Chronicles of a Dirt Farmer: Livestock Are Not Pets

Livestock are neither cats nor dogs nor fish nor hamsters, they don’t help you get through your day; they are not your companion when life gets rough. They are not your “fur children,” nor your soul mate. They are what they have been bred to be: partially domesticated working animals living in a symbiotic relationship with us humans. We give them food, water, shelter, and health care, and they do the same for us. It’s a beautiful dance, millennia old.

Today my Saturday was interrupted by a call from a farming colleague. Some cycling tourists had taken it upon themselves to traipse down the driveway, pound on the door of his tenant, and proceeded to chew out the poor guy about some dead sheep on my neighboring property. There are bodies piled up by the gate! The vultures have been eating them! It’s gross! It’s inhumane! It’s cruel! It’s right by the road where we can see it! Those poor darling little sheep! How dare you?!

Apparently entitled enough to roam about working farms as if they were a public park, these tourists were trespassing when they saw what they saw, having gotten off the main road and gone down a private dirt one. Lucky for those bicycle wielding visitors it was not my door they knocked on. They would have fled right back down that road, ears burning from foul language, threats of the sheriff hard on their heels.

Timmy has a bottle addiction
credit Debby Zygielbaum

Yes, there were indeed some dead sheep. Regardless of the manner in which I received the report, I knew it might mean something was wrong (perhaps a dog or coyote attack), so I called my shepherd to let him know. In this case, two old sheep happened to die, probably sometime in the night, right by the fence. And the vultures got to them before the shepherd found them in the afternoon.

Here’s the thing about sheep: they live to die. Sometimes things stress them out and they just drop dead. Seriously. Other livestock are a bit better about it, but sheep give up living a little too easily. Us shepherds do lots of things to help avoid that, like keeping the copper levels in their diet low (copper can bioaccumulate in their livers and then get released all at once with a stressful event), and making sure they are getting the forage and nutrients they need. We spend a lot of our time creating environments that make them happy.

Curiouser and curiouser
credit Debby Zygielbaum

My shepherd checks his herd daily, sometimes more, making sure they have forage, water, salt. That none are hurt or injured, that there are no holes in the fence and no predators have wreaked havoc. But sometimes, no matter what you do, they die. Sometimes they die in uncomfortably plain sight of the road. Then nature efficiently takes its course – vultures cleaning up the mess, cycling the nutrients. And those poor hapless souls had to see and experience all of that. The horror.

Farming is about life – but also death. That part is dirty and messy and heartbreaking and no one wants to talk about it. Nothing gets my back up like righteous city slickers riding through and making assumptions about farming. As if they know everything because they’ve watched a couple of Disney movies and follow Civil Eats. Here’s the thing: if you haven’t raised livestock, you don’t know. You have no idea what it’s like to run a thousand head of sheep and make a living from it. And you have no idea why they live – or why they might die.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask questions – by all means. But don’t go running around making assumptions. And before you hop in your car or on your bike for that picturesque adventure through farmland, keep in mind it’s not just here for you to enjoy – we are earning a living off what we do. This is our livelihood and we are experts in it. So approach the whole thing with a little more respect.

The farmer will certainly thank you. I know I will.

Debby Zygielbaum is the Vineyard Manager (or, as she’s fond of saying, ‘Dirt Farmer’), at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa and a frequent contributor on Nopalize. She can be found @walkthevine on Twitter and Instagram.