Young farmer, cattle dead after pit agitated
AMHERST, Wis. — Storing and handling manure comes with the territory of raising livestock, perhaps desensitizing farmers to the dangers manure can pose. Manure turned deadly Aug. 15 for a 29-year-old Amherst farmer and some of his cattle. Unusual weather conditions prevented dissipation of gas given off by a manure pit. Michael Biadasz, a beef farmer and custom-operator, was overcome and found dead.
Biadasz, according to his obituary in the Stevens Point Journal, lived by this adage: “Live today like you are going to die tomorrow, but farm today like you are going to farm forever.”
Biadasz is the son of farmers Robert and Diane Biadasz of Amherst; he was a 2005 Amherst High School graduate and former FFA member. He’d attended Mid-State Technical College in Marshfield, Wisconsin, and Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wisconsin, for agricultural programs. He farmed on his home farm, which had been a dairy farm but now finished steers, mostly Holsteins.
Michael Biadasz had been enrolled in Mike Sabel’s farm-business and production-management course at Mid-State Technical College.
“Mike was an outgoing and energetic young man,” Sabel said. “He worked with people for their best interest. He was innovative and always looking to the future. I and the agricultural community will miss Mike.”
As an instructor, Sabel said Biadasz was great to have in class. He asked probing questions and shared tips that worked in his operation.
“He was never afraid to consider changes,” said Sabel of Biadasz’s approach to farming.
Biadasz was undertaking a farm transition with his parents at the time of his death.
Biadasz agitated his farm’s in-ground, cemented pit early in the morning. Even though he was outside, a suspected air inversion along with fog and lack of wind prevented manure gas from dissipating, causing his death and immediate deaths of 13 cattle. Additional cattle needed to be put down later that day.
Biadasz’s death serves as a reminder that gasses from liquid manure can be lethal and that farmers should use extreme caution before agitating and emptying manure storage – even storage that isn’t an enclosed space.
With harvest around the corner, manure application follows, further highlighting the ongoing need for manure safety, said Rich Gates, University of Illinois-Extension specialist.
“Any liquid slurry stores, when agitated, will release toxic hydrogen sulfide and methane gasses that can be lethal,” he said. “Although this tragedy (Biadasz’s death) was truly an aberration, according to reports, it is important to remember the key safety rules when agitating and emptying manure stores.”
The rules include taking steps to promote ventilation; removing workers and, if possible, animals, from buildings or nearby downwind structures; and starting agitation slowly while watching for any harmful effects. Never enter enclosed manure storage without appropriate precautions. Consider weather conditions when agitating and emptying outdoor pits. Utilize a gasses-monitoring tool.
“And be mindful that you can be overcome with a single breath if concentrations are high,” Gates said. “Don’t forget the importance of ensuring that new or inexperienced workers are also trained in safety.”
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, an urgent need exists to inform farm owners and workers about the dangers of entering enclosed manure storage and working around manure pits, where oxygen-deficient, toxic and/or explosive atmosphere often result from fermentation of manure in confined areas. Or in the case of Biadasz’s fatal farm incident, even outdoors in certain calm-weather conditions.
Manure can generate four potentially dangerous gases — methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and ammonia. The result can be asphyxiation or suffocation of workers in and around manure pits and tanks, because all of the generated gases can displace oxygen. Often, according to the institute, there are multiple fatalities due to family members or co-workers attempting to rescue the initial victim.
Methane is an odorless gas that can displace enough oxygen to cause death by suffocation. According to the institute, it occurs near the top of a pit.
Hydrogen sulfide is a highly toxic gas with a “rotten egg” smell at low concentrations. At high concentrations it can paralyze the olfactory senses. The heavy gas settles; it’s also a severe eye irritant. At high concentrations it can cause unconsciousness, respiratory failure and death within minutes.
Carbon dioxide is odorless and settles. At low concentrations it can result in labored breathing, drowsiness and headache. At high concentrations it can displace enough oxygen to cause death by suffocation.
Ammonia has a sharp odor characteristic of household ammonia. This gas can severely irritate eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Exposure to high concentrations can be fatal.
“The decomposition of waste that occurs in manure pits can create oxygen-deficient, toxic and/or explosive atmospheres,” the institute stated. “The anaerobic bacterial action that breaks down the manure can generate methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and ammonia. These gases may produce toxic effects, but more important, they can displace oxygen … Deaths can occur from lack of oxygen or from the toxic effects of these gases. In addition, methane and hydrogen sulfide may present an explosion hazard.”
The institute noted several manure-storage-related incidents occurred during hot weather, which may result in increased gas accumulation in manure pits. The highest number of manure-storage deaths in the institute’s database occurred in August.
“Although this information indicates that summer is the most dangerous period, the potential for an oxygen-deficient, toxic and/or explosive atmosphere is always present in a manure pit,” the institute warns.
Biadasz’s funeral service was held Aug. 18, and a memorial in his name has been established for a farm-safety program. Visit www.pisarskifuneralhome.com to offer online condolences.