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By Growing Feed Indoors This Sheep Farmer Says He's Saving Lots of Water

Shipping containers have been used for everything from community gardens to pools and even homes. In rural Madera County one farmer is using these containers to help him save water on his sheep farm. He says a shipping container could actually be a solution to drought.

At Golden Valley Farm, about 10 miles northwest of Madera, Mario Daccarett’s employees are milking 500 sheep in rounds of 12. 

Credit Ezra David Romero / V
Mario Daccarett says his goal is get 800 pounds of milk from each sheep a year.

As they hook up long clear suction cups to each animal’s set of teats, milk drains down tubes into a cold tank. This creamy milk eventually is turned into cheese and sold at places like Whole Foods in Fresno.

“They have our cheese there and they tell me that our Golden Ewe cheese is the best for grilled cheese sandwich ever and they have over 500 different varieties of cheese there,” says Daccarett.

Daccarett says he gets about 800 pounds of milk a year from each ewe. To make that much milk it takes a lot of feed – like oats and hay— to quench this herd’s constant appetite. And to cut the cost of all that feed Daccarett says he has a secret ingredient that enriches his cheese while at the same time saves a lot of water.

That ingredient . . . sprouted barley grown indoors.

"If you don't have a lot of land you can produce a tremendous amount of feed in a very, very small area with a very little amount of water." - Mario Daccarett

“We plant every day and we harvest every day and it takes six days to complete the cycle,” Daccarett says. “So whatever we plant today in six days will be ready to be fed.”

He feeds his sheep one part oats and hay and one part sprouted barley.

Growing barley as feed isn’t anything new, but Daccarett sprouts barley seeds inside shipping containers using hydroponic technology and indoor lighting.  By doing so he says he only uses two percent of the water it would take to grow the crop using traditional farming methods.

“I think that’s a big advantage if you don’t have a lot of land,” says Daccarett. “You can produce a tremendous amount of feed in a very, very small area with a very little amount of water.”

Daccarett’s nephew Jose Quiñonez is showing me how the growing process works. It’s quite simple. Inside each 10 by 20 foot shipping container are five horizontal rows of shallow black trays.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Jose Quiñonez says every day 2,400 pounds of sprouts are fed to about 1,100 sheep

“So we just get the tray, just dump the barley, spread it really good,” Quiñonez says.

After each tray is full and leveled he pushes the tray forward until the unit is full and closes the door.

“That’s it ready just to wait seven days and it will be ready to feed,” says Quiñonez.

Every hour black drip irrigation sprinklers mist the seeds for 20 seconds. That’s just long enough for the seeds to germinate. In a matter of days these sprouts will stand six inches tall and be ready for the sheep to eat. 

"If you really apply a little bit of economics to it and animal nutrition to it, it doesn't appear as quite as promising as one might think." - Daniel Putnam

Today he’s producing 2,400 pounds of sprouts a day which feeds about 1,100 sheep. 

“By controlling the environment we control the ideal germination temperature, the ideal growing temperature, provide lighting so we increase the chlorophyll and some of the other benefits,” says Curt Chittock, president of FodderWorks the company that sold Daccarett the equipment. 

“Every day of the year you’re going to provide consistent feed," he adds. 

Even though this sprouting technology isn’t new it’s not widely used or accepted for growing feed for livestock. Chittock and farmers like Daccarett think that will change, but there’s a popular opinion that it’s too expensive to use this technology. UC Davis Agronomist Daniel Putnam studied sprouting barley and says the cost doesn’t pencil out.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Sprouting seeds isn't a popular method for growing feed for livestock, but farmers like Mario Daccarett think that will change in time.

“The margins are pretty slim and if you’re looking at it from an animal production point of view you want to minimize your costs,” Putnam says. “And if you really apply a little bit of economics to it and animal nutrition to it, it doesn’t appear as quite as promising as one might think.”

He’s saying it doesn’t have as much nutritional value. When he dried some sprouts he found they were mostly moisture.At that point he says there is less dry matter in the sprout then the seed itself. 

“The animals seem to relish it and from that perspective there’s nothing particularly wrong with it,” says Putnam. “The key issue is whether or not it’s the best economic choice for a grower and also whether or not there are some negatives associated with it.”

The other issue that Putnam points out is that buying these hydroponic containers is expensive. A small unit can be a couple thousand dollars but larger fully automated units can reach around $100,000. Daccarett says he paid off his first few containers in 13 months.

Here at Golden Valley Farm Mario Daccarett says he is witnessing a different result from the fodder he feeds his sheep on top of the water savings from not having to plant a large acreage of barley.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Mario Daccarett says his sheep love sprouted barley. He says it's sweet and keeps them fuller longer.

“You do the math and you say well yeah it might not work, but once we started doing it we found out that sheep tend to eat less, more nutrition, more enzymes,” says Daccarett. “So they become more efficient.”

He thinks it’s just a matter of time before more farmers’ use hydroponic products like FodderWorks.

“The more pressure we have from water limitations or the more pressure to become more efficient ourselves and more sustainable – you’re going to see more people doing it,” says Daccarett.

And when Daccarett’s nephew Jose feeds the sheep the sprouts they come running. He says, “You can tell they go crazy when they see it. They really like it.”

And just like his sheep love sprouts, Daccarett says he loves the financial savings from using this not so widely accepted farming practice. He hopes to buy at least three more units for his second sheep operation in the coming year.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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