Feeding Poultry Litter to Ruminants (goats, sheep and cows)

Manure in Chicken Feed Sacks

Manure in Chicken Feed Sacks

Poultry litter is a mixture of poultry manure, spilled feed, feathers, and bedding materials (such as wood shavings, sawdust, peanut hulls, shredded sugar cane, straw etc). Some will be shocked to discover that poultry litter can be fed to ruminants like cows, goats and sheep. Some will wonder how beneficial it is and its health implication to both ruminants and man. In a short while, we’ll be considering all these.

Why Would Some People Feed Poultry Manure to their Animals?

I’ll be writing about 3 reasons why farmers feed poultry litter to their animals.

1. Disposing Poultry Litter is a Big Challenge: Disposing of poultry litter can lead to environmental pollution. If you are a backyard poultry farmer, you may not understand what I mean. Chickens can generate tons and tons of manure over a period of time. A single layer hen weighing 1.8kg can generate up to 113.4g/day of manure. About 75% of this amount is water, so we’re left with 28.35g dry manure per hen per day. This value does not include the litter material. If 1 layer hen produces 28.35g dry manure in a day, 5000 birds will produce 141.8kg of dry manure per day, 4,252.5kg in 30 days and 51,757kg in a year. That’s lots of manure to dispose. Now imagine the quantity of manure 50,000 birds will produce – 517,570kg in a year. When you add the weight of litter material used plus the moisture it absorbs from the manure, you’ll be getting a very high figure.

Most medium and large-scale poultry farmers don’t clean their poultry houses every week. They may allow manure to pile up for 1 year or more before a cleaning operation is carried out. You may think they’re dirty stupid people right? No they aren’t because if you keep the litter in good condition, there would be no problem with smell and diseases. Also, cleaning the house when the birds are still in it can stress them and expose them to dust and diseases. So they better leave the litter lie.

2. High Feed Cost: In ruminant rearing, feeding cost alone can take up over 50% of production cost. So if a wise farmer devises a means of cutting down feed cost, he’ll make more profit. Poultry litter is a very cheap source of high quality feed for ruminants because unlike non-ruminants, they can make use of the non-protein nitrogen in litter. More than 40% of the crude protein in litter can be in the form of non-protein nitrogen.

3. Feed is not Effectively Utilized by Poultry: Poultry and most other animals loose a lot of nutrients through their droppings. Manure from a well-fed broiler contains about 23% CP. This means that when we feed our birds, some of the feed value is lost in the droppings and we can recover some by feeding the droppings to ruminants – and ruminants love chicken shit!

How Safe is Poultry Litter as Ruminant Feed?

The safety depends on the processing and whether the poultry feed contains cattle protein or not. I’ll be discussing more about processing later, but for now we focus on cattle protein.

When there are sources of cattle protein in the poultry feed, there is a risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease), a disease that devastated the British beef industry in the early 1990s. Cattle protein can be in the form of meat meal, blood meal, brains, eyes, spinal cord, intestine, bone meal etc. Among these various forms, the riskiest are cattle brains, eyes, spinal cord and intestines.

If your poultry feed contains cattle protein, then the litter will also contain cattle protein which is a risk factor of mad cow disease. So to prevent risk of this disease occurring in cattle, don’t feed litter that contains cattle protein, or at least exclude the riskiest parts in the poultry feed (in many countries, these riskiest parts are no longer used in poultry feed).

How can Poultry Litter be Properly Processed?

Proper processing of poultry litter is very important to avoid health risk in ruminants and man. There are various ways of processing litter – deep stacking, ensiling, dehydrating, and extrusion-pelleting. The most common and cheapest method is deep stacking and that’s what we’ll be considering. Before deep stacking, make sure the litter meet the following requirements:

  1. It should be free from too much ash (soil). Ash content must not be above 28% for beef cattle.
  2. It should be free from glass, metals and other foreign materials
  3. It should be free of dead birds and rodents
  4. Do not use decaying litter such as caked litter.
  5. If the litter has been treated with harmful chemical to control ammonia, do not use it (some chemicals are not harmful though).
  6. Moisture Content: If the litter is too dry (moisture content below 20%), the litter will not process properly. If it is too wet (above 30% moisture), the litter will heat up excessively during deep stacking. The end result will be a blackened litter with indigestible protein. Worst still, the excessive heat can cause fire. Optimum moisture content is 25%. If moisture level is less than 20%, sprinkle some water on the litter until about 25% moisture content is achieved. You can do this when the litter is still inside the house before clean out.

Deep Stacking: How To

To deep stack litter, you have to pile them up so that the highest point is 6-8 feet high. As you pack the litter in layers, compact after each layer to exclude air. It is better to use heavy-wheeled vehicle for this, but a small holder can still do it using stick or a drum.

After stacking, the litter undergoes a composting-ensiling process during which it is heated to temperature between 140 and 158 oF (60 – 70oC). At this temperature range, pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella in the litter are killed.

Overheating (more than 160oF/71.1oC) may occasionally occur and damage both protein and carbohydrates. This can be controlled by excluding air. Air can be excluded by compacting the litter with heavy-wheeled vehicles, covering the litter with plastic (6 millimeter polyethylene is good), or both. During processing, the temperature should be monitored to avoid under- or over-heating. You can use a probe thermometer to monitoring the stockpile temperature in several locations.

After stockpiling, allow the litter to heat for at least 3 weeks and do not turn it. At the end of 3 weeks, the end product should have the following characteristics:

  1. It should have a fine texture and an odor like caramelized chocolate
  2. It should not smell like ammonia
  3. It should not be black with a burnt smell, an indicator of overheating
  4. It should not be gray-colored with a strong manure smell, an indicator of under heating.

If the stockpile was heated properly, the litter will be suitable for use as feed for ruminants. In this state, it will retain its feeding value for up to 5 years in some cases.

If there are antibiotics in the litter, they’re likely to be degraded by microorganisms during deep stacking. Molds that produce mycotoxins will not be a problem since molds do not grow well in litter due to the presence of ammonia. The growth of mold is also limited only to surfaces exposed to air.

How Does Poultry Manure Satisfy the Nutrient Requirement of Ruminants?

When properly processed, poultry litter is an economical and safe source of protein, minerals, and energy for ruminants. Among poultry birds, broiler litter is the most nutritious. When used at 15%, broiler manure is usually sufficient in Ca and P. But with layer manure, it will become necessary to offset phosphorus imbalance due to the very high calcium content.

More than 40 percent of the crude protein in litter can be in the form of non-protein nitrogen. Young ruminants cannot utilize this non-protein nitrogen well enough, and so you shouldn’t feed litter to young cattle less than 5 months old or to sheep and goats less than 3 months old.

Poultry litter is low in energy, so it is best to combine it with grains. Long hay should also be added to serve as a source of fiber. This helps to maintain the functioning of the digestive system.

Goats: Up to 36% poultry litter can be included in the diet of goats. Doing so will greatly reduce the cost of raising goats. Unlike sheep, goats can tolerate copper better and so feeding litter with high level of copper to goats is not a problem.

Sheep: Because of the sensitivity of sheep to copper, litter containing high concentrations of copper should not be fed to sheep. If you are unsure of the copper level, don’t feed poultry litter to sheep, else they might die from copper toxicity.

Cattle: Broiler litter is a very cheap source of protein for cattle. When fed a diet of litter and grain, cattle will require fiber and vitamin A supplementation. Cattle should receive a daily minimum of 2lb (0.91kg) of long hay per animal to aid the digestive system. Alternatively, 10% cottonseed hulls may be included in a litter-grain diet to eliminate the need for long hay. Add vitamin A at 1,500 IU per pound or inject individual cattle. When 20% or more of the daily diet contains litter, additional minerals is not usually needed except plain salt, which should be provided free choice.

Note: To successfully formulate a balanced diet, the chemical composition of the litter and other ingredients must be known. The nutrient requirement of the animal must also be known.


The harmful impact of poultry litter on the environment can be greatly minimized by feeding litter to ruminants after proper processing. Doing so will also cut down the production cost of livestock rearing. The risk of mad cow disease can be eliminated by excluding cattle protein from poultry feed. If this is not possible, risk can be greatly minimized by excluding the riskiest parts – cattle brains, eyes, spinal cord and intestines – from poultry feed.


More Info: Rense.com/general8/feed.htm

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2 comments to Feeding Poultry Litter to Ruminants (goats, sheep and cows)

  • Mahfooz innusah

    So in Africa with our deep heat sun how are we to process poultry litter well

    • FarmersJoint

      We can do so as I’ve already explained. Our high temperature will favor the process since external heating is not required. Those in temperate climates will have to make much larger piles to generate enough heat for the process.

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