Swine mortality composting site.

Swine mortality composting site.

When there is nowhere to bring finished pigs and younger animals have to move into the barn, a series of unfortunate decisions have to be made. Many pig farmers have had to euthanize animals as pork plants slowed production or shut down due to COVID-19 spreading among workers.

“There is a flow of animals – especially in the pig industry – that need to go into the barns, so they need a place for the market pigs,” said Erin Cortus, University of Minnesota Extension manure management specialist. “When the market isn’t available, it leaves very few options.”

Whether it’s incineration, rendering, composting or burial, states have begun putting out emergency information for those who need to dispose of euthanized animals.

The University of Minnesota, in conjunction with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, released resources for producers on the best practices for livestock carcass disposal, available on its website. Most farmers are looking to burial and composting as solutions.

Cortus and fellow extension researchers, recently published their findings on the best practices for composting mass livestock mortality. The first steps for any producer, she said, is to check in with the animal board and the Natural Resources Conservation District to map the environment of the burial or composting site to make sure it will contaminate water sources. The agencies could also offer help with funding when dealing with mass mortalities.

Time is a big factor when composting. Burial sites can take up a large portion of land for up to nine months, depending on the size.

“It works, but it does take time,” Cortus said. “Preparing mentally and spatially for that time – it’s important. Once that pile is set, it needs time to do that work.”

Mentally, preparing to bury thousands of animals that you helped raise is something that Cortus said is tragic.

“This is a really tough situation,” she said. “The decision in the first place is weighing heavily on many producers. I can only imagine the struggle to do it and look at this.”

Other considerations to make with composting include the materials used and the moisture level. Ideally, compost would be made up of a lot of different materials with the bedding that holds moisture and has great microbial activity. A ground mixture of something like corn stalks and sawdust will help with both of those, Cortus said, as one helps retain moisture and one helps promote microbes. The heat of the coming summer will help with the composting process.

“Exposing the mass to the microbes will help speed up the process but it adds another layer to the construction process, and perhaps some more equipment,” she said.

Across the state line, Bob Thaler, a South Dakota State University Extension swine specialist, recently finished the first round of testing on a swine burial site. His work was more focused on a potential outbreak of African Swine Fever in the U.S. swine herd and how the disease would move through the water table when disposing of animals. But the work has some practical applications for the COVID-19 crisis.

The research found that the virus did not make it far into the water table, but as it relates to current issues, Thaler said they found that corn stalks actually worked better than wood chips for their site. It is good news for the South Dakota region where corn is readily available.

In addition to reaching out to the animal health board and NRCS, as Cortus advised, Thaler said producers should consider reaching out to the Department of Environmental Resources make sure burial sites are correctly laid out.

Figuring out the best plan for your operation is vital, Thaler said, as many soil types cannot handle things like below-ground burial sites or composting.

“You’re trying to put this off as long as possible,” he said. “From a financial and emotional standpoint, this is one of the toughest times I’ve ever seen.”

Thaler said he believes the ultimate tipping point for the swine industry will come in the next few weeks as producers make their moves. While Thaler said he is proud of local lockers stepping up to take more animals, there is nowhere for a vast majority of animals to go. The system was at capacity before the COVID-19 shutdowns, he said.

After this is all said and done, Thaler said he believes there will be a new normal for the industry and all of agriculture.

“There is no ever going back to the way we were,” he said.

The main things Thaler will look for is whether or not packing plants return to 100% capacity, or if they operate closer to 70% to ensure worker safety. If that happens, he suspects either farmers will raise fewer animals or more packers will need to build more plants. It could have ripples in the industry for years to come, he said.

Worker safety at the plants will become the highest priority, he said, and mental healthy for farmers is also critical at the time.

“There is financial stress, which is huge, but there is an even worse emotional toll,” Thaler said. “Watch your friends and neighbors, if it looks like they’re struggling, reach out to them and get them some help.”

Reach Reporter Jager Robinson at 605-335-7300, email jager.robinson@lee.net or follow on Twitter @Jager_Robinson.