Livestock care includes a dutiful eye
by Constance Breese
I learned more about how to hone my skills of veterinary observation while living and working on a dairy farm for one summer than I did in my first year of vet school.
Harland Bragg, the owner of the Bragg Farm in Sidney, Maine, noticed everything—from a swipe of strange-colored saliva on a cow’s mouth to an approaching storm cloud in the sky. He listened to the hum of tractor engines and to the pigs’ squeals. Harland knew his cows by name, pedigree, and personality. Along with all the practical skills like milking and moving cows, he taught me that a keen eye and thoughtful strategies were necessary when working with animals. Stand back and assess the situation, then get to work. Be patient and efficient. The farm was both old school and progressive. That summer, I learned about a farmer’s reverence for life and death when one day we struggled for hours to save a newborn calf—but lost the mother cow later that week. Farm life did help prepare me for my career as a vet, just not in the ways I expected.
Now, more than 20 years later, as I travel the Island making farm calls, I still use what I learned on that dairy farm. My vet visit begins well before I examine the first animal. I look at fencing and water supplies and how the animals are living. Is there ventilation in the barn? Do the animals look content or stressed? What is the hay quality? It’s my job to help see to it that the animals live well and can fulfill their purpose. They may be destined for breeding or for market, but to me, each one is an individual, a patient. When the animals live well, we eat well.
I see parallels here on the Vineyard to the origins of Kobe beef. The Wagyu cattle breeds that produce this especially tender beef were developed on the islands of Japan. Geographically limited and isolated, the Japanese could not create large production farms. Instead, small farms began producing high quality beef by careful breeding of their cows. They focused on techniques to improve their product, including massaging the muscles of the cattle and feeding them special diets. The connection was made between quality of life for the animal and enhanced food quality. A stressful life or death creates increased levels of the hormone cortisol. High cortisol levels reduce meat flavor and tenderness.
The small farms of the Vineyard are well suited to raising livestock in a conscientious and humane way with attention to individual animals. Like Japan, the Vineyard is so geographically limited that it shapes the types of farming we do here. Food produced here is truly local—all farms are located within a 20-mile radius. Animal health issues are reduced by the absence of any large production farms and the limited importation of livestock from other regions. Demand is up from the consumer (the eater) for local meat. But to meet demand and be profitable, owners and farmers of livestock must be students of animal care.
Recently, I went to visit two pigs with the clever Island-centric names of East Chop and West Chop. From my view, I am optimistic for the healthy, high quality meat they will provide. I know these owners and they have done their homework. They chose a hardy breed, the Red Wattle. This is an adaptive, good-foraging breed that produces tasty, tender meat. The family has raised animals before and already had good fencing and feeders. Like my mentor Harland, I know that the owners of the “Chops” really get to know their livestock.
When animal owners spend time looking at their livestock daily, they can quickly recognize any signs of trouble. If the pigs’ behavior, appetite or thirst changes, I get a phone call. Serious medical issues can usually be avoided by owners who are astute observers. I always prefer to hear “something isn’t quite right” as opposed to “my animal is down and hasn’t eaten in a few days.”
My days on the Bragg Farm proved to be quite an education, giving me a healthy respect for farm animals and farmers I work with today.