Mario Daccarett says the sprouted barley seeds he grows inside shipping containers are sweet and keeps his sheep full for longer. Ezra David Romero/KQED
Mario Daccarett says the sprouted barley seeds he grows inside shipping containers are sweet and keeps his sheep full for longer. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

How a Sheep Farmer Saves Water Using Shipping Containers

How a Sheep Farmer Saves Water Using Shipping Containers

On Golden Valley Farm north of Madera, Mario Daccarett’s employees are milking 500 sheep in rounds of 12. As they hook up long clear suction cups to each animal’s teats, milk drains down tubes into a cold tank. This creamy milk eventually is turned into cheese and sold at places like Whole Foods or Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco.

“They tell me that our Golden Ewe cheese is the best for grilled cheese sandwich ever,” Daccarett says.

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 satisfy 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 water: sprouted barley grown indoors.

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

Growing barley as feed isn’t a new practice, but Daccarrett's method of growing barley seeds is different. He sprouts the 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.

Usually Jose Quiñonez feeds the sheep a blend of oats, hay and sprouts. But today he's feeding sprouts alone.
Usually Jose Quiñonez feeds the sheep a blend of oats, hay and sprouts. But today he's feeding sprouts alone.
(Ezra David Romero/KQED)

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

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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. He’s producing 2,400 pounds of sprouts a day which feeds his flock of 1,100 sheep.

“We modify the temperature so that it is very consistent, we also control the ventilation,” says Curt Chittook, president of FodderWorks, the company that sold Daccarett the equipment. “What that does is it gives us a very consistent growth pattern so we have consistent output on a daily basis.”

Even though this sprouting technology isn’t new, it’s not widely used for growing feed for livestock. Chittook and farmers like Daccarett think that will change. But UC Davis Agronomy Professor Daniel Putnam says the cost doesn’t pencil out when you take into account that each hydroponic container costs about $100,000 each.

Jose Quiñonez says every day, 2,400 pounds of sprouts are fed to about 1,100 sheep.
Jose Quiñonez says every day, 2,400 pounds of sprouts are fed to about 1,100 sheep. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

“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.”

But for Daccarett it seems to be working. He says his first two containers paid for themselves in just over a year.

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

And Daccarett’s nephew, Jose Quiñonez, says their sheep are also flocking to the new sprouts.

“You can tell they go crazy when they see it,” Quiñonez says. "They really like it.”

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