Western SARE From the Field Profile
Meeting the Need for Livestock Mortality Alternatives
Since the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States in 2003, new regulations to keep our food system safe have inadvertently increased costs for farmers and ranchers. Rendering businesses, which convert animal carcasses into saleable products, are a prime example: Required to comply with new safety standards, they began charging farmers significantly more for disposal services.
Dairy farmer Joe Gonzalez, of Las Cruces, N.M., went from receiving 2 cents per pound from local renderers to paying $25 per carcass. Once he realized it would cost $1,000 each month to remove animals from his farm, he knew it was time for a change. “I figured, well, instead of giving out so much money to somebody else, I had to figure out a different way to handle my mortalities,” he says.
Gonzalez began composting his mortalities on the farm, which costs a mere tenth of what he was paying renderers. Now, supported by a 2009 SARE grant, a multi-state team of researchers and educators is showing other farmers across the West that composting is a safe, easy and economic alternative to rendering.
The team, led by Colorado State University soil scientist Jessica Davis, created training materials that detail mortality composting strategies specifically suited to the West’s diverse climates—from hot and arid to cold and snowy. Materials include a manual, training video and PowerPoint presentation, all in both English and Spanish. They also created a decision-making tool that compares the cost of composting to other disposal methods, to help farmers make informed choices.
The project demonstrated that with the right equipment and proper management, any farmer can begin on-farm mortality composting. “We found that this could be done for small farmers with just a few acres up to feedlots, and everything in between. There’s no scale limitation,” Davis says.
This is demonstrated by Gonzalez and Belgrade, Mont., goat farmer Nathan Brown, both of whom appear in the training video. Gonzalez manages a herd of about 2,500 cows and composts about 40 calf mortalities each month; Brown keeps about 370 goats and composts 25-40 kids each year.
The team’s efforts, which have been shared with hundreds of Extension and USDA educators, farmers and others across the region, have come at a critical time—composting is on the rise. From 2002 to 2007, the percentage of U.S. dairy farms that compost calves and cows jumped from 10.1 percent to 24.2 percent and from 6.9 percent to 16.8 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, the use of all other methods, including burial, incineration, rendering and landfills, either remained unchanged or decreased, according to the USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System.
Brown began composting his animals out of concern for the environmental impact of burial. “Here on our farm we have a really high water table. It’s about 3 feet down, and we really didn’t want to bury mortalities for fear of contaminating ground water,” he says.
Montana State University Extension Specialist Thomas Bass, who collaborated with Davis, used another 2009 SARE grant to add a crucial element: demonstrating that animal composting can be done in cold, semi-arid regions. “Many people assume that it’s not possible to compost large carcasses in the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountains,” he says. “However, this is simply not true. By following just a few simple tips, this can be a viable practice in our region.”
Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) EW09-013, In-service Training and Decision-Making Tools for Optimizing Livestock Mortality Management, and FW09-305, Composting Recommendations and Marketing Evaluation for Livestock Operations in Cold Semi-Arid Environments.
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