Sprouted Barley Fodder – A Revolution in Animal Feed?

By Joe Pedretti

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Record high grain prices and the drought of 2012 are driving up interest in alternative feeds. Recently that interest focuses on sprouting barley for fodder production. A number of companies have developed systems for automated or semi-automated sprouted barley production. Some of these systems have recently been installed (or are being installed) on organic dairy farms in the Midwest. One of these farms, Mervin Johnson’s in Barron County, had a pasture walk in May, which staff from MOSES attended to learn more about sprouted barley as a feed ration.

Sprouted fodder is not a new idea. There are references to sprouting small grains for fodder dating back at least to the 1600s. What is new is the technology and engineering that makes it economically competitive with other feeding options. Light, moisture and consistent heat are critical for sprouted fodder to work. Attempts have been made using greenhouses to produce the sprouts, but have proven difficult and expensive for controlling humidity and heat. Greenhouses are just not consistent enough for reliable fodder production.

Experiments with fully automated hydroponic systems using artificial light were more stable and production more reliable. However, the lighting, which was mostly high pressure sodium or metal halide, generated a lot of excess heat and was very expensive, making this system not economically viable.

What has revolutionized sprouted barley fodder as a viable feed alternative is high efficiency fluorescent and LED lighting and more affordable climate control systems. LED lighting in particular is very energy efficient with little excess heat generated. Although LED is more expensive to buy upfront, the long-term operating expenses are greatly reduced. LEDs also last much longer than any other option, and do not lose output over time.

Many of the advances made in sprouted barley fodder have come from Australia–several of the systems used here are based on their designs. During Australia’s severe droughts, barely fodder provides valuable nutrition when fresh pasture is not available. Here in the U.S., the sprouted barley fodder is often brought into the ration to replace protein previously supplied by dry grain. Of course, it is also beneficial in the non-pasture season to bring fresh forage to the animals.

Nutritional Benefits

The main benefit of sprouted fodder in comparison to feeding grain is “improved protein, starch and sugar” (CROPP Cooperative’s “Sprouted Dairy Fodder” Technical Bulletin #10 by Dr. Sylvia Abel-Caines). Nearly all of the starch present in the grain is converted to sugar by sprouting, which is better utilized by the rumen than the dry grain. This reduces acidosis problems, as the rumen pH stays more stable without the constant input of starch.

“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. Sprouts provide a good supply of vitamins A, E, C and B complex. The vitamin content of some seeds can increase by up to 20 times their original value within several days of sprouting.” (“Sprouted Barley Fodder” Technical Bulletin)

Jim Kern of Fodder Feeds pointed out that “when a cow eats fresh sprouted fodder, it is eating digestive enzymes that are not present in dry hay or in grain. It is highly digestible and nutritious.”

There is very little dry matter in sprouted barley fodder (17%). Thus, a farmer feeding it must also provide dry hay, but the hay does not have to be of highest quality.

Why Barley and Not Other Small Grains?

Barley is the most nutritious of the small grains, stores well and is easy to grow. Feed Your Farm, one of the companies supplying sprouting systems, has experimented extensively with wheat and oats, but has found that barley sprouts the best, grows the fastest and is most cost-effective of all the grains tried. To work well for sprouted fodder, the barley seed needs a high germination rate and must be very clean. Some companies recommend mixing seeds–a favorite of Fodder Feeds is 2 pounds of barley and 2 ounces of sunflower seeds, which yields 20 pounds (on average, a 10:1 ratio) when sprouted in their system.

A general rule of thumb is a yield of 1:7–one pound of barley seed will produce seven pounds of sprouted fodder.

Systems for Sprouting Barley

To sprout barley consistently and economically, you need a climate-controlled space, lighting of sufficient brightness (lumens), a soaking vat, a rack and tray system and a watering system.

A sprouting facility must be sized according to the total pounds of sprouted fodder needed per day. Dairy cattle will each need 20-40 lbs of fodder per day, depending upon the amount of roughage fed. Available systems are sized from four-animal units (these are portable) all the way up to permanent systems designed to feed thousands of animals. It is highly recommended that you work with a specialist from one of the sprouted fodder companies to design an appropriately sized system for your operation.

All systems, regardless of size, must be insulated and climate controlled. The ideal temperature is 70 degrees F, with humidity held high and constant, but not too high that mold becomes an issue. Air movement is necessary to control mold, so many systems incorporate fans or air handling systems.

Choosing the right light, and the right amount of light, is very important to the success of a sprouted barley system. Optimal production requires 18 hours of light and 6 hours of darkness. Low-light levels and shorter day lengths will slow the process and reduce production. Fluorescent and LED lighting are the most cost-effective options. Fodder Feeds, one of the new companies building systems in the Midwest, relies strictly on LED lighting, which while more expensive upfront, is the most energy efficient and can generate the specific frequencies needed for optimal plant growth. “You don’t need full-spectrum lighting in sprouting systems,” said Jim Kern from Fodder Feeds. “LEDs can produce only the frequencies needed to sprout the plants.”

Racking the sprouting system vertically is the most efficient use of space. Nearly all the systems being sold are racked and then set up with sprouting trays to hold the seed. In fully automated systems, water emitters either spray or flood the trays on a regular basis. The trays must have a drainage system. Seeds need to be kept moist, but they cannot sit in water, or mold and bacteria will become problems.

How the Process Works

The barley seed must be very clean and have a high germination rate. Dirty seed will have mold problems and require a lot of labor time in cleaning both seed and equipment. Low germination rates will decrease the efficiency of the system.

Clean grain must be soaked 8 to 12 hours. Hydrogen peroxide or bleach is sometimes used in the soaking water to kill mold spores (allowed in organic systems) and the soak water is sometimes aerated.

After soaking, the grain is drained and spread onto trays. Temperatures should be kept between 60 and 75 degrees F, with 70 degrees ideal. The grain must be kept moist to sprout. Manual systems are sprayed down every 4-8 hours, and automated systems either spray or flood irrigate on a timed system. Seventy percent humidity is the target in the growing room.

The sprouted barley is harvested between six and eight days of growth. Nutrition will be lost but weight gained by days seven and eight. At harvest, the barley shoots will be about six inches tall with a two inch mat of interwoven roots. The sprouted grain is harvested by removing the tray or sliding the mat off the tray in one long sheet. The mats can be cut to the appropriate size and fed to cattle. By starting new grain every day, the system can constantly provide fresh fodder.

How is it Working in Real Life?

On May 23rd, 2013, Mervin Johnson and his family of Barron County, Wis. hosted a pasture walk to highlight their organic dairy and to demonstrate their new sprouted barley fodder system. The Johnsons milk 75 cows and have been organic for 10 years. At the beginning of 2013, they installed a sprouted barley system into a converted garage capable of producing 1500 pounds of sprouted barley per day for their herd.

Motivated by the very high cost of organic feed, the Johnsons looked at alternatives. Intrigued by sprouted fodder, they worked with organic dairy farmer Andrew Dykstra of Washington State who has been using sprouted barley fodder on his own organic farm and is now a sales representative with Feed Your Farm, to design a system for them.

Although the system is designed to produce 1500 pounds per day, in reality they have been getting 1200 to 1300 pounds. Mervin thinks this may be due to the variety of barley they were able to purchase locally. Prior to using sprouted fodder, Mervin was feeding 10 lbs of grain per cow. Now he feeds no grain but instead feeds 20 pounds of barley fodder per cow and dry hay. He is currently getting 6 pounds of sprouts from one pound of barley seed. Mervin is feeding less hay per day and purchasing less grain with the new system, so it does appear to be saving money, but he says he needs one more year to determine if the system will pay itself off. Mervin is happy so far with the milk production and his cows’ health.

Sprouted barely does take more labor, however. Every day Mervin and his family spend 10 minutes harvesting fodder, 40 minutes washing trays, 20 minutes seeding trays, 20 minutes cleaning the room, 50 minutes cleaning the barley seed (the last batch was very dirty) and another 40 minutes tending the wood stove they use to heat the room.

Andrew Dykstra has been feeding his 240 cow herd 17 lbs of sprouts per day instead of the 15 lbs of grain he was feeding last year. He reported an increase in his milk check and a reduction in feed costs since switching to sprouted barely fodder. In a recent newsletter profile for NODPA, he cited an overall 64% reduction in concentrate expenses since switching to sprouts. He does add that farmers will see about a 20% increase in electricity use due to fans, lights and heating. The Johnsons reported that switching from electric to wood heat has worked well and helped to cut the electric bill for their system.

Fodder Feeds has also done some economic analysis. At conventional pricing, it costs between $8 and $10 per day to feed a Holstein cow on a standard grain/forage diet. Jim Kern reported that it costs about $0.80 to produce 1 Animal Unit, or 20 pounds, of fodder (conventional prices) using a fodder feed system. This includes the grain at 15 dollars a bushel, sunflower seeds, and electricity. This will make up 70% of the animal’s feed intake and all of the nutrition. A lactating dairy cow needs 2 animal units to produce milk, plus fiber such as straw.

Other companies estimate the cost at $60 to $100 per ton of sprouts. Even at organic prices for barley, there is a potential reduction in feed costs. Fodder Feeds has 100 systems up and running with many new systems under construction, including an Organic Valley producer in Minnesota who is putting in a fully automated system in 2013. With this rapid expansion, more economic data will be available in the near future.

Find more livestock-related resources, fact sheets, and more!

Educational Resources:

Graze Magazine article, January 2013
Sprouted Barley Fodder” Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines
NODPA Featured Farm Series “Dykstra Farms
Lancaster Farming
Sprouted Fodder Systems:
Feed Your Farm: 360-661-4302
Fodder Tech: 855-977-7688
Fodder Solutions: 530-615-1533

Joe Pedretti, former MOSES Organic Specialist works for the Midwest Organic Services Association, Inc. (MOSA).

From the July | August 2013 Organic Broadcaster


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