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.

Stock check to start 2018

With the Christmas and New Year period very quickly becoming a distant memory, it seemed a good time to post a quick update as a stock check for the coming year. Things have a habit of creeping up on me and getting out of hand if I’m not careful so it’s probably best if I have this summary to look back on before that happens.

Cattle

As it’s a quiet time for the barn conversion holiday let at the moment, I took the opportunity to put the cows out in the front fields last weekend if only for a short time.

This helps to rest the back fields which are their normal winter home from time to time. Plus they love the change of scenery and the open space.

Lying on your lunch in the sunshine

Lying on your lunch in the sunshine

They can’t stay there too long though because we need to keep them away from guests cars. Apparently some people don’t like having their car windows and tyres licked clean by a cow.

Pigs

With farrowing getting ever closer, last weekend was also the best time to bring the pigs into the shed closer to the house. It will be Esther who farrows first this time but we bring them both in together as a way to ease the change of surroundings.

As always they happily followed me across the fields without any problems and after a night together in the shed, it was no bother to move Sissy back out again to a new pen in the woods.

Adjusting to the new surroundings

Adjusting to the new surroundings

Chickens

It’s been a very slow start for the newest egg layers that we bought back in October last year but over Christmas one of them finally started laying. On a good day we can now get up to 3 eggs a day and it won’t be long before the others join in as well.

When they all get started I’ll have to work on my quiche recipe but there will always be some to leave for arriving guests in the holiday let. Of course I don’t really mind it when the inevitable egg glut happens because that means that spring is get closer too!

A real mixture of chickens

A real mixture of chickens

The white chickens are the last remnants of the original flock that we inherited when we bought this place back in 2013. As far as I can tell these must be the last 3 from the eggs that were hatched during our first summer here and they’re given special dispensation from egg laying – I hope they’re enjoying their retirement.

Settling in to the winter routine

There’s no escaping the fact that winter is here with the short days and cold temperatures but it’s even more obvious this evening because the snow is falling. The waterproof trousers are always at the ready just in case and I’ve already found out which pairs of wellies have holes in.

The cattle are happily working their way through the hay we made back in September. At the same time we’re adjusting after sending our first steer off for beef.

By reducing the numbers in our Dexter herd ahead of any really bad weather, we’re hoping that the fields will cope slightly better this year.

It’s unusually quiet down with the pigs now that it’s just the 2 sows left and they’re enjoying a change of scene while we rest their usual pens over the winter.

After sending off the last 3 meat pigs, the 2 sows seem to have become friends again and now share the same ark most nights. The straw is regularly monitored though because as it gets colder they’re bound to need a top up from time to time.

The first sow (Esther) is already in-pig and due to farrow in mid-January while the second AI attempt with Sissy is currently underway – the first one was slightly mistimed I think. Before we know it there will be some more piglets so we’ll need to get everything prepared over the Christmas / New Year period to make sure we’re ready in time.

Meat sales

Our first efforts with selling the Dexter beef have gone really well. The best approach all round seems to be to sell it primarily as beef boxes but individual cuts are also an option once the initial rush dies down.

The same goes for the pork boxes which have sold very well again this year. There were concerns originally that we had too many meat pigs this year but that hasn’t been much of a problem in the end.

Premium Beef box

Premium Beef box

Autumn 2017 – Dexter cattle and beef boxes

As well as selling the pork from the last of our Tamworths this month, the time has now come to start thinking about selling our grass-fed Dexter beef for the first time as well.

It’s been a tougher time than I’d expected but our first Dexter steer went off to slaughter at the start of November. The difference with keeping cattle is that they are around for much longer than with our pigs and as a result there is more time to get attached to them.

Despite this we knew what had to be done and a plan eventually came together. The first one had to go off this year which should help to reduce the damage to the fields over the coming winter with one less set of hooves out there. Our second Dexter steer will be kept through until late spring or early summer next year which helps to prevent overloading our freezers with too much meat at once.

The Dexter breed is a native breed which is quite happy with the British climate so ours live fairly naturally and are not housed over the winter. It’s reassuring to know that they have not had (or needed) any special feed or antibiotics during their lives – just grass or hay plus our North Pennines spring water of course.

We have high hopes for the results as we have been told by many people that this will be “the best beef we’ve ever tasted”. This will have quite a lot to live up to though because our pork has got some excellent feedback this year but I’m expecting the beef to be just as good if not better.

The beef will be back by the end of November and, as with our Tamworth pork, the plan is to sell beef selection boxes in 2 different sizes.

Grass-fed beef boxes for sale

Grass-fed beef boxes for sale

Autumn 2017 – Tamworth pigs and pork boxes

Somehow time has just shot by in recent weeks and I realised (yet again) that it’s been far too long since the last blog update was posted. However, even though the updates have been few and far between, that doesn’t mean nothing has happened.

The biggest topic over recent weeks has been the pigs with those we kept for meat going off to slaughter in 3 batches during the summer and autumn. We raised a total of 7 meat pigs from the two litters this year but we also sold another 9 piglets as weaners to other people.

Our first batch of 2 pigs went in August and I was pleasantly surprised to find that nearly all the pork sold out fairly quickly. The second batch was also 2 pigs that went off in October and again we found that the vast majority of the pork sold very quickly.

So eventually we get to the final batch (3 pigs this time) which went off to slaughter last week and the pork is now with the local village butcher for cutting/packing.

Luckily we have a number of very happy customers who have placed second (or third) orders and all the feedback has been positive with the roasting joints (and crackling) coming in for some special mentions.

Rare breed Pork for sale

Rare breed Pork for sale

 

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