Our 40 cows had all given birth to their calves last spring, mainly in February and March with a few stragglers in April. They joined up for the milk production system during the strangest farming year I’ve ever known.
They say variety is the spice of life and by heavens we had all kinds of everything this year. It surely was the best of times and the worst of times.
Back in August of 1974, after I got my Leaving Certificate results, there were few options open to me. Going to university was never a burning desire or goal that I had set or aimed for.
There’s an old saying that ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’ and in all fairness I could never be described as ‘studious’ — now, I loved and still love books and history and folklore but they don’t always pay the bills!
Anyhow, when Mam asked me that autumn of ’74 to ‘stay at home on the farm, ’til Christmas anyway’, I agreed and, as the great Kerry seanachai Eamonn Kelly, might say ‘Things rested so’.
I’ve often heard it said, kinda half jokingly, half seriously and half questioningly: ‘Yer man John Arnold, who is he? — sure he’s married to a farmer in Bartlemy’, as they say, if the cap fits…!
Looking back on it now after 44 years farming the ancestral acres that my great grandfather Daniel Arnold first took over in the 1870s, I’d say I’m happy I didn’t get six or seven Honours in the Leaving and maybe end up in a ‘great job’ in Dublin, Denver or Dubai.
I know I’d probably have money in the bank, be debt-free and partaking in a different lifestyle. Nearly half a century on, I still think there’s nothing to compare with farming and country life.
I mentioned variety and that’s the secret of it all for me. I’d go absolutely mad if I ended up in a hum-drum ‘nine to five’ type job where every decision on work was made for me by rules and regulations and the hands of the clock. I absolutely love and adore working on and with the land.
To be a farmer, one needs to have a relationship with nature and the fields which give us a living. I was lately looking at the first Ordnance Survey Map of this farm produced in the 1830s, four decades before my family came here. By a strange coincidence there was an Arnold family here then also — cousins but fairly far out. Over that period of nearly two centuries, the physical features of this farm have changed little. I think just three or four farm fences or ditches have been removed in the interim.
People often said to me, ‘why don’t you knock that ditch and that one and make a big 20-acre field from the three small fields?’ There was a farming motto one time: ‘one more sow, one more cow and one more acre under the plough’ but what’s it all for? More and more over-production, less and less biodiversity and farming in harmony with nature.
Where’s it all going to end? I don’t know, and mark my words it’s not been a bed of roses milking a herd of 40 cows and trying to raise a family from the proceeds, but then money isn’t everything.
After close on 300 days producing milk since last February, our cows are now on their winter break. Hopefully they will all calve again next spring and the circle starts again.
For the next two months, life will be different for our herd. This weekend they will forsake the High Field, the Chapel Field, Paircaliosa, the Kiln Field, the Glen and the Boiler House Field for their indoor quarters. Grass has stopped growing so a change of bovine diet will also be on their menu.
We had very little grass growth here on our farm during the drought from May until August. For the first time since I started farming we fed our cows meal, hay and silage during the summer months.
The summer was brilliant and idyllic from a holiday and leisure point of view, but with minimal grass growth and feed bills never before encountered, it set us back over €12,000 in income.
Thankfully, August, September and October were mighty months for grass growth and now luckily we have adequate feed supplies for the winter. Our stocks of hay and silage will hopefully se us through until at least early April.
The cows and the land need a break in much the same way as we do. No one can burn the candle at both ends for long periods and the same applies to the stock and the soil.
Nothing compares to walking through a contented herd of cows grazing lush grass in the warm sunshine in June or July — sheer bliss. For the next eight weeks the cows can take it easy indoors. They can eat, drink, chew the cud and relax as they build themselves up for the birth of their offspring after St Bridgid’s Day.
I still love to walk among the cows in winter as they enjoy a slower pace of life with no long treks to and from the fields twice a day. In The Old Farmers Almanac of 1936 an Ode To A Cow was published with no author credited. It sums up well that innate sense of bovine intelligence that cows posses.
So when you’re at the end of your wits,
Go and look at a Cow
Or when your nerves are frayed to bits,
And wrinkles furrow your brow;
She’ll merely Moo in her gentle way,
Switching her rudder as if to say:
“Bother tomorrow! Let’s live today!”
Take the advice of a cow!
I’m a firm believer in talking to cows — I don’t expect them to reply but talking to them and petting them just shows them the respect they deserve. Happy and content cows create a calm and benign atmosphere in the milking parlour and in the fields too.
Over the next two months we can’t decamp for eight weeks’ foreign holidays to Frihiliana or the Milkabu Island in the West Pacific. No, as the focus of our work switches from the farm to the farmyard, the animals must be fed and tended to daily. In anticipation of next year’s arrivals houses and pens must be cleaned, washed and disinfected.
Though the land will be resting too, there are always repairs and maintenance jobs to be done. Fences need repairing as do piers and water troughs. Hopefully, between now and February I’ll get to finish a few stone piers for hanging gates — work I started in the month of May.
Our piggery is quiet too as we took our fat pigs to their date with destiny last week. The bacon, rashers and sausages will be back any day now. We’ll probably wait until January to get a few ‘replacement’ pigs and thus the cycle will begin again.
At the corner of our Chapel field, one can still see the semi-circular remains of a very ancient ring-fort. The Irish name for a ring-fort of course was a lios and that’s why the fields alongside still bears the name Paircaliosa — The Field of The Lios. In ancient times these huge circular structures were multi purpose.
Within the earthen-banked ramparts our ancient forefathers lived in thatched little houses. Here also their cattle and sheep were kept for safety from wild animals and wilder neighbours. Man and beast lived at close quarters to each other.
I feel a bit like that here on our farm for the next few months. Looking out our kitchen window we can see the cows’ ‘winter quarters’ across the haggard. We are close to them and vice versa and so it should be.
My favourite poem for this season of slowness and rural quietness is In Winter by the Monaghan farmer and poet, Patrick Kavanagh;
Cold sunlight glinting on the rocky fields of cloud,
The high shrill note of Winter’s happy piper
Rises and lifts my dreamer far above the crowd.
Love comes again to the narrow day and riper
Than ever it was when Summer’s apron flapped
Upon a drying line. The spacious time
Has gathered up its little things, but we have rapped
On Beauty’s golden counter half sublime.