Poultry producers at environmental crossroads

By G. Tom Tabler, Center of Excellence for Poultry Science at the University of Arkansas's Avian Advice - While poultry producers have always realized that they are part of a larger production system, animal agriculture today is much different than in the past.
calendar icon 12 February 2007
clock icon 9 minute read


Fifty years ago few worried much about food safety, economies of scale, consumer buying habits, international markets, environmental regulations, or the overall structure of various segments of the livestock industry. Today, producers must be concerned with all these factors as well as the day-to-day management of their operations. Producers are under heavy pressure from numerous fronts to minimize the impacts of their operations on the environment.

The 2002 agricultural census indicated the percentage of farms with livestock has dropped significantly in the past 50 years (NASS, 2002). Farms keeping poultry have dropped from 78 to 4.6%. Fewer and larger livestock farms, coupled with an increasing number of rural residents without livestock, presents significant challenges to the quality of life for both farm and rural non-farm neighbors (Hogberg et al., 2005). Neighbors often have little tolerance for what once was “just part of doing business” in raising poultry, cattle, hogs or other livestock species. Dramatic changes in livestock production have forced many producers to consider getting out of the business.

Changing Structure of Animal Agriculture

Cowling and Galloway (2001) reported that during the last several decades, three enormous changes in the structure and organization of animal agriculture have occurred:

  1. Intensification – development of increasingly large confined animal feeding operations in which hundreds or thousands of like animals are reared in feed lots or enclosed housing units.

  2. Decoupling – physical separation of the land area where the feed grains or other forage products are produced from the site where the food animals are fed and reared.

  3. Transport – huge increases in the distance of transport of both feed materials and marketable meat, eggs, milk, dairy, and fish products.

These trends, like almost everything else in the business world today, are driven by economic efficiency. However, such economic efficiency is often made possible by increased use of energy (particularly fossil fuels) and frequently leads to nutrient-use inefficiencies with largely unforeseen detrimental environmental consequences (Cowling and Galloway, 2001). This point is driven home almost daily as producers and integrators are portrayed as the “bad guys,” rather than the ones who supply food for the grocery store shelves.

Today, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) account for more than 40 percent of world meat production, up from 30 percent in 1990. For the poultry sector alone, global poultry population has grown from 4.2 billion birds in 1961 to 17.8 billion birds in 2005 (Hegg, 2006). In the U.S., many specialized, large poultry operations (4 to 10-house farms or larger) may lack adequate land base for appropriate litter or manure application. In the near future, this may mean a change in the structure of livestock production and/or forced adoption alternative technologies to ensure that litter is managed to meet water and air quality standards.

The demand for agricultural operations to comply with air pollution regulations is often perceived by producers as inappropriate or unfair; threatening the economic viability of rural residents, small communities and regional economies, and perhaps the overall production of food by the U.S. (Aneja et al., 2006). Poultry producers struggle daily with trying to manage litter and manure generated on their operations in such a way as to meet both air and water quality standards that may not agree with or compliment one another. How productive and/or efficient is it to address a water quality issue that has, as a consequence, a negative effect on air quality? Programs that do not jointly address air and water quality issues may be too costly to implement for both producers and society. Unfortunately, the current scientific knowledge about nitrogen, volatile organic compounds, sulfur, and particulate matter emissions from intensively managed agriculture is insufficient and the ultimate fate of these compounds from an air quality standpoint is directly comparable to the situation in the 1980s with regard to agricultural non-point sources of nutrient contamination of water. There is just enough information for researchers and policy makers to recognize a serious problem, but not enough information for them to understand the extent of the problem or to make scientifically credible recommendations about potential solutions (Aneja et al., 2006). The situation was made even tougher recently by a final rule from the EPA released Sept. 21, 2006 that places agricultural dust in the same category as coarse particulate matter found in urban areas and holds it to the same standard. The limit of 150 micrograms per cubic meter during a 24-hour period will be extremely difficult to meet in rural areas that often are naturally dusty (Anonymous, 2006).

Challenges and Opportunities

The major challenge affecting animal production in the future will likely be environmental. How do producers manage waste materials in response to ever increasing regulatory and public pressure? Unfortunately, in spite of major changes in animal agriculture, few incentives for recycling nutrients in animal waste have surfaced. As a result, often times valuable nutrients in animal waste have been spread to excess on land near where the waste was generated. Society should today view animal waste, as it once did, as a valuable resource to be conserved, not as a waste disposal problem to be eliminated by the cheapest method available. This will require some innovative thinking, but we are certainly capable of that. Additional challenges include better informing the general public about the complexity of modernday animal agriculture as well as creating better dialogue between producers and their non-farm neighbors. This is where extension personnel at the local and state level may be of valuable assistance to producers, community leaders, and politicians.

Fortunately, economically viable technologies are being developed for conservation and profitable reuse of nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon and other valuable nutrients in animal wastes (Cowling and Galloway, 2001). Animal wastes are of three general types:

  1. 1) Animal manures,
    2) Waste streams from processing plants that include, blood, bones, feathers, offal and other un- or underused portions of harvested animals, and
    3) Animal carcasses.

Opportunities exist because the nutrients from all of these waste streams can be recovered and reused. Value-added end products could be produced by converting nutrients in animal wastes into saleable energy, electricity, fertilizer, or feed materials for livestock (Sheffield, 2000; Cowling et al., 2001). The most serious obstacles to overcoming the consequences of intensification, decoupling and transport in the food animal industry are (Cowling and Galloway, 2001):

  1. 1) Distances over which feed grains are transported before delivery to animal rearing facilities – sometimes in another state or country,
    2) Reluctance or doubt among farmers, integrators and others about the technical and/or economic feasibility of alternative systems for nutrient management, animal production, or waste utilization,
    3) Lack of convenient processes for combining manurebased fertilizer products with synthetic chemical fertilizer in intensively managed cropping systems.

Poultry producers and integrators are at a crossroads. All livestock producers should closely monitor any talk and events related to environmental and waste management issues. Some producers have closed their operations or sold out and more may follow to avoid entanglements with neighbors or possible litigation. Unfortunately for those who choose to remain in business, additional regulations will likely increase costs of production, reduce economic opportunities and increase the difficulty of remaining a viable farming operation. This is particularly true in traditional poultry producing regions like Arkansas which, in some localized areas, already have large nutrient surpluses and transporting poultry litter out of the region is expensive. Stricter regulations and the likelihood of litigation may be seen by integrators as an unfriendly or unstable business climate, perhaps forcing the relocation of facilities to more friendly business climates. Such a relocation would be detrimental for producers, consumers and ultimately, entire communities as well.


Intensification, decoupling and transport have greatly reshaped the face of animal agriculture over the last several decades. With these changes have come economic efficiencies along with recently recognized nutrient-use inefficiencies as well as some detrimental environmental consequences. The most serious challenge facing poultry producers in the future may be environmental – how to best manage litter, manure, dust and odors in response to increasing regulations and continued public pressure. Poultry producers should monitor the situation closely and may likely see costs of production increase as new regulations are handed down. Many producers will likely face difficult decisions as to whether or not to continue poultry farming.


Aneja, V. P, W. H. Schlesinger, D. Niyogi, G. Jennings, W. Gilliam, R. E. Knighton, C. S. Duke, J. Blunden, and S. Krishnan. 2006. Emerging national research needs for agricultural air quality. EOS. Vol. 87, No. 3, Jan 17. Anonymous. 2006. EPA says don’t stir the dust. Beef Business Bulletin. 30(1):1. Oct 12.
Cowling, E. B., D. Botts, K. A. Cochran, S. J. Levitas, J. Rudek, and W. W. Heck. 2001. Concept Paper: A strategy to facilitate the transition of the North Carolina swine industry to an economically and environmentally sustainable system of waste management. North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC.
Cowling, E. B., and J. N. Galloway. 2001. Challenges and opportunities facing animal agriculture: Optimizing nutrient management in the atmosphere and biosphere of the Earth. Symp. Animal Production and the Environment: Challenges and Solutions. ASAS Annual Meeting, Indianapolis, IN. July 24-28.
Farm Foundation. 2006. Future of Animal Agriculture in North America, Environmental Chapter. 1211 W. 22nd Street, Suite 216, Oak Brook, IL.
Hegg, R. 2006. The future of animal agriculture and the environment. The John M. Airy Beef Cattle Symposium: Visions for Animal Agriculture and the Environment. January 2006. Kansas City, MO.
Hogberg, S. L. Fales, F. L. Kirschenmann, M. S. Honeyman, J. A. Miranowski, and P. Lasley. 2005. Interrelationships of animal agriculture, the environment, and rural communities. J. Anim. Sci. 83(E. Suppl):E13-E17. NASS. 2002. Census of Agriculture. Natl. Agric. Stat. Serv., USDA, Washington, DC.
Sheffield, J. 2000. Evaluation of comprehensive approaches needed to improve the handling of farm animal manure and benefit the environment and the farming industry. Joint Institute for Energy and Environment. University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN.

January 2007

Source: Avian Advice - Winter 2006 - Volume 8, Number 2
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