Among the challenges facing North Carolina after Hurricane Florence was how to deal with 4.2 million dead chickens and turkeys that drowned in flooded poultry houses throughout the southeastern part of the state.
The solution the state Department of Agriculture came up with has resulted in tons of fertilizer for farmers to spread on their fields in advance of planting this spring.
Most of those dead birds were mixed with wood chips and sawdust and composted, either in the long houses where they died or more commonly in long rows outside nearby.
The basic concept behind using micro-organisms to break down organic material is familiar to anyone with a backyard compost pile. But this had to be done on a scale and with a precision that gardeners would find daunting.
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About 238 poultry houses were flooded after Hurricane Florence, including 179 that weren’t in previously identified flood plains, said John Howard, the emergency programs director for the agriculture department. The death toll was a small fraction of the 255 million chickens and turkeys living in North Carolina at the time, but for the farmers affected, it was a big deal.
“Dealing with 4 million dead anything is a sizable job,” Howard told the State Emergency Response Commission last month.
Less pricey than landfills
Only one of Jamie Rogers’ three poultry houses in Duplin County flooded after Florence, but that still left him with 7,500 to 8,000 dead chickens buried in mud and water. As the days went by, Rogers said the question of what to do with them felt like “an elephant sitting on your shoulder and your chest.”
“We were thinking we were gonna have to bury them on the farm somewhere — find a hole that we could dig that wasn’t wet or full of water,” said Rogers, a third-generation poultry farmer who is also Beulaville’s chief of police.
Finding a place to bury thousands of chickens would be difficult on a good day in Eastern North Carolina, where groundwater is relatively close to the surface; it’s even tougher after a hurricane has left the ground saturated. Other options, such as incineration or trucking the birds to landfills, are expensive, particularly for small farmers such as Rogers.
Rogers said about two weeks after the storm, someone from Case Farms, the company for which he raises birds, asked if he’d be interested in the state program.
“Then these people come down and say ‘We’re here to help, and it’s not going to cost you a dime because the state is going to take care of it,’” he said.
Howard said composting most of the 4.2 million birds cost about $12.6 million, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency paying about $9.4 million and the rest coming from the state. He said state officials estimate that hauling those birds to landfills would have cost about $37 million.
2,000 truckloads of wood chips and sawdust
Much of the composting cost came from buying and trucking in 2,000 tractor-trailer loads of woody material to mix with the birds, which in most cases were still mired in a watery mass.
“It’s kind of like soup,” Howard said. “You have to add in carbon material to make it more like oatmeal so you can move it.”
Contractors working under the agriculture department’s supervision then carefully layered the woody material around the mixture in long rows, with chips as large as two inches on the outside and the finest sawdust closest to the birds, said Joe Reardon, the agriculture department’s assistant commissioner for consumer protection.
Big thermometers were then pushed into the piles every few days to look for signs that heat-loving microbes were feasting on the mixture. A consistent temperature of 131 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit meant the process was working and that pathogens would not likely survive.
The content of the piles was then tested to determine the levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients, so farmers could figure out where and at what rate to apply it to their fields, Reardon said.
The whole process generally took 2 to 4 weeks, he said.
Rogers had six rows of composting birds, 40 to 50 yards long. He said they looked like piles of mulch, without any offensive smell.
“You didn’t even know that there was dead birds around,” he said. “They told me after 14 days that it had cooked, and it was free for me to do with it what I wanted.”
Rogers says he spread the compost on about 70 acres that he then planted in wheat. He’ll plant those same fields in either corn or soybeans this spring and says he saved thousands on fertilizer this year. And getting the dead birds out of the flooded house meant he was able to get it cleaned and disinfected and restocked with young chickens a couple of days before Christmas.
The concept of composting dead farm animals is not new. Mark J. Rice, an extension specialist with N.C. State University, said extension agents demonstrated the benefits of composting back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when farmers were worried about the cost of incineration or rendering. Many farmers handle the small number of animals that die each day through composting, which must be done under cover and on an impervious surface, Rice said.
“Routinely on a small scale, both swine and poultry producers do this every day,” he said.
North Carolina officials saw animal composting done on a large scale following a bird flu outbreak in the Midwest in 2015. They tried it here for the first time the following year after Hurricane Matthew killed an estimated 1.8 million chickens and turkeys.
That process took several months. This time, Howard and Reardon said, the agriculture department was more organized and able to hire contractors and bring in woody material faster, so that it took only 35 days to begin composting twice as many dead birds.
And in both cases FEMA chipped in 75 percent of the cost, the only times that agency has helped pay for composting animals killed in a natural disaster, Reardon said.
“What we’re doing sets a national precedent,” he said. “So we’re really proud.”