You don’t always get what you want…

After an unplanned year off during 2019 for Sissy with litters, she finally delivered again in the early hours of Mon 13th Jan. As usual I can’t help wanting to be there when it all happens but that always means a lot of lost sleep.

This time she ended up with just 2 live piglets – a boy and a girl – which was a surprise given the size of her during the build up to farrowing. Perhaps she’ll need to trim down her weight a bit once she’s raised this litter.

My impression was that she had a tough time during the delivery and there was a third piglet which was born dead – always a shame but there’s nothing more you can do. The effort certainly seemed to take the energy out of her and initially she wasn’t eating or drinking afterwards.

First piglet out always gets the prime spot

She’s taken a day or two to get back to her old self but through this period she’s always been very attentive to her small litter and keen to make sure they are able to feed on demand.

Thankfully she’s eaten a little something herself now so she’s hopefully improving again but I confess that I was a little worried for a while.

Under the heat lamp for a snooze with full stomachs

I’m keeping a watchful eye on her both via our special “pig cam” and also by regular visits in person. I hope it’s nice for her to have occasional human company but I’m careful not to disrupt her time with the little ones.

Farrowing preparations for January 2020

This time around I’m a lot more confident that Sissy is actually in-pig and is due to farrow in a little under 2 weeks. I’m very aware that I’ve said something similar before but all the signs are there so far.

When I look back on blog updates from this time last year I’m can’t quite understand how I allowed myself to believe that she was heading towards farrowing. I suspect it was probably because I had noted everything carefully on the calendar and once I saw it there I didn’t question it again. Lesson learned for that time!

This year will be the first litter for Sissy since she won all the rosettes at the Northumberland Show last May. It was quite a day out for all of us and she did so well to win Traditional Breed Champion Female so I felt she deserved a little break.

Sissy (left) and Fifi enjoying their breakfast

Sissy and Fifi have spent the last few months in some woods (an old stone quarry I’m told) in the front fields. However that can get very wet in the worst weather so they’re both looking forward to a change of scene later this week.

Fifi will move to a new pen in the woods at the back where she will be joined by a couple of the younger meat pigs so she has some company. I’m fairly confident that she is also in-pig but I think I’ll do one more check in a couple of weeks time before I can be completely sure.

Sissy will get the luxury of the farrowing shed closer to the house so she can relax and prepare herself. It may not come with spa facilities or a hot tub but it will make a nice change from the muddy woods for her (and for us!)

Sissy looking forward to getting into the farrowing shed

Happy birthday to Esther and Sissy

Today was a special day which normally gets overlooked in the mad rush before Christmas so this year I’m quietly pleased with myself for marking the special event with a blog post

It’s hard for me to believe in a way but our 2 main Tamworth breeding sows – Sissy and Esther – are 5 years old today and they were only 8 weeks old when we first collected them.

From such a subdued beginning as part of our 3rd batch of 4 weaners, they’ve managed to make themselves an integral part of our life here. I can hardly imagine life without them now.

Back in 2015, after gaining some experience with 3 previous sets of meat pigs, we bought another 4 pedigree Tamworth weaners. The idea was that 2 of them would be for meat (the “eaters”) and 2 would be kept for breeding (the “keepers”).

When we collected them from the breeder they were marked to indicate the two most promising to keep and as it turned out over time that was how they developed.

First off the trailer in 2015, the keepers!

It’s quite a contrast to look back at the early photos now particularly as Esther currently has her latest litter for company. I’m sure she appreciates the social aspect but they’re just over 3 months old and probably are a little annoying at times – especially meal times!

Esther – all grown up with little ‘uns of her own

By contrast, Sissy just has Fifi for company at the moment but will farrow in about 3 weeks so she’s quite a size! I expect that if she does know what’s coming then she’s appreciating the relative peace and quiet for now.

Sissy – hopefully with little ‘uns coming soon

Over the years I have learned to treat both sows with a certain amount of respect and caution but not because they are in any way aggressive. If I had to guess, a full grown Tamworth sow must weigh at least 250-300kg so it’s a good idea not to let them stand on your foot or even worse knock you over in the mud!

We will continue to give all our breeding sows the best life possible which will include their retirement years when that time comes. They have been a part of our lives for almost 5 years so they are considered part of the family now

Another smooth pig move

I’m trying not to take it for granted because each time we have to move pigs around and it goes really well then I could easily become over-confident. It’s probably wise to keep reminding myself that it can easily and quickly go wrong at times.

This past weekend was weaning time for Esther’s latest litter now that they’ve reached 8 weeks old. In the past we have weaned a week or so earlier but about 7-8 weeks of age usually works out the best I’ve found

Having already prepared a new pen for Esther it was just a case of encouraging her away from the piglets at evening feeding time whilst simultaneously keeping the little ones occupied with their food.

Much nicer when mum isn’t there to steal your food

Within 5 minutes we had them successfully separated and Esther was happily eating her supper in the new pen. The piglets barely seemed to notice but with 6 of them it’s still a battle for each to get their share of the food. They also got a fresh top-up of straw as well because we’re due some very cold nights this week and they’ll possibly miss the body heat that Esther would have provided

At the other end of the woods, Esther is far enough away to get some peace and quiet and although she had a brief wander today into a neighbouring enclosure, she’s enjoying a completely new pen and especially the very tasty grass .

Esther enjoying the fabulous views and dry weather

One handy tip that I learned the hard way when preparing this new pen for Esther, always make sure you move any large items of machinery out of the new pen BEFORE you finish off the electric fencing wires.

It’s just a knackered quad but I’m not letting Esther have a go

Moving day for the latest litter

While we’ve never really had a problem when moving pigs around our holding, with a 300kg sow there is always the possibility that she will choose to go in a different direction. Once she makes that sort of decision, there’s not a lot the hapless pig keeper can do about it other than to try bribing her with food which is not always successful.

When you also have to factor in 6 feisty piglets who are barely 2 weeks old, there is a serious potential for unpredictability which I could do without. The only way that I’ve found to tackle this is through careful preparation.

Last weekend it was time to move Esther and her latest litter from the farrowing shed out to their new pen in the woods. Before opening up the shed, the route was carefully planned with any other doors/gates firmly closed and barricades in place to prevent any potential deviations.

Their time in the shed went very well and, as expected, by 2 weeks old the piglets were starting to explore the whole shed as well as the outside space whenever the door was left open.

A recent collection of spare apples was a particular highlight for them before they left the shed but it’s fair to say they are only curious about them at this stage. Only the smallest of the fruit would be big enough for their little mouths and they’re not quite old enough to properly start with hard feed.

Spare apples gratefully received…

Within a week though, they should be showing an interest in some special pig feed (as well as the apples) but they’ll still be on mothers milk as well for another 5 weeks or so.

In the end the move all went off without incident so I like to think that my prior planning made all the difference. On the other hand, I got the impression that (despite the wet weather) Esther was very happy to be headed back outdoors again and she probably remembers this route fairly well by now.

The happy family are now settled in a new pen which was reseeded over the summer so they have some lovely fresh grass growth. It didn’t take long before the piglets started to get their noses dirty in the mud and run around chasing each other.

Is there a better way to spend a wet Sunday afternoon than watching that sort of goings on?

A weekend of big events

Now that the weekend is over I can reflect with some satisfaction on the wide range of events that took place in a relatively short space of time. Each in their own way could have had a different, more troubling, outcome but in the end all have been completed fairly successfully

Esther Farrowing

One event that had been in the calendar for some time was the date for Esther to farrow her next litter. She caught us out earlier this year when the previous litter arrived a couple of days ahead of schedule and we had not yet moved her into the farrowing shed

I used to maintain that a benefit of using AI for our Tamworth pigs is that I can more accurately predict the farrowing date, within a day either way usually. However it appears that Esther is intent on teaching me that complacency can be a big mistake for smallholders.

We were fully prepared for the scheduled farrowing day (Tuesday) with the various accessories and implements on hand. Esther had other ideas though and popped them out in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Esther trying to catch up on her sleep

She produced a healthy looking litter of 6 in the end – 4 girls and 2 boys – and, after a tiring farrowing day, Esther now seems to be coping really well. Equally important is that the piglets have found both the heat lamp and the milk bar so all is well for now.

Sissy AI

It was also time for another attempt at AI with Sissy which I approached a little nervously given the resounding failure in the recent past. It has proved to be more difficult to identify when Sissy is in season than with Esther.

Recent regular checks on her – pigs are in season about every 3 weeks – have shown that Sissy favours a slightly longer gap than that. Just a day or so here or there but enough that if I’m not paying attention would mean that the AI attempts could be out by 2 days and therefore they won’t work.

Croxteth Golden Ranger has worked well for us before

Now that I’ve identified this about her, I’m hoping that the latest attempt proves to be more successful but I’ll have to wait three weeks to see whether she comes back on heat or not.

If this doesn’t take then the plan is to locate a suitable pedigree Tamworth boar somewhere fairly near. I’m sure that nature can handle this much more efficiently than I have managed in the past.

Frank departs

It was also the time of the year when we send off the latest Dexter steer for beef. This is always an event fraught with concern for his welfare (and ours) during the loading and transport.

Over time we’ve slowly found better ways of doing this with different arrangements of cattle hurdles and have now almost got it down to a fine art. But not quite perfect as it turned out..

After sneaking through a small gap in our preparations, Frank decided to take 3 laps of honour round the garden first before calmly making his was back into the pen and leisurely strolling into the trailer.

I had feared a repeat of his escapades with jumping walls but luckily he decided that he’d rather stamp pot holes all over my lawn instead.

Cattle departures and arrivals

Last weekend was yet another first for us – the departure of 3 animals from our relatively small Dexter herd. We’ve never sold live cattle before so loading them into a trailer and watching as they’re driven away was quite an odd experience.

We’ve done this so often when selling pigs as weaners so perhaps we take that side more for granted but as this involved cattle the event somehow gained a greater significance for me.

Primrose, a first time mum, and her calf Petal who was born in June plus Quinn a one year old steer. All 3 were red and coincidentally all descending from Nellie – one of 2 original Dexters.

3 red Dexters, penned and waiting for collection

By the following morning it was as if they’d never been here. The remaining herd of 6 were happily strolling around our front field. The only visible sign that anything had changed was the fact that our herd is now predominantly black again.

Just 6 Dexters left now and only one is red !

Now we were all set for the arrival of this year’s hired bull – Rory – who is fairly young and dun coloured. He looks to be a fine fellow but perhaps slightly smaller in stature than expected. We’re wondering if he’ll need a stool to stand on.

Rory has arrived!

We’ve never had any dun Dexters here before and I assume it’s not a particularly dominant gene within the breed since there don’t seem to be many around.

Maybe we will get a dun calf born around mid-June next year but I guess that might be quite a long shot

Summary of hay making 2019

At first I wasn’t sure that we’d made the right choice when I saw our neighbours had cut and baled their hay meadows early in July. However we wanted to wait a little longer so that the wild flowers could properly set seed before it was cut.

There were a few occasions when I wished we’d cut earlier and I’m still not completely used to the tense times around some of the activities on a smallholding. I’m sure it’ll eventually become second nature but even now after 6 years they can be nerve-wracking times.

In the end, our neighbour came to cut our little (4 acre) meadow on Tues 23 July with the weather forecast looking vaguely suitable to my untrained eye. I don’t usually take the forecasts too seriously as it changes regularly but it’s the best indicator I’ve got for what may be coming.

No going back once the cutting starts

Unfortunately 2 days later there were some overnight thunder showers which set everything back a bit. A real shame because it looked like the grass was drying out nicely up until that point.

Still, when that happens there isn’t much you can do other than wait for a long enough period of decent weather. So we waited…. and waited…. but after a week or so it became clear that we’d never get the grass dry enough for small square bales as we’d originally wanted.

Finally we had a couple of fairly fine, breezy days predicted and made the decision to get the whole lot baled and wrapped as big round bales. So it was that on Sat 3 August the guys with all the right equipment got to work

Baled and wrapped

It was 11 days from when the grass was first cut before the crop was finally baled but very reassuring to know that it was finally protected. Since that point we’ve not even had a dry enough spell for all the bales to be moved round to their storage point though.

The bales will get moved in the end but it’s better not to be running big heavy tractors around over our water logged ground at the moment. Not that they are likely to get stuck, just that they’d leave too much mess if they tried

I know that some other smallholders didn’t manage to get hay made in time and it looks like August is due to be a bit of a washout. I’m currently predicting that this may even be the wettest August for some time.

Keeping the rabbits out

There’s never enough time for all the possible jobs on our smallholding so there’s an element of prioritising the available time. However, growing and eating some of our own produce will always be a high priority for me.

The growing season starts a little later in the year for us as demonstrated by the last growing update that was posted in April and featured very little plant growth. I still enjoy growing some fresh, healthy food from just a few small seeds though and maybe one day when I have more spare time I’ll advance to a greenhouse or polytunnel as well.

It can be tricky to keep on top of the weeding, watering and general care along with all the other jobs – especially in the summer months. This is made even harder if the rabbits are happily sneaking in to the raised beds whenever they want.

Good growth from the dwarf beans and swedes

For the moment we have a combination of green, plastic coated wire fencing in place with added chicken wire because the baby rabbits kept squeezing through the small holes.

This seems to have been working well recently, especially now that I’ve started regular detailed examinations and made minor repairs as needed. Earlier this year there was a major set back by about 2-3 weeks after one or more intruders nibbled the tops off just about everything.

Eventually I must get around to replace this ramshackle fencing with something more presentable but for the moment it’s just important that the one task is handled properly – keeping my veg safe from the rabbits!

Nice straight lines for chard, parsnips, courgettes, leeks, dwarf beans and onions

The raised beds are really starting to come good now after the additions from our compost bins, some well rotted leaves from a couple of years ago and also the ash from our biomass pellet boiler every month or so.

Mixed results from the carrots and leeks

With just one bed (carrots and leeks) giving me cause for concern at this stage, I have high hopes for an ever increasing harvest in the coming weeks.

So far we’ve only had some chard (very nice as always) but I’m hoping for some decent small carrots when I get around to thinning those out.

First courgette on the way

The first few courgettes are always exciting of course but I also remember that they are soon followed by a glut despite my best efforts at succession sowing.

Some beetroot seedlings doing well

While I’m not a big fan of beetroot, it’s so easy to grow that I can’t stop myself sowing some seeds most years. Usually it goes nicely with some salad or occasionally we roast some with other root veg. This year I’m also planning to freeze some for use later so I’m hoping that I’ve sown about the right amount.

A hard decision that had to be made

Now that calving has finished for 2019, our small herd of Dexter cattle has reached a total of 9 which, I’m only too well aware, is too many for the available grazing land.

It’s a heart-warming sight to see them wandering around their summer grazing now but that won’t last long later in the year. If we don’t consider the longer term impact then our land would suffer with the extra wear and tear received during the winter months!

While we managed well enough through last winter, at that time we only had 6 head of cattle and 2 of those were calves born that year so they had less impact. Not forgetting that last winter was relatively easy for us when compared to the year before.

Quinn, Primrose and Petal
Quinn (with horns), Primrose and Petal

This time around it’s very clear to me that we need to reduce numbers and after careful consideration the decision is that a selection of red Dexters will have to go. Nothing against their colouring of course and we were very pleased to get 2 more red heifer calves this year.

We’re now bracing ourselves for the potential departure of Quinn along with Primrose and her new calf Petal. Hopefully they can find a good home with some local smallholders who will spoil them rotten!

This will be our first time selling any cattle so we’re a little down about it because they are all home-bred. However, as with the many¬†other tough smallholding decisions, you just have to deal with it and make sure you do the best you can for them.

Primrose with Petal
Primrose and Petal