This has been playing on my mind lately, so I thought I’d share it with you. I hope you can take something from it; whether that’s comfort in knowing you’re not alone, or just a better sense of understanding or empathy…
“Where there’s livestock, there’s deadstock”
The oldest saying in the book. It’s the reality of working with living beings, but in a world seemingly fuelled on success stories and toxic positivity, reality can, quite easily, get brushed over.
It’s refreshing to see others sharing every aspect of farming- the joy, the sorrow, and everything in between… There’s a sense of solidarity found in vulnerability. After all, painting a picture of unattainable perfection doesn’t exactly provide much support to those within the industry having a tough time, not to mention, the false impression it gives the rest of the population about farm life.
I can see how working in agriculture can put an extra strain on people’s mental health. You put so much of yourself into looking after the land or stock (whether yours or another’s), your sense of self-worth becomes hinged on how well things are going; a precarious place to be, when many of the factors affecting this are out of your control.
As with many things, it’s all part of a bigger picture, and the rough years are invariably averaged out by the better ones. But when you’re in the depths of one, that’s not so easy to remember.
Some years pass like kidney stones
It’s safe to say, last year’s calving season didn’t exactly go to plan…
Our suckler herd isn’t very big, usually sitting around the 30-cow mark. Looking at last year’s records, we’d lost 6 calves by the end of calving, including 2 out of 3 sets of twins- 20% losses, as opposed to the targeted 3%. As I’m sure you can imagine, we were all feeling pretty demoralised by the end of Spring.
There were no concrete reasons; they weren’t from bad stockmanship or costly mistakes, and they couldn’t be explained away by a disease, like when you get a strain of scours which spreads through the calving shed like wildfire. They were literally just, bad luck. A mixture of malpresentations resulting in 3 which never took a breath, a set of twins which were unexplainably weak, and one sickly calf whose throat seemed obstructed or deformed, which had even our vets stumped. But this knowledge didn’t stop my dad blaming himself.
All deaths hit hard, as they should. You feel like you need to find a lesson in there, something to improve for next time. Although, sometimes, I think it’s just Nature’s way. In the case of the weak twins, their mother, Daisy, calved with next to no milk, as if her body knew she wouldn’t have to feed them. You might think it’s more of a coincidence, but I’ve seen plenty of animals just seem to know their offspring isn’t going to survive.
Putting our grief aside, we focused on those still living which needed our care. Farm life doesn’t stop when things go wrong, there’s always something else to be tended to; which can be a blessing, but also feel suffocating if the responsibility is solely yours to carry.
Luckily, there was a lot of new life around to brighten what was shaping up to be a dreary, waterlogged Spring. Plus, there were the foster calves which the cows had welcomed as their own (some with a bit of persuasion and clothes swapping), proving, even in such bleak situations, something joyful can flourish.
Still, the rest of the year was far from plain sailing.
We hadn’t ever seen a backwards calf or a C-section before- yet last year, we got 2 for the price of 1. A calf coming back legs first, which couldn’t be repositioned, coupled with a cow with a narrow pelvis, meant the calf had to come out the side-door. This one, although stressful, was thankfully a happy ending for both cow and calf.
Fast-forwards (through the summer drought which hit the country, causing poor yields on the arable land and grassland) to Autumn, where we then lost a cow. Our beloved ‘Honey Monster’ (she loved sweet things) had to be put-down, due to a road accident. That was an incredibly sad day, especially since, after all the trauma she’d been through, she’d still managed to stay pregnant; therefore, both lives were lost.
Parts of 2018 certainly showed us how difficult it can be to keep going when everything appears to be falling apart. But no years are without their trials (although, this year there has at least been less!), and likewise, there are many wonderful, uplifting moments to be found in each one.
So, if you’re reading this and currently starring in “The Series of Unfortunate Events”, please know, it really isn’t all sunshine and rainbows behind anyone else’s farm gate, either.
At some point, everybody sees the knackerman or vet more than they’d like, struggles with lameness, suffers with low yields, unhelpful weather, and loses the war against weeds or pigeons; and everybody is trying their best. The good outweighs the bad, or nobody would still choose to work in agriculture, but it’s important to acknowledge them both. There are too many farm suicides for ego and pride to come before honesty.
And remember, all suffering is relative. I was in two minds about mentioning our experiences; after all, it could have, and has, been much worse… But, do you know what? It could always be worse, perspective and gratitude don’t make situations any less challenging. All struggles are equally valid.
“In order to defeat the darkness, you must bring it into the light.”Seth Adam Smith