The use of poultry litter as a substitute for commercial fertilizer is becoming more and more common.

The use of poultry litter as a substitute for commercial fertilizer is becoming more and more common.

The biggest factors leading to increased use of this fertilizing material is the fact that it is much more economical than commercial fertilizer.  The other factor is the increased availability of litter.  This is due to the fact that in the areas of Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma where this material is being generated, there is serious overloading on land where litter has been used for many years.  This overloading has resulted in elevated levels of phosphorous and nitrogen in local streams as a result of runoff during rainfall events.

So the spinoff of this situation is the increased exporting of this materials to surrounding areas that have not had good access to litter in the past.  This is a good thing although there are those who would disagree.  The main complaint about this material is that when it is handled and spread, it creates significant odor.  This can be a considerable problem for those who live down wind from a field that has newly spread litter on it.

I have received several complaints over the last couple of years from country dwellers who have been on the receiving end of this odor.  The truth is that there aren’t many farmers out there who are not responsive to the need to get this material worked in to eliminate the odor problem.  So, in most cases the ground is quickly worked and the odor problem disappears at that point.

However, there are other reasons than smell that farmers should be anxious to get the litter worked into the ground.  Part of the nitrogen available in poultry litter is in the form of ammonia.  This ammonia can easily volatilize when the litter lays on the ground meaning there can be significant loss of nitrogen.  A good rain will take most of this nitrogen with it as it soaks into the soil but some of that nitrogen has the potential to wind up in the runoff that leaves the field.  So, there is good reason to work the litter in as quickly as possible to avoid nitrogen loss and field runoff into surface water.

Litter is a good source of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.  However, it is not a good way to supply the total nitrogen supply for most crops that we grow in our area. The reason for this is that the amount of litter needed to supply all of the needed nitrogen will overload the soil with phosphorous.  Therefore, it is generally accepted that litter should be used as the phosphorous and potassium source and should only be considered as a supplemental source of nitrogen.

 If you have been using litter for several years it would be wise to do some soil testing to determine the phosphorous level.  If phosphorous has increased to the extent that no additional phosphorous is necessary to grow a crop, then you should probably not spread any more litter until such time as the levels begin to come back down.  

Following this guideline should help avoid state regulations that would control or prevent the use of this material in the future.