Archive for Ethics and Practices

Evaluating ethical lambing practices

Tail docking and castrating of ram lambs… is it ethical? Is it necessary?

Last year we decided to embark on an experiment in ethics and best practices. We decided that we would leave all lambs intact, which means that we did not castrate any of the boys, nor did we dock (cut off) tails.

lamb photo for webOne of the primitive traits of Jacob Sheep is their ability to still fully articulate their tails. Common modern farming technique requires the docking of tails, as lore suggests that many modern commercial breeds of sheep no longer have the ability to articulate their tails sufficiently to move it out of the way of feces and urine (which can lead to disease and infection). This is certainly not the case with Jacob Sheep, and after doing some investigating, we have arrived at the conclusion that it is unnecessary.

Removing appendages, such as the tail,  for “looks only” is not ethical care in our opinion. One of the reasons we began to question this practice in the first place was because we lost a lamb to anaphylactic shock after giving her the requisite anti-tetanus injection that is needed to keep them from getting tetanus in their tail when you band them. We watched a perfectly healthy lamb die within minutes in horrible agony and convulsions due to a shot we had given her so that we could perform an unnecessary procedure on her. Was this typical? Obviously, no. Does it happen? Yes. In fact, that same year another breeder friend of ours had a similar experience in two of his lambs.

In 2013 we raised all of our lambs without incident with tails fully intact. They thrived and we did not have any increased incidents of fly strike, infections, or otherwise. They were able to articulate their tails as needed for their bodily functions, and the ewes bred without any trouble. Breeders in some areas of the country have been leaving tails intact for quite some time, so this is not a new idea. We are simply reinforcing the idea that docking is purely an aesthetic choice, and here at Fat Toaster Farm we aren’t in the business of chopping off animal appendages in order to gain style points.

As for castrating, we have not castrated ram lambs since we began our farm in 2009, and the meat lambs taste mild and indistinguishable. As foodies the quality and flavor of our food is very important. We eat the sheep we raise, and so we want the best tasting meat. Castration can be extremely painful for the lamb (if you see them writhing in pain, you realize that yes, they do feel it — there is no way to explain that away and remain honest with yourself). Castration can also open an opportunity for infection, fly strike (trust me, you don’t want to mess with this), increased care, and sometimes death due to aforementioned complications. Again, if there is no practical gain, there is no reason to perform unnecessary surgical processes. Less work for us, less pain for the lambs, and the meat is fine both ways. Win/win.

Overall we encourage breeders to consider the implications of our findings. For one, it is significantly less work for the shepherd when you don’t need to catch every single lamb yet another time to band their tails or castrate. It is one or two less shots that you must catch them to give (and less risk of anaphylaxis). Certainly it is best for the critters this way also, as they endure less pain, enjoy a higher quality of life, and you don’t have to listen to their cries of pain. Again, win/win.

Happy lambing!

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Farming is hard

When I first tell friends that I have a small farm, I often hear the response, “Sounds neat, but hey, isn’t that hard? Like, a lot of work?”

My response isn’t typically what they expect. I tell them, “Yeah, farming and caring for these critters is a lot of work, but that is the fun part! The parts of farming that aren’t easy often have to do with the unpleasant things that don’t often come to mind until you’ve lived ’em.”

We’ve been doing this for about three years, and we’ve experienced great joy — The first time you have lambs born on the farm, and the first time that one of those lambs becomes your best friend. The times when you have 50 peeping little chicks making the most ridiculous racket in a box in your garage. The times that you can invite friends over to enjoy your space, comforts, and good eats.

Then there are the times that don’t come to mind but will be experienced, ready or not. These are the times that are hard — The time when a dog gets in to your chicken coop and kills every single last one before you go out to find the dog gone, and the carnage left behind. The time that a sheep gets injured by some freak accident and you have to spend hours and late nights calling vets and wondering if it will live. The times when an animal gets randomly sick and needs daily antibiotic shots for weeks to get better. The days filled with great joy as new life is born, and then the sadness of seeing such fragile new life perish. There are the times many pet owners know — when you lose your old friend. When you have a whole pasture full of friends, you have that many more to lose. Then there are the times of great unpleasantness, like having to save your sheep in distress from an attacking dog in your pasture, knowing that you are likely shooting someone else’s beloved pet out of horrible necessity.

All farmers experience such things, and the smaller and more sustainably you farm, the closer you are to each animal and their daily care. So, next time you eat that locally grown meat or enjoy the beauty and wondrousness of a small family farm, realize that the farmers who so lovingly share that experience with you have a deep well of experience — both joy and pain — that go unseen with each moment.

Farming and animal husbandry are worthwhile and wondrous undertakings, yet the difficult times will come with surety. Weathering them takes far more energy than cleaning out the barn or hauling some feed out to a flock of eager faces.

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