Often people think living on the farm is a kind of enchanted life. You get to go out, commune with the animals, pick flowers and vegetables and…go about the happy life of a farmer. A lot of this is because having chosen to be a farmer at this stage in my life, I’m pretty much in love with what I do. I’m not carrying on any family tradition of farming and I didn’t marry a farmer. My husband and I both had “normal” careers before this stage of our lives. And in fact, my husband still straddles both worlds- working in the high tech industry and working on the farm. Both are full time pursuits. So, when people ask me about farming I have lots of great stories to tell- and they are generally the feel good, life has never been better, don’t you wish you were a farmer- kind of stories.
Except when they aren’t. There is a down and dirty side to farming and it’s not just the mud and manure. Raising livestock on a farm takes on a whole new meaning of responsibility. The animals under our care rely on us for food, shelter, safety and our promise to keep them from suffering. Generally the food, shelter and safety are easy goals to reach. As farmers, we are constantly surveying the pastures, making sure there isn’t anything left behind that they might swallow leading to hardware disease and possibly death. We make sure we pick up the twine that goes around the hay bales, pick up nails as they drop, keep fences secure and the list goes on and on. But, being animals they do tend to get themselves into tricky situations from time to time.
Just this morning as I was milking cows, my biggest girl- Snow, decided to lift her leg backwards and loop it over the side chain that keeps her on her side of the stall. She’s never performed this trick before, and neither have any of the other cows. It was something I never expected to see. The weight of her leg on the chain made it too tight for me to unhook. She was getting spooked and was starting to thrash around. I had to get some slack in the chain before she slipped and broke her leg. Thinking quickly, I dumped another scoop of pellets into her bucket. This made her lunge forward and I had just enough time to un-clip the chain. She was free and I was relieved. I don’t like to think about what I could have found had I walked away to tend to a quick chore while she was still in the stall. These are the kinds of things that can come up out of nowhere and take you completely by surprise.
Yesterday I was in the back field, tossing hay to calves and sheep. I usually take a quick count while I’m doing this to make sure that all of the critters are present and it gives me a chance to do a visual wellness check. I was missing one ewe. Hmm. It was too soon for her to be lambing. I scanned the field and still didn’t see her. This wasn’t good. The sheep stick together and when it’s haying time they all come running over in a group. I finished up and headed out to find her.
My fears were confirmed. She wasn’t in good shape. I found her laying on her side by a gate. It looked as though she had been there since the night. A quick assessment and I knew she wasn’t going to make it. This is where the part about keeping your livestock from needlessly suffering comes in. It fell on me to put her down. I could have left her there- nature would have taken its course eventually. But the ewe and I had an agreement. She would graze and fertilize my fields and provide me with lambs. I would feed her, shelter her, keep her healthy and- when the time came, I would prevent her from suffering. It was that time.
(Warning: Some may find the following picture graphic)
(The injury on her head is how I found her. I still don’t know the source of that injury)
Animals get into all kinds of situations. I have no idea what caused the injury to her head- it’s how I found her that morning. It almost looked like she had been grazed by a bullet. The sheep pasture is in the middle of our farm, not a place where I would expect to have wayward bullets flying. In the end, it didn’t matter. I had to reach down deep into my farmer guts and end her suffering with my own bullet.
Farming, it isn’t always butterflies and rainbows. There is a down and dirty side to it too. But like anything in life, you can either focus on the hard times and lose site of the good, or you can take the hard times in stride and know that there is a rainbow right around the corner.
(Target practice. A good aim is another skill for the responsible farmer)