Monday, 24 September 2012

Scotland Summer: Part 2

I'm trying my hardest to use this blog just to keep in touch with everyone back home and share some of my favorite experiences from living in the UK and being in veterinary school.  This post, however, may end up having a bit more of a message attached to it.  This post I'll devote to telling you about the variety of EMS (extramural studies) animal husbandry experiences I partook in over the summer and what I've learned from them.

Animal welfare in an agricultural setting is something I've always felt very strongly about.  This, along with environmental concerns associated with large-scale farming, is why as most of you know, I've been vegetarian for the past 15 years.  I've not been against the consumption of animals, but I've never wanted to support industries whose welfare practices and sustainability are in question.  Additionally, I've felt that as a whole Americans do consume too much meat without thinking about where our food comes from, so to off-set the over-consumption, I've abstained.  My mandatory week or fortnight visits to all sectors of the food animal industry has now given me the opportunity to be even more knowledgeable about the practices that are involved in getting your dinner onto your plate.  Although some of these experiences were a bit hard for me to stomach, I'm really glad I have now seen things first-hand.

Not from my actual farm placement...but just imagine this when the birds are 3 or 4 times this size!  No room to move!
The summer started with a week on a poultry farm.  Luckily my bestie and fellow vet kid, Sabrina, joined me on this adventure, otherwise I may not have survived!  And despite what she says, I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR OUR FENDER-BENDER WITH A STATIONARY POLL IN AN EMPTY PARKING LOT!! :)

We were able to split our week between a laying farm (where cockerels and hens live together, fertilized eggs being collected for hatching into the birds you eat) and then a broiler farm (where the birds you eat are raised up from chick to slaughter weight.)  Really all I can say is that there is a reason why these farms hide themselves away from the public eye so well.  I spent an entire morning just walking up and down the masses of birds picking up the dead carcasses until my bag of dead birds would get too heavy for me to carry.  The vast majority of chickens on the market are genetically-altered breeds that no longer resemble the wild poultry species that are able to move around.  The breast are too large, the legs too weak, and growth is too fast.  As a result many of the birds are too lame to stand fully upright, and if they fall down will actually be suffocated by their peers due to the high stocking density within barns.  In some barns I was in there were 60,000 birds packed in.  We saw them half-grown, so I can't imagine how they manage when they double in size.  The barns are dusty and smelly and no way to live (we wore jumpsuits, ventilators and had to shower before and after entering the barns!)  We rationalize this by downplaying bird sentience, but having seen them running in 'fear' and having heard them 'cry' when they'd get knocked down and unable to run away from us, I cannot justify keeping animals in these conditions.

We even saw barns that housed birds destined for a fancy chain of grocery stores that will remain un-named.  These birds get sold at a higher premium for offering a supposed higher degree of animal welfare.  People pay for them because they're told they live in barns with windows, lower stocking densities and 'enrichment' to encourage natural behaviors.  Well, I call BS!  The birds are still packed in, just to a lesser degree.  The windows are too thick and tinted to allow for any UV penetration or visual stimuli, and the 'enrichment' consists of hays bales lining the barn on their sides, so that they are too high for the birds to even jump up on.  After seeing this, I really encourage you to think about where your poultry are coming from, rather than just be taken in by the nice green grass and red barn pictured on the label.

(No worries...that was the big rant!  Things are much better from here on out!)

With calves at the dairy farm (sorry about the small image size!)
An especially friendly calf

My next EMS experience was much better as I spent 2 weeks working on a dairy farm.  Dairy farms certainly have their share of problems with high degrees of lameness (due to the amount of time the cows stand in a hard milking parlour) and mastitis (mammary infections due to the stress from twice daily milking.)  The rest of the time however, the cows get to go outside and into a nice green pasture to graze.  The photos above show the calves that will remain out on grass until they get old enough to breed and begin lactating.  They have room to move and socialize and experience the outdoors.  Milking can be a pretty dirty job (I MAY have once realized I had cow poop inside my ear only after I was on the public bus on the way home!  Whoops!) but in general the cows are really neat animals to work with, and all the farm staff seem to really care about the well-being of their herd.  Granted, this may not be the case everywhere, and I do know of mega-dairy herds where the 'outdoor' areas the cows are turned out into just consists of mud/slurry, but in general I was very pleased to see this side of the industry and learn to joke around with my favorite, scruffy Scottish farmers! :)

My next placement took me away from agriculture and onto 2 weeks with a dog and cat shelter.  It was absolutely eye-opening to see the vast number of animals that get relinquished each week, and how few get adopted out each day.  The intake certainly outweighs the outtake, so it is a wonder this shelter is able to manage as well as they do.  I have great respect for the people who work day in and out in such an emotionally draining and physically exhausting job.  I hope that in my time at the rescue I was able to lend a hand and be of some help!  One of the downsides to this placement was that it was all the way on the other side of town...meaning I had to leave an hour and a half early each morning to catch the right buses, only to then arrive 25min early before the gates opened.  I managed to make the most of this time sitting in a park or on the seawall overlooking the Firth of Forth while enjoying my morning thermos of Yorkshire Gold tea.  The trips home each afternoon when I was tired and smelly, however, were exhausting.
My final placement of the summer took me to an organic, free-range, rare-breed pig farm!    Here, the Tamsworth pigs eat whatever they find in the pasture along with farm-grown, organic barley and beans.  They are a breed with adequate hair covering so do not suffer hypothermia in the cold ( a common problem with the covnentional Large White breed of pig, which is why so many are housed indoors.)  The sows do not require farrowing crates to restrain them during birth and after, because their litter sizes are small (ie normal!) and their legs are proportional to their body so they can lay down gently without crushing their young.  The piglets don't require supplemented iron because they get all the vitamins and minerals they need from the rummaging through the soil.  The pigs all seem happy and curious and HEALTHY!

One important distinction to make re: organic systems in the UK is that some preventative medicines are allowed, as are antibiotics and other medications required to treat conditions as they arise.  The wash-out period after having administered any medications is extended, but the animals ARE cared for.  In the States, once an animal has been treated with antibiotics they are no longer allowed to be classed as organic and therefore must leave the herd.  Some people then argue that there is a diminished level of care given to these animals as the farmer may try to forgo treatment all together, hoping the issue will resolve itself rather than take the economic loss of selling the animal off.  Having lived with the farm owners here and talked with them extensively about their practices each night over supper, I can be certain that this is not what I experienced on this particular farm.  It was wonderful to see an agricultural system that in theory I really support also be so honorable in practice.

I love this piglet's expression!

Napping piglets!  They look cute now, but just pick one up and you'll hear the most blood-curdling screams!

Outdoor raised pig set-up

Group of dry sows enjoying the sunshine and dirt.

Curious mama
 This farm, which also raise sheep and beef cattle, also process all of their own carcasses on site.  They are committed to being involved in every step of the process to ensure every aspect of their meat production is to the high standards that they hold.  Although I do not want to eat conventional pork, I would actually eat pigs raised from this farm, because I can be 100% behind everything from how the animal is born and raised and fed to how it is processed.
The next stage-pork salted and curing
 Which brings me to my next thought.  The owners of this farm were so excited about the work they were doing, that they were eager to share it with the public and their consumers.  They welcomed us into their home to stay for the week and happily shared the details of their farm management.  They took us into their butchery to show us how they handle the carcasses to turn them into the highest quality organic meat.  We had conversations about the farms' role in creating and sustainable environment and they invited us back to the farm to plant native vegetation around the interior hedgerows, in hopes of encouraging native wildlife and arthropods into the ecosystem.  They wanted to share with us the fundamentals of their non-conventional system, which they are so passionate about!  So, if you find yourself a local/organic/free-range producer at a farmers marker and you get the chance to strike up a conversation about how they came to be doing what they're doing, ASK!  If they're truely passionate about creating a great product without compromising animal welfare or the environment, they will be so excited to chat with you about it!  And, better yet, if you get the chance to visit a farm and see with your own eyes how your food is raised, please do!  One of my biggest pet peeves is when people say '[they] just can't think about meat once being an animal.'  It should be 100% the opposite; we should all have a deep understanding of the connection between farm animal and their welfare and the product wrapped up in the grocery aisle.  We need to get back to having a healthy relationship and respect of our food, and to do that we all need to get back on the farm.

SO, after much deliberation I have decided for my own health to return to selective-omnivorism. :)  Having developed a more complete understanding of the food animal industry, I have now decided to eat UK (preferably Scottish) beef and lamb.  I am comfortable enough with the farm assurance schemes in place to feel that the animal lived a good quality of life on a pasture before going to market/abbattoir.  Once I return to the States I may have my work cut out for me in trying to decide what meats I am comfortable eating, and when I go to restaurants I'll still consider myself vegetarian unless I can be confident in the meat's source, but, now you all know...I'm no longer vegetarian.  I'm guess I'm now going to have to put my blog title in quotes! :)


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