Mortality Management

Compost rows on a farm

Source: Gary Flory, USDA Composting Livestock

Depending upon the incident—natural disaster or CBRNE agent (chemical, biological, radiation, nuclear, explosive)—local, state, and federal regulations may dictate the method of carcass disposal to be used (commonly burial, composting, rendering, or incineration). During disease outbreaks and hazardous material exposure, state and federal veterinarians will also be involved in the decision-making process.

Farm owners should be prepared for an emergency response by understanding local and state regulations for animal disposal, and identifying the availability of rendering facilities, landfills, incineration plants and carcass transportation in the area.

Carcass Disposal

Even after death, diseased or contaminated animals can pose a threat to animal and human health unless they are properly disposed. Allowing carcasses to decompose naturally in a remote corner of the farm should be avoided due to health, environmental, and legal concerns.

Local, state, and national regulations govern animal disposal procedures. Local ordinances may prevent animal burial. Environmental agencies may issue citations and/or fines to individuals who bury animals near waterways due to potential water contamination. In addition, they may determine burning animal carcasses is not an appropriate method of disposal because of the resulting air pollution and potential disease spread. Producers must consult their local authorities about legal and proper disposal methods; some options will be discussed in this section.

Large numbers of animals can also be involved in disasters that do not involve disease or contamination, such as the Rocky Mountain/Great Plains States blizzards in the winter of 2006/2007. The freezing temperatures and four feet of snow decreased the urgency for immediate carcass disposal. However, a similar death toll in a southern state after a flood in mid-summer would present a much more urgent situation.

If local, state, or federal agencies become involved during an emergency response, they may dictate how carcasses will be handled, especially in disease or contamination situations where the food supply is at risk.

During an agricultural emergency that results in animal deaths, a rapid assessment to determine how many animals are involved (including the total poundage) is needed. The numbers can vary from a few backyard chickens to thousands of swine or cattle. Determining the scope of the disaster can be challenging, especially when it is unknown how many animals might eventually die as the incident progresses.

An illustration of mortality composting distances from water sources.

Source: USDA Livestock Mortality Composting Protocol, August 2017

Specific locations on the farm should be identified for possible disposal sites if the geographic area is suitable. An accurate map of the farm can be critical in determining these sites. Important considerations that may determine whether on-farm carcass disposal is an option include:

  • Proximity to natural water and wells, soil composition, topography, and ability to use large equipment (e.g., sinkholes, inadequate roads).
  • Effects on neighbors (e.g., odor, perception).
  • Weather conditions that affect disposal options (e.g., resulting in frozen ground or flooded soil, which could preclude burial).

If vehicles are used to transport animal carcasses for off-site disposal, consider that:

  • Some pathogens remain viable in soil for extended periods of time.
  • Tire treads are filled with soil and manure on the farm.
  • Tires can effectively spread contaminants to another farm.
  • Rubber tires are porous and difficult to clean.
  • The entire undercarriage of the vehicle may be contaminated.
  • Merely driving a vehicle through a tire bath may not provide effective disinfection.
  • Fluids that spill from the vehicle can also be highly hazardous to animal and public health.
  • Vehicles used for transporting carcasses should have waterproof liners and tight fitting covers to reduce the possible spread of disease or other contaminants.

The first priority for disease outbreaks, especially ones that are highly contagious, is to keep the carcasses on the farm or within the exposed zone for disposal if at all possible. On-farm disposal reduces risk of pathogen spread and decreases the costs for transportation of animal carcasses.

It is always wise to speak with rendering personnel first to determine the cost of disposal and what animals they will not accept. For example, some renderers will not accept animals euthanized with veterinary euthanasia solution. As mentioned on the previous page, renderers have stopped accepting sheep or goat carcasses because of the risk of scrapie. State Departments of Agriculture can assist with locating renderers.

Multiple state and federal agencies inspect and work with rendering plants to ensure compliance with environmental regulations. Rendering plants must also ensure public health and safety. For example, the Food and Drug Administration enforces compliance with BSE regulations for rendered animal products to be used in animal feed.

The thought, smell, and sound of dead animals being burned are unpleasant and can be an emotionally devastating experience for the farm owner and responders. However, if depopulation of animals is deemed necessary, such as in the case of an extremely contagious foreign animal disease outbreak, incineration may be the only viable option.

Several considerations affect the feasibility of incineration as a carcass disposal option:

  • Local, regional, and national regulation.
  • Air pollution and potential pathogen spread.
  • Cost of large amount of fuel to burn animals.
  • Fire hazards.
  • Aesthetic concerns.

While disposal of carcasses on the farm can be a key factor in the management of serious disease outbreaks, when evaluating incineration as an option, geography and weather conditions such as drought, wildfire potential, high winds, rain, etc., also need to be considered.

Incineration can occur outside or in a fixed facility where the burning process is highly contained and out of public view, such as a crematorium. Crematoriums and carcass incinerators that hold larger animals are contained and strictly regulated. Most incineration units kill all pathogens except for prions, which are the cause of diseases such as BSE, CWD, scrapie, etc.

However, contained facility incineration may not be an expedient way to dispose of large numbers of carcasses. The factors associated with the transportation of carcasses must also be taken into consideration (e.g., disease spread, costs, distances) if there is no carcass incinerator on the farm.

Composting Deadstock

If you want to compost your deadstock, follow the steps listed below:

1. Decide what method you will use.

  • Composting methods include static piles, turned windrows, turned bins, and contained systems.
  • Static piles with minimum dimensions of 4 feet long x 4 feet wide x 4 feet deep are by far the simplest to use.
  • Turned windrows may be an option for farmers already composting manure in windrows.
  • Turned bin systems are more common for handling swine and poultry mortalities.
  • The EcoPOD® is a contained system developed by Ag-Bag, which has been used to compost swine and poultry mortalities.

2. Select an appropriate site.

  • Well-drained with all-season accessibility.
  • At least three feet above seasonal high ground water levels.
  • At least 100 (preferably 200) feet from surface waterways, sinkholes, seasonal seeps, or ponds.
  • At least 150 feet from roads or property lines—think about which way the wind blows.
  • Outside any Class I groundwater, wetland or buffer, or Source Protection Area—contact NRCS for verification.

3. Select and use effective carbon sources.

  • Use materials such as wood chips, wood shavings, coarse sawdust, chopped straw or dry heavily bedded horse or heifer manure as bulking materials. Co-compost materials for the base and cover must allow air to enter the pile.
  • If the bulking materials are not very absorbent, cover them with a 6-inch layer of sawdust to prevent fluids from leaching from the pile.
  • Cover the carcass two feet deep with high-carbon materials such as old silage, dry bedding (other than paper), sawdust, or compost from an old pile.
  • Plan on a 12' x 12' base for an adult dairy or beef animal. The base should be at least two feet deep and should allow two feet on all sides around the carcass.
  • When composting smaller carcasses, place them in layers separated by two feet of material.

4. Prepare the carcass.

  • After placing the carcass on the base, lance the rumen of adult cattle.
  • Forget this once and you'll never forget again! Explosive release of gasses may uncover the pile releasing odors and attracting scavengers.

5. Protect the site from scavengers.

  • Adequate depth of materials on top of the carcass should minimize odors and the risk of scavengers disturbing the pile.
  • Scavengers may be deterred by the temperatures within the pile, but if not, an inexpensive fence of upside down hog wire may be adequate to avoid problems.

6. Monitor the process.

  • Keep a log of temperature, carcass weight, and co-compost materials when each pile is started. Weather and starting materials will affect the process.

Mortality Management Resources


A poultry operation with thousands of uncaged birds in a barn.

Carcass Management Dashboard

From USDA APHIS, an extensive guide with carcass management options for planning and response, to properly dispose of animal carcasses.

Learn More

A person driving a tractor moving a compost pile.

Maine Compost School

A training and certification program for people involved with medium and large-scale composting operations, training.

Learn More

Mortality Management Slide Presentation


Mortality Management Content Source
Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN). Animal Agrosecurity and Emergency Management. Retrieved from https://campus.extension.org/enrol/index.php?id=2342

Disease Eradication

Disinfection, decontamination and proper carcass disposal are all part of disease eradication after an outbreak.