My ma once ate our rented bull at a restaurant. To some, it might seem absurdly sadistic to order the chili special featuring the bull that once roamed our fields, but as farmers it came as a pleasant surprise. Our burgers are literally homegrown, raised in the pastures around our house and sent to market once they have reached finishing weight. At home, I don’t ask the questions I might about meat at a restaurant because I know our Black Angus cattle are purely grass-fed (unless they snuck some grain from the chickens) and they have lived pretty darn peaceful lives.
Inevitably, people will ask, “But don’t you get attached to them?” and “Do you name them?” While each has his or her unique character, farm animals are not your family dog or parakeet. They are massive, terrifying and beautiful creatures that can bend metal gates and let a hoof fly while nervously waiting in the paddock. There are certainly some that I remember particularly well, but we distinguish them by their ear tags, using numbers to identify them. I adore them from a distance and never forget their looming deadline.
Of course, not all of the cattle head off to market. Otherwise, my family would have no way of maintaining our livestock population. Instead, we keep our rented bull from year to year, allowing him to join our cows and heifers periodically. Number 2 is always a friendly face in the crowd and a good ally when trying to lead the herd to water or a new pasture. Then again, just as we reevaluate relationships with fellow humans, we must also do so with our cattle. Number 1, while still a young mother, charged her first newborn calf, so we considered sending her off to market. However, just a year later, she accepted her second calf and I still say hello to her in the pasture.
You may still be wondering about our rented bull, and I do mean “rented.” Instead of buying an expensive bull years ago, my parents simply borrowed one from their friend, a former doctor turned cattle farmer. This bull roamed our fields, mingling with our heifers and cows to help to build our herd and add genetic diversity. As time passed, we eventually said goodbye to our first bull and welcomed in a new bull, an exciting guy who had a genetic trait that made the hordes of flies a little less interested in him. The only problem with having a bull is what to do when a cow has a bull calf. One answer is to let that bull calf grow into a bull; the second is to castrate him, because we already had a bull.
If you have ever wondered how a calf is chosen for veal, think about how useful any bull besides the main breeding bull would be on a dairy farm. Each year, a cow must give birth to another calf in order to produce milk. A female calf will grow into a heifer, eventually have her first calf and start making milk. Where does the male fit into this system besides acting as a progenitor? Veal, then, typically comes from male dairy calves that add no value to the dairy operation but can act as a source of added income. In the way of beef production, male calves are more useful but require castration. Thus, we can raise castrated bull calves, or steers, alongside our cows without concerns of interbreeding. We can also reach a higher finishing weight by raising the steers to almost full maturity instead of sending them off as calves for veal.
As might be expected, you probably do not want to think about castrating bull calves, but the necessity of this task overcomes any misgivings. It must be done for the farm and herd to function, so we have certain weekends labeled for castrating the bull calves, and whoever is home helps to corral and sort the cattle as we send them through our chute. No blood is shed as we simply place tight rubber bands that limit blood flow until the bull calf becomes a steer in a week or so. However, this is not to say that no incision means there is no risk to the calf.
We had not had a herd large enough to require intervention until that year, but a few bull calves had been born and we could wait no longer. My ma had researched what we needed to do and how to prepare, starting with tetanus boosters, but giving large animals shots with little syringes is no small ordeal. We did our best and prepped the cattle for that momentous day. The trial passed as well as one could hope when trying to castrate unruly bull calves for the first time. After a few days, however, my ma noticed that one of our former bull calves was having trouble walking on stiff legs and did not seem as healthy as the rest. As his movements became more restricted he began to fall over, putting pressure on his lungs. The vet confirmed her greatest fear — tetanus. Throughout the following days, my ma would walk out to find our bull calf, pull him back to a standing position so that he could breathe and give him a dose of antibiotics. She would struggle multiple times each day to help up a beast that weighed more than three times as much as she. Sadly, the bull calf was soon beyond our help and we learned not to fight tetanus.
So, when people ask if we get attached to our cattle, I cannot give a simple answer. We love our herd, but just as we feel exasperated with our family and friends, so too can we feel frustrated with our cattle. This is especially true if they ruin a watering tub or push over a hydrant while scratching their backs. However, nothing can describe the feeling of helping a newborn calf to stand on a cold, spring day, or the constant anxiety over a lame mama or sickly bull calf. The final answer may come with my mother’s yearlong struggle with tennis elbow after straining to care for our tetanus-afflicted bull calf or with our shortened vacations, as we hate to be away from the farm for too long. They may appear indistinguishable, save for their characters and ear tags, but we respect them and want to give them the best lives possible — even if we eat a few of them once in a while.