Poultry raised at Wen-Crest Farms grow on a bed of compost that is reused each time a flock moves in and out. The compost is removed once a year and land applied as fertilizer. Photo by Contributed
Ask any poultry or dairy farmer, and they will say that bedding is one of their highest input costs, with kiln dried wood shavings a common choice for both these operations. However, some have found ways to minimize bedding costs, while also making better use of the manure generated by their livestock as organic fertilizer.
Consider the litter management practices at the large, Pennsylvania-based, poultry operation, Wen-Crest Farms. Using wood chips as their litter, they have learned how to repeatedly compost and reuse their litter for an entire year without adding any fresh material. The piling and turning process to create compost takes place right in their barns between the time that their mature broilers rotate out and new chicks are brought in. This practice puts an extra $10,000 in litter savings per flock back into their pocket. Many dairy farms have adopted this same practice, using the compost and reuse method for cow bedding, with similar financial benefits. As far as addressing health concerns, the heat generated in properly composted bedding destroys pathogens, making it safe to reuse.
As if these financial benefits weren’t enough incentive, Wen-Crest Farms then realizes the benefits of using the approximate 2,500 tons of composted litter that the farm accumulates annually as an organic fertilizer on their cropland, which farm co-owner, Steve Wenger, says delivers an additional savings of about $95,000 they don’t have to spend purchasing commercial fertilizer.
So with 11 barns, the poultry farm has saved well over $150,000 a year simply by thinking through the problem and using Mother Nature’s solution for both poultry litter and organic fertilizer.
Coupled with the farm’s practice of leaving buffers around waterways on their 2,500 acres of cropland to minimize the potential for nutrients to leach into watercourses, composting of their mortalities, as well as their practice of leaving some crop for wildlife to feed on in winter, it comes as no surprise that Wen-Crest Farms was recognized for exemplary environmental stewardship this year by the US Poultry & Egg Association.
Wen-Crest Farms is owned by Steve and Bonnie Wenger and is located outside of Lebanon, Penn., about 30 minutes from Hershey. They manage a total of 11 barns on three, closely situated farm sites, capable of housing 370,000 chickens at a time for a total annual production of about two million broilers. They raise the broilers for Tyson Foods and have done so for about six years.
Their home location is where Steve’s grandfather established the family farm in 1944. Raising poultry was a part of that operation but on a much smaller scale. Steve started out in the poultry business in partnership with his father raising turkeys in 1986 with two barns. Over time, the business grew into 11 barns on three locations.
“In 2008, corn prices went through the roof and our company found itself in financial trouble,” Steve says. “Our turkey company was sold to another company, and the buyer also cut turkey production for everybody in this division by half. We decided we weren’t going to hang around for that.”
Tyson Foods arrived on the scene and provided the opportunity to raise chickens instead. The Wengers took advantage of that opportunity and have been raising broilers for Tyson ever since.
When they switched to chickens, they invested about $1.4 million to upgrade and customize their barns, installing the most advanced systems for keeping chickens cool and comfortable, while also adopting their litter composting and reuse method.
Each broiler brood is raised in the barns over about six weeks, followed by two weeks of downtime. During this time, the manure-laden, wood chip litter is piled into windrows using a low-profile poultry tractor, turned twice every three to four days using a LVI litter turner supplied by an American company called Binkley & Hurst LP, placed back into position and pulverized to remove any lumps before a new brood of chicks arrives. The windrows heat up because of the biological activity taking place within the piles between each turning, which essentially is the process of the wood shavings and animal waste being converted into compost. The heat and biological activity destroys pathogens in the litter.
“This composted litter works really well and it is more absorbent than regular wood shavings,” Steve says.
The litter will be piled and turned to produce compost five or six times before it is removed entirely from the barns and replaced with fresh wood shavings once a year.
He says composting the litter is a new practice within the poultry industry, but it is becoming more common all the time.
“There are more and more companies now actually requiring their growers to do it because it saves a lot on wood shavings and trees,” Steve says. Because wood shavings are also commonly used as bedding in the dairy industry, “it’s getting harder to get and much more expensive.”
The litter compost is removed completely from each barn in February and placed in storage in one of three manure storage buildings. They are constructed with concrete slab floors and walls, with a fabric covering them for protection against moisture and to minimize odor. The compost is land applied in spring just prior to planting. While the farm grows soybean, wheat and corn, the compost is applied almost exclusively on their corn ground.
Wen-Crest Farms also has a composting and storage building for its mortalities. The mortalities are mixed and covered with litter. In a matter of two weeks, they have decomposed into compost.
Prior to field application, the compost in each storage facility is tested for its nutrient composition. Soil samples are also taken from each field every two years. Based on these findings, the farm calculates how much compost to apply per acre in the spring.
Wen-Crest Farms avoids winter manure application because of the nitrogen loss that can occur during that time of year and the danger of potential leaching away from the farms into area streams and eventually in the Chesapeake Bay when the snow melts. A number of on-farm initiatives have been launched throughout the Cheseapeake Bay watershed to minimize nutrient leaching from farmland, as this is having a noticeable impact on the health of this area, which is also one of the largest poultry and egg producing regions of the United States.
Manure spreading at Wen-Crest Farms starts about the middle of March. Last spring, the farm made a major investment of more than $100,000 each for two new 9524 Meyers manure spreaders pulled by 350 horsepower, auto-steer, New Holland tractors. The manure application system is controlled by two computer programs in the tractor – a global positioning system (GPS) and speed sensing software. The programs ensure there is no nutrient application overlap in the field and the correct amount of manure is applied per acre based on the application rate punched into the control panel and according to each field’s nutrient management plan, no matter what speed the tractor operator is driving. The GPS software is tied into the tractor’s auto-steer system to avoid overlap. Additionally, mechanisms on the manure spreader have the ability to automatically adjust the application rate based on the tractor’s speed.
Tom Wagner, a precision farming specialist at Messicks Equipment, where Wen-Crest Farms purchased the manure application system, says the farm uses the ISOBUS display supplied by Raven Industries (headquartered in Sioux Falls, SD) and installed in the factory with the tractor.
“With this controller, the operator is able to monitor and adjust the application rate coming out of the spreader,” he says. “Having that control over the application rate system is beneficial because it allows the operator to have equal distribution throughout the entire application, which reduces inconsistencies and allows for a proper manure application.”
He adds that the other benefit of using this type of technology is that the farm can collect data of when they were in the field, what they were spreading, and how much was spread.
A day or two after the manure is applied, Wen-Crest Farms follows up with a Case vertical turbo till system to incorporate the manure into the soil.
“You are not disturbing a lot of the soil, yet you can incorporate that manure into the top two inches of the ground,” Steve says. “This provides odor control because the nitrogen doesn’t volatize and the manure doesn’t leach away. We have zero problems with any neighbors because the manure is incorporated. Prior to incorporation, the manure is kept dry in the buildings.”
The farm is careful about how much phosphorus it applies on its cropland. The application rate is typically about three tons per acre. Because of this control, they still do purchase some commercial fertilizer to fulfill their nitrogen needs.
“We apply based on how much phosphorus we want to put in the soil, and not on the amount of nitrogen,” Steve says. “If I was applying based on the nitrogen needs, I would be way over applying. We have enough land base that we are able to manage it very well.”
They also maintain 30 to 50 foot grass and tree buffers between their cropland and any creeks and streams on their land to avoid nutrient leaching from their land into the water system – something they have done for over a decade.