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 small 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.
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.
As 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.
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
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.
Seed 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.
Flooring – 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: https://pacapride.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/barley-fodder-grow-trays-now-for-sale/
Intrigued by this article? Be sure to watch our companion video of our Fodder Room Procedures here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hes3ZhvjtqY