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In North Dakota, rendering, incineration, burial and composting are the approved methods of carcass disposal for livestock. Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press

Do's and don'ts after livestock death -- A detailed dive into animal carcass disposal in ND

Animal losses are part-and-parcel of raising livestock in North Dakota. Death can come to a ranch in the form of disease, accident, inter-animal competition or natural disasters such as flooding or fire, sparking the question—what do I do with the carcass?

The North Dakota State University Extension Center is advising ranchers to think about mortality management before a death occurs to avoid having problems after the fact. Improper disposal of animal carcasses is a serious matter that can land those unaware or ignorant to the law in deep water.

An Iowa man, residing an hour southwest of Des Moines, has found himself in hot water as he faces multiple charges after what authorities say was an improper disposal of one of his cows. The matter has raised health concerns for the county as the abandoned carcass led to other animals feeding on the remains. That kind of bad press and the subsequent legal troubles could be enough to ruin a productive ranch—something NDSU is warning ranchers in North Dakota to be mindful of.

"With lambing underway and calving just around the corner, now is the time for producers to have a plan for disposing of the mortalities quickly," says Mary Keena, NDSU Extension livestock environmental management specialist at the Carrington Research Extension Center. "Timely disposal of these mortalities is critical to preventing the spread of disease, as well as protecting water quality."

In North Dakota, rendering, incineration, burial and composting are the approved methods of carcass disposal.

"Carcass abandonment is not considered an acceptable disposal practice," Keena stressed.

Rendering is the process of converting animal carcasses into pathogen-free, useful byproducts such a feed protein. The process involves using high-temperature, pressurized steam. However, rendering no longer is a common disposal method in North Dakota because of the lack of facilities and the cost.

Incineration is the thermal destruction of carcasses using fuel such as propane, diesel or natural gas. It requires considerable energy and can be cost prohibitive for some producers. Also, large carcasses often exceed the incinerator's capacity, resulting in the use of open-pit burning — which is an acceptable last-resort disposal option.

Burial remains the most common method of carcass disposal, but does come with some setbacks in the winter months. Shelley Lenz, owner of Dickinson-based State Avenue Veterinary Clinic and the Killdeer Veterinary Clinic, said that selecting the proper burial site and maintaining it are important. Lenz cautioned that areas with sandy or gravelly soil and a shallow groundwater table must not be used a burial site.

"You have to go by the laws of the area you live in," Lenz said. "The laws are designed with public groundwater in mind. Cattle up here can have anthrax, so you are talking about heavy-duty oversight and getting the state veterinarian involved in trying to figure out how we are going to do this."

Also, burial is difficult during the winter and isn't an option during flooding or in areas prone to flooding. The disposal site should be away from residences, drinking water wells or shallow aquifers, Lenz cautioned.

"Most of the time, burials are the most appropriate, especially when euthanasia is involved because we use chemicals that could kill wildlife such as phenobarbital," Lenz said. "In cases of chemical-induced euthanasia, burials should be at least 4 feet below soil to prevent scavenger animals from feeding on the carcass and suffering from issues as a result."

Lenz detailed a recent case where a veterinarian, not affiliated with her clinics, euthanized a horse and failed to bury the carcass, leading to problems.

"We got this whole rash of dogs with neurological issues that were coming in," she said. "After narrowing down where they were coming from, it was determined that they were eating on the carcass. It wasn't enough to kill them, but it was enough to cause issues."

According to Keena, the best option might be composting of carcasses. Composting is the naturally occurring process that breaks the carcass into basic elements via microorganisms and heat generated during composting. Composting is a simple process that requires few materials and minimal maintenance, according to NDSU.

Keena shared her tips for composting of animal carcasses:

• Build a pile if composting one animal.

• Build a windrow if composting several animals.

• Use material such as straw or old hay for the base, manure or spoiled silage

for the bulking material, and straw, old hay or sawdust as cover material.

According to NDSU, the process for composting is simple:

Start with 2 feet of base material in a windrow or pile, depending on how many carcasses will be composted. Lay the carcass on top of the base. Have at least 1 foot of base material between the perimeter of the carcass and the edge of the base. Cover the carcass with 8 to 10 inches of bulking material. Cover the entire pile or windrow with 2 feet of cover material. The cover material should be placed on the top and sides, with no part of the carcass showing. The pile needs a good cap to keep predators out and seal in heat.

Maintaining the compost site is a progression, but Keena shared tips on that process:

Leave the pile or windrow undisturbed to keep heat sealed in during the very cold winter months. Aerate the pile every two months using a loader from early spring until late fall. Make sure the pile or windrow always has sufficient cover material.

For more information on animal carcass disposal options, contact Keena at 701-652-2951 or mary.keena@ndsu.edu

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