Fermentation : what it is and why it's good for your chickens.

You may have heard of fermented food, but do you know whether it's good for your flock?

Three chickens eating fermented foodThree of my girls tucking into fermented food. Their heads move so quickly trying to gobble it down that the camera can't keep up!

We all want the best for our chickens - that goes without saying.  There are some mixed reviews around the internet about whether fermenting food for poultry is good for them or not.

In this article I'll untangle the pros and cons so that you can decide for yourself whether it's a good idea.

And in another article, I'll show you how to do it, step by step.


What exactly is fermentation?

Jars of fermented vegetablesSmall jars are good for storing portions of fermented vegetables.

If you've ever eaten yoghurt or cheese, you've eaten a food that's gone through a fermentation process.

Fermentation is simply a system of steeping solids in a liquid to release naturally occurring bacteria which are good for the health of the gut.

You've probably heard of probiotics - that's exactly what fermentation produces.  As well as making it hard for "bad" bacteria to survive in the gut, they make food more digestible and increase the supply of protein available.  At the same time, the process increases the amounts of Vitamins K, C and B.


Are fermented foods healthy?

As you might guess from the information above, the answer to that is a resounding "Yes!", for both humans and chickens (and other animals too).

Bacteria are a vital part of our ability to digest and use foods.  These days, medications such as antibiotics and the availability of fast foods can deplete the number of "good" bacteria our guts make naturally.  That means food is not absorbed as well as it might be and our body loses out on the nutrients it needs to function healthily. 

Gut health word cloudThe benefits of eating fermented foods - for people and chickens!

The net result is that we become more prone to infection and illness.

Fermentation increases the number of bacteria so that our guts are literally teeming with them.  While that may not sound very pleasant, the fact is that it's exactly what we need.

And it's no different for chickens.


What are the specific benefits for chickens?

Here's what studies about the benefits of the fermentation process specifically for chickens have concluded :

  • It increases healthy bacteria in gut
  • Lactic acid content creates environment in which harmful bacteria can't survive
  • Forms a natural barrier to Salmonella virus
  • Increases resistance to infection
  • Food is used more efficiently, leading to ...
  • Increases absorption of vitamins and minerals
Hen and chicks eatingEven very young chicks can eat fermented food.
  • Increases strength of egg shells
  • Increases weight of eggs
  • High protein content makes it particularly good for chickens in the winter, and for moulting / unwell birds
  • Good for new chicks - keeps them hydrated and protein aids growth
  • Less food wastage - chickens do not kick it all over their run!
  • Once they get used to it, chickens love it!

The most important benefit ...

Probably the most important benefit of fermentation is the resistance to infection which fermented foods provide. 

In fact, they're so efficient at preventing infection that in commercial livestock rearing where antibiotics aren't allowed or aren't wanted, fermented foods are used as a matter of course to keep animals healthy.


Are there any drawbacks?

  • The fermentation process can have varying outcomes.  A consistent temperature is needed for the best results.
  • Chickens can take time to get used to the taste - it's best to introduce fermented foods while they're young chicks.
  • There's some evidence from research (see (1) below) that, as with any high protein food, fermented foods can increase chickens' weight, particularly in poultry bred for their meat. 
Fermented feed at day 3Fermenting chicken feed
  • That can be a positive benefit in chickens who've been ill, for example, or to help through the moult, but it can also lead to health issues : fat chickens are not healthy!
  • There was evidence in one trial of the feed itself becoming contaminated (2), but that was found to be a problem with the quality of the feed and the process, not the fermentation itself.
  • One study (3) found that fermented food sometimes produced botulism, caused by a toxic bacteria.  However, it also made clear that the fermenting food was stored for too long in airtight, plastic containers.
  • As long as you use a good quality feed, keep the fermenting foods in a good quality container, follow instructions and allow your chickens time to get used to it, there really shouldn't be any problems.


If you'd like to know more about high protein foods for chickens, these pages will help.

Just click on the pics.

Thumbnail sprouting seeds
High protein chicken treat thumbnail
Thumbnail sunflower chicken treats

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Link to Raising Happy Chickens home page.

Sources.

Information I give you on this page is based on both my own experience and on facts from scientific, peer-reviewed research.  Some of the sources I have used are these :

(1) Engberg et al : 'Fermented feed for laying hens : effects on egg production, egg quality, plumage condition and composition and activity of the intestinal microflora'.  Pub U.S. National Library of Medicine, March 2009.

(2) Beal, Niba et al : 'Potential of bacterial fermentation as a biosafe method of improving feeds for pigs and poultry'.  African Journal of Biotechnology, May 2009.

(3) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US : 'Why does Alaska have more botulism?'