Here in Western MA, where our farm is located, winters are often tough and unpredictable. We can experience everything from sudden spring-like temperatures to blizzards in the same week. There is one constant, though: a lack of greenery, with no pasture or forage available to our flocks.
When winter has killed off everything but the pines, we pamper our chickens with sprouts. Nutrient dense sprouts are great for our birds all year round, and they are the perfect way to give our chickens the greens they are craving during the coldest months of the year.
The best part? Sprouts are INCREDIBLY easy to make yourself, and in this post I'll show you how.
What Are Sprouts, and Why Are They Good For Chickens?
Sprouts are simply germinated seeds. The germination process increases the nutritional value of the seed, making sprouts a nutrient dense way to provide fresh greens for your chickens during the winter.
During germination, nutrient levels in the seed/sprout increase significantly, in some cases as much as 300%. Wow! Not only that, but germination breaks down phytate in the seed, a substance which makes it more difficult to absorb vitamins and minerals.
Because of these transformative aspects of the germination process, sprouting increases the amount and availability of nutrients such as zinc, magnesium, iron, Vitamin C, and B vitamins.
What Kind of Seeds Can I Sprout for My Chickens?
We are partial to sprouting lentils for our birds, because they are easy to find and affordable (I’ve found them for as little as one dollar a pound). If you decide to use lentils, just remember not to buy split lentils for sprouting, as they won’t germinate.
Other great sprouting options for poultry include red clover, alfalfa, mung beans, barley, or wheat berries.
You can purchase sprouting seed mixes just for poultry online or at your local feed store, but they’re often pricey in comparison to buying grains or legumes at your local grocery.
No matter what you choose, though, the basic sprouting process outlined below is the same.
Let’s Talk About Anti-Nutrients
Before we start sprouting lentils, let’s get an important PSA out of the way: uncooked legumes are toxic to chickens, and people, too!
How can that be? It’s just a little ol’ bean, right?
Well, yes. But all legumes contain anti-nutrients (the legume family includes lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans, soybeans, and peanuts). Phytate, mentioned above, is an anti-nutrient, as are lectins, a group of anti-nutrients commonly found in legumes.
Anti-nutrients make it more difficult to absorb other nutrients (generally in the same meal in which the anti-nutrients are consumed), and they also cause food poisoning. Just a few raw or undercooked kidney beans can cause vomiting and diarrhea in humans.
Fortunately, both sprouting and cooking break down these anti-nutrients, making sprouted lentils safe to eat for birds and humans alike.
To keep your birds safe, check that there are no unsprouted duds in your batch before sharing them with your birds. In addition, avoid sprouting large beans such as kidney beans or fava beans. The thinking here is that it takes longer for the anti-nutrients in larger beans to break down as they sprout, and you might end up feeding them to your flock prematurely.
How to Sprout Lentils for Chickens
Sprouting lentils for chickens is easy, and the whole process only takes about four days.
Gather your supplies. You will need:
The container you choose will depend on the amount of sprouts you’d like to get from each batch. One cup dry lentils can produce as much as 8 cups of sprouts, depending on how long you allow your sprouts to grow. In the batch I made for this post, one cup of lentils became four cups of sprouts in three days.
Place the lentils in your container and cover with several inches of tepid water. Place cheesecloth or mesh over your container and soak for 8-12 hours.
Drain the water from your container, then add more water, swirl to rinse, and drain again. If possible, tip your container at an angle upside down for about an hour after rinsing. This will allow all excess water to drain from the container and prevent mold growth, while still keeping your lentils just damp enough to trigger the germination process.
Rinse and drain lentils twice per day.
Note: Discard sprouts if you see mold at any point in the sprouting process.
Continue to rinse and drain your sprouts twice per day, until they reach the desired length, at which point they are ready to serve. I typically give lentils 3-4 days to sprout before feeding to our flocks.
If your chickens won’t be eating the sprouts immediately, put them in the fridge. This will keep them fresh and halt their growth, keeping them at the desired length.
You can safely store sprouts in the fridge for up to one week.
How Long Should My Sprouts Be?
As we mentioned above, make sure that your lentils have all fully sprouted before feeding them to your birds, to make sure that the anti-nutrients have had a chance to break down.
Nutritionally, the ideal time to use sprouts is when the sprout has reached the length of its seed. Sprouts are at peak nutrient levels at this point. Beyond that, sprouts begin depleting nutrients in order to keep growing.
Once your sprout hits the two inch mark, it’s a seedling. Still perfectly fine to eat, but with less benefits in comparison to the nutritional powerhouse of a little sprout.
So, the best time to use sprouts is anytime from when they are the same length as the seed, up until two inches long.
It’s true, sprouting lentils for your chickens is really that easy, and it’s a simple way to keep your birds happy and healthy when the ground is covered in snow.
If you decide to try growing sprouts for your chickens this year, please let me know how it goes. And as always, feel free to ask any questions in the comments below!