Agronomist helps poultry producers comply with environmental rules
Steve Anderson of Granite Falls has been raising broilers, chickens produced for meat, for 13 years. His reputation for meticulous detail is evident in every aspect of his operation, right down to using the nutrient-rich poultry litter for fertilizer.
Even before strict environmental regulations were imposed by state and federal law, Anderson relied on soil testing and waste analysis to ensure proper application of poultry litter to the land. Today, his farm is a model of agricultural sustainability—a fact he attributes largely to years of good advice from N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services agronomist Lynn Howard.
“I trust him, and I do what he suggests I do,” Anderson said. “I soil sample annually and test the nutrient content of litter before I apply it. I’m required to do these things now because I receive federal cost-share monies for improvements on my farm, but Howard had me doing them all along.”
Large poultry producers may also be required, and are always encouraged, to use agronomic test results to guide litter applications. Fortunately for North Carolina growers, these services are available and affordable through NCDA&CS laboratories. There is no fee for routine soil testing, and waste analysis costs $5 per sample. Although NCDA&CS does not analyze soil for out-of-state growers, waste analysis is open to them for $25 per sample.
Without the benefit of these tests, producers cannot be sure they are applying litter at agronomic rates. Over application leads to excessive micronutrient levels and soil pH values as well as environmentally unacceptable levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, Howard said. In the worst cases, application sites can become unfit for crop production and pose a threat to water quality.
On the positive side, however, growers can save a lot of money by using poultry litter as fertilizer. Over time, the enriched soil is better able to hold water and nutrients.
Howard’s role is to help growers protect the land and maintain sustainability while minimizing the costs of production. Soil quality on Anderson’s farm is evidence of his success.
“Steve follows sound agronomic practices in applying litter,” Howard said. “Sometimes that means stretching a load of litter to cover three acres instead of one. His goal is always long-term quality, not short-term convenience.”
For that reason, Anderson does not plan to apply litter to his own pastures this year. He expects to be able to sell most of it due to increased demand triggered by the skyrocketing price of commercial fertilizer. His covered, cement-floor, dry-stack shelter will give him the option to stockpile some of the resource until he rents additional land that can benefit from it.
“When I look at Steve’s soil reports, I can tell he is careful and conscientious,” Howard said. “Broiler litter contains very high nutrient levels. But, here’s a man who’s been in the business more than a decade and his soil pH, phosphorus, manganese, copper and zinc levels are all still within acceptable agronomic ranges.”
In comparison to broilers, the litter of young birds, or pullets, contains much lower levels of nutrients. Even so, nutrient levels still need to be managed. Last year, pullet producer Gary Richey of Lenoir was referred to Howard for help when his soil reports came back showing significantly elevated phosphorus indexes.
Howard visited Richey’s farm to determine why levels were elevated. One of the first things he did was take a new set of soil samples for comparison. In the process, he demonstrated proper sampling technique and discovered that Richey had collected earlier samples with a shovel and had not sampled enough different spots to accurately represent the variability and extent of his acreage.
It was not surprising the new soil test report showed some interesting differences. It did not call for any lime whereas the earlier report did. There were still areas of concern with high nutrient levels, but they were much better delineated due to Howard’s more intensive sampling process.
“He is really particular about pulling soil samples,” Richey said. “We spent hours on this . . . number, depth, timing, size and slope of the field were all critical factors. And when I got the report, I could understand it right away because of Howard’s thorough explanation.”
“There are lots of numbers on a report, but not all of them are equally important,” Howard said. “Each grower needs to know which ones are critical for his situation. Anyone who applies poultry litter should be concerned with soil pH and the nutrient indexes for phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper and sulfur. These values, along with the nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations listed on the waste report, determine how the application of litter should be managed.”
North Caarolina poultry producers face an intricate network of rules and regulations—some required by the company they work for, others by state or federal law. Fortunately, they don’t have to figure out the entire process on their own.
North Carolina growers have access to one of the most comprehensive agronomic testing and advisory services in the nation. The NCDA&CS Agronomic Division has been helping them manage fertilization and other nutrient-related issues for nearly 30 years. Its 13 regional agronomists make site visits; evaluate suspected nutrient and/or nematode problems; and give advice on sampling, liming and fertilization. For information, go to www.ncagr.gov/agronomi/rahome.htm.
Agronomist Lynn Howard serves growers in Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Mitchell, Watauga and Wilkes counties. He can be reached by phone at (828) 313-9982 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.