Farm life and death

Life and death on the farm are always competing for our attention. Sometimes they call in unison.

I was feeding our sheep and goats in the pouring rain when two distinct sounds spilled down from the wooded hillside of our Bastrop farm. One was high and piercing. The other was low and faint. Both were pleading for help.

Following the first sound led me to two Saanen kids shivering at the base of a cedar elm. They had been born the pervious night, exposed to high winds and dropping temperatures. They wouldn’t survive another night of driving rain.

The second sound came from further up the hill. It was Jolly, the father of these two kids, a 150-pound billy who ruled the herd. Two days earlier I had noticed he didn’t come down to eat and seemed lethargic. Now he was moaning in pain, kneeling on all fours and unable to lift his grossly swollen head.

Had he been bitten by a snake? Was he dying of pneumonia? His bleating was so diminished it sounded like a tiny kazoo muffled under a pillow. This was the same goat who just a week ago had jumped over our five foot fence and had protected the herd from a wild dog that had killed two baby sheep.

Farmers sometimes make judgment calls based more on instinct than knowledge. Instinct told me he was a goner but after talking to Erin on the phone I second-guessed myself. I was wet and tired and wasn’t looking forward to the long walk to the barn to get the rifle.

Erin called our vet in Bastrop. A second opinion would cost us $40, she said, but there was a chance he might be saved. And he was worth it – a stunning, charming “Snuubian” (a cross between his Nubian dad and pure bred Saanen mom), we had planned to sell him as a breeder, not for meat.

I grabbed the two babies and placed them in the empty vegetable crate in the front seat of the van. Then I loaded Jolly and the mother in the rear. For 10 miles I listened to those two opposite and competing calls – new life asserting itself up front, death approaching from the rear.

It’s strange what you focus on when your day has been altered by animals: you focus on other animals. An 18-wheeler in front of me was hauling frozen chickens from Sanderson Farm. A huge cartoon of Miss Goldy stared down at me, this happiest of chicks dressed out in bonnet, parasol, and purse. Across the length of the trailer was printed “100% Natural.” What was this “natural” it referred to, I wondered? What they ate? Where they lived? How they died? It all seemed so far removed, so unnatural, from my experience with these goats; and yet here I was, pulling into a veterinary hospital, with it sign out front advertising “20% off on dentals and floats.”

“I’m here to pick up Miss Prissy,” said the woman at desk ahead of me.

Dripping wet, mud caked to my boots, I waited patiently as I learned that Miss Prissy’s electrolytes were fine but her visit would cost her owner $72. To my right, a man was playing with his puppy while waiting for its shots. To my left, a woman emerged from the exam room clutching a collar and wiping tears from her eyes. Life and death, side by side, same as in my van.

Our vet had me back up the van to the equine barn to get out of the rain. I opened the back door and she checked Jolly’s vitals. She confirmed that he was in the late stages of pneumonia, but couldn’t say why. “You never know with goats. One minute they are fine, the next.” She paused and said, “I would put him down, if were you.”

I nodded.

“I’ll get someone to help you unload him.”

She saw the puzzled look on my face. “I didn’t mean you, personally. We can put him down here.”

“No,” I said. “I’ve done it many times.”

“Yes, of course,” she said, slighty embarrassed. “That will save you money.”

It was a long ride in the van in the rain. Having two farms is not easy but that was no excuse not to have attended to Jolly earlier. My only consolation was that I’d probably saved two little lives by coming out to our Bastrop farm on such a foul day.

As I pulled into our Austin farm, Erin was walking toward the barn. Trotting at her side was another saved life I’d almost forgotten about. Annabelle is the lucky Barbadoe lamb that survived that dog attack. I had found her half dead in that same woods, her neck and hindquarters ripped by teeth. Farmer Jamie and others nursed her back to life so well one would never know how lucky she was except for the way her neck healed in the shape of an S. Incubator Farmer Mike suggested we say Annabelle, our crookneck lamb, is a breed we created to eat around corners.

Making light of such things goes a long way on days like these.

About Farmer Skip

Skip Connett’s boyhood was spent on a magnificent farm in Pennsylvania that got its start in the 1700s. His career has spanned journalism, public health and farming. Most recently, he was a member of the TOFGA Advisory Board and TDA Organic Industry Advisory Board.

4 Responses to Farm life and death

  1. jenny nazak March 14, 2012 at 4:00 am #

    another stunning slice of life on the farm – thank you Skip and Erin!!!

  2. marilyn April 11, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

    visits to Leslie gives me the opportunity to catch up with green gate events…….always special……I always check the weather news for the Austin area and pray that it is favorable for farming. Sending love with special memories…….Ms,,

  3. Katie May 21, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

    Beautifully written reflections of life and death and a farmer’s connection with it. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Simone December 7, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    Your story brought a bittersweet smile to my face and wonder to my bones. Thank you.

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