Musings: Keeping It Real In Farming

Reality check: snow happens (photo from yesterday)

There seems to have been a run of misfortune on the farm recently, with a newly-hatched duckling and chick, as well as a young adult goose, dying in the past few weeks. This isn’t “usual” around here, but deaths are part of farm life. And I think it’s important to show that side of animal husbandry, too.

What happens here is real life: good, bad, happy, sad, and everything in between. It’s not a fairy tale where only pleasant and miraculous events occur (though I would argue that there are plenty of those, too). Animals – pets, livestock, and wild creatures – suffer illness or injury and die; some hatchlings never even make it out of the shell.

I think it would be, at best, disingenuous to portray life on the farm as happy and shiny all of the time. Yes, there are amazing, wondrous events that happen here, and for those I’m grateful – they help carry me through the hard times. But there are also the inexplicable, the gut-wrenching, the shocking, and the hope-shattering events. Sometimes, those events are so devastating that they make me question the wisdom of continuing – but, fortunately, after I pick myself back up and dust myself off, I realize that overall, the good outweighs the bad.

When something bad happens, I review the events and try to determine if I could have done better: did I make a mistake, did I miss a sign or symptom, did I act too quickly/slowly/conservatively? While I loathe making mistakes, they do happen – for example, I once missed the signs (really, only that she was a bit larger than the others) that a rabbit was about to kindle and she gave birth outside in frigid weather, losing the litter. I was horrified to find the dead kits…and so sad for the young doe, who had tried make a nest from what was available to her (grass) in the tote that served as a “house” inside the tractor. Her pregnancy was completely unexpected because she was supposed to be in a tractor with only other does. As it turned out, there was actually more than one stealth buck in the tractor with her. Lesson learned: sex and re-sex with that particular breed because it was exceptionally difficult to determine sex early.

Raising animals is an opportunity for ongoing learning, and I’ve had my share of foibles, despite my research, my resources, and my best attempts not to mess up. It’s a painful lesson when the end result of a mistake or accident is that a living creature dies. For the purpose of improving, it can be very frustrating when the cause of a death isn’t clear (like with the goose that died recently) – how can I improve when I don’t know the factors involved?

I strive to do better in the memory of the animals that have passed. A chick once died after falling out of a wire cage being used as a brooder and getting chilled – I found it the next day, where it had tried to huddle for warmth in some hay on the concrete floor. Though the incident occurred in the summer, young chicks have difficulty maintaining their body temperature without a supplemental heat source, and the poor creature succumbed to hypothermia, even with temperatures easily in the 70s (chicks need temperatures closer to 95 degrees in the first week and gradually less than that as they grow). This was a valuable chick that was destined to become part of my breeding flock – a blow in itself – but the worst part, by far, was knowing that its death was preventable. I truly didn’t suspect that a chick could get through the small wire openings. After this discovery, I immediately put up reinforcements on the sides of the wire to ensure that even the smallest chicks couldn’t accidentally fall out, preventing future accidents of this nature…but too late for that little one.

One of the lessons I’m continuing to work on is acceptance. I accept that I will never know everything and, more granularly, that I may not even know why something occurred (though this is very difficult for someone who needs the universe to make sense). What I won’t accept is ceasing efforts to try to better understand the factors behind bad events so that I can try to prevent them from recurring. In the quest for excellence, I can always do better.

While my preference is to share the wonderful, inspiring events that occur here on the farm, in the interest of honesty, I will also continue to share the sad events because that, too, is a part of this reality. I also share “lessons learned” so that others may avoid making the same mistakes, and so that other farmers know that they’re not alone in dealing with the kinds of issues I’ve mentioned. Bottom line: mistakes (and accidents) will happen, but we can – and should – ensure that avoidable mistakes aren’t repeated and keep trying to improve. Never stop learning!