Recycling bedding in open-floor broiler houses, litter-ally
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Re-using litter in the broiler house is a common practice in different regions of the globe, like North and South America. Studies prove that properly treated and reused litter can be beneficial for the development of the avian immune system as well as save costs by lowering demand for bedding material.
When operating in natural floor houses, cleaning and preparation significantly differ from houses with concrete floors, therefore the litter management strategy has to be adapted. Though they have several benefits (i.e. reduced costs), open-floor poultry houses can have high ammonia levels—requiring increased ventilation management—and if not treated properly, oocysts and pathogen load can increase exponentially. By recognizing and applying a different approach when reusing litter, the risk of birds succumbing to pathogens and other stressors is decreased.
Considerations of used litter
Contrary to concrete floor houses, the litter in natural floor houses is often reused for several cycles. Therefore, a specific treatment process is necessary to make the litter reusable. This process involves using windrowing and piles between batches to create a natural compost to reduce the pathogen load.
Sorting out the bad
Once the house is empty and before treating the majority of the litter material, remove any caked, wet, and wasted litter from the barn. Note how much litter is removed and replace the amount of litter with new material at the end of the process but before the new flock is placed. This replacement material should be selected to help improve the capabilities of the existing litter and be pathogen free. For example, wood shavings have a high water-binding capacity and the structure helps to loosen the overall consistency of the litter. If wood shavings are not available, straw pellets or shortcut-straw of different plants can be used.
Identifying bad patches
Recycling litter process
Once the unusable portions of the old litter are removed, the remaining litter is piled up in the grow-out section of the barn, near the open windows. Ensure all clumps are removed or broken down to promote even heating throughout the pile. Either prior to piling or after piling the litter, it is common to wet the litter to a 31% moisture content. At this moisture level, it is more likely that you will achieve self-heating through the composting process. The temperature of the litter should be at around 55 degrees Celsius or higher for approximately 72 hours to achieve a significant reduction of pathogens. Due to the fact that it can take several days for the pile to reach this temperature, it is recommended to plan an additional 7 days into the maintenance period between rounds.
Effective pile techniques
Piles can either be formed in windrows (a) or in a large pile near the windows (b). The windrows/pile should also be shifted at some point so that the soil beneath it can dry up. (Poultryhub.org & LSU Agcenter)
After the self-heating process of the old litter, new material can be added before re-distributing everything in the barn for a final dry-up period (typically 2 to 3 days). Be sure to achieve even distribution either manually or with a tractor and tiller. It is advised to use the pre-heating period of the barn to achieve the desired moisture level in the litter, typically around 20 to 25%. If the litter is too dry then dust can become an issue. Be aware that during the heating and drying process, the ammonia level can increase, therefore ensure adequate ventilation to reach the necessary air quality on placement day.
Though it can take longer to compost/recycle litter in open-floor houses, the resulting decrease in present pathogens and oocysts, as well as material cost savings, can be significate to the overall profitability of the operation. Dirt makes it hard to wash the walls and other surfaces with water, certain chemical processes can still be applied (i.e. a fog treatment) to further reduce pathogen presence. Depending on several factors—how much litter is removed/replaced between cycles, the health status of the flock, ect.—it is advised to replace all the litter periodically or at the first sign of disease. If properly managed, recycling litter can be beneficial for both the flock and the farm.
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