Study continues on switchgrass as alternative for bedding
By MICHEL ELBEN
SALISBURY, Md. — Switchgrass is attracting a lot of attention in the poultry community because current bedding choices are becoming increasing unavailable.
More traditional litter is now being used in biofuel production and for equine bedding.
Switchgrass is a “suitable crop for people who want to plant something profitable in the new regulation setback areas,” said Amy Jacobs of The Nature Conservancy.
The Nature Conservancy collaborated with the University of Delaware, the University of Maryland, and the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., in a study of the use of processed switchgrass as bedding material on a few farms and have had success with several flocks.
“We want to work with the farmer to find best location for the water quality benefits, (as an environmental buffer)” said Jacobs, adding that the group wanted to collaborate with the poultry industry to “help find a solution that made sense for nature and people.”
“Switchgrass is a native species ... as a grower, I think it’s something to consider,” said Bill Brown, University of Delaware Extension poultry specialist. “We’re looking at a variety of bedding alternatives to see which is the best for the industry.”
Brown said the group is studying switchgrass, and sea mallow against traditional pine shavings to gauge the effect on bird quality, cake material, and litter moisture.
The search for effective bedding alternatives goes back decades.
Alternatives that have been tested can be grouped into four general categories; wood, plant, earth and recycled waste products.
Wood products tested have included soft- and hardwood shavings, sawdust, chips, bark, leaves; reprocessed shredded pallets, wood fiber pellets and paper mill residues.
Plant-based residues that have been used or evaluated are hulls and straw from numerous plants like rice peanuts, coffee, wheat, barley, and flax.
Earth-type products have included sand, clay and peat moss and recycled products evaluated over the years include shredded, processed and pelletized paper; recycled sheetrock, plastics, foam products shredded tires and composted municipal garbage.
In the houses where chopped switchgrass has been used, researchers found that “there’s a little different management technique,” said Dr. Jonathan Moyle, University of Maryland Extension poultry specialist.
“We’ve got to learn how to handle the material,” he said. “Remember, it’s entirely different bedding,” he said.
Moyle is also doing a bacterium assessment and analyzing the litter for germinating seeds. “The switchgrass does not have many seeds on it to start with and then it gets slowly composted,” Moyle said. “We’re not finding any.”
Moyle said switchgrass is appropriate for marginal farmland or small yields and “looks like it’s going to be cheaper and more sustainable.”
After collecting a year’s worth of data, the researchers plan to hold workshops for growers in the spring.
“There’s interest across the integrator board,” Moyle said.
Brown said switchgrass is typically harvested in mid-winter to early spring and requires no nutrient or watering requirements.
The grass is then baled and can be field stored for processing in the spring.
Switchgrass should be processed to less than one inch for bedding.
“It’s cheaper if farmers have marginal land and they want to grow it themselves,” Jacobs said. “You can get a cash savings by growing it on your land.”
Brown said it will not work for every farm and “certainly will not take corn and soybeans out of production.”
Farmers who are interested in growing switchgrass or using it for poultry bedding should contact Mike Dryden, Nature Conservancy Watershed Coordinator, by Jan. 31 at 410-251-5620.