It’s not poultry waste – it’s organic fertilizer
We have recently learned that students across our state are being taught a lesson in environmental education that is factually incorrect. We are concerned that students — and their parents — are being misled in an effort to pass anti-poultry legislation that would take away organic fertilizer. I would like to set the record straight on the value of poultry litter as organic fertilizer.
Poultry litter is a mixture of chicken manure and wood shavings. The wood shavings are the bedding used in poultry houses. Chicken manure, which has very little moisture, mixes with the shavings. It produces a dry product that is easily handled and very stackable.
Contrary to many assumptions, poultry litter is very low in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but very high in organic matter. It carries a nutrient value of 4 percent nitrogen, 3 percent phosphorus, 3 percent potassium and 90 percent organic matter. It is considered one of mother nature’s perfect fertilizers. It is low in nutrient content and high in organic matter. The organic matter improves the soil’s water-holding capacity as well as soil health. Poultry litter is one of the only sources of fertilizer for organic growers on the Eastern Shore and in most of Maryland.
Contrary to what is being taught, there is not an excess of poultry litter in Maryland. There is actually a shortage of organic fertilizer. When antipoultry advocates say that elevated phosphorus levels in soils near poultry houses proves there are too many chickens in the state, they are wrong. The fact is that scientific researchers advised farmers for many years that they should build up phosphorus in the soil. In recent years, scientists have determined that there is a saturation point, after which no more phosphorus can be held by the soil.
In response to the scientific findings, Maryland’s Nutrient Management Plan was modified to require phosphorus be regulated and limited in 2006. In 2015, additional limitations were added through the Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT). This tool uses the soil P levels, topography and the closeness to water resources to determine where P must be limited, or in some cases banned altogether.
According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture there are 312,393 tons of chicken litter collected from Maryland poultry farms annually. Based on nutrient management regulatory calculations, we would need 156,196 acres of crop land to spread the litter produced each year. There are 469,767 acres on the Eastern Shore that are low in phosphorus and litter eligible. There is three times the needed amount of land just on the Eastern Shore to properly use all the litter produced in Mar yland.
Because of its organic value, poultry litter is a commodity that poultry farmers can sell or barter. Poultry growers also often use the litter as fertilizer on their own crop operation for a significantly lower cost, and less carbon footprint, than transporting commercial fertilizer.
So what does this mean? If the legislature were to pass a law that required the poultry companies to take all the litter from farmers, it would only be making the company richer. The companies would have a valuable commodity that they would sell to the highest bidder. Taking ownership of poultry litter from farmers only increases the cost to produce local crops and reduces economic stability.
For organic farmers, poultry litter is the primary source of fertilizer. If they have to bid against farmers from across the country for this litter, it could increase their fertilizer costs to a level that it would not be sustainable to farm organically.
Not only does Maryland have the most comprehensive and restrictive nutrient tool in place for our crop farmers, but every commercial poultry farm is mandated to have a zero-discharge permit to make sure no nutrients from that farm runoff into any stream. When you couple the poultry grower’s zero-discharge permit with the crop farmer’s mandated Nutrient Management Plan restrictions, the likelihood of nutrients from poultry litter getting into the Bay are extremely unlikely.
New legislation is not needed. Students should be enlightened about the great work already accomplished by Maryland farmers.
Chuck Fry is president of Maryland Farm Bureau and owner/operator of Rocky Point Farm and Rocky Point Creamery in Tuscarora, Md.