GRATZ, Pa. — With the cost of feed so high, dairy farmers are keen to learn about any process that offers more efficient nourishment for their cows.
Jonathan Zeiset is an ag consultant in Elizabethville, Dauphin County, Pa. He has about 80 farmer clients and schedules group sessions from time to time to talk about seeds, fertilizers, soil management and animal nutrition. He might get a dozen or two farmers at those meetings.
Friday, Nov. 30, he held a meeting in the Gratz Community Center and filled the place. There were 150 or more farmers who had come to learn about feeding sprouted barley to their dairy cattle.
Word had gotten around among Zeiset’s clients about a few nearby farmers who just started experimenting with sprouted barley, and he thought an educational meeting might draw some interest.
Before the day was done, the farmers at the meeting had listened attentively to about five hours of Power Point presentations, ladled their way through two large roaster pans of homemade chicken-corn-noodle soup and crowded six deep around Zeiset as he demonstrated his own Grass ’n Roots equipment for producing barley sprouts — which aren’t really called “barley sprouts” as often as they’re called “fodder.”
The process begins with barley seed that’s as clean and free of mold as possible. The seed is tempered — soaked in water — for a day or so, then spread on a belt, or tray, which is kept moistened with water that is free of contaminants.
The first four days of the process can take place in total darkness. On the fourth day, the chloroplasts in the seeds’ cells become active and, if there is light, produce chlorophyll.
At that point, the sprouts produce shoots and roots that form a mat which, at the point of feeding —usually seven days from tempering — can be 7 inches thick.
Silvia Abel-Caines had flown in from Chicago to talk to the group about fodder. She is a veterinarian and animal nutritionist for the CROPP Cooperative, a La Farge, Wis.-based entity that markets primarily dairy products, but also meat, eggs and juice under the Organic Valley name.
Abel-Caines became interested in sprouts when she started sprouting radish and alfalfa seeds, and mung beans for her husband and three children.
Sprouts work for cows for the same reason they work for people. Abel-Gaines showed a slide during her talk in Gratz that explained that soaking the seeds — the tempering process — activates enzymes that change the seeds’ starches to sugars, the proteins to amino acids and the lipids to free fatty acids.
All of these — the sugars, the amino acids and the free fatty acids — are much more available to animals (including humans) that eat the sprouts rather than the whole grains, she said.
Feeding fodder in place of grain can give milking cows a production boost, Abel-Caines told the group.
With fodder, “the lactating cow needs less energy than she would with grain,” she said. “If you use less energy in digestion, there is more energy available for milk production.”
In addition to more available proteins, carbs and fats in fodder, vitamins and minerals are also in a more digestible form than they are in regular grain, she said.
A rule of thumb is that a pound of seed will produce 7 pounds of fodder in seven days. Abel-Caines said a diet that includes 20 pounds of fodder equates to 4 pounds of dry matter. In a 1,200-pound cow producing 50 pounds of milk at midlactation, she’d like to see 25 pounds of fodder, fed half in the morning and half in the afternoon, a diet that could replace all the grain in the animal’s diet.
A 50-cow herd, then, of 1,200-pound cows in midlactation producing 50 pounds daily would require 1,250 pounds of fodder daily. Obviously, not all the cows are going to be in midlactation at the same time, which means there is more than a minimal amount of math involved in operating a successful fodder-feeding program.
And there are management challenges — labor, for instance. Abel-Gaines feeds sprouts to her backyard flock of a dozen Brown Dutch laying hens, but her kids do all the work — the tempering, sprouting, feeding — everything.
“It’s an ideal process if you’ve got free labor,” she told the group.
But labor and other costs need to be accounted for in any farm enterprise, and she showed a series of slides that illustrated the expense. Barley seed at $51.30 per ton of fodder and $30 in labor (two hours at $15 an hour per ton of finished fodder) were the two biggest components of the final $95.30 per ton of fodder in Abel-Caines’ example.
Fodder is definitely not free and it’s definitely not for the large producer, Abel-Caines said. In herds larger than 150 cows, the management challenges become overwhelming.
“But it is a niche feed, for niche farmers, producing for a niche market,” she said. “And that describes the Organic Valley farmer.”
Nearly half the audience at Zeiset’s meeting were Organic Valley producers. And a few of them could soon be part of the small number of dairymen feeding sprouted barley fodder.
How small? “Maybe 50 or 60 producers in the whole country,” Abel-Gaines said by phone a few days after the meeting. “The biggest number of feeders are horse people, particularly thoroughbreds, then hogs, then chickens, then dairy.”
The interest in fodder has been sparked in part by $8-a-bushel corn.
“If corn were still $3, nobody would have even come to this meeting,” a producer said during lunch break. “But when are we ever going to see $3 corn again?”
Zeiset is predicting the answer to that question is “never,” and he is forging ahead with his own Grass ’n Roots system.
Rather than the trays used by manufacturers already on the market, he uses a stack of movable belts, four high, with tempered seed going on one end of the belt, and four-foot strips of fodder coming off the other end after a week of growing.
Zeiset demonstrated his system at the meeting. It is mounted in a used refrigerated trailer — a reefer, which is not only a handy way to haul the system around for demonstrations, he said, but also a good alternative to a permanent building.
“It’s well-insulated, it can be ventilated, and you can get one for $5,000 or less. Plus the motor can be used for a backup power supply,” he said.
The price tag on the system he had at Gratz, Zeiset said, is $35,000.
Zeiset can be reached at 717-433-7702, Organic Valley at 888-444-6455 or www.organicvalley.coop, and Dick Wanner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-429-4703.