As long as there are animals in animal agriculture, producers will need to address the issue of livestock “mortalities.” But with more states adopting stricter environmental regulations, getting rid of a dead animal is no longer simply a matter of getting out the log chain or firing up the backhoe.

Most state environmental regulations now prohibit or severely restrict burying, burning or leaving animal carcasses to nature. Landfill operators don't have a sense of humor when it comes to dead animal disposal, either.

What's left, and long has been the best option for most producers, is the local renderer. But, rendering isn't the business it used to be.

Many of us can remember the day when a rendering truck driver laid out a $5-bill for picking up a dead cow. Then for years, renderers provided a service that was essentially free to producers. Now, you pay for animal removal costs — often to the point of being exorbitant.

Gary Veserat, Woodland, CA, says for a truck to pick up a dead calf in Woodland, a distance of about 35 miles from the rendering plant, it costs $80 for the first calf, with a 40% discount for additional animals. The livestock management consultant knows of one instance in which it cost $380 to have a dead horse hauled about 60 miles to a rendering plant.

“Our state environmental laws prohibit livestock producers from burying or burning these animals,” he adds. “You really can't afford for an animal to die simply due to the cost of getting rid of it.”

In Oregon, certain permitted landfills can accept dead animals, but they may charge an extra fee for large carcasses, says Mike Gamroth, Oregon State University livestock specialist. Carcasses can only be burned in cases of specific disease emergencies. And, while burial is an option in Oregon, it seems conditions are more restrictive than for human burials, he says.

The West Coast isn't the only place the story is played out. In the concentrated cattle feeding areas of Texas and Oklahoma, feedyard operators report paying 1¢/lb. or more to have dead critters hauled off. In the Midwest, producers are being charged $8-$10/head for a pick-up.

Cris Young, a Bowling Green, KY, veterinarian, says only two rendering companies are left to serve 26 counties in his region. Young is field service veterinarian for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

“The renderers say even when producers pay $25 dollars to have a dead animal picked up, they can't make money,” says Young. “It's leading to a tremendous disposal problem that we're going to have to address seriously very soon.”

By-product tissue from the animal production, slaughter and meat packing industries is estimated to approach 52 billion lbs./year.

“Without the rendering industry, by-products from meat and poultry processing would fill up landfills very quickly,” says Gary Pearl, president of the Fats and Proteins Research Foundation.

“For over a century, renderers have taken these by-products and processed them into useful and valuable products for animal feed ingredients and other industrial use applications,” explains Pearl. “But today, this industry is in trouble.”

A Case Of Economics

Fred Bisplinghoff, Fort Meyers, FL, is a veterinarian and consultant to the rendering industry. He says the industry's woes boil down to the fact that the markets for the three major rendered products — fats and oils, proteins and hides — are severely depressed.

“World commodity fat and oil markets have been under pressure because of the tremendous increases in palm oil produced in tropical regions,” he explains. “Second, protein markets are depressed — as indicated by today's soybean oil and meal prices.”

Prices for rendered hides, normally one of the most valuable products from a rendered beef animal, have been in the tank.

“Hide markets fluctuate, but right now they are declining because of the worldwide recession,” explains Bisplinghoff.

Spiking energy costs also have renderers' dattention. And, increasing environmental rules — especially for odor control and water treatment — are slicing rendering profits.

“It's to the point where the cost of picking up a fallen animal is often worth less than gross product value after it's rendered,” adds Bisplinghoff. “So, we have to charge pick-up fees to cover the increased costs.”

Collection charges are the only way a renderer can make up the difference when market share and market value drop, agrees David Kirstein of National By-Products Inc., Des Moines, IA. With eight rendering facilities, four protein blending facilities and dozens of collection and reload stations scattered across the middle part of the country, his company is one of the largest renderers in the U.S.

Kirstein says the rendering industry is pursuing alternative markets for its traditional end-products. It's also striving to develop new non-feed uses of animal by-products. These include animal fat bio-fuels — but that's a business chock full of its own economic complications.

“Unless the playing field is leveled somehow in terms of subsidies paid to oilseed producers, we'd find it hard to compete in that market,” he says.

The short-lived but brutal 2000-2001 energy crisis not only washed red ink over renderers' ledger sheets, it also caused them to look inward at alternatives to natural gas.

“We're looking at ways we can utilize some of our own products for energy sources for our boilers,” says Kirstein. “For a while last year, it was economically feasible to convert our boilers to burn fat instead of natural gas.”

But today, energy costs are not even on the same radar screen with other incoming rendering industry issues.

The BSC Factor

The most critical issue is the fear that rendered protein products in livestock feed might spread bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). (See sidebar below.)

“Currently, the use of most mammalian-based proteins in ruminant feed is prohibited in this country,” says Tom Cook, Alexandria, VA, president of the National Renderers Association. “But, more proposals have surfaced threatening additional restrictions on feeding practices.”

Those proposals range from a ban on feeding any animal protein to ruminants to banning the practice of feeding animal protein to any farmed animals altogether. Even the most modest proposals' impact on the livestock industry is pegged at $100 million-$600 million annually, according to research by Sparks Companies Inc.

Sparks analysts estimate a complete ban on feeding animal protein to farm animals would cost renderers up to $1.5 billion/year. The trickle-down effect would cost cattle producers $15.50/head sold for slaughter.

“Additional regulation of animal protein feed ingredients will cause real and significant economic shocks and dislocations throughout the livestock complex,” says Cook. “Ultimately, these costs will be distributed over the entire production and marketing chain.”

Looking To Producers

Some of the confusion about feeding animal protein products, though, is coming from within the livestock industry. And, renderers are looking to turn those misconceptions into assistance in dealing with the industry's despair.

“Users of animal protein ingredients have started to doubt the safety of products used in feed rations for more than 100 years,” says Pearl. “But, there are no scientific reasons that animal protein ingredients are not safe for livestock, poultry, companion animal and aquaculture rations.”

Nevertheless, the rendering industry is bracing itself for a new set of regulations governing all options to dispose of mortalities. Traceability will be a required feature of any new regulations. Currently, renderers are required to keep close records on final disposition of materials, but trace-back ability will become more critical.

If rendering continues to be hindered by the regulatory process, Pearl says other alternatives must be developed.

Kirstein says unless actions are taken to help renderers stay in business, the cattle producer will continue to take the hit associated with dead animal disposal. He adds that cattle producers must work through their own lobbying organizations to find some relief.

“If society feels the benefits are warranted and needed, then perhaps society will step up to the plate and help pay for those benefits,” says Kirstein. “Something has to be done to assist the cattle producer — and in turn, this industry — to keep rendering a viable option for disposing dead animals.”

Is Composting Viable?

One option to disposal of animal mortalities is composting. Composting deads along with soil and manure waste has been used extensively in the poultry and hog industries. Because of the very size of cattle, however, cattlemen have not readily adopted the practice.

Gary Veserat, Woodland, CA, is a co-investigator on a composting project with California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He and others are looking at cost-effective, biosecure and environmentally-friendly disposal of livestock mortalities — including composting.

“The renderers may not like the idea of composting,” explains Veserat. “But, large dairies and feedlots could save money if they could compost their own mortalities.”

Composting requires a carbon source (i.e., silage- or hay-based waste) and a concrete bunker or floor. Mortalities are added to the carbon source, and the materials are regularly turned. Enough heat has to be generated in the process to kill any pathogens.

“If we can find ways to compost, we can successfully get rid of the mortalities and have a composted material to market,” says Veserat. “This could certainly save some producers money and headache in getting rid of mortalities.”

Composting can't guarantee the destruction of all food-borne pathogens, though, and there appear to be no regulations that require it to do so.

“Currently, there are no restrictions on where the resulting compost can be applied,” says David Kirstein of National By-Products Inc., Des Moines, IA. He anticipates new regulations restricting the use of composted cattle carcasses on grazing land where ruminants have access.

“From a regulatory standpoint, the ease and cost of regulating a couple of hundred rendering facilities versus tens-of-thousands of compost piles makes sense during an era of government downsizing,” says Kirstein.

Each state has its own rules on composting. Minnesota, for example, requires a roof over the composting area. Other states only require composting be done on an all-weather surface of concrete or packed gravel.

While composting might be an option under routine production practices, a disastrous disease outbreak or bioterrorism could create a whole different set of problems. Therefore, California water and air quality officials, along with the state's department of food and agriculture, are trying to prepare should such an event strike the state's livestock industry.

“We're concerned with how we would handle the kind of mess Great Britain got into last year,” says Veserat.

The BSE/Rendering Link

New perspectives on the safety of both meat and animal by-products accelerated when the feeding of by-products was linked with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

In March 1996, then British Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell informed the UK's House of Commons that scientists had found a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD) in 10 victims. They couldn't rule out a link with the consumption of beef from cattle with BSE.

The pronouncement of a possible BSE/nvCJD link, though devoid of finite proof, propelled hysteric reactions. It's been a continuing challenge for scientists to communicate specialized knowledge into language easily understood by the media and public.

Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) are very complex neurologic diseases. The exact nature of the infectious agent is unclear and under debate.

Studies to describe the transmission of TSEs are complex and extremely expensive, due to the extended incubation periods. The studies completed haven't been well replicated. Thus remain a number of unanswered questions with validated science and theories with severe limitations.

Immediately after the confirmation of BSE in the UK, the disease in the U.S. immediately became a legally reported disease. Since then, the U.S. and Canada have adopted extensive measures to assure the safety of animal protein products.

  • A 1989 ban on import of all ruminants, bovine semen, embryos, and meat-and-bone meal from the UK.

  • The 1990 initiation of an active BSE surveillance program, including the examination of brains of high-risk cattle.

  • A 1997 prohibition on importation of live animals and most ruminant products from throughout Europe.

  • In 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a “feed ban” directed at the rendering and cattle feeding industries to preclude the infectious agent of BSE from entering the country through products of animal origin.

Current U.S. and Canadian rules directed at restricted-use protein products have affected handling and usage of all animal protein products by the feed industry.

Certification programs have emerged as supplemental assurance for the proper use of restricted protein ingredients. If protein ingredients can't be verified as 100% non-ruminant material, they're prohibited from use in feeds for ruminant animals.