Farmers trying hydroponic sprouts as traditional animal feed alternatives

Method holds promise, say scientists; cost savings reported

Grain and hay prices are rising, but a new technology that grows grain sprouts hydroponically may provide an alternative method for feeding livestock at a significant cost savings, according to scientists and the companies selling the sprouts.

The technology was invented in Australia, and there are two companies in the U.S. licensed to manufacture and sell the hydroponic growing rooms designed to sprout grain and legume seeds in trays. Simply Country Inc. is one of those companies, and owner Curt Chittock said he was dubious about the technology, until his own animals began putting on weight and showing healthier coats as a result of eating the sprouts. His company became a licensed dealer in 2010.

A hydroponic unit that produces 4.5 tons of fodder a day – enough to feed 300 dairy cows or 800 horses – is 3,000 square feet. “It would take 160 acres of farmland to conventionally grow that much,” said Chittock. Customers can buy their cereal-grain seeds, including barley, wheat, corn and oats, from him, or wherever is convenient. No fertilizer or chemicals are required. The seeds are grown hydroponically in trays, meaning no soil is used, just water. Chittock said fodder production uses roughly 3 percent of the water that it takes to grow hay in a field.

So far, Chittock said, his customers are reporting reductions in feed costs anywhere from $12,000 to $40,000 a month, depending on the size of the operation. Some have completely eliminated feeding grain to their animals, while others are supplementing the fodder with corn or barley. It’s still necessary to include rations of hay for roughage.

It takes two pounds of fodder to replace one pound of grain to maintain a cow’s milk production, but at 27 cents for a pound of grain, compared with 8 cents for a pound of fodder, it’s still a significant savings, said Cindy Daley, an agriculture professor at Chico State University who specializes in organic dairy production. Overall, the method is still unproven. “But it holds promise,” said Daley.