April 10, 2013

Fodder as a Feed Replacement

You've probably heard of fodder: the growing of seeds without soil to make a mat of green plantlife to feed to livestock in addition to or to replace hay. It's like sprouting for people, but for livestock instead.
I first heard of this a few years ago when Australia was suffering a terrible drought. A company was marketing a "fodder system" for ranchers to produce feed for their livestock. The systems were extremely expensive and sized for a large cattle operation, way too much for a small place like ours, but I was intrigued and wondered if I could reproduce such a system inexpensively. I bookmarked the website, but it disappeared within a year.

Fast forward a few years to our current two-year-long drought. Some say this year will be even worse, and others even say we have another five years of drought ahead of us, that it usually goes in about eight-year cycles. Growing fodder has now come to the attention of Oklahomans, and now there are a variety of websites and webinars about how to do it.

This past year's hay was beautiful stuff, full of wild oats and hops and clover and vetch as well as prairie grasses - we had rain at just the right time. When I toss the hay into the wheelbarrow each day and dump it in the feeders for the horses and goats, a layer of loose oats remains in the barrow. After seeing how they've sprouted and grown in our front yard where I store the round bales, I've been saving these oats that would be otherwise wasted, and have strewn several bucketfuls in my pasture and hayfield. And then I wondered if they would grow in a simple, manual fodder system.

Just to give it a try, I measured about a pint of oats into a pillowcase, and soaked it overnight in an ice cream bucket of water. The next morning I clothespinned the open pillowcase to the top of the empty bucket so that it could continue to drain throughout the day. Morning and night I dunked the pillowcase in water, and hung it on the rim of the bucket.

Then after 2 days I forgot to water it; in fact it was several days before I remembered, and several days more before I got around to throwing the whole thing out, pillowcase and all, because I was sure it was a dead, moldy mess by now. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the seeds had sprouted and grown several inches! (I didn't see any, but just in case there was any mold from my neglect, I fed this particular ball of growth to the chickens, not to the goats and horses. The chickens devoured it and lived to tell about it.)

It's ready to feed when the plants just begin to get their second leaves. The arrow below is pointing to a stem with that second leaf on it.

Note the cone shape of the mass below - that's because it grew in the pillowcase the entire time. In the future, if I were using a fodder system, I'd move it to a flat tray for growing, but it is much easier to soak the seeds in a pillowcase that first day: no straining and losing seeds. The oat seeds from the hay also have some debris, which you can see among the roots - it isn't "clean seed".

The success of sprouting the seeds is encouraging. This is as far as I've gone on this experiment, but I have two 5-gallon buckets full of "hayseeds", and a last round bale to collect more from. I'm hoping to go ahead with this project... and I've discovered that several people I know are doing this as well, so I have some real-life resources too.

My plan is to combine the wild oats with other seeds for sprouting, depending on what is available for sale in my area. I'll have to research that. I'm told that the goats tend to like it better if there is a variety of seed in the "biscuit". I know my horses like the wild oat sprouts as they've been devouring the green stuff as fast as it grows under their feeders and in the barnyard.
If you're interested in reading more, here is a round-up of some of the blogs and websites I've found on this subject:
Granny's Best Dairy, a 9-part series on growing fodder specifically for goats
Barley Fodder Feeding for Organic Dairies Webinar

A commercially available system from Fodder Solutions, just for ideas

Or you can search for "growing fodder" for a long list of websites and information.

Are you using a fodder system? I'd love to hear about it! Please leave a comment below.

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