Farmers facing up to a decline in dairying one hundred years ago

MEMORIES JUNE 21 RI Farm

ALMOST one hundred years have passed since our dairy farmers found themselves going through, using the

vernacular, a bit of a handlin’! Yes, FarmWeek reader, this week we are putting the spotlight on what we in the Memories from the Farmyard team have termed … ‘The Dairy Industry’s Big Handlin’ of 1919/20’.

So, let’s wind the old Memories from the Farmyard clock back almost a century to that time when it was becoming apparent that the dairying industry was in decline. Farmers were struggling to make money from their few milking cows and as such switched the emphasis to beef, pigs and crops.

Labour was in short supply, feedstuff costs were rising, milk prices were remaining static and against this background since around 1915, production was decreasing.

But there were other factors behind this volumetric decline as well. At this time increasing numbers of farmers were swinging to the Shorthorn breed and seemingly favouring those beefy-type bulls, the daughters of which would hardly produce enough milk to colour your tea! Something needed to be done in these days before partition, and as such, the old Department of Agriculture set about addressing the conundrum. In November 1919, a committee was appointed to conduct an enquiry on ‘The Decline of Dairying in Ireland’.

The members of this ‘talking shop’ or rather ‘investigative committee’ were Mr BH Barton, DL, Mr RN Anderson, Mr Patrick Bradley, Mr Thomas Duggan and Mr AR Lockett. A decision was made to hold a series of five sittings during that month of November 1919 (see details alongside).

Newspaper notices were taken out, inviting people wanting to express their viewpoint regarding the apparent decline in our dairying industry to these specially arranged meetings. Much of the discussion at each of these meetings was duly reported in the provincial newspapers and perhaps, almost 100 years on, it may be interesting to hear the thoughts of our cow-milking forefathers, back in the day when our milk production was falling.

It all kicked off in Belfast City Hall when the first man up seemed to have a bit of a go at laying the blame on farmers! This was Mr Hugh Dales, an official from the Department of Agriculture who blamed farmers for being too slow to take up milk recording and too quick to ship good cows out of the country. Given that said official was a big noise in the recording business, perhaps those farmers gathered would have been heard muttering, “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he!”

Anyway, having got the whole milk recording thing out of the way, Miss Perfect, owner of the Rathturrett Dairy, told the committee she had commenced her dairy business in 1907 and was currently milking 30 cows. Having furnished the committee with figures showing the increased costs of feeding stuffs and labour, the admirably-named Miss Perfect demonstrated how difficult it was making money with milk retailing at 8d per quart.

Continuing along this theme, Mr WR Morrow of Knock on the outskirts of Belfast provided the committee with more data. He was milking 40 cows and pointed out that on average across the year, it was costing him 3s 10d per day per cow. His milkers were giving between 600 and 700 gallons per year and with present milk prices, Mr Morrow stated that ‘he was working without getting any salary’!

Studying these figures, a somewhat caustic committee member stated: “You have done what I never saw done before – you have made your income exactly balance your expenditure,” continuing on a sarcastic vein that “by producing milk without a farthing of profit Mr Morrow deserved the highest public appreciation”.

Mr RW Henry of Newry District Farmers told the committee how he’d been in the dairy business for 25 years and was of the opinion that the decline in milk production had fallen more sharply in the past five years.

Citing difficulties in obtaining labour, he stated how farmworkers had to work twelve hours a day for less money than workers in other businesses doing a mere eight hours. This aspect was later touched on by the great founder member of the UFU and pedigree Kerry breeder Mrs Robertson of Dog-leap, Limavady, who at a later meeting ‘took the stand’ to state that “farmers’ wives and daughters did not take as much interest in milking as before”.

When it came to discussing breeds at some of these 1919 gatherings the general consensus seems to have been for Shorthorns rather these ‘new-fangled’ Friesians. When Mr Alexander Cameron of Cookstown came to speak, he pointed out that the Friesian breed had its own share of bad milkers and urged farmers to get into the right strain of milking Shorthorns. Mr Cameron, it should be pointed out, was a well-known breeder … of Shorthorns.

We have, of course, just brushed the surface of all that was discussed at each of these four 1919 meetings into the ‘Decline of Dairying’. Having listened to those at the sharp end of the milk business, the committee retired to consider its findings. Eight months later, in August 1920, it was reported that the ‘Department of Agriculture had issued an admirable report prepared by the committee of the Decline of Dairying in Ireland’.

Given the fact that we are running out of space, we in the team are unable to go through the report with a ‘fine tooth comb’ but rather will take something of an overview.

On the subject of milk recording, the committee recommended that farmers come together to form cow testing associations across the country, and ‘vigorous propaganda’ was needed to promote the whole practice of keeping milk records on individual cows. Regarding labour, the committee recommended the creation of better understanding between dairy farmers and their workers, and ‘that a conference take place between representatives from both parties’.

Regarding the breed of cattle on the Emerald Isle, the committee expressed the opinion that ‘the improvement effected in the beef-producing qualities of Irish cattle by the bulls selected for premiums … had been achieved at the expense of their milk yields’. Shorthorn bulls from milk strains were needed to affect change, was the committee’s opinion.

Well that’s an all too short overview of the Dairy Industry’s Big Handlin’ of 1919/1920. Since that time through most decades those involved in our dairy industry have gone through a series of challenges which brings us up to the present with this whole Brexit ‘thing’ … now here we have a big handlin’ if ever there was one!

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