Drought is the biggest enemy to livestock owners. It causes a scarcity of feed & prices rise to the point that farmers cut way back on how many animals they can carry through the winter. We have had bad years in Michigan where drought has affected the hay crop or too much rain caused the hay to be so stemmy that much was wasted. When quality is low or hay is in short supply, animals must be supplemented with other feed. Grain or pelleted feed is often fed for this reason. We choose not to feed grain to our sheep since it is not a natural feed for them to consume, and is not as digestible as green feed. There is a way to cut your hay consumption in half and feed livestock nutritious green feed even in the dead of a snowy winter.
For some years I'd been interested in growing fodder as a way to feed livestock well and cheaply and to save space. Hay takes up so much room in the barn. I'd see those ads where the farmer is pulling a grassy mat out of a tray & feeding it to cattle. Most of these ads were for the large systems that are housed in a building or trailer where the temperature is controlled & watering is automated. They come with a hefty price tag & made much more food than I need.
Not only would replacing hay with fodder save space, there is no waste with fodder. The entire plant, root mass and all is consumed. According to Fodder Tech, a fodder systems manufacturer, “Barley grain for example is about 30% digestible, but by sprouting for 7 days, digestibility is increased to as much as 90%.
I wanted to know how I could grow my own fodder and determined to try this myself. I will confess that my first attempt, while not a total failure, did not yield to my expectations for the work involved. In 2012, I became interested again in my quest for non GMO animal feed. This time there was much more helpful information available to make the effort a success.
Years ago I bought about 30 cat litter trays for about $2/each. Drainage holes were punched in the bottom of 15 of them, filled with soil and used to start seedlings. The other 15 pans served as trays to catch the drips. They held up well & in 2012 became fodder trays.
I now use 10x20 nursery trays without holes. I drill three holes in the end of the seed trays for drainage. Some people use boot trays. Go to your dollar store & look around, you might find even better options. You can start with any container you have at hand to run an experiment.
I had to get creative with the stacking arrangements to fit my fodder in one place rather than have it strung all over the house. The first couple of years they were on wide basement window sills. As I began to feed more animals and needed more space, a plastic shelving unit did the trick. When I began harvesting 40# per day for the dairy herd, I used a heavy duty PVC plant stand.
Kinds of Grain
I wanted to buy non GMO grain. Currently, that's all the grains I can think of besides corn & soy. I have successfully grown fodder from barley, oats, wheat & annual rye. Rye grass endophyte is a fungus that negatively impacts animal performance. It is found in perennial rye. You can avoid the danger by using annual rye. Barley is my favorite because it is less problematic to grow in my household conditions.
Sources of Grain
The next thing needed is a source of grain. Barley from the grocery store will not sprout. Neither will any grain that has been heat treated in any way. I've read that you can only use seed grain. If you use seed grain make certain it hasn't been treated. Treated seed could be deadly to your animals. I've mostly used feed grain & it's worked just fine. Grain from your local feed store is an option. Maybe you are feeding whole oats to your animals, try some of that & see how it does.
I already had feed delivered from a mill & just revised my order to include barley. That was the grain I learned on because that is the one that had the most information available. The fodder you see in ads for the larger fodder systems is usually barley grass.
I learned the hard way that barley is not always available in my area & had to switch to oats and/or wheat. Once again I encountered problems because the mill sourced their grain on the open market & the germination rate varied wildly from order to order.
I then decided to forgo the convenience of delivery & drive to a farm in the next county that grows the grain they sell. I can always get oats & wheat and almost always barley. It's clean & germination is consistent. Local Harvest is an excellent resource to find grain farmers.
If you would like to up the protein content in your fodder, field peas are a great option. Make sure they are for feed and not seed. Feed peas are less expensive and not treated. It will seem that the peas are astronomically expensive compared to grain, but they make up a small portion of the ration. There are Pearson Square calculators online that can be used to formulate a mix with specific protein percentages.
If you are just running an experiment you can start with a cup of grain & a container with drainage holes. You can use a Gladware container or something from your recycle bin. If you are jumping right in & hope to feed your animals, you need to know how much hay you are feeding by weight & grow 1/2 that amount of fodder. My yield is about 1:5 ratio. If I feed 30# of feed/day, I will need to grow 15# of fodder a day. That means you will be starting 3# of grain each day.
Now for the how to...finally.
Day 1 in the tray through Day 5
Day 5 will be all filled in within in the next 12 hours when it is ready to feed.
heavy duty 1020 trays with drainage holes
heavy duty 1020 trays with solid bottoms to catch the drips
bucket in which to soak grain
3 buckets with drainage holes to drain the grain
3 solid bottom buckets in which to nest the draining buckets
enough space to hold the number of trays you will have on day 5
scale to weigh the sprouting grain and to weigh the finished fodder
Pour the grain into the bucket & cover with water. You want the water level to be a couple of inches above grain. Soak for 6-12 hours. I do this when I do morning fodder chores.
Six-twelve hours later pour/skim off the chaff that has floated to the surface. Now pour into the drain bucket and rinse. You have leeway here. It doesn't have to be exactly 12 hours. I do this when I'm doing evening fodder chores.
Repeat step one and two until you have three drain buckets of grain. Rinsing the grain twice daily.
Take the, now sprouting, grain from the first bucket and spread in an even layer in your container(s). I soak 1# 4 oz of barley per 1020 seed starting tray. When it it spread in the tray on the 3rd day of sprouting it is about 1 inch deep. Either water the grain in the bucket shortly before spreading in the tray or water the tray after spreading the grain.
Morning and evening I carry each tray to the kitchen sink, water with the sink sprayer & then tilt to drain it. I return it to the drip pan where the back edge of the seed tray is propped up on the back edge of the drip tray. This allows the excess water to drain toward the front of the tray where the drainage holes are. Drainage is extremely important to prevent mold and bad smelling fodder.
Continue until your fodder is about 6-8" high & then feed. This can take from 8 days from when the seed entered the first drain bucket. In my conditions, it is 3 days in buckets and 5 days in trays.
The ambient light in the room is enough for the fodder to grow. If you do have windows, you might find that placing the oldest trays in front of the windows may make the fodder a deeper green.
This presents the biggest challenge and has the steepest learning curve. How much and how often fodder is watered wildly affects success. I water by hand having had a bad experience with an automatic system that recycled the water and was set up so one tray drained into another. Mold was rampant with that system and it was a waste of money.
This is the most common question. The answer is, “it depends”. How frequently to water depends on environmental conditions and type of seed used. Forced air heat will dry the air enough that more than twice daily watering may be necessary. Air temp is another consideration. The warmer the room, the faster the seed will dry out. I have hot water heat and keep the thermostat at 68. I sprout barley and water trays 2x daily.
Barley has, in my experience, been the most forgiving when it comes to water quantity. I water quite thoroughly and don't have problems. Oats have been the most finicky in my conditions. Once I learned that oats would only tolerate 3 passes with the water sprayer twice daily, mold and bad smelling fodder disappeared. Wheat falls between barley and oats for ease of sprouting.
Once a root mat has formed, it can be lifted and felt to see if it is getting watered all the way through. Also, it is good to check the bottom of the mat which should be white. Brown patches are a sign of trouble. Too much water, bacteria from dirty seed or insufficient drainage. Tweak one thing at a time so you will know what caused the problem and can prevent it.
Drainage is key. Seed should not be sitting in pooled water and should be drying out some between waterings. Elevating the back of the tray enough to let water flow toward the drainage holes in the front has solved my problems. Poorly drained fodder is quick to develop bacteria and mold.
Mold is the greatest enemy and biggest hurdle to growing healthy fodder. Too damp, too hot conditions will cause it to grow. As will reusing water when watering trays. Washing trays, drip pans and buckets with hot, soapy water will prevent the proliferation. If grain is dirty, it may be necessary to use a cap full of bleach or hydrogen peroxide in the soak water.
Mold and bacteria can come in a variety of colors (white, brown, pink, green, black). It may be slimy and smell sour. Never feed this!
As mentioned earlier, fodder is much more digestible than grain and a higher quality feed than hay. If 1# of barley is fed as dry grain, the sheep gets the benefit from about 4.8 ounces. If 1# of barley is grown into fodder, the sheep gets the benefit of 14.4 ounces. Not only that, 1# of barley yields approximately 5# of nutrient rich fodder.
It is less expensive to grow grain into fodder than to feed the grain itself. I recently spent $100 for 400# of barley. For my small spinner's flock of sheep that will last me all winter. That 400# will make a ton of feed. The grain cost $.25/pound and made a ton of feed costing $.05/pound.
I've feed sheep, dairy goats, pigs and angora rabbits fodder. I maintained a breeding and lactating herd of sheep and goats and fed little to no grain/supplements. All animals except the angoras performed well. The rabbits remained in good condition, delivered and raised healthy kits, but wool production dropped. So, the rabbits went back to pelleted feed.
There is not the anxiety associated with a bad hay year. I've gone through years with quite poor quality hay, but never have I not been able to locate grain to sprout. Even in the worst hay year, my Shetlands all had healthy twins and a good wool clip with no grain supplementation.
Because fodder is full of water, it gives animals necessary hydration in winter. My sheep drink far less water when they are eating fodder. This is a bonus where we live in the land of frozen water buckets.
There are, of course, the naysayers that talk a great deal about “dry matter” and that it is better nutritionally to feed a pound of dry grain than it is to feed it as fodder. I have done both. My experience is anecdotal. When my pregnant animals came through a combination of an extremely poor hay season followed by an extremely rough winter in stellar condition, that was all I needed to know. This is my 10th winter of feeding at least ½ my flock's ration as fodder with excellent results.
How Much to Feed
I calculate my winter feeding by multiplying 3% times my flock's weight. I have small sheep and use a measuring tape at shearing to record each one's weight. My flock weighs about 500#. At 3%, I figure on 15# of hay per day. Extra is fed when the weather is very cold. This season, I'm feeding about 13.5# of fodder. They do get more than 1.5# of hay each day. Quite a bit more. While all the hay isn't eaten each day, all the fodder is.
How to Feed
I break each tray into bite size chunks for the sheep. This makes it easier for them to eat and gives me a chance to look it over for any signs of mold. As I break it up, I sprinkle it with flax seed to give my flock a little extra goodness. I dump the bucket in the hay sled, then put hay on top. The sled is pulled onto clean snow and dumped. This puts the fodder on top and insures they will eat it before it freezes. With the high moisture content, it freezes quickly.
A Few Tips
Don't give up. There are a lot of variables that affect success. It might be something as simple as moving the trays out of a draft. Or finding the room with just the right conditions for it to grow properly.
Be meticulous about cleaning trays and buckets.
Start small and scale up.
Introduce green feed slowly if your animals aren't used to it. Too much change too fast can cause bloat or diarrhea.