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Poultry litter symposium held in Owensboro, Hopkinsville

By Rae Wagoner Kentucky Soybean Board

Sometimes, an issue comes up on the farm that the farmer hasn't had a great deal of experience with. Fortunately, in the agriculture community, in most cases, the farmer knows someone with more experience in the matter that he or she can call for input and advice.

In the case of using poultry litter as fertilizer, a number of Kentuckians are on board. Poultry litter is - in many areas of the state - plentiful. Poultry producers originally thought their birds' waste to be a byproduct with which to contend. They now realize that litter is a secondary revenue stream.

Farmers (both poultry producers and row-crop farmers who apply litter) in the Delmarva area (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) have been producing large numbers of broilers, layers and turkeys for far longer than we have, and it only makes sense to call upon their decades of expertise as the use of poultry litter as a nutrient source becomes more prevalent in Kentucky.

University of Kentucky Extension Professor Dr. Jordan Shockley recently coordinated and moderated a panel discussion called "Poultry Litter Lessons From the Delmarva and Ohio Valley," which was featured in the afternoon of the Owensboro Ag Expo and as a stand-alone discussion in Hopkinsville the following morning.

The Owensboro program may be viewed in its entirety on the website www.kysoy.org under the Events tab.

This discussion came about as the result of a two-year study funded by the Kentucky Soybean Board and the Kentucky Corn Growers, and Shockley said that he believes it brought some important issues to light for our Kentucky row-crop farmers, many of whom are also poultry producers.

"Those who attended got a lot of information," Shockley said, "especially from the Delmarva folks who have to manage all aspects of litter under a more constrained environment."

In the 1960s, the Chesapeake Bay was described as "dangerously out of balance," according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Pollutants ran rampant, and a couple of them are words with which farmers are all too familiar - nitrogen and phosphorus. Nitrogen pollution is often singled out as the No. 1 problem facing the Bay, so fingers are often pointed at agriculture as a source.

Finger-pointing leads to regulation - lots of regulation. Shockley said that many Kentucky producers were shocked at the amount of oversight (and paperwork) required to use poultry litter as a nutrient source in the Delmarva area, where the Chesapeake Bay is located.

Panelists in Owensboro included Jenny Rhodes, who is a poultry producer and extension agent in Maryland's largest corn, wheat and soybean-producing county. Rhodes also served as executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.

Also from Maryland was Jonathan Quinn, a soybean, corn, wheat and barley farmer who also owns and operates a custom poultry litter hauling and application business in Cecil County. Quinn said that he has a million to a million and a half layers within what he described as "a stone's throw" of his operation, which is about 10 miles to the Chesapeake Bay and 10 miles to the Delaware Bay.

Quinn was surprised at the difference in the levels of documentation for poultry litter application in Kentucky as opposed to Maryland. He described reams of paperwork for every acre and annual reviews that are so precise, an excess application of nitrogen on just one field earns a failing grade. Quinn said that every acre requires a nutrient management plan, and that it took him two years to become certified as an applicator.

From Kentucky, Russ Vickers of McLean County produces row crops, turkeys and tobacco. He uses the litter produced by his turkey houses, and said that poultry litter is abundant in his county because of the large amount of broiler and now turkey production. He said that they soil test regularly and that he believes poultry litter is the best fertilizer available. His father started using poultry litter about 10 years ago when the poultry industry first moved into McLean County, and that while he is a firm believer in of the use of this nutrient-rich byproduct, he thinks it's important to self-regulate and not overuse litter.

Randy Mann of Auburn was also on the panel, and many producers were surprised to hear that he has hauled litter as far as 120 miles. Mann uses litter on every acre, he said, and that he uses as much as possible. While the trucking cost for that much litter can be high, Mann said that he compares the cost of litter plus hauling to the cost of commercial fertilizer when doing a cost analysis.

Mann brought up the importance of being a good neighbor when spreading litter. "We farm near a lot of houses now," he said, "and being a good neighbor is really important with the smell. It doesn't take much to be cognizant of what's going on around us before we start applying litter. We try to do it before a rain or try to lightly work it in to get rid of the smell." Mann reminded producers that "your neighbors vote, too, and they will outvote you!"

The third panelist in Owensboro was Scott Kuegel of Daviess County, and he wasn't as sold on litter only as several of the others. He uses it and then supplements with commercial fertilizer, but says that Dr. Edwin Ritchey is trying to convert him over. Kuegel expressed concern about the consistency of litter, or lack thereof, and said that in his opinion, litter is too inconsistent to variable-rate apply. He is evaluating whether to use litter in front of beans instead of in front of corn.

Kuegel also said that he wants to test the litter he's looking at, then have it priced based on the nutrient content rather than a flat "per ton" rate that is most common, regardless of nutrient values. He did say that if he had poultry houses, "we'd be wearing it out," but as he has to purchase and transport in order to use litter, he has a hard time justifying the expense on what he sees as an inconsistent product.

All the panelists agreed that the number of flocks that have been housed since cleanout, whether the cleanout was partial or full, and the type of bedding used. "Are you buying nutrients or are you buying sawdust?" Kuegel asked. The Kentucky Soybean Board funded a project with Shockley to help producers determine the value of poultry litter. It can be accessed at http://www.uky.edu/Ag/AgEcon/shockley_jordan.php. The panel accepted questions, and Shockley said that the Hopkinsville session had an especially robust discussion. While there were not hundreds of people crowding into the room, Shockley pointed out that at the Owensboro session, 60 of 70 houses were represented by just two producers, and in Hopkinsville, three producers represented more than 25,000 acres of row-crop land.

"We're hitting the right people," Shockley added, "and when these farmers who are out there doing it every day say the same things that Edwin and Josh and I talk about out on the road, it reaffirms that we are on the right track, which is a major goal of the extension program. If we're talking about timely topics that producers want to know more about, that's a win for everybody."

"We really appreciate the support of the Kentucky Soybean Board and the Corn Growers on extension research programs," Shockley said. "We strive to provide a solid return on investment of your checkoff dollars, and bringing programs like this to the producers is an important component of that return. It doesn't matter what we learn if we don't get those findings out to the producers who can put them to work in their operations and, in turn, generate more profit."

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