Auburn University Extension agronomist Charles Mitchell has been called worse during his 15 years of research on animal waste fertilizer for cotton. But “the guru of chicken litter” takes it all in stride.

“I'm a big supporter of using chicken litter,” the researcher said with nary a snicker. “With the price of nitrogen going out of sight, farmers need to take a close look at it.”

There are other serious reasons not to pooh-pooh the product, according to Mitchell, including the fact that it is rich in nutrients that cotton crops need.

A ton of chicken litter contains about 60 pounds of nitrogen, 60 pounds of P205 and 40 pounds of K20,

he says. “If you just use chicken litter as a source of nitrogen, you will certainly get all the other nutrients you need. It's a total fertilization program.”

Mitchell's research shows that about 90 percent of the nitrogen from chicken litter is available the year it's supplied, although he assumes a more conservative two-thirds availability.

At the same time, chicken litter, like any fertilizer, can be lost due to flooding or excessive rains, adds Mitchell. He suggests putting it out within 30 days of planting. “If you wait past that, all bets are off.”

Handling chicken litter is perhaps its biggest disadvantage, according to Mitchell. “It's bulky. You have to store it and spread it in a timely fashion, which can be difficult in areas where you don't have the vendors.”

These problems are being addressed, according to Mitchell. Alabama has a Certified Animal Waste Vendor Program which allows producers to locate and arrange delivery of chicken litter. The Web site is http://www.aces.edu/dept/aawm/CAWV.php. “You work out a deal with your vendor to deliver to your place on your terms and at a price you feel comfortable with.”

Now through March is a good time to order chicken litter, according to Mitchell. Stockpile the manure on the edge of a field, but be sure to cover it. “We did some research last year that showed it absolutely has to be covered. It's like a sponge. It absorbs water, which can create some problems.”

Columbus, Miss., cotton producer Roy Weathers spread chicken litter on his cotton farm at 2 tons per acre in 2005. While he got good results, he noticed some inconsistency in the product.

Mitchell noted, “Some of it was lumpy, and we didn't know how effective it was going to be. More than likely, it had gotten wet. Chicken litter is the most valuable, the drier it is. When it gets moist, it starts composting. You can still use it, but you lose some nitrogen.”

The goal is make sure you have a good source of the chicken litter, and then take care of it once it's on the farm.

Weathers also got some complaints from one neighbor about the product's odor. But it's all relative, according to Mitchell. “For a lot of farmers, chicken litter smells like money. But I guess that could be a disadvantage if you haven't been around too much.”

Mitchell's research also indicates that chicken litter can be applied on conservation-tillage fields with no adjustment in rate. “But you have to treat it like fertilizer. You wouldn't put your fertilizer out in February and plant your cotton in late April. It won't be there.”

If you're going to use chicken litter, soil test at least every three years, Mitchell advises. In some states, it is a requirement to soil test every three years and to keep records of applications.

Research indicates farmers can lay the fertilizer on thick, Mitchell says. “It's difficult to over-apply it. If you get it out in high enough rates, it will produce rank growth. But we've put it out at up to 4 tons per acre without plant growth regulator. We did make some bushy plants, but we did not affect our yield. I wouldn't recommend 4 tons per acre. That's waste, and it costs too much.”

“Very few of our farmers use 100 percent chicken litter as their source of nitrogen,” Mitchell adds. “It's more realistic to use it as your preplant fertilization program, about a ton or 2 tons preplant, then sidedress nitrogen later.”

Mitchell estimates that chicken litter is worth between $40 and $45 a ton, just for its nutrient value. You can purchase chicken litter and spread it for around $25 and $30 a ton. Those savings are not something to turn your nose up at.

But surging demand is insuring that chicken litter prices won't be dropping any time soon. “Chicken litter is going to be harder to get this year, because there will be more competition for it because of higher nitrogen prices,” Mitchell said.

The cost of transporting chicken litter is also going up. “It's a bulky material and with gas prices going up, that's going to add to it.”

One rule of thumb is that over time, chicken litter will result in a buildup of phosphorus in the soil, “so you will have to cut back eventually,” Mitchell said.

And since it's an animal waste, it is regulated by individual states. Setting up a distribution network for chicken litter is part of what the poultry industry is required to do to insure that waste is disposed of properly.

“Today, chicken litter that is not used is going on heavily fertilized fescue pastures,” Mitchell said. “It's great for those folks who have a few cows, but it's not good for the environment.”

According to Mitchell, Alabama produces 1.8 million tons of chicken litter annually. “That's three times as many tons of chicken litter as fertilizer used. So it just makes sense that this material needs to be recycled.”

Put into perspective, “if we put out the litter we produce in Alabama, we could fertilize every acre of row crops, cotton, corn, wheat, grain sorghum grown in the state, plus have enough left over to fertilize 300,000 acres of pasture.”

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com