I have always been totally mad keen on animals. I’ve grown up with dogs, cats, birds and pet chickens and I’ve loved them all, but
I have never believed I would make a good farmer. Once I had named any beautiful, brown eyed calf Buttercup, Daisy or Bambi I knew I would never be able to part with them let alone send them off to the butcher or to market. I would be the farmer that had every geriatric charity case animal in the area. I would have all of the rescue animals, the badly treated, the unwanted and the injured. I would, in my mind, make a very bad farmer especially if I wanted my farm to make a profit.
And yet here I am. On a farm stay; a successful farm stay that provides me with a living. While we aren’t primary producers, and therefore not sending animals off to market, I still have to balance my love of animals with practical farm life; and I am here to tell you that you can be an animal lover and a farmer. I just had to learn a few lessons first before I could make it all work.
Lesson number 1: Sometimes sacrifices have to be made to benefit the majority.
In my first year at Diamond Forest Farm Stay I took great delight in my first batch of incubated chickens. I had twelve hatch and, like the proverbial mother hen, I clucked over my little chicks as I raised them up to be
magnificent Plymouth Rock chickens. Generally you get a 50/50 mix of roosters and hens but that year I was unlucky. I got two hens and ten roosters. Now most people who have raised chickens will tell you that the roosters have to go, or at least most of them, because too many just doesn’t work. But the bleeding heart animal lover in me wouldn’t hear of getting rid of my gorgeous little roosters so I had to learn the hard way. At this point my roosters weren’t that big, they weren’t aggressive and they certainly weren’t a threat to the two established roosters that we already had. Besides we had about twenty hens and with my two little baby hens that made twenty two hens. I would make it work. It would be fine. How many hens would one rooster need?
It wasn’t fine at all. It definitely wasn’t fine. When my roosters came of age they wanted their fair share of the hens. My established roosters weren’t about to give up any of their girls. No way! Did they really need ten hens each? Yes, actually they do because not only did my roosters fight with each other, too many roosters started to take its toll on my hens. Roosters and hens alike were left missing feathers, bruised, bloody and bald. It had to stop. If I didn’t stop it then hens and roosters would start dying so I made the tough decision to deal with my ten roosters. I tried selling them but nobody wants roosters. I couldn’t even give them away so they went into the pot. Yes the roasting pot. While the roosters that were sacrificed wouldn’t have been happy about my decision, my other two roosters and hens settled down, healed up and were happy and everything went back to normal. Lesson learned.
Lesson number 2: Sometimes things go wrong and animals die. That is just life.
My first encounter with this lesson, and it’s a lesson that has been repeated over time (although thankfully not that often) was my first lambing season. We had a few gorgeous little lambs running around already and I was absolutely in love with them. We had one ewe, a very good breeding ewe, who had twins and everything seemed to be going fine until one morning we came out to check on them and one of the twins was dead. There appeared to be no reason for it. This healthy little lamb was stone, cold dead. It was really sad. To keep an eye on the other lamb we moved the mum and bub up into a shed near the house. Here she had shelter, fresh hay, she was away from the other sheep and we could check on her regularly.
Suddenly our ewe took a turn for the worst. Something may have gone wrong during the birth, we don’t know, and within twenty four hours we had lost our ewe as well. As Mark took the ewe away to bury her I took the little lamb up into the house and while I was sad that she was an orphan I was a little bit excited that I would get to bottle raise this little lamb; my first ever bottle raised lamb. We called her Daisy.
Daisy followed me around like a lost puppy. I fed her, I cleaned up after her and I cuddled her. She was so cute. Everybody loved Daisy. The time came for us to put Daisy back in with the sheep at about two months of age. We found another ewe with a lamb that, while she wouldn’t let Daisy feed, accepted her and the two little lambs became friends and playmates. Everything was going well. Then Daisy died. Just like that. A perfectly healthy little lamb just gone over night. I was devastated. Daisy was the first lamb I had lost. I didn’t know it then but she wouldn’t be our last. Each time I think back and try to work out if we could have done something different that may have changed the outcome but I never can. Sometimes things go wrong for reasons we can’t see or understand and as sad as it is to lose an animal for no apparent reason it is something that I have come to accept over time.
Lesson number 3: You can’t save everything.
Having a bull and a cow that frequently share a paddock means that once a year we get a calf. When I first came to Diamond Forest Farm Stay Bambi’s calf was Gem. Gem was only a year and a half old but she was already showing signs of being the difficult cow that she would become. She didn’t like people very much and was quite fearful which made her very difficult to move from paddock to paddock. She would try to get away from us as fast as possible even charging at fences. Every time she charged a fence, went through a fence or tried to jump over one we would hold our breath. There were so many times she could have broken a leg, ripped open her stomach or udder or worse as she blindly, fearfully ran at and through our fences. Getting her into the yards to be drenched was out of the question.
We determined we would have to try harder, be patient and try to get her used to being around us. Local farmers told us we were mad. Sometimes, they told us, you just get one of those cows and you have to cut your losses while you can. But we didn’t listen. She could be saved we were sure. We would just have to work harder at it, that’s all. I started hand feeding her and this seemed to be going well. She seemed to relax. She was more comfortable around Nugget, our bull, for some reason so we left her with him hoping it would help. Now all we had to do was get her comfortable enough around us so we might be able get her into the yards with Nugget. Then we could sell her to a farmer as a breeder where she would be in a larger herd and pretty much left alone most of the time, and she would probably be very happy. With us she was constantly getting attention from guests which wasn’t an ideal situation for her.
This was all going well until she got in calf and once again she retreated from us and started to become a little bit aggressive. We discussed our dilemma with a few life-long farmers and they suggested it might be time to get rid of her, send her to market. An aggressive cow can easily become dangerous, not only to people but other animals and themselves. Our problem was that she was pregnant. Both Mark and I were loathe to end two lives instead of one so we decided to wait. In due course her calf was born. Little Jasper was born quite poorly. This was because we hadn’t been able to drench Gem and as a result she would have passed her worm load onto her calf. We still couldn’t get near either him nor her and this wasn’t good for little Jasper. Meanwhile keeping her with our bull, Nugget, had back fired on us; she was in calf again. Now we had to make a concerted effort to drench them, for Jasper’s sake as well as Gem’s unborn calf.
I will never forget this day. It was the scariest experience I have ever had with one of our cows and it was the day that we finally made the decision that Gem really did have to go. We managed to get all of the other cows, calves and our bull into the yards to be drenched. Even Jasper got drenched that day which we were really glad of. But Gem refused to go into the yards, even in the company of Nugget, and took off down the lane way. Luckily our guests decided to steer clear as Gem, not being a polled jersey, had a decent set of horns and weighed approximately 300kgs. Not something you want to mess with. So four of us followed her down the lane way with the
idea of rounding her up so that we could get close enough to drench her or at least put her back into the paddock so that she couldn’t hurt either herself or anyone else. Great plan.
Gem was having none of it. She charged, and bounced off, two fences before she charged each and every one of us. Mark and my father in law both had poly pipe and frightened her off but my mother in law had nothing. She cringed up against the fence with nowhere to go and a 300kg angry cow bearing down on her. All I had was the drench bottle which, in a panic, I threw straight at Gem and struck her on the nose. It ruined Gem’s aim and she missed my mother in law by about a foot and then came after me. I tried to dive over the fence and got stuck half way, the denim of my jeans caught on the wire, but luckily she missed me too. Shaking so hard I could barely stand I declared that ‘Enough is enough. Gem has to go.’
We had spent over two years trying to work with Gem but to no avail. We shunted her off into a far paddock- an extreme effort in itself- where she couldn’t be a danger to anyone to wait until her calf was born. One week after her calf arrived we called in a shooter and in the blink of an eye Gem was gone. For all that she tried to kill me I still cried. We had deliberately taken a life. That is no simple thing but sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t save every animal. It’s times like these that I wonder if I am cut out to be a farmer and then I remember our neighbour who loves his cows so much that he has asked Mark to come and assist him to put down one of his cows as he hates doing it so much. Even though he knows he must, at times, end their suffering it is something he gets no joy from. It makes him sad too and he has been a farmer all his life.
Lesson 4: If you are not a vegetarian then your meat has to come from somewhere.
I have never been a vegetarian but neither I have I given much thought to where my meat comes from. I am not, nor have I ever been, naive enough to believe that my meat is made in a supermarket but where your meat comes from is an inescapable fact of farm life. Yes we do eat our chickens as well as their eggs and we do send cows and sheep off to the butcher once a year. The reality of owning a farm, even if it is a farm stay and not a primary producing farm, is that you simply can not keep all of the animals that are born on the farm. There are not enough paddocks, there is not enough feed and, unfortunately, some of them have to go.
Each year we have lambs, calves, chicks, ducklings and alpaca crias. This is a big part of the enjoyment of coming to our farm stay for our young, and young at heart, guests. So each year we have to move on most of these new animals. Our crias get sold to other farm stays or hobby farms. Some of our lambs and calves do too. However, each year, we send some lambs and a calf off to the butchers to provide meat for us. At first this was difficult for me as all of our animals have names and we become very attached to them. However, if we didn’t eat them then the people that we sold them to would. So we decided that we might as well be the ones benefiting from home grown, grass fed, free range animals. Needless to say it wasn’t an easy decision and I always feel a pang of sadness when we load a lot of happy sheep or a calf onto the back of a truck to be transported to the abattoir. I remember when our first lot of meat came back from the butcher I was terrified that I would open the box and instantly recognise the lamb inside. Of course this did not happen. I opened the box and it just looked like any other meat packed at the butchers. I was so relieved.
Over the years I have become more comfortable with the decision to send some of our animals to the butcher. We have a lot of respect for where our meat comes from, as we see it everyday in the paddock, we feed it, and we care for it’s welfare. What we don’t do now is name it. That job we leave to the young children who are here at the time of their birth. It gives them a great thrill to be able to name a newborn lamb or calf and in most cases they are too young to fully comprehend where the lambs will end up- something which we don’t discuss with our young guests. That is a discussion best left to individual parents. Not naming them also helps me not to become too attached, although if the need arises to bottle feed a lamb or calf it is very hard to avoid attachment. Which is why we sometimes have more animals here on the farm than we should because I can’t bear to part with them.
As a general rule lamb at the butchers is 6-8 months old and beef is 12 – 18 months old. We like to leave our lambs until 18-24 months and our calves to at least 2 years, if not more. We also know that our animals have lived a very happy and comfortable life, despite it being short. Out of respect for our animals we utilise as much of the animal as we can and we are very grateful for what it provides for us. In fact most farmers do eat their own animals but, like us, have a deep respect for their animals, care for them and care about them and ensure that to the best of their ability that they lead a good life and, when the time comes for them to go to the butcher, nothing of the animal is wasted or squandered and the end of life is dealt with as humanely as possible.
While I don’t think I’m ready to breed and raise animals solely for the purpose of food I have come to understand more about what it takes to be a farmer and caring for your animals is a big part of that; even though it might not seem that way to someone who has never lived on a farm. All of our neighbours are farmers and none of them like having to kill their animals, they don’t like it when they are sick or injured and they care for their livestock; not unlike Mark and I.
So yes, you can be an animal lover and a farmer- just like pretty much every farmer that I know.