Deidra Caldwell still chokes up when she thinks of Ben and Jerry, the first beef calves she ever helped a mother cow to deliver.
Caldwell grew up on a dairy farm in Turner and for years the family did all they could to assure the milking cows had long, productives lives.
Then in 2001 the family switched operations to raising beef cattle, an animal bred for a productive, albeit very short, life.
“We had this dairy herd with 44 cows and you spend your whole life keeping them healthy and well,” Caldwell said. “With beef, there’s a three-year plan and that’s a short lifespan compared to how things went with the dairy cows when I was growing up.”
Caldwell’s first job with the beef cattle was supervising the calving operations and determining if a cow needed human assistance in delivering a calf.
That first season a mom with twins needed Caldwell’s help.
“I pulled these heifers out and, even though I knew they were supposed to be shipped off, I told my dad I could not let go of these calves,” Caldwell said. “My dad said, ‘OK, you can raise them for a few years,’ and I said, ‘No dad, I want to keep them.’”
Facing livestock reality
Her father made Caldwell a deal, she could keep the twins she named Ben and Jerry, but if she was to remain in the family beef operations, she had to acknowledge that not every calf could remain on the farm forever.
“We were raising beef,” Caldwell said. “It was how we were making a living.”
Ben and Jerry ended up living long, happy lives on the Caldwell farm. Ben died in 2014, and Jerry followed in early 2016.
Caldwell Farms currently has around 450 head of organic and grass-fed cattle, and Caldwell said the family does all they can to make sure every cow is well tended, happy and healthy for however long it remains on the farm.
Normally on a beef operation, cows are not named, rather they are identified by numbers on ear tags. Caldwell resists the urge to bestow an actual name to an animal destined for slaughter a year or two after birth.
Still, she said it’s hard not to get attached to each and every animal.
Maine livestock producers a caring bunch
Cindy Kilgore, livestock specialist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said that many farmers in Maine share their love of the land and agriculture with their livestock.
“I see this with the large producers who know their cattle by [ear] tag numbers and even they have their favorite animals,” Kilgore said. “And I sure see it with the smaller farms where people really get attached to the animals.”
That attachment smacks right into reality when the time comes to sell of or butcher the animals that have been raised not as pets, but as food.
Patty Pendergast of Gaelforce Farms in Thorndike knows that all too well, but accepts that death is a part of raising livestock for meat production.
“I raise goats for meat and money,” Prendergast said. “My personal motto has always been ‘You live until you die,’ so I give my goats the best home I can until they die.”
A hard goodbye
Pendergast was recently devastated by the death of one of her favorite goats, Nuala, who had to be humanely killed due to a terminal illness that was causing the animal undue stress and pain.
Because she has a tough time with the actual killing part of raising livestock, Pendergast said a helpful neighbor from a nearby farm stepped in to help.
“The farmer who took her life sent me away so [Nuala] would not think it was me,” Pendergast said. “I’ve learned I’m not so good at the kill thing, but I make sure my animals know they were loved and then try to make the end quick for them.”
That level of humane pragmatism is common among Maine’s farmers, Kilgore said.
“People do get attached to their animals,” she said. “I know I do — we have a small farm with six beef cows and raise the calves to sell when they are a year old and around 10 sheep and we sell off the lambs.”
Kilgore said she does her best every year to not get attached to the newborns on the farm, because she knows she’s in for some tearful goodbyes in the coming year.
“While we own them, we give them the best care we possibly can,” Kilgore said. “It’s tough when you see them go, but it’s also part of farming and you know that going in.”
Mourning the favorites
Caldwell certainly knew that when she agreed to transition into raising beef cattle, but she said the death of her favorites still hits he especially hard.
Tearing up as she spoke of Ben and Jerry, Caldwell said she knows it’s hard for people who don’t raise livestock to understand a bond that will ultimately be broken when the animal is sold or slaughtered.
At the same time, she said it is helping to further that understanding by educating the public on humane methods of raising food.
“We give our beef cattle the best quality of life possible,” Caldwell said. “No matter the weather, they always have cover and a dry place to stand or lay down [and] our [organically certified] cattle eat only organic food while the other cows are grass fed.”
That level of attention creates some sacrifices for producer and consumer, Caldwell said, primarily when it comes to cost of raising an animal on high quality feed. That cost is then transferred to the consumer.
“You have to make sacrifices to do what is important,” she said “Luckily, there are more people who want meat that is raised this way these days.”
Caldwell said she finds solace in working with people who appreciate how her animals are raised. She also finds a great deal of comfort in her dogs, who tend to be her constant companions and helped her heart heal following the deaths of Ben and Jerry.
“When you are hurting from a loss like that, it’s important to find something that will love you like only an animal can,” Caldwell said.
Of course, some animals do make that final step a bit easier on the humans.
“Sometimes the disposition of an animal makes it easy to see the trailer door shut on their read ends,” Kilgore said. “When a bull or large sheep runs at your and takes you down, it’s just not that cute anymore.”