‘Cows carry flesh, but they carry personality too’: the hard lessons of farming

They may be crucial products in a vast industry – but abandoning our relationship with the cattle we keep would mean throwing away something valuable.

Credit: The Guardian

 

I’ve got my arms in her passage and I’m trying to find the new calf’s feet. As a farmer’s son, I’ve birthed calves aplenty, but always as the helper, holding a cow’s tail up or pulling the calf out at the last moment. My father has been in charge of the calving for 25 years, and when he wasn’t, my brother took over. But now it’s me.

I’m home again in rural Ireland, back after being an emigrant, and, in exchange for a roof over my head, it’s been agreed that I will help out on the farm. There’s a lot tied up in this birth for me – much more than the cow knows.

The red cow moves suddenly and lets me know her strength and power. I must be quick. I must get the ropes around the calf’s feet, slide them above the hock and pull them tight. I must be quick lest the calf die. I could call for help. I could, but then I would still not be tested, would still not be able to prove that I can do this myself. I grasp the first foot and slip the rope over his hock.

I had been watching the red cow all night, and could sense that she was going to calve. She was sick, patrolling her pen, not eating her silage or nuts or water. Da – my father, Tom – is away. He is at the sheep mart with his brother Davy.

It has been a busy week and I am tired, for between the days and nights I am but a servant to the cows. Sometimes I have wondered what it is all for. I do not earn money doing this work: the farm pays for itself and no more. To make a living through farming is hard work, and there are few full-time farmers in the area; most men have other jobs, as builders or tradesmen or teachers. Da is one of the few full-time farmers, but that was not always so. For more than two decades he was a builder with my uncle John, but he retired 10 years ago, for the work had grown too hard and, though he was still young, it had aged him.

Da and I are trying, this calving season, not to fight, and so far it is working. I cannot say that we are friends yet, but a respect has come between us that was never there before. It is a small and delicate thing, still fragile.

I have the other foot. I take the second rope from the side of the gate and slide it on to the calf’s leg. It slips and falls and I curse, and now I think perhaps I do need help, but it is too late. To wait might mean death, and then I would be called a fool for trying on my own and there would be a huge row. No, I must focus. The cow has nearly finished the nuts I gave her to keep her calm. When they are gone, she will remember her distress and begin to thrash and kick again, and then the job will be all the harder.

I stoop low, take the rope and turn to my work again. The rope is now on the second foot. I pull gently, but the calf is big: he will not come like this; I will need the jack. I take the mechanical wrench, placing it on the cow’s hips, and hook the ropes into the slots and begin to winch.

I must do this right, I tell myself, but I have seen it done so many times that I know my actions. I must jack, then lever down to bring the calf out. The biggest pull will be his head, and once I have that out, the rest should follow, except the hips, which can sometimes be trouble. I winch the jack five times and hear the sprocket chime out in the quiet shed. I feel the sprockets turn and the ratchet move up the teeth. The legs emerge more fully now, but still no head, and so I lever down again and I can see his nose – it looks so flat, perhaps his head is squashed. The cow bellows again and I feel her feet tremble. I let the pressure off once more and she stands up again.

I jack once more and the cow roars. I am sure Mam will waken now, for she is such a light sleeper. It was her I turned to for advice tonight. She has known cows all her life and is wiser than us all with them, but again I remind myself: this is my job now.

The head emerges and I have no time to thank God: I must jack with all my might and keep going, for the cow could give way, and if she goes down, the calf might die. I see his tongue wag, so I know he is alive, and I pull still stronger, though my arm is growing tired. He is emerging now, fluid and strong, and he is red like his mother, with a white sketch on his face.

Connell pictured on his parents’ farm in Ballinalee, Co Longford.
 ‘Between the days and nights, I am but a servant to the cows’ … Connell pictured on his parents’ farm in Ballinalee, Co Longford. Photograph: Brian Farrell

I take the calf in both my arms and the adrenaline is such that I do not feel his weight. I carry him to the fresh bedding, jack, ropes and all. I must move quickly , for we have lost calves with fluid on their lungs before. I pour water in his ears and he shakes his head and comes to life. But then he coughs, and I can hear the fluid, so I take a breathing tube with a mask on its end and fit it over the calf’s muzzle. You extend the pump and its vacuum pulls the fluid up and, in theory, the calf should cough up the fluid. I do this three times, but the fluid does not come up, and he begins to wheeze. I cannot lose him. I pick him up with a roar and carry him over to the gate and sling him across it.

I have seen this done before, but the calf has always been lifted by two men, so I must have found new strength. I massage his lungs and give him a slap, and soon I see the mucus emerge. He lifts his head and I know that he is won. I release him down into my arms and carry him back to the fresh bedding, alive and safe. And with that, the half-door opens – it is my father, bright and smiling.

And I know now that something has happened. I’ve passed a test of some kind, and I am glad. He opens the half-door and walks in. He is in his jobbing coat, which is his blue velvety coat for the mart. My uncle Davy follows behind, along with my young cousin, Jack.

“There’s money being made here,” says Davy, and we laugh. I stand up now and they admire the calf. He is a fine wee bull. I unloose the cow and leave her and her newborn to each other. She licks him, gently and softly, despite her size. Nature will do the rest. I am 29, but I feel so much older tonight.


Our farmland is flat and thick with hedges and trees. The ground is average, though we have made it good with our work and sweat. It was all bog and rush when my parents came to live here. Da built the house as a young man, and slowly, as life moved forward, together he and my mother built the farm. I still remember when we built the hay shed and the holes for the iron girders filled with a foot of water, and I found frogs swimming in them. Many neighbours came to help us erect the shed, like an American barn raising. Here we call it a meitheal – a gathering of men to work together, like in the old times. We have been farming in this place for nearly 30 years now, starting off with just three cows, which have grown to a large herd.

We are in the depths of winter. It’s been the wettest January on record, and storms have battered and blown our sheds and fields and rivers. In the west of the country, people are flooded, and I’ve watched them cry on the news. I met an agriculture salesman in the feed store who had come from Galway, and he told me they had rowed boats over fields, over the height of gates.

The fields here are old, and have known my people, the Connells, for a long time – first as tenants to an English lord, then as owners. There have been other families, other bloodlines, in this place in the townland of Soran, but many have moved away or died out. Farming is a walk with survival, with death over our shoulder, sickness to our left, the spirit to our right and the joy of new life in front.

Once our old accountant tried to get my parents to invest in apartments in a tourist town, but they refused. The land is what we know, they said.

In recent weeks I have heard news of several cattle raids in the area. Since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger around a decade ago, lawlessness has increased in rural Ireland. People no longer feel safe in their homes, as gangs of thieves roam the once-quiet countryside. I do not know a farmer without a gun now: the police are fewer and we are all but alone. In the last three years, more than 10,000 cattle have been stolen. The raiders are most active along the border with Northern Ireland. The stolen cattle are butchered hastily, and their meat sold; few are ever recovered alive. Their bones are often found dumped on lonely back roads.


Despite practising one of the oldest professions in the world, farmers are often early adopters of new technology. As farmers embraced new methods of farming and breeding, and began to use steam-powered machines rather than beasts of burden to work their land, so agriculture was industrialised. As output increased, the world’s population grew, and so too did the demand for beef.

There are now around 1.6bn cows in the world, one for every fifth person. Through selective breeding, man began to produce the meat or milk he desired, but it was through science that this process was perfected.

The development of vaccines and antibiotics in the first two decades of the 20th century meant that large groups of animals could now be housed together indoors, without fear of bacterial infection or the spread of disease. The cow being our largest domesticated animal, its containment in a small area had huge advantages. It cut down on farming time, and, with controlled feeding, animals could be bulked up and brought to kill-weight sooner. By the late 60s, advancements in machinery allowed for feeding houses to be built, and with that, factory farming began.

Two Limousin calves in a cowshed.
 ‘I cannot see cows just as products. I cannot see them just as products. They are animals, not mere steak-holders’ … pictured, a pair of Limousin calves. Photograph: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

Farming in the US soon became less a family enterprise than a big business – by 2000, a full 80% of the country’s beef was produced by just four companies. The plains and the range had given way to concrete and steel. Factory farming – or confined animal feeding operations – works on the basic principle that maximum output should be achieved for the lowest possible cost input. This method has ensured that the world has had enough beef in recent years (albeit often of lower quality), but it has come at a price: lower animal welfare. A confined beast is not a happy one, but selective breeding and artificial insemination have allowed industrial farmers to produce more docile and husbandry-friendly animals.

In this, the cow has been lucky, for it has not been the subject of the sort of experiments and drastic physical modifications as has the humble chicken. Theirs is a life of hardship: housed, caged, de-beaked and slaughtered. If the reality of factory farming has a mascot, the scrawny, mutilated chicken is it.

The breeding of pigs for meat is one area in which farming has broken fully with nature. From birth, the pig knows only the piggery. Born in a litter of 10 or more, the piglets will suckle for several weeks, while their mother lies on her side, caged in a farrowing crate. This is done to prevent the sow from eating her young, which can sometimes happen. The piglets are then removed and taken to a separate weaning room. There they join all the other litters, to be fed through feeders. The pigs can eat as much as they like – they simply push a small button with their snout and a watery feed mixture emerges. These rooms are kept very hot to promote fast growth. The farmer must be careful to prevent infection, as in these sterilised environments bacteria will spread rapidly, and deaths are common at this stage.

The pig industry in Ireland is controlled by just a few farmers. Many of these farmers have built empires on the back of the swine, and run many such factory farms. It may seem a cruel industry, but it provides employment in the local areas, and from these small factories the nation is fed.

Recently, at a farming conference, I listened to data scientists and academics talk about the development of intensive farming in the future. Agriculture, they said, was the last frontier of the tech sector, and it was an exciting time to be in the industry. In years to come, it seems, quality won’t be a concern any more, because we will all produce the same type of animal. Consumers demand cheap meat, and it is our job to make it – to feed the supermarket-driven race to the bottom. Machines will weigh and dispense feed, low-paid workers will carry out whatever manual work must be done. The people closest to the animals will not be farmers, but line workers.

The factory farming of cows has not yet taken hold in Ireland. The cows here are still largely pasture-fed, and housed indoors only in winter, when there is no grass available naturally. To the tech entrepreneurs who see agribusiness as the future, I and my fellow farmers are luddites, relics of the past. And yet I am happy to continue in the old ways, as are most European farmers. Under EU farming law, the use of growth hormones in the production process has been banned and the use of antibiotics must also be tracked and traced. In this way we prevent the flow of animal antibiotics into the human diet and food chain.

A young Highland cow.
 A young Highland cow. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

Growth hormones are not the only problem with industrial farming. In the 80s and 90s, the emergence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) threw light upon the problem of bone meal feeding. In this practice, which many European farmers used as part of intensive feeding programmes, cattle were given bone meal feed, which contained cow and sheep leftovers from the slaughtering process, as a source of protein. Traditionally, US farmers used soybean meal, but the bean did not grow well in Europe. The cow, of course, is a herbivore and in the eating of its own kind, nature fought back with the development of BSE, more commonly known as mad cow disease.

The disease affected the animal’s brain and spinal cord, eventually rendering it unable to walk and driving it insane. The suffering of the cow was a warning of the danger of intensive farming. When this illness crossed the species barrier from animal to human in 1996, it took the form of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD. This disease caused memory loss, dementia, depression, hallucinations and eventually death. At the height of the epidemic, it was discovered that more than 400,000 infected cattle had entered the human food chain. Millions of animals were slaughtered to eradicate the disease, but sadly some humans had already been infected with vCJD and, to date, there have been 177 deaths in the UK. The UK’s beef market, which was the worst infected, had its exports suspended for 10 years, and although the ban is now over, British beef remains tainted in some markets.

The long-term risks of intensive farming are not yet known, because it is still in its first generation, but the BSE epidemic was a warning that caution is necessary. Perhaps in future our industrial meat will come, like cigarettes, with a warning: FACTORY FARMED – EAT AT YOUR OWN RISK.


When the weanling calves had reached 14 months and put on the required weight, Da decided it was time to sell them. There are just four calves left now, too young to sell; we will fatten them on spring grass soon. Walking through the shed, I miss the presence of the others, their noise and smell and rumble. But they are the payment to the bank for the land. They are money embodied, nothing more. That is what Da says.

On this we do not agree. I cannot see them just as products. They are animals, not mere steak-holders. They may carry flesh but they carry personality too – memories and feelings. But to go down this route is not businesslike. And farming above all is a business, I am told.

The reality of beef farming is that the cows live so that they can be killed. They are here so that they may die. If we did not eat meat, they would not exist, or not in such great numbers. All our cows on this farm will be killed at one time or other; they shall get old, or reach their weight, and all shall know the butcher’s knife. But even knowing this, and even for the businessman-farmer, I do not believe it is solely about the money, nor that he sees the animals only as future beef. If it were, I do not think he should get up so instinctively in the middle of the night to deliver a new calf or tend to a sick lamb. There must be nature in the man for the beast, nurturing in the human for the non-human.

Through its relationship with man, the cow has been transformed into a carefully programmed “product” in the food chain. Where once the cow was man’s most valued companion from the natural world, now its value in some nations depends on removing it entirely from this world. It has lost its sentience, it seems, in the minds of those involved in the industrial process.

In the west, the break with farm and butcher is nearly complete. As consumers, we buy most of our meat from supermarkets, packed and sealed. Sometimes it is dyed with red colourant to make it more appealing, or injected with water to add extra weight. Few children have seen farms other than on television, or in a bedtime storybook. Most people have never seen a slaughterhouse or a cattle carcass. When we are so alienated from the living source of our food, it is perhaps inevitable that the next step is to cut out the cow altogether.

Limousin cows in their cowshed
 ‘All our cows on shall know the butcher’s knife. But I do not believe that the farmer sees cows only as beef’ … pictured, Limousin cows. Photograph: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images

In 2016, the BoyaLife genetic research group opened a facility in China to produce cloned cow meat. They have already cloned a Tibetan mastiff dog. They say this technological solution is needed to meet the increasing demand for beef and other meat products in the Chinese market. This development brings a host of new ethical dilemmas, but also social questions. Are we prepared to consign the farmer to obsolescence? Are we prepared to end the 10,000-year story of man and cow?

There may well come a day when cloned meat is available in the supermarkets of London and the delis of New York, when steaks are grown in labs and test tubes from stem cells. But we have a choice over whether we want this future.

And yet, even as some manufacturers are taking these radical steps towards an artificial future, other farmers are following an alternative path. The organic and grass-fed movement has allowed a small group of growers and farmers to survive corporations, conglomerates and cloners. Organic beef or grass-fed beef may be more expensive to the consumer, but the beast has had a better life, one free of housing, confinement and stress. We raise them to die, but they live a life of peace and nature. Our way of farming here in Ireland – our family’s way of farming – may be seen as a backward step, but it is a way in which the animal can live with dignity, and in which the farmer has retaken the old and respectful role of custodian of the land and the environment for the next generation.

By John Connell

Source :

The Guardian

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