Fodder for forage: fact, folly, fable or fabulous?

Lately, it seems you can’t open a livestock magazine without seeing an article about fodder. The actual definition of fodder is simply “food fed to livestock.” Current discussion about fodder focuses on feeding spouted grain (usually barley) to livestock and poultry.

Feeding sprouted grain to livestock is hardly a new concept. In the 1800s, European dairy farmers fed sprouted grains to their cows during winter to maintain milk production and improve fertility. Similar methods were probably practiced centuries before that.

Why is there so much talk about fodder? What are the benefits, detriments, challenges and costs to producing and feeding fodder?

Shaun and Lorrie Conway of Conway Family Farm grow and feed hydroponic fodder to the livestock on their 5-acre farm in Camas, Washington. During a recent interview, Lorrie addressed many questions about their experience with fodder; this article is a product of that interview. You may use this information to make sound decisions about incorporating fodder into your livestock feeding operations.

Susan Kerr (SK): Why did you start growing and feeding fodder?

Lorrie Conway (LC): To create some independence from relying on outside feed sources, to save costs, to be able to feed our animals fresh “pasture” daily and to create a more sustainable farm on limited land base.

SK: How much time do you spend on a daily basis harvesting fodder and caring for your fodder system?

LC: We are only feeding fodder once a day because of limited time. Cleaning, seeding, harvesting and feeding takes approximately 20-30 minutes per day for our flock/herd of about 30 sheep and goats.

SK: What equipment and facilities do you need?

LC: Our system is in a heated greenhouse. You could use any type of shelter, garage, basement or room where you can control the temperature and humidity. Our system is constructed using a metal racking system and 12-foot-by-9-inch hydroponic flood and drain trays. We have equipped our system with an automatic watering system and timer to ensure the sprouted seeds stay moist. We purchased a complete system from a dealer, but you could make your own.

SK: Would you recommend make-your-own systems or purchasing commercial systems?

LC: I think we would have made many mistakes if we built our own system right off the bat. It certainly wouldn’t be difficult to build, but I think we would have failed to leave enough working space between trays and perhaps would not have set it up as efficiently. The system we purchased provided virtually everything we needed to get up and going. Because we were not familiar with hydroponic growing systems, this proved to be a huge time saver for us. Could you figure out how to do it on your own and save some money? Absolutely. Does the commercial system make it easy to get up and running quickly? Absolutely. It really depends on what your goal is.

SK: What seeds are you using, where do you get them and how do you handle them?

LC: We use feed barley. We hope to explore other types of sprouts in the future, but due to accessibility and cost, we have only used barley so far. We get the seed from the mill that supplies us with our grain rations.

We did try one bag of seed barley which was REALLY expensive and didn’t notice much difference in germination. If you use seed barley, you have to be sure not to use treated seed for fodder. The least expensive approach might be to purchase feed barley directly from a producer if you live near one and they are set up for storage and sales. We realize our seed cost is high because we are paying a premium for convenience due to purchasing a few 80-pound bags vs. several tons at one time. But we just don’t have storage for or machinery to move 1-ton totes.

We soak 9 pounds of barley per tray in untreated water for eight hours before spreading out in trays. We only provide water after that, no additional nutrients.

SK: What are the growing conditions and requirements? 

LC: We have found the ideal growing conditions to be 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit and 60-75% humidity. The sprouts grow more slowly below that range and we battle mold issues at higher temperature and humidity.

SK: What challenges you have encountered?

LC: The biggest problem has been with controlling mold. It has been very difficult to control or adjust the humidity in the greenhouse environment. This became especially difficult during the summer months when we experienced longer stretches of really warm days. We have installed manual and automatic fans to help with humidity and air circulation. There is a “dead” corner that is always a challenge to regulate, and the growth there is less than optimal.

Another challenge has been purely the logistics and additional work involved. This is a just-in-time inventory system. You can’t skip a day, or eight days later you won’t have any fodder. This approach isn’t for everyone.

As a small woman, it is difficult to seed, harvest and clean the racks because of height — the racks are stacked closely for maximum space efficiency. We considered dropping the space between the trays to get the top racks lower, but then you have reduced your working space between trays, which you really need. We are trying to address this issue. Initially we had some problems with uneven growth and sour sprouts on the end where the system didn’t drain well. We adjusted the racks to improve drainage and installed shelf boards under the trays to minimize tray sag. With the recent cold snap in the weather, we are running really slowly on growth. The greenhouse heater has been working overtime, but we are about three days behind on our normal growth cycle.

SK: How do you feed fodder to your goats and sheep?

LC: This is a very wet feed, so it can be challenging to harvest, transport and feed. One roll (one-half of a tray) weighs about 26 pounds and we feed two complete trays per feeding to our sheep and goats combined. The sprout mats simply roll up during harvesting and are transported in a wagon a short distance to the barns where the animals are fed. We roll the fodder out in their hay bunks; the sheep seem to eat it just as they would graze grass. They consume the entire mat including sprouted roots.

The goats have been a bit more challenging. Goats will be goats, and the fodder feed is fun for them to eat. They like to flip it around and play with it rather than just eating it. We have to tear it into small pieces for the goats to minimize waste. We think a trough system would be more effective than the bunker-style feeder for the goats so we are developing one.

SK: In your experience, what are the benefits and limitations of feeding fodder? 

LC: The main benefit for us is being able to be more in control of our feed source. We are still reliant on a seed source and we still augment with dry feed (alfalfa and grass), but we have reduced our dependence on outside feed sources by approximately one-third.

Additionally, we are able to feed beautiful fresh grass every day. The animals love it and seem to maintain well on it. Because we’ve only been doing this about nine months, we won’t have worked through all the financial aspects until we complete this winter season. But it appears to be a cost savings of about one-third as well.

SK: What financial analyses can you share at this point?

LC: It looks like we are running about $103/ton of fodder as fed, which includes seven years depreciation on the hydroponic system, but does not include depreciation on the greenhouse. I anticipate that number could go up as high as $110/ton by the end of the winter due to energy costs to heat the greenhouse with electricity and propane.

SK: Are you pleased with your system? Is it accomplishing what you wanted it to do?

LC: We knew this would augment our feeding program, not replace it. Yes, the system is creating a wonderful fresh augmentation to the animals’ diets. Everything we read indicated this would provide an equivalent nutritional value as dairy-quality alfalfa hay; however, our does have decreased in milk production. At this point we aren’t convinced the fodder provides the same level of milk production efficiency as good dairy-quality alfalfa hay does, but then again, there is the question of availability and cost. With the reduced cost of fodder, we can afford to lose a bit in production and still stay profitable. I can’t say we have all the bugs worked out or our feeding program perfected yet. I feel we are still in the infancy stages of this process, but I do think that overall, this is a good option for our particular operation. It isn’t for everyone. It is work! It would be a tremendous amount of work if you had a large number of animals, but it is also good feed and it is very gratifying being able to grow that for our animals — an option we have never had on such a tiny farm.

SK: What are your recommendations for producers interested in doing fodder?

LC: I would suggest “overbuying” or “overbuilding” your system — build in more capacity than you think you will need. Production varies depending on time of year and weather. Most of the rates of production we read about were yields from ideal conditions. From what we are experiencing, maintaining ideal conditions year-round can be challenging.

I would also suggest visiting a farm that is using a hydroponic system and discuss the challenges and benefits. Take a good look at the system and decide if it is something you would like to build. I think many of these systems are still in the early stages of being perfected, so they are changing rapidly based on users’ feedback. Make certain you are willing to work with whatever you decide to put in to perfect it for your operation. I don’t think these systems will work the same for everyone, so make sure you educate yourself and don’t have unrealistic expectations.

I will say it is the most remarkable thing in the world to get the system up and going and literally to be able to watch the grass grow! I would also suggest working with a ruminant nutritionist to make certain you have formulated a feeding plan that uses fodder as an augmentation. The animals still require roughage, so I wouldn’t suggest this is going to be a complete diet replacement.

SK: Before deciding to invest in fodder system, it is essential to put pencil to paper and determine your costs. Table 1 below is useful for determining production costsd. Individual farm costs could be significantly higher or lower than the example shown depending on fodder system purchased, cost of seed, energy costs, cost of greenhouse and whether or not labor costs are incorporated. To compare the cost of homegrown, as-fed fodder and purchased hay as forage sources, make them comparable on a dry basis (because water contains no additional nutrients and we can provide it more inexpensively directly). In other words, we may have grown a ton of fodder, but most of the weight is water. We’ll use the average of the two fodder sample moisture contents (85%) for our calculations. To compare this with as-fed 14.4% moisture hay, we’ll convert them both to a 100% dry-matter basis, factor in the cost per ton as-fed, and extrapolate the cost to 1 ton of dry matter.

Table 1. Determining fodder production costs

Factor Example costs per ton of fodder as fed Your costs
Seed 1 $76.15  
Labor 2 $45.00  
Fuel and energy 3 $30.00  
Water $10.00  
Depreciation on fodder system 4 (7 years) $16.23  
Depreciation on greenhouse or sprouting room 5 (20 years) $6.30  
Equipment (scales, wheelbarrows, seed spreaders, buckets, fans, stepladder, etc., 7 years depreciation) $0.25  
Total cost per ton of fodder, as-fed $183.93  

Conclusions

Sprouted grain fodder systems are not new to livestock production systems, but rising feed costs, reduced agricultural land, demand for organic forage and other factors have boosted popularity. Start-up costs, labor, production challenges and economics make them of dubious application for most livestock operations. However, they present an opportunity for selected producers to gain control over some aspects of their forage needs and ensure a steady and consistent supply of highly digestible forage.

Organic producers, those on limited acreage, those with insufficient forage storage capacity and those with too little or too much precipitation to make good hay may benefit from fodder systems. Feeding fodder to animals on dry lots may also help break internal parasite cycles when pasture management best practices are not possible. However, it is crucial that producers interested in fodder systems understand the labor, difficulties and actual cost of production involved before committing valuable resources to such systems.

More reading

  • 1Seed costs can vary greatly depending on market fluctuations, source, amount purchased, and custom orders
  • 2Obtaining seed, seeding, harvesting, feeding, cleaning
  • 3Heating sprouting room, fuel to obtain seed and feed livestock
  • 4Fodder systems can range from $3,000 to $15,000
  • 5Greenhouses can range from $500 to $10,000 or more

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