The poultry industry in Ireland is excellent at the production of quality meat and eggs. However, there is a secondary product which has huge potential and value to the tillage sector – its manure.

The poultry industry is densely populated in the Monaghan and Cavan region. However, the tillage sector is not a big player in the region. This means a lot of poultry litter must be exported to more intensive tillage areas.

While broiler litter is widely used in the composting industry, the supply outweighs the demand and this only accounts for a section of the poultry industry. We must also consider layers, breeders, turkeys and ducks.

Poultry manure has a high nutrient content, ideal for growing crops. The nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) levels will vary depending on the type of manure. The NPK values of poultry litter are higher per unit than that of any other organic manure.

Poultry manure not only has high nutrient content but also has soil conditioning properties. A soil conditioner will help to improve soil structure by increasing aeration, water holding capacity and nutrients. This will mean the plant can then better utilise the nutrients from the manure.

Establishing strong links between the poultry and tillage industries has wins for both parties. The poultry sector will have a sustainable outlet for its manure; while the tillage sector has an excellent fertiliser and soil conditioner source here in Ireland.

Although Irish grain has a lower carbon footprint than most other countries worldwide, there is still scope to improve the greenhouse gases emitted from the Irish tillage sector.

John Mahon, Teagasc Signpost tillage specialist, explains: “On Irish tillage farms, about 70% of greenhouse gas emissions are generated from nitrogen inputs. This can be broken down into greenhouse gases associated with the manufacture of nitrogen, nitrate leaching and nitrate losses to air.

“Organic manures can play a valuable role on tillage farms. Not only are they an excellent source of nutrients, they also provide an opportunity to reduce the quantity of artificial nitrogen applied, which is beneficial from a cost-saving and greenhouse gas emissions perspective.”

There are some important points for tillage farmers to consider before they import poultry manure.

  • Identify a poultry producer and their proximity to the farm. Is this close enough to justify the transportation?
  • If the producer is exporting manure during the closed period, does the tillage farm have adequate storage? Does it meet the requirements?
  • Consult an agricultural adviser once a source has been identified in relation to the regulations on transport, storage and incorporation into your nutrient management plan.
  • Assess the quality of the manure to identify the nutrient content and dry matter percentage. This is important as poultry manure can vary greatly in DM percentage and, therefore, NPK content.
  • Previous studies by Teagasc showed that similar yields are achievable when poultry manure is used in conjunction with either CAN or urea-based fertilisers when compared to CAN-only applications.

    The trial compared incorporation method, with both ploughing and min-till being examined, the use of CAN and urea as a chemical nitrogen source and what effect replacing some of the chemical nitrogen with nitrogen contained within the poultry manure would have on grain yield and grain protein percentage.

    In all scenarios presented, crop yields were similar with no significant differences when the total nitrogen load (including both artificial and the nitrogen derived from organic manures) was brought to 150kg N/ha.

    Turning to the potential savings made by using poultry manure in conjunction with urea fertiliser as opposed to applications of 10:10:20 and CAN (see programme in table 1 below), John noted that savings of €342/ha could be realised when assumed fertiliser prices of €810/t for urea, €750/t for CAN, €850/t for 10:10:20 and €40/t spread for poultry manure were factored into the equation. These prices were reflective of high fertiliser prices in 2023.

    Although fertiliser prices have dropped considerably over the course of this year, John estimates that savings in the region of €150/ha to €200/ha are likely with forecasted 2024 fertiliser prices (Table 1).

    John also explains that poultry manure is a viable alternative to replace crop chemical fertiliser requirements and big cost savings can be achieved if conditions are suitable – this includes the distance from the farm of origin, the storage facilities available and applying the manure to the right crop at the right time.