Researcher begins testing water from cotton fields treated with litter

Linda Benedict  |  8/20/2009 12:09:29 AM

Can poultry litter be used to fertilize cotton? That’s the question an LSU Agricultural Center researcher will attempt to answer with a new project in northwest Louisiana cotton country.

Jim Rabb at the Red River Research Station in Bossier City has just received a $394,000 grant from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to see if this waste product causes any water problems.

“We’ll be collecting samples of water from each of the plots with various rates of poultry litter,” Rabb said. “These will be analyzed in a laboratory for pesticides and nutrient movement out of the field.”

He has just installed 10 water quality testing stations, each worth $10,000, alongside his cotton field. Each includes computer equipment that will turn on when there is a rainfall and continually check what is in the water that seeps under the soil and runs off from the test plots. These computers will be connected to a computer in his office so he can tell what’s happening at any given time.

Cotton producers do not use poultry litter as fertilizer even though it includes valuable nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. It also contains organic matter which will improve the quality of the soils in that part of the state, which tend to be poor, and thus improve cotton production.

Distance from poultry houses, and the transportation costs associated with hauling the litter, are the main reasons.

“Right now it’s just cheaper to use inorganic fertilizers,” Rabb said. “This will change, though, as the farmers become more aware of the benefits.”

Louisiana produces more than 200,000 tons of poultry litter every year. This is probably going to grow with expansion in the poultry industry. Much of this litter is now used to fertilize pastures for cattle.

The water quality issues center around the nutrients not used by the plants. Excess nutrients can leach into the soil and affect the ground water and run off the fields and eventually find their way into ponds and rivers.

“We don’t anticipate any problems,” Rabb said. But now he’ll be able to find out for sure. At the end of his three-year study, he will be able to make recommendations to cotton farmers on how much poultry litter to add to fields.

“We think cotton fields are a safe place to use poultry litter,” he said.

Linda Foster Benedict

(This article was published in the spring 1999 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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