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Heat Causes Pileup of Livestock Carcasses

by: OLIVIA MUNOZ    27 July 2006

Record-Setting Heat Wave Causes a Pileup of Livestock Carcasses

FRESNO, Calif. - The state's record-setting heat wave has killed thousands of dairy cows and other livestock, leaving farmers with piles of carcasses and creating a backup at factories that turn the dead animals into pet food.

A combination of sweltering temperatures, growth in the state's dominant $5 billion dairy industry and fewer plants to properly dispose of the animals have forced several counties to declare a state of emergency.

The declarations allow dead livestock to be dumped in landfills something usually outlawed because of health risks.

"But what can we do? We have to weigh the possible contamination to ground water versus piles of dead cows stinking and attracting flies," said Phil Larson, chairman of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.

The heat wave, with 10 straight days of 100-degree temperatures, brought the threat of more rolling blackouts and raised the number of suspected heat-related deaths to at least 56. Cooler weather was not expected until Wednesday.

Fresno County, which reached 113 degrees in recent days, was one of the first to declare an emergency when a plant that handles the bulk of the region's dead animals broke down earlier this month.

After the old carcasses began decomposing in the searing summer heat, county officials were forced to make the declaration the first in the county's history, Larson said.

"It wasn't any easy solution," he said. "It's not something we want to continue but we can't have piles of dead animals laying around."

Dairy farmer Brian Pacheco said he sometimes waits days before a rendering plant will pick up his dead cows.

"And when they do come, they only take the ones that died that day," said Pacheco. "I'm left with the old bodies."

Pacheco has spent thousands of dollars to build shade structures and install misters and fans in his barns to keep his cows cool, measures that have yielded higher milk production and fewer lost cattle than other area farmers.

But he said he still sees 15-20 cows die each year from the heat, and this year it could be more.

San Joaquin County, which also has declared an emergency, estimated that its dairy farms were losing a total of 120 cows per day from the heat. Individual dairy farmers could lose about 2 percent of their herd this year, according to industry experts. Hundreds of thousands of chickens and turkeys also have died.

The state Environmental Protection Agency issued guidelines earlier this month for farmers stuck with dead livestock.

Farmers can have them hauled to a landfill by licensed handlers or compost their animals on their property by burying them in manure, which is common in other states.

Usually, farmers in California take their dead animals to rendering plants, but many have closed amid odor complaints from growing communities nearby, accusations by environmentalists and lawsuits stemming from improper disposal.