Most farmers would have kept one or two dairy cows for their own use, while for others dairying was the main activity on their farms. The Millikens, who farmed near Whitehead, milked 50-60 cows, but most dairy herds were considerably smaller than this. Sixteen cows would have been considered a large herd.

The dairy industry experienced huge changes in the middle decades of the twentieth century, both in terms of technology and cattle breeds. One of the most significant innovations was the introduction of automated milking machines based on an electrically-powered vacuum pump system. By the early 1940s the Robsons were milking 12-15 cows and Billy recalls the introduction of an automated system.

Billy Robson remembers the introduction of automated milking

I can just remember the milking machine being installed. … I think the first milking machine in the byre was installed about 1941 or 1942 which made a tremendous change to the labour required for getting the milking done. … It was a tremendous innovation getting the milking machines.

What facilitated this switch to an automated system on the Robson’s farm was the fact that they had electricity installed around 1936-37. At that time the electricity was made by a small company in Ballyclare called Currans. Billy’s parents believed that electricity would be useful to them, especially for the incubators for hatching chicks, and so when the line was brought to Doagh, they had it extended along the Burn Road to their farm. On the Millikens’ farm a windmill provided the power for the milking machine, though they also had a stand-by engine for when there was no wind. Those without electricity continued to milk by hand.

Mary Moore describes milking on her father’s farm:

We had no milking machines – we had no electric. … If there was two or three of you milking eight or ten cows it was good fun … maybe the auld cow would put her foot in the bucket and spilled it, but you just got up and went on with it.

Around 1950 the Stevensons at Thorndyke, Doagh, moved over to dairying and built one of the earliest milking parlours in Northern Ireland. For Willie there was ‘nothing as good as the milking of the cows, for you knew when you started in the morning, and you knew when you started in the evening, and you knew when you finished.’

Willie Stevenson talks about their first milking parlour:

We started to milk and had a lot of heifers of our own to get started. We put in a milking parlour – we started right off with a milking parlour … everybody thought we were mad. Then the cows had to run loose to get self-fed silage and we had to take the horns off them all. We had Ayrshire heifers with nice-shaped horns and they had to come off – everybody thought we were clean away! But that was the only way you could keep them. The milking parlour was a great success. They came from miles to see it. The cows had to walk in and then walk up two steps – they got used doing that.

A major change in the dairy industry was the introduction of Friesian cows. One particular cow that Billy remembers was a red and white Friesan that his father had bought as a heifer calf for £8. The cow was named Diana and she lived to be 18 years old and at one time was producing 11½ gallons of milk a day, at a time that other cows would have been giving 5-5½ gallons. Because of her colouring many people mistakenly thought that she was an Ayrshire. Diana was shown around the country and won many awards. The Millikens also moved over from the Shorthorn to the Friesian, but around 1952 gave up milking altogether after John’s father had a heart attack. Thereafter they concentrated on beef.

Billy Robson explains the changes in cattle breeds and the dairy industry:

In those days through the war, the traditional breed was based mainly on Shorthorns … Immediately after the war the Ministry of Agriculture said that the cattle population of Northern Ireland need an injection of new blood – there was a lot of very poor quality stock in the country. They encouraged farmers to import dairy shorthorns from England. My father brought several in starting I think about 1948 and that was built up over the next 5–6 years. The milking ability of these cows was not what they expected. The Friesian breed had come into the country in the late 20s/early 30s and they had a reputation for producing more milk so there was a gradual change I think from about 1951/1952 on from the Shorthorns to the Friesians.

The milk on the farms usually went to the local creamery. A common sight for those who rose early in the morning was the milkman making his rounds. For a while Mary Moore’s father did this. Derek Lorimer remembers the way milk was delivered: ‘They were mostly pony and traps and they had a couple of churns of milk on. It wouldn’t have been in bottles. You went out with your pint can and they would have filled it for you.’ The milk cart was one of the last horse-drawn vehicles that Brian McKenna remembers in Whitehead. For some time Graham Andrew had his own milk run. As he and others pointed out the milkman has all but disappeared from our roads.

Many farms made their own butter. Greta Milliken recalled that on their farm there was an apparatus for churning the butter driven by horses walking in a circle. Later an end-over-end churn was used and later still an electric one. There was a well in one of their fields which produced ice-cold water which was used for steeping the butter. Once made the butter was sold from their home or supplied to grocers. Greta recalls that one customer wanted his butter unsalted.

Every farm had a few pigs’, notes Billy Robson, ‘and actually nearly every cottage house in the country the man would have had a sow or maybe two sows and sold the small pigs off.’ Pigs were generally killed at home on the farm by a peripatetic pig butcher. Hugh Pat Boyd was well known in the Toome area as a pig butcher. Mary Ann Higgins that a pig killed in the winter would have provided them with bacon for most of the year. Nothing was wasted. Roisin McLernon’s recalls her mother making black pudding. The Gribbins had a place at Anahorish called the Slaughterhouse where they killed and cleaned out the pigs.

Mickey Gribbin talks about killing pigs:

These boys reared pigs until they were ready for killing and they had a place up in Anahorish called the Slaughterhouse. Roddy was the butcher for the most part. … There was one end where there was a boiler and it boiled water and the water was then put into a submerged bath. And the dead pig was dipped in that until they were sure that it would shave off. Then it was hauled off on to a platform and scraped clean – they all had gutty knives and wee pouches for them. Then it was put on to a hook and chain and put on to a rail – in the slaughterhouse there were several rails. And the pig’s inside was cleaned out. Then it was washed down and it was eventually taken to Belfast.

The liver would have been taken to the local priest as a gift. The Slaughterhouse appears in Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Anahorish 1944’ in which he wrote:

We were killing pigs when the Americans arrived
A Tuesday morning, sunlight and gutter-blood
Outside the slaughterhouse. From the main road
They would have heard the squealing,
Then heard it stop and had a view of us
In our gloves and aprons coming down the hill.

Now the slaughterhouse is the base for Anahorish Preserves Ltd, founded by their nephew Malachy.

Billy Robson points out that there was a revolution in the pig industry in Northern Ireland in the 1950s. The traditional Northern Irish pig was the Large White York. There was also a Large White Ulster breed which became extinct. In 1953/4 some farmers began to introduce the Landrace breed from Sweden, which was a superior pig. Around 1955-56 the Robsons bought a few Landrace sows and it was not long until all their pigs were Landrace. Today there are probably only around a third of the pigs in Northern Ireland compared with the early 1960s.

South Antrim Living Memories Project wishes to acknowledge the assistance of: