Cultivating Questions Social Security and Sprouted Horse Feed
Cultivating Questions Social Security and Sprouted Horse Feed

Cultivating Questions

Concerning the Bio-Extensive Market Garden

by Anne and Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA

Social Security and Sprouted Horse Feed

One of the reasons that we can afford to provide our partners in harness with a decent retirement is that we need four large animals to meet the fertility requirements of our small market garden. Yes, two work horses are all that are necessary to accomplish the fieldwork. They could also supply enough composted manure for the 6½ acres of cover crops and vegetables, plus potting soil for transplants, if we stabled the team 100% of the time. For the sake of the horses’ health and utilizing an on-farm resource, we like to graze the work animals 6-16 hours a day, depending on the time of year. Consequently, we need four horses to fill the compost quota.

For the first fifteen years on the farm we used the extra stalls for young horses and mares with foals. The sale of untrained two-year-olds was not that profitable, but it covered the feed costs of these “surplus” animals. Now the extra stalls go to a couple of horses at the other end of the life cycle. We do not expect the retirees to pay their way although we occasionally put them back in harness for specialized market garden tasks where a slower, steadier animal comes in handy.

Caring for our elders has been a learning experience. Arthritis, reduced parasite resistance, and impaired digestion have been some of the senior equine issues we have faced. Long-of-tooth and missing some teeth, the old folks often have difficulty chewing coarse hay and whole grain. Seeing all the undigested oats and stems of grass in their manure, it is hard to imagine that they get much value from this traditional work horse diet.

Cultivating Questions Social Security and Sprouted Horse Feed

To compensate for their dental disability, we decided to try sprouting the horses’ grain. Casual research of alternative livestock nutrition suggested that sprouting cracks open the husks of the oats so the grain can be acted on by the stomach acids, transforms the starch into more digestible sugars, increases the digestive enzyme content of the grain, and breaks down phytic acid and other natural germination inhibitors which tie-up important minerals like calcium and phosphorus.

The horses, unfortunately, were not impressed with our research. When we first offered them sprouted oats, they turned up their noses. We finally enticed them to try the strange smelling grain by dressing their spout salad with a little apple cider vinegar. After that introduction, the vinaigrette was no longer necessary. They preferred the sweet, succulent sprouts over their familiar dry oats.

It was important to us that the homemade senior horse feed tasted more like dessert than medicine because one of the purposes of their small grain ration is to serve as a reward for the horses coming in from pasture on their own. Ninety percent of the time they are waiting at the stable doors, or within calling distance of the barn, when it is time to stable them. Without the sprout incentive, our daily labor for stabling the horses would be a lot more than 20 minutes. It takes almost that long just to make the round trip on foot to bring in the horses from the back end of the farthest paddocks.

Cultivating Questions Social Security and Sprouted Horse Feed

Sprouting the grain dramatically reduces the number of whole, undigested oats passing through in the horses’ manure as long as the grain had good germination. We learned this the hard way when a whole year’s supply of locally grown oats had less than 40% germination. Not wanting to repeat that mistake, we looked into other alternatives. To our dismay, feed oats purchased from conventional and organic suppliers often tested even lower in germination.

Since we had already put in an order for cover crops oats with Lakeview Organic in Penn Yan, NY, we decided to fill out the truckload with enough seed oats for sprouting. The blue tag organic seed germinated reliably and did not need to be run through the hand-cranked fanning mill to remove dirt, chaff and weed seed before sprouting.

One unexpected benefit of sourcing the sprout seed from Lakeview Organic is we now had a much wider selection of dependably high germination small grains to choose from. After a good bit of trial and error, we settled on a mix of oat, barley and buckwheat in a 3:2:1 ratio by volume. We intuitively felt that this diverse mix of organically grown sprouts might provide a better balance of enlivened amino acids, enzymes and trace elements for complete protein synthesis than a mono-diet of conventional, if local and much less expensive, oats.

We can say with more confidence that a gallon of oats, barley and buckwheat after four days of sprouting turns into a super “sweet feed” and expands over 2½ times in volume, a combination that proved irresistible to the horses. Instead of receiving a measly quart each of whole grains, the equine seniors were now rewarded with three full quarts of live food when they came into the stables. The rest of the daily sprout ration went to the work team, a treat of two quarts each.

Cultivating Questions Social Security and Sprouted Horse Feed

As for added supplements, we top-dress the sprouts with 2-3 ounces of a 50:50 mix of Thorvin kelp and Green (non-GMO) Diamond V Yeast as an aid for digestion and immune enhancement. We also mix a tablespoon of cod liver oil into the seniors’ sprouts from Christmas until Easter to make sure that the old folks get a bare minimum of Vitamin A and Omega-3s when the pasture quality is at the lowest. This time of year all the horses consume a lot more of the three free-choice salts we offer them in a cafeteria-style arrangement above each manger: plain, white feed salt; Redmond natural trace mineral salt; and copper salt (white salt mixed with 2% copper sulphate), the horses’ clear favorite.

It may be our imagination, but the diverse mix of sprouts and natural supplements seems to have eased the retirees’ arthritis, improved their digestion of coarse hay and pasture, and made it possible to maintain their weight without increasing their grain. In fact, we need to cut back this geriatric diet for the younger work team as it makes them fatter and friskier than necessary for working in the vegetables.

Please be forewarned that our homemade senior horse feed is not a scientifically-based complete ration. Due to the expense of using organic seed, it costs more than the commercial equivalent found in most feed stores, and it would probably not be adequate for horses that have lost the majority of their teeth. Most importantly, when we asked Dr. Susan Beal, a holistic veterinarian based in Big Run, PA, what she thought of sprouting grains for horses, she was not exactly encouraging. She warned us that horses are very susceptible to mold!

We don’t know if we have just been lucky or if the sprouting methods described below are actually mold-proof. Over the six years we have been feeding sprouts to the horses they have not had any digestive or respiratory disorders. Nevertheless, like all the other unusual farm practices discussed in this column, if you try sprouting grains for your horses, READER BEWARE!

3-day Oat Sprouts for Layers

We would probably have never considered sprouting grains for the horses if we had not already had fifteen years’ experience sprouting oats for our small flock of composting chickens. (See “Henpecked Compost and U-Mix Potting Soil” in the Spring 1992 SFJ.) To maintain a continuous supply of 3-day oat sprouts for two dozen birds, we use three 5-quart stovetop steamers picked up at yard sales as sprout containers, starting a steamer of sprouts everyday:

Put a half gallon of oats in the perforated insert, then fill the steamer with water and let it soak for twelve hours. Remove the insert, dump out the dirty brown soak water, rinse the oats with a hose, and return the insert to the steamer to drip dry. Then, every twelve hours, give the oats a quick stir and rinse with more water. At the end of three days, scatter the ¼” long sprouts over the compost to encourage the chickens to scratch, and refill the steamer with oats and water to start another 3-day cycle of sprouting.

Cultivating Questions Social Security and Sprouted Horse Feed
Sprouting table in basement with six sprout buckets and the plastic bucket “steamer.” The three buckets on the bottom contain the first, second and third-day sprouts. (A bucket with the fourth-day sprouts has been removed to feed the horses.) The three empty buckets on top are tipped upside down to drip-dry after rinsing, ready to receive the sprouts for the next 12-hour dump-into-a-clean-bucket.

4-day Oat, Barley and Buckwheat Sprouts for the Horses

In order to sprout a gallon of grain everyday for the four work horses, we upgraded from the 5-quart enamel steamers to small plastic buckets, the 3 ½ or 4 ¼ gallon sizes that many livestock supplements come in or can be purchased for $2-3 at most hardware stores. Instead of going to the trouble of making four steamer-like sprout containers with the small plastic buckets, we put together one oversized steamer just for rinsing and draining the grain after twelve hours of soaking. We drilled 1/8” holes, roughly 1” apart, all over the bottom of one of the small buckets. This 3½ gallon perforated insert conveniently slips into the top of a standard 5 or 6 gallon bucket to collect the soak and rinse water.

Cultivating Questions Social Security and Sprouted Horse Feed
Above view of plastic steamer setup, showing insert with holes drilled in the bottom for draining and rinsing the oat-barley-buckwheat mix after 12 hours of soaking.

Each day we start a small bucket of sprouts by soaking a gallon (approximately 5 lbs.) of the 3:2:1 mix of oats, barley and buckwheat. At the end of the 12-hour soak period, we dump the grain into the oversized plastic steamer, rinsing it thoroughly with a hose. After letting the rinsed grain finish dripping in the steamer, we return it to a clean, dry sprouting bucket.

Cultivating Questions Social Security and Sprouted Horse Feed
We get more complete draining of the soaked grain if, after about a half-minute of dripping, we prop the insert on an angle. When I mentioned to Anne how difficult it was to describe this simple procedure in writing, she said, “How difficult can it be? It’s two buckets and a stick!”

After that, we simply dump the germinating grain into a clean bucket every twelve hours, re-moistening the top of the sprouts with a quick spritz from the hose. Dumping the sprouts into a fresh bucket twice-a-day eliminates the sticky buildup of sugars on the inside of the sprout containers, insures the living grain remains uniformly aerated and moistened, and prevents the growing sprouts from turning into a dense mat of roots. Even so, on the third and fourth day of sprouting we find it is necessary to break up the tangle of roots with a wooden paddle before dumping them into a clean bucket or feeding them to the horses.

The downside of this dump-into-a-clean-bucket method is it requires 7 small buckets plus the oversized steamer setup to grow 4-day horse sprouts. However, we think it is worth the extra buckets and effort to prevent problems, like mold, from developing. The key is to rinse and drip-dry the buckets after each use and to maintain the ideal 60-70 degree temperature for sprouting at all times. Too warm, and the moist grain may ferment, attracting fruit flies. Too cold, and the sprouting process slows down and turns sour.

It took us a few years to discover that the ideal location for year round sprouting was on a table set up in the basement right below one of the heat ducts coming from our gravity flow, wood burning furnace. The air temperature above the sprout table rarely drops below 60 degrees during the coldest part of the winter or rises above 70 in the heat of the summer.

We learned from daily monitoring that it is also important to use grain and water warmed to room temperature to maintain consistent, healthy sprouting. We store the oat-barley-buckwheat mix in a barrel next to the sprout table in the basement, and we use a full-length garden hose, looped on the floor around the back of the furnace, to temper our chilly spring water.

The final variable affecting sprouting temperature took a lot longer for us to figure out due to its subtle, biological nature: each type of small grain generates a different degree of heat during the last two days of the process. The high energy barley generates the most heat. The more proteinaceous oats produce a more moderate heating. And the buckwheat, which is classified as a fruit rather than a true grain, seems to have a cooling effect on the sprouting process. Mixed together, the three types of seeds balance each other, creating the perfect internal, warm temperature to keep germination on schedule during cold weather. However, when we remove the expensive buckwheat seed from the mix for the prime pasture season, we also cut back the daily grain ration for sprouting from one gallon to three quarts of oats and barley (roughly 50/50 by weight). This 25% reduction in grain not only saves on the feed bill, but, without the tempering effect of the buckwheat, a larger volume of moist oats and barley during warm weather can lead to overheating and the sort of fermentation that the horses’ sensitive digestive system is not designed to handle. For the same reason, we stay away from the larger, energy-dense seeds, like corn, peas and beans, in the horses’ sprout mix.

2-day Soaked Corn and Peas for the Work Hogs

Pigs, on the other hand, can tolerate, even benefit from, fermented foods. To improve the digestibility of their high-energy ration of corn, we soak the kernels for 48 hours in water with a few squirts of unpasteurized apple cider vinegar added. The vinegar initiates a mild fermentation and eliminates the need to change the soak water several times over the two-day period. After 48 hours of soaking, we rinse the soft, swollen corn in the oversized plastic steamer, and then feed it to the composting pigs over the next two days while another batch of corn is soaking.

As part of our commitment to keeping the farm GMO-free, we now purchase organic shelled corn for the hogs even though we don’t receive an organic premium for donating the pork to the soup kitchen, a November tradition for almost twenty years. When it was no longer convenient to get out-of-date milk from the soup kitchen as a protein supplement for the pigs, we added organic yellow grain peas to our cover crop seed order from Lakeview Organic. Soaked with the corn, the peas almost double in size and become much more appetizing to the working grunts rooting through the compost for their corn-and-pea lunch.

2½ lbs. of corn and 1 lb. of yellow grain peas per pig per day seems to be adequate to keep mature hogs working and growing. Small pigs, however, grow very slowly on this low-protein diet. Without the free source of milk from the soup kitchen, it is no longer economical for us to start with feeder pigs in December because it costs so much, and takes so long, to get the young porkers up to a working weight of 150-200 lbs. Instead, we buy one market weight hog each year for composting the horse manure and to grow up to 4- 500 lbs. on soaked corn and peas plus lots of cull vegetables.