For the Love of Goats
We first composted a dead goat many years ago when it died in winter when the ground was frozen solid. At the time, we thought of it as the second-best option because burial was not possible. However, as we discuss in this episode, composting actually causes a carcass to decompose faster than burying.
J. Craig Williams, extension agent with Pennsylvania State University Extension in northern Pennsylvania talks about advantages of mortality composting, as well as how to do it so that you avoid bad odors and don’t attract predators.
Although you can use the finished compost in your fields or gardens, mortality composting is really about disposing of a dead animal more than making compost. That means you won’t be out there turning the pile every couple of weeks.
Because a compost pile can heat up to more than 130 degrees, it will kill bacteria and viruses, however it is important to note that it won’t kill prions, so you should not compost a goat or sheep that had scrapie. To learn more about scrapie, check out episode 45, Scrapie in Goats and Sheep.
For more information on mortality composting, check out Cornell Waste Management Institute’s website.
Listen right here…
…or on your favorite platform:
For the love of goats! We are talking about everything goat. Whether you’re a goat owner, a breeder, or just a fan of these wonderful creatures, we’ve got you covered. And now, here is Deborah Niemann.
Deborah Niemann 0:19
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. This is a little bit of a depressing topic we’re gonna be talking about today, but it is absolutely necessary. And that is, we’re gonna be talking about how to compost dead goats. And we’ll get into a little bit about other animals, as well. But, if you happen to live somewhere like Illinois, like I do, or any place up North, and you have an animal die in the middle of winter, I think this will be especially important information for you to have.
Deborah Niemann 0:47
We’re joined today by J. Craig Williams, who is an extension agent, and also has a farm and has raised goats. He’s with the Pennsylvania State University Extension in northern Pennsylvania. Welcome to the show today!
J. Craig Williams 1:03
Good morning—or good afternoon. I’m not exactly sure when you may be listening. So, it’s a nice sunny day here in northern PA, so glad to glad to join you.
Deborah Niemann 1:13
Yeah, thanks so much. I am always looking for ideas, and the other day, I happened to be searching the web, and I saw this article that you had coauthored about “mortality composting.” Which, I love that phrase. I was like, “Whoa, mortality composting, that sounds so much less morbid than ‘composting dead goats.'” First of all, let’s just talk about: I’m sure a lot of people had no idea that you could do this. I know the first time I heard about it, I was like, “What? You can compost a live animal?” So, let’s just start a little bit about the basics. Like, why would somebody want to do this? And what are some of the advantages of composting an animal that dies?
J. Craig Williams 1:55
Sure. So, I think there’s a couple things we’ve got to remember. And we used to have a saying on my home farm; I live on a farm in northern Pennsylvania now, and I grew up on a farm in southern Pennsylvania. And, we often had a home saying, that “If you’re going to have livestock, you’re going to have dead stock.” And it’s kind of true. You know, we try to raise livestock, and do healthy livestock. But eventually, either something happens, or you know, we all have a bad day, a bad accident, or we just have some older animals that, you know, aren’t marketable anymore and need to be put down, or died of natural causes.
J. Craig Williams 2:39
And, if you think a little bit about the wild deer, you know, they just naturally compost back into the forest somewhere; we never really know what happens. And they may be also consumed by coyotes—and we’ll talk about that a minute. But, you know, the best way is to actively make your own compost. It’s better on a water-quality standpoint; it’s better on a time standpoint. You can maybe capture some of those nutrients and use them back on the field, but I don’t think that’s, you know, really my biggest issue. I think it’s more that it’s easy to do, and you can do it on your farm, and it’s size-neutral. And we’ll talk about that a little bit when we talk about larger animals, or maybe even bigger disasters. So.
Deborah Niemann 3:31
Right. So, I know I was reading about this, and I was like, there’s not that many things you can do with dead animals. And I can share with people, like, if you’ve ever thought about burning one, that is not as easy as it sounds. When we were brand-new—like, we hadn’t even been out here for a year—and we had a llama die. And it was in the middle of winter. And we were like, “What are we gonna do? We can’t dig a hole.” And he was in a part of the farm that was completely inaccessible. And somebody told us to burn him. And, oh my gosh, that was just a complete waste of time and energy.
J. Craig Williams 4:04
And we’ve got an animal that’s about 60% water, so it’s an uphill battle from the beginning.
Deborah Niemann 4:10
Yeah. So, I thought I should mention that, just in case anybody thinks like, “Oh, well, I’ll just burn ’em.” You know, one of the things I was reading—I think that maybe that you wrote—it said, “You need special equipment to burn livestock.” And after having completely unsuccessfully done that with a llama—and I can tell you what wound up happening was that the coyotes took care of most of him.
J. Craig Williams 4:30
So, one of the things I usually do—and understand, you got to know what your own state laws are. So, you know, obviously, let’s do full disclosure, you’ll wanna find that out. But, let’s just use Pennsylvania as an example. And in Pennsylvania, you need to dispose of your animal within two days. And there are four approved methods. Render is one of those methods, if you have that access. And nowadays, with sheep and goats, we don’t. You know, normally. Some places, even cattle don’t have access to rendering. Bury is still an approved method in Pennsylvania, although, you know, we’re always concerned about water table. And in the wintertime, that may or may not be a way to do it. Burn is an accepted method with proper equipment. And that usually means, you know, purchasing a cow cremator or something like that. And then, that leaves us composting.
J. Craig Williams 5:30
And proper compost—which, we cover the animal both underneath and on top with a wood chip compost material, is determined as “proper.” Putting the animal on a dead pile out in the hedgerow is not going to be called “proper compost.” And you may get away with that. But, if you get called in in Pennsylvania by a technicality or a violation, they’re going to look at our fact sheet on “Did you compost correctly?” And, you know, the recipe that we often tell people to start with is, I want two foot of carbon compost underneath, and I want two foot cover over the entire animal. And for a normal-sized goat, that means we’re going to have to at least start with more than a square cubic yard of compost to get started on a, you know, 50-100 pound goat.
J. Craig Williams 6:30
But, think of it always as the two-foot rule. And the two-foot rule—which I like to tell people almost matches up with the width of the animal. So obviously, a cow is a little wider; we might want to go a little more. But, you know, you take a little baby goat? You know, it’s not two foot wide, but we’ll be fine. But, you take one of your big Boer goats? That’s about two foot wide. You know, a little less. Two foot will get you in the ballpark for having enough carbon. So, if your state does not allow bury, you know, or does not allow burn, you still need to find out what your options are.
J. Craig Williams 7:14
But naturally active, hot compost that’s working, you know, will work on all types of animals and all types of months across the year. Debbie, you told me about your issue with the wintertime. What I really encourage people to do is, if you’re cleaning out your barn in September, October, November, I would not spread that on the field. I would save that for the 3 to 4 months through the winter, in case you have any dead stock, and you’ll have an active compost pile that you can use. And if we have good luck all winter, with no dead stock, we can spread that in the spring, then, on the field. But, you know, that’s kind of a strategy, to always have a little bit of bed pack saved around, you know, on the farm. And it’s not going to go away. We still can use it. But it’s always active.
J. Craig Williams 8:18
And if you had, in your scenario, say a bad lambing that was happening in January or February, and you never found that animal, and now it’s frozen, you know, or something like that, and you found her later, I would not worry about that from a compost standpoint. If you had that active pile, we put our two foot bed down, put your frozen animal in there, cover her up with the two foot of material, and she’s gonna slowly come back into falling out. And then, when the compost process starts, you know, it’ll start then. But she’s now completely enclosed in active compost. And you’re only going to be 2 or 3 weeks later that you would have been right back getting started, you know, after it was a normal process. So, even in the wintertime, this can still work.
Deborah Niemann 9:14
So, you’re cleaning out your barn in the fall… So, you’re suggesting that we just pile it up, like a nice big tall pile? I know my husband always, like, tries to get it really tall, like at least 3 or 4 feet high, anyway. And so, if you do that, then basically that’s where you could bury your dead animals. Because, those compost piles stay warm all the time. I love taking pictures of, like, a compost pile in the middle of snow, and there’s no snow on the compost pile.
J. Craig Williams 9:15
Exactly. Yeah. That’s exactly—but what I would do is, let’s say you have a huge barn, and you got a big pile. I don’t have a problem if you’re going to spread that on the field. But, I would always want to save some back, and of course, that Murphy’s Law is going to be the year you spread it all is the winter you need it a little. Right?
Deborah Niemann 10:07
J. Craig Williams 10:07
So, you know, I would save some back. And depending on your state’s regulations, you normally can stockpile, you know, manure for 60 or 90 days, something like that. Well, so we’re still not in violation for stockpiling it through part of the winter. And it’s just a way that you’re prepared, you know, to use that. Now, if you don’t have any dead stock in December or January, and you want to turn that pile and maybe reactivate it and get it going again, you’re still making compost, but it is a way to have some material.
J. Craig Williams 10:46
When you talk about that, though, I really like to use wood chips or mulch, or something that’s not bigger than my thumb. Okay? So, in your case, say on your farm, do you normally bed with straw or hay? Or is it their waste feed? Tell me a little bit about your farm.
Deborah Niemann 11:08
Well, we’re in Illinois, and so there’s wheat fields all around. And so straw is really inexpensive for us to use for bedding.
J. Craig Williams 11:18
So that’s probably a pretty good material. It’s not soaking wet, probably when you bring it out?
Deborah Niemann 11:23
No, not usually.
J. Craig Williams 11:24
Yeah, so that’s probably a pretty good material. And because you aerated that and put it on the pile, it’s going to start composting. And we don’t want big wood chips or big pieces of mulch, you know, the size of your wrist; you want something the size of your thumb or smaller. And we’re trying to build a windrow that, you know, we have this base underneath the animal, we lay the animal on the base—the two-foot base—we cover her with the same carbon-sawdust-straw mixture, at two feet. And basically, we’re letting the air come in the bottom and go out the top. And if it can’t do that, because it’s too wet, or it’s too small, like sawdust or something like that, you know, then we have to add a little more structure to that. And straw, hay, carbon, such as woodchips, all do that.
J. Craig Williams 12:27
Those of you that grew up on farms, where you know how we made silage, and we packed it in the bunker silo? We packed it tight. That’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to keep this light and fluffy. But, you can’t really go less than two feet, because then we start to have odor blow-off, and you could have vector problems. So, most of the people that have problems are the ones that when we cheat on the cover, you know. Trying to make it one foot or six inches, you know, just is not going to work. So, two foot is really the safe layer.
Deborah Niemann 13:03
Yeah. I’ve been really surprised, because we’ve done this a few times. Typically, if kids are born stillborn or something like that, they’re small enough we can just put them in the freezer and wait until the ground thaws. But if an adult dies, we don’t have that much freezer space. And so, we have composted a few adult goats in the winter before. And I’ve been really surprised at the fact that, like, it really doesn’t smell, you know? And I guess it’s because we’re putting enough straw and stuff on top of them that the smell is not a problem.
J. Craig Williams 13:36
Yeah. If you had cheating, say at six inches, or if you only have a straw layer—and straw is very open—you know, I would suspect we’re gonna get a lot more odor blow-off. Now, if that straw was mixed with sawdust, which we have a mixture of large and small finds, you know, then I’d feel more comfortable. But, you know, I would just be careful. Straw is a good product to use. But, there are some times when it stays too open on us, because of the fibers. You know, think about a straw bale that you’re fluffing up. There’s a lot of open space in that straw bale once you’ve fluffed it.
Deborah Niemann 14:18
J. Craig Williams 14:19
But now, if you had an active compost going, you know, there wouldn’t be any reason you couldn’t put your newborn stillborns in there also, as you’re going.
J. Craig Williams 14:29
One of the things you said about your husband likes to build a big pile. And let’s envision it’s a big round pile. I really like windrows, and think of your windrow as your Sharpie pen or Sharpie marker that you’re holding. And, as you build a windrow that’s long, going down the Sharpie pen, at one end, let’s say, is January, February, March. And as you’re building that windrow, you know that January, February, March you built your window, that you did not put any more in there until, say, July or so. We know now, at this point, that the end of that windrow where you started, January, is six months old. Well, that’s old enough that you could go and turn that end of the windrow. And if you always would build in lengthwise windrows, we kind of all automatically have an idea where were we six months ago. And you could turn that. And let’s say now it’s September, October, you had some more problems? You could take those January, February parts of the windrow and add them to the October, September-time parts, and reuse your compost over and over for a while. And it’s just easier to do than, say, a big round pile where we’re not sure where we were, you know, six months ago.
Deborah Niemann 14:29
Yeah, that’s a good point.
J. Craig Williams 14:29
Now, remember, the goal here is not to have dead stock.
Deborah Niemann 14:31
J. Craig Williams 14:30
So, we don’t want to have that much. But, if you’ve had a bad year or something, I’d try to build them in a windrow if you could.
Deborah Niemann 15:00
Yeah, it happens. And especially, like, you know, if you’ve got an old animal, there are times, you know, you hear people say, like, “I don’t think this one’s gonna make it through the winter,” because they’re just getting old and they can’t handle the cold as well when they get get too old.
Deborah Niemann 16:30
I think one of the reasons that we were really good about making our compost really deep when we did this initially was because we were concerned about the dogs trying to dig up the dead animal. And in spite of our best efforts, that still happened. So now, we usually do it, like, inside our garden. So like, that’s got a gate that’s closed, so nobody can get to it. But if somebody doesn’t have a space that’s fenced off from their dogs or predators, like coyotes and stuff, do you have any other tips for how they can keep an animal from coming in and digging through the compost and pulling out the dead animal?
J. Craig Williams 17:13
So, I would go on the premise of: Let’s think about the odor. And if we go back to your example with straw, I would be more concerned that we have odor blow-off, which is going to bring our scavengers. If you had some other hot compost, tighter finds, smaller compost sawdust, or a compost pile that’s actively heating, I would use some of that as more of my cap. Okay? And try to knock down the odor blow-off. Because that’s often what will bring in coyotes, or you know, or birds, or something like that.
J. Craig Williams 17:55
The problem with dogs, sometimes, is they’re almost trained to compost piles. And it can be a real problem of our own farm dogs, sometimes, but either other dogs, depending on where you live. If our compost pile is pretty hot—meaning 90, 100, 110 degrees and up—you know, we shouldn’t normally have a problem, you know, with coyotes, if we’ve done proper cover and bury inside the compost. But it is a good point that we do need to monitor these, because you can get coyotes trained to a mortality compost pile also, and then that is a little tough to get them off of that.
J. Craig Williams 18:43
The other thing, in Pennsylvania, and also with United States Department of Agriculture, our rule is that we like to have compost get to 131 degrees for three consecutive days. And that’s the rule that we use to kill off almost all bacteria and viruses, not counting truly Scrapie and not counting Foot and Mouth Disease. But everything else, if we can get, you know, over 131 for three days, you’ve done a good job on that pile. And I’ve had a lot of piles go 141, 155, you know, 160 degrees. So, you know, a properly built compost that lets that air in the bottom and go out the top, you should get really good heats. And you talked about that. You’ll see that in the winter, where the snow does not stay on top of a good compost pile.
Deborah Niemann 19:43
Yeah. And as you were talking about, like, straw not being necessarily the best thing, it just made me remember that the town that’s about 15 minutes away from us, their Streets Department always has wood chips that they are more than happy to let anybody have. They don’t care if you live in town. You know, when we first heard, we thought, “Oh, that’s probably only for residents.” No. They don’t care. They just want to get rid of it. And so, you know, my husband can go over there with a trailer or his pickup truck, and they go out with some of their heavy equipment and just get a huge scoop, and fill up the back of his pickup or trailer or whatever he takes. So, that’s a really good point. Like, next time this happens, that he could just run into town and get some wood chips from them to add to the pile.
J. Craig Williams 20:28
Yep. And I would use that thumb method. You know, just think about them: Do you have small fines and some larger pieces? But try not to get things that are too much larger than your thumb. You know, things the size of your wrist do not really help us, you know, that much. But things that’s around the size of your thumb or smaller, you know, is what we want. And, you know, most of us have a tractor, or manure spreader, where we could maybe mix that with our bedding, you know. But, you know, just think about: You’re trying to mix large and small fines together, and you’ll be well on your way to having a pretty good mix.
Deborah Niemann 21:10
Yeah, that sounds good. So, you mentioned a minute ago that a compost pile is not going to kill the prions in Scrapie; it’s not going to get hot enough to kill Foot and Mouth. So, an animal that has had Scrapie or Foot and Mouth Disease should not be composted. Are there any other animals that should not be composted?
J. Craig Williams 21:28
There’s two things going on right now. We did just go through a high-pathogenic avian influenza outbreak, and I had helped deploy and help the tribe take care of all the dead animals that were part of that outbreak. And we were composting chickens. That would be one that you need to report that, because you know, it’s a federal virus that they’re watching for. So, we have to think about, you know, diseases that your vet needs to know about. Now, in this case, we can take care of avian influenza, and we can compost it and kill it in the composting process. But it is a disease that they want to know about, you know, as for relating to spreading very quickly to other flocks in your area. Another one that we do not have is African swine fever. We are planning to do a composting response to that, also, but we do not have that here. So, I would just be aware of diseases that your vet may need to know about, much like Foot and Mouth is a prion disease, and Scrapie. Now, Scrapie is an issue with sheep and goats. But we can still, you know, take care of a lot of those animals and compost them.
J. Craig Williams 22:52
Probably the biggest thing, though, is where are we going to put this? In normally Pennsylvania, in New York State, we always say 200 feet away from any water source. And that’s a pretty standard rule. I don’t believe it’s a federal rule. But if you’re near a stream, your own well, a sinkhole, a river, we always try to stay 200 feet away, and we try to stay high and dry. So, if you know that all your water drains to a certain part of your pasture, I would not want to put the compost, you know, down in that low spot. I’d try to pick a high end dry spot. And then, in Pennsylvania and New York, if you’re more than 200 feet away from, you know, a water source, you’re good to go. That’s a good spot to be.
J. Craig Williams 23:48
And one of the things we have done with compost, the reason it works so great, is you have those microbes and oxygen, you know, that are feeding the microbes working on the animal. We’ve taken two animals, buried one of them in the ground and put one of them in a compost, and then dug them both up again six months later. The compost animal is always much more finished than the animal in the ground. Because it just does not get the oxygen, and it’s not processing nearly as fast.
Deborah Niemann 24:27
Wow, that was really fascinating to know. I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t have guessed that. But now that you explain it, it’s like, “Oh yeah, that makes total sense.”
J. Craig Williams 24:35
And, you just don’t have the microbes and you don’t have the oxygen when it’s in the ground. So, from a standpoint of water quality, it’s almost always better with compost, because we’re burning up the animal in the compost process much faster than we ever are in the ground.
Deborah Niemann 24:55
And about how long should you expect to no longer have any bones left or anything in a compost pile?
J. Craig Williams 25:03
So, I really like the six month rule. I would probably turn all my mortality compost every six months. But, the bones are always going to be there, related to how old that animal was. So, that old Boer goat, you know, who’s seven years old? That big old cow that we had for 10 years? You know, horses, those kinds of things? Those bones stay in the compost pile, you know, for a long time. They do give you some structure when you’ve turned it. But eventually, you may want to sort them out, whether they go to regular trash, or whether you sort them out and then you send the rest of the compost to the field.
J. Craig Williams 25:53
Now, baby goats, baby pigs, sometimes calves that have, you know, real soft bones—or if you’re running any of this compost through a power manure spreader—it’ll break them up. But don’t expect big bones to go away. You know, they’re not a bad thing. But those big bones are full of calcium. And you know, they’re a hard bone that’s been, you know, 10 to 12 years old. That’s going to be a lot of calcium. We’re not going to break that bone down in one year of composting.
Deborah Niemann 26:29
Okay, that makes sense. And it makes me feel much better that I find bones in my compost pile.
J. Craig Williams 26:35
And you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just that they don’t go away. But normally, the state rule is a bone on the surface of your field cannot have any flesh attached to it. Well, it shouldn’t if we have composted correctly.
Deborah Niemann 26:54
Yeah, exactly. We used to raise Shetland sheep, and the rams have those big, beautiful spiral horns. And so, I’ve got some pretty awesome sheep skulls.
J. Craig Williams 27:04
And there’s a lot of the universities, you know, where they put up the statues, and like the Smithsonian, you know, where they’ve done whale carcasses or famous horses, and they do the bone carcass display? And they will use composting to clean those bones as the first process. And then they pull those bones back out of the compost before they’re too pitted, and then they finish cleaning them. So, they’re using compost as a process to clean the flesh off of those bones for their actual display.
Deborah Niemann 27:42
Wow, that’s really good to know! Because I do the same thing. And I thought that this was just some, you know, homesteader hack that I had figured out accidentally. And so, no, this is, like, this is how the Smithsonian starts out with their bones. That’s pretty cool.
J. Craig Williams 27:59
Yep. So, think of bones as the older that animal is and the bigger, you’re going to still have those bones. The smaller little baby animals, those bones are pretty soft; those bones will go away. And if they’re in there for the six months, and then get turned to the next pile, you know, they’re gonna break up some more. But, do not be surprised that you have bones still after a year.
Deborah Niemann 28:25
That’s great to know. So, is there anything else that people should know before they start doing this?
J. Craig Williams 28:32
Don’t cheat on the bottom or the top cover, because two things will happen. As that animal is composting, and all those cells are breaking down, we end up with that water release. And so, that’s why we want to have two foot of dry material underneath to absorb some of that water. The microbes will work on that water; it helps the composting process. But if you cheat on the bottom, then we’re going to get leaching. If you cheat on the top, we’re going to have vector problems, coyote problems, or odor blow-off. But in the winter, we have that cold creep into the pile, and we need that two foot for installation. So, almost always, our cheating problems are the bottom and the top, which cause us more problems later. And so, if you need to get two yards of carbon, or you know, a yard of carbon to mix with your bed pack that you already have, if you think about the two foot rule, or the how wide your animal is, you know, that’s the safest thing to start with. And that’s probably where people get into trouble the most, trying to cheat on carbon, you know, in their cover.
J. Craig Williams 29:52
I’ll give you two sites you can look for. If you search on Google for Cornell Waste Management Institute, they have an excellent webpage on composting material. And we work with them all the time. If you search on Google for “calf”—C-A-L-F—”compost,” our early fact sheet was on calf composting, and that’ll take you to the mortality composting guidelines for Penn State. And then, there are many other universities that have excellent fact sheets, also.
Deborah Niemann 30:28
Well, thank you so much. This has been a really interesting conversation. I know this is gonna be very helpful for people. Again, one of those things you wish you didn’t have to know, but as you said, “If you have livestock, at some point, they will be dead stock.” So, thanks very much for joining us today.
J. Craig Williams 30:43
Well, it’s been great talking to you. Reach out anytime. And just remember, this is what we also call a “natural rendering.” So, there’s another great term for mortality compost, and it’s a great way to take care of your dead stock.
Deborah Niemann 30:59
Awesome. Thank you so much.
Deborah Niemann 31:02
And that’s it for today’s show. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to hit the “subscribe” button so that you don’t miss any episodes. To see show notes, you can always visit ForTheLoveOfGoats.com, and you can follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/LoveGoatsPodcast. See you again next time. Bye for now!