More farmers consider composting livestock carcasses


SALEM, Ohio – Farmers tend to lose more animals in a year than they realize, and the uncertainty of how to dispose of carcasses continues to burn in their minds.

To help guide producers through their limited options and to explain the benefits of composting, Ohio State University Extension hosted a livestock mortality composting seminar March 12 in Salem, Ohio.

Nearly 30 participants who completed the course are now state certified and can legally compost livestock carcasses of approved species and apply the compost to their own fields without further state or Environmental Protection Agency permits.

“There are a lot of people out there composting, but with this certification process, you can at least have the legal background to do it, and know that you’re going to be in compliance” with state regulations, said Steve Moeller, Ohio State University extension swine specialist and seminar facilitator.

Few options left. “When I was a kid growing up in Iowa, the trailer from the rendering plant would come by once a week, and they would pay you. Then it got to be you’d pay them to take the animals, and today, the rendering plants aren’t even around anymore,” Moeller said.

“It’s a real challenge to figure out what to do with an animal once it dies.”

The Ohio Department of Agriculture regulates methods of livestock disposal, including incineration, burial, rendering and composting. However, incinerators and rendering plants are few and far between in the region, according to Moeller, leaving farmers the options of composting and burial.

The most often used option of burial, he said, presents a real problem with public perception.

“Farm neighbors are always watching, and they’re concerned with things like water pollution,” and how buried animals might affect their water, he said.

“In the long term, it’s more cost-effective to compost,” he said, noting the practice is environmentally sound, destroys pathogens, and is easy to accomplish.

Species currently approved for composting include cattle, except those over 2 years of age showing signs of neurologic disease; and horses, poultry, swine, sheep and goats.

Workshop pointers. During the presentation, Moeller guided participants through a manual made specifically for the course, and offered pointers and suggestions.

Among recommendations he made were to use a bulking agent that was easily accessible and inexpensive. Suitable bulking agents include corn stover, hay or straw, chicken litter, manure and bedding, and the most popular, sawdust, wood shavings and wood chips.

“In this area, you probably can get to sawdust pretty easily, and get it at a good price if it’s not free,” he said. He also suggested using hay and straw that might not be suitable for livestock feeding because of extreme weather exposure.

“Straw, chopped finely, like you would chop silage, will work well. It should feel like chewing tobacco. Just be careful not to get it too wet and put too much weight on top, because then everything will compact and caramelize, and your pile won’t work,” he said.

Moeller also corrected myths about composting, including problems of odor, flies, and scavengers.

“If done properly, there won’t be any smell or problems. The key is keeping everything covered adequately, and watching your temperatures and moisture to make sure the pile is working,” he said.

Watch numbers. “Temperature is the best indicator of how things are going,” Moeller said. You can tell more about how the bacteria are working through temperature monitoring than any other measure.

He recommends purchasing a 3-foot thermometer made specifically for composting large piles.

A compost pile can be started any time of year, with proper monitoring. During winter, even livestock that are partially frozen or have cooled can be added to a pile.

Location. “Maybe the most important thing about deciding where to locate your pile is to make sure you have access to it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s in a convenient spot,” Moeller said. “If you can get to it at all times, and aren’t letting leachate go directly into a water source, you’ll do fine,” he said.

Moeller also laid out the differences between using a bin or windrow pile system.

“On the poultry side, the best thing is a bin right inside the barn. I’ve seen them made of pallets, and filled with carcasses, litter, and water,” he said.

“Bigger animals, like cows or horses, are tougher to decompose, and a pile system outside works well,” he said. Either method can be done without a roofed facility.

“If you decide to put it under a roof, make sure you can easily get in with a loader to mix things up and add new,” he said.

Perceptions. “Composting lets you keep your disease where you want it, and on your farm. It’s not acceptable to take that animal and leave it lay on the Back 40 anymore. You’ve got to do something,” Moeller said.

Neighbors can also become an issue for farmers who compost carcasses and wastes.

“Everybody will think your pile of sawdust looks great until they find out there are dead animals inside,” he said.

To help keep a good public perception, Moeller recommended locating piles downwind from the nearest neighbors and out of their view, even if that includes landscaping an area.

Along with the workshop manual, Moeller presented composting operation layouts and building plans. The construction of some facilities are eligible for Soil and Water Conservation District cost-share money. Plans he presented averaged $5,000 in startup costs.

One plan was particularly attractive, with temporary bin walls made of round bales of hay or straw.

“With that plan, everything will break down, and the bales can be moved around to fit the situation. Everything is adjustable, and when you’re done, you can spread it all,” he said.

Spread it around. Farmers who are state certified can spread their compost on their own property, “or you can spread it on the land of a neighbor you buy grain from. The key is relationships,” Moeller said.

Livestock compost may not be sold or given to neighbors for use on their gardens, Moeller said, but is acceptable for use on crop ground. Cooperative or group composting by several farmers is illegal.

Since 1996, more than 1,800 Ohio producers have become certified through the compost program. For more information, contact Moeller at 614-688-3686 or e-mail

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at

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