Six to eight cows die each year at Mill Hill Farms in Williamsburg, but you'd never know the carcasses are decomposing on the property in compost piles.
"The benefit to this is that there's no smell," said Sarrah Biddle, who works on the family farm feeding calves. "Because you're burying the cow so deep, not even the vultures can smell it."
The Biddle family started composting dead cows about two years ago, when rendering plants - which processed the carcasses into protein meal to make animal feeds - began to charge to haul the carcasses away. In June, the Food and Drug Administration passed a law that bans using cattle older than 20 months to make protein meal for animal feed.
Mirror photos by Patrick Waksmunski
Josh Biddle of Mill Hill Farms in?Williamsburg uses a skid loader to gather excess feed to be used on the farm’s carcass compost pile.
"It became unprofitable for rendering companies to pick up cattle, because most of the cows that die are older," said Dr. Elizabeth Santini, veterinary medical field officer for the state Department of Agriculture. "And because they're not picking up cattle, it's not profitable to pick up horses [either]."
The Rice family started composting carcasses on their farm, Clover Creek Cheese Cellar in Williamsburg, four or five years ago, when rendering plants started charging more to haul the animals away.
"They were starting to charge us more than it was worth, and we have a compost pile here anyway," David Rice said. "It was just a matter of adding it to the compost. ... It's just a good way to return the nutrients back to the soil."
Pennsylvania farmers have the following legal options to dispose of dead animals within 48 hours of death:
Animal composting has always been available to farmers, Santini said - they just never had to do it. The materials needed to compost, she said, are already on the farm - organic materials like manure mixed with bedding and plant materials. At Mill Hill, Sarrah Biddle said, they put excess feed into the compost and also use the piles to dispose of placentas and aborted fetuses.
"It's low maintenance, and it's an economical way of dealing with mortalities," said Josh Biddle, dairy herd manager at Mill Hill Farms.
The process starts with site selection. The compost pile should be 200 feet from any water source and shouldn't be placed next to the barn or other buildings. The base of the pile should be at least 2 feet deep, and the animal should be covered by at least 2 feet of compost material on all sides.
"If you build it properly, there's no odor [of decay]," Santini said. "That's what keeps people away from trying to compost. ... But it'll smell like whatever you built the pile out of. There's no scavengers, coyotes, buzzards. The pile just looks like a manure pile."
Josh Biddle said turning the pile may speed up the composting process, but it also allows some odors to escape.
Burial is another free option for farmers, but the state Department of Agriculture recommends composting.
"Six feet deep is the going rule of thumb for burial," Santini said. "It takes a long, long time for a cow to rot in the ground, and there's limited space in the ground."
It's illegal to dump the animal in the woods, Santini said, because it could contaminate water sources and spread disease through scavengers.
In a compost pile, Santini said, most of an adult dairy cow will decompose within six to nine months, depending on the weather, though the bigger bones like the skull and pelvis will take longer. At Clover Creek, Rice incinerates the bones in his wood stove; at Mill Hill, the Biddles bury them.
The state Department of Agriculture offers seminars on on-farm composting. For more information, call Santini at 946-7315.
Mirror Staff Writer Ashley Gurbal is at 946-7435.