High grain prices and droughts are driving up interest in alternative feeds. Recently that interest focuses on sprouting barley for fodder production. A number of companies have developed systems for automated or semi-automated sprouted barley production.
Sprouted fodder is not a new idea. There are references to sprouting small grains for fodder dating back at least to the 1600s. What is new is the technology and engineering that makes it economically competitive with other feeding options. Light, moisture and consistent temperatures are critical for sprouted fodder to work
What has revolutionized sprouted barley fodder as a viable feed alternative is high efficiency fluorescent and LED lighting and more affordable climate control systems. LED lighting in particular is very energy efficient with little excess heat generated. Although LED is more expensive to buy upfront, the long-term operating expenses are greatly reduced. LEDs also last much longer than any other option, and do not lose output over time.
Many of the advances made in sprouted barley fodder have come from Australia–several of the systems used here are based on their designs. During Australia’s severe droughts, barely fodder provided valuable nutrition when fresh pasture was not available.
Here in the U.S., the sprouted barley fodder is often brought into the ration to replace protein previously supplied by dry grain. Of course, it is also beneficial in the non-pasture season to bring fresh forage to the animals.
The main benefit of sprouted fodder in comparison to feeding grain is improved protein, starch and sugar. Nearly all of the starch present in the grain is converted to sugar by sprouting, which is better utilized by the rumen than the dry grain. This reduces acidosis problems, as the rumen pH stays more stable without the constant input of starch.
Mineral and vitamin levels in hydroponically-sprouted barley are significantly increased over those in grain; in addition, they are absorbed more efficiently due to the lack of enzyme inhibitors in sprouted grain.
Sprouts provide a good supply of vitamins A, E, C and B complex. There is very little dry matter in sprouted barley fodder (17%). Feeding fodder must include a source of roughage i.e. dry hay, but the hay does not have to be of highest quality.
Why Barley and Not Other Small Grains?
Barley is the most nutritious of the small grains, stores well and is easy to grow. Wheat and oats will work, but barley sprouts the best, grows the fastest and is most cost-effective of all the grains tried.
To work well for sprouted fodder, the barley seed needs a high germination rate and must be very clean. Some companies recommend mixing seeds; 2 pounds of barley and 2 ounces of sunflower seeds, which yields 20 pounds (on average, a 10:1 ratio). A general rule of thumb is a yield of 1:7–one pound of barley seed will produce seven pounds of sprouted fodder.
Systems for Sprouting Barley
To sprout barley consistently and economically, you need a climate-controlled space, lighting of sufficient brightness (lumens), a soaking vat, a rack and tray system and a watering system.
All systems, regardless of size, must be insulated and climate controlled. The ideal temperature is 70 degrees F, with humidity held high and constant, but not too high that mold becomes an issue. Air movement is necessary to control mold, so many systems incorporate fans or air handling systems.
Choosing the right light, and the right amount of light, is very important to the success of a sprouted barley system. Optimal production requires 18 hours of light and 6 hours of darkness. Low-light levels and shorter day lengths will slow the process and reduce production.
Racking the sprouting system vertically is the most efficient use of space. Nearly all the systems being sold are racked and then set up with sprouting trays to hold the seed. In fully automated systems, water emitters either spray or flood the trays on a regular basis. The trays must have a drainage system. Seeds need to be kept moist, but they cannot sit in water, or mold and bacteria will become problems.
How the Process Works
The barley seed must be very clean and have a high germination rate. Dirty seed will have mold problems and require a lot of labor time in cleaning both seed and equipment. Low germination rates will decrease the efficiency of the system.
Clean grain must be soaked 8 to 12 hours. Hydrogen peroxide or bleach is sometimes used in the soaking water to kill mold spores (allowed in organic systems) and the soak water is sometimes aerated.
After soaking, the grain is drained and spread onto trays. Temperatures should be kept between 60 and 75 degrees F, with 70 degrees ideal. The grain must be kept moist to sprout.
The sprouted barley is harvested between six and eight days of growth. Nutrition will be lost but weight gained by days seven and eight. At harvest, the barley shoots will be about six inches tall with a two inch mat of interwoven roots.
The sprouted grain is harvested by removing the tray or sliding the mat off the tray in one long sheet. The mats can be cut to the appropriate size and fed to cattle. By starting new grain every day, the system can constantly provide fresh fodder.