If you farm in Virginia and would like to use poultry litter on your pastures or hayfields, the later summer and fall is the time to act. Changes in fertilizer markets have made late summer and fall just about the only time poultry litter is available for application to pastures and hay fields.
Poultry litter is a valuable soil amendment that can contribute nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, micronutrients, and organic matter to a field. Prior to 2007, the value of poultry litter (based on the value of these nutrients) limited the distance from the poultry house the litter could economically be hauled. In fact, early in this decade when fertilizer prices were on the order of nitrogen $0.32 per lb., phosphorus $0.38 per lb., and potassium $0.15 per lb., the poultry producing regions of Virginia were facing a serious disposal problem with unwanted litter piling up in storage sheds.
The past two years have changed that dramatically. Although fertilizer values are down from their peak in 2008, current prices for fertilizer in the Shenandoah Valley are in the range of $0.45 per lb. for nitrogen, $0.48 per lb. for phosphorus, and $0.62 for potassium, an overall increase of 84% over 2001 values. Suddenly, poultry litter for many people is not a problem but a sought after commodity.
According to Virginia’s Nutrient Management Standards and Criteria, a ton of poultry litter typically contains approximately 35 lbs. of plant available nitrogen, 55 lbs. of phosphorus, and 32 lbs. of potassium. Earlier this decade, based on the prices noted above, litter with this nutrient profile was worth $36.90 per ton. Based on today’s fertilizer prices this same ton of litter is worth $60.94 per ton. It is important to remember that these values do not account for other beneficial characteristics of poultry litter including its liming value (which often is equivalent to 500 lbs. of lime per ton of litter), the value of its micronutrient content, organic matter, and residual nitrogen released after the first year.
Even though the cost of transportation has gone up, for many, the value of the nutrients allows the litter to travel farther than in years past. As a result, the market for poultry litter has changed significantly in the past two years. Availability in the spring can be very limited due to the high demand and brief application window for applying poultry litter for corn and other row crops. A farm's location in the state, the quantity ordered, and the availability of application equipment will be important determinants of whether litter application on that farm is economically justified.
Farmers with pastures and hay fields are finding that August through December is the time frame during which they are more likely to secure a supply of poultry litter for fertilizer. Agronomists encourage fall applications of litter to pastures and hay fields because fields are typically dry then and problems of soil disturbance and compaction are often minimized. Furthermore, evidence from trials conducted by Virginia Tech faculty indicates fall applications benefit forage root systems much more than spring applications.
If you wish to investigate the feasibility of having poultry litter applied to your farm in Virginia, here are some steps to pursue. First, contact your local office of Virginia Cooperative Extension and ask about soil testing and recommendations for pasture and hay fields. If soil tests demonstrate poultry litter is a good fit for your farm, contact the Virginia Poultry Litter Hotline at 1-888-433-2451 or on the internet at www.vapoultry.com. Here you will find information on litter availability and also spreader equipment for rent. Finally, contact your region’s nutrient management specialist with the Department of Conservation and Recreation. They can tell you about a cost share program that helps cover the cost of transporting litter away from areas with high poultry concentrations to watersheds that have less poultry. The cost share program does require the farmer to have a nutrient management plan and only certain areas of the state are eligible. This fall may be your best opportunity to secure some poultry litter as a soil amendment.
Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, re-print, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Alan L. Grant, Dean, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; Jewel E. Hairston, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State, Petersburg.
October 7, 2009