To get a bit of background behind this project, read our previous blog entry entitled “From Seed to Feed”.
In our Phase One Trials, we were performing a “proof of concept” with using barley grain seed and seedling propagation trays to see if we could grow fodder mats to feed as an alternative livestock feed. Well, the jury of our peers, ahem, our herd, has ruled that they love the stuff! The Phase One Trials were not without some challenges. The approach we used involved trays that did not drain, and were hand watered. With some of them receiving an excess of water, the barley does what it does best when sitting in water, it started to ferment. When it starts to ferment, it is prone to mold as well. In others, too little water meant the grain drying up and not growing.
In the newly installed hydroponic system, we approach sprouting the barley grain through a flood and drain style tray. We’ve set up a series of nine trays stacked vertically. These trays cycle through a timer that periodically turns on a pump in the water reservoir to fill the trays from one end. At the other end, a drain guides the water back to the reservoir. This approach keeps the barley seeds moist and wet, but not soaking and not drying out.
Since we are using a barley that is classified as “field run”, it tends to contain a bit more chaff and dirt on it. So an extra step we’ve added at the beginning is to wash and rinse the seed in water. This causes the chaff to rise to the top for easy removal. Extra chaff and dirt in the barley just adds to the possibility of molds appearing, so we want our grain seed to be as clean as we can get it.
After a good rinse, we toss the barley into a mesh bag for an overnight soaking in a bucket. We add a small amount of chlorine bleach to the water to kill any mold spores on the surface of the grain. We use bleach for a couple reasons: it’s cheap, and effective. It doesn’t affect the germination of the grain, as the overnight soak just softens the hard seed coating for germination. There are other sanitizers available out there, but for our trials we have found household bleach to be appropriate. We are not worried about a lingering affect as the seed is removed from the soak the next day and placed in the trays where they are awash in water from the reservoir. In addition bleach is effective for about 24-36 hours before it loses it’s ability to disinfect. The mesh bag makes for easy removal and draining from the bucket to the grow trays the next day.
The soaking of the barley is key to good germination. Some farmers will even soak their seed before sowing it in the field in order to increase the germination rates. Our total soak time is up to 24 hours depending upon when we get back to the trays the next day. Any longer of a soak and the barley will simply start to ferment. Fermented seed is not bad, in fact, it contains beneficial enzymes that are good for the gut of a chicken or alpaca, like a good fermented pickle for people. I’ve heard of goat owners that ferment grains for their animals for this reason.
However, fermenting is not our goal, sprouting is our goal. We are concerning ourselves with protein levels and nutrients in the fresh barley grass, rather than enzymes.
Our current seeding rate as well as the watering cycles are not yet set in stone as we figure the optimums out. We are also trying to figure out the best number of days to allow for growth; it seems around 9 days that the best mat forms. At the moment, we are starting with 6 pounds of barley seed per tray. We want a good 1/2” depth of seed in the tray so that we get enough density that the roots knit together to form a solid mat. We started with four 15 minute cycles per day and recently adjusted that down to two 20 minute cycles per day watching for how wet the seeds seem to remain throughout the day versus drying out.
The first tray came due yesterday with this new system installed for about ten days now and from the 6 pounds of seed we got 22 pounds of fodder. That’s almost a four-fold increase in weight; not bad at all for a feed source. We’ve stuck with this seed rate for a full cycle of the nine trays so far just to compare against. We may make some adjustments over time, but for this size of tray, a minimum of 6 pounds seems good, any less and it’s just not as dense a growth.
As far as growth is concerned, well you can see for yourself in these pictures! With a root mat about an inch thick and growth of at least 8 inches, the system works! As you can see looking at the entire tray, the minimum lighting we are providing is enough to green up all the way to the farthest end of the tray from the light source. In fact, if there is enough ambient lighting in a grow space, additional lighting is not really required.
What do the animals think of it? Well the first tray was served to them on a wet rainy day, and as you can see they gobbled it right up!
UPDATE! We now offer our grow trays for sale! See this posting: http://pacapride.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/barley-fodder-grow-trays-now-for-sale/
For a video tour of the new system, check out our You Tube Channel: