Best practice litter management manual for Australian meat chicken farms

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  4. Troubleshooting guide for litter management

Troubleshooting guide for litter management

Potential solution/s: Consider the use of alternative litter sources after carrying out a risk assessment of its safety regarding meat chicken performance and health, human health, and the environment.

Consider trialling partial reuse with your processor by using effective pasteurisation and clean litter in the brooding area. Minor ventilation configuration may be required to ensure that ammonia released from the reused litter is drawn away from the brooding area.

Seek alternative sale opportunities for spent litter to increase its value and offset the cost of the bedding material.

Potential solution/s: Avoid stockpiling unless it is necessary, in which case store in a dry and aerated location. Spread the bedding material into a thin layer as soon as possible, and once spread, use ventilation and heat to remove excess moisture. Turning, mixing and/or forced aeration during this phase will help to rapidly release moisture.

Provide feedback to the supplier on the issue to see if it can be rectified and ask them about their policies and procedures relating to the manufacture, storage, and distribution of the bedding material.

Potential solution/s: Heating the floor and litter in the brooding area before placement is essential to avoid condensation in the litter. It is as important as heating the air to the correct temperature for the health and comfort of young chicks. If the temperature of the floor is below the dew point, condensation will form in the litter. Because of higher targeted relative humidity during brooding, the floor temperature (and full litter depth) must be within 3–4 °C of the air temperature in the sheds to stay above the dew point.

Destratification fans, circulation fans or radiant/tube heaters will assist with heating the floor and litter to the optimum temperature.

Potential solution/s: Straw-based litter needs to be chopped to lengths less than 20mm. Longer particle lengths are more prone to caking, especially early in the grow-out when young chickens do not have the size or strength to work the litter and keep it friable. Check the particle size of the straw after chopping/crushing.

Also try blending straw litter with other bedding materials. Some southern Australia producers have had good results adding a sawdust layer over the straw before placement to reduce caking problems.

Potential solution/s: Systematically increase ventilation time or fan speed (for variable-speed fans) until sufficient ammonia and moisture extraction is achieved. When increased ventilation is used to remove ammonia and moisture from the sheds. temperature and humidity must be maintained to a standard appropriate to the age of the chickens. Aim to maintain relative humidity at 40–60%.

Additional conditioning may also be required to release trapped moisture in the litter. This may temporarily exacerbate ammonia levels.

If practicing litter reuse, consider using pre-treatment litter additives, such as dry acids that lower litter pH and hence reduce ammonia emissions.

Potential solution/s: Ensure incoming air has a low relative humidity (<60%). This requires warming the air and ensuring that it is well mixed as it enters the air inlets. This is achieved by:

  • Retaining heat (from the chickens and heaters) and/or adding heat to the sheds to increase the water holding capacity of the air.
  • Adjust mini-vents to achieve suitable static pressure (25Pa) to ensure air entering through the mini-vents has an air speed of 3–6m/s so that it can reach the roof apex, where the hottest air will pool.
  • Adjust mini-vents so that they are sealed when closed, but open sufficiently so that air is directed across the ceiling and doesn’t hit the ceiling and drop near the wall.
  • If it is not possible to achieve the required air pressure and mini-vent opening, consider latching closed every second vent, especially early in the grow-out when ventilation rates are minimal.

Stirring or circulation fans may help adequately mix the air within the sheds and improve uniformity of heating if the mini-vents do not adequately mix the air within the sheds.

Reduce relative humidity later in the grow-out by only relying on the evaporative cooling system (pads and foggers) when necessary. Only use evaporative cooling when air speed alone is insufficient to cool the chickens.

Potential solution/s: Ensure sufficient drainage around sheds for stormwater to rapidly drain away.

Incorporate bedding material at these locations. If litter moisture is still too wet, replace litter in these areas with fresh, dry bedding material.

Potential solution/s: Check drinker height daily to ensure it is the correct height for the chickens.

If cup and bell (least preferable) drinkers are used:

  • ensure that the lip of the drinker is at the same level as the chickens’ backs in a standing position, and
  • ensure water level is 5mm below the lip at chick delivery and adjust to 12.5mm by day 7 to prevent spillage.

If nipple drinkers (most preferred) are used:

  • set height at chicks’ eye levels for the first few hours of age.
  • in the early stages of brooding, adjust drinker height to just above head height. After this, maintain height above chicks’ heads to ensure they are reaching (not straining) to reach the drinker and their feet are always flat while drinking. Turning their heads to the side while drinking will cause spillage:
  • adjust pressure so there is a droplet of water suspended from the nipple.

Drinker nipples have a limited life (~10 years) and should be replaced at scheduled intervals. Consider replacing drinker nipples in areas of the sheds where litter is the wettest and observe if the floor conditions improve. This is likely a sign that the drinker nipples are nearing the end of their life and replacement should be scheduled.

Ensure there is adequate and even pressure in the lines. These lines require regular cleaning between growth cycles. Carefully adjusting regulators and having multiple supply points can help minimise spillage.

Potential solution/s: Consider providing heating or retaining heat (e.g. from the chickens) in sheds to improve moisture removal, as warmer air holds more water. If possible, consider using mini-vent ventilation rather than tunnel ventilation to better control fresh air mixing and heating evenly.

This may also require increased fan speeds to ensure chicken thermal comfort is maintained.

This may also require the use of destratification/circulation fans to mix warm air.

Potential solution/s: Litter needs to be kept in a friable state to allow the chickens to turn the litter over via scratching and digging. Regularly conditioning litter has the effect of aerating the litter, which in turn will release gases and moisture. Once litter becomes wet and caked, it can be difficult to rectify the problem via conditioning. Attempts to remediate overly wet and caked litter via turning and mixing alone are likely to be futile.

When litter becomes wet, it gets sticky and cohesive and will compact easily. The only way to make it more friable is to reduce its moisture content. If the wet caked litter is surrounded by drier litter, it is essential to mix the wet and dry materials together, to hopefully achieve a litter moisture content that is below the threshold where it is sticky. This is one of the essential outcomes of litter conditioning. Some farmers have reported success with litter conditioning after upgrading from smaller equipment to wider equipment, because it is better at mixing dry and wet litter.

To take advantage of the release of water from recently turned litter, plan to undertake litter conditioning activities in mid to late morning. Consider the following as well:

  • Avoid litter conditioning at night and in the early morning when the potential for evaporation is lower. These times may also not be desirable to increase ventilation rate to exhaust released gases and water, due to colder air outside (depends on the time of the grow-out). Night-time and early morning are also times when there is a higher risk of causing odour impacts, which may be made worse when releasing odorous gases during litter conditioning.
  • Avoid litter conditioning late in the afternoon when there will be only a short window of time to ventilate moisture and gases that are released by conditioning.
Potential solution/s: Consider concreting shed floors and/or provide guttering to direct water away from sheds. Also ensure there is effective drainage around sheds.

Potential solution/s: Repair damaged floors from beetles between growth cycles by re-compacting damaged areas.

When using chemicals to control litter beetles, rotate the type based on active ingredients to avoid pesticide resistance.

Use an integrated pest management approach for the control of litter beetles. This would include good housekeeping in the first instance, the use of chemicals, and the regular inspection and resealing of shed floors.

Potential solution/s: Have the litter analysed to determine it is safe.

Provide information to the end user, such as the publication Land application of chicken litter: a guide for users (Wiedemann, 2015b), about the likely contaminants and the safe use of spent litter.

Potential solution/s: Concrete floors have different thermal insulation and water transmitting properties than compacted earth floors. In general, concrete floors may take longer to warm up than earth floors, and will not absorb water as easily. Think what happens if you tip a bucket of water on a concrete floor, compared with an earth floor. Which absorbs water quicker and which stays wetter longer?

Some growers who have recently concreted their floors now find that their litter is wetter and cakes easier.

Because concrete floors are more resistant to absorbing water, all water going onto the litter must be removed using shed ventilation. Earth floors are more forgiving and adsorb some moisture that would be released slowly during the grow-out and when the sheds are cleaned.

It is necessary to pre-heat the concrete floor before placing chickens in sheds to avoid condensation within the litter. Ensure the temperature of the concrete floor, and the full litter depth profile (from the base to the surface) is within 3–4 °C of the air temperature when brooding starts, to keep the temperature of the litter above the dew point.

Carefully monitor litter moisture content and caking, and increase heating and ventilation before it gets too wet. Dig through the litter to the base and ensure that water is not forming/condensing at the bottom of the litter.

Some growers have found that they needed to change their drinker nipples to ones with a lower flow rate to manage litter moisture content. Consider the potential need and cost of replacing drinker nipples and the cost of concreting the floor of sheds.

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