Merced group sees composting as a greener alternative to rendering

MERCED — Every time a cow dies on a dairy, it could cost that cow's owner $115 for a rendering company to pick up that cow.

Because of the cost, many dairies have kept the old way of dealing with dead cows: a "dead pile" at the back of the dairy, where no one can see it, and the dead animals are dragged there to decompose.

This is the way most beef producers deal with their dead cattle out on the range. While there are few people or water wells on rangeland, there are a lot of animals and birds that make short work of a dead cow. Everything from bald eagles to coyotes will clean up a dead animal long before it decomposes.

At a dairy, that's usually not the case. Dairies keep their cattle more confined, with more cattle per acre, and dead animals are a major problem.

There are people working on a solution for both the environment and dairy producers.

Tim Niswander, agricultural commissioner for Kings County, is part of a group looking into using composting to help dairymen deal with their dead piles.

"There are only about four or five rendering companies in the state that pick up dead mammals," Niswander said. "When the rendering facility in Modesto closed a few years ago, the existing rendering facilities didn't have the capacity for the number of animals that were dead."

In the heat of the summer of 2006, when rendering companies couldn't keep up with dying cattle, many counties gave special dispensation to dairies and other animal confinement facilities to use means of dealing with dead animals other than rendering.

"It wasn't that there were a lot of extra cattle dying, the infrastructure just wasn't there to support it," Niswander said. "What else can you do with a carcass?"

That's a question a statewide committee, made up of people from state water boards, air boards, agriculture commissioners, dairies, farm and agriculture organizations, state government agencies and others, is trying to answer.

And composting may be one answer.

Niswander said he attended a school in Maine that deals only with composting. And because one of the worries the state of California has is with pathogens that can cause disease, veterinarians have been working on ways to inoculate the dead animals to prevent pathogens from growing.

The disposal of dead animals has changed in the past few years, Niswander said.

Years ago, rendering companies picked up dead animals for free. With all the state regulations, and the loss of the number of rendering companies, fees started to creep up. Now it's $115 to pick up a full-grown dead cow and $250 to pick up a horse in the Merced area.

In Merced County, the law says dead animals have to be removed within three days of the death and disposed of by a licensed rendering company, said Joan Mulcare, director of the division of environmental health for Merced County.

If anyone breaks the law in disposing of dead animals, Mulcare said the county would first talk to the animal owner and tell them the law. If the owner didn't follow the law, Mulcare said a notice of violation would be issued.

"Most of the time, we can resolve problems by working with people," Mulcare said.

Niswander said he hopes the committee he is on can prove to the state that composting dead animals is a viable alternative to rendering companies.

"If you use the right materials, you are not going to have an environmental effect or an impact to the environment by composting dead animals," Niswander said. "That's something we have to prove to California."