Gladtime Dairy doesn’t have any cropland, but wheat straw and a little hay are its only purchased feeds.
Barley sprouts grown indoors provide most of the nutrients for Scot Edwards’ and Bill Underwood’s 100-cow Jersey herd near Pima, AZ. The cows average 30-40 lbs of milk per day at a feed cost ranging from $2.50 to $3/cow, depending on the price of straw, says Edwards.
He and Underwood are among a small but growing number of livestock producers turning to hydroponic forage production to combat high hay and grain prices. The sprouts are grown year-round in a greenhouse, in racks of long trays fed by circulating water laced with nutrients.
They produce 4,000 lbs of green feed daily using FarmTek’s Fodder-Pro system, but similar systems are available from several companies. FodderTech, Fodder Solutions, Fodder Feeds and GrazeGreen are a few of the other brand names.
Developed in Australia, hydroponic forage systems have been sold in the U.S. for several years, but this year’s drought has spurred interest, marketers say. Although the initial investment is high, they say a well-managed system can pay for itself in two or three years at current purchased-feed prices.
Costs range from a few thousand dollars for a system that grows fodder as a supplement for a small herd to well over six figures for one that supplies the primary forage in a larger operation. A dedicated building usually is needed for larger systems, too, and the daily labor requirement is significant.
At Gladtime Dairy,hydroponic forage production is a full-time job for one employee. He soaks and washes seed daily, spreads it on trays, harvests fodder, cleans empty trays, etc.
Seed becomes harvestable fodder in six or seven days. Mats of fodder are rolled up and loaded into a mixer wagon, then straw and a small amount of water are added.
“We throw a bale of hay in there, because, when it mixes with the straw, the cows seem to like it better,” says Edwards. “We don’t feed any grain anymore.”
The fodder is only 12% crude protein, but a recent test showed that it’s 87% digestible, so the cows utilize more protein than they get from alfalfa hay, he says. It’s high in energy, too, and micronutrients are added to the water.
“Instead of putting out minerals, we feed them to the plants to get better growth. In turn, the cows get them, too. I don’t think we’ve treated a sick cow since January when we switched to it, and I don’t think we’ve even had a case of mastitis.”
Edwards and Underwood paid $50,000 for the hydroponic equipment and the 2,000-sq-ft greenhouse, doing the setup work themselves. The greenhouse temperature is controlled by large evaporative coolers. They work well in winter, but Arizona’s summertime temperatures – often climbing well above 100°F – are more than they can handle. High temperatures inside the greenhouse result in moldy fodder.
They’re getting ready to convert the dairy’s unused commodity barn into a controlled-environment building for growing forages.
“We’re going to take all the information we learned in the first one and put it in an enclosed, air-conditioned building,” reports Edwards, who has helped other dairy and beef producers install hydroponic forage systems.
They’re growing in popularity, he says. “I’ve got friends who build big commercial systems, and they’re busy right now. One is building a big automated one in New Mexico to feed a 3,000-cow herd.”