Chicken Manure:  Collateral Damage
from the Chicken Factory Farm

Chicken manure! If North Carolina is the pig manure capital of the country, then the chicken manure capital is the intersection of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia on a peninsula knows as Delmarva.  This area alone, raises close to 600 million broilers a year.  That is a lot of chicken chit. 

Most of the people raising the chickens don't own them.  They are contract farmers to Perdue, Tyson’s plus a couple of others, all of which have turned the farmer into a modern-day serf.  

They bear the financial burden of the operation, have no say in how the chickens are raised or treated, and bear all the risk of any resulting environmental problems.

The contract chicken-sitters don’t get to choose what they feed the hens.  The feed comes from the company and they won't disclose what is in it.  

Apparently labeling laws don't apply to the stuff given to animals in a factory farm.  Environmental problems from chickens are a little different from the cattle or hog business.  

For example, chickens get to have a little arsenic in their feed.  It promotes growth and gives the supermarket chicken its "healthy" color that shoppers expect.  Then there are the antibiotics; if not for the antibiotics it is doubtful that many chickens would ever make it to slaughter.

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Finally, some good news!

As reported in the June 8, 2011 Wall St. Journal and Baltimore Sun, within a month or so, arsenic will disappear from chicken manure.  It seems the FDA did something right and tested 100 broilers that were fed the arsenic containing drug, Roxarsone, (trade named 3-Nitro) from Pfizer.   Elevated levels of the carcinogenic form of arsenic was found in the chicken livers.

Arsenic is not one of the basic food groups, it is bad for you.  According to the EPA, chronic exposure to arsenic causes unpleasant things like kidney damage and failure, adverse liver and respiratory effects including lung cancer, skin lesions, higher risk of diabetes and a few others. 

How would we be exposed to chronic (long term) arsenic ingestion?  For starters, keep eating that healthy looking pink chicken meat in the shrink wrapped packages, consume arsenic contaminated drinking water from factory farm runoff and seepage into ground water and let's not forget the plants we eat that have been fertilized with chicken manure.

What do you do with tons of chicken chit

Still thinking of environmental problems, where does all that chicken manure go?  It turns out that every so often, like about once every three years, the chicken barns are cleaned out down to the concrete floor and a new bedding of wood chips or some similar material is laid down. 

Every several weeks however the accumulated cake of chicken manure, urine, feathers, dropped feed and whatever else ends up on the floor is scooped up and piled either in a storage shed or next to a field where it will eventually be spread to fertilize food crops or animal feed. 

Remember, whatever the plant eats (absorbs), we eat. 

Most likely it will grow into about a three-story pile before it gets dispersed.  In the meantime, it gets rained on and leaches into the ground or runs off into small ditches and canals. 

Water samples taken from streams and drainage ditches near many poultry CAFOs contained high levels of arsenic, E. coli, fecal coliform bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorus.

So the answer to the question above is that for the most part we eat it, drink it and breathe it.  Read on.  Umm, ready for free-range pasture fed organic chickens yet? 

Better yet, grow your own.  Click on the book image above for City Chicks and learn how to do it and how it would benefit you, the community and save a few chickens from the factory farms.

What's in this stuff?

Chicken manure wins first place in terms of its nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium content.  It is considered so "hot" that it must be composted before spreading it on a garden or field; otherwise it will burn any plants that come in contact with it. 

On average, chicken manure is 1.1 percent nitrogen, .80 percent phosphorus and .50 percent potassium. For comparison, dairy cattle manure is .25 percent nitrogen, .15 percent phosphorus and .25 percent potassium. 

These are only averages from Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening and the actual content varies widely according to the feed and other foreign material mixed in with it such as wood chips from the bedding.

Major environmental problems arise when that chicken manure piled near the edges of fields or spread on fields gets into waterways via irrigation runoff, rains or erosion.  The phosphorus and nitrogen content is the fuel for algae blooms. 

When phosphates get into waterways, higher concentrations cause increased growth of algae and plants which grow very quickly with the higher nutrient availability.

When the algae die off, it leaves a high concentration of dead organic matter which starts to decay. The decay process consumes dissolved oxygen in the water, resulting in hypoxic conditions.

Without sufficient dissolved oxygen in the water, fish and plants may die off in large numbers.  If not corrected, over time, a dead, foul smelling stream, tributary or river is the result.

Incineration is not the Answer

Airborne pollutants from the disposal of factory chicken manure is another cause of some very serious environmental problems.  In some locales, the poultry waste is incinerated in large commercial facilities. 

What goes in the chicken, comes out of the chicken and that goes into the incinerator.  By products of incineration go up the smokestack and into the atmosphere.

From the Energy Justice Network we learn that what comes out of the smokestack is arsenic, sulfuric and hydrochloric acid, dioxin and several other dangerous substances.

Mixed with moisture in the air, it eventually condenses out as acid rain. 

Chlorine and dioxin are two other byproducts of chicken manure incineration.  It turns out that chicken feed is high in zinc, iron and copper to help ward off diseases caused by the high density poultry factory environment.  The problem is that in the incinerator these metals act as catalysts in the formation of dioxin. 
The lesson is that when it comes to environmental problems from raising chickens, size matters and there is no greater concentrations of chickens than are found in today's poultry CAFOs.

In July 2010, a very positive step forward was made when a federal judge in Baltimore ruled that a suit brought by the Waterkeeper Alliance versus Maryland poultry farmers and Perdue could go forward.

Perdue petitioned to be dropped from the suit because they did not own the polluting facilities in question.  The judge refused stating that anyone who actually does the offending work OR EXERCISES CONTROL OVER IT can be prosecuted for Clean Water Act violations. 

This is very significant in that it is the first federal court in Maryland to say a poultry company could be held liable for the actions of its contract growers. 

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Precedent had already been set for such rulings in Alabama and Kentucky.  This is one to keep watching since the implications for Perdue and Tyson’s are huge.  Who would have thought chicken manure could cause so many problems for so many people.

These types of pollution are not an issue in a smaller sustainable farming operation.  Maybe it's time to go retro.

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