By University of Maryland Extension (updated by Olivia Wood from UMD’s December 2014 article)
This article first appeared in the April 2021 Equiery
Owning an equine means you, as the owner, accept responsibility for the animal’s health and well-being. However, the time may come when your equine will suffer injury, sickness, old age, lameness, or dangerous behaviors that will result in the trying task of deciding what is best for your equine. In some cases, the kindest and most humane decision is to have the animal euthanized. Your veterinarian can guide you in deciding if euthanasia is appropriate.
Having to euthanize an equine is a topic not often discussed, so deciding when, where, and how is not easy. Making such a decision is often emotionally taxing for an equine owner.
Management and disposal of deceased animals is a normal part of raising livestock. Proper equine disposal is important whether the cause of the death was expected or unexpected.
Having a plan and the necessary information regarding on- and off-farm disposal options will help make the circumstances of disposing of an equine less stressful. In general, be sure you know the acceptable disposal options available in your county. Always check the local ordinances and with county agencies to ensure that you use proper disposal methods. If an equine carcass must be removed from the farm, it should be covered completely with a tarp during transport.
Importance of Proper Disposal of Equine Carcasses
It is important to properly dispose of an equine carcass in a timely manner for the following reasons:
• Health – the timely removal of a dead animal limits the spread of disease and prevents other animals from becoming sick.
• Environmental Protection – timely disposal protects waterways and groundwater from contamination by limiting potential toxins that may be released from a decomposing animal.
• Appearance – neighbors and the general public may find the sight of a deceased equine unappealing or even distressful, leaving a negative opinion of the equine owner’s operation and management skills.
Once an equine has died, a disposal method should be chosen that is most acceptable to the equine owner, does not spread disease, does not endanger public health and does not negatively impact the environment.
State and Local Authorities
Be sure to check with State and local authorities before selecting a disposal method as permitted disposal methods vary throughout the State. State and local agencies that may be contacted include but are not limited to:
• Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA)
• Maryland Department of Health (MDH)
• Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE)
• County Animal Control offices
In addition, it is strongly encouraged to check with county zoning prior to carcass disposal within a county or town limits. Remember, laws and regulations can change, so always double check local and state regulations before disposing of an equine carcass for any changes or updates that may have occurred.
Maryland counties generally follow State regulations pertaining to animal carcass disposal. According to the Code of Regulations (COMAR) for Maryland, disposal regulations for the State are as follows:
• 3-108 Maryland Code – When any animal is slaughtered under the provisions of the subtitle, the owner may dispose of the carcass or any part of it, the hides, and offal, pursuant to the departmental rules and regulations, and in a manner that does not tend to spread disease or endanger the public health.
• 3-109 Maryland Code – The owner of any domestic animal that has died of a contagious or infectious disease shall bury it to a depth of at least three feet or burn it within three hours before sunset of the day following the discovery of the animal.
For current information, visit the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s website www.mda.maryland.gov or contact MDA directly at 410-841-5700.
Maryland law requires disposal of a deceased equine within 48 hours of its death. If an owner or manager does not dispose of a carcass properly, the Maryland Health Department will become involved.
Here in Maryland, the following options for disposing of an equine carcass are available:
Allowing the carcass to decay in a pasture or an open area is not encouraged in Maryland. Generally, there is not enough land available away from neighbors or the public to make this a viable option for equine owners. A naturally decomposing carcass may contaminate surface and groundwater. Chemical euthanasia also poses a risk of poisoning scavenging wildlife, livestock, and pets.
Regardless of the method chosen by the equine owner or manager, the carcass must be disposed of within 48 hours according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA). MDA also specifies that any animal that died of an infectious or reportable disease must be disposed of according to MDA guidelines.
Composting is considered the most environmentally safe disposal method, providing the composting process is done correctly. Composting is cost efficient, kills pathogens, is biosecure, environmentally sound, and easily accomplished.
The composting process is carried out using specific moisture and temperature levels during set periods of time. The time required varies depending on the size of the equine. Larger animals require more time.
Composting requires carbon sources, such as woodchips or shavings. The composting site should be located in a well-drained area away from wells and other water sources. The carbon source will completely breakdown the equine carcass in addition to providing organic material that can be used as a soil amendment. Owners may use this material in planting a “memorial tree” for the deceased equine.
Composting can be done any time of the year, regardless of the size of equine. For more information on how to set up a proper composting site, scroll to the bottom of this article.
Cremation or Incineration
Incineration is the thermal destruction of a carcass by fuel such as propane or natural gas, also known as burning. While an incinerator may be installed on a farm for large animals, it is often too expensive due to the cost of natural gas and the significant amount of labor needed, especially for equine operations. This disposal method is more appropriate for small animals.
Furthermore, open-air burning of deceased animals is not recommended because of the odor and potential air pollutants. Maryland has a ban on open-air burning from June 1 to September 1 of each year for most counties.
Cremation is the same as incineration; but, the ashes of the animal are returned to the equine owner. This disposal option allows for the owner to retain a physical part of their animal and can be expensive.
If a necropsy has been performed at a Maryland Animal Health Lab, cremation is usually available. Some laboratories will cremate a deceased equine for a fee levied on a per-weight basis.
There are also a variety of private pet crematories that provide services for equines, many of which offer pick-up services. Fees will vary depending on location within the state and services requested.
Burial regulations differ throughout the State due to varying soil types. An equine cannot be buried in a wetland, floodplain, shoreline, high water table area or near a well. Check with local ordinances that may restrict or limit burial.
Due to the strict guidelines and regulations surrounding equine burial, it may be easiest to utilize the services of a private company to bury a deceased equine. Private companies that provide off-site burial services are relatively limited in the Maryland area, however.
If you wish to bury on your own property and doing so is allowed, bury the equine at a minimum depth of six feet, liming over the carcass (for pathogen reduction) before backfilling with three feet of soil. An equine must be buried so that it will not contaminate or allow leachable discharge into waterways. It is important that domestic animals and wildlife not be able to access the carcass.
It may be necessary to hire a service or rent equipment to dig a hole large and deep enough for equine burial. The cost of burial will depend on the location and availability of equipment and operators.
Necropsy and Disposal
Equine owners in Maryland can send equine carcasses to a Maryland Department of Agriculture Animal Health Lab to have a necropsy conducted. The lab will arrange for the disposal of the body.
Animal carcasses cannot be returned following a necropsy. For an additional charge however, an equine can be cremated and the ashes returned to the owner from the Frederick Animal Health Lab.
Equine End of Life Resources
For a complete and current list of equine end of life resources such as removal companies and crematories, please contact the Maryland Equine Transition Service at 410-970-6474 or visit mdequinetransition.org
Composting: An Environmentally-Friendly Method of Deceased Equine Disposal
By Olivia Wood, Equiery intern
When dealing with the loss of a beloved horse, it can be difficult to think about the logistics of properly disposing of a horse carcass. Figuring out the right option can be stressful and time consuming, especially if you live in an area with limited access to transport or cremation services. The less traditional method of composting an equine carcass may be an option for you depending on your county’s regulations and how much space you have on your property. Some larger farms in Maryland are beginning to offer composting options for horse owners who do not want to compost on their own properties.
While composting might not be the most conventional method of carcass disposal, when done properly, it can serve as an environmentally-friendly and low-cost option, making it a worthy method to consider. By composting, you are helping to facilitate an environmentally-sound method of breaking down the horse carcass while simultaneously creating a compost that can eventually be repurposed.
Breaking it Down: How to Compost
At first thought, the notion of composting an entire horse carcass may seem daunting. After all, composting is somewhat of a science. But, like any proper science project, it all starts with obtaining the right materials.
There are four key materials needed for proper composting: coarse carbon material; clean, dry wood shavings; manure mixture and, perhaps most importantly, a horse carcass.
The coarse carbon material serves as the base of the compost pile. Such a material could be playground wood chips or chopped corn stalks. This material will provide the ideal amount of airflow to the microbes that break down the horse carcass.
The wood shavings simply soak up fluid from the carcass as it is composted.
The manure mixture serves several key purposes: increasing biological activity, maintaining moisture, keeping curious wildlife away from the compost, and, ironically, controlling odor. An ideal manure mixture for composting purposes is two parts horse stall waste to one part cattle manure. Take care to ensure that the moisture level in the manure mixture is ideal. It should be just moist enough that it can be molded into a ball, but not so wet that excess liquid drips from it.
The horse carcass itself provides the nitrogen that is vital to the composting process. Make sure you remove any non-compostable objects from the horse carcass before composting such as horse shoes.
Once you have these four key components, you’re ready to begin composting.
Before starting, choose a proper site for constructing the compost pile. This site should be in a high, dry area that will not collect water and at least 200 feet from wells or any other sources of water. The area on which the compost pile will be constructed should be easily accessible and solid enough to allow for the maneuvering of equipment. Also consider general wind direction in your area and take care to place the pile out of the line of sight of neighbors and motorists.
With a proper location chosen, you are ready to begin composting. Essentially, this process is simply combining different materials with specific properties in the correct proportions.
The first step is constructing the carbon base. Using your selected coarse carbon material to create a thick base layer, about 18 to 24 inches deep. The overall size of the layer depends on the size of the carcass, but it might be anywhere from 14 to 18 feet long and 12 to 15 feet wide. Regardless, on all sides of the carcass, there should be 18 to 24 inches between the edges of the carcass and the edges of the carbon base.
Next, spread clean, dry wood shavings over the carbon base, three to four inches deep. Keep the shavings toward the center of the pile; this is where you will later lay the carcass.
Following the dry wood shavings, add a little bit of the manure mixture–just one to two inches to help aid the breakdown process from below the carcass.
With the base fully constructed, it is time to gently lay the carcass out flat on top. As long as there are 18 to 24 inches of space around all sides of the carcass, it does not matter what direction the carcass is facing.
Finally, complete the composting pile by covering the carcass with 18 to 24 inches of manure mixture. Try to create a domed peak, as this shape will help the compost pile shed rainwater. Use a probe and measuring tool to ensure the manure layer is deep enough. Once finished, the compost pile should be between five and seven feet tall.
Once the compost pile is constructed, the hard work is done. Now, you just have to make sure the compost pile does its job. Doing so means filling cracks and depressions in the pile, monitoring the pile temperature, and turning the compost pile.
Within one week of construction, depressions and cracks will form in the peak of the pile as the carcass collapses. To avoid letting the pile release odors that will attract animals, routinely check the compost pile and fill in any cracks or depressions with more manure mixture, either by raking existing mixture over or adding new.
Temperature is indicative of how well your compost pile is doing. When microbes break down the carcass in the pile, they produce heat. It is recommended to check and record compost pile temperatures daily for the first 10 days of composting, then periodically after.
In order to measure the temperature, use a 36-inch stem thermometer, and check at least two locations of the pile, one at 18 inches deep, the other at 36 inches deep. Within the first week after constructing the pile, temperatures should reach 130 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit and remain at these high temperatures for seven to 10 days.
Temperatures will also indicate when the pile is ready to be turned. Once temperatures steadily decline below 130 degrees Fahrenheit, it is time to turn the pile. The compost pile is typically at temperatures cool enough for turning seven to nine weeks after the pile has been constructed. This time frame also ensures that most of the carcass has already broken down prior to completing the turning process. Use a skid loader or small tractor to mix and fluff the pile. Then, reform the pile into a mound shape and check for any exposed bones or other parts of the carcass, taking care to cover them. After turning, the compost pile will reheat to temperatures over 130 degrees Fahrenheit once again, and further breakdown in the pile will occur. Finally, the compost pile will enter the cool phase and begin the process of curing. A week or so after turning, pile temperatures will fall below 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The pile enters the cool phase once temperatures fall below 110 degrees Fahrenheit and will remain in this phase for four to five months. Composting materials will continue to break down during this time. Once this curing process is complete, the compost will be more uniform; only some larger bones will remain.
A year after beginning the composting process, your compost pile should be odor-free and about one third of the original size. The compost can be used as carbon material for future composting, or it can be applied to the land as a soil additive.
Be sure to remove any large bones left in the compost before applying to land and be aware that, in Maryland, mortality compost may only be applied to the land on the farm where the compost was generated. Also, do not apply the mortality compost on any crops that are going to be consumed by people; stick to hay, corn, winter wheat, tree plantations, and forestland.
Another potential use for the compost is in the planting of a memorial tree for your deceased equine. This tends to be more environmentally-friendly than spreading of ashes, plus allows for a memorial spot to commemorate your horse.
The following sources were used for this article:
• “Constructing and managing a horse carcass compost pile” from the University of Minnesota Extension (https://extension.umn.edu/composting-livestock-and-poultry-carcasses/horse-carcass-compost-pile)
• “Equine Disposal Guide for Maryland Horse Owners” from the University of Maryland Extension