Texas Cooperative Extension agents Galen Logan, Camp County, and Kenny Rollins, Titus County, are putting a new Extension research initiative to work to solve an environmental problem and to provide area growers a profit opportunity at the same time.

Both East Texas counties have a significant number of poultry houses, along with the challenge of disposing of more than 100,000 tons of chicken litter per year.

Spreading litter onto local farmland offers an economical solution. The litter provides low cost crop nutrients to farmers, no small thing with current fertilizer prices. “This is an excellent organic source of nutrients,” says Logan.

The problem, however, has been a buildup of phosphorus in the mostly sandy soils in the area. Poultry litter contains high levels of phosphorus. Typical cropping systems in the area, which include mostly forages such as bermudagrass, take too little phosphorus out of the soil, allowing the nutrient level to build to the point where off-site movement is a possibility.

“We're looking for crops that utilize a lot of phosphorus,” Logan says.

Rollins says the area has 525 chicken houses. “Each one may produce as much as 100 tons of litter per year,” he says. “Under EPA guidelines, a watershed should maintain soil phosphorus levels below 200 parts per million. Above that and it becomes more of a threat to move”.

“We have a cheap source of nutrients here, but what can we do with it?” Logan asks. “Some people have tried to pelletize it, but that brings the cost up to commercial fertilizer. We can also haul it out of the area, but transportation costs make that impractical.”

Corn and cotton

“Even with economies of scale, we can only afford to haul poultry litter so far,” Rollins says. They're looking at corn and possibly cotton as row crops that will take up more phosphorus than forage crops can.

Corn has a high nutrient demand but typically has not performed well on the area's droughty, sandy soils, but Logan and Rollins, through the new initiative that encourages county agents to develop research projects to answer pressing local needs, are looking at new cropping systems and crop options to lower phosphorus levels.

“Corn silage is a possibility and so are forage sorghums,” Logan says. “With the right crop mix, we can extract a lot of phosphorus from our soils.”

“We hope to see a ripple effect,” Rollins says. “It's easier to use the litter close to the source. Silage offers a value-added product. Nearby dairies and some beef operations need silage.”

They have no questions about the value of poultry litter as a nutrient source. Broiler litter provides a 3 - 4.6 - 3.6 analysis. That's 60 pounds of nitrogen, 92 pounds of phosphate and 72 pounds of potash per ton.

Their first crop proved the value of litter. “Corn worked well last year,” Logan says.

“We have only one year of data, so we don't have a firm basis for recommendations yet. We had an unusually high rain accumulation last year, too, but we made as much as 190 bushels of corn per acre on sandy soils that have been amended with poultry litter.”

Eye-opener

“That opened our eyes to the possibilities,” Rollins says.

That's a good dryland corn crop, says Jim Swart, Texas Extension integrated pest management specialist. Swart works out of Texas A&M-Commerce campus, which supports the research initiative efforts in the North Texas District with some graduate student manpower and equipment.

“Many soils in East Texas are not as productive as we'd like for corn,” Swart says. “It's suited mostly for yams. It's not even good wheat land.”

Rollins says one study just planted for 2005 will include trials on variety, plant population and fertility.

He'll look at crop nutrient use and will soil test routinely to determine how much of each major nutrient the crops need. Initially, they expect to need no phosphorus other than that supplied by poultry litter. With subsequent crops, however, they will adjust analyses to provide crop needs.

“We want crops in our demonstration plots that require more phosphorus (than typical forages),” Rollins says.

“We hope to help local farmers and the poultry industry find ways to manage phosphorus levels in the soil,” Logan says. “And we also hope our research data provides information useful to other areas.”

Rollins and Logan will use the research initiative data as the basis for Masters Degree theses.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com