App matches hen litter suppliers with consumers

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The Littr app has tapped into a market for a surprisingly profitable byproduct for the poultry industry: chicken litter. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DCA

Some poultry farmers are selling it for $30 per ton, while others don’t list prices in hopes of striking a deal with a fellow farmer. But in 2021, being full of “it” can quite literally mean profits.

The chicken litter market has entered the digital age with Littr, a smartphone app developed by Common Logic and recently launched by the Delmarva Chicken Association. Other partners include the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, Campbell Foundation for the Environment, the Delmarva Land & Litter Collaborative.

“People assume that chicken litter is a waste, but it can be a valuable organic matter for growing crops,” Delmarva Chicken Association spokesman James Fisher said. “There’s plenty of farmers who look for it for corn, wheat and even mushrooms in the region, and it can be hard to come by, especially for farms on the northern end of [Maryland’s] Eastern Shore, and Pennsylvania.”

Raising, processing, and marketing chicken is a prime economic engine in southern Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia, employing some 1,300 chicken farmers in the region. Last year alone, the Delmarva industry raised 570 million chickens, produced 4.2 billion pounds of shelf- and table-ready chicken, resulting in $3.4 billion in gross domestic product.

The app, which cost $40,000 in development but was funded via a National Fish & Wildlife Foundation grant, is another tool to help farmers make a business connection over an unexpected byproduct in the poultry industry. Roughly 95% of all poultry litter is recycled to fertilize crops, due to its high content of nitrogen and phosphorus.

In the past, farmers traditionally used chicken litter to grow their own crops in tandem with chicken houses, Fisher said. But over time, farmers turned away from that practice as technology has revolutionized poultry houses and streamlined the process from coop to processing plants.

That also provided a window of opportunity to sell the litter to farms — some as far away as the Baltimore region and the mushroom farms of Southern Pennsylvania — that do not have the right natural balance in its own soil and lacked the proliferation of chicken farms to source from.

“This side industry all used to be word-of-mouth, and there were also farms relying on brokers. This is an incredibly valuable byproduct of the industry,” Fisher said. “No one throws it away, and if they can’t use it, they find someone who can.”

It’s hard to estimate just how much chicken litter is produced, because it varies on an annual basis. But the Delmarva Chicken Association reports that in 2020, there will be 5,036 chicken houses in Delmarva, which have the capacity for 149 million chickens. That’s a lot of manure.

Fisher added that farmers and chicken growers are expected to follow nutrient management plans to continue to reduce the nitrogen and phosphorus levels of the Chesapeake Bay.

So far, the Littr app has been well received by chicken farmers, particularly in Maryland. Advertisements for support services such as composting and power-washing have started to crop up.

The app can be downloaded from Google Play or Apple’s App Store.

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