Growing forage in a greenhouse might seem like an expensive way to feed dairy or beef cattle or other livestock, but in certain situations it could prove very beneficial.
For instance, in drought conditions it could provide producers with an excellent source of forage, said Paul Brentlinger, president of CropKing, based in Ohio. After all, cattle are able to eat the whole thing, sprout mat and all.
CropKing is one of several companies that are offering the forage systems, as well as other systems for hydroponic growing.
With hydroponics, plants can be grown in a small amount of water on a mat with added nutrients – but without soil.
“With hydroponics, you can grow forage in a greenhouse and grow it faster – harvesting in as little as seven to 10 days,” Brentlinger said. “It is really simple; there is no soil involved.”
CropKing’s Fodder Solutions system is a hydroponic growing system that has been specifically developed to sprout grain and legume seeds for highly nutritious yet cost-effective livestock feed.
Hydroponic technology allows fresh feed and produce to be grown anywhere. A thousand pounds of barley, wheat or corn grows into 7,000-8,000 pounds of feed in only 10 days, he said.
“Typically, farmers are growing barley grass,” Brentlinger said.
CropKing doesn’t provide the seed, just the forage system, and producers buy their own seed from their dealer.
Nearly any kind of seed responds to this system, Brentlinger said, adding producers can use a low dose of organic fertilizer to grow the seed successfully.
“When the forage is grown, producers just roll it up, grass and roots together, and feed it to their cattle,” he said.
CropKing will be providing a forage system to ATI, Ohio State University’s Extension, to do more research on growing forage hydroponically and to get some data on its effects in milk and weight. The university Extension hasbeen researching hydroponics since 1999, but hasn’t researched hydroponic forage until now.
“One of the drawbacks is there isn’t a lot of research on the forage systems. This would provide that,” Brentlinger said.
Hydroponics is becoming more important to farmers worldwide, he said, due to the lack of land.
For instance, the forage system has been used by dairy producers with limited pasture land.
They can grow their forage in a hydroponic system, rather than having to find more land.
And they can grow it in the winter when conditions might prevent cattle from foraging for nutritious grass.
“Producers around the world are having to focus on more intensive farming with harsher conditions and a lack of land,” he said. “It is not easy to grow good quality hay in drought conditions, and often pasture or crop land is not available or is very expensive.”
Research on good quality forage which can be produced hydroponically has shown that milk yields can be increased in dairy cows, the vigor and performance of racehorses is improved; and there is a higher protein content than hay so it is more easily digested, according to CropKing’s web site.
Brentlinger said the main goal of CropKing is to assist growers in hydroponic vegetable and other crop production.
“We have growers in every state and over a dozen different countries who utilize our system to grow high value crops like tomatoes and lettuce,” he said, adding that it is a “way for farmers to diversify.”
In addition to growing crops like soybeans, wheat and corn, some farmers are growing vegetables hydroponically in greenhouses for local farmers’ markets or grocery stores.
“You can absolutely grow forage or vegetables in below zero weather, but the heat cost has to be figured in,” he said.
For more on CropKing’s hydroponic systems, see www.cropking.com.