The Delmarva Peninsula, located within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, is the birthplace of the integrated poultry industry. As the story goes, the industry began when Mrs. Wilmer Steel purchased 500 chicks to raise and sell in the market rather than for her family’s own consumption. Her success in growing 387 of the original 500 chickens to a market weight of two pounds and selling them for roughly $0.60 per pound captured the attention of many and the industry was born.

In spite of poultry’s long history and importance to almost every state that lies within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the future of poultry production within the region may be at risk.

Responding to executive order

Excessive amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment have been judged to be the main cause for a reduction in the water quality of a number of tributaries that supply water to the Chesapeake Bay and subsequently the Bay itself. A Presidential executive order, signed on May 12, 2009, established a federally led program to reduce nutrients flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.

The reduction of nutrients flowing into the Chesapeake Bay will be achieved by developing a nutrient diet for the bay, technically known as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). This maximum load will be shared by each potential source of nutrients located within the 64,000 square miles that makes up the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The magnitude of this task is enormous and its complexity is increased by the deadlines established in the executive order and those self-imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

More expected from industry

It is clear, from statements made by individuals on the team developing the TMDL, animal agriculture will be expected to go beyond the substantial progress it has already made to prohibit the release of nutrients from their farms. While the poultry industry is willing to do its fair share to prohibit the transfer of nutrients to waterways and will follow additional regulations if they are required, we want to be sure they are based on sound and current science.

Imprecise model

Unfortunately, the small window of time to establish and implement the TMDL has made it necessary for EPA to develop the model from the 30,000-foot level. While EPA has admitted the model should be developed at the county level to capture precise input data and provide credit for all appropriate conservation practices that are occurring on the ground, time will not permit the model to be calibrated to this extent.

To be fair, EPA has indicated it will be open to revising the nutrient generation model with inputs supplied by the poultry industry as long as the data can be verified. However, EPA warned that time will limit their ability to evaluate any data supplied and adjust the model accordingly.

Although EPA indicated it fully expects that the model will progress through a number of refinements that will adjust nutrient budgets allocated to each sector, it seems unlikely that a sector will quietly accept a reduction in their allocation once it has been granted. The likelihood of this situation dictates the need to slow the process down and give stakeholders and modelers appropriate time to increase the accuracy of the model.

More deliberate focus needed

It should surprise no one that the process of developing a model that calculates the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment generated from numerous sources located within a 64,000 square mile area is problematic. What we should be surprised by is the lack of time that has been allocated to complete the task. Given the possibility that the use of incomplete or faulty data may have negative affects on numerous industries that operate within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, a more deliberate and clear focus on the entire modeling process is clearly appropriate.