Poultry Litter Ash as an Alternative Fertilizer Source for Corn

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Virginia Tech


Poultry litter ash (PLA) is a co-product from manure-to-energy systems that originated in response to increased poultry litter (PL) volumes generated in concentrated poultry production regions. Investigating PLA as a crop fertilizer is an alternative solution to balancing poultry and crop regional nutrient cycling in the Commonwealth of Virginia. As the expanding world population places pressure on the poultry industry to meet consumption demands, increased PL production presents an obstacle to identify alternative uses for increased volumes. Currently, Virginia produces 44 million broilers with PL produced predominately in the Shenandoah Valley and Eastern Shore. Likewise, a growing world population places pressure on crop production areas and subsequently finite natural resources used for crop fertilization. Poultry litter ash is an alternative phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) source enhancing transportation logistics, repurposing PL nutrients, and offers dual purpose as a fertilizer and an energy source when compared to PL.

Three PLA products [(fluidized bed bulk (FB Bulk), fluidized bed fly (FB Fly), and combustion Mix (CMix)], two manufactured co-products [(granulated poultry litter ash (GPLA), and ash coated urea (ACU)] were evaluated as P, K, and N sources for corn (Zea Mays L.) production in comparison to industry fertilizers [(PL, triple superphosphate (TSP), muriate of potash (KCL), and urea). A comprehensive examination of elemental composition, P speciation, P and K solubility, improved functionality into granulized forms, and field testing were conducted to discern PLA potential as an alternative fertilizer source.

Poultry litter ash products were evaluated by total elemental analysis, backscatter-electron dispersive (BSED) microscopy, and X-ray absorption near edge structure (XANES) spectroscopy. Poultry litter ash elemental concentrations were highly variable ranging from 50.6 to 102.0 g P kg -1 and 62.6 to 120.0 g K kg -1 and were comparatively higher than PL concentrations. Phosphorus structures that provided and controlled P solubility were Ca and Ca-Mg-phosphate compounds. Spectroscopy confirmed Ca structures as predominately monetite (dicalcium phosphate anhydrous; CaHPO4; log K ̊ 0.30) and brushite (dicalcium phosphate dihydrate; CaHPO4.2H20; 0.63 log K ̊ ) species that were supported by BSED and elemental stoichiometric ratios (Ca:P; 1.12 to 1.71:1). Additionally, GPLA acidified from FB Fly had higher brushite and monetite percentages described by spectra models, translating into a more soluble Ca-phosphate species when compared to FB Fly original P species.

Granulated poultry litter acidulation trials successfully identified a desired granulation point of 29% (14.5 g acid to 50 g PLA) phosphoric acid (75% H3PO4) acidulation. Acidulation dose response relationships created simple linear regression (SLR) equations that sufficiently (R2 > 0.80) described changes in total measurable P and water soluble P, pH, and exothermic reaction temperatures to increasing H3PO4 acidulation. Solubility tests included: sequential extraction, particle size effect on solubility, carbon effect on water soluble P, and Mehlich-1 extraction of PLA sources that confirmed decreased P solubility. A majority PLA P was found in bound plant unavailable fractions (87.7 to 97.7% P of total P). Granulated poultry litter ash had improved P plant available P of 36.0% P of total P. Carbon (C) effects on PLA P were examined by ashing PLA samples in a muffle furnace at 550 ̊C. Differences in total carbon content negatively impacted FB Bulk and CMix total P (1.30 and 4.56 g P kg -1); however, muffle furnace temperatures increased FB Fly total P by 6.74 g P kg -1.

All fertilizer products were investigated under field conditions in separate P, K and N corn studies across Virginia coastal plain soils to determine fertilizer effects on corn plant parameters [(most mature leaf (V6), corn ear leaf (R1), and grain (R6)]. Poultry litter P treatments, averaged over rate, recorded highest yield in both years. At eight of nine field sites, FB Bulk resulted in numerically or significantly higher Mehlich-1 concentrations than other P sources post-harvest. Although Mehlich-1 P increased, yield and plant parameters did not; which leads to the conclusion that PLA sources increased soil residual P that did not translate into immediate plant availability recorded within a growing season. Across plant efficacy parameters examined, PLA K is a comparable nutrient source and improved plant parameters when compared to control. Eighteen out of twenty-one plant parameters examined found similar ACU and urea effects on N concentrations. Therefore, ACU is a comparable N source to urea. When compared to industry fertilizer sources, we concluded that PLA is a slowly available P source, decreased P availability negatively affected early plant growth, K is a comparable nutrient source and improved plant parameters compared to control, and ACU effectively provided N to maintain sufficient corn growth. In conclusion, PLA co-products serve as a densified nutrient source that may provide plant available nutrients if processed to aid in nutrient distribution to grain producing areas.



corn, electron scanning microscopy (ESM), phosphorus (P), poultry litter (PL), poultry litter ash (PLA), potassium (K), nitrogen (N), X-ray absorption near edge structure spectroscopy (XANES)