Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I 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