Poultry Litter – a Continuing Problem in the Valley
The Shenandoah Valley is home to more than 159 million chickens, 16 million turkeys, and more than 528,000 dairy and beef cows in feedlots and pastures. These animals generate more than 410,000 tons of poultry litter and one billion gallons of liquid manure annually. In small quantities, this can be fertilizer gold, but in large quantities, it becomes a devilish problem because the excess nutrients are flushed into the Valley’s waterways when it rains causing algal outbreaks, bacterial contamination, and other environmental and public health risks.
Historically, the solution to the disposal of the litter was to pile it in huge mounds and then spread it on fields. The problem is that the mounds are often located near waterways and so the nitrogen and phosphorus will run off or leach into them. And spreading on fields has never been a good long term solution — there is simply vastly more litter than the soil or crops can absorb. And the litter is often spread until the pile is gone, whether there is a crop that needs the manure for fertilizer or not. So excessive application to a farm field results in the same problem: nitrogen and phosphorus, especially after a rainfall, flows into waterways already struggling with too much.
As with cattle access to the river, the solution must include the Valley’s farmers – hard-working men and women who produce a tremendous amount of the food for our tables. A change in decades-old practices takes persuasion, but it also takes an understanding of the costs associated with better practices. These costs simply cannot be borne solely by the farming community; to insist on that would put many farms out of business.
Building on the work Shenandoah Riverkeeper did in 2019 to develop the Shenandoah Watershed Compact, Respect the Shenandoah Campaign will engage with farmers and with policymakers who can work together to find solutions. Solutions must be science-based and visionary. In other words, simply transporting the litter without regard to the agronomic need of the receiving fields merely creates a problem for another location. And the solution must be made affordable, which means cost-sharing. Everyone who benefits from our poultry industry – and that’s all of us — must have the information needed to understand that we all do have a stake in the problem and the solution.