‘A game changer’: Funds to become available for farming sans soil under new bill

ST. GEORGE — Touted by some as a “game changer,” a system to grow livestock feed sans soil may be within the reach of Utah’s farmers and ranchers after HB 221 recently passed the state’s Legislature.

A stock photo of hydroponically-grown barley | Photo courtesy of Rashid1836/Shutterstock, St. George News

A fodder system is a technique for growing fodder, a type of livestock feed, like barley, in a confined space hydroponically, or without soil, Rep. Kera Birkeland said on the Utah House floor earlier this month.

For instance, grain seeds can be germinated by soaking them, spreading them onto plastic trays and watering them 2-3 times daily, according to the University of Minnesota. Sprouts can be harvested after seven days.

HB 221, as it was dubbed for the 2023 legislative session, clarifies existing law, allowing hydroponic fodder systems to qualify for the Agricultural Resource Development Loan Program, also known as ARDL.

Because the technology is new, language qualifying the practice for funding wasn’t previously included in the law, Bailee Woolstenhulme, the public information officer for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, told St. George News.

Cattle eating fodder, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of Utah Rep. Kera Birkeland, St. George News

The loan program is available to farmers and ranchers to implement new projects, particularly those that are conservation-oriented, such as new irrigation systems, techniques for reducing pollution or manure management, Woolstenhulme said.

The change would be “huge” for farmers and ranchers who can’t obtain a loan to implement the practice. And setting up a new fodder system could cost $100,000-350,000, “which a lot of the ranchers just can’t do,” Birkeland said.

Birkeland decided to sponsor the bill after she visited a ranch that used the fodder system in Morgan and observed their process.

“I was just amazed and asked them why (the fodder system) isn’t more utilized,” she said. “And they expressed that it was because it’s very hard to get the funding to pay for it.

“So I said, ‘We should be looking into this as a state on how we can help people get the funding they need because this is going to be a great conservation tool.’”

The system uses 90% less water than traditional methods, which can then be reused, creating “huge water savings for our state,” Birkeland told St. George News. Additionally, the system could yield 3 tons of fodder daily compared with 5 tons grown on a 1-acre field throughout the growing season.

Utah House Rep. Kera Birkeland on the House floor discussing HB 221, Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 3, 2023 | Video still courtesy of the Utah State Legislature, St. George News

The system requires less energy when compared with running other types of farm equipment, said Birkeland, adding that both labor and input costs are also “minimal.”

Hydroponically grown feed may also benefit livestock. Birkeland said that the system produces fodder with higher protein and water content, keeping the “steer very hydrated.”

“It’s just a really great product from start to finish and the fact that you can get the same amount (of feed) in 3-7 days that could take up four months in the traditional method — it’s just a game changer,” she said.

While the Utah Farm Bureau “supports advancements in agriculture technology and farming practices, including fodder systems,” the practice can be “very expensive or labor-intensive to implement,” Vice President of Public Policy Terry Camp wrote in an email to St. George News.

However, when the systems are viable, they “can provide valuable benefits, such as year-round green feed,” Camp said. “Fodder systems are already a solution for some farmers and ranchers but aren’t currently viable for all.”

Seeds growing in trays via the fodder system, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of Utah Rep. Kera Birkeland, St. George News

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food is also “supportive of all types of agriculture,” Woolstenhulme said. But whether the system benefits individual ranchers and farmers depends on their “ultimate goals.”

Additionally, she suggests those interested in exploring hydroponic farming should practice due diligence to ensure the technology will work for their operation.

Utah House Rep. Phil Lyman spoke in favor of the bill on the House floor, sharing that some of his constituents operate a fodder system, growing as much alfalfa “in a 70-by-40 shed as they would on 400 acres” while using about 2-3% of the water.

“Why this isn’t part of the ARDL program already, I’m not sure, but I certainly hope that it will go forward,” he said.

Birkeland said the bill is a “great way to support our farmers and ranchers,” particularly since they’ve seen a “reduction of their water rights” over the past decade.

Chicken at Red Acre Farm CSA, Cedar City, Utah, April 4, 2022 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“To give them opportunities to still do their work and provide their living and feed for their animals while we’re dealing with the challenges of this drought and to give them that relief in a loan or grant is just the right thing to do for Utah,” she said.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, its enactment is not expected to materially impact state revenue or expenditures.

HB 221 was passed by both the Utah House and Senate and has been sent to Gov. Spencer Cox.

To read the bill’s text in full, click here. For more information about Agricultural Resource Development Loan Program, visit the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food’s website.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2023 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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