My admiration and adulation goes out to all of those farmers that have big animals and do it humanely. To me, anything bigger than a chicken is a big animal. Well, maybe except for pigmy goats. The knowledge big animal farmers have to possess and dedication is daunting and to do it all humanely amazes me about them. The dedication alone makes me think what I do is just playing. I know I am not but by comparison, I am a babe in the woods.
When you choose to be a humane farm, in my opinion, that choice is made from one of two motivations; one is reason the other is emotion. Reason looks at the facts of animal production and takes into account, taste, productivity, health, environmental impact, total cost, rate of return on your investment and workload. Then there is the emotional decision. You take into account the health of all the animals, you anthropomorphize to a certain extent and you want to make their brief existence on this earth as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. Unstressed animals taste better and they need no or minimal drugs because of the healthy environment. No matter what motivation drives the choice, both ultimately benefit, people, animals and the environment.
I think when reason comes into play there is less angst when dealing with mortality. Having talked to colleagues and reading posts here, I know there is grief no matter how slight. I can see it in the words we all use when describing the loss, be it to slaughter, age and illness or shear economics. Even with reason your heart is in it, because with reason comes compassion and with compassion comes some amount of strings attached to the heart that will be tugged.
I am not a mental giant but, I can clearly claim I fall into the emotional category. Mortality was and still is my biggest hurtle. I did not want any animals, at all, because I knew that the mortality, for whatever reason was going to fall on my shoulders. Whether it was just to bury an expired animal or having to put one down to relieve its misery or worse yet taking the life because of economic reasons, I was against the notion. We did eventually get into animal husbandry as has been chronicled in our blog. As I age and mature, in my new role, I can say that my heart is not hardening but that I am getting less unsettled when dealing with mortality. It still takes a toll and I am reminded of Dr. Temple Grandin’s statement that ordinary people “can become sadistic from the dehumanizing work of constant slaughter.” We fall way short of anything close to that but the thought is there.
I will tell you we currently have four pet chickens out of the forty we have. These four are the oldest and no longer produce eggs. I cannot bring myself to take them to be processed. What got us through the first culling was we knew that the last thing the chickens would do was feed the less fortunate and homeless (see Spent Layers and Humane Farming). These four I just cannot do it, they trust us to keep them safe. I know what I just said, but when you walk up to most chickens they are going to run from you. With some if you can get a hand on them they will squat. I have been told this is an instinctual act dealing with reproduction. Having observed the rooster in action, I can see their point, but the rooster has to catch them first and get a good grip before the submissive behavior takes place.
With these four, when I walk up to them they squat and wait to be picked up. Even if all I am doing is bringing them food or water. If I come into the pen and one is around me she raises her shoulders out from her body and lowers her body closer to the ground. To me that is an indication of trust. If a chicken runs from you, we would associate that behavior with fear. If they stay and let you pick them up would we associate that behavior with trust?
When we take a tour of kids around the farm they are my go-to girls. I can walk up to one pick her up and let them see a chicken up close and personal. The hen stays calm without throwing a fuss and lets the children pet or touch her. I will talk about the hen and point out the waddle, comb, beak, nostrils and ears. I skip the vent unless asked “where do the eggs come out?”. I will then point to the hen’s ear and tell them that is how you can tell what color egg they will lay. I usually get responses from the parents at that point in time because it is a fascinating tidbit. Education is a big part of our mission.
No matter why a person decides to be a humane farm the practice is good for the animal, good for the environment and healthy for the consumer. As for the farmer, I think that the practices make us all feel good. Once again that giving back aspect makes a person feel good. By providing open spaces, natural grazing and comfortable living conditions we benefit from production, the animals thrive and the environment recovers naturally.
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