If you’re one of those people who thinks just a little too much about where your food comes from, then you’ve probably read whole books about unsanitary and inhumane conditions at feedlots and CAFOs, dangerous working conditions in meat processing plants, and the real reasons behind that latest salmonella-related hamburger recall.
Compared to all that, the practice I’m about to describe isn’t especially dangerous. In fact, according to the beef industry, it’s absolutely safe when done correctly.
In the U.S., a substance euphemistically referred to as “chicken litter” or “broiler litter” is now fed in large quantities to nearly all beef cattle. It contains chicken manure, but also feathers, spilled feed, and bedding materials like straw, pine bark, or wood shavings. We don’t feed it to cattle on an occasional, random, or haphazard basis. Every day, we use it to supplement other feed in a methodical, highly scientific fashion. Its use is now standard practice at nearly all feedlots.
There are three reasons for this. First, chicken litter is actually quite nutritious and high in protein. Second, it’s cheap. Feeding each animal 4 pounds per day of broiler litter rather than a commercial protein supplement saves around $20 per brood cow over a 100-day wintering period. Over that same period, using 12 pounds per day rather than hay—or, for that matter silage plus a protein supplement—saves from $20 to $50 per animal. That’s a lot, especially if you’re feeding several thousand head of cattle. When profit margins are razor-thin, beef producers can’t afford to turn up their noses at chicken manure.
Depending on certain variables, the recommended proportion of litter in winter rations can be as high as 89%. But don’t worry. The recommended proportion in “finishing rations” fed to cattle right before they’re fed to you is usually under 25%.
The third reason chicken litter makes such good feed for beef cattle? Poultry producers would otherwise be running out of places to put it all. A broiler complex that processes one million birds a week—and yes, some operations really are that large—would each year produce around 65,000 tons of poultry litter. If applied at the absolute upper-limit rate of four tons per acre, this would be enough for 16,250 acres.
For the curious and omnivorous reader, the scientific literature is fascinating. Some passages suggest great enthusiasm on the part of researchers: “The overall availability of poultry litter offers attractive possibilities, but differences in quality of litter… are very significant, as can be seen in Table 10.” Or this, suggesting delight at the prospect of an unexpected bonus: “Faecal excreta and bedding are the main components, but often, due to improper management of the poultry farm, large quantities of feed can also be found in the litter, increasing the nutritive value of the waste and, in particular, its energy content.”
Some studies do acknowledge that there can be “palatability issues,” as noted rather dispassionately in this paper from Clemson: “Consumption of a ration containing high levels of poultry litter is very low, initially; therefore, putting only a small percentage of poultry litter in the ration and increasing it incrementally over a two-week period is recommended. After about a two-week adjustment period, cattle consume the poultry litter containing diets with little discrimination; however, it is recommended that any grain added to the diet be ground (or at least cracked, if the grain is corn). Some selective feeding occurs when whole grains are fed and the overall effectiveness of the feeding program is reduced.”
Fortunately, it turns out that with the correct storage and deep-stack composting techniques, the stuff can be really delicious. Black with a burnt smell indicates overheating; gray with a strong manure smell indicates underheating. According to a paper from the University of Florida, here’s how you know when your chicken litter is just right: “How can you tell the quality of the deep-stacked product? The process should result in a product that has a fine texture and an odor that resembles that of caramelized chocolate.”
Mmmm, mmmm good.
Since this is an informal blog, I haven’t provided full citations. If you’d like to save money while improving the protein content and palatability of the rations you’re feeding your beef cattle, many of these helpful resources are available free online from various university extension agencies, the USDA, and even the FAO of the UN. Your tax dollars at work. Just search for terms like chicken litter, broiler litter, beef cattle, extension, rations, protein, nitrogen, total digestible nutrients, and caramelized chocolate.
Please note that when implemented correctly, the practices I’ve described are very safe. They are not harmful to bovine or human health in any way. What’s more, industry studies have demonstrated conclusively that these production methods do not affect the texture or palatability of beef.
I have to go. It’s time for lunch. But please stop back next week, when I will be writing about a completely different topic.
© 2011 Al Cambronne