By Barbara Pash
University of Maryland Eastern Shore officials are crowing about a recent experiment that drastically reduced the ammonia level in chicken houses. But the $1.7 million experiment is about more than reducing the stench of toxic fumes. It’s about saving the Delmarva poultry industry.
“If we on Delmarva don’t solve this problem, we won’t have an industry,” Jeannine Harter-Dennis, a UMES poultry scientist, said of chicken litter.
“We won’t be able to meet federal government standards, and the poultry industry will go elsewhere,” Harter-Dennis said, referring to states like Arkansas, the number one poultry producer in the country, where labor costs are cheaper.
“Or, if we still have an industry here, chicken will cost $5 a pound,” she added.
Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have regulations about the ammonia level inside poultry houses, for the safety of the workers and the birds.
The EPA is in the process of devising new regulations that will limit the amount of ammonia gas that can be released into the environment by animal production units. Not only is ammonia detrimental to air quality, but it leaks into the ground, affecting the water supply and, ultimately, the tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.
Before the new EPA regulations come out, possibly in a year, the university, the chicken farmers and the poultry processing companies are looking for ways to address the problem, according to Harter-Dennis.
The ammonia problem in chicken house is a national, even international, issue. But for Delmarva, the tri-state area between the Bay and the ocean, it’s a matter of survival.
In 2009, the Delmarva industry produced 568 million broilers valued at $2 billion wholesale, with Maryland counting for about half of that.
In Maryland’s Delmarva region, the four major production companies employ 15,000 people, plus another 1,700 chicken farmers. Poultry production accounts for two-thirds of total farm sales.
“On the Eastern Shore, tourism and poultry are the two major economic drivers,” said Harter-Dennis.
State and federal funding
Funding for the UMES experiment came from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, $500,000; U.S. Department of Agriculture, $500,000; UMES, $500,000; and Maryland Industrial Partnerships, a state agency that is part of the University System of Maryland, $200,000. AviHome, a Salisbury company whose new flooring system for chicken houses was tested, also contributed financially to be part of the Poultry House Partnership.
It was the first test of the AviHome flooring system, which is based on a double layer of polymer, a form of plastic, allowing air to flow in between. UMES helped to refine the system.
Over a period of eight months, two tests were conducted: first on a small 500-bird chicken house and then on a full-size house of 15,000 to 20,000 birds. The results amazed even UMES officials.
With the AviHome flooring system, the ammonia level dropped at least 80%, and that produced healthier, faster-growing birds, said Dr. Ronald Forsythe, vice president of technology and commercialization of UMES.
No smell of ammonia
“On one of the hottest days this summer, we smelled no ammonia. Normally, you can’t come within several feet of a building without being knocked out by the smell, and we were inside the building,” said Forsythe.
Even from the highway, Forsythe said, “people drive by and say, ‘What is that smell?’”
Since the experiment wrapped up earlier this year, UMES and AviHome have been looking for partners to produce and distribute the flooring system. They’ve gotten inquiries from as far away as Italy and Brazil.
But UMES is not putting all its eggs in the AviHome basket. Other companies are looking into ammonia reduction and, in fact, UMES is conducting an experiment with another company on the same issue.
Harter-Dennis ranks the Delmarva poultry industry as fourth or fifth in the country. But it is under pressure not only from new EPA regulations but from burgeoning residential development as well. Some local jurisdictions require setbacks from the the road to the chicken houses because of the ammonia odor.
“With all the interest in air quality and the environment, we need to keep the poultry industry in an area that is being developed,” said Harter-Dennis. “We want to keep the poultry industry viable and we are being proactive about it.”