Our first litter by natural service

After a number of unsuccessful attempts at artificial insemination with the pigs earlier in the year, we decided to try natural service instead and we borrowed a Tamworth boar for a few months.

When he arrived we quickly found that he was very relaxed and easy to work with, so that was one big worry dealt with right at the start. As he is from the Royal Standard male line, we decided to call him Stan during his stay with us.

Stan enjoying his food

Early in September we introduced him to his first lady friend was Fifi and, as the title of this update suggests, Stan must have got to work immediately. As a result, about 15 weeks later we moved Fifi into the shed nearer the house so she’d have a week to adjust ready for farrowing.

Our pigs are mostly outdoors all the time and seem to prefer the freedom that gives them. However, Fifi soon settled into the idea of being housed indoors especially given that the weather was so wet around that time.

From late afternoon Christmas Eve I was fairly sure that something would happen in the next 24 hours if not sooner. With this in mind, I turned on the heat lamp in preparation and settled down with a cup of tea to keep an eye on her.

At about 11:30pm I decided that I should get some sleep for an hour or two but when I checked her again at 1pm she had already safely delivered 9 piglets – 6 girls and 3 boys. This was her second litter and she had the same number as last time which is a good result.

While there were some slight differences in size between the piglets, there were no obviously smaller, runty ones and none were much bigger which might have meant they were able to bully any smaller ones.

A lovely Christmas present

A great result even if it did mean a fair bit of lost sleep for me overnight but luckily Christmas day was a fairly quiet affair and watching the piglets always cheers me up!

A few days later it was time for Stan to head back home, he should have served Esther (in October) and Sissy (in November) as well so he work here has been completed.

Thankfully he was impeccably behaved right up to his departure and loading him into the trailer for the journey back home to Gateshead was a simple process. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t bother to stick his head into the farrowing shed and check on his new offspring or their mother. I suspect his mind is already more focussed on the next lady friend that’s been lined up for him.

Stan loaded and ready for departure

4 years just flies by

In our area, there is a 4 year regime for cattle TB testing as a result of the generally low incidence of the disease here. It’s still a theoretical possibility that they might test positive but it’s fairly unlikely.

When our Dexters had their first ever bovine TB test in Dec 2016/Jan 2017, the event didn’t go too smoothly. As a result I was keen to make sure that this time everything was a little less stressful – both for the cattle and for me!

Over the last 4 years we’ve learnt a lot about the nature and behaviour of our cattle which makes it much easier when handling them. It’s still not a precise science but at least we are more likely to get the outcome we want these days

As it turned out, I got nearly all of them penned first time with just Ruby acting up initially. However this was easily resolved having spent some time recently getting her halter trained. It was just a matter of a bucket with some treats to occupy her while I slipped the rope halter on then led her into the pen where the other were already tucking into some hay.

All penned and ready for the first visit

The first visit last Friday involved 2 injections in the neck for each of them – one injection is Bovine TB and one is Avian TB – along with a quick calliper measurement of the skin thickness at the injection site.

Apparently the idea is that when the vet returns 3 days later, they can assess the injection sites on each animal to look for a reaction. The idea is that each animal should have less of a reaction (i.e. swelling) where the Bovine TB was injected than they do from the Avian TB.

Ruby demonstrating where the injections are done

In the end, the second vet visit on Monday went really smoothly with the whole herd happy to be penned in ahead of time while waiting for the vet to arrive. After getting checked they soon got the all clear and as a reward for good behaviour some more treats in their feed trough

Everyone is happy to get TB testing done

Rain + Pig = mud

On Friday morning we awoke to find a couple of inches of snow had fallen and settled too which was a slight surprise. It wasn’t quite cold enough for it to stay though and it rained occasionally for most of the day so everything turned first to mush then fairly quickly into mud

For most of the livestock this was not a problem, the cows obviously wanted extra hay delivered but that’s not a problem. They are really placid these days and always happy to see me arrive with a fresh bale

Their big moment is coming next weekend when we have our 4 yearly TB test booked with vet visits on Friday and Monday. I suppose there’s always a chance they might have it but we’re in such a low risk area that it’s very unlikely. I’ll still keep fingers crossed though…

We had more pressing activities to handle this weekend. In recent weeks, Esther has been re-enacting some examples of 1914-1918 trench warfare in her pen and the excess of water soon had a predictable result.

Top of the list of jobs for Saturday was to prepare her a new pen and get her moved into something more pleasant. She doesn’t usually have any particularly special requests, just a room with a view and plenty of fresh bedding which I think we managed fairly well

A scenic view across the East Allen valley

Once she made the move into the new pen she seemed happy enough and was soon testing out the house herself!

Esther loves her clean, dry house

A long overdue update

Despite working from home for the last 6 months and hardly ever leaving our holding, it seems to have been impossible to find the time for a blog update.

There are always a number of other tasks that seem to be more important or an unexpected event happens which throws any plans that had been made into complete disarray.

I’ve decided that the best way to initially catch up with blog updates is simply to review one set of events from the last few months. So here’s a general update covering our small herd of Dexter cattle

Calving

Our second cow – Nellie – calved on 14 June without any problems as usual and produced a healthy bull calf that we’ve named Sylvester (or Sly for short). That was an unusually long gap between calves for us with Daisy calving over 2 weeks earlier but we’re just glad that it all went well

Ike (R) and Sly (L) in June 2020

Once the calving is out of the way my thoughts always turn to hay making and I’ve learnt in recent years that the weather can become a bit of an obsession at this time of year.

Hay making

It’s hardly surprising that hay making becomes such a focus when you consider that we’re trying to organise a whole winters worth of feed for the cattle. Luckily our neighbour has all the relevant equipment and expertise so I just need to supply the physical side of things after the baler has finished

Turning the hay in July 2020

Thankfully all went well and we eventually got over 200 small bales safely into the barns with a number of others used as payment for delivery and collection of the bull we hired this year.

Hiring in the bull

The bull arrived in August and had visited our cows previously but was significantly larger than before so he’d put some effort into growing over recent years

He’s a nice calm chap known as Glen but being quite a size and having horns means that I tended to give him plenty of room.

Glen and Ruby his first love on arrival

On arrival he immediately followed Ruby around for a few days so, all being well, I’m expecting her to be first to calve somewhere around the end of May next year

When it came time to load him up for his departure that was also a good time to apply calm cattle handling measures rather than run the risk of an accidental injury!

Hoof trimming

And finally, to complete this update, we come to the hoof trimming in September. This isn’t needed very often but seems to be required about every 2 to 3 years when we find both Nelly and Daisy start having problems with the length of their hooves.

Being outside all year round means they never walk on hard surfaces which might help to wear their hooves down. However it’s a painless process and doesn’t take too long to complete.

Seven years in and loving (nearly) every minute

It’s hard to believe but we’ve now been on our smallholding for 7 years. These days it’s much harder to picture our old suburban house or even the work involved in packing up to move here in May 2013

Hopefully we are becoming better custodians of this place as we go along but there was a lot to learn. Even just understanding the management of the land never mind working with livestock for the first time or adapting to rural life in general.

Our upland hay meadow
Our upland hay meadow in 2013

That’s not to say that this “smallholding journey” has been without problems over that period. There have definitely been moments when I wondered why this seemed to be such a good idea at the start.

Some of the highlights include

What’s not to like about being able to watch as Daisy gives us a healthy new calf just a couple of days ago? Although after the ear tagging this afternoon I’m not sure Isaac is too happy with me now!

Barely 2 days old and pierced ears already

And there have been a few memorable low points along the way including:

Despite those lows, we wouldn’t have missed all this for the world. It’s been a steep learning curve for us as complete beginners. The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is to view any difficulties or setbacks as part of the bigger picture. There has to be both positive and negative aspects to fully experience the smallholding lifestyle so it comes with the package.

Sometimes we reminisce on how our lives used to be, this is usually followed by some laughs at the contrast to our current lives. We’ve been very lucky with this journey so it’s important to me that we continue to move onwards and upwards for the future

Calving with native breeds

One of the reasons we originally decided to get pedigree Dexter cattle was because they are a native UK breed. This means they are well suited to the British climate and able to live outside all year round even here in the North Pennines.

However, as they’re always outside that means they have to calve outside as well. This has previously gone smoothly for us and we try to ensure a late spring calving so the weather should be better.

As luck would have it, this has been a really dry and warm spell so last Friday evening was the perfect time for Daisy to calve. I’d barely switched off the computer from the day job and her behaviour started to change which is always a strong indication.

She managed the whole thing completely unaided as always although I had to watch closely because the whole process fascinates me. Even though we’ve had 9 calves before over the years, there is something special about it.

Isn’t nature wonderful?

Daisy has great mothering instincts and the new born calf immediately got properly washed all over.

The next challenges for the new born calf are getting on their feet and suckling for the first time. It is important that the calf gets to suckle soon after birth because the first milk has lots of antibodies and nutrients that they need for a good start in life.

Thankfully these events all happened relatively quickly and smoothly so we can be sure that this is a healthy calf and he’s got the best start possible

Figuring out how to get to the milk

Before you know it, the mother and calf are wandering around the field as if that’s nothing unusual – apart from the curiosity of the other members of the herd of course.

This is a bull calf and, with some assistance from social media users, Daisy eventually decided on the name Isaac or Ike for short. The initial letter “I” being a decision we made some time ago so he follows on from Elvis, Frank, Garry and Hattie

Learning to moo for the first time

First litter for Fifi – from start to finish

Very reasonably in my opinion, Fifi farrowed during the afternoon on Sunday 8 March which definitely beats sitting up all night for a 4am farrowing as we’ve had quite often in the past.

She produced 9 lovely Tamworth x Berkshire piglets (8 boars and a single gilt) with very little trouble. From that point right through until weaning just over a week ago now, she has been an excellent mother with apparently endless patience and plenty of milk.

Her litter really thrived with her and enjoyed their time out in the woods until eventually at about 7 weeks old it was time for weaning.

Fifi and litter exploring in the sunshine

Since then Fifi has happily settled back into a slower pace of life in a shared pen with Sissy in a fresh part of the woods.

Once they had been weaned, her litter were sold on to new homes and they even behaved impeccably when loading them into the trailer for delivery. This makes them probably the most successful litter we’ve ever had.

All grown up and leaving home

As is usual with pigs, once the mother is weaned you can be sure that she will come into season again within about a week. With this in mind, I decided that it was worth repeating the Tamworth/Berkshire cross-breed with Fifi again almost immediately.

Who’s the daddy? Barlings Lassetter 1899 apparently

Now there’s just the small matter of waiting 3 weeks to confirm that Fifi is definitely in-pig and if she doesn’t come into season then that’s another success for my pig AI skills! I could use an AI success again given that my last attempt with Sissy has apparently failed.

Once it’s been confirmed that Fifi is in-pig then it’s another 3 months or so before she farrows again which should be around the end of August.

Given the fact that we sold out of our latest batch of pork boxes in a single weekend, I have a feeling it may have been better to keep a few from her litter. On the other hand, it will be good to have reduced numbers for the next few months. With outdoor reared pigs it’s essential to rest the land used from time to time to avoid any build up of pests and diseases.

Most of the empty pig pens have now been reseeded with a specific seed mix for pigs. This is a grass based mix which also has things like kale and turnips added which is great for foraging pigs! It will be really interesting to see how well that does in the future.

All stages of pig breeding in one weekend

The past weekend has been a major entry on my calendar for some time because a number of fairly big events were scheduled.

However looking back on it all now, I realise I hadn’t fully appreciated that nearly all stages of pig breeding were involved – artificial insemination on Sissy plus a new litter for Fifi and also 3 meat pigs heading off to the butchers.

Fifi farrows for the first time

Fifi had all week to settle down in the farrowing shed and was getting closer to farrowing so we started final preparations on Sunday morning. This just means gathering the various things we might need at short notice once it all starts. If there are problems then we don’t want to waste time hunting for something crucial that might save a life.

By lunchtime things were clearly moving fast and over the course of the next 2 hours she rapidly farrowed 9 piglets with remarkably little trouble given this was her first litter.

They’re now almost 2 days old and all are still doing well. Almost up to the psychological (and non-scientific) 3 day point when I can start to believe they’ll all survive.

The most important first hurdles have been passed though – getting milk from their mother, finding the heat lamp and getting plenty of sleep!

Sissy AI

After the rather worrying time during the last farrowing for Sissy we’ve decided to try getting her back in-pig as soon as possible.

Another AI for Sissy

Once separated from a litter at weaning, a sow will come into season again within a week.

As usual, this meant careful planning to make sure I could be around to do this, ideally at a weekend. Also it meant timing the order for supplies so they arrive at the right point – it only lasts for about 5 days

In the end it all seemed to go well with the 3 AI attempts spread out over Friday and Saturday. As often happens, at least one attempt was a bit of a disaster but the other 2 appeared to be fine.

We’ll know for certain in about 3 weeks if we don’t see Sissy coming back into season – another future entry in my calendar!

Meat pigs to the butchers

To round off the weekend, there was a trip to the abattoir on Monday to take the first 3 meat pigs. This is never a great day but we always keep things as calm as possible for the pigs.

Having been born and raised here on our smallholding, they travel less than 30 miles in the trailer which all helps.

Considering the nationwide problems with smaller abattoirs closing due to the costs of regulations these days, we’re quite lucky to have something within a decent distance.

Locked and loaded for the trip

The pork from this batch has already been sold out in advance via social to a combination of our loyal regular customers and a few new ones as well.

Once we get the meat back next weekend, we’ll know for certain whether there is any left available or, in the worst case, if we’ve over sold it ahead of time.

There will be another batch of 3 meat pigs heading off in about 6-8 weeks time so anyone who missed out this time won’t have long to wait. We’re also hoping to get a little more bacon from the next batch – we don’t often have bacon made because the pigs needs to be kept quite a bit longer but it’s nice to have it every once in a while.

As well as being some of the finest pork available (according to me at least!), the pork sales help cover the costs of keeping all the pigs on our holding so we’re always very grateful for that.

And off we go again

This weekend was weaning time for Sissy and her small litter of 2 piglets so the farrowing shed became the piglet shed just for one night. In the morning Sissy moved back to the woods for some peace and quiet while the piglets enjoyed a hearty breakfast without having to share it with mum

Tamworth piglets at 2 months old
Tamworth piglets at 2 months old

They’re off to their new home now (at Wilde Farm if you’re interested) and it’ll soon be time for us to see whether Sissy comes back into season as expected or not.

Although it can seem a little soon, the fact is that a sow will come into season around 5-7 days after her litter have been removed. It’s not an exact science so we’ll need to keep a close eye on her over the next week or so just to check

The current plan is to try the AI again with Sissy when she comes into season so that she has another litter during this year.

In the meantime, the shed has now returned to more normal use with Fifi moving in this evening in preparation for farrowing in about a weeks time.

Fifi enjoying her supper in the shed
Fifi enjoying her supper in the shed

Since the only Tamworth boar available as AI at the time was actually her father, this litter is an experiment with crossing 2 rare breeds – something we’ve not done before.

The AI used was from a Berkshire boar so I’m really curious to see what the piglets look like when they’re born.

I can still remember doing the AI with Fifi and, if I’m honest, it really didn’t go very well so I’m pleasantly surprised that she’s in-pig at all. That may mean a relatively small litter in the end but it’s impossible to tell at this stage.

Watch this space for further piglet developments in about 7-10 days!

A tough couple of weeks

Now that some time has passed since my initial worries for Sissy during the first week or two after farrowing, it seems a good time for me to summarise the events for future reference

Sissy farrowed in the early hours of a Monday but seemed to have a difficult and long-winded farrowing with only 2 live piglets in the end. A couple of days after that she still hadn’t got her old appetite or her personality back so on the Friday we called in the vet in to check her over.

Just not her usual self…

Although there was no specific problem diagnosed and her temperature was roughly normal, the decision was made to give her some medication as a precaution. These I believe were her first ever antibiotics as she’s never had anything before and she also had some hormones to help in case her body wasn’t adjusting properly after farrowing.

I was left with a follow-up injection of antibiotics to be given a couple of days later so that I could be sure she’d received the full course of treatment. We also made the decision to get in some fruit and veg for her in the hope that would stimulate her appetite over time.

Carrots (and apples) work wonders

By the middle of the second week she was clearly making good progress (as were the piglets) and she was often happy to take short trips outside with her tiny companions.

At times during this period I did wonder if she had just been trying it on because she was happy for an apple, carrot or tomato but would then ignore her normal pig feed. Suspicious behaviour but I gave her the benefit of the doubt…

Exploring the outside and clearing the unwanted moss

Last weekend was almost 2 weeks since farrowing and thankfully she is broadly back to normal now. She is a very attentive mother and always watches out for her litter but shows no aggression when we are around so that’s the perfect combination for a small scale pig keeper