Guide: Mass Poultry Mortality Disposal Options for North Carolina Growers

For poultry growers, the dreaded sound of the poultry house alarm going off means lost income and days of work ahead.Contract poultry farmers have tens of thousands of birds in each barn. When natural disaster, weather, equipment failure or disease threatens, farmers find themselves with the financial and logistical responsibility of disposing of large numbers of dead birds in a timely and safe way.

Growers can reduce the costs of mass poultry mortality and protect themselves from future liability by creating a disposal plan in advance.

Heat, natural disaster, equipment failure, or disease can all cause unusually high poultry mortality.  Farmers should create plan for each of these four situations, since the best option varies.  Methods of disposal for mortality due to avian influenza must be determined with the integrator and the state veterinarian at the time of the death.

In North Carolina, state law requires dead poultry be disposed of within 24 hours in a manner approved by the state veterinarian.

There are six main options for disposing of a mass mortality. Each has advantages and disadvantages. For example, landfill burial and rendering may not be suitable for a mass mortality due to disease.

  • Burial is quick but is not recommended in the coastal plain and where the water table is high. It can contaminate soil and water. Burial sites must be at least three feet below the ground surface, three feet above the seasonable high water table, and 300 feet away from an existing stream or public body of water.  For assistance in determining the seasonal high water table, contact your local health department or local Soil and Water Conservation District office. A record of the location of the approved site and the burial history, which includes the date, species, head count and age, must be kept by the owner and reported to the Local Health Director.  Burial sites should be disclosed if the land is later sold to avoid potential liability disaster.
  • Landfill burial is less environmentally risky but can be very expensive and may not be allowed in all areas and with some diseases. Call your county landfill to see if it accepts mass quantities of dead chickens, how much the tipping fee is per ton, and if transportation is available.
  • Rendering applies heat to carcasses to convert them into useful commercial products.  Rendering does not affect the land, but may be impractical and expensive for large numbers of birds.  Call the rendering plant nearest you (PDF) to find out the maximum number of birds they would take at a time, transportation fees, and any other costs and restrictions.
  • Composting is simple, inexpensive and biosecure. It produces a useful end-product. North Carolina recently developed a policy on alternative outdoor composting for poultry mass mortaltities (PDF) and the process for getting it approved. Call the NC State Veterinarian’s office, (919) 733-7601, to learn more.
  • Contained incineration efficiently eliminates poultry disease agents but can be expensive because of the high cost of fuel. Farmers with incinerators may be able to dispose of smaller mass mortalities by storing the dead birds on pallets in a refrigeration unit until they can be systematically incinerated. To find a refrigeration unit contact your integrator or trailer rental company.
  • A gasification unit is a contained system that uses high heat to vaporize animal carcasses. It is less harmful to the environment than incineration.  It also requires a refrigeration unit to handle mass mortalities.

By planning ahead, farmers can deal with poultry mortality in a way that is affordable, best for their land and their families, and within the law.

For more information about these options, review this Mortality Management Plan (PDF) produced by NCDA & CS, and contact the NCDA&CS Agriculture Weather Emergency Hotline directly: 1-866-645-9403. 

Why Mass Mortality Options Matter

This unlikely subject has real consequences in the lives of contract farmers. What happened to “Jack Campbell” (not his real name) in a few hours on a spring evening in 2006 suggests some of the complexities of farm contracts.

Mr. Campbell was a top poultry grower who, having raised chickens for 23 years, was looking forward to transferring his business to his son in a month or two.  The son stood ready to take over four chicken houses with a total of more than 100,000 birds.  The father was getting top pay for his birds, he had paid off mortgages for all but one grow-out house, and he had kept good relations with the contracting poultry company.

Things looked bright, and all was well when Mr. Campbell checked his flocks before going out for a few hours late one stormy afternoon.  He came back to find disaster:  about 52,000 birds lying dead in two of the houses.  He quickly determined that the ventilation system in both houses had shut down, producing ammonia gas (from chicken litter) that killed the birds in a matter of minutes.

The failures were in two houses with new, expensive computer technology, including an alarm system, to regulate ventilation and heat. Lightning struck the house and destroyed the computer system.  The electricity kept running, so the backup generator wasn’t triggered.

And thus the dire consequences for Mr. Campbell: He lost $34,000 in income for the dead birds, he was stuck with the ruined computer system, and he was left with the serious economic and environmental problem of disposing of carcasses of more than 50,000 chickens.

The company, which urged Mr. Campbell to install the computer system in the first place, denied responsibility.  In fact, it accused Mr. Campbell of setting a heat sensor too high.  (Heat records contradicted this claim.)  The company charged him for two houses’ worth of feed that he no longer needed.  And the company figured all four houses of feed into Mr. Campbell’s conversion ratio–a formula that uses the ratio of feed to pounds to help figure how much the grower is paid–with the result that his ratio, and thus his payment, plummeted.

Mr. Campbell quickly went to his company supervisor and asked about his options for disposing of 85 tons of dead birds. “You have three choices,” the supervisor said.  “You can haul the birds to the landfill, you can render them yourselves, or you can bury them.”

Each option presented problems.

The landfill would cost about $5,000, which Mr. Campbell didn’t have.  The renderer would only take one load of chickens. Mr. Campbell would have trouble mustering transportation to either one. That left burial, which had to be done quickly; it was warm and the carcasses were already undergoing the inexorable decomposition process.  Burial also has to be done according to environmental regulations.

The next morning, Jack and family and neighbors (including the family’s pastor) dug the hole and buried the birds as best they could. 

A degree of uncertainty as to environmental safety lingered because the Campbell farm is in a low-lying area with a high water table.  But they all got the job done as best they could, given the time and money they had, and given an absence of help from the poultry company.


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