Although we came back to Wisconsin wanting a farm and to know where our food comes from, I am sure we were talking about fruit and vegetables…at least those were the things we knew how to do. And yet, 7 years later, we find ourselves with laying hens, meat chickens, pigs and goats..with barely a garden and no sign of an orchard.
But we treat our animals really well! Their barns are heated, they have access to pasture, berries, forage, and lots of treats in the form of organic veggie restaurant kitchen scraps and organic animal crackers (of course). Our numbers are small and the barnyard crowd is generally content. Over the years, we have dealt with sick animals, despite our best efforts. And it is always heartbreaking and not a little ironic that you pour care and concern into an animal that is destined to be someone’s dinner. That you do all that you can to keep them alive when they are dealing with some virus or bacteria, knowing that in a matter of months you will be loading them to the butcher often seems like a cruel joke or the definition of insanity. Typically we solve all this by repeating, like a mantra, the phrase, “just one bad day”.
This winter has been different. Instead of the occasional loss or illness, we seemed to be dealing with sick animals at every turn. Chickens keeled over dead. Pigs with runny eyes and wheezing…and then the goats. It all started with a sweet little buckling, a Nubian with floppy ears named Schmeck. Borrowed from a small dairy to cover our does, so that we have spring kids and goat milk for cheese, caramel, and our friends. He was small and scared, raised by his mom and shy of humans. This was an annual ritual, bringing in a buck from this dairy. We had never had an issue in the past with disease. But we should have isolated Schmeck. Within 24 hours, all the younger goats had respiratory issues. And many weeks later we would still be administering medication to those that had developed secondary infections. Just when we thought we had gotten through it, we noticed a sore on the back end of Bandit. Another vet call and visit later, and we had a confirmed diagnosis of Orf, or sore mouth, or what we chose to call ‘goat herpes’.
The vet said it was common, the internet said it was common. But it is also zoonotic, which means we could get it, our sweet grandson who loves to toddle in the goat barn could get it. Suddenly our very relationship to our goats had changed. We put a supply of rubber gloves in the goat barn. Goats are like dogs that happen to live in a barn. We hand milk, we feed them animal crackers, we pet them, we kiss them on their goat noses. Now we would second guess all of these contacts, check our hands for cracks and splits (which with cold weather, restaurant dishes, and farm chores were a given) to avoid getting “the herpes”. Our very identities as ‘farmers’ that pamper our animals, keep them safe and healthy, and our ‘clean’ herd of goats felt like a lie.
I have worked in public health and sexual health for most of my career, and this felt eerily familiar to folks that find out they have a sexually transmitted disease. I tried to maintain perspective…say to myself all those things that you tell people in that situation. Focus on how to get healthy, limit the spread, prevent future outbreaks. Why did no one tell us about this part of having livestock???
And as winter wore on and we did all that we could to restore herd health, a butcher date was looming. And in addition to the boy kids, we were going to bring in our Iris…one of our first milkers who has been retired for the past 2 years. Iris, with her perpetual under bite that made her look like she was smiling, tattooed on my arm. She had become quite crabby with a couple of years of heat cycles and no kids of her own. But her last breeding was hard on her and her bag/udder got impacted making it difficult for her kids to nurse. Iris had now become a management issue, unable to put her with the buck and eventually the new kids, she was often in a stall of her own. The hypothetical question of what to do with our milkers when they are done breeding was now staring us in the face.
I asked other women farmers with goat dairy herds. One that had been in it for 22 years indicated that she sent her retired milkers to the sale barn and pretended that they went happily to other farms. But deep down she knew they probably went to butcher, she just didn’t have to do it herself. Another woman left her farm for the day and her son and husband, both skilled hunters, did the butchering of any kids and retired milkers. We always maintain that once we cannot take animals to butcher that we raise, we have no right to eat meat. So, with tears and trepidation, Iris took the five-minute ride to the butcher with the young boy kids. I am still tearful a month later as I write this. Just because we can do it, doesn’t make it any easier.
And while the drama in the goat barn unfolded, we noticed one of the Barred Rock laying hens looking really rough. Clearly molting, she was practically bald, and walking unsteadily. The vet told us it was probably Merricks (a contagious death sentence that the hatchery had vaccinated against) and that she should be culled or at least removed from the flock to prevent disease spread. So out went LeAnn to cull her, only to discover that she had quite a bit of fight left in her and that potentially her unsteadiness was due to the pin cushion like appearance of the skin between her thighs with all the new feathers coming in at once. We quickly set up a dog kennel and ‘infirmary’ in the basement of the house and in came “Minnie”. Our grandson loved that we had a chicken in the basement. A week passed, and she was still very much alive. So much for Merricks. And her feathers were coming in strong. Whew! She was eventually returned to the flock after several weeks, waiting for more seasonable weather or at least temperatures above zero, and watching a couple of Packer games on the couch with LeAnn.
But at the time of this writing, we now have THREE chickens in the infirmary. Chicken 1 (Minnie-too/2), another Barred Rock, because she loves our rooster Cowboy, was losing feathers-or removing them herself, and sustained a rooster injury that needed doctoring. Then there is the Americana with the slow-moving crop. She has yet to be named and is laying, eating and acting like a healthy chicken save for her overly large crop that curves out like an ample bosom. We are trying all manner of internet cures to clear whatever seems to be slowing things down. And then our last add to the infirmary is a droopy Blue Andalusian. Could it be Merricks? An egg broken in the chute? We are still trying to figure it out. But she gets a warm bath in the sink, some yogurt, and a nesting box and space of her own till we can get it sorted or she starts eating and showing some pep, or keels over dead. That’s’ upwards of 10% of the laying hen population getting special treatment. I can only confidently say that there is a happy ending for one of them.
I think it bears repeating, if you have livestock, you have dead stock. Whether by design (raising animals for meat) or by the ‘rules of the barnyard’ that include disease, predators, birthing, and bad actors in the flock or herd. And despite our best efforts, we are having to face the inevitability of it all. And when I think back to those farm stories from our dear friend Sue, I don’t know that it matters how seasoned a farmer you are, losing animals always requires processing, talking about it with whomever will listen. It is the time of year when so many farmers have stories of births…that are only newsworthy when something goes amiss. Pay attention. And if you can focus on all that went well, and take the tragedies in stride, maybe you too should be ‘living the dream’.