I have been planning on putting this post up for a while now. It’s a little late for the winter effects but the value of this process can pay big dividends throughout the year for smaller producers.
I’ve been asked for years what I feed to my chickens. After a few years of evolution, I’ve finally got myself on the right tracks for better year round egg production and have seen a reduction in feed costs with the added benefit of strong, healthy chickens.
Before I get into detail, I want to give you a bit of back story into our road to discover. In 2013, we had a field that was newly seeded down for pastures. The crop specialist, Rich, was determined to plant a cover crop that would sprout fast and provide soil cover to prevent weed growth. The choice was made to plant forage oats.
What are forage oats? Well, it’s the rudimentary form of oats. It’s got wide broad leaves that sprout from the ground after just a few days of germination. It grows much more like a grass but if left long enough will produce the seed heads just like an oat plant.
As summer went by and we tried to get into the field to take the first cutting of hay, we experienced rain delays and scheduling issues. By the time we managed to get the field cut, the forage oats and developed their seeds and they had started to dry. Here on our farm, we like to feed the cattle baleage.
What’s baleage? Baleage is created when hay isn’t left to dry down all the way in the field before it’s baled. It’s not fresh cut but it isn’t dry either. Once the low moisture hay is baled into round bales, it’s then wrapped in a form of shrink wrap plastic. They look like those long tubes you see along the highway or the one’s you joke with little kids about being giant marshmallow poop. 😉
Once the bales of hay are wrapped, they go through a fermentation process that “cooks” the grasses inside, leaving more available nutrients than standard hay and also leaves the grass soft for the cows to eat. Since some of the forage inside these bales were the oats, they were “cooked” too.
That winter when we started feeding these bales, we noticed that one set of our chickens had stopped eating their layer mash (a special mixture of powder feeds that is formulated just for laying hens). Upon monitoring this group, we noticed that they spent all day around the hay feeders in the cattle barns. “Why?” we started asking ourselves.
Low and behold, we had stumbled upon something that had us researching what was going on. Why would the chickens prefer the oats overtop of their own feed?
What was soon discovered is an article about fermenting grains. What was the big deal? Why would chickens like the fermented grains better? Apparently, a little known fact about grains and fermentation processes is that when the grains start breaking down, the release a lactic acid. The lactic acid breaks the bonds within the grains compounds and makes the sugars and proteins more readily digestible. “Huh, who knew?” is what we were thinking.
Off we set to do some experimentation! What did we need to do? According to a couple of reference (listed below), all we needed to do was add water, stir occasionally and sit back to wait.
We started by using the layer mash we had. While it worked okay, the process took a lot of water and you had to keep stirring and stirring. The chickens did eat it, if there was no other food choice. Maybe my chickens are just picky, but they didn’t care for it one bit. The method was also long, sometimes taking two or three days to even start the “bubbling” needed.
Last winter, I was extremely discouraged and went back normal feeding of just mash. The results were astounding and I didn’t realize the impacts it would have. Our chickens didn’t lay eggs. Their feathers seems more ruffled and they just seemed more down than normal.
This last summer, I decided to give it another go for the winter season. I turned to a local farmer who plants a variety of crops and started talking to him about what my options were based off from what he plants. Matt set me up with a mix of crushed grains. The mix includes corn, wheat, rye and oats. It was mixed at 25% of each grain after it was augered through a pro-box and put through a roller mill. He then bagged it up in 50 lb bags for me to transport it home (and because I can lift that size bag, 100 lb requires assistance).
Upon getting it home, I took an old folgers coffee can and filled it up roughly 3/4 full (to the top of the handle mold). I added hot tap water (roughly 140 degrees) until it was just covering the grain by about a 1/2″. I put on the top and set it aside. Later that afternoon, I checked it again, stirred it up and added a little more water to one of the two I had set up. Much to my surprise, the next morning I had bubbles forming on the top of both containers. I left the one I had added water to and just fed the other. At first, the chickens and turkeys weren’t too sure but by sprinkling some of the dry grains on top, they devoured what was left. I repeated the process for the container I had fed.
On day two, the container I had left had fermented so much that there was literally mold growing on the top of the grain! Nope, that wasn’t going to work. Matt did such a great job with raising the grains and the processing that I only need to wait 24 hours!
The routine now goes like this: Morning feeding, I take out two coffee cans of fermented grains to feed to roughly 50 birds. As soon as the mixture is plopped out of the can, it’s standing room only around the dish. The grains are devoured in less than 1/2 hour with not even a kernel or glob left! I refill the containers and bring them inside to repeat the process again.
What’s the benefit? Prior to beginning the fermented grain feeding, I was getting roughly 2 eggs a day. The chickens were always huddled together and rarely ran around the barns. After just three days of feeding fermented grains, the egg production shot up to 6-7 eggs a day. After a week, the chickens were running around on days when it was -30 below outside and still laying an astounding NINE eggs a day from three year old chickens!
This week, we topped our highest egg days that we’ve seen in months at 12 eggs. I can see a vast improvement in their energy, their overall condition and their eggs. I see the same thing in the turkeys too. I’ve also seen their water consumption drop. Probably because they are getting the moisture and flavored water from the grains.
I might not have fancy photos like the other folks do above…but I do know this is the better way to go. We are feeding roughly half the amounts we were before and the layer mash that been given as free choice over two months ago, is still sitting there in the feeder. The wild birds and chickadees are loving it though.
If you have any questions or would like to know more about the grains themselves, Matt is the guy to talk to! He’s available on Twitter and is full of great information about a variety of other stuff too (Just ask him about pressing ragweed for oil for confirmation). He can be found at @mdedrick1.
If anyone wants to see photos of the entire process, the way I do it… Just give a shout and I will edit accordingly!