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Sustainable Agriculture

Composting Manure in Layer Houses Transforms Problem to Product

Egg production is on the rise in the West, particularly in Utah, where the number of laying hens reached 3.6 million in 1999. While the product is welcomed, the byproduct—manure—can be problematic, especially as Utah’s non-farming population grows. Spurred by one of the state’s largest egg producers, who received a SARE farmer/ grower grant to better manage manure, researchers and extension educators at Utah State University (USU) began studying how to compost manure inside layer houses. That process, which turns chicken manure into a valuable, almost odorless soil amendment, is better for egg producers than land-spreading raw manure. “Not only are farmers running into a lack of land to spread manure, but odor and fly complaints are starting,” said project leader Rich Koenig, a former USU soils specialist.

Koenig, along with USU Extension County Agent Dean Miner, began studying in-house composting at the urging of Spanish Fork, Utah, producer Mike Shepherd. Shepherd’s Eggs, a 60-year family operation with 325,000 layers, was seeking to placate new neighbors and comply with environmental regulations about manure. “Our initial experiences with indoor composting show great promise for reductions in odor and flies,” Shepherd said. The composted manure became a value-added product he distributed to farmers and others.

Successful in-house composting requires a recipe, with the nitrogen from poultry manure balanced by carbon supplied by straw, sawdust, or wood chips. Following Koenig’s research, project leaders recommended a mix of straw to manure to generate enough heat to both compost the material and kill flies. If they turned their windrows two to three times a week, egg producers could collect material for up to three months, helping them through the winter when there is no market for compost.

Reducing flies translated to a savings of $15,000 in pesticide use over nine months. Moreover, producers could sell compost for about $15 a cubic yard. Those savings and the extra income offset the costs of new compost turners and other equipment in about three years, said Miner, who was Shepherd’s adviser on his SARE farmer/rancher grant. Challenges remain, including avoiding dangerous ammonia buildup inside the layer house. One option is better ventilation; another is to apply aluminum sulfate to acidify the manure. Meanwhile, egg producers have adopted the new manure management strategy—three in Utah and others in Idaho and Arizona. “Within Utah, those egg producers are a tight-knit group and they communicate with one another,” Koenig said.

 

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