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by Achim Dobermann

Litter (also known as poultry litter or broiler litter) a mixture of bedding material, manure, feathers, poultry excreta, and spilled feed, has been widely used as a fertilizer and soil amendment in agriculture for many decades. The use of litter can vary greatly between countries, with some heavily relying on it as a primary source of fertilizer, while others prohibit its use due to concerns over environmental impacts.

The history of poultry litter in agriculture can be traced back to the early 20th century, when farmers first began using it as a way to recycle waste materials and improve soil fertility. Since then, its use has grown significantly, particularly in countries with a large poultry industry such as the United States, China, and Brazil.

In the United States, it has been commonly used as a fertilizer on fields growing crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans. This is because the litter contains high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which are essential nutrients for plants. Additionally, the litter also helps to improve the structure and fertility of the soil. However, overuse of poultry litter can lead to excess nutrients in the soil, leading to potential environmental impacts such as groundwater pollution and eutrophication of waterways.

While it is widely used in the United States, in Europe, its use is more limited. Some countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany allow farmers to use poultry litter as a fertilizer, but it is subject to strict regulations. Other countries such as Belgium, France and the Netherlands have banned its use altogether due to concerns over water pollution.

China also heavily rely on poultry litter as a fertilizer, and it has become a significant source of income for farmers. However, like in the United States, overuse of the litter has led to environmental problems, including water pollution, air pollution, and eutrophication of waterways.


In terms of global statistics, an estimate suggests that around 100 million tons of poultry litter are produced annually, with the vast majority being used in agriculture. However, because regulations vary greatly between countries, it is difficult to get an accurate figure for the amount of it used in agriculture globally.

The use of it in agriculture is supported by scientific evidence showing that it can improve soil fertility and increase crop yields. However, there are also concerns about the potential environmental impacts of using poultry litter, particularly if it is not managed properly.

Some of the key concerns include: -Excessive nutrients in the soil, leading to groundwater pollution and eutrophication of waterways.

  • Pathogen, bacterial, and chemical contamination can be harmful to human and animal health.
  • The presence of antimicrobial resistance genes in the bacteria in litter could lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the environment.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from the decomposition of poultry litter can contribute to climate change.

It is important to mention that the type of litter used, and the way it is managed, can play a key role in reducing the negative impacts.

  • For example, using litter made from wood shavings or straw can reduce the risk of pathogen contamination compared to using sawdust.
  • Properly managed litter can reduce the risk of nutrient runoff and pathogen contamination.

The purpose of using poultry litter is to recycle waste materials, improve soil fertility, and increase crop yields. While it is a valuable fertilizer, farmers must consider the potential environmental impacts and ensure that the litter is managed properly.


In order to use poultry litter effectively and sustainably, certain management practices should be taken into account:

  • Regular testing of the nutrient content of the litter is important to ensure that it is suitable for use as a fertilizer and to prevent over-application.
  • Applying it at the correct rate and timing is crucial in reducing the risk of nutrient runoff and environmental impacts.
  • Incorporating it into the soil can also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by accelerating the decomposition process.
  • Rotating the fields where it is used can also help to prevent over-application and maintain soil fertility.
  • Storing the litter in covered, well-drained areas can help reduce the risk of pathogen contamination.

It is also worth mentioning that farmers can use alternative forms of litter and fertilizers such as composted manure or chemical fertilizers. These options can provide similar benefits as poultry litter while reducing the risk of environmental impacts.

In conclusion, poultry litter has been a valuable fertilizer in agriculture for many decades, providing essential nutrients to crops, and improving soil fertility. However, its use must be managed carefully to reduce the risk of environmental impacts and ensure sustainability. This can be done through proper management practices, testing the nutrient content, applying it at the correct rate and timing, and considering alternative forms of fertilizers.

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