Today’s post is not the usual upbeat post, but its important and I think it is something that deserves talking about.
Death and slaughter on the farm – they are natural parts of farming that all farmers will be presented with eventually, even if you only have dairy goats and laying hens.
For those of us that don’t come from a farming or hunting background this is usually completely uncharted territory. I certainly don’t have the steel emotion and calm acceptance of a well seasoned farmer. So I’ve decided to share what it has been like for me, an emotional, animal loving pansy.
Our first experience with death was about a year after we got our chickens, we had a coyote attack that left us two chickens down. We looked out the window and saw a coyote trotting away with a hen in its mouth. We were sad but had been prepared for an animal attack on our free range birds. After this we tried to make sure the dogs were out often and that the chickens were closed up at dusk.
The next experience was also an animal attack but a lot more gruesome. About 6 months after the coyote attack we saw a fox around and even had a hen nabbed by it. The following evening we were late closing up the coop and when Toby went out to do it, it was an explosion of feathers. The fox had come back for more and found a coop full of easy prey. Toby found one bird whose neck had been torn open. There was no saving it, so Toby used a axe to kill it before burying it. Toby said that it was a horrible experience all around. We were both pretty shaken up after this experience and very disappointed to have lost our flock.
This summer three of our lady goats were set to kid. Our first kidding, last summer, was issue free. Bella delivered her kids and raised them all by herself. This year we were less lucky. We ended up with a bottle baby that Bella rejected. This wasn’t so bad, but it meant a lot waking up to feed him and some extra mess in the house. The next kidding was Buttercup, she also had triplets. The first baby was pointed the wrong way which made it impossible for Buttercup to give birth by herself. I called the vet and then sat with Buttercup and waited. When the vet arrived she gave Buttercup something to help her relax and reached in to see what was going on. When we finally got the first kid out he was already dead. I was lucky to have the vet there to help, I don’t I could have done it without her. She accepted the death so easily and assured me that goats are better equipped than humans to deal with death. I think her exact words were “She is already over it and ready to get the next one out”. Had I been on my own for this, I would have been devastated. But her calm attitude reminded me that this is the reality of farming, not every animal makes it. I can’t be good at my job if I become a complete mess every time we lose an animal. I’m not saying it doesn’t suck, or that its not sad. It is sad; from an emotional perspective and a business perspective it is a loss. But it is part of animal husbandry and dealing with it without falling to pieces is better for you and your animals.
So far I’ve described animal death that was (mostly) out of our control. Dealing with animal attacks and birth issues is rough but it is very different than slaughtering animal. On the farm you may need kill an animal because it is sick, injured, dangerous or ready to be processed for meat.
This week I slaughtered my first animal on the farm and I want to share how I felt about it. While preparing to do it I looked all over the internet for tips on your first time killing a chicken. There were many helpful videos on actually doing the deed but there wasn’t a lot of information on how it feels to do it. I’m completely new to farming and the idea of taking a life was terrifying. I had a huge lump in my stomach and felt weepy before I even grabbed the bird. I wanted to know that other people felt like this… I wanted reassurance that despite my fear and sadness around the idea of killing, I still have what it takes to be a farmer. Are farmers allowed to cry after they kill a sick bird? Is it normal for my hands to shake before and after? And mostly will I end up becoming numb to all of these feelings around death on the farm? Being just one year into farming and having slaughtered only one animal leaves me not even close to answering these questions. But I can you tell that I did cry after, my hands still shake when I think about it and even though I want it to be easier, I don’t think I’ll ever be completely numb and I kind of don’t want to be.
So… I had to kill a chicken. Last year I purchased some really rough looking birds from a Kijiji ad. They were clearly not super healthy but I couldn’t leave them there. When I got home and had a closer look I saw that they were in even worse shape than I thought. All the birds had scaly leg mites, they had never had access to perches and as a result had deformed feet, their feathers were dull and oily and they all had very concerning posture. When winter hit all but one passed away. The one that made it started to look better and we thought she was on track for a full recovery. This spring we noticed she was walking weirdly upright and not looking great. We picked her up and found that she had a super swollen abdomen. We did a little research and found that it could be caused by various issues but no matter the cause the outlook wasn’t good. I hesitated for a few days but the night I found her outside the coop, because she was so swollen she couldn’t walk up the ramp, I knew it was time. This was when I came into the house and looked up the least painful method of killing a chicken. I found that the cervical dislocation with a broomstick (warning graphic content) is the quickest and most efficient way to go. I read as much as I could to ensure that I did it properly, because doing it incorrectly will cause the bird to suffer. When I was ready I went and grabbed the hen, I carried her over to the square of asphalt where I had the broomstick waiting. I lay her belly down on the driveway and felt for the spot where the spine meets the base of the skull, this is where I lay the broomstick. Taking her feet in my hand and pulling back slightly to make sure the broom was in the right spot, I put my feet on the broomstick and pulled back quickly. Her head was removed cleanly from her body and that was it. I waited for the wings to stop flapping and then had a good cry. It wasn’t as bad as I thought but it was hard and it made me sad. Toby and I had a quick hug and then went to dig a hole. That was my experience… I hope that it helps you feel like you’re not alone if the idea of dispatching your animals makes you queasy. It’s OK to feel something about death, in fact I think that its very important to understand the value of each animals life.
Since then we lost another baby goat and to be honest it was just a little less heart breaking. Every day I’m growing more and learning more about life on the farm. I look forward to the lessons to come… even the hard ones.