs with thicker shells. While this makes for a better breakfast, it also reduces losses from laying soft-shelled eggs.
Additionally, “The Foothills Farm Fermented Feed Study” in 2019 conducted by Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education found that hens on a fermented feed diet laid 9 percent more eggs than hens on a regular feed diet.
How to Ferment Your Chicken Feed
Fermenting chicken feed is simple, and it will only take a few minutes out of your day.
- large canning jar or bucket
- mix of crumble, pellets, scratch, or whole grains and seeds like rye, quinoa, whole oats, sunflower seeds, barley, spelt, buckwheat, amaranth or sorghum.
- dechlorinated water
- cheesecloth or other loose covering for jar or bucket
Step 1: Measure
Your first step is to figure out how much your flock eats daily. Most full-sized adult birds eat around 1/2 cup of dry feed per day. For example, a flock of 10 chickens will eat around 5 cups of dry feed per day. You’ll cut this in half when calculating how much chicken feed to ferment for your flock.
Measure out 1/4 cup of feed or grain mixture per bird, and place the seed in the jar or bucket you’re using. Using our example, if you have 10 chickens, you’ll need 2 1/2 cups of dry chicken feed or grains to ferment.
Only measure out enough grain to feed your chickens for one or two days. Fermented feed spoils quickly once it’s taken out of the soaking water.
Keep in mind that you can choose a variety of grains to ferment, or you can ferment just one grain at a time. You can also ferment crumble or pellet chicken feed. However, it will get quite mushy after a 3-day ferment. Your chickens will still love it, though!
Step 2: Add Water & Soak
Fill the jar or bucket with enough water to completely cover the feed, along with a few extra inches so the feed has room in the water to expand. You don’t want to add too much water, though. While this won’t hurt the fermentation process, too much water can make it harder to spot the bubbles that show healthy fermentation is taking place.
If you have chlorinated tap water, let it sit out, uncovered, for 24 hours so the chlorine can evaporate. Chlorinated water can inhibit the growth of beneficial bacteria, so you don’t want to use it. You can also use filtered or distilled water.
Step 3: Cover & Let Ferment
Cover the jar or bucket with the loose cover of cheesecloth, or the loose-fitting lid. The cover helps prevent unwanted bacteria or mold spores from getting into the ferment yet allows the fermentation gasses to escape.
Store the fermentation at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, and away from cold drafts. The optimal temperature range for fermentation is 75 to 85 degrees F. So if your house is cool, keep the ferment in the warmest room.
Let the ferment sit for three days, stirring chicken feed from the bottom up at least three times per day. If the feed soaks up too much water, add enough back in so that the grains stay covered by at least 1 inch. Make sure the grain mixture is always submerged in water.
By the second day, you should start to see tiny bubbles in the jar. This is good news! It’s a sign that active fermentation is occurring. The ferment should smell tangy and clean, like sourdough bread or yogurt. The liquid will also start to get a bit milky looking.
Step 4: Drain & Feed
On the third day (72 hours after starting your ferment), pour off the excess water. If you’re about to start a new batch of ferment, however, save the water and use it to cover the fresh grains. It will speed up the fermentation of the next batch.
Feed the fermented grains to your flock immediately and refrigerate any unused feed for the next day.
Although it’s easy to get started with fermentation, things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes, due to temperature fluctuations or bacterial contamination, your ferment will fail and be unsuitable to feed to your chickens.
Sniff Check Daily
Healthy ferments should smell tangy and clean, like sourdough bread or plain yogurt. If the ferment starts to smell sulfurous, like rotten eggs, or acidic, like vomit, throw it out. An off odor is a sign that your ferment was exposed to too much oxygen or too much heat, or bacteria was introduced during the beginning of the ferment.
Check for Mold
You also need to check for mold daily. Any signs of pink, black or fuzzy mold on the surface means the entire batch needs to be thrown out.
If your ferment develops mold, it could be because the temperature was too cold (which slows the bacteria and prevents the fermentation from happening fast enough to stop mold from developing), there was not enough liquid in the jar or bucket, or the brewing container was contaminated.
Use these tips to save money on feed costs.
While everyone can’t do this, allowing your flock to free-range means they’ll supplement their diet with bugs and grass instead of commercial feed.
If you can’t free-range your flock, provide forage in the run. Grass clippings, vegetable and fruit scraps, and pasture weeds will be a tasty addition for your birds and help reduce their feed intake.
Another option is to feed your flock less than perfect produce. Contact local farmers, or even talk to the produce manager at your grocery store, and ask if you can pick up damaged produce once a week. Just make sure the produce isn’t moldy or rotten.
Grow Your Own
Start a garden to supplement your chickens’ diet. Your flock will love feasting on fresh tomatoes and zucchini all summer long.
Feeding your flock free-choice can lead to a major rodent infestation. Limit feed only to what your flock will eat in a day, and employ a barn cat to control mice and rats.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.