Poultry barns on the Eastern Shore. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Virginia farmers who produce poultry litter for sale and brokers who transfer it must now send the state Department of Environmental Quality annual information about those transactions to better track what pollutants may be entering the Chesapeake Bay.
Poultry litter is the combination of manure, leftover bedding and uneaten feed from flocks that can be used as fertilizer for crops and pasture.
The litter can contain nitrogen and phosphorus that is beneficial for farming when used in appropriate amounts. Excess levels, however, can cause the nutrients to seep into waterways leading to the Chesapeake Bay.
The Virginia State Water Control Board recently reissued a general permit and regulations for poultry waste management, which allows poultry growers to transfer their litter to other users for another 10 years.
Included with the reissuance is the requirement for poultry growers to submit their data for the preceding fiscal year to DEQ by Sept. 15. Previously, poultry growers would keep records of their transactions and make them available for DEQ upon request during inspections. Users of the litter will be required to report to the agency beginning in 2024.
“That was a big change,” said Betsy Bowles, DEQ’s state animal feeding operation program coordinator, in an interview. ”If we get the transfer data for when poultry litter is moved then we have the better information to report to the Chesapeake Bay program.”
More frequent and accurate data can help Virginia officials better understand what levels of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients are entering the Bay.
The hope is that “there’s a lot more movement out of the Bay than what’s accounted for,” said Bowles.
Virginia Poultry Federation President Hobey Bauhan said the new reporting requirements are a “double-edged sword”: They are more burdensome for poultry growers than DEQ’s previous method but they could also show poultry growers are producing less pollution than officials thought by transferring it elsewhere. Virginia has an incentive program to move litter out of high-producing areas like Page, Rockingham and Accomack counties.
“If the state can capture the movement of litter and where it is applied, in my opinion it’s going to show greater achievement of the Chesapeake Bay goals,” said Bauhan.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit focused on cleaning up the Bay, called the reporting requirement an “important step forward” to eliminating “questions about whether all users were using poultry litter appropriately.”
“Poultry litter can have substantial benefits as a fertilizer when sustainably applied, but improper use can threaten the health of waterways,” said Joe Wood, a scientist with the group. “Reporting poultry litter use helps ensure protection of waterways and will lead to a better understanding of poultry litter transport and concentrations across Virginia.”
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