As I travel and talk to the general public, I find that a grand majority of them, from omnivore to vegan, are concerned about the welfare of livestock. They care deeply about the way livestock are treated and they are appalled by the videos of abuse that are put out by various animal rights groups. They like to tell me about their dog, cat, or maybe even their horse and how they couldn’t bear the thought of those animals being eaten.They wonder how ranchers feel about these animals and their welfare. Do we really care?
This is always a difficult discussion to have with folks since the relationship a rancher has to his livestock is very complex and most of the public has little experience with animals to relate to a rancher. In addition, the videos they see and stories they hear are not an accurate representation of the industry. So what I typically do is tell my story and what livestock have meant to me.
For me, caring for livestock was never a question. It was all that I’ve ever known. One of my first clear memories is helping my mother pull lambs at 2 AM when I was three or four. I started showing lambs at four with my ewe lamb named Pirate, and I showed my first market lamb at six. I got my first pony about the same age and a horse soon after. We’ve always had cattle and I was literally raised in a barn (a sale barn to be exact). From that age, I had chores and wasn’t allowed to have dinner until my animals had been fed.
In my house, we raised our own meat. So from a young age, I was feeding the animals that would end up on the dinner table. It was just normal. All the animals were cared for and treated with respect no matter their end point. Plus, who wants to eat something that has been mistreated?
Most of what I read on this topic from agriculture folks goes into the time taken caring for the health and welfare of livestock, the scientific reasons that we use one system over another or the calling that ranchers feel in their hearts to take care of livestock. These are all true and I could give you hundreds of stories about the joys of saving animals on the verge of death, the stress of always worrying about their well being and the heart break of seeing them go. But I think what exemplifies the story of a rancher’s relationship with an animal, is the story of my Dad and Blackstrap.
An old cowboy once told me that cowboys get one good horse, one good dog, and one good woman in their lives (if they are lucky). Snapper was Dad’s dog. My mother is the woman. Blackstrap was his horse.
Dad got Blackstrap when he was twelve and they grew up together. Blackstrap was a big, stout Quarterhorse gelding that was basically jet black. Dad raised him and broke him to be a cow horse. I heard stories about the things this horse did from the time I could walk. I even rode Blackstrap with Dad before I could walk. Not that he was without his faults, but Dad seemed to love him even more for those. Dad rode other horses later, but they were always compared to Blackstrap and none of them could ever measure up.
When I was about six, Blackstrap developed colic while on some spring pasture. After trying all he could, Dad realized Blackstrap was going to die. My father is a practical man. He knew dying of colic wasn’t going to be pleasant, so Blackstrap needed to be euthanized. If there is one thing Dad can’t stand, it is to watch an animal suffer. So we loaded Blackstrap up and took him to the horse slaughter plant nearby (this being 1992 and horse slaughter still being legal). I can still vividly remember Dad walking him across the scales and up to the floor himself. It was the first time I saw him cry.
At six, I knew Blackstrap was going to be put down but not that we were at a slaughter plant. Once I grew up and figured it out, I asked Dad, why take him there? His response has always stuck with me. He said that Blackstrap was always a horse with a purpose. Those folks would do the most humane and professional job euthanizing him, and Blackstrap would still have a purpose.
I guess the whole discussion comes down to your belief system. I believe cattle were put on this earth for us to use and cowboys were put on this earth to take care of the cows. Thus, we tend to our animals using the best animal husbandry we can. We know their overall purpose is to feed people, but they aren’t treated like hamburger on a day-to-day basis. It is this overall purpose that drives us to take care of them.
There is pride and honor in caring for animals that will feed hungry people. It’s a calling and one that ranchers take seriously. It is a purpose that drives us through days of mud and blood, rain and snow, sweat and tears. The relationship and obligation that a rancher feels for his animals is one that cannot be expressed, it must be felt. It’s something that can only be seen in the lines and wrinkles of a rancher’s face.
Dad thought I should move away from agriculture and be an engineer. For a while I tried, but it never felt like my purpose in life. I believe my purpose is to help share with the public that ranchers can and do care about livestock all the way from conception to consumption. Pasture to the plate, these animals mean the world to ranchers.