Matilda the Magnificent was part of my original flock of Icelandic sheep, and convinced that she ought to be boss. Me a green shepherd and a ewe that would put rams in their place could have been a bad combo, and almost was: The turning point was the day when I put the halter on Tillie to train her to walk with me. Well, she took off. Holding the halter with everything I had, I went face down into the dirt and got dragged until Her Highness stopped, shook hear magnificent head, looking really put off, and said “OK (snort!) I guess you are boss”.
After that, Tillie and I had a great relationship. We used to play chase in the winter pasture along the paths I shoveled in the snow. Once in a while she would follow as I opened a path and lightly butt me in the butt, meaning “Shovel faster”.
When I decided to raise lambs seasonally for meat, Tillie went back to her farm of birth. When she hopped off the truck there, her daughter Daisy, who had not seen Matilda for 2 years, came running and they kissed each other. That does not happen between sheep that do not know each other!
As we humans turned to go into the house, Matilda let out the longest “b-a-a-a” I ever heard. The younger son of the farmer looked at me said “She is saying her final goodbye to you”. He was right. II yelled back “Farewell Matildaaaaa.” I remember that moment as a bitter-sweet memory of this extraordinary animal.
Jenny was a hen. After her 2-year career I gave her to a homestead that was looking for older hens still in their egg-laying years. That was, what, maybe 6 years ago. I hope Jen is still around. She used to sing to herself all day – chirp, chirp, chirrup-ing quite musically, so I named her Jenny after the opera singer Jenny Lind. Jenny never “baak-d”.
Jenny also had a habit of returning to the coop just a little late at sunset. One morning, I found Jenny roosting on my winter wood stack by the house, scared and cold. She had missed curfew the night before when the chicken door closed, and I had not noticed she was missing. But she knew that near the house was safest, so Jenny did the best she could that night. I said “Jenny, what are you doing here?! C’mon, let’s return you to your family.” She let me pick her up with no fuss, and I put her in with the rest of her flock.
Some weeks later, I started down the path to the coop to close their door for the night. Down came Jenny from the hill in the back, “baak”ing loudly for the first time and half running, half flying. Clearly she was yelling “I’m coming! I’m coming! I’m coming!”
I grow to love these animals, and I marvel at what they do to sustain life on this panet:
Ruminants (sheep, goat, cattle) on pasture eat the grasses that pulled carbon out of the atmosphere as their leaves formed. Ruminants then deposit the carbon-containing dung and urine on the soil.
Hens break up and spread the dung, helping soil bacteria and insects further break it down into soil nutrients.
Different species of ruminants eat different varieties of forages, so when they are grazed together ("multi-species grazing"), they eat all of the varieties of greens that are growing on the soil, and they pull out as much carbon from the atmosphere as possible.
This way, the miracles we walk on, and the miracles we walk with undo some of the harm we humans have done. When we eat the meat from pastured animals, we also do our part with our wallets and the quality of our dung thing (a'hem!)
Plus, when we graze different species of animals in tandem in pasture rotation, they kill each other's parasites, and we can stay away from de-wormers.
This is just a little of the miraculous relationships that tie together the soil, grasses, animals and people.
So how is it that we, the farmers, send these amazing creatures to their deaths? I had no idea, until I started farming, how much honoring the living system would ask of me, and what it meant to not harden against pain. Or how much the joys of living with animals would widen my heart. “Then why don’t you just let them live?” you say? “Wouldn’t they be better off?” They wouldn’t. Maybe that is for the next time.