Over the last several years, as agricultural input costs have gnawed growers’ profits to the nub, interest in less-expensive poultry litter as a replacement for commercial fertilizer has increased.

Because it harbors a major poultry industry — especially in west Arkansas — the Mid-South was poised to take advantage.

And so it has: new and expanded poultry litter operations have been doing brisk business. Although prices for commercial fertilizer have recently dropped, many row-crop farmers are sticking with the byproduct. In fact, shortages of the litter were reported this spring.

None of this is a surprise to Joshua Payne, an animal waste management specialist with Oklahoma State University/Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, who has seen increasing adoption of poultry litter by Oklahoma crop farmers. This has happened even as Oklahoma officials and their Arkansas counterparts battle in court over the culpability of the Arkansas-based poultry industry in increased Oklahoma watershed nutrient levels. Further court action is expected in the fall.

Payne was interviewed by Delta Farm Press.

Among his comments:

On poultry litter composition…

“Poultry litter contains about 3-3-2, on a percentage basis, of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

“It also contains organic matter. That can improve soil by retaining more moisture and retaining more nutrients. Organic matter can be beneficial to soil microorganisms and can aggregate, which helps to reduce wind and water erosion.

“So there are multiple benefits of adding organic matter to the soil.

“Poultry litter also contains calcium and magnesium which can help increase the pH of the soil. It can have the same effect as adding lime to the soil if added for subsequent years.

“A one-time application of poultry litter may not allow you to see much of an increase in organic matter or soil pH. But if applied for subsequent years, you can see soil pH increase and organic matter build up.

On the need for litter analysis…

“If you buy commercial fertilizer, you’re buying a guaranteed analysis. An example of commercial fertilizer might be 13-13-13 or 17-17-17.

“With poultry litter, it’s a lower percentage, so it’ll take more applied to get the same effect (as triple-13 or the like). Commercial fertilizer is a more concentrated form of the (three main) nutrients.

On pelletized litter…

“Pelletized litter is an option. If someone is selling it, they should have a nutrient analysis on it. Be sure to compare the cost to raw litter and commercial fertilizer.

“If you’re buying litter raw, straight out of the poultry house, there is variability. There are many factors involved in that variability.

“One of the most important: what you’re feeding the birds. Whatever is being fed will dictate the nutrient analysis coming out the back end of the bird. It’s also dictated by past poultry house management, by practices like additives to the litter, and the age of the litter. The more birds and flocks run on the litter, the more concentrated the nutrients will be.

“In a nutshell, I’d recommend producers have a nutrient analysis of the litter prior to purchasing. They should determine how much they’ll pay for the litter based on a nutrient analysis.”

Any poultry operations target the birds’ diet for the litter content?

“There are some companies that add enzymes to the feed, which lower phosphorus levels in the litter: however, litter is considered a valuable fertilizer source in our region. The poultry industry adjusts diet mainly for increased bird performance. They work on a least-cost ratio. It should be noted that hormones are not added to the feed, a common public misconception.

“Sometimes they’ll supplement with an inorganic phosphorus. Sometimes they use something like phytase, an enzyme. That enzyme supplementation allows the bird to use more of the phosphorus in corn. If the bird is utilizing more phosphorus in the corn, not as much inorganic phosphorus is needed as a supplement.

“Yes, you can change the bird’s diet and affect what is coming out the back end.

“There’s a safety net for poultry litter buyers. Some 25,000 birds are put in a house atop bedding material and then raised to six or seven weeks old. Over the next year, five or six flocks are run through the house. That means there will have been 125,000 to 150,000 birds that have been defecating on the bedding material over the course of a year. That’s a lot of nutrients being concentrated in the litter.

“That’s good for the end-buyer. If you’re buying used litter, it’ll have had a bunch of birds raised atop it and you’re almost guaranteed a good nutrient analysis.

“Another factor: poultry producers can’t afford to clean out and put new bedding material after each flock. They only clean out a house, remove the bedding and replace it with fresh bedding about once a year. Some are moving to only do that every two years.

“Again, that benefits the end-buyer. The more birds that have been defecating on it, the more nutrients in the end product.

“So, there is variability. But the end-buyer is largely safe because of the number of birds that have been raised on it.”

On the growth of the poultry litter industry in Oklahoma…

“There’s absolutely an increased demand in poultry litter in Oklahoma. That’s because commercial fertilizer prices have spiked in last couple of years.

“That spike has caused many Oklahoma wheat, corn and soybeans producers — really just crop producers — to look for alternative fertilizer sources. They’ve tapped into the poultry litter resource from both Oklahoma and Arkansas. We’re seeing enormous amounts of poultry litter that have been transferred out of the nutrient-limited watersheds into central Oklahoma and even into parts of western Oklahoma.”

Regulations for using the material?

“There are strict regulations in Oklahoma. Those were passed in 1998 and require anyone in the state that wants to apply poultry litter to their land to be a certified applicator. In order to be certified, they must go through a poultry waste management training program.

“Additionally, they must take a soil test before application. They must also follow NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) waste management — or waste utilization — standards.”

Industry as far as hauling/gathering the litter…

“It’s up to individual farmers to find an end-buyer or end-use for his poultry litter. It isn’t up to the integrators or poultry companies to find a use for the litter.

“If in compliance with the state regulations, that farmer can land-apply the litter on his own land.

“If a farm has reached the soil test phosphorus limit on the farm and is no longer able to apply poultry litter, then he has to find someone to buy the litter.

“What happens a lot of times is a middleman or service provider is employed. These service providers will come to the farm, clean out the house, gather the litter and transport it to the end-buyer. That’s the most hands-free approach for the poultry farmer. All he has to do is find an acceptable agreement with a service provider that will pay a fair price for the litter.”

Fair to say you’ve seen an uptick in the number of these middlemen?

“Yes. The increase in the demand for poultry litter means there are now more haulers, more service providers trying to make a business through the litter.”

On common litter questions and myths…

“There’s a common myth that poultry litter contains weed seeds. Research has proven that isn’t the case. It just doesn’t happen. That’s an important thing for producers to know.

“Another myth is that poultry litter can cause bovine coccidiosis. Coccidiosis is very host-specific. So, the strain that affects chickens is completely different from that affecting a cow, a horse, a dog or even a turkey. You don’t have to worry about spreading poultry litter onto cattle pastures and having the herd develop coccidiosis.”

On the “hassle-factor”…

“There is a hassle factor associated with poultry litter. End-buyers need to know that. It isn’t as easy as picking up the phone and having commercial fertilizer delivered.

“In dealing with poultry litter, you must be very patient and flexible. One thing that an end-buyer might consider is stockpiling poultry litter under a covered storage shed — it’s very important that it’s covered storage. That allows the litter to be purchased at the end-buyer’s convenience and have it available when needed.”

The litter maintains its viability?

“We’ve seen research that if litter is stockpiled, you could lose 12 percent of the nitrogen. But the phosphorus and potassium goes nowhere. You can reduce nitrogen loss by keeping it dry under covered storage.

“I recommend that the litter be taken directly from the poultry house to the field. That’s the best management practice. But sometimes it’s not that feasible. Sometimes you just can’t get litter delivered at your crop planting date. You must be flexible.”

Flexible because?

“It all depends on when the poultry producer cleans out his house. The producer might call someone up and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got poultry litter that needs to go. I’ve got a 10-day downtime. It’s got to be moved so I can disinfect the house, apply fresh bedding material and get new chicks.’

“That means the service-provider must turn that litter quickly. He needs to have a final destination in mind while he’s cleaning out the house.

“The end-user has to keep that in mind and must be willing to take the litter when it comes available.”

For more on poultry litter, please see http://deltafarmpress.com/searchresults/?ord=d&terms=chicken+litter.

email: dbennett@farmpress.com