"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

September 24, 2012

Do Not Name Your Livestock if You Will Kill Them

"Big Red," front and almost center, in a recent photo of Eli for a project he did on oak trees for school.

Let me tell you about Big Red. He was a handsome steer, filled out, solid, sweet and kind. Last summer one of our boys had named him and, over the past few months, I had grown fond of him, too. He was among the cows we were keeping, because they will make fine bulls, like Edgar (whom I named after my husband brought him––cold, muddy and abandoned––from the knob pasture after Christmas), or "39" (because of her ear tag), Tess or Angel Clare who are all, or will be, great heifers. "39" will even let us pat her and come up to her in the pastures. These traits are good in cattle, especially if you are developing your own herd. You don't want a cow that is skittish or fearful or who might charge you, unprovoked, in the pasture. You also don't want a cow that will all too easily abandon its calf. Turns out, there are great mothers in the bovine world just as there are really lousy ones. You can never trust a bull entirely but if you have a gentle heifer or steer and continue to treat them well, you can maintain a kind of trust.

Big Red developed into a 968 pound beef cow in the past year just as his temperament was unusually kind and friendly for a pastured cow. There is no saying what kind of bull he would have made but I expect, as with Edgar, that he would have been fairly mellow. At first Big Red was being raised for our own freezer but then I got involved, and attached, and, well, to be honest, we all did. He was such a presence, even ham-like for photographs.

Last month a beef buyer was on the property and made a comment that Big Red would fetch a good price at market. We went back and forth as a family and last week my husband broached the idea again. I said, no matter what, I can not put him in the freezer and transform him into our simple farm cuisine. 

"Well, let's let the boys decide, they have raised and named him," I suggested, not willing to decide myself. So my husband did. 

While I was away at a few days respite and the Kentucky Women Writers' Conference in Lexington, I got the phone call.

"We put Big Red on a truck today."

I was digesting a lovely meal and about to see (what would be an unsettling few hours of cinema) The Master at the Lexington Theater with our daughter. The irony was not lost on me.

As the hours, and movie, went on I could not stop thinking about Big Red. What was he thinking? How was Edgar taking this? Why can't we keep them all?

Tess and Angel Clare, a female calf born on the Summer Solstice in 2012,
both have stays of execution on our farm because they can reproduce––and, I named them.

As our oldest son Henry said, with rhetoric and wisdom beyond his years, "Are we operating a cattle farm or a 'friendly' farm, Dad?" He has a point. We can not keep all of the animals that we raise and we clearly can not name them or pet them all, either. No wonder kobe beef is so expensive: all of that personalized pampering and attention.

Back at the hotel, I called my husband, now even more troubled by a strange and haunting, excellent, movie. I asked if he could reconsider Big Red's fate, knowing it was too late. You can't really buy back your own cow at an auction. You can, of course, but think of the scrutiny and the paperwork. Besides, Big Red would never reproduce and would be a 20 or so year commitment to feeding. Even if he and Edgar had seemed to form a relationship, it was not to be.

My husband said that Edgar let out a long moan as Big Red went up the road in the cattle trailer. I don't doubt it. We've heard cows mourn their dead on our farm in long, low, pitiful wails.

Cows are curious, sometimes friendly creatures, and more intelligent than we realize.

Raising cattle for meat, no matter how humanely they are treated and how free to roam our pastures, presents a great conundrum for me. I can not eat what I befriend and so most of the cattle are just that in my mind: cattle, livestock, black and brown dots grazing on pasture. It's a schizophrenic proposition. Unlike many women who raise chickens, I have not named one of my own. But some of the cattle I have named and if I've learned anything about farming it's that you do not name your livestock if you will kill them.

Big Red commanded $1,100 dollars at auction. I know he will help pay for many things on our farm but I can't help feeling like a mercenary meat eater, a master of destiny, a fraud.

You come back when you're ready! 



  1. I agree dont name em if you plan to eat em. We raised turkeys back home in Oklahoma before we moved and even though we knew we would not keep all the turkeys the kids still gave them each names.. when it was butchering time... oh the horror..lol... So I can relate,

    I must say He was sure a handsome guy.. dang..

  2. Oh Catherine, this just went through me when I read it. I struggle with this all the time. When I look into their eyes, something connects. Its so hard to deal with! I give you credit for admitting it & writing this. Debi


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