Q.

Is hydroponic fodder a good option for sheep/goats?

A.

Hydroponic fodder is highly nutritious forage than can be fed to sheep/goats. However, it is a very costly option (in most cases).

Hydroponic fodder is plants that are grown in nutrient-rich solutions (water) instead of soil, similar to greenhouse plants. Hydroponic fodder is not a new concept, but it has been gaining momentum in recent years. The companies that sell hydroponic fodder systems make all sorts of claims about hydroponic fodder and its impact on animal health and productivity, but these claims are unsubstantiated. Hydroponic fodder is like any other feedstuff. It contains a certain amount (percentage) of nutrients: protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals. It has no "magical" ingredients.

Barley is the plant most commonly grown in hydroponic systems because it gives the best yield of nutrients. Other plants can be grown. One pound of barley (seed) will produce 6 to 10 lbs. of feed. However, most of the increase in weight is due to the increased moisture content. Hydroponic fodder is usually only 12-15 percent dry matter, compared to 89 percent dry matter in the barley grain (seed) or in dry forages (hay).

Fodder sprouts are equivalent to young, tender grass. As such, they are highly palatable. and nutritious. In addition to the grass, there is a matt which contains seeds and roots. At first livestock may refuse to eat hydroponic fodder because it is a novel feedstuff. Eventually, they will relish it, like any fresh green forage. Hydronic fodder is often added to TMRs. On a dry matter basis, hydroponic fodder compares very favorably to other nutritous feedstuffs.

While hydroponic fodder is a nutritious feedstuff, it is a very expensive source of nutrients, due to its high moisture content. Barley that costs $4/bu (8.3 cent per pound) provides energy at a cost of $0.11/lb. whereas hydroponic fodder that costs $0.05/lb. to produce provides energy at a cost of almost 57 cents per pound.

It is important to understand that animal nutrition is based on dry matter (DM). Animals need to consume so many lbs., kgs., ounces, or grams of dry feed per day. One pound of barley grain (unsprouted seed) provides a similar amount of energy (TDN) as 8 pounds of sprouted barley (hydroponic fodder). Energy is the limiting nutrient in sheep/goat diets. It is the nutrient that they consume in the largest quantity.

It can be argued that it is more cost effective to feed the barley (seed) than to sprout the seeds and feed the fodder. Of course, sheep/goats are ruminants, and the fodder is forage whereas the barley is grain (starch). While grain and other feedstuffs can replace some of the forage in the diet, ruminants require some roughage to maintain their health.

When is hydroponic fodder economical?
There may be some situations in which hydroponic fodder may be an economical feed stuff. In some places, the cost of hay is extremely high. This will make the cost of hydroponic fodder more competitive. Forage crops are not readily available in some places. Hydroponic fodder is a means of providing forage to livestock. Hydroponic fodder seems particularly well-suited to organic production systems. Because hydroponic fodder is grown in a controlled environnment and without soil, it is not susceptible to soil-borne diseases.

Some producers may be able to build their own hydroponic fodder systems. Combined with unpaid labor, this would make the cost of hydroponic fiber considerably less expensive. Hydroponic fodder allows a producer to be more self-sufficient, relying less on outside feeds sources. This is appealing to many producers.

Hydroponic fodder may become more viable as the competition for land and water intensifies.


06/08/2021

Additional reading
Hydroponic fodder: it is a viable option for sheep, goats, and other livestock?
Fodder for forage: fact, folly, fable, or fabulous?
Does hydroponic forage production make sense?