Another successful calving for the Dexters

In the end my rough calculations weren’t too far off and Daisy eventually calved at about 4pm last Saturday afternoon. We had kept a close eye on her and quite by chance went down to their field just to have a check during the afternoon.

When we got there we could just see the tips of 2 little hooves protruding so we knew that we’d timed the visit perfectly. It was just a question of waiting a few more minutes and then I got to see my first calving having missed others in previous years.

Definite signs of imminent calving

Definite signs of imminent calving

Very calmly she wandered over to a quiet corner and laid down. She was apparently oblivious to the fact that she’d picked the area with quite a few stinging nettles but maybe that was deliberate to keep me away!

The result was a healthy looking bull calf that we will be calling Garry. There’s no special reason for the name other than we wanted it to start with a “G” but after a day or so we decided he looks like a Garry so that’s settled.

The rest of the herd gathered around to take a look and to admire the newborn. However Daisy was always on hand to tell them to back off if they got too close.

Everyone wants to meet the new arrival

Everyone wants to meet the new arrival

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that, like the two previous calves from Daisy, with any luck Garry will turn out to be naturally polled (no horns). That would certainly mean one less job for us over the coming weeks.

After all the excitement, it was great to see the newborn up on his feet in no time and suckling well on his mother

Getting stuck in at the milk bar

Getting stuck in at the milk bar

Finishing last years hay and preparing for calving

By the end of April our small herd of Dexter cattle had managed to eat all the hay that we made late last summer. Over the last couple of weeks there has been some carefully planned movements between their winter fields because we had a family wedding lined up for the main meadows.

While they may have made an interesting addition to the wedding party, they don’t mix well with wedding guests so they were kept well away until after the event. Luckily we had some wooded areas with good grazing which they could move into temporarily.

Meeting the neighbours

Meeting the neighbours

We had originally stored around 380 small square bales of hay and at the time I was sure that it would last all the way through winter. However the tough snowy period through March meant that we got through our supply more quickly than expected.

In the end, we asked a neighbour to bring us just one large round bale of silage with his tractor so we could feed them through the last week or two and that did the job nicely. Yet another example where friends and neighbours can make all the difference so we’re always very appreciative of the help.

Daisy filling out before calving

Daisy filling out before calving

Based on notes I made when the bull was here last summer, I believe that Daisy will be the first to calve, perhaps even later this week. After that I’m hoping that Nellie will calve about 2-3 weeks later but this is all very approximate.

We’ll just have to let nature take its course and wait until they’re ready to produce. It’s times like this when we appreciate the fact that Dexters are an easy calving breed and they can be left to sort themselves out. We shouldn’t need to interfere but we’ll be watching closely just in case.

Once the wedding party clean-up had been completed last weekend, it was a simple matter of walking the cattle down to their new home. As usual they were more than happy to follow a bucket and since it was a hot day they weren’t in the mood for any rushing about.

A gentle afternoon stroll with the Dexters

A gentle afternoon stroll with the Dexters

Lamb update – 2 weeks in

Just over 2 weeks into our first attempts with keeping sheep and so far they’ve lived up to my perception that this is a fairly high-maintenance animal. I’ve tried to keep an open mind on the subject but with 2 lambs suffering from health problems in just 2 weeks it’s not been easy.

There has been slow progress with No. 9 (aka Limpy) and he still doesn’t put much weight on his left front leg. After a check from the vet last week then some further care and attention over the last few days he seems to be improving – just very slowly.

He’s always pleased to see me though but that might be because he knows that I’ll protect him from the chaos of the other 8 lambs while he feeds from the semi-automatic feeder. Life can be tough when you’re the smallest of the bunch and there’s a rush on at the food.

On a brighter note, Limpy was the first one to show any interest in our Dexter cattle and even went over to see them for a chat through the gate. I’m not sure who was more surprised by the meeting but they seemed to get on okay despite the size difference.

Limpy meets the neighbours

Limpy meets the neighbours

The most recent medical issue for the lambs was a swollen eye on No. 3 (aka Pus-Eye) who was also checked by the vet just to be on the safe side. As this is our first time keeping lambs it seems wise to get good advice when we’re not sure of something even though it’s not the most cost-effective way to raise livestock.

As you might expect this turned out to be a fairly simple infection with lots of pus (hence the name) and now that it has been treated everything is starting heal very nicely.

We’ve now become fairly well practised in administering injections on the lambs which at first was a little like trying to nail jelly to the ceiling. We soon got to grips with the best ways that worked for us and I realised that this is the first time we have ever needed to use antibiotics on any of our livestock – our pigs and cattle are apparently much more hardy and healthy animals

Swollen eye on No. 3

Swollen eye on No. 3

Now that the lambs are around 3 weeks old and we’re a little more used to keeping them, I can see some of the endearing qualities and the playful character traits. They are quite happy just running and  jumping around like a 4-year-old at the playground and the way they tug at your trousers like a toddler seeking attention is quite funny … but only for the first few times!

However all of this cute lamb behaviour is not so entertaining when it starts to threaten my raised vegetable beds which are just next door to their temporary outdoor run. Some emergency repairs were needed to the small low section of fencing after a number of the lambs decided to lean on and found that it collapsed.

Some unwanted help with the veg beds

Some unwanted help with the veg beds

Despite all the various troubles and uncertainty in just the first 2 weeks, I’m already aware that there’s a certain attachment developing and it’s already quite likely we’d try this again next year. At least that would give us more experience of the work involved and who knows, the next batch might not have any health issues at all – although I certainly doubt that

New arrivals and a new species

In recent months we have spent many hours telling ourselves that we had more than enough to keep us busy here. The pigs, cattle, chickens and our 2 bedroom self catering holiday let (plus my day job) are keeping us busy enough, not to mention the 3 cats making a mess of the house!

We had even developed the mantra “no more species” as a reminder in case we wavered at any point.

Somehow this careful thought all fell by the wayside and we have now taken on some orphan lambs from a neighbouring sheep farmer. This is despite my belief that sheep are too much like hard work and generally seem to be looking for a new way to die.

The idea was to raise a few orphan lambs through the spring and summer months so that we can find out what it’s like keeping sheep without much of the hard work like shearing or lambing – and hopefully none of the various ailments that sheep seem to get on a regular basis.

Only getting 8 so why is there a number 9?

Only getting 8 so why is there a number 9?

It was originally supposed to be just 8 lambs but when we went to collect them my better half had already picked out 10 as being suitable – presumably this was payback for my “mistake” when allowed out to buy pigs on my own a few years ago.

The deciding factor for me was that everyone else in this area keeps sheep so I should really try it myself to see what’s involved. Of course, it’ll be nice to have some home-grown lamb at the end of it as well!

We currently have 9 lambs penned in a barn with a semi-automatic feeder setup which will mean that we don’t need to bottle feed them at regular intervals. Number 10 was not quite strong enough yet so he’ll turn up later on. I’m just hoping that he doesn’t bring a couple more friends with him.

Happily suckling the feeder

Happily suckling the feeder

So far so good and they’ve managed to survive over 24 hours in the hands of two completely inexperienced beginners. Luckily the neighbour is fairly close by and will be able to help with some advice or assistance if that becomes necessary.

Second litter of the year

Despite getting up bright and early last Saturday morning, I was still caught out by the slightly early arrival of Sissy’s litter. According to my calculations she wasn’t due until that night at the earliest but apparently she had other plans and had done most of the hard work by the time I checked on her at 6:30am

First arrivals safely under the heat lamp

First arrivals safely under the heat lamp

However when I first tried to open the shed door I could see there was a single tiny, cold piglet well away from the heat lamp and blocking the door from opening. Luckily we have another entrance to that shed so I was able to get in and check whether it was likely to survive. At first glance I didn’t hold out much hope as she was hardly moving but being a lifelong optimist I felt we had to try.

The almost lifeless piglet was immediately named “Sick Note” and put into intensive care using our previously successful methods. It’s nothing fancy and doesn’t involve expensive equipment, just an insulated bag with an ordinary hot water bottle wrapped in a towel at the bottom because the most urgent thing is to warm up the piglet. If you can get that far then the next step is to get the newborn to suckle from the mother so they get the best start possible.

Life saving equipment for a piglet

Life saving equipment for a piglet

Within about an hour she was very obviously recovering and must have been stronger than I had originally thought when I first found her. Before long we were able to put her back in with the others under the heat lamp and by midday she was happily suckling alongside her litter mates as if nothing had happened (on the right below)

Feeding time for all 5

Feeding time for all 5

In the end it was a smaller litter than we had hoped with only 5 alive and 2 born dead but with pig breeding you have to take the rough with the smooth sometimes. Having saved one this time around I realise that it’s important to recognise the successes because they definitely help when dealing the inevitable tougher aspects.

Oh good! East wind and more snow

After the big snow fall a couple of weeks ago we thought we’d probably had the last of it. However as is often the case, there is generally a late burst here which catches people out. Even though the current snow isn’t as bad this time around, it would certainly qualify as a significant amount for any other winter that we’ve had here!

Our neighbours here in the North Pennines haven’t started lambing yet but it’s not far off so I’m sure they’re hoping that this is last of winter for this year. In our case, the Dexter cattle calve in late Spring/early Summer and the pigs usually farrow in a shed so there’s less worry with the weather.

Just as the snow started on Saturday, I decided that it was better to bring Sissy indoors a little early rather than wait then find it was too difficult due to drifting snow. There’s one good decision that I can be happy with at least.

Sissy is more than happy to get inside

Sissy is more than happy to get inside

This morning the feed rounds included a short burst of snow clearing as well just to get to the various sheds in our courtyard. Thankfully the snow is dry and powdery at the moment so any drifts are easy enough to clear with the snow shovel.

The problem is that the strong gusty winds just start to drift the snow again so that within 10-15 minutes any tracks I’ve made are already starting to disappear. This means there’s little point with making any major efforts to clear the snow until the wind dies down later today.

Digging my way to the farrowing shed

Digging my way to the farrowing shed

The prevailing wind here is generally from the west so this recent bad weather which features strong winds from the east is proving to be very challenging. Unusually for us, the east facing outbuildings have been getting snow blowing round the doors and drifting inside.

When feeding Esther with her 2 remaining piglets in the woods, it was clear that the drifting snow was causing problems. Their pig ark is carefully positioned to protect them from the prevailing winds but that means it faces east and the current snow can blow in.

New bedding needed to beat the blowing snow

New bedding needed to beat the blowing snow

The addition of another half bale of straw makes all the difference both for their comfort and apparently for entertainment value too.

The benefits of keeping native British breeds is never more clear than at times like these. They really don’t seem to mind the snow and cold wind just as long as we give them decent shelter with water and food at regular intervals

Thanks for the food and straw

Thanks for the food and straw

Weaning the first litter

About a week ago we brought Esther and her litter of 9 piglets into the pig shed to start the weaning process and in preparation for collection. At this stage they were just over 7 weeks old and had been on hard feed for a while so it was a good time to start.

This can sometimes be a tricky procedure once they’ve had a taste of life outdoors in the woods but this litter seem to be better behaved than some of our previous ones.

Room full of piglets

The initial batch of 4 piglets were collected first which left 5 piglets in the pig shed and therefore a bit more room at the trough for mealtimes. It can be very crowded around feed troughs with 9 mouths to feed even if we split the food between two troughs.

Bit more space at the trough

Bit more space at the trough

The remaining 3 weaners that we had sold were picked up a couple of days later and that left us with 2 to raise for pork ourselves. This was pretty much as we’d hoped before Esther had farrowed but you can never be sure in advance exactly how much interest there will be in weaners.

Esther and the remaining 2 that we’re keeping as meat pigs could then be moved back to the woods. This was very much appreciated by everyone because it means we don’t have to muck out the pig shed and they prefer live outside anyway.

Happy to be outdoors again

There is no time for us to rest though because we have to clean out the shed ready for the next litter which is due in a couple of weeks. I’m pretty sure that Sissy will be very glad to get indoors for a few weeks given the muddy state of her current pen

Clearing out the pig shed

Time to move out to the woods

A little later than planned but eventually Esther and her litter were moved out to their new pen in the woods last weekend. Originally I had planned to do this when the litter were about 3 weeks old – by this time they’ve usually started showing a good interest in hard food and are drinking water for themselves.

However the weather forecast for last weekend was just a little too cold, particularly overnight, and I didn’t have the heart in the end so the piglets got an extra week in the relative comfort of the farrowing shed.

Definitely ready for the outside world

Definitely ready for the outside world

By about 3 weeks old the piglets have developed an interest in eating hard food and the first signs of this are usually when they try to steal some of their mothers meal. She doesn’t often let them get a look in but once the piglet food is put down she will often ignore hers until she’s hoovered up any spare piglet food.

Even though the larger sow rolls are a little too large at the start that doesn’t stop the piglets from trying which is always entertaining and they eventually learn to go for the smaller broken bits first.

Sneaking some hard food

Sneaking some hard food

There was a minor false start because Esther immediately wandered off to the woods on her own and apparently wasn’t bothered about leaving her litter behind. Needless to say, without their mother to lead them it was impossible to herd all 9 of the piglets in the same direction at the same time even with the help of the current guests in the holiday let.

Once we’d brought Esther back again and reunited her with the litter things went more smoothly and, despite one piglet initially preferring to stay behind, we eventually got them all moving in the correct general direction.

Exploring in the snow

Exploring in the snow

Having taken their time wandering through the first section of woods and into the enclosed area containing the new pen, there was just the small matter of directing them through the opening left in the electric fencing. It’s not that easy to spot the gateway section and Esther seemed to remember what the fence could do so she preferred to keep away from it at first.

The piglets are none the wiser about it (yet) and at first they’ll no doubt rush in and out of the electric fenced area because they’re still quite small and simply push through when zapped. Over the next few weeks though they’ll get bigger and learn to keep back once they respect it more.

Although not all pig keepers uses electric fencing, I prefer to get our litters used to it at this early stage because it just makes life easier when we sell the weaners to others who also use it. Also, the ones that we keep on to raise for meat will have to deal with electric fencing for at least part of the time so it pays to get the practice in now.

Finally mother and litter had explored their new pen, tried some of the food and water that was left out for them and then made a start on rearranging the straw in the house. Even the piglets like to have a go at this and it might be just instinct but I think they’re also copying their mother who loves a bit of fresh straw the rummage around in.

Safe and sound in the woods

Safe and sound in the woods

First time for hoof trimming

Last weekend was a short notice visit from the hoof trimming man. We only have the 2 Dexter cows (plus calves) so we had to fit in around his other workload with larger, commercial herds of cattle.

As usual when doing anything with our cows, my first concern was whether I would be able to pen them all safely in preparation for the visit. I’ve definitely learned that if you don’t get them all into a pen at the first attempt then the job immediately becomes considerably harder. It’s even harder if they sense that someone new has arrived because that makes them even more cautious!

Luckily we have fairly well-behaved cows when it comes to moving them around and they happily followed me between fields and straight into the pen before the hoof man arrived. Although I should confess that this wasn’t so much my handling skills as the fact that their breakfast was waiting for them in the pen and they were hungry.

Safely penned without any problems

Safely penned without any problems

Our Dexters were certainly overdue for this work because we kept putting off the job for the past few months. Originally they were too close to calving but then the calves arrived and we didn’t want to add any stress. After that the bull was visiting during the tail end of summer last year and before you know it we reached December and the hoof man was busy anyway.

Putting up with the work

Putting up with the work

I think it’s safe to say the cows just about tolerated the inconvenience and discomfort with good grace. There were a couple of times where each of them decided to thrash about a bit but that’s when decent cattle handling equipment comes into its own and they soon calmed down again.

The actual hoof trimming only took about 30 minutes, it probably took longer getting setup in the first place and then packing up again afterwards. Luckily the cows soon got over the indignity of the whole episode and they seem to have forgiven me now.

Before and after

Before and after

First litter for 2018

I was a little over-confident on Saturday but I learned my lesson (yet again) after staying up most of the night waiting in vain the first litter for this year to arrive.

Over the last few weeks I had been convinced that Saturday would be farrowing day mostly because her last litter came after just 112 days. However Esther had her own ideas on the subject and decided to hang on a little longer this time.

As a result she was quite a size by Sunday morning so I knew it couldn’t be too much longer.

Getting to be quite a size

Getting to be quite a size

Just before 11pm on Sunday night she finally delivered the first piglet with the others coming at various intervals over the next couple of hours. In some cases they appeared in quite quick succession before we’d managed to properly check and clean the previous one. Luckily that didn’t happen very often and having 2 people on hand during this part made all the difference

There was a brief period at the start where just the single piglet was suckling which was a strange sight but it wasn’t long before the others turned up.

First one at the milk bar

First one at the milk bar

Eventually we ended up with 10 healthy looking piglets under the heat lamp while we waited for Esther to settle down. Even though the piglets should ideally suckle as soon as possible, the best approach for me is to dry them off and put them under the heat lamp out of the way. This helps to prevent any unfortunately accidents or losses which can be really hard to take.

A pile of piglets

A pile of piglets

There was a slightly nervous 2 hour wait after the last live piglet appeared but that was eventually ended by the arrival of a stillborn piglet.

Two of them were just a little smaller and seemed to be struggling as first which is always a worry. They immediately went into a warm place which unlike last year was not the oven! This time we used an insulated bag with a hot water bottle and within an hour or so they were much more lively. Definitely something we will use again as it means you can keep all the piglets in the same place rather than dashing between the farrowing shed and the house to check on everyone.

In due course a few of these will be for sale as weaners but this year some of them were reserved in advanced and we also need to consider if we are keeping some for meat ourselves. I’ll also keep an eye on the calendar too because Sissy will be due to farrow a couple of weeks after these piglets have left.

For the moment though we can just enjoy watching their progress over the coming few weeks.