MEATH AGRICULTURE

From A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837

Farms are of every size from 2 acres to 3000: the small holders generally keep their land in tillage, and even many of the largest farms have but little meadow or pasture: yet, there are many large grazing farms, and some of the proprietors consider pasturage to be the most profitable system of agriculture. On the banks of the Boyne and Blackwater, the land is mostly in demesne or pasture; to the east of Navan, most of the land is under tillage, and toward the western border of the county it is nearly if not altogether so. The farmers who hold from 50 to 100 acres are a very industrious class, working harder and faring little better than the common labourer. In the treatment of the soil the general principle, arising from the great depth of vegetable mould, is, that the deepest ploughing is the best tillage: the turning up of fresh earth possessing vegetative powers hitherto dormant is deemed to act as powerfully as the application of manure on the surface.

This process, to be effective, must be done by degrees, not turning up the utmost depth to the surface at once, but penetrating deeper from year to year, so as to allow the new earth to be gradually and moderately blended with that already subjected to cultivation. Instances have occurred of the luxuriance of the soil being so great that the labour and expense employed upon the first few crops was useless, the plant running wholly into straw and lodging: the same richness produces an abundance of weeds, so that he who keeps his land most free, and at the same time friable and pulverised, is deemed the best farmer, and most of them proceed no farther in the improvement of their grounds. A summer fallow is considered absolutely necessary, at stated periods, to eradicate weeds effectually, every attempt to cleanse the ground by green crops proving utterly inefficient.

The succession of crops for rich ground is potatoes for two seasons, followed by three crops of oats, and after a season's fallow, wheat for one crop, again followed by three crops of oats and a fallow: when land has been exhausted by bad management, the fallow is resorted to every fourth year. The crops commonly cultivated are, wheat, oats, barley, bere, rye, clover, flax, and potatoes. Considerable benefit is thought to arise from a change of seed even between neighbouring baronies; and the use of a pickle either of water saturated with salt, of chamber-lye, or of quicklime and water mixed thinly together, is universally deemed essential to the securing of the expected wheat crop. Flax is generally sown in small patches for domestic use, but seldom cultivated largely for sale.

The crops less common are turnips, vetches, rape, peas (both grey and white), beans, cabbage, and a little chicory. Turnips are only met with on the farms of gentlemen who unite tillage with grazing, and are sown mostly for feeding sheep. The culture of vetches has been long partially practised, particularly in the neighbourhood of Drogheda, being chiefly used as winter-feeding for the working horses, for which purpose they are cut before the plant is quite ripe, and made up and given as hay. Grey peas have also been sown for many years, throughout the county, upon poor gravelly soils and sometimes upon clay: they are invariably allowed to run to seed, and then pulled with a crooked stick, bound in sheaves, and housed when dry, to be either threshed at leisure and the straw used as litter, or given to horses without being threshed, particularly in those parts where meadow is scarce. The barony of Duleek is almost the only district in which beans form part of the staple crop, and even there they are raised in small quantities only. Cabbages, chiefly the large flat Dutch, are found to succeed well; but the expense of transplanting and the difficulty of protecting them from depredations have excited great prejudice against their general introduction.

The quantity of land applied to green crops and artificial grasses is comparatively small, in consequence of the vast tracts of natural grasses of the most productive kind; the depth and richness of the soil, and its tendency to moisture without being absolutely wet, causing it to throw up a sward of nourishing verdure unequalled in other parts; hence it is that grazing is so generally followed. All the old pastures produce natural grasses of the best kinds: graziers seldom direct their attention to procuring artificial kinds, from an impression that after three years the land will revert to its natural coating, though covered with other kinds when laid down.

The dry warm gravelly soils spontaneously throw up a luxuriant herbage of white clover, and lands of a clayey nature, when drained and manured with limestone gravel, exhibit a similar tendency. As cattle are considered to thrive best on grounds that produce the greatest variety of grasses, the main object of the farmer, when about to lay down land, is to procure the greatest variety of seeds of the best quality; others sow white and red clover mixed in equal quantities, without any hay-seed, from an opinion that the land thus treated will throw up its natural grasses more luxuriantly the third or fourth year, than if sown with hay-seed.

The marshes of Rosmin and Emla, on the Borora, are the only wet lands of sufficient extent to claim special notice, though there are others of smaller size scattered through the county, which, being mostly improved by draining, are chiefly applied to rearing young cattle. Those of Rosmin and Emla are nearly in a state of nature, and are covered with water during winter from the overflowing of the river: in summer they throw up an immense crop of grass, which is greedily consumed by horses.

The land held by small farmers is badly fenced, but on the lands of the gentry and large farmers, the fences are formed of quicksets after the English method. From ten to twelve years after being first made, the hedge is either cut down or plashed and laid. Wall fences are very rare, though stone-faced ditches are not uncommon. The kinds of manure in most common use are stable dung, ditch-scourings, limestone gravel, marl, and lime. Meadows are manured either immediately after being mown or during the frosts of winter. Coal ashes are used as a top-dressing on clay meadows with good effect, as also are marl and limestone gravel. Much attention is paid to the breed of black cattle both for the butcher and the dairy; the art of fattening cattle is an object of principal attention with most farmers.

Early in May the graziers open their pastures for the stock to be fattened; for feeding is their principal object, as land bears too high a rent to admit of its being applied to raise stock: the cattle, after being bled, are turned out till they become fit for the butcher, when they are sent to the Dublin market, or sold at the neighbouring fairs. There are several graziers who fatten from 300 to 500 cows during the season, besides bullocks and sheep. A few sheep, generally pets, are occasionally pastured among the neat cattle, but the practice is condemned as injuring the "proof" of the beast, because sheep devour the sweetest grass, and it is the ultimate object of the grazier to obtain a character for fattening proof beasts that will "do well," a term applied by butchers to animals possessing a considerable quantity of inward fat. Beasts purchased in May are often fattened and sold before Christmas, otherwise they are fed during winter with turnips, potatoes, and hay.

Where distilleries are near, the bullocks are fattened on the potale and grains: these animals attain an uncommon degree of fatness, and are preferred by the butchers on account of their superior weight in proportion to their size; but their beef, though juicy, is not well-flavoured: it eats dry, and the fat melts before the fire or in the pickling tub. There are a few dairies of considerable extent, but the butter made in them is held in little estimation. Most of the farmers who occupy from 80 to 100 acres keep a few milch cows, the produce of which, after supplying the family, is sold; yet, from the want of nourishing green food in winter and spring, they cannot supply the market with milk and butter during the season they bear the highest price. Where potale can be procured, milk is plentiful but of inferior quality.

Few calves are reared on these farms: those that are brought up are fed on new milk for the first fortnight, and then on hay water, thick milk, and other substitutes. The draught horses most prized are of a light, active, yet stout breed, being a cross between the saddle and waggon horse: the number kept for agricultural purposes is in the proportion of one to ten acres. Most of the saddle horses are brought hither from Roscommon, Galway, and Sligo. Little attention is paid to the breeding of sheep. Pigs are not so general as in most other counties. Orchards and gardens are seen around some of the smaller farm-houses and cabins. Bees are kept in large numbers in several districts, and poultry is most abundant and cheap.

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