Efficient use of resources is good for business and good for the environment. The broiler, turkey and breeder growers recognized as Family Farm Environmental Excellence Award winners by the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association have each shown that protecting the environment and successful farming go hand in hand. Manure management is a key part of any poultry grower’s environmental efforts, and this year’s award winning farms employ a number of innovative practices – including use of an anaerobic digester – to put poultry litter to good use while keeping nutrients out of waterways.

Brinson Farms: Energy and fertilizer  

Spending over $100,000 per year for the propane and electricity needed to operate his 10 broiler houses got John Logan thinking that there had to be a better way to provide the energy needed to run his Prentiss, Miss., farm. While Brinson Farms had been in his wife Bettye’s family for generations, Logan hadn’t always been a farmer, and his past experiences teaching, working with computers, and serving in the National Guard all played a role in the solution he found to power his farm.

Logan researched a number of alternative energy sources, but using an anaerobic digester to produce methane from his farm’s broiler litter is the option that intrigued him. Anaerobic digesters have been used on swine and dairy farms for years to produce methane gas which can be burned to produce heat or used in an internal combustion engine to drive an electric generator.

Poultry litter has been used as a fuel in gasifiers, but was not believed to be a suitable substrate for use in an anaerobic digester. In a pyrolytic gasifier, poultry litter is raised to a high temperature, around 1,500 F, in a low-oxygen environment, and this volatilizes many of the components of the litter. Air is then mixed with the volatilized gas and burned. Pyrolysis of poultry litter concentrates the nonvolatile components of the litter in the ash, but the nitrogen is burned off in the gas. Anaerobic digestion of poultry litter offered the prospect of producing energy while concentrating the fertilizer nutrients in the residual byproducts and preserving the nitrogen.

With the help of some researchers and government grants, Logan has developed an anaerobic digester on his farm that generates enough methane to heat his broiler houses and to generate all of the electricity that his farm needs (see sidebar). This unique system utilizes the chemical energy in the poultry litter while concentrating the fertilizer nutrients of the litter. Logan has developed markets for the liquid and solid byproducts of his anaerobic digester, and in this way the nutrients are sold off the farm for more money than the raw litter would return.

Brinson Farms raises 260,000 broilers per flock for Tyson Foods and was chosen as the winner in the Southeast region.

Evans Poultry: Protecting the Chesapeake Bay   

The Chesapeake Bay watershed has served as a highly publicized test case for cooperative attempts by states, municipalities, the federal government, companies and individuals working together to try and reduce the nutrient loading of a large complex aquatic ecosystem. Unfortunately, progress has not been made at the rate that regulators would like to see. Proper on-farm nutrient management is one element in the effort to reduce nutrient loading of the watershed. Moving poultry litter out of the watershed into an area with less nutrient loading has been proposed as a tool for helping to clean up the bay.

Evans Poultry in Dorcas, W.Va., is a long way from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay but is in the Chesapeake watershed. Allen and Beverly Evans raise around 140,000 broilers per flock in five houses for Pilgrim’s Pride. The farm has 800 acres, 300 of which are kept in pasture for a 100-head feeder-calf operation.

Nearly 1,000 tons of broiler litter are produced on the farm each year. Litter is stored in two 42-foot by 60-foot litter storage sheds. Around 80% of the litter is sold off the farm to farmers outside of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Pastures on the Evans’ farm only receive litter once every three years.

Because of the steep grade on the property, sediment traps and grass buffers are used to trap solids in any stormwater runoff from around the poultry houses.

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Evans Poultry was selected as the winner in the Northeast region.

Backes Farm: Growing on small acreage   

In 2001, Glenn and Tracy Backes purchased a 50-acre farm in Eldon, Mo., with three turkey pullet houses on it. The family raises replacement breeders, 9,000 hens and 800 toms per flock, for Cargill in dark-out houses.

Because the Backes family raises turkey breeders, the houses are completely cleaned out after each flock. Since the houses are rebedded each flock, around 700 tons of litter are produced in a year. The farm’s acreage cannot accommodate this much litter, so 90% of the litter is sold to neighboring farmers.

In addition to raising replacement breeders, the family bottle feeds calves and has a small apple orchard and vegetable gardens.

Backes Farm was named the winner in the South Central region.

Hibbard Farms: Improving the land   

When Clay and Melissa Hibbard purchased 320 acres of cropland in Adair, Okla., in 1993 they started right away working to improve the neglected soil, and they haven’t stopped working on it. Hibbard Farms now encompasses 340 acres and has two poultry houses with 30,000 broiler breeders per flock raised under contract with Tyson Foods. The family also raises cattle.

The Hibbards have installed over 3.5 miles of cross fencing so that the pastures can be managed with rotational grazing. All of the creeks have been fenced to keep cattle out, and ponds have been built to provide water for the cattle. Because of the low phosphorous levels of the native soil, all of the farm’s litter can be used to improve the soil on the farm. Buffer strips 100 feet wide are maintained around creeks and litter is not spread in them.

Twenty acres of the farm are maintained in native prairie grasses to provide habitat for wildlife.

Hibbard Farms was named the winner in the Southwest region.