This is the first page republishing a series of articles written by local farmer Derek Little ( note the lovely play on words in the title!) for The Stillington News. Derek farmed at Ravensdale Farm near Stillington and has now retired.
Our thanks to Derek for allowing us to copy these very interesting retrospectives on 20th Century farming.
As we enter the final year of this century it may be the time to look back over the last hundred years and see how agriculture has developed.
Farming, like any other industries, relies on electricity for a larger part if its workload, especially with office,machinery and milking equipment.
At the present time there is an over production of home grown food such as lamb, beef, pork and cereals. This is due in part to an increase in production over the last decade, to BSB and to the housewife who has a far greater choice of food imported from all around the world. Farm prices today have fallen back to 1985 values.
Let us hope that incomes will return to a more realistic level soon.
As the weather turned colder killing a young sow would be part of the pre-Christmas activities at the farm at the turn of the century. The sides and hams were laid down in salt petre for several weeks before they were hung from the rafters or hooks in the ceilings somewhere cool.
The week before Christmas poultry plucking began - ducks, geese and chickens - with all the family involved, sitting around a large tin bath into which went all the feathers to be used for filling pillows and eiderdowns.
There was always the odd brace of rabbit and pheasant hung, which was probably given as a present to a friend or relative who had helped out over this busy period.
Farms were self sufficient, producing all their own food except for flour and salt. This was usually bought in the town after the farmer had first loaded the horse and trap with surplus produce such as eggs, butter, turnips, poultry, rabbits, pheasants and, quite often, tied a cow, stirk or even a bull, behind the trap before setting off to the local market.
Farms were mainly sown down to grass, only between a quarter and third was under the plough. There was a lot more woodland and wet land in the early part of the century: drainage was ridge and furrow, or dykes dug by hand. Then came horse shoe clay pipes which lasted right up into the 1930s. Then came the square, clay pipe.
Crops of wheat and barley oats yielded 4 or 5 cwts per acre. Turnips and mangolds were grown for cattle feed.
Breeds of cattle were mainly Shorthorn or Hereford. Ayrshires came down from Scotland in the 1930s. Each area had its own breed of sheep; pigs too had local breeds but were mainly Large Whites.
A tradition that has almost died but was a very important part of farming life in the 20s and 30s is First Footing, on New Year’s Day. To be a ‘Lucky Bird’ you must be male with dark hair: not fair or ginger, you had to be dark.
Stock couldn’t be fed or cows milked on New Year’s Day until a dark boy, or man, had crossed the threshold with a piece of coal in one hand and a sprig of holly in the other. He must knock on the door and say " Lucky bird, lucky bird, may I come in?" This, it was believed, brought the farmer and his family good luck and good health for the rest of the year, but the lucky Bird had to make an early start and the more houses he went to the more gifts he received; home made cakes, scones etc.
Horses worked too - but never on a Sunday.
From the turn of the century to the late 1930s the heavy horse, the Shire and the Clydesdale, worked the land on most farms. From leading muck out into the fields and tipping it into heaps to spread by hand; also to ploughing, harrowing and harvesting: they were all the jobs the working horse had to do.
The Heavy Horse was never harnessed for work on a Sunday. It was observed that this day indeed was a day of rest so the horses got a day off. The animals were still to be fed and watered and the milking to be done. You picked up the three-legged stool, tied the cow’s tail to its leg ( so you didn’t get a flick in the face) and proceeded to milk the cow. On a frosty morning at 4.30am it was the warmest job of the day.
The growing season
Corn was sown at the end of April and into May, followed by drilling mangold, planting potatoes and turnips. Grass seed was broadcast into the barley crop and lightly harrowed and rolled six weeks after sowing the crop.
The fields had been ploughed in the Autumn and left for the frost to break it down in readiness for the Spring, with one field left fallow each year. A different story today when a crop is harvested and most drilled within a few days.
Probably the first contracting job on the farm was threshing the corn from round stacks situated close to the buildings. The first machines were built in the 1860s and were driven, and moved, from farm to farm by steam engines - large cumbersome machines which took a day to move from one farm to the next.
The driver and his mate started at 5.30am to be ready to start threshing at 7am. A lot of water was needed to have enough steam for the day's work.
A minimum of 26 men were needed to feed the machine, re-stack the loose straw and carry the corn into the granary. All these men had to be fed for the day ( no packed lunches), the women from nearby came to help the farmer’s wife and she in turn helped them.
I still remember the story of a farmer leading his men into dinner at 12pm, all sat around the table. He carved the meat off a large ham and the ladies served up the vegetables. After the pudding and the farmer had finished he stood up and everyone had to follow him out, whether they finished or not.
This was repeated on the Tuesday, same ham (it was a large ham!). One man said he thought it was going off. However next day it was the same ham on the table, the men could hardly face it. After dinner, as they followed the farmer out, the last man stuffed it under his coat and dropped it in the swill bin by the pig sty.
Next day the men were looking forward to their dinner and as they sat down, to their surprise, the ham had returned!
To Farm Machinery
Steam Engines and threshing machines moved from farm to farm from the early part of the century right up to the late 1930s when petrol driven tractors came on the market followed by tractors that started on petrol then switched over the T.V.O.; all had to be started with a starting handle (no electric starters).
The first tractors had iron wheels like the steam engines. Later the rear wheels were changed to spade lags: these were iron spikes that dug into the ground for a better grip in wet conditions. When taken on the road a metal rim was fitted to keep the spikes off the surface of the road, otherwise the tarmac would have been badly damaged. Within a few years rubber tyres were fitted to the old and new machines.
Threshing machines, however, lasted for many years. A lot were built in the 1920s-30s and were still in use in the 1960s when the first of the trailed combine harvesters became available.
Easter Week, a very important time in the Christian calender, as we look back at the first half of the century travel was not so easy. Horses and tractors were not yoked up to the plough on Good Friday, for instance: animals were still to be fed, but the land had to wait.
Easter Sunday attendance was probably higher than today bearing in mind that people had to walk to church: if you lived on farms in the Dales you may have had to walk 2,3, or even 4 miles across fields, stiles and streams.
Each village had its own vicar (more or less) with a morning service, a Sunday school in the afternoons and Evensong. So if you attended two of these services you covered a few miles in the day. People thought nothing of it, not many had their own transport, walking was a way of life: going to the shops, visiting a sick neighbour, and let’s not forget a night out at the pub for the menfolk!
Easter Monday, a day when the children would look for a small hill to roll their coloured hard boiled eggs down.
This was the time of year that poultry began to lay their eggs. It wasn’t always easy to find a broody hen to hatch off the chicks. One alternative (not often used!) was to place a few eggs beside someone who was bedridden, just until a broody hen became available!
Another price reduction for farmers this Spring. Since 1997 the price of milk has dropped from 24/25 pence per litre to less than 11p.
Since the government decided that the Milk Marketing Board was a monopoly the MMB has closed in favour of a ‘free market’ with farmers having the choice of who to sell their milk to. In the first two years the price of milk rose until things settled down and the dairies reassessed their position, since when the price has gradually come down.
The MMB was brought into being in 1938 due to the poor incomes that farming had in the 1920s and 30s: for the first time farmers had a regular income - a budget to enable him to run a farm business. For over 30 years the MMB served the dairy farmer well. Prices were never high but they were steady and reliable. Now things seem to be uncertain again.
In the early days of the MMB farmers had to take their milk to the nearest rail station and when more farmers went into milk lorries picked up the milk churns at the farm gate. Churns were used right into the 1970s when they dismissed in favour of bulk tanks.
Free school milk for every child was introduced pre 1941 when I started school. This third of a pint continued up into the 70s. Milk is a complete food, at only 4% fat and 3.5% protein it is a must for all ages.
Dairy Cattle of Great Britain 1900 - 2000
Dairy Shorthorn (Derhams)
These cattle, as we know them today, were developed in Britain. It is more than likely that bloodstock from the ancient Viking Shorthorns, as well as Dutch and German cattle, was imported as early as the first century AD. There are many different versions of shorthorns in different areas of Britain and North Western Europe.
Our local breed, North Dairy Shorthorn, which were housed in byres up to World War II, lost favour to the Friesian. Since then the numbers have declined and the breed is now registered in the Rare Breeds Trust. They are brown in colour and have better milking qualities than other dairy shorthorns.
The Ayrshire breed is lost in history: it is known that the Ayrshire forebears were improved, particularly in the eighteenth century, with Shorthorn and West Highland cattle. Ayrshires are a widely distributed breed and are exported all over the world. They have been overtaken in numbers during the second half of this century by Black and White breeds. Average yields are 6,000 @ 4.1% fat and 3.5% protein.
Dutch Friesians have been imported to this country for many years. The British version is somewhat larger, deeper and more angular than the Dutch type. It is a dual purpose animal with the bull calves being very suitable for the barley-fed beef units of the 1960s- 80s. However they too have been overtaken - by the Holstein.
The Holstein was imported from Holland to the USA in the nineteenth century and bred into larger animals with even larger milk yields and a long lactation period which is in demand throughout the world. It was first imported into Britain during the 1970s and has become the leading breed of dairy cattle.
These animals are famous for the high butter fat content of the milk they produce. They adapt well to different conditions and different varieties of food. Average yields 4,000@ 5% butterfat.
There is a population of about 2,500 on their native island but in Britain there is only a handful of herds, the most notable being near Harrogate. This provides milk for Brymor Ice Cream, which is sold all over the North of England. This breed has a lactation average of 5,000@5% butterfat.
Go to A Little Look Back...Some More for parts 7-11.