Fodder pods not a realistic option for us
Published 27/05/2015 | 02:30
As with grass, spring cereal growth has been disappointing to date. The obvious implication of this poor growth is likely to be reduced grain yields unfortunately.
However, world cereal prices seem to be under pressure due to increased production in the main grain growing regions. As always, this low grain price forecast is a double edged sword, with significant benefits for livestock farmers and obvious negatives for grain producers.
On a visit to my local supermarket last week my attention was caught by trays of vigorously growing cereal in the fruit and vegetable aisle. On further investigation I discovered that it was sprouted wheat, being marketed as wheatgrass. The benefits of this wheatgrass as a superfood for humans was being heavily promoted.
It reminded me of a number of curious enquires that I have recently received as to the latest fodder production units or pods that are now available in the country.
Those promoting this system are claiming that fodder can be grown in an environmentally controlled fodder unit, producing luscious green fodder for feeding after seven or eight days of growth. The whole plant, including roots, is fed to the animals.
This fodder is claimed to have high levels of protein (up to 22pc), supply a rich energy source and provide essential vitamins and omega 3 fatty acids. One tonne of seed barley grains is capable of producing up to 6.5t of fodder.
While I have yet to encounter one of these units being used commercially here in Ireland, on a recent visit to South Africa and Namibia I saw many large-scale fodder pods in operation. The primary issue in the region that I visited and the main reason for the installation of these units was severe drought.
This drought eliminated the ability of the farmers to grow any high quality fodder/energy source without hugely expensive irrigation systems. Another advantage to the use of the system was the relatively cheap energy costs due to the use of solar power.
I must admit to being impressed by resulting animal performance when fed a TMR blend containing this fodder and low grade elephant grass. Drought stricken animals entering feedlots, took to the feed very quickly, without any digestive upsets. Weight gains on local breeds and crossbred animals were in excess of 2.5kg per day.
It must be noted that with these animals coming from the African bush, compensatory growth twinned with the use of hormone growth promotors played a major role in these high weight gains. The ingenuity of the African beef farmer and their access to cheap labour meant that the main protein source was the handpicked seed pods of the camel thorn plant.
The average unit that I visited was producing 3-4 tonnes of sprouted material daily, feeding approximately 200 cattle. The system is very labour intensive. Dried seed grain is firstly spread onto shallow seed trays of approximately 40cm x 40cm. The seeds are watered manually and moved daily exposing them to greater amounts of artificial light and heat as the seed sprouts. After seven to eight days the trays are removed, again manually, and incorporated into the total mixed ration.
As they are a moist feed, their palatability is high and animals will consume the sprouts even when fed on their own. Adding the low quality and readily available African fodders balances the overall protein and energy content of the final feed.
With regards the use of these units in Ireland, we need to compare what they are producing versus what is already available. This sprouted cereal will generally have an analysis of approximately 17pc dry matter, 11.8ME/kg/DM and will exceed 20pc protein. Given current grain prices and the pressure they are expected to come under, whole grain at 85pc dry matter, 13ME/kg/DM and 11pc protein will simply be a much better option.
It is suggested that one typical sized commercial unit here in Ireland will produce up to 300kg of fodder per day. At a feed rate of 15kg per head this will only provide sufficient fodder for 20 mature animals. This forage would also need to be supplemented with additional energy and fibre sources.
As long as we can grow vast amounts of grazed grass, produce high quality grass silage at a reasonable cost and grain prices remain at their current levels, I don't see much merit for these units commercially here in Ireland.
However, should this situation ever change, these systems could provide an interesting alternative.
Gerry Giggins is a animal nutritionist based in Co Louth.