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September 28, 2015

Compost Your Dead….Animals!

No matter if you keep a horse in your back yard or raise large scale livestock, one of the biggest struggles for those with large animals is mortality management.  Mortality is a normal part of raising livestock.  Even the most cautious and careful animal handler can lose an animal to predator attacks, complication in birthing or just old age.

By Wilson44691 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Wilson44691 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

As someone who has spent their life in the livestock industry, there are many complications when it comes to mortality management.  In my own case, we were very limited on our ways of handling the remains because of law requirements, high water tables, and the amount of space needed to bury animals; an issue for any sized operation.  There is also a public perception issue that living close to the urban interface further reduces options for livestock owners.

Enter Washington State University and their mortality composting program.  In 2008, a publication was released giving producers the step-by-step directions for composting mortalities.  Unlike burial, it has no affecting on ground water. Washington State University reported that within ten weeks of active composting, only sections of large bone remained from cow carcasses.  Furthermore, the amount of heat that was generated from the composting process reduced pathogens extensively.  Similar projects are found at Colorado State, Texas A&M, Iowa State, and more.

What’s responsible  for the breaking down of such huge amounts of body mass in a matter of weeks? The university has been using a combination of Bacteria, Actinomycetes, Fungi, Protozoa, and rotifers. Not surprising because this is the same list of players that are responsible for the soil systems that we need for life. During the second stage of composting, the thermophilic stage, temperatures can rise as high as 55 degrees Celsius; which can kill most pathogens.  The biggest player of this is bacteria found in the family of Bacillus and Thermus.

Diane Montpetit

Thermus Bacteria by Diane Montpetit

Cornell University is now working on using the same process to compost wildlife road kill.  With over 25,000 wildlife deaths a year as a result of auto collisions, the composting process can allow for easier and faster cleanup while killing most pathogens that can affect human health.

After the decomposition is complete, the remaining compost can be used in agricultural practices as soil amendments to fertilized and develop lands. The compost is devoid of most pathogens, has no smell (thanks to the Actinomycetes) and is high in soil-favored bacteria, protozoa, and fungi.

The biggest challenge? In 1999, the State of New Jersey was faced with a huge problem when a Blue Whale washed up on their shores.  Taking quick action, the state worked with the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI) in Ithaca, NY to compost the whale and, several months later, were able to retrieve the skeleton for display.  After all, it’s the same process that happens to us on burial.



Editor’s Note: Bacteria are hard to see under a light microscope unless very experienced and using a high quality microscope with excellent resolution. Try the Euromex iScope