Disposal of Cattle Mortalities 

Contact your veterinarian if you observe or suspect an unusually high rate of mortalities or unusual or suspicious signs of death. Some diseases are federally reportable and need to be handled and disposed of extremely carefully.

Cattle mortalities need to be disposed of within forty-eight hours after death to control the spread of disease, prevent contamination of air or ground water and for the cattle producer to avoid the risk of prosecution. How best to dispose of dead cattle is an important question. After the advent of BSE in Canada, disposal through traditional channels such as rendering has become more expensive and in some cases less available.

Alternatives for disposal of cattle mortalities, along with their pros and cons, are listed below. Because regulations differ across provinces, it would be wise to check local regulations before adopting a particular method. Be aware that legality of disposal is subject to interpretation by local authorities who may restrict the use of a particular method if too many complaints are received.

Key Points
Rendering provides excellent disease control but may be costly for producers
Burial requires planning ahead of time, digging at least a 1 meter deep pit. Water contamination is a possibility and permanent record of burials sites are required. 
Incineration requires extremely high temperatures ( > 800oC in chamber) and the appropriate equipment. This is the best option for disease control as carcasses are reduced to ash, with all infectious agents destroyed. 
Natural exposure involves offering cattle carcasses to the local predator/scavenger population. Although this method is not legal in many jurisdictions, it is being used more frequently with the decline of rendering. Little labor is required, but the risk of disease transfer is high.
Anaerobic digestor is a process where microorganisms break down compostable material such as food waste, without the presence of oxygen. Biodigestors can be an opportunity to capture greenhouse gas production and provide a renewable energy source from products such as manure and deadstock.
Thermal hydrolysis uses a combination of high temperature (356°F) and high pressure (174 psi) to break tissue down to very small parts. Like biodigesters, THD can be used to produce renewable energy such as biogas.
Composting is a naturally occurring process in which bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms convert organic material into a stabilized product called compost. Composting occurs in two stages and requires water, air and nutrients. 

Introduction


Rendering


When dead stock is removed from the farm for rendering, minimal effort is required and complete removal of the dead stock provides excellent on-farm disease control. Costs for rendering have increased after the advent of BSE as only hide and tallow products can now be marketed, but the meat and bone meal cannot. Contacts for the various renderers across Canada are listed under ‘Learn More’ at the bottom of this page.

Pro Con
Excellent on-farm disease control May be costly to producers – depends on distance to plant

No residues or other aftermath – less scavenging/predation Minimum weights for pickup often required

Easy – just call for pick up Dead stock pickup not available everywhere

Hide and tallow recycled Excessive time may elapse before pickup

Burial


Planning is required for disposal by burial. Digging a 1 to 1.2 meter pit is necessary for disposal of cattle and may not be possible during winter months. In areas with a high water table, burial may not be allowed and 150 metre offsets of burial pits from ground and surface water sources are required. Sites prone to flooding or erosion are not suitable for burial pits.

Lime is frequently added to burial pits for odor control, but also limits microbial activity and degradation of carcasses in burial pits may be slow. Cattle carcasses buried with lime during the Foot and Mouth disease outbreak of 1952 have been discovered relatively intact. Controlled access to the pit is necessary to prevent predation of mortalities and accidental entry of livestock and people into the pit.

Pro Con
Permanent containment for disease outbreaks Need to have sites ready for winter burial

May be good choice on a large land base with suitable soil, topography and access to a backhoe Ground water contamination possible and odor of an open pit is a magnet for predators

Costly as multiple burial pits will be required

Permanent tracking of sites is required

Incineration

In Canada, incineration is currently used for disposal of cattle carcasses only at a limited number of research installations due to the expense and infrastructure required. Incineration requires extremely high temperatures ( > 800oC in chamber) and the appropriate equipment. This is the best option for disease control as carcasses are reduced to ash, with all infectious agents destroyed. The ash does require disposal and fuel costs for incineration of cattle are high. High temperature incineration should not be confused with burning. Burning is seldom legal and results in excessive air pollution and risks of disease transfer from carcass residues.

Pro Con
Superior disease control Specialized and expensive equipment and fuel required

Mobile incinerators limit infrastructure costs Time required may be impractical for multiple mortalities

Minimal air pollution/odors from high temperature incineration Ash requires disposal

 Less scavenging/predation Extreme heat is on-farm hazard

Natural Exposure


Natural disposal involves offering cattle carcasses to the local predator/scavenger population. Although this method is not legal in many jurisdictions, it is being used more frequently with the decline of rendering. Little labor is required, but the risk of disease transfer is high. Cysticercosis, which requires a canine intermediate host is now present in some locales and leads to beef carcasses condemned at slaughter due to tape-worm cysts in muscles. Naturally, a well-fed predator population tends to multiply and increased calf predation has also been reported.

Pro Con
Easy and inexpensive Not legal in all areas

Increased populations of predators and increased potential for agro-tourism Air, water and soil contamination

Increased populations of predators and increased predation of cattle

No disease control

Anaerobic Digestor (Biodigestor)


Anaerobic digestion is a process where microorganisms break down compostable material such as food waste, without the presence of oxygen. Biodigestors can be an opportunity to capture greenhouse gas production and provide a renewable energy source from products such as manure and deadstock. Access and transportation of deadstock to a biodigestor facility may be limited depending on your location.  Centralized biodigestors will require additional treatments of biodigestor products to eliminate infectious prions (BSE) before land-spreading, which will increase costs.

Pro Con
Reduce odour and pathogen levels in manure Not accessible in every province

Reduce greenhouse gas production from a farmstead Infrastructure is expensive

Produce renewable energy Maintaining the “recipe” for biogas production due to the various types of wastes used

 Utilize food by-products and other organic materials sourced off-farm Has to be used along with a prion control technology which increases costs of centralized facilities. 

Improve the fertilizer value of the manure

Thermal Hydrolysis


Thermal Hydrolysis (THD) uses a combination of high temperature (356°F) and high pressure (174 psi) to break tissue down to very small parts. Like biodigesters, THD can be used to produce renewable energy such as biogas from animal biproducts including deadstock. The technology also has the capacity to destroy the prions which are responsible for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Pro Con
Complete pathogen destruction Not accessible in every province, it is currently available in Lethbridge, AB

No groundwater contamination risk from disease Infrastructure and energy required increases costs

 Create clean, renewable biogas which can be converted to electricity or natural gas

Composting


Composting is a naturally occurring process in which bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms convert organic material into a stabilized product called compost. Composting of livestock mortalities involves two phases.

In the first phase, the animal carcasses are placed in a composting bin or on a windrow of straw. A bulking agent that is high in carbon, such as sawdust or straw, added to completely surround the carcasses. This heap is entirely covered with manure, which is full of microbes. Anaerobic microorganisms (those not requiring oxygen) work in the carcass to degrade it.

Finished mortality compost. Very few residual bones remain.

Photo credit: Dr. Kim Stanford, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

The second phase involves regularly turning the pile and introducing air to feed aerobic microorganisms (those requiring oxygen), which degrade these materials produced by the first stage into odour-free carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O). This stage causes the temperature of the compost pile to rise, which kills common viruses and other bacteria that may be present.

Scientific composting was first developed for the poultry industry, but after the advent of BSE, composting of cattle mortalities in the Canadian climate was studied. Composting requires some time and effort, although costs for raw materials are minimal, disease control is good and the resulting compost can be used as a fertilizer or soil amendment. The initial construction of the compost pile is key to the eventual success of the composting process. A bad set up (too wet, too dry, no carbon source) is not easy to remedy.

Pro Con
Inexpensive; uses materials available on farm For intensive operations, there may not be sufficient land base

Good disease control Compost requires management – monitoring temperatures and turning

Can build compost as required year round More difficult in wet climates

Residual material used as fertilizer Bones exposed at surface of pile do not degrade and may cause damage to spreading or harvesting

Less scavenging/predation Compost manure containing cattle carcasses cannot legally be removed for spreading on rented or neighbours’ land

Essentials of composting: Moisture

A target of 50 to 60% moisture in the initial build is optimal. The cattle themselves are a source of moisture, but manure and sawdust used in compost should be subjected to a squeeze test, if dry matter values are not known. If it is possible to manually squeeze moisture from a sample, it is too wet. If the sample crumbles when squeezed, it is too dry. Optimal moisture is damp to the touch and forms a loose ball that would crumble if dropped to the ground. Once a compost pile is built, it is difficult to add moisture. Small piles with one or two carcasses dry out more readily and have a greater risk of getting too wet due to rain or snow falls. Generally, compost piles should be shaped so that water does not pool on the compost, unless the climate is very dry.

Essentials of composting: Air

The growth of aerobic bacteria is essential for composting. If the compost becomes too wet, air flow is restricted, anaerobic bacteria flourish and the compost will have a foul stench. If compost is properly aerated and heating, no objectionable odors will be present and predators will not scavenge from the compost piles.

If composting with manure, a manure-straw mix from a bedding pack makes an excellent compost amendment as the straw aids in compost aeration. If composting with sawdust, wood shavings or a larger particle size used in bedding are preferable to finer sawdust particles.

composting chart
Figure 1. Compost temperature at four locations in a single pile. Note more uniform heating after the compost was first turned.
Source: Dr. Kim Stanford, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

homogeneity. For cattle compost, turning 3 times at approximately 2 to 3 month intervals is generally sufficient to complete the composting process, provided the compost spent some weeks at 40 to 60oC.

Monitoring the temperature of the compost also provides guidance as to when compost should be turned. Commercial composting operations use specialized windrow turners, but for smaller-scale composting, a front-end loader is sufficient. Drop the compost from the maximum height of the bucket to promote aeration and fracture the bones.

Fresh manure or sawdust or matured compost should be used to cover the surface of the pile after turning as bones exposed to sun do not degrade. Manure is a better substrate than sawdust for bone degradation.

Essentials of composting: Nutrients

Compost requires sources of both carbon (C) and nitrogen (N). Ratios between 20:1 and 40:1 C:N are optimal. Straw and sawdust/shavings are excellent carbon sources. Manure contains lesser amounts of carbon, but the carbon and nitrogen in manure is readily available to compost microbes.

Laying cattle carcasses on a base of at least 18” (45 cm) straw or sawdust and heaping manure over the carcasses to a depth of at least 3.5’ (100 cm) will provide an appropriate C:N ratio. Soil cannot be used in place of manure due to a lack of nutrients. Turning the compost is also necessary to re-distribute nutrients and ensure more uniform heating and degradation of the mortalities.

Other composting considerations

carcasses on straw
Initial lay out of carcasses on straw.
Photo credit: Dr. Kim Stanford, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

A windrow layout, with carcasses in a single line, is the easiest to manage. Carcasses should be placed at least 18” (45 cm) from the edge of the pile to ensure adequate coverage and nutrients. Carcasses should also be at least 10” (25 cm) apart to promote air flow.

Degradation of carcasses is impaired if they touch. Carcasses should be laid on their side as feet protruding from a carcass pile will not degrade. The windrow can be extended as new mortalities arrive and carcasses rapidly covered to prevent attracting scavengers to the pile.

compost pile
Steam rises as compost is turned in the winter.
Photo credit: Dr. Kim Stanford, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

Winter composting is possible and piles can be started at temperatures of -20oC or colder, provided that either the carcasses or the stockpiled manure is warm. Compost using sawdust without manure may be more difficult to make under winter conditions.

References

Open-air windrows for winter disposal of frozen cattle mortalities: effects of ambient temperature and mortality layering. 2007. K. Stanford, V. Nelson, B. Sexton, T.A. McAllister, X. Hao and F. Larney. Compost Sci. Util. 15: 257-266

Learn More

To learn more on this topic, see the fact sheets posted on the right side of this page. External resources are listed below.

Livestock Morality Management (Disposal)
Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development

Enhanced Animal Health Protection from BSE: Requirements for Disposing of Cattle Material
Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Handling Deadstock Report
Alberta Beef Producers

Rendering

Across Canada
Rothsay

In Alberta and Saskatchewan
West Coast Reductions

In Ontario
Licensed dead stock operators/removal

Burial

Livestock Mortality Burial Techniques
Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development

Incineration

Carcass disposal: A comprehensive Review. Chapter 2: Incineration.
National Agricultural Biosecurity Center Consortium

Composting

Composting Animal Mortalities: A Producer’s Guide
Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture

On-Farm Composting of Large Animal Mortalities
Washington State University Extension

Video: Biocontained carcass composting for control of infectious disease outbreak in livestock.
Reuter, T., Xu, W., Alexander, T.W., Gilroyed, B.H., Inglis, G.D., Larney, F.J., Stanford, K. and McAllister, T.A. J.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Dr. Kim Stanford, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Beef Research Scientist for contributing her time and expertise to writing this page.

This topic was last revised on July 25, 2022 at 3:11 pm.