Today has been a busy day for the island farmers. The Ministry Vet (government approved vet) has been over for routine testing of cattle for various diseases accompanied by a man from “The Department” – a government department official to check that farmers records are up to date and correct. There are seven farms or crofts on Graemsay but only five keep kye (Orkney word for cattle), some only keep half a dozen, others keep over 120. All the kye on Graemsay are bred for beef, as the logistics of dairy farming on the island are prohibitive. It is coming up to the busy season for the farmers as most of the coos (Orkney name for cows – but you’ve worked that out for yourself…) were put to the bull last summer to begin calving from about February onwards.
The kye are overwintered indoors in byres, fed twice daily on cattle “nuts” (pellets) and silage (grass that is cut and wrapped immediately in black plastic so that it ferments slightly making it ideal winter food) and of course mucked out. In Orkney farmers bring their cattle stock indoors about October time and will release them onto the land again about March. The timing is determined by the weather – cattle can make a real mess of a field if the ground is too soft, which destroys any decent pasture. That’s one of the reasons that the cattle are brought indoors. Plus there is little natural shelter on Orkney as the landscape is low lying.
The kye spend all summer outdoors, the coos with their calves, the younger stock which is being fattened up for selling on, and of course the bulls. I have a small field (about 3 acres) behind my house which is used for summer grazing by one of my neighbours. I love seeing the cows and calves out of the window. The calves all get together and race around the field just like kids in a school playground. Or they hang around the water trough not unlike teenagers hanging around the sweetie shop after school.
Each year farmers will send off stock to the local Mart in Kirkwall. Cattle have to be individually crated up and winched onto the ferry. They are then shipped over to the nearest town, Stromness, where they are transferred to a lorry and taken to the Mart. (Vegetarians – stop reading now!) Most are sold on to other farmers who “finish” the stock by feeding them up before sending them to market for slaughter. The brand name “Orkney Beef” and “Orkney Gold” are apparently proving popular in the South of England. One prize animal from Mainland Orkney ended up at a butcher’s shop in Guernsey in the Channel Islands a couple of years ago!
And where do we get our milk from? Well the supermarket of course –most of the Orkney grocery shops sell milk produced in Orkney, as well as a lovely array of Orkney cheeses and my favourites – Orkney Fudge and Orkney Ice Cream!