Chances are, if you have poultry or other livestock, you’ve considered ways to decrease your feed bill, increase animal nutrition, and become more self-sufficient in the process. A typical fall or winter trip to the feed store is all it takes to get the wheels turning. Numerous droughts in recent years may have further greased the gears.
Freshly sprouted fodder might be just what you are looking for, especially if you live in a cold or dry climate and cannot pasture your animals year-round, or if you don’t have extensive pasture space. While sprouted fodder won’t replace 100 percent of your animals’ diet, it can become a valuable source of inexpensive nutrition for your herd or flock.
Back to the Roots
Even though you may have just recently heard about fodder, sprouting seeds for livestock is not a new idea. References to sprouting small grains for livestock can be found dating back 400 years. It seems natural that feeding livestock has always spurred our innate curiosity to improve feed values and efficiencies along with quality of life in the animals we tend. I collect old livestock husbandry books, and there are many references to soaking, sprouting and cooking grain within their pages, including observations on the nutritional value of the various processes.
Perhaps you have never heard of sprouted fodder and are wondering what it is. Sprouted fodder is simply grain that has been allowed to germinate and grow until right before it starts showing its second set of leaves, at about seven to 10 days after sprouting. The entire sprouted mat is fed to livestock: shoots, roots and grain. It is very similar to the microgreens that are so popular in modern cuisine. Barley is the most common grain found in sprouted fodder systems, but other grains and seeds can be used.
Fodder provides improved protein, starch, enzymes, sugar and vitamins in comparison to feeding dry grain. During the sprouting and growing, from grain to grass, nearly all the starch in the grain is converted to sugar. While total energy doesn’t increase with sprouting, the energy is much more easily processed by animals because the nutrients are more readily available, making it a more efficient form of energy. Sprouted fodder is also reported to improve digestion, meaning animals use less energy digesting food and more energy for growth and reproduction.
Other health benefits are evident as well. Sprouted fodder helps maintain pH stability in the rumen, which reduces the risk for acidosis. Sprouting increases mineral and vitamin levels significantly while increasing the bioavailability of these nutrients, because enzyme inhibitors in the grains are neutralized. According to “Sprouted Barley Fodder” in the Winter 2013 newsletters of the Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, “Mineral and vitamin levels in hydroponically sprouted barley are significantly increased over those in grain; in addition, they are absorbed more efficiently due to the lack of enzyme inhibitors in sprouted grain. Sprouts provide a good supply of vitamins A, E, C and B complex. The vitamin content of some seeds can increase by up to 20 times their original value within several days of sprouting.”
Additional, more anecdotal benefits are getting notice, too. Some farmers report that their animals deal with extreme temperature changes more easily. Others say the animals make better use of lower-quality hay when sprouted fodder is added to rations. Some report better immunity and reproductive performance when sprouted fodder is used over a long period of time. If you choose to incorporate sprouted fodder into your feeding system, take detailed notes so you can see the benefits it provides for your flock or herd. Personally, I noticed that my chickens lay much better throughout the winter when fodder augments their diet.
And, it can save you money on your feed bill.
Naturally, it’s not all unicorns and butterflies when growing fodder. A few problems may arise. The biggest issue you will likely deal with is mold – a potent toxin that can be very dangerous to animals. Moldy fodder and grains should never be fed to animals, especially fowl, which are more sensitive to it.
Some of your initial batches will most like be moldy – compost them and chalk them up as a valuable learning experience.
The easiest way to control mold is to start with quality seed. Seed that isn’t clean and includes chaff and other contaminates is much more likely to mold than clean seed. Commercial fodder systems often use bleach or other chemicals in the water to kill mold spores, but that doesn’t seem like the best option for small-scale production (or for the septic system). Some small-scale growers use a splash of bleach or hydrogen peroxide during the initial 12-hour soaking period to help kill any mold spores on the grain. I personally use a splash of peroxide and have found it to be the best option for me.
The type and source of grain you use will also affect the risk of mold growth. All seeds contain mold spores, and some sources are more likely to produce mold than others. Refrain from investing in large quantities of seed until you have grown several test runs to monitor mold growth from that source. If you do buy a large amount of grain, and it molds easily, use it as a fermenting grain instead of a fodder grain.
Growing conditions will also affect the risk of mold growth. Air movement and humidity are big factors, and keeping humidity under control and providing exchange of air will greatly decrease the risk of mold. Try using different areas of the house: I found that fodder molded much easier if I tried to grow it in my basement, while my kitchen seems to be the best place, as there is more air movement. Using clean containers for growing is also important, as they can carry over spores from previous batches. Experimenting with types of containers will also prove valuable. I found that black plastic seed trays did not work for me, as they molded quite quickly. I finally settled on large square plastic colanders from a restaurant supply store, with a piece of brown kraft paper in the bottom to keep the seeds from falling through. These containers provide a lot of air movement around the grains and plants, and they are also much easier to drain.
If at first you don’t succeed, try again. When I first started trying to grow fodder, I gave up quickly, because mold was too much of an issue for me. Then I decided to try different grains, different containers and different areas in the house. After many failed batches, I finally found that rye fodder was a better option for me than barley. I can only find one brand of organic barley feed locally, and the fodder seemed to mold no matter what I did. Organic rye berries from my local health-food store sprout beautifully, and I haven’t had any mold issues. They’re even forgiving if I forget to water them. For me, watering and rinsing less often is worth the slightly higher seed cost.
In my sprouting efforts, I tried barley (both hulled and unhulled), white wheat, red wheat, rye, spelt, and a few other grains. Rye was by far the best option for me. The grains you can source locally may be completely different, so don’t be disappointed if your first few batches don’t work. Keep trying. It’s worth the effort to find something that works for you.
Supplement, Not Replacement
Animals still need roughage and other things for balanced nutrition, so don’t expect sprouted fodder to be their sole source of food. As with humans, a wide variety of food items rounds out nutrients in any diet. The recommendations for percentage of freshly sprouted fodder in the diet aren’t set in stone. While some sources recommend using it at 10 percent of the total diet, some farmers report success with greater amounts. Since every farm and situation is unique, it seems logical that the percentage will vary depending on other variables. In the small-scale setting, it would be easy to start at 10 percent with slow increases while monitoring the health of the livestock.
On my small farm, sprouting fodder is a worthwhile investment of my time and resources. I have found that combining it with fermented grains keeps my flock of birds healthy and happy throughout the long, cold winters in Maine. My hens lay more eggs than any of my neighbors’ birds, and that happened when I switched from commercial feed to a fodder/fermented feed.
I’m still working on developing the best setup for me and my animals. If you are interested in developing a system, spend some time on the Internet looking at the small-scale setups other farmers have used. I’ve seen some that are complete with timed watering, and others that are simply baskets stacked on top of one another in the basement. I’ve read that some people find it easiest to set up a fodder system in the shower in a spare bathroom. My kitchen works best for me, since I have a tendency to forget to water them if I don’t see them. Buy some grains, get a few containers, and give sprouted fodder a try. Not only will you be saving money and providing more healthful food for your animals, I guarantee you’ll have fun and learn something along the way.
How to Get Started
Sprouting fodder is a simple, straightforward process, though it might seem a little overwhelming at first. A fair amount of work is involved for the small-scale home producer, but figuring out a system and process that works within your schedule will make it worth your while. I tried four or five different methods until I found one that works best for me. Maybe you can learn from my experience.
Many factors exist that will contribute to the success or failure of a batch of fodder, including quality of grain, temperature, humidity, and density of grains in bins. The basic steps to produce sprouted fodder are as follows:
1. Soak clean grain for 8 to 12 hours. Soaking longer may reduce germination rates and increase the risk for mold contamination.
2. Rinse and drain grain at least twice a day until you notice roots emerging. I find it easiest to keep grain in bowls or colanders during this period.
3. When roots emerge, spread seed into trays and containers, and put in a location where temperatures range between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. There is no need for additional light, and no need for fertilizer or soil, just water. Seed layer should be no deeper than 1/2-inch.
4. Water or rinse several times per day: A minimum of twice per day is needed to prevent mold growth, but three to six times per day times is best. Propping trays up at a slight angle helps water drain from trays.
5. Harvest and feed to animals, generally between days six and 10. Maximum feed value is achieved right before seeds start to produce their second leaves. Earlier is better than later, and some tests show that 6-day sprouts are more nutrient-dense than 9-day sprouts. Fodder quickly loses the rapid growth and poundage increase after that time as well. Temperature will affect the growth rate, so fodder grown at a lower temperature will most likely need an additional day or two to achieve maximum nutrition.
Learn more about managing feed costs by reading Grazing Management: Keys to a Well-Fed Flock.
Susy Morris is a Maine-based blogger, photographer and hobby farmer who loves experimenting with different techniques to make her garden and farm more sustainable. Read more at Chiots Run.