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In recent months, the possibility of chicken litter (manure) under underfoot, in the fields on area Nebraska farms, fueled a large portion of the controversy surrounding a significant corporate proposal rocking opinions in the City of Fremont. It has led many area residents to step with trepidation in their approach to a final opinion (yay or nay) on the viable future of Costco Wholesale and Lincoln Premium Poultry’s large-scale poultry processing operation.

The Fremont Tribune sifted through some of the sludge and slurry of the poultry manure question, tilling through the issues of the manure’s environmental influences and question of its health risks.

The bottom line: poultry litter adds essential nutrients and helps generate environmental benefits necessary for crop production. With proper fertilizer application management plans, supplemented by advanced GPS and sensing technologies as well as monitoring and regulatory oversight, poultry litter produced through the Costco operation could potentially benefit farmers two-fold: first as good fertilizer and second, as a source of income.

Project documents released by the Greater Fremont Development Council suggest that the chicken litter could bring an addition $40 thousand per year in additional income farmers.

But opposition groups like Nebraska Communities United, question chicken litter’s affects on the natural environmental due to the considerable increase in production of poultry litter that will come with Costco’s facility.

POULTRY LITTER AND ITS ISSUES

Many farmers, research papers, state and private agricultural organizations and agronomists, like Nathan Mueller, a cropping systems extension educator at the University of Nebraska-Extension in Fremont, explain that poultry litter is excellent source of organic fertilizer that replenishes soil with vital plant nutrients and also adding other environmental benefits.

Opposition disagrees. On their website, and at meeting discussing Costco’s project, Nebraska Communities maintained that chicken litter poses environmental and health risks resulting from the high nutrient concentration such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

According to 2015 Nebraska Water Monitoring Programs Report, under the right conditions (e.g. air temperatures, drought condition, sunlight exposure) excess nitrogen and phosphorus can lead to algae blooms in lakes, streams and reservoirs. That same report cites nitrogen as a continuing problem in Nebraska waterways.

In addition the opposition groups have also cited issues with excessive microbial activity and the heavy metal such as zinc, copper and manganese that occur in livestock manure. Composting can eliminate much, though not all of the harmful bacteria.

A 2013 report on livestock and poultry manure by the Environmental Protection Agency posted to Nebraska Communities’ website lends some support to the groups concerns.

However, that same document also addresses the valuable organic resources and environmental benefits that chicken litter and other manures provide soils and plants.

The document states: “Manure can be a valuable resource as a natural fertilizer. However, if not managed properly, manure can degrade environmental quality, particularly surface water and ground water resources. … Good manure management practices, which include the beneficial use of treated manure, linked to sound nutrient management, can help to minimize many problems related to other contaminants.”

In the case of Nebraska, Mueller highlighted one notable and long running program of sound management systems showing direct benefits in the reduction of nitrogen. The Nitrogen and Irrigation Management Demonstration Project in the Central Platte Natural Resource District worked with farmers to employ sound technologies and nutrient management plans with regards to fertilizers. The project showed significant reductions in ground water nitrate levels from their 1984 levels when the program began.

THE ENLIGHTENED NUTRIENT MANAGEMENT PLAN

“Poultry litter is a good thing. It just needs to be managed correctly,” Mueller said.

He explained that farmers must incorporate two primary components soil nutrient management prior to planting crops. The first is the mineral content already present in the soil. The second is nutrient content of the fertilizer. The trick is to complement the soil with the right fertilizer.

Mueller highlighted 14 essential (required) nutrients that exist for crops. Nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, zinc, boron and manganese, are all necessary for plant survival.

“If any one of those (essential nutrients) is missing, a plant cannot complete its life cycle, meaning it cannot produce seed,” Mueller stressed.

Knowing soil mineral content allows the farmer to supplement with the precise amount of fertilizer, preventing over fertilization. Companies like Soil Analytics Inc. specialize in the software and technology that help farmers sample soil and then obtain detailed maps of a field’s nutrient concentration.

Knowing the nutrients present in the fertilizer represents the second primary component of an efficient management plan. With commercial fertilizers, Mueller said scrutinizing nutrient content is as easy as reading ingredients.

“You know what you’re getting when you buy commercial fertilizer. It has a grade … it’s required in the industry,” Mueller said.

But organic fertilizers (manure) need analysis.

“When we deal with livestock manure (poultry, hog, cattle) there’s some variability in that product … meaning the nutrient content could change a little over the course of the year depending on how those animals (that produce the manure) are managed,” Mueller said.

After analysis, fertilizer can be matched to soil and applied at variable, precise rates across a field.

Mueller continued, whether a fertilizer comes as crystals in a bag or as composted chicken manure, the way in which those fertilizers break down through soil microbial and chemical processes – facilitating plant uptake – the end products are fundamentally identical: used by plants in the same way.

Mueller highlighted one key environmental benefit organic manure holds over a commercial fertilizer.

Manure is rich in organic matter – the chemical compounds resulting from the breakdown of dead organisms (decomposition), as well as the waste products from living organisms.

Healthy soils are rich in organic matter. And such organic compounds impart various benefits that include increasing a soils capacity to hold water; increasing the diversity of good microorganisms in the soil; facilitating soils ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere for use by living organisms to grow and reproduce.

Mueller explained organic matter also helps to retain excess nitrogen in the soil, releasing it slowly over time as the plant needs it. It can prevent unutilized nitrogen from washing away or leaching into ground water. Commercial fertilizers, like the ones people sprinkle on their yards don’t offer that advantage. With heavy rains, water runoff carries it into natural waterways.

“Livestock manure (chicken litter) is traditionally a key fertilizer in organic and sustainable soil management,” Mueller said. “Properly managed, (its) application recycles nutrients back into crops, improves soil quality and protects water quality.”

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