Almost all Virginia poultry growers will be required, under new legislation, to take steps by 2001 to prevent huge poultry manure stockpiles from contaminating waterways.

The poultry waste measure won easy approval from the General Assembly after a compromise was reached by groups as diverse as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Virginia Farm Bureau. Gov. Jim Gilmore is expected to sign it.

It will require that all farmers with 20,000 or more chickens or turkeys to implement phosphorus-based nutrient management plans and to properly store and keep track of poultry manure.

Passage of the bill brings almost all major, confined livestock operations in Virginia under some form of regulation. Laws governing wastes from many hog and dairy operations are already on the books.

But the poultry bill is more sweeping in scope than measures addressing hog and cow waste. It covers almost all poultry growers, and requires the processors — companies that actually own the chickens — to help farmers meet their obligations under the law.

“I feel comfortable with thinking about 95 percent of the poultry industry will be covered by that,” said Russ Perkinson, nutrient management program manager with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which will oversee the nutrient management requirements of the new program.

Greater DCR control was a key element of the compromise that emerged last December, after a less-detailed version of the bill had been held over for study from the last General Assembly session.

Agricultural interests wanted the program be managed by the DCR — which has historically worked on nutrient management issues — and not the Department of Environmental Quality, as originally proposed. At the same time, environmentalists insisted on a mandatory program that included phosphorus-based nutrient management plans.

The compromise requires the DEQ to develop the regulations, but the DCR will approve the nutrient management plans for individual farms.

The final product, said Joe Maroon, director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia office, is “one of the most significant water-quality-related bills that has occurred in the last several years.”

Under the legislation, poultry operations must develop phosphorus-based nutrient management plans by Oct. 1, 2001 that will guide the storage and application of manure and include practices that reduce the water quality impacts of nitrogen.

It’s the first time Virginia has required that nutrient management plans be written primarily to deal with phosphorus, requiring that no more of the nutrient be placed on the ground than is needed by crops once soil tests verify high phosphorus levels.

The action reflects growing concern within the watershed about phosphorus buildup in agricultural areas. Last year, the Maryland General Assembly approved legislation calling for phosphorus-based nutrient management plans on almost all farms by 2005.

Historically, nutrient management plans have been developed primarily to deal with nitrogen, which has been of more concern in the Bay and in groundwater. But recent research has shown that phosphorus has often been overapplied on farmland, and in some areas is more likely to run off the land and into water bodies than earlier thought. In freshwater, phosphorus spurs algae blooms that degrade water quality.

The issue is especially critical for dealing with wastes from poultry and hogs, which have a higher phosphorus-to-nitrogen ratio than is needed by crops. As a result, when manure from those animals is applied to meet the nitrogen needs of a crop, far more phosphorus is placed on the ground than is used.

Conversely, when manure is applied based on phosphorus needs, far less manure can be used, and there is often not enough nitrogen. This means farmers must purchase additional nitrogen fertilizer to make up for the shortfall.

In areas with a number of large poultry operations, the use of phosphorus-based plans will result in more manure than available cropland. Recognizing that problem, the law requires state agencies to recommend, by the end of this year, ways that the state can help promote the transport, sale and other methods of using excess manure.

Right now, Perkinson said, poultry manure sells for $5 to $7 a ton in Virginia, but that price is likely to go down when phosphorus-based plans begin limiting the amount that can be placed on the land, creating surpluses in some regions of the state. “It’s going to have to be moved out of some of those areas, there’s no question about it,” he said.

In addition, the legislation requires poultry processors — who typically own the chickens and turkeys that farmers grow under contract — to provide technical assistance to help farmers deal with poultry waste and to help them get rid of excess manure.

Processors are also required to conduct research and promote other methods of reducing pollution problems from excess manure, including different feed formulations such as the use of the enzyme phytase, which can help reduce the amount of phosphorus in manure.

The bill also requires the DCR to review new science and technology in 2005 and to recommend any changes that need to be made in the program to protect water quality or to further reduce phosphorus buildups in soil.

The potential impact of animal wastes on water quality has received increased attention both regionally and nationally in recent years. Even before the legislation was introduced, the Virginia Poultry Federation reflected that concern by requiring its members to have nutrient management plans in place, although the plans did not have to be phosphorus-based.

At the federal level, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are considering a broad new program to regulate the largest of those operations.

Although Virginia officials typically stress the state’s voluntary nutrient management efforts, the poultry law joins already existing regulatory programs that cover many hog farms and dairy operations.

“We’ve probably had more regulatory programs existing longer that affect animal operations than any other state in the Bay region,” Perkinson said.

Since 1994, farms with liquid-manure storage systems and more than 750 hogs or 300 cows have needed permits and been required to develop and implement nutrient management plans. Perkinson estimated that this covered about 70 percent to 80 percent of the hog production in the state, and about 30 percent of the dairy animals.

Because the number of dairy farms is gradually declining, while the number of larger hog and poultry farms are increasing, the trend is toward more livestock operations being required to develop nutrient management plans.

The law governing dairy and hog operations prohibits discharges from feedlots into streams and requires proper storage for manure, the testing of soils and manure, and — in some cases — groundwater monitoring. Operators of large hog and dairy operations are also to complete a training course by Jan. 1, 2000.

The law does not require phosphorus-based nutrient plans for those operations.

Meanwhile, the state is funding Virginia Tech to develop a “phosphorus site index.” That will help to identify areas of a farm which, based on crops, topography, soil type and other factors, are most likely to allow phosphorus runoff. Eventually, it is expected that the phosphorus site index will be used to write nutrient management plans, further reducing the potential for phosphorus runoff.

Perkinson said that although animal operations have increasingly fallen under the regulatory realm in recent years, the state has also used a variety of incentives to promote nutrient management and runoff control, in general, to meet Bay water quality goals.

For example, Perkinson said the state had made matching grants available in recent years to promote the addition of phytase — an enzyme that helps an animal better absorb phosphorus, thereby reducing the amount in manure — in hog and poultry feed.

In recent years, Virginia has offered a variety of tax credits to encourage farmers to purchase equipment for more precise fertilizer application — something needed to implement nutrient management plans. In 1998, the General Assembly offered additional tax credits if farmers adopt certain runoff control practices.

Perkinson estimated that only about 15 percent of Virginia farmland had nutrient management plans, but much of the land not under nutrient management is pasture, which usually does not have significant quantities of mechanically applied fertilizer like crop land. Instead, he said, the state emphasizes farms that impact large amounts of land or have large amounts of animal manure to dispose of.

“We prioritize getting the acres done that are important to get done,” he said.