Feasibility of Growing Green Fodder in a Portable Greenhouse for Sheep

Final Report for FNC12-881

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2012: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Summary:

PROJECT BACKGROUND Judy Moses operates a 140-acre sheep and goat farm with her husband Larry Jacoby. They own and manage 450 ewes and does. Judy and Larry have been actively involved in the sheep industry for 20 years and direct market USDA lamb and kid meat to consumers and restaurants. Judy started their flock on 300 acres of marginal, leased land in 1988 with no buildings or capital investment. The ewes lambed on pasture and were managed using sustainable agriculture practices. After increasing the flock to 300 breeding ewes and does Judy and Larry purchased and converted a dairy farm and practice both confinement and seasonal pasture lambing and kidding. We have been doing grass fed meat products utilizing native grasses and annuals including grazing corn, turnips, rape, wheat and rye for over 10 years.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION
GOALS: The ultimate goal of this project is to test a fodder manufactured by FarmTek called the Fodder-Pro Feed System. The system evaluated the supplementation of pregnant and lactating sheep with green fodder.

PROCESS This project evaluated an adapted version of the Fodder-Pro Feed System designed by FarmTek. FarmTek produces a variety of products in Iowa including livestock and storage buildings, greenhouses and accessories and a range of agricultural products. Their fodder system was reasonably priced and was easy to assemble. While we waited for delivery of the Fodder-Pro unit, adapted the building, and assembled the unit we researched some other systems. A variety of fodder systems are available and more commonly used in Australia.

Low Tech System: One simple Australian system in particular seemed to have merit if adequate ground space is available. Seeds were sprouted on recycled cardboard outside in an underutilized, protected area. We experimented with a similar idea within the protection of a hoop building. We tried this on a small scale in an aisle of a produce producing greenhouse. Rolling the sprouts to feed was relatively easy and the yield during early fall was good. There was no efficient way to provide warmth to the hoop house to continue sprouting during late fall and early winter. As the aisle way was not needed on a frequent basis during the fall using this space was feasible with comparatively low labor required. The seeds (barley, rye, corn) were soaked for 2 days before spreading then misted lightly. At day 7 the mats were rolled and moved using a skidster. The ewes were allowed to eat the sprouts off the ground. We will continue to experiment with off-season use of this space. As this does not have the space efficiency of a layered rack it would only be practical using underutilized, appropriate square footage when the daytime ambient temperature is between 60 and 70.

The Farm Tek system: We found Farm Tek’s fodder system relatively easy to assemble. We lowered the height of the system (decreasing the tray spacing) to ease handling issues of working with the highest shelves. The structure was easy to adapt. Their water flooding system was adequate but holds more water in the plumbing than necessary. The size of the provided tubing is 1 ½ inches and we believe should be reduced to ½ inch as the extra water becomes stagnant in the tubes and possibly contributes to mold production. Reusing water can lead to increased mold growth. Chlorine treatment will help reduce mold growth but must be calculated carefully adding to variables that need to be controlled. Along with good water flow, good air flow in the room is necessary. 1 lb of seeds was used to cover 1 ft2 of tray area. We fed at approximately 1% of body weight.

Process: The fodder room needs to be kept at 70 degrees for yield and to have temperature and humidity controlled to prevent mold growth. We expected the cargo van body would be beneficial but we did have difficulties controlling the humidity with just a humidifier and LP heater. We plan on adding both an air conditioner next year. The wall material will be covered with painted galvanized sheeting to provide surfaces less friendly to mold and to make cleaning and sanitizing easier than the current mold resistant paint used initially.

Labor consists of cleaning, soaking and spreading seeds onto the growing trays. The soaking pans need to be carefully cleaned between batches. The sprouts are harvested at 6-7 days depending upon the producers’ goals. The sprouted mats are rolled and lifted out of the trays. The Farm Tek trays are 12 ft long so it is best to cut the mats into manageable pieces. The weight and bulkiness is a factor for labor requirements. We used a wheelbarrow to deliver fodder to the ewes but if our system was enlarged we would need to use a skidster for this delivery. The sprouting trays need to be carefully cleaned between batches. Cleaning of all equipment and seeds is extremely important.

Important Steps:
• The barley seed must be very clean to prevent mold development and have a high germination rate for efficient use of the system.
• Soak the grain for 6 hrs to 2 days. At 24 hr drain the water and let set the final 24 hrs if desired. Add bleach or hydrogen peroxide into the water if desired to help kill mold spores.
• After soaking, the grain is drained and spread onto trays. A feed scoop works well.
• Kept the temperature between 60 and 75 degrees F, with 70 degrees ideal.
• Have a system to keep the grain moist. If done manually spray every 4-8 hrs. Automated systems use either a spray or flood system.
• Maintaining 70% humidity is important.

The sprouted barley is harvested between six and eight days of growth. Volume and protein increases on day seven to eight. Light is more critical from day 6 on. Weather and system permitting the mats could be rested outside for the day before feeding. At harvest, the barley shoots will be about six inches tall with a two inch mat of interwoven roots. The sprouted grain is harvested by removing the tray or sliding the mat off the tray in one long sheet. The mats can be cut to the appropriate size. New grain is started every day to keep the system in constant production.

Summary: A variety of seeds can be successfully sprouted. We found malt barley and wheat seeds were the most productive. Grazing corn seeds, rye and oats either did not sprout well in our facility or had a poor yield (though corn seeds were easier to use in the experimental cardboard ground system). The malting barley, although the most expensive, provided the most reliable yield and was worth the extra cost. 1 lb of dry malt barley seed produced 6 lbs of wet fodder, sometimes up to 7 lbs. We allowed the sprouts to grow for 7 days. The first 6 days increased energy of the sprouted fodder. The 7th day increased the protein level that we felt was necessary to provide the most benefit to the ewes. Additional light for this last day’s growth might have been beneficial and we have been thinking of ways to provide this if even for an hour or two as there was a yellow tinge to the growth.

We found labor to be one of the constraints requiring 1 ½ – 2 hrs per day—assuming we weren’t distracted by other priorities. Although the system yields a very effective product, the labor was difficult for us to maintain throughout the week. With more efficiencies the labor might be reduced but the requirement of daily inputs would still remain. This 7-days-a-week labor requirement makes it difficult for us to justify during labor intensive farm periods such as during spring lambing—when the fodder is likely to be the most beneficial to lactation. We also found the heating requirements during the winter, again when the fodder would be the most valuable, to be very expensive especially this year due to LP shortage and quadrupling prices in our region. As mentioned previously, we had repeated nights of -35 degrees F and finally put the unit down. It was just too cold.

PEOPLE Shawn Denver was instrumental in doing the assembly, testing the procedures, feeding the ewes and collecting data for this project. He volunteered many hours of his time re-designing and modifying the growing room and structure.

RESULTS The Green Fodder equipment was designed and constructed. A cargo van body was used to house the growing station. Electrical and plumbing was installed. The system was assembled. The system was functioned from October through December 2013. Our intent was to operate until spring. This goal changed due to the unexpected cold weather (repeated nights of -35 F) and the rising cost of LP used for heat of a little over $1 to over $4.50/gallon. The cost of supplemental heating made it impractical to continue the project through winter.

We would have started with a used, refrigerated van body for the added insulation and inside wall surfaces. This was not available at a reasonable price when we started the project. We are still watching for one at a reasonable price. Feeding soaked seeds is historically very common and soaked seeds provides increased nutrients without the labor intensive step of sprouting. The soaked seeds were well received by the ewes. This may result in the best returns on labor investment.

DISCUSSION We will continue our experimentation with fodder. Our results are premature and we still have a lot of questions. Our main concerns are:
1. There are other alternative feed sources in our local area that are more cost effective than sprouting. If we were milking this might not be true.
2. Availability of labor, 7 days/wk, is a major constraint. This may not be true on other farms. For us, the loss of labor opportunity needs to be considered. There may be more valuable uses of the available labor than tending the fodder feeding and cleaning routine.

We found that the value for us in comparison to cost was not as ideal as projected. The best time for us to producer fodder in our climate, fall and spring, were the times when we either had more practical options or did not have available labor. During the winter months when the fodder would have been very valuable as a supplement feed source and labor was more readily available, the growing conditions and expense of supplemental heat made the project impractical to maintain. Our summers, even with periods of drought, have adequate natural grazing for our flock. We value the sustainability grazing provides without the need of supplementation. Dairy operators might come to a different conclusion.

Soaked grains in 5 gallon pails does seem to be time efficient and readily eaten by the ewes. The biggest advantage for us seemed to be this step not the actual fodder production. The variety of seeds soaked made little difference (rye, wheat, barley, oats); all seemed to work well.

OUTREACH We provided information at the Moses Organic Farming Conference (2014) to a producer discussion group of 24 attendees. When the unit is again functioning we will work with the WI Agriculture Extension Agency to arrange a farm day and provide a written handout.

Project Objectives:

Objective 1: The Green Fodder equipment will be designed, fabricated and evaluated.
• Design and fabricate cargo van body as a controlled environment structure for growing a daily production of 500 lb of green fodder / produce output. The van will provide an inexpensive structure for finalization product development.
• Install electrical and plumbing system. Forage will be automatically watered. Heat and cooling will be controlled for summer and winter so that optimum temperatures will be maintained.
• Fabricate and refine growing system. Issues specific to growing fodder without mold contamination will be resolved and produce trialed.

Objective 2: The prototype system will be evaluated and adapted as necessary.
• Trial Run. Fodder will be produced and harvested throughout late winter and early spring for pregnant and lactating ewes. The energy requirements, expenses, modifications and quality of production will be evaluated.
• Data collection for scalability, economic and cost/benefit analysis, labor efficiencies, nutrition analysis with comparison to standard feeds and production capacity per unit and product type tested.

Objective 3: The full process will be evaluated and results summarized
• Efficiency of full system will be analyzed.
• Ease and ergonomics of product handling will be reviewed.
• A cost comparison performed between grain concentrate supplementation and green fodder.

Cooperators

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  • Shawn Denver

Research

Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.