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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Are We Brave Enough to Love?

By Bryan Welch 

Tags: farming,

Baby donkeyI came home one day to find five sheep dead, piled in a corner of their shed. It took me a couple of hours to dig a hole big enough to hold the carcasses. Two days later I found six more in the same spot. Five were dead, one moved when I touched her. I pulled her out of the pile and she staggered away to recover.

This was my worst moment in farming.

I stayed home for a day to watch for the cause of the carnage. I was pretty sure I knew the culprits. Sure enough, mid-morning, about an hour after I would normally have left for work, our three border collies crawled under a fence, rounded up the sheep and brought them into the pen, crowding them into a corner of the shed. We discourage the dogs from working sheep by themselves, but a certain amount of self-study is good for a sheepdog. They teach themselves by practicing. In moderation, it is a productive exercise.

If a border collie is not fascinated by livestock, they don’t make good stock dogs. They learn to move the herds and flocks because they love to move them.

The two older dogs mostly stayed back, moving this way and that to watch the way the clump of sheep moved in response to them. The youngest dog, Chico, was a pup, about five months old, and he was much more aggressive than his parents. He darted into the flock and nipped the sheep. He barked and ran at them. I went out and called the dogs off. Then I brought Chico inside and started looking for someone who wanted a free border collie.

Sheep dread physical contact with a predator. To the sheep, almost nothing is more upsetting. As Chico goaded and harassed the ewes, they would have packed themselves more and more tightly into the corner of the shed until they knocked each other down and climbed over the fallen. Eventually those on the bottom died of suffocation or panic.

We were pretty sure the dead sheep were the victims of dogs because so many were killed and none of them had been eaten. Coyotes kill one animal at a time and eat them immediately. Coyotes are all business. And they almost never hunt in the daytime. We guessed our dogs were to blame because the sheep had no wounds. Border collies are bred to herd sheep without touching them.

Mop had been our primary sheepdog and a fine farming partner for four years. Pitch, her mate, had been around for about two years and was a dependable ally as well. Chico was their pup. The other four pups from the litter had been sold and we were thinking about keeping him.

Was it Chico’s aggressive personality that caused the deaths of all those sheep? Was it the chemistry of three dogs together, a dog-pack chemistry, that tipped the balance?

We don’t know. But when Chico went away to live with a new family — a family without livestock — our problem was solved.

That was the worst catastrophe we've seen on our farm. However, there have been others. A visiting dog — a friendly dog — killed about 30 chickens one day. A neighbor’s pit bull terriers killed a mother and two baby goats one evening just after sunset. They maimed and nearly killed a third goat, “Mr. Big,” an ancient angora wether who somehow recovered.

I failed to notice a heifer calving in a distant pasture once. The calf died in the birth canal and the mother became septic. She died soon after in the veterinarian’s corral.

The chickens died because we left the visiting dog unattended. The goats were killed because I had separated them, temporarily, from the mule who normally watched out for them. We keep mules and donkeys with our goats and sheep because they naturally become members of the flocks and, by instinct, protect them from predators.

The heifer and her calf died because I accidentally let her breed too young and then wasn’t attentive enough when she went into labor.

And there have been other fatalities over the years. Chickens and turkeys, mostly. Poultry has a genius for suicide-by-predator. Or, rather, every predator on Earth recognizes poultry as the easiest, most delicious meal on the farm.  Every dog has to be trained to ignore the chickens and turkeys. In fact, our dogs had to be trained to ignore the chickens and then, when we expanded into turkeys, they had to be taught that turkeys were also not on the canine menu, all over again. Hope springs eternal. On the other hand, the dogs help keep the raccoons, possums and skunks out of the chicken house. The cat had to be taught not to eat the baby chickens. Once we had assisted the hens in teaching him that lesson, he provided another line of defense against the possums and skunks.

Each and every time one of my mistakes has caused a creature to die, I’ve considered selling all the animals and pulling out the fences. I care about each of the animals personally. I can’t help it.

I’m not emotionally detached when it comes to the livestock. I name nearly every animal. Some people — even in my own family — consider this ghoulish. After all, we’re going to eat some of them and sell most of the others to people who will eat them.

But I relish their presence. The names help me keep track of them and I enjoy socializing with them. I chat with them while I’m working around the farm. They are, in a very real sense, my companions. They might even be called friends.

Of course this makes the process of taking them to slaughter both painful and poignant. But that’s nature. All prey animals die, in nature, in the jaws of predators. And our methods are, generally, more humane than the ways other predators kill.

It is much more painful, to me, when one of my constant companions is killed as the result of my bad judgment, my lack of attentiveness or my laziness.

Our animals are raised in their natural families in a nutritious environment where they can enjoy good health, companionship, clean air, fresh water and generally as much space as they desire. When our animals accidentally get out of their fenced pastures, they usually hang around until we show up to put them back in. They have family, friends, health and a sense of home here.

Every living thing should be so lucky.

Industrial agriculture cannot spare the time or the space to provide many amenities. So the animals we raise are sparing some other creatures whose lives would mostly be crowded, lonely, chaotic and often unhealthy.

We believe that the lifestyle we provide for our livestock is humane. Their well-being is a personal concern for us, day in and day out. We really care.

And that’s what hurts.

Raising animals for food forces us to confront nature’s own tough logic.  Raising healthy creatures on a specific amount of property while allowing them to reproduce more or less naturally, we need to harvest more animals than we keep each year. If we fail to harvest enough of our annual crop of babies, pastures are soon damaged and animals become sick from malnutrition. If any of our animal-care systems fails, animals die.

So we live with this burden, day in and day out. At its worst, it can make you feel like quitting. Sometimes I feel like letting someone else raise my food for me. Maybe I could pretend that the rice, broccoli and salmon on my plate are the products of some immaculate conception in which nothing had to suffer.

But of course that would be sentimental nonsense. The salmon were captured and killed. Cultivation of crops destroyed some creature’s habitat. When we don’t consume, some other creature quickly takes advantage of the extra resources. Some campers drove across one of our empty pastures one late summer day. It was a big summer for grass and too wet to cut hay, so the grass had been left alone all summer. In one round trip the car mashed three prairie voles. One car circled through a 10-acre pasture once and managed to cross paths, fatally, with three voles. The implications for how many rodents had made their home in that pasture during that summer are staggering.

Every creature that draws a breath or burns a single calorie has, to some degree or another, displaced another. That’s one level of responsibility.

When we engage in the active management of our environment as farmers or loggers, gardeners or city managers, we exercise another level of responsibility.

If we commit ourselves to truly exercising our responsibility, if we choose to be true stewards of the land, then we cannot afford sentimentality.  To be good stewards of nature, we have to respect and acknowledge nature’s laws. If we love nature we will care for it more successfully. But only if we love nature for what it is. Undoubtedly a thousand small tragedies were acted out in our lower pasture that summer we left it alone. Voles are monogamous. They take only 30 days to grow from birth to adulthood. Across our pastures tiny mommies and daddies can raise several big families in a long summer. When a coyote or a raccoon digs up a vole nest, well, you can imagine the drama. It is never accurately depicted in what we would call a “family” movie.

So nature challenges us: Can we love the world around us unsentimentally? Our enormous achievements have brought most of the planet more or less under our control. Now that we have this powerful role in the world, are we capable of accepting our responsibility?

Photo by Andrea Ridout

sara mason
12/31/2009 10:34:20 AM

That is so nicely written. I know my personality would never be compatible with farming. I'd become too attached to the animals. I'd be sad if they died for any reason and I know I would not be able to process them for food.

geoff taylor
11/11/2009 1:13:54 AM

This essay is going to give me hours of unbroken thought. Thank you for writing it. It touches on the numinous in the Beauty Way.

elizabeth stevens_1
11/2/2009 3:06:14 PM

Bryan, Thanks for being brave enough to love, and to share your experiences, successes and failures, and emotions. Now THAT'S bravery! A scene in the film "Cold Mountain" epitomizes the simultaneous pain and joy of raising livestock with one's eyes wide open. A character -- a mountain woman who is visited by a starving passerby -- surveys her herd of goats; a herd that she loves and knows by name. She singles one out, draws it close, praises it as a good goat -- and slits its throat. Many viewers found this scene traumatizing; I found it to be very hard to watch but ultimately more profound and memorable than anything else in the film. This woman, who raised goats for milk, sacrificed one so that she could give its protein to a hungry human. It wasn't an easy thing for her, but neither was it unthinkable. It was done with exquisite mindfulness, which I believe is what your blog is all about. If we cannot regard livestock as animals worthy of love, names and a decent life, we should perhaps take a closer look at ourselves. If we must distance ourselves from our own actions -- avoid/deny/rationalize/disguise/farm-out the treatment that we subject livestock to -- I suspect that we must either give up our carnivorous practices entirely or change them to practices that we can "own" with good conscience. I hope this blog will appear in the print magazine, and that you'll start a discussion about "unsentimental love" which, I believe, is something called "respect.

10/28/2009 12:49:27 PM

First of all, I would like to thank you for addressing this difficult topic and doing so in a positive way that does not cheapen or demean people’s emotions toward their livestock. I used to be teased horrendously growing up because I would cry whenever I had to butcher an animal or send it off to the butcher to be butchered (which is what I do now that I am an adult and can afford to). I was, and still am, given the advice that if I want to raise and breed livestock then I need to toughen up or get out of the lifestyle. I find those two options unacceptable. I am thrilled to finally read an article that addresses the third option. It is nice to learn that there are other farmers out there who feel the same responsibility and companionship with their livestock and are willing to be open about it.

10/27/2009 4:37:53 PM

Thanks for the kind words and the thoughtful input. Portia: The first level of training for your dog is pretty simple. Take the dog and the chickens into an enclosed space. If you need a leash to control the dog, put her on the leash. Every time the dog LOOKS at a chicken, correct her. The goal should be to train a dog that ignores chickens, completely. Repeat this several days in a row until she doesn't look at the chickens. Then do the same without the leash, if necessary. If this doesn't work and an unfortunate incident occurs, introduce the dog to the carcass and correct her aggressively. She should become a dog who wouldn't think of looking at a chicken, much less putting her mouth on one. So far, all our dogs have become chicken-friendly. Most of them are fine after Lesson One, but a few require Lesson Two. Hope it goes well!

anton nel
10/27/2009 12:28:10 AM

Thank you for this insightful and honest article! Being a vegetarian, I will be devastated by the loss of farm animals as you have described and to be honest, I admit to being too "soft" to keep such animals. Living in a city it is not an option in any case, but I know myself! But is uplifting to read about people like you who care so much for the animals and accept the responsibility for them. Regarding Portia's question: We kept silkie chickens in the garden to help to control snails and simply because they are so cute! But we had two Rottweilers as well... We kept the chickens in a wired-off area in the garden for a month or so and as regularly as possible, let them out when we could keep an eye on them and the dogs. At first the dogs were of course curious and sniffed around the little camp and bumped the chickens with there noses when they were outside - we let them, but talked to them and coached them in a calm manner when it looked as if they want to become a bit too excited. After a month we could let the chickens out and they lived happily together for the next 8 years! Of course, I have to mention that the Rottweilers were house pets and not used as working dogs, probably making it a bit easier to control their natural instinct.

portia mccracken
10/26/2009 12:38:00 PM

I really appreciate your magazine and your columns, especially this one. We are so easily seduced by the ease of shopping that it's hard to remember, without making an effort, that nearly everything we consume comes at the expense of something else. I'm very curious about how you trained your dogs (and your cats) not to kill the poultry? I would love to have a few chickens but I have a dog, so I'm afraid they wouldn't be safe. Molly is mostly a sweetheart, but she does love to chase little critters so I'm pretty sure she would do the same with chickens. Once she caught them, I don't know if she would be content to retrieve them (she's a Lab-mix) or worse. Please tell us how you trained them. Thanks!

bill griffin
10/25/2009 7:59:37 PM

Just remember to honor the animals spirits as you consume them, and do not let any part of them go to waste. They were placed on this earth to further the creator's purpose for the rest of the planet. This is the way taught by the Native Americans fore centuries.