Academics around the world tend to reject hydroponic feed production, as they content that the moisture content is extremely high and the nutritional value relatively low. And they are right. Yet there is a solution that produces excellent results.

It was developed by Derick Lategan of Hartbeespoort Dam in collaboration with a team of people that includes academics, and is based on a process that he describes as reversed growth. The focus is on root development in a fridge, rather than leaf development in a greenhouse or nursery.

Benefits on many levels

Fanie and Henna van Loggerenberg of the farm Netso between Frankfort and Heilbron asked Derick’s advice on hydroponic feed production, and bought and built their own barley production boxes. Their 1 200 SA Mutton Merino ewes lamb in an eight-month production cycle and maintain a lambing percentage of around 155% and a weaning percentage of 150% and higher.

“We know that scientists do not believe in the hydroponic germination system, but don’t tell our sheep that, because they produce extremely well on this system,” Fanie quips. “Whenever something is wrong in respect of the nutritional component of a livestock unit, one can immediately see it in your production figures. Our lambing and weaning percentages, as well as growth in the feedlot, are consistently good.”

He says the hydroponic germination of barley yields benefits on three levels. “Firstly, it takes the sting out of drought cycles. Secondly, the small camp system dramatically limits theft and damage caused by predators, because the sheep do not sleep in the veld anymore. And lastly, the system to a large extent relieves producers of their status as price takers in the market place.”

A question of timing

To solve the problem of excessively high moisture content in the barley sprouts, Derick completely changed the method of growing out the barley. He uses a low-grade fodder barley to avoid a germination rate of more than approximately 75 to 80%. In this way, a high percentage of un-germinated barley seeds enter the digestive system of the sheep and the feed’s energy content increases.

They allow the plant to grow to only 5cm, a length it reaches after approximately six days. The goal is to let the root mat become as thick as possible, and to control the fungi and bacteria as best as possible by keeping the growth room at a constant temperature of between 17 and 18°C.

The result is that the fodder consists of approximately 18% protein and 10% energy. Barley is known for the high percentage of enzymes released upon germination – at a cost of around R700 per ton.

The daily ration

A total of 75% of the sheep’s daily ration consists of these hydroponic sprouts, while the remaining 25% is made up from 15% concentrates and 10% roughage. An aspect that should not be overlooked is that sheep can use up to 40% of their energy through walking while grazing. In a small camp system, the ewe requires much less feed to maintain her body condition. Ewes are given an average of 1,8kg wet material per day.

For every 1kg barley seed you put into the box, you take out around 6kg of sprouts six days later, with minimal water usage. The box is equipped with micro-jets, which spray for 13 seconds on the hour. Approximately 1 200ℓ of water is used daily to produce 600kg sprouts per feed box. Only approximately 2ℓ of water is used to produce 1kg of sprouts.

Eight-month lambing system

The Van Loggerenbergs manage an eight-month lambing system, which means that each ewe lambs every eight months. In their system, however, the ewes are divided into month groups, so that 150 ewes lamb every month. The ewes are kept in groups of 25 in kraals of 12,5 × 12,5m, each with a covered shelter of 5 × 5m for protection against the elements.

On a typical day, half of the day’s hydroponic sprouts are removed at 07:00, broken into pieces and fed to the ewes at 1kg per ewe. The roughage/concentrate mixture is then placed in each small kraal, after which the day’s activities, such as trimming the hooves, follow. In the afternoon the ewes are fed the other half of the daily ration.

“We carefully monitor the sheep when we put out the feed,” Henna explains. “If, for example, a sheep does not eat, we immediately know that something is wrong and will examine the animal thoroughly.”“Every month a group must be sponged to synchronise their cycles. At the same time another group’s lambs are weaned, and another group is ready to lamb.

“The group that has just weaned their lambs, go to the veld for the following month. During the third week they are brought in briefly to be sponged, so that they are able to come into heat at the same time and will finish lambing within a week of each other.”

While the quality of the hydroponic sprouts is consistent, the Van Loggerenbergs vary the remaining part of the ration, the concentrate and roughage, according to the availability of raw materials.

Careful planning

Because the ewes are synchronised, Henna knows exactly when they are going to lamb. They are taken to the lambing pens five days in advance. During the preceding six weeks, they are able to grow accustomed to the ration they will be given in the lambing pens, namely lambing pen pellets and some maize, as well as their greenfeed.

The lambs stay with their mothers in the lambing pens for approximately ten days, where they start nibbling at the ewe’s feed. Once they exit the lambing pens and are taken to the kraal, they immediately receive ad lib creep feed. The result is that the lambs are not too dependent on the ewes and their growth is quite satisfactory.

Around a month before the lambs are weaned, Henna starts mixing the creep feed pellets with growth pellets which are then used for the ration when they arrive in the feedlot. The lambs are weaned at 60 days a weight of approximately 25kg.

Growth in the feedlot

The Van Loggerenbergs have built a feedlot with a central roof over the feeding path and feed troughs on both sides. Each individual kraal is 5m wide and 11m long. When the lambs are weaned at 60 days, they are taken to the feedlot where they are fed for approximately 70 days before they are marketed at a minimum weight of 50kg.

“We have found that the lambs grow an average of around 400g per day in the feedlot, which means that they add approximately 30kg to their weight during their stay,” Fanie says. – Izak Hofmeyr, Stockfarm

For more information, phone Fanie on 082 492 6618 and Henna on 082 467 1699.