Life (and Death) on the Farm

One of the greatest blessings (and as a corollary, one of the largest curses) of living on a farm is exposure to the entire circle of life *insert Lion King soundtrack music here*.  You see newborns, you watch them grow and mature, and yes, unfortunately, you see death.  However, as only 2% of the North American population can be considered “farmers” this means that fewer and fewer people in our society have exposure to, and an understanding of, animal husbandry and the inherent joys and challenges that accompany it.

My first exposure to death came when I was far too young to remember. From stories and pictures I know that I had a great big canine best friend as a 2 year old. From my parents I also know that we arrived home one day to find him, shot to death, in our yard.  Less than 2 years later, major tragedy struck; our family barn (distinctly NOT a confined feeding operation) burned down due to an electrical fire in the middle of the night, with our pigs trapped inside.  Those who were able to escape, or who were rescued, were too badly injured from heat or smoke inhalation to survive, and had to be euthanized.  To this day, over 30 years later, my father cannot bear to own even one hog.

The first brush with death I can actually remember first-hand is when I arrived home from kindergarten to discover my new canine best friend lying dead on the road, having been struck by a vehicle going by. Oh, how I cried.  But then, shortly thereafter I can remember my first salient experience with the miracle of birth and nurturing newborns – cats having kittens, dogs having puppies, cows having calves and even a litter of baby skunks that we raised after they were orphaned. You might think all of this life & death could be too much for a young child to process, but in fact it had just the opposite effect. I understood all too well at the age of 6 what so many struggle with at the age of 26, 36 or even 66: life is finite – it has a beginning, and an end.

How could I possibly know this? It was self-evident in our behaviour as kids. Instead of naming certain calves “Betty” or “Norman”, we named them “Hamburger” and “Hot Dog”. We knew exactly where they were destined to end up – were it not on our plate, it would be someone else’s.  Now many people may feel free to criticize me for this barbaric practice, or to criticize my parents for the way we were raised. But, until you’ve lived, walked or worked in my shoes, you simply haven’t earned the right.

Some of my proudest moments come from on the farm, but so do some of my absolute lowest. I take great pride to this day in the fact that I worked hard to save a bull calf that was delivered breach on the dairy farm I worked on. His odds of survival fell somewhere between slim and none: he was far too large, delivered backwards and not breathing by the time he cleared the cow’s hips. Certainly he was destined to become veal anyway, so his death at birth was simply saving him from an imminent death experience at the hand of humans, right? Besides, why did I care? I was getting paid my $8/hr anyway, whether the calf lived or died. But, I did care. I cared a lot; I cared so much in fact, that I gave the calf mouth-to-mouth to get him breathing and I tube-fed and bottle-nursed him every single day thereafter for weeks until he was strong enough and willing enough to drink and eat on his own. I moved on, content that I had allowed that calf a life. Years later, I found out through the AI tech that bred many cows on that farm, that the bull calf I had saved was sold as breeding stock – for $50,000. Suddenly I wished I had worked on commission, but moreover I had an intense sense of pride that I was able to allow that bull to have a long and prosperous life because of my caring and actions.

Over the years I have seen many animals born, too many to count, in fact.  I have also, unfortunately, seen many die.  I have watched a kill at a local abattoir; I have observed a kill floor at one of the largest meat processing plants in Canada; I have assisted and watched while the veterinarian euthanized an animal using injection; I have euthanized and witnessed “putting down” of animals using a bullet; I have watched animals die of natural, manmade and “Act of God” causes.  Let me be frank – none of this is easy. It never is. It’s not easy to watch, it’s harder to participate in, and it’s downright tormenting to be responsible for.  But like birth, or life itself, death is an equal part of the life cycle and we cannot avoid it, no matter how hard we try.

All of the above is what makes me feel so privileged to be able to raise my children on the farm. They have the opportunity to experience the entire life cycle, and to understand the concept of life, birth and death.  I look forward to those teenage talks about reproduction because my single-digit kids already know how babies are made from watching the bulls breed the cows, the stallions breed the mares, or the dogs doing what dogs do.  Sure, at a young age they might still think 2+2=3, but the concept is easy to explain. Birth itself is easy, since they have already witnessed it. Life and purpose is easy because they live it alongside their livestock every day. And death is something they have already been exposed to; they know what happens when an animal gets too sick to get better, or when one of the cats goes missing or we find a body lying in the field one day.  But the real benefit is the understanding they have of the food system and where their food comes from. With a combined age less than 20, my kids have a more solid appreciation of where their food comes from than most 20 year olds in the city do. Most definitely my kids are aware that their food isn’t generated by the guy in the freezer at Costco or Walmart.  Now if only we could easily distribute that knowledge to those adults who are not aware…

Life on the farm isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. We have the opportunity to experience every facet of life, from conception to birth to death. We, as farmers, also have the opportunity to share our experiences and our knowledge with those willing to learn, who are not fortunate enough to observe the circle of life themselves.  This becomes not only our advantage, but also our burden – one we should embrace fully and take pride in representing.  Because ultimately, whether we are human or animal, we all are born, we all live to fulfill a purpose, and we all die. THAT is the circle of life.

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