Fermented Feed

What the heck is fermented feed and why on earth would you want to give it to chickens?

Fermentation has been used for hundreds of years by many cultures to preserve and enhance foods. If you have ever consumed cheese, yogurt, sourdough bread, wine, beer kimchi or sauerkraut (just to name a few) you have eaten a fermented food.

The fermentation process uses naturally occurring bacteria to partially break down the food, improving its enzyme content and increasing its levels of vitamins B, C and K. It also makes food more digestible, and boosts the "usable" protein level by about 12 percent.

The other benefits to using fermented feed:
  • Feed consumption and waste will drop by 1/2 to 3/4 (this will save you money)
  • Poultry on a diet of fermented feed are generally healthier and less likely to contract disease
  • There is almost zero waste as chickens don't scratch through it, kicking it out of the feeder
  • Stools become more solid and many people report less smell in the coop and run!
  • Egg yolks of eggs laid by hens on fermented feed will become noticeably larger, and shells will be more solid.  

Benefits Of Lacto-Fermenting Feed For Chickens
By Sue - 
Fermenting or soaking  feed for chickens has gained a lot of popularity in recent years - and for good reason.
Four week old chick eating fermented feed.
Why is fermenting feed a good idea?
In a previous article, "Easy Ways to Sprout Seeds for Your Chickens" here on the Natural Chicken Keeping Blog,  we discussed the anti-nutrient roll of phytic acid, enzyme inhibitors, tannins, and hard-to-digest proteins  that are present in grains (seeds) and legumes (also a seed).  We learned that seeds were created with these items as a protective device to help them survive until conditions are right for them to sprout and grow into mature plants.  This is GREAT for the seeds and their continued proliferation.  However, it's not so great for people or animals that attempt to use them as a main food source as they deplete our systems of nutrients that are vital to health.  For more information and documentation, please see Easy Ways to Sprout Seeds for Your Chickens.

While sprouting, fermenting, or even just overnight soaking of seeds/grains reduces their anti-nutrient properties making them more available for digestion and use by the body, lacto-fermenting provides another set of benefits. 
In the book, Real Food Fermentation by Alex Lewin, the author states,  "... beyond simply maintaining the vitamin content of raw foods, the process of fermentation can actually create new vitamins, specifically B vitamins and Vitamin K2 , as well as some types of enzymes."  (Emphasis added)  These additional nutrients are part of the benefit and byproduct of lactic acid bacteria working in the fermentation process.  
Almost everyone who has ever eaten yogurt will recognize the term "friendly bacteria" or "probiotics".   We've learned that these friendly bacteria are ESSENTIAL to maintain a healthy digestive tract and a properly functioning immune system.  Fermenting feed for our animals provides these same benefits.
Yogurt anyone?  Photo Courtesy www.lesfarms.weebly.com
According to one study regarding use of lacto-fermented feed for chickens, an adaptation period of several weeks is required to see benefits in chickens that were previously given dry feed.  After the initial adaptation period, fermented feed was observed to:
"...improve feed conversion as compared with the dry mash... increase egg weight... increase shell weight and stiffness...increase intestinal health by acidification of the upper digestive tract, forming a natural barrier towards infection with acid sensitive pathogens, e.g. E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter. "   

Additional studies note that:
  • Wet feeding increases the feed intake and growth rate of Chickens.
  • Pre-soaking of broiler feeds for 12 and 24 hours significantly increased dry matter digestibility and body weight gain in male broilers (25-40 days of age) compared with dry feed.
  • Bacterial fermentation of barley and wheat whole meal flours with b-glucan-degrading LAB (Lactic Acid Bacteria) has improved growth and early feed-to-gain ratio in broiler chickens.
Regarding Chicks:
  • Early access to semi-moist diets for day-old chicks stimulates gastrointestinal (GI) development and prevents dehydration during transport from the hatchery.
  • Rapid GI tract development after hatch is essential for optimization of digestive function and underpins efficient growth and development as well as a full expression of the genetic potential for production traits. 
  • The moisten capacity of the crop of chicks during the first weeks of life is also believed to be a limiting factor for the optimal functioning of the gut when standard solid diets are fed.
  • Benefits of wet feeding have been attributed to decreased viscosity of gut contents, greater development of the layer of villi in the digestive segments and reduced crypt cell proliferation. 
For a bibliography and full list of studies, see:  
Broody and newly hatched chicks enjoying fermented feed with a few dried meal-worms added. 

To summarize, lacto-fermenting or soaking feed gives "more bang for your buck" by;
  • Increasing nutrient usability
  • Decreasing the overall intake of feed to provide the same -or greater-  amount of nutrients (by reducing undigested feed items passing through the digestive tract)
  • Increasing nutrient content as a by-product of lacto-fermentation (B Vitamins, Vitamin K2 and Enzymes)
  • Strengthening the immune system resulting in increased ability to resist disease and bacterial infection
The benefits go on and on. 
And don't forget -  producing a healthier chicken results in healthier meat and eggs for you.
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Fermentation Basics: A Tale of Two Fermentations (Part 2)
By Sue -

There are several different types of fermentation that are used for different results depending on the item that you are fermenting and the results desired. 

In this article I'll attempt to provide a very basic overview of Alcohol Fermentation and Lacto-Fermentation processes.  Hopefully this short overview will encourage you to research and learn more on your own!

When fermenting feed for my chickens, I use lacto-fermentation.

Chicken feed fermenting in glass container.

In very general terms:
Yeasts consume sugars (carbohydrates) and produce alcohol.
Bacteria consume sugars (carbohydrates), starches or alcohol and produce acids.
-When fermenting to produce alcohol, various yeasts are used.  These yeasts digest the carbohydrates (sugars) and produce alcohol.   
-In high concentrations, alcohol is toxic even to alcohol-producing yeasts which will eventually die off when the concentration of alcohol becomes high enough in the fermenting mixture.
Example:  Almost everyone has had a gallon of apple cider go "hard" over time as the various yeasts that are present in the environment do their work and begin producing alcohol while they're enjoying consuming the carbohydrates in the cider.  Now If you keep that hard cider long enough, it will eventually turn to vinegar...so what happened?
- Acetobacter bacteria convert alcohol to acetic acid which is the main ingredient in vinegar; this process is aerobic (open to the air).  The "mother" in an unpasteurized vinegar contains these bacteria and other health-producing ingredients.
According to Bragg.com their raw apple cider vinegar (ACV) Contains:  "enzymes and important minerals, such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, chlorine, phosphorus, iron, silicon and other trace minerals. The vitamins contained in ACV are bioflavonoids (vitamin P), beta-carotene (precursor to vitamin A), vitamin C, E, B1, B2, and B6."
-Acetic acid preserves food by lowering pH (raising acid level) and making an environment that is unfriendly to harmful bacteria.
-Alcohol is processed by the liver rather than through the digestive system.  Liver damage can occur with excessive consumption over a long-term basis.
-During lacto-fermentation, various Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) are used to digest the carbohydrates (sugars) and produce lactic acid.  This lactic acid is what produces the "tangy" or "sour" flavor that is found in items such as yogurt, raw lacto-fermented pickles, raw lacto-fermented sauerkraut, etc.
-High concentrations of LABs are beneficial to the digestive tract and immune system and even produce additional nutritive value in the form of B Vitamins, Vitamin K2 and Enzymes.  (See Part 1 BENEFITS OF LACTO-FERMENTING FEED FOR CHICKENS for more information.)
"The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic substances. Their main by-product, lactic acid, not only keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of perfect preservation but also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine."  (From Weston A Price Foundation Website Article:  Lacto-Fermentation)
 -Lactic acid preserves food and produces an environment that is unfriendly to harmful bacteria.   This type of food preservation has been used for centuries.  As the acid level raises in the food (pH lowers) it prevents "deadly" bacteria from being able to grow in the food

Lactic Acid Bacteria...."does inhibit most Gram-positive organisms including spore-formers such as Clostridia Botulinum and heat-resistant spoilage organisms."  (Quote from:  http://silvalab.fsnhp.msstate.edu//vinegar_lactic.pdf)
IMPORTANT NOTE:  This is one of the reasons that preserving lower acid foods via lacto-fermentation is safer than heat canning as deadly bacteria such as botulism can grow in low acid, heat-canned products due to their ability to proliferate anaerobically.  (See Part1 BENEFITS OF LACTO-FERMENTING FEED FORCHICKENS for more information.)

-As the lactic acid increases, molds/yeasts/fungi are also kept in check, allowing the beneficial "probiotics" to flourish in greater quantities while discouraging overgrowth of alcohol-producing yeasts.

Lacto-fermentation is generally anaerobic (not open to the air).

-Common food items that use this process are fermented milks (yogurt, cheese, kefir, buttermilk, etc.), fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi. etc.) and fermented meats (corned beef, sausages and fish).

And....Chicken Feed!

Healthy chicks enjoying fermented feed.  Photo by Vicki Servi
For more information on fermentation see:
RealFood Fermentation by Alex Lewin
This book has great photos and a good basic overview of fermentation of many types of food items for people!
Lots of great information on healthy preparation of foods including lacto-fermentation and sprouting.
This site has many articles and videos showing a variety of fermenting processes. 
Also sells various LAB starter cultures suitable for various types of fermentation.
Very interesting book worth reading for a broad spectrum of nutrition topics including fermentation and sprouting.

Making Lacto-Fermented Feed

Swedish Flower Hens enjoying their fermented feed
To start your lacto-fermented feed, follow these steps:
1.  Find a container that is a suitable size for the number of chickens in your flock.  Suitable containers include:
-Plastic Food Grade Buckets
These can often be obtained free of charge or very inexpensively from your local grocery store bakery department or a local restaurant and come in various sizes including 2 Gallon, 3 Gallon or 5 Gallon. 
  • LEAD FREE Ceramic Crocks or Containers - If using ceramic, be sure that you purchase a new container from a source that clearly states lead-free.  Do not use any ceramic container that you currently own that is not marked lead-free.  See Lead and Zinc - Hidden Dangers to Your Chickens.
Glass Containers
- So far I've used glass containers that I can keep handy in the kitchen.  If possible I always prefer glass over plastic as glass is much less porous and does not contain substances that can leach into the high-acid ferment.  Glass containers come in various sizes similar to crocks.
Above:  Anchor glass truffle bowl with fermented feed.  I used this when I only had 6 chickens. 
Below:  Two Gallon Glass container with fermented feed.
Notice the liquid layer above the feed sediment.  Keeping liquid above the feed helps keep oxygen from freely reaching the feed below.

Where to buy containers: LINK

The high acid content of the fermented feed can interact with the metals and cause contamination of the feed. 
2.  Place a suitable amount of dry feed in your container and completely cover with water. As lacto-fermenting is an anaerobic process, be sure to add enough water to keep about 1/2" - 1" of water standing above the feed level.  This encourages the Lactic Acid Bacteria to proliferate while deterring the growth of undesirable molds/yeasts/fungi which require oxygen to proliferate.
Be aware that when you first start the feed, it will begin soaking up water and expand so begin with a small amount of dry feed relative to the size of your bucket or container and continue to add water as it soaks into the feed to keep the water standing well above the feed.  Initially when you add water and stir it all together it will appear that there is more than enough liquid.  After several hours it may have soaked up all the water and you'll have to add additional water and stir again. 
Continue this process until it quits expanding and has enough water standing above to keep it completely submerged. When you first start a batch,  stir the feed about every 2-3 hours (or as often as possible for your schedule) for the first several days. 

Cover the feed with a loose-fitting cover or lid that will allow for off-gassing.
3.  Within 2 - 5 days, the feed will begin to bubble slightly as the LABs will begin to put off carbon dioxide, and you should start to smell a slightly sour smell similar to pickles, sauerkraut or yogurt.  This is the lactic acid that the LABs are beginning to produce.
NOTE:  Lacto-fermented feed should not have a rotten or putrid smell - just a slightly sour/tangy smell. 
Some folks who make fermented feed have asked about a putrid smell in their fermented feed.  The presence of a strong, unpleasant odor indicates an over-growth of unwanted yeasts/molds and possibly "unfriendly bacteria".  If the feed is kept well under the water level, you will usually not have this unbalanced growth of molds and purification.
For LACTO FERMENTATION My personal "rule of thumb" is:  If I can smell yeast/mold or alcohol in the lacto-fermented feed, I don't feed it to my chickens. (See notes on ACV below).
4.  When feeding, scoop or spoon out an appropriate amount of feed for your flock.  Scoop from the bottom of the ferment container to assure that you get a full mixture of all the items in the feed.  You can press out some of the liquid, strain it in a strainer, or just put it into the feed pan as-is.
Do not remove all the feed and liquid from the container.
Fermented feed in a stainless steel strainer draining slightly before adding to the feed bowl.
Note:  You may begin to feed as soon as the first day.  While the LABs will not yet have had time to  multiply, simply soaking feed overnight is beneficial.  (See, "Easy Ways to Sprout Seeds for Your Chickens" for information on the benefit of soaking grains for the reduction of phytic acid and other anti-nutrients.)
5.  Add more dry feed back into the ferment container to replace the feed that was removed.  Stir thoroughly and add enough water to completely submerge the feed as before.  The LABs that are already present will continue to proliferate and the fermenting process can be continued indefinitely in the same container.
Lacto-fermentation can be achieved with no added starter culture as the LAB cultures and various yeasts are naturally present in the air and on surfaces everywhere.  However - if you prefer to speed up the beginning of lacto-fermentation or cultivate specific LABs in your ferment, you can add a starter culture when you first begin your batch.
If you decide to use a starter culture:
Starter cultures that are APPROPRIATE for Lacto-Fermented Feed include:
  • A tablespoon or two of juice from raw lacto-fermented pickles or sauerkraut.  (Note:  If the pickles or sauerkraut were purchased from the store or were heat canned, this WILL NOT contain live active cultures and cannot be used.)
  • A purchased starter culture.  I have personally tested, and had several others test, Avi-Culture II which is the only avian pro-biotic culture on the market at this time that is grown on a non-gmo substrate.   I've also tested Caldwell Starter Culture for Fresh Vegetables which works very well.
  • Whey from cheese made with a mesophillic culture, or a mesophillic starter culture for cheesemaking or culturing other dairy products such as cultured buttermilk or fromage blanc.
  • A tablespoon or two of CULTURED Buttermilk with live active cultures from the supermarket.  Be sure it states live, active cultures.
  • Whey from yogurt.  The specific strains of LAB used in yogurt is thermophillic which means that it achieves maximum growth rate when it is kept at a higher temperature than the room temperature where most will have their fermenting container.  Therefore, it is a less suitable source of LABs for fermenting feed.
  • Yeasts are not an appropriate starter for lacto-fermentation as they produce alcohol rather than lactic acid.  (See Part 2 FERMENTATIONBASICS:  A TALE OF TWO FERMENTATIONS  for more information.
Edited for clarification:

A few notes on Unpasteurized Apple Cider Vinegar relative to lacto-fermentation (ACV):

When using LACTO-FERMENTATION, Unpasteurized Apple Cider Vinegar is not an appropriate STATER CULTURE.  The CULTURE in ACV is Acetobacter bacteria which converts alcohol to acetic acid and is not a lactic acid bacteria.

Rather, for lacto-fermentation, a Lactic Acid Bacteria is appropriate as a STARTER CULTURE.  Please see Part 2 for an overview of the two types of fermentation.

Although not useful as a STARTER CULTURE in lacto-fermenting, it has many other benefits.  Part 2 in this series gives a brief list of nutritional benefits of unpasteurized ACV and some links to find more information.  Please take a look at Part 2 for that information.

While not a starter culture used in lacto-fermenting, it can be added to lacto-fermented feed at any time in small amounts for its other great benefits!

Since I prefer - and use - lacto-fermentation, one of my goals is to keep naturally occurring yeasts/molds/fungus from proliferating in the feed so that the LABs can be dominant in the mix.

As stated above..For LACTO-FERMENTATION my personal "rule of thumb" is:
If I can smell yeast/mold or alcohol, I don't feed it to my chickens. 
When these smells are present and strong enough for me to notice, I know the LABs are out of balance and yeasts or alcohol are becoming more dominant. 
To help illustrate with an example with which most are familiar:  consider a candida  overgrowth in our bodies.  (Commonly referred to as a "yeast" infection.) Although yeasts are always present in our systems, it is the balance that is the issue.  When yeasts are kept in balance, it allows the "good bacteria" to proliferate in our system  and create a healthy gut flora which helps our  immune system to do its job.  If the yeasts get out of balance in our body, we take action to help correct the imbalance and return the "good bacteria" to dominance.
If I ever smell either yeasts/molds or alcohol in my feed I have used ACV to help quickly bring the pH level down (increase acid) which (in moderation) can help retard the growth of the yeasts and allow the Acetobacter bacteria that's contained in the ACV mother to digest any alcohol that may have been produced by naturally occurring yeasts.  When used in small amounts, it can retard the growth of the yeasts just enough to allow the LABs enough time to re-establish a dominant colony that is able to keep the molds/yeasts in check. 
In my experience, the small amount of ACV (about a tablespoon or less for about 2 gal.of feed)  allows the LABs enough time to re-gain dominance within a day or two. 
I have not  had to use ACV for the purpose of rebalancing LAB dominance for several months as I have a good, strong LAB dominance in my current batch of feed.

Additional Protein Info:
Dried fish flakes 76
Dried liver 76
Dried earthworms 76
Duckweed 50
Torula yeast 50
Brewers yeast 39
Soybeans (dry roasted) 37
Flaxseed 37
Alfalfa seed 35
Beef, lean 28
Earthworms 28
Fish 28
Wheat germ 25
Peas & Beans, dried 24.5
Sesame seed 19.3
Soybeans (boiled) 17
Sunflower seeds 17
Wheat bran 16.6
Oats, whole 14
Rice polish 12.8
Rye 12.5
Wheat 12.5
Barley 12.3
Oats 12
Corn 9
Millet 9
Milo 9
Rice, brown 7.5


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