Farm Ireland

Friday 15 December 2017

Ploughing Championships: 'I'm elbow-deep in a cow...and all before breakfast'

City slicker experiences all the fun of the farm

Reporter Kirsty Blake Knox gets her hands dirty with farmer Andrew Revington
Reporter Kirsty Blake Knox gets her hands dirty with farmer Andrew Revington
Reporter Kirsty Blake Knox milks a cow
Reporter Kirsty Blake Knox turns the hay
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

It was when I found myself with my arm up the back end of a heifer, while standing in a pile of cow pats, that I realised I wasn't in Kansas any more.

The fact is I've lived my entire life in city centres or suburbia. For me, pretty much anywhere beyond Dalkey is virgin territory.

As a consequence, my knowledge and understanding of farming was, shall we say, a little basic, and perhaps somewhat out-of-touch.

When I heard I was spending a day on a dairy farm, I had images of rustic milkmaids with heaving bosoms and wooden pails.

Snow white geese would flap their wings, and a trusty sheepdog would strike up an unexpected yet enduring friendship with a cute and surprisingly articulate pig.

In other words, my understanding of farm life had been largely drawn from the 1995 film 'Babe'.

I certainly wasn't expecting to be elbow-deep in a cow before I'd had my breakfast. The shed I was standing in was filled with heavily pregnant cows about to calf. "Like Holles Street but for heifers," I thought. "Or a moo-ternity ward."

The cow I had my arm up - let's call her Daisy- was due to give birth in the next few hours. "You'll see a calf born before you leave," farmer Andrew Revington of Brookfield Farm promised me.

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As I twisted my hand around, I suddenly felt a small hoof and pulled it gently. The 550-acre farm, located just outside Delvin in Co Westmeath, is home to 150 Holstein Friesian cows.

Each cow can produce an impressive 10,500 litres of milk a year - some of which will end up in a festive glass of Baileys.

Myself and my colleague, photographer Mark Condren, had set off early from Dublin so we could watch the cows being milked - a process I had thought was still done by hand. "Are you for real?" Mark asked. "They've been using machines since the 1940s." Right, so.

Andrew met us at the gate - he'd been up since 4am training for the Berlin marathon, the way you do.

"They're bringing the cows up to the milking parlour," he said, as he led us towards an imposing building. Inside the parlour, everything was hosed down and immaculately clean. Silver machines shined, there were antiseptic stations, it was more akin to a hospital ward than a barn.

All the cows were fitted with transponder collars to track and monitor the quality of the milk. I was brought into the pit - a lower-level tier where udders were sprayed with disinfectant and suction pumps fitted to teets.

"It's all very high tech," I said looking around for a milking stool, as Andrew explained how the suction would cut off once the milk flow was starting to wane.

I tried to fit the suction cups to one cow, but, sadly, the scene soon descended into a Mr Bean-esque farce when my scarf got trapped in it. The unbelievably patient David Healy, who has worked on the farm for six years, managed to get me untangled and decided it was probably a better idea if I was tasked with feeding the calves.

Armed with buckets of frothy milk, we headed out to a field where doe-eyed calves waited in plastic pods to be fed. "They're so cute," I said pouring warm milk down funnels. "I don't see that," David responded. "I just see trouble."

On the other side of the yard, Andrew was starting to mill together cow's feed - a mix of soya, barley, and straw.

As we waited for the feed to churn he told me about his 80-hour working week, the impact a 15pc cut in funding was having on his farm and fitting in marathon training.

It all seems an extraordinarily demanding schedule, but Andrew has no desire to swap it for the comforts of city living. "I need my space," he said. "Working on the farm is hard, but it's rewarding."

Once the cows had been milked and fed, Andrew drove us back to his farmhouse for some porridge and tea. He kept an eye on the calving heifer via CCTV footage on his iPhone.

The whole morning I had been bamboozled with technicalities; the machinery, the planning and the science were fascinating.

After breakfast, vet Catherine Moran arrived to give the cows ultrasounds and take their bloods.

It was like a factory, as cows lined up and she searched a blackened screen for the outline of a foetus. There was talk of "squeezing" bulls - a term that sounds a lot more loving than the reality. But suddenly, the calf was coming and we rushed out and into the straw.

Two hooves and its nose were protruding from the heifer, who let out deep grunts as her stomach flexed and contracted.

Ropes were looped around the calf's legs, and Andrew and David started to pull. A jack was brought in as they continued to heave the calf out of the heifer.

It was the first time I had watched any sort of birth, and I must admit I was deeply impressed by the strain and strength of the heifer's body. There was blood, and s*** and sweat and membrane, but it was also quite a beautiful experience.

The jack began to ratchet faster until the calf crawled onto the hay and cold water was splashed in his ears.

The exhausted mother staggered to her feet and started licking the newborn. I felt like I was going to cry, but bit my tongue, as I didn't want Andrew to think I was a complete city sap.

On the way back to Dublin, I felt rather overwhelmed by what had happened. Two men had wrenched something into life; they'd brought something into existence.

For me, that was a really big deal, but for them it was just another day at the office.

Irish Independent