Dairy Farming in Clonakilty IrelandUncategorized
Hey guys, sorry for taking so long to post about my first travel experience! I have been super busy and reception is not always so great. I am currently in France so my posts will not always be in accordance to where I am, but rather when I have time to write and go through all of the pictures, take notes, etc. This post is a true testament to what life was like on the farm. I hope to post about the culture and places at a different time. In the meantime, enjoy a good read and leave your comments below…
It’s 7:30 a.m. in Clonakilty. I’m reluctant to crawl out from underneath my warm heated blanket into old jeans. I step outside to see what mood mother nature is in and possibly catch a glimpse of the cows waiting to be called down. I quickly brush my teeth and head outside. The front yard has rhubarbs and apple trees ripe for the picking. Crows aren’t an omen here; they’re too busy in the gooseberry bushes.
Mary has already got the kettle going for my coffee. She prefers tea but I cannot function without coffee in the morning. John greets me with the usual “how are things” as we hop into our boiler suits and wellington boots in the shed just right above the swallow’s nest. ( they come back to the same nest every year, after all)
John’s headed up the pasture in the quad to round up the cows. Mary and I head to the milking parlor to prepare for the 100 cows soon arriving…
The Hayes Farm
John and Mary Hayes have been in the business of farming for 33 years. They started off doing cattle shows and were well known for breeding magnificent Friesian bulls. They were even publicized and won numerous awards.
These days dairy farming is their main source of income; as bull-breeding is quite the undertaking for a farm run solely by two people. I was really amazed at how strict the regulations put forth by the Irish food Board were for farmers following the Sustainable Beef and Lamb Assurance scheme (SBLAS) requirements. Mary and John made sure I followed these requirements with routine precision on the farm.
I begin my mornings at the milking parlor by wetting the floors and cleaning the milk filter. Donning a heavy duty rubber milking apron and milking gloves, I prepare the milking pit and start my tasks.
The equipment at the farm is modernized and equipped with automated machinery that made my learning experience as simple as possible. The three of us prepare the pit, as 12 cows file in on each side. Mary wipes away dirt from the utters while I control the gates and barley nuts fed through the press of a few buttons. (By the way, I tasted the nuts myself and they are reminiscent of unsweetened Kashi cereal). Once clean, we spend time attaching the cups to the four utters of each cow. The cluster milking machine comes off the cow automatically and I am able to easily sanitize the machinery and utters of each cow to prevent cross-contamination, and the spread of bacteria between cows. We do this repeatedly for 100 cows all while dodging unexpected hailing of cow poop and urine.
The cows with red tape on their tails do not have their milk added to the main supply since they are currently on antibiotic treatments. Occasionally, we get a visitor— a huge Hereford bull that sometimes follows the cows down to get some treats. ( I stay away from him. He is massive, and though generally calm, bulls can be unpredictable.) There is never a dull moment in the parlor.
After the cows have been milked we begin our cleanup. While John hoses down the parlor, I sweep the enormous piles of slurry ( cow poop) into the slurry tank below the floor. The wet slurry is stored so the manure can be used to fertilize new grass sowed every few weeks; so the cows continuously have fresh grass. After a good cleaning, I pump the milk into the play cooler where it is stored, cooled, and rid of excess air. There are so many buttons in the parlor! I remember I pressed the wrong button once and wasted milk. I was so mad I started crying ( This takes a lot of work!) But John helped me get it right.
As I mentioned earlier, the Irish Food Board is very strict when it comes to farmers following regulations that ensure food quality. Jeremy, a Lisavaird Co-operative truck driver, collects milk from the tank every two days, along with samples of the milk supply.
Each farmer is given a batch number coinciding with their sample, and all milk is tested for antibiotics and steroids.
Mary also tests her milk for bottle fats, protein, lactose, and somatic cell count — this determines the quality of their cow’s milk. Detailed records of vaccinations, deaths, maintenance, and sales for each cow are kept in accordance with Board BIA inspection standards.
After changing out of my wellies into comfy slippers, I help Mary prepare a fresh breakfast in the kitchen. (Of course, we support the local Carbery and Kerrygold that use milk from our cows) Then, there is some addition of fresh fruit, soda bread, eggs, rashers, ( Irish name for bacon) and the occasional Clonakilty black pudding.
The rest of the days are spent doing numerous tasks on the farm. Work is varied and plentiful depending on what is needed for the season. Helping John herd the cows into fresh, grass and ushering them in to be dewormed was quite the experience.
Cows are magnificent creatures that could crush you if they were so inclined; luckily for me, they were not. Using simple commands and sounds kept the cows at a distance while we repositioned the wires, keeping them in fresh pastures above the windmills. Even the bull was unbothered by my presence.
The busiest we have ever been was the day where after typical farm duties, Mary and I prepared dinner for the additional six men coming to help cut silage. (I like to think of myself as a Chef’s apprentice; creating a unique menu of chops seasoned with herbs, balsamic vegetables, and potatoes on the fly.)
The grass is often tested to determine nitrogen and sugar content; which effects the quality of milk. These figures help the farmer determine how long the grass should be left to wilt before being cut into swards and baled. I also found most admirable the fact that the government was working to enforce environmental control standards. For instance, there are many windmills throughout the county that feed electricity into the main grid. Also, the slurry used to fertilize the grass can only be sprayed between the 15th and 20th of October through the 15th and 20th of January; this prevents pollution of local rivers.
There were so many ways to keep busy on the farm that tv, shopping, and even daily showers were luxuries used sparingly. Another traveler from Switzerland joined me and we quickly became great friends. ( He even agreed to let me stay with his family when I visit Switzerland). I showed him everything I was taught in the parlor, the same way I had learned. Ruedi had a brain injury years ago but that does not stop him from enjoying this experience and making new friends. I admire his tenacity and willingness to venture into the unknown, even at 48 years old! An Irish family with cows, a Swiss guy with some English, and an American girl with no idea where life will lead her… we truly have formed the unlikeliest of bonds on this dairy farm.
By 6pm we suit up for the second round of milking. Dinner is an American and Irish cultural exchange creation. We reflect on the day and have a sip of West Coast Cooler or a hot whiskey. It is already after 11pm and I haven’t written in my journal yet. Too tired to check my phone, (and barely remembering to charge it,) I am slowly drifting into a deep sleep under the warmth of my electric blanket…I’ll check my email tomorrow.