Authors as Published

*Overview of the Virginia Farm Assessment System

Table of Contents

I. Litter Management
II. Litter Storage
III. Land Application of Litter
IV. Disposal of Poultry Carcasses
V. Abandoned Sites
Glossary No. 10
Worksheet 10
Contacts and References



Nearly all broiler, pullet, and breeder operations grow the birds on concrete, wooden, or earthen floors. A 2-to 6-inch layer of wood shavings, peanut hulls, or other bedding material is used as an absorptive base. The manure and bedding mixture is commonly called litter, and it is removed one or more times a year and replaced with fresh bedding material. Most broiler operations produce 1.1 to 1.4 tons of litter per 1,000 birds. For a flock of 18,000 to 20,000 birds, this amounts to between 22 and 34 tons of litter per flock.

Poultry litter and carcass residues are nutrient-rich materials which can benefit the farmstead. Broiler litter is often used as a feed supplement for cattle. However, improper litter storage, improper disposal of carcasses, or improper land application of litter or compost residues can threaten farmstead water sources with nitrate and bacterial contamination.

The total nitrogen content of fresh poultry litter is usually 3 percent or more on a moist weight basis (20 to 30 percent water). This results in the litter containing two-thirds to one ton of total nitrogen for each flock of 18,000 to 20,000 birds. As much as 25 percent of the total nitrogen contained in fresh litter can be fairly mobile and subject to leaching. Manures can provide nearly half of overall fertilizer needs, or about one-fourth after allowing for storage and handling losses. The amount of nutrient loss depends on the method of handling and management involved. If done properly, maximum fertilizer value can be maintained while reducing the risk of water contamination.

Stored litter and compost residue materials can be sampled and tested for nutrient value to determine how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium they contain. This nutrient value information, combined with the amount of litter or residue applied per acre, makes it possible to determine whether additional commercial fertilizer is needed to meet realistic crop production goals.

Several carcass disposal options are available to Virginia poultry producers. Specific guidelines and considerations for any of these disposal methods can be obtained from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Animal Health - Bureau of Veterinary Services.

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I. Litter Management

Proper management of litter in the poultry house will reduce the need to remove litter between flocks and will aid in developing a cleanout schedule that allows direct application of manure to cropland without intermediate storage. Greater efficiency is obtained if manure can be directly applied at the proper time because handling costs are less and nitrogen will be more efficiently utilized. The primary key to good in-house management of litter is to keep the litter DRY. Wet litter, aside from being undesirable from the standpoint of bird health, creates a condition where more nitrogen is released from the litter in the form of ammonia.

Two primary factors relate to good litter conditions: proper heating and ventilation and selection and operation of bird watering systems to minimize spillage on the litter. Any common type of watering system can be used effectively if maintained properly. Careful adjustment of height, water depth, and other operating factors will help assure minimum spillage onto the litter. Reducing water spillage will:

  • save water,
  • improve bird quality,
  • improve production environment,
  • reduce ammonia release from litter,
  • reduce volume of wet manure cake, and
  • extend time between litter cleanout.
Dollars spent on proper selection and use of water systems and attention to good management provide economic and environmental returns to all phases of bird and litter management.

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II. Litter Storage

Storages are classified into three main types: temporary or "stockpiling;" open, and; permanently roofed. Each type provides flexibility for the producer, either for utilizing litter for fertilizer or cattle feeding in his/her own operation, or for holding litter until such time as it can be sold or donated to someone else. The storage method must protect litter from rainwater or snow melt; stockpiling of uncovered litter on the soil for periods of more than several weeks before application on cropland can lead to a five-fold reduction of nitrogen in the manure compared to good storage practices. The nitrogen lost may be leached into groundwater or washed into surface drains or streams. Cover is usually provided by a plastic, or other membrane, covering, or by a roofed structure. Adequate storage capacity should be provided so that land application can occur at the time when crops need nutrients.

Storage sites should be located on high ground that has good surface drainage, is not subject to ponding or flooding, and is located at least 100 feet from flowing streams or drainage ways. Avoid normally wet areas and other areas that tend toward running or standing water. Where a concrete base is not used, stockpile on an impermeable base such as well-compacted clay to minimize leaching into soil and groundwater table. A minimum of 4 feet (vertical) is recommended between the base of the pile and the seasonal high groundwater table. Storages should not be located closer than 100 feet, and downslope from wells or other sources of drinking water. Any downslope surface water sources within 100 feet of the stack should be protected by a grass filter area.

When properly located and managed, or if protected by diversion works, storages will not have runoff or leachate. However, if runoff or drainage from the storage occurs, it should be routed to a runoff retention pond for later land application, or into an infiltration terrace at least 100 feet long, or into an overland flow-filter area that is at least 50 feet long and seeded with fescue, orchardgrass, or other suitable variety recommended by local Extension or NRCS personnel. Infiltration areas must be maintained by clipping and weed control to maintain their effectiveness which depends on good grass cover and root systems.

To control diseases and to avoid the threat of spreading fire should spontaneous combustion occur within the storage pile, storages should not be located closer than 150 feet to dwellings or production houses. Practice recommended fly and rodent control around the production houses and in the vicinity of the storage area. Bird carcasses should not be added to litter storage piles; use only accepted dead bird disposal practices.

If the litter is to be temporarily in open storage and/or stockpiled, it should be covered with plastic sheeting (6 mil minimum thickness) held in place with old tires, by burying the edges of the sheeting, or by other anchoring systems. If this practice is used often, a reinforced, ultraviolet resistant cover will last longer and may be a good investment. Sites should be selected carefully, as described earlier; location near windbreaks will help protect the plastic covering. Compacting of litter is not necessary, but more manure can be stored in a smaller area and with less plastic sheeting if compaction is provided. Sheeting must be applied with care to prevent tearing. Anchor sheeting by laying the edges across a small trench approximately 12 inches deep and backfilling with soil. Lay used tires over the sheeting, similar to methods used on bunker silos, to prevent loosening and damage in the wind. It is preferable to leave the pile sealed until all litter can be spread or otherwise utilized.

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III. Land Application of Litter

At present, there are no regulations governing the land application of poultry litter in Virginia. It is recommended that a site specific farm nutrient management plan (NMP) be developed through the assistance of Virginia Cooperative Extension, or the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation-Division of Soil and Water Conservation (DSWC).

The following guidelines are recommended for inclusion in the NMP and for voluntary implementation by the farm owner:

  • The manure spreader should be well calibrated to achieve accurate and even distribution of the litter.
  • Poultry litter should be evenly distributed over application sites at a rate not to exceed 5 tons per acre per year, or according to a site-specific land management plan, with no more than 2.5 tons/acre in each application. (As a rule of thumb, 30 acres is required for one 16,000 square foot house per year).
  • Manure should not be applied in fall and early winter for spring crop production unless cover crops are planted. Schedule manure clean outs just before crops need nutrients, or have adequate storage for these periods.
  • Surface land application of poultry waste should not be undertaken when soil is too wet, frozen, or covered with snow, during rainy weather, or when precipitation is in the immediate forecast.
  • Poultry waste should not be applied on slopes with a grade of more than 15 percent or in any manner that will allow waste to enter state waters. Follow a site-specific land management plan, especially if there are unique features to consider.
  • Surface and subsurface application of poultry waste should not be made within 50 feet of streams, ponds, lakes, springs, sinkholes, or rock outcrops, and not within 100 feet of wells or other water supplies, or according to a site-specific land management plan.
  • Records should be kept by the farmer of the dates, quantity, and specific sites where litter is applied. If the litter is sold, a record should be kept of who buys the litter, the dates, the quantities, and the farm sites where litter is applied or utilized.
  • A manure analysis of the litter should be obtained. The appropriate application rate depends on the crop and on the nutrient content of the soil before the application is made, as well as the nutrient content of the waste material. Soil testing and manure nutrient analyses are recommended procedures for best determining poultry litter application amounts.
The local Virginia Cooperative Extension Office, NRCS, or DSWC can provide more information on soil testing, litter analyses, equipment calibration, record keeping, and other areas related to poultry litter land application.

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IV. Disposal of Poultry

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services-Bureau of Veterinary Services (VDACS-BVS), is responsible for regulations regarding the disposal of dead animal carcasses. The following are currently approved disposal methods:
  • Composting
  • Rendering
  • In-ground pits (presently discouraged)
  • Incineration
  • Burial
Composting of poultry carcasses has become the method of choice for disposal of normal mortality losses on Virginia poultry farms. There are several different versions of composters available, but they must all meet the following requirements:
  1. Must be practically odorless.
  2. Must operate at temperature high enough to destroy pathogenic bacteria (150šF).
  3. Must provide for complete decomposition of carcasses-only minimal amounts of feathers and bones remaining.
  4. Must be adequately protected from flies so that larvae are not a problem.
Composter design can vary considerably and still work well. However, experience indicates that certain features are common to all good composters.

Some materials are composted outside. However, this is not recommended for dead bird compost. A roof ensures all-weather operation, and helps control rain, snow, runoff, and percolation which can be major concerns.

A concrete floor is recommended to assure all-weather operation, and to secure the composter against rodents, dogs, and other nuisances. An impervious floor also will help dispel concerns about contamination of the groundwater and other surrounding areas. An optional concrete apron, sloped away from the primary bins, is recommended. This provides an all-weather surface for equipment and operation.

Building Materials:
Specify preservative pressure-treated lumber or other rot-resistant materials which resist the biological activity of composting. Use hot-dipped galvanized nails which resist rusting.

Access to primary bins:
A method is needed to enclose and confine the compost mixture, but allow access with a bucket loader for efficient handling with farm equipment. One technique that works well is to construct channels on the sides of front bin posts using angle iron or wood cleats. Treated boards can then be slipped into the channels to form a front wall, or "gate," as layers are stacked in the bin. Conversely, the boards can be removed after the composting is completed to give access to the bin with a bucket loader.

Remaining options, such as rendering, in-ground pits, incineration, and burial are not as highly recommended because of potential for groundwater contamination. It is very likely that in-ground pits will soon be removed from the approved methods list.

Additional information on dead poultry composting is available from your local Virginia Cooperative Extension Office in VCE Publication 442-037, "Composting Dead Poultry."

The VDACS-BVS should be contacted when catastrophic die-off occurs on a farm. Such cases require special permission and supervision of disposal.

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V. Abandoned Sites

Abandoned poultry houses or old earthen poultry foundations can be threats to farmstead water sources. A complete discussion of how to deal with these sites is given in Fact Sheet No. 8, Livestock and Poultry Yard Management (Section V).

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Poultry litter management and carcass disposal These terms may help you make more accurate assessments when completing Worksheet No. 10. They may also help you clarify some of the terms used in Fact Sheet No. 10.

Compost - Organic residues that have been collected and allowed to decompose until they are stable.

Composting - A controlled process of decomposing organic matter by microorganisms.

Decomposition - The breakdown of organic materials.

Leaching - The removal of soluble materials from soils or other material by water.

Mobile - Has the ability to move or be moved (in the case of nutrients, usually with water).

Nutrient - Usually referring to those elements necessary for plant growth-nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).

Residue - The material that remains after decomposition.

Stacking Shed - A structure designed and built for the storage of poultry litter.

Contacts and References

For additional information, consult the Virginia Farm*A*Syst Resource Directory. For assistance in sampling, interpreting results, and dealing with remaining problems, contact your Cooperative Extension or Natural Resources Conservation Service office.

For additional information, you may contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension or Natural Resources Conservation Service office, or the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation-Division of Soil and Water Conservation Office.


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 Worksheet 10, " Poultry Litter Management and Carcass Disposal."

View a list of the Virginia Farmstead Assessment System publications.


Reviewed by Bobby Grisso, Extension Specialist, Biological Systems Engineering

Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, reprint, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; M. Ray McKinnie, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State University, Petersburg.

Publication Date

May 1, 2009