Issue 03: Drought Busters

Issue 03
March/April – 1992
Story Title: Drought Busters
Author: Steven Carruthers

Australia, for all its agricultural bounty, is a land all too frequently ravaged by drought, flood and fire. During the recent drought that struck the mid North Coast of NSW, deer farmer Peter Ryan turned to hydroponics to produce his own green fodder to sustain his valuable stock.

Deer farmer Peter Ryan had no problems keeping his stock alive and healthy during the drought which turned the district into a dust bowl late last year. Peter fed his 135 Canadian Elk and Red deer on fodder he produces hydroponically in eight days, from seed germination to harvest. The fodder also feeds his 12 Angora goats and 12 head of cattle. The same fodder grown in the paddock, if there was enough water for irrigation, would take up to 12 weeks from seed germination until ready to feed out.

The Fodder factory was developed by Peter and engineer Gary Brown, and assembled on Peter’s 200 hectare property near taree. It yields almost 500 kilograms of fodder per day for about $40 per tonne. For every 1 kilogram of seed, 7-10 kilograms of edible fodder is produced, with plants reaching 25-30cm in height before being fed out, roots and all to the livestock.

The Fodder factory operates on a staggered planting regime, producing stock feed on a daily basis. The total labour requirement is about one hour per day, which consists of harvesting fodder from the unit and introducing new seed. Once every 50 days the nutrient solution is replenished.

Originally, the concept of the Fodder factory came about to provide fodder during the traditional winter shortage. Its development was expidited in the winter of 1989 when Peter was forced to buy in $13,000 worth of feed to keep his stock alive.

Peter and Gary formed a partnership and after three prototypes, the basic fodder factory today is a 10.3 by 3.3m greenhouse with a gable roof and a thin polystyrene ceiling which insulates the growing environment against the diurnal temperature range. The unit is covered with a double skin of solarweave fabric. An air lock is incorporated at one end in order to maintain the sealed environment during those periods of removing fodder and replanting seed. Inside is an 8-bay bank of galvanised steel racks which hold the growing trays.

Inside, the growing environment is regulated by a custom-made electronic climate controller which controls the watering cycle, air temperature, humidity, exhaust fan and circulating fan. All functions are pre-set, and require minimal input from the user. Tests are currently in progress with carbon dioxide enrichment to reduce the growing cycle even further.

The Fodder Factory has now been fully operational for 21 months, but it was not without its problems during its early development. During the summer of 1990, at the height of the drought, the temperature was so hot that the cooling system had to be upgraded by placing exhausts fans in the ceiling to control the environment, to allow carbon-dioxide fresh air to enter the unit.

A critical factor for growing oats is temperature. With temperatures outside often reaching 40°C, the temperature within the unit needs to be maintained at 24-30°C.

The misting system took more than 6 months to perfect. The oat seeds require a mist spray of nutrient-rich water, fine enough to allow the correct amount of water on the grain. After trialling a score of misters, Peter and gary finally settled on a Japanese-designed mist spray system to keep the seed tray moist.

“We were unable to find a suitable misting system in Australia, but we did find a micro-jet sprinkler system in japan which was primarily used in commercial poultry sheds,” said Gary.

The micro-jets were specially modified for the Fodder factory, and incorporate stainless-steel spring components. While several automatic watering regimes were trialled, they settled upon a misting period that uses about 400 litres of nutrient-rich water a day.

According to Peter, the single biggest cost factor is the oat seeds, purchased in at $120 per tonne. In Peter’s Fodder factory, trays are replenished with seed at the rate of 50kg each day. other major costs are quality nutrients, and electricity to run the cooling and watering system.

Fodder Nutrition
During the development of the Fodder factory, several types of grain were trialled, including barley, sorghum and corn, with mixed results. For deer farming, sorghum proved a ‘dead loss’, while barley ‘showed proise’. oats proved to be a very cost-effective grain, requiring reasonably cool conditions and relatively low light levels.

Oats ranks as the highest in protein and rival wheat as the most nutritious of the grain. In the Fodder Factory, the protein level rises from 6% for the grain to almost 12% for green fodder. oats outrank other cereal grains in thiamine (0.82%), calcium (1.6%), iron (4.1%) and fat (7%), but rank lowest in carbohydrates (70.2%). Although a certain amount of roughage is present, it’s not enough to prevent ‘scours’.

According to Peter, during the drought the deer thrived on oat rations, with the only problem being the lack of roughage as the old kikuyu stands had been eaten to the ground.

“You’ve got to have roughage for cattle, as well as good nutritious green fodder,” explained Gary.

“There’s some roughage in the sprouted oats, but you need to introduce deer and cattle onto a 50/50 ratio of roughage and oats to prevent the scours. It can then be cut back to about 10% roughage.”

Peter added that during the drought there was a massive amount of roughage, but no green fodder. Now the paddocks now filled with kikuyu which provides both roughage and nutritious fodder, but it can be dangerous at this time of the year.

“This is the traditional fawning period, and the abundance of green fodder means the cows will fatten, making fawning more difficult,” explained Peter.

Traditionally, we start to decline the feed during the last month of the 231-day gestation period so we end up with a small fawn, which we then put on a high nutrition diet.”

“We have already had several premature fawns, up to 9 weeks early, and none were expected until next month. To date we have no cesarians, but with the deer fattening, we may be in for a difficult fawning season.”

Peter created history in 1988 by becoming the first deer farmer to successfully freeze, thaw and implant Canadian Elk embryos into surrogate Red deer. The procedure entails artificially inseminating Canadian Elk cows with semen, then flushing an average of 6 embryos per donor for later transplantation into Red deer. In the meantime, the embryos are frozen in liquid nitrogen.

Such is Peter’s success with Canadian Elk that his work is attracting international attention – Canadian restrictions only permit a registered deer farmer to cull one bull and four cows from the wild during a lifetime, making embryo transplants a viable proposition, fetching up to $7000 each.

Pests and Diseases
Since the prototype Fodder Factor commenced production, there have been no pest or disease problems experienced. Nonetheless, a strict sanitation program is implemented between plantings with each tray bathed in a mild chlorine solution. Twice a year the irrigation lines and components are thoroughly cleaned.

Oats have fewer enemies than any other grain crop. Greenbug, a type of aphid, is an occasional pest in field crops, but it is easily controlled by a natural predator. Crown rust and septoria leaf blight are the two most common fungal disease which attack many field grain crops including oats, but these seem to be eliminated in the Fodder Factory by the low temperature and rapid crop rotations.

Certified oat seeds are not used in the Fodder Factory. Although they have a higher germination rate, they contain toxins which are harmful to livestock. Plain oat seeds have about a 65% germination rate, although most have sprouted at the end of the 8-day cycle, providing a degree of roughage to livestock.

Other Applications
Hydroponic fodder is nutritious and palatable and has been found to substantially increase milk yields in dairy cows, as well as improving the vigour and performance of racehorses and brood mares. In dry and drought-stricken regions, where there is little or no grazing fodder for livestock, fodder production has much to commend it.

Although Peter is a small-scale livestock producer, the Fodder Factory has wider applications and is being looked at by others as a drought-management option, or simply to condition and fatten livestock in small-scale feedlots (intensive fattening programs in a limited area). Another important use for the Fodder factory is recovery of drought-stricken paddocks. Kikuyu and other suitable but expensive grasses are sprouted and grown in the fodder shed, then ploughed into the prepared paddock where they quickly take hold.

The Fodder factory is a fully automated run-to-waste system with about 8% loss of nutrient solution. It requires no detailed knoelwdge of hydroponics or electronics. It simply requires someone to physically empty and refill the 50 trays daily.

In times of adversity, many life-saving ideas have come to fruition and the Fodder Factory was such an idea. It was designed and developed to beat the flooded pastures in the winter of 1988-89, and to save farmers from bankruptcy in the drought of 1991. In the case of Peter Ryan, flood and drought threatened many years of intense deer farming; for Gary the drought reduced the value of his cattle to $50 a head, and a mini-cyclone that struck the district completely destroyed his hydroponic tomato farm and home. Without the development of the Fodder factory, both would have faced certain ruin.

The main object of the hydroponic fodder production in climates as harsh as that of Australia, is to obtain regular supplies of fresh fodder throughout the year in the shortest possible time. That means that the nutrition and environmental conditions within the installation must be right, and that the technical design, mechanics of operation and management must be first class. In the Fodder factory, peter and Gary have succeeded admirably. The factory has paid for itself many times over, and with the drought now over, he is far ahead of his neighbours in paddock recovery.