If you find
There are times when green feed is short
A shortfall in green feed at times limits production or profitability
Seasonal weather and growth patterns leave hungry gaps in the feed year
You might be tempted to try out a fodder shed which is a fodder production system contained in a building. It usually uses a nutrient solution made up of artificial fertilizer dissolved in the irrigation water to feed and water the plants.
A fodder shed can produce green feed hydroponically in the form of young grass from sprouted cereal grain — using little water and almost no land.
Shed production of fodder is claimed to help to overcome seasonal production dips, weather limitations and land area restrictions that lead to feed shortages.
In theory it is a simple way to provide fodder year-round or as needed to fill hungry gaps.
It can also be used to improve productivity, particularly where feed quality is too low for optimal weight gains or production.
Fodder from a shed has been found by many farmers and some researchers to boost daily weight gains in meat animals and to boost milk quality and daily production in dairy animals. It can also boost fertility and lead to more lambs etc because a better fed animal will often produce multiple births rather than single births.
Some of these sheds can run largely on solar power and can use organically-acceptable nutrient inputs. Even so, it may not suit organic farmers unless they can source at an economical price liquid waste such as from aquaculture ponds, manure from piggeries or dairies or worm juice from a large-scale worm farm.
There may be difficulties with organic certification as well — talk to your certifier first. Also see the comments below about washing the seed using chemicals to sterilize them.
Some conventional farmers have integrated similar systems using manure or waste water. In some cases the fodder shed’s main role is to solve a waste problem.
Even without solar power, fodder sheds can be less energy hungry than similar production from conventional crops.
The basic method is:
- SEEDS (usually malting barley or oats) are soaked to bring on germination. This usually takes place in a plastic tray that will hold the seeds as they turn into plants and go through to harvest
- TRAYS are placed on racks in a shed (sometimes just made of plastic sheeting over a steel frame
- AUTOMATIC watering by a computer-controlled system ensures the plants receive their nutrient-rich water at optimal frequencies
- VENTILATION and temperature control by the same system keeps growth up and pests (mould, bacteria and the like) down and ensures plenty of fresh air. Some have heaters that burn a fuel (LPG etc) that gives off CO2 and thus boosts plant growth rates
- FARMER harvests usually every day the mature trays and feeds them to stock
- FARMER cleans the trays and they restart at step 1.
Of course all this convenience, predictability and reliability comes at a price. The initial capital investment is high but the manufacturers claim that it is nowhere near as high as buying land to produce a similar amount of fodder. This claim is particularly hard to substantiate because of question marks around the comparison between the value of the feed and of pasture.
There is a significant running cost as well as a lack of clarity in most of the claims around the production quantities.
The labor for a one-tonne a day shed is usually around one to two hours a day including feeding out, cleaning the trays and seeding them for the next crop.
The feed produced is high in protein and has good but not quite high enough levels of energy for maximum growth/day. It is also high in water — about 85% typically and this means it is low in dry matter. This means 1 tonne of fodder contains only 150 kg of dry matter. Or in other terms, 1,000 pounds of fodder contains only 150 pounds of dry matter.
For this reason, to get the maximum benefit it is important to feed hydroponic fodder to animals that have access to dry matter in the form of pasture, hay or grain. The shed fodder is a supplement only and may cause scouring if it forms too much of the animal’s intake.
Plus the shed fodder is a bit low in energy and the added dry matter can be adjusted to make up the shortfall.
The shed crops are generally less fussy about water quality than the same crop grown in a broadacre field. The claimed water savings are significant — a hydroponic fodder system takes 1-2 litres of water to produce 1 kg of fodder compared with 80–90 litres of water to grow 1 kg of green grass. That’s about half to one quart of water for 1 pounds of fodder. compared with 10 or so gallons in a field system.
The water that is not used by the growing fodder is recycled through the system. When the water is spent and needs to be replaced with a fresh nutrient solution, it can be used to water small areas of pasture.
Farmers who manage such a fodder shed well are basically guaranteed a consistent supply of quality fodder every day regardless of drought, rain, hail, sun or snow.
The key is to keep the whole operation clean.
The biggest problem is from mould or bacteria taking over. If they get too bad the animals will refuse to eat the sprouted feed. There have even been instances of animals dying from toxic fungi (mould) or bacteria growing on the feed.
The design of the shed has a big impact on mould and bacteria through ensuring an adequate airflow and low levels of unnecessary water.
The other key factor is the “cleanliness” of the grain going in. The seeds are typically washed in sodium hypochlorite (much the same as laundry bleach) or an iodine solution. Either of these will preclude organic certification.
As well as producing feed to fill gaps, a fodder shed can tide you over in a drought or when soils are too wet to allow you to get in to sow a crop.
It can also help at the end of a drought when the rains come and there is a green drought – lots of short green growth but too short to be of value to stock. If you have a way to keep the stock off the green drought it has a chance to grow into decent pasture. If not, it will possibly be the end of that pasture as all the new growth gets eaten or trampled.
It can bring more certainty into your farming situation and that allows the buying and selling of livestock to happen when it suits you rather than being set by feed availability. This allows you to get the best prices because you can buy when others are selling and sell when others are buying.
A quote from a report on fodder sheds that is well worth reading
Although hydroponically sprouted grain is a highly nutritious feed, it has major limitations for profitable use in commercial cattle operations, including its high cost of production (cost of capital, depreciation, labor, running costs), scale of operation, handling of very high moisture feed and risk of mould.
Mould is a common problem that increases labor and costs, reduces animal performance and sometimes results in stock deaths.
A problem that people may have in evaluating the cost of sprouts is failing to account for its high moisture content, labor input and capital costs. Therefore many people think it is much cheaper than it really is. It is best to evaluate supplements on a dry matter basis and examples are given in this report. Sprouts have been found to cost from two to five times the cost of dry matter compared with the original grain. Ultimately, it is the performance relative to the cost that determines profitability. Source: Review of Hydroponic Fodder Production for Beef Cattle Project number NBP.332 prepared for Meat & Livestock Australia by Roger Sneath and Felicity McIntosh, Department of Primary Industries, Dalby, Queensland, Australia.
My suspicion is that a hydroponic fodder shed might pay off for small-scale egg farmers because of the potential boost to egg quality and because the intensive management would allow it to be smoothly and easily incorporated into daily routines.