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Fermenting Feed

In a nutshell, fermented chicken feed is probiotics for your chicken. It’s a wet mash (the chicken keeper’s term for moistened food) created by lactic acid fermentation (the same type of fermentation that occurs naturally in sauerkraut). Just like kraut, it contains all the bacteria that’s good for your gut: Lactobacillus, Leuconostoc, Pediococcus, and other beneficial bacteria and yeasts. 

So how does lacto-fermentation of your chicken feed work? The first day of soaking your grains greatly improves their digestibility by reducing the phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors found in all grains, seeds and legumes. By the second day, lactic acid bacteria begins the process of fermentation by consuming the sugars in the grains and multiplying in great numbers, producing lactic acid. The lactic acid, in turn, makes the environment unsuitable for bad bacteria, leaving behind only beneficial microbes. 

As long as the grains stay submerged in their lactic acid “bath,” they will be preserved indefinitely (though there comes a point when the grains can become too sour and thus, not very tasty… just ask anyone who has had over-fermented kimchi).

You can ferment any feed you currently give your chickens, whether it’s crumbles, pellets, scratch, or whole grains and seeds. The higher quality your feed, the more your chickens will gain from lacto-fermentation.  

For a flock of three hens, you could use a gallon-size glass jar. Larger flocks may require five-gallon buckets or storage bins, so long as they come with a lid. If you can only get a plastic container, try to ensure it’s BPA-free. The acids in lacto-fermentation can increase the chances of BPA leaching into your liquid, and while there hasn’t been any concrete studies on how much BPA is actually leached, I’d rather not take my chances.

Fill your container about one-third to one-half full with the feed of your choice. You want to leave room for the grains to expand. 

Add enough dechlorinated water to cover the grains by a couple of inches. Why dechlorinated water? Because most municipal water — the stuff that comes out of your tap — contains chlorine and chemicals designed to kill bacteria, including good bacteria. You can use filtered water for lacto-fermentation, or simply set your tap water out for 24 hours to allow time for the chlorine to evaporate. 

Lacto-fermentation in action 

Place a lid on your container and leave it out at room temperature for three to four days. At least once a day, or whenever you remember, give the grains a stir and add more water as needed to make sure they stay submerged. 

When you start to see a layer of bubbles on the surface of your liquid, voilà — you have lacto-fermentation in process. The bubbles are the off-gassing of carbon dioxide by lactic acid bacteria. The water will appear cloudy and the top layer may seem filmy and foamy, but rest assured these are the normal effects of all that bacteria at work. You can simply stir the “scum” back into the feed when you see it. 

Lactic acid bacteria at work 

Properly fermented feed actually smells pretty good (if you like fermented food, that is) — fruity and tart, like a yogurt. That sour smell indicates the presence of lactic acid. If your fermented feed has an unpleasant odor, or smells strongly of alcohol or yeast gone wrong, your batch has likely gone bad. A rotten smell means you should discard the grains and start over again. An alcoholic smell means you can try to save your batch: Add a tablespoon of unpasteurized apple cider vinegar (for every gallon of fermented feed) and let the acetic acid in the vinegar digest the alcohol and yeasts, thereby bringing everything back in balance. 

You should never see mold in your fermented feed. Mold on your grains is a sign of air exposure. And moldy anything is no good, unless it’s cheese. When you have mold, it means the oxygen in the environment is depleting the Lactobacilli in your lacto-fermentation. Always make sure your grains are completely covered in water and your container is sealed properly. 

In three to four days, your feed should be fully fermented. Check by bubbles and by smell. When it takes on a strong and sour smell, you can scoop out and strain the appropriate amount of grains for your chickens and feed it to them wet. Watch them go crazy for it! 

Strain the fermented grains after three to four days 

Every time I strain an amount of fermented feed from my jar, I add the same amount of dry feed back into it. Give a stir, recover with a lid, and strain more feed the next day. This is the easiest way to keep your lacto-fermentation going without starting over. You can keep reusing the same liquid, especially since it already has all that good bacteria floating around in it, which speeds up the fermentation of new grains.

 At feeding time, I bring the chickens a scoop or two of fermented feed and clear the dish when it’s empty. I don’t leave fermented feed out for a long period of time since the bacteria is most beneficial when it’s served fresh. Only leave enough feed out that your chickens can finish within half an hour. 

When I confine my chickens to their run all day (no foraging or treats), I’ve estimated that each one eats about one cup of dry feed per day. When I give them fermented feed, it seems they eat half that amount. At the end of the day, their crops are nice and full. While this is no scientific study on how much less they’re eating of the wet versus dry feed, I think it’s safe to say they do eat less feed when it’s fermented. 

I don’t give fermented feed to my chickens every day. This is mostly because I’m not always home, and lack the time and resources to bring them fresh feed every day. But I also believe in balance when it comes to food; while I’ve yet to come across any reports of someone getting sick from consuming too many probiotics, I feel moderation is best. Most of us don’t eat fermented foods as our main course every day, and our chickens probably shouldn’t either.