Evaluating the feasibility, effectiveness and challenges of sprouted grains on grazing dairy farms

Final Report for ONE14-224

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2014: $14,503.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2017
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
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Project Information

Summary:

In 2014 the USDA-ARS Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Unit, University Park, PA was awarded a NE-SARE Research/Partnership grant to evaluate the use of sprouted grains on grazing dairy farms. Two dairy farms in Pennsylvania participated in this study designed to evaluate the feasibility, effectiveness and challenges of using a sprouted grain system with a third providing technical input and data as a farm that had used but discontinued use of sprouted barley. Data was collected monthly for 12 months on both farms actively using sprouted barley.

One farm had a homemade system, the other had a purchased sprouted grain system. However, one farm discontinued use of sprouted barley at pasture turnout and while they intended to start feeding sprouted barely again in the fall, they decided not to use sprouted barley anymore. We learned that increased milk production is not the only reason to implement a sprouted grain system. In fact, in some cases milk production does not increase with sprouted barley usage. Other perceived animal health benefits (such as reduced somatic cell counts) make sprouted grains more attractive to farmers to improve milk pay price, although the cause of this change in somatic cells is not clear.

There are several important outcomes of this research. First and foremost, the data on challenges and economics of sprouted grain systems has generally favored continuing to produce or purchase high-quality forages as opposed to installing sprouted grain systems in temperate regions of the U.S. such as the Northeast. There are situations where sprouted grain systems may be beneficial, but farmers must look hard at economics (including ALL costs, including capital investment in the system) to determine whether a sprouted grain system is truly advantageous, given the labor, mold issues, availability of high-quality barley grain and loss of nutrients during the sprouting process.

 However, sprouted barley may have application in small-scale livestock operations, farms those with high lands values where tillable acreage can produce high-value crops, or for producers experiencing severe extended drought. Additionally, farms that have an excess of labor may benefit with a sprouted grain system. Each farm must put pencil to paper to determine if implementing sprouted grain in feeding management is a good idea, making sure to include all costs in deciding whether the money could be better spent growing or purchasing higher-quality forage.  In a sister study conducted at the University of Minnesota, income over feed costs was $0.22/cow/day higher for organic dairy cows NOT fed sprouted barley. When a sensitivity analysis was conducted, sprouted barley did not become profitable until organic corn prices were increased by 50% over those used in the study ($11.77/bu).

We feel that, for the most part, little additional research is needed on our part to determine whether sprouted grain systems are an economical alternative to producing high-quality forages. There may well be other animal species (i.e. non-ruminants) or other climates and economic conditions where sprouted grain systems may be feasible.

Introduction:

Dairy farmers are challenged with escalating feed costs and are seeking alternative feeding strategies to improve economic sustainability. Sprouted grain has been suggested as a method to produce high quality fresh forage in regions where water shortages and seasonality of forages are common (Rodriguez-Muela et al., 2005; Rodriguez, 2012). While this is not a new technology, interest in this feeding strategy has significantly increased recently in the Northeast due to escalating feed prices, unpredictable weather patterns, and limited land bases. Interest has also been piqued by farmer testimonials featured in industry publications that cited anecdotal observations of improved animal health, milk yield and quality. A field day at the farm of John Stoltzfus (NY dairy farmer) in 2012 demonstrated a self-built sprouted grain system and drew 115 participants, many of whom were interested in adopting sprouted grain. A webinar hosted by John Stoltzfus and Fay Benson (Cornell Extension) in 2013 had the highest attendance (177 participants) and the highest proportion of farmer participants (54%) of any e-Organic dairy webinar to that date. Several field days focusing on other topics that were attended by the authors have been ‘hijacked’ to discuss sprouted grains, indicating a need amongst the industry for greater information and education.

Some distributors of the sprouted grain systems have made strong claims regarding superior nutritional value of sprouted grains compared with the pre-sprouted grain or conventional high-quality forage (including pasture). For these reasons, some farmers view sprouted grains as an ‘easier’ alternative to producing high-quality forages on high-priced land. Other farmers question whether sprouted grain could be used in the non-grazing season to maintain greater levels of beneficial fatty acids such as conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3 fatty acids. However, data from Dr. Soder’s lab suggested that nutritional value of sprouted grain may fall somewhere between these other two feed sources, indicating sprouted grain may be a viable feed source, but is not a ‘magic elixir’ to replace good forage management (Hafla et al., 2014). There is also little objective data (none of which was conducted in the Northeast with local rations and cow genetics) regarding animal productivity. Additionally, distributors claim that the significant capital investment can be recouped within a couple of years. However, a report from Iowa State University (Larry Tranel, 2013) questioned the economic viability of universally implementing such systems on dairy farms.

The authors of this project have been fielding frequent questions regarding sprouted grain systems, ranging from economic feasibility to the nutritional value of sprouted grains in order to balance rations to utilize sprouted grains in both grazing and confinement rations. However, despite overwhelming farmer interest in this technology, little scientific and economic evidence was available that evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of sprouted grains. Despite a number of glowing testimonials, there a number of struggles/failures with sprouted grains as well. Objective information is needed to advise and educate grazing dairy farmers in the Northeast to make informed decisions on whether to implement a sprouted grain system on their farms.

References

Hafla, A.N., K.J. Soder, A.F. Brito, M.D. Rubano, and C.J. Dell. 2014. Effect of sprouted barley grain supplementation of an herbage-based or haylage-based diet on ruminal fermentation and methane output in continuous culture. J. Dairy Sci. 97:7856-7869.

Rodriguez, S. 2012. Hydroponic green fodder and ecology. Page 45-51 in Proc. Second International Symposium on Soilless Culture and Hydroponics. Acta Horticulturae. 947. International Society for Horticultural Science. Leuven, Belgium.

Rodriguez-Muela, C., H.E. Rodriguez, O. Ruiz, A. Flores, J.A. Grado, and C. Arzola. 2005. Use of green fodder produced in hydroponics systems as supplement for Salers lactating cows during the dry season. Page 271-274 in Proc. Western Section, American Society of Animal Science, Las Cruces, NM. American Society of Animal Science, Champaign, IL.

Tranel, L. 2013. Hydroponic Fodder Systems for Dairy Cattle? Animal Industry Report. AS 659, ASL R2791. ISU press.

Project Objectives:

This project concentrated on three areas to improve the knowledge and education of implementing a sprouted grain system on dairy farms in the Northeast. These areas are:

  1. Nutritional value of sprouted grains- We evaluated monthly nutritional value of the sprouted grain as well as any other feeds fed during the year-long study to quantify nutritional intake of the animals to relate this information to animal productivity and economics below, as well as to evaluate how sprouted grains fit into the rations being used.
  2. Animal Production- Milk production, milk composition, and body condition were monitored on a monthly basis using farm records and bulk tank receipts to evaluate animal productivity. Comparisons of milk production and composition (including beneficial fatty acids such as conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3 fatty acids) were be made seasonally (grazing vs. non-grazing season) as well as for changes in ration (i.e. if sprouted grains are only fed during certain portions of the year or if the percentage of sprouted grain in the ration changes seasonally). This information was used to calculate economic impact and feasibility of implementing a sprouted grain system.
  3. Implementation and Economics- Information collected will include opportunities and challenges that the participating dairy farmers faced as they made the decision to implement sprouted grains, the actual process of installing the system, learning to grow the sprouted grain, and incorporating sprouted grain into the dairy rations for various animal groups and throughout the year as ration components change (i.e. grazing during the summer months). Additionally, economic information, including income over feed costs and return on investment information were collected from the farmer and summarized.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Alvin Peachey
  • Dwight Stoltzfoos
  • Korie L. Yoder

Research

Materials and methods:

Three Pennsylvania dairy farms were selected with the help of Dr. Abel-Caines and Mr. Andrew Batdorf to participate in this case study. A personal interview was completed in late 2014 to collect data on feed rations, management, and philosophy for using sprouted barley. One of the farms had used, but discontinued use, of sprouted barley, but had kept meticulous records on animal productivity, feed rations, and economics.

Farm 1 had a low-capital expense homemade system (75-100 lb sprouted barley/day) that was built in an existing cinder block building (3 m x 13.5 m) using gutters and other materials found on the farm for the system. The room was heated with a kerosene heater, relied on natural light through two small (50 cm x 100 cm) windows, and had no cooling system or humidity control. An unfiltered mountain spring served as the water source for the system. Sprouted barley was discontinued during hot weather due to lack of a cooling system. Approximately 20-25 cows were milked and family labor provided all farm labor, including for the sprouted barley system. Cows were grazed during the growing season with no sprouted barley fed at that time.

Farm 2 had two different commercial systems (producing 250-300 lb sprouted barley/day) on the farm during the duration of the study. The first system had too much down time due to repairs, so the farmer purchased a different second-hand commercial system. Both sprouted grain systems were housed in a large, open garage (approximately 22m x 10m) with no humidity control or cooling system. Heating was provided by a wood stove in the corner of the garage. Lighting was provided by either the regular garage lighting or natural light through windows. This farm milked 40-50 cows and had a hired hand on the farm who assisted with the sprouted grain system. Cows were grazed during the growing season. Farm 2 discontinued feeding sprouted barley early in the study.

Farm 3 installed a large (2.5-3 ton sprouted barley/d) commercial system, including a stand-alone, climate-controlled building. This farm milked approximately 150 cows. A full-time person was hired for the sprouted barley system. This farm had discontinued feeding sprouted barley prior to the beginning of the study but provided data for our study.

Beginning in Jan 2015, the other two farm visits that were still using sprouted barley were conducted once monthly for 12 months. During these visits, information was collected on feed ration, milk production and other management practices. Samples of all feeds (including sprouted barley, pasture, conserved forages, grains) were collected for nutrient analyses and analyzed by wet chemistry for dry matter, organic matter, crude protein, rumen degradable protein, neutral detergent fiber, acid detergent fiber, starch, non-fiber carbohydrate, non-structural carbohydrates, ethanol soluble carbohydrates, water soluble carbohydrates, ether extract, and minerals by DairyOne Forage Analysis Laboratory (Ithaca, NY).

During each monthly visit, milk samples were collected from the bulk tank to be analyzed by the Dairy Herd Improvement Association (Lancaster, PA) for milk composition (protein, fat, milk urea nitrogen, lactose, and somatic cell count). Milk samples were also analyzed for fatty acid content (including conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3 fatty acids) by the Pennsylvania State University.

Milk data were compared between periods for when sprouted barley was and was not fed as well as evaluating seasonal changes in milk production and composition as some dairy farms are interested in incorporating sprouted grain into the ration during the non-grazing season to maintain high levels of beneficial fatty acids such as conjugated linoleic acid. Milk production information (e.g., milk price, pounds of milk sold) was used in combination with other economic information, specifically feed costs, for economic analysis.

Research results and discussion:

Although we met project objectives/performance targets, we experienced the following challenges:

    • Delays in receiving funding combined with waning interest in sprouted grain systems from the time the proposal was written until the project was started resulted in an increased challenge of finding suitable farms who were agreeable to participating in this research. As a result of this delay, we also asked for a 1-year grant extension to complete all project objectives.
    •  As a result of the challenge above, we ended up using two Amish farms (Farms 1 and 2), where conditions (economic, labor, facilities, etc.) may not have been as typical of all grazing farms as we would have liked. However, quite a number of farms had discontinued sprouted grain feeding which made finding suitable farms more difficult.
    • One of the two farms (Farm 2) that were feeding sprouted barley at the beginning of the study discontinued sprouted barley only a couple of months (at the beginning of the grazing season) after we initiated the project. Their goal at the time was to start feeding sprouted barley again in the fall when pasture production declined, therefore we continued collecting data in anticipation of the sprouted barley feeding in the fall. However, this farmer decided to not feed sprouted barley ever again and by this point it was too late in the project to seek out a replacement farm. Therefore, very limited data was collected on this farm.
    • Due to waning interest in sprouted grain systems by the time the project was ending, we were finding difficulty locating a farm that would be agreeable to hosting a field day (the one farm on our study that was still feeding sprouted barley was not willing to host). In addition, we were concerned about low attendance at such a field day due to waning interest. Therefore, the funding that was targeted for the field day was re-directed to travel so that researchers could travel to regional conferences and meetings to disseminate the information. For example, Dr. Soder presented results of this research at the American Forage and Grassland Council in Roanoke, VA in Jan. 2017 and the Northeast Pasture Consortium meeting in Hagerstown, MD in Mar 2017.
    • Since our data collection was more limited than initially hoped, we were concerned about having enough data for a peer-reviewed publication. We had been working on other sprouted grain sprojects with Dr. Bradley Heins at the University of Minnesota who has a sprouted grain system on the university dairy research farm. We decided to combine our case study information with his controlled research projects to write a stronger peer-reviewed publication that provided much more data.

 

Summary of Research Results 

  • Two farms discontinued feeding sprouted barley prior to (Farm 3) or during (Farm 2) data collection for this project. Farm 2 discontinued sprouted barley during the study and did not have good data (ration, milk production or economics) due to the frequent starts and stops of sprouted barley. Farm 3 fed sprouted barley on a larger scale for several years, but finally decided that labor issues, mold, supply of high-quality barley grain and most importantly economics, were too high to continue feeding sprouted barley.
  •  No milk response was observed on Farms 2 and 3 when feeding sprouted barley. Both farms produced high-quality forages which were more economical to feed than sprouted barley and produced a better milk response. However, at least one of the farms first got interested in feeding sprouted barley for reasons other than milk response, including animal health and forage quality, which turned out not to be the case for them, therefore they discontinued feeding sprouted barley.
  • Farms 1 and 2 stated that they observed lower somatic cell count in milk when cows were fed sprouted barley, which led to higher milk prices due to the premiums received. This effect was not noted during data collection for this study, but could have been due to a number of reasons, including 1) length of study, 2) sprouted barley not being fed long enough on any of the farms to note this change, 3) less sprouted barley being fed than previous years on these farms (in part due to barley supply), and 4) the lower somatic cell counts could have been due to factors other than sprouted barley. 
  • Farm 1 was small (20 cows) & used a low-input, homemade system. This farm did have a marginal 2-3 b/day increase in milk production when sprouted barley was fed. Home-grown forage quality was marginal, therefore sprouted barley may have provided better nutrition and better milk response. Also, family labor was used for the sprouted barley system, whereas the Farms 1 and 3 used hired help, which greatly impacted cost of barely production as Farm 1 did not factor in family labor as a cost of sprouted barley production.
  • Economics were not able to be calculated on Farms 1 and 2 due to lack of data/sprouted barley feeding.
  • While milk fatty acid profiles did change seasonally with beneficial fatty acids such as CLA increasing when cows were grazing, results were inconsistent due to the erratic sprouted barley feeding that occurred on the participating farms such that no conclusive results could be made relative to sprouted barley, only the seasonal effects of pasture.
  • Farm 3 had significant capital investment in their sprouted grain system as well as considerable expenses in hired labor and building modifications to deal with chronic mold issues. This farm finally decided to abandon sprouted barley feeding. When they did, they cut their losses in half when the building was not in use as they only had to make loan payments, meaning they were losing significant income (due to higher feed costs) when sprouted barley was fed.
  • In the study conducted at the University of Minnesota, income over feed costs was $0.22/cow/day higher for organic dairy cows NOT fed sprouted barley. When a sensitivity analysis was conducted, sprouted barley did not become profitable until organic corn prices were increased by 50% over those used in the study ($11.77/bu).
  • Sprouted grain systems may be a very costly method of producing feed for dairy producers. However, sprouted grains may have application in small-scale livestock operations, farms those with high lands values where tillable acreage can produce high-value crops, or for producers experiencing severe extended drought. Additionally, farms that have an excess of labor may benefit with a sprouted grain system. Each farm must put pencil to paper to determine if implementing sprouted grain in feeding management is a good idea, making sure to include all costs in deciding whether the money could be better spent growing or purchasing higher-quality forage.
Research conclusions:

There are several important outcomes of this research. First and foremost, the data on challenges and economics of sprouted grain systems has generally favored continuing to produce or purchase high-quality forages as opposed to installing sprouted grain systems in temperate regions of the U.S. such as the Northeast. There are situations where sprouted grain systems may be beneficial, but farmers must look hard at economics (including ALL costs, including capital investment in the system) to determine whether a sprouted grain system is truly advantageous, given the labor, mold issues, availability of high-quality barley grain and loss of nutrients during the sprouting process.

Our research efforts resulted in the following (all documented in the section below):

  • 1 peer-reviewed publication geared towards industry personnel and others who work directly with farmers.
  • 1 trade publication geared towards farmers
  • 2 fact sheets geared towards farmers that were will continue to be distributed at field days and ag expo days (i.e. Ag Progress Days at Penn State) and are available online
  • 3 invited presentations geared towards technical personnel (i.e., NRCS, extension) and farmers
  • At least 4 trade publications written about our project to disperse the information to farmers.

Dr. Soder has also routinely fielded phone calls and emails from farmers who were interested in sprouted grain systems but were seeking more information. This project provided them with science-based advice to make informed decisions on whether to install a sprouted grain system on their farms.

By evaluating the economic feasibility, potential human health benefits (if beneficial fatty acid profiles were altered), and challenges of adopting sprouted grain systems and providing this information to farmers, our project directly linked at least three of the key themes of sustainable agriculture highlighted by NE-SARE:

  1. Reduce environmental and health risks in agriculture
  2. Improved productivity, the reduction of costs, and the increase of net farm income.
  3. The improvement of quality of life for farmers, their employees, and the farm community.
Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Peer-reviewed Publications

Soder, Kathy J., Brad J. Heins, Jim C. Paulson, Hugh Chester-Jones, Aimee N. Hafla, and Melissa D. Rubano. Evaluation of fodder production systems for grazing dairy farms. (awaiting agency approval for submission to Professional Animal Scientist).

Trade Publications

Soder, Kathy J., and Brad J. Heins. Evaluation of sprouted barley fodder for grazing dairy farms. GRAZE magazine. Vol. 23, No. 8, pp. 13-14. October 2016.graze-mag-fodder-oct-2016

 Fact Sheets

Hafla, Aimee N., and Kathy J Soder. Sprouted barley for dairy cows: nutritional composition and digestibility. USDA-ARS fact sheet. 2015. SB-Farm-factsheet-Final

Soder, Kathy J. Evaluation of fodder production systems for dairy farms. USDA-ARS fact sheet. 2017 SB-On-Farm-factsheet1

Meeting Proceedings/Abstracts

Soder, Kathy J., Brad J. Heins, Jim C. Paulson, Hugh Chester-Jones, Aimee N. Hafla, and Melissa D. Rubano. Evaluation of fodder production systems for grazing dairy cows. Proceedings of the 2017 American Forage and Grassland Council annual meeting, Jan. 22-25, 2017, Roanoke, VA.

Soder, Kathy J., Brad J. Heins, Jim C. Paulson, Hugh Chester-Jones, Aimee N. Hafla, and Melissa D. Rubano. Evaluation of fodder production systems for grazing dairy cows. Proceedings of the 2017 NE Pasture Consortium meeting, Mar 2-3, 2017, Hagerstown, MD.

Invited Presentations

 Trade Articles Written about this Project

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

We feel that, for the most part, little additional research is needed on our part to determine whether sprouted grain systems are an economical alternative to producing high-quality forages. There may well be other animal species (i.e. non-ruminants) or other climates and economic conditions where sprouted grain systems may be feasible, but that is beyond the scope of this project and expertise of the personnel involved.

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.