Agriculture Groups Tout The Benefits Of Animal Composting

Aug 15, 2019

Livestock mortality is an issue many farmers deal with. Yet when it happens, many don't know how they should dispose of the animal. Some farmers are now looking at composting as a means of getting rid of deceased livestock. 

Composting brings up images of buckets of scrap food and lawn trimmings. But the University of Illinois Extension Office took the idea one step further as they showed farmers how to compost livestock. 

Brian Gordon is a farmer in Iroquois County.

"One of the biggest diseases right now is actually African swine fevers -- the big talk in the swine industry," Gordon said. "It was surprising to learn that's actually one of the lower risk diseases. PED is another really big issue in the swine industry, and learning that composting is a very efficient way of getting rid of those pathogens."

In composting, farmers create an enclosure for the animal to break down naturally.

Site demonstration of animal mortality composting near Sterling, Illinois.
Credit Corey Hanson

The most common forms of disposal for livestock are burial and rendering. According to one Sterling, Illinois farmer, burial is a time consuming and surprisingly expensive option that is regulated by agricultural law.  

Rendering involves a complete breakdown of the animal carcass into different useable parts. It has also become increasingly expensive. Cattle farmer Cliff Funstein has experience with rendering.

"I remember years ago, they'd pay you for the dead animals and then it went to pick up fee, and now it's a per-animal fee," Funstein said. "So the largest part of being able to dispose of them yourself is saving the money."

Gordon says the money required for rendering adds up quickly for farmers with large scale operations.

"Even at 1%, you're looking at 1,000 animals in a year, and 1% would just be an unheard of low number for a death loss on a farm," Gordon said.

Money is a driving concern for many farmers, and the process of composting isn't free either. It requires thousands of dollars in construction for a compost site. On the other hand, some say composting could save money in the long run.

As the group stood around a towering pile of compost, one cattle farmer commented on the downside of composting. With several thousand head of cattle, he claims that he would need more than $200,000 to create an enclosure large enough to sustain his mortality rate.

Yet while the overhead may seem costly, the actual act of composting requires very little additional investment. Other than the carcass itself, Gordon says the key ingredient for the process is a carbon rich solid like woodchips.

Mound of woodchips used in livestock composting
Credit Corey Hanson

Another consideration is time. Composting takes much longer than incineration for example. But it can be a trade-off.

"You're looking at buying solid which is usually a byproduct of wood and lumber yards," Gordon said. "So the cost is significantly cheaper than the others, you still get the nutrient value to be able to spread on your field."

Other sessions at the workshop included mortality management in the event of a major livestock disease outbreak or significant animal loss due to natural disaster.