"Get back, Luna's about to kick!" I told little boy and his mother as they walked up to the white Highlander calf who was tied in a stall at the Deerfield Fair. Mom grabbed his arm and pulled him back out of reach of Luna's cleft hooves.
From a safe distance, she asked, "You name your cattle?"
“Of course!” I said. But to be honest, hardly anyone else does.
All cattle need some identification. If one of my eighty head of cattle gets sick, pregnant or injured, it is critical to identify that bovine so treatments can be recorded. It's also important to know which are aggressive cattle and which are not. Effective herd management requires animal identification.
At first, I tried using numbers instead of names. As babies were born, each received a numbered ear tag. If I noticed odd or aggressive behavior, I would read the bovine's number and make a mental note to write down my observations. But when I got to the writing part I would not remember if #86 or #68 was the problem! Even today I can't remember what happened to Cow #107 – did I ship her or sell her?
Names are memorable – to me anyway – and help define a cow's personality. Maya is the mother of Topper, a working ox, whereas Laverne is Curious Bleu's mom. Luna was named by an AirBnB guest, who was staying at the farm when Luna was born. It's easy to remember Luna because she often acts like a luna-tic.
To the casual observer, most of my shaggy Highland cattle look pretty much alike. But besides behavior, demeanor and gender, there are variations in size, age, color, and the size and shape of horns. I could no more mistake my working steer Ben for his colleague Snuff, than a teacher would mix up her students.
I also think animals appreciate having names. During feeding, I'll say, “Hello, Riley,” to the black heifer. Don't you like to be called by your name? Same with animals.
There are some, like yearling heifer Betty, who I watch for at feeding-time. She's smaller than the rest, so I want to make sure she gets enough to eat. Lately, I've been paying close attention to Maya and Misty, two cows due to give birth soon. I need to know if they have trouble in labor and so I can be ready to help them if necessary. Each animal has a name, just as each has a personality.
Now we come to the tough follow-up question: “How can you eat a creature that you've named?”
Well, maybe that's why most farmers go with impersonal numbers. But for me, it has to do with respect and honesty. I can't pretend that I'm a lovable eccentric who keeps eighty bovines as pets. This is a business, and although our roles vary dramatically, all of us at Miles Smith Farm are here to produce people food. It would be delusional to pretend otherwise.
Not too long ago a heifer was slaughtered. After she was processed, she was used in a meat-cutting demonstration, and the beef was sold soon afterward. That was Brooke. Although she was born and raised to provide beef, she was handled with kindness during her lifetime, and giving her a name helped me connect with and care for her. But a beef farm is not a petting zoo. When the end came, it was not dramatic. I couldn't bear it if the animals I raised left this world in pain or anguish.
I would encourage you to think of each steak you eat as a former personality, because it was. But that little exercise would make vegetarians out of anyone who isn't a farmer. So beef is packaged anonymously, and while you may not want to know the name of the meat on your plate, if you bought it from a local farm, you can know the farmer. And if that beef had been one of my cattle, I can tell you it was raised with respect and even affection, and processed with regret, but without apology.