Farm Talk

May 7, 2013

Poultry litter meets fertilizer needs for Bartlett farmer

by Mark Parker

Parsons, Kansas — A higher level of management and dealing with the “hassle factor” are the costs of taking advantage of the benefits of applying poultry litter to crop ground.

That price tag, however, actually results in lower per-acre nutrient costs at Mathes Farms, which includes Brent’s wife, Jennifer, and their sons Joshua, Caleb and Joel.

The Bartlett, Kan., operation grows corn, soybeans, wheat, lespedeza seed, and red clover hay in addition to a stocker enterprise.

Brent, who has been using poultry litter for eight years, initially became interested in the alternative nutrient source because he had some poor soil areas with very low organic matter content.

He tried litter on a limited basis and was generally pleased with the results. In 2005, as commercial fertilizer prices rose, he decided to try it again.

“I started out just getting litter wherever I could find it,” Brent explains. “The consistency was poor — in terms of nutrient content — and I knew I needed a better source.”

Eventually, he formed a business relationship with a person who handles litter for Simmons Industries and that has made all the difference both in minimizing the “hassle factor” and in crop response.

“Finding a reliable, consistent litter source, as well as a hauler and a spreader, is probably the most important thing about using poultry litter effectively,” Brent says. “It minimizes that logistics hassle factor.”

The litter used at Mathes Farms comes from stacking houses at broiler facilities that are cleaned out in late July and early August.

Composted litter that is about 30 percent moisture is delivered and piled at sites adjacent to where it will be applied with care taken to avoid runoff areas.

Properly stacked with a peak so it will shed water, the piles quickly form a crust that minimizes nutrient loss. Piles may be up to 100 tons depending on the field. A truckload is approximately 25 tons and Brent points out that hauling costs normally exceed the cost of the litter itself.

In a 50-50 corn/soybean rotation, the litter is applied to soybean ground — ahead of the corn crop — right after harvest in the fall so it is applied to half of the crop acres annually.

The litter is incorporated with a disk right after application. In soybean stubble, the litter buries well, Brent says.

While there is odor when it is spread, it quickly dissipates on incorporation and stacked litter normally has less odor than does “fresh” litter.

“Getting it incorporated right away is also important in getting all the nutrients you paid for,” Brent says.

A good applicator is another important factor:

“The guy who applies it has floater tires and GPS and he does a good job. The litter spreads very uniformly and I like getting it done in the fall rather in the spring when you’re behind the eight-ball with planting.”

The question he has to answer each fall is, how much litter does each field require?

Although the litter is delivered with a nutrient analysis, Brent prefers to test each load just prior to application and figures a rate according to every-other-year soil sampling and crop removal numbers.

Application is based on phosphorus needs with nitrogen and potassium requirements balanced with commercial fertilizer.

Typically, a ton of good broiler house litter contains 50-60 lbs. of phosphorus, 50-60 pounds of potassium and 60-70 pounds of nitrogen.

Although having a single litter source has boosted the nutrient consistency of the litter used on Mathes Farms, poultry litter nutrient content in general can vary widely depending on the source, bedding, and, especially, the type of bird.

Broiler and turkey litter usually have the highest content while breeder house and layer hen facility litter is significantly lower.

Additionally, not all of the nutrient content is immediately available — especially nitrogen.

Based on research, Brent figures that approximately 60 percent of the nitrogen is available the first year and about 25 percent the second so he adjust rates accordingly. Additional nitrogen is applied to the corn crop in the row at planting.

“We apply enough litter to raise a corn crop, wheat and then double-crop beans so we’re fertilizing for three crops in two years,” he explains.

Although rates vary, nearly three tons per acre is a typical rate and the Matheses apply a total of about 1500 tons of litter per year.

Brent shoots for 40 ppm on phosphorus and 120-130 ppm for potash in a soil building program.

“We really wouldn’t want to get above that for phosphorus,” he says, “so we monitor the soil pretty closely. We had some ground that was 10 ppm on phosphorus when we started so, with the crop removal, that hasn’t been a problem yet — a good crop takes it down pretty fast.”

He adds that soil organic matter has risen by about 1 percent since he began applying litter and points out that litter also contributes sulfur and other micronutrients.

There is also some calcium in the litter and while Brent doesn’t feel it’s enough to raise soil pH, the litter doesn’t lower pH as some commercial fertilizer sources can.

Lime is applied according to grid sampling, a practice Brent says has saved money because it has resulted in less overall lime as he concentrates on the neediest areas.

The bottom-line on litter use is, of course, the bottom-line.

“Litter costs have risen since we started using it but so has the price of commercial fertilizer,” Brent concludes. “On a cost per acre basis it compares very favorably with commercial fertilizer, especially where you’re trying to build phosphorus levels.” £