Killer heat on dairy farms? South valley struggles with issues Modesto faced in 2006

by John Holland Modesto News

Dairy cattle in the Northern San Joaquin Valley survived last month’s extreme heat, unlike hundreds to the south.

The deaths in Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties were compounded by a temporary drop in capacity at one of the rendering plants that take in the carcasses. Farmers got permission to bury or compost the animals on site as an emergency measure.

Temperatures approached 110 degrees over several days in mid-June, but the heat wave was not as bad as a 2006 emergency. About 3,000 dairy animals died then in Stanislaus County alone, and there was a problem with rendering capacity because Modesto Tallow Co. had just closed.

Nothing unusual was reported from the latest scorcher, said Daniel Bernaciak, assistant agricultural commissioner for the county.

And rendering capacity is better than 2006 for north valley farmers, said Anja Raudabaugh, chief executive officer at Western United Dairymen, based in Modesto. She cited plants in Crows Landing, Ripon and Sacramento that take dead animals from the region.

Renderers accept various farm animals and restaurant grease and turn the waste into raw material for textiles, soap, ink, glue, pet food and many other products.

Fresno, Kings and Tulare have had a harder time this year because Baker Commodities in Kerman could not handle the volume of dead animals. A mechanical malfunction at the plant contributed to the overload.

Wayne Fox, division manager of environmental health at Fresno County Department of Public Health, said Baker normally processes about 1 million pounds of animal flesh a day. Board of Supervisors Chairman Brian Pacheco, who is a dairy farmer, said Baker had ratcheted up its capacity to 1.5 million pounds per day before a daylong machinery malfunction significantly slowed the rendering process.

“They’ve worked through it, but they have been getting further and further behind,” Pacheco said.

Once the animals decompose to a certain point, they can’t be rendered, Pacheco said.

Because of the excess carcasses, Baker stopped picking up on Wednesday from local farms, leaving farmers without a place to send their dead animals.

“I am aware that we had an extremely hot spell that led to a very high mortality rate and it did exceed our capacity,” said Jimmy Andreoli II, assistant vice president, public relations/corporate procurement for Baker Commodities in Southern California.

To handle the problem, the counties had to take the unusual step of giving dairies permission to bury or compost the animals on site under a strict set of temporary rules outlined by state water and agricultural agencies.

Valley dairy farmers try to protect their cows every summer with fans, water sprays and other measures against severe heat. This sometimes is not enough, especially when nights do not cool to the 70s, allowing the animals to recover.

Fresno Bee staff writers Robert Rodriguez, Barbara Anderson and Marc Benjamin contributed to this report.