Composting Poultry Litter - Economics and Market Potential of a Renewable Resource

1989 Annual Report for LS89-018

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1989: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1991
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $14,343.00
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
L. M. Safley
North Carolina State University

Composting Poultry Litter - Economics and Market Potential of a Renewable Resource


Broiler and turkey production are major agricultural industries in the Southeastern region of the United States. Production facilities are typically concentrated within a reasonable haul distance of a processing facility. Frequently, production facilities are located on farms or in areas with insufficient crop land to assimilate all of the nutrients in the litter. Unless an economical alternative is developed, the nutrient surplus generated in these areas will likely impact the environment in a negative way.

The intent of this project is to conduct a marketing analysis to determine the potential of utilizing composted poultry litter as a renewable fertilizer resource. It is anticipated that properly composted poultry litter will generate considerable demand outside the area of concentrated broiler and turkey production particularly with increasing interests in organic fertilizer. Successful migration of compost outside of the concentrated growing areas will directly reduce pollution and environmental degradation as well as providing an alternative economic enterprise to increase net profitability in the region. If successful this low-input technology could be readily transferred to other broiler and turkey production areas of the country.

Project Results

Poultry Litter Production

Manure was defined in terms of type of poultry production facility (egg layers, broilers, turkeys, etc.). Estimates of both total annual manure production and total annual manurial nitrogen were made for layers, turkeys, broiler breeders and broilers for the top poultry producing counties in North Carolina. In addition, estimates of total annual poultry manure product were made for top poultry production counties in Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Characterization data from samples analyzed by the N. C. Department of Agriculture and the Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department of North Carolina State University was gathered for turkey, boiler and duck manures and litters. Samples of fresh and composted litter were obtained from several composting facilities located throughout the United States and evaluated. Analytical results and sample preparation procedures utilized in evaluating the compost samples were developed.

An evaluation was made on how the composting process effects poultry litter nutrient concentrations. In general, nitrogen concentrations decrease and phosphorus concentrations increase during composting. The literature was reviewed and several North Carolina sites were studied to determine the impact of land applying poultry litter. Poultry litter applications made at rates to approximate crop nutrient uptake were found to have little potential for groundwater contamination. The environmental impact of composting poultry litter was estimated to be low given reasonable process design and management.

The concentration of nutrients in composted litter was determined to vary considerably. It was estimated that one ton of composted poultry litter would have the equivalent of 16 lbs of available N, 22.5 pounds of P205 and 20.3 pounds of K20. At current commercial fertilizer prices a ton of composted poultry litter would be valued at $11.39 based on available nutrients. Use of composted poultry litter as a crop fertilizer material will depend on such factors as nutrient concentration and soil nutrient requirement, hauling distance and cost.

Composted Litter as Bedding Material for Broilers and Turkeys

Composted litter has been used as a bedding material for turkeys and broilers on a limited basis. Reasonable success in using this material as a bedding material has been reported. However, the birds produced on composted litter were slightly dirtier than birds produced on fresh shavings. Available information on the use of bedding in different poultry management schemes, the characteristics of certain composted materials and the physical/chemical characteristics of several different materials were summarized.

The characteristics of materials typically used in horticultural container production and those of composted materials were compared. A review of the available literature indicated that compost could be successfully substituted for peat moss in horticultural substrates. Composted poultry litter was estimated to also be a good material for use in the field production of horticultural crops by virtue of its being a stable source of organic matter. Several possible types of outlets for the sale of composted poultry litter were identified. It was estimated that the North Carolina horticultural container industry could easily use nearly 500,000 cubic yards of composted poultry litter annually. Potential annual use of composted poultry litter in production of horticultural field crops in North Carolina was estimated to be approximately 180,000 tons. Information was compiled on the number of certified nurseries and the certified nursery acreage for several states within reasonable transport distance of North Carolina.

Economic Analysis of Alternative Composting Systems

Six alternative composting system options for processing poultry litter were evaluated. The options considered covered both on-farm and commercially sized production facilities. The systems studied included windrowed piles with different turning frequencies and techniques, static aerated piles and in-vessel technology. Detailed enterprise descriptions (labor, land and equipment) and annual production budgets were developed for each system studied. All assumptions and input data used in developing the descriptive models are presented. Total production costs per ton of bulk output for the on-farm systems studied varied form $17.76 to $14.84. For the commercially sized systems studied the total production costs varied from $19.91/ton to $29.42/ton. Various factors to consider when planning a compost system were considered.

As a result of this study the authors conclude that composting poultry litter is a potentially attractive waste management alternative that produces a readily useable and highly flexible product for on-farm, horticultural and residential use. Additional research is needed to better define system parameters and management and to assess the market value of the composted material. The following ideas for future research are suggested:

1. Conduct pilot-scale and in-field composting trials for different types of poultry litters to determine appropriate initial product blends and system management requirements.

2. Evaluate the horticultural values of composted poultry litter to produce plants in both containerized and field situations.

3. Estimate/evaluate potential market for composted poultry litter.


(1) To evaluate the economics, engineering and environmental impact of composting poultry litter.

(2) To determine the potential market for composted poultry litter.