The newest and most exciting trend among chicken keepers isn’t new at all; it’s as old as civilization itself. Chicken keepers across the country are discovering the health and gut benefits of offering fermented feed to their birds. And because we already know that you are what you eat, we know that a healthy chicken will produce the healthiest eggs and meat.
For more about probiotics and fermented chicken feed, I spoke to Susan Burek, herbalist and poultry enthusiast behind Moonlight Mile Herb Farm in Willis, Mich.
What is fermentation?
Susan Burek: Fermentation is the process where food materials containing carbohydrates (grain, fruit, dairy, etc.) are broken down into acids or alcohol with the help of wild yeast and bacteria that naturally occur in the environment or are cultured from a previous ferment. Fermentation was primarily used for food preservation, but our ancestors also learned it kept them healthy and they also enjoyed the taste.
Food preservation is done more mechanically today with heat and pasteurization, but with the recent area of study of probiotics and good bacteria and its impact on gut microflora, fermentation is making a comeback not only for human health but for animals, as well. When fermenting chicken feed, we ferment to the point before it turns acidic with a wild fermentation.
How do you ferment chicken feed?
SB: The materials needed are food-grade buckets, or glass or ceramic jars with large openings; grain/seed material; and -unchlorinated water. I also use lids to cover the buckets I use. Although people do ferment commercially made processed crumble or pellets, I think there is much more value to be had by using either whole or cracked grain/seed.
Premixed organic grain mixes are good, or you can choose to buy loose grains and mix them yourself. There are lots of different grain choices to use, but I recommend starting with red wheat and oats because they have good protein levels. If you do use other grain, you will want to pay attention to their protein content. The ratio I use is 2/3 wheat and 1/3 oats by volume.
Figure out the total amount of feed your flock eats in a day. That is a good place to start for volume. You’ll probably find that as your flock adjusts to this new diet, they will waste less and need less food due to fermented feed’s nutritional denseness.
Place that amount in your container, no more than half full. Then fill with water to cover the grain by several inches, leaving a few inches of headspace at the top. The most important point is to make sure the grain stays covered in water, but don’t let the swelling grain overflow the container! The grain will absorb the water and swell in size so you need to account for this expansion.
Let the grain soak between one to five days, with four to five days being optimal to swell the grain and create lots of probiotics. After your maximum time, strain and serve. You can use the leftover water to add some in your next batch to help start it, or simply discard it and use fresh water for your next batch.
What are some of the benefits?
SB: There are lots of benefits for fermenting feed for chickens. The foremost reason is it will be the most nutritious feed of any other kind of grain food you can feed your flock. This is because fermentation will break down the phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors that coat the grain or seed, basically predigesting the grain and making it nutrient-dense because it’s easily assimilated in the digestive system. It creates probiotics in the fermentation, creating good bacteria. It will increase the volume of your feed, due to the absorption of water. Your birds will also poop less due to the higher digestibility of the food.
What are the drawbacks?
SB: The only drawbacks are storage of the containers while the grain is fermenting. I use 5-gallon buckets, so that takes up some room. The temperature of the water will need to be room temperature, so fermenting during winter will need to be done indoors. The fermented grain itself is an incomplete diet, so you also have to make sure to add other components, such as vitamins, minerals, calcium and perhaps more protein.
How often can I give my birds fermented feed?
SB: Fermented feed can be given every day. You’ll have to make sure your birds also have a source of vitamins, minerals, calcium and added protein if you need higher protein than what the grain offers. Most of us already offer calcium free-choice. Mixing in kelp or dried nettle into the fermented feed is a good way to add vitamins and minerals.
I also mix in alfalfa meal to raise the protein level and grow a lot of nutritious herbs and leafy greens in season (that can be dried later) to balance the diet as well. Remember that free-ranging your flock as much as possible will help them balance their diet, too. Another possibility is to ferment seeds you may give as treats, such as scratch, black oil sunflower seeds or millet.
How can you tell if fermentation is taking place?
SB: Fermented grain should smell slightly sour but sweetish. I also recommend eating some of the grain as you ferment so you can use taste as an indicator. Generally, if it smells bad, it is.
A common problem of this is letting it ferment too long. You should see bubbling every day while it is fermenting. If bubbling stops, you need to use the fermented feed immediately.
Is fermentation happening in a feeder that’s been soaked during a heavy rain?
SB: No, the grain is not fermented in that scenario. To ferment successfully, the grain has to be submerged in water and stay there for several days. If your grain simply gets wet, that sets up conditions for it to rot and mold.
Is it OK to ferment other poultry feed?
SB: I don’t see any value in fermenting commercially made crumbles or pellets. I would ferment anything that is whole or cracked grains or seeds.
Can ducks, turkeys and other poultry benefit from fermented feed, too?
SB: All poultry can benefit from fermented feed, as grain and seed are natural foods in their diet.
Any troubleshooting advice?
SB: If you are unsure about offering fermented food every day and not sure of what other things to offer in the way of supplements for the rest of their diet, you can offer fermented feed along with your regularly mixed food by switching off days you feed one or the other. Even once a week will help give your flock a probiotic boost.
You can also start with fermenting treat seeds, like I mentioned earlier, to learn the process and to start slow.
Any final words of wisdom?
SB: One of the best things that happened for me once I started feeding my flock fermented feed was that it really made me focus on exactly what my flock ate each day at a very core level. It also encouraged me to grow a garden and to plant certain vegetables and herbs to compliment the fermented feed. It opened up new food choices that perhaps I would not have considered before.