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Discussing Death on the Farm

Senior Contributor
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sneaky.jpgThere has been a lively discussion on the Women in Agriculture Facebook page recently, about a subject that most of us just don't want to talk about: animal death on the farm.


"Do you really want to know why we don't talk about the death on a farm?" writes member Angie Schultz. "It is because that means we failed. We failed that calf that we couldn't get to breathe even after trying everything we could to get it to take one breath. We failed that cow that died in the night, when we didn't see or know that she had a stroke or a heart attack. We failed that animal that slipped on the ice and pulled a muscle and only got worse over time because we didn't think to spread lime and salt over there, because they didn't belong there in the first place…. We failed when a dog gets run over." Not only did we let these animals down, Schultz says, but ourselves as well. 


My own worst moment as a woman in ag came several winters ago, in the middle of a blizzard. My father-in-law had passed away earlier in the year, and we moved several of his cattle to our place, including a bottle calf he had raised and named Dove. We didn't know it then, but my father-in-law hadn't gotten the bull out quite in time before he passed. He was very ill at the end of his life, but didn't want anyone to know it, so some things didn't get done quite like they would have when he was well.


I got a call in the middle of this blizzard from my neighbor, Kevin, saying that as he drove up his lane, he noticed I had a cow down. Of course, my husband, Jayson, was several hours away. I had been out only a few hours earlier to feed and water, but the weather was getting bad and I didn't do a head count. I bundled up again and went out to check, but didn't see anything. Finally, I walked out into the pasture and saw her lying behind a hay bale ring, hidden from my view at the entrance to the pasture. It was Dove. My heart sank.


Kevin called another neighbor, Mike, who is a respected cattleman and a good friend. Soon my two neighbors were standing out in the pasture with me, in horrible weather. Mike got down on the ground and stuck his arm inside the cow. You know you have a good neighbor when they will stick their arm inside your cow in the middle of a blizzard. He said she was trying to deliver, but that the calf was too big.


She wasn't supposed to have been bred. She was too small. It had been 10 months since my father-in-law's death. We didn't know. Despite her small size, she didn't look pregnant.


I called Jayson, crying, and asked him what to do. He told me to call the vet. Our regular farm vet didn't answer. I tried two other local vets, but no luck. Finally, in desperation, I called my boss, Betsy. Her husband is a vet in a town about 20 minutes from us. I begged and pleaded, and she apparently couldn't stand my crying, because before long, she and Bob were loaded up and making the treacherous, snowy drive to my neighborhood.


Since Mike has better facilities than we do, he drove home and came back with his tractor and front-end loader. He scooped Dove up, we tied her in, and he hauled her back to his place. Tears were frozen all over my face.


By this time, my husband was nearly home, and my three young boys had been in the house alone for a couple of hours. They did great, but I needed to turn my attention to them. I went inside, and Jayson met everyone at Mike's. Bob did an emergency c-section on Dove. Despite his best efforts, both she and the calf died. It was heartbreaking. I felt horrible that she had to go through all of that, but at least I knew we tried to save her and her calf. Sometimes things just don't work out the way we'd like.


We had lost other animals, but Dove's death stung so much because my father-in-law had hand-raised her, and his loss was still so fresh. Since then, we've lost other calves. We lost the first cow we got, a gift from Jayson's dad. We've had many a discussion on how long to keep the cows we have, to avoid them dying on our place. I want to cry just thinking about poor Dove and the others we've lost.


We are not alone


The best thing about this thread on our Facebook page is that many women opened up and shared their own tough experiences. While it's not easy to talk about, it does help to know that we aren't alone. 


Angie Schultz, who started the thread, went on to share, "After helping a heifer in labor, I broke her water, and felt to make sure the calf was coming the right way. We do not pull unless we need to and if there is a long labor. Everything was great calf was straight and everything was great. It even kicked at me I joked because it was too cold and it didn't want to come out to our kids. They all watched over the heifer and waited 15 minutes (one switch of cows units) went by and I told my hubby something wasn't right. so we stopped milking and went over there. We decided to pull and sure enough the calf was dead. We tried to get it to breath and nothing. I was so mad and upset because she was just kicking me and moving not minutes before. I sat crying for a while but the cows soon reminded us it was time to get milking again. I felt like I let them both down. I can't stand it when people say we don't care, we do everything in our power to not to have something bad happen, but that is life."


Michelle Shifflet wrote, "Summer 2002 was the worst drought so far. I kept in my tears as I'd drive by our fields of dead crops in July. Praying all the time. We had to wean calves very early, August, to save the mommas. As we separated off some older cows & put them in the empty bull pen - they ran down the small hill to about 7 lone green plants. The next time I looked over - 4 of them were on their backs bloated with Prussic acid. We called the vet immediately and did what he said to do because he had to finish taking care of the very same issue at a neighbor's farm. When he got there we did save 2 - but definitely a very bad time to go through. Sadly - that wasn't our toughest day ever. We love our animals but also understand first-hand the cycle of life."

Dawn Suderman shared, "My very first bottle calf upon becoming a farm wife died of pneumonia. She looked fine when I bought her, but became sick soon after. Try as we might, with antibiotic shots and drenching her, she just gave up and died. For this former city girl, the drenching was so traumatic for me to watch, so risky if you get it wrong and to me so severe. I was there with her helping any way I could, and it was so heartbreaking to see her slide down to death. Like you, I cried plenty of tears over this calf. I'd named her Violet."


Emotional make-up


Women are emotional creatures. It's just in us. That's not to say we can't do any job a man can do, but we're different. When we see a mother cow bawling for a dead calf, we feel that. We know it's not just a biological response to her milk coming in. We're mothers. We know.


So why do we try to hide our emotions? I think we don't want to be seen as "the weaker sex," and we want the men to believe we're tough enough to do the job.  


But we also know that men feel this loss, too. Many of them may try not to show it. Others don't care and cry right along with us. Katie Pratt wrote on the Facebook thread, "One of the few times a saw my dad cry happened when we lost an animal … pig, calf, cow or horse. That was powerful for a kid, seeing your father cry. I think I learned then just how important we were to the animals and how important they were to us."


Traci Sumner shared, "It hurts so **bleep** bad when you lose an animal. They aren't just your livelihood. If you only did it to make money, you wouldn't be a farmer. You do it because you care about the animals, the life, what you can teach your children, what you learn every day. We had a bunch of farmers lose pigs last year, and it would kill them every day to have to go out to the barns to see how many were dead that morning. These were big, tough guys breaking down in tears because they couldn't do anything about it."


It definitely hurts. And no matter how many times we experience it, losing an animal never gets any easier. Learning to accept that death is a part of life is just one of the many lessons we learn on the farm. Another is that no matter what else is going on in our lives and our hearts, the cows need to be fed. The chores need to be done. Life goes on … even in death.

About the Author
I am an online content editor for Successful Farming/ and Living the Country Life, but my full-time job is raising three boys on a small farm in south-central Iowa.