By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
Data released by the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission appear to show progress in reduction of poultry waste applications within the Illinois River watershed east of the Oklahoma state line.
The agency’s 2013 report tracks poultry waste production, removal, application and transfers identified during the 2012 calendar year on a county-by-county basis. The Illinois River watershed straddles large parts — but not all — of Arkansas’ Benton and Washington counties, so the data is not specific to the nutrient limited basin.
Figures reported for both counties as a whole show the amount of wastes removed from poultry houses there dropped 7.4 percent from the previous year. The 2012 report showed 349,294 tons of litter were removed from 2,113 poultry houses. The 2013 report shows 323,450 tons were removed, a decrease of 25,844 tons.
Of the 323,450 tons removed from those houses, 27,866 tons — about 8.5 percent — of poultry wastes were applied as fertilizer, and 289,375 tons — about 89 percent — were transferred or sold. The report shows an additional 31,176 tons of poultry wastes produced during the 2012 calendar year remains in the houses; 6,551 tons removed from the houses is being stored.
The removal of poultry wastes generated within the Illinois River watershed and limiting applications in nutrient-sensitive areas is important because the phosphorus- and nitrogen-rich litter can lead to the degradation of water quality. Increased phosphorus and nitrogen levels promote vegetative growth, which depletes the amount of dissolved oxygen available for fish and wildlife and reduces clarity.
Denise Deason-Toyne, the president of the Tahlequah group Save the Illinois River, said comparing the agency’s 2012 and 2013 reports “is like watching a shell game.” She said it appears progress is being made in some instances, but a closer examination reveals the existence of unaccounted poultry waste that “appears to still be in the watershed.”
“More houses and many more chickens means exponentially more waste in the future with no apparent and consistent plan for the removal of the waste,” Deason-Toyne said, citing a 6.15 percent increase in the number of poultry houses and 10.59 percent increase in bird capacity. “STIR is cognizant that yes, relatively speaking, Arkansas has made large strides in moving the poultry waste out of the watershed, but the industry keeps increasing the number of birds and resultant waste, and the numbers they’ve been reporting just don’t add up.”
Patrick Fisk, manager of ANRC’s nutrient management program, offered an explanation for how the amount of poultry wastes can fall while bird capacity rises. He said the formula used by the agency starts with a base figure of how much bedding is placed in the poultry houses and the amount removed when those houses are cleaned.
“The main thing we look at is the amount of litter removed from those houses,” Fisk said, noting the growing practice of partially removing poultry wastes from houses for a period of time and delaying “major clean-outs” for up to three years. “We want to make sure if a thousand tons are removed from the house, we can track that” and determine whether it was applied or exported.
Fisk emphasized figures that show reduced application rates for litter produced in nutrient sensitive areas, which are due to increased regulatory oversight that began in 2004. He said the state’s nutrient management program helps producers design application plans unique to each farm that restricts the amount of litter that can be applied as fertilizer.
The increase in the amount of poultry wastes being transferred outside the watershed, Fisk said, is due to greater demand. Much of that demand is being spurred by the use of litter as fertilizer at agricultural operations outside Arkansas.
“The biggest majority of the litter now is being moved out of the watershed,” Fisk said. “It is a huge, dramatic change from when we started this in 2004 to now — about 75 to 80 percent is being transferred or sold — they haul a lot of that to Kansas and Oklahoma.”
Fisk said that when the agency’s nutrient management program was implemented in 2004, producers were applying an average of 2.2 tons of poultry wastes an acre. This year, Arkansas’ statewide average for litter application was 0.73 tons an acre, which represents a reduction of about 66.82 percent during the span of about eight years.
An annual report published earlier this year by the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry shows poultry waste production within the watershed west of the Oklahoma-Arkansas state line increased 9.78 percent in 2011. Application of that poultry waste within the watershed fell by 0.08 percent, and exports to other watersheds increased 11.59 from the same period a year earlier.
Figures provided in the March 27 report reflect those amounts produced and applied within the watershed or transported elsewhere between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012. Poultry operations within the watershed generated 71,639 tons of waste during the year, up 6,359 tons from the 65,010 tons produced during the previous reporting period. Property owners within the nutrient-limited watershed applied 7,768 tons of poultry wastes to their land, a decrease of six tons from the 7,774 tons applied a year earlier.
Of the 63,871 tons of poultry wastes transported outside the watershed during fiscal year 2011, 22,227 tons, about 35 percent, were applied at unspecified locations within the state. An additional 41,644 tons, or 65 percent, were exported to unspecified locations outside Oklahoma.
Deason-Toyne said one of STIR’s big concerns is having the ability to track exactly where the exported poultry wastes are going.
“Is it being sold and applied in another state upstream? Will we see a trickle down effect in northeastern Oklahoma soon?” she asked. “That information is not easily obtainable, and the answers could very well have a huge impact on future water quality in the Illinois River and other Oklahoma watersheds.”
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or email@example.com.