Tom and Jane Lensmire have taken “going green” to a whole new level.
The Lensmires have transformed an old machine shed on their rural Cleveland farm into a hydroponic garden of good eating for their mixed herd of Holsteins, Jerseys, Jersey/Holstein crossbreeds and Swiss dairy cows.
The Lensmires became interested in growing fodder for their herd hydroponically — meaning in water — a few years back.
“We have limited land base,” Tom said. “We farm 80 acres of land and we have 74 cows and another 60-some heifers. This was a way of decreasing the feed that we buy.”
They did some research and some experimenting, growing hydroponically in their basement. “We wanted to see what kind of growth we were going to get before we stuck any money into it…we wanted to know if it was actually going to work,” Tom said.
After they determined that hydroponics could be a viable alternative for their farm, they investigated companies that sold hydroponic systems. At the time, according to Tom, there were only three in the United States that manufactured hydroponic systems. They ultimately went with a system from FarmTek, an Iowa company.
“I think there are now two more companies that offer systems, but FarmTek’s were anywhere from a third to a fourth of the price less than anyone else. They were a little bit more labor intensive putting the equipment together, but a lot less money,” he said.
In the fall of 2012 they gutted an old machine shed on their property and installed a hydroponic system. “It was a really old building… We basically stored all our old junk in it,” Jane said. “But it had a cement floor.”
Tom added, “It had underground water, and electricity, so we really didn’t have to do a whole lot to get it ready to where we could work with the hydroponics.”
The system came with instructions, but it was up to the Lensmires to put it all together. With help from Jane’s brothers, and the Lensmire children — Sam, Zach and Joanna —they got the system up and running in about two weeks.
Eighteen racks, stretching 7 1/2 feet from ceiling to floor, are each filled with 28 trays that literally demonstrate the growth process of wheat grass from seedling to lush, edible fodder in seven days.
The process starts with seed that is soaked in buckets for approximately 24 hours.
“It’s just wheat that’s been combined off the field last year… It’s not actual seed. That way we’re sure it doesn’t have any treatment or anything on it so you don’t have to worry about any residual effects. It’s what would go to cereal and bread companies, places that make that kind of stuff,” Tom explained.
The “seed” mixture is soaked and aerated so any dirt comes to the surface, which is then siphoned off. The cleaned product is spread down the length of the growing trays..
Every day for two minutes, every two hours, the seeds, and eventually the growing grass, is watered through a metered, timed system. The water pours into one end of the tray, and since the tray is on something of an angle, runs down and through and flows out the other end of the tray. “It’s on a slope, so the water drains. All the seed gets wet, then it gets a chance to dry out a little bit, then it gets wet again,” Tom said.
The temperature is kept at 60 degrees during the colder months, and fluorescent lights run 16 hours a day. That magic combination of water, light and heat starts to produce almost immediate results.
Within two days, little shoots begin to form. By day three, it starts to sprout. “It also starts making a seed mat underneath,” Jane pointed out.
By the fourth day, the wheat grass is quite green and about two inches tall.
“It’s amazing how fast it grows. We couldn’t believe it,” Jane said. “We researched it a lot before we started, but when we started growing it we were all surprised.”
On the fifth day, the grass is taller yet and the white fibrous root mat is noticeably thicker. Day six finds the grass four inches tall and by day seven, the lush, nutritious fodder is ready to harvest.
Long trays of fodder come off the ends of the trays in one, long continuous emerald green strip. “It looks like a big piece of sod,” Jane noted.
The strips are stacked on wagons and brought out to the herd. “In one day, we’ll get about 1,800 pounds of feed that’s 75 percent moisture,” Tom said. “And it’s good quality. It tests like good quality alfalfa, from 18 to 21 percent protein, but it’s high in energy…it’s higher in energy than what baled hay or alfalfa is.”
And, it’s not only good quality, it apparently tastes good, too. “They all love it…nobody’s fussy,” Tom said.
The addition of the hydroponically-grown fodder to the Lensmire’s cows’ diet has had benefits in many ways.
“We decreased the grain usage by about a third or maybe a little more,” Tom said, “and we cut back on the forage by about a third as well.”
There has also been an increase in milk production. “It’s not a huge increase but we picked up four or five pounds of milk per cow, per day,” Tom said. He estimates the system will pay back for itself in about 18 months.
The Lensmires said they have always been blessed with good herd health, but the addition of energy-filled wheat grass has helped in that respect as well. Tom recalled that two of his cows had difficulty calving, but when they fed them the fodder “they bounced back. It really seemed to help them get back on track.” Tom attributed that return to health to the fact that the fodder is so “lush and palatable.” He also noted that the area veterinarians have been intrigued by health benefits of the fodder as well.
Nobody has been more intrigued by the growing system than the Lensmire’s son, Sam. “This is kind of Sam’s baby,” Jane said. “Sam is the main guy.”
“I’m just fascinated by how it grows so big in seven days with just water,” Sam said. “It’s kind of my own little science lab.”
Sam has been experimenting with different plants, including peas and sunflowers, which have been added to the mix. The Lensmires sell some of their product, like peas, to home consumers as well. “They’re good on salads,” Jane said.
Future plans include other vegetables and possibly fish. “I’ve been doing a lot of research into that,” Sam said. “My goal is to have some fish in here by June.”
“You raise fish and the water from the fish provides nutrients to the plants,” Jane explained. This procedure, known as aquaponics, will probably feature tilapia as the seafood choice of the day.
The Lensmires acknowledge that they went through a learning curve with the system, making modifications and changes along the way, finding what worked for them — and what didn’t.
They are happy to share their experiences with others, and they have fielded calls from interested parties from all over the country, and Canada. They’ve also had visitors from Michigan, Minnesota and Colorado coming to see their setup.
The Lensmires are very pleased with their decision to grow fodder hydroponically. “It is work, but you get to see how things grow and you get to see the finished product all in a week,” Sam said.
Jane added, “I think it’s great in the middle of winter to be handling fresh grass — it’s kind of a nice feeling. And it makes some really nice Easter baskets,” she laughed.
Source: HTR News