A Farmer's Vacation, 1873: Guernsey dairy farming

From Scribner's Monthly Magazine, X (5) September 1873, later collated and published as A Farmer's Vacation.

The fields are not more than one acre and a-half in average size. They are divided by large embankments of earth, on the top of which furze is seen grow ing luxuriantly; this furze is used by the country people for heating the oven for baking. At the field entrance you will rarely see gates except on property belonging to the higher class. Very many field entrances are to be seen with only a bar placed across to prevent cattle from entering. The arrangement of farm-buildings is very much the same as in Jersey, the cider-press being less frequent, as there are not so many orchards.

In the dairy, very important changes are noted. The same narrow-mouthed milking can is used, but the cloth and shell which in Jersey are universal, are here unknown, and the method seemed to strike some farmers to whom I mentioned it as a curious novelty. There is, too, an absence of tidiness (according to our ideas) in the processes of the milk-room, which was a curious novelty to us. The milk is poured into tall earthen-ware jars (like the oil-jars of Ali Baba) set in a cool place, and there it stands, untouched, until churning day. In the principal dairy that we visited, the cream on the older milkings was much wrinkled and cracked, and was covered with blue mould. The dairymaid, who seemed quite proud of her butter and well she might be made light of this, and said it was nothing unusual, though she did not like to see it quite so far gone. The churning is done once or twice a week, in an enormous vessel of curious cooperage—a broad-based monster of iron-bound staves which retains its size for a considerable height, and then narrows rapidly to the dimensions of an ordinary churn. Speaking from recollection, I should say that that some churns we saw would hold sixty gallons. The dasher is quite the same as the old-fashioned sort in use with us, and not larger.

The entire contents of the jars are poured into the churn—loppered milk, cream, wrinkles, mould and all—there to be beaten with the dasher for hours and hours. The churning takes never less than two and a half hours, and generally nearly twice as long—sometimes nearly the whole day. I could account for the undeniably good quality of the butter resulting from this process, only on the supposition that such long working in the buttermilk removes the taint one would expect to have attacked the cream during its long standing on sound milk, and under more or less mould. Guernsey farmers maintain that only by this process can they get all the butter from the milk; one would think that a slight loss in this respect would be preferable to the expenditure of so much labour. Whether the milk of Guernsey cows, fed on the grasses of their native pastures, would make better butter if only the cream were churned, we could not learn, being told that the process was nowhere employed. Churning the whole milk is universal in Guernsey, yet the custom has never crossed the narrow strip of sea and found a place in Jersey. Verily, the people of these islands are tenacious of their old traditions—and one may here say, of their old cows.

The Guernsey cow is as different from the Jersey as is the Devon from the Ayrshire, or the Short-horn from the Dutch, and (without the operation of legal prevention, which keeps foreign cattle from being brought to either island) the races are kept distinct. No one would use a Jersey bull in Guernsey, or a Guernsey bull in Jersey; the cows which are now and then transplanted are regarded as intruders of an inferior order, and their progeny is excluded from competition at the cattle shows. There can, however, be little doubt that less care was formerly used in this respect, for there are to be detected, among the herds of both islands, traces of an old blending of bloods, which has apparently done no harm in either case. The races are now quite distinct, and their improvement, in both islands (which is constant and considerable), is strictly within the lines of pure breeding. As a class, the Guernsey cows are not pretty, either in form or about the head, but they are unmistakably good farming cows. They are larger than the Jerseys (which is not necessarily an advantage); they are deep milkers; and they are a very high-colored race (which is an advantage). The prevailing color is a rich fawn with much white usually laid on in broad patches. The muzzles are buff, and the eyelids are almost yellow. The horns are usually amber-colored,, and under the white hair, wherever it appears, the skin is of a bright orange that is only exceeded by the golden yellow of the inside of the ear. The un-usually rich colour extends to the milk and especially to the butter, which is the yellowest I ever saw. It is also of firm texture and of fair flavour.

The cows, when they dry off, fatten very easily, and, being larger, they make heavier beef than do those of the sister island. The oxen, when taken from their work, feed remarkably well; the four prize oxen of 1872 turned out an average of 1,144 pounds of butchers meat, the average age being between six and seven years. This quality is surely an important one, yet it may easily be overestimated. One of the last things a farmer should consider in deciding on a cow for butter-making, where his profit depends on her product while living, should be the amount of meat he can make from her when dead. A very slight difference in the average daily produce during eight or ten years, would make up for a very wide variation in value for the shambles.

While the Guernseys are perhaps a shade the most promising for the butter dairy, the Jerseys are close upon their heels, and they are so much more taking to the eye, that any slight difference in butter and beef would be more than compensated for by the more saleable character of their calves, even in the eyes of one’s farmer neighbours. Le Cornu says: ‘It is an open question whether the cows of Jersey or of Guernsey are the best. The Guernsey cattle are the largest of the Channel Islands breed, but for symmetry, the palm is awarded to those of Jersey. The former does not vary so much in colour as the butter, but it is usually red and white. It is the custom here also to tether cattle when out. The produce may also be said to average the same, for, although the greatest rivalry on this point exists between the farmers of both islands, on investigation it will be found that the accounts of produce correspond. The fattening of oxen is carried on here to a certain extent, and it may be computed that one-sixth of the supply (of meat) is fed on the island. One of the great properties of the breed is that it will fatten rapidly, and produce meat of excellent quality.’

The country people of Guernsey are industrious and thrifty. Even the labouring class make it a point to accumulate enough money to build a home on the shred of the patrimonial estate that has fallen to their lot. ‘There are, perhaps, no people who rise earlier, or retire to rest later, than the native farmers of the Channel Islands. It is not uncommon to hear of their being at work in the morning before four o’clock, and yet seldom is it that they take their rest before ten at night.’ The question arises whether it must not be an exceptionally unexhausting climate where so little sleep is needed, and where men maintain almost youthful vigour to a very great age. We went, one afternoon, down into a beautiful narrow valley—a cleft of verdure opening out toward the sea - to look at the prize cow of the year. The owner, who lacked only three months of eighty, showed the ladies and our friends an easier way around, and led us down a difficult, steep path that ended with a jump of some feet. The cow (which was probably the best cow, all in all, that we ever saw, and which had the head and the form of a Jersey, with the rich colouring of her own race) was young and sportive. The old gentleman had his hat knocked off in the struggle, and was nearly thrown, but he finally caught her nostrils and held her fast. I proposed that we should return by the longer way, but he scoffed the idea, saying he was the youngest man in the party if he had lived the longest, and he went back like a boy, by the way we had come. I would be glad to compromise on such physical and mental vigour for my sixtieth year. At his snug stone house he took great delight in showing us a gold medal awarded him at the Paris Exposition for the best Guernsey cow exhibited there.

Large stories are told (some of them authentic) of the productiveness of the cows of this island. Ansted cites the statement of Mr. F. Carey, of Woodlands, Guernsey, that the average annual produce of five cows on his land has been 1,680 pounds of butter. This is 336 pounds per cow. These cattle are said to have been fed in the ordinary way, and to have been milked three times per day.