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Doing the Sad, Right Thing

Published: 12/29/2010
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By Maddy B. Gray

According to state law, horses and other large animals should be composted above ground to avoid ground water contamination.
State veterinarian Dr. Beth McEvoy passed along these guidelines after a recent Maine Equine Welfare Alliance meeting.
No one likes to address unfortunate tasks, but here goes:
General recommendations for disposal of horse carcasses by composting with manure and bedding mix in accordance with  Maine Department of Agriculture Rules:

Traditionally, Maine horse owners experiencing the unfortunate necessity of needing a means to dispose of the body of a horse have turned to burial as the method most commonly used. However, given the difficulties of preparing a hole in frozen ground in winter, or finding a site that is not soggy and waterlogged spring or fall, it may be helpful to horse owners to know that there is an alternative to burial that is a legal and effective means by which to dispose of a carcass.

The Maine Department of Agriculture and University of Maine Extension have done extensive research on composting large animal carcasses.

Guidelines have been developed to be used by persons with no field training or practical experience in the location and/or development of animal carcass composting sites or plans.
It is important to note that if a reportable contagious disease is suspected, immediately contact the Department of Agriculture at 287-1132 before undertaking any disposal actions. Any diagnostic sampling needs to be performed while the carcass is fresh, before it is buried or covered in composting material.

Selecting a site for composting an equine carcass:

The location selected for composting a horse carcass needs to be a site which is not in the path of significant surface water run off and is not low or wet, or close to the water table.

Barnyard – Evaluate the location of your current manure storage area. If this site is free of runoff, and fairly dry most of the time, it may be possible to create a compost pile near the existing pile and minimize the need to transport composting materials over a distance.
It is ideal if the pile is constructed on a concrete or asphalt pad or even under a roof to protect from run off, but not essential.

Field –If you want to build your compost pile in a field
•    Choose a site which is on a knoll or high position in the landscape so that the soil does not have a high water table and does not receive much runoff. Sites which are mostly low and wet with only small knolls should be avoided
•    Choose a site with at least two feet of soil between the bottom of the manure compost and bedrock below.  If the soil layer is too thin, or if the pile is constructed on a sand or gravel base, the leachate from the pile will drain too quickly into the water table, with out the cleansing effect of filtering through the soil.
•    The composting site should be on a fairly level site.  Slopes between two and four percent are ideal.  It should not be on a site which exceeds five percent slope.

Caution should be used when selecting a field composting site if in close proximity to a year round body of water, a seasonal waterbody, private water supplies belonging to you or  neighbors, public water supplies (well, lakes, rivers, springs), residences, diversion ditches, or 100 Year Flood Plain. 
The recommended feet of setback varies with the feature close to your site and direction of the slope of the land from your pile to the feature. Generally, if there is any sort of water or well close to the site, it would be a good idea to consult with the Department of Agriculture or a trained professional for guidance.

Procedure for building a carcass compost pile:
1.  Select a suitable site for the composting activity as outlined above.
2.  Place a minimum of 18 inches of manure/bedding mix on the ground or pad so that it extends a minimum of 24 inches beyond the carcass in all directions.
Fortunately, horse manure with shavings or sawdust is an ideal material for composting. Use fresh manure/bedding mix if possible, as it has the highest content of nitrogen from urine and will not have undergone any significant composting before being used.

3.  Place the carcass on the manure/bedding mix in the center of the prepared area.
It will greatly facilitate the composting process if you can make a few holes through the skin of the abdomen to let air escape.

4.  Cover the carcass with a minimum of 24 inches of manure/bedding mix.

5.  After the initial composting procedure is complete (generally 12 to 15 weeks for horses) the compost may be turned and allowed to cure.  It may be utilized in about 6 months.

A well-constructed carcass compost pile will have little odor and should protect the carcass from being disturbed by predators. After the first few days, recheck the pile and place more manure/bedding on the pile if you note any collapsed or disturbed areas.

If your horse was euthanized by injection of a lethal solution, you may be concerned that this substance will persist and later cause harm to other horses or wildlife when the compost is spread on crop fields. Initial trials done at Highmoor Farm by Maine's compost team show that the solution is destroyed in the process of composting.

View Reader Comments:

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1/2/2011 Ann
Thanks for this interesting information. It's a sad reality that many folks do not have the money it takes to have a back hoe come in to prepare a burial site, or the land on which to dig. Composting makes perfect sense and is a great option. Thanks for this post!
1/2/2011 Deb
leave it to the state to come up with this stupid thing this does not work the stench will will be so bad that cyotees will be digging at the pile and draging it all over the place kids will be seeing parts of there beloved horse all over the place thanks but no thanks I will continue to to dig a hole.
1/7/2011 Bill Seekins
I wanted to clarify one thing that appears in the article about composting a horse carcass. The State of Maine Carcass Disposal Rules (Ch 211) do allow burial of carcasses. It is the policy of the Department of Agriculture, however, to encourage composting instead of burial where ever possible. Composting is a more environmentally friendly disposal approach that actually yields a useful product when done properly.
3/16/2012 Rick
12 to 15 weeks would indicated that the compost pile contains a lot of manure and is very hot. Some bones may still be in the pile. Any carcass, animal, bird, fish, etc. can be composted along with anything else that is biodegradable.
6/8/2012 J. Drew
We chose to compost our horse last month and, despite the apprehension, it turned out to be simple and effective. You must follow protocol and know a thing or two about managing compost effectively. When done properly, there will be perhaps a slight odor for a few days a couple of days following and then nothing. If you manage and watch the pile you shouldn't have to worry about "parts of your beloved horse all over the place". It is a good environmentally friendly option. We will be using our beloved Bardot's rich hummus to fertilize one of her favorite things on this trees.
7/31/2014 Kristen
I need to put my horse down this fall. Who can I contact to help choose the best location on our property to do this so it does not affect water?

"In the language of the range, to say that somebody is "as smart as a cutting horse" is to say that he is smarter than a Philadelphia lawyer,smarter than a steel trap, smarter than a coyote, smarter than a Harvard graduate - all combined. There just can't be anything smarter than a smart cutting horse. He can do everything but talk Meskin - and he understands that." - Joe M. Evans, A Corral Full of Stories