One 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
One 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. So, 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
For 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.
For 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. For 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 with 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: https://pacapride.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/barley-fodder-grow-trays-now-for-sale/ )
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.
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. Water 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.
When 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.