Forty-six years ago, back in 1974, if someone had asked me to write on a piece of paper three possible occupations I thought I might like for my working life, I don’t know what I’d have written.
One thing is certain though — farming would certainly not have been on that list!
They say circumstances alter events and that’s how ’twas with me. I became a farmer by default. Once I got into it, I said to myself I’d do the best I could.
In fairness, with a Leaving Cert containing A in Honours Irish and NG (No Grade — less than 13%) in Pass Maths, it wasn’t as if any oyster of employment opportunities opened up in front of me. No, and going to college wasn’t a runner either with the academic qualifications I hadn’t accumulated after 11 years of schooling.
The year before I was born, Alfred Hitchcock produced a film called The Man Who Knew Too Much. In that 1956 movie, Doris Day sang her best known song, Que Sera, Sera — What Will Be Will Be. It’s a song I always liked. It’s not that it suggests that our lives and destinies are pre-planned and mapped out, but more that it suggests that things will turn out alright in the end.
Now, in the middle 1980s, when we ended up paying 19% interest on bank loans ‘whatever will be, will be’ was of little consolation to us! We struggled on somehow, despite all the pressures, and farming was and is a great way of life and living.
No doubt there are more, much more, good times than bad times but last Friday was as tough as they come.
As a teenager, I loved the songs of John Denver, the American singer who died in a plane crash back in 1997. One of the loveliest songs John ever recorded was Some Days Are Diamonds, which sums up how life can be good or bad, kind or tough. He compares the great days to diamonds and in contrast the bad times as stones.
Some days are diamonds, some days are stones
Sometimes the hard times won’t leave me alone
Sometimes a cold wind blows a chill in my bones
Some days are diamonds, some days are stones…
A few months back, I mentioned that as the farming year was winding down on the land and as the fields were vacated by livestock, the farm-work revolved around the sheds in the yard. Yes, the winter had truly arrived, as it does every year. It’s a slower pace of life for man and beast.
I recalled that back in the 1990s I purchased two lovely jersey cows back near Coolea. We had them in the herd for years but both are long since gone. I mentioned we still had the granddaughter of one of our original jersey stock — 15 years old now.
About this cow — the matriarch of our herd — I wrote: “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.”
Well, I cried an awful amount last Friday on the death of this cow.
Worse still, she didn’t just die of natural causes. We had to make that awful, yet necessary decision to have our faithful friend put down.
I can tell you, it’s a hard route to go down, but sometimes, to prevent suffering, it has to be done.
Just a week previously, our old Jersey just failed to stand up one morning. Lying on a rubber mat in the cubicles, she seemed to have lost the power in one of her back legs.
With the help of a neighbour, we kind of ‘air-lifted’ her out into the sheltered Boiler-House Field. About 20 years ago, we purchased a special lifting blanket for sick animals. We just carefully rolled her onto the blanket and then attached it with winches to the loader on the tractor. With this device, you can actually hold up the animal and then ever so gently let her down slowly until she puts the weight on her own four feet.
Well, we tried that a few times over the days but she made little effort to support her own bulk. The last time we used the device was about four years ago and within five or six days that cow was fully recovered. It was different last week.
She ate and drank profusely — everything she was offered, including ivy, which I pulled off nearby trees. She moved around the field for a few days, dragging the sore leg behind her. As the days went by she gave up the ghost. She just sat there, eating alright, but with no attempt being made to stand.
I knelt by her and tried coaxing and cajoling, but with no response. Jersey cows are like deer — sleek and thin and beautiful. Her big brown eyes just looked at me sadly as if to say ‘Sorry, John’. It was as if she knew I knew it was all over for her.
People say to me that I’m too ‘soft’ for farming, maybe, so but I love and respect each and every one of the 60 animals we have on our farm. I hate it when people say ‘They’re just dumb animals’ — they’re dumb insofar as they can’t talk but they can communicate with us in their own way.
We knew by Thursday that she was suffering and that further lifting was of no avail. Late on Thursday night, I went up the field and gave her hay and water and covered her for the night as comfortable as was possible. The next morning we made that tough phone call to the animal collectors to come and collect her.
I explained that the cow wasn’t dead, but we couldn’t and wouldn’t want her to suffer anymore.
For the final time, we lifted her up and brought her over to the roadside with the tractor. While we waited for the lorry to come I spent the last hour with her. My little two-year old grandson was with me. I couldn’t tell him the full truth as to why the cow was ‘going away’.
I gave the Jersey nuts and water and hay and ivy as we waited. When the lorry came I filled up the forms and paid the fee and told him to wait until we were gone down the yard. We said our last goodbyes to that grand old cow.
I cried and cried as we walked away, hand in hand. I could never bear to see or hear an animal’s life being ended by the humane killer gun, though I know it had to be done.
When he was gone, we washed everything and fed all the other cows. Oh lads, it’s a tough call when it comes to this. Truly some days are stones indeed, but that’s farming for ya.
Hopefully ’twon’t be long now until we’ll witness the birth of the first of this years calves, and then I’ll think ‘some days are diamonds’.