We lost two lambs recently. One got tangled up in a fence and died; the other died of completely unknown causes. Joshua and I have had enough dead lambs, and we’ve decided to sell our ram so that we’re no longer breeding our sheep. We’re going to keep our original two ewes plus one ewe lamb from this season. Those three are just going to be pet sheep from now on. In light of that decision, I thought this was a good time to reprint this post from Joshua that he wrote the first time we lost a lamb.
Another Dead Animal
By Joshua Bardwell
originally posted July 2011 at Jack-Booted Liberal
Dead animals are part of raising livestock. Actually, death is a part of being alive, but humans tend to live long enough that most of us can ignore this fact for most of our lives. When you have pets, they die every now and then, but it still tends to get spaced out every few years. When you’ve got livestock, on the other hand, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have gob-loads of dead animals every year.
I’m cheating a little bit, because I’m counting the animals that become intentionally-dead in that number—that is, the ones that get slaughtered for meat. That their death is planned and intentional makes the whole thing a little easier on me, but it’s still a bit of psychic shock, especially when you’ve had your hands in a chicken’s guts for the last hour, and there are still five more to go.
By far, however, the worst ones are the unexpected ones. What makes them so bad is that, if I think about it the right way, I can always tie their death back to some potential mistake that I made. I take these animals into my care, and I take that responsibility very seriously. Right up to the moment that I take their life, I want it to be as comfortable, healthy, and authentic as possible. That being said, there are tradeoffs in farming. I’m not raising pets here, and although I don’t expect my meat to be as cheap as abused factory-farm meat, I have to draw the line somewhere. Additionally, I’m still a novice, and as much as I try to learn the things I have to know, I make mistakes. That means that there’s always a little bit more that I could have done, or something that I could have done different if only I had thought of it.
This year, I lost several chicks to the cold. The weather had been relatively warm and I was excited to move them out of the house so they could be in the grass instead of the tub. Then a cold snap came in and some of them died.
I had the chicks in a movable coop so that, as they covered a given area with shit, they could be moved to a new area, with new fresh grass for them to enjoy. The coop was ridiculously over-engineered and heavy, so who could have forseen that a gust of wind would catch its tarp like a sail and send it shooting across the lawn, crushing a chick to death like a pancake?
And then we come to Baby Jebus the sheep, who Issa found dead in the paddock today. It wasn’t clear exactly how she died. Some candidates include:
- Yesterday, the sheep spilled their water container and were without water during the hottest part of the day.
- Although these sheep shed their wool and don’t need to be sheared, Baby Jebus had just grown her first coat and hadn’t really shed it down to hair. It wasn’t a full coat of wool, but it might not have been as cool as it could have been.
- The sheep didn’t have shade, but my research says that sheep don’t need shade, although they will prefer it if it’s available. Maybe the definition of “need” includes some dead lambs.
- Sheep are susceptible to a condition called bloat. One thing that can cause bloat is suddenly consuming large quantities of moisture. It rained yesterday shortly after the sheep were moved onto their new paddock. If she was hot and the water container had been spilled, Baby Jebus could have eaten lots of wet grass (because she was thirsty) and gotten bloat.
At the end of the day, there are no answers; just a dead animal. And I’m left asking myself what I should do differently next time. If I start the chicks later, it’ll be warmer, but that might mean that they’re still around in the hotter part of the year, and some of them might die of heat instead of cold. I could spend hundreds of dollars on an un-tippable water container and a nice portable shade structure for the sheep, but they’re not intended to be pampered pets. Their job is to make food for me, and if I have to spend too much money on infrastructure, the whole thing doesn’t work.
Their job is to make food for me, and my job is to find ways to make that work. When they fail, worst-case scenario is that they die. When I fail, worst-case scenario is that they die. It’s a little bit of an unbalanced relationship, which is why I feel so guilty when I let them down.
Of course, it’s only because I can rely on the industrial food infrastructure that my life is not on the line here. In the absence of that, I would have starved many times over, and the sheep would be happily roaming the hills. And that’s part of the reason why I feel like it’s so important to partake of this process. Someone is going to be finding the balance between comfortable sheep and plentiful meat, and if it’s not me, it’ll be someone who draws that line too far on the side of plentiful meat and uncomfortable sheep for my tastes. If I’m so smart, with my highfalutin ideals about ethical treatment of animals, I feel obligated to get off my ass and prove that I can do it.
Days like today, it sure feels like I can’t.