Food for food: our hydroponic fodder system

In an effort to improve the feed for our chickens and turkeys, and cut feed costs, we’ve decided to grow hydroponic fodder. Fodder is basically sprouted grains, and we’re growing ours in irrigated trays without soil. In addition to increasing in weight by simply adding water, the activity of sprouting makes more of the nutrients within the seed available, so it seemed like an efficient way to keep our flock fat and happy. There are lots of great things about fodder: it grows fast (8 days to ‘harvest’), requires only water (no special lighting or fertilizers), per pound it can be as much as 10x cheaper than a manufactured diet, it can be grown indoors, uses little water, and on and on. Seriously. There are more reasons, but for me that was it. I was sold on the idea.

8 days of feed trays all lined up. Things develop quickly.

To automate the system, so I wasn’t just creating another chore for myself, I chose to build a hydroponic system using a timer to water the seeds for me. The whole thing works by pumping water from a reservoir on the ground, up a line of irrigation pipe that ends in a “T” with a few drippers on each side, to some seed-filled trays on the top shelf. The shelf is part of a rack made from some scrap 1″x4″s and each self has a 5° slope, dropping about 1″ on the low end. In the lowest end of each tray, I drilled a row of small holes to drain water to the tray in the shelf below it. At the bottom shelf, the water flows back down to the reservoir and gets recycled. For the trays, I used some inexpensive 28 quart sweater boxes. They’re easy to clean (this is key!) and held what I felt like was a ‘good amount’ of fodder. Now, I made that decision with zero experience, but so far the trays do seem to be a good size. The pump is plugged into a simple analog timer that turns it on and off several times a day – that’s it. I set my timer to go on for 30 minutes every 3 hours. With the size drippers I’m using, this amounts to about 2 gallons of water flowing through for each cycle. I don’t currently have plans for the thing I built, but I looked at, and copied the systems in these videos. Here’s a short video of the whole thing in action:

We’re definitely going to try adding different kinds of seed and experimenting to get a more ‘complete’ diet in the future, but we started with two staples: barley and rye. Barley does well in fodder systems because of it’s fast germination rate. It’s large seeds mat together nicely and the chickens devour it. Rye takes an extra day or so to get going, but fills in underneath the longer blades of barley to make the mass of greens really dense. To be honest, we added Rye because just sprouting one type of seed didn’t sound very exciting, most of the nutrition is in the barley.

The daily routine with the fodder goes as follows:

  1. Take out the oldest tray, roll up the whole mass of feed and set it aside. Rinse and put the empty tray back.
  2. Dump the soaking seeds into the empty tray and go feed the birds that fresh fodder while things drain.
  3. Once back, spread the new seeds thinly and evenly over the whole tray, stopping short of the drainage holes.
  4. Measure new feed into the soaking bin, add fresh water to soak the seeds.
  5. Every other day (or so…. I’m not perfect) I completely change the water in the reservoir to keep the whole system clean(ish).

The whole ordeal takes about 5-10 minutes, and produces 6 pounds of sprouted grains daily.

Fodder won’t be replacing the formulated diet the birds already get, it’s just the low-cost way to make it stretch. It also serves as entertainment (for the birds), as they actively peck and scratch the root mats apart.

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2 thoughts on “Food for food: our hydroponic fodder system

  1. Sue says:

    A system like this seems to make a lot of sense – cost-wise, work-wise, and even fun-wise. Thanks for the details and the photos of each day’s progress. Makes me wish I had poultry to feed!

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