If you had asked me, when I woke up this morning, how I expected to spend my day, I probably would have had a pretty laid back list: bike into town for Tinker’s yoga class? Definitely. Spend a few hours coding over coffee? Absolutely. Catch up with Tom after lunch? If I could manage it. Skin a cow in the field with my pocket knife? Definitely not on the list.
But there we were.
Things happen quickly in the exuberance of spring. Dormant fields burst into jungles of green. One day the sky is silent, the next it is alive with tumbling clouds of swallows. Flowers shoot up like fireworks. But in the rush to grow and thrive, there are…stumbles.
I only saw three steer calves at the fence in the Hazelnut pasture coming down the lane yesterday. It didn’t occur to me to wonder about the fourth until Lacey mentioned that the vet had been over the day before. Mark had noticed Guinness, the largest of the gang, listless and avoiding food and water. The vet hemmed and hawed and came up empty. His best guess was some foreign object ingestion, or maybe the cheatgrass that had sprung up among the vetch and fescue. They tried some things, I guess, and decided that that a period of watchful waiting was in order.
They didn’t have to wait long. As we were settling in last night, Mark stopped by to tell us that Guinness was dead.
Death isn’t a particularly surprising thing around a farm when you’re raising animals. What little experience I’ve had with it here has strengthened my Stoic perspective. It’s sad, and it’s certainly disappointing, but it is to be expected in some measure. But unlike suburban pets like cats, dogs or goldfish, dealing with the aftermath of a farm animal death isn’t necessarily as simple as flushing it down the toilet or burying it in a shoebox in the backyard.
The rules for disposing of a dead cow are fairly-well spelled out by state code. Because he died of unknown causes, his meat wasn’t considered safe. So we were left with the options of burying, composting, incinerating, rendering or setting him out for “natural decomposition,” each according to the restrictions of WAC-246-203-121. Landfill was wasteful, incineration, composting impractical. I don’t even know what “rendering” really means. At first we liked the idea of leaving his body in the woods for the coyotes, but were stymied by the challenge of actually getting him there. Guinness wasn’t a full-grown cow, but he was still a cow, and cows are freaking heavy.
We settled on burying as the most practical compromise. We’d come across plenty of cow bones in the northwest brush pasture and were pretty sure that was where the Swansons disposed of their dead cows in generations past, so that was the logical destination. Brendon and Mark figured out how to get the backhoe attached to our little Kioti, I helped them roll Guinness into the front bucket, and we all set out down the lane in something that resembled an impromptu funeral procession.
It was while Brendon was digging the hole that Mark, Logan, Lacey and I began discussing skinning. The waste of cow meat was unavoidable, but surely we could salvage his hide. Lacey had skinned a deer before, but the biggest animal I’d ever “processed” was a wild turkey, the prize of my one shot ever fired while hunting (if that five minute “Oh, there’s a turkey. BLAM!” excursion could be counted as actually hunting).
But this was, as I’ve remarked before, a cow. A dead cow. We hemmed and hawed, hands in our pockets, unwilling to commit. Guinness lay in the grass, unseeing, impassive. He wasn’t going to offer any recommendations.
Eventually I capitulated to the idea that, as nominal head of the farm, if someone was going to set an example, it ought to be me. I pulled out the little Spyderco marine knife I carry around up here and tried a first cut along the neck.
Turns out that cowhide is kind of tough to cut through – who would have guessed? 🙂 But Lacey and Mark had knives, too, and after a bit of experimentation, we worked out some techniques for getting clean cuts. Down the neck, along the centerline, taking turns holding stiffened legs, pulling at skin and cutting away fascia, we all traded off on tasks. Brendon had finished with the hole by now, and it turned out that, unsurprisingly, he had plenty of experience with skinning (we’ve learned to expect that Brendon has experience with just about everything – if I find myself needing to build a nuclear reactor from household parts or found an island nation, Brendon is going to be high on my go-to list).
We pulled, we sliced, we pushed, we rolled and pulled some more. A bald eagle watched inquisitively from the firs above, and poor Blue kept trying to duck in for a sniff or a nip. We tugged and cut and pulled some more. The process probably took not more than an hour, but I was spent by the time we yanked the last hoof free. Lacey carried the hide back to the house to salt, and Mark, Brendon and I dragged what was left of Guinness into the hole we’d prepared and smoothed the dirt over it.
Walking back along the lane, the air was alive with swallows putting the final daubs of mud on their newly-rebuilt homes among the eaves of the barn.
(Note: for those who are stronger of stomach, I have some photos of the skinning process online here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/fFfFwytFJ1qzZzOB2)