The award-winning dairy farmer talks cows, shows and after-parties!
by Gill Sherry
When Hugh Kennedy attended a dairy show on 11th March, the last thing he expected was to come home with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I was down at a dairy show in Carlisle, just spectating,” Hugh tells me. “I was standing round the ring. The show had stopped for a wee while and somebody was announcing something. The folk in the middle had cameras pointing to me and I’m thinking, who’s having their photos taken? And then they announced it. I didn’t know a thing. My son and two daughters-in-law knew, but they never told me so it was a complete surprise. It was really something else.”
He was presented with the John Dennison Lifetime Achievement Award that same day. Established in 2013 in memory of well-known farmer, John Dennison, it is awarded annually in recognition of the dairy cattle breeder or exhibitor judged to be a high achiever and exemplary role model.
I ask Hugh how it felt to receive the award.
“John died young,” he says, referring to this friend John Dennison. “He was a top breeder and a hell of a nice fella. He was great company and a good laugh so that made me even more proud to be winning when it was his award. It was awarded in the ring at the show with an audience there, so it was really something special.”
When I ask about his own contribution to the dairy industry, he responds with a modest but humorous reply.
“I’m better known as being the village idiot as being somebody who’s due an award!”
He continues with a more serious evaluation: “I’ve been farming and interested in cattle since I was 15 years old. I’ve showed Ayrshires and Friesians and Holsteins throughout my life.”
As a second generation farmer, Hugh was always destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. Now, after more than half a century of breeding and showing cattle, he looks back on his career with great fondness.
“I never had a notion of doing anything else. I’ve been through tough spells,” he admits, “but you’ve really got to be dedicated and love it or you shouldn’t do it. It’s got to be in your heart.”
I ask how things have changed in the last fifty years.
“It’s different altogether, modernised. There’s more machinery, it’s more technical, and there’s more bookwork which I don’t like. I like the physical side of farming and the dairy cattle. Working with animals is my favourite.”
This preference extends to both showing and judging cattle.
“I really enjoyed winning,” he says proudly, “and I enjoyed the company and the after-show parties.”
The pleasure in his voice is unmistakable, the memories of those parties still entertaining him many years later.
“The big shows are very professional now. You’d get professionals to get the animals ready at the big shows. For the local shows, it’s just a hobby, you do it yourself.”
I imagine Hugh clipping and grooming his cattle in preparation for a show. Could it be the animals were better presented than the farmers themselves?
“Aye,” he laughs, “especially on the road home!”
Home, incidentally, is the family farm near Tarbolton.
I notice that Hugh tends to jump from present to past tense when referring to his farming career. So has he actually retired?
“I still help out a little. I still go to the farm every day, just to do what I can to help.”
And he’s still judging too.
“I’ve judged cattle in Ireland, Germany, England and Scotland. I have the honour of judging the interbreed at the Highland Show this year,” he confirms. “That’s all the different breeds, the champion of champions in the dairy industry. I’m looking forward to that.”
After such a long, rewarding career, I wonder if Hugh has one significant highlight?
“I’ve enjoyed it all. Last year we won the West of Scotland Super Six, that was six cows. There were 27 entries and we won it. That was big! In the same year we won the Herd Competition for the West of Scotland. And in the same year, we won Super Cow for the West of Scotland, so we had a very successful year. I went out on a high!”
Hugh also shares the story of a bittersweet experience from December last year.
“We sold the herd just before Christmas. I had two sons. One of them, Jim, was in partnership with me. He died about four years ago. We kept the herd going with my daughter-in-law but it was getting too much so we sold the herd at Carlisle. It was sad but we had a very successful sale and tremendous support. So it was sad but it was good.”
They still have two or three cows, though, hence Hugh’s reluctance to fully retire.
Mention of his son, Jim, prompts Hugh to acknowledge other valuable support.
“Winning the award was mainly due to the support of my good wife, Ruth, who has milked cows, fed calves and helped with the running of the business for the last 50 years. Also my family – Bryan, Don, Liz and our dearly missed son, Jim, who was an integral part of the business and much loved for his 46 years of life.”
And his gratitude extends still further: “On behalf of Ruth, Bryan, Don, Liz and our family and friends, I’d also like to thank the business and farming community for its support of the Jay Walk in memory of our adorable grandson, Jay, which has raised over £90,000 for charity.”
Jay tragically died of brain cancer at just 20 years of age. Sadly, he won’t get the chance to follow his own dreams. For other youngsters, however, Hugh has this to say: “You’ve got to work hard and make a job at everything you do. If you’re not going to do that, don’t start. Farming’s not a job you should do if you’re not interested in it.”
That’s pretty good advice from a man who has given his life to his trade.
“It’s given as much, if not more to me, as I’ve given to it.”
It’s a humble response, and I can’t help thinking that John Dennison would be very proud of his friend, Hugh Kennedy.