Whether or not poultry litter is a good source of fertilizer depends on a whole flock of factors—from the type of bird that produced it to how far you have to haul the stuff down the road.

What it comes down to, two K-State Extension county agents told farmers at last week’s Agronomy Institute in Parsons, Kan., is matching what you need to what you get and pricing the litter compared to commercial fertilizer sources.

Labette County Ag Agent Keith Martin told producers that litter is highly variable in terms of the soil nutrients it delivers. The type of birds and their diet, the bedding used, when and how the house was cleaned out, and how the litter was stored all have an impact on the value of the material.

Turkey and broiler litter tends to be higher in nutrient content than litter from layer or breeder houses, for example. The way in which the house is cleaned out also has a profound effect. Partial cleanout, which concentrates on the caked material around feeders and waters, will have a higher nutrient content than a total cleanout which includes all of the bedding material.

Citing 25 samples analyzed in the county in the past couple of years, Martin noted a range in moisture content—which impacts value as well as application—of 15 to 68 percent. Nutrient content per ton ran from 14-74 pounds for nitrogen, 25-101 pounds for phosphorus and 9-72 pounds for potassium.

Nitrogen in litter is less valuable than the phosphorus content, Martin said, adding that only about half is available the first year and is subject to losses, especially if it isn’t immediately incorporated.

Litter can be a good way to build soil phosphorus levels, Cherokee County Ag Agent Dennis Elbrader said, noting that litter can be a good buy for fields with low P levels and less economical for fields that don’t need phosphorus.

He stressed to growers that frequent testing of litter is important. While most litter suppliers will provide a guaranteed analysis, Elbrader suggested that testing is still critical to making sure buyers are getting what they’re paying for.

He especially urged producers to be mindful of moisture content.

“Water doesn’t pay when it comes to hauling,” he warned, “so be careful. Wet litter is also harder to apply accurately.”

Both county agents suggested that producers figure the litter value based on nutrients per ton and advised them to log on to www.ok-littermarket.org which features a calculator for figuring litter value. The Oklahoma State University web site also includes a listing for buyers and sellers as well as other litter management information.

Martin pointed out that farmers and stockmen using litter need to be aware of potential environmental impacts. Litter should not be applied in areas subject to flooding or on highly erodible soils, he said. It also should not be applied within 100 feet of a creek, well or pond.

As for storage, Martin said that litter should be stockpiled at least 200 feet from streams and other water sources and the use of tarps can help minimize losses.

Martin also spoke of the “hassle factor” of employing litter.

“You can’t just call up the co-op and tell them you want some litter spread tomorrow,” he said. “Getting litter has to coincide with when the poultry houses are being cleaned out. You have to get it all lined up and, when you get it, it can be a challenge getting the right amount on.”

He suggested that producers using litter try to calibrate their application.

“We don’t have a lot of experience with litter in southeast Kansas,” he said. “It can be a good deal but only if your soil needs what the litter provides, if it prices out favorably compared to commercial fertilizer, and you can get it applied accurately.”

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