Jimmy Collins, a Chambers County beef producer, already has paid for six truckloads of poultry litter yet to be delivered to the family farm near Cusseta, Ala. Collins Farm, a family operation started in the mid-1940s, has been using litter as part of its winter feeding plan for its large herd of brood cows since 1976.
When the Food and Drug Administration's new rule banning the use of poultry litter as cattle feed is published in the Federal Register, it will become effective immediately. That means what Collins bought as a legal feed immediately becomes illegal.
While Collins and Darrell Rankins, an animal scientist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, agree that the new rule will further reduce the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease, Collins says it will create some significant challenges for him and other Alabama cattle producers who use poultry litter as a portion of their winter feed.
“I understand why FDA is doing this,” says Collins. “But other producers and I are going to have to find new feed supplies in the middle of our winter feeding season. It's going to be tough to find a feed supply that's as economical as poultry litter.
“Litter is about $40 per ton cheaper than hay. I ran the numbers, and I figure it's going to cost our operation between $7,000 and $8,000 to buy feed to replace the poultry litter for the remainder of the season.”
Rankins says Collins is just one of a number of producers who will face those extra costs.
“There are a lot of folks who will wind up buying feed twice this year,” says Rankins. “And that's really going to elevate their production costs.”
Most of Alabama's 760,000 beef cattle are on a winter feeding regimen until spring when pastures green up.
“That is why this is such a challenge for producers,” says Rankins. “Most farmers have already contracted for their winter feed supplies. It won't be that easy for them to switch feeds at a moment's notice in the middle of winter.
“Cattle can be fed hay and a number of other alternative feeds, such as peanut hulls and gin trash. But, supplies may be limited at this time of year.”
Limited supplies also mean higher prices, he adds.
“In July, I could buy soybean hulls for $70 a ton. Now, they are running $115 to $120 a ton. A ton of hay is $70 and cotton seed is around $140,” says Collins. “That's why farmers lock in winter feed sources in the summer to take advantage of lower prices.”
Hal Pepper, an Extension economist focusing on farm management, says feed costs in general are higher because the prices for commodities such as corn and soybeans have been higher.
While poultry litter is a cheaper feed, producers did not choose to use it based on cost alone, Rankins explains.
“Poultry litter has a calculated value of 50-percent total digestible nutrients (energy). That makes it comparable to average-quality hay,” says Rankins, whose Extension work focuses on beef cattle nutrition. “Research had proven it was a valuable source of energy for both stocker cattle and brood cows. It was also a good source of protein and essential minerals.”
Rankins is developing recommendations to help cattle producers who have relied heavily on poultry litter get through this feeding season.
In addition to locating new feed supplies, many farmers will be faced with adjusting their budgets to cover additional feed costs.
Jerry Pierce, another Extension economist specializing in farm business management, says the ban will compel cattle producers who rely heavily on litter to re-examine their management practices.
“They are going to have reconsider their profit margins and evaluate how increased feed costs will impact their bottom line,” says Pierce.
Pierce encourages producers to discuss their business plans with one of Extension's farm business management economists, their financial planner, or tax attorney.