Pilot project shows dead stock composting safe

CARDSTON, Alta. — Steve Bevans accepts the moniker of “Stinky Steve” with good grace.

The assistant agriculture fieldman for Cardston County is in charge of a livestock composting project that requires him to pick up dead stock in various stages of decomposition and transport them to a county facility for composting.

The latter part of the process isn’t stinky at all, he told a group that met June 19 to see projects designed to mitigate human conflict with grizzly bears, black bears and wolves.

“There is a little bit of a hint of a smell here, obviously, but when you think about 348 animals rotting in a building, it’s not like it sounds,” said Bevans.

The concrete-floored 50 by 120 foot building on this day held the decomposing remains of 205 calves, 87 cows, 31 lambs, seven bulls, seven yearlings, seven ewes, three horses and a steer.

It is the first municipally operated livestock composting facility in Canada, and is designed to remove and handle dead stock quickly so it doesn’t attract wild carnivores.

Bevans collects the carcasses, places them on a bed of straw and covers them with manure, wood chips and grass clippings. The piles sit for 60 days, are turned and then sit for another 30 days.

Temperature and moisture in the piles are monitored to ensure they reach a sustained temperature of at least 55 C for three days. That ensures any potentially dangerous pathogens are destroyed, including BSE-inducing prions.

Bevans said achieving that temperature through natural bacterial processes has not been a problem. Heat higher than 60 C is typical.

Jeff Bectell of the Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association helped organize the composting pilot project, funded in part through the federal Growing Forward program.

He said the initial plan was to have an outside operation to eliminate the cost of a building.

However, compliance with regulations imposed by Alberta Environment and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency made a building necessary.

“If we could show the regulatory agencies that it could be done safely (outside), both for human health, animal health, export markets for beef, protect all those things, but we can do it outside … ideally you could probably set up a compost facility for $50,000 and just be running with it,” said Bectell.

A similar project in Montana, which has been composting wildlife and livestock carcasses since 2002, operates outside without any apparent problems from environmental contamination or scavengers, he added.

Bectell and Bevans hope other rural municipalities can use their model as a safe and economical way to dispose of dead stock if the Cardston project goes well. The carcasses break down completely, and the resulting compost can be used for topsoil beneath sod and in bedding plants and tree nurseries.

Bevans said he would eventually like to get a windrower, add more compostable waste material to the mix and make it an economically self-sustaining operation that will benefit the municipality and its ranchers.

However, he and Bectell fear the cost of a building makes it too expensive for many. They think the regulations show an overabundance of caution.

“I just don’t think the risk is that great, especially when you consider that on farm, you can leave these animals out,” Bectell said.

“And there’s not huge risk with that either. We’d like to see the science catch up to the common sense a little bit.”

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