The Perdue AgriRecycle
fertilizer-from-chicken-litter plant on the Delmarva Peninsula is
increasingly busy, helping poultry operators deal with their litter
disposal challenges and, at the same time, developing new markets for
their organic fertilizer.
The Perdue AgriRecycle fertilizer-from-chicken-litter plant on the Delmarva Peninsula is increasingly busy, helping poultry operators deal with their litter disposal challenges and, at the same time, developing new markets for their organic fertilizer.
If there is any doubt about the growing demand for organic fertilizer, a look at the increasing production at Perdue AgriRecycle confirms the fact that farm operations—and consumers at the retail level—are increasingly opting for natural materials when they’re purchasing fertilizer.
Perdue Farms, Inc, one of the major poultry producers in the United States, partnered with technology company AgriRecycle to invest $13 million and build the Perdue AgriRecycle organic fertilizer-from-chicken-litter plant in Delaware five years ago. The plant is continuing to ramp up production and is now expected to be up to its design capacity within the next year or two, which could result in additional plants being built.
| The majority of
product from the Perdue AgriRecycle plant is shipped in bulk form by
truck. The plant runs 24 hours a day, six days a week, and turns out
300 tones of finished product daily.
The Perdue AgriRecycle plant is in Seaford, Delaware, on the Delmarva (Delaware/Maryland/Virginia) Peninsula, which, situated on the Mid-Atlantic coast, separates Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. The region has one of the highest concentrations of poultry production in the US. There are an estimated 550 million birds raised and processed annually in more than 6,000 houses on the peninsula. And while the numbers vary, these birds are generating upwards of one million tons of litter annually. Over the last five years, Perdue AgriRecyle has been able to take several hundred thousand tons of that litter and convert it to organic fertilizer.
The genesis for the Perdue AgriRecycle plant was changes in Maryland’s water quality improvement act. “As a result of that, Perdue Farms, Inc chairman Jim Perdue decided the company wanted to be pro-active in terms of how the company could help achieve the goals of the water quality improvement act, and help improve the environment around Chesapeake Bay,” explains plant general manager Joe Koch.
“Our goal with the plant was to make sure agriculture remains a viable entity here on the Eastern Shore, and to be conscious of the environmental issues and be pro-active in trying to solve some of these issues.”
Historically, most of the poultry litter has been land applied, but the growth in the industry has put strains on the environment around the region, leading to innovative solutions such as the Perdue AgriRecycle fertilizer plant.
“The whole landscape is changing,” says Koch. “There are nutrient management plans that the states of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia have that are going to dramatically reduce the amount of raw litter that can be land applied. We get calls every week from growers asking about getting a contract with us to take their litter.” They understand, he says, that with the pending changes to legislation, they need to work on finding an alternative to land application, and get it in place soon.
Fortunately, the plant does have a need for additional litter, and that need will be growing over the next year or two as the plant moves up to its annual capacity of producing 80,000 tons of finished fertilizer. In 2004, the plant produced 40,000 tons, and in 2005 they will produce 50,000 tons. “We’re continuing to ramp up and bring on new growers to supply us,” says Koch.
There has been a learning curve in that ramping up process, he adds, both on the production side and the marketing of their fertilizer product. “We’ve had to grow production and learn the different issues of marketing the product at the same time. I’d say that we’ve had as many challenges on the marketing side as we’ve had on the production side.”
These are challenges they are tackling, however, and they are clearly making progress, he adds.
Originally, the primary market for their fertilizer—which is called microStart60 and has a NPK of 4-2-3—was agricultural fertilizer users in the Midwest. They have since broadened that marketing approach. While the ag industry is still a major market for their fertilizer pellets, their granular fertilizer is also being sold in the retail market and to golf courses.
The fact that it is 60 percent organic matter, with slow releasing nitrogen, appeals to the golf courses. “A lot of our customers are looking for ways to conserve water and get organic into their soils.”
There are retail markets through the big box home improvement stores, Lowe’s and Home Depot. “We’ve been very successful in getting into these other markets. You can pretty much see our products right across the country, but under different names,” says Koch. The granular fertilizer is sold at the retail level under various brand names. One of the more imaginative product names for their fertilizer made from poultry litter: “Cockadoodle Doo.”
There’s also been a lot of growth with the organic market. The plant has met all the requirements of the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) and is an OMRI approved and listed facility. “As the organic produce market continues to grow, we’ve seen a lot of organic growers interested in our product. And I don’t think this is a fad. At this point, this is a true market.”
They are also working on developing a very large customer: the US government. The federal government is the largest landowner in the entire country and likely has more golf courses under its control than anyone in the country. “If the federal government is interested in helping clean up the Chesapeake Bay watershed, we can have a win-win with them using our product.”
Getting the plant built itself had its share of hurdles. “I think that’s one of the good stories we have to tell,” says Koch. “When the plan was put out there, there were a lot of ‘not-in-my-backyard’ kind of issues. But if you talk to the people around us, I think they’d say we’ve been a good neighbor.” While the plant is on a 200-acre site, it is surrounded by farms and, increasingly, houses.
The raw material for their product, in the form of poultry litter, lies in the 125 farms they deal with per year. Some of those are Perdue contract poultry houses, but they also haul from other processors as well.
Before the litter is transported to the plant, a Perdue AgriRecycle representative goes out to the operation to check out the quality of the material. One of the big things they are looking for, says Koch, is moisture content of, ideally, under 30 percent. They want both the quality and moisture level of the litter to be consistent. But, he notes, they are sometimes subject to the whims of the weather. “A few weeks ago, we got seven inches of rain and it wouldn’t surprise me if we have some houses that were higher on the moisture level with their litter.”
By and large, however, that moisture level can be managed, he adds. Growers can improve the drainage around their houses, for example. “And they can watch their water system, to make sure there aren’t any leaks. There are some general management practices they can take to help to improve the quality of the litter.” The company likes to sign long-term contracts with the growers—up to 10 years—and the litter is removed at no cost to growers.
The company has contract clean-out crews that go to the farms, with each crew typically cleaning out eight to ten houses a week. Bobcat skid-steer loaders are used to move the litter into buckets that are part of a custom-designed conveyor system that moves the litter efficiently into trucks.
Two Bobcats usually work in each house, continually moving litter into the conveyor unit. The trucks are all tarped for the trip to the Perdue AgriRecycle plant.
With concern about the avian flu, the company spends a lot of time and effort on biosecurity, says Koch. “All of the haulers have to meet state requirements, and all of the trucks have to be covered when they bring the litter in. We clean and disinfect the trailer on the way into the plant and on the way out. And the trucks are one-use—they are not hauling any other materials.”
AgriRecycle plant is on the DelMarVa (Delaware/Maryland/Virginia)
Peninsula, which has one of the highest concentrations of poultry
production in the US, with an estimated 6,000 houses on the peninsula.
When the plant first opened five years ago, they were hauling litter from poultry operations as far away as 75 miles. But with rising fuel costs, they have been trying to tighten up that hauling radius.
“We’d like the growers to be close to the plant. With energy costs being what they are and us wanting to do the maximum number of turns on the trucks, we’d like them to be less than 50 miles away.”
Generally, however, with the size of the poultry industry in the region, many growers are fairly close to the plant.
Like other operations that move litter from the area, Perdue AgriRecycle receives transportation funding from both Maryland and Delaware, which helps to offset costs. The state of Delaware also contributed $1 million towards construction of the plant.
Once the litter arrives and is unloaded in a fully enclosed area, the production process begins at the 65,000-square-foot plant. The litter is run through an Aztec dryer with a Hauck burner that heats it at temperatures up to 224 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes, enough to kill off any harmful pathogens and weed seed. It is then run through a California Pellet Mill (CPM) hammermill to get the material to a consistent size, so it can be run through two CPM 500 horsepower pellet mills to produce three-eighths inch pellets. It is then left in pellet form, for the ag market, or made into a variety of granular products—which are fine enough to sprinkle directly on grass—for other markets, such as retail or golf courses. “The size of the product differs. We’re set up to produce whatever granular size they need.”
The plant runs 24 hours a day, six days a week, with about six employees per shift, turning out 300 tons of finished product daily. The majority of product is shipped in bulk form by truck, in 24-ton lots. A small amount goes out in one-ton totes or sacks, 22 of these to a flatbed truck. They are also set up with rail service, and can load bulk fertilizer directly onto rail cars.
The plant has about $3 million of odor control and environment-related equipment. A cyclone separates most of the dust out of the plant’s air stream, and it then runs through a core separator that takes out any remaining dust. A negative air system also prevents dust and odor from escaping the building. Anyone walking by the plant would have no idea that they were handling poultry litter and manufacturing fertilizer out of it, says Koch.
While they continue to ramp up production, Perdue AgriRecycle is looking to drive down their costs. “We’re always looking at that,” says Koch. “An example is that we were recently able to make some changes to the plant and reduce our use of fuel from 10 gallons per ton to eight gallons per ton. With the cost of fuel lately, that reduction results in great savings for us.”
They have also considered going to an in-line granulation system, rather than having to produce a pellet product and then granulate it.
Overall, the Perdue AgriRecycle plant has met with success, being built at a time when growing regulations mean poultry growers are more than happy to see an alternative means of disposing of their litter. “It’s definitely proven to be a service to growers,” says Koch.
And there could be more Perdue AgriRecycle plants before too long. “We are looking to expand to other parts of the country,” Koch adds.