Nutrient and waste management for your farm is just as important as your daily duties. With so many different alternatives for nutrients, it’s important to figure out which ones work best for you and your farm.

Fertilizer remains a tested and still-true-today method is land application. It contains Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K), along with other essential nutrients that are beneficial to growing crops, according to Dr. Amy Shober, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist at the University of Delaware.

Alternative uses for manure, she stated, include pelletizing, biogas production, and energy production which require on-farm treatment of manure or transport of manure off the farm.

“The appropriate alternative use depends on the manure system (e.g., liquid vs. solid), regional availability, and regulatory policies,” Shober said.

Shober mentioned the term “nutrient budgets” in her essay (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ss562). She described the term as a check book system by which a farmer can compare nutrient inputs to nutrient outputs.

“This is a particularly valuable tool for dairy farms, where the liquid nature of the manure makes transport of manure off farm difficult,” she said. “A whole farm nutrient budget helps the farmer assess the potential for “farm-scale” surpluses of N and P, identify where nutrient inefficiencies exist and determine BMPs to reduce or eliminate nutrient surplus.”

Another popular alternative use for nutrients is generating fuel, which saves farmers money.

“For the past six years, farms ended up going with this concept because it generates fuel that the farm would have to buy as propane,” said Paul Patterson, Professor of Poultry Science at Penn State University. “It generates ash product and nitrogen that goes up to gas. But, the valuable trace minerals such as phosphate, calcium and others are condensed into ash and represents 10 percent of the original weight.”

Where Does Poultry Fit In?

Poultry waste gets transported to watersheds where soils need P. More farmers are planting cover crops and adoption of irrigation is up, which allows for stabilization of yield, Shober noted.

While farmers can’t necessarily detect the Avian influenza virus (AIV) in poultry waste, they would be looking at flocks, said Patterson. The high pathogenic avian flu has three to five days death time.

“The farmers are with the birds every hour of the day, so they notice an increase in bird mortality,” Patterson mentioned. “The birds will be sampled for the virus and get the lab results back within 24 hours and then, they would all have to be euthanized. It’s like a fire emergency; we must kill the fuel before it spreads.”

After the virus has been detected in the birds, it’s important to manage the organic matter on the farm such as the manure, eggs and feed, according to Patterson.

The good news, however, is that the virus is weak outside the host, but under moist, cool conditions, it can survive outside of the host.

“Our strategy with manure is that we’ll burn it under about 140 degrees Fahrenheit for two heat cycles,” Patterson said. “If it goes through those two cycles, that’ll diminish the virus load and eventually there will be none.”

With the detection of the virus on a farm, the USDA quarantines the zone and disposes the birds along with any eggs.

Handling Manure and Nutrients

A farmer can store manure in covered stockpiles, open storage or temporary storage.

According to the Virginia Cooperative Extension, if the manure is to be stockpiled, it should be covered with at least 6-millimeters-thick plastic sheeting and held in place by weights.  For open storage, there are bunker structures that allows for “deeper piling and compaction of litter to reduce the total area required for storage.”

For another alternative, the Virginia Cooperative Extension recommended a roofed structure that allows for continuous loading or unloading with minimum effort.

“The egg industry evolved; now there are no more basements and manure doesn’t fall below the poultry cages,” Patterson said. “Manure is carried out on belts beneath the cages and the storage is at the back of a building on an automatic conveyer. We’re not storing manure in the same area where the birds are.”

Patterson mentioned farmers keep the birds safe and dry, which then can be managed to coincide with fertilizer.

Common Misconceptions

From a farmer’s perspective, a general misconception about nutrient management is that farming involves many variables like weather and economics, according to Shober. She mentioned that nutrient management planning is important, but sometimes, plans have to change to accommodate things that are beyond their control.

More specifically, popular misconceptions about poultry manure revolve around the idea that it’s toxic.

“The public has a perception that commercial agriculture is a big enterprise and birds produce toxic amounts of waste,” Patterson said. “In reality, the birds are properly housed with proper feeding for livability and performance. The structures are also properly engineered.”

According to Patterson, the properly engineered structures manage waste and dry manure systems, so they don’t use liquid handling. The manure is dry and doesn’t have an odor, so it doesn’t attract flies and it preserves nutrients that can be applied to land or a fuel source.

“The government and the industry working hard to protect the environment and the air quality,” he said. “People have the perception that it’s a big agricultural problem and that couldn’t be further from truth.”

Featured photo credit: iStock/dusanpetkovic