Faced with a difficult decision

It was more a disappointment than a surprise when with the results of the follow-up tests came back confirming that all five calves had BVD.

“What now?” I asked him, even though there was only one answer.

“Call Tom up the road, I suppose.”

Tom works for the local hunt kennels and is the man tasked with destroying and removing livestock from the surrounding farms. A longtime friend of Jack’s family, he assured him that he would be up the following morning to do the deed.

At work in Dublin, I spent the day wondering how things were going, and worrying (as I’m wont to do) about how Jack would find the whole experience. Not that he is any stranger to sick, dying, or deceased animals. The fragility of life is a lesson you learn early on when growing up on a farm.

We’re different that way, he and I. When my dog died in August 2014, I was devastated. Jack had sympathized with me, of course. He came around that evening and listened as I shared my favourite memories of Dustin; he took care of dinner, made copious cups of tea, and he held me close when all I could do was sob. He knew I was hurting, and he did all he could to make it better. Still, I knew there was a part of him that couldn’t, and likely would not ever understand the love I had for that little dog.

And I couldn’t expect him to. The bond between farmers and their animals is different. It has to be. Everything on a farm, from the sheepdogs to the bulls, exists to serve a purpose — to keep the wheels of business turning. There’s little time for sentimentality.

But I wondered how this might impact on him.

It went against his every instinct as a farmer to call for the culling of livestock that, to the uninformed, appeared perfectly healthy and full of life. That the slaughter was to be carried out on home turf made it all the more difficult to stomach.

Nothing about it was fair.

It wasn’t fair that he should have to deal with the consequences of what was quite possibly someone else’s selfish decision to hold onto BVD-positive animals. It wasn’t fair that he should have to pay €30 for the slaughter and removal of each of the five calves — calves that would, if healthy, have sold for close to €500 each.

And it wasn’t fair that this blow had come just four months after Jack had given up his career in banking to commit to farming full time. If he was looking for a sign that he’d made the right decision, at the right time, this wasn’t it.

Tom must’ve sensed his distraction. Or, perhaps, with years of experience behind him, he knew to anticipate it. Later, Jack told me how the older man had taken him aside for a chat before they headed into the yard. He briefed him on what was about to happen, so that nothing would come as a shock. Then, he shifted gear, reminding my young farmer that as frustrating and disappointing as a BVD diagnosis is, as much as the financial losses sting, in the grand scheme of things, it’s merely a blip — something to be dealt with head-on, and overcome. Tom pressed home the importance of perspective, sharing his own belief that there’s little else more important in this life than the relationships you have with your partner and loved ones. If you’re going to worry about anything, he advised, worry about those, think about them.

I was grateful to Tom for this — for taking the time to consider how the experience might affect Jack on a deeper level, and for not being afraid to speak to that.

One night, not long after the calves had been destroyed, Jack and I were having dinner when he told me that another one of the herd had tested positive for BVD. He asked if I’d like to be there when they destroyed it.

I was torn. As an animal lover, I was reluctant, and scared, quite frankly, to witness something that I suspected would rest heavy on my mind for weeks to come.

However, as my Mammy pointed out, this is a reality of Jack’s world — a world that I could choose to be a part of, or not. I could listen to his stories and do my best to understand and empathise from my safe place here on the periphery, or, I could pull on the wellies, step out into the yard, and embrace the realities of a farmer’s life – BVD, warts and all.

The choice was mine.

version of this post was previously published in the Irish Farmers Journal / Irish Country Living magazine.

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