Chicken Litter Paying
If you can get past the smell
February 26, 2009
Since it predates recorded history, no one can say for sure when the use of manure as fertilizer began. Obvious assumptions can be made that it started when the caveman’s previously carnivorous diet began to change. Less obvious is how the caveman came to know that fertilizer helped him grow more food on less land, but millions of years of “field trials” have proven him right.
These days, it is a rare occasion when an organic fertilizer has any sort of advantage over an inorganic, but it can and does happen.
Most poultry houses use wood shavings or sawdust on floors as bedding material, which must be replaced once or twice per year. Chicken litter is the mixture of the bedding material, droppings, feed, feathers and even the occasional unbroken egg. Chicken litter is still used very successfully on ground that has been leveled to the point where topsoil has been cut away, and on ultra-light soils that are low in organic matter.
For the past five years, Benjy Howell and his father Larry have used chicken litter on some of their cotton fields near Como, NC. Como is located in the extreme northeast section of the state, two miles south of the Virginia line.
“Cotton loves organic matter,” Benjy Howell says. “On our sandy soils, we think it really improves the crop.”
One of the significant advantages of chicken litter is that it is free …
(A significant disadvantage? “The smell,” says Benjy.)
… and there is plenty of it. “At any given time in North Carolina, we have 6.6 million chickens in inventory and 3.5 million turkeys,” says Dr. Steve Koenning, an Extension plant pathologist at North Carolina State University. “We are talking about a lot of litter. Litter has adequate amounts of N, P and K to supply all of the nutrient needs of a cotton plant. There is probably enough litter (in North Carolina) to cover just about all of the fertilizer needs in cotton.”
Because of that amount, it’s a “please come get it and take this stuff off of my hands” situation for poultry operations. The waste must be disposed of in an “environmentally friendly manner” and applying it to crop land is just that.
Some recommendations, depending on the NPK analysis – and believe or not, they do test it – call for up to 8 tons per acre, with the average being four tons. The Howells generally go for 1-2 tons.
A University of Missouri Extension Service test conducted in the 2000 crop year showed that 2.5 tons per acre on leveled cotton and rice ground produced “significant” yield responses.
Not Created Equal
Another believe it or not, all litter is not created equal. Broiler litter, according to the Mississippi State University Extension Service, has an average analysis of 58-48-37, plus micronutrients – “calcium, boron, manganese and probably sulfur,” says Benjy. Layer litter has more phosphorus because of differences in rations.
Phosphorus is an essential nutrient to cotton production, and plants cannot survive without it. Mississippi Phosphates, which produces 18-46-0 DAP (diaammonium phosphate), says that in addition to increasing yields, phosphorus improves crop quality, helps the crop overcome cold temperatures and drought, and protects against diseases. Benjy says his cost of DAP this season is in excess of $420 per ton.
And although is price of chicken litter is zero, that doesn’t mean there is no cost. “Even though it is free, there is still a lot of work in it,” Benjy explains. “It’s labor intensive. You have to pick it up, haul it, dump it, cover it, then load it up again and spread it.”
North Carolina Extension cotton specialist Dr. Keith Edmisten adds: “Probably the hardest thing is to do a good job of spreading it, and because of that sometimes you will see streaks in the field. The other thing is that you have to be careful not to give the cotton too much nitrogen. It’s hard to put out less than two or three tons per acre, and more can be too much. The problem is that sometimes growers don’t have enough faith that the litter has enough nitrogen and put out additional N. They end up with is a crop that is hard to defoliate.”
Koenning adds that litter “needs to be incorporated. If you could put it right on the row when you strip till, that would be even better because that will concentrate it more.” And the Howells come close to doing that: “We broadcast it, then run the strip tiller,” explains Benjy, “and that incorporates it on the row.”
The Nematode Advantage
And here’s yet another believe it or not: Applications of chicken litter help suppress nematodes. “We are getting control of the Columbia lance nematodes and some control of the root-knot nematode,” says Koenning. Due to the lack of a certain enzyme, poultry excrement “is in the form of urea, and urea breakdown produces ammonia, which is toxic to nematodes.”