It has been stated that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The same could be said about chicken litter. Although this material has been recycled through a chicken, I have found it to be very beneficial as fertilizer on quail land, food plots, and dove fields. Now before you go turning up your nose at the idea, give me a chance to explain.
When we approach a piece of property located on sandy soils, usually we take soil samples, spread lime, and put out chemical fertilizer. The lime brings the soil pH up to a level that will allow the crop to efficiently use the fertilizer. The chemical fertilizer provides the crop with the needed nutrients (N-nitrogen, P-phosphorus, and K-Potassium) to produce seed.
Hopefully, seasonal rains will fall on the field and produce a successful food plot. However, the combination of chemical fertilizer and water produces an acid situation that lowers the pH of the soil. After a year or two you will have to put out more lime to bring up the soil pH. Then you fertilize. Then ——. Are you starting to get the picture? Some refer to this as a chemical addiction of the land. I call it time consuming and expensive.
How is Chicken Litter Different From Chemical Fertilizer?
Chicken litter is different in a couple of ways. First, it is high in organic forms of nitrogen. This kind of (N) does not leach away from the root zone of the plants nearly as fast as the chemical nitrogen found in commercial fertilizer , but instead it is slowly released throughout the season. Secondly, litter is high in (P) phosphorus and (K) potassium as well as many trace elements and micronutrients not found in chemical fertilizers. All this coupled with the organic matter contained in litter, helps hold moisture closer to the surface so that the plants can utilize it.
How Can this Help?Now there is another benefit that got me to try this stuff in the first place. The pH of the litter runs about 8.0 to 8.5. This means that when I apply the litter, I am actually raising the pH of the soil without liming.
Usually we spread about two tons of litter per acre, so this would (on average) equate to putting out about 85 to 90 pounds of N, 120 to 125 pounds of P, and 100 to 110 pounds of K per acre. As I just mentioned, it would also be like liming and fertilizing in one pass except I don’t have to buy the lime. This saves time and money.
If litter is used on the same field for several years, you could reach the point where the soil pH and phosphorus levels become too high. That’s a switch! If this happens all you have to do is go back to the chemical nitrogen and potassium until your soil samples show low enough pH and phosphorus levels to let you use the litter again.
What About the Cost?
The cost of the litter depends on how far it has to be hauled. I obtain my litter from an outfit named “Greene Farms” in Jackson, South Carolina. This is about a one-hundred and twenty-five mile haul to my place for me. PK Greene is the owner and he really knows his ——- stuff. It costs me about $23.00 per ton delivered, and I receive about twenty-three tons per load. Remember, the money you save on lime will go toward the fertilizer. For any of you that are within striking distance, you can call Greene Farms at 803-645-5335.
So what’s the Catch? All this sounds good, but every attribute seems to have a liability somewhere. In this case there are two. First, with chicken litter you will need to have access to some equipment in order to use it. We generally use two tractors to apply it. One tractor has a loader bucket that is used to fill the spreader. The second tractor pulls the spreader.
Spreaders used for applying litter have a few features that make them different. They have a wider gate in the back than chemical spreaders. This is because they are designed to put out a higher volume of material. Most of them also have a bigger drag chain in the bottom for this same reason.
Often, the vendor can help you out with this situation. He will usually have a “pull behind” spreader that you can rent at a very reasonable price. Also, some vendors have spreader trucks that will do the job for you.
A second liability is that you need to harrow the litter into the ground as soon as possible. This is done for two reasons. First, the nitrogen in the litter comes from two sources, organic- N and ammonium-N. Once litter is spread on the ground, the ammonium can begin to vaporize. So the faster the litter is incorporated into the ground, the more total nitrogen you will end up with. Secondly, mixing the litter into the soil reduces the aroma of the situation.
What About Disease?
As you know, chickens are notorious for carrying a host of organisms that we want to keep away from wildlife. Investigations by the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study have found that many of these organisms are highly sensitive to sunlight or drying and perish quickly in open fields. They also found that when the litter goes through a heat (is composted), even some of the more persistent organisms are destroyed in just 22 hours. Another factor to consider is that in recent decades, great improvements have been made with regard to poultry science and disease control.
I have been using litter for several years now on various projects and never had any problem. However, the vendor I use obtains litter from broiler houses, not from houses used for layers or breeder birds. Layer and breeder houses keep the same birds for longer periods of time. This means that there is more time for harmful organisms to build up in the litter. However, broiler houses have a faster turn over of the birds kept in them. This means that there is less time for harmful organisms to build up.
Waste Not Want Not
As you can see, chicken litter has its advantages and disadvantages. However, with the right equipment and some planning you can save time and money while producing healthier land, better cover, and more productive food plots.
I realize that for many of you this approach may not be practical. But for those of you that have some equipment and live within hauling distance of broiler houses, it would be a real waste not to try it.