Organic Soil Improvement Study

 In Organic Farming Practices

Organic Soil Improvement is Important

The health of the soil determines the growth of your crops and ultimately your success as a farmer or gardener. Growing up on a farm, I realized the importance of soil early on. It was my mom’s worst enemy as she tried to rid our house and clothes of it and my dad’s best friend as he nurtured it to produce healthy plants. I am currently working as a research assistant at the University of Kentucky to earn my Master of Science in Integrated Plant and Soil Sciences. The focus of my study is on the soil, more specifically, nutrient management. Animal manures are commonly used in organic and conventional cropping systems because it is a rich source of nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, which are deficient nutrients in most soils.

Poultry litter is commonly used in areas where poultry production is concentrated, typically in the Southeast U.S. When used properly, it can be an economical source of fertilizer for crop producers. The overall goal of my project is to help crop producers apply and utilize poultry litter efficiently, which will also improve the environmental impacts associated with manure application. The primary question I am trying to answer is: Does the bedding material used in poultry houses affect the nutrient content and release of litter applied as fertilizer?

Woman processing soil samples

Organic Soil Improvement in Inorganic Transformations

To study this, I will be running a series of lab incubations of various types of poultry litter mixed with a single soil type. I will analyze the samples at various time intervals and determine how much nitrogen and phosphorus is being released and when it is released. This is based on the rate of nitrogen mineralization. Nitrogen mineralization is the process where organic forms of nitrogen (which are not available to plants, but is the form found in poultry litter and other organic fertilizers) are transformed into inorganic forms of nitrogen (ammonium, which can be taken up and directly used by the plant). The rate at which this occurs is dependent on the carbon to nitrogen ratio, the temperature, the moisture, the type of litter, the type of soil, and many other factors.

I will be manipulating and controlling these variables to better understand how the different types of bedding material in the litter, influence the rate of nitrogen mineralization. This is important because in some areas rice hulls are used as the bedding material while wood-based chips or sawdust are used in other houses. There has not been much research into this aspect of poultry litter and I am excited to discover if this difference is significant on an operational scale.

This project is the first phase of my study that I will be writing my thesis on. This will be a series of blog posts focused on poultry litter use and the progression of my research as I seek to answer these questions. I know chicken litter isn’t exactly something that gets everyone excited, but it should be! By the end of this series I hope you will see the value in incorporating organic fertilizer sources into your cropping systems. It can be an invaluable source of organic matter and nutrients for your soil. As I move forward, I am looking for other potential ideas to incorporate into my research related to nutrient management and poultry litter. If you have any ideas, questions, or comments please share! I look forward to sharing a snapshot of my research with you all!

Lydia Fitzgerald

About Lydia Fitzgerald

Lydia is a graduate student studying plant and soil science at the University of Kentucky. Her project focuses on soil nutrient management and poultry manure use. Growing up on a farm in Nelson County, VA Lydia helped raise wholesale pumpkins, apples, corn, and soybeans. Her experience includes working in food safety certification.  She started a retail sector with pumpkins, gourds, sunflowers, Indian corn, and sweet corn for a pick-your-own operation. Lydia enjoys home vegetable gardening and loves to learn about different management and marketing strategies for small scale production systems.

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managing hydroponics tank