Environmental Best Management Practices for Poultry Production in Louisiana

William Owens, Morgan, Donna S., Lavergne, Theresia, Holmes, Jason E., Girouard, Ernest  |  4/27/2016 4:15:44 PM

Louisiana’s poultry industry, which is the largest animal industry in the state, generated $1.7 billion for the state’s economy in 2015. The LSU AgCenter Hill Farm Research Station in Homer, which is in the heart of poultry-producing area, includes two broiler houses used to compare and evaluate the latest innovations in equipment and management techniques for raising broilers under commercial conditions. The station also has a laboratory facility capable of supporting a variety of demonstrations and evaluations that can help educate poultry producers so they can remain in compliance with regulations for nutrient management and water quality.

In recent years there has been increased interest in the potential impact of agriculture on water quality. Lawsuits by environmental groups are seeking to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish federal numeric nutrient water quality standards for all states in the Mississippi River Basin. Louisiana agriculture is at the center of this action and must increase its efforts to educate producers in proper nutrient management procedures and conservation practices. There also has been an increase in EPA investigative activity involving Louisiana’s poultry producers, with several site inspections of poultry operations and some rulings involving poultry producers.

To address the need for more education, demonstrations and training sessions on poultry environmental best management practices (BMPs) were conducted in 2014 and 2015. These sessions were part of a Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In August 2014, approximately 30 LSU AgCenter and NRCS agents met for training at the Hill Farm. In September and October 2014, workshops were held in Many and Ruston for poultry producers with approximately 120 producers in attendance. A poultry field day was held at the Hill Farm in June 2015 to summarize the grant results and train producers in BMPs. Approximately 120 producers, poultry field agents and extension agents participated. These sessions also allowed producers to enroll in the Louisiana Master Farmer Program and acquire credits for Phase I and II of the program, as well as continuing education credits for producers already certified as Master Farmers.

Topics covered at these sessions included the effect of the accumulation of exhaust fan dust on vegetation and on the ground next to exhaust fans at poultry houses. Over time dust from the houses is expelled, and this dust is thought to contribute to the degradation of water quality after rain washes it from vegetation into runoff water. Other topics included the benefits and comparison of in-house pasteurization of poultry litter, NRCS guidelines for nutrient management plans and the Water Quality Index for Agriculture (WQIag). Automatic water collection units were used to demonstrate BMP methods and their impact.

Fan Dust Evaluation

To evaluate the impact of fan dust on runoff water quality, water samples were collected from plots at areas of high and low fan dust accumulation. Plots with and without grass buffer strips were utilized. Samples were collected after each sufficient rain event and evaluated for total phosphorus, total nitrogen, nitrate and dissolved phosphorus. A total of 36 rainfall events were evaluated over a two-year period from October 2013 to June 2015. Results indicate that fan dust caused an increase in nitrate in runoff water but did not exceed EPA-established limits of 10 milligrams per liter. There was also a slight increase in phosphorus and no increase in total nitrogen. The presence of a vegetation buffer reduced the amount of nitrate and total phosphorus present in runoff water.

In-House Pasteurization of Broiler Litter

Poultry litter is the poultry bedding and poultry waste that accumulate in the house as each flock grows. After each flock, some of the litter is removed, and new bedding is added before the next flock. Periodically, all of the litter in a house is removed, and new bedding is added. Many broiler producers re-use litter from previous flocks to help reduce the amount of litter for disposal and to help defray production costs. In-house pasteurization of broiler litter can be a good litter management tool to allow re-use of litter. In this process the litter is pulled into long rows, called windrows, within the house. Each windrow is approximately 1.5 feet high and 4 feet wide. The poultry litter will then self-heat or compost, resulting in a reduction of moisture, ammonia and bacterial pathogens. This process, when properly done, allows the litter to be re-used safely.

Two local poultry producers participated in a project to demonstrate and evaluate in-house pasteurization of litter. Windrows were evaluated at the houses of these two producers and the Hill Farm for five flocks. The Hill Farm poultry houses were windrowed seven times during the demonstration. In addition, stacked litter – which is the litter removed and stored outside – at the Hill Farm was sampled for comparison to windrows for four flocks. Litter was sampled and analyzed for total bacteria count and moisture content. Litter temperature was measured during pasteurization. Results indicate that in-house pasteurization allowed litter to reach temperatures above 130 degrees F, resulting in substantial reduction of bacterial pathogens in litter and reduction of moisture. These beneficial effects were seen in both the producer houses and the Hill Farm houses. The most notable issue to in-house pasteurization is having enough time to windrow the litter with the short turnaround schedule often required by the industry. Proper windrow techniques were demonstrated to producers at the field days.

These training sessions on BMPs and nutrient management practices were conducted within the framework of the Louisiana Master Farmer Program, which was initiated more than 14 years ago in response to growing concern of impending regulations for agricultural producers across the state, regardless of commodity. Through voluntary certification, producers are learning about environmental stewardship through education, demonstrations and implementation of conservation practices. This, along with NRCS recommendations and expertise, will help maintain water quality standards and provide evidence to regulatory agencies that agriculture can be self-regulating in this critical area.

William E. Owens is a professor and resident coordinator at the Hill Farm Research Station in Homer. Theresia A. Lavergne is a professor and poultry extension specialist. Jason Holmes is an LSU AgCenter county agent and works with Louisiana’s poultry producers. Ernest Girouard is the state coordinator and Donna S. Morgan is the regional coordinator of the Louisiana Master Farmer Program. Corrine Ray and Neal Hickman are research associates at the Hill Farm.

(This article appeared in the winter 2016 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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One of the concerns about poultry houses and water quality is the accumulation of dust on the vegetation outside of the exhaust fans. Scientists at the LSU AgCenter Hill Farm Research Station conducted research on this and other topics of concern to the poultry industry and presented their findings at a series of workshops. Photo by Bruce Schultz

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Bill Owens, at left, professor at the Hill Farm Research Station, conducts a training session on best management practices for poultry products and agents with the LSU AgCenter and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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Water collection units with and without a grass buffer at the Hill Farm Research Station.

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The Hill Farm Research Station is in Homer, Louisiana.

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