A better use for chicken manure Potting mix: Success at growing better poinsettias generates hope of a profitable outlet for poultry wastes.

December 10, 1997|By Ken Fuson | By Ken Fuson,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- You may not want to stuff your Christmas stocking with it, but researchers here say they know what it takes to grow a bigger and brighter poinsettia.

Chicken poop.

If they are right, chicken farmers on the Eastern Shore may find a new home for the 800,000 tons of manure that is generated each year -- your garden and the nation's nurseries.

And that could prove quite a gift to environmentalists and the state's seafood industry. Scientists suspect a link between poultry waste used as fertilizer and Pfiesteria piscicida, the toxic microbe that killed tens of thousands of fish and left 30 people sick this summer.

"This is one avenue for using excessive amounts of poultry litter," said Thomas W. Simpson, coordinator of the Chesapeake Bay Agricultural Programs.

A three-year study at the University of Maryland shows that composted poultry waste is a cheaper and better potting mix than those available commercially.

"This stuff works," said John C. Bouwkamp, an associate professor in the University of Maryland's Department of Horticulture.

Bouwkamp stood yesterday in a greenhouse on the UM campus, surrounded by the 1,700 red, pink and white poinsettia plants zTC used in the study.

The results, he said, were conclusive: Plants grown in the poultry waste compost were bigger and better-looking than those grown in commercial potting mixes that rely on peat moss, a natural resource in short supply.

Thomas A. Fretz, dean of the university's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said the chicken compost also works on Easter lilies, chrysanthemums, watermelons and bedding plants, such as petunias and marigolds.

Now the trick is persuading plant growers. The researchers will present their findings to about 75 growers today.

"Once they know it can work, then it starts the whole process moving," Bouwkamp said. "The greenhouse grower in Colorado doesn't care about Pfiesteria. He's going to use it because he's going to make more money."

One grower who received a sneak preview yesterday said he'd try it next year.

"I'm very impressed," said Al Golding, an owner of Longwood Gardens in Waldorf, which grows 3,000 poinsettias each year.

Golding says he must spray his poinsettias to keep them from growing too high and "leggy." The researcher's plants, which required no spray, are bigger and fuller than the others.

"Any chemicals are bad, and the less we use them, the less we're affecting the runoff," he says.

Much of the poultry waste produced on the Eastern Shore is used as crop fertilizer. The researchers said those farmers would use less if other sources were found for chicken manure.

Last month, the governor's panel on Pfiesteria agreed that every Maryland farmer needs a plan to control fertilizer runoff by 2002.

"We clearly need to find some alternatives for poultry waste," Simpson said. "This is one we particularly like because it's profit-making."

The researchers are not sure how much of the poultry waste could eventually be used as compost, "but it's potentially a very large volume," Simpson said.

Don't look for poultry compost on the nation's shelves anytime soon. Even if growers want it, Bouwkamp said it will take several years for large composting manufacturers to get established.

"I want them to start making chicken compost, but they're not going to do that unless they're sure of a market," he said.

The poultry research is part of the Future Harvest Project, a 4-year-old joint effort between UM and other groups to improve farm profitability and protect the environment.

Bouwkamp says chicken waste compost is a good place to start.

"When we put it in the pot, it's not going into the field and it's not going into the Eastern Shore," he said.

Pub Date: 12/10/97

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