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Fodder production systems for dairy cattle

Brad Heins

There is renewed interest in fodder systems for dairy and livestock production systems. Dairy producers, especially organic and grazing producers, are looking for information about fodder sprouting systems to supply essential nutrients to dairy cattle. In a fodder system, a grain such as barley, wheat or oats is sprouted in plastic trays and allowed to grow for 7 days and then fed to livestock. Sprouted grains can be grown indoors without soil. It is essential to begin fodder sprouting with clean seed that is free from mold. The seed is soaked for 12 to 24 hours, spread onto trays, and watered two or three times daily for 7 days. Every day 7-day sprouts are harvested and fed to livestock and new, clean seed is placed in trays for harvest in 7 days. There is very little research on feeding fodder to dairy animals, with most of the research projects being conducted in Australia.

There are many perceived benefits to growing fodder for livestock systems. A fodder system can feed a vast variety of livestock for milk and meat production. Depending on feed costs of hay and grain, fodder may produce a higher quality feed for less money than traditional methods. If there is a drought, a fodder system will provide a small amount of forage for livestock. The fodder that is harvested from the system is very digestible. Grain changes as it undergoes the sprouting process. Preliminary analysis of the fodder shows high sugars, high neutral detergent fiber, and comparable net energy to the original grain used. However, many of these statements have yet to be validated by research with dairy cattle.

We installed a 1,150-pound fodder system at the West Central Research and Outreach Center organic dairy to evaluate these emerging forage systems. Our system can produce enough fodder to feed 40 cows. For our first study, we evaluated the performance of varieties of organic barley, oats, wheat, rye, and triticale harvested at 7 days after the start of growing. During September and October 2014, every Monday for 6 weeks, 28 fodder trays (2 feet x 6 feet) from a FarmTek Fodder Pro system were filled with 9 pounds of wet grain. Each tray was automatically watered twice per day for 4 minutes each time. On the seventh day, each tray was harvested, weighed, and scored on a 1 to 5 scale for mold. Ten random samples from each grain each week were saved for dry matter and forage quality analysis.

Triticale and wheat had the greatest crude protein content of the alternative grains. Neutral detergent fiber (NDF) was greater for barley and oats which indicated that they had the highest amount of digestible fiber. High digestible fiber can result in benefits to cattle including higher milk production. The barley and oats had lower values of NFC (non-fiber carbohydrates). The lower values of NFC indicate that there was less starch in the barley and oat fodder. Higher starch content was found in the rye and triticale. Barley fodder had the highest calcium percentage of any of the fodder samples. The mineral analysis results of the different grains were quite variable. Overall, the study indicated that barley had the highest forage quality for fodder production systems. However, oats may be another option for fodder production systems in the Upper Midwest.

For the second study, we fed lactating dairy cows either 0 or 20 pounds (as-fed) of fodder per cow per day. The fodder replaced 6 pounds of corn and was fed with a TMR. The no-fodder cows were fed 8 pounds of corn in the TMR while cows being fed fodder had 2 pounds of corn in the TMR. Milk production, milk fat, body weight and body condition score were not affected by fodder. Cows fed fodder had slightly greater milk protein and also greater milk urea nitrogen (16.5 for fodder cows vs. 13.5 for cows not fed fodder). For the economic analysis of this feeding study, we found that at an organic price of $11.77 per bushel for corn, income over feed costs (IOFC) was similar for fodder and no fodder. When organic corn costs were increased by 50% ($17.50 per bushel), the fodder-fed cows had an advantage in IOFC of $0.44 per cow per day. However, the initial investment in the fodder system was not included in the IOFC analysis, and therefore the actual cost of producing fodder would be even higher.

Fodder systems may be a very costly method of producing feed for dairy cattle. However, sprouted barley fodder may have application in small-scale livestock operations, or those with high land values, or for producers experiencing severe drought. Additionally, farms that have an excess of labor may benefit with a sprouted fodder system. From an economic viewpoint, fodder may pay for itself at high organic grain prices.

November 2016

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