Fodder systems and forage supply
With the drought of 2012 impacting feed prices and feed supplies, dairy quality forage is very expensive if you have to buy it. I recently have seen 175 RFQ hay selling for $1.60 to $1.75 per point. I would expect hay prices to remain high until first crop becomes available and the moisture situation improves. Compared to other areas, Minnesota has had at least moderate supplies. But what will you do to ensure your forage supply in 2013 – whether we have adequate rain or not?
In the past several months there have been inquiries about fodder systems. In a fodder system, a grain of some type like barley, triticale, wheat or oats is sprouted in trays and allowed to grow for 6 to 7 days and then fed fresh. The process begins with clean, mold-free grain. This is soaked in water over night, spread on trays on day one and watered daily for 6 to 7 days after which time it is fed as sprouted grain fodder. The question is: "Is this an alternative forage supply for a farm to consider?"
There is almost no controlled research done on feeding fodder forage to animals and none at all, that I could find, in the last 25 years. In Extension, we prefer to report research-based answers. With that missing, we can only give information based on what we know and let you draw conclusions. There is a limited amount of farm feeding and anecdotal reports, much of it in sales literature.
The basic equipment and supplies can be purchased from several farm supply stores or on-line. An initial investment of approximately $5,000 will purchase the equipment needed to produce 350 to 400 pounds of fresh fodder daily or about 60 pounds of dry matter. This will need to be in a 70-degree controlled environment with adequate ventilation or molds can develop. To make this fodder, you start with two 5-gallon pails of barley, soak it overnight and then put it on trays. The yield of fodder is typically about 7 pounds of fodder at 15% dry matter for each pound of barley you start with. On a dry matter basis, you actually lose about 10% of the dry matter you started with because the seed uses starch in grain to sprout and grow the fodder. However, there is also the investment in time and labor for watering and cleanup every day, starting new batches daily, and the cost of heat and ventilation. Is the fodder feed value worth it?
The fodder that is grown is very fresh and palatable. Grain changes as it undergoes the sprouting process and we may not understand how that affects the feeding value or nutrient profile. That being said, an analysis of the fodder will show lower starch but higher in sugars, more NDF and comparable energy to the original grain used. But animal performance needs to be done with comparable nutrient profiles of rations on similar animals. That information is lacking. The question one needs to ask is whether that kind of alternative forage system can produce enough forage dry matter to feed your herd at an affordable cost?
Let's return to the original question. What are you doing now to increase your forage supply in 2013? This is the time to plan how you will use the acres you have. I often encounter farms that need to purchase some forage to meet their supply needs. This may be part of their system, such as buying dry hay and harvesting their forage all as silage and haylage. I also see farms that are short of forage but are selling corn and soybeans. While this can be a profitable part of the cash flow plan, it can also lead to more expensive forage purchases, tight supplies and only trading dollars. Now is the time to sit down with your nutritionist and others on your team to determine what will be the best plan. How many acres of forage should you plan for with realistic yields? Are there ways to improve yields of corn silage and alfalfa, and improve pastures? Should we be adding improved grasses to the alfalfa? Are there other cropping strategies to consider such as double cropping, fall grazing, cover crops or even irrigation that might be a better investment over the long term? Now is the time to make those plans.