In my opinion the very essence of the Dales is a field of cows chewing on the August fog. Cows are such peaceful, steady creatures. My fondness for them started in childhood, with my granddad and uncle keeping a herd of thirty on the farm in Upper Wensleydale.
Few mornings would be so cut through with seriousness as those when the farmyard would be sealed off so that the great bull could come out to serve the cows. Few sounds would be so pleasing as the pulsating of the overhead pipes in the shippon at milking time. Few tastes would be so good as the fresh milk.
But the cows went in 2007, after granddad died. They weren’t worth all the work. Many dozens of farms in the Dales have also gone out of milk in the past generation. You need to look a bit harder for the cows now.
They are still here, though. In fact, they are here in herds of a size which would stagger my forbears. One such herd is run by Jonathan Caygill at Manor House Farm near Rylstone in the south east of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. He is one of the farmers featured in the outstanding “Voices From The Land” exhibition at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes.
Jonathan has around two hundred Holstein Fresians and sends milk, every day of the year, to Dales Dairies in Grassington. He really knows a thing or two about cows. When the Voices From The Land team visited to interview him and take pictures, the conversation took a fresh turn when he stopped to listen to one of the cows expelling muck.
“If I feed my cows right,” he said, “then what will come out the other end will be right. I can hear – I don’t even need to look at it. And I want to know if it’s not right and why it’s not right.”
Voices From The Land tries to capture the day-to-day practices of Dales farmers, and it is hard not to be struck by the organisational rigour of today’s farm businesses. Jonathan needs to have thirteen tonnes of food available each day, which takes a lot of planning. Supplying milk every day of the year means calving all year round. The farm uses a carefully timed schedule of artificial insemination so that each cow becomes pregnant about 85 days after calving, so that they can produce one calf a year. The recent, astonishing development of sexed semen means that the cows are producing female calves, which is more efficient for the business.
The cows are kept inside – in a suite of well-aired sheds – for ten months of the year. People might be “shocked” about that, Jonathan said, but the cows are happy inside because they are so well cared for.
What comes across abundantly clearly in Jonathan’s interview is his dedication – indeed his “love” – for his trade. Why not visit the museum to hear the full story?
Voices From The Land features audio recordings and photographic portraits of about 40 farmers from across the National Park. It is on show at the Dales Countryside Museum, which re-opens after a winter break on 1 February, until 26 March.
**This blog post first appeared as a column in the Yorkshire Post on 20 Jan 2018