9 common litter management pitfalls

Too often, management shortcuts are taken. Here are nine common processes producers follow based on convenience that put bird health and performance at risk.

Over the last several years, poultry production experienced a great number of changes creating a domino effect.

The widespread removal of antibiotics and changing animal welfare standards have shown past methods of litter management to be less effective. Beyond the consequences of this shift, we are also beginning to better understand the ecology of litter and how to leverage its benefits while negating its potential detrimental effects.

One thing remains certain: The ability to gain or lose performance and profitability starts the moment chicks are placed on the floor.

Many producers subscribe to the thought that litter management should be convenient and pretty litter will grow a good bird. However, perception is not reality when it comes to the floor. Too often, management shortcuts are taken. Here are nine common processes producers follow based on convenience that put bird health and performance at risk.

1. Leaving houses open to air out after birds leave

Ambient temperature impacts air quality, but core temperature affects ecology of the litter. Research shows the importance of maintaining a core litter temperature between 88 degrees and 92 degrees Fahrenheit (31.1 degrees to 33.3 degrees Celsius). Leaving houses open and fans on during downtime stops the ammonia purge, slows the replication of organisms within the litter and causes valuable core floor temperature to be lost.

Heat keeps the ecology of the litter alive and out of the dormancy phase. If you don’t smell ammonia in an open house during downtime, it doesn’t mean ammonia is not present. Instead, it’s a good indicator the litter microbiome is not currently active or replicating. Replication will restart when the floor is heated at placement—creating a challenge to chicks. 

It is recommended to keep houses closed tight during downtime. If condensation forms on walls or ceilings, dry the house by ventilating when the outside air mass is at its driest. Use full ventilation when working in the house during downtime. By minimizing fan time, core litter temperature is retained, helping to minimize excessive fuel usage during pre-heat, and also aiding birds who cannot thermoregulate.

Figure 1 Ideal timing of pre-heating, litter treatment and bird placement after ammonia purge

Figure 1. Ideal timing of pre-heating, litter treatment and bird placement after ammonia purge. Source: Blake Gibson, Jones-Hamilton Co.

2. Windrowing without sufficient downtime

Windrowing can be a great way to reduce pathogenic load in litter. However, if done improperly or if the target temperature is not met, windrowing can do more harm than good.

The optimum temperature for most pathogen replication is around 86 F to 110 F (30 C to 43.3 C). If temperatures rise above 130 F (54.4 C), pathogen growth rates decline sharply (see Figure 2). The windrow heat cycle requires that sufficient amounts of carbon and water be present to properly heat and achieve pathogen kill. Adequate carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratios, of 25 to 1, and moisture, at least 35 percent, are necessary. Normal litter has a C:N ratio of 15 to 1 and a moisture content around 20 to 25 percent.

Another common windrow pitfall is to leave caked litter on the sidewalls rather than move it all to the windrow piles. Not only is the moisture from the caked litter necessary for the cycle, all litter must be piled to reduce the microflora load.

3. Tilling to create pretty litter

When litter is tilled, it may look good, but the simple act of increasing the surface area of the litter also increases the amount of ammonia that is released. Instead, use a decaker immediately after catch to remove the wet litter no deeper than the thickness of the cake.

By minimizing surface area, ammonia volatility is minimized. If there is too much litter in the house, be sure to remove the ammonia-laden litter from the sidewalls and not the good litter from the center portion of the house. Over-managing litter will only create more challenges.

4. Using only the five senses to assess house conditions

It’s human nature to use our five senses to make decisions. When it comes to poultry litter, those senses are not likely to provide all the information. Ammonia desensitization is a common challenge, and bacteria are invisible to the naked eye.

Using tools such as ammonia guns and relative humidity meters play a vital role in accurate litter management. Be sure to take ammonia readings at chick level for the greatest accuracy. Remember, ammonia can cause health and performance problems at levels as low as 10 parts per million (ppm) and can cost up to 8 points of feed conversion at 50 ppm.

5. Keeping litter too dry

Overly wet litter can wreak havoc on bird health and performance, but so can overly dry litter. Litter management is a balancing act; it requires the right amount of carbon, organic material and moisture. A moisture content of 15 to 25 percent is ideal. If litter is too dry, it can have just as negative an impact on bird health as litter that is too wet, such as air sac and bronchitis susceptibility.

Figure 2 The generally accepted minimum temperature recommendation is 130-135°F over the course of five to seven days, plus some added time for ammonia and moisture release

Figure 2. The generally accepted minimum temperature recommendation is 130-135 F over the course of five to seven days, plus some added time for ammonia and moisture release. Source: Blake Gibson, Jones-Hamilton Co.

6. Lack of proper pre-heating

Pre-heating for more than 48 hours prior to bird placement raises the core litter temperature, not just the surface temperature. This helps release ammonia from the litter, keeps chicks from huddling at placement, and warms the water in waterlines to encourage chicks to drink and eat. Without proper pre-heating and the subsequent ammonia purge, up to 50 percent of your litter amendment can be wasted even prior to bird placement.

Deeper, manure-based houses may require longer pre-heating to affect the ammonia purge. If this is not achieved prior to bird placement and litter amendment application, there will be more ammonia for a longer time period during the early stages of brooding.

Always remember that the floor is a living, breathing organism with specific temperature requirements that must be met as well as balanced with requirements of the chicks.

7. Not changing waterline management as litter changes

Waterline management should differ with changes to litter management. For example, windrowed litter is light and fluffy at placement, but will become more compact over time. Therefore, waterlines should be leveled at the individual strings (see Figure 3), not at the crank, at days 1, 3, 5 and 7 during brood and as birds move down. Donuts or light cake forming under waterlines are sign that waterline and drinker management have fallen behind.

8. Not managing litter to support cocci control programs

Cocci will challenge birds based on how the floor is managed. To ensure sporulation can occur, which is necessary for vaccine effectiveness, a minimum of 20 to 25 percent litter moisture content is required. Too much moisture, however, can cause excessive sporulation challenging birds. Manage drinker lines to eliminate wet spots and keep relative humidity between 50 to 70 percent to prevent cake and house sweating.

Figure 3 Adjusting Waterlines At The Strings Helps Achieve Ideal Nipple Height For Birds

Figure 3. Adjusting waterlines at the strings helps achieve ideal nipple height for birds. Source: Blake Gibson, Jones-Hamilton Co.

9. Thinking all litter amendments are the same

There are a variety of litter amendments available to producers. Acid, chemical and microbiological litter amendments all have different roles and functions, so it is vital to educate yourself on the dynamics of your chosen amendment and its purpose.

Plus, in an era where the importance of traceability from cradle-to-use and sustainability is rising, a product’s life cycle impact can be beneficial or detrimental to a grower and company’s overall environmental goals.

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