The onset of high grain and forage prices and pastures plagued by droughts and other unpredictable weather patterns has many farmers looking to find economical, sustainable alternatives to traditional feeds. Hydroponics has the potential to dramatically improve modern agriculture.
Enter the world of hydroponic fodder, a method to produce fresh, clean and green feed for horses and livestock with minimal input. Hydroponics allows farm owners to have a year-round growing system that produces a consistent quantity and quality of plant material, regardless of outside weather. Plants are grown without soil; only moisture and nutrients are provided to the growing plants.
Although the art of hydroponics has been in existence since ancient civilization, there is a renewed interest in hydroponic fodder.
Hydroponic growing systems produce a greater yield over a shorter period in a smaller area than traditionally grown crops.
This also allows for the exclusion of chemicals like pesticides and herbicides because the plants are in a more protected growing environment making for a totally green and sustainable way to produce feed – an important factor for farmers trying to meet the demands of consumers who are increasingly seeking non-GMO products.
HOW IT WORKS
The principle of a hydroponic fodder system is simple: whole grains are soaked, then watered and sprouted in shallow trays. The seeds will usually sprout within 24 hours and within 5-8 days produce a 6- to 8-inch high grass mat. At the end of the growing period the fodder is fed to livestock as a supplement in the same way that hay and silage are currently.
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 a small micro unit that can be customized to any space for a homesteader to sprout seed for small livestock or backyard chickens. Barley is the most commonly grown forage because it usually gives the best yield of nutrients.
FEED QUALITY AND HEALTH BENEFIT S
Fodder sprouts are tender and young, the equivalent of fresh green grass. As such, they are highly palatable and nutritious to all types and classes of livestock. On a dry matter basis, hydroponic fodder compares favorably with other nutritious feedstuffs.
Fodder is easy to digest and, being alkaline, it balances any acidic condition in the gut. Concentrate, or "dead" feed, is acidic and low in moisture and therefore energy is wasted in the process of digestion.
“Soaking and sprouting grain increases moisture content and enzyme activity, breaking down compounds into more digestible elements,” says Abigail Tobey, FarmTek’s lead fodder specialist. “It also amplifies the natural proteins, vitamins, minerals, omega 3s, amino acids, natural hormones, and stimulates immune response.”
Tobey emphasizes that because of fodder’s digestibility, animals are able to take these excess nutrients and turn them into more steady energy. By sprouting, the digestibility of the grain increases from 40% to 80% so livestock will not need to consume as much fodder compared to commercial feed because they are obtaining more nutrition from a smaller volume of feed.
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.
EVALUATING THE COST OF FODDER
Research trials with different species (mostly cattle, pigs, and poultry) conducted to assess the performance of livestock fed hydroponic fodder have shown no consistent advantage to including it in the diet and the costs may still outweigh the benefits. However, with the growing success stories from farmers in the US, more university agricultural departments are working directly with their local communities to further research and evaluate the benefits vs. cost analysis.
Hydroponic sprouts may have profitable and beneficial nutritional applications with smaller-scale livestock and horse situations where land and alternative feed costs are high, and where the quality changes (less starch, more sugars, vitamins and lysine) due to sprouting are advantageous. For horses, sprouts provide high energy and protein, low starch, no dust and a useful supplement of vitamin E and biotin.
A problem that people may have in evaluating the cost of sprouts vs. the nutritional benefits is because of the high moisture content, labor input and capital costs. Supplements are generally evaluated on a dry matter basis and, as such, sprouts have been found to cost from two to five times the cost of “dry matter” compared with the original grain.
Relative feed value (RFV) is a way to look at your hay quality and determine the actual feed value of what you are feeding. It is determined by combining the digestibility and potential intake of a forage into one number. Most agree that values higher than 150 are considered prime. Feeding live greens means that you are actually feeding a type of super nutritious food with no loss of quality.
Ultimately, it is the performance relative to the cost that determines profitability and until more comprehensive research is done, the performance potential and cost effectiveness of sprouts remain largely unknown.
As with all research, it is personal experience and anecdotal stories from real farmers that shed light on the actual benefits of hydroponic fodder.
Dairy farmers who have recently moved to the sprout-feeding system are finding that it takes two pounds of fodder to replace one pound of grain to maintain a cow's milk production. They are also seeing higher protein and fat content in their milk.
John Stoltzfus, who has an 80-cow, organic-certified dairy herd in western New York, says that he immediately saw benefits in the form of healthier cattle and higher butterfat and protein in their milk. He no longer feeds grain and thinks the barley sprouts can help him achieve more than 40 pounds of milk/day from his primarily Holstein herd from forages alone.
Laboratory feed tests of his fodder and the barley that produced it showed reduced starch levels and increases in protein percentage and a variety of minerals compared to the grain. The tests revealed a relative feed value between 295 and 315 on the barley fodder compared with the dry hay at about 150 and baleage at 165.
On the horse front, many breeders and boarding facilities are experiencing great results as well. Lynn Strauman, a horse breeder and owner of Gypsy Rose Ranch in Lodi, CA has been feeding her 24 Gypsies, high-performance draft horses, fodder she has grown since 2009.
"My feed program is vital," she says. "I have now managed to totally eliminate a need for grain and am down to using only 30 to 50 percent of the hay I used to use."
For Strauman, the proof was Picasso, a rescued Gypsy who was nearly 300 pounds underweight when she got him. She fed him traditional rations for four weeks, then took him off the grain and put him on three mats a day - roughly 45 pounds - of fodder for another two months. He gained back the weight and took grand champion Gypsy gelding at the Fort Worth Stock Show in Texas.
"I know it's healthy for my animals," she says. "Their hair shines and their feet grow rapidly."
Due to the growing popularity of hydroponic fodder, a number of research efforts are currently under way. As the price of traditional forage continues to increase, fodder systems may provide a realistic and viable alternative that takes the uncertainty out of providing good quality forage for animals.
Green fodder production and water use efficiency of some forage crops under hydroponic conditions (2011) - ISRN Agronomy
Review of hydroponic fodder for beef cattle (2003) - Meat & Livestock Australia
Cuddeford D, 1989. Hydroponic grass. In Practice, 11(5):211-214.
Iowa State University Animal Industry Report (2013): Hydroponic Fodder Systems for Dairy Cattle - Larry F. Tranel
Hydroponic Fodder: Small Ruminant Info Sheet - Susan Schoenian, University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources