Horses, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, cattle – different creatures, but all bound by a common thread: They gotta eat. That won’t surprise anyone in the ag business; but the way we feed livestock – meaning the what and the how – is rapidly changing.
At the epicenter is the term “fodder,” and, while we’ll shortly review some of the advancements that are shaping the scene, let’s look at the actual term. Notably, the concept of fodder dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who found ways of integrating various dietary enhancers with the grass their animals ate.
Today, the broad definition of fodder comprises any feed given to domesticated livestock, beyond what they’re able to find on their own. This could cover a broad range of items like hay, grasses, sprouts, legumes, grains, and certain trees, but contemporary discussions of new fodder systems most commonly revolve around hydroponically sprouted grains.
Essentially, hydroponic systems create synthetic environments by controlling light, water, and temperature to grow fodder feed from seeds. Such systems may use a variety of seeds such as alfalfa, oats, millets, rye, sunflower seeds, lentils, or the most common selection: barley.
As Texas-based Fodder Consultants notes, barley is the fifth-largest cereal grain crop in the world, and the most nutritious. Half of the barley grown today is used to feed livestock, and that fits the grain’s historical use, which dates as far back as 3000 BC.
For this and any hydroponically sprouted grain, “just add water” may be a little understated, but this process is unquestionably the most vibrant area of development and opportunity for those that produce and those that consume fodder. Generally, a hydroponic fodder system follows this process: Seeds are soaked in aerated water for about eight to 12 hours to soften the outer shell and accelerate germination.
Essentially, hydroponic systems create synthetic environments by controlling light, water, and temperature to grow fodder feed from seeds.
Next, they’re placed in trays and grown under a constant temperature (typically between 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 degrees Fahrenheit) with or without artificial light for a period of six to eight days. The resulting sprouts form a mat of shoots and roots similar to a strip of shag carpet that is then cut to appropriate sizes and fed fresh to cattle and other livestock.
Chris “The Straw Hat Farmer” Anthony of Grow Dinner Aquaponics promotes the concept of hydroponic fodder by offering instructional videos that describe the process. (For clarity, aquaponics is a subset of hydroponics in which live fish are raised in the same system that provides water for plant growth. Fish waste, cleaned by the system’s bacteria, provides nutrients for the plants through recirculated water.)
“This is a cheap, economic way to have winter food for your livestock that’s very nutritional – much better than hay and most commercial feeds,” Anthony said. “The nutrients are not only going to come from the grass; the nutrients will also come from the root matter.”
Indeed, the nutritional value of hydroponic fodder is one of its most appealing attributes. As Fodder Consultants explains, the sprouting process bolsters a seed’s nutritional content by releasing what’s stored within the outer shell. An unaltered seed is a carbohydrate that passes through the animal without providing much protein. Barley fodder is 84 percent digestible protein, the molecules of which easily pass through the animal’s intestinal wall, into the blood stream and then on to the muscles.
And because the seeds from which fodder is sprouted are easily mixed with other grains, producers can grow specialized blends. Pricing and availability are the key drivers, but within the workable parameters, producers can blend various seeds to create the ideal formula for particular animals.
Other benefits include:
Clean eating: Fully organic, hydroponic fodder is produced without pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizer. Moreover, because the sprouts are grown without soil, the animal can eat the entire plant all the way down to the root mass with no dirt consumed.
And because the fresh, green hydroponically sprouted fodder most closely resembles a farm animal’s natural forage, these meals actually promote better digestion and reduce the likelihood of acidosis and other digestive issues.
Resource friendly: Much more efficient than sprinklers or misters, hydroponic systems use far less water, and because hydroponic fodder is often grown in vertical rack systems, it alleviates the challenges of acquiring and maintaining sufficient growing space. The ag world is no longer necessarily a flat plane; it’s often a multi-level model of space efficiency.
Climate control: Strong, drying winds; extreme high or low temperatures; too little or too much rainfall – no worries for these indoor operations. With hydroponically grown fodder, ranchers can provide their animals with fresh, green, nutritious feed year-round, regardless of meteorological/atmospheric conditions.
Seasonal advantage: Commercially raised feed presents not only a cost factor, but also storage considerations to keep the feed dry and properly preserved until feeding. As Anthony alluded, livestock managers needn’t worry about how to feed their animals during winter when using hydroponic fodder systems.
Business opportunities: Considering the increasing interest in no-grain feeding programs, it’s not surprising to see a burgeoning trend in the production of green fodder from the seeds of small grains. This has created an economic driver for many local communities that have foreseen the future need for healthy food supplies to feed a growing population.
Moreover, hydroponic fodder systems will continue to positively impact modest family-owned ag businesses, organic farms, and those committed to producing “grass-fed” meat. For them, access to fresh, green fodder throughout the year is a benefit that cannot be overstated.
Dollars and sense: When grain and forage prices present economic challenges, hydroponic fodder can offer a workable solution. Upfront costs and certain maintenance considerations must be taken into consideration, but as we’ll see next, a hydroponic system can provide a viable option.
MAKING IT WORK
Another fan of this innovative process, Jeff Severson of Hope Springs Dairy in Tumalo, Oregon, exemplifies the supplemental and economic benefits of raising hydroponic fodder. In a 2015 video describing his operation, Severson makes a compelling case for a labor-intensive yet worthwhile process.
“This is a cheap, economic way to have winter food for your livestock that’s very nutritional – much better than hay and most commercial feeds.”
“We grow fresh sprouts (so) our cows and goats can eat fresh greens throughout the winter; when we’re normally feeding them hay, we’ll also supplement with fodder to provide the nutritional value to the milk,” Severson said. “It’s also a cost-effective measure of feeding our animals.
“One pound of barley seed will yield about 12 pounds of feed. So you’re looking at about $80 a ton to grow your own fodder. Grass hay is about $260 a ton. So, for a little bit of work – a lot of work – it’s a good option.”
Because hydroponic fodder is not grown in soil, it does not absorb terrestrial minerals. Severson accounts for this by supplementing his sprouts with diatomaceous earth, a natural de-wormer and a good source of dietary minerals.
Another helpful additive comes on the front end of the process. Mold is a constant threat in hydroponic fodder production, but Severson finds that adding a dash of bleach to his seed soaking trays nixes this problem. Severson also uses “grow lights” over his hydroponic system to bring out the attractive green coloration, noting that without it, the sprouts grow with a pasty yellow complexion.
The methods by which fodder growers light their systems continue to evolve, but light emitting diodes (LEDs) currently lead the way, with a great range of flexibility for matching the desired light spectrum to particular plants. Maximum Yield Modern Growing Magazine predicts that high intensity discharge (HID) lighting systems, particularly double-ended HIDs, along with sulfur plasma lighting will likely gain popularity.
ELSEWHERE ON THE FODDER FRONTIER
Clearly, the ag industry has shaken the limiting notion that plants are grown only in the ground, one level at a time. Growing fodder on vertical racks creates tremendous production potential, but with great gain often come great requirements – often by way of labor.
For backyard farms and small independent ranches, the burden is often manageable. However, automation has become the necessary bridge for connecting large-scale operations with the benefits of hydroponic fodder production.
“If you’re going to feed (a sizeable group of livestock), the system has to be automated,” said White, who helped design one of the earliest automated fodder systems.
Automated hydroponic systems can plant seeds at predetermined amounts, provide optimal growing conditions, harvest sprouted seeds at the appropriate time, and then clean the trays for subsequent uses.
And talk about “smart” technology: An automated fodder system can not only regulate the crop’s watering and nutrient levels, it will collect data on the entire process and provide a comprehensive picture for administrative decisions. If any part of the process runs askew, the system alerts the administrator so corrective action can be taken.
Automated systems track all elements of the growing process and also keep track of how much fodder is available on a daily basis. No scrambling to count trays and check for readiness. If the machine says you got fodder, you got fodder.
When it’s time to harvest, an elevated arm rises to the appropriate rack. No ladders, no risk of slips and falls; just a dependable process that eliminates labor cost.
CHALLENGES AND CONSIDERATIONS
Despite the irrefutable benefits, hydroponic fodder is simply not the one-stop-shopping of livestock feeding. Whether it’s cattle, pigs, or alpaca, livestock need a balanced diet that includes other types of feeds; fodder comprises an important supplemental role.
This can make the investment of time, labor, and resources a difficult decision. Moreover, the overall nutritive value of hydroponic fodder leaves room for questions about the dry matter animals need and the balance between the two types of feed.
A panacea this is not, but nothing that sprouted green fodder lacks should overshadow the legitimate benefits it brings to the table. And considering the current dwindling supply of grazing land and water, and demands for increased productivity, the developing world of hydroponic fodder production is likely to play an increasingly important role in the future of American agriculture.
Caption for top image: The grow decks of a commercial hydroponic fodder system are illuminated with grow lights. Credit: KCHITTOCK0511/Wikimedia Commons
This article was originally published in the 2017 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.