Circle of Life

“If you have livestock, you’re going to have dead stock,” a wise farmer friend told me when I was getting started. This depressing statement has repeatedly proven accurate. In our first year on this land, we were trying to beat back the brush that had encroached over 3 decades of neglect, and then use the scratching and pooping of chickens and turkeys to kick start the growth of pasture plants. This seemed like a reasonable plan, except that we neglected to take into account the abundance of predators who had called this land their home for the previous 30 years. What we called our “poultry,” they viewed as their “buffet,” and despite all manner of traps, electric fencing, and guard geese, we had staggering losses to fox, owl, weasel, and raccoon. I began to dread doing morning chores, because scenes of carnage are distressing, and not a good way to start the day.

But the birds we lost were generally chickens and turkeys less than 10 weeks old, so while we have great affection for our poultry, we really hadn’t had much time to bond deeply with them. Their loss was frustrating on many levels, but primarily economic. We would scoop up the carcasses, mourning the waste of so much meat and income potential, and compost them. At least we could take comfort in the fact that their bodies would continue to nourish the soil food web, even in death.

Adding breeding stock to our farm in the form of cattle and sheep means that we now have a multi-year relationship with our mama animals, most of who will remain on our farm for 8 or more years. As a mother of 2 young children, I feel a particular bond with other lactating mammals, especially my sheep. Last year one of my original ewes had a prolapse, a health issue that prevented her from lambing normally. She was pregnant with twins, and I stayed up all night with her trying to help her push those babies out. In the end, after much suffering on her part and tears on mine, I lost her and both her lambs. I was devastated. This year has been even worse, with several lambing difficulties forcing me to make heart-wrenching decisions of life and death.

This is nothing exceptional; situations like this occur every day on farms. Mama pigs roll over on their babies and smother them, sheep pick up parasites from deer that cause immediate and permanent damage, cattle break legs. My 9-year-old daughter, a passionate animal-lover, is growing up very aware of how much death is a part of life. She knows that everything is food for everything else, and that sometimes the best way to honor an animal’s spirit is to use its body in death to nourish more life.

But farm life isn’t all hardship and morbidity. On the good days, farmers get to be part of miracles of life. Last year one of my ewes had a lamb that she did not fully clean. The birth sac remained over his face, and he was headed toward hypothermia and death. I cleaned and dried off the little ram, and milked some colostrum from his mama, since he was too weak to nurse. I inserted a stomach tube into him, and slowly drizzled colostrum in, while holding him under a heat lamp. I penned him with his mama and hoped for the best. The next morning I was filled with gratitude to see him looking perky and nursing normally on his mom.

Cornell Cooperative Extension educator and farmer Jason Detzel recently wrote, “Most people do not realize the intimate connection farmers have with death and dying… Living in and with nature provides both a frame and magnifier for the mysteries and processes of death.  Farmers and ranchers understand that death is part of life and deserves the same reverence and respect as the beginning of life.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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