Life and Death on the Farm

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge and Bob-White Systems
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Life and death on a farm is a delicate subject but it is one that really needs to be considered if you are exploring owning and managing livestock hands-on. Farm animals often get injured or sick and they die.

One of my earliest memories is of me, as a four-year-old little boy back in 1955, watching my father and a several other strong and thin men hand digging a grave for our neighbor’s horse that had died. Unfortunately the grave filled with water as soon as it was dug. When they flopped the horse over into the hole it floated and the men all scratched their heads. Eventually they successfully weighted the horse’s body down with stones so it would stay submerged as they hurriedly filled the grave back in by hand.

Back in the 70s I went through an old barn at my neighbor’s farm with another older farmer who lived near-by.  He was probably 70 at the time so his memories went way back. He told the story of the farmer who had lived there many years ago. His draft horse was sick and down in its stall. He asked a bunch of neighbors to come help him get his beloved horse back on its feet. A half dozen men worked for hours to get the horse up with ropes and a block and tackle, despite the fact they all knew the horse was already dead. No one had the heart to tell the old man so they continued to struggle.

When I had a large dairy farm and milked 70 cows and had 250 head altogether, it wasn’t uncommon for one of my cows to get injured or die. I had a heifer pasture to the west of my dairy barn and I could monitor my group of bred heifers every day when I milked my cows. I fed the heifers on a hill in the pasture on the other side of our farm pond. One day I noticed a heifer lying down sleeping near the feeder. She was still there the next day and in the same position. Concerned I decided to go check her. When I got to her she lying there as cows normally sleep, looking completely peaceful, but dead. I’ll never know why or from what. She just died in her sleep. 

I also had a dry cow pasture, at that same farm, down below the barn where I could keep my eyes on my cows that were due to calve. It was a good shady pasture with a stream running through the far side of it. One summer’s day I was talking to a salesman who had stopped by the farm. As we chatted I noticed a cow frantically walking back and forth along the bank of the stream  I bolted over the fence and ran down the hill to the stream, which was pretty deep. The water was very clear and I looked down in and saw, to my disbelief, a newborn calf completely submerged in the stream standing up facing the current. I jumped in and grabbed the calf hoping the cold water may have saved it.  I held it upside down to drain it and then attempted mouth-to-mouth recitation (which is a challenge with a calf) but to no avail. Her pupils fogged up and she was dead.

Despite my best efforts, I would continue to lose an occasional cow and calf. As one of my neighbors once told me “cows can up with a thousand ways to kill themselves.” I once visited a really large dairy farm owned by a friend. I walked down by his free stall barn that housed his bred heifers looking for him.  As I passed by the feed bunk, I noticed a big Holstein heifer in distress. She had been scratching her head on a gate and hooked and pierced one of her eyelids on a repair link in the gate’s chain. When I approached her she pulled back and her eyelid stretched out alarmingly. Since she weighed around 900 pounds there wasn’t much I was going to do alone. I went to find the farm hands and it took 3 strong men acting in haste to unhook her. She and her eyelid recovered fully. 

Despite the fact that I saved many more cows and calves on my larger farm than I lost, those losses began to add up and weigh on my mind. That was one reason I decided to sell that farm and downsize to a smaller farm. I felt I could reduce my losses if I had fewer cows to manage. I went from 70 cows to 30, a couple of years later I moved to a new farm and milked 18. I briefly milked 30 cows at my next farm. Then I quit dairy farming altogether for three years and operated a small carpentry business, but I couldn’t escape the pull of dairy farming. I decided to try it as a sideline instead of full-time.

I built my current 4 cow Micro Dairy in 2006, determined to protect my cows from injury and illness. The average lifespan of a dairy cow on a commercial dairy farm is roughly 4.5 years. I knew I could milk my cows at least until they were 10 or 12 years old. My Micro Dairy was injury, illness and death free for the next 6 or 7 years. But then my luck began to change.

One spring morning I lost a cow that had recently calved to milk fever and had to bury her.  That same spring I had another cow that was due to calve. Her calving date came and went with no sign of her calving soon. I called my vet to check her. She had a mummified still born calf in her that wasn’t going to come out. There was nothing I could do even though she appeared to be healthy and happy. Since she was dry, she was in excellent condition. I had her butchered and my family enjoyed hundreds of pounds of good clean home grown beef and hamburger for some time.

Since then, I have had a few cows come and go for a variety of problems that were largely out of my control. Right now I am milking two very healthy and relatively young cows. They are enough to keep my barn warm and provide all the milk we need for the winter. When spring arrives I’ll begin a search for another good cow or two. In the meantime I’ll just keep my fingers crossed that they stay healthy and my good luck will return. 

But the bottom line is this. No matter what you do and how well you care for your livestock accidents happen and you have to be ready for them. A woman who has a farm across the river from us told me the story that when she was a little girl they had a cow deliver twin heifer calves. It was late in the evening and her family was tired so they decided to tie the calves on separate lengths of baling twine to the side of the pen for the night and then separate them in the morning. When she ran out the next morning to see them they had become entangled in the twine during the night and both were dead.

Death on the farm is simply a sad fact that anyone who has livestock has to learn to expect and to deal with. Is it good for a little child to find two strangled calves in the morning? I don’t know but I am sure it had a profound effect on her one-way or the other. She turned out be a wonderful and very happy woman who enjoys her life on her family’s farm. In fact, a year or so ago she delivered a healthy set of twin boys who will grow up on that same farm.

Steve Judge is a long-time dairy farmer and micro-dairy expert at Bob-White Systems. Driven by a passion for the Slow Food movement and a desire for communities to enjoy locally produced, Steve’s goal is to create appropriately scaled dairy technology and equipment that will give small-scale dairy farmers the opportunity to sell safe, farm fresh milk and dairy products directly from their farms to friends and neighbors. Read all of Steve’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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