Hydroponic Fodder in an Organic Pastured Poultry System: Can feed costs be reduced?

Final Report for FNC13-902

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $7,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
Lisa Burke
Farming Engineers LLC
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Project Information

Summary:

PROJECT BACKGROUND

We raise meat and egg chickens and produce with organic (non-certified) methods. 125 – 375 broilers per year, 50 – 200 laying hens at a time, 2 acres of produce with three hoophouses. All our poultry is outdoors as much as possible and is rotated on pasture.

We have always rotationally pastured our poultry, ever since we started our farm in 2008.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

GOALS

Our goal was to determine if feed costs could be reduced by feeding hydroponic fodder to pastured raised, organically-fed laying hens and broilers.

PROCESS

We divided our point-of-lay pullets into two groups in 2013. We added 7-to-10-day sprouted barley fodder to the diet of one group and attempted to gradually reduce their bagged feed. This was not successful – the fodder group had reduced egg production and cannibalism immediately. We had high predator mortality, but wanted to get some more data. We commenced adding fodder to the diet of our remaining layers in 2014. Every time we added fodder and reduced bagged feed, egg production would drop. Once we stopped the fodder and added back the bagged feed, egg production would recover. It seemed pretty clear that fodder was not an adequate replacement for bagged feed in our laying flock. All groups were given free choice oyster shell at all times.

We raised three batches of 125 broilers each in 2013 and one batch in 2014. Each batch is divided into three groups of approximately 40 birds. Each group is placed in its own Salatin-style pen and moved to new grass daily once the birds feather out. We designated one pen in each batch as the “fodder group.”

During week 1 on pasture, we would gradually reduce bagged feed and add as much fodder as the birds would eat. Barley fodder alone was not palatable to the broilers; we ended up adding 50% field peas to the mix. Sprinkling bagged feed on top of the fodder was necessary to get them to eat it. We monitored weight gain every 3 days to make sure the fodder group was not falling too far behind. We were able to feed the fodder group 20% less bagged feed while giving them as much fodder as they would eat.

In 2014 we used peas / oats and peas / wheat for the broiler group that ate fodder. They consumed it readily and the bagged feed consumption was 20% less. All birds weighed similar weights at processing time.

PEOPLE

We were asked to present at the Indiana Small Farm Conference by Michael Henderson. We presented our results at this conference in March 2015.

RESULTS

Our laying hen results showed that fodder is not an effective way to reduce feed costs in pastured laying hens. Egg production drops occurred consistently every time we tried reducing bagged feed.

Our broiler results were a bit more promising, with a 20% reduction in bagged feed possible by using fodder. The economic payoff of using fodder is still in question, however. While whole grains used in fodder production are cheaper than bagged feed, the labor and sprouting system costs are significant. We were not able to reduce bagged feed any farther without compromising weight gain in the broilers, and we were feeding them as much fodder as they would eat.

We found it somewhat surprising that the results were so bad for the layers but showed some promise in broilers. Perhaps even pastured broilers don’t eat as much pasture as pastured layers, due to the naturally low activity levels of the Cornish Cross.

DISCUSSION

We learned that hydroponic fodder is probably not beneficial enough to our operation to keep growing it. We will continue to seek other methods of reducing our feed costs. The advantage of doing this kind of project is to mitigate the misleading advertising of the fodder industry- which does seem to have moderated its fanciful claims since we applied for this project in 2012.

I would recommend a fodder experiment to larger broiler operations, particularly if they are already growing fodder for ruminants and therefore have a system in place. Similarly, fodder may have beneficial effects on egg quality in a confinement house laying hen environment, even though it does not allow one to reduce feed costs when the birds are out on pasture.

OUTREACH

We presented the results of our project at the Indiana Small Farm Conference in March 2015. There were about 30 people present during our session. We have fielded about two dozen phone calls, emails, and facebook messages since the beginning of this project from farmers who were interested in the results and/or considering fodder systems for their poultry. The data is / will be available on our website, burkefarm.wordpress.com

Project Objectives:

DESCRIPTION
Our farm is 38 acres of flat, fertile ground in the southeast corner of Clinton County. We moved here at the end of 2007 and have been converting pastures and row-crop ground to organic (not certified yet) production since that time. Currently, we grow 2 acres and 2 high tunnels (2400 square feet) of produce, including about 40 different vegetables, for 2 farmers markets and a CSA, have a pastured laying flock of around 200 hens, and raise 375 pastured broilers per summer. 2012 was our 5th year raising chickens. We started with 25 chickens in 2008 and have experimented with many mobile chicken systems since then. We also raised grass-fed cattle for about 18 months and hope to get more in the future. 23 acres of our farm is cash rented to a hay farmer, who is converting that ground to organic. We are not from a farming background, but our science and technology educations have helped in the problem solving strategies and data analysis needed to solve the daily and longer term challenges of farming.

PROBLEM/SOLUTION
Demand for pastured, organically fed eggs and chicken is high, but customers and producers both struggle with the high cost. With grain price increases, our egg prices have gone up from $3.50 a dozen to $5.00 a dozen within the last 3 years, and our profit per dozen is the lowest it’s ever been. Lower cost feed options are needed to keep us and other producers using similar systems in business. Additionally, some consumers seek soy-free meat and eggs, which are even more costly to produce in this region.

Hydroponic fodder systems are heavily advertised as a cost-reducer for ruminants, and there is data readily available for their use in that capacity. Despite anecdotes from salesmen, the research on fodder in poultry is lacking.   We propose to add hydroponically sprouted, certified organic grains to the diets of our broiler and layer flocks in a systematic way in order to determine the effects on feed cost and bird productivity.

The nutritional needs of layers and broilers are quite different, so we’ll do separate projects on each flock.

Laying Hen Experiment
Our laying flock currently consists of about 180 production red hens. They overwinter in a stationary straw bale house, then are relocated to mobile wagons and moved daily when the grass turns green (usually in March.) At all times, birds are surrounded by electric poultry netting. It is labor-intensive to split the laying flock, birds sometimes migrate over the fence, and we have a few years of data related to egg production on our farm. We could split the flock into 2 groups to have a control, depending on funding, or we could just use our previous years’ egg data for comparison.

Layer experiment A: After layers are laying, begin adding sprouted barley fodder gradually until 2% of each birds’ body weight per day is being fed. Free choice oyster shell will be offered. Free choice additional protein (dried egg or roasted soy) may be offered, particularly in the winter when insects are unavailable, and Fertrell vitamin supplement will be given. The goal is to do this for 12 weeks, while recording egg production and observing chicken health.

Layer experiment B: If egg production is maintained after 12 weeks, transition to oats instead of barley. If egg production is lower than expected, reduce fodder to 1% of body weight per bird and increase standard feed accordingly.

Layer experiment C: If experiment B was on oats, transition to wheat. Otherwise, further tune the fodder-to-feed ratio.

Layer experiments D – F: Continue as suggested by first 3 experiments. If egg production on fodder-based diets is low, calculate whether or not to continue experiment based on the lower egg production cost.

Broiler Experiment
We pasture our broilers in 3 Salatin style pens, 2 of which hold about 40 birds each, with the 3rd smaller pen holding 30 birds, each moved daily. This system will make it easy to feed different rations to comparable groups during the 4 to 5 weeks the birds are on pasture while having a control group eating ordinary organic ground feed. The control group is very important because Cornish cross broilers’ performance outdoors varies greatly with fluctuating weather! We raise 3 flocks per summer, so at least 6 experiments are possible. Sample broiler weights will be taken every 3 days to observe effects on weight gain. We will also observe the birds’ overall health and make adjustments to the experiment if needed. We may add farm-produced dehydrated egg, or purchase roasted soybean meal to increase protein availability (based on Pearson square), and Fertrell vitamin mix will be given. This will be noted in the results.

Batch 1: 70 chickens on standard ration. 40 chickens introduced to barley fodder (the highest protein fodder, some sources indicate 18%) gradually over 7 days until 2% body weight per chicken is offered, in 2 daily feedings.

Batch 2: Same experiment, but with oat or wheat fodder, which are cheaper grains.

Batch 3: Depends on the results of 1 & 2. If poultry grow out was decent with fodder, 70 birds on oat or wheat fodder, whichever was not used in experiment 2. If poultry grow out was slow, put 1 group of 40 on 1% body weight fodder + standard broiler ration, 1 group of 40 on standard ration, and 30 birds on 2% body weight fodder. Process each group separately when they reach comparable sizes to evaluate grow out time, feed, and labor costs for each group. If sprouts clearly are not working, the broiler portion of this experiment may be over.

Batches 4-6: (2014) Continue as suggested by previous results- possibly repeat experiment 3 with a different grain, or further adjust the ratio of sprouts to other feed in the diet. Corn can be sprouted. Some sources also suggest alfalfa or clover.

TIMELINE.

March/ April 2013: Build hydroponic fodder sprouter. Begin operating system with barley. If funding is adequate, split laying flock. Start Layer Experiment A.

May 2013: Brood 1st batch broilers. Move to pasture at approx. 3.5 weeks of age and start Experiment 1. Start Layer Experiment B late in May or early June.

June 2013: Process broilers and evaluate performance. Brood 2nd batch of broilers.

July 2013: Move broilers to pasture and start experiment 2. Start Layer Experiment C.

August 2013: Process broilers and evaluate performance. Brood 3rd batch of broilers.

September 2013: Move broilers to pasture and start experiment 3. Brood replacement layers.

October 2013: Process broilers and evaluate performance. Move replacement layers to pasture. Report preliminary results on web site. Share with other producers through TOFI.

January/ February 2014: Split laying flock if funding is sufficient and layer experiment is still underway. Start Layer Experiment D when hens start laying eggs.

March 2014: Process or sell “old” laying hens. Start Layer Experiment E.

May 2014: Brood 4th batch broilers. Move to pasture at approx. 3.5 weeks of age and start Experiment 4. Start Layer Experiment F.

June 2014: Process broilers and evaluate performance. Brood 5th batch of broilers.

July 2014: Move broilers to pasture and start experiment 5. May do additional experiments on laying hens, or could be complete.

August 2014: Process broilers and evaluate performance. Brood 6th batch of broilers.

September 2014: Move broilers to pasture and start experiment F.

October 2014: Process broilers and evaluate results. Create final report, post on web site, and share via social media.

November 2014: Field day hosted by our farm, to share results with other poultry producers.

PREVIOUS RESEARCH
The existing research on poultry and sprouted grain is scarce, and focuses on grain that has sprouted in storage rather than grain deliberately sprouted. In ruminants, the research shows that sprouting increases digestibility and reduces the need for enzyme supplementation compared to feeding whole grains. The need for publically available research on hydroponic fodder in poultry is obvious when talking to hydroponic salespeople, who make statements like “we have many customers feeding 100% fodder to their poultry” without being able to provide literature or research to back up their statement.

OUTREACH
We plan to make our findings available on our website, publicizing its availability through social media (facebook and twitter). We also plan to present our findings to other local poultry producers and those interested in raising poultry. We will either host a field day on our farm in November of 2014, or present at an event with our meat processor.

EVALUATION
Our ground feed and fodder consumption, egg production, and broiler weight records will show clearly whether or not we succeeded in lowering feed cost. Our records of labor hours will show whether the additional work of raising fodder pays off. We will also be able to determine what “you can raise poultry on 100% fodder” means, and whether egg and meat productivity can be maintained on such a regimen. We will also photograph broilers raised on the various regiments to document any apparent visual differences between them.

 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Lisa Burke
  • Matt Burke
  • Jeremiah Herin
  • Ryon Herin

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.