Cow-calf producer Jimmy Collins has paid for six truckloads of poultry litter yet to be delivered to his farm near Cusseta, AL. When the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of poultry litter as cattle feed last month, what Collins bought as a legal feed immediately became illegal.

Collins and Darrell Rankins, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System animal scientist, agree the new rule could further reduce the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the U.S. But, Collins says it will create big challenges for Alabama producers who traditionally have used poultry litter as part of winter feed.

“I understand why FDA is doing this,” Collins says. His family operation has used litter as part of its winter feeding plan since 1976. “But the ban forces us to find new feed supplies in the middle of our winter feeding season. It will be tough to find a feed supply as economical as poultry litter.”

Collins says litter is $40/ton cheaper than hay. He estimates the ban will cost his cow-calf operation up to $8,000 to replace poultry litter for the remainder of the season.

Rankins says Collins isn't alone. “There are a lot of folks who will wind up buying feed twice this year,” Rankins says. “That will elevate their production costs.”

Most of Alabama's 760,000 beef cattle are on a winter feeding regimen until spring green-up, Rankins says.

“Most farmers have already contracted for their winter feed supplies. It won't be easy for them to switch feeds at a moment's notice in the middle of winter,” he says.

“Cattle can be fed hay and a number of other alternative feeds, such as peanut hulls and gin trash. But, supplies may be limited at this time of year,” Rankin adds.

Limited supplies also mean higher prices.

“In July, I could buy soybean hulls for $70/ton,” Collins says. “Now, it's $115 to $120/ton. A ton of hay is $70 and cottonseed is around $140. That's why farmers lock in winter feed sources in the summer to take advantage of lower prices.”

Hal Pepper, a farm management Extension economist, says feed costs in general are higher because of rising corn and soybean prices. But, while poultry litter is a cheaper feed, producers didn't choose it on cost alone, Rankins points out. Poultry litter has a calculated value of 50% total digestible nutrients. That's comparable to average-quality hay, he says.

“Research has proven poultry litter to be a valuable source of energy for stocker cattle and brood cows,” he says. “It's also a good source of protein and essential minerals.”

Rankins is developing recommendations to help cattle producers who relied heavily on poultry litter get through this feeding season. Besides locating new feed supplies, many producers are faced with adjusting their budgets to cover the extra feed costs.

Jerry Pierce, an Extension economist specializing in farm business management, says the ban will compel cattle producers to re-examine their management practices.

“They'll have to reconsider their profit margins and evaluate how increased feed costs will impact their bottom line,” Pierce says. Pierce encourages producers to discuss their business plans with their Extension farm business management economists, their financial planner or tax attorney.

Maggie Lawrence is a communications specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System at Auburn University.