Last weekend we harvested beef, and I found myself approaching harvest day feeling both humbled and sure. Humbled because Paul and I again got to be a part of supplying our customers with high quality beef that we know is safe and tasty to eat and was humanely raised and produced. Sure, because we know that the choice we made to cull those two animals from our herd was the right one.
We made the decision to cull both of these girls fairly easily (although what is really "easy" about this decision?). One was a "rescue" we had high hopes for, but we really should've known better; rarely can you get a diamond for next to nothing. In her case, the disappointing reality was that she had fertility problems (side - good thing we don't cull humans, or I'd be in trouble!), but she was also wild and unmanageable. The second cow, even though she was one of our first in the herd, also had attitude problems along with some physical conformation issues that really made her someone we didn't feel comfortable selling off to someone else.
There are many reasons to pull a cow from a herd. Open cows, those who fail to breed back, cost a farm or ranch money because they are not producing the next year's calf crop on schedule. In a large cow/calf operation, open cows are often shipped cows, making their way to a table near you. Cows who are too old to breed, or whose udders have fallen from slipped ligaments, the result of either poor conformation or too many years of breeding, have a hard time rearing calves and are sold or slaughtered. Cows with weird leg conformation, especially in the hind legs, don't move as well to feed or otherwise get around, so they're culled. Cows that cannot keep their body condition up throughout the year despite good management are also culled. As much as we love our cows, we do study them with eyes-in-training, looking for clues that they no longer meet our needs.
Incidentally, we received our copy of The Bagpipe, the quarterly journal of the American Highland Cattle Association, in the mail last week and discovered the Highland Performance Data Report. Among other things, the report summarized docility scores of Highlands on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being nearly zen calm, and 5 being crazy wild and potentially dangerous). After reading the descriptions provided, Paul and I were able to place each of our animals appropriately, and this further validated our decision to harvest the two animals, both on the "wrong" end of the scale. Certainly, having better handling facilities, like chutes and gates, would help us manage unmanageable animals, but what we really want on our farm is animals who don't require such measures just to work with them. (In case you're wondering, my girl Sheila is in the 2 range, most of the time. When she's not she does quickly remember who is boss (me!), thanks to my pal Bonnie's tactic of holding my arms out like giant horns! Not that she likes it, but she does back down right quick.)
Now that the harvest of our wild cows is past, we hope we don't soon forget how difficult it was to separate them (especially the wilder of the two) from the herd and get them where we needed them to be. No, with our herd, we want to aim for zen...or darned close to it!