Workshop illustrates litter’s benefits
As Maryland’s agriculture industry works to move poultry litter to farm fields with low phosphorus levels, farmers said locating it and getting it to their farms are persistent challenges in using the organic fertilizer source.
During a University of Maryland Extension virtual workshop outlining the benefits of using poultry litter, those challenges were discussed as well as how the state and industry has developed tools to make it easier for farmers to get litter.
As Maryland finalizes its implementation of the Phosphorus Management Tool, farm fields with high phosphorus levels will be restricted on how much phosphorus can be applied, and many poultry growers may need to find other uses for their litter.
“We have this product that still needs to be used,” said Nicole Fiorellino, University of Maryland Extension agronomist. “That means there’s more litter available for other farms to use it.”
Fiorellino said using poultry litter in accordance with state nutrient management rules can have many benefits to the land. Comparing it to other organic sources of nutrients, she said, poultry litter has a relatively low moisture content and high concentration of nutrients, which makes it more efficient to handle and transport.
Adding organic matter such as litter to the soil increases its structure, water-holding capacity, erosion control and provides energy for soil microbes, she said.
She said more value in using litter comes after multiple years of use, and Extension has developed a calculation tool that farmers can use to see how litter can affect their crop budgets.
A panel of Maryland farmers speaking at the workshop said using litter has helped their operations in crop production and soil health and they would use more of it if it could be better sourced.
“It’s been something that I’ve been using a long time that’s been good for my farm and my ground,” said Jonathan Quinn, who farms in Cecil and Kent counties and has use poultry litter for 25 years. He said in that time, he’s established a lot of relationships with farmers and haulers to get litter, but later in the discussion, agreed with other farmers that “getting enough litter has always been the challenge.”
St. Mary’s County farmer Tommy Bowles said he’s used litter for more than 20 years. Communicating with landlords about its use and what it does for the soil is important and he said it also takes regular communication with poultry house cleaners and haulers to build his supply for the coming growing season, receiving only one or two loads in a day.
“You’ve got to plan ahead to make this thing work,” Bowles said.
Another St. Mary’s county farmer, Stanley Boothe, said he’d like to get more litter for his fields and offered the idea of establishing a transfer site for litter at the grain elevator in Lothian, Md. As farmers delivered grain, they could haul back litter to their farm or have less distance to travel to get it after harvest.
“I know I’d take more grain there if I could get litter out,” he said. “Just an out-of-the-box thought.”
State and industry efforts to entice more farmers to use litter are ongoing.
Regional storage sites have been discussed as well as shipping litter by rail to the Midwest, but what’s been most effective is judicious land application on farms in the region.
The state has for years offered cost-share for hauling litter and livestock manure to farms where it can be safely applied but to aid more use of litter beyond the Lower Shore, the department has streamlined the program and added a “fast track” application for certain crops and set rates.
Under the fast-track application, litter receivers or haulers can apply for the cost share after the litter has been moved and don’t need an approval from the local soil conservation district.
Norm Astle, conservation grants administrator for the Maryland Department of Agriculture said the manure transportation program is well-funded for 2021 with more than $2.36 million coming from the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund, state general funds, and Eastern Shore poultry companies. The program pays $0.16 per ton per mile for litter moved from the four Lower Shore counties — Dorchester, Somerset, Worcester and Wicomico — and $0.14 per ton per mile for litter moved from other counties.
The state also increased the payment cap to $22.50 per ton of litter moved.
While four of the Shore’s five poultry companies have contributed $582,000 to the state’s transportation program, the poultry industry has also responded to the issue with the littr. mobile app, launched by the Delmarva Chicken Association in January. The app, available from Google Play or the Apple app store, is designed to help poultry growers anywhere on Delmarva who have poultry litter find customers seeking to use it as fertilizer.
The farmers on the panel said stockpiling litter in the field until spring works for them as well. Quinn said litter prices can be a little lower in the summer and he’ll buy some then and stockpile it in fields or on a concrete pad at his farm.
“As long as you peak it up real good, it works well,” Quinn said.
“The important thing is piling it as high as you can get it so it’ll shed water,” added Preston Md., farmer, Greg Turner, who joined the panel.
Turner added litter quality can vary greatly from farm to farm and company to company and getting a nutrient analysis for the litter is crucial.
Along with locating and getting enough litter, farmers said the cost of the equipment to handle and apply litter is significant for farmers who haven’t used the fertilizer source.
“Sometimes I look around the yard and shake my head at all the money I have in equipment,” Quinn said, listing the trucks, spreaders other implements he uses. “I think that’s where the custom application is going to be important. It’s a whole other operation, you’ve got to be set up for it.”
To receive litter over a longer period of time, Bowles said they put up a canvas-roofed structure for storage.
“That really helps us, especially when it gets to the countdown a month or so from now when everybody wants it,” he said.
He added having it stored lets it dry and compost more which makes it better to apply.
Bowles said when he first started using litter on fields, neighbors weren’t all on board with the practice but taking time over the years to talk with them about the practice has helped a lot.
“I keep going back to communication,” he said. “It’s a whole lot easier than it was 10 years ago.”
Wrapping up the workshop, Dwight Dotterer, administrator of MDA’s nutrient management program, said farmers struggling to get the litter they need for their operations runs counter to what much of the public thinks.
“The message we deal with all the time is there is so much litter on the Shore we don’t know what to do with it,” Dotterer said. “That’s not the message we heard from our farmers today.”
He added the comments from the workshop will help the department in its effort to further distribute poultry litter to farms that can use it safely.
“We know what we need to work on and we will,” Dotterer said.