Littering the Road to Soil Health

August 25, 2015 04:05 PM
Littering the Road to Soil Health

Mike McGregor rumbles down the turn row of a buckshot soybean field and pulls a long train of dust behind his truck as he checks up behind a blue fertilizer buggy filled with chicken litter. He turns the buggy’s regulator wheel to control the gate’s spread rate and is back in his truck in seconds, seamlessly giving directions to his employees on a CB radio. McGregor commands his chicken litter operation with military precision—and the results are evident in the flatlands of the southeast Arkansas Delta.
Hauling and spreading 2,000 loads of chicken litter each year in the Delta is a logistical nightmare. Equipment, supply, weather, downtime and producer whims—all the pieces play at different tempos, forcing McGregor to strain unity from complexity.

“People have always laughed at me for fooling with stinky chicken litter, but they don’t recognize a road to soil health,” McGregor says. “Chicken litter is more than NPK [nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium]. It’s NPK plus all the micronutrients that deliver bang for buck. Growers who have used litter for years don’t continue because it doesn’t pay; they’re still putting it on because it brings results.”

In 1991, McGregor bought a small cattle farm on hill ground in Coleman, Ark., and began shipping hay nationwide—attempting to pump out the best Bermuda grass yields his land would allow. But, the ground was poor, sucked dry of nutrients by continuous cotton dating back before the steamroll of the boll weevil. Ever the perfectionist, he considered the advice of a chicken producer who was getting high tomato yields with 8 tons of litter per acre. McGregor bit the financial bullet and put out 2 to 3 tons per acre across his Bermuda grass and began noting a major boost in phosphate, potash and pH.

 “We were harvesting 125 65-lb. bales of Bermuda grass four to five times a year, which are ridiculous numbers. That’s what keyed me in to chicken litter,” McGregor says

It wasn’t too long before McGehee, Ark., farmer Matt Miles noticed McGregor’s Bermuda grass results and asked if litter success would translate to row crops. Miles had just taken on Dickens Farm in Jerome, Ark., for Ted Glaub, owner of Glaub Farm Management, and wanted to improve nutrient-poor land.

“Matt and I hit about 200 acres at 2 tons per acre,” McGregor says. “At first, it was experimental, and we were trying for our own version of variable rate. On poor field spots, we’d drop a gear from 8 mph to 6 mph. Matt was confident in my mathematics, finance and perfectionism. We didn’t know exactly where we were going, but we knew we’d get there,” he remembers.

Miles began requesting more litter for expanded acreage. Initially, Miles wanted litter solely for corn, but he quickly added cotton and soybeans.

“One day, Matt says, ‘I want you to put chicken litter on every acre I work.’ In addition, Ted Glaub said he wanted 2 tons per acre on everything for three consecutive years,” McGregor says.

His litter operation went from selling 25 loads to 200 loads the second year and 500 loads the third year. Miles’ yields on the Dickens ground began picking up dramatically. With that jump, neighboring farmers also began demanding litter from McGregor. He was stockpiling litter on turn rows and hauling in the
spring and fall.

In addition to offering a premium chicken litter product, Mike McGregor minds the spread rate on litter buggies. “Growers who have used litter for years don’t continue because it doesn’t pay; they’re still putting it on because it brings results.”

“Matt wanted 1.5 tons on 6,000 acres per year, which is 9,000 tons,” McGregor says.
McGregor continued to operate his growing cattle farm, but he walked away from his nine-year career as a professor of finance and investment at the University of Arkansas–Monticello and ownership of an Electrolux franchise with three stores. Chicken litter as a part-time job was finished.

Dickens Farm is a textbook case of litter success, says Glaub, who manages farms for absentee owners and is also involved with consulting and auctions. When Miles began working the ground, fertility was extremely poor; plant consumption had consistently exceeded application.

“We went with litter as a cheaper nutrient source and have applied it for 10 years,” Glaub says. “Mike provides a high-quality and consistent chicken litter product. In addition, he applies it timely and uniformly. Before Matt Miles got involved with the land and chicken litter, we were hitting 35-bu. soybeans, but that ground averaged 80-bu. soybeans last year.”

Glaub uses litter on corn, cotton, soybeans, rice and wheat, but he warns it’s not a cure-all with a one-time application. “I’m constantly driving farm roads, and I see a significant increase in chicken litter use, but you’d be cheating yourself to expect instant results,” Glaub says. “It’s a system where the entire team of farmers, managers, crop consultants and Mike McGregor are involved. We’re trying to be holistic and not just mine the land. We want to make it better for future generations and use natural products when possible.”

Beyond boosting fertility, litter improves soil properties through the addition of organic matter, which also helps with water and nutrient holding capacity, says Larry Oldham, Extension soils specialist, Mississippi State University.

“Chicken litter is an excellent fertilizer and provides all the NPK macronutrients, secondary nutrients (calcium, magnesium and sulphur) and micronutrients,” Oldham says.

On average, McGregor’s crew spreads litter on 750 acres per day with four John Deere tractors, four Adams fertilizer buggies and a single Caterpillar loader. Premium quality litter is McGregor’s mantra, and he pulls samples from each chicken house for analysis. From May through August, he drops hen and broiler litter that’s gone through five or six flocks on turn rows for fall application and spreads the loads from September to November. Logistically, there is no way to haul litter in the fall; it has to be ready and waiting on the turn row.

Although chicken litter provides the parts for a healthy soil equation, litter loads aren’t necessarily equal. Since litter quality is key, McGregor  makes certain his farmer clients get a minimum of five or six flocks on every delivered load.

As a field general across thousands of farm acres in the Arkansas Delta, McGregor has developed a thriving fertility program—feeding the soil through his chicken litter system but keeping close tabs on success with a humble perspective.

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