Fencing and Farming with the Shelley Family

When Eric Shelley is not teaching about humane slaughter, he is caring for animals with his family on his farm.

We visited Eric Shelley and his family on his farm in Cobleskill, New York, on July 14th 2012.  We wanted to learn more about what he does when he is not teaching students about humane slaughter, cutting and packing. On this very hot July Saturday, the main task was to put up new fencing for the lambs and sheep, and move them to another pasture.  This daunting task was performed by Eric, his wife Melissa, his sister Cindi, and his sons Beau (age 4) and Duke (age 2).

Eric’s farm is absolutely gorgeous, with the quintessential and iconic (yet unusable) silos framing the scene. Somehow, a farm doesn’t appear to be a farm unless it has a red barn and at least one silo!

It is quite the shift in perspective to see Eric working with his family on this farm after spending so much time watching him harvesting cows, pigs, goats and lambs in the Meat Lab at SUNY Cobleskill. But death and life are not as much opposites as they are reciprocal. Seeing how Eric cares for his animals on the farm is surely a vote of confidence for how he is with them in the slaughterhouse. And this version of animal husbandry has surely rubbed off on his sons!

To say that Duke and Beau are fond of these animals is an understatement. Yet their fondness is not tarnished by their knowledge that these animals are raised to supply humans with food (milk or meat).

It’s obvious to us that Eric, Melissa and Cindi take the time to explain all of these “facts of life (and death)” to Beau and Duke.  Perhaps shielding children from the origins of meat and milk creates neurotic adults rather than well-adjusted omnivorous citizens. It’s quite delightful to watch Eric with his sons as they traverse the dangerous terrain of the barns!

One of the high points of the day was to put goat milk into a cup – directly from the goat’s teat – and drink it at it’s delectable 102 degree temperature.  It’s amazing how easy it was to do, after never ever doing it at all – being both an urban and suburban dweller. Duke, in his wise two years of life, was sure to be right there and assure that everything was being done correctly.

In addition to being supervised by Duke in goat milking, Beau was sure to teach me all about the goats in the pasture. These animals are bigger than he is – yet not a fiber of fear is on this child!

As fascinating as the goats and lambs were, seeing the cows and calves took on an entire different dimension. Beef is such a mainstay of our culture, and seeing these “beef” animals in their natural and nurturing environment was breathtaking. They are lucky to have Eric, Melissa, Cindi, Beau, and Duke as their custodial humans. What a sight it was to see these cows and calves jogging across the pasture when called to get some water at the other side of the farm.

I guess I never saw, or even thought of a cow having twins, but since I am the mother of twin daughters, seeing this cow with twin calves was absolutely amazing.  She seemed to handle it all in stride.

Seeing calves being able to nurse with their mothers in this “beef” herd was quite different than seeing the calves that were not able to nurse with their mothers on Terri’s dairy farm. But this difference does not appear to be better or worse — it is only different. Terri’s calves are healthy and happy and are content to be bottle-fed.  I guess at this point it’s important not to anthropomorphize.



Milk Cows and Veal Calves at Lawton Farm

Getting to know the symbiotic relationship between dairy and veal

On July 11th we visited Terri Lawton on her farm in Foxboro, MA. This three hundred year-old farm, which has been in the Lawton family for generations, is a welcome anomaly in the vicinity of Gillette Stadium.

We were privileged to be invited to watch her milk her Ayrshires, a breed quite suited for dairy that originated in Scotland. Getting a closer look at the cows, how they produce milk, and how veal and dairy are two sides of the same coin, brought new perspectives and appreciation.

In addition to being devoted to the welfare of each cow, Terri is hyper-diligent about food safety.  Before milking, each teat must be sanitized thoroughly.

It was fascinating to watch the milking process and how carefully each of the mechanisms were placed on the cows’ udders. The cows were completely comfortable and relaxed through the whole process.  No mooing or fussing at all!

I’m sure the cows were relieved to have the milk gently pumped from their full udders. Watching it flow into these tubes was absolutesly fascinating!

Terri’s cows are milked every morning and evening. The process continues for each cow for about 12 months or so. They are then impregnated again through artificial insemination so they can give birth in order to give milk again.  Terri has full control over the genetics of her cows and calves by being able to keep bull semen in a canister with liquid nitrogen. This “bull pen” is actually safer for the cows, since live bulls can cause quite a ruckus in a pasture!

After the calves are born, the males will become veal and the females will most likely stay in Terri’s herd. Whether male or female, these calves are never crated and are allowed to move around freely in pastures. It’s unfortunate that veal is associated with confinement, since so many other farmers, like Terri, would never, ever think about confining their calves in crates. We also learned that the reason calves from these cows are taken away at birth and don’t nurse from them is because of the threat of bacteria transfer to the udder.  It’s no problem for calves to nurse directly from their moms if they are being raised for beef. This is why Terri’s calves are fed with a bottle. They moms are our dairy cows.  This little three day-old female Ayrshire will hopefully become one of Terri’s herd.

It was quite obvious to us that Terri’s daily personal contact with her cows makes them happy and easy to be around.  They are so curious and friendly. They seem to like people with cameras, as you can see how this one was with David!

Even the veal calves were comfortable, curious and friendly. At only four months old, I suppose they are too young to understand that they shouldn’t eat shirts. This calf will be veal before the end of summer.

In addition to selling delicious veal through farmers’ markets in the metropolitan Boston area and her storefront, Terri sells raw milk and cheeses from her cows.  Terri’s background in animal science helped me to understand the physiological benefits of raw milk.

When people think about dairy, they probably think about the beginning of life, comfort, purity, and birth. But Terri, too, needs to be able to find suitable abattoirs for both her veal calves and cows who are too old to continue giving milk healthfully. Birth and death, as dairy and veal, are two sides of the same coin. This is why, as a former vegetarian and vegan, I don’t feel comfortable eating dairy without also eating veal.