Everyone thinks that butchering day is the saddest day on a farm, but I can assure you it isn’t. There is a melancholy cloud that settles on the place as the day nears but there are a lot of other feelings, too. Satisfaction, pride, fulfillment, and an odd wave of relief at having crossed a finish line that felt so far away on the day he was born.
People usually tell me that they couldn’t bear to butcher an animal they’ve raised since birth, that it would be too hard to say goodbye or too sad to never see them again. Some goodbyes are never easy, but the weight of butchering these animals pales in comparison to the pride of being able to supply people with something they feel better about eating, with meat from an animal who lived as wild and free as he possibly could, and who was sincerely adored from the day he was born. Meat from an animal who made this environment a healthier, more vibrant ecosystem for his brothers and sisters, for local wildlife, and for us humans.
Having an animal ready to butcher means so many things. It means that from the day that animal was born to the morning he’s butchered I kept him safe. I kept him protected. I kept him well fed and wanting for little. I cared for him when he was sick and treated him when he needed it. I watched him with the same persistence and nagging worry that mothers pour over their unknowing children, wondering whether some hidden evil is plotting on stealing them away before we’re able to snatch them from its clutches.
And no matter how pleased I am with how the herd is doing, there is never a complete sense of peace because I have witnessed many times now how quickly it can go so wrong.
There are far worse fates than the butcher and so many ways that nature will try to steal him from you from the second his hooves hit the ground. There are loose dogs who prey on livestock for sport and coyotes eager to feast on lambs and kids. There are mothers who die trying to birth babies that are far too big, and babies born dead with genetic deformities their mothers never had. There are gates left open and opportunistic animals who won’t be found again and thieves who will round up your herd and steal them in the dead of night. There are unfortunate accidents like a bull who breaks his leg fighting with another, cows who lay down the wrong way on a hillside and die from bloat when they’re unable to get up, sheep who sneak into the barn and consume so much feed that they become acidotic and die. There are chickens who shouldn’t have tried to cross the road and there are beautiful young bucks who would have sired so many lines had they not fallen into the neighbor’s well house and drowned.
And there are diseases – so many diseases. Some are simple to cure if found in time while others pounce with only a moment’s notice and half that much time to do something about it.
Sometimes you are lucky enough to find them before it’s too late. You will find them splayed out, barely breathing, hypothermic and practically dead and you will fight like hell to keep them. You will spend hours or even days fighting some disease or injury or condition. Sometimes you won’t even know what’s wrong, but you will know that they are suffering from their weak cries, labored breathing, droopy ears, and listless bodies. You will feed them water from a turkey baster and force medicine down their throats. You will hold them close to you to keep them warm or construct elaborate shelters to protect them from the elements where they went down in the pasture.
Sometimes you are able to turn them around and eventually return them to the herd. You will get to see her live a long healthy life in which she gives you more than a dozen beautiful new animals. And one day when she is old and her time here has passed you will find her body lying under a cedar tree, or next to the pond, or among her sisters, and you will miss her, but you will hold your head high in her memory knowing that you gave her the life she deserved.
But sometimes you won’t save her. Sometimes she will die screaming in your arms as you sit on a cold bathroom floor at 4 o’clock in the morning.
The next day, you will open her up demanding some explanation for this meaningless death. Sometimes you find nothing. Not a single answer. Other times you find evidence of some disease and suddenly all the clues that you’ve collected rearrange themselves into a perfect retelling of her death. You had noticed her seeming somewhat off yesterday morning, a bit depressed, but she felt full, her mother was in good condition, and the weather was favorable, so you set her back down and went about your day.
The dark spots blanketing her tiny pink lungs will tell you that you were wrong. That she died of Pasteurella pneumonia, an opportunistic disease that exists in the pastures and preys on weak ones. A disease that takes their lives in a matter of hours in some cases.
Last week, the first animal born on my first farm, little six-week-old Starla, died screaming in my arms from Pasteurella pneumonia sitting on the bathroom floor at 4 o’clock in the morning. Every untimely death crushes me, but none like this. Of all the kids to take, cruel nature and her countless other choices took the one who symbolized so much for me. I will have many more just like her, but there can never be another first of firsts.
People will tell you it wasn’t your fault but that won’t matter because you will always feel responsible for every single death. After all, I could have brought her inside and kept a closer eye on her when I noticed that she wasn’t acting quite right. It might still have been too late, but for the rest of my life I will always wonder if that was the exact moment I sealed her fate. The last opportunity for meaningful intervention.
You will try to take some meaning from the little grave that you dug next to the pen where she would have slept with her herd each night so that it doesn’t feel so pointless. You will go over the sequence of events a thousand times and you will try to learn how to see those forks in the road that make the difference between saving a life and losing a life as they present themselves instead of in hindsight when it’s too late.
And you will remember every single one of them to some degree for a long time. After all, they are martyrs for the ones to come who will reap the benefits of your hard lesson learned. Sometimes it’s our losses that make us better instead of the successes that breed complacency.
So, yes. Butchering animals is a heavy business but don’t think for a second that seeing one of your fat and happy animals die swiftly at the hands of your butcher is just something to be sad about. Consider instead that it means I succeeded in giving him the best of everything I had for every single day that he was mine.
Goodbye, little girl. I knew we'd have to say it one day, but I never meant for it to be so soon.
About our Guest Blogger, Lauren:
Lauren is a farmer and agricultural law professor in NW Arkansas. She raises and direct markets grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, lamb, and goat. You can find her on Instagram: @WhiteHoofAcres