Hydroponic Fodder to Refresh Animal Husbandry Sector

Suitability of hydorponics as a newer fodder growing approach

Hydroponics means the technique of growing plants without soil or solid growing medium, but using water or nutrient rich solution only for a short duration. Typical hydroponic systems are produced under artificial conditions (i.e. green house or lighted systems in a closed box) with regular watering, producing a crop within 6-7 days. This amount of time is sufficient to sprout seeds such a barley, wheat, and sunflower, or legumes like peas, to produce a 4-8 inch growth of green shoots. With hay and grain prices reaching record highs, unpredictable weather patterns, damaging pasture lands, farmers across the country are in need of a dependable and affordable feed for livestock. Growing fodder hydroponically is more efficient than any other means of producing feed for livestock. There is renewed interest in hydroponic fodder systems for dairy, livestock or poultry operations. The idea of putting one kilogram of seed into a hydroponic system to produce 10 times its weight in fodder is appealing. However, the actual dry matter weight of the original grain to the fodder produced may or may not increase.
Hydroponic Fodder System Analyses
In analyzing hydroponic fodder, the first step was to analyze the dry matter exchange in sprouting the seed. A simple experiment was conducted. Barley seed in the amount of 5.5 kilogram when put into each tray around 88% dry matter (DM), yielded 55 kilogram of fodder when harvested at 12% DM or 6.6 kilogram of DM. This equated to a 36% DM increase. Other samples have shown more than 10% DM losses. Feed analysis shows the barley fodder protein increases 2%-4% from the barley grain seed as a percent of dry matter. Total digestible nutrients (TDN) as a percent of dry matter can decrease 10% from the barley grain. Thus, it is important to evaluate this DM exchange that occurs as total dry matter weight changes of protein and TDN. This may yield much different results than only looking at percent dry matter changes.
Hydroponics grown up by Maize
Hydroponic green fodder is grown up by maize. Soaking time of only 4 hours is sufficient for maize seed. Soaked seed produced from 1.25 kg un-soaked maize seed is loaded in a 90 x 32 cm tray. Hydroponic green fodders look like a mat consisting of roots, seeds and plants. About 3.5 kg and 5.5 kg hydroponic green fodders were produced from each kg of yellow maize (CT-818) and white maize (CM-4), respectively. Production cost of hydroponic green fodder from white maize was lower than yellow maize. In comparison to conventional green fodder, hydroponics green fodders contained more crude proteins (13.6 vs. 10.7 %) and less crude fibre (14.1 vs. 25.9%). Intake of hydroponic green fodders by dairy animals was upto 24 kg/animal/day. As green fodders is an integral part of dairy ration. Progressive modern dairy farmers with elite dairy herd or in situations where fodders cannot be grown successfully, one can produce hydroponic green fodder for feeding dairy animals.
Effect on milk production
On daily feeding of 10 kg hydroponic fodder maize per cow, farmer can save 1.0 kg concentrate mixture per cow with further enhancement of 1.0 litre milk per cow per day. The young calves fed with 1-2 kg hydroponic fodder gained higher body weight (350 gm vs. 200gm) with better skin coat.
Benefits to Livestock
Hydroponics Fodder is a more natural feed and is comparable to the forages the digestive systems of livestock and horses were designed to process. Due to its increased digestibility and the availability of nutrients, there is a wide range of benefits to feeding fodder over grains and concentrates. Not only shall the animals be healthier and have a better quality of life, they shall also be more productive and profitable.
Benefits to all animals include:
Faster weaning and less stress on mothers and young stock
Less manure due to increased digestibility of fodder
Boosted immune system
Increased longevity and lifespan
Earlier heat cycles
Improved fertility
Stimulated appetite during heat stress
Better behavior and temperament
Advantage of hydroponic fodder production
Minimal labour
Higher green fodder yield grown in a limited area
Control over feed quality
Less manure to handle
Lower operating costs
Less feed wastage
Reduced feed storage cost
Minimized veterinary/ treatment costs
Correction for dry matter is very important
1 kg of seeds will make 6 kg of fodder. All animal rations consider feeds primarily as dry matter (DM) equivalent, since water is provided separately and all of the other nutrients required by the animals to live, grow and lactate are in the dry matter (DM) portion. Thus, a feed with 90% water (such as sprouted grain) has considerably less feed value than something with only 5% water (such as the grain itself). So, in the example above, if 1 kg of seed is 95% DM and the resulting fodder is 10% DM, then 0.95 kg of seed (1kg at 95% DM) produces about 0.9-1.2 kg of dry weight fodder (9-12 kg of total fodder at 10% DM) which is no net DM gain at all, in fact, it is a loss of DM.
However, this is just a back of the envelop calculation. Let’s try testing the concept using real data from real sprouted fodder.
Why do seedlings lose dry matter in 6-7 days of growth?
Seed utilizes the starch stored in the seed during the first week or so of growth before photosynthesis and root uptake of minerals kick into cause dramatic increases in growth. So, its not surprising that the total dry weight of the plant (i.e. seed, root, shoot) decreases during that time, rather than increasing, because the plant is using up stored carbohydrates from the seed. Later, plant is quite capable of producing its own food from sunlight and CO2 and begins to gain weight rapidly. So, the hydroponic systems are likely to lead to a net loss in dry matter and carbon upto about 10-14 days of growth.
The hydroponic concept may be appealing at first look, but it generally does not hold up to scrutiny after careful though. The main problem is that it exhibits a net loss in terms of dry matter yield of 24-30% after 6 to 7 days of growth. The dry matter yields of hydroponic systems are actually negative, compared with the initial seed input. Additionally, there is likely to be a loss in feeding value of sprouted grain compared with raw gain, on dry weight basis. This result makes sense when considering that the seed must utilize stored carbohydrates in order to drive growth of the seedling. The costs per kg or ton produced are likely to be significantly higher per unit hay equivalent (or feed grain equivalent). Although, hydroponic forage has great appeal to those who wish to be more self-sufficient in feed supply, the yield, quality and costs of this system appears not to be favorable.
Can hydroponic fodder production be profitable?
If you have animals, you have a choice whether to
Graze, pasture or grow your own hay or silage
Purchase hay or other forages
Grow the feed hydroponically
So the economics of production appear to be quite questionable. Additionally, one should consider that one is losing D.M. each week in a hydroponic system compared with feeding barley grain directly.
Where hydroponic fodder may fit?
Although the economics, the yield and the quality of hydroponic sprouted grain forage are not highly favorable, the concept has a great appeal to those who wish to be more self-sufficient in feed. It may fit for those producers who do not have local sources for hay or forage or simply want to be more self-sufficient. For small animal producers (rabbits etc.) this may offer a ready source of palatable feed. Hydroponic sprouted grain may also be an appealing feed which varies in the diet for animals fed only hay and grains.
Hydroponic fodder growing system
It is well accepted fact that feeding dairy animals is incomplete without including green fodder in their diet. Green fodders are staple feed for dairy animals. Dairy animals producing upto 12-15 liters milk per day can be maintained by feeding green fodders. Inclusion of green fodders in ration of dairy animals decreases amount of concentrate feeding and thus increases profit. Therefore, for economical and sustainable dairy farming, fodder production round the year is highly essential. As an alternative to conventional method of green fodder produce hydroponic technology is coming up to grow fodder for farm animals. In a simple way, a hydroponic fodder system usually consists of a framework of shelves on which plastic trays are stacked. After soaking overnight, a layer of seeds is spread over the base of the trays. During the growing period, the seeds are kept moist, but not saturated. They are supplied with moisture usually via spray irrigation. Holes in the trays facilitate drainage of excess water. The seeds will usually sprout within 8-12 hrs after soaking in 7 days has produced a 8-10 inch high grass mat. Hydroponic fodder is much more easily digestible, full of nutrients and enzymes that the energy spent on this digestion process would be less with the resultant extra energy being diverted to milk production and growth.
Hydroponic fodder: can it refresh dairy sector
Hydroponic fodder promises to be the way to redeem dairy farmers faced with scarcity for quality cattle feed, especially for dairy farmers in urban area who do not have enough land to cultivate the required quantity of green fodder. Such farmers are dependent mostly on packaged cattle feed. Of course, hydroponic fodder cannot substitute green fodder and hay completely, as it lacks fibre content. But, it is definitely a better substitute for packaged feed. The urban dairy farmers in India are worried about the ever increasing price of cattle feed, and the lack of availability of green fodder. Shrinking land size in the state ensures lack of availability of green fodder and hay in sufficient quantities. The spiraling cost of packaged cattle feed add to the cost of dairy farming. Hydroponic fodder provides an effective solution for both problems. Hydroponic fodder is more nutritious than the conventional green fodder and cheaper and safer than the commercially available packaged feed. The fodder production unit may use green house. The green house has tiered racks, each racks has row of perforated trays for soaked seeds. Pipes fitted with micro fogger above each tray ensures proper maintenance of required humidity and water fogging of the seed trays in the green house. Tube lights provide optimal light requirement inside the green house. The sensor control unit regulates inputs of water and light automatically. Seeds like maize, barley and sorghum are used to grow fodder. The unit requires electricity round the clock. The seeds are sown in a batch of 12 trays on a daily basis. The water and soluble nutrients are sprayed at regular intervals. Within six days, the plants reach the height of 22cm, they are then peeled off from the trays, and the fodder is ready to feed the cattle. Some farmers claim an increase of milk production and in terms of quality, there is an increase of 0.3% in fat and 0.5% SNF, fetching better prices for the formers. In nutshell, fodder produced through hydroponics system is definitely of better quality, compared to normal grown fodder, but because of operating system, the cost goes up. However, it is still cheaper than concentrate feed and the animal gets the satisfaction of consuming fodder.
A noval fodder technique i.e. advanced hydroponic system for growing green fodder indoors is designed to overcome green fodder shortage, especially in areas, where limited land is available for fodder cultivation. It has very low water use. This system recovers and recirculates water for a 98% water reduction. This system allows growing mold free sprouted fodder. It has lowest labour requirement. The unique construction of system, allows for easy collection of mature fodder resulting in lower labour costs. Fodder system must operate in a damp environment. However, hydroponic sprouts may still have good application in organic, intensive, small-scale livestock with high value outputs or in areas with extremely high land or alternative feed prices.
Hydroponics can have application in organic dairies needing to feed very high forage levels year round that can produce their own seed for reasonable costs. Due to changes in the nutritive characteristics of the fodder (less starch, more sugars, vitamins and lysine) monogastrics such as people, horses, swine and poultry may have more benefit. Research data on dairy cows is limited to determine definitively whether or not the feeding characteristics of the fodder changes production or body condition enough to warrant the additional cost. With a cost 3 to 5 times that of the original barley grain or other readily available feed sources, increased animal performance of that magnitude is highly unlikely, but more research seems necessary.
* Assistant professor, Poultry Science, F.V.Sc. & A.H., SKUAST-J, Jammu.
** Subject Matter Specialist, Animal Nutrition, MAFSU, Parbhani, Maharashtra.
*** Assistant Professor, AGB, KCVAS, Amritsar.

by Dr. Suraj Amrutkar*, Dr. Suhas Amrutkar** and Bharti Deshmukh***