Donnelly Farms is a small, family-owned farm located in McClure, Ohio. We have been raising pork and goat meat for private buyers since 1981. Our farm’s mission is to develop ways to produce a safe, high-quality, and sustainable product for our customers. We raise our own animal feed and hay. We usually raise between 25 and 45 hydroponically-fed, farrow-to-finish hogs per month. The majority of the hogs are sold to private individuals and a small batch is sold to Tyson Meats. We also raise 4-5 meat goats per month for a Cleveland restaurant buyer.
Before receiving the grant, we have been raising our own hay and a big chunk of our feed grain since 1981. However, we still had to supplement our feeding system with commercial feed from the local grain elevator. Using natural feed mixes was quickly pricing us out of the market and making it hard to compete with conventionally raised pork.
GOAL: Our goal was to develop a feeding system that would allow us to produce natural pork at a competitive price to conventionally produced pork.
The biggest component in the cost of raising pork is the feed price. According to the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Ag Decision Maker tool, the feed cost accounts for 45 percent of the total cost involved in raising a pig from feeder to finish.
Commercially available pig feed contains animal by-products in order to increase the protein content of the feed and allow for faster finishing of the pigs. Natural pork producers traditionally feed corn/hay mixes without animal by-products. As a result, the feed protein content is lower and the animals reach market weight in 8-10 months versus the industry average of 6 months.
According to the available research on hydroponic feed, we learned the protein content is comparable to that of commercially available feed mixes and the process would allow us to produce 5 to 10 times bigger feed volume for a comparable price. The decision was obvious: using hydroponic feed would allow us to reach the higher protein content in the food without using animal by-products and thus keeping our farming practices sustainable.
Currently, there are multiple commercially available hydroponic feed systems available. They come with a wide array of options to control temperature, moisture, and light. However, the bottom line in producing hydroponic food, especially using wheat is:
1. Temperature control is nice, but not essential. You’re essentially sprouting wheat seeds. Wheat sprouts in the fall/winter. While a system that maintains a constant 70F is nice, we were able to produce feed in the winter in Ohio while maintaining 50F.
2. Light is nice, but not essential. The time to produce hydroponic feed averages between 5-10 days. You don’t need greenhouse style lighting to produce hydroponic wheat feed. We were able to produce high quality hydroponic wheat feed in our garage without supplemental lighting.
3. You don’t need fancy moisture control. We needed to water our trays once every 24 hours.
4. Keeping in mind the above, you can have your own hydroponic wheat feed system going in a weekend and with minimal investment.
• Norman Donnelly, Napoleon, Ohio – Norm helped us build our existing system of hydroponic trays
• Chad Beman, Gerald Grain Center, Liberty Center, Ohio – Chad helped us select the right grade seed for our test, which prevented a lot of possible (and costly) mistakes. He is also an invaluable source on animal nutrition.
We wanted to compare the time from feeder to market between conventionally raised hogs and hogs on a hydroponic feed (wheat grass) diet. We took monthly weight measurements of the control and the test batches. We also compared the grades and weights that the batches received at the processor (Tyson’s). Additionally, we also conducted blind taste tests.
The results are as follows:
1. Time to market. We have been averaging 6-8 month to market in our control group, with the 8 months time frame in the cold winter months. Surprisingly, our test group averaged the same, which is definitely an improvement over our prior experience with “natural” hog feed mixes that resulted in 8+ months time to market.
2. Monthly weight gains. Both the control batches and the test batches recorded similar weight gains. One easily observable difference and advantage of the test batches over the control batches was that the test batch resulted in more uniform weight gain (all the hogs were within 5-10 pounds of one another) while the control group had obvious winners and runts.
3. Final weights and grades. As a mentioned earlier, all of our test batches had very uniform weight gain and qualified for premium. Time to market was also surprisingly short and comparable to that of the control batches fed with commercial feed mix.
4. Blind taste tests. In addition to the tests we described in out project proposal, we conducted several blind taste tests. We offered meat samples of hydroponically fed pork (pork chops, ribs, sausages, and links) to our existing customers. The results were quite surprising. All of our customers were able to tell the difference between the hydroponically fed pork and the traditionally fed pork. Additionally, all of our customers described the meat as “very clean tasting”. All of our customers specifically requested hydroponically fed pork after our taste test.
There is a lot of existing research on animal nutrition. There are also a lot of suggestions on how you can improve your operation’s bottom line.
Due to the results we achieved using the SARE grant, producing and feeding hydroponic wheat grass has become a staple in our operation. We received positive feedback from our customers and word of mouth has lead to increased sales of our hydroponically fed pork.
Implementing a hydroponic forage production system has also allowed us to substantially reduce our feed outlay and has allowed us to remain competitive in a market with diminishing margins.
Implementing a project such as this one comes with distinctive trade-offs. The obvious advantages are the reduced production cost, reduced finishing time, more uniform product and of course improved taste. The trade-off is increased labor. A farmer/rancher looking to implement this system should keep in mind that hydroponic feed might not integrate well with the existing automatic hog feeding systems. The commercial hog feeding systems are currently designed to handle dry powder only. Hydroponic feed has a quite higher water content which makes it more palatable to the hogs, but it also makes it more difficult to handle and dispense. We found out that manually rolling out the feed mats at meal times works best. Additionally, hydroponic feed does not store well, so a hydroponic feed system would require you to produce a fresh batch daily.
To sum it up, I would recommend the system to a small farmer, although it might not be practical to implement on a larger scale.
We used a variety of methods to tell others about our projects: word of mouth, getting our project published in the office extension newsletter and on the SARE website. We held five hands-on, on-farm demonstrations for interested farmers (18 people all total). We also coached an additional five farmers through e-mail on how to set up their own hydroponic feed systems and helped them troubleshoot growing problems.
As I mentioned before, we also conducted blind taste tests for the general public and educated them on the hydroponic feed growing in relation to raising natural pork. We had six taste test events and we reached approximately 120 people all together.