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News - Farmers, governments scramble to deal with dead animal removal

  • February 15, 2011

By Walt Reichert -

Last April, a downed power line near Springfield electrocuted 19 cows in a farmer’s field. What was a disaster for the farmer turned into an opportunity for the Washington County government, which had just installed a composting system for handling dead animals. Ironically, the operation was approved by the state just two days before the animals were killed.

The cattle, lying in a field about a half a mile from the county’s new composting site, were hauled in and covered with wood chips and sawdust. Eight weeks later, nothing was left but large bones; two weeks after that, nothing was left but fine compost.

“We watched very closely for varmints—flies, buzzards—but we didn’t detect anything,” said Washington County Judge-Executive John Settles.

Washington County is one of several local governments that have come to the aid of farmers needing to find a convenient method to dispose of deadstock. The dilemma emerged after a change in federal regulations prompted two Kentucky companies to quit picking up deadstock on farms for rendering purposes.

For years, the two companies—Griffin Industries of Cold Spring, and Nation Brothers, of Shelbyville—hauled deadstock to rendering facilities for products ranging from pet food to fertilizer. But in April of 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration implemented a rule as part of a trade agreement with Korea that required the removal of brain and spinal cord tissue from any bovine over the age of 30 months before it could be rendered. The rule was made in response to fears of the spread of bovine spongiform encephaly (BSE or mad cow disease).

The FDA’s rule was handed down even though no American has died of the human variant of mad cow disease and only a couple of cows in the U. S. have been confirmed to have BSE. Those cows were traced to animals imported from Canada.

State Veterinarian Dr. Robert Stout said the FDA rule was “overkill” but that Kentucky’s farmers are stuck with it.

“In spite of complaints, they pretty much said, ‘Sorry about your luck. Deal with it,’” Stout said.

Gabe Nation, co-owner of Nation Brothers, which picked up dead animals in a 22-country region in the central part of the state, took his fight against the rule to the halls of Congress, but ultimately decided to close his family’s business rather than comply with a rule he said would more than double his price for hauling animals.

Robert Griffin, of Griffin Industries, told Business Lexington magazine that his company would get out of the dead livestock hauling business rather than deal with the potential liability of trying to comply with the FDA rule. His company served many counties, most in the western part of Kentucky. After the regulation was implemented, Griffin complained that the rule was “politics” and that the 1997 ban on ruminant byproducts in feed was sufficient to eliminate the potential for mad cow disease in this country.

The void left by the pullout of Nation Brothers and Griffin Industries has farmers and governments in some of the largest cattle and horse producing counties in the state scrambling for ways to handle the carcasses. No small task, as Kentucky has nearly a one-million beef cattle herd. Add horses, dairy cattle, sheep and goats, and the task of keeping dead animals from contaminating fields and waterways becomes daunting.

Though handling large carcasses is not practical for many farmers, especially small operators on limited acreage, the state puts the responsibility of dealing with dead animals on the producer. KRS 257.160 requires farmers to properly dispose of livestock within 48 hours of “knowledge” that an animal is dead. Proper disposal by law can be incineration, boiling of the carcass for two hours, burial, disposal in an approved landfill and composting. Several of those methods—including incineration and boiling—are not practical for most farmers. And while many large animals are going into landfills, Stout said he fears that approved landfills will stop taking carcasses “if they become a significant part of the volume going in.”

Many county governments have stepped in to help farmers. According to a University of Kentucky survey that was presented to KFB’s Board of Directors last month, 15 counties are using Ag Development funds for various disposal programs and 14 have received grants from the Soil Conservation Service. At least nine counties are dealing with dead animal removal themselves. Others are contracting with animal haulers that have gone into the business. The state now has a total of 21 haulers licensed by the State Vet’s Office to handle dead animals.

The UK survey revealed that 65 counties—most in the middle of the state—have pickup service, while 55 do not. In 10 counties where pickup is not available, cost share is available to help farmers with on-farm disposal or to offset costs for transport. Counties also were asked to list the destination for pickups: 22 went to rendering facilities, 21 to a landfill, 7 to incinerators, and several reported composting operations.

Following the UK report from Dr. Gary Palmer and Dr. Steve Higgins, the KFB Board decided to form a task force to deal with the issue.

Dr. Scott Smith, Dean of UK College of Agriculture, told his colleagues on the KFB Board that “pickup is a huge issue for farmers” and that “many feel composting may be the best solution.”

“It’s clearly a problem counties have handled in different ways,” Smith added.

Montgomery County’s fiscal court contracts with David Jackson of Bath County for its dead animal removal service, according to that county’s Cooperative Extension Agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources, Ron Catchen. He said the service is run at no cost to farmers, but Jackson does not pick up sheep and goats.

In Christian County, fiscal court spends approximately $5,600 per month for dead animal removal services, said ag and natural resources agent Jay Stone. When Griffin Industries stopped picking up dead animals, Stone said the county contracted with two local providers of waste removal services to do the job, while the Extension office handles the billing for services. Farmers in Christian County pay a total of $35 per head with a cap of $105 per pickup.

“That way, we don’t hit hard a farmer that’s had catastrophic losses,” Stone said.

Like Montgomery County, Christian County currently sends its dead animals to landfills, but the county is looking into setting up a composting system similar to that set up in Washington County. Stone predicts once the composting system is up and running the county will save about half of the cost of dead animal removal services because of lower transportation costs.

“My hope is that cost savings will be split between the county and the farmers,” Stone said.

Composting may ultimately be the answer to dead animal removal for most of the state’s farmers and local governments.

An Iowa State University survey of dead animal removal services in that state showed that of all of the methods for dead animal disposal, farmers and governments were most pleased with composting. (They were least pleased with burial.)

Dr. Steve Higgins at the University of Kentucky has set up composting models that can be duplicated by counties, and even larger operators, across that state. The system requires an impervious site—a concrete pad—and enough organic material to cover the animal above and below. Experiments show that the compost maintains temperatures of 140-160 degrees, enough to kill most pathogens, and to reduce the animal to finished compost within 8 to 10 weeks. Sites must be inspected yearly by the state and operators pay $25 for a permit to compost dead livestock.

Washington County has access to sawdust from its local stockyards and wood chips from a line removal service to provide organic matter for its compost operation. To provide transport services to the composting site, the county is retrofitting a county truck to make it suitable for hauling dead livestock. A county employee will be used part-time to operate the service, which, Settle said, should be up and running this month.

Settles expects the composting system to be good for the farmer—and the county’s taxpayers.

“We were spending $27,000 a year before,” Settles said. “Now our main cost will be a part-time employee. We’re proud of it.”

Higgins has travelled the state, educating farmers and other interests about composting. He’s convinced it offers the best uniform solution.

In the UK survey, 88 counties reported that local farmers were aware of the composting option. The key, said UK’s Palmer, is to provide further education and encouragement.

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