Did you know that while Pennsylvania is ranked 7th in terms of milk production, it is actually the 4th leading state for egg production?

For years, the Alliance’s agriculture program has been recognized for our supply chain collaboration with PA’s dairy farms. We have helped to ensure that farms have adequate manure storage, runoff controls, and forested riparian areas so that soil and nutrients stay on their operation where they are most needed. This year we are excited to expand our conservation support to the poultry industry.

Our agriculture program assists farmers in obtaining the technical and financial support they need to produce food in an economically sustainable way, while also benefiting the environment on which we all depend. In collaboration with Perdue Farms, the Alliance is exploring ways to assist their farms with practices such as vegetative environmental buffers (VEBs), roofed manure storage, concrete heavy use areas, and more.

Specifically, vegetative buffers have quickly become a common practice on poultry farms on Maryland’s eastern shore. In Pennsylvania, Perdue’s organic division Coleman Natural Food has recognized the numerous benefits that vegetation can provide. They are encouraging producers to consider adding this best management practice. This fall two farmers agreed to pilot VEBs planting over 1000 trees to increase environmental benefit to their operation.

Much like forested riparian plantings along streamsides, VEBs are aimed at buffering pollutants entering our airways and eventually our waterways. They reduce dust and ammonia that is produced when housing thousands of chickens. A VEB is designed strategically to provide the most diverse set of coverage year-round through the size and shape of the plants. This vegetation will capture all forms of emissions, withstanding various seasons throughout the year.

Typically a vegetative buffer consists of two to three rows of native plants that can tolerate ammonia and dust leaving houses through ventilation fans. The first row may contain grasses and or shrubs to capture the brunt of the impact, a second taller row of deciduous trees for additional filtering, and lastly, an evergreen row to use as an aesthetic border and a permanent winter barrier as a final barrier.

This image showcases a full-grown VEB (located in Delaware) designed with willow trees and evergreens. Occasionally the willows are cut back and maintained for bedding or mulch.

More importantly, vegetative buffers provide numerous co-benefits. Vegetation will both cool and insulate the poultry barns which conserves energy and reduces utility costs. They protect air quality and help to alleviate odors, which aids in neighbor relations. The root systems of these plants play a major role in slowing roof runoff water and filtering pollutants. Branches and leaves provide shade and a windbreak for pasturing birds.

This image captures a basic design and the numerous co-benefits of vegetative environmental buffers (VEBs) for poultry facilities (Graphic Credit: Penn State University).

While critical, this practice does not look the same for every farm. There is flexibility with the species, tailoring designs to incorporate dual usage plants. For instance, willow may be pruned to be used as bedding or fuel. Flowering vegetation can be strategically placed in visible areas to add landscaping value. Other species such as dogwoods, eastern cedar, white pine, poplar all make great selections. Redbud and black locust trees are particularly ammonia-loving, so they thrive in areas with heavy dust. Switchgrass is flexible enough to withstand heavy fan blasts and serves as a great first line of defense.

This row of Sandbar willows and Arrowood viburnums will eventually form a dense wall of vegetation that will capture dust exiting the barn, protect the house from wind and snow, reduce mowing, and provide additional shade to the birds when out on pasture.

Each tree planted in the VEB will receive matting to suppress weeds and routine maintenance care for the first three years to ensure successful growth. As the VEB becomes established, a farmer may continue to find ways to integrate more vegetation by turning lawns and swales into pollinator-friendly meadows.

Graphic Credit: Nanticoke Watershed Alliance

This pilot will serve to show how adding vegetation to poultry operations will increase biodiversity, keep our environment clean, and conserve resources. The Alliance is excited to support a diversity of conservation work on all types of farming operations. We continue to research emerging technologies and funding sources to support farms because these practices benefit all of us. They serve as an excellent model for how we can continue to scale up environmentally friendly agriculture that boosts our ecosystems, food supply, and economies.

Stay tuned for more projects and updates!

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