Sustainable Low Cost Crop – No More Over Grazing

Photo By: Ashley Rivero

Over Grazing Solutions for Small to Large Landowners

By: Ashley Rivero

          The discovery for us here at the Conservation District was during a stream permitting assessment on the Rocking Z Guest Ranch.  The Rocking Z Guest Ranch along Wolf Creek, run by a ranching family since 1974, offer an innovative range of opportunities to horseback riders, vacations goers, internships, as well as ranching and conservation education with the full Montana experience.  They offered to show us some of the environmentally friendly methods they have integrated into their daily operations and one that stuck out the most offers a potential solution to overgrazing problems.  The focus of this article is to talk about the groundbreaking way they have discovered and successfully implemented a method to stop overgrazing on their land, reduce the amount of hay needed for their horses, how they are protecting the productivity and sustainability of their land all while saving money and living the life they love.

Photo By Ashley Rivero

            The owners, Patty and Zack inherited this ranch from Zack’s grandfather in 1951, originally homesteaded in 1863.  To prosper from their surroundings they found themselves at a Dude Ranch Association convention in San Diego where a speaker was discussing the high cost of hay and the continuing threat of drought. He demonstrated a cheaper and more environmental alternative to feed livestock through the use of hydroponic fodder/barley production.  It was a captivating idea for both Patty and Zack, so they began researching how this system could work for them.  Is it safe? What are the nutritional and cost benefits? Is this feasible?  What do we really need to make this work?  Zack, who had made his living as a contractor, said “there’s a learning curve but the benefits are endless,” and both Patty and Zack feel this could be an excellent approach for landowners large and small.  They began this learning experience by raising 20 trays and adding light to their root cellar mainly to provide feed to some of their older horses who had high medical bills.  After a short time they noticed healthier horses, glares of interest from the other horses, and together decided to grow this endeavor even more.  Those old horses are still thriving and their medical bills have decreased drastically.   The Rocking Z Guest Ranch is by no means a small ranch, and therefore the work they do is on a larger scale however, Patty, originally from Texas, has been a 4-H leader for 17 years including four years as chairman of the Lewis and Clark County Horse Committee and Zack, a 5th generation Montana rancher who has successfully dabbled in many approaches to conservation and construction, are both advocates for this approach for all landowners with livestock, no matter the size.

          The use of fodder is nothing new, in fact it dates back to the 1600’s. However, due to technology and engineering it is becoming economically more competitive for feeding options.  Barley seed (not barley feed) in particular is chosen over other grains due to its high germination rate.  Barley fodder is also the most nutritious of small grains, it is high in protein, energy, and it is rich in enzymes that improve digestion while also allowing a decreased use of expensive grain.  Patty and Zack give each horse two trays a day which comes out to about 3-5% of the horse’s body weight accompanied by some hay.  The standard rule of thumb is one pound of barley seed to produce seven – twelve pounds of sprouted fodder.  Hay is still part of the livestock diet due to higher calcium and other nutritional components.  Fodder is just a supplemental alternative to decrease overall hay costs and reduce over grazing.  The use of barley helps to offset the cost of hay while being able to produce fresh live green, high protein barley which is rich in enzymes and nutrients year round. Barley also creates energy and vitality, helps stimulate immune response, reduces anti-nutritional factors, and has antioxidant properties.

It takes 7 days to produce feed. Photo By Ashley Rivero

          So let’s get down to the system.  To consistently and economically sprout barley you will need a climate-controlled space.  With the use of LED lighting and–depending on the size of your operation–an affordable climate control system, the hydroponic growing of fodder has become both financially feasible and sustainable especially over long periods of time. LEDs also produce wavelength specific light for optimized plant growth.  The use of LED lighting allows for easier conversion of energy to electricity which produces lower heat output so growers can increase the light intensity to improve the growth and vitality of their plants.  You are still creating heat, which is vital for the plants, and depending on the size of your set up you may need to have a simple ventilation system that can remove some of the heat from the room.  For people who are only supplying a few livestock, the ventilation system is likely unnecessary.  This is one of the tricks, finding the right humidity and heat to growth ratio, which is dependent on the structure in which you will be growing. Keep in mind too much heat can also lead to vegetative damage.  You also do not want too much humidity because it will cause an excessive outbreak of mold on every surface of the room.  Now, here is the thing about mold, you do not need to be overly concerned with this wet mold. Yes, you should try to keep it under control but a little wet mold will not hurt your animals, but too much is not good for anything.  With that being said on a larger scale you will need to keep up with the cleaning of your equipment, but do not fear if you have some mold on your trays. 

This horse was so joyful for the barley! Photo By Ashley Rivero

        The process is fairly easy but it does take some learning to figure out what is right for your property. The Rocking Z Guest Ranch has 70 horses along with other livestock so they needed a production building and needless to say it is classic, rustic, and is a multipurpose area.  The building was constructed with waterproof concrete, Styrofoam ICF forms, and a gravity fed granary.  For your small landowner this is not necessary yet keeping your barley dry until it is used is important.  For growing, Patty recommends metal racks, at least two tiers high which should provide adequate space to raise four squares a day.  The trays need to be one to two inches in depth, a few holes for drainage, and sturdy.  Zack explained, “If you put in one pound of seed you produce 10-12 pounds of fodder.  The trick is how much you put in the trays.  Each tray you need a 3/8th thickness of barley (about 6 cups per tray)  so the seeds don’t dry out too quickly. You get product to feed in 6 days which works out to about $35 a tub which beats hay prices.  Hay you have to consider, machine to handle it, ship it, weight, etc.” Keep in mind this is not a solution to removing hay from your livestock’s diet, it simply adds an area to reduce your hay costs, reduce over grazing, and help your livestock maintain healthy weight all year long. Another thing to note, if you place too much seed in the tray it will not germinate effectively, it won’t go to complete waste because other animals will eat the seed although you want the most production of the barley feed for your livestock.  Depending on the size of your production you will need a place for the water to drain into, that could be a bucket to reuse or a drain.  Patty and Zack have drip irrigation however, they are producing enough fodder feed for 70 horses.  Lights will also need to remain on all day and you will need to water your seed barley with a gentle spray morning and night. Two trays a day will provide one third of the feed for your livestock. Patty exclaims “it will reduce overgrazing, and a field that will last for on a month of grazing can get up to three months with the use of fodder feed.”  This ranching family also runs their entire irrigation on straight waste vegetable oil and they have worked with the conservation district to install conservation easements and fencing of the creek to protect their land from erosion due to livestock overgrazing and many other conservation measurements.  

The all inclusive custom built area for indoor shoeing, large equipment storage, living space, tool storage, gravity fed granary, and the entire barley production. Photo By Ashley Rivero


          They enjoy the fact that when Montana is in the middle of a blizzard they have green grass to feed their livestock.  They enjoy watching the horses eat the bale, tossing it in the air, and watching the fodder grow.  They appreciate that their horses hold their weight all year long, they are in better physical condition, and they maintain their weight even through heavy use.  Other positive outcomes that

Photo By Ashley Rivero

correlate with the hydroponic production of barley is you don’t have to move irrigation lines, plow fields, mow, bale, and all other maintenance and moving of larger feed product.   You will also see savings on feed prices and will be able to take control of your feeding and production.  With the use of this method you can produce a high yield in a small area and it is fairly easy to maintain.  This alternative is  suited for locations confronting hindered agricultural development as a result of feed shortages, water shortages, drought, adverse climatic conditions, rapid population growth and rapid urbanization and landowners with a few livestock experiencing overgrazing.


          Both Patty and Zack expressed that it’s an every day job and no matter how much preparation you take into consideration there is nothing like actually doing it.  For example, when they first started to grow their operation larger they installed a air to air heat exchange and this was a failure, they then went to a high humidity exhaust fan where they found success.  In a large volume it takes a lot of time.  For small land owners with only 4-8 trays it shouldn’t be as much of a task but it will still be something you need to tend to daily.  They also stated that a large part of their learning curve was you have to learn how to water it and figure out the right temperature for optimal growth.  Too much water or too little it doesn’t grow right but you have new crop every 6 days so mistakes can be made in the beginning with little repercussion.  For people in colder climates they emphasized that the “production needs to be in an insulated area and if you are interested you can buy a unit plug in ready, but for a small deal all you need is an entry way with a small drain that can catch extra water, because the trays have to have drainage.  When you buy the trays you need drain holes.  Do not buy the soft black drain trays, get hard plastic trays and drill 5/16 inch holes in each corner.  The drainage and watering is the biggest issue you want to make sure you don’t over water.

           Getting to see what they have accomplished and watching the horses enjoy the barley was inspiring. Working with Patty and Zack and just hearing their passion for what they do as well as protecting their environment, their way of life, and hosting people from all around the world resonated anything is possible all you have to do is want it and work towards it.  If you have any questions or would like to know more please contact the Conservation District.  We always look forward to working with you and hope you might be inspired as we were when we saw what this family was doing!

A perfect place to sit back and enjoy the beauty of Montana! Photo By Ashley Rivero