Winter is coming. OK, yes I know, that meme is so outdated, but it’s true. Despite having temps in the high 70s yesterday, we’re well into autumn. We’ve had a couple frosts and the garden is just about done for the year, except for my favorite radishes. There’s no more greens or tomatoes or Japanese beetles to add variety and nutrients to the chickens’ diets. There is also less for them to scratch and peck and keep entertained since I no longer allow them to free-range. (The hawks like chicken just as much as I do.)
Mr. WPW, my own personal hero, has risen to the challenge and built us a fanstastic system to grow fodder – sprouted grain and seeds. This system works great for sprouting microgreens and such for human eating, too. The pictures I’m going to show below are of barley, but he’s also done black oil and striped sunflower seeds, wheat, and oats. You can also use beans (peas, lentils, and mung beans worked best for us). Each of these has different taste and nutrient profiles, but the process is exactly the same.
This system is also great because it’s scalable. We’ve built this to a size for our flock of chickens, but you can make it bigger if you’re feeding sheep or goats, or smaller if you only have a couple hens.
One of the best things about this fodder system is that is cuts down on the cost of feeding the chickens. I get the super-fancy, custom blended chicken feed (organic, soy-free) from a farmer about 45 minutes away from me. Admittedly I could get it much cheaper if I just went to Tractor Supply, but I really prefer the higher quality feed grown by someone I know and trust. So, my cost for an 80 lb bag of feed is $32 and with 25 chickens I go through about a bag every week and a half to two weeks. That means we spend $832 a year in chicken feed. A 100 lb bag of barley is $15 and will grow about 600 – 700 lbs of fodder. When I feed a tray of fodder each day it doubles the length of time my feed lasts.
Where to get seeds
You can get the seeds for barley, oats, and wheat from your local grain elevator. If you don’t know where your local grain elevators are, Google is your friend. We found two elevators via Google. The third is heavily advertised in our area so we were aware of it. (Mr. WPW went to different places to find all the different grains he wanted.) The sunflower seeds you can just buy whereever you get bird seed (as long as the seeds aren’t treated for anti-germination). We bought “field” grains – not washed/cleaned grain. It’s cheaper and works just peachy for chickens. IF you’re doing microgreen sprouting you can just buy regular seeds like broccoli, mustard greens, and radishes from your local seed resource (Home Depot or your favorite seed catalog, etc.). If you’re doing beans you can just get them from the grocery store for the most part.
This system is easy and cheap to put together. We made the frame out of PVC so it weighs almost nothing. Mr. WPW found the joints on Amazon, but you may be able to find them at your local hardware store. It’s about two feet by two feet by five feet tall. Each tray (just flats used for holding seedlings) is just under a foot wide and two feet long.
He used a polyester string to weave a frame for the trays to sit on. It’s doesn’t add any weight, but is sturdy enough to hold the full trays of fodder. Each shelf has an extra piece of PVC placed on one end (alternate ends to create a zig zag) to prop up one end of the trays to allow for drainage.
Step one: buckets
The first step is to soak the seeds. Mr. WPW bought buckets that hold about 2/3 gallon of water. You can use old (plastic) coffee cans or whatever works for you. He uses one bucket without holes on the bottom and one or two (depending on how many trays of fodder we want to feed a day) with holes. Each batch is about a pound of grain, though Mr. WPW thinks it’s a little overkill and is going to experiment with using less grain and see how much fodder comes from it.
On the first day he’ll put the grain in a bucket with holes and run it under water to rinse off any dust or debris. Then he fills the bucket without holes with water and a few drops (literally just a few drops) of bleach to kill any mold spores and puts the bucket with the grain inside the bucket with the water. Let it sit at least six to eight hours. Mr. WPW tends to this twice a day – first thing in the morning and then when he gets home from work, which works out to about every 12 hours.
After the first soak dump out the water in the bucket without holes. Take out the bucket with holes and rinse the grain under running water. Mr. WPW does put the bucket with holes back in the one without, but that’s just to catch drips – you’re just rinsing from this point out, not soaking. You will only use the bleach on day one – do not add any more bleach, either.
You’ll rinse the seeds twice a day for three or four days. From our experience at five days the seeds start to clump into a root mat, but it depends on what kind of seeds you’re growing and your conditions. You will tranfer the seeds to the tray once they’re well and truly sprouted. For the record – you can pop the seeds into the trays right after soaking, but the trays take up more space than the buckets. To keep a continuous cycle of fresh fodder going Mr. WPW uses the buckets for the first couple days and lets everything finish on the rack.
Step Two: the Rack
Next you’ll move the seeds into the trays. Each tray has holes poked in one end. This allows the whole system to be almost self-watering. You just dump in water to the top tray and it will drip down.
Move the sprouted grain over to the trays. Just dump out the bucket into the tray and use your hand to spread the grain out until there’s an even, thin layer on the bottom of the tray. Set it on the rack with the non-hole end propped up on the extra piece of PVC. This puts the tray at an angle with the holes at the bottom.
Water this twice a day. Pour about 2/3 gallon into tray on the top shelf. It’ll drip through the holes to the tray under it, which will then drip to the tray under that one. We have a tray without holes lined up under the bottom tray to catch the water. Don’t just dump out that water – it’s excellent for watering other plants because of the nutrients it picks up from the seeds.
For the first two or three days you can mist the trays with water from a spray bottle to keep the moisture up. You can also put a clear top on to create a little greenhouse. It will help keep the moisture in, too. It will take seven to ten days to grow enough to be fed to the chickens. After ten days the grain doesn’t have enough stored energy in the seed to keep growing without adding nutrients. But that’s ok, because we’re not growing the seeds past this stage anyway, so no worries.
When everything is ready to go I pull it out of the tray and pop it in a five-gallon bucket to carry it out to the chickens. The root mat is well-developed by this point and the whole thing comes out in one piece. But, I can easily pull apart the mat and scatter chunks in the run. I do that to make sure everyone has access to some of the fodder and the more aggressive chickens don’t block out the more passive hens.
If you wanted to skip the fodder side of things, you could just soak the grain for a day or two and feed it direct to your chickens. It makes it easier to digest and ups the nutrition available from the grain. But I prefer the fodder because it gives me so much more food for the Flock. When I combine it with the occasional mealworm feast I get eggs almost as good as when I was free-ranging. (One of the reasons I spring for the good feed is the quality of the eggs I get is much tastier than the cheaper stuff, but nothing quite beats free-range eggs. I like to do what I can to try to replicate the taste of free-range.)
I really like that this system doesn’t require electricity. However, one upgrade Mr. WPW wants to add a pump on a timer so he doesn’t have to water twice a day. He’d set it so it would water every couple of hours. I think that’s pretty cool, though it’s nice to know that should we ever be without power the whole system won’t collapse.
The chickies love the daily greens and they come running when I go out with the bucket. Have you tried growing fodder?