HELENA – In February, the Rocking Z Guest Ranch south of Wolf Creek is covered in snow. But behind a nondescript sliding door in one of the ranch’s buildings, you can find something surprising in the midst of winter – shelves full of green, growing grass.
Almost 365 days a year, regardless of the weather outside, ranch owners Zack and Patty Wirth and their family are growing sprouted barley in a climate-controlled indoor room. They produce around 1,000 pounds of the freshly-grown grass every day, to be used as feed for more than 60 horses and two steers.
The operation started as an experiment about four years ago when the ranch started feeding barley grass to a few of its animals.
“The horses showed so much benefit, having some poor hoof quality and stuff that it relieved, that we thought it was worth the investment to build a facility to produce enough grass to feed everybody else,” said Maria Anderson, the Wirths’ daughter and an associate manager at the ranch.
The ranch’s growing room features heating and air conditioning to keep it around 70 degrees at all times. Circulating water under the floor helps keep it warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It includes continuous light, from LED bulbs that won’t raise the room’s temperature.
On days when the outside temperature is close to zero, the warm, humid conditions inside the room can cloud glasses or camera lenses almost immediately.
The ranch’s growing operation works on a six-day cycle. Managers fill hundreds of plastic trays with about two pounds of barley seed, then put them into a series of homemade racks. An automatic sprinkler system waters them twice a day.
After six days, each tray produces 8 to 12 pounds of sprouted barley. The sprouts are then loaded into a tractor to be distributed. On cold mornings, the warm plants sometimes give off visible water vapor.
To break up the sprouts’ tangled root systems, the ranch uses a modified manure spreader, with the sharp teeth removed. The horses follow the tractor as it spreads the grass around their enclosure.
“They’re pretty excited about it,” Anderson said.
The greenery also attracts other animals, from deer to birds.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re raising pigeons,” said Anderson.
The ranch now feeds its horses about 2,200 pounds of hay per day, plus an additional 1,000 pounds of the sprouted barley. Anderson said the barley grass contains additional nutrients and improves the horses’ digestion and overall health.
Ranch managers also say growing grass indoors has also helped them save money throughout the year. In the winter, it reduces the amount of hay they need to buy. In the summer, it replaces some of the natural grass the horses would otherwise eat, allowing them to use a single pasture longer.
Anderson said the ranch initially bought its barley seed from family members and still gets it locally.
“It’s just another boost for the farmers in the area,” she said.
Ranch managers say this type of operation might work for other Montana ranchers as well, even if they don’t want to grow on the large scale the Rocking Z does.
“I think that it’s worth doing – or at least experimenting with – if you have a little bit of space in your garage that you can leave a light on and just grow an extra little bit of supplement for your horses,” said Anderson.