Composting Dead Chickens Is An Economical Way To Deal With Disposal

Published: November 26 1996

Category:Agriculture, Research

GAINESVILLE—In an effort to stay ahead of environmental rules that may prohibit burying dead birds, Florida poultry farmers soon may turn to composting the thousands of birds that die daily in chicken houses.

They also may find the compost becomes a valuable commodity, says Roger Jacobs, a University of Florida poultry specialist who conducted a two-year study on the feasibility of composting the birds.

“The soft tissue disappears in four to seven days,” said Jacobs. “In 30 days, all you’ll find is some bone particles. Under aerobic conditions, the pile gets up to 170 degrees. They’re really cooking in there as the microbes break down the tissues and give off heat.

“This compost was one of the best-kept secrets around.”

The poultry industry pumps $300 million to $400 million a year into Florida’s economy, and on poultry farms statewide there are about 10 million birds. Of those about one-half to three-quarters of 1 percent die monthly of natural death, creating a huge disposal problem, said Jacobs, who works at the Hillsborough County Cooperative Extension, a part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

While farmers have been burying the birds on their farms, environmental officials are beginning to question that disposal method because of its potential to contaminate ground and surface water, Jacobs said.

In looking at alternatives, Jacobs and his colleagues decided to try composting. With a grant from the Florida Poultry Federation and assistance from Tampa Farm Service in Hillsborough County, he put the dead chickens into a bin and added yard waste for bulk and air flow. The material started out at 50 percent chickens by weight, he said. It ended up as a rich, fertile soil.

Jacobs said he found the process efficient, sanitary and economical.

The final material, after seasoning, is dry and odorless and contains 2 to 3 percent nitrogen, along with other nutrients suitable for growing plants. The compost is as good as any organic fertilizer on the market, especially for back yard gardens, Jacobs said.

Jacobs was prompted to try his experiment after rumblings that Florida might follow the lead of other states with large poultry industries and ban burial or incineration of the dead birds.

William Jeter, of the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Division of Animal Industry, says that’s a good possibility. The state Department of Environmental Protection currently is revising rules for waste management at animal operations such as dairy, swine and poultry facilities.

Composting, he says, is an economically feasible and environmentally sound alternative for disposal of dead birds and manure.

Mark Bardolph, who works at DEP in regulatory programs for animal waste management, agrees, although he points out that no rule changes are immediately contemplated. He says composting also avoids other possible problems.

“Burying the dead birds in a trench creates the potential for problems from an environmental nuisance and ground water quality standpoint,” Bardolph says. “Dogs and coyotes can dig up the buried chickens, and the trench disposal method creates the potential for ground water contamination with bacteria.

“The earthen pits end up with a bacteria soup.”

Composting has the added advantage of recovering the nutritive value of the carcasses for use in fertilizing plants, Bardolph said.

“There are other methods for disposal, but composting compares favorably from a cost and manpower standpoint and the recovery of value from the carcasses,” Bardolph said. “Environmentally, composting is the best way of disposing of the dead birds.”

Jacobs said composting can help work with poultry operations’ considerable manure problems, too.

“Five to six years ago we were talking about the survival of the poultry industry because of the manure disposal problem. If rules change and disposal of the dead birds becomes a problem, too, it could have a severe impact on poultry operations,” Jacobs said. “But composting is a good way to deal with both problems.”


Cindy Spence

Category:Agriculture, Research