We spent the cup weekend marking and tagging our calves. It was perfect weather for the job; not too hot and no rain at all. The calves are growing beautifully and the mums are also looking really healthy and strong. But it’s a job that I find unpleasant no matter how lovely the weather and company are. Marking animals means separating them (the boys) from their testicles. The most common way of doing it is with tools called ‘elastrators’, which put a rubber ring around the top of the scrotum. As the ring tightens, the blood flow slows and the testes eventually wither and die off altogether. As you can imagine, the calves are not happy about this process at all!
We bring all the beasts down together to the yards and draft off the mums and calves. We keep the mums close to—but not in the same yard as—the calves, to prevent accidental crushing. Then we run one calf at a time into the cattle crush. One person holds the calf steady, another separates it from the crown jewels if it’s a boy and a third tags both ears. Someone else stands by and records all the data we have about the animal (colour, weight, tag number, mother’s tag number). All in all, it is a painful and undignified experience for the animal and no matter how much I try to be countrified and unconcerned about it; I still feel a pang of remorse as each little beast bellows in pain.
We are also thinking hard about the meat industry in general, as our first steers are now two years old and ready to go off to the abattoir. In particular, we’re trying to price our product fairly so that it is affordable and we are still able to make our business viable. I had a look in the supermarkets close to us to see what the average punter is paying for meat and the results were pretty disheartening. It’s very hard to understand how meat can possibly be offered so cheaply.
Of course, it’s easy to wander around the supermarket, see cheap meat and think ‘fantastic’. But in the supply chain, who suffers? The trajectory of a beef cow is often as follows: Farm, transport, (sometimes feedlot, transport), abattoir, transport, butcher, transport, shelf. Add to this the amount of infrastructure required to raise animals, all the feeding, monitoring for illness and other animal handling, and it’s clear that it must be either the farmer, or the animal itself that is short-changed.
Looking after cattle as they grow from calves to heavy steers is hard. A good farmer will plan methodically from the time a calf is born to ensure there is sufficient quality pasture for them and that the farm is equipped to handle all their needs. Unfortunately, the seasons are unpredictable and many farmers will offload their animals at market when they no longer have feed. More often than not, those beasts go to a feedlot where they are bulked out on grain in very cramped conditions to fetch a maximum price with a minimum effort. They supplement the feed with antibiotics as a protection against the diseases which are more prevalent due to the high stocking rates, not to mention the high cost to the environment of feeding grain to fatten cattle.
This is not an option for us. We do our best to plan for all contingencies. We care for our animals, check them regularly, and have the vet on call. We implement rotational grazing so they are always well fed and do not lose condition and become more susceptible to illness. We under-stock to allow a buffer for a poor season. We also carry hay for supplement feed if required in poor seasonal conditions. When we are marking, we take extra time to minimise the discomfort and distress to the animal.
Now we have beasts aged two years plus who have reached maturity and are ready for consumption. These animals have stayed in our care right from birth right up until their trip to the abattoir. We can be sure that they have lived a relatively happy, healthy and humane life. They have grazed pasture right through and have never gone hungry.
Are you prepared to pay more for this? We sure are. Short of buying and consuming all out meat this way, the only other ethical solution I can see is to become a vegetarian.