EVAN FRANKHAM has got plenty of lush, nutritious feed on his Suntop farm to keep 500 breeding ewes in full production, but this fodder isn’t being grazed from his bare brown paddocks – it’s being produced from barley seed that’s sprouted in a purpose-made shed called a fodder factory.
Every day he lays out 400kg of barley onto a series of large stainless steel shelves – there are four rows of shelves – and each day he pulls out about 2.5 tonnes of green feed.
“The efficiency is because when you sprout the grain you turn the starches into sugars and things the animals can use easily, so the animal’s not using their energy to break down the starch to get the goodness and the energy and the protein out of the grain. That’s why it works.
“It’s not some magic thing, it’s because half the process that the gut has to do to get the goodness is already done when you sprout the grain,” Mr Frankham told Dubbo Photo News.
“It’s costing about $200 a day for the seed and I’m getting around 2.5 tonnes of fodder production each day. It does vary, I worked out it costs around 36 to 40 cents per head per day per ewe, and I equate that to fattening 1.2 lambs per year into a 45 kilo lamb.
“Hay’s not even in the picture because you just can’t get the energy out of it. My understanding is that to get the energy and the efficiency to get a ewe to milk to full production, I’d have to be at least feeding double that,” he said.
He bought his first fodder factory six years ago and, after experimentation and much modification, he built a new version last year.
He said he’s answered all the concerns he’s heard over the years, from agency scientists saying the sheds don’t work through to mould concerns, electricity costs and the big one, the amount of hands-on work required.
“I concentrated on trying to work out how to make it grow efficiently and also on the labour, and how to improve the materials’ handling, and by and large I sorted those issues from the outset,” Mr Frankham said.
“Labour, you’ve still got to spend time to do it, but there’s nothing hard about doing it, it doesn’t kill you – I spent a lot of time shearing, I’ve done some hard jobs and I’ve worked hard for a living and this is not it.
“In the wintertime, you come in and the shed’s nice and warm, and in the summertime you’re nice and wet and cool so I don’t mind that,” he said.
The original fodder factory wasn’t bought as a tool to ensure there was stockfeed in a drought, but rather to double the carrying capacity on the property.
Mr Frankham believes it would be a positive policy if state and federal governments assisted farmers to build fodder factories not just for dry times, but to increase production in the good times which would create sustainable, year-round rural jobs.
He didn’t plan to have the fodder factory for the current drought crisis. “I planned to have it for sustainable production,” Mr Frankham explained, adding that there would be many benefits if there was major investment in fodder factories.
“That would provide immediate hope and a way of maintaining cashflow, but also provide people with so many other options when it does rain. They can fatten cattle, they can wean, they can buy on agistment stock, they can do all sorts of things when they’re certain about having a really good feed source every day,” Mr Frankham said.
“I don’t think this is for everyone, and I certainly am not a good farmer; I’m not putting my hand up in any way, shape or form to say I’ve got it sorted out, and I love to listen and learn from a lot of different people...
“I just think that you can buy haymaking gear or update your farming plant or put a new hay shed up or improve your pastures, but at the end of the day all those things are reliant on the rain – and I’m not going to invest in something that only exacerbates the problem that I’m trying to fix.” None of that makes much sense to Mr Frankham, but he does see the many benefits of fodder factories.
One less than obvious and unintended co-benefit is the positive impact it has on his mental well-being, knowing that while fodder is in critically short supply and at record high prices, that he can bypass his parched brown paddocks and walk into a cool shed that’s stuffed with a couple of tonnes of bright green feed each and every day.
“Where you struggle with it is where you can’t see any hope of getting out of this and going forward, so I’ve found that the fodder factory overcomes a lot of that stress for me.
“My animals look good and they’re healthy. I just can’t stand seeing lambs struggle (in extremely dry conditions) because you just know they’re in distress and not happy.”
He said one of the great mental struggles for producers is knowing that you’re the person responsible for your stock, but not being able to do anything about the lack of rain. It’s that thought that motivated him to do what he’s done. “My sheep are all happy and well fed,” Mr Frankham said.
“This is costing me money but I know that I’m going to be able to have production of a certain amount of lambs, and I’m going to be able to turn those lambs off, so that gives me hope that at least there’s going to be some cashflow there.
“I haven’t got a crystal ball so I don’t know what the markets and the grain availability’s going to do – all that might get out of whack and we still might have to do something different. But as it stands now, I can see a likelihood that I’m going to be okay, and if that feeling is not in the back of your mind it makes it really hard to keep doing something every day,” he said.
Mr Frankham admitted he has had enough of the knockers claiming fodder factories don’t work, and he’s sceptical of agencies and levy bodies who have used their credibility and expertise to convince struggling cockies that the sheds don’t work, or don’t stack up, especially when anyone with two eyes can see they so obviously do.
“I’m pretty sceptical of people who give advice and who’ve got no skin in the game – I don’t understand. I can only assume that’s the stance they take because of their scientific training and they don’t have any day-to-day practical experience with this,” Mr Frankham said.
“I’ve bought the poorest animals in the yards, I’ve consciously done that with cattle and I’ve brought them off the truck and I’d say to my wife, ‘Oh my goodness, these are going to die, what have I done?’ But I haven’t had any animal that doesn’t come up to fat grade.”
He freely admits he’s “not sure of the science” but, for Mr Frankham, the proof is there to see.
“There’s no way I’d be coming and doing this if it wasn’t giving me the result; there’s no way you could continue to do something every day if you didn’t see a reward in the stock that goes out the gate,” he said.
* John Ryan is employed part-time by Mid Macquarie Landcare as a Local Landcare Co-ordinator.