Having used poultry litter on his family’s Jonesboro, Ark.-area farm for years, Wayne Wiggins III is a proponent of the practice. But the fertilizer carries a set of issues that growers should be aware of.

“Poultry litter, as it now known, is an organic fertilizer,” said Wiggins at the recent 2010 Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference in Tunica, Miss. “Organic is very popular, right now and we’re in a public relations game. Anytime you can say, ‘Well, I’m using an organic fertilizer, a renewable resource’ it’s a popular thing.”

Poultry litter is also a soil enhancer and a supplemental commercial fertilizer. “It’s all these things. To me, though, those things are what I’d tell non-farmers about why I’m using chicken litter.”

Chicken litter is rice hulls placed in a chicken house to catch the chickens’ waste.

University of Arkansas researchers have studied chicken litter and found it increases the tillering of rice, says Wiggins. “That’s a fact. You put chicken litter on a rice field and you’ll have better tillering, more tillers. And more tillers on my farm means more heads.

“It contains N, P and K. It has some zinc in it, some boron and a lot of other stuff.”

Most of the farmers in Wiggins’ area use about a ton per acre. “We do that because it’s hard to spread less than a ton and get it even. Some do use 2 and 3 tons.

“Someone once asked me, ‘You’re putting out a ton per acre. How much organic matter are you really getting out?’ Well, we use a lot of Command on our farm, which has largely been leveled. Three hundred yards per acre is flat when we level it. Five hundred to 700 yards per acre is pretty normal. In some fields, we’ve moved 999 yards per acre. We’ve moved a lot of dirt, have a lot of cuts.”

When Wiggins puts Command on fresh-cut ground, the rice dies. “It doesn’t look sick, it dies. If we put a ton of chicken litter out, though, we can still use Command and won’t see the rice damaged.”

In studies in four Jackson County locations, U of A researchers did test plots with a check, chicken litter, combinations of P and K, or just P and just K. In each case, “they got a yield increase from the P and K. But they didn’t get the yield increase from just the chicken litter. And in all of them they got a bigger yield increase by using commercial fertilizer with the chicken litter.”

In Poinsett County, the researchers had three chicken litter test locations. In all three they realized “a yield increase of about 10 bushels per acre. Where they used just P, just K, or just P and K there was no yield increase. Now, these were not freshly cut fields but they’d been leveled and put back into production for a while.

“So, everyone has known we’ve been getting something out of the chicken litter. I told someone it’s like shooting up into a tree at night hearing all the stuff falling to the ground, but you don’t know exactly what it is.”

A lot of goodness

Growers are “getting a lot of goodness out of poultry litter. One theory that used to go around was that it’s especially good with nitrogen. The University of Arkansas came to our farm and found a 3-foot cut and put test plots out.

“They worked up small, 2X2 test plots and put out all the inputs — nitrogen, DAP, zinc, boron, P, K, combinations, took micronutrients out, used pelletized chicken litter, used raw chicken litter, and used chicken litter they’d dried. There were several checks in the field.”

During the growing season, Wiggins walked the plots and “gave them my unscientific opinion about what plots looked best. Some plots looked like they had nothing applied.

“The three plots I kept picking out — and, again, I didn’t know what was on them — were the plots with DAP, the ones with urea and the ones with raw chicken litter. There were other plots I picked, as well, but those three always seemed the best to me.”

At the end of the year, the plot with the highest yield was the raw chicken litter. The one “that looked prettiest all year was the urea — but it had no yield increase.”

Placing a load

When a farmer receives a load of poultry litter he needs to sample from several spots in the pile and find out what’s in it, says Wiggins.

“A theory that used to float around our area was, on fresh-cut ground you could take a commercial fertilizer, go out and do a soil test and whatever it says to put out, put out. You could buy a ton of chicken for about $30 per ton and it would help your yield, no question about it. But it was only a one-year deal. The belief was you’d put the chicken litter out and at the end of the year, it was all gone.”

So what’s the value of the product? Every load is a bit different, but it turns out most litter is about 60-60-60.

“There’s a lot of really good fertilizer in there. However, the nitrogen we thought we were getting is only about 25 percent available. But the P and K are almost 100 percent available.”

What about real-world applications? Wiggins warns that using chicken litter is not a last-minute decision.

“If you want to put chicken litter on your farm this year, then when you get home you need to find someone who works with it. You need to get on the books so you can have some delivered. If you’ve got a spot on your farm where they can deliver it now, you’re that much ahead in the game.”

A typical chicken house load of litter is about 70 tons. “So, you’ll need all the litter out of that house just to cover 80 acres — and you’ll be bit short.”

Many working with chicken litter are now de-caking the houses. That involves using machines “to break the crust and only taking out about 40 tons from the houses. If they do that, you’ll need two houses-worth just to cover 80 acres. That means five chicken houses of litter to cover 200 acres. It takes a bunch of chicken houses to work with — so don’t wait until the last minute.”

Another thing people worry about: how many flocks have been on each load of litter?

“Three flocks is kind of the magic number. But I don’t worry about that because chicken farmers are a whole lot like rice farmers — they’re cheap. They want to use those hulls as long as possible. That’s why they’re de-caking it, going in and putting fresh litter on top of old — they’re stretching the rice hulls already there as far as they can.”

What about storage? Will you put a load — one tandem-axle truck can bring you about 20 tons — in a building?

Remember, says Wiggins, poultry litter “is fertilizer: lots of acid and it can rust your building.”

How about putting a litter pile in a field?

Wiggins flashed a photo on the screen of a large pile of chicken litter on a field’s edge. “See how the ground is kind of white and barren? Well, salts will leach out of the chicken litter and you’ll have a dead spot where it sits for a long time.

“I always put my chicken litter on the row. If it kills the grass there, that’s fine. In fact, I put a pile where bermudagrass had been growing. I’d been spraying with different chemicals trying to get rid of it. Wherever you put the litter, it’ll kill the weeds.”

Another problem: the litter smells.

“How close is the nearest neighbor’s house? Which way does the wind blow? If you’ve got a neighbor, you need to keep at least a quarter mile from their house. A half-mile away is better.”

Positioning storage piles is also important for other reasons. In 2009, a farmer Wiggins knows “put his on the bottom-side of a field. Well, with the massive rains we had, he lost his chicken litter when it flooded. His litter floated off.”

Spreading

Another important consideration is who will spread the litter.

“Again, this is not something to address at the last minute. A lot of this business is turn-key deals. The guy I work with has a de-caker. He goes to a chicken house, de-cakes it, takes the litter out, puts new rice hulls in, loads up the litter, comes to my farm and dumps it. Then, in the spring, he comes back with a loader and two spreader trucks to spread it.”

If you plan to spread it yourself, make sure you know what you’re getting into. “It’s very time-consuming just to load one truck.”

Spreading chicken litter “is a problem. If it hasn’t rained in a while, the pile tends to get drier on top and wetter underneath. What you’re scraping off the top may not throw very far.”

However, “when you get to the bottom into the wet material, you don’t want to be in the field. You’d be shocked how far that wet stuff can be thrown.”

A lot of growers worry about saving what little nitrogen there is in the litter. They want to put it out the day they plant. Research, said Wiggins, “shows you can go up to 30 days before planting and you won’t lose much. If I can put it out a bit sooner than that, I would. I know chicken litter is being spread on some frozen ground, right now. They’re spreading it while they can.

“You need to throw the thought ‘I need to get it out as close to planting as possible’ out of your head. Forget that.” Anyone doing so is “jamming yourself for time, eliminating your window.”

Wiggins reiterated the two big difficulties with poultry litter: finding it and putting it out.

If you can’t get raw chicken litter, Wiggins pointed to White River Fertilizer Supply (baledlitter.com). A company in northwest Arkansas, the business trucks “things to and from all over. They’ve come up with a baled system of litter that looks like a giant ball of polypipe after it has been picked up from the field.”

The “balls” weigh about 2,500 pounds. “They wrap them in polybags, put them on a flat-bed truck and will bring them to your farm. There’s actually a subsidy you can work with in the state of Arkansas.

“You can stack them and it’s easier to store. But it’s a 2,500-pound bag and is hard to handle. It’ll take 32 of those bags that you’ll have to pick up — way up — and dump into the spreader. You want to be the guy who cuts the bag open? I’m thinking the employee you want rid of gets that job,” said Wiggins.

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com