With increasing fertilizer prices in Tennessee and elsewhere, many farmers are looking at poultry litter as an alternative fertilizer source. Poultry litter is an excellent source of plant nutrients and in some counties is readily available and a cheap alternative to commercial fertilizers, said Forbes Walker, University of Tennessee Extension environmental soil specialist.

“When using poultry litter as a fertilizer source, it is important to follow the same basic steps used when selecting any fertilizer and fertilizer rate,” said Walker. “First, know the nutrient value of the poultry litter you are using and apply it based on soil test recommendations.”

The nutrient content of poultry litter varies with the type and size of bird that was grown on the litter, the bedding material that was used and the age of the litter. Fresh broiler litter will typically contain 20 to 30 lb plant available nitrogen per ton and 40 to 60 lb phosphorus (as P2O5) and potassium or potash (as K2O) per ton. “If the litter is stored,” said Walker, “phosphorus and potassium concentrations can increase by up to 30 percent after 12 months of storage. It is recommended that litter be analyzed before it is land applied.” Application rates should be based on the crop or forage nutrients needs recommended by the UT Extension. Walker reminds producers that recommendations from analyses conducted outside Tennessee may not be appropriate to Tennessee soils or Tennessee growing conditions and in many cases will result in the over-application of nutrients.

As a rule of thumb, broiler litter application rates should not exceed 3 tons per acre for row crops, and for pasture and hay crops such as tall fescue Walker says application rates should be closer to 1 ton per acre. “Do not apply it more than a month before the start of the growing season or you will lose nitrogen. Supply your additional nitrogen needs with commercial nitrogen sources such as urea or ammonium nitrate," he said.

Walker also reminds producers that applying litter at rates higher than 3 tons per acre will over-apply phosphorus and potassium for most crops. The application of too much phosphorus can impact the environment through run-off losses. For fescue, too much potassium will increase tetany problems and will result in nutritional imbalances for cattle that can severely impact animal health and even cause death.

“Poultry litter is a valuable alternative fertilizer source,” he said. “But more is not always better.”

For more information on using poultry litter as a fertilizer or other production issues, contact your local county UT Extension office or visit the UT Extension publications website: https://utextension.tennessee.edu/publications/

You can also visit the national extension website: http://www.extension.org

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