Backyard Chickens / Nutrition

Why and How to Ferment Your Chicken Feed

Lacto-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.

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 off and on since 2012, 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.)

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!

Ferment your chicken feed to improve the bioavailability of vitamins and nutrients

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

Fermented chicken feed

Properly fermented feed actually smells pretty good (if you like fermented food, that is) — fruity and tart, like 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

Gallon-Size Glass Jar | Mini Strainer

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, re-cover 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 to 70°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, as 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!

 

Fermenting Sources

Anchor Hocking 1-Gallon Cracker Jar | Living Whole Foods BPA-Free 5-Gallon Bucket and Lid | OXO Good Grips 3-Inch Mini Strainer | Bragg Organic Raw Unfiltered Apple Cider Vinegar
About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

198 Comments

  • Janet
    July 27, 2021 at 6:00 am

    First time at fermented chicken feed, yesterday they loved it! Today it has mold……not sure what happened.

    Reply
  • Cheryl
    July 14, 2021 at 5:21 pm

    Love this idea! Can I ferment the grains in a metal bucket? TIA

    Reply
  • Danielle
    April 30, 2021 at 7:23 am

    I’ve been fermenting my feed and have given it to my ladies twice now (only had them for a week and they are now almost 19 weeks old). They don’t really seemed interested in what I’m putting out. Yesterday I put out their dry feed after an hour and they all acted like I had been starving them… what am I doing wrong?

    Reply
  • Gail Kelley
    April 16, 2021 at 6:18 pm

    It is very important to maintain the temperature at the 68 to 70 degrees that was given in this article. If the temperature gets too warm the batch will quickly Mold. I had this happen a couple times until I figured it out.

    Reply
    • Lovie
      June 18, 2021 at 12:46 pm

      I am in Bahamas daily temperatures in 80’s my 50lb bag of scratch went moldy very quickly in the garage in big plastic bin
      What to do ? I can’t afford this ?! Any ideas with limited materials .thanks.
      Can a broody hen be left alone for two weeks ? Just a bowl of water ? Advise .

      Reply
  • Crystal Carter
    January 23, 2021 at 4:31 am

    Do you sell your homemade feed? I’d like to try it with my chickens before I buy a bunch of ingredients that they may or may not like.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      January 23, 2021 at 2:02 pm

      No I don’t. I suggest buying just small amounts of those ingredients to try it out for your flock first (a lot of them can be found in the bulk bins of certain grocery stores). And the nice thing is, since you’re buying human-grade ingredients, you can use them yourself if your chickens end up not liking something.

      Reply
  • Donna
    September 2, 2020 at 7:04 pm

    My girls are 17 weeks old. I’m just getting ready to go switch them over to scratch and peck layer feed. My question is, how long do you leave the fermented feed out? If it is not eaten up by a certain time, do you discard it? Thank you.

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      September 5, 2020 at 4:10 am

      I leave out just enough fermented feed that they can eat in one sitting. (Granted they may move around and come back to it, but usually they’ll finish within 30 minutes.) The amount will vary, so start with 1/2 to 3/4 cup per chicken and adjust from there. Their appetites will depend on the breed, time of year, and whether or not they free-range or get kitchen scraps.

      Reply
      • Donna
        September 17, 2020 at 2:31 pm

        Hi Linda,
        Thank you so much for the help! I have my first jar fermenting on the counter!

        Reply
        • Gail Kelley
          April 16, 2021 at 4:03 am

          It is very important to maintain the temperature at the 68 to 70 degrees that was given in this article. If the temperature gets too warm the batch will quickly Mold. I had this happen a couple times until I figured it out.

          Reply
  • Mattie
    May 15, 2020 at 9:32 pm

    Can you do this with medicated chick starter? Introduce it? Or do I need to wait until they switch to layer feed?

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      May 16, 2020 at 4:51 am

      You can ferment unmedicated chick starter, but I don’t know how medicated feed would react if it’s fermented. (I personally wouldn’t do it.)

      Reply
      • Barnabas
        July 31, 2021 at 7:15 pm

        Guide me to do it

        Reply
  • Wal Ibru
    February 18, 2020 at 8:22 pm

    Should the lid be sealed, as in airtight? I’m asking because I read some where that the good bacteria multiplying during the fermentation need oxygen as well, and thus the container should be covered with cheese cloth or breathable cover. But you seem to suggest that allowing oxygen might cause mold.

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      February 27, 2020 at 1:45 am

      No, not airtight. The bubbles in the fermentation process need a place to escape. I just put the lid on loosely.

      Reply
  • Nic Cole
    November 19, 2018 at 11:10 pm

    Hello. I just found out about fermenting chicken feeds and I am considering it to be the topic of my undergraduate thesis. I just wanna ask if it is okay to ferment commercial chicken feed?

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      November 20, 2018 at 4:07 am

      Yes you can, though results may vary based on the quality of the commercial feed.

      Reply
  • Kelly Snell
    October 11, 2018 at 2:59 pm

    My chicken feed before fermenting, smells awful. But it is the only locally grown organic non GMO feed I can get. When I ferment it, it smells even worse. It bubbles and there is no mold, and my chickens gobble it up. Any idea if the smell is normal since the feed stinks to begin with? I have been feeding it fermented for a few weeks now and don’t see any problems. I just wish it smelled more pleasant. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      October 12, 2018 at 6:11 am

      What are the ingredients in your chicken feed? I’m not sure what would be included in a commercial feed to make it stink to begin with…

      Reply
  • Mellane Davies
    June 26, 2018 at 8:56 pm

    My chicks are approximately 10 weeks old and have not laid as of yet. They are currently eating crumble and I have just finished fermenting my first batch which they have eaten twice. I am going to switch to a whole grain diet that I plan to also ferment. I am wondering if I should start the switch with dry grains or with fermented dry grains?

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      June 27, 2018 at 12:19 am

      You can go straight to fermented grain, but I would mix it in with the crumble for the first week or so to help your flock adjust to the new diet.

      Reply
  • Michelle
    April 29, 2018 at 11:48 pm

    At what age is it ok to start feeding them your homemade grain recipe? And age for fermentated grains? Mine are 2 weeks old. If I do make the grains…should I then be giving grit and oyster shells?

    Reply
  • Benigno Galope
    December 30, 2017 at 5:54 am

    how many hours is the best to fallow to attain the best result

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      March 1, 2018 at 6:38 am

      The speed of fermentation depends on your ambient room temperature, but in general the grains should ferment in about 3 days.

      Reply
      • Aloyce Priva Abel
        April 25, 2019 at 12:27 pm

        nice

        Reply
  • Israr
    October 22, 2017 at 6:05 am

    hi, just want to know like when the fermentation process competes & we drain the water than where to keep the fermented seeds that are ready for feeding, the same place like in room/kitchen or should be in cooler place like fridge.

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      November 9, 2017 at 5:42 am

      We keep the fermented feed in the jar in a cool place. A kitchen counter or pantry should be fine. We also do not strain the feed until we serve it to the chickens. The grains stay submerged in the liquid and continue fermenting.

      Reply
      • israr khan
        November 9, 2017 at 6:32 am

        Thanks

        Reply
  • Robbie Dent
    May 14, 2017 at 10:46 pm

    When feeding fermented feed, do you need to also provide another source of protein? We have been doing fermented wheat for a few months and are noticing more and more feather loss. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Christine Smith
    May 12, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    Would a pickling jar work as well? It’s self darkening and I think it keeps a more constant temp because it’s ceramic, but it has a resting lid not a screw on, will this matter?

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      May 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

      It will totally work!

      Reply
  • Jennifer Perez-Sample
    May 9, 2017 at 12:58 am

    I am new to this. What kind of “grains” are you talking about?

    Reply
  • JC Sawyer
    March 11, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    Have you considered using airlocks on the jars (or buckets) to maintain a more consistent anaerobic environment? Also, what do you think about adding raw apple cider vinegar (with the mother) to give the ferment a jump start? I see some people also add whey … is this overkill and not a necessary use of resources? Thank you.

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      March 22, 2017 at 7:12 am

      I don’t use airlocks since the grains ferment very quickly and I’ve never had a problem with mold. I also don’t add anything to jump-start the fermentation for this reason. This is as simple as fermentation gets. 🙂

      Reply
  • Haejung Kim
    March 1, 2017 at 2:39 am

    Does it ever get too sour and thus the chicks won’t eat it?

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      March 2, 2017 at 11:07 am

      I only ferment enough grains to last a couple of weeks, and haven’t had any problems with my chickens refusing them. I’m not sure when/if the grains ever turn too sour.

      Reply
    • Deb Casey
      March 2, 2017 at 2:02 pm

      I have used Linda’s recipe for 3+ years and my chickens love it. I do continuous ferment in a crock where you take out what you need for that day and then add in more dry feed. Keep it going like you would sourdough starter or continuous brew kombucha. It works great!

      Reply
  • Chris
    July 25, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    Hi I’m a newbie at this and find your site an excellent source of information. Can raw rice be fermented and fed to adult hens?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      October 15, 2016 at 1:46 am

      Yes, you can ferment rice, but white rice is low in nutritional value, so I wouldn’t rely on it alone as a source of feed.

      Reply
  • Susie
    July 10, 2016 at 6:34 pm

    So I got a little ahead of myself and used hose water without letting it sit out for 24 hours for the chlorine or whatever to evaporate…did I ruin it all or could i leave it uncovered for 24 hours and it will still evaporate? Is it still salvageable?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      October 15, 2016 at 2:26 am

      The only concern with hose water is the chlorine found in municipal water sources, which can sometimes interfere with fermentation. It’s not the end of the world and your fermentation may still even work, but it’s a precaution to take if you’re not sure of the water quality. (Also, hopefully your hose is safe to drink from.)

      Reply
  • Sophie
    April 4, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    Can I feed this to chicks also? I will be getting day old chicks soon and was wondering if I shouldn’t feed them fermented feed right away. Also, how do I know how much to feed them? I will be feeding them twice a day, and they will also get to go out on pasture. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      April 28, 2016 at 7:57 pm

      Yes, chicks can eat fermented feed. They will eat more and more as they grow, so start by setting out a small dish for them and adjust the amount based on how long it takes them to finish the grains at each feeding.

      Reply
  • Ozchic
    March 19, 2016 at 7:54 am

    Great How to info on fermentation. Just wondering though if you sterilize your jars beforehand? I have read that chickens can get sick (just like humans) from E. coli and botulism. When fermenting (which is a form of preserving) the rules of food safety and handling is important. Unless stated in directions a lot of people don’t take on board the fact that it is just as important to handle food for animals just as carefully.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      April 27, 2016 at 12:17 am

      I sometimes put the jars through the dishwasher, but more often I only wash them with hot water and soap, and find that it’s sufficient.

      Reply
  • Colin Bennett
    February 12, 2016 at 6:22 am

    Sourdough bread starter should help speed it up, that is a mainly lactic process. It suggests you could maintain a starter liquid in a similar way too, like give some nutrients leave for an hour, then fridge for up to a couple of weeks. Room temp for an hour, give small feed and leave until bubbles to reactivate.

    Reply
  • Samson
    December 19, 2015 at 7:11 pm

    Hi, I was wondering if you only put out a small amount of feed so that the girls will eat it all within thirty minutes, how many times a day do you feed them?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      January 2, 2016 at 8:57 pm

      I only feed them the fermented grains once a day. You will need to experiment with the amount you leave out in order to gauge how much your chickens can eat.

      Reply
  • Free Ranger
    December 18, 2015 at 11:04 am

    You mention not using scratch grains here but mention in other articles you do use scratch grains. If I am using a mixed non-GMO feed from a local supplier (cheaper than making my own) that is whole grain, do I really need scratch grains? I ferment their feed as well as feed them wheatgrass. We use the the majority of wheatgrass for ourselves and let them eat the green close to the wheat berries along with the berries. We also give him extra SCOBYs from kombucha, ground eggshells, and of course a few veggie scrap treats. The chickens are free range as well. Do scratch grains really matter in this case as those ingred are what is basically in their whole grain feed?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      December 18, 2015 at 10:27 pm

      When I first brought home my flock a few years ago, I did give them scratch grains — but I found it unnecessary after a while. Scratch is just another name for little treats that you toss out for them to peck and scratch through. Commercially bagged scratch contains corn as a primary ingredient, plus some other cheap grains. If you already give them those treats, a separate serving of scratch isn’t needed. They’re happy to scratch through anything you throw out for them!

      Reply
  • Brenda Diederich
    November 24, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    My chickens LOVE fermented wheat. I also sprout some, along with oats. Since you posted pictures depicting mixed grains, I will try fermenting that next week! BOSS, some crumbles, cracked corn, the oats, and some field radish seeds from our local CO-OP… Thank you for the explanations.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      November 24, 2015 at 7:08 pm

      You’re welcome! I know your chickens will enjoy it!

      Reply
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