I want to eat wholesome food. I think anyone who wants it ought to be able to eat wholesome food, but cost is a barrier for too many people. Like me. I wanted to eat the kind of food I could not afford to buy, so I started to grow my own. Sustainable gardening was an obvious first step, but raising a cow to be my source of organic dairy products, and chickens for eggs and meat meant buying expensive organic animal feed or growing their food, too. That’s how I started to grow their food too, or at least as much as I can.
I have dabbled and tweaked my technique for years now, and last year I finally raised my first crop of non-GMO, pasture-penned chickens for less than the ones labelled “natural” in the store. I want to be clear, I still buy non-GMO chicken feed from a local supplier and I buy organic fishmeal. Sprouted barley doesn’t quite supply adequate protein for layers, so I bump the overall dietary protein by putting 1 part fishmeal into 13 parts chicken feed. The birds get 10 pounds of sprouts and 3 pounds of the feed every day.
I don’t just grow food for chickens, though. I use less than half the hay to winter my cows than the local average. My cows still get hay, just a lot less. My system is still tiny, for cows. If I had room for the racks I would be feeding the 3 cows about 150 pounds of fodder a day. This is an ever evolving project, but one that has given me much better control over what all the animals eat.
The key is barley. Once sprouted, it becomes a nearly perfect chicken food. Indeed, it becomes an excellent feed for almost any grazing animal. There are many valid reasons not to feed cows grain, but sprouts and fodder are a very different story. With just a soak, anti-nutrients are converted to nutrients. All the good reasons you would sprout your own food apply to your grazing animals, too. Grain is generally cheap compared to hay, and if you grow it into fodder the savings can be quite significant. You can sprout many grains, but barley is uniquely well suited for my needs, nutritionally.
My first system was set up all over my kitchen. I had soaking/sprouting buckets under cupboards and fodder trays on top of counters, fish tanks, anything horizontal and water resistant. I was thrilled with my experiment, and so dedicated a spare bathroom to the effort. That set up had my soak buckets under the racks, had my fodder trays on wire shelving with sprout bags hanging off the corners. Watering was as easy as turning on the shower. It worked very well. At that point, I had 18 chickens and 2 calves. By the time I had 2 cows, I needed a much bigger system.
Currently, I use blue 55 gallon barrels to soak and sprout, with fodder trays below. This is set up in a semi-earth-sheltered greenhouse, so my climate control is not as good as when it was indoors. When I was better able to keep the temperature and humidity stable, I averaged 7 pounds of fodder per pound of grain. My current set up only gives me about 5 pounds of fodder per pound of grain but I am able to sprout up to 40 pounds of grain at a time. Five pounds had been the most I could do in my other set ups. This system will be getting upgraded soon, but it has served me well and hopefully is adequate to illustrate the concept.
Normally, I put 20 pounds of locally sourced barley in the barrel. So far barley is still non-GMO (to the best of my knowledge). You want to know your farmer though, because many use a “Round Up knock down” to make the barley all ripen at the same time. Locally, our conditions are so dry it is not needed and even farmers who love Monsanto won’t spend money they do not have to. I cover the grain with about 3 inches of water and give it about a tablespoon of bleach. I know that sounds scary, but it is worth it. First, bleach dissipates within 24 hours, so by the time I feed this to my animals the bleach is long gone. Furthermore, I buy animal grade barley. There is debris in there, sometimes mouse poop. That debris comes with microbes who will love the moist, dark, humid conditions I am about to give my sprouts. If my sprouts get mildewed or moldy, I do not feed them to anyone. I have tried several things to avoid the bleach, but at this point the bleach is far preferable to risking feeding my animals molded feed or throwing away 25 pound racks of fodder. Also, if I were getting my water from a municipal source it would have bleach in it, too.
After 18 to 24 hours, I drain the barrel. The barrels have slits on one side and not the other, so they have “drain” and “soak” positions. For the next 3 days, I will water the barrel 4 times a day, stirring the sprouts well each time. On the fourth day, I fill a fodder tray and feed the rest to the chickens 5 pounds at a time (we have over 40 chickens now). The chickens would eat the fodder also, but I have limited tray space so they get sprouts for now. The trays are also watered 4 times a day for 4 more days, then fed to the cows, half a tray morning and night.
If you decide to try this for grazing animals, let me help you avoid some aggravation. Do not try this in the spring. My cows run to get their fodder, they race each other to the trough. They love, love, love their fodder! Then one lovely spring day, 3 years in a row now, I will show up with my bucket of fodder and Bessie will look at me, look at the bucket, look at the pasture busting out in vibrant, fresh grass, then look at me again and with those big cow eyes she says “You’re kidding, right?” When that day hits, I shut down the fodder trays and double my sprouting, and the cows get sprouts until fall when the pasture is dry again.
A few other tips to help you get you started: First of all, this is not a recipe to follow. This is gardening. When I say “20 pounds” I mean somewhere between 15 and 40, depending on weather and pasture conditions. There are seed quality issues, weather issues, water quality issues, every different type of tray I tried had different pluses and minuses. If you see something here and think “Hey, this would work better than that for me,” then by all means, customize your system. You will note I am not supplying technical details or parts suppliers because I have used just about everything under the sun at this point and if you give it enough “farmer’s shadow,” it will probably work. If you neglect it, you will probably grow mold.
The best way to sprout small scale that I have found is to use paint strainer bags and 5 gallon buckets. You soak the bag of grain in a bucket, then pull out the strainer to drain. I hung the bags on the corners of my grow racks in my shower system until they were ready to put on trays. The sprouts respond well to darkness and pressure. I used to put skillets and such on top of my sprouts, the hanging bags provided the pressure naturally. My current system does not use pressure application and I suspect that is one reason why my volume is down.
Do not let the grain cook itself. If you do not keep it well stirred it will clump up, making it harder to spread onto trays. Worse, it starts to generate heat. Not just a little, a ridiculous amount, adequate to make your grains spoil. Spoiled grain needs to be discarded. Fermented grain is fine, and in the heat of summer I often serve fermented sprouts. There are additional health benefits when sprouts are fermented, actually. If it smells like salad, bread, or beer, you are good to go. If it smells unpleasant, something is wrong.
The best material for fodder trays that I have found so far is a very fine mesh, food grade, black plastic. The roots like a little darkness, so black is better. The roots will grow aggressively through wide holes and become a nightmare to harvest, so stick to very fine mesh size. There must be excellent drainage, so I like net more than solid trays with drain holes. I use only food grade because these are my groceries’ groceries!
Thanks to Claire Cox for participating in the [Grow] Network Writing Contest.
We have over $2,097 in prizes lined up for the Fall 2015 Writing Contest, including all of the following:
– A 21.5 quart pressure canner from All American, a $382 value
– A Survival Still emergency water purification still, a $288 value
– 1 free 1 year membership in the [Grow] Network Core Community, a $239 value
– A Worm Factory 360 vermicomposting system from Nature’s Footprint, a $128 value
– 2 large heirloom seed collections from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, valued at $103 each
– A Metro-Grower Elite sub-irrigation growing container from Nature’s Footprint, a $69 value
– 2 copies of the complete Home Grown Food Summit, valued at $67 each
– 3 free 3 month memberships in the [Grow] Network Core Community, valued at $59 each
– 4 copies of the Grow Your Own Groceries DVD video set, valued at $43 each
– A Bug Out Seed Kit from the Sustainable Seed Company, a $46 value
– 4 copies of the Alternatives To Dentists DVD video, valued at $33 each
– 4 copies of the Greenhouse of the Future DVD and eBook, valued at $31 each
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