Fermenting Chicken Feed
Our chickens are spoiled. They spend most days freely roaming 5 open acres of our property sifting through leaf litter, picking through tall grasses and leftover nut mast. And, when they’re not out foraging, we provide them with non GMO organic feed and whatever leftover food our worms won’t eat. As far as poultry goes, they’ve got it pretty good – especially when you consider the lives of industry raised hens, which is why we decided to raise chickens in the first place.
When I recently came across an article on fermenting chicken feed, I was a bit skeptical that our birds needed anything more from us. Our birds are all quite healthy and seem to be enjoying their country life. But the article claimed that fermenting feed could lead to decreased food consumption, healthier birds and higher quality eggs. I was intrigued enough to do a little more research.
Here’s what I learned…
While the practice of fermenting food dates back thousands of years, understanding the exact nature of the health benefits seems to be a relatively new endeavor. What we do know is that the process of fermentation introduces probiotics (good bacteria) into food. And just like they do for us, the probiotics help to improve the digestive system of the chickens as well. It seems that probiotics serve to balance out the microbes in the digestive system which then helps to boost the immune system.
Additionally, the fermentation process unlocks the nutritive content of many foods, including grains, which increases the availability of vitamins and enzymes in the feed and also boosts the available protein by as much as 12%. In order to understand why this happens, we have to take a look at the role that phosphorus plays in seeds.
What’s going on inside those seeds?
The bulk of chicken feed content is seed grain, and all seeds come equipped with the nutrients necessary for plants to grow. These are the same nutrients that our birds need in order to be healthy. But as far as a seed is concerned it has only one job to do – grow a plant. Therefore, it’s important for the seed to protect these incredibly valuable nutrients until the conditions are just right for that plant to grow.
Phospherous? You barely know us!
Phosphorous, in its storage form of phytic acid, plays a key role in this seed growth and protection. This is because phytic acid forms a chemical bond to the nutrients in seeds in order to protect and restrict their availability. But when conditions become right for the plant to grow inside the seed, phytase enzymes, which are also present in the seeds, begin working to break down the phytic acid in order to make the nutrients available to the newly growing plant.
The fact that the nutritive content of seeds is unavailable in its dormant state applies to all nonruminant animals – such as poultry, swine, fish and even humans. This is because the bond between the phytic acid and the nutrients is so strong that it will actually protect those nutrients and make them generally unavailable throughout the consumption and digestive process. That is, of course, unless we can find a way to break that chemical bond. While cooking food can break down the phytic acid to some degree, it does not do so completely. Rather, fermenting and sprouting are considered the best ways to ensure the nutrients become available in the food.
Some people do sprout their feed grains. Just as it sounds, the goal here is to soak the seeds or otherwise create the conditions that are right for the seeds to begin to grow. When this happens, the natural process the seed goes through to break the phytic acid bond occurs and the nutrients become available. Sprouting seeds will work to increase the nutrient intake in the hens and decrease the feed consumption. This is a process we may try with our hens down the road when we have a bit more space.
Additional Benefits of Fermentation
The process of lacto fermentation also breaks the bond between phytic acid and makes the nutrients available in seed. This process is also a simple one – just submerge the seeds in chlorine free water for a few days and wait for the bubbles to appear indicating fermentation is taking place. This process offers some additional benefits to the birds.
During the fermentation process, lactic acid bacteria convert sugar into lactic acid. This lactic acid acts as a preservative by preventing the growth of pathogenic organisms. That’s what makes fermentation great for food preservation! And, because it restricts the growth of these pathogens, lactic acid bacteria also act as a probiotics when consumed because they improve the body’s digestive and immune systems.
In addition to serving as a source of probiotics, the lacto fermentation process can actually create new vitamins and enzymes in the feed as a part of the byproduct of the lactic acid bacteria’s work. The whole fermentation process will additionally make the feed easier to digest. And because more of the feed is used by the bird in the digestion process and more nutrients are available to the bird, it reduces the amount of feed that the birds consume. Some reports even indicate feed consumption is reduced by as much as 30-50%.
So what does it all mean for us?
I have to come clean here – about half way through my research I began soaking our feed and have already begun feeding our hens fermented feed. What can I say, I was convinced! (Well, at least enough to give it a try). This all comes at a perfect time too. We have recently been experimenting with our hen’s feed a bit to better understand their consumption in an attempt to lower feed costs while improving quality for the birds. We’ll post a new blog soon to report on what we found with our initial observations on feed as well as what we observe after switching to fermented feed.
I did quite a bit of reading and research in order to create this blog post. Initially I just found a bunch of like minded blog posts regurgitating the same benefits without providing much information about why these benefits occur. But when I began to dig deeper into actual research on the topic, I found that there was quite a bit of it available to support the assertions. I listed some of these resources below.