Did Md. chicken out on poultry manure?

Industrialist Jean Paul Getty once compared manure to money in that both have to be "spread around." But in Maryland, we know that too much spreading of manure is costly, and the trick is to find more cost-effective ways of dealing with it.

That's a thought to keep in mind as chicken litter landed back in the news in recent days. First, there was word that the Waterkeepers Alliance won't be out millions of dollars in defendant legal fees for its unsuccessful lawsuit against an Eastern Shore poultry farmer and Perdue Farms. The judge ruled that the "alarmingly high" levels of pollution in nearby waters did exist but that the plaintiff had simply failed to meet the burden of proving it came from the farm's poultry operations.

That was appropriate given the hotly contested circumstances. But the more important development was the decision of Maryland Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance to withdraw proposed regulations governing farmers and how much phosphorus-laden poultry manure they can spread on their land. That, too, was the right call given the facts.

First, a reminder of the problem. The Chesapeake Bay, like many bodies of water struggling with pollution, is overwhelmed by nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus. Maryland, like other states in the bay watershed, has taken steps to control both. In the case of phosphorus, that has included controls on lawn fertilizers and laundry detergents.

Chicken manure poses a difficult problem. First, there's too much of it. Maryland's poultry industry produces more than 300 million broilers each year. A single bird produces 5 ounces of waste per day. Do the math. It isn't pretty.

Most manure ends of spread on farm fields, often the same fields owned by the growers. On some level, that's made a lot of sense: Manure helps farmers grow grains that are used to feed the chickens that, in turn, produce the fertilizer. Circle of life, right?

The problem is, there's too much of a good thing. The nutrients travel from fields into streams to rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, where they feed algae blooms which, in turn, remove life-giving dissolved oxygen from the water. With nitrogen, that's pretty clear cut. But with phosphorus, it's not. Phosphorus will travel into streams, too, but not as predictably. It depends on soil conditions and other factors. Regulating it has to be on a farm-by-farm basis.

So when Maryland started developing new regulations governing phosphorus in 2010, scientists ran into these technical challenges. Three years later, there were still doubts — as much about the impact on farming costs as anything else — and so Mr. Hance's choice was merely an acknowledgment of reality that it's better to get them right then get them now.

Still, they can't be delayed much longer. In some areas, farm land is so saturated with phosphorus that local waters will continue to suffer chronically until action is taken. Make no mistake, more farmers are going to have to find new ways of dealing with poultry litter, and most will require some kind of investment — in storage, transportation and perhaps in alternative fertilizers that are less destructive.

The good news is that Maryland has invested in cost-sharing programs to help farmers make this transition. And more money has been spent on alternative uses for poultry manure, from turning it into a pelletized commercial fertilizer to burning it in a power plant. The regulations won't be in time for the 2014 growing season, but they must be in place for 2015.

No doubt there are some in the agriculture industry who just want to duck and cover, hoping that phosphorus controls will eventually go away. That would be a mistake. That the environmental community isn't making a stink about manure rules now doesn't mean there will be such patience in 2014, an election year.

In the meantime, both sides need to work together to get the rules right. This is hardly an insurmountable problem. Farmers are justifiably concerned about altering a process they've followed for decades. But as Mr. Getty also observed, "in times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy." If four years is long enough to earn a college degree, it's long enough to develop rules on animal waste and phosphorus.

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