Farmers, experts examine value of sprouted fodder systems

Originally appeared in MOSES Organic Broadcaster

By Jody Padgham, MOSES 

As spring flourishes across the Upper Midwest, cattle and other ruminants are happy to resume grazing lush pastures. Advocates of sprouted fodder systems argue that sprouting grains such as barley in controlled, indoor hydroponic systems offers some of the same benefits as grazing—providing fresh greens to animals over the winter, and as a summer supplement. There has been much interest over the past several years in the concept of offering sprouted grains as feed, but conflicting information about how valuable or cost-effective the practice is.

Large-scale sprouting systems are now in place at two universities, producing green fodder for organic dairy farms at the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) in Morris, Minn., and at California State University in Chico, Calif. Research studies at each facility are exploring the economics and other qualities of the hydroponic grain sprouts produced in the systems.

Researchers are just starting to look at fodder systems to explore the truth behind some of the claims being made. The economics of fodder production in particular is of great interest to both farmers and researchers.

Brad Heins, assistant professor at WCROC, has been assessing the impacts of their system, installed in 2013 and producing 1,150 pounds of fodder every day for 40 cows. A 2014 trial feeding 36 cows explored the difference between a group fed TMR with eight pounds of organic corn versus a group fed TMR and 20 pounds of barley fodder. Results showed that there was no significant difference in milk production, with the exception that urea nitrogen levels were slightly higher in fodder-fed cows. There was no significant difference in dry matter intake per pound of milk produced between the two groups, though cows not fed fodder consumed 6.5 pounds more dry matter per day.

Heins points out that the economic advantage of fodder depends entirely on the cost of the sprouting seed and alternative grain. Fodder becomes more economically viable as a grain substitute when organic grain prices increase.

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