The Poultry Mega-Manureshed that is the Southeastern USA: Is It Sustainable?


Scientists from across the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network are working to address nutrient management challenges that confront the poultry industry (broilers, layers, pullets, and turkeys) in the context of a “manureshed” – the geographic area surrounding one or more livestock and poultry operations where excess manure nutrients can be recycled for agricultural production. This study focuses on poultry manuresheds identified east of the Mississippi across the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions where over 55% of the U.S. poultry production is located. Poultry manure has been used as a fertilizer most extensively on forage and pasture crops grown near poultry houses. Poultry is a highly specialized production system, with a portion of feed grains grown at substantial distance from where the animals are raised. Consequently, nutrients excreted in manure often exceed the nutrient requirements for local crop production. This situation results in surpluses in local soils that receive manure. The surpluses in turn lead to eutrophication of water bodies; that is, the biological enrichment of water bodies derived from nutrient pollution. Without a mechanism to redistribute manure nutrients more widely, the production and manure management system is unsustainable.

What Did We Do

Central to the concept of the manureshed are sources and sinks, which represent spatial extents where the nutrients in livestock and poultry manure produced exceeds the nutrient needs of crops in the area (sources) or falls short of crop needs (sinks). Although manure nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) must be co-managed, we focus our analysis on P since the ratio of plant-available N:P in poultry manure is low (< 4:1) relative to crop needs (~ 10:1). We used data from the U.S. Census of Agriculture and estimates from the International Plant Nutrition Institute’s (IPNI) Nutrient Use Geographic Information System (NuGIS) to identify manure-based P produced annually by poultry production, crop nutrient needs for all crops, and fertilizer applied to farmland in each of the 3109 U.S. counties of the 48 conterminous U.S. states in 2012. A classification approach was then used to determine whether each county was a source or a sink. The next step was a step-wise spatial analysis to identify the nearest sink counties available for redistribution of manure-based P from each source county cluster. The result was a “mega-manureshed,” the largest contiguous area of source and sink counties in the United States.

What Have We Learned

The poultry mega-manureshed extends from the Mid-Atlantic, across the southeast to the Mississippi River and beyond (Figure 1). In the Georgia Coastal Plain manureshed, a component of the megamanureshed, the maximum distance that manure would need to be hauled from source area to sink area is only nine miles. However, in the Southern Piedmont and the Shenandoah manuresheds, the maximum distance that manure would have to be hauled is 65 and 146 miles, respectively. These are conservative estimates. Our analysis does not account for the presence of a large swine manure source area in North Carolina. If those manure nutrients are to be land applied, then additional sink areas would be needed. Additionally, we do not have data on soils that allow us to identify areas where P levels are already excessively high such that additional P should not be added. Both factors would greatly expand the size of the manureshed and increase the maximum hauling distance. Since hauling manure a hundred miles or more is not economically feasible, alternatives, such as pelletizing; use as feedstock for bioenergy and biochar production; and biological, physical, or chemical removal and recovery of nutrients, are needed in order to sustain the poultry industry.

Figure 1. Poultry mega-manureshed: Sources and sinks for P from the Mid-Atlantic across the southeast. Counties shown in white are neither sources nor sinks; P inputs are roughly in balance with crop uptake. The blue area in North Carolina is a P source area from swine

The vertical integration that is characteristic of meat and egg production components of the poultry industry lends itself well to the infrastructure requirements and collective decision making needed to achieve manureshed management. As manure treatment innovations evolve, the U.S. poultry industry is poised to take advantage of insights gained from the manureshed approach to target manure nutrient redistribution efforts.

Future Plans

Over the next 10 years, LTAR researchers will be working with producer partners to conduct long-term field research on the economic and environmental costs and benefits of importing manure nutrients to cropland and grazing land in different climates. Beyond traditional land management and technology research, we will also be working to build societal awareness of the benefits and challenges of the manureshed approach and determine what is needed for widespread support of the concept. LTAR scientists will work to improve or develop new manure treatment technologies. We plan to conduct economic research on the cost effectiveness of different types of management practices, as well as the need for economic incentives.


Ray B. Bryant, Research Soil Scientist, USDA ARS Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit, University Park, PA

Additional Authors

    • Dinku M. Endale, USDA-ARS Southeast Watershed Research Laboratory, Tifton, GA (Retired)
    • Sheri A. Spiegal, USDA-ARS Jornada Experimental Range, Las Cruces, NM
      -K. Colton Flynn, USDA-ARS Grassland Soil and Water Research Laboratory, Temple, TX
    • Robert J. Meinen, Senior Extension Associate, Dept. Animal Science, The Pennsylvania State University
    • Michel A. Cavigelli, USDA-ARS Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory, Beltsville, MD
    • Peter J.A. Kleinman, USDA-ARS Soil Management and Sugar Beet Research Unit, Fort Collins, CO

Additional Information

Bryant RB, Endale DM, Spiegal SA, Flynn KC, Meinen RJ, Cavigelli MA, Kleinman PJA. Poultry manureshed management: Opportunities and challenges for a vertically integrated industry. J Environ Qual. 2021 Jul 26. doi: 10.1002/jeq2.20273. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34309029.

Spiegal, S., Kleinman, P. J. A., Endale, D. M., Bryant, R. B., Dell, C., Goslee, S., … Yang Q. (2020). Manuresheds: Recoupling crop and livestock agriculture for sustainable intensification. Agricultural Systems. 181: 1-13. 102813. Doi: 10.1016/j.agsy.2020.102813.


This research was a contribution from the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network. LTAR is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is an equal opportunity provider and employer.


The authors are solely responsible for the content of these proceedings. The technical information does not necessarily reflect the official position of the sponsoring agencies or institutions represented by planning committee members, and inclusion and distribution herein does not constitute an endorsement of views expressed by the same. Printed materials included herein are not refereed publications. Citations should appear as follows. EXAMPLE: Authors. 2022. Title of presentation. Waste to Worth. Oregon, OH. April 18-22, 2022. URL of this page. Accessed on: today’s date.

Poultry Digestion – Emerging Farm-Based Opportunity

While EPA AGSTAR has long supported the adoption of anaerobic digestion on dairies and swine farms, they have not historically focused on the use of anaerobic digestion on egg laying and other poultry facilities. This has been because the high solids and ammonia concentrations within the manure make anaerobic digestion in a slurry-based system problematic. Development of enhanced downstream ammonia and solids recovery systems is now allowing for effective digestion without ammonia toxicity. The process also generates dilution water, avoiding the need for fresh water consumption, and eliminating unwanted effluent that needs to be stored or disposed of to fields. The system produces high-value bio-based fertilizers. In this presentation, a commercial system located in Fort Recovery Ohio will be used to detail the process flow, its technologies, and the co-products sold.

Why Examine Anaerobic Digestion on Poultry Farms?

The purpose of this presentation is to supply a case study on a commercial poultry digestion project for production of combined heat and power as well as value-added organic nutrients on a 1M egg-layer facility in Ohio.

What did we do?

In this study we used commercial farm information to demonstrate that poultry digestion is feasible in regard to overcoming ammonia inhibition while fitting well into an existing egg-layer manure management system. Importantly, during the treatment process a significant portion of nutrients within the manure are concentrated for value-added sales, ammonia losses to the environment are reduced, and wastewater production is minimized due to recycle of effluent as dilution water.

What have we learned?

In this study, commercial data shows that ammonia and solids/salts levels that are potentially inhibitory to the biology of the digestion process can be controlled. The control is through a post-digestion treatment that includes ammonia stripping and recovery as ammonium sulfate as well as fine solids separation using a dissolved air flotation process with the addition of a polymer. The resulting treated effluent is sent back to the front of the digester as dilution water for the high solids poultry manure. The separated fine solids and the ammonium sulfate solution are dried using waste engine heat to produce a nutrient-rich fertilizer for off-farm sales. The stable anaerobic digestion process resulting from the control of potential inhibitors that might accumulate in the return water, if no post-treatment occurred, leads to production of a significant supply of electrical power for sales to the grid.

Demonstration at commercial scale shows the promise anaerobic digestion with post-digestion treatment and effluent recycle can play in a more sustainable poultry manure treatment system including managing nutrients for export out of impacted watersheds.

Future Plans

Future plans include continued work with industry in developing and/or providing extension capabilities around novel digestion and post-treatment processes for a variety of manures and on-farm situations. Expansion of such processes to poultry and other on-farm business plans will allow for improved reductions in wastewater production, concentrate nutrients for export out of impacted watersheds and do so within a positive economic business plan.


Craig Frear, Assistant Professor at Washington State University

Quanbao Zhao, Project Engineer DVO Incorporated, Steve Dvorak, President DVO Incorporated

Additional information

Additional information about the corresponding author can be found at while information about the poultry project and the industry developer can be found at Numerous articles related to anaerobic digestion, nutrient recovery and separation technologies for climate, air, water and human health improvements can be found at the WSU website using their searchable articles function.


This research was supported by funding from USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Contract #2012-6800219814; National Resources Conservation Service, Conservation Innovation Grants #69-3A75-10-152; and Biomass Research Funds from the WSU Agricultural Research Center. 

The authors are solely responsible for the content of these proceedings. The technical information does not necessarily reflect the official position of the sponsoring agencies or institutions represented by planning committee members, and inclusion and distribution herein does not constitute an endorsement of views expressed by the same. Printed materials included herein are not refereed publications. Citations should appear as follows. EXAMPLE: Authors. 2015. Title of presentation. Waste to Worth: Spreading Science and Solutions. Seattle, WA. March 31-April 3, 2015. URL of this page. Accessed on: today’s date.


Small Scale Poultry Production Curriculum Materials

One of the most noticeable trends in agriculture is the increase in beginning farmers, small farms and especially in small-scale poultry. Everything from a few backyard chickens to 4-H projects and farms with several hundred hens or broilers all can be considered “small”. Just because a flock is small, does not mean that we can ignore areas like stewardship, efficient production, safe handling, and rules that apply to your farm.

Materials for Teachers and Extension Staff

The following materials were developed for teachers and educators to use in their classrooms and programs. The target age range is high school, jr. college and beginning farmer groups.

Download a .zip file containing all of the above files (videos need to be downloaded separately due to file size restrictions)

Video: Raising Poultry for Profit: Small-Scale Production

Download a copy of this video (.MP4 format; 73 MB)

If you prefer to play shorter video clips, this has been released as four separate parts:

Preview Presentation Slides: Small Scale Poultry


Contact Person for this Module: Martha Sullins, Colorado State University

Authors and Reviewers:

•Blake Angelo, Colorado State University Extension, Urban Agriculture
•Dr. Jack Avens, CSU Food Science and Human Nutrition
•Thomas Bass, Montana State University Extension, Livestock Environment Associate Specialist
•Dr. Marisa Bunning, CSU Food Science and Human Nutrition
•Emily Lockard, CSU Extension, Livestock
•Dea Sloan, CSU Agricultural and Resource Economics
•Martha Sullins, CSU Extension, Agriculture and Business Management
•Dr. Dawn Thilmany, CSU Agricultural and Resource Economics
•Heather Watts, CSU Agricultural and Resource Economics
•Wendy White, Colorado Department of Agriculture
•David Weiss, CSU Agricultural and Resource Economics

Building Environmental Leaders in Animal Agriculture (BELAA) is a collaborative effort of the National Young Farmers Educational Association, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Montana State University. It was funded by the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) under award #2009-49400-05871. This project would not be possible without the Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center and the National eXtension Initiative, National Association of County Ag Agents (NACAA), National Association of Agriculture Education (NAAE), Farm Credit Services of America, American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists (ARPAS), and Montana FFA Association.