Poultry litter is a viable alternative to conventional fertilizers

Before planting, farmers need to prepare the soil and ensure the soil has the essential nutrients for crop production. Poultry litter can be used by itself or in combination with conventional fertilizers to supplement the nutrients the soil and plants need. 

“Because the soil stores nutrients, we first need to know what is in the soil, what is the crop nutrient requirement and what is the difference that will be provided in the form of poultry litter or inorganic fertilizers,” said Kristofor Brye, professor of applied soil physics and pedology at the University of Arkansas.

Brye said poultry litter contains essential nutrients for plants. 

“For plants, poultry litter provides nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium and potassium,” said Brye. “Poultry litter is an integrated organic fertilizer that has all of these different plant- essential nutrients, including macronutrients and some micronutrients.”

Brye said fertilizers are a little less beneficial than poultry litter, because they would take longer to improve the soil physical properties. 

“Fertilizers do not add the organic materials that poultry litter does, so they do not provide the instant carbon source and food source for crops,” said Brye.

For an accurate application of poultry litter or fertilizers, the soil needs to be tested to determine the crop nutrient needs and fertility level of the soil. 

According to Brye, the amount of poultry litter or fertilizer to be used depends on the crop and what the nutrient demand is.

“Someone who is going to use poultry litter really wants to have it analyzed, so they can figure out what is the concentration of nutrients in it,” said Brye. “Producers will need to take a sample of that material, and they will submit it to a soil and plant analysis lab that will process manure samples.”

“Poultry litter is an integrated organic fertilizer that has all of these different plant – essential nutrients, including macronutrients and some micronutrients.”

— Dr. Kristofor Brye

Poultry litter can be a low-cost fertilizer. Brye said the distance of transportation can determine whether the material is economically beneficial to use or not.

“I think that if you do not have to transport poultry litter very far it can be very cheap – like applying it in your own fields,” said Brye. “But if you are someone whose source is far away, it is not going to be economical to transport it, and it might be better to use inorganic fertilizers.”

While too little application will not provide sufficient nutrients for desired crop production, excess amounts of nutrients can result in soil phosphorus buildup, which may runoff from the land and cause water contamination. 

“Excess phosphorus is bad in the environment,” said Brye. “Poultry litter is usually applied on the soil surface, and then if it rains that material can runoff and the phosphorus can go to nearby streams or lakes and cause eutrophication.”

Often times fertilizers and poultry litter can be mixed together for better results. 

“Sometimes poultry litter does not supply all of the nitrogen required but instead supplies all of the phosphorus,” said Brye. “So, producers calculate how much poultry litter to use based on the phosphorus, and then they will supplement it with fertilizers for the extra nitrogen.”

There is a lot of variation in the composition of poultry litter due to the management practices that a producer uses.

“One of the things that causes the variability is that poultry producers use different organic materials for bedding, such as rice hulls, wood shavings or cotton gin trash,” said Brye.

Brye said that if poultry litter is correctly use, it can be very sustainable and environmentally friendly. This is an organic source that recycles chicken manure and provides nutrients to the land. 

“There are a lot of benefits to the soil for using an organic material like poultry litter,” said Brye. “Adding  organic matter to the soil is very useful because that improves the soil physical properties, alleviates compaction, makes the soil more porous for water to enter and be stored better and provides food for microorganisms.”


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