I’m currently reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver (I know, I know…I’m way late to the party), and a passage popped out that I’d like to share:
“There was probably a time when I thought it euphemistic to speak of “harvesting” animals. Now I don’t. We calculate “months to harvest” when planning for the right time to start poultry. We invite friends to “harvest parties,” whether we’ll be gleaning vegetable or animal. A harvest implies planning, respect, and effort. With animals, both the planning and physical effort are often greater, and respect for the enterprise is substantially more complex.”
In all of our marketing I use the term “harvest” as opposed to “slaughter” as much as possible. On the one hand, part of my reasoning is to avoid the kneejerk emotional response words like slaughter so often carry. Of course, the reason slaughter causes an emotional reaction is because many of us are so far removed from where our food comes from that we are no longer accustomed to the reality that animals must die for us to eat meat. On the other hand, as Kingsolver says, we really do plan for, nurture, feed, grow, and tend to our animals for an entire season with the end game being the inevitable harvest of their meat.
This season has been a significant one in terms of learning lessons in animal husbandry, and often we have learned the hard way. Animal farming is an endeavor with steep emotional highs and lows. Our sows delivered amazing, adorable, healthy little piglets– a first for us. While we lost a couple that were not thriving (very common in piglet litters), we have been amazed at our success this first go-around. On the other hand, the weaner pigs that we purchased in from a breeder have had a harder time. We have already learned so much about how to raise our own piglets from birth that we can see all of the errors that took place before we ever got these other pigs to our farm. They were undersized and sickly, and after loosing four of them we have discovered with the help of our vet that they are suffering from worms and pneumonia.
Granted, both worms and pneumonia are common ailments in pigs, and we don’t put all the blame on the breeder. The weather patterns this season have been extreme, and when hot weather suddenly yields to cold, wet nights little pigs have a hard time adjusting. We raise our pigs outdoors on dirt, and worm eggs are practically inevitable. The difference we see is that the pigs we brought in had weak immunity, whether from being undernourished, or weaned too young, we’re not sure. One of them was also incorrectly castrated, a mistake we had to correct ourselves. It’s amazing what you can learn how to do with a good book and some YouTube videos!
Speaking of YouTube videos, check out our Turkey Tunnel in action! For those of you who aren’t in the loop, we raised enough money within 48 hours of launching our Barnraiser campaign to build our Turkey Tunnel! We are so grateful and overwhelmed by everyone’s support!
Circling back to the harvest theme, the weaner pigs (so named because they are purchased once they are weaned), are slated for harvest this fall. Their illness has set some of them back, and we are keeping a close eye on them to make sure they are gaining weight and acting healthy. Our vet came out and gave them some medications to help combat the pneumonia and worms, along with some vitamins. One of the medications was an antibiotic, a word that sends many a customer into a tailspin. A huge part of what we do as meat farmers is education, and the Farmer’s Market booth is our podium, soapbox, and pulpit. Today that will extend to my blog!
It’s true that antibiotic resistance is a huge problem, and agriculture plays a big role in this. Antibiotics are grossly overused in many feedlot and confined animal farm operations (CAFOs), for a couple of reasons. In some species small doses of antibiotics have been shown to increase feed efficiency, meaning animals will grow faster while consuming the same amount of feed. Same feed (input) + more meat (output) = more profit (duh). Regular doses of antibiotics also prevent illness which are very common in animals that are kept in close confinement without access to nature’s greatest sterilizer: the sun. Overuse of antibiotics can certainly pose a risk and we never give antibiotics on a regular basis for convenience or profit.
That said, our tagline is “Ethically Raised Meat.” In my experience that means doing what is right to keep our animals healthy. Of course as farmers this is always a tough call. We also have to balance reasonable expectations and costs with our ideals. If an animal is greatly injured with little chance of recovery, we sometimes decide that a quick death is most humane and practical. This happened recently with one of our turkeys that somehow managed to get his leg stuck between roosting bars in the turkey tunnel. By the time we found him he had been hanging upside from one leg for a while, and the other turkeys had treated him rather like a living piñata. The damage was great and so was his pain, so we made the decision to end his life. So too with three of the four pigs we lost.
However, when a group of animals is diagnosed with pneumonia but are not yet knocking on death’s door, we call in the vet and listen to her wise counsel. Giving our pigs a shot of antibiotics to keep them alive is an easy call for us. Not only for our ethics, but for our business. I find it hard to write about these things because most people want to see the good, fun, lovely bits of farm life, but there is real hardship in this work. As far as economics go, we are basically living hand to mouth (well, except for the fact that we raise amazing meat and have a great network of food-growing friends!)- so losing four pigs means more than the sadness of losing those lives. It means losing almost 800lbs of pork at the end of the season, and the money that we would earn from that meat.
No farm raising animals on any real scale can avoid loss – it’s an inevitable part of growing livestock. Our goal is to minimize this loss while maintaining our standards. CAFO managers may actually be able to claim greater success in terms of survival rates because their operations are so carefully maintained. Their buildings are climate controlled, they have an arsenal of antibiotics and other medications handy, and the feed is carefully tested in a lab to ensure optimal nutrition. I happen to think that despite all of this, our animals are better off. They sometimes get sick thanks to wacky weather, and sometimes there are freak accidents. But they are outside, engaging in natural behaviors, acting socially with one another, and enjoying a varied daily life. They are – in my best estimate- happy.
So here’s to the upcoming fall harvests, when pigs, turkeys and lambs will be sacrificed to feed our families. Here’s to the ongoing summer chicken harvests, which are long tiring days that end with freezers full of meat. Here’s to the goat harvests, where we always learn something new about other cultures (did you know that Nepalese people like to deep fry goat intestinal casings and eat it while drinking whiskey!?), and here’s to our momma sows – Tuesday and Emily, whose natural mothering abilities and wonderful piglets remind us of that never ending cycle we are fortunate enough to witness every season at the farm.