The Grass is always Greener...In the Basement?

Growing grass in the basement seemed a logical progression into our lives as true Mainers. Everyone does it, winter is long. OK. So not everyone, in fact not anyone that we know grows our kind of grass. Fodder that is. But there is truth to the long winter statement. The first fall we were in Maine, I was listening to the audiobook Game of Thrones. Throughout the whole book, the mantra “but winter is coming” is repeated often by the Northerners. It spoke to me on many levels as we faced our first Maine winter. We survived, as did our animals, however, things were difficult. In Pennsylvania, we had an organic grain business and excellent local hay farmers, and if you ran out there was plenty of hay for sale at the auction every week, with alfalfa and second cuttings in huge bales, available year round. In Maine, no such luck in our area, alfalfa is non-existent, organic grain hours away and very pricey, local hay is grown in acidic soil and is great roughage, but lacking in nutrition. Our animals were all back on Nutrena (Cargill) gmo feeds, eating nearly twice what they had ever eaten before, pound for pound, and experiencing muscle loss, colic and nutritional imbalance that had caused us to leave the commercial grain hamster wheel long ago.

A welcome change came in the summer as a local farmer and retired railroad worker, Charlie, invited us to hay with him. He is a tinkerer of great knowledge and character who, coupled with his aged equipment, have schooled Frank in-depth on the workings of all things huge and tractor as well as cantankerous and baler. Frank can now change shear pins, fix knotting fingers, start giant “ether whore” tractors and toss and throw bales with the best of them. We were a step ahead of winter number one in which our hay supply was inconsistent and expensive. We had more than half a year’s hay, but the grain they needed was lacking in quality and basically horse twinkies processed pellets. An improvement in the house-heating situation, moving our woodstove to the basement, led to an golden, or rather, green opportunity:  a fodder system that would be large enough to provide fresh green oat or barley grass to every animal on the property, year-round. Quite a feat in the frozen North. Fodder is the result of growing seed grain for 5-9 days to create a living mat of sprouts, think wheat sprouts, on a 250 pound a day level. All that living matter and chlorophyll and live enzymes!

The research began. Ahh, if you can’t learn it on Youtube, you didn’t need that surgery anyway. We read extensively, there is an excellent and helpful group “Fodder” on Facebook, where you can talk with other enthusiastic growers and find nutritional information (for the scientifically minded). There are videos, many videos. There are also several commercial systems available (we're not going to link to those, because, really, you don't want to buy one - but okay, just for a laugh, here's one and another for only $36,000 These are widespread throughout Australia, where drought is common, and often followed by flood, making our hay situation seem simple. There are areas of Australia that are farmed currently with a recommended stocking rate of one sheep per 10 acres, and they have 10,000 sheep. Farmers and innovators came together to create fodder systems that are in trailers, roll off the truck, plug into water and power and in 6 days pump out over a thousand pounds of feed a day. Feed that is 89% utilizable, as opposed to the 18-30% percent of available nutrition in standard dry grain. Without these fodder systems many ranchers are out of business in the outback.

Fodder systems are gaining popularity in arid areas of the US and have just begun to break ground in the east, not so much as a water savings, but as a way to keep live food in front of grazing animals for more than 6 months of the year. With systems starting around $5,000 for a micro system to feed a couple of horses and some chickens, to $10,000 for the size of the system we needed, people are starting to apply some old time ingenuity. Online you will see fodder grown in greenhouses, gutters in basements, 1020 growing trays in kitchen windows, even in cupcake tins for guinea pig treats. For us, the bottom line was 250 pounds a day to feed our 12 horses, 3 cows, alpaca, 3 goats, 3 sheep, 4 adult pigs, 12 growing pigs, 5 rabbits and 30 chickens, 2 turkeys and 12 ducks. And do it with ⅓ of the total weight grain input. It sounded fantastic, and easy. Mother Earth News said so!

Reality bites.

We decided to start with a system that used 1020 trays. I ordered 200. No sooner did I do that, that we finally found the system of our dreams online in a video from Michigan. It used metal roofing to hold and grow the fodder. A large problem with the trays was breakage - I was not happy with the idea of trashing plastic trays all the time; that whole environmental aspect. So, we have a lot of trays now - no biggie, we have greenhouses, they will be used. I did some bad math to discover how many square feet of growing space we would need to meet 250 pounds a day, using averages posted online. Five pounds per square foot seemed like a middle of the road number.

Frank began designing the racks.

Fodder rack

The seeds need water, but drainage is just as important, so the racks have to be on a slight tilt. They also need to drain into something, in our case, 5 gallon buckets. He designed the racks to hold metal roofing, bent to contain seeds but with drilled holes to release water, on a slight tilt that drains them into a central gutter which runs into a bucket.

Gutter drains water into bucket

Each large rack has 5 levels of trays. Fluorescent lights were added to the basement, although the system does not require grow lighting; there is enough energy in the seed to produce the top growth we are feeding, but ambient light accelerates growth and gives a greener finished product with more chlorophyll.

We started our trials, and errors in the darkest, coldest of January. Lots of trials. Lots of errors... Nighttime lows were in the single digits, but the basement hovered at 55-60 degrees and according to our reading that was just fine. We started with the locally available feed barley. I soaked some for 8 hours, some for 12, some for 24, rinsed, did not rinse, washed before soaking, soaked in bleach, soaked in food grade peroxide. I watered once a day, flooded, misted, watered or misted 3-5 times a day. We ended up with fermented barley and very happy pigs, moldy barley, soaked non-sprouting barley, a few measly grass stems here and there, but not much feedable to speak of. Just tray after tray to throw to pigs or chickens, nothing of quality.

I started to focus, take notes, label, and try other grain. We tried oats of different varieties and finally started to see very good germination rates with Nutrena Oats, with a 2-hour soak, and a small amount of food grade hydrogen peroxide. But growth was still spotty and poor and we had considerable starchy slime on the mats; no amount of water or lack of water seemed to solve the issue. After about 3 weeks of this, I was starting to dream of nothing but sprouting and the cost of the system (a little over a thousand dollars) was seeming a fool’s expense mid-winter with more hay to buy.

Frank and I had a pow-wow and decided the only variable we had not manipulated was temperature. Frank and our wonderful new assistant Brian set up a plastic sheeting curtain to wall off the racks, and we added a small oil radiator space heater. We were now able to keep the temperature above 60 and the oats took off immediately.

 

sprouting grain

 

Rack of fodder growing in many trays

 Within a week we had beautiful fodder mats and are now coming into full production, having taken 10 days to transition the animals from commercial grain to green, live food. We only use the space heater when we are 15 degrees or cooler out, or need to let the fire go low at night. If the outside temp is above 20 degrees, the stove keeps the basement an even 63 or above. In addition to the occasional heater use, we do keep a box fan running on low for air circulation. I do believe that the small amount of extra electrical input with not have a significant effect on the overall ongoing cost of the fodder production. We are using well water to give the fodder a thorough rinse twice a day. Most of the rinse water is given to the pigs as a sugary oat tea.

Fodder looking like sod

 We have given up the notion of growing barley fodder, by far the most popular grain in this type of system, until we can source some seed quality that is locally grown. I have contacted a Maine Seed Company and they have assured us we will have our first ton soon. We very much look forward to that, but for the time being the oats are performing phenomenally and we and the animals are thrilled. With the exception of the ducks, all of the animals are very happy to see the fodder in their feed dish with the sheep and alpaca topping the enthusiasm chart. The ducks need to deal and eat their salad, end of story.

Fodder close up

 

Bright green fodder

 

fodder growing in trays

We will be sprouting extra grain - more than will fit on the racks daily - as three- to four-day-old sprouts are supposed to be excellent for pigs and chickens. They will receive those as well as green fodder. We are experimenting right now with adding a probiotic to the fodder: Jackpot, by Bio SI. We have seen great success with this probiotic in our water troughs. With our water quite cold most of the year, we are hoping to be able to deliver it more consistently as a topical application to the fodder. We have noticed the fodder when sprayed with Bio SI Jackpot at day 2 has far better germination and growth. We will be trying another formula from the same company over the next 2 weeks and will update with progress. I am also trying to put together a regional topdressing that will allow me to spray nutritive balancer on the fodder right before feeding, making sure that it is a complete meal.

Fodder at different stages

In the meantime, it's fun to see the green, green grass of home... in the basement.