Farms can make you and farms can break you. I’ve never known a farm to do one without the other. It can come at your hand, it can come when you least expect it, and it can come at your hand when you least expect it. You will be asked to harbor sheer joy and pride at your accomplishments, only to turn around to be crushed by disaster and heartbreak. So does being ‘broken’ by farming preclude you from becoming a true farmer? I am apt to say no, but maybe that’s because, today, I am broken.
It all started a few weeks ago when I received a call from the Sheriff’s Department. Someone called to complain that we weren’t feeding our cows on the leased property. ‘Wow, that’s funny,’ I said, ‘because my husband is over there right now feeding them. Why don’t you go check it out for yourself.’ Sure enough, the Deputy went over and found my husband feeding the cows, something we do every day once the snow flies. This year, it happened earlier than usual, but we started haying regardless of the ‘time frame’ to make sure they would be happy through the winter. The Deputy assured me that he had no experience concerning “wildlife” and that my cows looked fine to him and he had no interest in pressing charges. I couldn’t decide what was more irritating; the fact that someone called the cops on me for an idiotic reason, or the fact that the Deputy thought my cows were “wildlife.” Ugh.
No matter how well cared for my cows are, or how I score their BCS, I was shaken by the fact that someone felt strongly enough to call the authorities about it. I kept telling myself that one cow, almost ten years old WITH a calf on her side, was on the thin side but not enough to cause me concern. In fact, this cow was to be processed out as our personal beef in January….an appointment I had made several months before. This didn’t bother me. Older cows that are nursing a calf should show signs of wear, it is inevitable. But otherwise she was healthy, her calf was healthy, she was eating primo alfalfa and living the good life up until her end, which came to her in her own pasture over her usual breakfast. This is my job, and I do it well.
A couple weeks after mild concern about a single call into the Sheriff’s Office, a friend sent my husband a text….’it was so-and-so who called to complain about your cows.’ Huh? We know so-and-so. Why wouldn’t they just call us? Apparently several people had called the Office to complain that we simply weren’t feeding our cows. What? Last year we fed them up by the road where everyone could gawk at them. Shaggy, long-horned, Scottish Highland beasts. Beautiful and elegant. This year, they are no different….except that we feed them far from the road and close to the barn which houses their hay. Their winter pasture also sits on a piece of property where, just a couple years prior, a man had starved his horses. Some to the point of death. Perhaps the people are concerned of a repeat event? Either way, not only are the cows fed, they are well fed. I do not feed grain. They will never be as bulbous as an Angus. They are healthy. And happy. They are my cows. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Now, I don’t begrudge someone their allowance to call on an animal they feel concerned about. I am happy to have someone voice their concerns. But I wish, especially for those that know me, that they would contact me. If you know me at all, you know I would not mistreat any animal.
Nothing came of it. The Sheriff’s Deputies continued to refer to my animals as ‘wildlife’ or ‘yaks.’ I was half tempted to send them a BCS Chart for future use. Then the processor came out and took three of our cows back with them for beef, including my old girl, and it all went amazingly well. But I took it hard. I shut down for several weeks. I barely admitted to my husband that anything was wrong and I internalized the fact that someone thought I was shit….until I began to feel that way all on my own. But why? I knew my animals were cared for and even though I knew my older cow would make it through the winter without suffering, I felt solace in the fact that she wouldn’t have to. Why was I letting an imposed self-doubt break me?
Because I care.
I slowly started to recover from the self doubt. I slowly started to feel pride for the beef we had raised, the way it was harvested, the product we would share. I started to look forward to the piglets we were expecting; the new life to replace the old. And then it happened….
We had brought home our two young dairy heifers to be halter and stanchion trained for a month during the cold winter. They both wore training halters and got practice leading and halting and standing to be touched and mock-milked in the stanchion. I had planned to take their halters off in a few days once we returned them to their pasture. But Luna…
Oh, Little Luna. I checked the paddock at noon right before we drove into town for lunch. We came back and went out again around three to feed everyone in the barn. My daughter found her. She had snagged her training halter on a tree limb, and it appears she broke her neck in a struggle. That is the most sense I can make of the precarious position I found her in. She was so tangled I almost couldn’t comprehend it. She was gone. I stayed calm in front of my children and our intern. I managed to call my husband so we could make a plan for the body, not an easy thing to move, not something I am willing to haul to the dump. I held it together until he got home, until I could send a message to Amy, Luna’s previous owner and a friend. Then I got into the shower. And I broke. I broke into a thousand-million tiny pieces. Some of which washed down the drain, mixing with beads of scalding water. Some of which I will never see again. Pieces of me and pieces of her. Lost forever.
I feel the self-doubt creeping back in. I feel the blame and the sorrow of a life that is lost. But I am ready for a long ride. I know that is what I bargained for in this life, the life of a farmer. Is it my fault that this heifer died? Yes. Ultimately, she was in my care. And while that could break me for good, I have to realize that it is The Point. She was in My Care. She was in my Care. Care. It’s what I do. It is what makes the breaking worth the making…and I am made.