Case Study of Contaminated Compost: Collaborations Between Vermont Extension and the Agency of Agriculture to Mitigate Damage Due to Persistent Herbicide Residues

Why Study Herbicide Contamination of Compost?

Picloram, clopyralid, aminopyralid and aminocyclopyrochlor are broadleaf herbicides commonly used in pastures due to effectiveness in controlling undesirable plants and the very low toxicity for animals and fish. In fact, some of these herbicides do not require animal removal post application. The grazing animals can ingest treated leaves with no ill health effects, but may pass the herbicides through to the manure. Also see: Composting Livestock or Poultry Manure

When a complaint driven problem of damaged tomatoes and other garden crops in Vermont was traced back to a single compost provider in Chittenden County in Vermont, a series of actions and reactions commenced. Complaints were fielded and investigated by personnel from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VT-AG) and the University of Vermont Extension (UVM-EXT). The compost provider sent samples of various components of the compost to a single laboratory and received positive results for persistent herbicides in sources of equine bedding/manure components. Subsequent interviews by the facility manager in both print and television media seemed to cast blame on Vermont equine operations for ruining Vermont gardens. Coincidentally, the composter had recently changed compost-processing methods. Initial samples sent to a separate laboratory did not support the composter’s laboratory results. Samples of feed, manure, shavings, and many other components which were shipped to several laboratories by VT-AG, resulted in extremely inconsistent and/or contradictory data between laboratories running the exact same samples.

Related: Small Farm Environmental Stewardship or Managing Manure on Horse Farms

What did we do? 

Several processes were underway by several agencies in a coordinated and collaborative effort to resolve and mitigate the herbicide issues:

• Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets was receiving and investigating complaints.

• University of Vermont Extension plant biology personnel were identifying, documenting, and sampling affected plants, as well as counseling gardeners.

• University of Vermont equine extension worked with horse owners and media to mitigate unsubstantiated claims of “horses poisoning garden plants”.

• A more thorough investigation by VT-AG involved collection of raw samples (feed, hay, shavings, manure) from 15 horse farms who utilized the compost facility to dispose of manure and bedding.

• The VT Secretary of Agriculture and the VT-AG Agri-chemical Management Section Chief were brought together with equine and compost experts attending the NE-1041 Equine Environmental Extension Research group annual meeting hosted by UVM equine extension.

• VT-AG worked with herbicide manufacturers to use high quality testing equipment and procedures to gather consistent data from samples.

What have we learned? 

More extensive details of this particular case have been published in the Journal of NACAA (

• The levels of persistent herbicides were low enough that they were below the acceptable limits for water, yet they still harmed sensitive garden plants.

• Nationally and locally manufactured grains tested positive for persistent herbicides; most likely due to the individual components being treated within legal limits during field production.

• Many of the laboratories were unable to provide accurate or consistent results when testing for the persistent herbicides.

• Discussions between the NE-1041 group and VT-AG resulted in a fruitful exchange of information, as well as development and delivery of pertinent information for the general public and County Agricultural Agents.

Future Plans 

Several proactive activities have already been initiated and/or completed. A peer reviewed case study on all aspects of the contaminated compost has been published in the Journal of NACAA; and two episodes of Vermont’s Agricultural television show (Across the Fence) were created to educate and update the general public on the situation. A Vermont compost working group has been assembled and set goals to create potential educational materials including a horse owner pamphlet (in final editing phase), a farmer/livestock pamphlet, and press releases for the public education on challenges with persistent herbicides. The VT-AG website has a Compost FAQs page addressing the most common questions associated with compost and herbicides.


Betsy Greene, Professor/Extension Equine Specialist, University of Vermont

Carey Giguere, Agrichemical Management,Vermont Agency of Agriculture

Rebecca. Bott, Extension, South Dakota State University

Krishona. Martinson, Extension, University of Minnesota

Ann Swinker, Extension, Penn State University

Additional information

• Greene, E.A., R.C. Bott, C. Giguere, K.L. Martinson, and A.W. Swinker. 2013. “Vermont Horses vs. Twisted Tomatoes: A Compost Case Study. J of NACAA. 6:1 (

• Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets Compost FAQ’s:

• Davis, J. Dept. of Horticultural Science, NC State University. 2010. Herbicides in Manure: How Does It Get there and why Should I Care?, Proceedings 8th Annual Mid-Atlantic Nutrition Conference, Timonium, MD. pp 155-160.

• Across the Fence Television Show: An Update on Green Mountain Compost Contamination and Testing-Greene/ Gigliuere (9/14/12)

• Across the Fence Television Show: Information from NE 1041 Meetings and National Equine Specialists-Greene (9/17/12)

• Article from Minnesota Extension explaining the problem in hay and how to avoid it. The article is devoted to “ditch hay”, but the information is relevant to all hay.

• Washington State University Web site on clopyralid carryover includes pictures of affected vegetables, research results, and the bioassay protocol

• Dow Agrosciences United Kingdom website with information on aminopyralid:

• CDMS Agro-chemical database with access to all the herbicide labels:


The State University Extension Equine Specialists that make up the NE-1441: Environmental Impacts of Equine Operations, Multi-State Program. USDA.

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