Fermented Feed: A Farm-Kid Chore

Reduce your feed costs and give your children a useful job around the farm with this simple fermentation project.

by Tessa Zundel
PHOTO: Tessa Zundel

Perhaps the idea of fermenting feed for chickens, goats, pigs or any animal is new to you or maybe you’ve heard about it but are reluctant to try any process with the word “ferment” in it. Fear not! Fermenting foods is an ancient culinary tradition that not only acts as a preservation method, but also increases the nutrition available in whatever food is being fermented. A head of cabbage is great, but ferment that cabbage and you have sauerkraut, which is covered in beneficial bacteria, including lactobacillus, and, as an added bonus, is super tasty. From cheese to chocolate, we love our fermented foods.

I can’t tell you if fermenting feed will make it taste any better to chickens, but my flock sure does go nuts for it. Fermentation is easiest to do with whole or cut grain rations—pelleted feed will turn to mush. If you currently feed pelleted rations and want to experiment with fermentation, start with a small bag of wheat, barley or sunflower seeds.

The process of fermenting chicken feed is so simple that you may think you’re missing something. The simplicity is what makes this a great farm-kid chore.

Letting The Kids Help

I’ve been reading about fermenting feed for a long time and really wanted to start doing it, mostly as a way to save on feed cost. We recently butchered a batch of meat birds, and I was less than impressed with how they grew. We mix our own grain ration, and I could immediately tell that my ration had been too heavy on the fat and too lean on protein by how small and fatty the birds were.

Broilers are notorious for eating a lot because of how they muscle out, but I realized that we had to find a more nutritious way to feed the next bunch—plus, it needed to be cheaper! I knew it was finally time to make fermented feed, but I just wasn’t sure I could squeeze one more process into my crazy, busy week.

Then I realized I was being an idiot. My children were perfectly capable of taking on this chore and maintaining the fermented feed throughout the week. I just needed to show them how.

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Because of the size of our flock and the fact that we ferment the rations for pigs and goats, as well, we have two to three 5-gallon buckets fermenting at any given time. If your flock consists of only a handful of chickens, you can use a much smaller container. The smaller the container, the easier it will be for younger children to move it around.

If you see the benefits of fermenting feed and decide to continue to do it, you’ll need several containers to keep the process of fermentation going throughout each week. How much you decide to feed your chickens will be a personal determination, but you can count on fermented feed to fill them up quicker because the fermentation process makes the nutrients in the feed more absorbable by birds’ bodies. In short: The chickens fill up faster.

Step 1

Start with a clean 5-gallon bucket, and set up your work station in a spot that’s out of the way and temperature-stable. Ideally, fermented feed will do best in cool but not cold temperatures around 70 degrees F.

Step 2

Have your child fill the bucket with enough feed for about one day’s rations, and then cover the grain with water. The grain will gain volume as it absorbs water, so don’t overfill your bucket. Be sure your child understands that all the grain must be covered with water.

Step 3

Have your child remove any floating material from the surface of the water, as it will be prone to mold. Moldy feed is not acceptable to feed to your flock. Instruct your child to watch for mold during the week, double-checking with you about the safety of the feed if they’re unsure. Black is never a good color for the water to be; a white film is mostly likely fine, though. You can add a dash of raw apple cider vinegar to help combat mold if you’d like.

Step 4

Cover the bucket with a loose-fitting lid or a feed bag to keep bugs and stray cats out. The feed needs to sit and ferment for 24 to 48 hours.

Step 5

After fermentation has taken place, provide your child with a colander and a clean, empty bucket to strain out a day’s worth of feed. All he or she needs to do is pour off the water and distribute the feed.

Step 6

If you use additives, like kelp or minerals in your feed, your child can mix them into the daily ration after fermentation. The feed will be wet, so lightweight materials like kelp adhere nicely to the grain.

Feeding Fermented Feed To Chickens

Because fermented feed is wet, you’ll need to use a dish or scatter the grain on the ground to distribute it. If you have a tube feeder system the wet feed might get stuck. I have my kids toss the fermented feed on the ground because a chicken’s natural instinct is to peck and scratch. Plus, if my birds happen to miss a grain (not likely) the already fermented and swollen grain is likely to sprout in the dirt and won’t go to waste. My littlest children can help with scattering the ration without having to go into the chicken pen; they simply toss it through the fence.

Save Your Water

Do not toss all that fermented water when you’re done. Have your children pour a little into a dish for the chickens (who may or may not figure out what it is and drink it), give the bulk to your pigs or pour it on your garden. Never waste the beneficial bacteria of anything fermented—your animals or your garden will love them!

Keeping Up With The Feeding Schedule

If you want to keep this process going throughout the week, have your kiddo set up a new bucket every day or so. You’ll need to plan a day to wash the buckets, colander and lids. On our homestead, the process looks like this:

  • Monday: In the morning, my son (a strapping 11-year-old) sets up two buckets with clean water and feed to get us started for the week. We make sure to have enough feed left over from the weekend to cover Monday’s rations. Toting the water for the set-up requires some muscle because of where our water source is, so we leave this in my son’s capable hands.
  • Tuesday: We start rationing out feed from one bucket, which has fermented for 24 hours at this point. We usually have enough feed in one bucket to cover 1 to 1½ days. It’s not an exact science, and it doesn’t have to be.
  • Wednesday: We set up another two buckets of feed in the morning and roughly finish off the second bucket of feed, which has fermented over 48 hours. We typically use a bit of the fermented water to add to the clean water to give the new fermentation a kickstart. In fermentation terms, this is called “inoculating” the next batch of feed.
  • Thursday to Saturday: We follow this same process for the rest of the week. We ferment an extra bucket on Saturday because we take our Sabbath on Sunday and prefer not to do any extra work that day. Also on Saturday, and very important each week, the children clean out the buckets, lids and colander. We use a vinegar rinse that we make ourselves, but you can use any cleaner you prefer.

All in all, fermenting feed adds about 60 minutes of work to our schedule over the entire week. It’s been worth it to us, as we’ve seen the health of our flock improve and our feed costs go down. The children have benefitted from being useful in a very real way. Children want to help their families, especially on the farm or homestead. Having them be in charge of fermenting feed for your flock is a great way to involve your kids in the work!

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