Disposing of dead cattle can be inconvenient. But Arkansas farmers now have an option that is simple and environmentally safe. The Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission recently approved composting for disposing of large animals.

In the past, options available to farmers included burial, rendering, extrusion and incineration. These options were often inconvenient and costly. Guidelines designed to protect water quality made burial inconvenient because the land available was limited.

While composting carcasses is not a new concept, the method the commission has approved is. “Previously, carcasses were limited to 60 pounds,” says Karl VanDevender, University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service engineer. “It was inconvenient and time consuming to break portions down into 60-pound pieces.”

VanDevender said that producers have always been looking for alternatives to burial that were both producer- and environment-friendly.

The search for alternatives led VanDevender and Jodie Pennington, Extension dairy specialist, to find an environmentally safe method for composting that was also inexpensive and convenient.

A demonstration conducted in Washington County, Ark., used the carcass of a 1,300-pound Holstein cow. “It was originally thought the decomposition process would take two to three months,” said VanDevender. “In 30 days, all that remained of the carcass were a few bones and some cartilage.”

Starting the compost pile is easy, said VanDevender. Start with a layer of carbon material, such as sawdust, rice hulls or straw. Add the carcass to the carbon layer and put another layer of carbon over the carcass.

“Both layers of carbon material should be at least 24 inches thick to insure decomposition occurs, and to insure proper moisture and odor control,” said VanDevender.

Composting has many benefits: it's cost-effective and environmentally sound and the composted product can be recycled for a soil amendment.

“Composting now gives cattle producers a legal option for disposing of their large animal carcasses that is inexpensive and can be adapted to both dairy and beef farms,” said Pennington.

As long as it's properly maintained with carbon materials, the compost pile should not become a nuisance.

“Although it's not required, it's recommended that a fence or panel be placed around the compost area to prevent the potential for dogs or coyotes from digging in the compost pile,” said Pennington.

If an animal dies from anthrax or would cause a disease outbreak, the carcass cannot be composted.


Elizabeth Fortune is an Arkansas Extension communications specialist.