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Although I hardly know one end of a cow from another, Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (WODPA) invited me to deliver the keynote at their recent 10th Annual Conference and Trade Show in Corvallis, Oregon. Amongst a parade of tradesmen visiting the podium to hawk wares “indispensable” to any successful dairy farmer, came one waving a large square of what appeared to be AstroTurf. I sat dumbstruck as FodderWorks’ vendor rep claimed smart California dairy operators circumvent our mega-drought by growing pasture grass indoors. My first thought — “What sort of rubes does this guy take dairy farmers for?” — was followed by a recollection that Mario Daccarett, who milks sheep in Chowchilla, had invited me out to see some wacky pasture growing machine he was experimenting with over a year ago. Sure enough, visiting the FodderWorks booth, I learned Mario’s Golden Valley Farm is one of their star adopters. Familiarity with sprouted wheat grass found in every neighborhood health food store provides you with some reasonable idea of what a handful of pioneering dairy farmers are up to sprouting mostly barley on an industrial scale for cows, sheep and goats. Daccarett shelled out $45,000 for a temperature-controlled, insulated van equipped with grow lights, equivalent in size to a small bedroom. In one end, from top to bottom, he daily loads plastic trays, each “seeded” with 2.5 pounds of barley grain, onto racks along which sprouts will advance over six days closer to artificial light at the van’s opposite end. Beyond seed, the system’s sole input is water, periodically misted to initiate and maintain the sprouting process. Six-inch-tall grass mats that emanate like clockwork, 365 days-a-year, from this FodderWorks unit, according to Mario, replace 100 acres of alfalfa hay he previously fed to 350 sheep. Denying any financial ties to FodderWorks, my Chowchilla neighbor astonishingly attests that his pasture contraption uses a mere 2% of the water required to grow open field alfalfa. As an advance-degreed dairy nutritionist with a string of clients, Daccarett is a consummate number cruncher. Citing enzymes, vitamins and other phytonutrients of living plants, he claims sprouted barley reduces his dairy’s total feed bill by 40% while improving animal health and digestibility of modest amounts of dry hay and almond hulls that remain in sheep’s rations. Mario reports Golden Valley Farm’s milk output has not diminished, but milk and cheese quality have noticeably improved. Indoor fodder systems have not been embraced by our region’s large dairy operators. Skyrocketing land values and water scarcity might soon inspire some innovative thought. -Tom Willey