Information Possibly Outdated
The information presented on this page was originally released on March 11, 2002. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
Research assesses litter economics
By Charmain Tan Courcelle
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Researchers at the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station are evaluating the environmental and economic impacts of land application of poultry litter as part of an ongoing effort to support the poultry industry.
A team led by Diane Hite, MAFES agricultural economist, has developed several economic models that will aid the search for an environmentally sound and economically practicable solution to litter disposal. The work complements research projects underway at the Coastal Plain Branch Experiment Station in Newton.
Most litter from Mississippi broiler farms is used on-site as a fertilizer or soil amendment in hayfields and pastures. However, the soil storage capacity for nutrients can become exhausted with continued large applications of poultry litter, leading to potential environmental problems from runoff events.
"Runoff from overapplication of phosphorus -- one nutrient found in poultry litter -- has long been recognized to have a major environmental impact on waterways," Hite said.
"When litter is overapplied to one site, not only is there an environmental cost, but the value of this fertilizer is lost as well. We're trying to create a market for poultry litter that will allow this byproduct to be taken away from a point where it has negative value and used at another point where it has value."
One analysis that Hite's group has performed is based on a simulation program that incorporates local physical data -- including soil types, meteorological conditions and topography -- and fertilizer and tillage practice information. Researchers are using this biophysical modeling program to predict the amount of nutrient, fertilizer, sediment and pesticide runoff under various cropping and management systems over a 25-year period.
"There is only about two years of physical data from agronomy studies with poultry litter at the Newton branch station, so we don't have a good understanding of the effect of different cropping practices on nutrient runoff over time," Hite said. "The simulations give us an idea of this long-term effect and allow us to take into account different crops, various application rates of litter and other inputs to establish the best and most profitable combinations of litter, fertilizer and cropping practices."
Litter application rates can be calculated on a nitrogen or a phosphorus basis. Mississippi State University researchers compare the land use requirements and associated costs for each of these standards.
"We found with a nitrogen standard that much more phosphorus is applied than can be used by crops, so there is a cost from potential damage to the environment from runoff," said graduate research assistant Ashley Renck said. "With a phosphorus standard, at least twice as much land is needed for litter application as with a nitrogen standard."
Research results suggest the lack of land in poultry-producing Mississippi counties will not sustain indefinitely the practice of litter application on poultry farms. And keeping litter in its "source county" could cost poultry producers an average of $21 or $23 per ton of litter in labor, equipment and land expenditures based on a nitrogen or a phosphorus standard, respectively.
Because proper use of litter within Mississippi poultry-producing counties is limited by land availability, researchers want to find uses for litter outside these areas that will be economically feasible. Renck also has developed a goal-programming model that has allowed environmental goals to be included in her market analyses.
"The goal-programming model was set up to consider two diametrically opposed options -- to get rid of litter safely and to do this as cheaply as possible," Renck said.
Results from this model suggest that the average value of litter in off-site counties is $34.40 or $35.76 per ton of litter using a nitrogen or a phosphorus standard, respectively.
"This suggests that a grower could realize a net gain of $13.40 or $12.76 per ton of litter (the difference between value of litter off-site and cost to keep litter) on a nitrogen or a phosphorus basis, respectively, by transporting litter to distant counties," Renck said.
In another study, Hite's group is assessing consumer willingness to pay more for "eco-labeled" poultry products.
"An eco-label is a seal of environmental approval awarded by public or private organizations," Hite explained. In this study, the eco-labeled product would be poultry from a farm that uses additional environmental standards that are more stringent than currently required to use and dispose of litter.
Hite said poultry producers will incur costs for litter disposal as government regulatory policies for poultry and livestock production change to address potential environmental problems associated with these industries. By Hite's calculations, the cost of this regulation would be about 3 cents per pound of chicken. Renck designed a survey to determine whether a green marketing approach using eco-labels could help producers cover this extra regulatory cost.
"We want to find out whether consumers would be willing to share the burden of environmental regulations with producers, and how much more they would pay for chicken grown under environmentally friendly conditions," Hite said.
The survey has been sent to approximately 7,200 consumers nationwide. Results from this study will give the researchers an idea of the price that consumers are willing to pay for whole and cut chicken grown in an environmentally sound way and predict changes in demand due to price increases.
Renck said that previous green marketing studies on diverse goods, such as cosmetics, fish, fruit and forestry products, have shown that consumers are willing to pay for environmentally friendly products. She cited consumers' willingness to pay more per can of "dolphin-safe" tuna as an example of this.
"Green labeling for poultry raised in an environmentally friendly way could be a real economic benefit -- a win-win situation," Hite concluded. "The consumer benefits from a very small price increase for cleaner waterways, and the producer benefits because he doesn't have to bear all of the burden of meeting environmental regulations."
Contact: Dr. Diane Hite, (662) 325-7986