John Arnold: Preparing for winter... and the circle of life, down on the farm

John Arnold reflects on a busy week on the farm, as the cows bed down in their winter quarters until early February
John Arnold: Preparing for winter... and the circle of life, down on the farm

SEASON OF MISTS: A garda attempts to direct traffic in heavy fog at Singer’s Corner, Cork, in 1934

THIS is a busy week for us here on the farm as November draws to a close.

Yesterday, we ‘dried off’ the remaining milking cows in the herd. We scanned all of them to check if they were in-calf for the coming season. We gave them a dose for stomach worms and liver fluke.

After that we closed the gate on them in their winter quarters for their ‘down time’ until early February. It’s the same ritual that takes place around November 20 every year.

Some years, if the weather was fine, the fields dry and grass plentiful, we might leave them graze away until early December. Not this year, as the heavy rain of recent weeks has softened the fields — the animals would do more harm to the pastures and it would come against us next February or March when the new grazing season will be in full swing again.

It’s the circle of life, the circle of nature and the cows are vital to us. If we are kind to them they will be good to us.

They need their rest too after yielding milk for close on 300 days since last spring.

These next two months will see most of our farming activities taking place in the haggard, yard and sheds rather than out in the fields. Don’t get me wrong now — we won’t have an eight-week holiday or anything like that! We are not heading off to Frihiliana, Majorca or the Bahamas; no, things will change as regards work schedules and the like but life still goes on with farming whether it’s autumn, winter, spring or summer.

As I write these lines, we haven’t the results of each individual cow’s scan, which will determine if she is going to have a calf in the spring or not.

It must be 25 years now or more since I bought two lovely Jersey in-calf heifers back near Inchigeela in the Muskerry Gaeltacht. The Jersey breed of cow is well known for the very high butterfat content of its milk. Long ago we were paid so much per gallon of milk produced but this has changed over time. A pricing structure came in whereby the higher the butterfat and protein content of the milk, the better price one received from the creamery.

We were, and still are, milking around 40 cows and you’d think that the milk of just two Jerseys wouldn’t influence our total butterfat production... well, it did! Our original pair of Gaeltacht cows are long since gone from the herd.

The downside of the Jersey breed is that while they produce great milk they are not a beef breed. Especially when they get older, you’d think they resembled a bag of bones covered by a light brown skin — but that’s the way they are.

We still have one granddaughter of one of the original pair. She’s close to 15 years now and as skinny as her mother and grandmother were. Depending on her scan, hopefully she’ll be with us for another year anyway. Love nor money, nor ration, nor meal, wouldn’t put a pound of flesh on her, that’s the nature of the Jersey. She’s a grand old character and anytime over the winter when I’d be passing through the cubicle house I’d give her a gabhail of hay —she’s been good to us and, as they say, one good turn deserves another.

From now until calving season the herd of cows will simply eat silage and hay, drink water and rest. Their twice daily trek to the fields for grazing and to the parlour for milking is over for this year. They will be well fed and have shelter from the worst of the winter weather.

We still walk through the cows in their winter quarters once or twice every day, just to check them for any illness or ailment, and in reality to show them we care for them and want them to enjoy their winter break.

The cows are the very heart of the farm. They provide our income and provide the next generation of calves and heifers who, in time, please God, will also take their place in the herd.

At present, we have cows with daughters and ‘granddaughters’ all milking together, that’s continuity and that gives us a closeness to the animals and to the land.

It’s 58 years since my father died and his father died ten years before that, in 1951, and his father died 36 years before that, in 1915. They all milked cows here on this farm, drove them on the same road, down from the Path field and the High field, aye and from the Chapel field also. I think that’s a great wealth of experience and tradition and love of animals, something to be proud of.

The fields too will have their rest. Land needs a break also, just to rejuvenate itself and prepare for yielding its bounty again next year. I’ll be out in these fields too over the next few months. Stakes and wire need replacing and repairs and water troughs have to be fixed.

We’ve four stone piers to be done, two to be built out of the new and two more to be rebuilt. Under the ‘farming with nature’ project we’re part of, 60 trees that must be planted — all native species — before the end of March.

There are a few gaps to be built up — there’s always work to be done on a farm, winter or summer.

Winter is also the time for tending to our ash plantation. In summer ‘twould kill you to be working under the trees, what between the heat and the ‘doctor’ flies. It’s grand work this time of year.

Each year we take out some crooked or diseased or badly shaped ash trees. Do you know what, but ash trees are like cattle as each year you’d see them ‘fatten’ as they suck carbon from the atmosphere and convert it into timber.

There’s been so much recognition in recent years, at last, about the environment we all live in and the effect human beings have on it. I was lately reading some of the writings of the late, great Kerry philosopher and poet, John Moriarty. He lived close to nature, loved it and understood the fine balance between human activity and nature itself.

John wrote: “The human race has the right to destroy itself, accepted, but we’ve no right to destroy the biosphere for plants and animals in the process.” How true.

As a farmer, I feel proud to take care of the farm I’ve inherited and mind it and its livestock. The land and animals give us our livelihood and we’re so lucky to be able to enjoy the seasons, the crops, the newborn calves, the smell of new-mown hay and seeing the stock thrive.

Of course the winter will be a busy time off-farm, with acting and talking, visiting and entertaining, and tracing relations and pruning family trees.

There will be quiet nights by the hearth too, we all need our down time — even our cows.

Night By The Fire.

Wind howls outside, plastic flapping,

Loose slates rattling, straw sops tumbleweeding,

Fire crackling in the grate, flying sparks,

Thank God for heat and home and family.

Sitting quietly by the fire like so many before,

No talking, speaking, meeting, debating, sketching,

Recharging the batteries as embers readily glow.

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