On sandy East Texas soil: Chicken litter, no-till improve corn outcome

Pat Pilgrim is making lemonade. Well, perhaps chicken soup offers a better analogy since disposal of more than 100,000 tons of poultry litter a year is what got Pilgrim to thinking about ways to get rid of it. And dispersal had to be both environmentally and economically sound.

The dilemma is doubly daunting because of the soils he has to work with in the handful of East Texas counties where the poultry industry contracts production in hundreds of chicken houses.

Pilgrim's operation, near Pittsburgh, in Camp County, consists mostly of sandy soils, which are not particularly good for crops with high nutrient demand, such as corn. So most area landowners depend on bermudagrass and other forage crops to use up an ample supply of poultry litter. But Pilgrim is making corn, good corn, both grain and silage, on land that most analyses indicate is too poor for wheat and about right for sweet potatoes.

“It's hard to remove as much phosphorus as we need to get out of the soil with bermudagrass,” Pilgrim says. “We've tried bermudagrass and ryegrass. We can make three or four hay cuttings a year on bermuda and still not pull enough phosphorus out of the soil.”

Phosphorus is the primary problem. Poultry litter contains a lot of it and it tends to build up in the soil and if it gets too high, above 200 parts per million, it's prone to move.

“A corn crop removes more phosphorus,” Pilgrim says, “but we tried corn about 15 or 20 years ago and it did not work in these soils. We tried milo, too.”

But that was then. With improved genetics and better production technology Pilgrim says corn offers area growers an opportunity to improve profit potential and pull down phosphorus levels.

Satisfies both sides

“It's always difficult to satisfy both a government agency and farm economics,” he says. “But the program I'm using now satisfies both sides. The Farm Service Agency likes it. The EPA likes it.”

And Pilgrim, who averaged 140 bushels of dryland corn per acre on 2,000 acres last year and hit 220 bushels on one field, likes it too.

Reduced tillage makes a big difference, he says. And with poultry litter providing a good part of the crop's fertility requirements the economics makes sense. He says at $2 a bushel, his break-even is 60 bushels per acre.

No-till corn, Pilgrim says, limits runoff and the poultry litter adds organic matter to the sandy soils. “Some other growers are considering the program,” he says. “We've been successful with it.”

Pilgrim says a crop such as corn allows a grower to remove the entire crop and pull more phosphorus out of the soil than he can eliminate with a forage crop. He says a farmer who makes grain or corn silage and then feeds it back to his own beef or dairy cattle may just be moving the nutrients around instead of moving them off the farm. Making whole grain or silage and shipping it out, he says, is the best way to manage nutrients. Corn silage takes up a little more phosphorus than grain corn.


He applies two tons of litter per acre to corn land. He'll add about 150 units of nitrogen to that. “That's the economic threshold for nitrogen application,” he says, “so that's what we use. We aim for 29,000 plants per acre.”

He's taken Bermuda out of production with a Roundup application in the fall (one half gallon per acre). He performs a compaction test and if that comes out OK, plants no-till directly into the dead Bermuda.

“I'll apply some Atrazine, Dual and Roundup the first of the year if I don't have henbit.” (He adds some 2,4-D to get henbit.)

He uses a 22-17- 0 starter fertilizer and puts nitrogen on side-dress, with about a quart of zinc. He'll also add from five to eight pounds of sulfur.

“Zinc is a real key for corn,” Pilgrim says. “Corn likes zinc and it's a fairly cheap nutrient.”

He figures with poultry litter as part of his fertility program, he invests from $115 to $120 per acre in production costs. Soil pH has not been a problem. “I have some fields as low as 5.5 and I can't tell any difference in production,” he says. “I made 200 bushels on a field last year that had not been farmed in 50 years. It had not had a plow in it for that long. I made about 33 tons of corn silage.”

He uses a seed treatment, Poncho 250, but says insect problems have been minimal. “I've seen some cutworms and some grubs in some fields, especially the first year out of bermudagrass. I may use Poncho 1250 in some of those fields.”

He plants about half his acreage in Bt plus Roundup Ready corn and half in just a Roundup Ready hybrid.

Pilgrim says he'll watch no-till for several years and then determine if he needs to do a “light chisel.”

‘Management easy’

He'd like to see other area farmers try the system on a small acreage. “Management is easy,” he says. “All we need to get into no-till corn is a tractor, a good planter and a good spray rig.”

He's looking for other options. “I have a spot I want to try cotton on,” he says. “I planted 17 rows last year and estimated yield at better than a bale and a half. I'd like to have an alternative to corn.”

Pilgrim says the system is working well so far. “I have some fields that have dropped considerably below the 200 parts per million phosphorus level. I may add more than two tons of litter per acre on those fields.”

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