Homegrown fodder feeds horses in season of drought

Editor’s note: Get Growing, written by the La Plata County Extension Office’s Master Gardener Program, appears every other week during the growing season. It features timely tips and suggestions for your garden and landscape.

By Naomi Riess

This was a dry year. Irrigation was brief. In the spring, we drilled grass and oats into the alfalfa, and while we irrigated efficiently, the plants only grew a few inches and alfalfa grew slower and shorter than usual.

We bought early-cutting hay to tide the horses over, hoping the early-season rain would soon come. Finally, it started, long after the blades of grass and oats had been eaten by robust prairie dogs and long after we turned our horses out to graze the hay not worth cutting.

Late summer and fall rains kept our horses in fresh alfalfa. We’ll soon start feeding again, without any of our own hay in the barn. This is an expensive year to be buying. Our first load of half-ton bales was delivered for $3,000. It will last until spring, supplemented with daily grain. We will need another load before summer.

The drought-induced dilemma led us to try to figure out our own solution. Our answer? Homegrown fodder.

Fodder replaces grain with excellent nutrition and can be fed to any livestock. Fodder is hydroponically grown, usually in food-grade plastic trays on large racks and can be grown anywhere with normal florescent lighting.

Various fodder systems and do-it-yourself components can be purchased online. Sizing of the system is dependent upon the number, type and needs of the animals to be fed. We’ll aim to produce 2 percent of our mountain horses’ body weight, daily. The horses also need a small amount of quality dry matter. Working horses may require supplemental special grain, but our pasture decorators will not.

Many grains may be grown. The seed is soaked, spread, watered and left to grow for eight days. Animals are able to eat the entire live, nutritious fodder, including roots. Fodder must be harvested every day and will not keep, but our chickens will thrive on the leftovers. We can compost the rest.

Dividing the cost of a purchased system throughout four years, including electricity, heat, seed and dry matter, we estimate annual savings at 50 percent more than the current cost of feeding our horses. A do-it-yourself system saves even more. We’ll be growing fodder in 2014, instead of hoping for rain.

Naomi Riess is Colorado master gardener. She lives in La Plata County.