There’s a lot to love about living on a farm or on a homestead. The peace and quiet, the freedom to what you want with your own land, the privacy and raising your own food.
One of my favorite parts of Rusty Metal Farm life are the critters with whom I share my world.
But as anyone who lives with animals knows, that love can be both a blessing and a curse.
Farmers put a lot of work into their animals. Whether it’s livestock like cows or pigs, poultry like chickens or ducks or companion critters like dogs or horses. Each one has their own specific nutritional, medical and emotional needs.
That’s right, I said it. Emotional needs.
I don’t care if it’s a steer being raised for meat or a dog that curls up at your feet at the end of the day. Animals have feelings. They show fear, anger, love and sadness. Just like we do. And I’ve yet to meet a farmer who does not acknowledge that, or who does not at any given time feel those same emotions when it comes to farm animals.
Trust me, nothing will get on your last nerve faster than a balky steer who refuses to remove his hoof from where he just squarely planted it on your foot.
Ever have a group of horses surround you and stare you down? I don’t think I really understood fear until that moment.
But those are rare events in my own farm-ish life. And even those farmers for whom such events are a daily occurance will tell you how much love and respect they feel toward their animals.
Which brings me to the emotion of sadness.
Because unless you are raising giant tortoises or African grey parrots — which can live up to 120 years and 60 years, respectively — odds are you will outlive any animal with whom you share your life.
That is certainly the case with farm animals raised for food, which often live for just a year.
But pretty much every small farmer or homesteader I know in Maine who raise meat animals is committed to making sure that critter has the best life possible before slaughter. I’m not talking about the large factory farms you see in the midwest that raise thousands of animals at a time and who ship them off to massive slaughter facilities for processing. I’m talking about the farmers I’ve met and interviewed who talk of respect for the animal and often mention the gratitude they feel toward it for supplying wholesome meat.
These animals are treated kindly and with love. They have clean barns with fresh hay and food and plenty of pasture on which to graze or wander.
When the time does come for slaughter, the farmers I know makes sure it’s done in the quickest, most humane way possible to cause the least amount of stress in the last moment of that critter’s life.
And yeah, I’ve talked to farmers who tear up talking about the death of animals they knew from the get-go were destined for slaughter.
Here on Rusty Metal Farm, the only animals I have raised for food were meat chickens. In all honesty, I really did not think I could get as attached as I did to birds who lived for just 10-weeks and whose sole purpose was to fatten up for slaughter.
But over those weeks I saw their personalities develop and really enjoyed feeding them treats and watching them hunt for bugs out in their yard.
Since their lifespan was defined in mere weeks, I made sure it was a good one. I built objects for them to play on, provided items for them to examine and would talk to them every day.
When the day came to move them from their coop to the freezer — by way of the chopping block and automated feather plucker gizmo — I had to really dig deep. Sure, I could have shipped them off to a local slaughterhouse for processing, but I felt I owed it to them to see the process through from start to finish.
And yes, I shed a few tears.
Most recently my poultry raising has focused on egg-laying hens who can live up to five years or so.
On Rusty Metal Farm, a hen who stops laying is allowed to retire and remain with the flock until she is taken by natural causes. I figure after a life of providing me with yummy fresh eggs, I owe them that much.
This past month has been especially hard with four of my gals passing away. And, as the flock continues to age, I know there will be more going to the big coop in the sky.
Sometimes the death of a farm animal is unexpected, especially if it’s more of a companion animal.
My friend Janice has a small herd of alpacas. Not long ago, she phoned me to say one had just given birth. After mom and baby alpaca — which are called crias — had sufficient time to bond in privacy, Janice invited me over to get some photos.
The cria — a little girl Janice named Willow — was all legs, fluff and giant brown eyes. Mama alpaca was obviously devoted to her and the other members of the herd were curious but gentle with the tiny newcomer.
All in all, it was almost too much cuteness to handle.
But little Willow only lived for 48 short hours.
The second morning of her life Janice’s husband went into the barn to discover her laying on the ground and not moving.
He rushed to get Janice and she ran to the barn where she attempted both CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Willow, all to no avail. For reasons unknown this tiny creature who brought so much joy to her owners for an all-too-brief time, was dead.
Janice was heartbroken, but told me that she found comfort in the fact that, short as her life was, Willow knew only kindness and love.
That’s the thing with farm animals. You go into with your eyes wide open, knowing they won’t live forever.
You just need to be prepared to have those eyes fill with tears when that time comes.
Either that, or start shopping for tortoises.