Missouri Dairyman Grows Plenty of Feed Despite Drought

Posted in Latest News on Thursday, October 11, 2012
 

Dake grows plenty of feed despite drought

Missouri dairyman pleased with his six hydroponic chambers

By Ron Johnson

NORWOOD. Mo. – It’s been dry in south-central Missouri. But dairyman Rick Dake doesn’t worry much about lack of rain these days.

That’s because his 100-cow farm near Norwood, in Wright County, no longer depends on rain to grow its crops. Instead, Dake Farms sprouts seeds in six hydroponic chambers and feeds the resulting sprouts and greens to its cattle.

“I do not buy any feed now. I started with this last June (2011), out of necessity, because feed prices went up,” Dake said.

He considered buying more land, but decided that was not a viable option.

“Land has gone up to about $2,000 an acre here,” he said. “It used to be $500 to $800 an acre. I just couldn’t justify buying more land at $2,000 an acre with grain and milk prices where they are.”

While searching for an alternative to adding land to produce feed on his 150-acre farm that’s on top of the Ozark Mountains, he discovered this hydroponic system. Dake saw a unit, brought it home to his farm, and ended up with six.

Each growing chamber starts out as a semi trailer. Then, a company called All Season Greens adds insulation, a second set of doors, heat, grow lights and a watering system. The lights, heat and water are controlled by a computer.

A chamber is 22 feet long, 8.5 feet wide and 10.5 feet high. Inside are six rows of trays. Seeds are placed in the trays, to sprout. After six days in the climate-controlled conditions, a tray is full of young, succulent plants, five to six inches tall. It’s these plants that Dake feeds his cattle.

Alternatively, he can sprout seeds for just three days. Those sprouts provide more dry matter and come in at about 81 percent digestible energy and 16 to 18 percent protein.

Six days is about the longest the young plants get by in their trays. By that time they’ve used most all the energy that was in the seeds, so they’d need added nutrients to grow any more.

Once a tray is empty, it’s rotated to a back row for reseeding. Meanwhile, trays with seeds already growing are moved closer to the front.

Many kinds of seeds can be sprouted and grown in the chambers. Dake prefers barley as a base.

“Barley seems to have the best nutritional value, as far as protein and energy,” Dake said.

He has also sprouted wheat, but the young plants contain more protein and less energy than barley. Dake has also tried rye, corn, and yellow peas.

Dake uses ordinary, untreated seed – about 7.5 pounds of seed per tray. He figures 50 pounds of seed will produce 1,000 pounds of greens.

Besides seed, another expense is electricity. Dake said that runs $2 per day, per chamber, or $12 a day for his farm.

The chambers can sit outside, but Dake has his in an old hay barn that has been insulated. They’re on a floor that’s heated by water from an outdoor wood-burning furnace.

As the old saying goes, the proof is in the pudding – or, in this case, in the bulk tank.

A year ago, when he began experimenting with sprouts and greens, Dake used four cows as an experimental group. He fed them these greens, along with vitamins and minerals.

That quartet of cows did very well, Dake said. “They gave just a little bit less milk than when I was feeding a lot of grain, but my feed costs are so much less. It was the most profitable summer I’d ever had, so I just continued to expand on that.”

The greens and sprouts are fed by hauling them about 50 feet to a wooden bunk feeder. Dake’s cows dig right into the feed, which resembles a green mat made of young plants.

This growing system takes maybe an hour of labor a day, per chamber, not counting the feeding. Dake often hires a few high school boys to clean equipment and reseed.

At $60,000 per chamber, it’s not an inexpensive way to farm. But, he said, “Each unit will produce 180 tons of feed. With typical farm production, it would take about 100 acres to produce an equal amount of feed.”

Besides not having to buy more land, Dake cut out a lot of machinery and fuel costs. Plus, he was able to sell some tractors, since he no longer needed them.

Slightly lower milk production aside, Dake said, “I’ve made more money per cow, per day, than I ever have.” He added that he expects a chamber to pay for itself in 24 to 30 months.

He has also seen fewer health problems in his cattle, but he’s not ready to give all the credit to the new ration. He said his cows did not come down with even one case of mastitis. Instead, he said the dry conditions likely played a role.

Dake became so interested in this version of hydroponics that he bought one percent of All Season Greens.

“It’s a meaningless number,” he said. “But to me, as a farmer, I want to know all about the business, from one end to the other. What does it all cost? What improvements can we make? I wanted to have a voice in that end of it.”

Dake is working on a way reuse the water from his hydroponic farming. Collectively, his six chambers use about 1,200 gallons of water a day. “Since we’re in a drought, we don’t want to feel like we’re wasting water,” he said. For now, the used water flows into a tank for his cattle to drink.

These hydroponic chambers might not work well on every dairy farm, Dake acknowledged. At around 500 cows or so, the labor required might become an insurmountable obstacle.

“But for (smaller) family farms, I think these hydroponic chambers are perfect,” he said. “I would certainly rather have them than an additional piece of land – especially this year. Additional land really wouldn’t make us any money this year.”

Dake said the initial price tag of a hydroponic chamber might dissuade some farmers from trying one. However, he added, “I know they’re $60,000 apiece, but that’s not a big number compared to a tractor, plow and combine.”

The more days that slip past without bringing rain, the happier the farmer is with his hydroponic setup.

He said, “This summer has been the worst we’ve ever had, and the hottest and driest summer in 50 years. For once in my life, I look smarter than I am, because I looked into this (type of farming) last year and was in the right spot. It’s kind of a lifesaver to not have to worry about rain.”

For more information about the hydroponic chambers Dake uses, go to: allseasongreens.com. Dake invites interested farmers to telephone him at             417-257-5578      .

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