Ask Boyd Charles what he considers his happiest day as a farmer and he’ll probably tell you it was the day he sold his sprayer.
“I was tired of giving away most of my profit to the chemical companies,” he says of his decision to become an organic farmer in 1996. He hasn’t looked back.
Still, organic farming comes with its own demands, including the inability to use chemical fertilizers. Charles often wished there was a fertilizer solution that worked within the practices he committed to as a certified organic producer. A few years ago, he found it.
Over the past few years, the southeast Saskatchewan grain farmer has been importing cooked and pelletized chicken manure from a laying hen operation in the United States and using it as a fertilizer for his flax, hard red spring wheat and amber durum cash crops. He couldn’t be happier with the results, claiming it’s superior in most every way to commercial fertilizer.
“It would take a couple of days to give the breakdown of nutrients to you,” he says. “It’s not like commercial fertilizer. When you go to town and buy, say, 11-51, you know that bag or that truckload has 11 per cent nitrogen and 51 per cent phosphorus. The rest is just a carrier — it’s worthless. You’re only buying two products.
“With chicken manure, I have six pages of lab reports of what’s in it: every minute mineral known to man plus all of your potash, phosphorous, nitrogen and sulphur. You’re getting the full blend of everything that has anything to do with growing a plant.”
Organic producers plant legumes extensively as part of their soil fertility management program. For example, Charles says under his certification with OCPP/Pro-Cert Canada, he had to keep a percentage of his land base seeded to a nitrogen-fixing legume for fertilizer. However, he wanted a more comprehensive solution.
“I have a son who lives in Minnesota and we spend a little bit of time down there,” he says. “We found out that there’s chicken manure down there in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Indiana and it doesn’t cost a lot; it’s organic and it’s the best fertilizer to put on land.”
However, you can’t just bring a load of chicken manure across the border, says Charles; it has to be pelletized and cooked to remove impurities beforehand. For the sake of effectiveness, it needs to be pure manure from a laying hen barn — it can’t be mixed with contaminants like straw (that’s referred to as “chicken litter”).
“You have to find a barn that is just laying hens kept in cages,” he says.
Charles found an operation in Minnesota that would sell him the chicken manure plus pelletize and cook it.
“It’s run through a pelletizer just like you would with wheat or barley. It’s cooked until there isn’t any disease left in it, just like boiling water.”
Charles had to get a host of organizations and regulators on board before he could ship the manure across the border and use it on his crops. “Our certifier had to approve it. The border had to approve it. It took us a long time to get it approved, but they couldn’t find anything the matter with it, so we got to use it.”
He bought a chicken litter spreader for application because a conventional manure spreader simply wouldn’t have the necessary capacity, he says.
“You have to put on quite a bit of it. It’s not like granular fertilizer that you buy at the local store. It’s not concentrated as much. If you’re going to do any good, you’re going to have to put on about 800 to 1,000 pounds per acre, which is the basic rate for cereals. We had to find something that holds about 28,000 or 30,000 pounds that we could do about 40 acres with.”
The certifier’s go-ahead means Charles no longer has to seed 20 per cent of his land to annual legumes, such as peas and lentils, to fix nitrogen in the soil. “We don’t have to have legumes anymore for soil fertility because we’re putting in way more soil fertility with this chicken manure than we ever did with legumes,” he says.
However, he still includes alfalfa — a perennial legume — as part of his rotation because it acts as a natural herbicide. This is especially important when growing flax, he says, which requires a completely weed-free field in order to grow.
“We broke that alfalfa up and this year we sowed (the land) to flax. We averaged about 40 bushels per acre. That all comes because of planning. It’s not something you can just go out and do. The average chemical farmer would have went out and sprayed a load of Roundup last fall and sown it to flax this spring without hardly any planning whatsoever.”