Hydroponic sprouts touted to replace costly grain, hay for livestock feed

Process only takes 6 days to grow a crop

San Francisco Chronicle - As grain and hay prices soar, a Northern California company says it has a way to feed livestock for a fraction of the cost.

Grow your own: Grain sprouts.

It's hardly an original idea. But this model, called Fodder Solutions, doesn't require vast amounts of land, good weather, field hands or even a tractor -- just a large shipping container, plastic trays, grow lights and an automated climate system.

And it only takes six days to grow a crop of grain sprouts large enough to feed 300 dairy cattle a day, or 800 horses, or 400,000 chickens. The grower can choose organic or conventional seeds, and the hydroponic process is chemical free.

It sounds too good to be true, and scientists say it is still unproven. "But it holds promise," said Cindy Daley, an agriculture professor at Chico State University in California, who specializes in organic dairy production.

The technology was invented in Australia. Simply Country Inc., located near Sacramento, is one of only two companies in the United States licensed to manufacture and sell the systems -- hydroponic growing rooms specifically designed to sprout grain and legume seeds in trays.

Simply Country's owner, Curt Chittock, whose family has been in the feed business for 48 years, admits that he was dubious in the beginning.

"In midsummer 2009, a sales guy drove into my feed store and showed me the system," he said. "My first reaction was uh, they're sprouts. They look pretty, but what are they going to do?"

He figured the sprouts might make a nice treat for his customer's backyard chickens, "like a dog biscuit," so he bought a small system and started sprouting seeds in his store. The extra, he threw to his own animals -- a few steers, a hog.

"In 30 to 60 days I saw a huge difference," he said. "They were putting on weight and their coats looked really good. In 2010 I became a licensed dealer."

Now, he and his son Kyle are delivering to 45 states, including $200,000 custom units serving 300-head dairy farms, and smaller, $5,000 systems able to produce enough food for a couple of horses and a goat or sheep. A unit that produces 4 1/2 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," he said.

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. He said fodder production uses roughly 3 percent of the water that it takes to grow hay in a field.

"And we're looking for ways to run the lights off the grid," he said.

So far, 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. Chittock said it's still necessary to include rations of hay for roughage.

Nutritionists argue that the sprouts can't compete with grain for protein and energy, Daley said. But livestock -- specifically dairy cattle -- may not need all that energy and protein.

"Ruminants were designed for eating grass," she said. "Grain causes acidosis (increased acids in the body fluids), feet problems, infertility and mastitis (breast infection)."

Dairy farmers who have recently moved to the sprout-feeding system -- some are buying Fodder Solution units, while others are improvising and building their own -- are finding that it takes two pounds of fodder to replace one pound of grain to maintain a cow's milk production, Daley said. At 27 cents for a pound of grain, compared with 8 cents for a pound of fodder, it's still a significant savings, she said. They are also seeing higher protein and fat content in their milk, Daley said.

"In the organic milk world you get paid more for higher fat and protein content because the milk is more nutritious," she said. 

"But this is all anecdotal," Daley said. "We'll have to see what it shows under a controlled setting."

The Chico State researchers will study 85 dairy cows fed a steady diet of grain sprouts grown using Fodder Solutions technology for a full lactation period -- about 300 days. They want to see whether the sprouts are nutritious enough to keep the animals healthy and milk productive, and whether the growing system is economically viable.

"The dairy industry is suffering terribly from grain and hay prices," Daley said. "If we can come up with a new, more efficient design that not only feeds animals for less money, but reduces our carbon footprint ... well, that would be a big deal."

(Stacy Finz is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: sfinz(at)sfchronicle.com Twitter: (at)sfinz.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com.)

Print this article Back to Top