Fermenting food for chickens and poultry keeping has been around for centuries, both in part due to the lack of machinery that made automated processing of livestock feed the norm but also due to the health benefits that it was found to have – for both poultry keepers and their flocks. Fermenting grain is a great way to cut down your food bill for your flock, as it almost doubles during the fermentation process. Also, grain is normally cheaper to purchase than processed, pelletised food – again a financial saving.
The process of lacto-fermentation produces Vitamin K, a range of B-vitamins and enzymes as well as increases the digestibility of the grain and it’s protein level (far above the levels of dry grain). However, the largest benefit to the fermented foods is the introduction of probiotics, which improves overall gut health strengthens their immune systems.
Lastly, as the grain is more digestable at the end of the fermentation process, your chickens/poultry will actually eat less of it as they are fulfilling their nutritional needs from a smaller amount of food. And as they are eating less and digesting it better, the amount of faecal matter produced is significantly less. Less poo, less flies! Sounds like a win/win to me!
Choosing your grain
Our preferred grain is just your bog standard, cheap poultry scratch mix. We have no specific brand preference for this method, although commonly brands available to use in Melbourne are Avigrain, Red Hen, Green Valley Grains, Peter Gibbs Stockfeeds or Country Heritage Feeds (Organic Grain Suppliers). We do recommend a poultry mixed grain though, because some level of research will have been done regarding the seed varieties and quantities to make it remotely nutritionally correct for poultry. This can be easily compared visually to budgie or other bird mixes that are vastly different.
What you will need –
Four normal 9L buckets
A large scoop for the grain
A large stirring device
Your bag of scratch grain
Your bucket of rainwater/tap water (see below)
Apple cidar vinegar (optional)
A large scoop with small drainage holes (think deep-fryer type thing) and feeding trays
Hang on… why do I need four buckets?
This is four bucket method what we used for a large flock of around 50 chickens as we could feed out a bucket each day. Don’t panic, I don’t expect you to do the same quantities, it’s more to explain in a way that is easily visualised the amounts used to ferment successfully. In reading this information and understanding the basic concepts, the quantity can very easily be scaled up or down, depending on the size of your flock. I have heard of chicken lovers fermenting quantities successfully for their flocks ranging from large Moccona coffee jars in the kitchen (for 4 chooks in the backyard) to 20L ex-bakery white buckets (and multiples of for really big commercial egg-laying flocks).
Preparing the Water
Water containing chlorine (which is commonly found in Australian tap water) can impede the fermentation process, so starting with chlorine-free water is a must.
The easiest way to achieve this is to use rainwater.
Alternatively, it is easy to prepare your own with just an additional step to the fermenting process. All you need is a large, open mouthed vessel for storing a rather large volume of water in. We just use a common black outdoor plastic bin (easily bought from Bunnings for less than $20). Fill this up with tap water and leave it overnight to evaporate the chlorine from the water. After 24 hours minimum, this water is then fine to use.
Lets Get Started
Ok, lets get the buckets set up in full sun, against a fence where you can easily see them. Being in an area you can see makes it easier for you to pop out to check on them and give them a stir them also.
Scoop about 1/3 to 1/2 a bucket of grain mix into the first bucket.
Add a splash (very accurate, I know) of apple cidar vinegar to help with starting the fermentation process.
Top up to around 3/4 (or at least a few centimetres above the level of the grain) with water from your storage bin (use one of your other empty buckets, that’s fine) and give your grain a good stir. Some of the lighter grains/seeds might float (below), this is normal.
Top up your black water bucket again, so it will evaporate the chlorine again overnight. In my case (below) the right hand bucket is my water bucket.
The grain in the first bucket should have absorbed some of the water and the water level will have dropped.
Top up the water level with fresh water from your black water bin and stir again. The grains might be swelling from water absorption also, which is what you want.
It should be getting a bit thick, most of the lighter seeds will have absorbed water and sunk and the water have a few bubbles as the fermentation process is kicking off.
Stir again at least twice (preferably more) during the day. The more oxygen you can get into it by stirring (frequency is a tad more important than length of stirring as the grains absorb the water and need to be moved around to enable more absorption) combined with heat (from it’s sunny position), the better your fermentation will be.
Starting Bucket 2 –
Scoop about 1/3 to 1/2 a bucket of grain mix into the second bucket.
Instead of adding apple cidar vinegar at this stage, tip some of the liquid from bucket number one into your grains (don’t be tight, the more you can add the faster this bucket will ferment as it has a ‘starter’) so at least 500mls is a good amount.
Top up to around 3/4 (or at least a few centimetres above the level of the grain) with water from your storage bin (use one of your other empty buckets, that’s fine) and give your grain a good stir.
Now leave it for at least 24 hours and ensure that you give it a good stir at least two more times that first day.
Bucket 1 – Bucket one should be pretty close to feeding out by now, especially if it has been in a nice and warm/sunny position.
When it is ready to be fed out, it will be bubbly at the top and some of the lighter seeds will have sunk down. The water will be a bit murky and it will smell rich, earthy and yeasty. The grains will also have almost doubled in size and be nice and plump when you stir it.
If you aren’t happy with how it’s looking, it’s been a bit cold or you are unsure, leave it another day. It can’t hurt. 🙂 It’s a bit of a process to get started but once you have your third bucket going, you’ll be going great guns!
Stir and scoop out grains onto feeding trays with your deep-frying type scoop (or whatever you have). As we had a big flock, we used a large colander from a Asian grocery type shop and strained the excess liquid into another empty bucket. Then we just fed out the grain from the colander. Excess liquid doesn’t matter; the chickens will either get more fluid from the soggy grain or it will dry during the day.
Prepare the grain into Bucket 3, add some of the water from Bucket 1 to kick off fermentation and top with water from your black water bucket.
Stir and wait for this one go get going over the next day or so.
Now Bucket 2 should be fermenting nicely and going faster as it had a starter ‘kick’ from Bucket one instead of the apple cidar vinegar starter. Bucket 2 just needs regular stirring and will be ready to feed out on Day Five…
Feed out Bucket 2 and start Bucket 4 fermentation.
Hopefully by now you will have gotten the hang of it, but basically restart the process from Day 1.
This image below shows grains straight from the bag (left hand side) compared to the size of fermented grains. Big difference!
The four Bucket method works well as once it’s established, you will have one ready for feeding, one fermenting (or two) and one starting. If you are needing an extra day in between, you might have two buckets fermenting for two days of feeding, but set one day apart.
Scaling up or down
Scaling down in very easily done, just with smaller containers and small quantities of grain.
Scaling down is also easily done, as you can just add more buckets to the process (therefore turning the four bucket method into an eight or twelve bucket method).
Measuring Grain for Feeding and Fermenting
It can take a little bit of time to tweak how much of the new fermented feed your flock will eat. Fermented food is best fed out in the morning so the flock can finish the food during the day and there is nothing left out at night for vermin to feed on.
From this, you might find that your flock might need less dry scratch grain fermented as they are eating less fermented feed than they did when eating pellets or other dry food. The fermentation process makes the nutrients more available in the grain and is easier to digest so they feel fuller faster and eat less food. Being more digestable, they will extract more nutrients and therefore poo less. Brilliant!
This fermentation method has been for a vegetarian based food (without getting into debate about chickens’ natural diet being omnivorous). Given it is a wet food, it is a great base to add other ingredients or supplements as you deem necessary for your flock.
To increase protein levels, a spoonful of Blood and Meat meal will work wonders as it is over 50% protein.
Some poultry keepers like to add handfuls of lucerne chaff or any other green vegetable/grass/sprouts (either during fermentation or afterwards) for additional green pick and maintenance of yellow yolks.
Shell grit can also be easily added to fermented food, although some poultry keepers still make shell grit available for poultry to feed from a separate container and self regulate.
The addition of Healthy Chook Spice Mix or Respiratory Support Spice Mix is very easily done just prior to feeding out, for that additional nutrient rich, probiotic boost.
To conclude, here is a recommendation from one of our Facebook followers, Beth Sandral from Cluck Nuts in NSW.
“Hey all. I met Christine at Suburban Chooks when I reached out to discuss problems I was having in my egg business with low laying rates and expensive feed costs. I switched my flock of then 200 commercial egg layers to fermented grain instead of bagged pellet feed. The chooks love it, I use remarkably less food (saving money), and they have never been healthier or laid better. With the increased egg production I have extra demand for my eggs and recently added another 100 hens, so our free range egg business is growing and doing really well. I do supplement with calcium (shell grit) and protein (meat meal), but that’s easy. I highly recommend it to anyone who will listen. ?”
Good luck and let us know how you have found the processing of fermenting food for your poultry and the results!