In-service Training and Decision-Making Tools for Optimizing Livestock Mortality Management

Final Report for EW09-013

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2009: $97,848.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Western
State: Colorado
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Jessica Davis
Colorado State University
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Project Information


Mortality management threatens the sustainability of livestock production in many ways. In recent years, concerns about mad cow disease reduced the availability and increased the cost of rendering services. Alternatives are needed that protect the environment from contamination and prevent the spread of pathogens from mortalities to living, productive animals. These alternatives must be affordable and ideally would also create jobs in rural America. Composting mortalities is an alternative that holds promise for the achievement of environmental protection, economic sustainability, and job creation.

The project team includes: Extension and NRCS personnel with expertise in animal science, economics, and soil science; feedlot and dairy producers; and producer groups from Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. The team met annually face-to-face and by conference call as needed in order to facilitate cooperation in achieving project goals.

Four educational products were developed:
• a decision aid spreadsheet that evaluates the costs of mortality composting against other mortality disposal options,
• a how-to-manual on mortality composting,
• a video illustrating on-the-ground mortality composting, and
• a PowerPoint presentation describing the spreadsheet, how-to-manual, and video and explaining mortality composting principles.

These products were disseminated through in-service training for Extension and NRCS personnel, workshops for groups of consultants and emergency coordinators, and web-based training. We reached nearly 300 extension educators, NRCS staff and Technical Service Providers, consultants, producers, landfill managers, and small processors directly and many more indirectly through distribution of hardcopy educational materials and online access to those materials. These 300+ agricultural professionals have improved their knowledge-base in mortality management and will influence many more livestock producers. Ultimately, the economic and environmental challenges of proper mortality management will be better addressed through more widespread, high-quality mortality composting.

Project Objectives:
  • • To provide professional development opportunities for land grant extension faculty, NRCS field staff, and NRCS Technical Service Providers in the area of livestock mortality composting.
    • To develop tools for use by extension and NRCS professionals in extending mortality management information and decision-making tools to livestock producers.

The livestock industry faces many challenges today. This team has been addressing an issue that producers face which relates to at least four types of challenges: economic sustainability, environmental sustainability, biosecurity, and public perception. The issue in question is what to do with livestock mortalities.

Using cattle as an example, the USDA-National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that the total number of U.S. cattle in 2005 was 97,101,500 head (USDA-NASS, 2008). Cattle mortality loss that same year was 4,051,000 head, demonstrating a 4.2% loss of all U.S. cattle. This represents lost opportunity production costs, genetic selection setbacks, and previously established input value losses—all significant losses for the livestock industry. Additionally, there is a cost to producers to dispose of these carcasses.

Rendering, a traditional practice for disposal of carcasses used for many years, is less available now, largely due to concerns about mad cow disease. Therefore, charges for rendering have increased, and the costs vary greatly from one region of the country to another. Costs range from hundreds of dollars in Florida to free pick up of mortalities in Nebraska. Typically, the cost is about $30 to $35 per carcass. If we applied a rough disposal estimate of $30 to each livestock mortality in the U.S. for 2005, it would have yielded a national cost of more than $120 million.

Some carcasses are incinerated. However, this procedure becomes quite costly for large carcasses (1,000 pounds or more). The size of the equipment needed and the amount of fuel required often make this technique unfeasible for producers to accomplish on-site. Additionally, there are air pollution concerns resulting from carcass incineration. This can become a problem from both a public perception standpoint and a regulatory compliance matter.

Many mortalities are buried. In the case of landfill usage, many facilities refuse carcasses of mature size. Additionally, the charges to deposit a carcass at a landfill can be quite substantial. Another concern associated with delivering mortalities to a landfill is biosecurity. If the mortality was due to an infectious disease, diseases could be spread along the route to the landfill.

In the case of burials on private property, either the livestock producer must have equipment that will dig a large enough hole or hire someone to accomplish this task. The Cattle Producer’s Library, published by the Western Beef Resource Committee, reports that cattle burial requires a hole 7 feet wide by 9 feet deep, with at least 14 square feet of floor space for each mature cow carcass (Bagley et al., 2006). In addition to the cost of grave construction, burial may have a negative environmental impact. Iowa State University reported that a 1,000 pound carcass has the potential to leach 22 pounds of nitrogen, 8 pounds of phosphorus, and 600 pounds of contaminated water (Glanville and Harmon, 2008). When using the burial technique, there is potential for contaminants to infiltrate into groundwater and cause an environmental hazard. In some localities, the groundwater table is shallow enough that local regulations may even restrict the burial of large carcasses.

Composting of mortalities has been shown to be a cost effective and biosecure way of disposing of mortalities. Composting helps to protect the environment and can be less of a public perception issue than some of the other methods that have been mentioned. This method is typically relatively easy for producers to implement on-site. However, in the western U.S., producers face unique challenges with composting mortalities due to the region’s arid climate. This team has come together to develop mortality composting training materials specific to the western U.S. and an economic analysis to evaluate disposal alternatives. These tools have been disseminated to educators who are now sharing this information with producers. Materials explain the benefits of composting mortalities and provide a “how to” description of the process and procedures necessary to successfully compost mortalities at a private producer’s operation, landfills, or small meat processing facilities.


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  • Thomas Bass
  • David Colburn
  • John Deering
  • Michael Fisher
  • Robert Flynn
  • Sarah Lupis
  • Jay Norton
  • Steve Paisley

Education & Outreach Initiatives



The team began as a Colorado State University (CSU) Extension team and grew to include members from three other states in the region throughout the last several years. The project involves four Land-Grant Universities and their affiliated Extension Services, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and livestock producer partners. The multi-disciplinary team members (animal science, economics, and soil science) brought together for this project from four Rocky Mountain States were critical to the success of this project. In addition, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) personnel in the project states have also been an invaluable resource in disseminating program materials after project completion. NRCS staff also contributed to product review in order to ensure that the team’s recommendations were compatible with NRCS technical guidelines. In addition to these resources, partnerships with producers were critical to enabling the project team to witness and document real life mortality management practices on geographically diverse operations from New Mexico to Montana.

Our audience includes Cooperative Extension specialists and agents, NRCS field staff and Technical Service Providers (TSPs), Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs) and other environmental consultants in the 4-state region of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. In addition, we aimed to reach feedlot, dairy, and ranch audiences by working with producer associations (Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Livestock Association, Western Dairy Association, Dairy Producers of New Mexico, Dairy Farmers of America, New Mexico Cattle Growers, Southwest Dairy Consortium, Wyoming Beef Cattle Improvement Association, Wyoming Stockgrowers, Rocky Mountain Meat Processors Association, Montana Stockgrowers, Montana Woolgrowers, and Montana Pork Council).

In addition to this diversity of livestock types, we were also committed to the applicability of our educational tools to livestock producers of all sizes. Therefore, specific examples from a variety of farm types were included in the materials, from a small, organic goat dairy in MT to a large, conventional dairy in NM. In addition, specific sections on composting under diverse environmental conditions from cold (Montana) to hot (New Mexico) were also included.

Many livestock producers hire Spanish-speaking laborers and managers who make many of the day-to-day decisions on the facility. If an owner or manager of such a facility decides to compost mortalities, it will be up to these people on-the-ground to carry out that decision. Therefore, from the beginning of our work together, the Mortality Management Team was committed to translation of all educational materials into Spanish. This was achieved through funding from the USDA-WSARE program as mentioned above. By using these materials, Extension staff who are not bilingual, can still reach out to these important audiences.

Face-to-face team meetings were held in October of 2009 in Las Cruces, NM, and November 2010 in Bozeman, MT. Ongoing conference calls were conducted as needed. A PBworks virtual workspace and document sharing system was implemented throughout the project to facilitate collaborative development of deliverables.

Outreach and Publications

The work of the Mortality Management Team was highlighted in Simply Sustainable, the quarterly newsletter from Western SARE, in July 2012 (Volume 6, Issue 2).

Our products were also linked to in the Progressive Dairyman issue published on Nov. 13, 2012.

Outreach events held are listed above in the Accomplishments section.

Outcomes and impacts:

Our short-term impacts are focused on increasing the understanding of Extension and NRCS educators, technical service providers, and consultants. In particular, understanding of environmental protection and biosecurity issues related to mortality management, mortality management options, and composting practices have improved throughout the four-state region. Through our 8 workshops and presentations, 242 individuals increased their understanding of mortality management, in general, and mortality composting, in particular. These people were extension agents, emergency coordinators, public health staff, livestock producers, NRCS staff, composters, consultants, and regulators. In addition, a webcast on June 20, 2012 reached an additional 43 people from our original target states (Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico) plus others from Nevada, Utah, North Dakota, North Carolina, and New York.

In the medium-term, we expect that the materials produced will help trainers improve their ability to explain the advantages and disadvantages of different mortality composting options and the basics of mortality composting. In addition, we expect that Extension and NRCS educators, technical service providers, and consultants who have received training with these tools will experience a change in their interest and attitudes towards mortality composting. Our own team members have also improved their ability to work in multi-agency and multi-institutional groups to promote sustainable mortality management practices.

In the long-term, we expect that livestock owners and managers will improve their skills and abilities to construct and manage a cost-effective mortality composting site at their facility. Specifically, livestock producers will have increased awareness and knowledge of proper mortality management options, including composting as a bio-secure and environmentally sustainable method. Ultimately, as more livestock producers choose to compost mortalities as a result of this team’s work, there will be a decreased threat to water quality and biosecurity from poor mortality management.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Educational Materials

The team developed and disseminated four tools to guide mortality management decision-making in the region: a spreadsheet, a manual, a video, and a PowerPoint presentation. All materials were translated into Spanish to better reach Spanish-speaking audiences.

A decision aid spreadsheet tool was developed to assist producers in making informed and thorough mortality management decisions. In many cases, several options exist for mortality management on livestock operations, making it important to know and compare the costs of various alternatives. The spreadsheet tool is based on a method known as partial budgeting, allowing the livestock producer to estimate financial costs and benefits of alternative mortality management practices. Simply put, this approach accounts for additional and reduced costs and expenses for a potential change in practices.

A how-to-manual was developed to effectively communicate mortality composting basics and benefits, equipment and feedstock needs, the principles of site selection and preparation, carcass preparation and placement, handling of material, management during and after composting (including curing and storage), scavenger concerns, and end product quality and use. Environmental concerns and health issues (in particular, pathogen reduction) are addressed in the manual. The manual was published as a bulletin through Montana State University.

A video was produced that includes an overview of what composting livestock mortalities is and addresses issues such as the positive effect for the environment, the economics of composting versus other disposal methods, and the sustainability of composting. In addition, a brief “how-to” for composting livestock mortalities is described. This section discusses the process of composting and some of the factors that are necessary for success. Finally, interviews with producers in New Mexico and Montana were included to help promote the practice in a peer-to-peer fashion.

A PowerPoint presentation was also developed, with annotated speaker notes, which reflect and support information in the manual and the video. The presentation serves as an educational module tying together all deliverables and providing in-service professional development to those who view and study it. It is also available for individuals to edit and adapt the presentation to suit their needs as an educational tool for use directly with producers and compost facility managers.

These materials have all been posted on the CSU Extension website ( and the CSU Institute for Livestock and the Environment website ( In addition, hard copies of the manuals and videos were distributed to NRCS and Extension offices in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico and to others as requested. Due to their widespread distribution and continued availability online, we expect these educational materials to continue to grow in impact in the years ahead.


In-service training was held in each of the four states involved in this project. Activities were designed to meet each state’s unique needs and infrastructure. Finally, a webinar was held to reach a broader audience across the U.S.

January 9, 2012—Regional Meeting for Colorado State University Extension agents in Pueblo, CO—7 extension agents.

March 6-7, 2012—Ag Emergency Planning Workshop in Missoula, MT—15 ag agents, emergency coordinators, and public health staff.

April 4, 2012--NRCS Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan Training in Albuquerque, NM--40 Participants (NRCS, extension, livestock producers, NMED Groundwater Quality, private environmental consultants).

April 18, 2012—Montana State University Ag Agent Update –30 agricultural extension agents.

April 25, 2012--Compost Operator Certification Course in Albuquerque, NM--35 participants (city solid waste compost operators, private composting company representatives, NMED Solid Waste Bureau, and NM Organic Waste Recycling Coalition).

April 25-26, 2012--Ag Emergency Planning Workshop – Whitehall, MT –25 ag agents, emergency coordinators, and public health staff.

April 26, 2012--NRCS Training in Colorado—70 NRCS staff

May 8-9, 2012--Ag Emergency Planning Workshop – Lewistown, MT –20 ag agents, emergency coordinators, and public health staff.

June 20, 2012--Livestock Mortality Webinar transmitted from Fort Collins, CO-- 43 participants from CO, WY, MT, NM, UT, NV, ND, NY, and NC. Participants represented NRCS, Extension, land-grant universities, state veterinarians and other state agencies, BLM, livestock producers, and meat processors.


Two of the products developed through this WSARE PDP Grant were selected to be recognized by the American Society of Agronomy Educational Materials Awards program with Certificates of Excellence: the manual and the video. Certificates of Excellence were presented at the national American Society of Agronomy meeting in Cincinnati on October 22, 2012. In addition, this 4-state Mortality Management Team won the 2012 Team Award from Colorado State University Extension at its annual Extension Forum conference on November 5, 2012.


Potential Contributions

This project team reached 285 agricultural professionals, technical service providers, and consultants with new, highly relevant information for them to pass on to their livestock-producing clientele. Short-term outcomes include increased understanding of mortality management concerns such as environmental protection and bio-security, mortality management practices, and composting livestock mortalities as a sustainable practice. In the medium-term, our audience members will develop their abilities to teach and advise on livestock mortality management options and provide technical details on composting as a viable option. In the long-term, livestock producers and managers of livestock operations will increase their awareness and knowledge of proper mortality management options, including composting as a bio-secure and environmentally sustainable method. Eventually, this will lead to increased use of cost effective and proper mortality management practices, with composting as a primary method when applicable, and a decreased threat to water quality and bio-security due to poor mortality management.

Future Recommendations

The educational materials produced through this project will continue to be available online in order to broaden their dissemination and impact in future years. In addition, the team continues to schedule additional outreach events on mortality composting as described below:
• March 14, 2013—3 hour workshop for the Conservation Districts in the Republican River Watershed to be held in Wray, CO
• April 4, 2013 – 90 minute professional development seminar will be held at the Waste-to-Worth conference in Denver, CO

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.