Rob and Margot raise thousands of sheep and cattle every year, most of which are sent to slaughter. Even their chooks and ducks are used for their eggs, then (usually) eaten. This is simply the way of farm life: while no one is cruel to the stock neither are they particularly sympathetic towards them. Going into my stay I was (or so I thought) prepared to deal with the realities of raising animals for the sole purpose of killing them; I have always been an unapologetic meat-eater, and (arguments for vegetarianism aside) it has always seemed to me that human beings were built to be predatory omnivores, it’s the circle of life, blah blah blah. Also, bacon is incredibly delicious. But a few recent experiences have tested my steely resolve to be the hardened farmhand I determined to be…
Ringing The Nose
On one recent Saturday afternoon, Corey, DJ and I accompanied Rob to his friend Bridget’s house, where she was boarding their sow and her litter of piglets. The purpose of the trip was to scope out the piglets (two of whom Rob would be taking home in the next week or two), but also to ring the sow’s nose. Pigs are notorious for destroying huge expanses of land in the process of rooting for bugs, worms, and roots, which also means that they are a farmer’s worst nightmare. To avoid this, farmers invented the process of ringing – cornering and overpowering a nervous, very smart, very large animal and piercing its nose with a very sharp implement – to make rooting as uncomfortable as possible and possibly save a few acres of grass in the process.
We found the sow nested in the mud under the barn, grunting away happily in the slime. Rob and Bridget herded the smelly family out into the light with the sounds of food (loud banging on a bucket), and I had to blink a couple of times to convince myself that she really was as big as she looked – at a massive 300+ pounds and at least 3.5 feet high, and I have no doubt that she could have crushed me without the slightest bit of exertion. To say the prospect of piercing her nose made me nervous would have been a massive understatement… she was incredibly intimidating.
Rob and Bridget paraded the pigs into an increasingly smaller series of enclosures until eventually only the sow was left, headed straight down a narrow chute towards where Rob waited with a rope and bits of wire in his hand(s). Bridget blocked the sow from behind while Rob looped a rope around the top part of her mouth and nose, and suddenly the air was filled with one of the most distressing sounds I have ever heard. She started screaming, a guttural sound of terror so acute that it ached in my bones and made my ears ring. I have never heard anything like it except maybe in horror movies, and even those paled in comparison to actually hearing a massive animal make that noise less than 3 feet from me. It still makes me shiver every time I think about it.
Trying to move as quickly as he could (keeping the sow in that state for very long was only asking for trouble), Rob tied the rope to a post above his head and pulled her head upwards, keeping her body still against the side of the chute with his knee. He then grabbed a piece of wire and jammed it through one of her nostrils, bending the wire and twisting it so it came to a woven point at the end like some sort of spiky DIY nose piercing. It was awful. By the time he got to the second nostril I was riveted to the spot, trying desperately to appear much braver than I felt. (Corey and DJ were standing directly over the pig, with Corey – the most avid meat-eater I have ever met – watching intently during the entire process.) All I could think about was my own recent nose-piercing experience, and how brutal this seemed in the process. Needless to say I did not get any pictures.
The process involved very little blood, and afterwards the sow returned to her piglets as if nothing had happened, but I couldn’t help thinking that this was something I couldn’t quite square with. Some farm practices – like docking tails – are done for the health of the animals, while others seem to have less of a benefit. In the case of nose ringing, it seemed to be more of an example of human arrogance. Even if the ring eventually stops being painful, it seems cruel to put an animal through so much pain and fear merely to preserve the grass on your lawn. If someone wants to own a pig, shouldn’t they also be prepared for the natural behavior that comes along with it? I was clear of one thing: if ringing noses is what it involves, it’s safe to say I will never be a pig farmer!
Docking Tails and Tagging Ears
On a different weekend at the Sherratt farm, Corey, DJ and I got to experience another aspect of farm life by helping Rob and Marg with the process of docking lambs. Every year, all of the new lambs have to undergo the process of docking (having their long tails cut off to avoid poopy bums and the flies that come with them) and tagging (having chunks clipped out of their ears to help identify their sex and the farm they belong to). On this particular morning we all piled into the back of Marg’s ute (utility vehicle, aka a pick-up truck), and drove up the hills to the stockyards. Rob had already penned half of the ewes and their lambs, and his dogs leaped back and forth over the fences and raced out to meet us as we approached. I still get shivers watching the exuberance of those jumps.
Using the dogs and their own bodies, Rob and Marg herded the sheep into smaller and smaller enclosures until they were forced into one narrow chute, where Rob divided the lambs from their mothers with the use of a gate which swung back and forth into separate fields. The lambs were all directed into a teeny tiny pen with just enough space for a couple of people to stand inside with them, and their little baahs and white fluffy bodies piled on top of each other made me want to lie down in them and snuggle them silly. Marg stepped into the pen and picked up a lamb, cradling it in her arms like a baby and holding its back legs with the hands to prevent it from wriggling and kicking. She had an amazing ability to hold a lamb and instantly quiet it – they would go totally limp in her arms, nibbling at her ears. (I mentally called her the Lamb Whisperer.) Her talent was particularly useful since she immediately deposited the lamb(s) upside-down into the metal cradle attached to the edge of the fence. Rob, standing on the other side, lowered a metal lid over their legs to keep them still, and in the same moment, cut off their tails with a hot iron while Marg took out chunks of their ears with a kind of brutal, practiced grace.
All three of us took turns rotating positions, occasionally stopping to taking pictures like ridiculous tourists on a farm tour. DJ started out picking lambs with Marg, while Corey sprayed bums with fly repellent post-docking. I got to experience the process of ear tagging, which involved wielding a sharp instrument with one hand then cutting out a chunk of the desired body part in one swift, sharp movement. Their ears fountained blood, covering their little white bodies in bright red, and I can still feel the way their ears felt under my hands as I cut them. It makes me cringe every time I think about it.
After I got tired of mutilating baby sheep I moved on to DJ’s job (picking them up), and I found this to be a far more enjoyable (though surprisingly tiring) exercise. Some of the lambs were abnormally large for the time of year (close to 24 kgs, or 50+ lbs!), and my arms were sore after just a few lifts. Clearly I haven’t been working hard enough out in the pea fields! By the end of the morning – once he saw we were capable of using spray bottles, picking up big squirming babies, and brutally ripping out chunks of their ears – Rob even allowed each of us to operate the docking iron, which looks like a hotter, scarier, more dangerous version of a curling iron. The de-tailer, as it’s so creatively called, clamps over the tail and essentially burns through it, leaving behind a strong smell of burning lanolin and seared flesh. Since it cuts and cauterizes the tail simultaneously, it’s a fairly sterile (and speedy) practice – the lambs seem to register far more pain from their ears than their backsides. At least it’s far more humane than what they used to do!
After getting through 122 lambs (only half the group!), we stopped to admire our handiwork while Marg counted the pile of tails on the ground – we’d be roasting and eating them soon! Freshly-cut, fire-roasted lambs tail, Maori delicacy and New Zealand favorite – mm-mm! While I’m very grateful for the experience, I don’t think I’ll be pursuing a life as sheep/cattle farmer. At least that’s two potential careers off the list!