Why and How to Ferment Your Chicken Feed

Fermented chicken feed

I want to share with you a process that’s fascinated me for some time, but I wasn’t ready to share my discovery until I’d had enough experience with it — one year later.

That discovery is the lacto-fermentation of chicken 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.

I’ve been fermenting my chicken feed on and off since last year, when I wanted to go through a 50-pound bag of scratch grains quickly and efficiently. (Learn from my mistake: Do not buy 50 pounds of scratch if you have a small flock of chickens that forages most of the day. They will peck and scratch the ground regardless, and if you already feed them a healthy whole-grain diet, they will simply ignore the scratch you toss on the ground.)

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).

Why Ferment Your Chicken Feed
We all know that lacto-fermented foods are good for us; yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha are among the foods touted for their nutrient-dense and enzyme-rich benefits to our health.

Lacto-fermentation is an anaerobic process that preserves and enhances food. Lacto-fermented food contains live Lactobacillus, a beneficial bacteria that helps normalize the acidity in our stomach, provide digestive balance, aid in the absorption of nutrients, neutralize toxic compounds, and strengthen overall immunity.

When it comes to chickens, fermented feed has been found to increase egg weight, shell weight and shell thickness; boost the chickens’ intestinal health by forming a natural barrier to acid-sensitive pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella; and lowered their consumption of feed (due to their bodies digesting the fermented feed more effectively), according to a British Poultry Science study from 2009. Another 2009 study by the African Journal of Biotechnology concurred that fermented feed reduces the level of anti-nutrients found in the grains and seeds, and greatly improves the bioavailability of vitamins and minerals during digestion.

Not only does fermentation preserve the vitamins in your grains, it also creates new vitamins, primarily B vitamins like folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, and thiamin.

In short, fermenting your chicken feed leads to better eggs, better hen health, and lower feed costs. Less feed also means less poop, which none of us can complain about!

Lacto-fermented chicken feed

How to Ferment Your Chicken Feed
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. Try fermenting my homemade whole grain chicken feed (with or without corn), but leave out the brewer’s yeast as that will introduce alcoholic fermentation (whereas we want lacto-fermentation).

For my flock of three hens, I 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 source 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.

In my setup at home, I keep a jar of pre-mixed grains right next to my jar of fermented feed. This makes it simple to refill the ferment jar with new grains each time I scoop some out of the liquid. The jars sit on a dark shelf in my kitchen, where the temperature typically hovers around 68°F.

Wet grains and dry grains

What I’ve Learned In the Last Year
In theory, you can reuse the ferment liquid indefinitely and it will just get better and better (and by better, that means it will contain an amazing amount of probiotic bacteria). But I’ve started new batches of fermented feed a few times now, usually when I go out of town for at least a week and don’t want the feed to turn too sour. I haven’t had enough experience with reusing my ferment liquid for more than a couple months at a time, but if yours becomes slimy, sludgy or stinky (a side effect of oxygen killing the good bacteria and introducing the bad bacteria), you should start again with fresh water.

I have never used a starter to start the lacto-fermentation, and you don’t have to either. Lactobacilli is already present in the air and on the surfaces of the grains, and in the right environment they’ll proliferate before you know it. At most, your feed will be fermented by day four. I’ve read accounts from other people who add unpasteurized apple cider vinegar as a starter but I think it’s unnecessary. Vinegar contains acetic acid bacteria. We want lactic acid bacteria. While acetic acid has its own health benefits (and certainly won’t hurt if you decide to add a tablespoon or so to your chickens’ water or feed), it’s not useful as a starter for lacto-fermentation.

If you’re really impatient and want to get going right away, you can use the liquid from lacto-fermented pickles or sauerkraut to start your fermentation.

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.

Chickens devouring fermented feed

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.

I still provide fresh greens and dried mealworms (along with grit and oyster shells) when I give my chickens fermented feed. I still provide their regular dry feed a few days a week, especially when I go out of town. I’d say that right now, they average half a week with fermented feed and the other half with dry feed. Either way, they are as happy and healthy as can be!

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May 27 2013      170 comments     Linda Ly

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  • Brittany

    I’m not in a position to own chickens now or in the near future, but I keep filing away all your chicken posts for future reference. 🙂 One day!

  • Megan R.

    So the pellets or crumbles don’t turn too mushy? I would love to give this a try if they don’t!

    • I’ve never used pellets so I can’t answer that, but I imagine that pellets and crumbles would just turn soft as if you were making a wet mash (which some people do). It probably depends on how long they’ve been soaking… You should ferment just a small amount at first, see how long they hold their shape, and only keep enough feed in the ferment jar that can be used up before it turns mushy.

    • Bee

      I ferment layer mash and whole grains and other ferment the crumbles and pellets. It’s all the same. Most do not ferment in jars but in buckets and they let their mix stay at a mash consistency..sort of like good mortar or peanut butter thickness, for easy feeding. As long as it stays moist it doesn’t have to be totally submersed in water. I’ve been doing this for 2 years now and have found it’s not as complicated as many are trying to make it…just a bucket of feed that’s been wet down and fermented, fed out and replenished, using the same fluid time after time but adding fresh water to keep it up to absorption levels of the fresh feed.

  • Evette

    Thank you for sharing this… We are getting our first flock in a month! I will be using your chicken feed recipe, and now can also try the fermenting method as well. Thank you for taking the time to write your blog and post pictures for us. You really are an inspiration, and a teacher for people like me who are still learning everything. Thanks!

    • I appreciate the kind comment!

  • Fabulous! I’ve wanted to give them sprouts, but the rinsing….this sounds ideal. Thank you 🙂 Would yogurt whey work?

    • I wouldn’t use yogurt whey as a starter, since the Lactobacillus strains in a dairy product are different from the Lactobacillus strains in a grain/veggie product.

      • Scott

        This is INCORRECT. The strains in yogurt are exactly the same and in fact better than the random bacteria you are finding in your grains. You are just as likely to be making beer as helpful probiotics.

        If you really want to do it right, grind the scratch coarsely at least in a grinder or blender and then
        add and mix in a tablespoon of yogurt. For best
        results and to limit the growth of putrid bacteria,
        raise the temp of the mash to 115 degrees Farenheit. This allows only the probiotic bacteria to grow and inhibits the undesirable bacteria. PLUS

        it only takes four hours for the beneficial bacteria

        to reproduce to desired levels. You should study

        yogurt making and apply all the same info as it is

        exactly the same… you are just using a different

        food source for the bacteria. It just so happens that I feed this to my ducks and they dont mind the mash at all but I believe chickens would eat it just the same since all it is is 4 grain chicken scratch that is ground up in a blender. HEY you wont believe…. but this stuff makes the very best BEST in the world cornbread. Add only eggs, baking powder and perhaps cheese or peppers to taste

        and bake either in oven or pan fry on stove.

        • The specific strains of LAB used in yogurt are thermophilic, which means they proliferate at the higher temperatures required of yogurt making.

          The LAB in grains (and vegetables) are mesophilic, so they achieve maximum growth at room temperature.

          Unless people are going to be heating and incubating their feed with the whey, as you do, whey is not a suitable starter for a jar that just sits on a shelf at 65-70F.

        • mhollifi

          You are not right about yogurt.

          If you are talking about the yogurt made of caw milk, it’s based on animal origin. For vegiterian like chiken, the assid in the stomack kills off the bacteria in the stomak and doesn’t go to vowel where bacteria should work.

          But you are right about the yogurt made of verigable, like soybeans, but I don’t think you can find these yogurt in the US.

          Japanese who has genetically vegiterian stomack, because eating animals were forbidden for 2000 years, at least one million or more people making soybean yogurt by themselvs. They are marketing verigable based yogurt on the market, too. (The commercial yogurt are pasturized so that many bacteria are killed anyway, though) There, people knows that they eats milk based yogurt just to enjoy the taste, not for health reason.

          • Marie Noybn

            um… neither japanese, nor chickens are vegetarians. A chicken left to its own devices will eat bugs, frogs, small rodents, and/or eachother, without a qualm. The myth of vegetarian chickens was promulgated by the chicken industry because feeding chickens nothing but grain is cheaper and easier in the confined spaces they keep them in, so they put a spin on it. AND the Japanese also do NOT eat soy on the same level that americans do, they only use FERMENTED soy products as an accompaniment.

  • Tanya @ Lovely Greens

    What a fascinating post… Did you find that your girls took to the fermented grains right away or did they need time to adjust?

    • My chickens took to the fermented grains right away, but their normal diet already consists of grains. If your chickens were switching from a different diet – say, layer pellets – to fermented grains, there would likely be an adjustment period.

      • Lyman Duggan

        You might all be surprised at how much fermenting is already going on inside your chicken and yourself too. It they free range they eat grass and ingest soil bacteria and their meat and eggs loaded with Vitamin K’s Of course some new probiotics are good for us all.
        Live whey is a great source of lacto-bacilli. Kefir Yogurt and Cheese whey too.

        • The fact that you use a grasshopper’s leg as a toothpick cracks me up! I’ve walked by those food carts in Bangkok filled with all kinds of fried beetles, spiders etc, but I couldn’t bring myself to try them. 😛 Granted, they were a lot bigger than, say, the little worm in my tequila bottles. Haha.

    • Tracy H

      Hello , I am very frustrated because I have 2 10 week old chickens who have been eating organic grower mix (scratch and peck). I have tried the fermented process exactly as follows and when I put it down they don’t really eat any of it. I have three different batches going and they just don’t like it. I was concerned that they were not getting enough to eat so I put the dry down again. They are choosing the dry over fermented. It is not spoiled l. What should I do as I want to continue with the fermented food. Every post I read says that the chickens prefer this to dry?

      • You can try mixing in some of the dry feed with the fermented feed to help them adjust. Some chickens take to new food more quickly and readily than others. Also, when switching feed, I will keep my chickens in their enclosed run all day so they have no choice but to eat what’s in front of them. No treats or other food during this transitional period. If they still refuse to eat after several days, then maybe they just don’t like it. You can try again when they’re older, as I’ve found my chickens’ taste buds do change over time (they used to like corn, but no longer).