Poultry litter usually draws attention for its smell. It’s now attracting more interest because of what it contains — cheaper vital nutrients for crops.
Nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium are key fertilizers used to grow Georgia crops like 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.
Commercial nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium prices have skyrocketed in recent years.
“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 has also 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, said Mullen.
Phosphorous costs around 92 cents per pound today. In 2006, it was 38 cents per pound. Over the last three years, potassium has jumped from 24 cents per pound to as high as 90 cents per pound.
The amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium poultry litter contains depends on what the chicken ate prior to producing it. On average, a ton of litter has 38.5 pounds of available nitrogen, 50 pounds of available phosphorous and 48 pounds of available potassium.
Poultry litter costs about $14 a ton in Georgia. “So you’re paying 36 cents per pound of available nitrogen, which is currently cheaper than other nitrogen sources,” Mullen said. “The phosphorous, potassium and other benefits of poultry litter are essentially free after that.”
Chicken poop is not exactly the same as synthetic fertilizers, said Dave Kissel, head of the UGA Agricultural and Environmental Services Labs. It can smell bad and be harder to handle and to spread in fields than commercial fertilizers.
Also, poultry litter can only be applied prior to crops being planted, Mullen said, not after they are growing. Farmers typically fertilize their crops twice during 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. Also, the average poultry-litter user in Georgia would pay as much as $21 a ton for it today.
“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.”
UGA and the Georgia Poultry Federation set up a Web site for buyers and sellers of poultry litter. Visit www.galitter.org  for more information.