Autumn cattle update

We’re now plunging headlong into autumn and the bull has been to visit recently so I thought I’d post a quick cattle-based update with some great pictures I’ve managed to take. Before long they’ll be starting on the winter feed – hay and silage – so it’s nice to have some pictures of them while there’s still some grass around!

This time we stuck with the same bull that we had hired last year – officially he’s known as Baranduin Delta – since we were pleased with this years calves when they turned up in June.

Also we had to consider that this year Primrose would be served as well but as she is a heifer from the first bull we borrowed – Rosewood Glenkinchie – we cannot use him again if we have any of his offspring.

Delta - a real gentle giant

Delta – a real gentle giant

There’s no easy way to be sure exactly when each female gets served by the bull as we can’t spend every moment watching them but at different periods during his stay he will tend to hang around one of them for a few couple of days. By watching out for this behaviour we can make a note of the general date when she may well have been served and then count ahead about 9 months to predict the calving date.

Not an exact science by any means but when this years calves arrived I was only out by roughly 2 days which was quite pleasing.

All the single ladies - Primrose, Nellie and Daisy

All the single ladies – Primrose, Nellie and Daisy

At just over 4 months old now, the 2 calves from this year are filling out nicely and doing really well. Of course, Frank is a year older and as a result he obviously considers himself to be in charge.

This year also saw us experiment with leaving Quinn to grow his horns rather than do any dehorning. This is normally done to prevent risk of injury to us while handling and to them in their occasional (but normal) disagreements, However the work to do this is always a traumatic experience for both us and the calf so this year we decided to leave Quinn alone and take any good or bad consequences in due course.

Although I’m not supposed to have favourites, I do have a soft spot for Daisy since she has always given us naturally polled bull calves (i.e. no horns at all) so this has never been an issue for her offspring.

 

The boys trying to look mean - Frank, Quinn and Garry

The boys trying to look mean – Frank, Quinn and Garry

For the moment we’re back to a nice looking herd with the 3 cows and 3 bull calves but eventually we will need to face the fact that we cannot keep that quantity on the amount of land we have for them. Eventually it looks likely that we will have to sell Primrose because when they all calve next year there will definitely be too many for our available grazing land.

It’s better to face up to this rather than overgrazing the land which would is just not a sustainable approach.

Possibly the most expensive lamb ever

Sadly there has been very little time in recent months to update the blog as much as I’d like but I didn’t want to miss the chance to write an update about the lambs we raised this year.

Since they arrived back in April we have learned the hard way just how expensive it can be to raise cade or orphan lambs. However we’ve also really enjoyed the experience of keeping sheep if only in a small way and now have some limited appreciation of the differences in comparison to our Tamworth pigs and Dexter cattle.

We were only raising these orphan lambs to get a rough idea of what it’s like to keep sheep so we were never too worried about the experiment being a financial success. Of course, with milk powder at £50 per bag and the 9 lambs getting through at least one bag every week at the peak, there was no danger of us making any kind of profit.

Luckily they get weaned from the milk within a fairly short period but even after that they still had some supplementary feed as well as the grass just to make sure they got a good, solid start. By comparison our Dexter cattle are completely grass-fed with no supplementary hard feed so this was a bit of a shock to the system for us.

All aboard for a road trip

All aboard for a road trip

All 9 of them went off to the butchers a couple of weeks ago and despite them being a little undersized we were very happy with the results. Our main worry this year was to make sure that we spread out the meat production a little as we had two batches of pigs to send off as well as these 9 lambs. This meant that we decided to stick to our planned dates rather than reschedule the bookings so that we could avoid overloading the freezers

Despite their smaller size, the fact that there were 9 of them meant that we still got quite a large amount of meat back in one go. Luckily we had an advance order for specific cuts from a well-regarded chef in Whitley Bay but eventually we still decided it was better to get yet another freezer rather than risk running out of space.

Perhaps you can’t call yourself a real smallholder until you have at least 3 chest freezers?

I’m not sure we’d repeat this experiment with lambs every year and I’ve definitely not got the time to take on a flock of sheep all year round. I’d like to think that we could something similar again in the future but perhaps we can try to make it a little more cost-effective if possible

And what would you expect to be on the menu at a time like this, obviously it had to be roast leg of lamb for Sunday lunch…

Whole leg of lamb going into the oven

Whole leg of lamb going into the oven

Another day, another litter of Tamworths

Despite my best efforts with the calculations from the date of the AI, in the end Esther decided to hold on to her latest litter for an extra day or so. Past experience with her litters seemed to show that she was fairly reliable at 113 days but maybe she lost count this time!

After spending nearly the whole night with Esther on the Monday, I gave up waiting and went to bed around 5am for a couple of hours of sleep. She had been exhibiting all the usual signs for imminent farrowing – nesting with the bedding straw, restlessness etc – but apparently decided the time wasn’t right.

Even after a few years of breeding pigs I still can’t quite bring myself to leave the sows alone to get on with it themselves. There’s always a nagging thought in my mind that if someone is around then any complications that happen can get dealt with swiftly.

Esther snoozing and still no piglets

Esther snoozing and still no piglets

Through the morning on Tuesday we checked her roughly every hour or so until eventually she started delivering them at around 10am. Luckily we already had everything ready such as handy cloths, an iodine spray and even everything needed for helping any slightly weaker piglets

First 3 piglets

First 3 piglets at about 10am

In the end, she produced a litter of 10 healthy piglets which is well above the average for the Tamworth breed. Sadly there were another 4 piglets either born dead or beyond saving but perhaps that’s for the best because 10 piglets are already quite demanding and so more would have been a greater strain on Esther.

There were a couple of piglets that were born alive but a little weak so they were immediately cleaned up and placed into the warming bag until they showed more signs of life. This is just a simple combination of a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel in the bottom of an insulated freezer bag but it really does work wonders.

Sickly piglets in the warming bag

Sickly piglets in the warming bag

With this litter Esther has proved to be an even better mother than before and all 10 are feeding well. There was a little variation in sizes of the piglets at birth but even the smaller ones are doing well and able to fight their way on to a teat when needed. As time goes on any size differences will usually even out but we’ll certainly be keeping an eye on the smaller ones as they develop.

The milk bar is fully occupied

The milk bar is fully occupied

Even a few days after all the excitement of the farrowing, I still find myself stopping off at their shed to have a look and check on them.  If I’m quiet I can even sneak into the shed while they’re all sleeping and grab a picture like this:

A full set of sleepy piglets

A full set of sleepy piglets

Finding some time for the produce

It’s never easy combining a full-time job with the various smallholding tasks but it’s particularly difficult at this time of year when everything is growing like mad and providing edible produce. Thankfully I haven’t bothered to mention the courgettes this year because the blog readers would be as sick of them as we are at the moment!

For some reason, this year our redcurrants have been ignored by the wildlife so we actually managed to get a half decent crop from the 2 bushes. This was our first ever crop of redcurrants because in the past I’ve left them as a sacrificial crop so that the blackcurrants didn’t get taken.

A quick first attempt at a redcurrant cordial proved to be very successful with some of them but the rest have been frozen and will be dealt with when there is more time available.

Surprisingly good redcurrant cordial

Surprisingly good redcurrant cordial

It’s now the turn of the blackcurrants to be harvested and they’ll also end up in the freezer for now but I’d rather that than lose them completely. Next year may be even better as I took 5 or 6 cuttings when pruning the blackcurrants and it looks like most if not all of them have taken very well.

And as an extra bonus for this summer, there is even a (very small) harvest to come from the blueberry bush which had been considered as a completely lost cause last year. It was transplanted in the spring and given some TLC which appears to have done the trick

All I need now is a recipe that uses only 3 blueberries…

Better late than never, a hay update

Although it was some time ago now, I never did manage to put anything on here about the hay making this year. I won’t even both coming up with any excuses, there just aren’t enough hours in the day at the moment I guess.

Given that the weather so far this summer has been hot and dry, it’s no surprise that hay making went without a hitch in the end. The first week of July was considered to be as good as any time particularly since the dry weather would mean poorer quality hay if left for too much longer.

Hay cut and baled, just waiting to be brought in

Hay cut and baled, just waiting to be brought in

The field was cut on the Monday, turned a number of times over the next couple of days and then baled by the Wednesday evening. Our neighbour has the right equipment so we’re happy to pay him for the work and all this happened  while I was away for business.

Once I returned though, there was no avoiding the fact that the hay bales needed to be brought into the barn. Luckily the lack of rain this year meant that I could take a couple of days over the task without any risk to the hay while it sat in the field.

This year we got around 150 bales in total which is considerably down on the yield from the same field last year. This is taken from a roughly 4 acre field but only 3 acres of it was considered good enough to cut due to rushes and nettles around the edges.

Part of the hay inside the barn

Part of the hay inside the barn

As a result we’ll need to buy in extra feed for the cattle over this coming winter but that’s quite a common situation for many people this year. Hopefully we can get our winter feed sorted out before any mad rush pushes the prices up too far though.

The field is slowly starting to recover now and, if I’m honest, we could do with some rain soon but I know you have to be careful what you wish for sometimes!

Cut, baled and recovering nicely

Cut, baled and recovering nicely

Another Dexter bull calf – the mighty Quinn

Nellie, our second Dexter calved successfully overnight last week and was also 2 days after my prediction based on the bulls interest last year. Any illusion of accuracy with this on my part is more by luck than judgement if I’m completely honest.

Quinn

Quinn

The result was another bull calf (our second this year) that we have named Quinn based on a rather convoluted and unnecessary method for calf naming using the next letters in the alphabet starting from the mothers initial.

Since she has been with us, Nellie has produced Oscar, Primrose and now (the mighty) Quinn. It wasn’t too easy having to work with the “Q” initial but in the end I’m happy with it and the name seems to suit him.

It seemed a good idea at the time since the names would always start with different letters – for example, Daisy has given us Elvis, Frank and now Garry. However, this year we expect Nellie, Daisy and Primrose to all be served by the bull so if we stick with the plan my “Q” dilemma will return next year when Primrose has her first calf!

Quinn (left) and Garry

Quinn (left) and Garry

As for the earlier calving by Daisy this was all completely unaided and apparently free of any complications although we’ve been a bit concerned about actually seeing the new calf suckling on the mother.

This is mostly for our peace of mind because the little guy is obviously doing fine so he must be getting milk, he just never does it when we’re around in the field. Maybe he’s a little shy…

Growing update – success and setbacks

While reviewing the older blog posts in preparation for the recent blog update covering our first 5 years on the smallholding, I realised that the livestock still take up a much larger part of our work than was originally expected. I’d even noted this in a blog post last summer but somehow I’d never managed to deal with this imbalance.

Originally I had expected that growing fruit and vegetables would be an equal part of the work involved and hadn’t thought there’d be quite such a focus on animals. Obviously that is just the result of the decisions taken over time and these were all based on the options available at the time so I can see how we’ve ended up in the current situation.

In an attempt to rectify the balance a little on the blog, here is a quick update on the successes or otherwise with fruit/vegetables for this year (so far)…

Soft Fruit and Top Fruit

While the blackcurrants have been a roaring success, the red currants have usually taken the role of a sacrificial crop. We never lose many blackcurrants to the birds but the redcurrants are always picked clean. I think that this year I’ll make a greater effort to properly net the bushes in the hope that we can at least try some of our own redcurrants.

The fruit trees (apple, plum, pear) continue to make good progress but, during the bad snowfall in March, things must have been tough for the local wildlife. As a result the bark was stripped from most of our fruit trees and I’ve kept my fingers crossed since then in the hope that they’ll pull through.

Apple blossom - Spring 2018

Apple blossom – Spring 2018

 

Pear blossom and bark damage

Pear blossom and bark damage

Autumn onions

I left it a bit late last autumn when planting out my red onion sets but despite my failings there is still a decent enough showing in that raised bed. With any luck we should have a usable crop and it’s been a good lesson to learn about the proper planting times for crops going into the ground in autumn

Mixed results for the Red Onions

Mixed results for the Red Onions

Lambs and seeds

Continuing the general theme of reporting minor disasters, one batch of seed sowing suffered quite badly with an attack of lamb hooves. The “little darlings” pushed their way out an enclosure and over the relatively soft rabbit protection I had in place.

Having just sown some rows of seeds only a few days earlier, I was less than impressed and I plan to use the whole episode to help me get over the difficulties of sending them off to slaughter in due course.

As can be seen in the picture below, there were a few gaps in the rows where carrots and lettuce should be but I’ve now re-seeded them and hopefully we can still make use of the space.

Limited seed sowing success

Limited seed sowing success

Success comes at a price

To end on a high note, after a couple of failed years trying to grow courgettes, I have finally managed to raise some that didn’t die within a week or so of being planted out. Unfortunately I can already predict the likely outcome when they start producing because I always plant too many and never learn that lesson!

Luckily we quite like courgettes and if necessary can probably find someone who’ll take any spares but if all else fails then the excess can easily go to the pigs and chickens

You can have too many courgettes

You can have too many courgettes

Looking back over our first 5 years as smallholders

Having reached the 5th anniversary of our move from suburbia to a North Pennines smallholding, it’s clearly a good time to review the current situation and take stock of our progress so far. Not least of which is where did all those years go!

The first task for me was to look back at my older blog posts from previous anniversaries and they were surprisingly informative. A little naive in places perhaps but that’s to be expected with hindsight and I’m sure that some of my more recent updates will look much same when I review them in the future.

Step by step

Apparently after just one week in our new 15 acre home we were already thinking of options and making plans. However reading that post though again now, some aspects don’t match the actual events so that’s a good illustration of how plans will change as you go along!

The one constant from our initial arrival is the collection of white chickens (breed uncertain) that we agreed to keep on from the previous owners. Although the cockerel has long since gone, the remaining hens still occasionally disappear off in random places to sit on some eggs until we can track them down.

Hidden chicken

Hidden chicken

The 2nd anniversary was marked by the dramatic events when the Dexter cattle made their big entrance before eventually settling down. At the time a real low point for me but now I’m not sure I would want to be without the Dexters plus the beef is absolutely amazing!

Around this same time, we also decided to convert one of the stone barns into a 2 bed self catering holiday let and this has turned out to be very popular. There’s a bit more work involved in running this than we might have original expected but it’s still very rewarding and we’ve had a constant stream of lovely guests staying.

Living area and patio

Living area and patio

By the 3 year smallholding anniversary it was becoming clear that we were doing more with livestock than I’d originally anticipated. Along with the obligatory chickens for eggs, we also had 2 Tamworth sows for breeding plus the Dexter cattle were happily calving unaided each year.

Daisy and Garry

Daisy and Garry

 

Piglets at the trough

Piglets at the trough

Now that the 5 year mark is here you can tell we’re getting more confident or perhaps that should be over-confident.

Despite our carefully thought out plans for managing the workload, we’ve decided to try keeping a few orphan lambs this year but at least these are just for meat with no intention for long-term breeding. This approach was certainly underlined for me when they decided to invade my raised beds and caused all sorts of havoc.

Some unwanted help with the veg beds

Some unwanted help with the veg beds

In general this is a nice way to try keeping a different type of animal for a few months but it’s not cheap with milk/feed costs and I’m still not convinced that I’d keep any sheep as a longer term activity.

Assessing our progress

It’s been a huge learning experience and immensely enjoyable most of the time with just the occasional negative moments. Even during the bad times though, I only need to take a wander around our fields and woods or just sit with the animals for a while.

This whole adventure has only been made possible through the help of our neighbours and the many new friends we’ve made since we started this journey. I’d be the first to admit that without that help and support we would not be where we are today.

There are always difficulties associated with having a full-time job along side running a smallholding but that’s not impossible, it’s only hard work and a desire to live that life. The subject of time management is always uppermost in my mind but cutting corners to fit things in would not always suit me You just have to plan out the workload for the time available and keep on going…

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