Mortality Composting: Making Happy Microbes

“It’s like making bread. You have to pitch the yeast in there and let the microbes do their work. It’s all about finding the right recipe to make healthy, happy microbes.” 

I can’t deny I was a little unsure of what to expect at my first swine composting seminar. But I certainly wasn’t expecting a bread making lesson! As our guest speaker, Chandler Cummins of Advanced Composting Technologies, began discussing how Blunier Farm's new composter works, I was intrigued not only by the science, but also by the importance of this topic.

Composting is a naturally occurring biological process where microbes do all the work. If we can give the microbes what they need, when they need it, and in the right proportions, you’ll have a recipe for success.

Nobody wants to deal with mortality. It’s a lot of work and it’s not very pleasant. It always results in a loss, and in some cases, that loss is about way more than money. But the reality of livestock production is that life happens and some days that means you lose livestock. Despite our best efforts as caretakers, animals die and we have to carefully handle their remains.

Declining Options
When it comes to dealing with livestock mortality, there are several options a producer can choose to dispose of the carcass. But most of these options provide challenges that make Blunier Farm's new forced aeration composter an intriguing and fairly problem-free option. 

From burial to incineration and from rendering to composting, the options are available, but can cause challenges when it comes to biosecurity, air quality and groundwater safety. 

Cummins said forced aeration composting is a win because it has no inherent issues. It also has unlimited loading rates and offers more biosecurity. In addition, when the process is all said and done, you have a readily available source of phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium for your fields that add value to any farm.

Biosecurity Concerns
As I’ve listened to our country’s top experts discuss foreign animal disease preparedness, one of my biggest concerns about getting a foreign animal disease like African swine fever (ASF) in the U.S. is dealing with carcass disposal. The thought of rendering trucks moving from farm to farm and down our highways and interstates is concerning because the virus doesn’t die with the animal.

“The resistance of the virus in the environment is a major obstacle,” says Jean Paul Cano, DVM, PIC North America’s Health Director of Americas. “It can live in the environment, in feed ingredients, and in pork or cured meats for a long time. This increases the time when the population is susceptible to being infected. Also, especially with some of the new strains being reported and the expected explosion of mortality in a short amount of time, the two- to three-week testing period opens the door for transmission in those two weeks where pigs and people can be moving before the disease is under control.”

Environmental Sustainability
Composting is the most environmentally friendly option, said Stan Blunier of Blunier Farm about his decision to work with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to implement a forced aeration composter. 

“One of my concerns with other composting options was effluent,” Blunier said. “When I heard about this composting system, I realized the composter would solve that problem in addition to providing several other benefits for our operation.”

So What Was It Really Like?
I was fortunate to watch the composter run and experience the process firsthand during the tour. I was surprised that there was little odor in the building and the grinding process wasn’t too bad either. After the mortality is added to the composter, along with a source of carbon (wood chips and corn stalks for the Bluniers) and a source of nitrogen to serve as food to get the microbes working,  the composter grinds this mixture down for 20-25 minutes. The result? A fairly even-sized batch of compost to be spread out in the forced aeration system. The smaller particle size dramatically speeds up the composting process. Blunier’s first batch of compost took about one month.

Watch the video below to see the composter in action – it really wasn’t the guts and gore I expected. I’m not going to lie, however. I felt even better when Kent Blunier, Stan’s son, said one of the reasons why they wanted to invite people to see the composter up close and in action was because they expected to see a little guts and gore, too. They didn’t believe it until they saw it either. 


Related Articles:
Don’t Be Burned by African Swine Fever

Transportation Biosecurity: Control What You Can