Using hydroponic fodder production technology it is possible to grow enough fodder for all the animals in the farm within 6 to 10 days, and realize a massive increase in milk production.
Compared to ordinary cattle feed, this method of pasture production require far less space and the pasture produced has superior nutritive value. Small scale farmers have a lot to gain from this revolutionary technology as they can instantaneously transform into large scale producers on their small parcels of land.
A typical greenhouse containing trays stacked on shelves is used. The trays are put under controlled environmental conditions in a 6 – 10 day cycle. The content are fed as food and grain such as barley, oats, wheat, maize and others. Barley is the grain of choice due to its superior performance followed by oats. Grains develop roots and green shoots to form a dense mat. Carbon dioxide injection cuts the growing time to 4 days and increase production by25%. A 144m2greenhouse can hold about 1800 trays and produce an average of 1200kg per day using only 800 to 1000 litres of water. This amount of fodder can be used to supplement 100 heads of cattle or 500 heads of sheep or goats per day. Low cost structures are now locally available at Agrotunnel International at a cost of Kshs120, 000.
Advantages and disadvantages of hydroponic technology
Although hydroponic fodder production system has a history spanning over 50 years it is a relatively new fodder production technology in Kenya. It is essentially entails the germination of seeds in nutrient rich solutions instead of soil to produce a grass and root combination that is very high in nutrition. Economic and environmental reasons abound why the technology is preferable over the conventional methods of producing fodder. Among the reasons is that:-
- It requires less water requirements to produce an equivalent amount of biomass. For example it takes 1 to 2 litres of water to produce one kilo of fodder compared to 80 – 90 litres to produce one kilo of green grass. This is a solution to the frequent droughts and the need for expensive irrigation systems.
- It requires minimal land use compared to fodder grown on fields. Fodder grown on 9m x 6m plot can feed the same number of cattle that graze on 1200 acres of pastures in the field. 250 heads of sheep can be raised on a pen measuring 520m2 whereas in Kenyan standards 6 sheep would require on hectare. Obviously this means economic use of land which is fast becoming scarce.
- It requires a small area. The lesser area required for fodder production would provide more area for food crops.
- There is no need for expensive fodder storage facilities because farmers are guaranteed a constant supply of high quality fodder. Unlike hay and silage which loses their nutritive value over time, the quality of hydroponic fodder is always guaranteed. Farmers therefore know exactly the amount to feed and the amount of yield to expect. This makes planning very easy.
- A very short growth time is required. Although an 8 day growing cycle is recommended, it takes as little as 7 days from germination time to a fully grown plant at a height of 25 – 30cm ready for harvest. For every Kg of seed, 7 – 10 kg of edible fodder is produced. To grow the same amount of fodder in the field will require a minimum of 12 weeks.
- It requires less labor. As little as one hour per day is required to maintain and produce hydroponic fodder.
- It is extremely cost effective and financially viable. Estimates have indicated a cost of about Kshs 4000 to produce a ton. This cost do not even compare with paddock grown fodder. Studies estimate the cost of fattening an animal using hydroponic fodder at 4 to 8 times less compared to using grain over a 90 – 120 day period. Chances of diseases associated with feeds are reduced by 60 – 75% because the fodder supply is disease free thus enhancing good agricultural practices.
- The nutritive value is quite high. The protein content is high and is very rich in vitamins such as B-carotene, trace elements and enzymes. It is 90 – 95% digestible compared to grains which at best are 30%. The increase in digestibility results in an increase in the average daily weight gain which is a big advantage to beef and mutton producers. It has been found that a kilo of hydroponic fodder is nutritionally equivalent to 3 kg of lucerne.
- Diets of hydroponic fodder also help improve milk production and quality. Tests have indicated vast improvement in milk quantity (up to 10%) and butter fat content (14% higher). Farmers have reported a stimulated appetite when animals are fed on the diet. Other studies have demonstrated increased fertility rates, increased egg laying and elimination of cannibalism in poultry.
- The feed is completely natural. The fodder is produced without the use of any hormones, chemicals fertilizers or synthetic growth stimulants. There are no fungicides or pesticides used that could contaminate the meat or milk.
However, as in all greenhouses, the technology faces challenges brought about by bacteria and fungal growth. Rhizopus, the common bread mould which is present in all cereal grains and in the soils, attacks the grains. If left to flourish it can cause the growth of other unwanted bacteria and fungi that produce toxins dangerous to livestock. Sterilization of seeds to control this menace is therefore paramount.
Based on extensive research the result produced show that one mat of fresh sprouted barley adequately replaces 3kg of concentrates in the diet of dairy cows. The research also shows that there is no detrimental effect in productivity of dairy cows in terms of milk production and body weight.
In conclusion, considering the perennial shortage of livestock feed experienced during the dry season, hydroponic fodder systems offers a technology that can achieve good performance with limited resources.