Economic sustainability is a challenge in pastured and organic poultry production, where feed is typically the largest cost. Hydration and fermentation of poultry feed show potential to improve feed efficiency and reduce costs by ten percent or more. Our research project at Foothills Farm in western Washington will help to bring these savings to farmers throughout the Western SARE region and beyond, fulfilling the stewardship goal of promoting resource use efficiency. Reduced feed costs have potential not just to improve economic performance of pastured and free-range poultry systems but to expand producer access to organic and local feeds, with positive implications for the entire feed supply chain.
Efficiency gains from hydration and fermentation of poultry feed are documented in scientific studies and in anecdotal evidence from producer communities. Lacking, however, is robust on-farm data which quantifies potential savings and clarifies whether feed hydration or fermentation merit the serious attention of farmers. We will carry out a rigorous on-farm feeding trial using pastured laying hens to compare the performance of (i) dry, (ii) hydrated and (iii) fermented poultry feed. Trial design will be randomized complete block with three replicates of ten hens per treatment. Feed consumption, water consumption and egg production will be measured and used to calculate dry-basis feed consumption and feed efficiency (grams feed per gram egg) over the course of an entire production season.
In addition to reliable data, farmers need practical, affordable strategies for feed hydration or fermentation. Our project will demonstrate feed preparation techniques using simple equipment developed at Foothills Farm, which has five years’ experience of fermenting feed for laying hens.
The Foothills Farm project will reach farmers by developing an online forum, hosting two farm walks, presenting in-person workshops and producing a fact-sheet and video.
The research component of our project aims to determine the influence on feed conversion ratio and whole-season productivity in pastured laying hens of feed (1) Hydration; and (2) Fermentation, relative to feeding dry mash. By conducting this trial with a rigorous methodology, we expect to be able to provide robust quantitative data that allows other farmers to calculate the potential economic value of introducing feed hydration or fermentation to their own production system.
The trial will use a randomized complete block design with three replicates of three treatments in a Latin Square layout. Treatment is the method of feed preparation: 1. Dry; 2. Hydrated (15-minute soak in water); 3. Fermented (48-72-hour soak in water). One experimental unit is a group of ten hens sharing a pasture house and run. A total of 90 hens in nine experimental units is required.
The trial will take place alongside Foothills Farm’s commercial pastured poultry operation. Experimental birds will be obtained as a single batch of chicks at two days of age and brooded together on peat moss under heat until approximately twelve weeks, at which time they will be moved to pasture. Chicks will be fed with starter mix from 0-16 wk. At sixteen weeks, they will be separated into three groups, each randomly assigned to one of the test diets. Those groups will be subdivided at transition to pasture so that birds continue to eat the same diet as that on which they were brooded. Birds will be marked with numbered leg-bands identifying them to one of the nine experimental groups. Each group will have access to an enclosed pasture run which prevents them accessing other groups’ feed. Birds will be rotated to new pasture approximately twice per month depending on condition, with all groups moved on the same day.
Feed preparation and dispensing
Feed and water will be available ad libitum throughout the trial. The same certified organic whole grain mixed feed, formulated to be nutritionally complete for laying hens, will be used in all three treatments. Feed preparation for the different treatments will be as follows:
- Dry feed. No preparation. Feed will be distributed out of the bag into troughs.
- Hydrated feed. One part feed by weight will be mixed with 1.3 parts water in a 5 gal bucket and allowed to stabilize for 15 minutes before distribution to feed troughs.
- Fermented feed. One part feed by weight will be mixed with 1.3 parts water in a 5 gal bucket. The bucket will be covered and allowed to soak at ambient temperature for 48-72 hours before distribution to troughs (determined by farm staff according to the speed of fermentation, which varies in response to environmental variables such as temperature).
Measurement of experimental variables will begin at the time birds are moved to pasture.
1. Hen bodyweight: at initial transition to pasture and once a month thereafter.
2. Mortality: season.
3. Water consumption: daily.
4. Feed consumption (as-fed basis measured; dry basis by calculation using known volume of water addition): weekly.
5. Egg production: daily total count, biweekly sampling for weighing and grading.
6. Market value of egg production: biweekly.
7. Time to full production and time at full production. “Full production” in each group will be defined as one egg laid per day by nine out of ten hens. Time to full production is the number of days between the date on which chicks reach the farm and the date on which full production is first recorded. Time at full production is the number of days during the trial period on which a group was at full production. Data will be evaluated using one-way Analysis of Variance using diet as the main effect.
The following variables will be reported for each treatment with experimental error parameters.
1. Egg production: eggs.hen-day-1.
2. Average weight of eggs (mean weight): g.
3. Average grade of eggs (mode): Peewee, Medium, Large, Extra-Large or Jumbo.
4. Feed Conversion Ratio. Egg production per bird will be used together with feed consumption data to calculate feed conversion ratio every two weeks throughout the trial: (a) average g feed (dry basis) required to produce one gram of egg, g.feed/g.egg; (b) average g feed (dry basis) required to produce one marketable egg (L-J), g.feed/egg.
5. Hen bodyweight change from beginning to end of trial period: g.
6. Economic productivity of hens: $.hen.day-1.
7. Biological productivity: (a) time to full production, days; (b) time at full production, days.
8. Mortality (birds).
The first year of the Foothills Farm Fermented Feed study (May to December 2018) was spent preparing for the trial.
Nine pasture houses were constructed using a design developed at Foothills Farm. Each house required about $330 worth of materials and six to eight person-hours to build.
The experimental flock of Golden Sexlink chicks was delivered to the farm on 10th October 2018 and placed into a heated brooder house. The chicks were fed with a dry starter mash from then until 6th January 2019 (12 wk), when they were switched to a dry grower mash. When the pullets reached 10 weeks of age, the brooder door was opened to give them access to an outdoor netted pen lined with wood chips. This outdoor access helped prepare the pullets for their transition to pasture in early 2019.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Data collection in the Fermented Feed study did not begin in 2018, but the study was introduced to participants of a Farm Walk event coordinated by the Washington State University Food Systems Team and Washington Tilth. The event was hosted at Foothills Farm on 9th July. There were 20 participants. Matt Steinman, the owner-manager of Foothills, showed the participants his feed fermentation equipment and demonstrated his feed delivery system: a tank of fermented slurry is transported on a trailer behind a gator to the field, where it is piped into troughs as the gator slowly drives down the field. With this system, feed delivery to a 500-bird flock takes just thirty minutes. However, the fermentation process represents extra labor and equipment relative to feeding dry mash, creating an incentive for Matt to find out whether it is worthwhile.
Louisa Brouwer provided a brief overview of the upcoming feeding trial, explaining the experimental goals, treatments and design. Results from the trial will begin to become available in summer 2019, and data collection will continue through October.