Friday, July 6, 2012

Sprouting grains for my herd and flocks

I'm often asked what I feed my critters.  I don't buy bagged feed mixes.  I don't have to worry about recalls.  I don't feed soy, which is in most mixes.  So just what DO I feed the goats and the poultry?

The goats get hay all winter and any appropriate fruit and veggie trim from our kitchen.  In season, when they look sadly at their empty hay racks and hay bags, I simply point to the pasture, hand on hip, and tell them to "Get out there and free-range because it is FREE!"

But chickens and ducks need grain and dairy goats in milk need something extra, too, so I supplement with a small amount of sprouted grains.  Sprouting increases the bio-availability of many of the nutrients in the grains, including the proteins.  It also neutralizes the phytates, sprouting inhibitors present in all grains and seeds which also interfere with nutrient absorption, especially minerals.  Phytates can also be very irritating to the digestive tract.  Soaking and sprouting neutralizes these natural yet harmful substances.

First soak, 24 hours.
I use whatever small grains I can get my hands on.  I've sprouted oats, barley, and wheat, along with sunflower seeds at times.  Corn takes too long, but will benefit from a good soaking if you are so inclined.  In these pictures, I am soaking oats and a little wheat.
I soak in plain water, but you can speed up the process by adding a glug of live-culture whey or raw apple cider vinegar.  This is not really necessary, however, as the seeds naturally have lacto-bacilli on them and the soaking will increase their numbers dramatically.  These friendly beasties are very useful in improving digestion, another plus with this process.  If you improve nutrient bio-availability AND improve digestion, you will be getting a much bigger bang for your feed buck.

Tiny holes drilled in the bottom for drainage.

After soaking for 24 hours, (I've soaked for as little as 12 hours if I've gotten behind), the grains must be drained and rinsed.  For this, I made a rinsing bucket (I have two, actually) by drilling small holes along the bottom of a standard pail, and a few extra holes on one side.  Don't drill all around the sides of the pail or you won't be able to control where the water goes when it is draining.

Dump and rinse with fresh water.

I have a sump hole in my cellar with a pump in it for when the rain is heavy and a small stream forms in my basement.  This is a handy place to drain my grains.  I simply dump the soaking grains into the draining bucket, then rinse by filling the draining pail with fresh water about an inch over the grains.

Left to drain thoroughly.

I will feed from this pail for 2-3 days, and start a new pail before it is empty....ideally, at least two days before I need more soaked/sprouted grains.   I will feed them at the various stages in the sprouting sprouts showing, tiny sprouts showing, and as in the picture below, with rootlets coming along...sometimes at the stage when I have to tear hunks of grain with tangled roots off to feed in big chunks.  This is not ideal, but it happens sometimes.

Setting up feed pans in preparation for milking the goats.

But I don't obsess about it anymore.  I just sniff the grain before measuring it out into the feed pans every morning and evening to be sure it is ok.  I look closely for mold.  Occasionally, especially with the oats it seems, there will be dormant mold spores on the grains that the water and soaking will encourage to grow.  If I catch this early, I can rinse it with water in which I've mixed a glug of white vinegar, which effectively kills the mold (only if caught early, before you see it but maybe it doesn't smell as fresh as it should).  Then I feed this as quickly as possible, being a bit more generous than usual, especially with the poultry.

Mostly, though, I marvel at the transformation over the days.  The grains will smell very fresh and....well, first.  Then as the good bacteria proliferate, they will start to smell like yogurt.  This smell will intensify over time and get very sweet.  Then it will gradually fade, and this is when the grain becomes vulnerable to mold.  I've only thrown grain out once, however, and learned a lesson about doing too much too far in advance.

This is about the third day.

The goats love their grain this way.  The chickens and ducks have a definite preference for it as well.  I started doing this when I had a senior horse who struggled to keep weight on.  She'd be very thin by the end of winter.  After reading Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon Morrell and studying Harvey Ussery's methods, I decided to start soaking the cup of grain this mare got once a day.  Over that winter, she not only maintained her weight, she actually gained some much needed pounds.  I attribute this not only to the sprouting of the grains, but to the probiotic rich meal (snack, little does get about 6-8 times the volume of grain that the horse was getting daily) she got every day that helped her digestion work more efficiently all around.

To feed my chickens, I scatter some of this grain for them in the morning, continuing to throw handfuls until they start to lose interest and wander away.  The amount varies day to day with this method, and I've cut my feed bill dramatically by doing this.  Leaving grain in free-choice feeders simply feeds the rodents and squirrels in the neighborhood.  Not my job nor my desire.  Let them eat acorns.

In the evening, I scatter whole corn in the same way, a handful at a time, until they slow down.

I don't need to worry about balancing their ration because they have a two acre fenced pasture to roam in and catch bugs and eat greens.  In the pasture season, I stop tossing soaked grains, reserving those for the goats only, and just scatter corn for the hens.  Typically, I'll give them about 2-3 pounds per day for about 50 birds.  Right now I have about 15 laying hens, a rooster, and 35 or so half grown pullets and cockerels.  That is a pretty easy feed bill, for sure.

In winter, I find some sources of protein and fat for them to supplement the grains, but not daily.  I save all bones and scraps that are left from making broth and mash it well, and also get some salmon from a nearby restaurant along with prep scraps and leftovers from the salad bar.  The hens will also eat hay that the goats drop when the snow completely covers the pasture grasses.

Production egg layers would not likely do well on this type of diet, but my heritage breed birds do quite well and produce many fine eggs for our table....and roosters for our freezer.

A word of caution:  If you have a confined flock, you do need to balance their feed with more care than I've outlined here.  Variety is the still needn't be tied to manufactured feeds.  Be creative and see what you can get locally....there was a time when people kept a few chickens and fed them only what they could forage for themselves and a few table scraps to get them through the winter.  This produced hardy, thrifty birds, only the strong surviving to reproduce.  There is a lot to be said in praise of that philosophy. 

Meanwhile, consider offering your flock at least some of their grains sprouted, and see them thrive on a more natural diet.  Be aware, however, that they will need grit (small stones) if they've been fed only pellets or mash, and you'll want to take about three weeks to switch them over to a whole grain regimen.  Their gizzards are muscular organs that need to be strengthened gradually to handle the whole grains.


  1. I started sprouting grains a month ago. I was given about 100# worth. But my laying fell off drastically (4-5 eggs for 16 birds). I've cut back on how much they get. It took a while to figure out how much mass each type of grain would gain.

    Now they get about 1 - 1 1/2 handfuls once a day. I rotate through the various grains. They never soak longer than 24 hrs before being fed out.

    I'd seen several people used buckets as you do. But there seemed to be an issue of mold, which you've avoided.

    Julie Rawson of NOFA/Mass started sprouting last fall and discovered that the black trays that hold seedlings (roughly 12" x 22") spread the seed thin enough to prevent molding. As I had a bunch of those trays I wasn't using, and no buckets to sacrifice, that's what I've used.

    So far I've fed spelt, buckwheat groats, mung beans, barley, purple barley, a mixed rice, red rice, and I forget the others. (If there's any of these you've heard shouldn't be fed, please let me know.) Mung beans will get 20X the mass in 36 hours. It was astounding!!

    Because my birds are supposed to earn their keep with egg sales, I've had to continue the organic (soy filled) feed. Maybe if I get more proficient, I can move away from that. But production must remain good.

    So far, no mold problems, but I've been pretty good about washing things and rinsing. I don't believe there were any oats in what I got, so maybe that was a good thing...

  2. I don't feed for production, so when my hens give me 4-5 eggs in the heat of summer (16 hens at laying age, too) I consider that normal. But my goals are different. Soy has phyto-estrogens that will stimulate early, prolific laying but then hens that are spent early in life. That is fine if they are needed for lots of eggs and then they go to the stew pot. Not being judgmental about that, it is still a great life for a hen if they get to free-range on the grass and in the sunshine.

    My goals are different. I want a self-sustaining flock and to ultimately never buy chicks again. I want birds that are efficient at finding their own food (most of it) on my two acres and who will go broody and raise their own chicks. These goals just don't go hand in hand with the goal of an egg per day per hen.

    So no, you won't be able to feed exactly the way I do. I feel it is very worthwhile financially for me, however, because I only feed a couple pounds of grain to get those 4-5 eggs and currently have about 50 birds (35 or so still growing.) A pound of grain will feed about 4 confined hens, so my flock is doing pretty dang good at foraging!

    In a couple or three more generations, I hope they will be even more efficient with the infusion of the Icelandic genetics.

  3. Oh, we need more pics of the Icelandics and how they are doing!!

    I wish we could free range here, but the predator load is way too high for that. But our layers are out on grass every day, and get all the sunshine they want. We get all the eggs we need and sell the rest. Profit was $19 last year, but they did pay their way on organic feed.

    The broilers also get grass and sunshine, not stuck in a box. They will have covered 2 acres of our pastures by the end of their season.

    I do hope some day I can get away from soy. It must be possible to get enough protein, etc. without soy, but it's apparently not cost effective for the feed manufactures. I've heard there's a soy free out of PA, but the cost (due to shipping) is prohibitive, for us.

    I'm assuming the 35 that are growing are for meat? If so, how big do you expect them to get?

  4. Yes, I need to get some pics of the Icelandics, they are getting quite flashy as they grow up. Zippy little critters, too. I tried to get pics one evening but I'll need bright sunshine so my camera is quicker, got a lot of blurry chick pics!

    The 35 are straight run heavy layers and the straight run Icelandics, so all the roos except one or two of the Icelandics will go into the freezer. I have Buff Brahmas, Americauna/Light Brahma crosses, and one Maran that hatched from an egg from a friend. Oh, and five mixed Reds, the only non-heritage hens. I wanted a few production hens for more eggs this fall.

    I'll probably sell a few hens as fall arrives, before winter, so I'm not keeping so many over the months when free-ranging isn't as good.

  5. Freemotion, you inspired me to try sprouting grains. Also, seeing how bad the grain crops will be this year and that, more than likely, it will cause a big increase in price motivated me even more. I did my first batch and I believe it turned out well. I have a few questions though.

    When do you start feeding the sprouting grains? I waited until they had actually sprouted. I soaked them for 24 hours and then rinsed them 3 times a day for 2 days.

    How do you store the sprouted grains once they have sprouted?

    How long do they last and is there some way to help make them last longer?

    Is it best to sprout different grains separately and then mix them once they are sprouted or ok to sprout everything together? I noticed that my oats are taking an extra day or 2 than the wheat.

    I started with 2 cups of hard winter wheat and 3 cups of oats. The wheat grains grew to 8 cups and the oats grew to 6 cups. Would you still feed them the same 1 cup of grains that you would have with the bagged commercial grains? Example: I feed my Nigerian 3 cups of grain per milking. Would I still feed her 3 cups of the sprouted grains?

  6. When do I start feeding the sprouted grains? I don't worry too much about it anymore. I try to make sure, at the very least, that they've been soaked for at least 24 hours before starting to feed from any particular batch. Depending on how organized I am, I may start feeding as the sprouts are emerging. The idea moment is when the sprout is about 1/8", but it is almost impossible (for me, anyways!) to always catch that moment.

    I figure that the critters get something different and good at each stage, so feeding from the same pail for 2-4 days is a good thing. Day one, they get more actual grain and day 4, more sprouts/less grain, and at the various stages they get different good bacteria.

    How do I store them? In the draining pail (I have two), rinsing them once or twice a day. The pail lives in the cool cellar on a couple of boards straddling the sump hole for easy rinsing. In cooler weather, I get sloppy about bringing them downstairs after each and every feeding and the pail will stay in the garage if it is cool and not freezing.

    How long do they last? Usually 3-4 days is about it. It depends on temps and the particular grain. It can vary from bag to bag. Some grains will have more mold spores and be more likely to mold. If I discover this (most common with oats grown up north and harvested in a rainy year, which I know from my years of buying them directly from the farmer). I always sniff the grains before each and ever feeding. If I don't thing they are 100% fresh, I'll give them a rinse with vinegar water, about an eight cup per gallon of water. If I have a lot, the hens will get those, not the dairy goats.

    I sprout everything together, but if I'm adding sunflower seeds, I add them a day later as they are very fast. You certainly can do them separately, but that will get old fast.

    I do feed the same amount pretty much per feed. As stated above, they get something different at each stage. Since I, like most of us, adjust the amount of feed each gal gets based on her condition, sometimes I fill the scoop a bit more, sometimes a bit less.

  7. Sorry about all the typos! It is late and I got a lot done on the farmlet today!

    In my comment above about a particular bag that seems to mold more quickly: I simply shorten the sprout time, adjusting how much grain I soak so that I can feed it within 2 days or so, well before it smells even slightly off. Even if they don't sprout much or at all.

    Also, I find that they sprout faster early in the spring, no matter the temps in my cellar. Somehow they seem to know....

  8. What do you think of sprouting brown rice for the goats?

  9. Since I haven't found brown rice at a discount that would make it worthwhile, I've never researched it....sorry! It does tend to go rancid, so use caution if you come across a price that makes it cheaper than the usual small grains.