Livestock mortality rates have spiked in the Central Valley this hot summer but Kern officials say local dairies and ranches have avoided a carcass-disposal crisis thanks to proactive landfill permitting policies and relatively low reliance on distant rendering plants.
County landfills have so far been able to accommodate an increase in carcasses one facility estimated at 10 percent, officials say, adding they were unaware of any delays in the removal and disposal of local dead livestock.
A recent research report indicates other parts of the state are having a harder time lately as rendering plants have strained to keep up with cow mortalities. Carcasses left to decompose too long are becoming ineligible for rendering, and with other counties short on landfill options, the state is allowing producers to compost the remains on site for up to six months.
FLEXIBILITY BUILT IN
But Kern's relatively robust landfill system has been designed to handle a variety of waste in relatively large volumes. County-owned and operated to serve public interests, local disposal sites are permitted to offer maximum flexibility for times like these, officials say.
"Essentially, they have approval ahead of time" to accept waste including dairy cow carcasses, said Jeffrey Marshall, chief of the solid waste program of the Kern County Public Health Services Department's environmental health division.
State ag officials do not track livestock disposal data and they were unable to say how many cows have died in the recent heat. But they said communications with dairies and ranches suggest this summer's die-offs have been no worse than the average.
Still, an Aug. 21 advisory from the California Dairy Research Foundation said an unusually intense, protracted heat event has strained the state's rendering capacity. Some dairy producers have carcasses that sat around too long to be rendered and as a result probably can't be retrieved by dead-animal haulers.
The situation has been exacerbated by mechanical issues at one rendering plant and another that closed temporarily because of wildfire smoke. It noted that all three California rendering companies have made adjustments including diverting non-carcass material to other plants and increasing the frequency of pickup routes.
More cows probably would be dying if not for dairies' improved efforts to keep their cows cool. Modern heat management plans involve the use of sprinklers, misters, shade and fans.
Livestock nevertheless die in significant numbers every summer, mostly the very young and very old. What's less common is for large numbers of cows to die so late in the summer after the animals have acclimatized.
The preferred disposal method from an environmental perspective is to have it rendered into products such as pet food. Although that's typically what happens to dead cows in the Central Valley, the state has few rendering plants and there's little margin for jumps in intake volume.
Also, mechanical issues at rendering plants can cause backups requiring local governments to take emergency measures, as happened in February when dairies with nowhere else to put their dead were permitted to bury carcasses on site temporarily.
On-site burials at dairies are considered the worst disposal option because of the threat to groundwater quality. For that reason many permitting decisions on the subject are left to regional water quality regulators.
County officials said they have learned from historical calamities in which cow die-offs spread disease, vector problems and unsanitary conditions that threatened the health of herds and humans alike. They said the most important thing is to isolate carcasses and dispose of them as quickly as possible.
Another key lesson they pointed to was the preferability of keeping landfill disposal a practical option. Kern has seven landfills permitted to accept dead animals; most of these facilities are lined for groundwater protection.
Neighboring counties to the north have far fewer landfills permitted to accept dead animals. These operations are typically privately owned as opposed to being public assets.
The main rendering plant serving Kern County dairies and ranches is in Kerman, Baker Commodities. That's a nearly two-hour drive from Bakersfield, and although Baker generally does pickups in Kern, the transportation charge can make local landfill disposal an attractive option.
"That's a business decision they're making on their own," said Terence Dozier, a site engineer at the Bena Landfill, a more than 2,200-acre disposal facility in Edison that takes in an average of about 2,000 tons of municipal refuse daily Monday through Friday.
He said the landfill has suffered no adverse effects from a roughly 10 percent recent uptick in dead cow deliveries to 30 or more per day.
The facility receives the carcasses in the morning and takes in enough refuse during the rest of the day, Dozier said, that it is able to meet requirements for burying the bodies in other material.
He estimated that dairies in other counties send roughly 90 percent of their dead cows to Baker Commodities in Kerman. But in Kern the rate of carcasses disposed of at rendering plants is roughly half that, he said.
An official at the California Department of Food and Agriculture said one of the biggest concerns these days is disposing cow carcasses quickly in the heat.
"Basically, the hotter it gets, the shorter the window for handling remains via rendering," the department said by email.
It said no single solution fits all California's dairy-producing counties but that it's preference is for increasing rendering capacity statewide, which it described as uncomfortably tight.
"Ultimately, we believe rendering capacity should be expanded, and that financially incentivizing livestock end-of-life best-practice management should be explored," the department wrote.