Many of us have heard about the benefits of adding fermented foods in our own diets, including reduced risk of sickness, better nutrient absorption, and higher digestibility, to name a few. The same is true for your poultry flock and other animals. Fermenting feed for your flock is actually very easy, and the benefits range from increased egg production in winter to lower feed consumption.
When I first inherited a flock of chickens, I fed them organic chicken pellets from the local feed store. I liked the convenience of filling a feeder once a week and not having to think about it. Then I added ducks, turkeys and guinea fowl, along with more chickens. That’s when I started to think about ways to increase the health of my flock and decrease my feed bill. I found a source of inexpensive whole grains from local farms and began researching feed-mix ratios and digestibility. In my search, I turned to vintage livestock books, which are a wealth of information for any of us who want to step away from the premixed livestock feed industry. My interest was piqued when I found frequent mentions of soaking, sprouting and souring grains before feeding them to livestock.
The nitty gritty
The main reason to ferment chicken feed is that it improves our birds’ health. Probiotics help fight off sickness and help gut health, and studies have shown that birds fed fermented feed are less susceptible to salmonella and campylobacter. In fact, the amounts of these two types of bacteria in particular were shown to be lower in the digestive tracks of birds fed fermented feed, something important to those of us who raise birds, especially meat birds, and particularly if we process them on-farm.
Beyond the health aspect of fermenting feed, it is beneficial simply for economic reasons. Soaking or fermenting feed softens the grains, making it easier for the birds to digest and nutrients more readily available, thus reducing feed intake. The wet feed is also more palatable to birds, thus reducing feed waste, especially when it comes to commercial feed mixes. My birds eat about 25 to 30 percent less when fed soaked or fermented feed. This really adds up when you’re feeding between 50 and 75 birds, but it’s still a valuable savings even if you have a small flock.
Not only does fermenting feed reduce intake, it also increases weight gain, egg production, and egg weight. I also noticed in my flock that egg yolks were larger, and my customers also noted the change. In fact, my customers swear that the eggs taste different than eggs they purchase from other small producers feeding similar, yet unfermented feed.
In addition to reduced feed intake, fermenting feed increases the availability of vitamins and minerals in the feed. Phosphorus and protein availability increases, and sugar levels decrease. This increase in protein absorption, though seemingly small, helps us save money, because a cheaper, lower-protein feed can be used, which is especially helpful if you raise broilers and turkeys. In fact, my broilers and turkeys are raised on the same grain mix that my layer flock eats. Technically it has 14.5 percent protein content, but with fermenting, it is increased by about 3 percent. This may not seem like much, but it is enough that I don’t have to add extra protein for the meat birds. If you are feeding a whole-grain mix, fermenting is even more important because it neutralizes phytic acid present in whole grains. Phytic acid acts as an anti-nutrient and blocks vitamin and mineral absorption.
According to a study in British Poultry Science, hens fed fermented feed started laying later than hens fed dry feed, but their eggs were heavier when they did start laying. The study also found that the birds themselves weighed more (note to those using fermented feed for meat birds), and feed-to-egg ratio and shell thickness was better in the fermented feed group. In my experience, birds also lay much better throughout the winter. In fact, many of my local chicken-keeping friends started fermenting their feed when they noted how many eggs I was getting during our long Maine winters compared to the number of eggs they were getting with dry feed.
Mix and mash
At this point, you’re probably wondering how much time and effort it’s going to take. Fermenting feed couldn’t be easier. Simply add feed or grain to a container, cover with water, and let it sit for 24 hours to a week. That’s all it takes.
You can ferment home-mixed feed, like I do, or store-bought feed. The consistency of the end product will be different, but the results and benefits are the same. Fermented pellets or mash will have the consistency of porridge, whereas the fermented whole grains I feed are fairly dry.
To start fermenting, you’ll need some food-grade containers. Some people say not to use metal, but I use a 16-gallon stainless steel stockpot and 5-gallon food-grade plastic buckets. Half-gallon Mason jars are perfect if you’re fermenting for a small flock. Fermentation can create an acidic environment, so food-grade containers are very important. There’s no reason to risk chemicals and toxins leaching into the feed from using plastics that aren’t food-grade.
Choose a warm location that’s convenient and can get dirty. I ferment on my south-facing screened-in porch in the summer, and by the woodstove in the kitchen during winter. Both areas are easy to clean and warm enough to keep fermentation going. Fermentation occurs faster at warmer temperatures. Mine ferments quite quickly in the summer on the warm back porch, and in the winter it slows down.
Make sure the location is convenient to your feeding area. Fermented feed is heavier than dry feed because of the additional liquid, and having access to water is also a consideration.
After choosing your location, fill containers about two-thirds full of feed, then cover with water to about 1 inch above the feed. If using chlorinated water, I recommend allowing it to sit in an open container for 24 hours before adding to the feed, as the chlorine can affect fermentation rates. If you have well water, you can add it right away. You may need to add more water after 12 to 24 hours, depending on how much liquid your feed absorbs. Keeping the water level above the feed or grain helps reduce the risk of mold.
Allow it to set a minimum of 24 hours and a maximum of five to seven days, depending on temperature and fermentation rate. If you have liquid left over from a previous batch, you can reuse it to help kickstart the process. That liquid is filled with natural yeasts, and fermentation will occur much quicker. Stir daily and watch for signs of fermentation.
The feed should have a pleasant sour, yeasty smell, like sourdough or bread dough. You may notice bubbling after a day, and that’s perfectly normal. You may also notice a whitish film forming on the top. This is also perfectly fine, as it’s natural yeast. Some people recommend adding apple cider vinegar to the feed, but I prefer not to. I find my feed acidifies nicely on its own, and I want to allow the natural yeasts to thrive. Feel free to add a tablespoon or two if you’d like. Perhaps you can experiment and see if it improves fermentation and bird health. All feeds and mixes will ferment a little differently.
You can start feeding soaked feed to your birds after 24 hours, but optimal benefits are reached between three and five days of fermentation. Seven days is about the maximum you want to let food ferment unless it’s very cool and fermentation is slow. If feed develops mold on top (fuzzy green growth), skim off and smell the feed. If it still smells yeasty and acidic, it’s fine to feed to your birds. Do not feed any moldy feed. If your feed develops a rotten or putrid smell, do not feed it to your birds. Compost it, and try again. Sometimes larger grains, sunflower seeds in particular, like to float to the top of the mix and have a tendency to mold. Stirring more than once a day will help reduce the risk of mold forming on top of the feed.
When giving feed to birds, try not to feed more than they will eat in one day. Wet feed will mold quickly when left in a trough, especially in warmer climates. I feed as much as the birds eat during a day with minimal amounts left in the evening. Sometimes they leave some, but usually it’s gone the next morning before I get out to the coop. I use the bottoms of old feeders, wooden troughs, and large plant saucers for the wet feed. I find a rectangular wooden trough to be ideal, as it provides access to a larger number of birds at once. It’s also wise to rinse out feeding pans on occasion if the birds don’t pick them clean.
Fermented feed can pose a few difficulties during the winter months when temperatures dip below freezing, and the feed can freeze. I feed a small amount in the morning and another small amount in late afternoon before the birds roost up. When temperatures are extremely low, I put the feeding bowl on a seedling heating mat to keep the feed from freezing before the birds can eat it. Generally, fermented feed doesn’t need additional heat unless it’s extremely cold. Here in Maine, that’s only a week or so during the winter.
In the summer, I wait and feed my flock in the evenings. This encourages them to spend all day foraging. They also do a better job of gobbling up all the fermented feed when they’re hungry.
Fermentation is not just for fowl either. You can ferment feed for other animals and livestock. All animals and humans on our farm eat at least some type of fermented food on a daily basis.
As with most farm chores, it will take a little experimentation to find the process that works best with your setup and schedule. It may take trying a few different methods, brands of feed, and feeding containers to find the ideal method for your flock. Once you find what works best for you, you’ll notice healthier chickens and a smaller bill at the feed store.
Susy Morris is a Maine-based blogger, photographer and hobby farmer who loves experimenting with different techniques to make her garden and farm more sustainable. Read her Grit blog, Chiots Run.