Two years ago, Eamonn McDonagh made a decision. For a long time, he had used horses to help him work the land, but he had grown tired of their flighty temperament. He was searching for alternatives. So he took inspiration from the depths of agricultural history, and decided to turn instead to the robots of the late Neolithic period: cattle.
Back then, farmers used oxen as a labour-saving technology to plough and till the soil. (An ox is a castrated male over four years of age, of any breed of cattle.) Cattle are strong, willing to work, intelligent - and at the end of their lives, they're a nutritious source of protein. They were the tractors of their day; a farmer with a team of oxen could cultivate swathes of land in a few hours. For a farmer like Eamonn, setting his small herd to work was a tantalising option, so he decided to give it a go.
Eamonn grew up in Moycullen in Connemara, where his family had a small, self-sufficient dairy farm with a couple of sheep and horses. They relied on animals to help work the land. When other farmers around them were favouring diesel tractors as a way to farm, they clung on to the biological relationships offered by livestock.
"We had a working donkey," says Eamonn. "We’d have been the last family working an animal and milking a cow by hand when that way of life was dying out."
Eamonn and his wife, Geraldine, now live on her family’s farm outside Kilmaine in Co. Mayo. The farm was given to her grandfather by the Irish Land Commission in the 1950s. "All the land was divided up - the farmers got 30 acres each," he says.
Their farm is sectioned into small 2-acre parcels of gently rolling fields which are bounded by stone walls. The soil is fertile but scarce; there's about 6 inches of it, but it’s more than enough for Eamonn to commercially produce organic vegetables which he sells to a wholesale buyer.
Eamonn’s working ox is an auburn-coloured shorthorn called Harry. He’s a fine beast of an animal - small, solid and thickly-set - with broad shoulders, and a neck so wide that you’d need arms as long as a gibbon’s to embrace it fully. Harry can be 'a bit moody at times", says Eamonn, but generally he’s a gift of an animal who works hard when asked.
Harry spends his days and nights with his small crew of bovine friends, and each one has a name given by Eamonn and his 12 year old son, Séimí. "Fred is a year old," says Eamonn in the cattle shed, pointing towards a mini version of Harry who is chewing the cud on hay.
"He’s being trained at the moment, he’ll be an ox as well." Eamonn then gestures towards the rest of the herd and lists off their names: there’s Doll, who is trained to work with the plough when she’s not milking for the house; and Fifi, Trixie and Sammy.
There’s not much difference between the boys and the girls - they both are effective in the harness - but Eamonn is sensitive to the particular needs of the females to get a break from work. "They’ve enough to do, with milking and giving birth," he says. Eamonn cares for his animals like a mechanic minds a top-class engine. It makes good sense to treat them extremely well.
His impressive collection of old machinery - it may be called ‘vintage’, but it plays an essential daily role in the life of his farm - is as important to his enterprise as his working animals. "The machinery is basic, well designed and built to last," he says, adding that it’s vital for him to be able to fix all his machines himself, without relying on others.
Once harnessed to the animal, the machinery can plough and harrow the land; sow seeds and dig out stones; spread manure and carry hay and logs. None of it uses diesel - it’s all run on cattle power.
His animals are trained from about a year, but the emotional work begins when they’re calves. His herd is very small - he has eight animals - and they’re all well used to his attention. They don’t flinch when he strokes the top of their heads with his hands (they like a good scratch in places they can’t reach, he says) and this serves them well when Eamonn is training them for work. "You do a lot of handling them at the beginning," says Eamonn. "They don’t seem to forget once they’ve trained up."
The commands are simple: "left", "right", "walk on" and "back". If they’re too eager, a ‘whoa’ will stop them in their tracks, just like a horse. "Once they have the five basic commands, you can basically do anything with them," he says.
The ropes are attached to their head collar and travel down along their bodies. Eamonn stands behind them with a rope in either hand to guide them along. Harry is so used to it that Eamonn barely needs to tell him what to do. Together, they become one.
It’s in the woods that Eamonn’s oxen come into their own. He has planted thousands of trees on about 8 acres of his farm, and he harvests wood to fuel his home. Using Harry for the heavy-duty job of pulling logs out of the wood means that Eamonn has no need for forest roadways, and he avoids the damage that heavy machinery can do to the soil and forest floor.
"You can see how close the trees are – you won’t get in with any machine and the wetness," says Eamonn. A soft day is no impediment to work; Harry will splash through the soggy ground without a stumble. "I find the ox a steadier animal in these scenarios," Eamonn says.
Working with cattle is a low-cost way to make money from the land, but it also chimes with Eamonn’s deeper sense of the role of farmers as being stewards of the land; people who are self-reliant, light on the soil, and willing to utilise their many skills to ensure they have full control over what they do.
"I like the independence of it. It’s environmentally friendly and you don’t rely on anything - you don’t need oil or diesel," he says, pointing out that cattle can do anything a tractor can do. "We’re organic farmers here. We’re not using artificial pesticides, we’re trying to protect the environment. If you pollute the water, you’re polluting your own water. The animals fit into that way of thinking, I think."
It’s a slow, purposeful, attentive life. Eamonn cannot press an accelerator to speed Harry up; the animal will dutifully work at his own speed - lifting logs, harrowing the soil, spreading compost on the land to boost fertility and pulling cart-loads of hay. Eamonn doesn’t want to rush the animals because he values their efforts. "It’s only slow if you’re in a hurry," he says.
Eamonn’s approach to farming isn’t about nostalgia or romance. It’s about using methods that have served farmers well for thousands of years to make money from the land, while maintaining a good quality of life. For Eamonn, a working relationship with his livestock - first horses, now cattle - is the central part of it.
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