Farming is a mucky business, but it’s one way to hit paydirt!

Working in the fields, and with animals, means farming is a dirty ol' business at times, says JOHN ARNOLD
Farming is a mucky business, but it’s one way to hit paydirt!

GETTING THEIR HANDS DIRTY: A cattle fair on Ilen Street, Skibbereen, in the 1960s

IT must be about 12 years ago that I met a Wexford man in his mid-90s at Croke Park. I’m not sure if ’twas at an All Ireland final or semi-final but it was at some major game anyway.

Being a curious sort, after I had ‘talked hurling’ with this gentleman for a few minutes I asked him when he’d first come to Croke Park. He had come as a teenager in the late 1930s and for eight decades had rarely missed a game at GAA headquarters.

I never asked him his name, but we had a great chat. It wasn’t just about hurling and football but about Irish life in general. He recalled the Economic War, Second World War, and then the ‘boom to bust’ so-called Celtic Tiger.

Before we parted, I enquired from him about the biggest or most profound changes he’d seen. He answered straight away: “When I was young, you could smoke in the house and if you wanted to go to the toilet (or words to that effect!), you went outside to the yard. Today, if you want a smoke you go out and you stay inside for the other thing!”

I laughed and the Wexford man laughed too and we went our separate ways.

What goes up, must come down, and what goes in, must come out, so the disposal of human and animal waste has been a problem since Adam took the first bite of that apple all those years ago.

I suppose we were lucky because as children we grew up in a house that had hot and cold water and an indoor toilet. My father was great with his hands and things like plumbing and wiring were second nature to him, by all accounts.

Strangely, I was never told or never heard about the site of any previous outdoor sanitary arrangements that were surely present when the dwelling was constructed in the 1870s. Amazing, isn’t it, the different names for that particular little ‘building’ - the loo, the jacks, the privy, the latrine, and the bog were just some of the ‘nicer’ appellations!

Sixty years ago, when we were in the Old National School, there were two little sheds out the back, one for the girls and one for the boys. At that stage, in the very early 1960s, there was no ‘tap’ water in the school so the ‘dry’ toilets were just that. Two hand dug pits with a timber structure sitting on top with a circular hole in the middle - I remember Jer Connors during the school holiday was employed in doing the unenviable task of emptying these two ‘conveniences’ with a bucket and a shovel!

Fr Corbett was the Parish Priest in those times and he would regularly visit the school. He was a quiet, understated man and in a low voice I heard him ask Master Lehane ‘about the state of the out-offices?’ A very polite man so, he wouldn’t use any of the normal descriptions usually given to the places of relief!

On a farm, we’re well used to all forms of muck, gutter, slurry, effluent and dung. I spent most of Tuesday last shovelling and scraping muck in the feeding and collecting yards where the cows congregate twice a day.

There’s phrase in Irish - ‘Rotha Mor an Saoil’- a reference to the circular and recurring nature of the world. In farming we are very close to nature so we witness recycling every day. Our cows eat grass. The grass goes through a series of stomachs to produce beautiful milk. Ingeniously, the bovine digestive system takes wet slushy, leafy grass and magically transforms it into a nutritious food.

As I said, what goes in, comes out, and the waste product in both solid and liquid form comes forth from the cows. In weather like this, the cows are out night and day so the waste they produce goes back directly onto the pasture. With the aid of rain, dung beetles and worms, the cows’ excrement breaks down into the soil once more. In turn, this organic matter is food for the growing grass, and so the circle starts again.

When animals are housed for the winter, they produce slurry of a semi liquid nature, where they are housed on slats with slurry-collecting tanks underneath. This slurry in turn is spread on grass fields - often after a crop of hay or silage has been cut.

Slurry spreading, or too much of it, has become a major bone of contention in recent years. New, environmentally friendly methods of spreading have been invented and adapted to ensure the slurry goes into the ground. In the past, surface spreading of slurry, if followed by heavy rain, sometimes led to pollution of rivers and fish kills. Thankfully, nowadays, all farmers look on slurry not as a ‘waste’ product, but as a valuable soil nutrient.

With the price of chemical, or ‘bagged’ fertilizer, having doubled since last year, the real value of slurry is now fully appreciated.

Of all the back-breaking jobs on a farm, cleaning out a small shed - inaccessible to a tractor and front-end loader, with a four-prong pike - was and still is a mighty job on a cold winter’s day! You wouldn’t be long warming up getting to grips with the joys of farm dung.

In olden times - still to a lesser extent - cattle were winter housed on a straw ‘bed’. The animal waste and the straw combined to make dung. As required to keep the animals clean, more straw was added, and so the level of the ‘floor’ kept rising as the winter went on.

We had twin calves born in July last year. They were too small to keep with their half brothers’ and sisters in a bigger shed for the winter. We put them into a small shed near the old Fowl House last December where they were fed, watered and bedded each day.

About a month ago, they rejoined the herd out on grass. Looking at them in the shed, I remarked how they had fattened and grown so well over the past four months. When they were left out they looked tiny as the dung under their feet was nearly two feet in height - accumulated since before Christmas!

Yerra, give ’em a few months and they’ll be fine in God’s own good time.

There are several sayings which reflect the closeness of nature to us all. While ’tis said that ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’, I’ve often heard older people say ‘Sure, dirt never killed anyone’ - a reference I suppose to our over-sanitised world.

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘as happy as a pig in muck’ and in truth, long ago, I often saw pigs here on the farm seek out a hole of ‘sulach’ and therein cover themselves with muck - it kept out the excesses of the strong summer sunshine.

They used also say long ago that ‘where there’s muck there’s luck’. I’m not certain where that one originated, but I suppose it’s a reference that money can be made in jobs where one isn’t suited and booted! Farming can be such an occupation.

Oft’ times, you’d be nearly finished milking when a departing cow would lift her tail - usually when you’d be facing away from her - and whoosh all over hair, head, shoulders, and the whole shebang!

Oh, the joys of it, but as I said, what goes in must come out!

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