How to Grow Fodder in a Hydroponics System
When we think about hydroponics, we often only consider products for human consumption. However, for many reasons, farmers are now looking for new ways to produce their own animal feed. Enter hydroponics.
While fodder usually refers to dried hay or straw (typically containing things like sorghum or corn) used to feed livestock, hydroponic fodder is a sprouted grain that is fed to the animals as a living green dietary supplement.
Hydroponic fodder is by no means a completely new concept and has been readily accepted an implemented for years in New Zealand and Australia, where record-breaking heat leaving many farmers’ grain stocks dwindling.
Although we haven’t seen a heat wave this extreme here in the United States, we have faced droughts that threaten large livestock facilities, as well as family farmers.
The most popular grain used in hydroponic fodder applications is barley, but many people are experimenting with seed mixes to cater to specific animal dietary needs. Grains such as oats, corn and wheat are sometimes used, but the possibilities are vast.
Also, while there are many methods of delivering water to hydroponic fodder, the most popular is a modified nutrient film technique (NFT) channel, which is open and double to triple the width of a normal lettuce channel.
Using an NFT channel rather than a misting system helps reduce wasting of water, as well as the possibility for mold infestations, which is one of the largest obstacles for hydroponic fodder producers.
Indeed, the environment required to germinate grains is so conducive to mold production that sanitation becomes paramount in producing a quality crop. Mold infestations can lead to reduced yield and palatability, and can be dangerous to livestock health.
Hydroponic production begins with surface sterilization of the seed to prevent any contaminates from entering the system. This can be achieved with dilute bleach or a horticultural-grade hydrogen peroxide solution.
The seed is then soaked in clean water for 12 to 24 hours to activate the seed. Care must be taken to prevent the seed remaining submerged for too long. Extended periods of submersion can lower germination rates by depriving the activated seed of oxygen.
After soaking and rinsing, the seed is spread straight into the NFT channels at approximately 0.25-in. deep. After seven to eight days, the hydroponic fodder sprouts are harvested as large mats of roots and shoots by simply rolling them into manageable sections. These harvested fodder mats weigh up to seven times the initial seed weight.
In addition to providing farmers a means of supplying their animals with fresh green feed all year round (regardless of weather), hydroponic fodder also has some great nutritional properties.
The digestibility of the feed greatly increases—the energy content of barley sprouted in a hydroponic system increases up to 125% and the crude protein can be increased to over 200% that of the dry seed.
In fact, it is often recommended that hydroponic fodder is mixed with dry roughage to ensure proper gut health, especially in ruminant animals.
Hydroponic fodder can also benefit farm logistics. By producing feed on a daily basis, the need for large grain and grass storage facilities is reduced. Additionally, less land is required to produce hay for the following year, opening up the space for other uses.
So, whether the farmer is looking to reduce their feed costs or provide nutritious supplement to his animal’s diet, hydroponic fodder production can provide a great alternative to basic grain and hay.