I’ve been working on a series of articles related to chicken inputs (i.e. Feeding Chickens and Herbs), which will be followed up with a diagnostic tool for interpreting their outputs (i.e. poop). This third post is about how to use prebiotics and probiotics to improve the health of your flock.
The terms sound similar, but they are different and play different roles in digestive system function and overall health.
The chicken digestive system is complicated and includes the mouth, crop, gizzard, small and large intestines, colon, ceca, liver and vent. There are several hundred species of bacteria (both friendly and harmful) that live in varying numbers along every part of their gastro-intestinal tract (GIT).
- Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates found in such things as: bananas, garlic, onions, apple skins, artichokes, chicory root, dandelion greens, flax seeds, berries, oats, barley, whole grains, tomatoes, yams, bran, beans, seaweed and aged cheeses (cheddar, mozzarella and cottage cheese). Prebiotic fibre passes through the small intestine undigested and is fermented when it reaches the large colon.
This fermentation process becomes food for beneficial bacteria colonies (including probiotics) and helps to increase the number of friendly bacteria in the gut that are associated with better immune system health, reduced inflammation and disease risk.
- Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria that are naturally created by the process of fermentation in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, apple cider vinegar, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, miso, kefir and raw cheese made from unpasteurized cow or goat milk.
Probiotic bacteria are classed in two groups:
- Lactobacillus: the most common probiotic found in yogurt and other fermented foods; can help with diarrhea.
- Bifidobacterium: found in some dairy products; fights harmful gut bacteria and acts as an immune system booster.
Kefir, a fermented milk drink is an excellent source of probiotics containing both lactobacilli and bifidobacteria in high doses, as well as more than 50 different types of beneficial bacteria.
For human use, probiotics are available in pill form, powder and as an added ingredient in products like yogurt and health drinks. Some chicken feed has them added as well; it’s easy to supplement manufactured feed with both prebiotics and probiotics in the things we feed them.
So how do prebiotics and probiotics help our chickens?
- Prebiotics are indigestible to pathogens, while stimulating the growth of beneficial bacteria.
- Restricts the growth and colonization of pathogenic bacteria (i.e. Salmonella).
- Boosts the immune system.
- Prevents and clears up diarrhea. If you have an adult chicken with a chronically poopy butt, try probiotics.
- If your chickens have fluffy butts they will attract fewer flies. Flies carry a number of diseases and they can lay their eggs in poop right on your chickens. The eggs hatch and the larvae eat chicken flesh, leading to flystrike infection and possible death, if not eradicated in time.
- Creates less smelly poop with less ammonia.
- Contributes to better feed conversion ratio.
- Helps with the maintenance of healthy weight and quality egg production.
As you may be aware, antibiotics can be an effective treatment of bacterial infections, but a side-effect is that they can kill both bad, and good, bacteria. It’s recommended – for both people and chickens – to ramp up prebiotics and probiotics after finishing a course of antibiotics to restore healthy numbers of beneficial bacteria in the gastro-intestinal tract.
For chickens that includes:
- Fermented foods: yoghurt, apple cider vinegar
- High-fibre foods: broccoli, lentils, peas, beans, berries, nuts, seeds, bananas, dandelion greens, chicory root, tomatoes, yams, garlic, cabbage, cauliflower, kale
- Whole grains: brown rice, barley, oats, bran
I belong to two local food recovery programs. Last year, I got @350 boxes of produce for free – including lots of human-grade, organic prebiotics and probiotics. Occasionally I score a case of tofu or yoghurt or yams which they love.
I live on a small island off the west coast of Canada, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. I often collect a variety of seaweeds – a free and easy form of prebiotics. The only proviso about gathering them is to avoid the herring spawning season (February-March), because they attach their eggs to the plants and you could inadvertently destroy the spawn. My flock loves eating seaweed – the bonus is that it often is full of sand hoppers and tiny dead crustaceans.
You don’t need to buy anything special for your birds: grow what you can; give them your kitchen scraps and weeds from your garden; experiment with fermenting or sprouting; collect seaweed; join a food recovery program. Anything you can do to improve what they eat will increase their immune system function by boosting beneficial bacteria while keeping harmful bacteria in check.