Organic Broadcaster

Farmers, experts examine value of sprouted fodder systems

By Jody Padgham, MOSES

Barley sprouts in trays at Washington State University.
Photo submitted

As spring flourishes across the Upper Midwest, cattle and other ruminants are happy to resume grazing lush pastures. Advocates of sprouted fodder systems argue that sprouting grains such as barley in controlled, indoor hydroponic systems offers some of the same benefits as grazing—providing fresh greens to animals over the winter, and as a summer supplement. There has been much interest over the past several years in the concept of offering sprouted grains as feed, but conflicting information about how valuable or cost-effective the practice is.

Large-scale sprouting systems are now in place at two universities, producing green fodder for organic dairy farms at the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) in Morris, Minn., and at California State University in Chico, Calif. Research studies at each facility are exploring the economics and other qualities of the hydroponic grain sprouts produced in the systems.

Barley sprouts in trays at Washington State University.
Photo submitted

Several companies offer commercially available fodder production systems, designed to produce from 250 to several thousand pounds of fresh sprouted greens per day. These commercial systems cost from several to many thousands of dollars to purchase, depending on the size of the system and how much of the infrastructure is included. Even do-it-yourself systems can be costly to set up, as they require a dedicated, controlled environment and very clean facilities to ensure production of a high-quality fodder.

Sprouting breaks down complex compounds in the grain to simple, essential components which are more quickly digested. The grain’s starches are converted to sugars through the sprouting process, which decreases dry matter, overall starch and anti-nutrients.

To produce the fodder, clean, non-moldy grain is rinsed and soaked for 12-24 hours, and then kept damp and warm in shallow trays in environments with good circulation for 6-8 days. The grain is rinsed each day, and light is added so the growing grain can produce chlorophyll.

At 6-8 days, the entire tray of sprouted grain is pulled out as a mat and fed to any kind of animal, most frequently dairy cows, goats, sheep, poultry or hogs. Different grains can be used, but barley has been found to grow the fastest, be the most cost-effective and create the highest quality fodder. One pound of dry barley will generally yield an average of seven (six to eight) pounds of sprouted fodder. Dairy cattle will each need 20-40 pounds of fodder per day, depending on how much other roughage is also fed.

Most commercial systems are set up to harvest the fodder at seven days. During this period, the stored starch in the seed is used to fuel germination. Photosynthesis will start in the second week of growth, and nutrients will begin to accumulate. However, the fodder will lose digestibility, and so is generally utilized as feed before this point. Some commercial systems recommend adding minerals and vitamins in the water, which will increase these levels in the fodder, but also increase costs. Certified organic farmers should check with their organic certifiers to make sure vitamins or minerals they want to add to their fodder systems are approved for organic use.

Benefits, Challenges, Claims
In a recent presentation, Kathy Soder, animal scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, evaluated the benefits and challenges of sprouted fodder systems. Soder outlined these perceived benefits:

• It is very palatable to animals. There is a “feel-good” factor for the farmer.
• There is a high forage yield in a small space, helpful for those with limited land.
• There is no waste in the production, as long as mold is not an issue.
• Fodder can easily be produced organically, without herbicides or pesticides.
• There is rapid growth, and consistency in the yield. It is an easy forage to produce, and allows control over forage production.

She also pointed out these unproven claims:

• Fodder will reduce forage costs.
• Fodder will improve animal health.
• Fodder will improve animal performance.
• Fodder has better nutritional content than other alternatives.

Soder also shared some drawbacks:

• Mold is a huge concern, as feeding moldy fodder will cause illness or death in animals. Systems can be touchy regarding mold, and seed must be very clean. A moldy batch means loss of feed for that day, a backup plan must be created.
• Fodder is mostly water, (15-20 percent dry matter) and so has a high cost per pound of dry matter fed. (Whole, unsprouted barley grain is 95 percent dry matter.)
• Fodder systems require very high labor.
• There can be significant waste when feeding, as animals toss the mats. Grinding into TMR can alleviate this.
• High sugar content leads to potential for acidosis in the rumen.
• There is a high capital expense for setting up a purchased system.
• Fodder does not qualify as organic pasture, or for many “grass-fed” labels.

Closer Look at Challenges
While the benefits are pretty clear, Soder is concerned with the challenges, which are often glossed over by salesmen promoting the production systems. The concern of mold is a significant one, forcing adjustments to system setup and management until quality can be assured. Heat, air circulation and humidity must be carefully managed, and variations in ambient humidity and temperature require adjustments to avoid mold formation. Pockets of stagnant air in the production room or slight dips in sprouting trays can create problem areas that must be remedied. Seed must be very clean and mold-free, ideally tested before purchase. Sourcing clean, quality organic seed can be a challenge, depending on the year.

The time needed to produce the fodder is a big consideration for feasibility in most operations. Lorrie Conway of Conway Family Farms in Camas, Wash. reported that it took her 25-30 minutes per day to produce enough fodder for 30 sheep and goats. Mervin Johnson of Barron, Wis. claimed that it takes his family almost three hours every day to clean seed and the production room, maintain proper heat and humidity (using a wood stove) and grow and feed the 1,500 lbs. of fodder needed daily for their 75 organic dairy cows.

“It is a lot of work, and every day I ask myself ‘Is this worth it?’” Johnson said. “But now I have the system, I’ll keep using it. I’m not sure I’d make the investment again, though.”

Consistency is also a consideration, but not one unknown to dairy farmers. A fodder system must be managed every day, no fail. If a problem occurs and a batch is lost to mold or other problems, that means no fodder to feed the day the fodder would have matured. Alternative nutrition plans must be made.

Research Findings
Researchers are just starting to look at fodder systems to explore the truth behind some of the claims being made. The economics of fodder production in particular is of great interest to both farmers and researchers.

Brad Heins, assistant professor at WCROC, has been assessing the impacts of their system, installed in 2013 and producing 1,150 pounds of fodder every day for 40 cows. A 2014 trial feeding 36 cows explored the difference between a group fed TMR with eight pounds of organic corn versus a group fed TMR and 20 pounds of barley fodder. Results showed that there was no significant difference in milk production, with the exception that urea nitrogen levels were slightly higher in fodder-fed cows. There was no significant difference in dry matter intake per pound of milk produced between the two groups, though cows not fed fodder consumed 6.5 pounds more dry matter per day.

Heins points out that the economic advantage of fodder depends entirely on the cost of the sprouting seed and alternative grain. Fodder becomes more economically viable as a grain substitute when organic grain prices increase.

Susan Kerr, DVM, a dairy extension specialist with Washington State University, worked in 2014 with Conway Family Farms and fellow researchers to assess fodder production costs. Her cost analysis was based on Conway’s system in a greenhouse in Washington, where temperate climate means heating and cooling costs will be lower than the Midwest. Kerr found that it cost $183.93 to produce a ton of fresh, as-fed barley fodder (Table 1). She recommended using the table and filling in your own numbers to calculate your own actual or potential fodder production costs.

Kerr emphasized the importance of comparing dry matter feed value, rather than as-fed when assessing the value of switching from feeding grain to fodder, as water makes up a majority of the weight in fodder, but has no nutritional value.

The tables below show the nutritional value of barley fodder as compared to alfalfa hay, (Table 2) and the cost of each per ton of dry matter fed (Table 3). Kerr’s numbers show that, when taking all costs (except winter heat) into account, the fodder grown with a purchased production system was significantly more expensive than buying in quality hay, when looking at dry matter fed ($1,227 versus $263 per ton of dry matter fed). The fodder certainly has higher Relative Feed Value per ton of dry matter fed, but it takes a huge quantity (13,340 lbs.) of fodder to get a ton of DM, as it is 83-86 percent water.

On-Farm Reality
Conway manages a mixed flock of 30 sheep and goats, and purchased her greenhouse-based system. She noted that farmers can probably succeed at building their own fodder systems, but that there are plenty of mistakes to be made. She feels confident that, while more expensive, buying a pre-made system was the best option for her operation.

Johnson also purchased his larger system from a company. While he has never run the financials on this system, after three plus years of operation, he is still committed to the time and effort involved in feeding fodder to his organic dairy herd. After the first year or two of refinements he now has a trouble-free system.

“I am always making improvements on my farm as we go along, so there is no way to tell what one thing we have done that has helped the most,” Johnson said. “But since we’ve been feeding fodder, we have consistently shipped 10 lbs. more milk per cow. I think it has helped.” Johnson said they ship organic milk though the Organic Valley grass-fed program, and will temporarily stop their fodder program this month, as the fodder is not allowed for the program in the summer.

The researchers looking at fodder systems all come to the same conclusion: the systems are expensive to set up and take a lot of labor to run, and may not produce feed for livestock that is higher quality or more cost effective than what is already available. However, in specific situations or for particular reasons, fodder systems may make sense. These include areas where grazing or forage production land is limited, on farms that have no access to quality forage, or when weather or soil makes hay production challenging. Those who feel confident building their own systems, or find a used system, and those managing small systems, such as for rabbits or home-scale poultry may find them economically feasible. The systems also may make economic sense in times of high grain prices, or low grain availability, especially for organic systems.

Kerr recommends running the numbers before deciding to invest in a fodder system. “Pencil it out and go broke on paper, not in real life,” she emphasized. “There are a lot of other ways to lose money that take a lot less work.”

Jody Padgham is the Finance Director at MOSES.

From the May | June 2016 Issue

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