Farm Ireland

Friday 19 January 2018

The place of the cow is sacred in Irish farming and the main passion for many dairy farmers

John Shirley

Each one to his own fancy," said the man with his arm around a cow. "The cow provides me with milk every day. She delivers a calf once a year. She listens but never answers back. And when she gets old and beat she provides me with meat".

Some people love cows. Cows are their hobby. Cows are their passion.

There's no harm in that. Others are passionate about football, or vintage cars or bird watching (feathered and non feathered). The list of potential passions is endless. At school two of my 13-year-old classmates were cracked about trains.

Last weekend's Emerald Expo dairy show in Kilkenny again emphasised the place of the cow in the Irish farming landscape plus the industry and business that emanates from that creature.

For the vast majority of people partaking at the Emerald Expo the cow is their livelihood as well their passion.

The show in Kilkenny was run by the Clonakilty, Co Cork-based Irish Holstein Friesian Association (IHFA). The events included an International Showmanship Challenge which attracted young people from right across Europe. These people, too, were passionate about cows and were glued to the show classes when their own business was complete.

Given the quality of the event and the effort involved, the organisers of Emerald Expo would have liked a bigger crowd. But it takes a while to get a new show in a new venue off the ground.

The National Dairy Show at Millstreet and the Baileys Championship at Virginia Show are well established. In particular, the Baileys Championship gets enormous media coverage. I attribute this to the generous hospitality given to us hacks.

Also Read

Some may view pedigree dairy shows as an elitist activity and far removed from practical dairy farming. But those taking part don't subscribe to this view. They believe that there is connection between the showring and real farming. They argue that the show cow excellence reflects the on-farm needs for cows that are productive and user-friendly in the twice daily milking parlour grind.

The grooming, trimming and manicuring of the cows is common to all animal showing, be it dogs, horses or cows. The cows too seem to like the attention as they chew their cud through the activity. The main difference with the dairy cow showing fraternity is that it's working farmers who are involved. This can be judged by the hardened hands and the numbers of arthritic hips of those around the ringside.

I am also impressed by the depth of breeder knowledge of the backgrounds and pedigrees of their animals. Even the breeder's sons and daughters as young as 10 years can go back through the generations behind every cow in the herd. This information is effortlessly absorbed as part of the love and passion for the job.

As I see it Irish dairy farmers can be split down two categories. For one lot the cow is the centre of their operation. For the others grass management is pre-eminent and the cow is the vehicle to convert this grass into a cash crop called milk.

Of course, these two talents are not mutually exclusive. The really good dairy farmers are the people that have mastered the management of both the grass and the cow.

If you had to choose between these two skills then I reckon that stockmanship, or the passion for the cow, takes precedence. If you have the best interest of the cow at heart, you will surely feed her well.

The challenge is to feed her profitably. However, dairy farming, without a liking for cows, is an uphill battle no matter how good you are at managing grass. If you milk but don't like cows, then hire a herdsman who does.

There is a similar split between the farmers who live and work with the cows and the scientists and geneticists that tell the farmer what cows he/she should be breeding. In practice this is reflected in the tensions that have existed between the IHFA representing the pedigree breeders and the scientists in the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF). Both have a healthy disrespect for each other.

When it came to assembling an Irish Merit Index for evaluating cows the ICBF angered the IHFA by giving little or no weighting to their much cherished showring and type traits. In contrast the ICBF Index places huge emphasis on fertility and longevity. Even high milk yield was given a negative weighting on account of its negative relationship with fertility.

The IHFA looked for a separate index for their "winter milk" cows and even got a special study carried out in the North on the issue. But no separate index has emerged. It seems to me that the ICBF is winning this argument.

Breeders on the ground love to work with cow families. They are adamant that the desirable traits are passed down more so by the dams than the sires. Herds have been built on cow families. Geneticists look on this as nonsense saying that genetic material comes 50/50 from the sire and the dam. However, there are scientists who back the breeders belief in the pre-eminence of the female in breeding. They argue that the extra mitochondrial in the egg adds to the influence of the dam in the genetic make-up of the offspring.

More evidence backing the cow family observation emerged recently, with a claim from Cambridge University that the diet of the mother in a human pregnancy can actually impact on the genetic make-up of the offspring. This could have huge implications for livestock farming and cattle breeding, Epigenetics, the environment influence on genes, is a poorly understood science, but the new evidence does seem to be moving towards proving the anecdotal beliefs of the expert cow breeders.

After all, if you have the passion for cows and spend so much time studying their every detail, watching the effects of cow families, your observations and conclusions should be taken seriously.

Indo Farming