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Skaggs: Fertilizer costs make poultry litter appealing
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Living in Northeast Georgia, most are familiar with the practice of utilizing poultry litter as a fertilizer for agricultural crops, or they are at least familiar with the smell.

Because of dramatic increases in commercial fertilizer prices, the demand for poultry litter is even greater because of what it contains — cheaper vital nutrients for crops.

Nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium are key fertilizers used to grow Georgia crops such as cotton, corn, peanuts, soybeans, hay and wheat. All three are found in chicken litter, something Georgia — as the top U.S. poultry producer — has a lot of.

"It takes a lot of petroleum to manufacture these synthetic fertilizers," said Jeff Mullen, an economist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "So that’s the big cost. The price of oil has gone up, and that’s been folded right into these costs."

China, India and Brazil have increased their demands for fertilizer and oil, which also has increased fertilizer prices, he said.

Nitrogen cost between 32 cents and 63 cents per pound in 2006. It now costs between 50 cents and 93 cents per pound. That’s a 50 percent increase, Mullen said.

Phosphorous costs about 92 cents per pound today. In 2006, it was 38 cents per pound. During the past three years, potassium has jumped from 24 cents per pound to as high as 90 cents.

The amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium poultry litter contains depends on what the chicken ate. On average, a ton of litter has 38.5 pounds of available nitrogen, 50 pounds of phosphorous and 48 pounds of potassium.

Poultry litter costs about $14 a ton in Georgia.

Chicken litter is not exactly the same as synthetic fertilizer, said Dave Kissel, head of the UGA Agricultural and Environmental Services Labs. In addition to the odor, it can be harder to handle and to spread in fields than commercial fertilizers.

Also, poultry litter only can be applied prior to crops being planted, Mullen said. Farmers usually fertilize their crops twice in the growing season. Commercial fertilizer would be needed for the second application after crops are growing.

But according to a recent farmer survey Mullen conducted, farmers aren’t just purchasing the litter in spring before planting time. About 15 percent buy it in late summer and 25 percent buy it in winter.

"I think what’s really happening here, especially with the recent rise in fertilizer prices, is producers are recognizing that poultry litter is more valuable than its historic price has been," Mullen said. "It’s a substitute for many fertilizers."

The average poultry-litter user in Georgia would pay as much as $21 a ton for it today.

For more information about poultry litter, visit www.galitter.org.

Billy Skaggs is a Hall County extension agent. He can be reached at 770-531-6988. His column appears biweekly and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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