May 2006
Featured Articles


by Dick Farst

Higher fertilizer costs have made many farmers and others change proven fertility practices used for many, many years. Is poultry litter the answer to higher fertilizer prices?

Livestock farmers have used manure as part of their fertility program for generations…PART being the key word. As an addition or as a supplemental part to sound fertility practice, manure and, in this case, chicken litter have helped the farmer. There are many "ifs" when using chicken litter.

The biggest "if" comes from the rate of application along with the final analysis of the litter. So many people think a little bit is good and a lot is much better. With manure, and especially chicken litter, the rate is critical. Knowing the final analysis of the litter applied is also very important.

The next "if" is, can you apply the litter evenly? Below is an article written by Chris Welsh, our agronomist, in 2001. Chris points out the problems resulting from too much litter and hot spots caused by uneven application, especially as the nitrogen finally becomes available. He points out the problems with phosphates and the concerns we all should consider.

That brings us to the next "if." If the litter becomes available, will it be in time for this year’s crop. This is why using manure as a supplement is so good, because you do not count on it this year for your fertility, but as a soil builder.
Poultry Litter
(Reprinted 2001 AFC Farming News)
by Chris Welsh, AFC agronomist

As the cost of nitrogen fertilizers rises more people are considering their alternatives. One of these options is poultry litter. While poultry litter is an inexpensive source of nutrients and organic matter, it is important to consider the potential problems with its use as well.

The first consideration is the level of phosphorus (P) in litter. Alabama has developed a Phosphorus Index that provides a guideline to the amount of phosphorus fertilizer that can be applied to a field. This index was established to try to lessen the possibility of non-point source pollution of surface waters from over application of manures and fertilizer.

Factors affecting the P Index include soil test for phosphorus levels, application rate of P and how it is applied, as well as field characteristics affecting erosion and possibility of stream or river contamination from field water runoff. Bottom line is that if the P index for a field is extremely high, no more phosphorus may be applied. Therefore, it is important to carefully watch soil test levels and know how much P is being applied in order to prevent excessive buildup of phosphorus. Because of the ratio of nutrients in poultry litter, its continued use to provide nitrogen to a crop can result in a buildup of P that could prevent its future use.

It is also important to consider that the form of nutrients in poultry litter may not be readily available to plants. Soil organisms must mineralize organic nitrogen before plants can use it. This can result in some degree of unpredictability of nitrogen availability. Care should be taken with cotton since high nitrogen levels late in the season can become a problem at harvest time.

It is also important to understand that overuse of poultry litter may also result in buildup of other nutrients, including metals like zinc. This can be especially important to peanut growers since peanuts are sensitive to zinc toxicity.

Finally, be aware that uneven distribution of nutrients can be costly to a crop. Physical properties of litter make it difficult to spread as evenly as commercial fertilizers.

As we enter another growing season, it is important to take time to carefully consider all options and not just their cost, but also their value.

I would like to point out my history with chicken litter over 46 years in the crop nutrient business. I had the opportunity to work with several large laying operations after they applied high rates of litter on their own farms and reduced yields to 60 - 65 Bu corn and 15 to 20 Bu soybeans when their neighbors were producing 130-150 Bu corn and 35-50 Bu soybeans. Correcting this problem was not only difficult, but time consuming. Too much was bad and the high rates caused hot spots all over the farms.
Manure is a good supplement to a sound fertilizer program, but using it as THE program is playing with fire. Fertilizer prices have risen, but compare them to tractors, combines, pickers, planters, seed and fuel and commercial fertilizer is still a very good buy.

Richard Farst is the Terminal Manager for Agri-AFC’s Fertilizer Department in Rattlesnake Bend.