Thousands of animals died on Sumas Prairie. This is what happened to them.

More than 630,000 animals died in the flooding on Sumas Prairie. With too many to bury, they all had to go somewhere. This is what happened.

By Grace Kennedy | December 10, 2021 |6:15 am

This story discusses the flooding’s toll on animals and the disposal of their remains. It is not particularly graphic but could be distressing for some. If you are experiencing distress related to the flooding disaster, you can call the BC crisis centre for mental health support at 310-6789 . AgSafe also has resources for farmers specifically, including counselling.


Drive through rural Abbotsford, and you will see a barn. It might be a dairy barn, with cows lowing in their stalls. It might be a hog barn, where piglets suckle from their 300-pound mothers. Or it might be a poultry barn, where laying hens produce eggs for market and broilers are reared for slaughter.

Millions of animals live on Sumas Prairie, where flooding from the Nooksack River drowned farmland in several feet of water. And although individual farmers braved freezing water to save livestock, thousands of animals died during the three-week disaster.

The losses were massive, even if they were a small proportion of all the animals in the area. Officials believe around 628,000 chickens and turkeys died, as did 12,000 pigs and 428 dairy cows. For farmers, it was a massive financial and emotional loss. And though it paled in comparison to those impacts, the clean-up also posed a logistical challenge.

With so many animals killed by the floods, how were farmers going to safely remove them from their properties? And once that happened, how were they going to dispose of them?

Doug Davidson was ready when he got the call.

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Davidson is the manager of operations for West Coast Reduction—a rather unique business in the agriculture industry. The company has been around for 50 years, turning inedible animal parts into livestock feed, fertilizer components, detergent ingredients, and biofuel—or rendering as it’s called in the industry. The company typically partners with farmers, slaughterhouses, and supermarkets to recycle inedible animal byproducts into something useful, making sure none of the animal goes to waste.

As the only rendering plant in BC, West Coast Reduction works with municipalities and the province to figure out how to handle mass animal casualties, like what happened in the Sumas Prairie floods. In the early 2000s, it helped dispose of bird carcasses from the Fraser Valley’s avian flu outbreak; when food processing and poultry facilities had to close due to COVID, it helped those plants handle their products. But they had never been part of a disaster quite like this one.

“In the past, we’ve done it on smaller scales, but… never on a scale that’s all encompassing like this,” Davidson said. “You’re not [typically] losing a whole bunch of land.”

On Nov. 14, heavy rains pounded the Fraser Valley and caused flooding and landslides. Water that had spilled north from the Nooksack River flowed into Canada and began drowning Sumas Prairie and its animals. The dike failed in Abbotsford, threatening Barrowtown Pump Station. The following day, West Coast Reduction got a call from BC Agriculture.

“Because of the nature of the material that we handle day to day, we’re quite nimble when it comes to responding to things like this,” said Jared Girman, West Coast Reduction’s director of government relations and strategic initiatives. “You have to be.”

By Monday, Dec. 6, just four days after the province said “advance planning” was underway, the last known carcass had been removed from Sumas Prairie. (With some areas still flooded, there was still no way to know if more animals had died in the flooding and would need to be removed.)

There was just one problem: West Coast Reduction couldn’t process the bodies.

How they did it

West Coast Reduction has two main plants for handling dead animals from the Lower Mainland. The first is in Vancouver, where the company takes poultry, pigs, and fish, breaks them down into their component parts for meal, tallow, and fat. The second is in Calgary, where another plant handles all things bovine. It’s a time-sensitive business. Wait too long, and the raw material is no longer fresh. Even inedible meat has an expiry date.

West Coast Reduction’s Vancouver plant, where they render and process poultry, pigs, and fish. 📸 West Coast Reduction

“Unfortunately, in this instance, much of those losses happened and we weren’t given access for two to three weeks now,” Davidson said. “I drove the prairie yesterday, actually. It’s really sad, everything is basically polluted. So the livestock losses in those farms and on those farms was of the same nature. It was extremely polluted, no longer considered fresh.”

Instead of delivering the pig and poultry to their Vancouver plant, West Coast Reduction set up a transfer station on Sumas Way—the “stockyard” as Davidson called it—to handle the bodies coming out of the prairie. Burial isn’t an option for so many animals because of the region’s high water table, high rainfall levels, and dense population. It’s also not the best way to get the most use out of the bodies, which West Coast Reduction was still hoping to do, despite the disaster. They opted instead for compost.

Animal-based compost isn’t new. You can buy fish compost at Canadian Tire and Home Depot. Compost containing other species isn’t much different. You surround the carcass with a bunch of carbon-rich material like sawdust and wood shavings, and then you wait. West Coast Reduction delivered the majority of the hogs to a number of local companies to compost—”you don’t want to overwhelm one group with something like this,” Girman said. BC chicken associations helped coordinate the composting of the 628,000 poultry birds.

(The Current was told the hundred dead turkeys that fell off a truck on Highway 99 in November were being trucked to a composting facility near Pemberton.)

There was some good news. The cold weather kept the bodies relatively fresh for a longer period. Davidson was able to retrieve 175 tons of dead pigs two days after they died. The speedy recovery meant that West Coast Reduction was able to take the bodies to its plant and break them down into usable fats and proteins for animal meal, oils, and tallows.

The disposal of the dead cows proved more difficult.

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In order to keep mad cow disease out of Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency instituted rules governing the disposal of cattle remains. Certain tissues—like the brain, eyes, and part of the small intestine—are classified as specified risk material (SRM) and need a permit to be disposed of. Any process must either destroy or permanently contain the tissues. Other regulations require segregating the carcasses to ensure the tissues do not interact with anything else.

West Coast Reduction’s Calgary plant is built to follow all those rules. But the disaster that killed 428 Sumas Prairie cows also shut off the Fraser Valley from the rest of Canada. There was no way to get the cows from Abbotsford to Alberta in time.

They couldn’t be buried. And because of the CIFA rules, they couldn’t be composted. So the cows had to be sent to a landfill.

“In every case, the mortalities are handled as quickly and cleanly as possible to the highest level of recycling as possible, and landfill as a last resort,” Girman said. “But still, when that is the only resort, they need to be there quickly.”

West Coast Reduction wasn’t the only organization working to remove the livestock from Sumas Prairie. Although it provided the trucks and loading expertise to move the dead animals quickly from the barns to their final destinations, industry associations, government agencies, other businesses, and local farmers were also heavily involved.

The work isn’t over, but the end is in sight.

“There’s still a few areas in the prairie that are still wet, and the water is still draining. So there may still be a couple of animals out there,” Davidson said on Dec. 7, the day after the last known carcass was removed from the prairie. “But all of the known ones have been collected as of yesterday, and cleaned up.”

With those animals gone, and highways starting to reopen, West Coast Reduction is able to get back to its normal business of turning inedible carcasses into new products. And farmers are working to return to normal too, sanitizing their barns and taking care of the thousands of animals that did survive the floods.

It won’t be the same as it was before the floods. But new normals are all too familiar nowadays. All there is left to do is rebuild.


More of our in-depth coverage of the 2021 Fraser Valley floods:

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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