Nancy's Almanac, Oct. 26-28, 2013: Weather, terrain complicate disposal of dead cattle -
Published Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 12:17 am
Nancy's Almanac, Oct. 26-28, 2013: Weather, terrain complicate disposal of dead cattle

The misery that was the massive die-off of cattle during early October's blizzard continued after the cattle died.

A gruesome problem unfolded for individual ranchers: What to do with dozens to hundreds of cow and calf carcasses scattered across miles of pasture or piled in groups in ponds, ravines and against fences?

More than 2,200 cattle died in northwest Nebraska, and many thousands more died in South Dakota. Estimates for that state range from 15,000 to 30,000.

Generally speaking, there are three sanctioned disposal methods: rendering, composting and burial.

Disposal would have been simple if all ranchers had to do was bring in a rendering truck or dig a hole for burial.

Nothing has been simple about this mass cattle death.

This is a region of Nebraska where the soil turns quicksand-like when it gets wet — the local name for it is gumbo.

The storm, first as rain and then as snow, dumped a month's worth of moisture in just a few days. After the storm moved on and the muck began drying out, another storm moved through. Several days later, another.

Depending on where a ranch is located, more than three times the normal month-to-date precipitation has fallen. Another rain-snow mix is possible in the coming week.

Driving rendering trucks deep into pastures hasn't been realistic, unless the pastures were in an area where the ground was navigable. Hauling the bodies to waiting trucks hasn't been easy, either. In some cases, it's been impossible.

Still, in cases where it has been possible, ranchers have sent the carcasses to rendering plants.

Then there's the burial option. That's not easy either.

Northwest Nebraska has a thin layer of soil that sits atop an otherwise rocky subsurface. Digging into that rock is difficult.

That's one reason state and local governments have joined forces to offer an alternative.

Charles Gidley, supervisor of the solid waste section for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, said the state has allowed the Solid Waste Association of Northwest Nebraska to dig a trench at its landfill near Chadron and make it available to ranchers. So far, the landfill, run by a coalition of local governments, has seen little traffic, Gidley said.

The USDA has announced a special program to help pay the cost of disposal, which would give ranchers some extra cash to bury carcasses on their ranches or get them to the landfill.

Shaun Vickers, state resource conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, said signup for that program should be done through local conservation service offices, and signups are due by Nov. 15.

To a large extent, ranchers have been digging burial pits where possible.

Gidley said the state requires that 10 feet separate the bottom of a burial pit from the top of the water table. Also, the dead animals must be covered by 4 feet of dirt.

Properly buried cattle are not considered a threat to water quality, Gidley said.

“Most of the groundwater up there is very deep and inaccessible,” he said. “And it's of poor quality.”

The other accepted solution, composting, generally hasn't been an option, simply because it's getting late in the year.

Legally, ranchers can't leave carcasses scattered about to deteriorate naturally. But given the difficult conditions, the vastness of the area and the scope of the problem, that is what some ranchers have had to do.

The carcasses are being scavenged by coyotes, vultures and similar animals.

Gidley said the state is aware of the difficulties ranchers are facing.

“We understand that some of the carcasses could be difficult to recover,” he said. But given what the law stipulates, he added that the state's advice for ranchers is that they bury or bring to the landfill those carcasses they can reach.

Gidley said the state has no plans for additional water quality monitoring or proactive inspections of the area.

The state will respond to complaints.

As of late this past week, a single complaint had been made — that a group of dead cattle were piled together near a road. The state, he said, is working with that rancher to dispose of the carcasses.

Current conditions and forecast

Contact the writer: Nancy Gaarder    |   402-444-1102    |  

Nancy writes about weather, including a blog, Nancy's Almanac. She enjoys explaining the science behind weather and making weather stories relevant in daily life.

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