I am not cut out to be a livestock farmer. I kind of knew it in my heart quite some time ago. When I was a child, my parents had bottle calves for a while. It just pained me to leave the barn at night (or early in the morning) after we were done feeding them. I wanted to snuggle those little doe-eyed calves. Clearly I was oblivious to the fact that they were going to go in our deep freezer later that year, but that's here nor there.
Another indicator that I am not meant to be a livestock farmer is that I cannot even fathom going through some of the things that my favorite homesteading blogger, Shaye from The Elliott Homestead, goes through. The loss of a dairy cow (twice), a little lamb, and more. All of those things are so sad to read about, let alone live.
But, I kind of am a livestock farmer. No, not really. I have backyard chickens, so that doesn't necessarily qualify. However, life on our urban homestead isn't always pleasant. This is true especially when two of my four hens grow sick and die within a week of each other.
I will share some details on how and why they died in a bit, but first let me address two challenges to having livestock in the city.
First, having sick animals sucks. They depend on you for their health and wellness, and sometimes you just can't deliver.
Second, what the hell do you do with the body after a chicken (or duck or goat…) dies?
Let's address the latter first: You compost the body of your deceased animals. It's truly the right thing to do in my opinion.
When my first hen died, I immediately called my dad (a third generation farmer) who advised me to compost the hen's body in some fashion. We both agreed that we could honor this bird by letting her feed the garden that she ate from for the last 2 years.
This meant that I emptied my compost bin into the wheelbarrow, then dug a deep hole (about 2 feet) to bury the hen. I put dirt back on top.
Then, I put the compost bin over that and filled it back up with the half-composted matter from the wheelbarrow.
This is all a lot of work. I understand. You see, we don't have a rendering pile in the city. Most cities don't. And most cities won't accept animal carcasses in their yard waste or compost facilities.
Respectfully handling the carcass of a deceased urban farm animal is the responsibility of the urban farmer, just like that of a large-scale commercial farmer. Plain and simple.
Let's go back to the first challenge of being an urban farmer: It just sucks when one of your animals is sick. It sucks even more when a second animal gets sick.
My 2 buff orpington hens died of egg yolk peritonitis. It's not contagious to other birds or harmful to humans (although I didn't eat the eggs from my birds for a couple days, just to be safe). Ultimately, there was really nothing I could do about healing my birds. By the time my second hen was showing symptoms, I knew that she wouldn't likely make it another 36 hours (and she didn't). So, I gave her antibiotics and snuggled her.
Snuggling a sick hen was not something my third-generation farmer father recommended, and if you would have told me I would have a chicken in the house three years ago I would have called you crazy.
But there I was, with a chicken wrapped in an old beach towel watching 20/20 together on a Friday night.
Manny and Bruce were pissed, but they got over it. You see, this girl was one of my favorite hens. She was a big fatty, and I took her to every backyard chicken class I taught. She was docile and tame, and enjoyed being held. She laid consistently and was a bad ass among the rest of the ladies. Homegirl didn't have a name (none of my hens do), but they do have a soft spot in my heart.
Having sick birds, or sick animals in general, is a fact of life when you are an urban farmer. I am glad I was able to give these two birds lots of attention over the last two years. They gave me lots of laughs and eggs, which makes it worth it.
Both ladies found eternal rest in our backyard, and will nourish the soil on this urban homestead for years to come.
Whether you are an urban farmer or have thousands of acres, this is exactly as it should be.
How do you handle death and disposal of animal carcasses on your urban homestead? Let's have a frank, yet respectful conversation about this topic. Leave a comment so we can learn from each other.