Culling breeding livestock seems like a bit of a taboo subject to talk about. But right from the beginning, I promised myself I’d share everything on here, no sugar-coating or glossing over. I want you to be able to see how much farmers care about their animals, and how much we respect them, both in life and in death. So, I’m diving in headfirst…
It’s easy to look at the cute calves and forget that, one day, they’ll be adults and will, hopefully, end up in the food chain; either as prime beef animals who have been raised solely for meat, or as I’m going to talk about today, after a career as a breeding animal.
I say hopefully, as that’s where we want all of our cattle to end up.
If they don’t end up in the food chain, it means they died on the farm. Either unexpectedly and therefore we can’t know whether they suffered, or because something went wrong and they needed putting out of their misery quickly, without a trip in a trailer. Those are the scenarios we never want, and they break our hearts, even more than when we make the decision to take the old faithful ones to slaughter.
Cows have to be culled (sold for beef) for a number of reasons- the most common here being old age, repeated failure to get in-calf, murderous tendencies (towards humans), the mothering ability of a brick, or for the good of their health, to save them from suffering.
People tend to like the idea of breeding livestock living out their retirement years roaming freely in a wildflower-filled meadow, and honestly, there are times when we, as farmers, dream of that too (and sometimes do keep an extra-special one as a pet, but obviously can’t afford to do that with them all). But the dreamy scenario of a herd of cows or flock of sheep accompanying each other into old age misses the part where those animals suffer pain from age-related arthritis or other issues, and that dying of natural causes can be slow and painful as each organ grinds to a halt.
There’s nothing worse than when they beat you to it and you find your old girl dead in the field from a suspected heart-attack with no knowledge of how long it took or whether she was suffering beforehand. I know I’d much prefer to say goodbye while they are still fighting fit than let them know the struggles old age may bring.
The promise we make them, as farmers, is that we will do everything in our power to avoid their suffering and give them a good death as well as a good life.
There were two cows we said goodbye to last year in order to keep that promise. They both had problems we’d tried multiple times to get to the bottom of and fix, but ultimately, we’d run out of options and it was time to do what these beautiful animals, our friends, trust us to do for them- prevent them from suffering and take away their pain.
They’re still missed, and it was a sad farewell to two cows otherwise in their prime, who should have had many more years here. But taking them to a market to be taken to slaughter that day was what was best, for them.
This year, we plan to say goodbye to another three. Two of them due to old age- we’ve noticed this winter they’re starting to look their age and have dropped to the bottom of the pecking order. It’s really hard to know when to make that call, and however good your intentions, you sadly can’t always get it right, so I hope we’ve decided early enough with these two.
The third is younger than the others, but the bull hurt her hips when he bulled her last May. She had time in a small field to recover last year and is almost 100% again, especially now she’s given birth to the rather large calf that was weighing her down, but this will be her final calving- we don’t want to risk him hurting her again and causing permanent nerve damage.
We always hope to get the final say in when their life ends, and hope that when that day comes, they’ll be fit and healthy enough to walk onto the trailer and be taken to an abattoir, stress free.
That also means their meat doesn’t end up going to waste but can instead be respected, and nourish other lives as we nourished them. Well, how much it’s respected is debatable- livestock who are older than what’s considered ‘prime’ meat animals are sold at ginormous, uncalled-for, discounts, but I think that’s a story for another time.
I know a lot of people find it hard to think about what they’re eating as living things, but I feel it shows the upmost respect for the animal when the products they have produced are consumed with full awareness and gratitude for their lives, rather than pretending the food came from a supermarket shelf and had no living past. Although, granted, that may be easier for us farm-grown lot who grew up naming our roast dinner and thanking our sausages at the dinner table (which I learnt others don’t tend to do when friends didn’t want to eat their dinner after knowing he was called Patrick…).
But I was always taught to celebrate them in life and in death, and I’m forever grateful for that perspective.
They know freedom, safety and comfort, and we do our very best to make sure they will never know fear or pain. As they walk onto the trailer, old or young, for whatever reason they are being culled, or if they are finished beef animals, we say a silent thank you for their lives and the meals they will now provide.
And we feel an overwhelming relief at being able to keep our promise this time and choose for the ending to be as free from pain or stress as possible.