Future Phosphorus Rules Pave the Way for Chicken Litter as Bioenergy Source

UK - New phosphorus rules from 2015 in the Chesapeake Bay area in the states of Delaware and Maryland will impact the chicken litter business there but they open the possibility of using the litter as a bioenergy source.
calendar icon 1 November 2013
clock icon 6 minute read

Starting at 6:30 a.m., five days a week, Ray Ellis sends out a small crew from his farm west of Millsboro to perform one unique and smelly task: collecting tons and tons of chicken litter from area farms to sell, reports Delaware Online.

“It’s a pretty good business,” Mr Ellis said. “We go to Delaware, Maryland, basically all over the peninsula.”

Chicken litter is valued by many crop farmers in Delaware and along Maryland’s Eastern Shore for its use as a nutrient-filled fertiliser.

But now, Mr Ellis fears his business could fall apart as Maryland prepares to implement new regulations on phosphorus in the soil.

Those new regulations come in the form of the Phosphorus Management Tool, a set of measurements and equations developed by the University of Maryland to rate the potential for phosphorus run-off in soil.

Depending on how farms rate with the new tool, they could be more restricted in how much phosphorus they can add in the future, with 'high-risk' farms forbidden from adding any more of the nutrient until their levels are in check.The tool is set to go into effect on 1 January 2015.

And that would put a major crimp into Mr Ellis’ business plan.

He and his team clean out almost 800 chicken houses for free, and in exchange for the service, the farmers let him keep their chicken litter. The crew then sells the litter to crop growers close by, who use it as fertiliser.

Often, the team moves the manure only 10 or 20 miles. It moves about 200,000 tons of chicken waste every year.

“We sell it, on average, for about $18 a ton,” Mr Ellis said.

If farmers cannot use manure as fertiliser, he said, demand for the litter will decrease. He could be left with loads of chicken waste and no buyers.

“I’m concerned about my business,” he told the newspaper.

The new phosphorus regulations are necessary to limit the amount of phosphorus entering the Chesapeake Bay, according to Delaware Online. A 2010 study from the Environmental Working Group showed that in places like Somerset and Worcester counties, more than 75 per cent of the soil tested was found to have excessive phosphorus levels.

Doug Myers, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the problem comes from algae, which feed on the excess phosphorus and use up much of the dissolved oxygen in the water. That leads to 'dead zones' – areas in the Bay with so little oxygen that fish and other animals cannot live in them.

“This is why phosphate was banned from detergents across the country many years ago,” Dr Myers said.

He added that those dead zones peaked a few years ago but due to conservation efforts from the state and other organisations, they have now begun to decline.

Scientists say that decline could speed up even more if farmers switch from chicken litter to chemical fertilisers, which allow farmers to decide exactly how much phosphorus they are putting into the soil.

Bill Satterfield, the executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., said swapping out manure fertilisers for chemicals won’t come cheap.

He told the newspaper: l“Some farmers who have been using chicken manure exclusively will now use commercial fertilizer. So that’s a new cost. And added on to that, they’ll have to pay for new equipment to spread out that chemical fertiliser, too. It will just create a lot of problems for farmers.”

State officials acknowledge that farmers will have to make concessions with the new phosphorus regulations, but they say there will continue to be a market for chicken litter in the future.

“One of the things that’s particularly valuable is that this material does have value,” said Royden Powell, assistant secretary of resource conservation for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

He said that while the lower Eastern Shore may not use chicken litter as much as it has in the past, other parts of the state, like the upper parts of the Eastern Shore and the Western Shore, would still want the material.

“Historically, litter has moved to the Western Shore,” he continued. “There are farmers there that are actively seeking this material. So it’s in no way limited to the Eastern Shore. And that’s going to hold into the future.”

Delaware Online reports that, to ease that transition, the state is revitalising its Manure Matching Service, a programme to connect livestock farmers who have extra chicken litter with other farmers across the state in need of manure.

Mr Powell said if the programme is successful, it should ease the burden on farmers, creating a new, more spread-out marketplace allowing growers to sell their manure and use that money to buy chemical fertilisers.

However, Mr Ellis, the manure transporter, said even if the demand for chicken litter stays high in new parts of the state, his business still will not be able to handle it due to the longer travel time. He said most of his business is done relatively locally, so suddenly to expand that to large distances does not make sense.

Mr Ellis explained: “Even if you had enough people on the Western Shore who want it, the logistics don’t work. We’d have go 10 times as far to truck it, so the cost goes up. The logistics don’t work. If a truck can haul six or seven loads a day locally, versus one to the Western Shore, it’s less money. It ain’t rocket science.”

One idea that both farmers and the state see as a potential solution is power plants that convert chicken litter to energy. Maryland has signed a contract with a developer to create such a plant in Caroline County, and the state is working on developing a similar plant to help power the Eastern Shore Correctional Institute.

Those projects are still in their early stages, concludes the Delaware Online report, but Agriculture Assistant Secretary Powell said the state is working hard to make sure they are a part of Maryland’s energy future.

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