BURLINGTON — At first glance, the Dykstra family dairy in Burlington may seem similar to others in Skagit County and across the country.
Run by Andrew Dysktra — a second-generation dairy farmer helped out by his sons, Chris and Charles — the farm sells organic milk from about 240 Holstein cows.
Inside an insulated room in one of the many barns on the property, dark green barley sprouts in various stage of growth in 13-foot-long plastic trays are stacked on six-foot-tall galvanized steel racks. The crop can be harvested for cow feed in just seven days by simply pulling the whole, grown strip into a wheelbarrow.
The room is bathed in white fluorescent light, and slightly humid air circulates through oscillating fans placed every six to 10 feet along the walls.
In the winter when pastures are less productive, the 4,000 pounds of barley grown in the 48-by-49-foot room is enough to provide half the daily diet to the herd.
Like many farmers who sell milk or beef for a living, the Dykstras had trouble when a drought swept through the Midwest last year.
Andrew said he was paying $750 per ton for organic grain, which was more than the market could bear for his final product. He said organic milk was selling for $580 per ton.
“Obviously, when you see your inputs higher than your outputs, that’s a problem,” he said.
The system saves the Dykstra farm more than $15,000 a month by replacing grain, which witnessed a huge price spike last year during the record drought. Those savings include the cost of power, electricity, labor and payments for the necessary equipment, Andrew said.
The hydroponic, indoor feed-growing system was developed by Charles Dykstra, 20, and Matthew Sampson, Charles’ former lacrosse coach and owner of the Anacortes-based Island Horticulture Supply.
Charles said he was inspired by research into the use of indoor feed-growing systems by farmers in Australia, who experience crippling droughts and sparse water for irrigation in some parts of the country.
The pair started working on the system in the fall of 2011 and had a marketable design for numerous customer configurations by last October. Since then, 12 “Feed your Farm” systems have been sold to buyers across the country and 40 more are “in the pipeline,” Charles said.
Andrew handles the majority of sales duties for the company.
Charles said Sampson’s knowledge of indoor growing systems helped it become the first successful commercial system for growing animal feed in the nation.
Along with high-efficiency lights and circulation fans, Dykstra’s system uses intake and exhaust fans, a heater and a humidifier — all centrally controlled — to create an optimal growing environment for the crop.
“When you’re out in the field, you get sunlight and wind. Inside, you have to provide all that,” Sampson said.
Chris Dykstra said the barley produced by the system can be used by farmers in different ways: to save money by replacing grain, to extend forage materials another month and a half in the winter or as a way of using lower-quality forage materials while keeping adequate nutrition.
However, the barley cannot fully replace hay or forage, Chris said.
“It’s like a nutrient pill, but you’ve got to have other feed, because a cow needs roughage in its stomach to work,” Chris said.
Charles, who is studying greenhouse management at Washington State University, said because the system can grow barley organically, it can be used by organic dairies like his family’s as well as ranchers raising grass-fed beef.
Do-it-yourself systems range from growing 250 to 4,000 pounds per day at a cost of between $6,499 to $57,599, though customers will have to install insulation and give their building a concrete floor if it doesn’t already have one.
Considering global trends toward diminishing farmland, water scarcity and expanding populations, Charles said he is excited about the role his small company might play in the future of agriculture.
“Everything you can do — to save land, save water, save energy — it’s all part of it,” Charles said. “You can see where we started from. Now we’re just trying to bring it to everybody.”