Sprouted grains have become a “very controversial” and a “very hot topic” in dairy grazing, Dr. Kathy Soder, Animal Scientist, USDA-ARS, said in the recent eORganic webinar “Evaluating Sprouted Grains on Grazing Dairy Farms.”
“You’re taking a grain, and you’re sprouting it.”
While that sounds simple enough, comparing the sprouted grains to other feeds isn’t so easy. In order to do so, sprouted grains must be compared on a dry matter basis, not an as-fed basis.
“We feed on a dry matter basis. We are not feeding animals water,” Dr. Soder said. “We don’t buy feed on an as-fed basis.”
The animal will simple excrete the water: it is the dry matter that counts. But most information from those selling the hydroponic systems used for sprouting grains is given in an as-fed basis, although fodder contains a lot of water, and little dry matter, per ton.
Sprouting: grains of truth
A fodder system is a hydroponic system that takes a pound of grain seed, and produces about five times more in output during a brief, seven-day growing window. During that time, the seed is using energy to sprout. Photosynthesis doesn’t begin in earnest until after the first week, so the fodder is not yet actively storing nutrients when it is harvested and fed.
“It takes energy to sprout the grain. The seeds utilize the stored energy, the starch, during the first week of growth, to germinate,” Dr. Soder said, and the grain is actually losing about 17 percent dry matter during sprouting.
Dr. Soder’s laboratory set out to compare the nutrient component of fodder to the barley grain from which is sprouted.
They found that the protein content is increased as grain is sprouted. But this is because the loss of dry matter during the sprouting process concentrates the nutrients in the fodder. Starch is converted to sugar during germination, and about half of the starch is lost. Sugar is more rapidly digested, which has pros and cons, she said. There is a potential for rumen acidosis with higher sugar levels. Significant increases in NDF and ADF (neutral detergent fiber and acid detergent fiber) are also seen in sprouting, again primarily due to concentration, as the grain is not yet growing enough to actually produce more fiber.
In stimulated rumen laboratory studies, Dr. Soder’s team examined a haylage diet and a pasture diet, with a barley grain supplement, as well as a sprouted barley fodder supplement, added to both. The pasture diets had higher digestibility than the haylage diets. Fodder did increase digestibility of the forages, but only by about five percent.
The research test concluded that fodder can supply nutrients lacking in a low-quality pasture diet, but would probably not provide anything to a high quality pasture or forage diet.
“If you’re feeding a diet limited in nutrients…you might see a good benefit out of fodder,” Dr. Soder said.
One of the common claims of a fodder diet is that it contains vitamins and enzymes which improve animal health and productivity. On a dry matter basis, however, the vitamin levels in fodder – while significantly higher than in grain – are still an insignificant amount compared to the total daily intake needed. While sprouted grain provided 28.4 mg/lb. of Vitamin E, on a dry matter basis, compared to the 3.4 mg/lb. in the grain itself, a cow requires approximately 735,000mg/lb. day.
“These are the kinds of things we need to take into consideration,” when examining claims about fodder’s benefits, Dr. Soder said. “Even though there may be an increase, is it biologically significant?”
Enzymatic activity in the rumen itself is totally controlled by rumen microbes. Whether fodder enzymes are biologically active in the rumen is difficult and expensive to analyze. If fodder enzymes somehow can impact rumen microbial activity is not known.
It is true that fodder can provide a consistent feed quality. However, because mold concerns are a prominent issue in fodder systems, the benefits of consistency are lost if the fodder cannot be fed, which it cannot be when mold occurs.
A 2015 study by Brad Heins, of the University of Minnesota, did find that fodder can slightly increase milk production and omega-3 levels. But the income over feed costs (IOFC) of a fodder system were found to negate those benefits, unless the cost purchasing grain was very high. And, combined with the initial capital investment in a system, the IOFC is further reduced.
Another study, by Dr. Cynthia Daly of California State University-Chico, found that fodder did increase milk production over grain alone diets, but not in statistically significant amounts. It also increased butterfat content of the milk, again not at a significant rate. And “quite a bit of fodder” was fed – 4.6 lbs. – to compare the various diets on a dry matter, energy-equivalent basis, and generate those results, Dr. Soder explained.
The important question to ask is whether fodder is “economical compared to the other forages you can get,” Dr. Soder said.
Making fodder work
Dr. Soder has been conducting an on-farm, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant funded study, of fodder use on three Pennsylvania farms. One farm has a homegrown system, using no specialized equipment, few inputs, and is lacking climate control where growing the fodder. Mold has not been much of a concern, however. The 25-cow milking herd farm has poor quality pastures. The farmer is adamant that the fodder is beneficial to the herd, and that the time and inputs needed to grow the fodder are worth it.
On the second farm, with 50 milking head and good quality pastures, the purchased fodder system was abandoned. Mold issues were a concern in the heated, but not cooled, building, and the farmer saw no benefit to feeding the fodder, and did not feel it was worth the commitment. Mold presented some concerns.
The third farm, with over 150 milking head, has a commercial fodder system in a climate-controlled building. They hired a full-time person to oversee the fodder. They too had mold issues. The farm’s forage was already of high quality. The farm saw no benefit to feeding fodder, and the capital outlay has not been recovered.
“If we’ve already got some good quality forages out there, you may not see as much a benefit as if you don’t,” Dr. Soder said.
Fodder becomes more feasible when land prices are high or land is limited, the climate is arid or drought is a concern, making high-quality pasture unavailable, or in systems were high-quality forages can not purchased economically. In organic systems, fodder does not satisfy the pasture rule, and is not accepted under most grass-fed labels.
“Fodder is not a cheap or easy alternative to producing high-quality forages on your farm,” Dr. Soder concluded.