Litter project findings bed down pivotal industry investments

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Research into foundational resource underpins optimal welfare, production and environmental outcomes

A major body of research investigating various aspects of sourcing, management, reuse and disposal is underpinning the successful utilisation of one of the Australian chicken meat industry’s largest operational investments — litter.

Litter is the material used on the floor in meat chicken houses and is one of growers’ largest operational investments. The chicken meat industry requires a reliable, ongoing supply of safe and effective litter materials. At the start of a grow-out, litter can either be fresh bedding materials, such as wood shavings, straw or rice hulls, or reused from the previous grow-out.

Litter is a crucial resource for chicken meat growers and its selection and management can have a significant impact on performance and bird welfare. Best-practice litter management optimises bird performance, reduces risks to meat chicken and human health, complies with biosecurity requirements and third-party accreditation schemes, and reduces the potential for environmental impacts.

Spent litter becomes a by-product that can, ideally, provide a modest revenue stream for chicken meat growers, but is also easily disposed of. By and large, Australian chicken meat growers remove spent litter after each batch of chickens and introduce fresh litter. In some cases, litter is re-used for the subsequent batch of chickens; in this case, amendments can be added to reduce ammonia production and the presence of bacteria. Litter amendments also can increase the nutrient value of spent litter. Most spent litter is sold as a fertiliser to broadacre farmers, horticulture producers, dairy farmers or composters.

The AgriFutures Chicken Meat Program has invested in a range of projects that have delivered best-practice litter management guidelines, explored fresh litter supply and management, investigated spent litter utilisation, assessed the risk of alternative litter types, and evaluated the suitability of litter amendments for the Australian chicken meat industry.

Findings of key litter investments are outlined below. Full final reports and project snapshots are available on the AgriFutures Australia website, and provide greater detail on individual projects.

Providing guidance for Australian meat chicken farms

As part of the project Best practice manual for managing litter, agricultural and environmental engineer Eugene McGahan from Integrity Ag consulted with a range of industry stakeholders to provide meat chicken growers with options for bedding type, in-shed litter management, reusing litter in sheds and disposing of spent litter. The manual represents an important guide to industry-leading practices that meet community expectations and enable growers to implement circular economy principles.

Reviewing supply and disposal options

The project Review of fresh litter supply, management and spent litter utilisation identified and reviewed a range of issues central to effective litter management by industry. The final report contains a review of the literature on alternative bedding materials and provides a ranked list of alternative bedding materials and management practices.

Ensuring the safety of alternative options

The diminishing supply and higher cost of traditional litter materials has stimulated interest in alternative litter sources. However, these materials can contain hazardous pathogens and chemical contaminants. The project Risk assessment of alternative litter types developed a method to assess contaminants potentially present in litter materials that can cause disease in chickens or be transferred to edible chicken products.

Scientific literature was reviewed to provide threshold contaminant levels in poultry litter. These values were then used to develop a tool that provides a screening and risk assessment process for a variety of alternative litter materials. This tool also includes management and mitigation strategies to ensure litter is safe and effective to use.

Analysing amendments to enable effective reuse

Litter amendments are products that change the chemical, physical or biological properties of poultry litter. Reuse of litter in Australia is not common because growers prefer to use fresh bedding, such as wood shavings or straw. Growers also have numerous concerns about ammonia, disease and pathogen carryover, and odour in reused litter, as well as the additional labour required and inadequate time for litter treatment processes to be completed because of quick turn-around times between flocks.

These concerns currently outweigh the potential benefits, such as cost effectiveness and warmer, drier and better-insulted litter. However, the supply of fresh bedding material for meat chickens is constrained, meaning the issue of reuse remains ever-relevant for industry.

The project Suitability of litter amendments for the Australian chicken meat industry involved a literature review and industry consultation on the use of litter amendments to understand views on litter reuse and the potential role of litter amendments. While litter reuse is not commonly practised, the project found there is general agreement it likely needs to become standard practice in Australia.

Supporting growth through sustainable practices

The recently completed project Litter and environment — BMPs and data to support production and industry growth has combined findings from existing research with industry feedback and previously reported information to produce ‘Litterpedia’ — a webpage covering litter management and reuse, including practices such as tilling.

Until recently, the chicken meat industry has had few resources that outline best management practices for litter and litter re-use. The litter management manual developed by Integrity Ag outlined many effective practices, but there was a need for more information about the practical, industry-proven options to keep litter drier, improve friability, reduce water spilled from drinkers and generally reduce risks associated with wet litter.

With such a complex and dynamic production environment, and with timing of the essence, growers need practices that suit their specific situation rather than a limited number of prescriptive BMPs. This project aimed to provide complementary research to practices growers have developed and refined over years, to improve understanding of the physical and chemical processes associated with litter management. Data and information collected from this project could form the basis of a future training tool or platform to improve knowledge and understanding of internal and external shed interactions.

AgriFutures Chicken Meat Program Research Manager, Sarika Pandya said litter management would remain an ongoing investment focus, particularly given increased community expectations relating to circular economic practices and sustainable industry practices.

“We know the influence litter selection and management can have on production and welfare outcomes. Because of this, we want to support industry as best we can by investing in research that contributes to industry best practices in this area,” she said.

“The projects already completed have produced valuable information and resources, and we encourage meat chicken producers to consider what’s been produced when developing litter management strategies for their farms.”

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