Everywhere a person turns these days someone has pointed advice for him about how to behave: his driving, his shopping habits, his telephone manner, his respect for all living things and quite a few dead ones. Rules have been written for every conceivable human action, together with penalties, points deducted and swipes taken on Twitter and Facebook. And then, despite a life’s work trying to follow the rules… he gets cancelled.
There is no escape from any of it. As my father-in-law, the old shepherd and cattleman, used to say: “They’re coming for us next, mother.”
Livestock farmers are now a threatened species, just like you see on Yellowstone every week. I am a livestock man myself, but ridiculously soft-headed and impractical about it. I have kept a flock of sheep for 30 years now and never learned to ship old ewes when they move past their lamb-producing days. After an old girl has cranked out 10 or 12 lambs for me, it seems cold-hearted to put her on a truck and send her for shish kebab in the city. It doesn’t feel right. So, I just shrug, pat them on the head as I go by and wait for the morning when they finally wake up dead and then plant them in the orchard with 200 of their ancestors.
Don’t bother telling me this is ridiculous. A real sheep farmer knows there are at least 12 ways to go broke in the sheep business and one of them is keeping old ewes around. The rules of shepherding are all like this: you don’t keep ewes that fail to bond with a lamb, that don’t milk properly, that have back legs that bend in or out, that have bottom front teeth that protrude…the list goes on. Any one of these faults will suck the profit out of a sheep operation. As my grumpy old father-in-law, who got me into this occupation, used to say, “Fire her out of here! You learn to get sick of the sight of them!” Which is my problem. I never get sick of the sight of them because I don’t make a living out of them.
Sheep endure hardships like lambing, shearing, drenching, foot trimming, being hit from behind by a 300-lb. ram without so much as a ‘how do you like me so far?’ and they process it all with stoical calm, the way I endure taxes, cell phone bills and withering criticism from readers. Sheep just put their heads down and soldier on, muttering the famous motto of the French infantry at Verdun: “Struggle, suffer, die.” This is the reason I like them so much. If you think you’re having a bad day, go sit with a sheep for an hour and you’ll feel better.
There is a point where animal welfare often spins off the road into goofy sentimentality, but it is usually the farmer who is guilty of it. It is the dairy farmer who buys the rubber pasture mats for the cows to lie on and pipes in all-night Barry Manilow hits on the sound system. The placard-waving vegans outside picketing the farm don’t realize the dairy farmer’s wife has many times expressed a wish to come back in the next life as one of her husband’s cows. But he will be cancelled just the same and we will drink oat milk for that is now the way of the world.
I am facing yet another moral decision with the two steers I have been fattening in the barnyard for the last eight months. Last summer, the Shorthorn, who I call Will de Beast, jumped on his pal Mike, the Hereford, who stumbled and buggered his ACL. Mike limped around for several months and lost a lot of weight. Eventually his leg healed but he is still way behind Will and not a prime specimen of a beef animal. In the beef business the rule is keep the best and sell the rest. But if you are selling to your brother and two neighbors, the rule must be reversed. You have to keep the junk to yourself.
“Why don’t you ship Mike to the stockyards, give your apologies to the neighbors and we’ll keep Will for ourselves?” asks my wife. I explain that Mike is a pal and I don’t feel right shipping him off into the industrial system after his gentle life on pasture, getting fed apples and carrots every day by hand. Again, it just seems too harsh.
“You are hopeless,” she says. “You’re not running a farm… it’s a pet cemetery.”
Next month, Will goes up the hill for his sleepover at the abattoir. Mike will stay behind and learn to give the children rides while we endure a supply chain shortage for beef. I am indeed hopeless.
Dan Needles is the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca