On Eric Shelley’s Farm

A farm tour and an on-farm harvest of a lamb

On Saturday, October 22nd, we visited Eric Shelley’s farm in Cobleskill, New York.  Eric is the director of the Meat Processing Program at SUNY Cobleskill, and invited us to tour his 138-acre farm, meet his family, and learn how he raises his animals humanely on pasture. We also arranged to watch an on-farm slaughter of a lamb later in the afternoon.The farm is absolutely gorgeous and expansive. This is a view from the cattle pasture up on a hill.

What made our farm visit even more of a memorable experience was that we were accompanied by his sons, Beau (4 years old) and Duke (1 1/2 years old). Eric is truly an amazing father!  They are fortunate to learn so much about farming at a young age.

Watching how these children interacted with the animals was quite endearing. They are not afraid and even the guard dog, Turk, is affectionate.  Eric explained, though, that if a stranger approached him, he wouldn’t be that affectionate!  Look how big he is!

Eric’s sister, Dr. Cindi Shelley, raises dairy goats on the farm, and also teaches Animal Science at SUNY Cobleskill. Eric and Cindi explained all about the goat herd.  Each goat is truly fascinating with her own personality!

Speaking of personality, this girl took a liking to my sweater sleeve and wouldn’t give it back. She eventually moved on to something more tasty.

And speaking of tasty, I guess a wireless microphone cord must be fairly yummy. We wondered why my audio was going out, and it was because “someone” nibbled it from my back pocket!  Here I am inspecting the damages.

As a professor of Animal Science, Cindi can explain anatomy very well.  They found this cow skull on the land when they bought the farm, and now they use it to educate people about how a cow tears and chews grass. Beau and I found the structure of the teeth quite interesting.

After meeting all of the goats and learning about cow chewing, we were invited inside for a brunch with homemade pancakes – made by Beau and Eric, of course! Eric is such a patient teacher, not only with his students at the Meat Lab, but with his son over a hot stove.

After brunch it was time to see the rest of the farm.  The cattle (a cow-calf herd) graze in a lush pasture on a hill overlooking the farmhouse and barn.  These animals are so healthy and we could tell how much attention they get on a daily basis from Eric.

These animals are so very big, yet so very gentle.  Eric did not worry about Beau getting close to them.

At first, I was the apprehensive one, but learned that if you approach them the right way, they can be very affectionate.  Eric told us about the “flight zone” and the best way to touch them without scaring them.

Cindi is also very good with the cows. She told us how a cow-calf herd operates, and also explained the economic side in regard to how much farmers can get a pound for the beef. I could tell that the cows really like Cindi, and they especially liked the fact that she had a grain bucket behind her back!

Watching this calf nonchalantly nurse right in the middle of the pasture was a remarkable sight! It’s so heartening to see animals raised this way!

After we finished seeing the cattle, it was time to enter the more poignant part of the day – the harvest of a lamb on the farm.  In order for someone to legally obtain meat from an on-farm slaughter (since it’s not state or federally inspected), the animal must be purchased by the customer while it is alive. The meat will then be butchered and given to the customer in packages marked “Not For Sale.”  Since I’ve never seen an on-farm slaughter or even eaten the meat from an animal I’ve seen harvested, I decided to purchase a lamb for Eric to to harvest in my presence, and for us to film the process. Cindi raises these “hair sheep” (Katahdin), that grow hair rather than wool. We walked to the lamb herd where I was about to choose my lamb.

When we arrived at the pasture where the lambs were, it was then time for me to choose a lamb for harvesting.  I realize that I go back and forth with the terms harvesting and slaughtering.  While slaughtering may be more accurate about what actually happens to the animal, harvesting implies that the animal is not only being killed, but will become food.  I guess harvesting is more inclusive of the cycle of life and death. That being said, it was still difficult to be the one to determine which lamb was to die.

I spotted a very special brown and white lamb that kept looking at me, and decided that he was to be the one. I also wanted to give him a name.  I strongly believe that just because we are going to eat an animal, it doesn’t exclude the need for treating that animal respectfully as a sentient individual. I decided to name him Shiva. This is partly because my name is “Kali” and in Hindu mythology, “Shiva” is “Kali’s” counterpart. The other part of my decision to name him Shiva is because it also means mourning in Judaism.  Choosing him was surely wrought with an amalgam of feelings for me. This is Shiva looking at me.

After I had chosen Shiva, Eric (with knife in hand) and Beau set out in the four-wheeler to where the lambs were and brought along a trailer to haul the harvested Shiva back up to the house.

Cindi also had to “catch” Shiva.  This took quite a bit of skill, and it was important to do everything very quickly so that he wouldn’t be stressed and afraid.  I was very impressed with how skillfully Cindi pulled Shiva from the rest of the flock.

After Cindi caught Shiva and herded the other lambs into another section of the pasture, Eric immediately put Shiva between his legs into a comfort and calming hold. Eric also put his fingers under Shiva’s chin, which he explained is another calming pressure-point.  Shiva seemed to feel very safe and assured in this position.

It was also important for me to visit with Shiva for a few moments before he left this world to become meat. I undertand that a lot of people don’t want to be face-to-face with an animal that will become their food, but I think that we owe it to them to look them in the eye and accept that we are responsible for their death. It may make us feel uncomfortable, but it is more honest than pretending that an animal didn’t die to become our food.

Eric then moved Shiva to a different holding position that makes lambs feel comfortable. Eric let me feel Shiva’s heart rate to see how relaxed he was.

I then told Shiva that I love him, gave him a kiss, and then said goodbye. While this was very sad, I trusted that Eric would give him a swift and painless death.

Eric had decided that it was time for Beau to also witness an on-farm harvest for the first time.  Beau held his Aunt Cindi’s hand, watched intently, and then listened carefully as his Daddy explained everything that just happened.  I have tremendous respect for Eric and how he gently took the time to tell his son about this part of this cycle of life.

I then took a moment to kneel down next to Shiva’s body and thank him for the life I had taken from him. I can honestly say that I will never again take a bite of meat without acknowledging that a living being had given his or her life for that meal.

Eric and Beau then got back into the four-wheeler and took Shiva’s body up to the backyard of the house where he would hang Shiva up, take off his hide, and eviscerate him.

Shiva had gone from being a 7 month-old lamb frolicking in the pasture, to an animal that was dead, to a body drained of its blood, to a carcass that would be butchered into meat.  Eric explained all of the different cuts of meat that come from various parts of the carcass, and I looked on trying to wrap my mind around all of my feelings. It’s too bad that in a culture that eats so much meat, most of us are never taught as children how this happens. I had to wait until I was in my fifties!  Beau has the gift of being let in on this societal secret and will be a better human being for it.

I saved the [#1287] tag from his ear (which is now on my dresser in my bedroom).  And I took his hide home so I could have it treated and keep it for remembrance. In a couple of weeks I’ll return to the farm to pick up the packaged cuts of lamb meat.

But I suppose I prefer to remember Shiva as he was when he was alive.  I also will acknowledge that it was me who decided he would be in plastic wrap by the end of the day.  It’s this kind of somber honesty I choose to embrace.




Oake Knoll Ayrshires

A day with Terri Lawton on her Dairy Farm in Foxborough, Massachusetts

Terri Lawton and I look closely at Rainy, the granddaughter of Jackal whom I met in 2009. Terri told us that Ayrshires are a rarer breed of milk cow from the Scottish Highlands that are great for cheeses. Most dairy cows are Holsteins (the black and white ones).  These cows are mostly speckled with brown.  In regard to cheeses, their yield for cheese is higher than any other breed. As Terri explained, their fat molecules are small and bind more with the casein proteins when making cheese. So there is more volume of cheese per gallon of milk. From these cows, Terri makes wonderful fromage blanc and asiago cheeses. She is also licensed in the state of Massachusetts to sell delicious, sweet raw milk.

All of Terri’s cows are completely grass-fed outside on pasture.  Not only is this the best for the animals and the milk they produce, it’s also important for the beef that they will eventually become.  When an animal is no longer useful for dairy, Terri explained, their highest value is from beef. Grass-fed animals run on the leaner side, and are much higher in Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), an important anticarcinogen. And while the national average for dairy cows to become beef is at 4 years, Terri keeps her cows in the herd for 13 years, and sometimes even 16 years. She said that the older animals won’t have good steaks, but they become hamburger, hot dogs, sausage and stew meat.  Also, the tenderloin (a muscle in the back that’s not used a lot) can be used.

We had a wonderful time filming and photographing these cows, since they are very friendly and curious.  Here is Skinny looking at the camera. Her name is really May Belle, but when Terri bought her, no one wanted her because she was too skinny. But Terri took a risk and now she’s healthy and  happily 8 months pregnant.  As is customary with dairy, all of the cows are artificially inseminated. Terri is a trained technician to do this on her farm.

Terri’s herd numbers around twenty five. All of the cows in these photos from the field are mothers.  The heifers (younger animals net yet pregnant) are kept in a separate area.  They will get pregnant when they are about a year and a half. We had to chuckle when Terri told us that the heifers act like teenagers.  When I was a teenager I didn’t want to be around my mother, either! This is Risario, who is about four months old, and on her way to being such a teenager.

Each of these cows get individual and  special attention from Terri. Since she is so attentive to them and pets each of them daily, they are not so jittery around people and when it’s time for them to be slaughtered for beef, they will not suffer anxiety and stress from the experience.  Here is Terri scratching Speckles’ chin!

I took quite a liking to Reba, who was content to be cooling off her feet in the puddle. She was curious about me, though.  Reba, who is four years old and about 1200 pounds, has a sad story, however.  This will be her last year and she will become beef before this winter.  Although she is rather young to be leaving the herd, Terri explained that she has an injured foot and has had a hard time calving. Terri treats all of her cows individually, and makes the best decisions for their welfare and quality of life.

It was very touching to see this calf (a female) who was born just the day before!  Her official name is “Oake Knoll Captain’s Choice” and will be a wonderful addition to Terri’s herd.  Terri explained to us that on most dairy farms, including hers, calves are take away from their moms at birth, mostly for sanitary purposes.  They are “indiscriminate milkers” and will nurse from cows other than their own mothers.  This could spread infection and disease in the herd.  Bottle-feeding the calves also insures that they get the essential amount of colostrum, secreted by the mammary glands at birth. It’s very rich in essential antibodies for their health.

We also met a bull calf who was born on September 21st.  Terri’s son, Joseph, named him Cuddles. He now weighs 70 pounds, but will become veal at 300 pounds (about four months old). Female calves are either kept at the farm to be included in the herd, or they can be sold.  For dairy, males calves have no usefulness, so they become veal. This bull calf was very sweet and loves to suck on fingers.

It’s a poignant realization that if we, as human beings, want to consume dairy, veal is a necessary byproduct. Terri does not crate her calves, but lets them roam freely.  They lead happy, albeit short, lives.

Although these animals are not pets, that doesn’t mean that we can’t cuddle them and treat them with respect, even if they are going to both give us food and be food. Speckles graciously accepted my hug, and I know that Terri Lawton and other farmers like her will give cows like Speckles the best possible life, even through the slaughtering process. And since there are so many dairy farmers in the Northeast, they need access to processing and have trouble with the slaughterhouse shortage  just as other meat farmers do.

Terri looked out into the field and pointed to all of her cows, impressively reciting each of their names one by one. She reflectively said, “None of them will make it out of here alive, and neither will we.”  I like being reminded that I am an animal, too.