Ramble On

Monday, March 8, 2010

Fibrowatt: More on the Farmer's "Squeeze"

I don’t recall posting this before, so I wanted to put up a summary of what I’ve learned about using chicken litter for fertilizer. I say summary because I am going to focus on three elements that are a component of chicken litter fertilizer – Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, or N, P and K as they are listed in the periodic table.

In Page County and elsewhere in Virginia (and most other poultry producing states, as a matter of fact), chicken litter is used as an early-stage starter fertilizer in fields, especially those that produce animal feeds like corn and soybeans. Each of the three nutrients have their own value, and from the “Latest Scoop” article linked below, we see that on nutrient value alone, litter is worth from $40 to $45 a ton, yet costs in the $30 per ton range, including transportation an spreading. Meanwhile, buying fertilizer to provide these nutrients costs about $110-$130 per acre – per the “Input Costs” article linked below.

Fibrowatt plans to buy the “excess” litter and burn it to produce power. They say that the ash makes a good fertilizer, and a firm was started in close proximity to the Benson, MN plant to process and package the ash for resale to farmers. However, something happens to the ash when it is incinerated – the Nitrogen disappears, and the concentrations of P and K are increased.

From basic biology we learn that Nitrogen is essential to plant life. Chicken litter provides it, but Fibrowatt ash does not. So, if a farmer is forced to move to the ash as a fertilizer source, there will still be a requirement for a second application of N. It’s not efficient due to the double application, and fertilizer costs increase. The end result is more pressure on the farmers both in production costs and very likely in the margins they make from selling their products.

Phosphorus is a nutrient of extreme interest and the subject of much environmental regulation in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Soils such as those in much of Virginia do not absorb the nutrient well, and there is a lot of wash off into the streams and rivers. This can be managed to an extent with riparian buffers, and proper timing of fertilizer. However, with a more concentrated application in the ash, it seems like the risks from this nutrient are only made worse, rather than improved.

I will leave aside the discussion about Potassium, except to say that it is present in all living cells, per Wikipedia, and essential to plant life. I am not aware of risks or cost impacts from its use – and welcome comments on the matter if readers are aware of any.

However, as with the input costs and revenue “squeeze” I discussed last week, here is another case where inserting Fibrowatt into the equation won’t create any benefits to farmers. It’s a great irony that the company markets itself to the agricultural sector as a “partner” – in Page County, Fibrowatt is even seen as a potential savior of the poultry industry – yet the economics of their impacts are increased costs and lower products. Their presence threatens the very existence of farming in the communities they are trying to go to!




Page County Watch said...

I hope Mr. Todd Gilbert can learn this information and pass it on to the farmers.

Terry said...


There is a perspective on the farmer/nutrient issue that you did not include in this post.

The overall way you have talked about nutrient valuable is reasonable - but fails to consider another aspect of this situation. The missing perspective is hinted at in the sidebar of your own website - ”Sustainability”. One of the benefits of a Fibrowatt project is that it provides another nutrient management option, which can provide long-term, sustainable nutrient management flexibility for the region.

Since you were present at the March 2nd meeting you were introduced to some of the issues associated with nutrient management in concentrated poultry growing regions. Based on the size of the poultry industry in Virginia, there is a significant “import” of feed crops (corn & soy bean) into the area. This feed is rich in nutrients. Bringing in a wealth of nutrients is not inherently an issue as the nutrients left over after raising the birds can have value to the farmers, as you suggest.

However, as was indicated during our informational presentation, poultry litter is not rich in primary nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium). Based on a low concentration of nutrients, it is not really viable to move litter out of the area. As a result, the only option to date has been use on area fields and pasture land.

While the poultry litter may have value at an individual farm, the regional value of poultry litter has to be viewed in the context of plant nutrient requirements and regional nutrient requirements. Where the value of litter would go down is when these nutrients are not in balance with individual crop nutrient requirements or are generated above an areas overall nutrient requirements.

As was mentioned at the March 2nd meeting, crops will have certain annual nutrient requirements for each of the primary, secondary, and micro- nutrients; this is referred to as a crops “agronomic” nutrient requirement. In most cases the crops agronomic nitrogen requirement far exceeds the crops agronomic phosphorous and potassium requirements. It is not unusual for a crop to require 4-5 times more nitrogen than phosphorous.

Since poultry litter has equal amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous, every time litter is applied according to the crops nitrogen requirements, phosphorous would be applied above the plants actual needs. Application of nutrients in excess of the plants nutrient requirements can not be considered a long-term sustainable practice. If you were to talk to a farmer about the value of litter according to the agronomic rate of phosphorous – a sustainable agronomic rate – they would consider litter far less valuable. Not only would they apply less litter but they would need other forms of nitrogen to meet the plant’s agronomic nitrogen requirements. That is why another option for litter management can be so important.

As an answer to your website – “Why is it so hard to adopt a sustainable lifestyle? - it is because it may require an alternative look at the situation – an approach that is likely different than what may have worked in the past. We feel we can be part of that sustainable solution for the area and why the poultry industry would find value in such an alternative litter management solution.

Terry Walmsley
Fibrowatt LLC

Terry said...


In addition to my above post, there are a few misconceptions about the use of the ash by-product fertilizer that need to get cleared up.

You have misunderstood a few aspects of this situation. First off, no one will force a farmer to convert to an alternative source of nutrients as you suggest. As I said in the presentation, poultry litter will continue to be available for use - Fibrowatt is managing the “excess litter.” This excess litter can be considered the material that exists in and above the agronomic nutrient requirements of the local crops and the total nutrient requirements of the area. Furthermore, as I also indicated in the presentation – the ash fertilizer is applied at much lower rates – not at more concentrated rates as you suggest. Poultry litter is typically applied annually in tons per acre (~2,000 – 4,000 pounds or more per acre) whereas the ash by-product fertilizer is applied in 100’s pounds per acre – usually every other year. Furthermore, this fertilizer would be applied according to a plants agronomic phosphorous requirements as it has no nitrogen. As such, because the ash by-product fertilizer is a concentrated form of phosphorous, unlike poultry litter, it is also feasible to move this material longer distance and therefore the pressure of nutrient application on area fields can be reduced.

Terry Walmsley
Fibrowatt LLC

Jim said...


I've been away a few days, and have just been able to catch up on your posts. I appreciate the additional details. I think this is very useful information for the broader communities that Fibrowatt is considering for prospective sites.

One of the things that may have been an issue in Page County is the cloaked process that involved the farmers before involving a broader community. If the EDA strategic plans had been shared with you, you would likely have identified an emerging conflict with several other economic engines in this struggling community, and how a careful balance will need to be found between proposed industry and the existing ones - which is a big part of how I came down on the issue.

I do appreciate the discussion that we've had on the blog here. There are still quite a few daily hits on the topic - I will leave the material up to help inform future dialog - for and against your efforts.

Thanks again for a careful and civil dialog.