Is Hydroponically Sprouted Fodder The New Grassfed?

Hydroponic fodder systems allow farmers to feed livestock fresh fodder year-round—but the jury’s still out on long-term health benefits.

by Barbara Berst Adams
PHOTO: Dykstra Farms

It’s an idyllic rural scene: Farmers opening barn doors and allowing their animals outside on live, green growing pastures. This happens up to eight months of the year on Dykstra Farms, a USDA Certified Organic vegetable, seed and dairy farm in Burlington, Wash. But on the dairy segment of this farm, live green feed is also growing inside the barn—a new trend on an increasing number of farms and ranches.

Hydroponic fodder systems are a method of growing large quantities of grasses and grains, such as barley, to about 6 inches tall inside a protective structure year-round. In hydroponics, plants are grown without soil, using liquid for water, nutrients, and sometimes gravel or other non-soil substances to anchor the roots of larger crops. As with sprouts for human consumption, fodder sprouts go from seed to harvest in days, so no anchoring medium is needed—some believe the grains already hold all the nutrients they need by just growing in water. The resulting product takes about a week to grow and resembles the long trays of wheatgrass sometimes found in the produce or juicing section at your local grocery store, growing straight up like a miniature young pasture.

Andrew and Sandy Dykstra, along with their sons Chris and Charlie, began experimenting with the idea of producing sprouted fodder for their dairy several years ago. As a result of their eventual success, the Dykstra family helped develop—and now owns—Feed Your Farm, a business that designs and installs sprouted fodder systems for farms across the country.

According to Matthew Sampson, co-founder and systems designer for Feed Your Farm, sprouted fodder can be appropriate for a variety of livestock, including poultry, dairy cattle, beef cattle—for finishing, in particular—goats, horses, pigs, sheep, mules and donkeys.

Start Growing Hydroponic Fodder

hydroponic fodder sprouting
Dykstra Farms

For farmers considering a hydroponic sprouting system, the first step is to determine your goals and how the arrangement will work with your farm’s needs. Some manufacturers, like Feed Your Farm, supply systems that use only water to sprout the grain, while others include proprietary fertilizer and other additives to the liquid used to sprout the grains, which makes research essential. Ask about the included additives and their potential benefits, and decide which of the options would best serve your farm.

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Compare current costs of feeding, including the feed cost itself, labor, power sources and water used, with an estimate of what year-round production of the sprouts would actually cost—from keeping the sprouting barn or room and water supply warm enough in very cold weather to handling possible power outages. At this point, you’ll have a clearer picture of whether such a system would be beneficial to your farm and whether growing green fodder inside—even when green pastures are growing outside—will in fact be a viable addition to the farming business.

Despite promising results from feeding sprouted fodder for farmers like the Dykstras and the enthusiasm shown by the companies that sell the sprouting systems, some agricultural specialists caution that more impartial studies are needed. In summer 2014, the University of Minnesota, with assistant professor of organic dairy production, Brad Heins, began a study to evaluate fodder production systems, which is scheduled for completion near the end of 2016 or early 2017.

Researchers are particularly interested in dry-matter content, which is what’s leftover from any feed product after moisture has been removed. Traditionally, farmers were told that livestock need a certain amount of DM—among many other nutrients—to remain healthy and produce well.

Admittedly, not all farmers who have implemented sprouts have seen the results they were expecting, but farmers and system manufacturers both have hopes for the benefits to be concretely proven and the DM issue better understood. For example, Jon Baker, owner of FodderTech America and a partner in FodderTech USA, says dry matter equations work well for dry feeds but are missing something important when it comes to feeding living feed versus dry, “denatured” feeds.

Here are some other considerations to take into account before you buy.

  • Grains: Choose which grains you want to sprout and ensure a stable source for sprouting year-round. For example, some farms would specifically need Certified Organic grain, while others could get by with sustainably produced grain that isn’t certified.
  • Housing: Ensure you have enough space for a sprouting system, be it in an existing building or an area where a new structure just for sprouting could be built. Once the space is found, you’ll need ample power and water. To help keep production expenses low, particularly the cost of controlling the climate inside the sprouting structure, use the geographical region of your farm to take local temperatures into consideration when siting your system. If you’re concerned about water waste, check with your manufacturer to see if used water can be recycled for other purposes on the farm.
  • Maintenance: It’s important to remember that this is a relatively new and evolving feed system. Ask your potential supplier how to prevent mold, what’s involved in keeping the system clean and disease-free, and what support the company offers after purchase.

Balancing The Scales

The Dykstra farm is fairly large scale, and other farmers using their system are producing more than 1,000 pounds per day, but smaller farms can also implement and use this system cost effectively.

“Small hobby farmers are typically buying a 100-pound-per-day system so they can offer their two dozen chickens, three horses, six pigs and a cow something fresh and new and exciting,” Sampson says. “I would also say that having a highly nutritious, highly palatable feed consistently available for your animals is a universal benefit no matter the size of the farm.”

If you have an extremely small operation, such as a couple of backyard dairy goats, or want to test it on a limited number of farm animals to help make an assessment of the value of investing in a larger system, consider taking a do-it-yourself approach to the system that doesn’t involve a lot of upfront financial investment.

Pros & Cons Of Sprouted Fodder

hydroponically sprouted fodder
Dykstra Farms

The benefits of feeding live sprouts to livestock can include heightened health of the animals and their subsequent products such as dairy, eggs and meat. “Sprouts are alkaline, not acidic; therefore, cows do not become acidotic,” says Andrew Dykstra. “Hooves stay harder. There are no twisted stomachs.”

The Dykstras saw herd health results after switching to hydroponic fodder—the herd’s somatic cell count, aka the white blood cell count in which high numbers indicate an infection, went down even further from an already healthy number.

According to the CROPP Cooperative’s “Sprouted Dairy Fodder” Technical Bulletin #10 by Sylvia Abel-Caines, PhD in Ruminant Nutrition, the rumen pH stays more stable without the constant input of starch that is supplied by non-sprouted grain.

“Mineral and vitamin levels in hydroponically sprouted barley are significantly increased over those in grain; in addition, they are absorbed more efficiently due to the lack of enzyme inhibitors in sprouted grain. The vitamin content of some seeds can increase by up to 20 times their original value within several days of sprouting.”

Plus, there can be substantial savings: When done properly, hydroponic sprouted-fodder setups can allow farmers and ranchers to produce the same amount of feed that would come from 200 acres in a 2,000-square-foot building, using less water than would be used in the field. Other benefits include the dual protections of a drought- and freeze-proof feed system.

Because the tender, moist sprouts contain low dry matter as compared to other feeds such as grain, mathematically, it appears that far more of this fodder would be needed to match the DM content of grains, costing the farmer more, not less. Also of note: As sprouted fodder gains more ground and is more closely examined, certifying entities might not allow it to be called “grassfed”—the jury is still out. Two potential drawbacks to consider.

The Dykstra farm currently produces 4,000 pounds per day of freshly sprouted organic barley to feed approximately 250 milking cows. Sampson explains that initially, when organic corn was over $700 a ton, Andrew Dykstra’s goal with his fodder system was to replace that ration for organic grain. Once Dykstra was producing 2,000 pounds of fodder per day, he reached that goal, completely eliminating corn from the ration.

“At that point, he was still feeding quite a bit of alfalfa so the combination of low-quality hay, the alfalfa and the fodder kept his cows producing similar to what he was experiencing when he was spending $40,000 a month buying organic grain,” Sampson says. “The fodder system currently costs the Dykstra farm approximately $15,000 per month. That includes seeds, water, power and labor.”

“If 25 percent of your cows’ diet is a high-quality living forage packed full of energy and enzymes, and you can consistently provide this feed to your animals year-round, it will allow you to be incredibly more flexible when sourcing the inputs for the remainder of the ration,” Sampson says. “I think a general rule of thumb in the dairy business is that your feed costs should only be around 50 percent of your milk check. If organic grain is over $600 per ton and organic milk only sells for $580 per ton, as is the current situation for the Dykstra farm and much of the nation’s organic dairy industry … farmers are left to look for alternatives, including producing better forages with their acreage or producing sprouts in their fodder room.”

Barley There

hydroponic fodder
Dykstra Farms

Although barley continues to be the favored plant to sprout for taller green animal fodder, wheat, oats, alfalfa, and other grains and seeds can work, as well. However, at this early stage, there is less experience regarding sprouts other than barley, at least in the dairy industry. The University of Minnesota study mentioned above is evaluating barley, wheat, oats, triticale and rye, but this study is a long-term project.

“We have experimented with sprouting over 20 types of grains on the Dykstra farm to determine their various germination and growth rates,” Sampson says. “From these experiments, we learned that barley sprouts and grows really fast compared to other grains, and barley has more beneficial enzymes and more balanced nutrition compared to most of the other readily available grains. We also learned that sprouted barley has higher levels of energy than many of the other grains, and this is particularly important for dairy cows and dairy goats [that] need the energy for milk production.”

Barley grain is readily available and grown in many parts of North America because there’s already a large demand for it from beer brewers. With an established market, supply and pricing is fairly stable.

If you choose to sprout the more common barley, it needs to have strong germination qualities. Heat-dried or crimped barley grain sprouts poorly, if at all. Malting barley, however, has one of the best germination rates.

While farmers extol a living green diet for plant-eating farm animals, Sampson points out that sprouted barley’s white roots also hold health benefits. “What producers are looking for is not necessarily tall grass, but thick, dense, bright-white root mats, ” he says. “Important enzymes and nutrition are actually in the root mass itself. It’s with a thick root mass that the producers get their higher yields. A 2- to 3-inch-thick root mass is what we are looking to accomplish, and we designed our trays in part to accomplish that goal,” Sampson says.

Soak It All In

The opinions on hydroponic fodder’s efficacy are just as varied as the means of sprouting it.

“Different people have different ideas of what is the best method for soaking their seeds, including varying soak times,” Sampson says. “We have customers that soak overnight, some that soak six hours, and some, like the Dykstras, only three hours. All this data is from dairy producers sprouting barley. Farmers feeding horses and chickens most of the time will be sprouting a mix of grains and may only grow them for three or four or five days.”

For the Dykstra farm, their routine creates a day’s worth of fodder each day of the week. There is no cutting or processing of the sprouts before feeding, except occasionally slicing one of the long lengths of matted sprouts in two for easier transport. The mats are lifted and slid from the trays and tossed into a wheelbarrow to take either directly to the animals or to be mixed with other rations.

As sprouted fodder enthusiasts push on through triumphs and challenges alongside ongoing formal studies, perhaps eventually the grass truly will become greener on the inside of the barn.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Hobby Farms.

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