The Stephen F. Austin State University Poultry Research Center has reduced its carbon footprint and lowered operational costs by converting to a unique method of composting poultry mortalities that occur at the university’s Walter C. Todd Agriculture Research Center.
Through a partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, an Ecodrum in-vessel composter was installed in January 2014. A year-long trial conducted by SFA tested the effectiveness of the particular model of in-vessel composter that, at the time of its installation, was the only one of its kind in Texas.
Prior to utilizing the in-vessel composter, the SFA Poultry Research Center relied on incineration to dispose of poultry mortalities. This method was costly and required large amounts of fuel for extended periods of time, according to Dr. Joey Bray, director of poultry science at SFA.
“We’ve really been able to reduce our environmental footprint by using this new method,” Bray said.
Additionally, the new composting method’s operational cost averages around $100 per flock, while incineration averaged $800 to $900 per flock, Bray said.
The composter’s design sets it apart from other in-vessel models. Rifling along the inside of the unit effectively moves the composting material down the barrel with each daily rotation. An air intake feature, also unique to the model, ensures the process remains aerobic, greatly reducing the time needed for successful decomposition.
Traditional static composting, also known as Delmarva composting, takes roughly two to three months, whereas the trial unit takes approximately 18 days. The new decomposition process is swift and efficient. The material required for the composting process is a simple mix of wood chips and poultry mortalities.
“The material that comes out of the end (of the composting unit) is almost like what we put in to begin with as far as the wood chips go,” he said. “So we can actually take it and reuse it back in the system.”
The nutrient composition of the resulting material also has proven satisfactory.
“It’s very low in nitrogen, very low in phosphorous and very low in potassium, which are all nutrients we really keep an eye on,” Bray said.
The composted material also tests negative for coliform bacteria, an indicator for food and water safety. These nutrients and bacteria are of concern to poultry growers as they can easily be transferred to the surrounding landscape and waterways through runoff.
In 2014, SFA’s poultry farm hosted two field days sponsored by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board. Poultry growers from East and Central Texas were afforded the opportunity to view the unit and learn more about the trial.
“We’ve been able to show the industry that it does work effectively, and it is a good alternative to incineration or other composting methods,” he said.
Due to the positive results achieved through the SFA trial, other units have been installed throughout the state.
Bray said that future economic models calculating the rate of return are needed, but he is confident that the initial cost of the composting unit is quickly recouped. The Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board also have initiated a cost-sharing program for poultry producers interested in purchasing the in-vessel composting unit.