Grass grown at a rate of seed-to-feed in seven days... why hydroponics could revolutionise farming

13Oct2010

Hydroponics fodder systemThe first six months of this year were the driest for 80 years in the UK. There were reports of livestock being kept indoors, poor forage production, and farmers using fodder stored for winter to keep things going. With increasingly variable weather on the horizon because of climate change, producing good quality forage when it’s needed is going to be crucial.

One solution that we've come up with at H2O Farm Ltd is hydroponic fodder production. Hydroponics is a way of growing plants in a nutrient solution instead of soil – it’s also efficient because the water is re-circulated and the nutrition levels reaching the plant can be precisely controlled. What you get are stable and higher yields, and greater control over pests and diseases because of the controlled environment. The quality of the forage is also consistently good, as the sprouting seeds have a higher nutritional value, promote mineral absorption and encourage enzyme production to give livestock a much healthier rumen or gut.

Our hydroponics system can reliably deliver tons of fresh green feed every day of the year, winter or summer. It converts 1kg of seed into 7-8kg of feed in a 7-day cycle (depending on the grain used). It also uses around just 700L of water per tonne of feed produced, compared to the typical 50,000L used in the field. It’s low on electricity use (approx 35kW required each day to power the environmental control system) and it’s low on manpower too, needing only 2-3 hours each day to harvest, re-seed and manage.

Since we launched the product back in the summer we’ve had an amazing response. Over 500 farmers have registered their interest so far, and we’re keen to hear from more.

We’ve delivered the system to Jill Harris, owner of the Spanish Bit Riding School. She says that since the introduction of our H20 Farm fodder system they have replaced 2 daily feeds with fresh sprouting barley. Over the first 6 months they have reduced their feed bill by 60% and the horses have never been healthier. Every horse has taken to the sprouts and looks forward to eating them. 

Trials conducted over 84 days in winter 2009 in NZ, found that  beef cattle (10 month old bulls) fed on a fodder supplement of only 3.75kg per day as well as their normal rations had a total live weight gain that was 41% greater than those cattle in the control (no fodder) group. In addition a cost saving of 30% was made due to the lower production costs of fodder versus hay.

Climate change means hotter, drier summers in the UK. A rising population means greater pressure on water resources (many water catchments are already over-abstracted) and means as farmers you’ll need to be producing more food with less water. The rise of biofuels may also mean you might want to turn over some of your land to other crops. Could hydroponics for forage be the answer? We think so. We’d love to hear your views.

Howard Campion is Director of H2O Farm. You can contact him on howard@oneill.co.uk