Most chicken farmers would agree that the chicken litter piling up in some Delmarva counties is simply too much of a good thing.

In the world of manure fertilizer, chicken litter is king: It’s a better fertilizer and it’s easier to transport and store.

The problem, as in most businesses, has always been three things: location, location, location. In this case, many of the buyers are too far from the sellers.

Some of the region’s litter is turned into pellets and shipped to the Midwest. But, only a small fraction—about 60,000 tons of the 570,000 to 700,000 tons produced on the Delmarva Peninsula—winds up in the rail cars that hauled in the Midwestern grain used to feed the chickens in the first place.

Now, experts at the University of Maryland have discovered a potential market for chicken litter that may be much closer to home.

Farmers in Somerset, Wicomico, Worcester counties in Maryland, and Sussex County, DE have far more litter than they could possibly use as a fertilizer.

But, farmers in Talbot, Dorchester and Kent counties in Maryland, Kent County, DE, and Accomack County, VA, have “surplus capacity,” according to Doug Parker, associate professor of agriculture and resource economics at the University of Maryland. Farmers in these counties may be able to use chicken litter to supplement or replace fertilizers they now use on their crops. In fact, these counties could potentially use about 218,500 tons of chicken litter.

Chicken farmers in Caroline, Somerset, Wicomico, Worcester and Sussex counties annually generate about 565,000 tons of manure, according to a university study. But, their neighbors who grow corn and beans could only use about 335,000 tons.

That means that about 230,00 tons of the litter produced in these counties should ideally go somewhere else.

In Parker’s mind, “somewhere else” could be just up Route 50.

Because chicken litter includes high amounts of phosphorous, a nutrient that contributes to water quality problems, though, the manure should only be applied on fields where background phosphorous levels are not already too high, although this is less of a problem in counties with surplus capacity than surplus litter.

Parker also notes that changes in chicken feed have already reduced the amount of phosphorous in litter by 20 percent, and that industry efforts could reduce levels by an additional 25 percent.

“Using data on the soil phosphorous status of Delmarva soils, we found that there is more than enough cropland and existing alternative uses on the Delmarva Peninsula to absorb all of the poultry litter generated when applied at recommended rates,” said Parker, who co-authored the report, “Economic Value of Poultry Litter Supplies in Alternative Uses,” with two other scientists.

The biggest problem, Parker says, is providing the right incentives to develop a more sophisticated manure market.

Some producers own little more than the land upon which their chicken houses stand, so informal markets have been created to sell litter to neighboring corn and bean farmers. “Manure transportation and marketing is not new to Delmarva,” Parker said.

A 1996 study found that two-thirds of Delmarva growers move at least some poultry litter off-farm.

Parker said, farmers need to create a regional manure market, and he thinks state and federal funds could provide an incentive to start such a market.

For example, larger incentive payments could be provided to farmers in Queen Anne’s, Talbot, Dorchester, Kent, and Accomack counties when they buy chicken litter from farmers in Caroline, Somerset, Wicomico, Worcester and Sussex counties.

Currently, Maryland and Delaware provide up to $18 per ton to help farmers transport manure off their farms. The payments are made to one of three parties—the buyer, the seller or a manure broker.

Maryland’s litter transport program has paid the shipping costs of moving about 133,000 tons of manure between 1999 and 2003, according to Norman Astle, who runs the program for the state’s Department of Agriculture.

Each sale is reviewed by state officials to make sure “that we don’t simply relocate the phosphorous problem” by shipping litter to farms that already have too much phosphorous in the soil, he said.

Some shippers hauling grain, lime or other bulk farm products will transport a shipment of litter on the way home. “The back haul needs to be part of the equation to make it work financially,” said Astle, a farmer who uses litter as fertilizer.

Astle thinks the manure market will continue to grow, but only “if you keep the carrot out there.” Otherwise, shippers will not invest in the infrastructure to make the market work.

Maryland pays 12 cents per ton per mile generally, and 15 cents per ton per mile for manure shipped from Dorchester, Wicomico, Somerset, and Worcester counties. Large poultry companies like Perdue and Tysons match each dollar the state spends to transport litter.

Parker’s research found that a regional manure market, if successful, could provide more promise than other markets for litter.

He estimates that the bulk market for composted litter, which is used in landscaping, is perhaps 15,000 tons per year, and that applying litter to tree farms would use up 23,750 tons per year. Using poultry litter to produce electricity and steam for boiler processing plants could use up to 80,000 tons per year, but would depend upon the availability of tax credits.

A large-scale energy plant that burns litter to produce electricity could use far more litter but would require even greater tax credits, according to Parker’s analysis.

“Currently, about 10 percent of the poultry litter produced on the Delmarva Peninsula is used in alternatives uses,” such as composting, he said. “The ability of alternative uses to absorb large quantities of poultry litter may be limited.”

To learn more, visit www.arec.umd.edu/policycenter