Record high grain prices have been driving up interest in alternative feeds such as sprouting barley for the purpose of animal fodder. A number of companies have devised systems for automated and semi-automated production in the global barley market. A few of these have been installed (or are in the process of being installed) on farms in the American Midwest. The idea of sprouted fodder is not new. There are historical references of sprouting grains for fodder dating back to the 1600s. The engineering and technology that makes it economically competitive when compared to other feeding options is relatively new, though. Consistent heat, moisture and light are the critical components required to make sprouted fodder work. Greenhouses have been used to produce sprouts, but these are quite expensive and difficult to control heat and humidity. Greenhouses are not a consistent method of reliable fodder production.
A true transformation of sprouted barley fodder as an animal fodder is largely due to LED and high-efficiency fluorescent lighting and affordable climate control systems. LED lighting is particularly energy efficient with a minimal amount of excess heat generated. While LED lights are more expensive upfront, they are much more long-lasting and do not lose their output over time. Most of the advancements in sprouted barley fodder can be credited to Australia – several systems used globally are based on their designs. During Australia’s frequent droughts, valuable nutrition is provided by barley fodder when fresh pasture is unavailable. In the United States, sprouted barley fodder is used to replace protein supplied by dry grain. It can also be useful in the non-pasture season to supply fresh forage to the livestock.
Sprouted barley fodder is more nutritious than feeding grain as it has improved protein, starch and sugar. Most of the starch present in the grain is converted into sugar and this is better utilised than dry grain. Vitamin and mineral levels are significantly increased in hydroponically-sprouted barley than grain and are absorbed more efficiently as a result of lack of enzyme inhibitors. Sprouted barley fodder has very little dry matter and that is why a farmer must also provide dry hay while feeding it to livestock. However, it is not necessary for the hay to be of the highest quality.
Barley is preferred over smaller grains as it is the most nutritious and easy to grow as well as to store. To be used for sprouted fodder, the barley seed requires a high germination rate and has to be extremely clean. A standard rule of thumb is a yield of 1:7 i.e. a pound of barley seed should produce seven pounds of sprouted fodder. To sprout barley consistently, a farmer needs lighting of adequate brightness, a climate-controlled area, a rack and tray system, watering system and a soaking vat. The sprouting facility should be sized as per the total of sprouted fodder needed on a daily basis. Dairy cattle need approximately 20-40 pounds of fodder every day, depending on the roughage fed. Available systems range from four-sided units to permanent systems meant for feeding thousands of farm animals. Farmers are advised to work in tandem with specialists from sprouted fodder companies to design a customised system perfectly suited to their requirements.