Evaluation of the Influences of New Sustainable Bedding Materials with Stacked Litter Management on Factors that Benefit Turkey Health and Environment

Progress report for ONE21-387

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $27,825.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2023
Grant Recipient: PittMoss LLC
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Mary Deemer
PittMoss LLC
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to advance poultry production using a sustainable and more environmentally compatible bedding material. We will compare the newly manufactured lignocellulosic materials with sawdust bedding in the properties that promote bird health and wellbeing.

The project will:

  1. Compare the new bedding materials to sawdust for effectiveness when used in a stacked bedding system to:
    1. Absorb and hold ammonium,
    2. Avoid conversion of ammonium to gaseous ammonia,
    3. Absorb moisture from excreta,
    4. Improve moisture release properties,
    5. Maintain lower surface moisture,
    6. Hold nitrogenous compounds in manure storage.
  2. Observe bird acceptance by observing time and behavior on the compared bedding materials and comparing the accumulation of manure and caking.

The information collected in the trial of the new bedding materials and the use method of “Undisturbed Layered Stacked Litter” could start a trend and demonstration to growers implementation of more sustainable, environmentally conscious, and energy efficient methods for litter management, while increasing bird health and profitability. The developed information will have application to the smallest back-yard grower to large commercial operations. It will stimulate further innovations for more environmentally sustainable production.


Bird health, growth, wellbeing , and profitability are dependent on good litter management systems. Small and large farmers are facing social pressures for odor control, governmental regulations, and environmental concerns. In the Chesapeake Bay Nutrient pollution of ground water is highly attributed to the poultry industry   (Rogers, 2017).   Efforts are needed to more aggressive develop materials, methods, and management systems to more sustainable produce poultry with increased environmental stewardship.

Growers, poultry enthusiast, and researchers have said that “As the litter goes, so goes the flock!” (Barkley 2017). The quality and effectiveness of bedding impacts; mortality, feed conversion, growth rate, disease pressure, foot pad health and breast quality, and overall bird health. Farmers are most concerned with controlling ammonia emissions, surface moisture, and labor required in managing the bedding.

Ammonia emissions must be maintained below 25 ppm for bird health. Control with alternative bedding during the early weeks of production has commonly been effective (Barkley, 2017). However, as bedding cakes over with feces emission levels increase, and control of ammonia and moisture become much more difficult. Many growers apply additional chemical additives to help reduce the emissions.

Litter surface moisture reduction is a primary goal to limit disease, improve bird health, and reduce foot pad dermatitis (Shepard 2017). Good ventilation is essential. Considerable heating is required for production, however, ventilation fans exhaust the moisture and ammonia, wasting energy and polluting the atmosphere.

This project proposes a solution to reduce in house and environmental gaseous ammonia pollution and decrease litter moisture to create an environment to improve bird health and growth.

An invention by PittMoss LLC. for producing sustainable potting soils from recycled waste cellulosic materials applies here. The processed cellulosic material is composed of exposed activated fibers with a remarkably high ability to absorb moisture and ammonium. Seeing that some PittMoss LLC employees felt that it was logical that the material would also have value in absorbing ammonium as an animal bedding. The material has a physical structure that increases internal porosity and provides better fluid absorption and translocations. An employee with a backyard chicken house tried the material and it was fantastic. The formulation was then tried in an organic commercial broiler operation where it significantly reduced gaseous ammonia levels and reduced mortality, gave cleaner foot pads, increased feed conversion, and produced larger birds. Then a larger commercial farm compared the new material to wood shavings and the results were excellent. While these trials were very promising the current cost is too high for using it at about 3 to 4 inches. Since it appears that the absorptivity and drying properties are quickly blocked by the caking over with feces it was assessed that a change to repeated thin applications in an “Undisturbed Layered Stacked Litter” management system may be very effective in reducing ammonia and drying the litter. Therefore, this system must be tried and demonstrated in a carefully monitored system to improve bird health and environmental quality more sustainably.


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  • Charles Bethke - Technical Advisor (Researcher)
  • Dave Jones - Producer


Materials and methods:

Key to this trial is a comparison of the effectiveness with property changes of four bedding materials when used in an “Undisturbed Layered Stacked Litter” management system. The focus is on quantifying and monitoring properties that are known to influence health, growth, and impacts on the environment.

Four bedding formulations will be trialed. Sawdust is the control and has typically been used by the farmer. Three other new and unique cellulosic materials will be trialed. All are engineered manufactured substrates composed of recycled cardboard, and newspaper, natural farm raised fibers, and contain approved organic natural mineral additives that can influence in the abilities to absorb and retain ammonium, absorb liquids, and influence moisture management. All are designed to provide a high degree of exposure to fiber surfaces while having high internal porosity for absorption while allowing increased gas exchange. The high rate of hydraulic conductivity provides easy surface drying and moisture movement. These formulations are proprietary and will be identified as “A”, “B”, and “C”. Bedding “A” is a basic lignocellulosic blend and has already been proven effective and advantageous in broiler production. Bedding “B” is like “A” but modified with minerals to remain more acidic and further avoid release of gaseous ammonia. Bedding “C” is further structurally modified using locally raised biomass to further increase the physical structure and resilience against compaction. While these properties are present at installation the changes under the rigors of growth are expected to alter the properties and effectiveness. Monitoring these changes over the growing period in “Undisturbed Layered Stacked Litter” management systems is expected to show exceptional values for poultry production.

For comparisons in production the trialing pen (25’x25’) will be partitioned into 4 sections across the watering and feeding systems so that uniformity exist in all the sectors. All heating, feeding, and watering will be uniform and efforts to maintain uniform ventilation will be made. Circulating fans will be used to equalize temperature and air movement. To begin a 3” layer of each bedding will be put down on each quadrant of the clean floor. After two days 1000 turkey poults will be introduced into the pen with the four communal sectors. Birds will be carefully observed by Mr. Jones during the first two weeks and the differences in apparent comfort and dwell time on the different substrates will be noted. After 2 weeks the first of a series of observations, measurements and litter sample collections (designated as “LSC”) will commence. The on-site data will include ambient ammonia levels (with 10 replicates at 12 inches above each bedding type), bird observations including dwell time and apparent comfort on each litter type, and litter caking will be rated. Sampling for off-site analyses will include sample collection (from full depth of the bedding) with 3 replicate samples from each of the 4 bedding types using the UM sampling method (Lory 2013). All from representative areas (avoiding waterers, feeders, and edges). That will make 12 samples for each LSC. Ammonia measurements will be taken with a Forensic Detectors portable ammonia meter. The surface caking on the litter will be scored as to the degree of caking according to the system described by Amy Barkley (2017). A repeated LSC will be taken two weeks later just before the first batch of poults are moved. After the sampling and removal of the poults the area will be prepared for the second batch. Any holes and mounds will be roughly leveled and a new layer of only 1” of fresh bedding of each formulation (sawdust, A, B, & D), will be applied on top of the respective existing litter types. After at least one days a second batch of poults will be populated into the emptied and redressed pen. Then at two weeks and four weeks another series of LSC will take place. This cycle will also happen for the third, fourth and fifth batch of poults. Additionally, the last set of poults will remain in the original brooder pen to grow out and finish the season. During the grow-out a series of three monthly top-up applications of 1” of the respective litter types will be spread onto the respective trial sections to finish the grow out. In the grow out monthly LSC will be taken. From this sequential sampling the physical and chemical testing will be conducted to profile the on bird health and environmental impact.


Ambient Ammonium Levels: (spot measurement with Forensic Detectors portable gas meter.) performed on sight.

pH: North Carolina State University Substrates Lab Std. Method (NCSU-SUB-METH) performed at PittMoss Q/C Lab on each sample.

Nitrogen Balance (Total N, Ammoniacal N, Urea, Nitrate, and Nitrite): (performed by MMI Lab using USDA Methods), three sample composites performed at the end of each flock of poults and monthly in final grow out.

Total Nutrient Analysis: (performed by MMI Labs USDA Methods) three sample composites performed at the end of each flock of poults and the final grow out.

Total Soluble Salts (Electrical conductivity): (NCSU-SUB-METH) performed at PittMoss Q/C Lab on each sample.

Wet (as is) and Dry Bulk Density: (NCSU-SUB-METH) performed at PittMoss Q/C Lab using on each sample.

Moisture (as is) on Dry Weight and Volume Basis: (NCSU-SUB-METH) performed at PittMoss Q/C Lab on each sample.

Moisture Holding Capacity on Weight and Volume Basis: (NCSU-SUB-METH) performed at PittMoss Q/C Lab on each sample.

Hydraulic Conductivity: (NCSU-SUB-METH) performed by NCSU Substrates Lab three sample composites performed at the end of each flock of poults and monthly in final grow out.

Space Distribution for Air, Water, and Solids: (NCSU-SUB-METH) performed at PittMoss Q/C Lab using on each sample.

Moisture Release Curves: (NCSU-SUB-POROMETER METH) performed by NCSU Substrates Lab three sample composites performed at the end of each flock of poults and monthly in final grow out.

Water Activity Levels: (Method used by Amy Barkley using three sample composites performed at the end of each flock of poults and monthly in final grow out.

Relative Drying Rate: (three replicates of sample treatment composites of treatment sampling the end of each flock of poults and at the end of the in final grow out, using self-designed table top in tray methods.

Data from each parameter measured will be assembled and displayed chronologically to demonstrate the influence of the litter stacking over time. The parameters will be correlated to the gaseous ammonia, nitrogen levels, bird acceptance, litter caking and among the measured properties. Statistical analyses including mean separation (Tukey’s) will be applied to define significant differences in the treatments and over time and reported where appropriate. Through multiple linear regression analysis, relationships will be developed to demonstrate shifts in properties over time.   Graphics representations of key findings will be developed to display the factors that had the highest correlations to measured parameters of the litter. Finally, the differences in the four bedding materials will be rated and displayed in charts and tables for presentation. Findings will be reported in a series of reports.

Research results and discussion:

January 2022 Report:

We have measured the moisture absorbing properties of the bedding materials to be used and find that the Ag fiber, paper, and cardboard based materials have very high moisture holding compared to saw dust.  Also, the dry and moist bulk densities vary considerably and a baseline for these propeerties is being established.  A late March beginning of the pen trials is planned.

Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Findings from this project will be of interest to home and hobby poultry egg and meat growers, as well as commercial growers. Environmentalists will also be interested in the atmospheric emissions, waste management, and water run-off implications. Therefore, a broad audience for the results is expected. As it is impossible to schedule these events in advance of the application these items represent the effort PittMoss is ready and able to put forth into the distribution of information learned during the project. 

  1. In cooperation with industry associations and extension educators, presentations could include:
    1. Farm demonstration meetings,
    2. Videos and demonstrations will be produced,
    3. Power Point Presentations will be disseminated,
    4. A bulletin on this type of litter management would be made.
  2. A video of the project and findings will be made and presented on the poultry farm web sites.
  3. Bloggers in Poultry Management will feature the farm and project findings.
  4. Popular Industry Publications will feature articles on the new materials and processes.
  5. The Manufacturer of the Innovative material will:
    1. Disseminate findings in printed and electronic promotional advertising materials.
    2. Present the product and systems at tradeshows.
    3. Present the product and systems to farmers, integrators, and suppliers.
    4. Advertise in publications.
  6. Articles on observations and information obtained will be produced for, and presented in, environmental and sustainability printed and electronic media and at association and media conferences. Some examples of outreach meetings where the presentations will be made are:
    1. PASA Conference - as a speaker or cohort of speakers depending on venue acceptance of topic
    2. Links to video presentations will be made available to Extension Agents to include in newsletters and/or build an event around
    3. HOA Conference - speaker or trade show booth 

Learning Outcomes

1 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

Only  limited preliminary observations have been made to date.  In preliminary  applications and testing the farmer reported better lag health with much better leg health and fewer sored on the turkey paws.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Nothing to date.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.