Meet the farmers making raw milk at ‘bovine paradise’ in East Cork

In this series, RICHARD GORDON spends the day with some of the producers of Cork’s farmers’ markets. Today he visits an organic herd of jerseys in East Cork. You can catch up on the rest of Richard’s series on EchoLive.ie
Meet the farmers making raw milk at ‘bovine paradise’ in East Cork

Ahern’s farm, which is six-kilometres outside Midleton. Picture: Richard Gordon

THE first time I encountered Ahern’s Raw Milk, they were stacked in a cool box behind a coffee machine at Douglas Farmers’ Market.

I love my coffee so the glistening glass bottles piqued my interest as I hadn’t seen anyone using milk from a glass bottle to serve me coffee… ever.

The barista whipped a fresh one from the cool box, flicked the tinfoil lid from the top of it, and glugged some into a silver steaming jug.

Ahern’s Raw Milk, which can be purchased at Mahon Poin Farmers' Market every Thursday. Picture: Richard Gordon
Ahern’s Raw Milk, which can be purchased at Mahon Poin Farmers' Market every Thursday. Picture: Richard Gordon

As he did so, a glorious plop of cream fell from the bottle and into the jug. The milk got steamed, my coffee got poured, and I was sold.

I actually went onto work at that very coffee stall for a spell and customers would routinely ask for that milk, and if we ran out they were gutted. 

Tales of childhood and how it reminded people of their school days were often shared.

Amongst the other stallholders it was a beloved ingredient and a necessity in their coffee, too. The red branding stood out in my mind, on those little pint-sized bottles of white goodness, and it was only fitting that I included them in this series.

Jersey cows grazing at Ahern’s farm, in East Cork. Picture: Richard Gordon
Jersey cows grazing at Ahern’s farm, in East Cork. Picture: Richard Gordon

MY VISIT TO THE FARM

Rolling down the long laneway into Ahern’s farm, 6km outside Midleton, I passed a gate with two cows standing just inside it, with the rest of the herd at the far end of a picturesque valley. I was immediately struck by how this didn’t look like an ordinary field for a dairy herd.

Maybe it was the low sun hazing golden light across the field, and the high trees that encased the perimeter in the distance, or the rows of flower beds that were just next to the gate. It felt like I had stepped into a bovine paradise.

I was met by Dan Ahern and his son Seamus. Dan bought the land in 1983 and they were commercial dairy farmers until 1999. Dan then decided to make the switch to a fully organic operation, which was met with trepidation by onlookers.

“It was thought that after four or five years, without spreading the different fertilisers, the land would be drained of all nutrients and white and be no more good. But sure it’s not the case at all.”

We went for a walk through the sheds out into a field where another, much larger herd could be seen at the bottom of a slope. They were clustered to one corner of the field where the grass was clearly longer. Seamus, who works full-time on the farm, explained to me that that’s how they allocate their feeding times as well as managing the growth of grass. They’ll cordon off a portion of a field and let them eat it down to the soil, and once it’s grazed right down to the soil, it actually regenerates far better, which takes 30 days or so.

“If it doesn’t get grazed down to the soil, the quality isn’t as good when it grows back.”

The grass on the farm has pink roost, which is a good sign, of nutrients. Picture: Richard Gordon
The grass on the farm has pink roost, which is a good sign, of nutrients. Picture: Richard Gordon

Seamus pulled a tuft of grass from the soil and showed me the pink roots, which are a really good sign. The glossy grass with pink roots indicates there’s a high sugar content in the sward and it’ll grow well and be nutritiously dense. The milking cows are always fed grass as it’s a superfood for them. They explained to me how the cows I saw when I drove in, who are dry cows and aren’t currently being used for milking, were grazing on a field of kale and sometimes they’ll graze on turnips, too.

“They’ll rip the full turnip from the ground and eat it, as well as the leafy part on top. It just provides them with some different nutritional benefits and, depending on the stage in their development, we feed them differently. But the milking cows always get grass.”

The herd started to ramble over towards us. Jersey cows are known to be very curious, and I felt that first-hand, as Mrs Brown, who’s a seven year-old and was named by Anne Ahern as she’s the most inquisitive of the bunch, came trundling over to lick and sniff at my hands and pockets.

I noticed their coats were shedding and I didn’t realise this would actually happen to cows, but much like dogs, they’ll shed their shaggy winter coats once the seasonal change occurs.

From March to October, they’ll be permanently outdoors, unless there’s a drastic change in weather conditions. The goal at the farm is to imitate nature as best they can. The shed is also very open aired so the transition between indoors and outdoors is an easy one.

The East Cork farm. Picture: Richard Gordon
The East Cork farm. Picture: Richard Gordon

The reason Jersey cows were chosen to be farmed is for their efficiency. They’re a lot smaller than other cows, weighing in at approximately 400kg, whereas Friesian cows can weigh up to 600kg. For every kg of mass, they can produce 1.1 kg of milk solids per annum — in the form of butterfat and protein. This is called the milk solids yield.

For their organic certification, the fields are never sprayed. It is understandable why farmers spray their fields, Seamus explained to me: “See the dock leaves over there, they could make up for ten percent of the field, which they probably do in our case, and sacrificing ten percent of your grazing land to a plant that is nutritionally useless is a big sacrifice that affects your profit margin.”

They accept the dock leaves on their 160 acres for 120 cows. Their herd is comparatively small considering the acreage. Other farms could probably have 30% more cattle, but they keep it small and allow the herd to graze and move, graze and move.

What’s so unusual about their product is the fact that it’s raw — unpasteurised, unhomogenised. For this reason, they have to send batches regularly to be put through a plethora of rigorous testing, which is a costly endeavour, but a necessity. 

There’s an awful lot of paperwork involved in any dairy farming, but a particularly large amount in organic dairy farming.

The quality of the product is a direct result of the quality, passion and expertise that’s infused into their enterprise.

Anne Ahern can be found selling milk, eggs and chickens at Mahon Point Farmers’ Market every Thursday.

See Facebook/Instagram: @ahernsorganicfarm and Ahernsorganicfarm.com

For more on the market follow @mahonpointmarket

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