Given that we love aquaponics here and that our name is “Friendly Pastures” it seems only fitting that we are now successfully growing fodder for our animals. Fodder is a great way to decrease the cost of feeding your animals. And since we have a 100% organic grain mill 5 miles away we are able to feed our animals as much food as they want (with in healthy guidelines of course), have it be all organic, and at a significantly reduced cost. Once we dial in the fodder system we could potentially take one pound of seed and convert it into ten pounds of feed.
The math behind fodder – 3.7 cents per pound is possible
Let’s do the math for our pigs since they are the primary consumers on our farm. A 50lb bag of pig food is about $15 at the local feed store. This can be picked up for cheaper if you want to sacrifice quality or buy based on where the deal is. Going out of town would of course then force us to factor in gas charges too. But for now let’s keep the math simple. This works out to roughly 30¢/lb.
The local feed mill, when buying in quantities of 50lb bags, charges around $30 for a 50lb bag of all organic seed. The upside to this equation though even without fodder is A) its organic which will help your marketing down the road and B) they will custom mix this any which way I want! Pretty nice. This works out to roughly double the cost as is: 60¢/lb.
Of course you can buy in bulk for either of these but let’s stick to what the average buyer deals with.
Now let’s factor in what can be done with fodder. In 4 days you can grow your fodder to a root mat with some grass like chutes. This should take 1lb of seed and make it somewhere around 3-4lbs. There is some discussion these days as to whether the day 4 mark of fodder is the most nutritious fodder (another post). But grow your fodder to the 7-8 day mark and some people have seen growth in the 1lb of seed to 10lbs of feed.
At the 10lb mark the $30 bag of seed is going to generate 500lbs of feed at the rate of 6¢/lb. Six cents per pound. This is magical!
Now let’s talk in terms of bulk. Go buy 2,000 lbs of all organic grain at 37¢/lb (or $18.50/50lbs) and you are down to 3.7¢/lb! Even if you only get a so-so yield from your fodder system (say 1lb to 5lb conversion) you are back to 7.4¢/lb. – for organic, non-gmo, no animal byproducts, feed me as much as I want fodder!
Our first bag was a blend of 50/50 oats and wheat.
The in’s and out’s of fodder needs a book
I have been so excited about the prospects of fodder, fodder systems, and the nutritional facts behind what can be produced – I have decided to write a book on the subject. Let me know if you are interested in this. I think I will write this in public view using the leanpub.com publishing system.
I plan on covering builds for 3 different sizes of systems (minimum): 1) the small trial system to prove to yourself how awesome fodder is 2) a medium (around $150) shelf system that should supply enough fodder for chickens, rabbits, etc. 3) a large system capable of producing 100lbs of feed a day.
I will also get into flood and drain vs. cascading systems, timers, sumps, plumbing, etc. Detailing what the options are and the cost.
And probably most important is to get some feed back on the nutritional break down of each type of feed, how well it does in the various styles of systems, and formulations for different types of animals.
We will also go over the perils of sprouting – diseases you have to worry about for each of the seeds types you might grow.
If you are interested in being interviewed about your system or your experiences with fodder let me know! Interviews would be fun in a book like this.
After my initial research
While researching big systems and small systems I found that there are all sorts of methods for growing fodder. I have seen systems that were so simple that it was literally seeds in a glass jar growing fodder in the kitchen window. I have seen people using small Tupperware containers to grow fodder. Then there are shelf style systems like the one I built. And then there are large corporate produced products for growing lots of fodder.
The key take aways that I came up with so far (remember I am way new at this) are the following:
- Make sure that your system has proper drainage
- Buy good seeds
- Thoroughly clean your seeds every step along the grow cycle
- Change out your water every couple of days (basically when it is dirty or starts to smell)
- Provide a light source to grow your seeds in
- Keep the temperature down around 65 degrees if you can (though I am growing mine in 78 degrees)
- Keep the air flowing around the fodder system
I knew right away that I could build something for pretty cheap (so that I could prove to my wife that this fodder thing is possible). I looked at lots of small to large systems. I landed on a few systems that looked like they could fit in a closet, a bathroom, or the corner of your kitchen. I chose to build a shelf based system as that seemed to require the least amount of fabrication and be more approachable by the masses.
My parts list
I decided to make a requirement of this system something that could be bought at the local HomeDepot and/or Lowes. This led me to the following parts list from HomeDepot:
- HDX 5 Shelf Storage Unit
- Rain Bird 1/2” hose
- 560 GPH Pond pump with 14’ head height
- Several Rain Bird barbed tees
- A couple Rain Bird barbed elbows
- Rain Bird drip nipples
- Some 1/2” pvc pipe
- 1/2” pvc elbows
- 1/2” pvc tees
- 1/2” ball valves
- 1/2” union
- 1/2” end caps
- 106-quart Sterilite storage bin (to act as a sump)
- Drip nipples
- 7 day plug-in digital timer
- 2 or 3 - 5 gallon buckets
- Male and female threaded PVC fittings (to go from PVC to brass fitting to rain bird hose)
- Brass threaded to barbed fitting to go from PVC to rain bird hose
- PVC glue
- Hose clamps
- Zip ties
There was one part I couldn’t find at HomeDepot…and I tried really hard to find an alternative. But the growing trays are an essential part of the over all system. I could have bought these trays – 1020 trays – or 10” x 20” trays – at Amazon or 100 other online retailers. I ended up stopping by Texas Hydroponics as they have a store in Austin which isn’t too far away.
Tools required for this job
I have a shop full of tools but you don’t need a shop to do this build (though the expression “the right tool for the job probably makes things easier” comes to mind).
- Chop saw OR plastic miter box and back saw OR any old saw
- Drill press OR hand drill
- Hose cutting tool
- Tape measure
- Band saw OR routing table OR grinder OR hack saw
- Screw drivers
There are several sections to this build so I will break them up into their parts. Each section has it’s own ups and downs. But first we had to go to “The Home Depot…you can do it…we can help”. I liked that slogan way more than their current one!
Cutting down the shelves
You could do this build with one set of shelves. The standard package comes with 5 shelves. One shelf is on the bottom where the sump tank will sit. This leaves you with 4 more shelves to set your trays on. You can put 3 trays on each shelf. This gives you room for 12 trays. We are interested in growing our product in 7 day cycles. This means that you are two tray slots shy of the full 14 trays you need. You could feed on a 6 day cycle though, which would yield two trays a day. This will satisfy your chicken or rabbit needs easily.
As you can see from the picture above this leaves a lot of wasted space in the shelves. The trays are about 3” tall. The shelves are about 18” tall.
For that reason I decided to buy a second set of shelves, cut the leg posts roughly in half, and have twice as many shelves in the same space. This also ups the number of trays you can hold. Each leg was cut to 11” long as you lose some of the leg into the hole of the shelf below and the bottom hole of the next shelf up.
Once the first set of shelves was cut down (notice I didn’t cut the bottom set of legs down) I ended up with this. Even if you only need the capacity of one shelf this cut down version might be a better arrangement!
I continued to cut the second set of shelf legs down. Here is the final shelf set from two packages. I didn’t use all the shelves.
Notice that the sump tank sits perfectly on the bottom shelf.
Plumbing the drain system
Next I moved to fabricating the drain system. This is a part that I would certainly change…but here we go.
I decided to use a 3/4” PVC vertical trunk line that each of the 3/4” PVC drain lines would run into. One drain line per shelf. The drain lines were designed to be an open trough system that the trays would drain into. My initial plan was to cut the front of the trays off and have an open face design for the water to run out into the drain trough. More on the trays in a second.
In order to open up the drain lines (the pipes running in front of the shelf) I started by drawing the outline for the section I wanted to remove from the pipe. Then I went to the bench mounted grinder and started to grind the PVC away. This was easy…but not very clean. I then decided to go to the band saw and try to cut the plastic away. This wasn’t very good either as the pipe rolled and the blade was all over the place. Next I thought about using the routing table. That was good for removing the bulk of the waste. But it was rough.
I ended up using a combination of tools. The routing table was great for removing the bulk of the waste material. Then a final pass on the grinder for clean up.
If you don’t have a router or a grinder or a band saw – a plain old hack saw will work too!
Once the drain lines were cut up the rest was easy.
I didn’t glue any of the drainage system! I started from the top of the sump tank where the water would flow out back to the pump. I created about a 10” section that would point into the sump tank from the front right leg (as you look at the shelves). Next was a 90 degree elbow. This had a short distance up to the first shelf where I placed the first tee. After the first tee I cut several short sections, just long enough to go from shelf to shelf. Each shelf had a tee pointing towards the front of the shelf. Except the top shelf which just had a 90 degree elbow.
With the drain trunk line knocked up I connected all the PVC troughs into the tees. I then capped the open end of the trough. And zip tied this unit to the front of the shelves. I also zip tied the troughs to the front of each shelf.
An important part which is hard to see in the picture is that the capped end of the trough is higher than the end of the trough that connects into the tee. This can also be achieved by putting a shim under the left side of the shelf. This way the water all flows into the trunk line and back down to the sump tank.
Prepping the trays
There are a few methods for draining your trays. You can drill a bunch of holes in each tray. Put water in the top tray and let it drain to the next tray, and the next tray, etc. This means that your bottom tray gets very dirty rain water.
The next way to do it is a staggered tilt. In this method you angle one tray to the front. The next tray is angled to the back. And so on. Then at the end of each tray you drill a couple of holes. As with the first method you put water in the top and the tray fills up. It then slowly drains into the next tray. The next tray doesn’t really flood up though as it just gets a trickle. And in the end the trays just get dirty water.
The method that I opted for is to drain each tray individually and fill each tray individually. I drilled seven 1/8” holes in the front of each tray. I then cut a 1” x 2” board to fit across the back of each shelf. The back of the tray sits up on the board allowing the water to flow from the back of the tray to the front of the tray. You can adjust the water to flow in as fast as you require to get a good flood.
DON’T DRILL 7 HOLES!
I initially drilled 7 holes in each tray. This allowed the tray to drain too fast compared to the flow of water coming into the tray. This meant that the trays never actually flooded as intended. I ended up corking 4 of the 7 holes with some hot glue! Oops.
With the trays propped up on the boards at the back of the shelf I could then position the tray just over the trough opening to allow the water to drain.
Don’t fill your trays yet…notice how the trays just sit over the trough opening
Plumbing the supply lines
Don’t glue the supply lines until you dry fit everything
The PVC runs on the front of the shelves on the right side. The supply line will run on the back of the shelves on the right side.
Now we are ready to plumb the supply lines. This plumbing is similar to the drainage in that there is a main supply line with feeder lines branching off of that.
First we will go from the pump to a hard pipe supply line half way up the shelves. The hard pipe is harder to plumb but keeps the pressure better. Also, the 1/2” PVC pipe has a bigger inner diameter than the rain bird 1/2 “ pipe. The further you carry the bigger diameter the less pressure you lose.
To connect the pipe to the pump you need to get a threaded on one end 1/2” PVC fitting with a slip fitting on the other end. Then set the pump in the bottom of your sump tank and set your sump tank on the first shelf. Measure from the top of the pump to the bottom of the second shelf. From there you can cut a piece of pipe that goes from the pump to the under side of the second shelf. Then put a 90 degree fitting on. Now cut a piece of PVC that will get you from your pump in the middle of the sump to just outside the left side of your second shelf. Add another 90 degree fitting. Cut a 2” piece of PVC and place it in the 90 degree fitting. Now put your 1/2” coupling on. The coupling will allow you to disconnect the pump from your supply lines (the supply lines will be zip tied to the shelves) so that you can clean your pump now and then or remove the sump tank as needed. On the other end of the coupling run a pipe up to the bottom of the fifth shelf.
Next is a picture to explain what we are going to build! We ended up adding a tee in the middle of the supply line so that we can direct the flow from the pump to the supply lines – or to a waste line so that we can easily drain the yuck water out of the sump without much fuss. Lets get to it.
From the top of the pipe that goes half way up the shelves add a tee. The tee should face to the front of the shelves. Then cut a 2” piece of pipe to put in the tee facing the front of the shelves. And add a slip valve. This allows you to direct the water to a bucket. Next add another 2” piece of pipe from the valve so that we can connect a slip fitting to a threaded brass fitting. Spin the brass barbed fitting into the pvc connector.
Back to the tee… add another 2” pipe to the top of the tee. Add another valve. Then add another section of pipe to the bottom of the 6th shelf. Now add another tee this time with the opening pointing towards the back of the shelves. Add a 2” piece of pipe into each of the openings of the tee. Add a threaded fitting to the end of each of those pipes. Then spin on two more brass barbed fittings.
If all of this fits as planned you can now glue the PVC parts together. Take it all apart. Make sure that each pipe is clean and burr free. Then follow the directions on your PVC cement and glue it all together. I find it is easiest to take one piece off of your creation and then glue it back on. Keep doing this in order. If you take it all apart and start gluing pieces together slowly you may accidentally put it back together in the wrong order or in the wrong configuration.
Now we can build up the rain bird supply lines. We are going to have two trees built. Each will have a trunk that goes up and down the side of the shelves. With a branch that goes under the bottom of each shelf to drip into each tray. We will put three of the branches on one tree to service the top of the shelf system and four of the branches on the bottom tree for our bottom shelves.
This part goes together pretty quickly. You are going to cut a bunch of short sections and a bunch of three foot sections for each shelf. Once you have all the pieces cut you will fit them together with the plastic rain bird tees and some plugs. In the three foot sections you will insert two drip nipples per tray. This way you can pretty easily adjust the flow of water into your trays. Also, if one of the nipples gets clogged your system will continue to work with the back up nipple.
In this picture you can see the branch leading out across the shelf above the fodder.
Here you can see the two trees connecting to the tee via the brass barbed fittings. This tree goes up to the top three shelves.
This tree connects down to the bottom shelves.
Here you can see the branch dripping into the trays.
Once you have the trees cut, and the nipples inserted, you can connect them to the brass barbs at the top of the supply line tee. Zip tie the rain bird and fixed piping to the shelves and we are done with this part.
Programming the timer
Once the shelves and both sets of plumbing are complete you need to program the timer. I am currently setting my pump to turn on every four hours for five minutes. Depending on the type of plug in timer you buy will determine how you program it. The simple digital daily timers that you can get at HomeDepot were pretty easy to figure out. Press the program button, set the time for the start time, press the program button, set the time for the end time – repeat for each time you want on and off.
Now plug in your pump to the timer. Then plug in your timer. Works like clock work!
Preparing to turn on the system
Before you throw some seed in the trays… Now that we think we have everything plumbed just right and after you let the PVC dry over night, take one last glance at your trays to ensure that the holes are lined up over your drain troughs. Then flick the switch on your pump. The timer should have an override for on.
Now watch the system. First check that none of your supply line plumbing is leaking. Start at the pump and scrutinize each connection all the way up to the tee. Then look at your brass fittings. Then inspect your supply line trees and branches. Adjust your drip nipples so that they aren’t showering your floor but have a good flow into your trays.
Then go in reverse order and follow your drain system. Start at the holes in your trays. Watch how they drain into the troughs. Then follow that down the drain trunk line all the way down to the sump tank. If you have no leaks then you can start your first seeds.
What to do with the seeds before they become fodder
Obviously you will need to procure some seeds. This post isn’t about which seeds are best. If organic seeds perform better than other seeds. Or what type of seed is best for a given animal.
What I will say is pay for good seed. You really get what you pay for! And given the amount of money you will save with fodder you can afford great seed with fodder.
We are buying our seed from Coyote Creek Organic Feed Mill here in Elgin, Texas. This is 100% organic seed!
How much seed will you need to soak
To determine roughly how many seeds you need to put in the bucket, fill your tray with dry seed so that about a 1/2” of seed sits evenly across the bottom of the tray. If you are filling three trays then multiply that amount by three. Say each tray holds one 64 ounce cup worth of seed then you need three of these cups. Start your first soak with about half as many seeds – about a cup and a half. You may find that after a 24 hour soak you need more or less seeds. Adjust from half of the dry seed amount as the seeds expand a bit while soaking.
You may want to make a handy little tool to help you gauge a 1/2” depth. I made mine from wood.
For three 10x20 trays I find I need to soak about 2.5 64 ounce cups (that’s a big cup) worth of seed.
Seed soaking buckets
Once you have your seed located bring it home and be sure to store it in a dry place. Next, get a couple of 5 gallon buckets. Take one of the buckets and drill a ba-zillion holes in it from the very bottom of the bucket to about 5 inches up the side of the bucket.
The holey bucket will hold the seeds and sit inside of the un-holey bucket. This allows you to soak the seed and when ready you can lift the seed out of the water…allowing the water to drain into the second bucket. Put the amount of seed you need for your trays into the holey bucket inside the un-holey bucket. Then fill the bucket until there is about 2” of water over the seeds. Add a cap full of hydrogen peroxide. Then swish the seeds around for a few minutes. This will do a couple of things for your seeds. It will wash the majority of the mold spore off of your seeds. And it will wash away a lot of the dirt and dust in your seeds. Without a good swirl prior to putting the seeds in the tray you will find that the rinse cycle will just keep cycling yucky water over your seeds. When you have swished the seeds around a bit you should start to notice some seeds are floating. These are seeds and husks that most likely aren’t going to sprout. Go ahead and scoop those out and toss them.
Now you can lift your seed out of the water. Let it drain. You will see that the bucket is full of some pretty brackish water. Dump that out.
Now fill the bucket again to about two inches over the seeds. Add another cap full of hydrogen peroxide. This time we will let it soak for 12 to 24 hours. I soak my seed for 24 hours. I like to cycle my trays in the morning. At that time I change out my seeds and start a new batch soaking. When you open your soaked seeds you will see something like what you might expect when making beer.
Drain the seeds. Rinse the seeds by running some water over them. Then dump even amounts of your seed into the trays. Three trays in this case. Then spread the seeds flat in the tray. If you have a pile in one tray and are left wanting in another tray use your hands to evenly distribute the seeds across the trays.
Then add your trays back to the shelf and turn your system on. One shelf full of trays at a time. Don’t rush yourself! Once you get 7 days or so in the wait will be worth it.
Let’s look at the fodder
Now that we have a system built, we have seeds soaked and soaking, and our first trays are full, let’s take a look at the fodder that we can expect to grow in this system.
Your seeds at the start of day one are probably just plump little suckers fresh from a good soaking. But by the end of day one they should have little white tails.
By day two you should have some pretty good indicators that your seeds are alive and growing. The little white tails that should have been showing at the end of day one should be coming out of just about every seed.
On day three you should now see your first green starting. Your first sprouts. They won’t be everywhere…but they will be noticeable.
Day four is probably the most exciting to me. You should now have what appears to be a small field of grass growing in your tray. There are some who would say that you could actually feed this tray of fodder to your critters and get more nutrients than if you were to wait till day seven or eight.
On day five it is probably somewhat hard to see any changes. The sprouts are a bit longer. This continues to happen every day!
Now day six is something else. Its longer greener and thicker!
On day seven your fodder should be tickling the top of the shelf above it!
Day eight is an optional day. A lot of people just grow to day seven. I am drying my fodder out on day eight to see how much dry weight I have created.
And here is a completed tray of fodder! Awesome.
I completed a cycle, now what?
Ok, you have a day seven or a day eight tray full of fodder. Now what. Pull that sucker out and celebrate! But, before you feed it to your critters take a quick look down through the blades at the top of the root mat and inspect it for any signs of mold. Then flip the whole thing over and inspect the bottom of the root mat for any signs of rot or slime. If you see too much of either you shouldn’t give it to any animals that will eat the entire mat. If you have your animals out on pasture at this time of year and they are getting all that they need you can feed the mat to your animals as they will most likely just eat the greens. Your call! Too much mold will make your babies sick.
With an empty tray in your hand take it to the sink and wash it out. You might even consider rinsing the tray with a light bleach solution. Rather than immediately filling that tray with another round of seed, I suggest that you let that tray dry for 24 hours before you re-seed it.
Repeat the seed process once every day for the rest of your foddering life!
One more thing which is out of band from the daily process. Watch the water in your sump tank. You are probably going to want to drain that sump out once every couple of days. When the water isn’t terribly clear, smells, is slimy, has scum floating in it, etc. – the odds are you didn’t change your water soon enough! But no worries. We have draining water from your sump tank built into the system! Rotate those PVC valves to point towards the hose dangling off the side of the tank. Then put a bucket under the hose. Turn the pump on and fill your bucket. Turn the pump off when the bucket has as much water in it as you can carry. Empty and repeat. Fill the sump tank back to half full with fresh clean water. Add 1 cap of hydrogen peroxide per every 5 gallons of water (give or take – not an exact science).
DON’T FORGET TO TURN YOUR VALVE HANDLES BACK TO YOUR SYSTEM SO YOU DON’T DRAIN THE SYSTEM ONTO YOUR FLOOR
Tweaks to the build
Most of what you read is where I am at today! That is not how it started though.
- We didn’t build the drain valves into the original system. It was an after thought that my wife suggested to make cleaning the sump easier. Good job sweetie!
- Also, as I mentioned, we originally drilled 7 holes in the tray and ended up plugging those holes with some hot glue.
- And we didn’t initially use any hydrogen peroxide. But as we are growing in a hot climate (central Texas) it is important to do all we can to stop any mold from taking hold of the system.
- I will also be adding a fan to provide better air circulation around the seeds (the best preventative measure for mold – that and low temps).
- The pump I mentioned here was not our first choice. We got a different 500 gallon model pump which only had a 7’ head height which didn’t have enough output at the top of the shelves. The pump that was mentioned here works great though!
What would I do differently
In addition to the build tweaks there are still a few things that I would do differently.
- The drainage pipes were under sized. This issue was resolved when we plugged some of the drain holes. I still don’t like the trough system though. It only works as intended when the drain holes aren’t blocked by a seed (it does work most of the time though).
- And on the topic of the drain pipes, fabricating the troughs is not the easiest. I will be moving to a larger pipe for both the front pipe and the trunk drain pipe. Then instead of cutting a trough in the shelf pipe I will cut a 3/4” hole in the pipe. And then add an electrical terminal adapter fitting to each of the drain pans. This will allow us to control the flow of water no matter how the holes are plugged up with seeds.
- I am sure there will be more to add here later…
What are we going to try next?
There is a lot of chatter about should you use light or not? To cover your sprouts in their early to grow thicker or not? Day 4 is more nutritious than day 7 & 8. A lot of speculation based on personal experience. But is it reproducible or not…I would like to see!