To me, the difference is drastic. With a harvest, it is intended, expected, planned and prepared for. You seen it coming. You knew it was going to happen and you made sure it the event was carried out with precision. You made all the necessary plans to keep the animal relaxed and calm, and the deed quick and painless. Its not the easiest part of farming, nor is it my favorite but it is important. A death couldn’t be farther from the opposite. It is rarely expected, planned out or prepared for. You didn’t know it was going to happen when you woke up that day and it was almost entirely out of your control.
An older farmer friend of mine once told me, “if you are going to have livestock, sometimes you will have some dead stock”. That seems callous or harsh, but it can be true. Despite your best intentions or your best efforts, sometimes an animal will just lay down and die. As young, beginning farmers, we often struggle with accepting this. There is a feeling of guilt that can’t be pushed down. A feeling of sadness you are unsure how to cope with. Second guessing the event or questioning your abilities going forward. It’s a hard lesson to learn, welcome to farming.
Sunday morning when I woke up, I could see the sun coming in around the blanket that hangs over a window in my bedroom. I could hear my wife’s favorite rooster crowing on the steps outside the sliding door that opens from our bedroom to the back porch. “Time to milk some cows” was my thought as I heard ‘’Sally’’ our most impatient cow, bellow from the pasture. I got dressed and headed out the back door to get started. “I wish that rooster would shut up already” was my first thought as I walked across the back yard. I walked out into the pasture to round up the three milk cows when I notices our jersey bull was laying down in a pile of hay. Not usually alarming but what really got my attention was how he was laying. On his right side, legs nearly straight out, head flat on the ground, ears drooped. This is never a good thing with cattle. He didn’t look like most cows look when they are bloated, but I knew something was not right. He was always a gentle bull, around 1000 lbs., not one that would let you pet him, but never showed aggression. I could see he was breathing so I walked up to him and laid my hand on him. He didn’t move, my heart sank. I shook him on the shoulder, told him to get up, but he never moved. A while later, despite all our best efforts, he passed away. We have received so much good news lately. So many things are falling into place around our family and farm, yet this was all I could think about. Did I do something wrong? What could I have done better? How can I keep this from happening again? Cows can be a relatively easy animal to have on the farm. They don’t require much, just fresh grass or hay, clean water, some minerals and parasite control. But there is a lot of things to know about them when something is wrong. All over the country there are old men and women, with grade school educations, who have probably forgot more about cattle than most of us will ever know. Some of them may have never even seen a book or a video about cows. They learned from experience. From having cows live and die right and front of them for years and years. We are lucky to have them around to learn from, along with the available technology and science. But I think most of all we are lucky to have the opportunity to learn firsthand, the hard way, the best way.
He didn’t have a name, just an ear tag, number 517. He was only here about 8 months, but he was part of our family, part of the farm. We already have one calf sired by him and 3 more on the way. I wish things would have worked out differently. About an hour before I woke up Sunday morning, Jessica was outside. She walked through the pasture to the pond to look at the rising water level and took this picture of 517. He was sitting up in the hay pile. Seemingly enjoying the warmth of the sunlight, which hadn’t shown in 9 days. To us all, it seemed like it was going to be a great day, things change fast. Welcome to farming.