Published on 08/31/00

Georgia Poultry Farmers Fine-tuning Recycling

At 21 million pounds a day, Georgia farmers produce more poultry than any other state. Now they're poised to take the lead in safeguarding soil and water quality.

Through a new, voluntary program, Georgia growers are recycling the nutrient-rich litter from their poultry houses into valuable organic fertilizer.

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Photo: Mike Lacy

Georgia poultry farmers grow about 21 million pounds of chicken a day and are developing management plans to
recycle their poultry litter in ways that protect water and soil quality.

"As far as we know, we're the only state in the nation with a voluntary program and deadlines for training and implementation," said Abit Massey, executive director of the Georgia Poultry Federation.

In the past year, more than 95 percent of the state's poultry farmers have been certified in the Poultry Nutrient Management course, said Henry Marks, head of the poultry science department of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"The statewide program ensures growers have the know-how to handle litter -- a combination of wood shavings and chicken droppings -- in a way that protects and enhances the environment," Marks said.

A Public-Private Partnership

The idea originated at a joint meeting of the UGA Extension Service, the Georgia Poultry Federation and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

While the GPF provided the incentive, the poultry processing companies sponsored the training and encouraged farmers to attend the three-hour course. UGA faculty and county extension agents coordinate and teach the classes.

Scientists in poultry science, biological and agricultural engineering and crop and soil sciences helped test and develop the training.

"We wanted to reduce the potential for environmental risk," Marks said, "and give them the knowledge and tools to match the nutrient levels in the litter to the needs of their soils."

Farmers learn how to keep good records and determine the right amount of litter to spread on a given field. The course also covers ways to prevent soil and water contamination and soil erosion. It reviews government regulations, too, such as the Clean Water Act and the Water Quality Act.

Government Regulations

No state or federal regulations exist for dry poultry litter. That's why the industry and growers are voluntarily setting up programs.

"Farmers really want to do the right thing regarding protecting the environment," Marks said. "Government regulations should only be implemented as a last resort. The industry wants to be proactive and make sure there's no problem. We're working closely with industry to safeguard the environment."

Besides helping the environment, farmers are making a profit from the litter instead of paying to get rid of it. "The value of the fertilizer components in chicken litter is estimated at $28 per ton," Marks said.

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Photo: Mike Lacy

Instead of paying to get rid of nutrient-rich poultry litter, farmers can make about $28 per ton for the organic fertilizer.

Chemical Analysis

Chicken litter contains nitrogen and phosphorous, two of the main ingredients in most commercial fertilizers. To prevent excess nitrogen and phosphorous from getting into surface water and groundwater, growers have their litter analyzed at the UGA Agricultural and Environmental Services Laboratory.

The tests are free to participants in the Georgia poultry industry program, thanks to support from Gov. Roy Barnes and appropriations from the Georgia General Assembly. The funding was requested by the Poultry Federation.

The GPF also has started a program to help match poultry farmers with the people who want to buy the litter and the companies that will haul it. Early inquiries showed 13 poultry farms with manure available and 73 respondents who wanted it. The list of haulers or handlers has grown to 69 in 34 counties.

Now that poultry farmers are certified in nutrient management planning, the next goal is to have them develop and implement their plans by January 2002. Many have already started.

"The poultry science department and the industry wanted to put this on the fast track," Marks said. "We've all been very busy."

Judy Purdy is a marketing and outreach specialist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.