Sprouting Grain as Alternative Feed

Farm Name: Hulan Johnston Farm
Operator Name: Hulan Johnston
Acreage in Production: 15
Production: Livestock: Goats and Cattle
Location: Littleton, Halifax County, NC
In a rugged pasture dotted with cedar trees and bordered by a gray wooden fence, goats and cattle graze. A large white box sits at the edge of the pasture, looking something like an out-of-place refrigerator; an electrical cord runs from it toward a small farmhouse. As Hulan Johnston walks over to the box, his herd of goats lift their heads and break into a gallop. Almost stepping on his feet, the goats bow and twitch their ears, covering their square, pensive eyes. Hulan opens the door, revealing bright green grass growing in moist trays filled with earthy mats. He lifts and tosses a few of these mats into the feeding trough for his goats and they munch away, elated by the lush young shoots of oat grass.

Hulan describes his livestock feeding system as “a hydroponic growing room that has been specially developed to sprout grain and legume seeds for a highly nutritious yet cost effective livestock feed.” His ability to describe technical details and his love for farming reflect a career in industrial arts and agriculture. Hulan received his Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Education and his Master’s in Vocational Education in 1994. When he is not teaching industrial arts, he is tending to his animals or cultivating corn and soybeans on his family’s farm.

After many years of farming conventional cash crops, in 2009 Hulan started to expand into new markets by raising meat goats. Hulan knew that to be successful he would need to have a consistent and affordable supply of high quality feed. He met another farmer in his county who had overcome this obstacle by utilizing a refrigerated unit for sprouting grains. Hulan received a grant in early 2014 in order to begin producing his own sprouted grain.

“In the South, farmers and ranchers are faced with high feed costs, reduction in cropland acres for production, changing weather patterns, and the increasing consumer demand for healthy locally grown meat,” Hulan noted in his grant proposal, “Farmers and ranchers should consider implementing new technologies to compete in today’s world market. By applying these innovative practices, it will reduce production cost and stabilize the threat of adverse climatic conditions.”

On top of the challenges related to procuring feed, goats are sensitive animals that are prone to parasites and diseases. It takes proactive and diligent care to properly raise them. Using a feeding system based on sprouted grain has multiple benefits for managing a healthy goat herd.

Grain sprouting equipment can produce a highly nutritious feed that requires little water, land, or energy to create. It is grown in an environment with a low risk of harboring parasites or diseases. The use of sprouted grain also reduces the need to feed hay to animals, a less nutritious feed that is highly susceptible to mold. In addition, harvesting and baling hay requires access to machinery, and more land and storage area than many small farmers can manage to obtain. The feed can reduce the dependency on larger scale feed sources that are often conventionally grown and must be trucked in from hundreds of miles away. In contrast, sprouted grain can be grown on-farm with a relatively small quantity of seed and no chemical fertilization, making it a low-input, organic feed.

Hulan’s grain sprouting unit requires only 15 amps of power and is highly transportable. He has experimented with growing oats, wheat, and corn, trying different combinations of sprouts to see what worked best for his operation. So far, he has had success with sprouted oats. They germinate the most consistently and the goats seem to enjoy eating it more than other types of forage.

Producing sprouted grain requires relatively little labor. To illustrate the low-maintenance system, Hulan places a tray of seeds on a shelf in the unit, and they are automatically watered by an irrigation system that uses minimal water. Once the seeds have created a mat of roots and grass stalks that are 6 to 8 inches tall about 6 days later, he removes the tray and tosses it into the goats’ trough. Hulan calls the finished product a “biscuit,” and the goats seem to find it just as tasty.

After removing a few “biscuits,” he replenishes the trays with more seeds in one side of the unit. This pushes the earlier batches toward the other side of the unit, creating a successional, consistent feeding system where seeds go in one side and sprouts come out the other. Hulan hopes that his project will “demonstrate a new type of technology in low-cost feed production” while also planning to document and share information about its impact on his farm.