Due to the rising cost of feed, many small scale pork producers are exploring alternatives in order to increase their profit margins. At Donnelly Farms, Jack Donnelly is producing hydroponically-grown green forage for his hogs, and has been able to reduce feed outlay and increase their bottom line.
Donnelly Farms is a small, family-owned farm located in McClure, Ohio. The Donnelly family has been raising pork and goat meat for private buyers since 1981. They raise 25-45 hogs per month. The majority of their hogs are sold to private individuals, and a small batch is sold to Tyson Meats. Donnelly reviewed existing research on hydroponic forage, and learned that the protein content could be comparable to that of commercially available feed mixes. In 2009, he submitted a proposal to the NCR-SARE Farmer Rancher Grant Program and was awarded $6,000 to develop a hydroponic green forage production system.
“The process could allow us to produce 5-10 times bigger feed volume for a comparable price,” said Donnelly in his 2009 proposal.
Donnelly says they were able to produce 200-256 pounds of hydroponically-grown wheat per day at a cost of $101-$120.75 per ton for seed. Their hydroponic forage production system for the project was based on a Héctor M. León Gallegos design. It consisted of tenfoot racks with three shelves on each side that held sprouting/growing trays (pictured first page, left), which they set up in a garage without supplemental lighting. With assistance from Chad Beman at the Gerald Grain Center, they selected their wheat seed. They seeded each tray with 10 pounds of soaked wheat kernels, and they watered it once every 24 hours. After 5-10-day growth periods, each shelf held approximately 50-60 pounds of hydronponic green forage (pictured first page, right).
For the project, the Donnellys raised three batches of 15 feeder hogs each. Each batch was separated into a control group (seven hogs) and a test group (eight hogs). The control groups were fed traditional pork rations (18% protein finisher shelf diets or 16% ground meal diets) and the test groups were fed the hydroponic forage. They took monthly weight measurements of the control and the test batches, compared the grades and weights that the batches received at the processor, and conducted blind taste tests.
According to Donnelly, both the control and the test batches recorded similar weight gains, and averaged 6-8 months to market (with the 8-month timeframe occurring in colder months). Donnelly says the test batch resulted in more uniform weight gain (all of the hogs were within 5-10 pounds of one another) while the control group had obvious winners and runts.
The Donnellys conducted several blind taste tests, offering meat samples of hydroponic forage fed pork to existing customers. Donnelly says their customers were able to tell the difference between the hydroponic forage fed pork and the traditionally fed pork, and all of their customers specifically requested pork raised on hydropnic forage after the taste test.
Donnelly said he would recommend the system to a small farmer. He was able to substantially reduce feed his outlay implementing this hydroponic forage production, which has allowed them to remain competitive in the market. However, he warns that it comes with distinct trade-offs.
“The obvious advantages are the reduced production cost, reduced finishing time, more uniform product, and, of course, improved taste. The trade-off is increased labor,” explained Donnelly. “Keep in mind hydroponic feed might not integrate well with existing automatic hog feeding systems...it has a quite higher water content which makes it more palatable to the hogs (but it also makes it more difficult to handle and dispense)...and it requires you to produce a fresh batch daily.”
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