Merced — Every time a cow dies on a dairy farm, it could cost the owner $115 to have a rendering company pick it up.
As a result, many dairies have held on to a long-standing solution: hauling the carcass to a "dead pile" on the backside of the property, where no one can see the dead animals as they decompose.
This is the way most beef producers deal with their dead cattle out on the range, where there are few people or water wells. But there are plenty of animals and birds, such as bald eagles and coyotes, that make short work of a dead cow.
At dairies, where there are more cattle per acre, dead animals are a major problem. But there are people working on a solution for both the environment and for the dairy producers.
Tim Niswander, the agricultural commissioner for Kings County, is part of a group looking into using composting to help dairies deal with their "dead piles."
There are only four or five rendering companies in the state that pick up dead mammals, he said. And when a rendering facility in Modesto closed several years ago, remaining ones began to run out of capacity.
In the summer of 2006, when rendering companies couldn't keep up with cattle dying from the heat, many counties gave special dispensation to dairies and other animal confinement facilities to use other means of disposal.
"It wasn't that there were a lot of extra cattle dying, the infrastructure just wasn't there to support it," Niswander said. "What else can you do with a carcass?"
That's a question a statewide committee -- composed of people from state water boards, air boards, agriculture commissions, dairies, farm and agriculture organizations, state government agencies and others -- is trying to answer.
And composting may be one answer.
Because of California's concerns about disease-causing pathogens, veterinarians have been working on ways to inoculate dead animals to prevent pathogens from growing.
The disposal of dead animals has changed in the last few years, Niswander said.
Years ago, rendering companies picked up dead animals free of charge.
But as the number of companies dropped and state regulations grew, fees started to creep up. Now it costs $115 to pick up a dead full-grown cow and $250 to pick up a horse in the Merced area.
In Merced County, the law requires animals to be removed within three days of death and disposed of by a licensed rendering company, said Joan Mulcare, director of the county's division of environmental health.
Animal owners who break the law are first notified of the rules and then issued a violation notice.
"Most of the time, we can resolve problems by working with people," Mulcare said.
Niswander said he hopes that he and the committee can show composting to be a viable alternative to rendering companies.
"If you use the right materials, you are not going to have . . . an impact to the environment by composting dead animals," he said. "That's something we have to prove to California."
Reiter writes for the Merced Sun-Star.