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Poultry Industry Byproduct is Valuable Natural Fertiliser

07 April 2015

Georgia produces 1.4 billion meat-type chickens and 300 billion table eggs a year, making it the largest poultry-producing state in the US, and all that poultry creates a valuable byproduct - litter, writes Sharon Dowdy of the University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Claudia Dunkley’s colleagues at the University of Georgia (UGA) help the state’s poultry farmers grow chickens more efficiently and she helps them handle one of the industry’s biggest, and often underappreciated, byproducts – chicken litter.

For the past seven years, Dr Dunkley has conducted Extension and applied research as a poultry scientist in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. In addition to studying the use of poultry litter on Georgia crops, her research included quantifying the carbon footprint of poultry farms.

University of Georgia John Amis
Chickens lay eggs in a laboratory on the University of Georgia main campus in Athens, Georgia.
(Image: John Amis)

According to the Georgia Poultry Federation and the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, poultry production in Georgia has a US$38-billion economic impact and provides jobs to more than 100,000 Georgians. Americans love chicken but 20 per cent of the chicken produced in Georgia ends up on dinner tables in countries like China and Mexico.

“We do produce a whole lot of chickens in Georgia. Over the past 40 years, the amount of chicken Georgia farmers produce annually has more than tripled,” said Dr Dunkley, who is based on the UGA campus in Tifton. Georgia produces 1.4 billion meat-type chickens and 300 billion table eggs a year, making it the largest poultry-producing state in the US.

Along with producing an invaluable source of protein for people across the globe, the poultry industry in Georgia produces about two million tons of valuable poultry litter. Chicken litter includes both bedding material and bird excreta.

Dr Dunkley explained: “We have the most chickens, so we have a lot of litter. Litter is a valuable resource for farmers. The excreta is nutrient-rich and is highly sought after by farmers for use as a natural fertiliser on both pastures and cropland. Spread over agricultural land, poultry litter provides a source of nutrients, organic material and adds humus.”

Proper use of litter or any fertiliser is extremely important. This is where the UGA Extension work comes into play. They provide farmers and UGA Extension agents with best management practices and nutrient management plans to assure litter is used in the best possible way to promote plant growth and to protect the environment.

Dr Dunkley said adding litter to pastures over time can improve the soil’s ability to retain and hold moisture, thus reducing run-off and erosion. Litter may also help increase the carbon in the soil and other micronutrients, increasing the soil’s fertility and productivity.

She said: “Many Georgia farmers who use poultry litter say they have better yields using poultry litter as compared to commercial fertiliser and, at present, litter is much cheaper than chemical fertiliser.” 

The nutrients found in chicken litter are valuable. The nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in a ton of litter are worth about $80.

Whether it is commercial fertilisers or chicken litter, farmers want the nutrients they pay for to be fully utilised by their pastures and crops.

Dr Dunkley said: “Farmers want to prevent nutrients from either litter or conventional fertiliser from getting into streams, rivers and lakes.” 

There is a high demand for poultry litter, especially in south Georgia, where farmers pay to have litter shipped to them from poultry farms in north Georgia. Selling poultry litter to other farmers provides added income to poultry farmers.

Poultry litter can be applied to pastures, forestland, used along highways, on cotton fields and on other row crops.

Dr Dunkley said: “Of course, we discourage the use of poultry litter, or any type of manure, on vegetable crops because of concern about food safety.” 

By studying the application of poultry litter to farmland and working closely with Georgia poultry producers, the UGA helps maintain a balance between the use of a valuable byproduct and a healthy environment.

“All farmers are environmentalists at their core. All I do is make sure they have sound, research-based information to manage their litter and have the positive impact on soil and water quality they all desire,” Dr Dunkley added.

April 2015

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