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Switching to Switchgrass

The results from the Perdue trial confirm that switchgrass is a suitable bedding material.

By Whitney Hall

There are over 4,000 poultry houses on the Delmarva Peninsula. Traditionally, growers have relied on pine shavings as a bedding material for their flocks. Once readily available as scrap from mills, shavings are now in limited supply and becoming more costly.

Having engaged the poultry industry in conversations about this and other challenges facing agriculture and the Chesapeake Bay, The Nature Conservancy, the Chester River Association (CRA), the University of Maryland Extension, and the University of Delaware Extension have proposed a potential solution: switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). This native perennial is one of the most efficient grasses at removing nitrogen from the soil. Its deep rooted system acts as an anchor, preventing erosion and helping to reduce surface runoff into streams and rivers. This combination can produce significant water quality benefits.

The University of Delaware Extension and the University of Maryland Extension, in collaboration with the Conservancy and CRA, conducted several field trials to study the viability of switchgrass as an alternative bedding material. The Nature Conservancy reached out to Perdue Farms, headquartered in Salisbury, Maryland, in hopes of testing switchgrass on a larger scale.

Perdue agreed to take part in a year-long study of eight poultry houses, four using traditional pine shavings as bedding and four using chopped switchgrass. The University of Delaware and University of Maryland are performing the research to evaluate poultry performance. CRA provided the switchgrass from farms on the upper shore that have established crops.

For switchgrass to gain acceptance, it must perform as well as or better than pine shavings. The results from the Perdue trial confirm that switchgrass is a suitable bedding material for the industry, and may even provide some additional benefits over pine shavings. The Conservancy is providing incentives to farmers to begin planting grass stands. Switchgrass requires two to three years from initial planting to become established and ready for harvest.

In cooperation with local farmers, CRA has planted several hundred acres of switchgrass in the Chester River watershed. Additional switchgrass stands will need to be established on the lower Delmarva Peninsula where there is a heavy concentration of poultry houses. Expanding to the lower shore also creates an opportunity to provide farmers who have marginal farm land with an alternative crop. The Conservancy’s goal is to have 1,000 acres on Delmarva planted in switchgrass by 2020.

The production and supply-chain cycles for harvesting, processing, and bedding a poultry house also must be evaluated to determine any gaps such as needs for specialized equipment or contractor expertise.

The Eastern Shore faces many challenges to improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. Engaging with farmers and the poultry industry represents our best hope to encourage new practices that are beneficial to agriculture and the health of the bay.

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