Composting is Solution to Poultry Mortality Disposal

Published with permission by Poultry Times.  Originally posted September 27, 2016.

By Barbara Olejnik

Composting of dead birds on a poultry farm is a practical way to dispose of the animals as well as a biosecurity solution. Poultry producers need to be aware of composting procedures and have plans in place for composting prior to there being an actual need for the action.

The Cornell Waste Management Institute in Ithaca, N.Y., points out that poultry carcasses left to decay naturally above ground or buried in shallow pits pose risks to surface and groundwater and endanger the health of domestic livestock, wildlife and pets. Improper disposal may also have implications for biosecurity of the flock.

Composting of dead birds, whether in-house or outside, becomes especially important in the event of an outbreak of avian influenza among the flock.

When there is an outbreak of avian influenza — or even other diseases — that can be easily spread, the dead birds should be moved as little as possible to prevent spread of the disease and to also ensure biosecurity of other poultry houses and neighboring farms.

Composting is an inexpensive means of disposal of dead animals and the temperatures reached during properly managed composting will kill or greatly reduce most pathogens.

The Cornell Institute lists the benefits of composting as:

  • Can kill pathogens and help control disease outbreaks.
  • Can be done any time of the year, even when the ground is frozen.
  • Can be done with equipment available on most farms.
  • Relatively odor-free.
  • All sizes and volumes of animals can be composted.
  • Egg waste and hatching waste can be composted.
  • Relatively low requirements for labor and management.
  • Economical.

For outside composting where there is not a disease concern, a site should be selected that is well-drained and away from landscape areas near water sources. Moderate to well-drained, hard-packed soils with gentle slopes of about 2 percent are best for composting sites.

Neighbors should also be considered when selecting an outside composting site. Farmers should determine the dominant wind direction and if most airflow is directed toward populated areas.

In New York State, for example, permitted compost facilities need to be at least 200 yards away from the closest dwelling. They cannot be in a floodplain or wetland, where seasonal high groundwater is less than 24 inches from the ground surface or where bedrock is less than 24 inches below the ground surface, unless provisions have been made to protect the water.

Composting, whether outside or in-house, is accomplished by layering wood chips or other carbon source, followed by a layer of birds and litter and then covered with another layer of wood chips — a process that continues until a windrow of the combined material is two or three layers high.

When composting birds in-house following a highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak, USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service requires two 14-day active composting cycles, turning after the first cycle to ensure inactivation of the HPAI virus.

During the first 14-day cycle, temperature probes of the compost windrow should record temperatures in the range of from 110 degrees F to 150 degrees F to kill the disease. If these temperatures are not reached, testing for presence of the disease will be required.

Heat destroys the AI virus, but can remain viable at moderate temperatures for long periods and indefinitely in frozen material.

According to the Cornell Institute, the virus is killed by heat (133 degrees F for three hours or 140 degrees F for 30 minutes) and with common disinfectants such as formalin and iodine compounds.  Composting during cold and freezing weather is best conducted in-house so the virus is more contained and there is some protection from cold and wind.

If frozen material is composed in carbon, it will remain frozen until the ambient temperature is reached, then will heat up and begin the complete composting procedure.  While composting out of the barn in winter weather can be accomplished, it will definitely be a harder fight.

The Cornell Institute quotes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as stating: “On-site composting has been proven effective in deactivating avian influenza virus. On-site composting limits the risk of groundwater and air contamination, the potential for farm to farm disease transmission and transportation costs and tipping fees associated with off-site disposal.”

Farm owners/operators and their employees could be exposed to avian influenza when working to depopulate the flocks and composting of the carcasses.

“Taking precautions to prevent adverse human health events related to emergency response efforts is important,” the Cornell Institute stressed. “In an HPAI response, personal protection and safety is particularly essential to protect individuals from HPAI.”

To protect people from a virus, personal protective equipment (PPE) is needed when working on an infected site. These include PPE to put on and cover the body, head, eye, foot and hand, as well as a respirator.


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