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Wildfires highlight the need to quickly dispose of livestock carcasses, said Dana Zook, Oklahoma State University Extension area livestock specialist.


“Composting animal mortalities can be an inexpensive, biologically secure and environmentally sound approach to addressing the issue of carcass disposal when other options such as burial or rendering are not available,” Zook said.


Composting is a controlled biological decomposition process that converts organic matter into a stable, humus-like product. The carcass, which is a nitrogen source, is covered with a bulking carbon-source agent such as wood shavings in order to promote a proper carbon-to-nitrogen ratio required by microorganisms to break down the carcass while absorbing excess moisture and filtering odor.


For smaller carcasses, bin systems can be utilized that layer carcasses with bulking agents such as chopped straw, poultry litter and wood shavings. The 130- to 150-degree temperatures achieved through proper composting will destroy most pathogens. Microorganisms will degrade the carcass, leaving only a few small bone fragments that are brittle and break easily. This valuable by-product then can be applied as a fertilizer source, adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil or recycled for new compost piles.


Proper management is key for composting to be effective. As with burial, site selection is important. Be sure to locate the site in an area that does not pose a risk to surface or groundwater contamination.


“Catastrophic losses are best composted in windrows of a bulking agent because of the increased quantity of carcasses,” Zook said. “Height, width and length of these windrows are dependent on the size and amount of carcasses to be composted. Piles must be appropriately managed to achieve proper decomposition and prevent scavenger invasion for both routine and catastrophic composting.”


OSU Extension and the state veterinarian have stressed emergency management plans should be developed and in place for catastrophic losses. It’s also important to note that with large numbers of mortality, it may be necessary to employ more than one carcass disposal option.


“Proper livestock and poultry mortality disposal is essential to the sustainability and environmental stewardship of farming and ranching operations, with state laws regulating disposal methods,” Zook said. When properly managed, composting livestock mortalities is a safe, effective option for most agricultural producers to consider.”


More information is available through OSU Extension fact sheet “On-Farm Mortality Composting of Livestock Carcasses,” available online.

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