Hydroponic fodder is a highly digestible, nutritious feed that can be fed to a variety of animals.
Photos courtesy of FarmTek unless otherwise noted.
In response to rising hay and grain costs, along with the havoc wreaked on pastures by droughts and other unpredictable weather patterns, more and more farmers are taking matters into their own hands, growing green forage for their livestock with indoor hydroponic systems. According to some early adopters, the benefits include control over production and higher nutritive value of the feed, which translates into lower costs and better herd health.
The principle of a hydroponic fodder system is simple: Whole grains are soaked, then watered and sprouted in shallow trays; after seven to 10 days, the sprouts are fed to livestock. The system can be as complex and large as a commercial system with hundreds of feet of linked channels and a timed watering system that can generate tons of fodder each day, or as simple as some plastic bins that a homesteader can water once a day to sprout seed for their backyard chickens.
John Stoltzfus of Be-A-Blessing Farm, Whitesville, N.Y., feeds his Holsteins a TMR along with fodder. He says, "Now that I am feeding fodder, I am getting about 30 to 35 pounds of milk per cow per day with no corn or grain."
Since it's an indoor system, growing conditions are easier to maintain than for pasture, and the demands are somewhat flexible. Temperatures of 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit are ideal, with humidity levels of 40 to 80 percent. While sunlight from windows or skylights is best, the sprouts will grow under artificial light - fluorescent or grow lights are best, though incandescent bulbs will work - and will do fine with as little as six hours of light a day. They'll even grow with no light at all, though sprouts grown in the dark will be yellow instead of green and will be slightly nutrient-deficient.
While the systems require regular watering, the amount of water used versus the weight of harvested forage is significantly lower than that of irrigated pastures. In addition, the wastewater from the systems has been found to contain nutrients and proteins, says Abigail Tobey, FarmTek's lead fodder specialist, and many farmers are finding health benefits from giving that water to their animals.
The open design of the FarmTek Fodder- Pro 2.0 Feed System allows for easy harvesting, sanitizing and seeding.
Each pound of grain sprouted in the system yields as much as 7 pounds of fodder in a form that's more digestible than the grain itself, says Tobey. Even pasture grass is typically only about 30 percent digestible, she says, but sprouted grain is between 70 and 80 percent digestible, and the mineral content is comparable between unsprouted and sprouted seed. By controlling the seed's growth and timing the harvest, farmers using hydroponic systems are feeding the crop to their animals when it is at the peak of its nutritive value.
Digestibility is the key to the value of this type of fodder, explains Jerry Brunetti, livestock feed expert and founder of Agri-Dynamics. The primary component of grains is starch, which ferments in the rumen, leading to an acidic environment that makes digestion less efficient and much of the nutritive value of the feed inaccessible to the animal. Sprouting converts those starches to sugars, which means more energy for the animal, and it also increases the absorption of minerals and vitamins in the grain. Livestock was, after all, designed to eat live plants, not grain, he adds.
In addition, since the system can operate year-round, animals aren't subjected to dramatic changes in feed when the seasons change, and won't need to have the slack "maintenance period" of winter when fresh grass isn't available to them and their ration simply keeps them going, rather than building condition or production.
In FarmTek's testing, the best seeds for sprouting were barley, wheat, rye, oats and triticale, but any legumes or small grains, including mixes, will work in a hydroponic system, Tobey says.
Farmer John Stoltzfus began researching hydroponic fodder three years ago. He finally became convinced enough to build his own growing system in a small room in his barn at Be-A-Blessing Farm in Whitesville, N.Y. He immediately saw benefits in the form of healthier cattle, he reports, and higher butterfat and protein in their milk. Even the farm's chickens quickly took to the fodder, and Stoltzfus says the yolks of their eggs darkened, a good sign of improved nutrient density.
Organic dairy farmer John Stoltzfus' children feed sprouted barley to a future milker at their farm in Whitesville, N.Y. Calves can also benefit from the wastewater from hydroponic systems, due to the minerals and proteins it contains.
Photo by A. Fay Benson.
Stoltzfus' dairy is certified organic, illustrating another benefit of these systems - total control over inputs means no transition period is necessary for organic certification. The closed system requires no pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, important for farmers trying to meet the demands of consumers who are increasingly seeking non-GMO products.
Laboratory test results found a relative feed value of between 295 and 315 on the barley fodder Stoltzfus has sprouted, compared with his dry hay at about 150 and baleage at 165. Since the dry matter content of fodder is low by weight, the cows still need dry hay every day. He says, "You can't count on a 100 percent fodder diet for ruminants. They'll always need some additional dry matter to help with digestion."
Pigs and chickens could be fed 100 percent hydroponic fodder, says Tobey, but cows, horses, sheep and other livestock need supplemental roughage.
The primary tradeoff with a hydroponic system is the labor involved, says Stoltzfus. There's a daily time commitment in checking the system, presoaking the grains, pulling the mats of sprouted grain off the trays, tearing them up, and feeding them to the animals. The trays need to be cleaned well between uses or mold can form, which means the crop being sprouted can't be fed out to animals. Some farmers have countered that problem by using a weak chlorine solution for presoaking the seeds, but Stoltzfus uses an aerating system to keep the soak water bubbling, and that has proven effective in eliminating the mold problem.
Since most commercial systems use stacked racks of sprouting trays, the amount of feed that can be grown per square foot is significantly greater than that on open range, making hydroponic fodder systems appealing to farmers with limited land. The tradeoff, however, is higher costs for heating, lighting and water. Another potential challenge is the initial cost, with systems designed to produce 250 pounds of fodder a day costing around $5,000. Some manufacturers, such as FarmTek, offer financing.
Hydroponic fodder systems are "good for farmers who like to tinker and experiment," says A. Fay Benson, small dairy support specialist with Cornell University's Small Dairy Team. The day-to-day chores, coupled with the inevitable challenges of systems that need tweaking or repair, can be a significant time commitment.
The anecdotal evidence from farmers who use the systems is positive, says Benson, including reports of health benefits like reduced hoof warts, less manure production, increased milk production and better early growth. However, he adds that not enough research has been done to really determine the sustainability and cost effectiveness of hydroponic fodder.
Due to the growing popularity of the systems, a number of such research efforts are currently under way. An analysis and review of research published in New Zealand (http://bit.ly/19XJoQV) found that "Hydroponic fodder production systems produce large quantities of green, palatable livestock feed. However ... there are challenges associated with the production and economic competitiveness of hydroponic fodder relative to alternative feed sources."
A project done on a single hog farm in Ohio (http://bit.ly/10zwrGQ) found that implementing hydroponic fodder systems allowed the farmers "to reduce feed outlay and increase their bottom line."
FarmTek has sold thousands of hydroponic fodder systems since adding them to their catalog in 2011, and they're in use in every state in the U.S., primarily in drought-prone states in the southern and central portions of the country. Originally developed in Australia several decades ago, the practice has only become widely used in the U.S. in the last 10 years, but Tobey believes hydroponic fodder could be the solution that many struggling livestock farmers are seeking. She says, "It puts the farmer back in the driver's seat of his or her operation."
Winton Pitcoff is a freelance writer based in western Massachusetts.