Producers who raise cattle, goats, sheep, horses, chickens, llamas, alpacas, hogs and deer have one thing in common: All those animals require high quality forage to remain healthy and achieve peak production.
However, providing animals with a sufficient amount of this quality fodder generally requires producers to utilize up to several hundred acres of crop land or purchase the feed from off-farm suppliers.
Both options can be time-consuming, expensive, and supplies often can be scarce if weather and field conditions are unfavorable.
Scott Follett, owner of Apple Creek Whitetail Ranch, located in southwestern Oconto County, went in search of a more dependable, cost-efficient method of providing nutritional fodder for the 3,000 deer on his ranch.
He researched farms throughout the United States and as far away as New Zealand for information on growing sprouting grains hydroponically.
This process involves taking seed to green without soil or chemicals, and can produce barley, clover, grass, oats, wheat, corn and various legumes.
The seed is first soaked in hydrogen peroxide, which kills any mold or bacteria and then is rinsed clean.
Next it's spread evenly in special growing trays 15 inches wide by 42 inches long with drain tubes that help provide proper water flow through the seeds and sprouts..
The trays are placed on racks in a building where temperature, humidity and acidity levels are precisely regulated.
Moisture is supplied by drip irrigation tubes located directly above each tray and LED lights provide the proper illumination.
"These lush, green, highly nutritious spouts can serve as a replacement for or enhancement to standard dry grains. Fodder will help with the digestion of dry matter and the dry matter helps the fodder to fix in the rumen to be fully absorbed. The entire fodder mat is fed to the animals, so nothing is wasted," Follett explained.
THE APPLE CREEK SYSTEM
"At Apple Creek whitetails, we use wheat or barley," he said. "We take six pounds of seed, place it in a tray, and within eight days the seed has grown to between 50-60 pounds of food that we can take out and feed the deer. The fodder provides about 19-22 percent protein. To get it up to 22 percent we mix in black sunflower seeds. If we want to increase it to 30 percent, we mix peas into the barley or wheat."
Follett grows the sprouts in a climate-controlled building that's 60x40-feet wide. He calculates the total cost of producing a ton of fodder at $160-$170, compared to spending $300 or more per ton for baled alfalfa.
"This is the highest quality food, just like the prime springtime sprouts, and the fodder that's grown in this building replaces 500 acres of forage land."
He noted that six pounds of seed costs around $24.
"We're raising about three-five tons of sprouts per day every day of the year," Follett related. "This morning at 6 a.m. our team came in, pulled the fodder trays out, fed the animals and by 9 a.m. we were ready to welcome more than 500 visitors to the ranch for the Whitetails of Wisconsin summer picnic."
IDEAL FOR SMALL FARMS
Follett believes growing forage hydroponically offers a way for smaller family farms to be competitive in the 21st century.
"If you look back over the last 30 years, the small family farm, which was a vital part of the fabric on which Wisconsin and the nation was built, has been eroded to a large extent by large farms," he observed. "Many kids who grew up on small farms have been forced to try to find a job on one of these mega farms or move to a bigger city to find work."
Citing Angus beef producers as an example, he said, "This system can provide a feed source that's lower in cost and higher in quality, and that has the potential to get an animal to market quicker. Then if you sell that beef as 100 percent organic and grass-fed, which fodder provides, you get another premium."
Follett emphasized that growing fodder sprouts hydroponically offers numerous advantage for virtually all who raise cattle and other animals.
"Farmers are no longer at the mercy of unpredictable weather that can send hay and grain prices soaring," he said. "No soil is needed, so there's no need for soil preparation, planting, irrigation or fertilizing. Fuel costs are lower and the carbon footprint is significantly reduced."
He noted that harvesting fodder is easier and takes far less time than with other forage that's grown more conventionally.
"The fiber-rich fodder mat is 100 percent edible, so there's no waste or spoilage. There's no need for long-term storage facilities either because once it's harvested the fodder goes directly to your livestock," Follett said.
He pointed out that because farmers can produce higher yields on a smaller footprint, other fields can be freed up to allow more diversification in their farming operation.
"Because of the increasing demand for food that's free from chemicals and antibiotics, they can also tap into growing markets for organic beef, milk, cheese, eggs, and other products.
"Livestock will really enjoy the eating this fodder," he promised. "They will be healthier and more productive.
Follett believes producing feed directly from seed hydroponically can help revolutionize farming today. "It can enable the small entrepreneur to be independent and expand his business, and that truly excites me."
For more information on turning seed into feed, check out the online video at www.fodderpods.com.