Meet ace Arklow dairy breeders Garry and John Hurley


Garry Hurley with his Friesian herd.
Garry Hurley with his Friesian herd.

John Hurley traces the decisions which make his family famous back to an old man he met many years ago at the RDS in Dublin, a Mr Kelly from Drogheda.

The ambitious young Arklow farmer was considering setting up a pedigree Friesian herd at the time and looked for advice from the veteran who told him: “You might never see a pedigree herd – but your sons will.”

As it turned out, John has lived to enjoy a long retirement, surrounded at home in Clonpaddin by countless rosettes and trophies from innumerable cattle shows as he relishes life in his nineties.

He still keeps a knowledgeable eye on the enterprise which he built up on sticky, marly soil north of Arklow Town and which is now run by two of his sons, Garry and Patrick, who have made it a legend in dairy circles.

Back in 1954, John had just 21 cows, the start of a business that has grown with investment and hard work to boast 130 of the finest cows in the country. The current spread extends to 150 acres in the townlands of Clonpaddin and Coolmore, within close earshot of traffic on the busy M11 running between Arklow and Wicklow, with a further 100 acres rented.

The Hurley family has been in Coolmore since John was six or seven years of age and Clonpaddin was added when he was a teenager.

The decision to specialise in milk production in the fifties was a big call, requiring money reluctantly prised from a sceptical bank manager: “He asked me if I was mad!”

The years since have suggested that he was, and remains, very sane indeed as Clonpaddin has become synonymous with good milk and great breeding. John and wife May reared a family of nine on here, a brood who recall the days when the ten or twenty gallon churns were left at the end of the lane for collection by Premier/Hughes Brothers Dairy.

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Among the nine is Garry Hurley, well remembered as a member of the Wicklow football team which ran Dublin to within a point in a championship match in 1981. Long retired from the sport, 58 year old Garry recalls that he left school at the age of 16 in 1976, without a trace of regret.

The teenager’s ambition was to kick ball and work on the farm with the cattle – they were always the star of the show for him. Rather than seek to pass examinations, he began to apply his intelligence to making the stock in Clonpaddin/Coolmore the best possible.

Working with his father, the policy from the start of his agricultural career was to put all the energy and all the finance into the animals and not the machinery.

They claim to still have two tractors from the seventies still in harness for daily hauling and dragging.

The milking parlour is of similar vintage, though they concede that the time is fast approaching when a more modern unit must be installed. At the time that Garry began to cultivate his interest in breeding, there were no rosettes displayed at home and no need for a trophy cabinet.

The herd was decent but far shy of pedigree status, with a strong British Friesian line exhibiting the classic black and white markings, crossed with shorthorns. Friesians are the smaller cousins of the giant Holsteins which are superstars of the dairy world, big animals capable of remarkable milk yields.

The Hurleys conceived an ambition to make the move to Holsteins when Garry was a young teenager. The first representatives of the breed arrived the early seventies when breeder John Codd provided some high class calves.

“We started aiming everything towards pedigree. It was always the ambition to have a pedigree Holstein herd here,”remembers Garry, though this was not a move made lightly. “It takes six generations to go from British Friesian to Holstein – that is twenty years.”

The effects may be illustrated in terms of output. In 1975, back in the Friesian days, any Clonpaddin cow which gave 900 gallons of milk in a year was considered a high performer. In 2018, the Holstein average is well in excess of 2,000 gallons. That tops 9,000 litres, the equivalent of 24 litres a day. Anything less and the unfortunate under performer is likely to be shown the farm gate…

Garry and his father both retain memories of the first rosette, brought home when the younger man was 12 or maybe 13 years of age, so it must have been in the early seventies. The occasion was the Tinahely Show, that great festive summer celebration of country life, which had a class for cattle led by children.

“I still remember that calf,” says Garry. ‘She was a heifer and we had picked the quietest one on the farm. I led her around with bailer twine.’ Also competing was his sister Frances, the siblings driven to Tinahely by John who was worried that they might not make it to the show field intact.

“We had a poor trailer,” the father laughs looking back to simpler times. “I thought the calf would fall out.” It is a considerable step up from such happy adventures to the heavyweight commercial undertaking which has put Clonpaddin on the world map.

Holstein is a province of Germany but the Hurleys were looking west across the Atlantic rather than east to Continental Europe as they set about establishing the breed.

Canada has a reputation as global leader in the field so Garry was packed off to Toronto in Canada in 1992. His mission was to buy cows at a sale near the city where Lot 56 immediately appealed to his stock judging instincts

Unfortunately for the nerves of the Irish visitor, Lot 56 came up for auction near the end of proceedings.

There was a risk that he could be out-bid and left empty-handed after travelling thousands of miles to attend. Happily, he secured the cow in question and she was brought back via Shannon Airport to serve out her days on the land in Co. Wicklow. The journey to Toronto was repeated in 1994 and this time two more cows were added to the Clonpaddin herd.

“Canada was fifty years ahead of us back then as regards breeding,” muses Garry who has clearly learned from the masters.

“The gap is not as big now but they are still ahead.” Bridging the gap has become easier with the introduction of techniques which allow Irish buyers to import calf embryos rather than full grown beasts.

These are implanted in surrogate mother cows, so that a very ordinary female may give birth to a young specimen with some of the best genes in the business. The scientific approach is also hotly pursued too through artificial insemination which allows Garry and Patrick select semen from the very best of sires for their cows.

The bulls may reside in the UK, Germany, Italy, France, the US, Switzerland, Canada or wherever. Each of these handsome fellows is promoted with glossy brochures. The brothers skip past the immaculately posed pictures to study data on milk yields, buttermilk content at the likes.

Such attention to technical detail led them to fancy a Canadian cow which was sold to a rival Cork breeder in the 1990s. The Wicklow men had to bide their time until 2003 when they were able to purchase a grand-daughter of the original, prophetically christened Fame.

Farmers are not usually sentimental in dealing with their charges, but Fame is allowed special privileges though her breeding and milking days are now over.

At the age of 15 she remains part of the herd, still basking in the glow of a career during which she garnered her share of individual All-Ireland awards while also passing on her precious genes to her calves: “She is an ornament now.”

The stars of the show ring have a busy time of it August, with Piltown, Virginia and Tullamore all on the calendar, the latter attracting attendances which top the 60,000 mark. Mill Street is pencilled in for October while Balmoral in Belfast is a regular destination in December.

“We do it for the publicity. You don’t have to win – it’s what you sell out of it,” says Garry who has come a long way from a rickety trailer and a length of bailer twine. Primping and shampooing a one tonne cow for a top class show takes many hours of preparation.

The Clonpaddin brand is not only recognised by Irish farmers but buyers from the length and breadth of Britain have also come calling. The Fame blood line is the premium product, with demand far outstripping supply. The most prized cow only had four calves but her embryos were farmed off to surrogates to increase the stock.

“I have always had a good way with cows,” ponders former footballer Garry Hurley. “It has been a passion for me.”

These days he spreads his passion and his knowledge as a judge of Holstein across Europe, travelling as far as Portugal to adjudicate – but he always comes home to the routine of milking in Coolmore/Clonpaddin.

Wicklow People

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