The lifecycle of wood shavings

Wood shavings are a sustainable product

Wood shavings have a myriad of end-user applications from packaging for fragile goods to poultry bedding and ultimately, as a valuable aid in the agriculture industry. Part of their appeal is that they are an easy-to-produce product which is inherently hygienic, non-toxic, cost-effective and sustainable. The sustainability factor of wood shavings is only enhanced by its transformative qualities; this cost-effective medium begins its journey as animal bedding, to ultimately end up as a nutrient-rich organic fertiliser used in the farming of sugar cane. This article will explore the lifecycle of wood shavings and how they play a vital role in both agricultural sectors.

The start of the journey: Poultry bedding

Wood shavings are the most commonly used substrate for poultry bedding. Laid on the floor of a chicken shed, they fulfill a number of functions which include softening the physical environment and providing warmth, absorbing waste and most importantly, reducing ammonia and moisture levels. Keeping moisture levels within the shed at an optimum is of utmost concern because uncontrolled or high moisture and ammonia levels are detrimental to the flock and can adversely affect animal performance.

High moisture levels in the shed also increases the incidence of Contact Dermatitis – a preventable yet debilitating disease common amongst chickens. Contact Dermatitis can have a negative affect on production output, so reducing the incidence of the disease remains a priority for chicken farmers. When compared to other substrates, wood shavings are observed to have better performance outcomes due to their greater dry matter content and low moisture retention properties and it’s these factors which make them suitable for poultry farming.

The next step: Becoming litter

Chicken litter is a mixture of old wood shavings, chicken faeces, feathers, food particles and dust. The litter contains several vital macro and micronutrients including nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg). Nutrient-dense chicken litter is not discarded and instead is used as an organic crop fertiliser for sugar cane. Chicken litter is valuable because it aids in recycling vital plant nutrients and returning organic matter back to the soil, thereby helping to improve soil quality and increase crop yields.

The value of chicken litter as a crop fertiliser is also demonstrated by its ability to slowly release nutrients into the soil over a period of time. Correct handling and application of the litter will enable one to maximise on these benefits and avoid losing large volumes of plant available nitrogen. Regular soil tests must be conducted in order to ascertain the soil’s ability to supply nutrients to crops and also to know how best to supplement the soil with the fertiliser. Maximum fertiliser efficacy results from several things which include proper litter handling, correct fertiliser application and using the soil test metrics to guide supplementation.

Interestingly, chicken litter is comparatively cheaper than commercially-produced synthetic fertilisers, and poses little threat to the environment if leeching into ground water systems occurs.

Chicken litter: An asset to the agricultural industry

Poultry farming, and its associated industries, is one of South Africa’s largest agricultural sectors. In terms of regional output, KwaZulu-Natal is one of the country’s most prolific poultry producers and also one of the only two primary sugar cane growing regions. Sugar cane is a cash crop which generates an annual income of R4 billion and accounts for 6% of South Africa’s GDP. The total agricultural output equates to 20 million tons of sugar cane per year, placing South Africa on the list of the globe’s top 15 sugar producers and exporters.

With these heavyweight agricultural sectors concentrated in the KZN region, it’s evident that the opportunity for a mutually-beneficial relationship exists. In one context this symbiotic relationship is demonstrated through the production, supply and use of chicken litter as an important sugar cane fertiliser.

Both the poultry farming sector and sugar industry are key economic players in South Africa. Directly and indirectly, these industries provide thousands of jobs and manufacture hundreds of products, by-products and co-products. The value of both the poultry and sugar industries becomes even greater through the export of products; South Africa’s sugar exports alone generate earnings of R2.5 billion annually. With both industries being of great importance to the economy, sustainable and cost-effective solutions will become increasingly desirable. Wood shavings are readily available and cost-effective while also paving the way for a horizontal supply chain within the poultry and sugar farming sectors. With the valuable transformative properties seen throughout their lifecycle, wood shavings can certainly add value to both agricultural sectors.