Recycling farm waste materials: from dead animals to scrap metal

A large amount of old machinery is stored on farms and is now being sought for recycling due to the current high prices for scrap metal.

Recycling on the farm, be it a family-run operation or a corporate enterprise, has always been a reality in terms of protection of the land and to maximize economic output.

While nearly 70 percent of the State of Kansas’ population lives in urban areas, the bulk of the state’s revenues are generated by agriculture, primarily through wheat and corn production, as well as the raising of cattle and swine and dairy production. These various agricultural sectors generate various types of waste that are recycled and are subject to a variety of regulations and requirements.

With the growth in the production of ethanol for fuel, the crops, as well as the leftover vegetation, is sought and purchased by the ethanol industry. The agricultural debris is also used by farmers as ground cover, as well as used by manufacturers as an ingredient for various products.

Dealing with the carcasses of slaughtered animals (including those that died naturally) and the manure that those animals generated, is of prime importance to various state agencies and to the farmers themselves. The key is to prevent these materials from leaching into the water table and contaminating the soil.

“In Kansas there are several things that help,” says Ken Powell, an environmental scientist with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s Bureau of Waste Management. “For carcasses, we still have a good rendering system. There are several renderers that will take the dead animals as long as they are in good shape. The system probably takes 90 percent plus of the dead animals.

“For the other 10 percent, some go for composting,” he adds. “We like the composting part of it, especially for swine operations. A lot of them go into composting and they can do it on the site, and real fast. If it is done right, it is very environmentally sound.”

Regulation KAR-28-29-25D regulates the composting of dead animals, while KAR-28-29-25C regulates the composting of manure. There are also regulations regarding composting of other organic materials – what can be used, how it is done and where the operations can be sited.

Every February, Powell organizes and leads two regional training sessions, accompanied by composting experts, that address farmers to provide them with information on how to compost correctly.

“We found that strategy to be effective and even more effective than having regulations in place,” he says. “When you train them how to do it right, you end up with a better operation. We make sure that it gets handled correctly from an environmental standpoint.”

Powell, whose specialization is composting, also does some on-site visits to individual farms to help get composting operations in place.

In 2007, compost-generated leaves and grass and various yard wastes – collected in cities and counties – reached the 80,000 tons plus level. Records are not kept for compost generated by the agricultural sector.

“I just know from the farms that I dealt with that we are probably over 80,000 tons of manure and dead animal composting,” says Powell, who notes that every ton of compost generated naturally by recycling reduces the amount of chemically and fuel-based fertilizers that are imported into the state.

This also reduces green house gas emissions in terms of production of fertilizers and the transportation of those fertilizers to farms.

Rendering ensures that carcasses are recycling and 90 percent of the material generated by renderers is used to create meat and bone meal, which is used for livestock feed and goes into dog and cat food products.

“We still sell a lot of this feed to overseas markets, with much of it going into poultry and swine feeding,” says Powell. “It’s a high quality protein.”

The blood is converted to blood meal, which is used for fertilizer production.

Renderers generally collect the carcasses (dead, weak or old animals) from farms and when processed, are placed in a pressure cooker that is employed to reclaim the protein and other materials.

Most of the large meat packing plants also operate their own rendering operations. Smaller packing plants, of which there are many, send the bones, offal and hides to rendering plants. The hides, depending on how they are treated, are valuable and many of them are shipped overseas.

Powell stresses that farmers and the agricultural community in general, have always practiced recycling – using what they can to maximize revenues in processes and procedures that make economic sense.

“That is where we end up looking at composting,” he says. “We do have on-site burial of animals, but we don’t like to see that. It’s a pretty small number and simply done because it is the most economical measure.”

The KDHE’s Bureau of Water is behind much of the regulations regarding the use of manure on fields and how composting is done and where such operations can be located. The regulations are designed to ensure that the spraying of manure is based on the principle that the plants consume whatever is sprayed (based on agronomic rates) and that there are no leftover materials that could potentially contaminate the water table by seeping into the water table or flow into open pipes, streams or rivers.

“Manure has nitrate and if you put too much nitrate on, then you end up with your wells being contaminated, blue baby syndrome and other health hazards that can effect seniors and adults,” says Powell.

Due to the increasing price of scrap metal, scrap dealers are now actively seeking material from rural states such as Kansas, seeking old machinery that can be found on many farms.

“There is a tremendous amount of old machinery that gets generated on these farms and now that scrap iron prices are going up,” says Powell, “I’m seeing a lot of it disappear. That’s a good thing. It gets it out of the pastures. My folks, who have a farm, have decades of old machinery and are actually talking about having someone come in and clean it all up.”

He adds that this material should be recycled and that more and more scrap dealers are visiting farm country in search of metal.

Rodney Ferguson, public service executive of the KDHE’s Waste Reduction, Public Education, and Grants Unit, appreciates the efforts of farmers to recycle their agricultural waste.

“It is often said that the farmer is the best steward of the land,” he says. “There is a quality there that has been passed from generation to generation that you have to take care of the land. That would include off-farm activities such as recycling household materials.”