Is Hydroponic Feed in Your Horse's Future?

Rising feed prices and drought conditions have led to a growing interest in using fodder systems to feed horses

Hundreds of years ago, people living in areas with limited farmland developed a method of growing plants without using soil. This system, called hydroponics, allowed them to produce crops quickly and en masse. Hydroponics has captured horse owners’ attention recently, thanks to the development and availability of products called fodder systems. Fodder refers to food grown for and fed in a living state to livestock. Rising feed prices are also responsible for the growing interest in fodder systems. They’ve become popular in Australia, for instance, due to that country’s extreme drought conditions and resulting feed shortage.

In the United States a variety of companies sell fodder systems designed specifically for horses and other livestock. System size and design range among models, and each features a slightly different method for growing sprouts. The one thing they all have in common, however, is that none requires soil or a growing medium. The user simply places seeds in growing trays and sprays them regularly with water. Some kits require grow lights, while others work off your home, barn, or greenhouse’s ambient light.  

Different varieties or combinations of grains or legumes (from alfalfa and grasses, such as brome, fescue and timothy, to cereal grains such as barley, oats, and wheat) are available for different animal species, but the most common crops grown for horses are wheat and barley. The seeds germinate and grow rapidly, and in approximately six days a “crop” is ready to feed to livestock. The 6- to 8-inch-tall sprouts grow in a thick layer called a mat. You can remove the mat from the tray and feed it to horses in its entirety—roots and all. The idea is to have fresh, live, natural food that you’ve grown yourself within mere days.

Sprouting grain is 80% digestible, and some of its vitamins are more readily available in this fresh crop than in dry hay. Proponents claim that benefits include a quick crop yield in a very small area that offers horses increased hydration (the sprout mats are very lush—think early spring grass). Two pounds of seeds equals 15 pounds of fodder. Manufacturers claim that horses consuming fodder recover more quickly from competition due to the increased hydration and to a more efficient uptake of nutrients and highly digestible fiber the fodder affords. They also purport that this natural feed is compatible with the equine digestive system, reducing ulcers, laminitis, tying-up, and impactions and other types of colic, along with increasing growth in young animals.

Fodder Feeding Considerations

Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVN, a professor in the Department of Animal Science at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, offers a word of caution before going all-fodder, noting that any implication of fodder being a suitable complete diet is misleading: “Horses can’t meet their nutritional needs with it. The mineral content is off, at least in the products I’ve seen, so it can be detrimental to horses if it’s the major part of their diet.”

Additionally, the choice of seeds grown is an important factor in nutrient content. “Barley is a grain crop, not a forage crop,” Ralston says. “Grains are high in phosphorus and are good for energy but not good for fiber.” In fact, barley has a calcium-to-phosphorus ratio opposite of what horses require (they need at least as much, if not more, calcium than phosphorus).  

“Horses fed (barley sprouts) exclusively, or just in large quantities, might become calcium-deficient,” she explains. Calcium deficiency can result in intermittent lameness and an increased fracture risk. She adds that wheat sprouts, with their high phosphorus levels, could potentially cause the same problems.  

Ralston urges those interested in trying fodder to look at the product’s nutrient analysis first and talk with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist about incorporating fodder into a feeding program. Like lush spring grass, “fodder is low-fiber and 60% water,” she says. Owners would have to feed huge amounts to provide horses with enough fiber to meet their needs. “It’s probably really tasty to horses,” adds Ralston. “But we can probably assume they would be high in sugar, too.” Thus, fodder might not be the best choice for horses suffering from—or with a history of—laminitis or other metabolic issues.

Also like new spring grass, fodder’s high average moisture content can affect a horse’s nutrient intake. While water intake is a good thing, it does limit the body’s intake of other nutrients. If a horse ate 10 pounds of fodder, for example, he would really be consuming the equivalent of 1 pound of dry matter and 9 pounds of water. Nutrients in 1 pound of dry matter vary, depending on the crop.  

“In the analysis reports I have seen, the crude protein generally ranges from 18% to 28% for cereal grains and more than 30% for legumes such as alfalfa,” Ralston says, which is higher than what you’d typically see with traditional forms of these crops. “The other nutrient values (with the exception of calcium in cereal grains) and sugar levels are similar to those of other forages.”

Carey Williams, PhD, associate extension specialist and associate professor in Rutgers’ Department of Animal Sciences, has additional concerns that “the moist materials run a greater risk of becoming moldy, a common problem in hydroponic fodder systems.”  

Ruminants such as cows aren’t as sensitive to molds as horses, which can quickly become very ill or die from consuming even small amounts of mold.  

As for the cost of producing fodder, consider the expense of the grow unit (which can range from a few hundred to several thousands of dollars per unit), any added utility costs, and the labor required to grow and harvest the feed in a timely manner. Weighing these costs with the benefits you hope to reap can help you decide whether incorporating fodder into your feeding program makes sense.

Take-Home Message

Fodder’s suitability for your operation’s feeding program depends on your individual horse’s nutritional needs, other available feeds or pasture, and the nutrient content of the fodder the system produces. For easy keepers and horses with laminitis or other metabolic issues, our experts say this feed might not be the best choice. But for others—especially those in low vegetation or drought-prone areas—fodder might make a tasty, easy-to-grow green treat that your horses relish.

If you’re thinking about going the fodder route, first get a complete nutrient analysis of the sprouts produced and work with a nutritionist to balance your horse’s ration.