Path Home Shows 2008 Show Archive November 2008 Show 0844 Poultry Litter

Poultry Litter

A solution to the challenge of how to meet the demand for food while preserving the land around it.
Poultry Litter

Baby chick

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Litter Transfer
Poultry Litter as Fertilizer

Show Dates

Show 0844: Poultry Litter

Air date: November 2, 2008



Rob:  Oklahoma farmers, like Ag producers across the nation, have enjoyed record prices this past year.  And with those higher prices, have come even higher input costs, on items like fertilizer and fuel which are used a lot by farmers.  And while commodity prices have retreated from their historic highs, input costs have stayed up there.  But as we learned recently, what’s a problem for some, is turning into an opportunity for others, and an interesting solution to the challenge of how to meet the demand for food while preserving the land around it.

Rob:  Fall is planting season in western Oklahoma, preparing the ground, for another year’s wheat crop.

Jeremy York:  This pasture out here will be sowed to wheat, and then grazed, and then probably cut for grain; that’s if everything works, and that’s rare.

Rob:  Jeremy York is accustomed to contending with everything from weather to insects.  But this year like farmers across the state, he’s facing a new challenge, the high cost of energy-based products, namely fuel and fertilizer.  Jeff Krehbiel serves on the Oklahoma Wheat Commission.

Jeff Krehbiel:  Our main concern right now is our input costs.  As every American knows right now, that fuel is high and is cutting into their pocket book, and likewise in the agriculture industry.  And of course, fertilizer is one of our major inputs, and the price of fertilizer has tripled over the last two or three years.

Robb:  That’s because natural gas is a key component in making commercial nitrogen fertilizer.

Jeff Krehbiel:  If I add “X” number of dollars of fertilizer, what’s going to be the result of doing that?  And so, it’s a guessing game.

Rob:  A high stakes game farmers are betting their crop yields, and their livelihoods, on.

Jeremy York:  If we can get something that can average thirty bushels a year, we’re happy.

Rob:  Which may not be good enough, with prices where they are.  Input costs on a single acre of wheat have now reached 260 dollars.  So just to break even, farmers will need to raise 35 bushels an acre, with wheat prices at 8 dollars a bushel.

Jeff Krehbiel:  That is our state average, is 35 bushels an acre.  So, an average crop won’t make you money.  You have to be above the state average in order to be able to turn a profit, IF you have 8 dollar wheat; and we don’t have 8 dollar wheat today.

Rob:  But the answer to such a dilemma may be a lot easier, and a lot closer, than anyone has ever imagined.  I’m here, in eastern Oklahoma which is home to a poultry industry worth about a half-a-billion dollars.  And with all those birds comes all the stuff they leave behind.  It’s called poultry litter.  It’s a mixture of molten feather and poultry waste.  But poultry waste may be a poor term, because experts say poultry litter is both an efficient, and a very effective, fertilizer.

Josh Payne:  When I think of animal waste, I think of it more as an animal resource and something we can use as an Ag commodity, as an organic fertilizer.

Rob:  And according to waste management specialist, Josh Payne, in eastern Oklahoma there is plenty of it.  Poultry houses dot the landscape, home to millions of birds.  And for generations, farmers and ranchers here have used poultry litter, instead of commercial fertilizers.

Josh Payne:  Poultry litter is a great organic fertilizer source.  It’s loaded with nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium.  It also has organic matter.  So it’s a very beneficial soil amendment that many producers can use.

Rob:  But too much of it is not good.  Over applying any fertilizer can mean excessive nutrients that then can wash from the land into surface water.  In 2005 Oklahoma attorney general, Drew Emondson, filed suit against several poultry companies to hold them liable for phosphorous run off he believes, comes from poultry spread in the Illinois River Shed.

Rob:  Ultimately if this litigation does go all the way through its course, what would be the best results for the state of Oklahoma?

Drew Edmondson:  Well, the best result would be both a thriving poultry industry, both in Arkansas and in Oklahoma, and the processing of the litter in a way that does not adversely impact the environment.  I’d like to see our rivers restored to what they were in the 50s and 60s, and 70s, the purity and clarity of the water that we enjoyed back then.  I’d like to see our farm operations continuing to go, and the poultry industry continuing to thrive.  It’s a multi-billion dollar business and they can afford to process their waste like every other company and industry in America does.

Rob:  Over the past several weeks, we’ve gotten to visit with some farmers in northeastern Oklahoma, and there’s a great concern out there among many of them, the law of unintended consequences, while you may be going directly after the out of state poultry companies, they in fact may be the ones that get hurt in this lawsuit.

Edmondson:  And we’re doing our best to avoid that.  And obviously, if in a negotiated settlement, you’ve got more latitude to construct it in a way that there are no unintended consequences.  That’s a little more difficult if we actually end up going to trial and get a jury verdict or a court verdict; it’s a little harder to construct that than it is to construct a negotiated settlement.  But I would ask them as they consider that, and it’s a very real concern, to look what’s happened in Tulsa’s lawsuit in Eucha/Spavinaw watersheds where they reached a negotiated agreement.  And today 70 percent of the waste is being trucked out of Eucha/Spavinaw.  And to my knowledge, no poultry operation has shut down, no company went out of business, no farmer had to close his chicken houses, and the industry is proceeding as it did before, except they’re not putting that waste down on the ground.  I think we can achieve that same result in the Illinois River watershed and the other watersheds of eastern Oklahoma.

Rob:  Which could well happen, thanks to the high price of commercial fertilizers.  For the past four years, Oklahoma farmer, Randy Wedel, has bought chicken litter in eastern Oklahoma to spread on his farm in central Oklahoma.

Randy Wedel:  I learned why they call it litter.  They don’t just call it manure because there’s a lot of other stuff in it, chicken bedding and just everything that comes out of a chicken house.  But the fact of the matter is, it’s just a very fine material that when you spread it on the ground, you can see as I crumble it, you can see how fine it is.  A little bit of rain, or tilling it into the ground, it’s amazing what it does to your soil.

Josh Payne:  All these nutrients that are contained in poultry litter are essential for plant growth, or crop growth.  We see approximately 70 percent of the soils in Oklahoma are actually deficient in phosphorous.  So if we can take some of this phosphorous rich poultry litter and transport it to parts of central Oklahoma, or western Oklahoma, that could use that nutrient, that’s a very viable option.  Because of what they have to pay for those same nutrients in commercial fertilizer, they’re finding those same nutrients for a cheaper price in poultry litter.  Now it’s going to depend on transportation and the distance from the source of the litter that’ll dictate how far you can actually haul poultry litter before it reaches a break even.  However, due to price increases in commercial fertilizer, we’re seeing that we can reach that break even much further west; meaning, we can haul or transport poultry litter much further west in Oklahoma than we ever have been before.

Randy Wedel:  We get nutrient tests on every house cleaning that we get litter from.  And you get about 45 pounds of calcium, too; so, you get N P & K, you also get calcium, and the other thing you get is organic material, carbon, pure carbon.  I mean, it builds your soil, and with, I don’t know, five, six, seven hundred pounds of pure carbon per ton, you’re not just fertilizing, you’re improving the value of the till of your soil.

Rob:  It sounds like you’re pretty sold on it.

Wedel:  It makes sense.

Rob:  So if it makes both economic and environmental sense, I bet you’re wondering if there’s a catch.  Well, both yes; and no.  Because the demand for poultry litter now outstrips its supply, it is harder to get.  But at the same time, it’s also worth more.  So there’s even more impetus for growers in eastern Oklahoma to ship it out of the affected watersheds.  And what about the places where it’s now being shipped to?  Well, state officials say not to worry, because they say, new stricter regulations are now in place that include both testing and training.

Randy Wedel:  I’m a card carrying litter spreader.  I went to nine hours of education before they would give me a card to spread litter.  My wife has a concealed carry gun license, and she didn’t even have to go to that much class.  So, you know when you think about it, I’ve got to have three hours of continuing education to spread litter; Mary packs her pistol without any continuing education, so I guess somebody thinks that chicken litter is more dangerous than a pistol.

Rob:  And some do.  This fall a federal judge denied an injunction to completely stop the spreading of poultry litter in the Illinois River watershed.  Now despite that ruling, the case against poultry companies is still set to go to trial in 2009.  In the meantime though, poultry producers exported a record amount of poultry litter out of the affected watershed this past year.  According to an industry group, eighty-five thousand tons of poultry litter was shipped to farms as far away as southwestern Oklahoma.  But according to evidence supplied by the state in the federal lawsuit, that amount is still less than one-fourth of what the industry produces.  Meanwhile, farmers like Wedel have been taking advantage of what appears to be an abundant resource.  Yet, that too, could change in the coming months.  The price of natural gas used to make commercial fertilizer has fallen dramatically in recent weeks as well as the price of wheat, both of which are at their yearly low.  Now if you would like to see our complete interview with Attorney General Edmondson, or meet a poultry grower and hear what he thinks about all this, head to our website at and click on this week’s value added.