I carry such tension about this morning. Notwithstanding the parched ground, there is enough to eat and the cattle aren’t very motivated to move. They’ve obliged so far, passing through a sequence of fields until they arrived in this meadow about five days ago, but now I am going to require them to come into the handling area. The trailer will be here at 7.30am; I am entirely dependent on their cooperation.
A long, low whistle and they raise their heads; another and, mercifully, they come. As they file in and make for the nuts I’ve brought, I slip out and quietly close the gate. Sending steers – young male cattle raised for meat – is inescapably at the core of what we do, but it never gets any easier.
Following the BSE crisis, there was a ban on cattle aged over 30 months from entering the food chain. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, is largely under control and the rules have relaxed, but slaughter at this age still minimises risk. Our farming year pivots on this point – the bull works from June to August to ensure spring calving, so the steers are “finished” during the grass growing season.
In other words, our prime cattle go straight from the field where they were born to the abattoir. The beef is sold through our local farm shop, three miles away. It’s as good as it gets, and yet it presents a conflict. I am proud and fond of these steers – I bottle-fed one for many months alongside his mother, an older cow with poor milk supply – so a sense of betrayal is implicit.
It is simpler to get the whole herd into the race. Once they’re settled, we begin filtering them out, running all bar the steers back down a channel that leads to the field. They soon drift away; only the bull turns and calls to his winter companions. These are the moments that catch me. The steers are alerted but not stressed. I brace myself as the trailer clatters down the hill and away.
Later on, as I return to the field to open the bottom gate, the herd is grazing. I turn and whistle. Faithfully they come, crossing the bridge and on down to the river. Today their trust leaves me a little broken.
• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary