Culture shock: help culture your own probiotics for your backyard chickens.
Kefir (both dairy and water), kombucha, cultured buttermilk and yogurts (both the familiar types like Greek yogurt, and the less common ones like Filmjolk) are wonderful for chickens in many ways. The probiotics found in these cultures all boost your chicken's immune systems, plus the dairy is a tasty helping of extra calcium and kombucha is an excellent replacement for apple cider vinegar, which people add to chicken water to boost calcium absorption.
Some yogurts and cultures are easy to culture using only milk and room temperatures. Look for starters of piima, viili, cultured buttermilk, filmjolk and dairy kefir starter (available at health food stores, both brick and mortar types as well as online. I have found eBay to be a good source for decent priced starters). These each require a small glass jar, a coffee filter and rubber band, whole milk and time. Directions vary slightly from person to person, but basically you add your culture starter to a jar of milk, mix it in, let it sit and then voila. You only need to save a little back to start your next culture, so you can feed the bulk of it to your flock. They love it all and it is really good for them.
If you have a yogurt maker, you can make all sorts of heat-cultured yogurts (Greek, Icelandic and others) by purchasing a small container of whatever plain yogurt you prefer (look for brands that include active cultures, and do not contain extra ingredients like food coloring, artificial sweeteners, corn syrup and others. Organic is always better for cultures.) Follow the directions given by your yogurt maker, or simply add a tablespoon of your yogurt "start" to a few cups of whole milk, then culture it. When cooled, serve it to your flock, who will appreciate the extra calcium and the extra active cultures in their gut. You can also make heat-cultured yogurt in a crockpot or thermos bottle. The trick is to keep the yogurt warm enough to culture and set up, but not so hot that it cooks.
Water kefir is not a dairy culture, but as a culture full of beneficial bacteria and brimming with probiotics. Also known as Japanese Water Crystals or tibicos, water kefir is very simple and straightforward to prepare. Spring water, plastic mesh strainer, glass jar, sugar and a coffee filter are all you need to get started. Add a couple of tablespoons of water kefir grains (which is the typical starter amount) to a sugar/spring water solution (I use a 1/2-cup white sugar and a quart of spring water) and let it sit for a day or two. Strain using a plastic strainer and keep back enough grains to restart fermentation. Hens love these grains and they are very good for their system. You can go further and referment the strained liquid using fresh fruit (two days in a jar with a lid--when it is bubbly, it's ready) and serve that to your hens, too.
Kombucha is another non-dairy culture that hens love, and happens to be loaded with healthy things for them. This requires a large glass or plastic container, with a loose fitting lid, brewed black tea, white sugar, and a starter, which is called a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). Brew two quarts of black tea, let it cool, and then add up to two cups of white sugar and the SCOBY. Let it culture up for a day or two, then add a tablespoon of this resulting liquid to your hens' water every day. You can also give them parts of the SCOBY when it gets too big (and a healthy SCOBY will!)--my hens love it cut up into little pieces. Refresh your kombucha with more cool tea and sugar when it seems too vinegary or gets too low in the container.
You can try one or all of these cultures; each of them has its own taste and strong points. I recommend not trying all of them at once, as each culture takes a little bit of attention every day. It's best when you are first trying them to swap them around so you get to try a lot of different ones and figure out which ones you like best and which ones your flock likes best too. Organizing a culture swap is a fun way to obtain new starters--gather a few chicken buddies and have each of you obtain a culture (make sure each of you gets a different one), then every two weeks or every month, get together and swap starters with each other. You won't have to swap all your favorite culture away, either; you just have to swap enough for someone to be able to start their own culture with. You can send your culture starts via the U.S. Post Office (carefully packaged in things like doubled zip-type bags), so you can organize an online swap too, which is a wonderful way to build community while building healthy chickens.
If you find that you have no time to tend your cultures, for any reason, you can put them in the refrigerator, which will slow them down for a week or two, or freeze them indefinitely (except for your SCOBY which can stay in the fridge for a fairly long time with no bad effects.) It takes a cold or frozen culture a little while to recover, but...once it's re-acclimated, it will do just fine.
Probiotics are a very natural and very gentle health boost for your flock. They supply an amazing array of system-supportive beneficial bacteria and yeasts. And we all know a strong system is a strong hen!
Former owner of New Suburbia Backyard Farm Store in Beaverton, Oregon, Juleigh Howard-Hobson now owns Our Folkway Farm, a 10-acre permaculture farm in the wilds of Cascadia. Her flock of chickens made the move with her. Her home/hen/harvest focused work has appeared in places like Home Education Magazine, Hip Mama, Hex Magazine, Have Milk Will Travel (Demeter Press) and Tending Your Inner Garden: Winter (Golden Tree Communications).
BY JULEIGH HOWARD-HOBSON