Dead stock compost facility hopes to expand

CREMONA, Alta. — After a year of composting dead livestock, one southern Alberta municipality would like to expand.

Cardston County has composted 500 calves, cows, lambs, goats and bulls that were either dropped off in special bins or picked up at farms.

“We wanted to get rid of dead stock to prevent scavenging from bears,” said Steve Bevans, an agricultural fieldman with the county.

The facility is enclosed and has a concrete floor. Old straw and hay are used as part of the pile.

It is the only municipal dead stock composting facility in Canada and is funded by Alberta’s environment department.

Meetings are ongoing to determine the next steps.

About 150 yards of compost have been produced, which could be spread on land once the Canadian Food Inspection Agency grants approval.

Kim Stanford of Alberta Agriculture, who has been researching how to efficiently make compost, said it is like a buffet to marauding wildlife if not done right.

She provided advice on the art of composting during a farmer meeting held in Cremona to discuss problem wildlife.

Cardston County had problems with grizzly bears scavenging dead stock, while other jurisdictions struggle to keep coyotes away.

Gordy Cunningham, who ranches near Sundre, Alta., has had a compost pile going for some time.

“If we buried them deep enough, it wasn’t an issue,” he said.

A permanent site with year round access is needed. As well, anyone starting a pile should check with local authorities on environmental re-quirements for runoff and distance away from water.

Stanford said old straw, sawdust, spoiled grain and manure can be used to build the layers needed for proper decomposition.

“You can use whatever you’ve got and what you are trying to use up,” she said.

Straw provides carbon, which is an energy source for the microbes that decompose the pile. Their energy heats up the pile as they digest material. Stanford recommends measuring the heat with a stainless steel thermometer like those used to check grain.

The pile needs to heat up to about 55 C to kill harmful bacteria. The maximum temperature is 72 C.

“The hotter and longer you can keep it, the better breakdown of flesh you can get,” she said.

Ear tags and twine will not compost, but teeth and bones will eventually break down. Bones will solidify if they are not covered up properly.

The pile also needs moisture. It is moist enough if a ball of compost can be formed that breaks up when it hits the ground. This is 35 to 60 percent moisture. The piles may be built in windrows that peak so the snow and rain runs off. The piles will dry out if they are too small.

Layers of straw, manure and dead stock are needed so that oxygen can move through and microbes can do their work.

Manure straight from the pen may be too wet, so run it through a manure spreader first to break it up and remove moisture.

“Don’t try and make compost by piling dirt over your deads,” Stanford said.

Do not let the dead animals touch each other when building the pile or they will not degrade.

“Cover up with material so you can’t see the shape of the deads.”

As well, the pile will not attract birds and predators if it is covered properly with manure.  Covering it with a tarp is not a good idea because it prevents airflow.

Cattle that weigh 500 to 1,400 pounds take about nine months to fully degrade. Chickens are faster.

Producers can turn the pile with a front-end loader to aerate it.

Fresh manure must then be added to ensure that no parts are exposed. Turning too often may shut down the process, so three turns in nine months is enough.

The pile may be too dry if there is no smell and it is not heating. Add wetter amendments such as manure and then turn the pile. Hosing it down does not help because the water does not penetrate properly.

The smell may attract wildlife until it starts to actively heat.

“Bad compost will bring every scavenger in the countryside,” she said.

An electric fence could be installed around the pile to discourage wildlife.

Winter composting can work, but a big pile is needed to retain heat. Add warm manure to start heating in winter.

Proper composting can destroy problems such as anthrax spores. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has assumed that composting does not destroy prions responsible for BSE or scrapie, but recent research shows they do break down.