The Birth of Litter Management

By August 30, 2019News, PLT

How One Company Defined Industry Standard Practices

In the mid-1980s, litter management didn’t really exist. It didn’t need to. Shavings were inexpensive and were replaced with each new flock. The majority of the industry had large curtain side walls with sidewall fans that allowed producers to ventilate the ammonia fluxing off the litter and move enough air to remove moisture and keep birds comfortable. The challenge wasn’t ammonia; it was putting enough shavings back in the house after clean out.

As with all things in life, change is inevitable. The cost of pine shavings started to rise and litter became a premium commodity. Housing design started to change to a more controlled environment with simple computers in the early 1990s.

1980s Florida broiler house (Photo source)

The Delmarva region felt the impacts of the cost increase first and began growing consecutive flocks on built-up litter. With this shift, growers started experiencing significant health and performance challenges due to increased ammonia concentrations as well as different disease challenges. Increased ventilation to address the ammonia challenge resulted in higher fuel costs. It was clear that a new management approach was needed.

From then until now, PLT® has been there. Share your story for a chance to win $500.

Manage Moisture, Manage Litter

To manage moisture in the litter over multiple flocks, growers started to learn how to decake with mechanical decakers known as Gregory Custer Busters™, and then top dress. However, more often than not top dressing was found to do more harm than good as there wasn’t always a sufficient inventory of quality kiln dried shavings to apply. Wet or green shavings were used which would create a bacterial population spike very early in the growout leading to increased health challenges.

Over time, it was determined that it was pivotal to maintain a good litter base and decake after each flock without top dressing and sufficient downtime. This litter was much drier and allowed a deeper litter based to be maintained, which proved to offer a high insulation value. Growers also learned that built-up litter allowed the cocci vaccines they used to carry over to the next flock resulting in less virulent strains of cocci populations in the litter. They also learned that the nutrient value of the built-up litter was of great value especially for Nitrogen.

While small gains were made, the challenge of ammonia was still prominent and costly. It was about this time that the Jones-Hamilton Co. entered the poultry market with a product that had been shown to eliminate ammonia in other applications. The product had been identified by a North Carolina Poultry Extension Agent who was working on different treatments to control ammonia.  Knowing that acid treatments would counter the alkaline environment of litter and control ammonia, he started with propionic acid, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid and phosphoric acid.  All seem to work but were unstable, not very safe for people to handle, and volatilized quickly in the houses. He discovered what is now known as PLT sold as a toilet bowl cleaner on the shelf of his local grocery store. He started buying cans of it and putting it on test plots and noticed immediately the ammonia was gone in seconds and lasted for several days.  He also noticed that it was a safe acid to use with no volatile fumes or reactions.

He later found Jones-Hamilton Co. and discussed this new novel approach to controlling ammonia.  Jones-Hamilton acted on his advice and hired a development and market analysis staff to define the potential. To their surprise, the industry was in need of a product to control ammonia. They soon hired the first industry sales rep to help sell to poultry companies nationwide.

Blake Gibson started with Jones-Hamilton in 1994 as a territory manager. He recalls the looks and comments early on as he discussed ammonia challenges. He became known as the “young whipper-snapper selling foo foo dust” to the industry. Industry opinion would soon change.

Early Adopters: The Product that Defined Litter Management

“I first started using PLT® the year it came out when I was working in live production,” said Clint Lauderdale, Southern Regional Manager at Jones-Hamilton Co. “A salesman named Silas Little came by and offered it to one of our growers so that we could see it in action. We were amazed at how fast it eliminated ammonia.”

As a broiler manager, Lauderdale kept a variety of litter treatment products in the medication room. “We didn’t have a cost share program at that point, so growers would just pick up what they wanted from us at cost. Over time, we found that PLT® was being ordered repeatedly while the other products sat there. From then on, I just ordered PLT®.”

Collaborative Product Development

Original brochure explaining the benefits of PLT

As with any new product, there was a lot to learn about maximizing potential. “Looking back now we know PLT® could have been even more effective if we had purged ammonia before product application,” said Carl Knueven, Director, Research and Development at Jones-Hamilton Co.

The company also had to identify the ideal application rate. “We only used the 50lb/1,000 sq. ft. rate at first since growers were producing small birds. Today’s larger, breast meat yielding birds require more protein in the diet, and put off more ammonia.” At the time, the company was only researching ammonia control. “We hadn’t even thought about the product’s impact on bacteria.”

The company’s focus on ammonia control was warranted. “Research showed us that a company spending $1 million per year in fuel could reduce costs by 70% with PLT.” Plus, the effects of over or under ventilation, vaccination stress, inattention to mortality pickup and other challenges were shown to lessen with PLT use.

In the first winter, producers struggled with activation issues due to low humidity. “At first, we didn’t realize PLT needed a 45% relative humidity level to activate,” said Knueven. Further investigation demonstrated the correlation between PLT activation challenges and condemns. “In the Delmarva region, we saw an increase in condemns January through March; precisely the period of time that humidity was low and interfered with PLT activation,” said Eric Eutsler, Jones-Hamilton Territory Manager.

With product adoption came other challenges. Initially there was push back from producers about spreading PLT-treated litter on their fields. “We conducted research to show the effect on crops and fields after litter was spread, and showed how it was actually beneficial,” said Knueven. Producer-driven research continues today at Jones-Hamilton as the company learns more about the potential of PLT to change the biome of litter itself.

A Shifting Approach to Litter Amendment Use

As litter management evolved, so did the application of litter amendments. “At first we were applying with a push spreader, which wasn’t as much of an issue when we used a 50lb rate on a 4-pound bird” said Lauderdale. “Today, the high protein diet of larger birds creates more ammonia and requires a higher application rate, so professional application saves time and money, and is more effective.”

The timing of application has changed as well. In the past, PLT was used just in the brood chamber, but now whole house applications and mid-flock applications are becoming more common. “We saw some companies begin with whole house applications thirteen years ago, but some are just starting,” said Gibson. “It’s largely because they’re not doing it just for ammonia anymore; they’re trying to manage litter.”

PLT has stood the test of time over a lot of products. “We learned that if you applied it correctly, PLT works 100% of the time,” said Lauderdale. “That’s still true today.

Early praise for PLT

PLT more than pays for itself in just a few days due to a low ammonia environment and dramatic reductions in my fuel bills - up to 40%.

Chip West, Broiler Producers, Delmarva

I personally use PLT on my broiler farm and I highly recommend it to all of my consultant customers. PLT is an important part of preharvest food safety improvement programs.

Stewart J. Ritchie, B.SC. MS, DVM

We have used PLT for the past 5 years and use it every flock in our grow-out barns. PLT not only completely solve my ammonia problem, but also contributes to my greatly improved bird health and performance. We have never grown better turkeys or made more money than since we started to use PLT every flock.

Dale Patters, Turkey Producer, Minnesota

A Changing Environment

As the industry transitioned to a more controlled growing environment— from sidewall to tunnel ventilation—bird selection was also changing to focus on a faster growth rate. That meant higher protein feed and more water consumption, resulting in more droppings, wet litter and higher ammonia levels.

“We were seeing more water in the house, increasing cake,” said Eutsler. “Removing cake and managing litter moisture became crucial.” This is especially true today in Delmarva where new litter averages $4,000-$5,000 per house, and it’s notoriously wet and laden with aspergillus. “Some producers in the region now only clean out every five years, and even then, they might just strip the brooder chamber.”

Proper decaking is a must, but it’s one practice that is still a challenge for many. In fact, more than two and a half decades after the birth of litter management, old practices that have proved detrimental to bird health and performance still persist.

“Litter was one of the last components to be analyzed and managed, so it’s not uncommon to see pre- built-up litter practices being followed,” said Blake Gibson, Global Sales Manager at Jones-Hamilton Co. “Today, we often see improper decaking and producers that still till or pulverize litter, which only increases surface area and raises ammonia levels.” While controlling ammonia is standard practice for some, that’s not the case for all. “If you can’t measure it, you can manage it; yet many farms still don’t use ammonia readers.”

Territory Manager, Tom Lewis, tends to focus on pre-heating houses. “It’s key to ammonia purge to allow PLT to work properly and longer; and yet it’s the thing we battle most,” he said. Similarly, many producers still keep houses open during downtime, “which only serves to trap ammonia in the litter.”

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