Rare breed Tamworth pigs – from AI to pork

It’s been quite a journey from carrying out the AI on Sissy back in September 2016 right through to selling the pork produced. This wasn’t the first time I’d done AI on our Tamworth sows and the previous attempts had all been successful so the pressure was on to maintain the 100% success rate.

There have been a succession of big events from the AI in September 2016 to the farrowing in mid-January 2017 then on to weaning the litter in early March 2017 and taking the first two to slaughter in August 2017.

Sissy and piglets at 2 days old

Sissy and piglets at 2 days old

Although there were only 6 surviving from this litter, the smaller number meant that each one was likely to do better as a result of the reduced competition for milk. In the end we sold two of these as weaners at 8 weeks old and that helped to keep our overall pig numbers at a manageable level for a time.

The other main concern was to spread out the trips to the abattoir so that we didn’t end up with lots of pork turning up all at the same time. The first two weaners went off in mid-August and the last two are currently scheduled to go early in October.

Loading went smoothly

Loading went smoothly

The planning for this next batch has been crucial because we will have our first Dexter steer going to slaughter in early November as well and our available freezer space becomes more limited at this time of year.

We’ve been very fortunate to have quite a few new customers for this first batch of pork and the preparations before sending the pigs to slaughter have worked well so far. There have been some great comments from satisfied customers and the next batch of pork will hopefully prove to be just as popular.


One benefit of delaying the departure of the last two weaners from this litter is that we hope to produce some bacon. I’ve done this in the past just for our own consumption at home and I’ve always been very impressed with the way it’s turned out. However to get the best results you need to start with a larger pig to get decent sized cuts from the loin for back bacon.

Another lesson learned from the first batch of pork was that sausages are always a popular choice but, surprisingly to me, the plainer flavours (Traditional, Pork and Leek etc.) are still the most popular. We had some packs of Moroccan and Sweet Chilli flavoured sausages made and these have sold pretty well but we still sold out of the Traditional flavour first!

This time around we will be trying out a different abattoir and getting the carcasses processed by the local village butcher. In the spirit of reducing food miles, this means that the pork will be from pigs that have been conceived, born, raised and butchered in a 1 mile radius of our village.

I’m curious to see the results of this alternate approach but we definitely need an alternative option for the future if we are ever unable to use the original abattoir for any reason.

Bringing in our own hay

It seems a long time ago now but it was only just over a week ago (Sunday 27 August) when our hay field was cut. A little late in the year compared to others perhaps but we got lucky with a spell of good weather and in the end the timing suited us perfectly.

In past years this field has been made into large round bales which were then taken away because we can’t use them without the heavy machinery to handle them. This year we asked a neighbour to cut and bale the field into small bales for us so that we can feed the Dexters on our own hay this winter.

We have been managing winter feeding for the cows by getting large bales one at a time from a neighbour and storing them in the barn. We could take out as much as the cows needed each day and they worked their way through each large bale over the course of 10-12 days.

This particular field had been deliberately left empty since early June and had grown well over the past few months. We watched the proceedings with much more interest this year because the results really mattered this time around.

Freshly cut field

Freshly cut field

After a week of watching the cut grass dry out and keeping a wary eye on the ever-changing weather forecast, it was quite a sight when the baler arrived last Saturday (2 Sept). Once the small baler got going the bales just kept on appearing and with our limited equipment it wasn’t possible to keep up.

Luckily the weather was excellent so it was just a question of getting the job done no matter how long it took. In the end this was quite some time and it was lucky that the moon was bright that weekend because bales were still being shifted after 9pm on the Saturday night!

Bringing in the bales

Bringing in the bales

By the following afternoon – and with the life saving help of some neighbours and his tractor – the last bales were safely stored. In fact just about every outbuilding now has some hay in it which smells wonderful but limits the options if we need to store anything else!

They might be called small bales but that’s just a relative term. After a weekend of shifting nearly 400 bales I was quite glad to get back to work at the day job for a rest!

Starting to fill up the main barn

Starting to fill up the main barn

After all the work it’s a strange sight now but I know that in no time at all the grass will be growing again and it will be back to a normal green field

All done

All done

The first couple of pigs are on their way

At just over 8 months old, the big day had finally arrived for the first of this years pigs to go off to the abattoir. There are 4 from the first litter and they all looked pretty good when I checked them over for the last time.

It’s been almost 2 years since we last sent any pigs off to slaughter so a quick look back through old posts on this blog proved to be extremely useful. The very first post about weaners brought back some happy memories and reminded me exactly how we’ve come in the last 4 years.

Difficult choices

Difficult choices

In the end I’m happy with the 2 pigs that were picked and at roughly 80kg live weight they should give us some great pork. It will definitely be interesting to see whether I’m getting any better at judging the quality of the meat and the amount of fat when looking at live pigs.

A quick dry run the night before to get them used to boarding the trailer went as smoothly as I could have wanted. On the morning of the trip they were just as happy to get on board and have a small snack before the journey. However once the food had all gone they got a little sneaky and tried climbing back out of the trailer after I’d closed it up. Luckily a disaster was avoided just in time but I had to give them a stern talking to.

The chosen ones

The chosen ones

The remaining 2 pigs from that litter will be kept on until they get to about 90kg or more which is a suitable weight for producing bacon. With luck this will fit nicely with our planning for them to head off to the butcher some time in October.

The advanced sales have gone very well via social media so we’re not entirely sure whether there’ll be much left from these 2 pigs for ourselves. Luckily there are still more pigs to go so I’ll make sure I set aside some of that for us at Christmas.

Now there’s just the small matter of picking up all that pork from the butchers at the end of the week and then dealing with the various collections or deliveries. It helps to be organised with lists and contact details but I’ll need to check everything during the week just in case I’ve misplaced an order!

Catching up with things

It’s been a very busy time over the last few months and the weeks just fly by but I’ve eventually realised that some events had not been fully covered by a blog update. Many events do get mentioned briefly through the Facebook or Twitter accounts but that doesn’t include much detail so it seems right that I post more information here.

Cattle

This year we got exactly what we’d hoped for with the calving. A red heifer calf (Primrose) from Nellie on 30 May followed a few weeks later by a “black” bull calf (Frank) from Daisy on 12 June.

My initial belief that Frank was black is proving to be a little wrong and he is actually a lovely shade of brown which I assume should officially be called “dun”.

Frank (left) and Primrose (right)

Frank (left) and Primrose (right)

We are now looking forward to the arrival of the pedigree Dexter bull that we’re borrowing this year. We’ve heard good things about him and saw him while he was at a friends farm recently so we’ll keep our fingers crossed for another good result when calving time comes around next May or June.

Pigs

We have 4 pigs from the first litter (from Sissy) and they are developing nicely. As we didn’t raise any pigs for meat last year, it’s been a good reminder this year for monitoring their growth and planning for the inevitable departure.  We don’t take this any more lightly now that we’ve had pigs for 4 years, it’s just as important to us now that they have a good life while they’re with us and a stress-free final trip to the abattoir.

The first 2 pigs from the older litter will be heading off to the butchers by early August and when I calculated their weight at 6 months old they were roughly 60kg which is fairly respectable. At feeding time tonight I managed another quick measurement for weight calculations and they are almost up to 74kg now.

Sissy and gang

Sissy and gang

Amazingly this is exactly what I’d been hoping for as they will be going off in 2 weeks time and should be about 80kg at that time. This is ideal for a basic “porker” like the first ones going off where we just want pork joints, sausages etc. With some careful monitoring, the other 2 pigs from this litter will go off about 3-4 weeks later when they’ll hopefully be 90kg or just over which is a better weight for a “baconer”.

The first batch of pork will be available for sale from 20 Aug and this year we also have 3 pigs from the second litter (from Esther) who are roughly 2 months younger. This will help to give us a regular supply of pork for sale from summer through to autumn or later this year.

More details on the pork for sale will be posted on the blog in due course and also on the Small Plot Big Ideas “shop” page on Facebook

Veg beds

Despite some poor results in other areas with growing produce this year, the garlic and onions that were planted last Autumn have now been harvested. The fairly respectable haul is currently drying in an outhouse while I think about the best way (and place) to store them. This is the second time that I’ve grown garlic and onions this way and I’m really pleased with the results. I think they’re definitely on the list for next year so I’ll need to reserve a spot to plant some more this autumn.

Garlic and onion crop

Garlic and onion crop

After a complete failure (yet again) with the dwarf beans, I’ve almost managed to fill the space with my excess leeks and some chard. I’m also hoping to get some more carrots sown in there very soon as well because we can always use more carrots and they are easy to grow – although never very straight!

With just a single row of parsnips this year, I think that Christmas dinner might be sorted out but not many parsnips left after that. I’ve never had much luck with germinating the seeds and I often think I won’t bother with them next time… However, the taste of a roasted parsnip which came fresh from the garden is something really special so I expect I’ll persevere with them.

Just space for one more row of something

Just space for one more row of something

Overall it’s been a pretty good growing season this year with no prolonged excessively dry (or wet) spells. There were some problems with rabbits sneaking in and nibbling my lettuces but adding some chicken wire to the boundary fence has fixed that problem.

The newly installed scarecrows from Waltons are now dealing with any potential problems with the extensive bird life in the garden. If I’m honest I really don’t mind sharing a little of it with them but I’m not sure they’ll leave any behind if I don’t do something!

Mr and Mrs keep watch

Mr and Mrs keep watch

There’s more to life than livestock

After having such a busy past few weeks, the blog updates inevitably had to suffer. There have been far too many things going on (both cows calving, piglets weaned/sold etc.) as well as our popular holiday let not to mention the full-time day job and there are only so many hours in the day.

It’s definitely time for some updates on the other aspects of life on our North Pennines smallholding.

Chickens

Our 2 egg laying hens are doing us proud lately with regular egg production and also looking pretty good while they stroll leisurely around the place as if they owned it.

The good looking egg layers

The good looking egg layers

For the record, they are named Birdy and Babs after female singers. Babs (on the right in the photo) is a Columbine and she lays blue eggs with an occasional double-yokers for good measure.

Raised Beds

After a slow start to the growing season, things are now looking a little more respectable but there are still a couple of empty patches due to earlier failures or poor growth. These will be filled very soon with something else so that we at least get something out of each raised bed

The current pride and joy is the middle raised bed which this year holds a selection of vegetables, all of which seem to be doing very well.

Reassuringly straight lines

Reassuringly straight lines

From left to right – lettuce, leeks, chard (recently harvested and very tasty), carrots, swede, more carrots and finally some rather unimpressive peas (luckily just out of shot)

Fruit Trees

Last year was not such a good year for the fruit trees, mostly I think because we have a large number of jackdaws and other birds in the general area who must have been hungry!

Hopefully I can get more organised this year and protect the fruit before the birds start attacking them.

A promising haul of apples

A promising haul of apples

As for the pears, it might not seem like much to others but last year we had no sign of any pears. This year one of the two trees actually has some fruit – although to be honest, I shouldn’t use the term “some fruit” when there’s only a single pear!

One pear is not a pair

One pear is not a pair

First Dexter calf for 2017

Despite my recent amateur efforts at calculating a calving date, Nellie decided to hold on for just a few days more – probably just so she could laugh at me checking on her every few hours.

As luck would have it, she held on until I had just left for a business trip so I didn’t witness the actual event but luckily someone else was on hand to take a few photographs for me.

I wouldn’t expect to be directly involved in their calving anyway because both cows have calved before plus Dexters generally have very few problems when calving.

Less than an hour old

Less than an hour old

Last time around both cows calved during the winter months (in December 2015 and February 2016) because we bought them in-calf and the previous owners had some delays with the bull arriving at their place.

During summer 2016 we were lucky that some friends who also keep Dexters had already organised a bull for their herd which made it easy to arrange for him to visit our 2 cows at a suitable point.

We now have a red calf called either Percy or more likely Primrose based on my initial quick inspections while trying not to upset his/her mother. A third inspection is scheduled for later today and at the same time I may also deal with the ear tagging before the calf gets any more agile on its feet and therefore harder to catch!

Just over 2 days old

Just over 2 days old

And here is a quick snap of the complete happy family with mother (Nellie) plus previous calf (Oscar) who is 18 months old and the new-born:

Happy single parent families

Happy single parent families

Reaching another milestone

Surprisingly, today marks the 4th anniversary of the move to our smallholding in the North Pennines. This is hard to believe partly because it’s just 4 years since we left the suburban semi-detached house but also because it feels longer than 4 years given that so much has happened in that time.

From having 3 chickens in our suburban back garden to a 15 acre smallholding with an assortment of chickens, some rare breed Tamworth pigs (plus piglets) and some pedigree Dexter cows (plus calves). It’s been an amazing journey so far even just from a livestock perspective never mind the converted barn for holiday lets.

The ups and downs along the way have been both educational and humbling in equal measure but the overwhelming feeling is that we have been extremely lucky and we should continue trying to make the most of the opportunity.

We have been helped along the way by far too many people to mention but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate all the help and advice provided though. We still have a lot to learn though and without the knowledge and experience of others we definitely wouldn’t have made it this far.

Over time it’s becoming clear that there will never be a point when we can just sit back and relax. Mostly because there’s always a job that needs to be done or another mad idea to plan and pursue. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

To celebrate this significant milestone, here are a few of my favourite pictures from the past 4 years

 

Preparing for this years calving

After all the excitement with litters of pigs over the last few months, it’s now time to think about the cattle and get ready for calving again. The last time they calved we missed the actual event but were on hand within an hour or two to check on both mother and new-born calf.

Our calculations for calving dates this year are based entirely on the dates for the bulls visit last year and their level of interest in him at different times during his stay. Apparently the usual gestation period for cattle of 283 days can be out by as much as 7 days (earlier or later) but I’ve calculated the dates as being 26 May for Nellie and 7 June for Daisy.

Spotting the signs

A good indicator that calving is getting closer is how the cows body changes in preparation for the event. The first visible signs were a noticeable increase in udder size on Nellie who is due first when compared with Daisy who should be almost 2 weeks later.

Nellie (top) and Daisy (bottom)

Nellie (top) and Daisy (bottom)

We could have had a vet in to check/scan them in the early stages just to confirm that they were in-calf but we decided that made no difference to our plans. If they both had calves that would be great but with just 2 cows this is still a bit of an experiment for us. It won’t be the end of the world if it turns out one of them wasn’t in-calf but I hope that isn’t the case.

Finding some grass

Our top concern for the moment is having somewhere with enough grass for them to eat while still being secluded enough to offer a little privacy for calving. For the last few weeks all 4 Dexters have been out in the front fields to give the back fields a chance to recover a little from the rough treatment over winter.

A stay in the front fields is always a bit of an adventure for them and they have enjoyed exploring the furthest corners over the last few weeks.  As the picture below shows, even the youngest calf – Elvis – enjoyed himself despite still being a little too short to see over the walls in places. Luckily these old dry stone walls have “smoot holes” which are designed to allow sheep to pass through.

A special calf viewing hole

A special calf viewing hole

A lesser concern for me is whether to separate the current calves – Oscar and Elvis – from the herd before the new calves appear. There is a slight worry that their occasionally more boisterous behaviour could be a problem when the new-born calves appear or even that the 2 cows might be a little over-protective.

I think we’ll just have to wait and see how that goes but I’m certainly going to have a plan in mind if it becomes necessary.

Another litter of Tamworth weaners for sale

*UPDATED*

We still have a few Tamworth piglets available for sale out of the most recent litter (some are already reserved). The mother – Esther – is a registered pedigree sow, very good-natured and calm around people. These are good hardy stock, well suited to living outside all year round although we usually bring our sows inside to farrow – both for our convenience and their comfort.

Born on April 5 so they will be ready to go by the last weekend in May but both the sow and her litter can be seen before then if required. They are currently living outside in woodland so they will be used to electric fencing.

Esther and piglets

Esther and piglets

We are in the Allen Valleys (Northumberland) at the very northern end of the North Pennines. All buyers must have a CPH number

Price is £45 each. Please use the form below to get in touch:

Moving day for the latest litter

After enjoying the comforts of the farrowing shed for a few weeks, it was finally time for the latest litter to move outside to the woods.

This is mostly because they are getting a bit more adventurous now with more interest in exploring but also so that they can get used to electric fencing. This doesn’t take long and normally within a day or so they learn to keep a safe distance.

The journey isn’t very far but there is always the potential for disaster with moving pigs because it’s just not possible to make a pig do something or go somewhere if it really doesn’t want to.

As usual the first problem was getting the piglets to cross the threshold for the first time, this wasn’t helped by the fact that Esther decided to just wander off on her own without waiting for them!

Working up the courage

Working up the courage

Luckily we have fairly well-behaved pigs so, after a few minutes of minor panic (on our part) and some chasing of piglets in circles, both the mother and litter were safely outside and on their way through the woods to their new pen.

Off on a big adventure

Off on a big adventure

There was even some time for a brief chat over the fence with the neighbours while on the way…

Time for a quick gossip

Time for a quick gossip

Once through the last gate they just need to be guided through the opening in the electric fencing but as usual a bucket of feed works wonders. After that the mother and litter were free to explore their new surroundings, meet the big kids next door and eventually settle in to their new quarters with loads of fresh straw.

Meeting the bigger pigs next door

Meeting the bigger pigs next door