Wednesday, 29 December 2010

dammit...part deux redux

We're back to the Listeriosis diagnosis again. Eudora the sheep is exhibiting clinical signs more commonly associated with Listeriosis: unilateral head movements and hypersalivation. I'm hedging my bets and continuing with the B vitamin therapy under vet's orders, just in case.

Listeria is present in the soil and affects <2% of ruminants. If that's the case, Eudora was one of the unlucky few to contract it.

Regardless of the diagnosis, that little sheep is still very sick. We won't know if the therapies are helping for a few days at least. Every day she hangs in there is a result.

To make all our lives easier (and night checks less gruelling), I've moved her to the empty kennel in the garden. I laid her in the back of an open flatbed truck and we made the 2 mile journey home without so much as a twitch from her.

That is a poorly-bad-sick sheep.

Mike and Underkeeper Pete helped me lift 60 kilos of Eudora into the truck. We got talking about the local sheep farmers in the area and their varied approaches to animal husbandry. One farmer is notorious for his laissez faire attitude to his flock, leaving sick or injured sheep to get well naturally or die. Whatever's left goes on to market. I wondered if this approach to producing lamb was more economical, in an effort to explain what otherwise seems cruel or irresponsible.

I thought of Eudora. I've spent the entire profit generated by one meat lamb on her medication so far, with only a 1 in 3 chance of her recovering. But, she could have 10 years of breeding in her. Even a single lamb every year from her would more than balance out this cost. Or she could be predisposed to Listeria and pass this weakness on to her progeny. Or she could live a long life without ever requiring another jab of penicillin. It's a bit of a crapshoot.

I do know that I'm not caring for her out of love, like I would a pet. I feel kindness towards her and I don't want her to suffer, but she's purebred stock and intended for breeding meat lambs.  I feel like I have an obligation to do what I can for her, even if I'm going to eat her young.

Not everyone who reads this blog keeps sheep, or chickens or turkeys, but I would guess almost all of you are meat eaters. So here's what I wonder: what is the real price of meat? When you buy meat, would you accept paying more for meat produced from small flocks who consider animal husbandry and welfare a priority? Or do you feel that commercially produced meat raised in facilities which have passed inspection, but on an economy of scale that means you can purchase it much cheaper, is reasonable enough?

Those of you who keep your own livestock, and especially if you despatch and process your own livestock: what caused you to choose to do this? Because it's not easy to care for something and then kill it yourself. And keeping livestock is a bind, a demand on your time with no days off, and it's rarely economically feasible on such a small scale.

Please tell me your stories. I can't explain why I feel that a farmer who lets sheep die still seems wrong, even if it's economically viable. That's the million dollar question.

Now, I'm going out to the kennels to feed my sick sheep her electrolyes and give her a scratch behind the ear.


Kate said...

I am definitely not a keeper of livestock, and I do go to shops to buy meat that the owners knew personally. There is so much less waste in the fist place, and the flavor is so much better in the second. A well-treated animal is a tasty animal. Persevere.

Captain Shagrat said...

Well I'd rather see farmers carry out a duty of care towards their animals...even if more money means costs rise. Eating meat for me is a luxury. Btw I think you may have enlightened me about a sheep I saw a few months ago. I thought it was a bit strange but put it down to my imagination. The sheep in question seemed to be walking in circular paths with its head to one side. Should I have mentioned this to the farmer?

Jennifer Montero said...

Kate - When I help at the butchery, I can see stress marks on flesh of animals that were killed badly. We remove those areas, because they taste sour and tend to be tough. So you must be right.

Captain S - Good catch! Listeriosis is also called the circling disease for that reason. If someone came to me and let me know that one of my sheep wasn't looking so well, I'd be grateful. They can go down so quickly, any early warning is a bonus.

Megan said...

Ok, I'm not going to be able to give a completely impartial opinion (I don't eat meat) but I feel like it's cruel to let an animal suffer if you know that you could do something to help it. I don't know if it would be more economical; I suppose you have to balance the cost of vet care and medication against the amount of money that you've already spent on raising the animal; on feeding it, and keeping it healthy until that point. Surely it's a waste to let a sheep die when you have a chance that it can still be sold or used for breeding, depending on the original purpose...?
I think it's a basic human instinct to dislike watching animals suffer. It makes me sad to read about Eudora; I hope she comes out of this ok.

Kerry said...

I would pay much more and eat much less meat if I knew the animal lived a good life before being slaughtered for my consumption. As it is, I pay $20/lb for wild, line-caught fish. I also pay a premium for organic local chicken and eggs. Northern California has a lot of organic chicken farms, so this is easier for me than if I lived in other parts of the U.S.
As for your laissez faire farmer, I can't help but think that if you cull sick deer from the herd, you might do the same to a flock of sheep; put the weak ones down and breed the hearty ones. Then again, from what I have learned reading this blog, all sheep are weak and sickly. I wouldn't view the level of care from a fiscal standpoint, but rather what will be best for you, your livestock, and their offspring.

Sara said...

Sometimes I think that meat is too cheap causing us to under-value it. Most of us are too far removed from animal husbandry to really understand the care and sacrifice involved. This is how shopping local helps; there's more knowledge transfer, more appreciation of the care behind the food, especially with meat.

I don't hesitate paying more for cage-free/ free-roam or small production when I do buy meat because I imagine that otherwise I'm ingesting high amounts of animal stress hormones from miserable factory farmed lives, and that can't be good.

If there were a way to quantify the meats' hormone levels, quantify the animal's quality of life, and other health aspects of the meat, put that info on a label, I think those numeric comparisons would cause a mentality shift in many consumers as to what it is they actually value yet dubious, or more expensive yet healthy for body/mind/soul/society? Those who choose the cheaper when they can afford to pay more are like the farmers who let their sick animals die without trying to help, they simply value money over the other (quality, life, health?) You don't.

Kate said...

I can definitely see the point of that farmer letting his animals live or die on their own strengths. Yes, it's harsh. But the fact remains that he needs to make a living, and his herds need to be strong. I understand and respect your impulse to medicate a sick animal. But what might the results be for your flock if, in ten or fifteen years, no antibiotics can be spared for animals in a energy-poor and economically poor future? The farmer that places a priority on breeding the strongest flock possible may be preventing suffering in animals not yet born. That, after all, is how all farms had to operate before western medicine evolved to where it is now. It's what produced the breeds that have survived the ages. Not easy truths, but truths nonetheless. I certainly cannot say that I would do any differently than you are doing though.

As for me, yes, I'm willing, ready, and able (at least for now) to buy meat from small, sustainably raised flocks. I don't raise much meat myself, but I know the work and the costs that go into producing such meat. I agree with Sara, that most meat is priced far too cheaply. That said, I'm richer than 96% of the rest of the world's population, so it's relatively easy for me to pay what I do.

Poppy Cottage said...

Mmmm... bottle fed lamb....not caring for her out of love? Are you 100% sure about that?

But, back to your question.

I bred, raised and killed good quality meat, that had had a pretty good life. That roamed free range, that in turn ate good quality food. I knew what life the meat on my table had had. I knew what meat I sold and fed my family, I knew that it had had the best possible life I could provide it with. And I went out of my way to try and ensure that the end was as stressless as possible.

Boy do I miss it.

megan said...

I'm considering raising pigs for pork, and wonder the same things. To practice kindness and respect, to lessen suffering, knowing you are going to eat this animal or its offspring - it's a strange thing. Keeping them healthy and content until you eat them. I don't buy much meat now, because I can't financially afford the meat I feel comfortable eating. But I would raise them/it.
Her sx also sound a bit like meningeal worm in goats - circling, blindness, slanting to one side or the other. Wonder if it is similar?

Karen Thomason/Gordon Setter Crossing said...

I buy Free Range chicken and eggs, and wild fish and salmon when possible. I pay more, but it's because I believe HAPPY = HEALTHY. We eat very little red meat.(cholesterol issues) If I could purchase organic for everything I eat, I would. It's just not totally available here. I believe in treating ALL animals with kindness and compassion especially if they are providing an income or food for your family. I have found that most peoples level of compassion for an animal or pet is directly related to their ability to pay for what needs to be done. Whether it is vet bills for their injured pet, or producing organically, money matters. I think you should care for your little sheep and I am so glad you're the type person who will. (:

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I've often wondered by what process a person goes from being a steward of well-kept animals to being a factory farmer. I think it's less that some of us are cut out to be one and others of us are cut out to be the other, and more that it's slow process, a slippery slope that many of us can slide down.

You do the math, you increase the number of birds in the run. You do the more math, and you start giving antibiotics. No one step takes you from being caring to being cruel; it happens little by little as you face the hard realities of farming.

Regardless of what is objectively right (and I believe there is such a thing and that, on a good day, I can identify it), I suspect you would be unhappy if you didn't care for your animals in the way your gut tells you is good, and responsible, and honorable. I don't think you should care for livestock because you love them -- that'll send the equation out of whack. You should care for them because you owe them that.

If I were a sheep, and given the choice to live with you or a more experienced farmer who might make fewer mistakes and identify disease earlier, I'd take you. Any day.

I hope Eudora recovers, but I know you will.

Jennifer Montero said...

Megan - It's interesting to know that there are non-meat eaters who read the blog, as it's a bit heavy on the hunting meat side of things. It's great to have a varied opinion.

Aside from the compassion issues, I'm not sure it really IS more economic in the long term to produce sheep at least with such disinterest? As an example - What about flock records, how do you know if you're improving your stock if you don't keep a close eye on them. In 10 years you could improve your flock, or let it deteriorate. Weak breed ewes, less twins, poorer lambs for market, all have economic impact on the farmer. Even if they lack comapssion, they all agree that more money is better.

Jennifer Montero said...

KEG - You are blessed in North CA to have people more experienced than me producing your food. I was impressed with the transparency, that they were glad to talk about mehtods and philosophies behind their produce. I also know there's a lot of money in that area and I hear the complaint that only people with a enough money can afford to care. I'm not sure I wholly believe that.

And yes, culling weak sheep is absolutely vital to a healthy flock. But if a sheep isn't given basic prophylactic care - just a decent worming program, a foot trim and dip, and an annual treatment to keep maggots from eating them alive - then they are going to succumb to a prolonged and painful end. That's not a breed weakness needing to be culled. A healthy twin-producing ewe could die because of a simple worm burden.

Good basic preventative care, regular checking, along with good pasture maintenance, is what I would class as the cornerstone for good animal husbandry. And good stewardship of livestock in your care.

Jennifer Montero said...

Sara - Do you think the emerging locavore market in the US is helping people to understand where their food comes from?

I never thought about the effects of eating stress hormones before. I often don't even think about the healthy (or not) aspects of eating meat. (I have such a meat-heavy diet because of what we do that I crave fresh vegetables more often than anything else)

The idea of a 'quality' table on the label is exciting. Quantifying is easy - calories and such. I wonder if we could get a consensus on which qualtites would be most important to people to see listed on their meat. It would seem easy doing that with veg as there's no compassion issue.

Marianne said...

well, I'd buy your meat any day.I was vegetarian for 20 years and my children still are. in later life I found I felt better eating meat but refuse to eat industrially produced meat or fish. in fact, sea fish at all - there aren't enough and farmed fish consume their own weight in fish meal per day.... I buy local meat, organic in all but name, from the farmers' market and eat very well. I'm self- sufficient in veg in the growing season and use the local organic farm in winter. I'm a pensioner on pension credit and can easily afford to eat well with a fairly frugal lifestyle. cheap food is crap and we don't need it. good husbandry is the only way we're going to survive.

Jennifer Montero said...

PC - See?! You MISS it! And not just for access to healthy or cheaper meat I suspect. Can you identify what it is about caring for your own livestock that was so rewarding?

Megan - This may sound hypocritical, but I've avoided keeping pigs because I'm afraid that I would get too attached to them and find killing them more like killing a pet. You are much more stalwart than I am!

Thanks for the tip re. worms. I'm not sure if we have meningeal worms in the UK but I'm going to check that ASAP. I do have my flock on a worming schedule, and practice rotational grazing.

Next season I was going to have their dung checked for worms and worm only on a specific basis, but if brain worms etc exist that wouldn't show up in a dung sample, I may have to reconsider. See how much I have to learn?!

Jennifer Montero said...

Karen - We're only restricted by the size of our field and economic concerns. That is, I will only ever have a flock that can comfortably fit ten acres and I only have 8 dogs because I can afford, in time and money, to properly care for eight. Otherwise I would have more. Believe me!

When you purchase organic, is it because you believe in the organic system of production, or because you feel organically produced meat is healthier? Or perhaps another reason?

The market for organic produce in the UK has dropped significantly during the recession, coinciding with the expiration of the 5-year subsidies farmers received who turned organic. Many farmers are now returning to conventional agriculture which means availability of organic produce will be lower too.

Jennifer Montero said...

Tamar - I don't know if the small hobby farmer ever morphs into a large commercial one. In my (limited) experience, commercial farmers are born into it, inheriting the family farm and usually continuing any practices taught to them by their dad and grandad. Good or bad.

In our own small area there are 10 commercial farms I can think of. Some of the farmers are natural stockmen and enjoy being around their animals. Their animals always look well tended and healthy. Other farmers have animals as part of a mixed farm but no interest in them. They would rather being driving a tractor and fail to spot potential problems in their stock because they don't really care. If it dies, so be it.

I don't know the animals suffer under the non-stockman farmers necessarily. I guess it depends how you would define a line between dispassion and neglect.

Hobby farmers like me are a different breed, and looked upon with disdain by the big farmers. To be fair, they have a valid point sometimes - hobby farmers can do as much damage from loving their animals too much.

I think hobby and commercial farmers fulfil different niches when it comes to meat production. I just wonder what makes people move their buying power from one to the other.

And, how do you catch the hobby farming bug? Some say it starts with a few chickens...then the odd turkey..perhaps, if left unchecked, you could find yourself running an oyster farm...

Do you find any overlap in your feelings towards your more sentient livestock and your seed (is that the right term?) oysters?

Jennifer Montero said...

Marianne - Thanks so much for your thoughts. I like hearing from vegetarians - current or lapsed! I tried vegetarianism and also found I feel better eating meat (though friends who are veggie tell me that's all in my head).

It's interesting to hear how many people commented about over-fishing. I don't know enough about the debate (fish is a small part of our diet) but it sounds like I should find about more about it.

You are very lucky to be self sufficient in vegetables. Though that's probably more through your hard work than luck! We will attempt to expand our small patch further this year too.

Kathy P. said...

You asked, "When you buy meat, would you accept paying more for meat produced from small flocks who consider animal husbandry and welfare a priority?"

Yes, and I'm currently doing that. Would have done it sooner but have only had a source since last Jan. I feel our food system here in the US has gone so far wrong that I have a moral imperative to support small farmers who treat their animals humanely, even if they (the animals) are going to soon become my dinner. I would be arrested and put in jail if I kept my dogs the way cattle in CAFOs are kept.

Wonderful blog - recently found it and felt the need to respond to this. I feel so strongly that we vote with our dollars.

Hazel said...

I've had fingers and toes crossed for you and Eudora. I did post a comment a couple of days ago, but it seems to be floating around in the ether still.

Whether you are doing the 'right' thing seems to be impossible to answer, but I know you're doing what I'd do.
Other than cats and dogs, my live stock is two-legged: poultry and children, and when they're ill I constantly seem to lurch between thinking I can cope and then thinking "Oh God, they're really ill and they've got meningitis/Newcastle Disease and it's all my fault". And back again. (Obviously the disease is species specific. I don't usually diagnose my children with Newcastle Disease...)

I do agree with Tamar that there is a slippery slope that farmers can find themselves on. I don't think you necessarily go from half a dozen sheep to a factory unit, but I do think you could start making more and more decisions because they make economic sense, and slowly the focus of your business could change. I appreciate that life is full of tough choices for livestock farmers in particular, but I don't think that the head should ever totally rule the heart.

Personally, I only buy meat from small farms with welfare standards that I'm happy with. Incidentally, I'm another lapsed vegetarian. I've started eating meat again after 25 years. I can't say I feel better or worse health wise, but it was always a moral (welfare) decision rather than health or taste. I started to eat meat again when it was clear that I was buying meat I was happy with from a farm I can see from my landing window for the rest of the family, but then cooking myself tofu. From Asia. I was also part of a small but select group of vegetarians who would gut and skin a pheasant or cook a pigs head. I pay more for my meat than in a supermarket, but I also use a lot of cheaper cuts than most people, which helps.

Good luck. Whatever happens, you really couldn't have done more for her.

Sara said...

I do think the locavore markets are helping people not only understand where the food comes from, but why it's a good idea to buy local in the first place. Even WalMart is starting to sell locally produced veg in some stores and farmers markets are in most urban centers. If you're lucky, you can find a CSA (community supported agriculture) to join. But this is all mostly for veg, not meat.

Emma said...

I'm always amazed by how easy it is to get meat--sometimes huge portions of meat--considering how difficult it should be to raise meat. A small farm or a hobby producer is sort of at a crossroads of many issues, I guess: emotional attachment to the animals and their wellbeing, philosophically doing the right thing, and being economical. And being economical for the long v. short term.

I think a lot of factory farming is strictly a result of short term economics, but it's interesting to see that now that's starting to decrease a little bit as the costs of that system are adding up... and since the product is so inferior, it's difficult to get a higher price there.

We don't raise our own meat, but we've started with eggs and the goal of eventually keeping a pig or two, and possibly some meat rabbits. My father dotes on the chickens and we're constantly bickering about how much they should be spoiled; I see them as (admittedly very personable) farm animals, he sees them more as the pets he didn't really have growing up. We have one chicken who has never laid an egg and we're contemplating butchering her, but since our flock is so small (just 3 right now) we have decided to at least board her through winter so she can help keep the others warm. (And so we don't have to butcher her right away.) But that's really a luxury; if we were out for costs we'd have to butcher her, I think.

For us, to be able to afford all-organic or locally grown meat, we'd neat to reshape our entire food budget and diet, which is doable, but difficult... especially since my mother grew up on a beef farm and is really used to the idea that dinner has meat in it, no matter what. When I'm at school (college), I eat meat maybe once a week, unless I get breakfast at the cafeteria in which case I have bacon more often than that. Then I come home and have meat as a large part of practically every meal -- it's a big and weird switch.


Sara is correct. Meat is too cheap causing us to undervalue it and in doing so creating horrible livestock facilities where cows stand knee deep in crap and are fed corn (not their natural diet) and antibiotics to curtail the infections from the ulcerations caused by corn diets all so we can buy a cheap burger at McDonalds. I for one am sick of it. Watch this and weep:

You'll think twice about where your meat comes form. Hooray to you for humanely treating your little lamb. Because they are being raised for meat does not mean they need to be treated inhumanly. I'm a meat eater but honey, I have changed where I buy drastically this year!