SummerI was contacted by a mother of a fifth grader whose class is doing a research project on the farming industry. They asked that I respond to the following questions, which were devised by the gradeschooler herself. I thought they were very good questions.

I’m also sometimes surprised and taken aback by the higher level of sophistication of gradeschool projects compared to when I was a kid. All I remember doing at that age was memorizing multiplication tables, gluing art projects together, and learning to play Hot Cross Buns on the recorder. Nowadays, they seem to be tackling major societal topics such as the ethical consideration and treatment of slaughter animals in the food chain. On the other hand, my grade school in downtown Snohomish was a few blocks away from a large slaughterhouse. So, through the bus windows every morning, I saw cattle frames hanging from the rails, and thought nothing of it. Now that slaughterhouse is an indoor soccer dome for yuppies. How times have changed.

Anyways, here are her thought-provoking questions, and my answers.

1. In some of my research I have read that male babies are killed as they are considered useless in this industry. How would you respond to those claims?

Well, since we raise meat sheep, a good portion of them are killed for meat, as that is their intended purpose from the time they are conceived. It’s true, if you are a meat animal, or a dairy animal, and born a boy, your fate is more likely to be going into the slaughter channel as a fairly young animal (6-12 months for lambs, sometimes cattle raised for beef are grown out for more like 1.5-2 years, unless they are raised for veal). For breeding, we only need a few males, and we only keep back the very exceptional-performing ones, to pass on their good genetics.

Females have a better chance of being kept back or sold as breeding animals. But even then, as they age, their productivity goes down, and at some point, the pressure of reproduction is too hard on them. Rather than letting them die of old age and waste that meat, and potentially suffer an uncomfortable old age with arthritis and poor dentition which makes it hard to eat enough, we usually butcher or “cull” them around age 8-12. I do have a 13 year old ewe here that is still productive though, so I let the animal’s health and performance guide me on when they might need to be “done” in production.

As far as male babies being useless, I don’t think any farm products are useless, they all have a use, just different uses. So, in dairies, females are valued for their milk production ability; but males are also valued for their meat production ability. Some veal, some steers, but they all get  used in some way. It’s hard to make a profit farming, so everyone tries not to waste anything, we try to find uses and sales channels for everything we produce. Even in the egg industry where male chicks obviously can’t lay eggs and aren’t the right breeds for growing out as broilers, those day-old chicks can be ground up into protein products, and used in things like dog kibble. Nothing is wasted or useless…

2. What do you think of the animals you have and [how] do you treat them? Do you keep them happy and healthy?

I love animals, that is why I farm. It is brutal hard work, very risky, and not very profitable; so the only reason to do it is because you love it. I work very hard to ensure my animals have a good life, as people often say “a great life, with one bad day” – meaning, the day they die. For a few years, I had a job in downtown Seattle. I was struck by all of the homeless people and drug addicts on the street there. Some of them were obviously suffering, crying out for help, begging for food, or clearly experiencing drug overdoses in the shadows of doorways; and all of the business people just walk by and ignore them, as if they are invisible. It occurred to me, my sheep have much better lives: any health problem, suffering or discomfort would immediately be treated on my farm; and my sheep are always optimally fed based on careful calculations, science and measurements. So, it is a cruel and overlooked irony that in our society, we often treat farm animals much, much better than we do many of our fellow humans.

3. What would you want to educate the public about your farm and the treatment of your animals?

We raise food the way we want it to be for our own kitchen table: natural, with as few medications and chemicals as possible, and with a constant eye towards balancing animal welfare with environmental respect, while still making a product that’s affordable by most people. These competing aims are always in delicate balance. What’s best for the environment is often not ideal for what the animals prefer, like fencing them in a smaller “sacrifice area” to protect the soils, surface water and grass during winter.  What’s best for the animals sometimes isn’t perfectly natural, like using antibiotics to treat an infection, or giving an NSAID to an animal that’s injured and in pain. And, doing things the “right way” on a small scale means the product is more expensive than what factory farms can provide, which raises ethical dilemmas on the best way to feed a growing human population for the least cost.

4. Understanding the nature of the industry, do you believe the animals should be treated humanely in the process of sacrificing their life for us?

Yes, absolutely! This is a no-brainer, and is one of the main reasons we’d prefer for animals that we eat to be slaughtered under our supervision or by someone we know, so we know it’s done right. When we buy from the grocery store, the chain of custody is broken: we have no idea how those animals have lived or died, how they were fed, how far they were transported before and after slaughter, who was involved in processing them, and even whether the workers involved were treated respectfully and paid fairly. 80 years ago, most people in our country at least knew how to butcher a chicken, and sourced most of their food animal products locally, where the supply chain was visible, known, and understood end-to-end. Somehow, in the last several decades, most people in our country have become very divorced from the food supply chain and have become intentionally naïve about how it all works. This loss of oversight and accountability on the consumer side, coupled with the increase in large-scale agriculture and consumer demand for cheaper and cheaper food, has clearly led to quality degradations in the way food animals are raised in many commercial channels. I hope that this is changing, starting with your fifth grade project!