The Miracle of Muck Alley #Permaculture #Tilth

Muck Out of Muck Alley BeginsPermaculture principles point out the necessity of capitalizing on one’s resources within the ecology of their own farm or homestead.  This means maximizing the use of all waste streams that come from running a livestock operation.  Of course, it is easy to translate this into utilizing a compost bin for manure collection and then using that awesome product in garden beds or returning out to the pastures.  However, we like our compost bins here at Paca Pride to be the purest possible.  That black gold is our largest harvest from our animals and we love to take full advantage of a compost that is some of the best stuff you can find from an animal.  This means it’s poop, and poop only, that goes into our compost bins to create that rich loam for future use.  But what about the other waste streams from a livestock operation? Covering the Mossiest spots in a pasture

The second largest waste product comes from their feed: hay tailings or extra sprouts from our barley fodder mats that falls to the ground and gets dirty, and not eaten.  It just so happens that hay, brought in from other farms where it was baled, is also a great vector for contamination, especially weed seeds.  As part of the natural process of feeding our herd, they tend to make a mess and leave some of this stuff on the ground.  We try to minimize the loss as much as possible, but still we end up raking their sandy dry lot of hay tailings at least every other day so that their bedroom space remains clean.  The question becomes what to do with it.  It is rich in carbon, but composts slower than manure. We can’t really add it to the compost bin if it’s got some weed seeds, some of them can be hearty enough to survive the compost pile. (It doesn’t take much to compost alpaca dung as it is not a “hot manure” like horse or cow manure.) We certainly don’t want to send it directly out to the pastures, not in that form.

Bright green and established grasses from previous Muck deposits next to the new stuff added over nearby mossesWe also face another dilemma with the actual location of our livestock operation too.  As a visitor ventures out to see us, they pass not one, not two, but three different quarry operations before arriving to see some spritely alpacas romping in the fields.  That’s right, we’re in gravel country in the mountains.  This is not an agriculture rich soil here.  That stuff was washed down to the valleys eons ago by the glaciers leaving us with rock, sand, and gravel.  We can’t even think about tilling, aside from destroying the balance of microbes in the soil, we’d end up churning more rocks than dirt.   So again, taking a page from the Permaculture playbook, we follow nature’s example of building soils from the top down.  Our gravel lot just gives us great drainage and means we won’t ever really see mud.  But it also means we lack necessary organic matter and mulch to create a healthy tilth to grow pasture.

Start of the annual Muck Out in Early SpringEnter Muck Alley… This small, pass through area, used by the herd when they are on their way out to whichever rotational grazing unit is open to them that day, is where everything from the dry lot goes during pasture grazing season.  The alpacas also use this as a way station for pooping, lots and lots of pooping, which we simply do not pick up.  We just keep covering the poop with the hay tailings.  The additional carbon acts like a deep bedding option and some wonderful things start to happen.  First off, it becomes the ultimate worm factory.  Worms horde into the alley.  Second, lots and lots of beneficial nematodes and other microbes start to reproduce.  Third, it sequesters that carbon along with any contaminants in a slow, nature exposed, decomposition process, that weed seeds simply cannot survive.  That extra carbon mass means we need worry little about disease vectors either; the good bacteria definitely outnumber the bad bacteria. Fourth, the action of the herd walking to and fro, gives the right amount of churning to encourage the decomposing. This is about the Soil Food Web cycle first and foremost and we need this type of activity to sustain itself in our pasture ecologies.

View of pastures after mossy spots get covered with fresh tilth from Muck AlleyWhat we end up with is none other than a Dirt Factory! A Tilth building, nutrient rich, top soil amendment that replaces any role a chemical based fertilizer would have in a pasture.  Better yet, unlike those bagged fertilizers that cause a quick burn of activity only to be addictively needed again and again, this amendment builds upon itself and keeps giving.  It introduces way more than fake fertilizers ever can: healthy, mulchy, soil and rich decayed organic matter, worms and microbes.

Green mature grasses on previous seasons muck nearby freshly covered mossy areas.Once a year, in the early Spring, we ‘muck out’ Muck Alley, taking it back down to the hardpan, and taking out the results to our pastures.  Then we start the process over again for another year of build up.  In fact, however, Muck Alley, is generally doing most of its building up during pasture grazing season, when our Winter Sacrifice Paddocks have transitioned back over to Garden Paddocks.  During the off-pasture season, which can be up to 6 months, Muck Alley just sits decomposing, through the winter, with no additional inputs.  It is ready by Spring for harvesting right when the pastures want to be fed and the mosses are the brightest green.  In the Winter, those hay tailings from the dry lot get raked out to the Winter Sacrifice Paddocks, areas of land allowed to go fallow during the winter as they get grazed down to nothing, poop piles are allowed to accumulate using the hay tailings to cover them and create a deep bedding.  When we transition over to pasture grazing, and after we’ve mucked out Muck Alley, we close off our Winter Sacrifice Paddocks to the herd for the Spring and Summer seasons and use that rich loam, further tractored by our flock of chickens, to grow crops like wheat, pole beans, squashes, and this season, a crop of peas. The land recovers from its fallow state. After we harvest our crop, what’s left are grasses and clovers for the herd to munch back down for the winter time.

Muck Alley after the Muck out and ready to start againThe best part is that adding the Muck Alley muck to our pastures is the ultimate in outcompeting the mosses.  By picking the mossiest spots in our pasture to amend and build up, we convert those mosses into more organic matter simply by covering them.  We create toeholds for tilth, micro-swales in a pasture that spread more green and establish a great diversity of alpine meadow plants that include not only grasses, but clovers, plaintain, chicory, dandelion, even herbs like fennel and dill, along with carrots seed-saved from previous gardening seasons. Diversity is the key to a successful Alpine Meadow Ecosystem.

Muck Alley gets a fresh start with some straw and hay rakings. Reset for another year of building upOnce we add in our herd of browsers, we maintain that alpine meadow cycle instead of allowing it the natural succession to primary growth forest.  Those browsers make a withdrawal from our Tilth bank account, but we’re keen to have them leave a deposit as well, and Muck Alley acts sort of like a Certificate of Deposit that comes due once a year.  We’ve been using this approach for 5 years now and while on the surface it may appear to be a slower path than what adding fertilizers can give, we’ve definitely seen a longer term picture that is much more sustainable, takes advantage of natural waste streams from our animals, and eliminates the cost of purchasing petro-chemical based fertilizers completely.  As the saying goes, eliminate an expense, and it’ll never rise on you again!

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Considerations On the Front End of Fodder: DIY or Buy

Barley Fodder Grow SystemOne of our favorite sayings when it comes to creating micro-greens for your livestock is: “There are many ways to skin the fodder cat!”  After researching the topic of fodder production, one quickly comes across a variety of commercial turnkey systems on the marketplace.  Then there are the range of unique do-it-yourself solutions which seek to capitalize on the farmer as tinkerer.  It is usually the latter that gets examined a lot more closely after the former commercial systems reveal steep start-up costs; ones in which the grow environment is sold along with the grow system. Not that commercial systems are bad, indeed for large fodder production goals a complete turnkey system is about the best bet there is.  However, much of the marketplace for fodder production customers is dominated by small to mid-sized livestock owners that cannot justify the costs of many commercial systems.  So to that farmer-tinkerer, here are our points of consideration when planning a DIY system to produce fodder mats for livestock. (For further considerations, refer to our previous articles on growing barley fodder micro-greens here on this blog.)

Livestock vs. Poultry

Poultry and FodderOne common demarcation line can be seen between systems that are geared toward livestock vs. poultry.  This can be summed up simply as recognizing the benefit of sprouted grains for poultry, but not the necessary expense and logistics required to produce full 7-9 day micro-greens for them.  Poultry can easily benefit from grains which are sprouted from 1-4 days, beyond that there will be an issue of managing what gets wasted from not being consumed by poultry, like root mat portions, of more mature, 7-9 day grown mats. (Disclaimer: we only have a free range flock; confined birds may experience less waste.)  For our poultry, the typical approach is to use a bucket-in-bucket system to do sprouting rather than investing in a grow system that takes up more room, and takes longer to produce a usable product. One can feed 7-9 day mats to poultry and they will still benefit, but the cost and effort required is not necessary to achieve the same benefit with 1-4 day sprouted grain. Sprouting Barley in a bucket for PoultrySo, if considering fodder for poultry only, the most cost effective option is the bucket-in-bucket approach: soaking seed in a top bucket drilled with drain holes, pulled out of the soak to sprout in the bucket itself (with the occasional re-dunk to keep seeds wet), and then rationed out each day as it sprouts.

Determine your Daily Fodder Production Goal

Barley Fodder Micro Greens SproutsFor livestock that are ruminants like sheep, goats, alpacas, and llamas, fodder mats are fantastic, especially during winter’s diet. The general rule is to feed a ration of micro-greens that weighs around 2% of the total body weight, along with 1% of hay for fiber/roughage. For larger livestock like horses and cattle, that percent is between 2-3% fodder and 1-1.5% hay.  Be sure to check with your vet for actual recommendations with adding a wet feed to your animals diet, but these percentages should give you a good start to planning.  Once you’ve determined your daily production goal you can use that as a basis for figuring out the appropriate size your DIY Fodder system should be.

Where to grow?

One of the main reasons those commercial systems are expensive is that they know the importance of controlling the grow environment. It’s the basis for the system to operate consistently and in a repeatable fashion. The importance of a climate controlled environment cannot be understated; you must be able to control temperature, humidity levels and airflow.  The environment has to have a source of water and drainage as well as electricity.  A greenhouse is not the best choice for such a system given the difficulty and expense required to keep consistency of temperatures, but is even less of an ideal choice if it has other plants growing there as well. Fodder production is a sprouting application, not necessarily a greenhouse application, and demands a modicum of cleanliness within the environment to limit things like mold, yeast, and fungal spores that can easily come from dirt or other plants.  A dedicated room is generally preferred over a greenhouse.

Design Considerations: Grow Trays and Irrigation

Most DIY’ers turn their attention to finding that suitable grow approach which they can fit into a daily infrastructure on their farm. The main question that it eventually boils down to is whether your grow trays will be fixed or removable.   The other aspect is the variety of approaches used to irrigate the system.  They are both important enough to warrant some comparison to help with choosing an approach that best fits a fodder producer’s needs.

Fixed vs. Removable trays

We settled upon a removable tray approach here at Paca Pride Guest Ranch, so we’ll highlight why we made that choice, and then offer some considerations for one who is exploring a fixed tray approach.  In order to really understand why it’s an important parameter to give careful consideration, it is important to recognize the labor tasks associated with managing medium to large fodder operations.  There is the actual harvest task of pulling completed fodder mats out of trays; the cleaning task to reset the tray for the next grow cycle; the seed spreading task to start the next batch. Our goal with each of these tasks is to minimize our efforts and maximize the efficiency of those efforts; especially considering that these tasks are performed on a daily basis.  In addition, we have found it important to understand that each of these tasks can have an impact on contamination vectors within the system depending upon how that task is executed.

Barley Fodder Mat Grow TrayFor a removable tray system, these procedural tasks occur away from the growing system.  Literally, a tray is removed from other trays around it that are at various stages of growth. This action limits any possibility of affecting surrounding trays with splashing during cleaning. It also means that harvesting and seed spreading occur away from the grow system as well.  In a fixed tray system, the utmost design consideration is how to address all three of these tasks for fixed trays that are either high up in the system or embedded between other trays. If choosing a fixed tray approach, remember to design the execution of these tasks so as not to affect surrounding trays, but also for ease of execution. In troubleshooting phone calls with users of some fixed tray commercial systems, the biggest frustration is managing these tasks for the highest tray or the ones located in the “middle” of the system (especially if access to the system is limited because it is against a wall). With a fixed tray system, consideration also needs to be given to cleaning the environment around the tray as well. With a removable tray system, this is of low risk.

Removable tray approaches must consider scalability in operation. If fodder goals are greater than 50lbs per day, then using smaller removable trays that produce 10lbs or less of fodder will translate into a tedious manageability task.  Too large of a removable grow tray simply becomes unwieldy and clumsy to manage. We have found the ideal to be a tray that can produce our 25lb sized mats. This reduces the number of trays being handled on a daily basis and still makes them easy to manage. Fixed trays have the attraction of producing larger sized fodder mats because a tray can be much larger than a removable tray which is limited in size due to ease of handling.  However, if a fixed tray approach is harvesting fodder mats by cutting them into pieces to make removing easier, then the labor effort required is increased. If a fixed tray system can be designed to allow the producer to slide a completed fodder mat off the end, this can give the advantage towards a more efficient harvest procedure. This generally requires the tray be flat-bottomed and open ended in order to allow the mat to be removed.  That feature can have impacts on drainage and irrigation designs.

Most DIY fixed tray approaches tend to be “flat bottomed”.  However, some fixed trays do offer ridges on the bottom of the tray to help address how water flows through the tray, forcing water to meander rather than finding the path of least resistance to travel (this does negate the ability to ‘slide’ a mat out to harvest it). Most fixed trays are designed with a slight tilt and irrigate from one end with draining on the other end. The biggest challenge for a flat bottom tray is assuring even watering and level seed spreading so that seeds don’t dry out. Many removable tray approaches tend also to fall into the “flat-bottom” category as well. Drainage is typically addressed by adding slits or holes either across the entire bottom of a tray or at one end with a tilt.  Barley Fodder Grow TrayFor removable trays like this, the cumulative effects of operation tend to catch up to the user and cause a slow, but steady, degradation in system performance.  Trays with holes or slits that are small enough to allow water to pass through, but not seed, are also too small to effectively allow the starchy solutes to drain out, and thus, accumulate in the tray bottom leading to problems.  The trays we use have two distinct advantages that addressed the concerns we observed during our trials Barley Fodder Grow Tray Drain Fittingswith a retrofitted drilled-hole drainage approach: the first is that the bottom is not entirely flat, but is made of raised bottom sections surrounded by lower channels that lead to an even further recessed drain fitting and does a better job at draining water from the tray; the second is a larger drain fitting with a drain cap that increases the flow rate of water and does a better job of moving starches out of the tray.  (See this article for more information on the trays we use and sell: )

Regardless of the DIY tray approach chosen, an individual should always do a “proof of concept” test with that tray before investing in a larger system.

Irrigation Approaches

Barley Fodder Mat Grow System IrrigationIrrigation approaches can be summed up into several categories: A Waterfall or Cascade style approach, a Washed State approach, and a Flood-and-Drain (or ebb-and-flow) approach.

Most DIY operations that tilt trays within the system and water from one end, while draining out the other, are using a Waterfall/Cascade style of irrigation. Some operations will modify this approach by allowing trays to further cascade the runoff water into lower trays (a “Trickle Down” approach).  While at first glance using a trickle down approach seems the easiest and most straight forward to implement, having only to pump water to a top tray and letting gravity do the rest of the work, it also tends to be the approach that requires the most tweaking and tuning and presents the most challenges in maintaining operational consistency.  We do not recommend it. One tenet of fodder production we espouse is to water and drain trays in isolation from one another. A corollary to that is also not to recycle the runoff water for irrigation. While this trickle-down approach can be managed on the smallest of fodder systems, it is not one that will readily scale upwards with any degree of success. Trickle-Down aside, a Waterfall/Cascade style of irrigation for trays can work effectively. It will however require tight controls to assure consistent and repeatable results because this style of irrigation is dependent upon how evenly seeds are spread within the tray each time.

A Washed State Approach typically is defined by irrigating grow trays with misters or sprayers. This approach is incredibly difficult to maintain if the grow system is not within a container or cabinet. Everything in such a system tends to get wet: the seeds, the sprouts, the trays, and the environment that contains and supports the trays. Along with system containment, airflow is also very critical for such a system to operate effectively.  For a DIY approach, this type of irrigation tends to be quite difficult to fine tune. Some commercial turnkey systems use this approach; it is not one recommended for the average DIY-er. It requires very tight controls to avoid molds.

A Flood-and-Drain Approach establishes a “flood zone” within the grow tray.  Barley Fodder Mat Grow System IrrigationWater is pumped into the tray at a rate that allows the water to backup within the tray to a designated fill point (typically this is the point at which water will cover seeds in a freshly spread tray). In some systems the drain acts dually as drain and fill point: the pump turns on, pumps water up through the drain, then stops, and the water drains back through the pump into a reservoir. In other systems, the water is pumped in through a separate irrigation tube and starts filling the tray even as the water starts to drain out; seeds blocking the drain slow down the drain rate enough to allow water to reach it’s fill point. Since recycling water in a fodder system is problematic, the latter Flood-and-Drain method is the preferred approach. The challenge becomes regulating the irrigation lines with enough pressure and water flow so that a flood zone can be achieved within relatively short watering cycles.  This approach, in our trials and experience, became the top one of the list in terms of ease of managing and consistency of operation and is the one we settled upon using. One main advantage that helped solidify this decision was observing how the seed bed rises, up and out of the flood zone during the grow cycle, preventing the seed hulls, discarded upon germination, from having an accelerated decay rate and thus giving a toehold to molds. A Flood-and-Drain approach proved the easiest to fine tune and manage.

Don’t Forget…

DIY Barley Fodder Mat Grow SystemWhen it comes to deciding about building your own DIY fodder production system, there can be a lot of local factors that are specific to a particular DIY fodder producer’s operation. So, when exploring the efforts of others and trying to take a page from their playbook, be sure to ask how long such a system has been in use.  Many postings and pictures of DIY fodder systems can be those at the start of what is essentially a new operation prior to being proven by a season’s worth of use. Ask about procedures and how they are performed. Ask how much is being produced on a daily basis and whether that would match your needs or if such an approach would scale up (or down) to meet your fodder production goals. When doing your due diligence on a DIY system, always keep in mind that this will be an entire infrastructure that is being added to your operation which will demand a daily chunk of your time.

We’ve had great success with fodder thus far, for our herd of alpacas and llamas, our egg-layers and meat birds, and, as you can see below in this early October photo, our pasture-and-barley-sprouts-raised turkeys.

Turkeys grown on pasture and Sprouted barley at Paca Pride Guest Ranch

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Fodder Growing: What molds may come

06-04-13 Fodder with problems in heat 001Sprouting Barley Fodder mats for our herd is primarily intended to support their winter dietary needs here at Paca Pride Guest Ranch. Our animals may be off pasture for as long as 6 months until Mother Nature cues the pastures to grow long enough to graze again.  So, as our Springtime arrives and we start our pattern of rotational grazing with the herd, the need for sprouting barley fodder declines.  In fact, as our animals come back from grazing with full bellies, they are less inclined to finish off the entire mat, taking only the sprouts and leaving the roots. So, come Springtime, along with the rising temps, comes the cycle down of our fodder room.  This season, however, saw the confluence of a couple of factors that kept our fodder room operating longer than anticipated and in hotter conditions than the ideal.  Part of the reason to keep our fodder room going was offering classes on Microgreens production to the public, and having the visual to show them. Mother Nature usually complies by keeping our PacNorWest Spring temps on the cooler side, but not this year! March, April, and May have seen some spectacular days much warmer than the norm. Thus, Mother Nature conspired against us in keeping our fodder room at our ideal temp between 60-65F degrees. Our temps having been ranging up to 84F as the high in the room…yikes!  But again, our intent is only to use the fodder feeding strategy during our off-pasture season, cutting our winter hay use in half and assuring good herd health through the winter. If I wanted to produce fodder all year long, I’d be adding some sort of A/C unit to cool the room right now.

06-04-13 Fodder with problems in heat 002With that said, the final trays in our system have brought forth the learning opportunity to see what can go wrong during the delicate dance of creating a live sprout and the decay of the discarded seed hull. Quite simply, it’s the invasion of the molds!  Looks can be deceiving. In this picture of a tray ready to harvest, we see what looks like a fairly awesome fodder mat. But it’s really the seed bed, in-between the roots and the sprouts, and where the hulls are at, that we need to take a closer look. 06-04-13 Fodder with problems in heat 003

In this picture, one can observe a few things.  First, notice that the root mat is not too thick. When temps rise up, the plant focuses more energy on the sprout than the roots, so weaker root mats result, and along with that, more fermentation (because yeasts are activated at higher temps too). Fermentation inhibits germination, so you’ll also notice some grain seeds in the root mat are not sprouting. Finally, there’s evidence of the molds. The obvious one in this picture is a white fuzzy mold. This is most likely Aspergillus, a storage mold that comes along with the barley in the grain bags.06-04-13 Fodder with problems in heat 008

A closer look reveals that this mold tends to spread among the sprouts and starts to cause some brown spots and darkening the color of the seed hull.  It’ll spread down into the roots and start turning them brown which leads to root rot.


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Note the dingy and dark color of the seed bed. Dark colored seed hulls are an indication that the decay rate has quickened. During our normal operating parameters, we should be harvesting fodder mats whose seed beds still look bright and beige in color. watering methods that pour water into a tray through the seed bed tend to quicken the decay rate of the hulls through agitation. A true flood-and-drain watering method will minimize this by introducing the water at the bottom of the tray and filling from the bottom upwards.

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In this picture you can truly see the seed hulls darkening. Also, there is the onset of another type of mold.  These blue or green molds are similar to your common household molds you see on old bread. They tend to cluster around a seed hull and are fairly easy to identify given the bright and distinguishing color.  Notice also how the roots in this picture appear slimy and mushy.  The smell is also starting to move from fermenting smelling to septic smelling. It’s more astringent and sharp, and slightly foul. This is a sign that bacteria is starting to trigger into high gear.

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Again you’ll notice that the blue/green molds tend to start around a seed hull and slowly expand from there. This picture is evidence of something we do not want to have our animals ingesting on a regular basis if they are eating the seed bed and roots. This becomes a mycotoxin poison vector that can cause cumulative damage to kidneys and livers.

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Flip the mat over and look at the bottom, you can begin to see the discoloration among the roots.  What should be bright white is now turning a dingy brown. Root Rot is setting in.  In normal operations, another type of root rot is sometimes seen as a circular patch in the roots among an otherwise perfectly looking fodder mat that shows no signs of molds. That can be caused by a different disease, affecting the roots only, called Pythium. It’s still a fungal based outbreak, but when seen as a circular patch only in the roots, can be removed from the mat and fed to animal with little concern.06-04-13 Fodder with problems in heat 018

Our final observation is in the water remaining in the tray. If the internet had Smell-O-Vision, you’d cringe a bit. Unlike smelling fresh bread rising or beer fermenting, this water is turning septic due to the tipping point favoring bacteria. It’s cloudiness is more than just the starch solutes released upon germination. It includes some bio-slimy concoctions that can be seen as swirls of white within the cloudy water. Water that looks this cloudy upon harvest is a clue of something going wrong, but ever before the visual inspection, it’s the smell that will give it away.

06-04-13 Fodder with problems in heat 023So here’s the final rub in all this: whether or not to feed this mat to my animals.  If we were in the middle of winter, when the herd would consume the entire mat, roots, seed bed, and sprouts, I’d be discarding this mat.  But, in this case, I’ve got some full-bellied alpacas who are only biting off the green sprouts and leaving the root mat and seed bed behind.  So, after a quick session of nibbling the sprouts off, I remove the remains of the mat and take them out to cover a mossy spot in the pasture where, as you can see, the flock of garbage disposers, aka chickens, quickly descend upon it to salvage any prize morsels they want.  Chickens can handle this level of moldiness, but, much will remain in the pasture as needed organic matter to mulch out the moss.

Here’s a bonus wiki for you to explore and learn more than you ever wanted to know about diseases that can affect barley:

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Barley Fodder Grow Trays Now For Sale!

12-03-12 Fodder Production 005One of our many mantras we live by at Paca Pride Guest Ranch is that our definition of success comes from positioning others to become successful.  On that front we want others to succeed as much as we have with adding Barley micro-greens to your livestock’s diet!

In fact, we’ve heard so much positive feedback about our system from the DIY Fodder Producers we talk to,  that we’ve worked out a deal to start selling Grow Tray Kits to the general public!

While we have single trays available for sale, the most bang for your buck comes from ordering either our 10-pack or our 20-pack where we’ve included a discount. Given that most DIY growers usually choose to have a minimum of 10 tray systems, a bulk rate is something we wanted to be able to offer.

11-27-12 Barley Fodder Production System 026These trays are ideally suited to the various requirements for growing Barley Fodder mats(or other grains too! Wheat is 2nd most popular).

Each tray is capable of producing a 25-30lb mat from a seed rate of 5lbs of grain.  Higher seeds rates will produce heavier mats, but we have found that a seed rate of 5lbs per tray, gives us a manageable 25lb-30lb mat to handle.

12-03-12 Fodder Production 009The grow tray includes raised bottom sections that allow the water to drain off into the lower channels assuring excellent water drainage and flow.  The channels direct the runoff to the teal drain (left side in photo at top) which is level with the channels, and slightly lower than the raised sections of the tray.

Along with the main teal drain, the tray also includes an overflow drain. This second drain might be questionable by some until seeing it in action on 12-03-12 Fodder Production 012the more mature grow trays with root mats that fill the tray and slow down the flow of water to the main drain.

Both drains have easily removable caps that prevent the actual grain from slipping down the drain. As the root mats grow, the drain caps prevent the roots from completely backing up the water in the tray. At harvest, the drain cap is removed from the root mat, and tapped free of roots, then the tray is washed and readied for the next grow cycle.

Drainage is a crucial function in producing fodder mats. Trays with small drain holes get easily clogged by roots as well as the starchy runoff produced by the growing sprouts. Look for grow trays that feature good drainage to assure consistent production over time.

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Good, solid, grow trays are a necessary investment to a well running fodder system. You will want to look for trays that are also durable over the long haul.  Our grow trays are a heavy duty plastic that was meant for commercial growing operations. They are very durable trays and will last quite a long time!

Tray size is also another very important characteristic to look for when designing a DIY system. You’ll want to avoid smaller trays that have limits in the size mats they can produce, because as your production goals go up, this will translate into the handling of many small trays and mean more work and effort in harvesting, cleaning, and re-seeding your trays, spending more time in the fodder room.  Too large a tray translates into fodder mats which can become clumsy and unruly to manage. Our grow trays minimize the daily chore in the fodder room by offering the manageability that comes along with a reduction in the individual trays being used to produced nicely sized, manageable fodder mats.

These grow trays measure: Inside dimensions – 13” Wide x 40” Long x 3” Deep. Outside dimensions –  15″ x 42″

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The design of these trays, allow them to sit level, without any tilting required, on a grow shelf of your choosing.  With the drains at one end of the tray, you can create a DIY system that places the drains over the shelf edge and positioned over a gutter system to direct your runoff to the drain.

For the DIY Fodder producer, these grow trays make a great investment! You build the shelves to support the trays, provide water on a timer to each tray using PVC or garden irrigation supplies you can find at your local hardware store, and provide the gutter drainage to direct the runoff to your drain. The addition of some daylight rated fluorescent lights on a timer will help green up any sprouts you grow.

11-27-12 Barley Fodder Production System 010We can ship these trays anywhere within the continental US.

You can send a purchase request to us via email at for a price quote.

(Be sure to include where the trays will be shipped, for a shipping quote.)

You can also call us to place an order by phone at 360-691-3395.

For all orders we accept Mastercard or VISA via phone.

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Barley Fodder Videos! Including our Fodder Room Walkthrough, (and bonus cute stuff too!)

Our earlier trials of the flood and drain trays
The most important part of our “Proof of Concept” Phase!
A nice long look at them several months into the morning fodder feeding ritual.
A look at our Barley Fodder Room Operation… daily tasks take about 20 minutes.

And a few bonus cute videos for your enjoyment!

Paca Pride Alpacas Grazing…Up Close! REALLY Close! :)
Rounding up the herd from a snowy January walk
The Extended Cut! A Paca Pride alpaca romp with the dogs in the winter snow!
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Dirt! Of Sand, Ag Lime, and Diatomaceous Earth (and adding dirt to fodder mats!)

Sandy Dry lot, hay feeders with hay top dressed with Diatomaceous Earth

Moving sand around the loafing shedAlpacas are native to the Altiplano region of South America.  That’s a high desert region with sparse vegetation. In fact they are most adapted to such conditions.  So, when we were planning our homestead permaculture to incorporate them as our livestock, such an awareness actually figured in strategically. Our herd is never left out on a field or pasture area to sleep there; pastures are where they go to “work” or “dine”.  Instead, its around the barn that we make their bedroom spaces. After a couple years experimenting, we’ve come to find that a layer of washed, screen sand is in fact the best option for their bedroom loafing shed Alpacas sunning themselves on the sandy dry lotareas.  Every couple of years, we’ve been bringing in a dumptruck load of sand and building up a raised dais area for them to loaf.  Their hay feeders and their sources of water are all located nearby.  As it turns out, this dry lot approach really has a lot of practical benefits.Building up sand in the loafing sheds

For one, as the UV rays of the sun hit the sand, bacteria is killed. For another, Alpacas are communal dung pilers, preferring a select few spots to poop. The sand provides a great drainage for the urine to work its way down and allow the poop to be easily scooped up.  A bit of sand actually benefits our compost, making it truly a sandy loam that’s great for the garden.   Good drainage mean no muddy areas even on the rainiest of PacNorWest days.  The sandy surface, along with our gravel service alley out to the pastures, also contributes to keeping our toenail trimming tasks to a minimum, usually at shearing time, once a year.

Alpacas act as a predator 'moat' around the chicken coopWe like to keep the elements of a permaculture down to its simplest components. That means using our resources wisely and not turning to toxic or environmentally hazardous materials to solve our problems.  Currently, our chicken coop lives within the alpaca dry lot. We have 22+ egg layers living in a raised coop, with a floor made of fencing material that allows all their poop to drop down into catch trays. Having the coop within the dry lot, means we’ve got an “Alpaca Moat” of protection from all 4-legged predators and we no longer close our coop at night. Our free ranging chickens roam everywhere on the homestead and return to roost at night. Having catch trays allows us to avoid constant maintenance of cleaning a coop with a floor. Instead the chicken poop falls through and starts to compost.  We empty these trays about every 2-3 months into our alpaca poop compost bins. Here’s where our next magical mineral comes into play: Ag Lime!  Also known as Garden Lime, this is a ground up form of limestone that you can touch (as opposed to builder’s lime or hydrated lime, which would burn your skin).  Every once in a while we’ll take several scoopfuls of it and toss it into the chicken coop where it coats roosting poles and surfaces as well as fall onto the composting chicken poop in the catch trays.  The lime is very effective at neutralizing the smells and acting as a sanitizer.  It also impacts the amount of flies laying their eggs in the composting poop.   We can also make a solution of Ag Lime and water and spray it onto surfaces or paint it like a white-wash. Ag Lime is quite effective at sanitizing the surfaces this way.  But, we don’t stop our use of it at the chicken coop.  The hay feeders within the loafing shed areas have the bottoms coated with a good layer of Ag Lime as well.  Our hay feeders are always bug free and clean smelling. We’ll use Ag Lime in conjunction with some baking soda if we have a need to re-locate a poorly chosen poop pile that the herd suddenly starts somewhere. In combination with the baking soda, all the olfactory and visual cues are interrupted causing the herd to think twice about using that spot to poop.

But the real star player when it comes to talking dirty here at the ranch, is Diatomaceous Earth, and if you have not heard about it yet or used it, I’m about to change your life for the better! It truly is the miracle of miracles, naturally occurring substances that every farm and home should be using!

Want to completely eliminate the need for deworming and parasite control?  Drastically reduce flies? Eliminate mites and fleas? Increase your animals health?  Eliminate algae coated water buckets? Add trace minerals to their diets? Even reduce your own cholesterol and detox your gut? How about treating E.coli?

Do I have your attention yet? All the above are possible, along with hundreds of other uses which allow you to go pesticide and chemical free on your homestead.

Mucho gets ready to roll in Diatomaceous Earth in the winter corral spaceDiatomaceous Earth is basically, well, dirt!  Actually, it’s the fossilized remains of diatoms, a form of algae, that lived thousands upon thousands of years ago, which died and then sank to the bottom of the ocean and lake beds to accumulate.  It is the most abundant form of organic amorphous Silica in the world. As it turns out, our bodies actually need more silica than even iron. So, yes, this dirt is good for you, and it also contains an abundance of trace minerals too:  Calcium, Magnesium, Titanium Dioxide, Gallium, Vanadium, Strontium, Sodium, Boron, Potassium, Copper, Zirconium, iron, all existing in Mucho the llama rolls in Diatomaceous Earthmineral oxide forms making them bio available.  In addition, the not-so-trace element which it most contains is Silicon Dioxide, essential for good bone growth and nutritionally important for preventing some forms of chronic diseases associated with aging. Basically, humans, animals, and plants have an essential need for the mineral, Silicon, in order to maintain life, and unfortunately, in today’s world, our diets can easily become Silicon deficient.

So, how do we use it? So many ways!  Let me highlight a few for you:

- Added to water sources to prevent algae accumulation and to allow animals to drink it when they drink water

- Acts as a natural dewormer and parasite control when ingested.The corral during wintertime becomes the herd and flock's dusting space wth Diatomaceous Earth

- Spread on corral floors to allow alpacas and llamas to “dust” in preventing skin problems and cleans their coats. Eliminates all mites and fleas!  (Dust your dog or cat with it!)

-Spread in chicken nest boxes to eliminate fleas and mites.

-Scooped into the chicken’s free-choice feeder to eliminate weevils, moths and all bugs in the feeder. (and the chickens will eat it too!)

-Added to chicken waterer to keep the water clean and for chickens to drink as well.

- Tossed into chicken coop, onto roost poles, and over the poop catch trays to control flies and maggots in the composting manure.

-Top Dressed on Fodder mats, as needed, to add trace minerals, and control parasites, bacterias, and other “baddies” in the guts of alpacas, including Nemotodirus. Strongyles, and Coccidia. (not only working inside the animal, but you’ll notice a big difference in flies at the poop piles as well: they won’t lay eggs in poop that contains diatomaceous earth from feeding! DE continues to work even after it’s pooped out!)

- A scoopful is added to every 50lb bag of dog food we open in the pantry. Our dogs eat it too! (can also be added to their water bowl)

-Added to our garden harvest of grains and seeds for storage to help absorb moisture and prevent bugs.

-Used in the garden to control bugs and as a soil supplement.

-and even the human takes a teaspoon full a day mixed with a bit of water, on an empty stomach, 10 days on and 10 days off, as a natural detox, a source of silica and trace minerals, to reduce cholesterol, and for the health of his gut and immune system.

Phew! That’s a lot to take in! You can learn more by checking out the book “Going Green Using Diatomaceous Earth How-To Tips” by Tui Rose, R.N.  You can also check out the numerous evidence on human use at (also a source to purchase).  Most feed and supply stores sell 50lb bags of the “Food Grade” DE.  This is the most economical to buy, and actually, its relatively cheap. Be sure that you pay close attention to the label and only buy DE that is rated “Food Grade”.

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Barley Fodder: From Trials to Production

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We have some really happy alpacas and llamas at Paca Pride Guest Ranch with the ramping up of our production system for growing barley fodder mats for their winter diet. Even the chickens are enjoying pecking around for the rogue barley grains in the mats. What started out earlier this year as a trial to explore producing micro-greens, or fresh sprouts, for the herd (see previous blog entries) has really turned into something that is quite inspiring and, so far, we’re glad for taking the risk.

Barley sprouts are a superior feed for ruminants that takes a small amount of grain and, via a hydroponic growing process, turns it into a highly digestible, fresh mat in 7-9 days giving a high yield in a very 11-27-12 Barley Fodder Production System 003small footprint of space. This approach represents a reduction in feed costs as we change from a diet of dry hay and dry pelleted grain rations to a diet of  fresh greens supplemented with hay for fiber and roughage.  Commonly laid claims of barley sprouts tout them as superior nutrition; vitamin and mineral saturation and availability; phytic acid reduction giving a PH balanced diet; increases in Omega 3, amino acids, and natural hormones.  While benefits like this always sound great, livestock owners should explore the feed values represented in a product with relation to cost. However, as we have found when testing for nutrition, a dry feed analysis of this fresh product does not necessarily translate; to do a dry feed analysis you must first dry the fodder sample, essentially ending up with hay, which is what gets tested for nutritional value. But that’s like comparing apples to oranges. A dry grain of barley is only 30% digestible, a barley sprout is 80% digestible. A dried sample of barley fodder is not the same as a fresh sprout in terms of nutritional benefits either. So, be careful in knowing the basis of any calculations you are doing when looking at nutritional values of a fresh vs. dry feed product. Our conclusions have so far led us to believe that our fresh salad bar offering will not only save money, but also be healthier.

Our current production system is taking 6lbs of barley grain and turning it into a 36-40lb fodder mat. That’s over a six fold increase in weight!

The process is simple, but the operational parameters demand a bit of attention. First let’s look at the steps we go through when we visit our fodder room, once a day, for both harvest and grain prep chores, which are taking approximately 20 minutes. Then, we’ll talk about the nuances to be aware.

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Each day, we are dealing with 2 trays in our system for loading with pre-soaked grain and 2 trays for harvesting a final product to feed to the herd (about 80lb!)  In the first step, the grain is prepared for a 24 hour soaking period that loosens the hard seed hull and triggers the germination process. For this we use two 5 gallon buckets; one is drilled with numerous sieve holes, large enough to drain water easily and small enough that the grain doesn’t fall through. This bucket sits inside the second bucket allowing the seed to soak and then lifted and easily drained for spreading in a tray.  The bottom bucket is the one we use initially to wash and rinse the grain seed removing any chaff and debris that floats to the top of the water with a spoon strainer. (In fact, we actually use the leftover soak water after draining the previous days seed to wash our next day’s seed in.) We add 12 lbs of grain and after a bit of stirring and straining the debris, we pour the washed grain into the bucket with the holes, then placing the drain bucket back into the wash bucket. It gets fill with water and chlorine bleach is added at a rate of 1 tablespoon per gallon for sanitizing the seed and killing any mold or yeast that may be on the grain hulls.  The soaking seed sits until we come back the next morning.

11-27-12 Barley Fodder Production System 020As far as the chore list goes, preparing the next day’s batch of seed is actually our last step. Our first task is harvesting 2 of the finished trays from the system. We simply pull the trays out, empty the fodder mat in one piece into a tote for transporting to the animal feeders.  The trays get rinsed and examined for any grain or roots blocking the drains, then placed back in their spots on the grow shelves ready for use again. In our new production system, the trays sit lengthwise onto shelves that are 48” deep and allow the drain fittings to simply hang over a gutter system that directs the runoff to the drain. No pipe fittings to plug or unplug from the trays. Each tray has it’s own 1/4” irrigation tube hanging from the water distribution line right above. The only thing to watch out for is that the irrigation tube is properly flowing into the tray seated below it.

11-27-12 Barley Fodder Production System 025 We then turn our attention to spreading yesterday’s soaking grain into 2 trays. For these flood-and-drain trays, 13”x40”, we have settled (somewhat) on a seeding rate of 6lbs of grain per tray determined by how much soaked grain it takes to spread 1/4” deep (we’re actually thinking we can go lower towards 5lbs).  The seed is simply scooped out with a pre-marked measuring tub and the tray shaken until it looks evenly distributed.  The tray is then set back in its spot on the shelves, checking that it’s irrigation tube is in place, until it is ready to harvest. After spreading the pre-soaked seed, we prepare a new batch for soaking as described above.

The process described above is currently taking around 20 minutes from start to finish, once a day. Most of the work is done by the system itself. Here’s how it plays out over the course of 7 days

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From our trials this year we learned quite a bit about the operational parameters that must be maintained in order to assure, not only good growth and production, but also to avoid problems with mold and fermentation. So here’s a general rundown of things to be concerned about:

Growing Environment – The grow room itself should be run as clean as possible. This is not a project that does well in a dirty environment. We’re not talking donning hazmat suits, but I wouldn’t exactly approach this project in a greenhouse either. Having a dedicated fodder room not only gives you control of its cleanliness, but also the other important factor, the temperature.  Ideally, barley is a cold weather crop and actually performs best in temps that are around 60F degrees. Having a grow space that can be temperature controlled is critical to this operation. A room that goes above 70F degrees will not only experience poor performance, but will also be more likely to see mold develop too.  Humidity has not been a challenge as of yet, but our levels are measuring between 40-70% depending upon outside conditions. High humidity may require ventilation to circulate fresh air.

11-27-12 Barley Fodder 007Seed Prep – This operation requires the use of a sink for rinsing and cleaning trays as well as for preparing the batches of seed. We use household bleach during the pre-soak process only, not during the actual grow cycle. This little bit of bleach (1TBSP to 1GAL ratio) sanitizes the seed quite well.  Concerns about the use of this chemical abound and there are numerous opinions about whether to use it or some other product that is non-toxic. For us, bleach is cheap, readily available, and losses it’s effectiveness after 24-36 hours. Since it is only used during the pre-soak, it doesn’t damage the barley grain itself so much as effectively kills any bacteria and mold spores on its surface. Once the seed is spread in the trays, the first watering cycle gives it a good rinse as well assuring no chlorine bleach reaches the final product. Having mold free trays are much more important to us than concerns presented by a diluted bleach solution, but it is imperative that with whatever preparation is done, some sort of sanitizer is used to clean the grain hulls during the wash and pre-soak stage.

Water – To recycle or not to recycle is always a question that gets asked. We firmly fall into the fresh water is best category. Recycling water via a reservoir leads to a bevy of problems that are detrimental to operation.  If one tray has a problem, recycling water will spread that problem quickly.  In fact, water usage is rather minimal when comparing the yields of this type of operation to watering a field to grow the same amount of grass. Our water cycle lengths are simply determined by the amount of time it takes a tray filled with soaked seed to get covered, or flooded, with water. In this system, that is a 4 minute long cycle.  Trays that are further along and have considerable root mass, actually need less water; longer watering times can cause the more mature trays to overflow. It’s this last point that makes the overflow drain a thankful precaution in the later days of growth when some of the roots can grow into the drain and slow the flow of water.  Our watering schedule is set for 4 times a day: 8am, Noon, 4pm, 8pm.  We scheduled no watering during our “night” period when the lights are off. We also were keen to schedule our fodder room chores of harvesting and spreading to happen at least an hour or two after the 8am watering to assure the trays being harvested have had enough time to drain.

Light – We set our lights for the room on a timer that is 16 hours on and 8 hours off to simulate a day and night. Currently we use a few CFL blubs for the main lighting source but are also in the process of securing LED rope lights to dispel the darker shadows at the back of the shelves. A little bit of light serves well to green up the sprouts along with encouraging the barley to stretch a bit towards the light.  No intense HID lighting or grow lights that give off heat should be used for this operation.

11-27-12 Barley Fodder 002Flooring – Let’s just say that when you are setting up a DIY operation like this, you are bound to experience the mishaps, and it usually involve some flooding.  We’re glad we bought a remnant piece of linoleum for our floor so that clean up of any water becomes easy. So far we’ve had two instances of flooding in the fodder room. The first was due to an irrigation line not being properly placed in a tray (oops! user error!). It was a minor flood from just one tray. The second flood was experienced about a week into operation and was much worse. It was caused by the gutter system backing up where a mesh screen was inserted as a last chance pre-caution to catch any rogue seed before it flowed out of the room.  What happened, however, was that the starchy runoff from a week started to clog the filter and caused the lowest gutter to overflow on to the floor. We have since removed that mesh screen (oops! over-design! turns out the mesh screen was overkill as the tray drains are doing a really good job keeping the barley grains in the tray.)

Our next steps with this operation, now that it has been successfully integrated into our farm system, is measuring.  We have started rationing our hay as well as weighing the fodder mats. Next June, coming shearing time, we’ll be measuring how much hay we have left in the barn along with measuring the amount of fiber harvested from the alpacas.  We’ll be comparing the results of this coming harvest to the prior year’s to see if fiber production is impacted. Of course, we’ll also be measuring the bottom line of costs too!

UPDATE: We now sell our grow trays! see this posting:

Intrigued by this article? Be sure to watch our companion video of our Fodder Room Procedures here:

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