Incorporating a fodder system on a small-scale livestock farm to test the economic viability of reducing winter feed costs for hogs and cattle.

Final report for FNC22-1317

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2022: $14,307.00
Projected End Date: 01/15/2024
Grant Recipient: Little Mountain Ranch and Garden LLC.
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
William Alward
Little Mountain Ranch and Garden LLC.
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Project Information

Description of operation:

We started our farm in 2017 and integrated livestock in 2018, working 16.5 acres total. Approximately 10 acres are owned pasture, 100 leased pasture acres, and 6.5 acres of forest. We are a husband and wife team along with our 2 young boys. Bill works on the farm full time and Rebecca teaches full time helping on the farm when she can. We are a diversified farm that has slowly focused more and more on livestock production as the primary focus of the farm. We produce forest raised pork, grassfed beef, grassfed lamb, pastured poultry, chicken eggs, log grown mushrooms, and a small market garden. Pork and beef are the backbone of our farm and have become the primary focus of our operation. Seasonally, we keep hogs and cattle on the farm year-round, as well as a laying flock of chickens and everything else is produced during the growing season. We are farrow to finish on the hogs and have been farrowing since 2019 and started winter farrowing of hogs in 2020. We incorporated grassfed beef on the farm in 2019 and began keeping cattle on the farm during the winter months in 2020. Our experience lies not only in the day to day management of livestock, but also in the utilization of sustainable practices. We implement management intensive grazing for all of our livestock. Hogs are managed in a forest environment on 1-2 week paddock rotations for most of the year until we need access to water during frigid temps. We source grain from off the farm and grind our own hog ration to supplement our hogs during the grazing season and then increase their feed intake during the winter months. Similarly, our beef herd is rotationally grazed during the growing season and then we migrate to bale grazing in the winter to increase fertility in areas of our pastures that need a boost. In terms of scale, we typically have 50 hogs on the farm at any given time, along with 12-15 head of cattle at peak times of the year.


One the of the biggest challenges for any small-scale livestock farm with limited acreage is winter feed costs. Grain, mineral, and protein supplements for hogs continue to rise in price and similarly hay costs for cattle. Pork and beef are the backbone of our farm’s income source and keeping stock on the farm year-round is critical to our economic success. Fodder production has the amazing ability of taking a 50lb bag of seed and turning it into ~150-200lbs of highly nutrient dense feed rich in vitamins, Omega 3s, amino acids, and protein. Rather than buying ~6400lbs of oats (200 bushels) and grinding it for feed, we could turn those oats into ~25,600lbs of feed. Not only is it a better use of resources, but also allows us to put a significant dent in how much feed and hay we are feeding in the winter months and at the same time supplement our livestock diets with a nutrient dense feed normally only found during the growing season. Compared to other SARE Grants focused on fodder, this would be the first project to test the economic viability of a fodder system to reduce overall winter feed costs for an outdoor swine operation. Fodder is not meant to replace any one animals daily diet, but is meant to be a winter diet supplement. 

Project Objectives:
  1. Install a small to medium scale fodder system in a heated indoor building.
  2. Test multiple grain types to find the best fit for our livestock species.
  3. Measure day to day labor needs of maintaining a fodder system.
  4. Evaluate the feed cost reductions supplementing our livestock diets during the winter months.
  5. Share findings of fodder system through farm tours, group visits, social media, and a conference presentation.


Materials and methods:

Our general methods for evaluating the integration of a fodder system on our farm included: 

  1. Tracking seed costs (per 50lb bag)
  2. Fodder yield by weight  (per 50lb bag)
  3. Costs comparison from prior years feeding programs
  4. Seed type analysis (e.g. what seed types function best in the system) 

As with most outdoor, pasture based livestock systems, making direct cost comparisons from one year to the next has it's challenges, however, the comparison method we used was about the best apples to apples comparison we could make without stretching our assumptions and data too far. 

Research results and discussion:

Average Costs and Yields

  • Average Seed Cost per 50lb Bag = $21
  • Average Fodder Yield = 180lbs
  • Fed Fodder comes out to an average cost of $0.12 per pound. 
    • Labor is not included in this as it is difficult to allocate time spent managing the system by the pound. 

Note on fodder yield: fodder weight can vary dramatically depending on how recently it was watered, as such, we only weighed fodder that had not been watered in at least 24 hours. 


Comparison to Our Prior Winter Feed Programs

A quick note about the comparison, fodder was not meant in this study to be a complete diet replacement for any of the livestock on our farm, it's intended to be a winter diet supplement in the coldest months of the year. Calculating day to day feed costs for livestock in an outdoor system can be tricky, and calculating how fodder reduced the day to day cost of feeding one specific cow or pig is not really a viable option on our farm. Instead, we were able to make clear comparisons to how our winter supplementation changed now that fodder is part of our feed program. In prior years, our main winter feed supplementation has been alfalfa hay, typically square bales as it's easier to limit intake that way for both cows and pigs. The following is a breakdown of what that looked like prior to and after the integration of fodder. 

Cattle typically on hay with protein supplementation, typically alfalfa small square bales.  

  • Bales 50lbs = $0.16/lb or $8 per 50lb square bale
    • Pre-Fodder Cattle Supplementation Program: Square Bale of Alfalfa Daily 
      • Cattle weekly alfalfa cost ($8/bale) - $56 
    • Pre-Fodder Swine Supplementation Program: Square Bale of Alfalfa Every 3 Days 
      • Swine weekly aflafa cost ($8/bale) - $18.60
    • Pre-Fodder Total Weekly Cost of Alfalfa = ~$75
  • With introduction of fodder: Reduced Cow alfalfa to once every 2 days last winter (typically a bale at a time)
  • Eliminated alfalfa supplementation entirely for pigs last winter (typically a bale every 3 days spread out among the different groups). 
  • Weekly Alfalfa Cost with Fodder Supplementation = $28 
  • Weekly Fodder Cost = $73.50 
  • Total Weekly Supplementation Cost = ~$102 

In summary, adding fodder did not reduce our overall feed costs. However, there are some important things to consider. We fed fodder each day throughout the winter to both hogs and cattle. In prior years we only supplemented the hogs every 3 days with alfalfa hay, whereas with the addition of fodder we were supplementing every day. This was really driven by not knowing how much daily yield we would have each day from the system until we had it running smoothly and efficiently. We believe with high regional hay costs and careful supplementation plans it is possible to reduce overall feed costs on our farm. Particularly if we reduce fodder supplementation to hogs to only every few days or every other day.

Seed Types & Palatability

Metrics of each category rated as low, medium, high. 
Seed Type Germination Yield Bovine Palatability Swine Palatability Mold Potential
Wheat High High High High Low
Rye High High High Medium Low
Winter Barley Medium Medium High Medium Medium
Triticale High High High Medium Low
Oats Low Low Not Tested Medium High
Milo Low Low Not Tested High Medium
**Note: any poor germinating varieties were not fed to cattle, only hogs. 


Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: Social Media Posts - shared preliminary summary and details of the fodder system on our Farm Social Media pages (Facebook and Instagram).

Participation Summary:

35 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

NSAS Presentation Presentation on 02/03/2023 at the Local Food and Healthy Farms Conference in Aurora, Nebraska. Conference is put on by the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, Nebraska Regional Food Systems Initiative, and the Nebraska Specialty Crops Conference. Presentation covered an overview of the fodder system and construction as well as preliminary learnings and recommendations. 18 attendees. 


On Farm Workshop 12/15/2023. Hands on workshop that gave an overview of how the system is built, run, and maintained. A big focus was on some of the pitfalls of the system and things to watch out for. We discussed the economic viability and day to day costs as well as the day to day labor requirements. We also gave demonstrations on how the fodder is prepped to grow, harvested, and then fed to livestock. 12 attendees. 

Learning Outcomes

25 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:
Fodder System
General View of Fodder System Tray Segment

Fodder System Key Learnings:

  • Building and assembling the fodder system was a learning experience. A big thing we learned that at 2 people were needed to assemble. Plumbing was the most time consuming part of building the system. 
  • A big early learning was running the system on stand alone water with a pump isn't the most efficient. Tapping straight into a water line would be the most efficient. Careful consideration of output water is also recommended as the waste water could be used as a nutrient rich supplement to livestock water. 
  • It takes time to figure out how much grain each tray needs as well as how thick a seed layer in each tray should be. 
  • 24 hour pre-soak for grain appeared to be best compared to 12 hours. 
  • The system we used is watered by gravity, so the channels are on a slope. This means channelization of water can happen if the trays are completely level perpendicular to the slope of the channel. 
  • Spreading seed out evenly, not too thick, not too thin is really critical to getting an even, high yield.  
    • Too thick of seed spread leads to poor germination and grain waste. 
  • Intake side of water system must have filter. Intake plumbing also has very fragile plumbing fittings that can easily clog without filtration.
  • Drain side manifold requires careful assembly that is not well covered in system assembly instructions. 
  • Recycling of waste water is not an option without a very heavy duty filtration system. 

Grain Type Learnings:

  • Summarized in Research section, refer to table above for information about germination, yield, palatability, and other observations. 

Grain Pre-Soak Water: 

  • Grain is soaked for ~24 hours prior to spreading out in trays to sprout. One unexpected discovery was how much cattle enjoy drinking the water after grain is removed, it served as an extra sugary water treat for the cattle every day. It was usually only about 5 gallons of water so it wasn't something we could give to all the cows every day. This could have utility for larger fodder systems. 

Anecdotal Observations: 

  • Gut health for pigs appeared to be better while supplementing fodder, no cases of Diarrhea or Scours in observed compared to previous winter seasons. 
  • For cattle, feed efficiency appeared to improve. In other words, hay consumption dropped when fodder was added to their winter diet. 
Rye Fodder
Ready to feed Rye Fodder

Project Outcomes

1 New working collaboration
Success stories:

One collaboration that has opened up during this project is a fellow small grain farmer in our area mills their own grains, typically wheat, sometimes rye. We have been able to utilize the "heavy" wheat grains separated during cleaning that are not suitable for milling as a source of fodder grain. This is a cost reduction for us versus buying all our grain from a major supplier and paying freight shipping costs. The downside is it's not always readily available but hope to continue to utilize this seed sourcing in the future to bring down costs. 


Final Things to Consider: 

  • Fodder is not a good fit for everyone. 
    • Requires an insulated, heated area or building to function properly in cold climates. 
    • It's an extra labor item for any farm. For our system size, that was about 1 hour of labor per day for one person. 
  • Fodder requires less storage space than alfalfa square bales or other feedstuffs. A pallet of seed and a fodder system like ours takes up much less space than 300 square bales of alfalfa for example. 
  • A fodder system can be throttled down or ramped up to full capacity depending on the weather and labor availability. 
  • Sprouting only 5 days a week is likely the future plan for us which will reduce weekly labor and material costs. 

Information Products

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.