Litter Management: A Prime Need in Poultry Business

Litter Management: A Prime Need in Poultry Business

What is poultry litter or broiler litter?

In agriculture, poultry litter or broiler litter is a mixture of poultry excreta, spilled feed, feathers and material used as bedding in poultry houses. This term is also used to refer to unused bedding materials. Poultry litter is used in confinement buildings used for raising broilers, turkeys and other birds.

What are common bedding materials?

Common bedding materials include wood shavings, sawdust, peanut hulls, shredded sugar cane, straw and other dry, absorbent, low-cost organic materials. Sand is also occasionally used as bedding.


What is importance of litter material?

The bedding materials help absorb moisture, limiting the production of ammonia and harmful pathogens. The materials used for bedding can also have a significant impact on carcass quality and bird performance.

There are specific practices that must be followed to properly maintain the litter and maximize the health and productivity of the flocks raised on it. Many factors must be considered in successful litter management including time of the year, depth of the litter, floor space per bird, feeding practices, disease, the kind of floor, ventilation, watering devices, litter amendments, and even the potential fertilizer value of the litter after it is removed from the house. Most poultry are grown on dirt floors with some type of bedding material. Concrete floors and some specialized raised flooring are used at some facilities.

What should be the quality of litter material?

* Bedding material must not be toxic to poultry or to poultry growers.

* It should not be excessively favourable for the growth of the litter beetle, a major pest.

* The effect on other livestock, pets, wildlife, and even plants must also be considered.

* Poultry can consume as much as 4% of their diet as litter, therefore any bedding material must not contain contaminants, such as pesticides or metals.

* Consumption by the birds due to litter eating or other bird behaviour could affect production and potentially cause the meat or rendered products to become unusable.

Pine shavings has been the bedding of choice because of performance, availability and cost.

Managemental Practices

When litter begins to retain moisture it will clump together, which is referred to as caking. The more common issue, however, is having localized areas of caking near leaky watering cups, nipples, troughs or roofs. Watery droppings caused by nutrition and/or infectious agents can also be a cause of excessive moisture in poultry litter.

Keeping litter dry is a critical part of overall management on every poultry farm. Litter conditions influence bird performance, which in turn affects profits of growers and integrators. Dry litter helps control ammonia levels, provides a healthy flock environment, and reduces condemnations due to hock and footpad burns and breast blisters. This can affect the health and mortality rate of the flock, and could result in quality issues when birds reared under such poor conditions reach the processing plant.

In a well-managed broiler house, litter moisture normally averages between 25 and 35 percent. 

Litter Amendments

High ammonia levels in poultry houses can result in poor bird performance and health and a loss of profits to the grower and integrator. When broilers and turkeys are raised on litter, amendments can be used to reduce ammonia levels in the houses and improve productivity. Uric acid and organic nitrogen (N) in the bird excreta and spilled feed are converted to ammonium (NH4+) by the microbes in the litter.

There are several types of litter amendments available to manage ammonia the most common being acidifiers, and various microbial and enzymatic treatments.

Use of Acidifiers

This type of amendment creates acidic conditions (pH less than 7) in the litter, resulting in more of the ammoniacal nitrogen being temporarily retained as ammonium rather than ammonia. Ammonium is a highly reactive ion that bonds with sulfates, nitrates and phosphates to form ammonium salts that improve the nutrient value of litter when land applied as fertilizer. The acidity also creates unfavorable environment for urolytic bacteria reducing the production of enzymes that contribute to ammonia formation. There are several different types of acidifiers, such as alum, acidified liquid alum, sodium bisulfate, ferric sulfate, and sulfuric acid, that have been used by the poultry industry. These products vary in effectiveness as the pH is raised by the activity of the poultry within a couple of weeks.

Litter Re-utilization

Some broiler producers are simply removing cake and excess litter after house washing and then placing broilers on old litter for an extended number of flocks. Their expectation is that total clean out is not needed unless there some disease or other bio-security issues.

However, producers doing this should be aware that total disinfection under these conditions is probably not possible.

A major issue with re-utilization of previously used litter is the generation of ammonia. Ammonia is produced by microbial breakdown of fecal material in the litter. The caked portion of the litter is very high in moisture and nitrogen and should be removed from the house to reduce ammonia generation and provide optimal air quality for chicks during the brooding period.

Disposal and Re-use

Broilers have on average a 47-day grow out period, during which the typical broiler chicken will generate about two pounds of litter, if you add the manure and bedding materials. Actual manure generation will be lower because it is only a fractional component of litter. This translates to an average of about 0.7 ounce per day per bird, varying considerably over the life of the bird. This means that a single broiler house, which can contain well over 20,000 birds can generate over 40,000 lbs of litter per flock.

Historically, applications for used poultry litter have included, and still include, use as feed for cattle in the commercial beef industry, land application as a fertilizer for crops or pastures, or occasionally as potting material for the greenhouse and plant container industries. Recently there has been an upsurge in the use of poultry litter as a bio-fuel source for electrical cogeneration and gasification.

Dr. Akash Thakor


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