One of the realities of farming any form of livestock is that, as our old neighbor used to say, ‘where there’s livestock, there’s dead stock.’ The difference between our thoughts on this topic was the level of intervention and her unwillingness to accept that her dog was the leading cause of death in her chooks, but I digress.
When new to livestock it can be all visions of bouncing lambs and copious eggs or simply the grass gets mowed with no real input from you. But when the first death happens among your animals this can be a very confronting and sometimes traumatic situation. Feelings of having failed these creatures in your care are common. But in order to deal with this scenario when it happens, not if it happens, because it will happen, figuring out what your philosophies are in regards to your animals will help. These can range from wanting all your animals to be pets and rescuing animals, to farming for meat and fibre etc. From doing whatever it takes to keep them alive, to allowing nature to take its course. Only you can decide where you stand on this matter and as long as you are working within the animal welfare guidelines it is your choice.
This is in fact, a highly controversial topic and so I am simply going to share some thoughts on the matter. Our farm is only small and every animal must have a purpose. There are a couple of exceptions like the Budgie and the old cat is not much use at mousing these days, plus I’m not sure just how useful the dogs are, but they do tend to deter people from entering the property and let us know if anyone is around. So, in thinking that our animals are a product of our farm we treat them according to this philosophy. We try to provide an environment which is suited to each species and provides for their needs within the realities of a farming situation. We have to consider that by farming these creatures we have removed them from what is their natural habitat and interfered with the natural processes and conditions which would have governed their life. In some cases, this may actually mean that their life has become easier, but it also removes much of the choice that these animals have. Not many animals would choose to stand in the sun all day if shade was available or browse only within the confines of a fenced area on pasture species instead of diverse plantings.
This also limits their ability to self-medicate unless you have provided those plants or minerals etc. that are needed. This is another area where we need to decide what our philosophy is, do you go natural or ‘conventional’, call in the vet or manage yourself, perhaps a mixture. For us it comes down to firstly, can it be treated naturally, most minor issues can easily be dealt with in this way but sometimes we need to use ‘conventional’ methods. In our case the worm burden on our small property was too high, so after trying natural control without success, we have for the time being resorted to drenching our lambs. We will go back to natural as we establish plants for self-medicating and breed for better resistance. It’s about being realistic.
Secondly the value of the animal, this may sound harsh but it is again the reality of farming animals. If the value of the animal is low calling out a vet is not a feasible option, however many vets will do a phone consult or are happy for you to pop in and discuss your issue at no cost. We then, if necessary, purchase the required treatment from them. Now this is where we can get controversial. We start to see the separation between those who farm, whether big or small and those who don’t. Social media can be a useful place to find answers, there are a lot of people who will know the answer and how to help. But… VET is not the answer to every condition; many farmers deal with livestock illness or injury on a regular basis and they do it themselves. Your own observations and research into livestock health will give you great insight into what may affect your animals and how to treat it. We should never stop learning and observing our livestock and land, questions and discussion are essential to expand our knowledge. To shut someone down with one word, VET, is not conducive to learning.
There is another saying, ‘a sick sheep is a dead sheep’. Sometimes you need to make the decision, is it worth attempting to save this animal or is it time to cull? This is another issue you will have to face even if you choose to keep your animals as pets and for those who choose to farm for meat this can still be a difficult decision. The process of killing an animal or asking someone to do it for you, whether for health reasons or for meat, can be very confronting both physically and emotionally. I, personally, do not kill our animals but I am largely involved in the processing of them. My husband who does the real hard work shares his thoughts on the process…
‘To dispatch an animal is no easy task and for me personally it is always associated with a sense of loss. My approach to deal with this is to ensure that it is very quick. I will hold the animal, to feel its life drain and, in this moment, I feel we share a connection. This animal has just paid the ultimate sacrifice, their life for mine and it is in this moment that I say sorry and thank you. I find that being alone while dispatching an animal allows me to focus fully on the task at hand and give the animal the respect it deserves.
It is never easy, some might say “what a hard arse, killing an animal.” but for me what I find offensive is when those same people go to a fast food outlet or the supermarket and buy and eat meat with absolutely no thought or connection to the loss of any life. I know that the animal I have dispatched has had a good life, been feed on good food and been well cared for.’
Many people will have different thoughts and processes in regards to dispatching their livestock, we also do not believe is isolating our children from the process. They do not watch the actual killing but if they choose to do so that would be fine, we also do not hide from them the death of an animal, especially pets. What they do have is, from a young age, is an understanding of life and death. This does not mean they are immune to it, they simply accept that at some stage we all will die, that it is part of our world. It is my belief that this disconnect from the natural processes of life is one of the greatest down falls of our world. Many of the animals we now have in New Zealand are not native to this land. We have removed them from their natural land and therefore, as New Zealand has no real predators, from the natural population control which would manage each species. Also, by fighting to prolong their lives we are also removing natures methods of balance. If we remove ourselves as the primary predators or at least managers of these introduced species our land will be over run. Several prolific examples of this are rabbits, possums and rats, which even with various control methods in place are still devastating to our environment.
This raises another issue, roosters. Our children know if it’s a rooster, ultimately it will end up in the freezer. Most boy animals do on our small farm. But one of the issues which made me decide to write this post was the disposal of unwanted roosters. Again, it comes down to philosophy. Of which mine is, if you cannot dispose of your unwanted roosters either through culling or giving/selling to someone else, you should not breed chickens or any poultry or water fowl for that matter. This may sound harsh but the real harshness is in over populations of roosters or abandoned roosters. The recommended ratio is about a minimum of ten chooks to one rooster, however I would go as far to say that unless the roosters were raised together, we would only have one rooster per area. If the rooster count is exceeded life becomes very hard for the girls with persistent mating, often one rooster after the other, which can result in injury or the death of your chooks. Dominance fights between roosters also are very brutal generally resulting in significant damage to the birds or again death. Keeping chooks is a wonderful way to introduce yourself or your children to caring for livestock and where your food comes from. But being aware of the issues that can arise though breeding or even buying fertile eggs to hatch is very important. So many times, we have offered to take roosters only to be told ‘no its alright I’ll just drop them off at …. (where ever the local rooster abandoning spot is)’, they would rather let a domesticated bird loose in the wild then allow it to be quickly culled or a family to eat it. Instead these birds are often introduced to an area where there are other roosters and the resulting carnage is not seen or not their problem. The over population of males in many species can result in very brutal and traumatic displays of nature. People often wish to save the roosters and I get it, they are stunning looking creatures, but if these same people were confronted with the realities of chicken life I wonder if that feeling would remain.
Which brings another dilemma to mind, pet rams. We have over the past six months culled two pet rams for people. Both were absolute menaces and it was a difficult decision for the people in both instances. But after seeing how dangerous both beasts had become, we simply made an offer to buy for dog tucker and left it with them. When the offers were accepted, we removed the rams from their property and quickly dispatched them once back on our property. While there may be the odd exception, the combination of an entire male sheep reaching sexual maturity and having no fear or at least a healthy respect of people is pure trouble. They become aggressive and it is no longer safe for children or even, in some cases (such as these two rams), adults to enter the paddock. Castrating a young male lamb will remove this issue and result in a nice pet sheep if that is what you want. It is situations like this that you will encounter if you choose to have livestock. It is, like all things a journey in which you never stop learning.
In an age where farmers and even meat eaters are getting a lot of flak, where misinformation is rife, caring for animals is becoming more and more monitored and observed. A dairy farm had a cow in its ‘hospital’ paddock, they were monitoring this cow, encouraging it to stand, doing everything they should. But from the view point of the road, situations can be assumed. With this in mind the farmer parked his tractor in front of the cow to block the outsiders view. It was decided that culling was necessary and it was promptly done, all behind the screen of this tractor. People are easily offended and those without knowledge jump to conclusions. In this PC world you are not only providing suitable care for your animals but you are protecting yourself from harm. There are guide lines and it pays to learn them, though most are just common sense. But the divide between town and country is growing, most urban people lack an understanding of farming, animal care and management in general. They have lost their connection with the land and its natural systems, lost the connection between life and death.