Q This year, hay has been difficult to find and is more expense than in past years. We are considering putting in a fodder system to feed our 30 draft horses. We were wondering if you had any information on this system.

A Hydroponically grown forage (or fodder) has become a new hot topic among livestock producers. There are several companies that are aggressively marketing these systems.

With hydroponics, plants can be grown in a small amount of water on a mat with added nutrients, but without soil. With hydroponics, forage is grown in a greenhouse and growth is usually fast. Harvesting can occur in as little as 7 to 10 days. Hydroponic growing systems have been specifically developed to sprout small grains and legumes, with most systems using barley. When the forage is grown, producers simply roll it up like a roll of sod (sprouted grass and roots) and feed it to livestock.

Many experts do not believe that hydroponically grown fodder is economical, especially if labor is figured into the total cost. Livestock owners should consider the following, the cost of the system to grow about 1,000 pounds of feed per day is over $45,000. This amount is what is needed to supply 36 pounds of dry matter to a herd of about 30 draft horses (assuming an 1,800 pound draft horse fed 2% of their bodyweight). The system is also labor and time intensive. Producers must consider the seed, disposable equipment, facility, fertilizer, heat, light, depreciation, and labor cost when decided whether to grow fodder.

From the composition of the end product, it appears that little additional tonnage is added from growth of the small grain. The final dry weight is about the same as the grain seed weight. In some cases, dry matter is actually lost due to the respiration occurring during the early germination process. Many experts are concerned that the production of fodder adds nothing more than water, and that the nutrient and mineral content of the fodder (on a dry matter basis) is about the same as the barley seed used. The final fodder product is essentially a concentrate, not a forage due to the low amount of fiber. Therefore, additional forage would have to be fed to meet the fiber needs of horses and other livestock. Finally, fodder is about 90% water, so a significant amount will need to be fed to meet the horses dry matter requirement.

Since a greenhouse, or similar structure, will be needed to produce fodder, there will likely be a learning curve in producing it. Producers are not likely to start with optimal production yields which can top 1,000 pound daily. Several conditions including outside air temperature (i.e. too hot or too cold) may reduce inside growth. When calculating the potential productivity of a fodder system, the local weather conditions must be taken into consideration.

Even with high current hay prices, the most economical forage for livestock owners in the Midwest is legume and grass pasture and hay. This is true even in a drought year, and certainly in years when hay prices are more moderate. To help ride out high hay prices, have a good working relationship with a hay supplier to ensure a consistent and reliable source of hay; consider adding hay storage to reduce the effects of price and seasonal fluctuations; buy hay early, do not wait until later summer or fall; and finally, try and budget for the price increase.

By Dan Undersander, PhD, University of Wisconsin and Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota.

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