Issue 35: The Fodder Factory

Issue 35
July/August – 1997
Story Title: The Fodder Factory
Author: Roger Fox

An ingenious application of hydroponic technology helps meet the needs of animal producers.

In drought-prone continents like Australia, the idea of a ‘grass machine’ would normally be the subject of wry jokes by drought-bitten farmers -‘pie in the sky’ stuff. But through the use of hydroponic technologies, a grass producing machine is now a reality.

The ‘Fodder Factory’ is the name of one such unit marketed in Australia. Available in a range of sizes and capacities, it is essentially a small greenhouse structure, equipped with hydroponic and climate control equipment, where trays of seeds sprout and grow into green fodder in an 8-day cycle.”

“Although hydroponics has a well established place in horticultural industries worldwide, it has traditionally been seen as having little to offer the agricultural sector. This is particularly so in countries where land is plentiful – like Australia and America – and where broad-acre animal grazing and cereal crop production reign supreme.

But for more intensive, or more specialised animal breeding, the Fodder Factory offers a means of producing green feed for stock quickly and simply, and is a great insurance against dry times. These were the factors that attracted stud cattle breeders Warren Shean and his son Cameron to purchase a unit for their 400 hectare (1000 acre) grazing property in the Merriwa district of NSW. Faced with a prolonged drought period, they initially considered the standard alternatives of buying in lucerne hay or grain as supplementary feed.

“But both of those are expensive options,” Cameron comments, “especially during droughts, when prices just skyrocket.”

So instead, they opted for an altogether different approach – that of growing their own grass, intensively and under controlled conditions, in a shed. The Sheans had read of the Fodder Factory units in a newspaper article, and after doing some initial costings, they decided to install one. That was three years ago, and the unit has been in almost constant use since then. Even outside of a drought, it has still proved useful.

“Last year for example, we had a good year for pasture and so we’ve only been using the Fodder Factory to fatten up stock,” Cameron says.

The Shean’s cattle enterprise, called Perrone Classic Cattle Co., was established about 13 years ago and breeds both Poll Hereford and Saler (pronounced sal-air) stud cattle. The operation currently runs about 200 head of cattle, including 130 breeders. The demands of a stud breeding operation, with its round of cattle shows and its use of expensive bloodlines, means that consistent, quality fodder is all important. A drought season can wreak havoc with breeding cycles, showing and, of course, sales.

The installation of the fodder growing unit was, according to Cameron, a very straightforward affair. They initially laid the concrete slab as the foundation for the building, and the rest was carried out by the Fodder Factory company, run by Peter Ryan. The building itself measures approximately 10m by 6m, and has a galvanised metal frame, covered by a double layer of plastic solarweave material. It also has a fitted ‘ceiling’ of styrofoam, to reduce interior temperatures during summer. This obviously cuts out overhead sunlight, but strong lighting is not required for the germinating seed.

Inside the shed is a framework of metal shelving, on which the plastic fodder trays sit. A shallow layer of cereal seed (barley, oats, wheat, etc) is spread over the base of the trays, the trays are stacked on the shelves, and the automated system does the rest. This includes periodic spray irrigation with a nutrient solution, and automated heating and cooling, which is controlled by a thermostat. The result is a tray full of lush green ‘grass’, around 20cm high, after only 8 days from seeding. One kilogram of seed will yield 6 – 10 kgs of green fodder.

One of the remarkable features of the system, is that it uses no medium of any sort, which makes the whole procedure very clean and simple to operate. It also means that the cattle get to eat not only the emergent leaves, but also the entire root system, the latter adding to the fibre and protein content of the feed. The ‘mats’ of grown fodder tip out of the trays with ease and are used immediately.

“You only need to fill the back of the ute with fodder and take it straight out to the cattle – you don’t need to do anything to it,” Cameron says. He estimates that it takes him a total of 2 hours a day to run the unit at full steam, and this includes the time spent feeding it out to the stock. “You get into a pretty quick routine,” he says.

The Fodder Factory is operated on a cycle, so that around 100 trays become ready for use each day (there is a total capacity of 768 trays in the shed). The choice of an 8-day growth period is not just an arbitrary figure – if left for any longer, the roots start to develop fungus from the moist environment. After use, all trays are washed out in a chlorine-based solution before re-sowing.

From feed analysis studies, the nutritive value of the fodder compares favourably with such alternatives as hay or grain, in terms of its crude protein and Metabolisable Energy (ME) (See Table 1). While any cereal grain can be used in the system, the Sheans have found that Barley gives them the best results in terms of yield weight. Some other growers, Cameron points out, have found they get better yields from oats, which is also high in nutritional value.

But the proof is in the results, and Cameron notes that the cattle have done exceptionally well on the fodder. It is, of course, a supplement to their pasture diet, but in times of drought it becomes their main source of food and can mean the difference between maintaining their weight, or starting to lose condition – and value.

The unit, when in full production, has the capacity to produce approximately 1 tonne of green feed per day. In cost terms, this translates to around 29-36 cents per tray, or 59-72 cents per animal per day (at average rations of 1.9kg/day).

Irrigation & Automation
Fodder Factory is fed by a 5600 litre nutrient tank which lasts for about 4 weeks and is then made up with a fresh batch of nutrient solution. The dry mix nutrient formulation is purchased directly from the unit’s manufacturer. The water supply on the farm is two bores – there is no running water source.

“Peter Ryan got our water analysed initially and now makes the nutrient up to our specifications,” Cameron explains.

Inside the Fodder Factory, the trays of seed are irrigated by a series of spray units located above each row, the excess nutrient flowing out of the house along floor drains and into a sump (it is subsequently used to irrigate the home orchard). The irrigation cycle is usually about one minute every three hours, though the frequency can be increased in summer if required.

To maintain consistent production, the house is kept at a temperature of around 21°C, via a climate control unit which activates the heating and cooling as required. Heating is provided by a single gas heater, fed by a couple of gas bottles outside the shed. For summer cooling there is an evaporative cooler at one end of the shed, and two exhaust fans at the opposite end – the fans draw the cool air through the building.

Costings
Fodder Factory was no small investment. But the Sheans believe that in the long term, it compares favourably with other drought strategies and will help to give their stud cattle a competitive edge.

The installation of the building and complete system cost $38,000, the only other expenses being the cost of the concrete slab and a few sundry electrical costs. Ongoing running costs include such things as nutrient, electricity, gas and seed – these vary somewhat with the number of cattle being fed.

Fringe Benefits
As well as the obvious benefits already mentioned, Cameron has found the fodder producing system useful in other ways. For instance, one of the advantages of hand-feeding the cattle is that they become very quiet and easy to handle – a big advantage when preparing stock for cattle shows. For this reason, they now wean their calves straight onto the green fodder. Also, there is absolutely no waste when feeding out the mats – they are eaten readily by the cattle, roots and all.

The Fodder Factory is a year-round growing system, which is quite independent of the weather, and takes up much less space than storing hay or silage.

Not surprisingly, Cameron comments that he has had a few interested farmers visit him to have a look at the system. To a hydroponicist, it is a remarkably simple idea – trays of seed sprayed with nutrient in a climate-controlled greenhouse. But to an animal producer facing a drought, a ‘grass machine’ offers something quite unique.

(Australian Manufacturer: Fodder Factory Australia, PO Box 250, Wingham, NSW 2429. Tel/Fax: (065) 50 5150)