Every living animal dies. When it happens unexpectedly on a farm, it can be inconvenient and expensive to deal with. But a natural method of disposal is catching on that gives a whole new meaning to "chipped beef."
For years, a few Kentucky companies would pick up dead animals to deliver to rendering plants. But after a handful of cases of mad-cow disease were found in animals in the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration implemented new rules in 2009 that require removing the brain and spinal cord from every dead cow before the carcass can be rendered.
The rendering companies balked and simply stopped picking up anything.
Suddenly, farmers and counties were scrambling for a way to deal with dead animals, potentially a huge problem for a state with 2.3 million beef and dairy cattle, 350,000 hogs, 6.7 million chickens, 37,000 sheep and lambs, 79,000 goats, and hundreds of thousands of horses, not to mention random roadkill.
Steve Higgins, a University of Kentucky biosystems research specialist, said he was at a meeting of the Kentucky Agriculture Water Quality Authority a year or so ago when officials were scratching their heads over how to safely — and simply — deal with all that ... stuff.
"I raised my hand and said, 'I've got it solved. It's going to be OK,'" Higgins said.
His solution: composting.
At first, people are skeptical about covering a whole cow with wood chips or wood shavings.
Some people are downright appalled. Won't it smell bad? Attract buzzards? Four-footed scavengers? Will there be flies? Maggots?
Turns out, no, not really.
"We've been doing it for years now. I can't even tell you how many hundreds of thousands of pounds we've done, and never attracted anything," Higgins said.
To answer doubters, Higgins put together a demonstration at the UK research farm in Woodford County.
His basic recipe: For every 1,000 pounds of animal, you need 8 cubic yards of wood chips. Place the carcass on a bed of wood chips 2 feet deep, then cover it to a depth of about 4 feet, with at least 2 feet on the sides.
"Basically, it looks like a pile of mulch," he said.
And then wait a few weeks.
"I can get rid of a whole 1,000-pound animal in six weeks," Higgins said. "All you're left with is a few large bones."
Tree services are often looking to get rid of wood chips rather than pay a tip fee at a landfill. Higgins said many large farms have standing arrangements for tree services to leave loads in a field, ready for the next sad act of nature.
He has given tours for regulators, for farmers, for highway officials who have to deal with you wouldn't believe how many dead deer — for anyone who will listen, really. He has taken the show on the road to county extension field days across the state.
And always, to prove how well this works, of course they break open the pile.
"For us, it's a huge wow factor," he said. Some people take a step back, some take a step forward. "People are just shocked. 'Where did it go?' And then right in the middle there will be a foot square of the greenest grass you've ever seen. That's her last meal."
What's left, Higgins said, is rich compost that can be spread anywhere — fields, highway medians, gardens. It's a bonus for farms: Something that would have been costly to dispose of is now free fertilizer.
And it beats what many farms do now, which is either drag the carcass to a "bone yard" in the woods, leave it in the field, or dump it in a sink hole, where it can contaminate groundwater. Arranging for the carcass to be hauled to a county landfill can be costly for the farm and uses valuable space in the landfill.
"Even if you do (composting) badly, it's better than that," Higgins said.
Composting has yet to be adopted widely, in part because of confusion about exactly how to best implement the process.
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, which spends $500,000 a year to deal with animal remains on roadways, tried two pilot projects a couple of years ago but ultimately concluded that it was too labor-intensive, cabinet spokesman Jim Isaman said.
"Our preferred method is incineration because the ash breaks everything down," Isaman said. "But we only have one incinerator, and it's in McCracken County, so the method used most widely is having it hauled off to a landfill or having it buried."
Done right, animal composting is "amazing" and very necessary, said Dr Robert Stout, the state veterinarian.
Stout said that farmers expect to lose 1 percent to 3 percent of their animals annually to unexpected death. For Kentucky farms, that's hundreds of thousands of carcasses to dispose of.
Right now, there are four legal ways of doing that, he said: burial, which can't be done everywhere; incineration, often difficult and expensive; rendering, which has been virtually eliminated by federal regulation; and composting.
"It's pretty low-technology," Stout said. "For farmers to comply with the law, it has to be convenient and inexpensive. That's the beauty of composting."
The state requires farmers to get a permit for on-farm composting and requires a foundation such as concrete underneath, but that is under review.
Stout said he and other state regulatory officials are working with Kentucky Farm Bureau on how the permitting process can be streamlined.
Roger Thomas, executive director of the Governor's Office of Agricultural Policy, said the board, which distributes tobacco settlement fund money to enhance agriculture, is supportive. They have explored multicounty composting centers and have created a new cost-sharing grant for 2011 for on-farm composting.
"It's still new," Thomas said. "One of the reasons the ag development board chose to implement the new policy is because there appears to be some growing interest."
Thomas said the board has put millions into furthering the growth of the beef industry in the state. "This is just a good extension of that investment," he said.