Do ranchers really care about their livestock, or is it just all about the bottom line? I believe it was fellow columnist Andy Vance who once wrote about how ranchers were getting a “martyr complex” when it comes to animal welfare. In a nutshell, his column dealt with how ranchers were complaining on social media about having to save newborn calves from the snow and mud during calving season. Vance reminded readers that this is our job -- much like a fireman or police officer might do. We do what we do because we are in a business; it financially makes sense to care for our animals, right?
Even though this column was written more than two years ago, it’s one I haven’t forgotten. While I certainly get his point, I wasn’t particularly impressed with his musings that day. No offense to my respected writing colleague, but I think it was the wrong column for me to read on that particular day in April 2011. We were in the thick of calving season at that time and, earlier that morning, I had checked on a cow that had calved in a dry spot outside. The calf was up and sucking and all looked great when I initially checked her. The new calf was even a bull, and I was thinking he might make a new herd sire for our operation.
A few hours later, I bundled up in coveralls, boots and hat once again, and hopped on the four-wheeler to do another calving check. I saw the cow that had calved earlier, but no calf. As I neared the cow, I found trouble. The cow had moved her calf to a muddy spot close to the hay feeder in the big lot where she had calved. In a freak event, the calf had sunk in the mud and was stuck. In an effort to get her baby to stand up, the cow had butted her calf, but to no avail.
The calf’s nose was bloody, and he was chilled. As the snow pelted my face and the icy wind blew, I could tell I didn’t have much time to save him. I worked to get the calf out of the mud. It weighed about as much as I did, and it felt like we were in quicksand.
Once I extricated him from the mud, I heaved him up onto the four-wheeler and cradled him tightly in my arms as we rushed to the barn where I could give him better attention, and hopefully save his life. The cow dutifully followed, and both were soon in the calving barn, bedded with fresh straw and sheltered from the cold, biting wind.
Despite my best efforts, the calf died within the hour. Heartbroken and probably more than a little bit tired after the weeks of nighttime checks of the herd, I cried in the barn and cursed Vance’s column, which I had read earlier that day.
I wasn’t thinking about the money I had just lost when that calf died. I was thinking about the loss of life. Seeing the light drain from a new calf’s eyes is an experience I don’t take lightly. I don’t care how long you’ve been in the business, a loss on a cattle ranch is more than just a line on the balance sheet. We do this, not because it’s a get-rich-quick scheme, but because we truly love it. Sure, it’s nice to make money, but I bet for a lot of folks, including myself, it’s so much more than that.
The reason I tell this story and refer back to that column isn’t because I’ve been harboring some resentment to Vance’s tough-love words of wisdom. It’s because there are many folks outside of this industry who are being led to believe that we don’t care about our livestock -- that animal welfare isn’t a part of the very fiber of our beings.
Last week, the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) held a town hall meeting in Nebraska. HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle showed up in a designer plaid shirt, jeans and sneakers to try to level with the rural community members he would be speaking to that night. (Photo from HumaneWatch.org)
Only one rancher showed up to that meeting. You can read his thoughts on the meeting here. To sum it up, he was extremely disappointed that more folks didn’t show up to have a conversation with HSUS and share our side of the story.
I think his disappointment is warranted, especially after hearing what Pacelle told the audience. According to HumaneWatch.org, Pacelle opened his comments by talking about how he supports some farmers and ranchers and that HSUS isn’t against animal agriculture.
But, in the next breath, Pacelle slipped up and shared what he really thinks about animal welfare. Pacelle told Nebraska TV, “Animal welfare may not be central to the psyche of farmers.”
I’m absolutely disgusted by his comments. HSUS is doing nothing more than conducting a libelous smear campaign with no merit.
Animal welfare is top priority to me, as I’m sure it is to my peers in the business. If we didn’t care, well, we would probably just plow up our pastures and plant some corn. After all, there are a few more bucks to be gained in crops vs. livestock these days, so if it was all about money, there would be far fewer cattlemen willing to save calves in a blizzard.
It’s time we balance the conversation and respond to statements like this one made by HSUS.
Perhaps I’m blowing things out of proportion, but my bet is Pacelle has never taken care of a house plant, much less a herd of beef cattle. And I will always stand by my statement that my cattle come first, no matter what. It’s very much a part of my “psyche.”
What do you think about Pacelle’s statements? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.