Monday, September 15, 2014

what life and death on a farm have taught me about living

little sick lamb and Karma

It is 11:00am and I am sitting in my kitchen, watching a 4 month old ram lamb lying on his side on an old rug on my kitchen floor. A hair dryer plays over his wet wool, warming him.

His eyes are open and he is ruminating, both of which are improvements over when I found him this morning in the pasture, lying on his side in a cold rain, eyes closed.

I thought he was dead.

But when I approached, I could see his sides moving. He was still breathing.

I scooped up his tiny body and brought him into the warm, dry kitchen where he now lays.

I have no idea if he will live or die.  But I decided if he is to die today, he will not do so alone in a cold, wet pasture.

Yesterday, a lame turkey poult we had been nursing for two months died quietly in the sunshine in the barn.

Earlier this week, a raccoon reached through the electric net fence enclosing a group of young turkeys and grabbed one, killing it, but unable to breach the electric netting to take it out of the paddock, left it dead where it lay.

This has all happened within the past week.


My husband and I and our menagerie of critters have lived on our 40-acre farm in southwestern Wisconsin for a little over two years now.  Prior to that neither of us had ever raised livestock save for a few bum calves my husband and his sister raised as 4-H projects in their youth.

In my youth I loved all animals. I remember going out to spring my dad's leg traps in the garden, and after graduating high school and volunteering on a wildlife rehabilitation center and learning about our industrial methods of raising meat animals, giving up eating meat for the next five years.

I had the very naive idea that I was somehow removed from death through these simple acts.

But the truth of the matter is, we're all going to die some day.  We are all a part of the food chain. We all know this, and yet, we forget.


In a world were we are so separated from death - from the neatly wrapped packages of meat in the grocery store to the way we tuck away our aged and sick in hospitals and institutions out of the eyes of the mainstream - we often forget that we, too, will also die some day.

We are born, we live, we die.

We forget that the circle of life would not exist without that little part about death.

We do not get to cheat death just as we do not get to decide where we are born or how long we live.

And so we fool ourselves into thinking we have forever to cross that item off our bucket list, tell that special someone we love them, forgive an old hurt, or try out that hobby that fuels our passion.


Living on a farm brings the circle of life into much sharper focus.

I've watched a number of our animals give birth these last two years.  An alpaca cria nose and front two feet emerge from her mama and slip slowly towards the ground as her unbelievably long and gangly body and legs emerge behind.  Not even 45 minutes later, she is taking her first wobbly steps and searching for her mama's milk.

It is a miracle to see a life emerge into the wide open world.

But sometimes, it all goes wrong.

You find the baby lamb dead in the paddock while his sister lamb is up and nursing and healthy.

You watch the tiny cracks appear around the shell of the turkey egg in the incubator, its fluffy siblings peeping nearby, yet the poult never emerges, and you never know why.

The raccoon comes and steals your full-grown tom turkey off it's high roost, the turkey's headless remains stashed in the tall grass of the pasture for you to find in the morning.


This growing season has been especially hard on our livestock.  We have lost more animals this season than in the two seasons we've lived here previously.

We raise mostly poultry, with a few ruminants and several dozen rabbits.  It's not uncommon for the weakest kits in the litter to die while their stronger siblings thrive.

It's not uncommon to get a weak batch of broiler chickens from the hatchery who just do not thrive as they should.

But the death toll this year seems unusually unfair.

We have only half of our original flock of broad-breasted turkeys alive today, a result of poor genetics (at the hatchery) and determined raccoons.

Counting aborted fetuses and death from injury and an extremely harsh winter, I have lost half of my small alpaca herd since last fall.

Every single loss affects me, no matter how large or small the critter.  They are all under my care, and I feel personally responsible for their safety and welfare.

When an animal dies, I feel I have failed them in some way. This year, I have felt like I failed a lot.

So what have I learned from all of this death and loss?


I have learned not to take the lives of my livestock for granted.

When a healthy baby bounds across the green pasture in pleasure, I make a conscious effort to express my gratitude for this miracle of life.

When my husband checks in with me at the end of the day and asks, "What went right today?"  Sometimes the only thing I can answer is, "Nobody died."  But that in itself is a gift that I am grateful for every day I am able to say it.

Likewise, I am also more grateful for my family and friends, and more conscious of expressing my gratitude for them and to them.


I have learned that I cannot control the outcome of many things, despite my beliefs or best efforts.

The electric net fences I have supplied to keep predators out of the paddocks sometimes turn into deadly weapons when the critters they are meant to protect get tangled in them.

That doesn't mean the nets are bad. Some circumstances we cannot predict or prevent.

I am learning to accept the things I cannot control or change.  I don't always like them, but I accept that there is a greater plan for the animals - and the people I care about - that may be beyond my current understanding.

doing my best

I have learned that no matter how attentive we are as caregivers, sometimes animals will still die.

We offer the best possible care we are able to here, with organic supplements, new grass paddocks every week, clean water, sunshine and pure air.

We offer minerals to help boost immune systems, and electric nets to protect from predation.

And yet, animals still die sometimes.

I am learning not to blame myself when this happens - or if I am at fault, to learn from any mistake that was made, then release myself from an unhealthy cycle of shame and blame.

Likewise, I am learning how to forgive others that have harmed me, and release them from my continued judgement and blame for their mistakes.

trusting my intuition

I have learned to trust my intuition when it comes to reading the "animal language" on the farm.

There is always someone puzzling me on the farm.  Turkeys that are wheezing, rabbits that are sneezing, someone looking just a bit "off."  Without calling in the (very expensive) vet every time I see someone "not quite right," I have had to learn on relying on my gut instinct to tell me what might be wrong and what the best course of treatment might be - and when to call in an expert.

If you have trouble listening to your inner intuition, it's best not to rush or force it.  Observe whatever is happening.  Gather as many sensory clues as possible. Does my little ram lamb have diarrhea or very pale lower eyelids?  If so, probably a heavy parasite load.  Is my chicken wheezy?  Possibly mycoplasma.

If there are no clear visible clues, that's when it helps just to ruminate about the situation for awhile.  In a day or two or three, you may have a small idea somewhere in the back of your mind of what possibly may have happened.  The more you pay attention to this little voice, the more accurate it becomes.

I am always pleased when I have suspected a particular cause, then find out later (usually via a veterinarian) that I was right.

You have instincts and intuition for a reason - learn to trust - and use - them.

Teenagers often pose a similar dilemma.  They speak our language, but often we don't understand what they are telling us, or what they need.  Learning to "read between the lines" and listen to your inner voice will help you find solutions.

ending suffering

I have learned that making a critter comfortable or ending their suffering is sometimes the last gift we can give to them.

It is not always possible to tell if a critter is suffering. They don't speak our language, and many have evolved to hide their pain and discomfort.

We practice a form of intervention that follows the thought that if the animal still appears to be fighting for its life, we continue to fight for it as well.  That doesn't mean always calling the vet, but it may mean giving the critter its own space where it doesn't have to compete for food, or giving it a heat lamp so it doesn't have to expend energy to keep warm, or giving it special feed or supplements to help boost its recovery.

Not having to fight for food or resources is sometimes the only thing they need to get their fight back and recover enough to be placed back in the herd or flock.

But often, it just gives them a warm, quiet place to spend their final moments.

giving back

I have learned that giving something to someone else when I am hurting eases the pain of the loss.

When a small animal dies, I often leave it out in the back pastures on a rock for the wild animals who share our farm to get a "free" meal.

Recently one of our nearly full grown Tiger Bronze heritage tom turkeys was fighting with some other toms and got its foot tangled in the electric netting.  The other toms attacked it.  When I found it it was very weak - dying, but not dead.

I donated it to an Amish family with 10 children.  I knew they would use every part of it to feed and nourish their family.

We also regularly donate to charities that are making a difference around the world, like Heifer Project, Int'l, Central Asia Institute, and KIVA are just a few of the organizations we support.


Although death has come often on the farm this season, it still takes the wind out of my sails, especially if it is an unexpected death of a seemingly healthy animal.

There is always a grief process for me.  Sometimes I ball my eyes out.  Sometimes I just have a heavy lump in my stomach all day.  Whatever the circumstance, I know I have to go easy on myself that day and possibly even the next several.

My energy wanes, I get tired easily, and even the activities I normally enjoy will seem somehow dull and lifeless.

I know this happens, and so I am able to give myself permission to be slow, tired, and sad.

Sometimes I call a friend.  Sometimes I go visit a friend.  Sometimes I take a long walk on the property.  Sometimes I take a long nap or go to bed early.  Getting off the farm for a bit always seems to help.  Writing down what I am processing always helps.

Whatever I need to do, I accept that, and give myself time for the grieving process.

In a few days, I will feel back to my old self again, and life will resume.

honoring the circle of life

Most importantly, I have learned to accept death as a natural, and important, part of the circle of life.

We are all going to die.

For me, it is better to know a critter has lived a short, good life, than never had the chance to live at all.

That's what keeps me getting out of bed in the morning, despite the days where the raccoons seem to be winning, or I find a dying lamb in the cold rain in the pasture.

The lamb will die. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe in months or years.

I will die.  Hopefully not today, but who knows.

What is it I have left undone in this life?  Who do I need to forgive?  Who needs to hear I love them? I will do it today.

Karma cozies next to a sick lamb

My ram lamb still lays on the rug in the kitchen, ruminating quietly.  Karma, our Siamese kitten, has found him and curled up beside his belly, sharing her warmth, unafraid.

An odd combination perhaps, a boisterous kitten full of life lying quietly beside a dying lamb.

But it all makes sense to me.

Perhaps she knows if he will live or die.

I do not.

But for now, they curl together, sharing the warmth and the quiet.

Blessings -
Gypsy Farmgirl shares about life and death on the farm


Cindy said...

Wow, you have given me a lot to think about, and a lot to be thankful for.

jenlarson said...

I agree - a lot of ideas to think about. I try to keep in mind that we should live every day so if it is our last, we will die happy.
I also noticed this post says it was posted in September...and I'm curious if the little ram made it??

Kristina said...

The picture is very touching. Thanks for sharing such beautiful food for thought!

Victoria Strauser said...

Thank you Cindy. It was a very thought-provoking situation, as are all the life/death situations on the farm.

Victoria Strauser said...

Jen - unfortunately the little ram died the next night, quietly, in our warm kitchen. I took him out to the back pastures to be a gift of food for the scavengers the next day.

Victoria Strauser said...

Thank you Kristina. I just couldn't believe when Karma curled up next to him like that, so unafraid. I think the ram enjoyed her warmth. :)

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