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Corn+Soybean Digest

Pioneering No-Till Chicken Litter

Jay Franklin pioneered no-till farming in his corner of northeast Oklahoma 20 years ago and now he's forging ahead with another unorthodox practice — no-till chicken litter.

For the last six years Franklin has been supplying all the phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) for his corn-wheat-soybean, two-year crop rotation via chicken litter. As a no-till farmer he doesn't incorporate the litter and doesn't plan to.

Many would protest this can't work, but Franklin says it does. Before he began using chicken litter in place of banded P and K, he researched the topic carefully. He found Ohio State University research that showed after three years without soil disturbance, rain would move P and K into the soil before it adhered to the soil surface. In 2000 he switched exclusively to chicken litter for P and K, and he's still going.

“There were two reasons I wanted to do that,” he says. “I had banded forever and knew I had really been mining my soil, and I faced some real-time issues with banding. I wanted to quit banding fertilizer. Obviously, I exchanged one hassle for another because the litter's not easy to deal with,” he adds with a wry grin.

Franklin's cropping-and-littering schedule originally worked like this: January through March he spread 2 tons/acre of high-quality breeder chicken litter (75-60-65 analysis) on his land that would produce corn that year.

He assumed half the nitrogen (N) in the litter would be available the first year and supplemented N for a 120-bu. corn yield goal.

After corn harvest in late summer he sowed wheat. In the spring he topdressed it with N for his yield goal, subtracting the 75 lbs. of litter-provided N, which should come available in the second year after application.

Franklin followed the wheat with double-crop soybeans, then fallowed the ground until spring when he planted soybeans again. The following spring he began the cycle again.

He found a source of inexpensive litter close to home, but it brought new challenges. The litter was one-third lighter and about one-half as dense in nutrients because the company changed the bedding frequently. Still, it was close and low-priced so he bought in.

Franklin bought an older three-wheel floater and modified it to spread litter. But the good deal on litter also came with the requirement he haul it year-round. Under those circumstances Franklin lost the need for a set rotation, since he can now apply nutrients to his cropland any time the ground was open or when wheat is growing in the fall.

For comparison, a three-year, on-farm research project near Sandusky, OH, showed poultry litter combined with commercial N fertilizer produced essentially the same yields, or slightly better, than those of purely commercial fertilizer alone. This project used one year of conventional tillage and two years of no-till farming with a corn-soybean-wheat rotation.

Although it's not directly comparable, a USDA study in Georgia showed no-till farming and poultry litter actually increased cotton yields. That study showed no-till farming methods increased yield by 33% over conventional tillage and no-till plus poultry litter increased yields by 42%.

Similar research with cotton in Mississippi showed increased lint yield and improvement in fiber strength when chicken litter and N fertilizer were used, and the plants were obviously picking up enough P and K because leaf tissue samples of N, P and K increased as litter rate increased.

Franklin wants to increase soil P and K, but he knows how slow the process will be. He says he is looking for a “long-term fix for soil that has been farmed for 130 years.

“At this time I'm hauling in more material than I'm hauling out,” he says.

However, he explains, applying 200 lbs. actual P from chicken litter over 25 years, minus crop removal, would only raise his soils to a level considered “adequate” for most crops.

“My overall philosophy is to control costs year to year without limiting my potential,” he says.

He figures chicken litter, if priced and applied properly, is one way to do that. It is slower to release its nutrients and it helps build soil nutrients.

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