Dealing with animal mortalities in emergency situations

Planning on how to handle animal mortalities following a farm emergency can prevent some stress later.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) provides rules and guidelines for dealing with mortalities through The Bodies of Dead Animals Act. In situations when a catastrophic event such as a fire, natural disaster or disease causes mortalities, the director of MDARD must be notified immediately to avoid being penalized. Once the MDARD director is notified, they will be able to grant you an exception to the rules due to the circumstances.

In some areas of the state, dead animals can be affordably rendered or sent to a landfill by a facility licensed by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). If animals will be handled on site, then composting, burning, burying in individual and common graves and anaerobic digestion are allowed within the law. Determining what is best for your situation will depend on how many animals need to be disposed of, the cause of death, existing facilities, if odor or flies would impact the neighbors and if the leachate could reach surface or ground water. In general, all dead animals must be disposed of within 24 hours after death.

If composting dead animals, make sure that it is at least 200 feet from surface water, 2 feet above the seasonal high water level, 200 feet from a well, 200 feet from a non-farm residence and surface water runoff is directed away from the site. In normal situations, if there is more than 20,000 pounds of animal mortality per year (13 mature cows) then the pile must be located on an improved surface such as concrete, asphalt or compacted gravel or use an in-vessel system. In addition, effluent and runoff must be reintroduced into pile, collected and stored or treated.

If there is less than 20,000 pounds of animal mortality per year, then the pile can be located on crop land provided that it only contains one year’s mortalities, the pile is removed after two years and the site is not used again for ten years.

In situations with high mortality events, the director of MDARD can determine the appropriate type of surface. The chosen site should not be located above tile or subsurface drains and runoff cannot pool around the compost pile or reach surface water.

When burying dead animals, select low permeability soils with slow natural drainage and more than 14 feet to the water table to minimize risk of contamination. Burial sites must have no contact with surface or ground water, be at least 200 feet from wells and have at least two feet of cover below the surface. Up to 100 individual graves per acre are allowed but no more than five tons per acre. Multiple animals can be buried in one grave provided the common grave has no more than two and a half tons of tissue (about three mature cows) and is located at least 100 feet away from other graves. However, unless an exception is granted from the director of MDARD the limit is still five tons per acre.

Burning dead animals is permitted providing the burning does not cause a public nuisance and is in accordance with local ordinances and the Michigan Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act. An air use permit from the DEQ may be required. Residues from burning must be buried, land-applied at agronomic rates or properly disposed of in a landfill licensed by the DEQ.

In normal situations, if animals cannot be properly disposed of within 24 hours, temporary cold storage is permitted for up to seven days in a secured storage with a maximum temperature of 40 degree F. Alternatively, animals can be frozen and securely stored at nine degrees F for a maximum of 30 days. At the end of the storage period, animals must be disposed of by an approved method. In emergency situations, the director of MDARD may grant more time, especially if the insurance company requests time to investigate the cause and values.

Devising a plan for which type of disposal system works best on your farm following a disaster can help to make the decision process easier and quicker. The impacts on the environment must be considered. Standard Operating Procedures for Michigan Mass Carcass Disposal including a decision tree on how disposal options following a natural disaster, toxic contamination and disease.

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