Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Raising Livestock for Food

“Animal rights” has had a lot of attention during the past several decades, with some groups making attacks on the raising of food animals. Vegetarian activists want to abolish the eating of animals. This would basically do away with domestic livestock, depriving farmers and ranchers of their way of life. As an animal lover and stockman, I resent this attack, which claims that my chosen profession is unnecessary, immoral, and cruel.

I respect the vegetarians’ views and personal commitment — their “religious freedom,” if you want to put it in those terms. But when they crusade to end animal agriculture, infringing on my rights and beliefs, I must stand up for my philosophy of life that views animal husbandry as wholesome and good.

We humans and our animals can have a symbiotic relationship,
as shown by granddaughter Emily with her pet cow, Buffalo Girl.

It seems ironic that the “love of animals” that motivates the animal rights person or vegetarian is generally inspired by a relationship with the very animals that people use and breed for our own purposes — cats, dogs, horses, livestock. Is it fair to deny these animals existence just because some people resent human “dominion” over these creatures? We humans and our animals can have a truly symbiotic partnership.

There is great satisfaction in growing your own food, whether raising a garden or a beef animal. If you raise your own meat, you have the pleasure and privilege of getting to know the animal. Growing our own food is very rewarding. Just as a gardener derives satisfaction producing fruits and vegetables for his or her family, the caretaker of cattle enjoys providing the meat. Humans and cattle have had an intimate interrelationship for several thousand years. Caring for cattle is good for the soul.

Caring for cattle is good for the soul.
There’s nothing I’ve enjoyed more than
calving season and taking care of the new babies.

Someone who has never raised livestock may have difficulty understanding the feelings of the stockman for his animals and may find it hard to understand how a person who enjoys cattle can raise them to butcher and eat. As an animal lover who has spent a lifetime (59 years with horses and cattle) caring for livestock, I must point out that animal husbandry is natural, and part of our human heritage — a heritage I’ve been happy to pass on to my children and grandchildren.

I am glad that my children and grandchildren share my passion for
raising cattle. In this photo daughter Andrea is introducing
her firstborn (baby Emily) to one of the cows in our son’s herd.

There is intense fulfillment in being a stockman, a shepherd, a caretaker of cows. The pastoral tradition runs deep in our roots. The shepherd cares about his sheep, the cowman cherishes his cattle. These animals have been part of our survival, part of our lives — and for the stockman, a way of life. We come to love that which is important to us.

We come to love that which is important to us, as shown by
granddaughter Emily feeding this orphan calf — which she
named Nick Nack Paddy Whack Jack.

As a small child I wondered why animals had to be killed. I could not understand this seeming tragic end to their beautiful existence. Yet many of the animals I loved in childhood were there because we raised them to eat. They would not have existed except for animal agriculture. These recipients of my love and care would not have been there for me to love. Even my favorite horse would not have been planned and conceived, nor would his recent ancestors, for their purpose was to herd cattle. Our cow dog (and family pet) would never have been born. My life would have been lonely and less satisfying, deprived of these relationships that meant so much to me growing up.

Cattle I have raised and eaten were often pets that I loved. Eating an animal does not mean we are indifferent, does not negate a responsible caring. On the contrary, it generally means a closer relationship than most folks have the chance to experience or understand. Anyone who grows food, whether a garden, a lamb, a milk cow or chickens — or a steer to butcher when it grows up — is much more in touch with reality than the person who refuses to look his food in the face. The person who grows his own food, knowing that he will eat it, has taken on a responsibility that enlarges his own awareness of life and his own part in it.

Many of the cattle I have raised to eat were pets that I loved.
This heifer was born twin to a bull calf; she was therefore a freemartin
and infertile — unable to have calves of her own — so she was destined
from the beginning to become meat for our table.

In tending a garden or caring for animals, we find harmony with the earth and with life, in a mature and responsible way. Raising an animal, caring for it — with full knowledge that you are going to eat it — requires more responsibility and maturity than refusing to eat an animal because it must be killed. This is a fact of existence we cannot ignore. Our bodies require nourishment, and something must give up its life so we can live, whether animal or vegetable; that's a basic fact of life on this planet. All life feeds upon other life. Domestic animals would not exist except for our use of them, and they are lovely, happy, remarkable creatures. Our earth would be the poorer if they did not exist.

Caring for animals requires responsibility — such as checking
on them regularly to make sure they are healthy.

If we didn’t have livestock, we would lose a major source of good food and a source of education for living, as well as many rewarding relationships. Many a child would be deprived of his pet and best friend. We’d miss that self-assured milk cow who thinks she’s part of the family, or the clownish steer in the pasture who comes up to the fence to have his ears tickled and his neck rubbed.

My husband Lynn checking a group
of cows on one of our hill pastures

Tending animals leads to responsibility, patience, compassion, commitment — awareness of something that matters more than self. Animals and their needs teach us dedication. Daily chores and feeding make us forgo our own desires and pleasures at times, because the animals and their needs must come first. Owning animals extracts a large commitment. We become responsible for their care. It’s like a marriage — not something you should enter into lightly nor refuse to take seriously. The human-animal relationship can build strength of character, reliability, and deeper understanding and can pave the way for greater patience and understanding in human relationships. What we learn with animals often stands us in good stead for many other aspects of living.

Tending animals leads to responsibility, as our granddaughters
Dani and Samantha are delightfully learning, helping feed this orphan calf.

Raising animals for food does not imply a callous disregard for animals but rather a heightened awareness of life, and responsibility for our actions. The cattle I raise exist only because I raise them. Therefore, I have a moral obligation to them, and a big responsibility — to give them shelter, adequate feed, medical help if they get sick. It means staying up nights during calving season, giving assistance in birth, and sometimes in death. It is a heavy responsibility and often takes all of my talent, courage, time, and strength to care for them properly.

Responsibility for my animals means staying up nights
during calving season, giving assistance when needed,
helping a cold calf nurse for the first time.

Spiritual maturity comes to different people in different ways. We work toward it along many paths. Some may choose to be vegetarian. Some of us shall always be meat eaters and keepers of cattle, striving to learn more about them, to find better ways to care for them, finding parables for life and living as we work with animals and the land, dealing with birth, and with death.

Daughter Andrea dries a newborn calf, a twin that the mother didn’t lick dry.

Living close to nature and animals helps us realize our own place in the scheme of things, in the cycle of life. We find a certain trust and peace. It becomes easier to realize that mankind is part of the whole fabric of creation — mortal yet immortal, existing in a harsh and indifferent world, yet loved. We find we can still be in tune with creation and our Creator even when some things seem out of tune.

Animal agriculture, raising cattle — and all the responsibility this involves — working with the land and the animals the land supports, helps me find my own fit in that creation and puts me into harmony with it. Some folks may find a different way, but as for me, I shall always raise cows.

I shall always raise cows.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.


elle squared said...

An intelligent and compassionate essay---beautifully written. I wholeheartedly agree with the author's viewpoint. We pasture two beef heifers each summer, and it is one of the most soul-satisfying endeavors this former city-girl has ever undertaken. We provide committed care, compassion, and yes--even love--to our two cows. And after all is said and done, they later provide for us. A very grounding, gravid experience. And one I wouldn't give up for the world.

Jenny said...

Beautiful post! While we don't yet own livestock we look forward to it in the near future. Thank you for sharing.