Solving The Chicken Problem

ON THE BAY

January 30, 1993|By TOM HORTON

Here is a recipe, for an elegant poultry dish, from Kay and Sid Richardson of near Willards, Md. It goes nicely with a toast to the health of Chesapeake Bay:

One part straw; one part dead, rotting chicken carcass; two parts chickenhouse litter (manure and sawdust), well mixed and aged a few weeks.

Moisten with just a sprinkle of water, and build a 4-foot pile of the above ingredients in alternating layers.

Let the pile cook for several weeks -- it will reach an internal temperature of 150 degrees -- and turn occasionally. Then enjoy! Enjoy spreading this fine compost on your crops, that is.

The Richardsons' composting operation might not seem like that big a deal. You could walk by without noticing the row of simple wooden bins where it is "cooking." Even on a hot day there are few flies and little odor. "It reminds me of the smell of chewing tobacco," Mr. Richardson says.

However, everything about chickens on the Eastern Shore is a big deal. Wicomico County, where the Richardsons farm and raise chickens, is the nation's No. 5 chicken-producing county; and Sussex County, Del., next door, is No. 1. All told, the DelMarVa peninsula turns out more than 500 million chickens a year, and its poultry industry is still expanding. A chicken that just a few decades ago took nearly 10 weeks to reach less than 3 pounds market weight, now scales well over 4 pounds in six weeks or less.

Even though modern chickens are packed closely in poultry houses, and pushed close to the genetic limits of their growth potential, growers using antibiotics and careful management are able to get 95 percent of this mammoth flock from chick to processing plant alive and well.

But that other 5 percent has always been a problem. What do you do with 5 percent of half a billion chickens that die each year? It's a disposal problem that translates into more than 40 million pounds of meat, guts, feathers and blood.

For years, many poultry farmers simply dumped their dead chickens in the woods, to the delight only of buzzards. That is illegal now, and far less common.

The only alternatives were burial and incineration. The former carried the threat of contaminating groundwater, and the latter was a source of terrific odor and subject to increasing complaints from an expanding suburbia.

Overlooked until recently was the threat this posed to Chesapeake Bay, in the form of added nutrient pollution. Whether the considerable nutrients from 40 million pounds of dead chickens enter the groundwater or the air, the final destination is usually the bay.

The relatively "nutrient-rich" status of DelMarVa is highlighted in the latest federal-state bay cleanup strategy; each part of the Chesapeake's watershed must do its share to reduce nutrient pollution by a total of 40 percent, the minimum needed to improve water quality.

Maryland's Eastern Shore counties, for example, have only about 4 percent of the land in the watershed, and less than 3 percent of its human population; but these counties' share of the 40 percent reduction is a surprising 8 percent.

The reason: chickens, both dead and alive. In total nitrogen content, the manure from chickens that grow to market size probably equals the wastes from several million humans.

Therefore, it is heartening to see poultry farmers across the Shore following the Richardsons' example and adopting the new composting technology. Some major processors such as Perdue are beginning to require it of farmers who contract to raise chickens for them.

Mr. Richardson spreads the compost, along with the rest of his chicken manure, as a substitute for commercial fertilizer. In effect, he has been able to reduce his application of nutrients to the land by nearly half. "I think you can get more [crop production] out of a ton of chicken manure than a ton of the commercial stuff," he says.

Such talk represents a sea change. "Poultry manure and dead birds have been regarded as wastes, things you had to get rid of," says George Bradley, one of a new breed of nutrient-management specialists working with farmers to reduce the burden they put on the bay.

Composting looks so simple, you wonder why it wasn't used long ago. In fact, its principles were developed in 19th-century India by an Englishman, Sir Albert Howard, says Dennis Murphy, one of the University of Maryland researchers who developed the poultry-composting technique in 1985.

"We used texts from the 19th and early 20th century as our guide," he says. "The only problem we have now is farmers have a hard time believing it works so well."

While science and money both help, the real key to balancing the needs of agriculture and the bay is to somehow encourage more farmers to be as enlightened as Sid Richardson.

For example, he stores his poultry manure until spring, when spreading it produces the maximum benefit for crops and creates the least pollution. "I try not to be the type that is always complaining about regulations," Mr. Richardson says. "I try to anticipate them, and work with them."

Farmers, he says, were told for years to use more and more fertilizer, but now environmental experts tell them to use less and less.

For many farmers, "it's a hard switch to make," Mr. Richardson says. "The fertilizer companies are all using words like 'environmental' and 'green' now, but they are still basically trying to get you to use all you can. I've done my own research, and I think I need a lot less than the companies recommend."

Mr. Bradley, the nutrient expert, points out that farmers aren't dTC the only ones who overfertilize the Chesapeake. So do careless suburbanites, he says.

"What gets ignored is Joe Homeowner, hosing his driveway off into the nearest creek, [after] applying too much fertilizer to his lawn and bushes."

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