After mad cow disease was discovered in the United States in 2003 and food safety regulations tightened, dairy farmer Joe Gonzalez, of Las Cruces, N.M., went from receiving 2 cents per pound from local renderers to paying $25 per carcass.
Rather than pay an additional $1,000 each month, Gonzalez began composting mortalities on his 2,500-head dairy, which costs a mere tenth of what he was paying renderers. “I figured, well, instead of giving out so much money to somebody else, I had to figure out a different way to handle my mortalities,” he says.
Recognizing this emerging trend, a multi-state team of researchers and educators, supported by a 2009 SARE grant and led by Colorado State University soil scientist Jessica Davis, is showing other farmers across the West that composting is a safe, easy and economic alternative to rendering.
This project has come at a critical time: Composting is now on the rise. From 2002 to 2007, the percent of U.S. dairy farms that compost calves more than doubled, and cows nearly tripled, whereas the use of other methods either remained unchanged or decreased, according to the USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System.
The SARE-funded team created a training manual and video that detail mortality composting strategies specifically suited to the West’s diverse climates—from hot and arid to cold and snowy. They also designed a decision-making tool that compares the cost of composting to other disposal methods, to help farmers make informed choices.
They demonstrated that with the right information and equipment, and proper management, any farmer can begin on-farm mortality composting. “Many people assume that it’s not possible to compost large carcasses in the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountains,” says Montana State University Extension Specialist Thomas Bass, a project collaborator. “However, this is simply not true. By following just a few simple tips, this can be a viable practice in our region.”
While economics primarily motivated Gonzalez to compost, other farmers like Nathan Brown of Belgrade, Mont., emphasize the environmental impact of burial, a common disposal method. Brown, who composts 25-40 kids each year from his 270-head goat farm, says, “Here on our farm we have a really high water table. It’s about 3 feet down, and we really didn’t want to bury mortalities for fear of contaminating ground water.