Home » News » WASTE NOT, WANT NOT: As Nitrogen Prices Soar, Row Crop Farmers Find Treasure In Litter

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT: As Nitrogen Prices Soar, Row Crop Farmers Find Treasure In Litter

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT: As Nitrogen Prices Soar, Row Crop Farmers Find Treasure In Litter
April 5, 2007 |

There may not be gold in those hills of poultry litter, but Shep Morris says the tons of waste poultry farmers must deal with are actually one of the state’s great resources.”Alabama really has a hidden treasure with this litter,” said Morris. “We’ve just got to find a way to get it where it’s most needed.”As the price of commercial fertilizers heads ever skyward, many row crop farmers like Morris have turned to Alabama’s own version of “black gold” to enrich their fields with nutrients at a fraction of the cost.Anhydrous ammonia and other nitrogen-based fertilizers — whose prices are tied to the cost of natural gas from which they are made — are often the farmer’s biggest expense.But the 30-foot high pyramid of the dark brown compost that was heaped on the edge of one of the Montgomery County cornfields Morris leases from John Swearinger should help reduce his input cost this spring.Morris, president of the Macon County Farmers Federation, had purchased the litter — all 600 tons of it — from a vendor in Greenville last winter, speculating that nitrogen might be high this year, maybe even as much as $225 a ton. But by the time he had spread the litter over 300 acres of corn, nitrogen prices had skyrocketed: $260 a ton for 32 percent liquid nitrogen, $250 a ton for ammonium sulfate, $425 a ton for urea, and $320 a ton for ammonium nitrate.”It’s way up,” said one distributor. “Percentage-wise, it’s a dramatic increase over last year.” The price increases could mean farmers with 1,000 acres of corn could fork over $25,000 to $40,000 more for fertilizer this year than last — enough to turn a borderline crop year into a disaster. Morris’ $15,000 investment in chicken litter seems all the wiser now. For not only does it mean that he’ll have to spend less on commercial fertilizers this spring, but he will still be reaping the nutritive benefits of the litter when he begins planting in 2008.”There is a tremendous amount of corn imported from the North to feed our chickens, and this is the byproduct of it,” said Morris. “Not only is there nitrogen, phosphate and pot ash, but chickens are fed a nutrient-rich diet to accelerate their growth. They are given different vitamins, given a lot of minor elements — zinc, boron, magnesium, copper — a wide array of nutrients that crops actually need but you can hardly afford to buy. A ton of litter probably contains $60 to $70 worth of total nutrient value. When you are spreading that litter, you are really setting things up for not only that crop year, but down the road. You’re raising that fertility.”Morris says the value of poultry litter on row crops is often overshadowed by its troubled history. You might even say that it earned its “bad name” after unknowing poultry farmers applied it to their small pastureland all too frequently, raising the soil’s phosphorous content to levels that threatened nearby water sources.”But you go down the road and that farmer’s neighbors have soil that’s phosphorous-deficient,” said Morris. “So, poultry litter can be a problem here, but a big asset somewhere else. Take a lot of the black prairie soils like in the Montgomery area — they are very phosphate-deficient and they will absorb huge amounts of phosphate. So, you can go from areas with phosphate problems, but by moving the litter to places where they have those fine prairie soils, you can solve one problem and help another. It’s win-win really.”That’s why Mark Gaines, a Calhoun County poultry farmer who sells the litter from his six houses to his neighbors, says he’s had people to follow his manure spreader all the way home to ask if he had anymore available.”I just have to tell them that I’ll put them on the waiting list,” Gaines said.That’s also why Jerry Foshee, a certified animal waste vendor near Opp, keeps his two tractor-trailers busy hauling litter — either from poultry houses or to row crop farmers — in Covington, Conecuh and Monroe counties. He said he often hears farmers bemoaning the cost of nitrogen, but he said most know the litter is worth more than just the nitrogen.Foshee says he had 15 to 20 regular buyers and moved 25,000 tons of litter last year. “I can’t do anymore than that,” said Foshee. “There aren’t enough of us. We went into something and quickly became maxed out. You could do more, but not in the time period it needs to be done.”Demand for litter has pushed prices to the point that poultry farmers can get $8 to $15 a ton for delivering it to the neighbor just down the road; vendors, however, may deliver and dump it for as little as $22 per ton to $35 per ton, depending on the distance.”Say you’re over in western Demopolis where the nearest chicken litter is 100 miles away,” said Dr. Gene Simpson, who teaches poultry economics at Auburn University. “Those loaded trucks are going to charge you $350 per truck load for freight. There are a lot more economic reasons to utilize litter in a fairly local area than to transport it. Transportation costs are eating us alive in everything now days.”Max Runge, an Extension economist with Auburn University, says litter’s value to the row crop farmer depends on those transportation costs. “It depends on the price of the litter and how far you have to haul it,” he said. “If you’re not in a poultry-growing area, and you’re going to have to transport it a long way, I’m not sure it would be worth it. But if Shep Morris is doing it, it’s economical. Shep is a very sharp individual, and if it wasn’t a good idea, he wouldn’t be doing it.”Of course, there are other caveats for those considering litter as a means of reducing commercial fertilizer costs. For example, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management requires that litter be spread no more than 30 days before planting, and that no more than two tons may be applied per acre. Too, both Runge and Simpson remind farmers that it’s important to test their soil prior to litter applications. In fact, they also recommend testing the litter as well because not all litter is created equal as far as nutrients go.”Poultry litter averages 3-3-2, but there’s a lot of differences between houses,” said Simpson. “Some is extremely high moisture and some almost as dry as baby powder. We get some litter samples in that are more than 20 percent moisture. When litter gets too wet, it doesn’t work through spreading equipment too well. If it gets too dry, it gets too dusty and puts up a cloud and that gets into problems with your neighbors.”Morris is sensitive to the issues of odor and dust, and doesn’t use litter in highly populated areas. “It’s gotten a lot of bad publicity, but if it’s used correctly, litter has got a lot of benefits,” said Morris. “It’s kind of like an aspirin — if you took a gallon of it, it would be terrible for a headache, but taking just one would be excellent.”

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