Ranchers across the Texas Panhandle must take care in disposing of animals killed by wildfires that ravaged almost 700,000 acres, Texas Cooperative Extension experts urged.

Brent Auvermann, an Extension waste management engineer in Amarillo, said improperly handled dead animals in large numbers are a potential threat to water and air quality, and possibly human health as well.

"They have to be disposed of with deliberate care and attention to the environment," Auvermann said.

Brad Williams, Texas Animal Health Commission area director in Amarillo, said estimates on the number of dead cattle are still being gathered, but the figure could rise as high as 10,000.

"The first thing we need ranchers to understand is they should not drag these dead cattle to the bar ditch," Williams said.

Document the number of head lost and contact county commissioners for help in burying these animals, he advised. In this situation, burying the cattle on the ranch – either in consolidated pits or individually where they lay – may be the best option, Williams said.

The key is to stay in compliance with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regulations, he said. The state environmental commission provides the following guidelines:

* The burial site should not be located in an area with a high water table or very permeable soils.

* The site should be at least 300 feet from the nearest drinking water well or from any creek, stream, pond, lake or river and not in a flood plain.

* The site should be at least 200 feet from property lines.

Eddie Vance, Environmental Quality section manager, stressed that anyone planning to bury carcasses call him in advance at (806) 468-0510 to get verbal permission. He will explain notification requirements, including a letter and deed record process.

Letters documenting the process will need to be sent to TCEQ, Box 13087, Austin, Texas, 78711-3087.

Dr. Ted McCollum, Extension livestock specialist, said another option is to work with a rendering facility, taking the carcasses to a central location for easier pickup. The other possibility is composting the carcasses, he said.

Composting might be a reasonable and potentially cost-effective alternative to incineration, burial and rendering. It may take up to three months for calves and yearlings to compost and twice that for a full-grown steer or cow, he noted.

"Still," Auvermann said, "the natural heating that goes on in a good compost pile will kill off most of the pathogens, and the end product can be applied to land as an organic fertilizer."

The catch, he warned, is a compost pile can't just be thrown together and expected to work.

"Get some help," he said. "You need the right mix of materials, a secure site away from surface water and uncapped wells, and a front-end loader, at a minimum."

For more information or guidance on building a carcass composting pile, Auvermann can be contacted at (806) 677-5600 or b-auvermann@tamu.edu .

For complete Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rules and publications on disposal of carcasses, go to www.tceq.state.tx.us or call (806) 468-0510.