Software program developed at Auburn to manage poultry litter could protect watersheds

AUBURN – An ecological engineer at Auburn University has developed a Web-based computer software program that could lead to cleaner water in Alabama’s top poultry-producing region and greener pastures in the Black Belt.

Associate professor Puneet Srivastava’s provisionally patented Poultry Litter Decision Support System is a user-friendly online program designed to help poultry producers develop comprehensive nutrient management plans for poultry litter storage and use of the nutrient-rich waste material to fertilize their pastures and farmland.

Every year in Alabama, poultry farmers raise more than a billion birds that leave roughly 1.7 million tons of litter in their wake. An excellent source of soil-enriching nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, chicken litter is widely used as a low-cost yet highly effective fertilizer for pastures, hay fields and cropland. For many poultry growers, sales of surplus litter to other farming operations can be a significant source of additional income.

But in Alabama’s hilly Sand Mountain region, where poultry operations and poultry litter abound, extensive use of litter in the watershed through the years has led to a buildup of nutrients, most notably phosphorous, in the soil. And now, elevated phosphorous levels in area water bodies are raising water-quality issues that Srivastava says could challenge the sustainability of an industry that is essential to the economy of not only the Appalachian Plateau area but the entire state as well.

That risk is what motivated Srivastava to create the computer program, which, in addition to making the process of developing customized, highly detailed nutrient management plans less daunting, could help producers calculate phosphorous indexes, erosion rates and nutrient equivalencies and keep precise records, now required at the state and federal levels, of all their fertilizer-application activities.

The Poultry Litter Decision Support System would not stop there, however. It also would offer an online bulletin board where poultry farmers could post litter availability, a move that would help livestock producers and crop farmers in the Black Belt and other areas of the state, where poultry houses are few and far between and the soil is nutrient-deficient, find litter sources nearest them.

Proximity is important. Although chicken manure is cheaper than commercial fertilizers, transportation costs are high, and the expense of hauling it more than a few miles from the source can quickly cancel out any potential savings. Using excess litter from Alabama’s leading poultry-producing areas to fertilize and enrich the soils and green up pastures elsewhere in the state would be a win-win situation, Srivastava says.

“It would help stimulate the economy in Alabama’s Black Belt and elsewhere by making the land more productive. Also, it would help the poultry industry statewide improve production management practices and operate more sustainably,” he said.

Whether the feature-packed program will be available to poultry producers, however, depends on whether a public- or private-sector entity steps up to move the product into the marketplace.

“We had the idea and have developed a reliable prototype that delivers” Srivastava said. “Now we’re looking for somebody to take it and run with it.”

For more information, contact Srivastava at srivapu@auburn.edu.

(Written by Jamie Creamer.)

Contact: Jamie Creamer, (334) 844-2783 (creamjs@auburn.edu), or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)