A baby calf was born in late autumn on our farm this year, which is not an entirely rare occurrence to us. Last year, a calf was born on New Years Day! But, in the livestock world, where bulls (fertile males) are introduced to females only a few weeks a year, then removed, it is definitely a contrast. Or, the females are artificially inseminated and the exact insemination date is known.
Calves are brought to farms to fatten over the summer, and then slaughtered in late fall. The cycle begins again next spring. This saves the farmer from having to feed hay over the winter (and some work hours), which is expensive. It allows for the farmer to just feed the animals when the eatin' is good - the rich, summer months.
Things are done a bit differently on our farm. We have a herd of cattle that stays on the farm. Our "new cows" are calves from the mamas and two-year-old or older dominant daddies (which they decide who that is!), and aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. We do not buy new cows each spring. Calves are then raised to at least a year and half or older before being processed.
So, who gets the cut? The inevitable question. We make processing decisions based on which animals don't fit our ideal genetics in terms of temperament, size and muscle, and mothering. This continually moves us forward towards the goal of having a wholly grassfed breeding stock available for other farms, but also for us and our community. Still, our model is different than the norm...
We don't see many families in regards to domesticated animals, anymore. Isn't that a little...odd, or sad? Baby calves are normally stripped from their mothers after birth for milking, or at a young age to move to another farm where they are fattened up over the summer months for fall slaughter. And the cycle continues.
Profits over morals have dominated our society, and the livestock operations are no different. The reality is that the large majority of livestock in this country are separated from their families within the first year of life. Most do not get to live out their lives, and few get to spend a good chunk of their days with their mothers, cousins, and friends, let alone their grandparents and other relatives.
We don't stop often to think how this affects the animal. Surely, this is insanely stressful. To leave your mother, family, and herd with all sorts of detailed hierarchies you've already worked your way into and up, not to mention all your other calf friends, would be a life shattering change. How long would it take to recover, if you ever do? Most calves won't live more than a year, sometimes a few months, after this event.
We also don't stop long enough to consider how this affects us. What are we missing from observing animals in their natural family communities? Are they more stressed, and less likely to trust and interact with us? Are we doing them a disservice in managing them?
What about their meat? Are the stress hormones still in there when it reaches our plates?
What is it about the disconnect from generational living in our society? With humans, and with the animals we govern.
While we feel the current model is less than ideal, we also recognize that each farmer is doing the best that they can. It is our hope to educate, so that we can all move towards a food system we are proud of.