Moving back to the farm and being more involved in the day-to-day operations of a farm/ranch operation has been quite an education. I’ve learned how to watch the commodity markets and place open orders for the crops. I’ve learned what happens when the rain comes in huge buckets full and washes out a good portion of the year’s soybeans. I’ve learned how to replace the starter on my riding lawn mower and how to get a cranky chain saw running again. And I’ve learned what it feels like the day all the steers are loaded into semis and taken to the sale barn.
That last lesson had an unexpected effect on me. This morning the guys showed up around 6:30 a.m. to start herding the cattle down into the lot to wait their turn through the loading chute and onto the trucks. Watching it unfold was much more emotional for me than I ever anticipated it being. Of course, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for animals, even cows. I remember as a little girl getting up early, way before the sun was up, and going out to milk May, our Jersey milk cow. Dad would lift me up on May’s back and I’d ride her into the barn where she would munch on hay while Dad milked her. When he was done we’d walk the full bucket of milk back to the house where my mother would use a hand separator to divide the milk from the cream. I can still taste the rich sweetness of that fresh milk.
Dad raised cattle for awhile when I was growing up, but there were some tough years with low prices and eventually he stopped and focused completely on farming. Occasionally, Mom, who was the bookkeeper for a local feedlot, would buy a few of the puny young calves that the feedlot owner didn’t want. The first year Mom did this I helped her feed the calves who quickly grew into full fledged steers. Mom named them Enny, Meany, Minny and Mo, which was a mistake, because when it came time to sell them it was like selling a member of the family; a distant relative for sure, but still one with whom you were familiar and valued. The next year, Mom bought a few more calves, but this time she named them Color TV, Sewing Machine, New Carpet and a few other items on her wish list. It made selling them a little easier, but it still left a sting in our hearts.
Watching the unsuspecting cattle being brought down out of the pasture this morning I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of that sting again. Over the last few months I’ve gotten use to seeing them around. They were a friendly herd, probably made more so by the guys feeding them pellets from their four-wheelers. Whenever I went into the pasture they assumed I too would be feeding them so they followed me everywhere. Friends from the city delighted in having up close and personal interaction with the cattle. Well, until the steers wanted to get a little too close, then my friends would run back to my ATV with their voices registering at least an octave higher than usual. The cattle got so use to our being around that when friends would ask to stop so they could take pictures, I swear the steers lined up for the perfect group shot.
This herd was so social that they turned into a nuisance. The evening my friend Robin and I went up on top of the hill to watch the sunset and have a picnic, the cows followed us and made such a pest of themselves, circling us and coming in so close to see if perchance we had cow pellets in our picnic basket, that we abandoned our plan and retreated to the deck for the sunset eats. Often I would have to outrun them to the gate in order to get out of the pasture before they did.
So this morning when it was time for them to go, I actually felt sad. I quietly thanked them for their sacrifice and hoped they had enjoyed their time in these lush hills. I guess if I were a cow, I’d like to spend my last few months in such a peaceful and picturesque place. I have a tendency to anthropomorphize animals, but I swear there were times I noticed them stopping to watch a particularly spectacular sunset, or looking out over the river valley with the same light of appreciation in their eyes that I knew was in my own.
I tried to calm my emotions this morning by believing the steers would be adopted, like a lost pet, and would find another good family, but I grew up on this farm and know that their fate was not going to an idyllic setting with kids to play with and long days spent chewing their cud. No, these steers are destined to be someone’s dinner. But, if you eat meat, I can’t imagine a better animal for it to come from than one of these steers that was grass fed, treated and cared for well, and spent its days wandering the beautiful Flint Hills prairie.
That said, I am seriously considering becoming a vegetarian. I just don’t feel right about eating my friends.