To Each, A Purpose

By Pearl Benjamin | Aug 22, 2018

I’ve been an “animal person” since before I can remember.

In my younger years living in the city I would spend endless hours caring for caterpillars, worms, silk moths, baby birds fallen from their nests - any creature I could get my hands on. I rode and cared for horses and begged my parents for every furry creature that crossed my mind - a cat, a dog, a pony, a sheep!

When my family moved to Maine six years ago I immediately took the opportunity to begin raising livestock through a 4-H program at a local farm. I now own my own flock of eleven sheep and a steer. My family members and friends know that my animals are my greatest love and passion in life, yet most still misunderstand one critical aspect of my work with them.

At the end of every summer for the past six years I’ve sold one of my beloved animals for meat. Yes - those cute little lambs and calves that I hold in my arms on the day they are born are sometimes selected for slaughter. I can understand how this concept might be difficult for someone who didn’t grow up around farming or 4-H. How can you kill something you love so much? Why can’t you just keep it alive? I’ve heard these questions many, many times. Here is my answer.

As a small farmer and the sole owner of my flock, I pay for my animals’ grain, hay, boarding fees, medical supplies and treatment, and much more. I give up almost every cent of my annual earnings from year-round jobs to care for them. I also give up almost all of my earnings from the animals that are sold.

Every lamb I sell for meat earns me around $600. Subtract the money I spent feeding the lamb, and I’m left with around $500. Because Maine winters leave such a short window of opportunity for pasture grazing, I have to pay for grain as a supplement to my animals’ grass diets. That $500 I earn from a market lamb only pays for around three months of grain supply. The money I earn from my steer and summer jobs pays for the rest.

Everything I earn from selling my animals for meat goes right back into my animals and none of it is wasted. The sacrifice of one lamb or steer is absolutely necessary for the survival of their family. If I were raising my animals as pets, I’d either go broke and have to give them up, or they would be forced to live bleak lives without the resources necessary to keep them healthy and happy.

At this point you might be wondering- “Wait, they’re sheep. Why can’t you just sell their wool?” Or, “Wait, it’s a cow. Why can’t you sell its milk?” Well, because that’s impossible. I raise a breed of hair sheep called Katahdins. Yes, that means they don’t have wool, and yes, a sheep is still a sheep if it doesn’t have wool. Katahdins originated here in Maine and were bred for one common purpose: meat.

The same goes for my cows - I raise Belted Galloway (Oreo cow) steers. Belted Galloways are a meat breed of cattle, and a steer is a castrated male. I can’t sell wool off a “wool-less” sheep, just like I can’t sell milk from a steer without an udder. These heritage breeds wouldn’t exist had they not been bred for meat production, and the individual animals would still go to the slaughterhouse if they weren’t under my ownership. However, with me, my animals experience a life of intensive love and care before they serve their purpose.

I put in the greatest possible effort to ensure my animals live the happiest and healthiest lives possible. I keep watch on the coldest winter nights during lambing season, ready to assist if I’m needed. I give my steer refreshing hose-downs in the summer when the afternoons are too hot to bear. I take my animals on long walks through the forests and pastures and make sure they eat all the fresh, green grass that they want. I trim their hooves, clean their ears, comb the burdock from their hair, and comply with all requests for long, satisfying scratches.

And of course, I love them. Lamb snuggles and steer shoulder-rubs are my payment for my hard work. Loving my animals and being loved back are why I do what I do.

So then comes the most challenging part of the question: “Aren’t you sad when your animals go?”

My answer to that can’t be put simply. Yes, I am sad to see my animals leave, but not so sad that I wish they could stay. I know that some animals have to go early, and I know that this happens on every small farm. I also know that although the animals I send to market live a shorter life than the others, that life is the best possible quality I can provide.

When my animals are sold, I walk them onto the trailer, give them a pat on the back, tell them I love them, and walk away with dry eyes. My mom calls me the “ice queen,” but my lack of tears doesn’t mean that I don’t care. I do. When you sell animals every summer for six straight years you stop crying, but you never feel any less love. The animals that go to market are the ones that help make long and happy lives for the rest of the flock possible, and for that I will always be profoundly thankful.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Aug 23, 2018 05:50

Pearl's love for her animals reminds me of God's love for us. Always there for us right up until the end. Seen too many folk die peacefully to think any different. "To Each. A Purpose".

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | May 17, 2018 17:30

Well said! I too had similar love-feelings on our small farm in Hope. Being a Boston bred city girl it was a hard lesson. But meat in the freezer got us through the winter along with all the vegetables canned from the large garden. Times have changed and alas Hope farming also has changed. But memories of our love for our animals keep forever. Great story!

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