Picture this: 2.5 billion pounds of soil-like fertilizer. And it's not enough.
"There's just not enough chicken litter in Georgia to fertilize all the crops we grow here," said Stan Savage, a poultry scientist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.
Georgia farmers grew 2.53 million acres of cotton, corn and hay in 1996. All of that land required fertilizer in some form. Many farmers chose chicken litter.
But even if they could have used all the litter produced last year, they still could have adequately fertilized only one-third of the cotton.
Why do farmers want chicken litter instead of commercially prepared fertilizers?
"It holds more moisture, releases its nitrogen more slowly and can be much more economical," Savage said.
Pound for pound, litter contains about one-fifth of the nutrients of blended commercial fertilizer. If farmers can buy and spread litter for less than $25 per ton, Savage said, they're coming out ahead of the game.
"Some south Georgia farmers are even buying litter from north Georgia poultry farms and hauling it to their farms," he said. "They're still coming out better with litter."
Litter produced today has about half as much moisture as it did five to 10 years ago, he said. Nutrients in the drier litter are more economical to buy and haul.
Glen Harris, an extension environmental fertilizers and soils specialist, said farmers should use litter straight from the broiler house for best results. Gardeners should compost it to use in gardens and landscapes.
Litter for farm use is usually worked into the soil before planting, he said. Raw litter can burn tender landscape and garden plants if not used very carefully.
"Anyone planning to use chicken litter should test their soil in the fall," Harris said, "and test the litter to make sure they're adding the nutrients their crops need."
Savage said just a few years ago, some poultry farmers were giving away litter. Over the past five years, more poultry farms have sprung up, especially in south Georgia.
There are problems keeping the litter from accumulating. "Although there isn't enough litter to go around," Harris said, "there are problems keeping it spread out due to the economics of hauling."
Georgia farmers now raise about 14 percent of the broiler chickens grown in the United States. They have to find a way to use the litter when they clean out the broiler houses.
Savage calls litter a co-product of poultry production since it has value as fertilizer.
For every pound of chicken they raise, farmers must deal with a half-pound of litter. Georgia farmers produced 5 billion pounds of chicken in 1995. That left them with 2.5 billion pounds of litter.
Many farmers near south Georgia poultry farms have learned the value of litter, Savage said. The price of commercial fertilizer has risen greatly in the past three years, forcing farmers to look for alternatives.
The main drawback to using litter is the obvious one -- the smell. Fortunately, the odor dissipates quickly. But until it does, it's something farmers using litter for fertilizer just have to tolerate.
Neighbors, though, may be less happy with the situation.
Farmers can apply composted litter, which has less odor, near surrounding homes, but it has less fertilizer value.
Another concern is nutrients leaching from piles of litter. Harris said if farmers can go ahead and spread the litter onto their fields, leaching and runoff shouldn't pose a risk to the environment.
"There's such a difference between how much litter poultry farmers actually have and how much crop farmers want to use," Savage said. "You'd be hard- pressed to find litter for your farm or even your garden unless you live near a poultry farm and get along with the owner."