University of Georgia
Whether it's fried, baked, grilled or skewered, Americans are hungry for chicken, eating 90 pounds each per year. And where there's chicken, there's poop.
Despite Georgia's status as the country's top meat-chicken producer, it doesn't have much of a system in place to transfer poultry litter. University of Georgia researchers, state partners and agricultural businesses recently met at a poultry litter workshop to take the first steps toward a solution.
"Poultry litter is Georgia's $75-million, forgotten, cash crop," said UGA Cooperative Extension engineer Mark Risse. His goal is to figure out how to distribute this litter to get the best fertilizer value out of it.
"On the average day, Georgia produces 26.3 million pounds of chicken meat and 7.6 million table eggs," said Casey Ritz, a UGA Extension poultry scientist. "The poultry industry now exceeds $15.1 billion annually in contributing to the state's economy. It's certainly a tremendous impact we have on our state."
Ritz figures the 1.4 billion meat chickens raised in Georgia each year produce 1.5 million tons of chicken litter.
All-natural poultry litter is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. These elements are in fertilizers that farmers buy each year. But getting it from north Georgia, where chickens reign, 200 miles down the road to south Georgia, where crops need it, can be complicated.
"We've got some excess phosphorus in litter in some counties that could be moved to other counties that could use the litter better," said David Kissel, head of the UGA Agricultural and Environmental Services Lab.
"Poultry farmers like to use that litter," Kissel said. "It's right there. It's good for the land. But the value of this litter is going higher and higher as the value of fertilizer goes higher on the world market."
Kissel said that transporting and selling it can clearly make farmers money. That's where people like Sheri Herron come in.
For the past two years, Herron has been coordinating poultry-litter hauling in Arkansas and Oklahoma as executive director of BMPs Inc. She's working to help Georgia poultry farmers spread their own "fabulous, fabulous fertilizer" statewide.
Georgia does have a Web site. The Georgia Poultry Federation teamed up with UGA in 2004 to develop www.galitter.org. With 19 ads ranging from litter handler to litter wanted, the site is moving along. But Herron said what's really needed to make the transfer work is a one-stop shop that growers, haulers and buyers can call and get what they need.
Part of the problem with selling poultry litter is timing. "We have 400 tons to haul a day," said Georgia litter hauler Page Walker. "We can sell all the litter we want to cotton farmers right now. But in the summer, they don't want it. If we're going to be in the business of moving it, we're going to have to move it 365 days a year."
"Chickens don't take weekends off and not poop," Herron said. "We're working all the time. You have to build that into it and make it work."
Herron said part of the answer is education. Through Cooperative Extension, haulers, growers and buyers can learn the best times to apply litter for different crops.
"State and educational research needs to demonstrate the value of poultry litter to recipients, particularly to row-crop users," said Jeff Mullen, a UGA economist.
Mullen said an initial assessment needs to be made of how much litter is in an area and how much is leaving.
Risse is encouraged by the progress he's seen. "It's been an incredible collection of brainpower and different perspectives," he said.
(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)