Emergency Management Planning for Livestock Operations

By: Amy Millmier Schmidt, Livestock Bioenvironmental Engineer

By now, we’ve all seen the pictures and heard the tragic stories of lost livestock from the recent blizzard in the northern Great Plains. While dealing with significant economic losses, ranchers were also faced with disposal of the many animals that they lost. Few options exist when a catastrophic livestock loss occurs, as often resources are not readily available to handle the very large quantity of mortalities. Obviously, producers hope to never have a catastrophic loss due to weather or other circumstances, but recent events remind us of this unfortunate reality. The question becomes, “How do you prepare for a disaster?” and, unfortunately, you can’t always plan for these events. However, emergency management planning can provide the necessary information for rapidly responding to such an event.

Beef quality assurance (BQA) training includes disaster planning and emergency management, but not all producers implement these tools. A 2011 survey by the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) revealed that nearly half of all feedlots did not have a written contingency plan for feeding and watering livestock in response to a utility outage. Larger operations were more likely to have a plan in place, but there were still a large percentage of operations without such a plan.

With the severe winter weather experienced recently, a significant issue has been disposal of animal carcasses. Burial pits have been established for many of the mortalities, but composting is also an acceptable disposal method. In ideal conditions, compost pile design for livestock involves placing an absorbent layer of material – such as a mixture of wood shavings, spoiled feed, and manure – on the ground to a depth of about 24 inches, laying the animal(s) on the base, and covering all parts of the animal(s) with an additional 24 inches of material. With the recent catastrophic losses from cold weather, the general rule has been that “something is better than nothing” for constructing a compost pile. If straw or hay is the only material available and animals cannot be moved easily to create a single large compost pile, then composting in place can be done by simply covering each animal with up to 36 inches of material to retain heat created by bacterial decomposition.

Ideally, we hope to not see Nebraska producers faced with major on-farm disasters. However, it’s better to have a plan in place that you never have to use than to not have a plan at all when one is needed. One thing to remember is that a plan should be written down so that it is accessible to all employees if needed. The plan should be kept in a safe, fireproof, quickly-accessible place and each member of the farm family should know how to implement the plan if it becomes necessary. Details contained in the plan will vary according to the potential disasters that could affect the farm, and can include responses to tornadoes, fire, power outage, and severe weather.

An Emergency Action Information form is available from the BQA program at: http://go.unl.edu/psw3 and additional planning resources for catastrophic mortality disposal can be found on the Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center’s (LPELC) Livestock and Poultry Mortality Composting site at http://www.extension.org/pages/28022/livestock-and-poultry-mortality-composting#.UmaBxhbIbXw.