Mixed feelings after the latest farrowing

Everything had been going according to my rough plans so it looked like the next farrowing would go smoothly. As usual there is always something that can go wrong and experience tells me that it probably will so it becomes an exercise in looking for the positives.

About a week ago both sows were brought in to the farrowing shed near the house to get Sissy settled and then a day or so later Esther was moved back to the woods to her usual home. Changes in surroundings are less stressful for a pig when it has company and we wanted to avoid any stress in the final days before Sissy farrowed.

Happiness is some straw on your nose

Happiness is some straw on your nose

Unfortunately work commitments meant that I had to be away on business until the Thursday night (12 January) but my calculations had her due to farrow over the weekend or maybe Friday if a little early. I’m sure everyone can tell what’s coming next…

I’m told that it seemed to be a normal quiet Thursday afternoon and then suddenly by about 6pm there were piglets everywhere. In the end she had a litter of 11 which was a huge increase on her first litter.

However, unlike last year when all 5 piglets survived, this time at least 3 piglets were already dead or very close to death at birth. Even though  we know that this is always a possibility with every farrowing, it’s no less upsetting but Sissy didn’t seem to notice – especially as she kicked/squashed 2 more piglets over the next hour or so.

Sissy and piglets at 2 days old

Sissy and piglets at 2 days old

Eventually the situation calmed down and we could relax knowing that the remaining 6 piglets were suckling well and looking very strong. Sissy seemed to adjust to motherhood again after the trauma of farrowing and, as with last year’s litter, proved to be a very attentive mother from the second day onwards.

She always welcomes a break from the shed though and is happy to wander around our courtyard snuffling for any unexpected treats she can find. It’s good to get away from the kids now and then.

Sissy getting a stroll outside

Sissy getting a stroll outside

In the meantime, I’m busy making notes of the hard lessons learned this time around and hoping to improve the situation for the next farrowing in a couple of months time. There are positives in that the surviving numbers for this litter are 20% up on her last litter and Sissy coped really well. It’s good to remember that the outcome could have been much worse…

I know it’s been a while but…

The last couple of months have seen a few changes that have been a bit of a distraction from the blog updates but now it’s time for a fresh start with more regular postings. Hopefully now we’re finished with the Christmas and New Year period things can return to something like normal – whatever that is!

 A Quick Catch-Up

The recent events that somehow never made it on to a proper blog update before include a few successes but also a number of “failures” which I prefer to consider as lessons learned.

There was a successful AI attempt for the first Tamworth sow – Sissy – and she is expected to farrow sometime on or after 12 January. After enjoying this success for a month or two, it was time for more AI with the second sow – Esther – but sadly I think my timing was wrong on that occasion and it didn’t take.

Sissy (right) is getting close to farrowing

Sissy (right) is getting close to farrowing

The second attempt with Esther was almost 3 weeks ago now so I’ll find out in the next few days whether that was successful or not. Immediately after that it’ll be time to move Sissy into the shed nearer the house ready for farrowing partly for her comfort with the weather but also for our convenience as it’s closer to the house. This time we’ll keep sow and piglets in there until the piglets are weaned at about 7-8 weeks old, it’s easier to catch them in a shed rather than chasing them around the woods.

While I’m on the subject of failures, there was an attempt at a TB test for the cows and calves but things didn’t go to plan and a minor escape attempt meant that we had to postpone the test until later this month. In the meantime I have reinforced the defences and, as usual it seems, I’ve learnt a lot more from the problems than the successes.

Sunrise over the Dexters

Sunrise over the Dexters

The cows are doing well with their extra homework when I get a chance to work with them. This mostly involves getting them used to being penned in for a while and being moved one at a time through a cattle crush. I think that they’ll always be able to spot a vet at 50 paces so I need to be sure they’re securely penned in first before they realise what’s happening.

On a brighter note, the third “pet” chicken has started to lay eggs at last. This is the Columbine which lays a different coloured egg so it’s easy to spot when she delivers the goods. Admittedly she’s only laid 2 eggs so far – one on Christmas day and another on New Years Eve – but it’s a start. There are usually 1 or 2 eggs each day now which is as I’d hoped when I bought these 3 chickens a few months back.

Greeny-blue or Bluey-green?

Greeny-blue or Bluey-green?

When we have enough it’s nice to give some to the guests in the holiday let but the supply is a little unpredictable at times. This will improve with the longer days as spring arrives though so perhaps by then we’ll be back to filling the freezer with quiche…

Happy as a pig in…

After a couple of months for the pigs in their new location, there have been some considerable signs of wear and tear especially given the wet weather that we’ve had more recently. It’s a gentle reminder (as if I needed one) that it doesn’t take long for a couple of pigs to properly muck up a new pen.

What a mess!

What a mess!

Now that we’re a little more organised with the pens and electric fencing in the woods, it was only a matter of a minor house move with a bit of fence post improvements and the pigs were safely housed in the next door enclosure.

A couple of barrow loads of straw gets dumped into their house and the 2 sows are quite happy on the firmer ground with a selection of green growth to chomp on.

That's much better!

That’s much better!

I’m quite fond of the muddy coloured socks they seem to be wearing in this picture but sadly that quickly washed off.

Time to start planning ahead for next year with the first farrowing due in mid-January (for Sissy) and potentially another AI attempt for me next week on the second sow (Esther).

Time for some new faces

Updates on the blog have been rather sparse lately but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening behind the scenes. Mostly the time just goes with the amount of work needed during summer but a new day job has taken up some time and the converted barn/holiday let has been pleasantly busy as well so the work on changeover day can mean we’re a bit busy!

Finally, after a couple of false starts with too many other jobs or plans getting in the way, we finally managed to fit in a trip to get some more “pet” chickens. This also involved preparing a small pen nearer our house because these will be the egg producers and I want the eggs to be close at hand!

The adopted flock that we took over when moving here – White Leghorns I think – are only laying intermittently now. However I’ll forgive them for that because we know the youngest of them must be about 3 years old by now.

So here’s a brief introduction to the 3 new arrivals – from left to right: Birdy (a Speckedly), Barbra aka Babs (a Columbine) and Bessie (a Light Sussex):

New arrivals adjusting to their surroundings

New arrivals adjusting to their surroundings

They are just a few weeks short of point of lay but we have high hopes for some interesting eggs because they should each lay fairly distinctive eggs and we’ll be able to tell which was laid by each hen.

These definitely won’t be the cheapest eggs in the world but I’m not approaching this side of things with a commercial mindset. It’s more important to have our own eggs and to enjoy a spot of chicken watching which is a great relaxation technique after a day in an office!

Wall repaired and good as new

As luck would have it, a few days after discovering the collapsed dry stone wall in the woods we arranged with someone from the village to deal with the repairs. Barely a couple of days later they arrived and got all the repair work completed in around half a day!

Given more time I’m sure I could have done the work myself (eventually) but it would have taken me days or even weeks because there are always many other jobs on my To-Do list. I’d been meaning to move the pigs to an electric fenced pen close to this area and that meant I couldn’t really afford to wait too long to get the wall fixed.

I’m really pleased with the results and I’ll happily admit that it looks better than anything I could have done. Our neighbour is probably also happy because his sheep can go back in the adjoining field.

Wall repairs all done

Wall repairs all done

Glen the bull comes to visit

Last Sunday afternoon the 2 cows (Daisy and Nellie) got a pleasant surprise when the bull (Glen) arrived. He is a fine looking beast but still remarkably placid and easily managed – just make sure you don’t get between him and his chosen girlfriend!

What a fine specimen

What a fine specimen

He very soon chose Nellie as his ‘best girl’ and stuck closely to her all the time which understandably meant that Daisy was left out of things for a while. Eventually Glen did make more of an effort to show Daisy some attention so she’s a little bit happier about his being here now.

However it was Oscar (Nellies calf) who suffered the most in the beginning because he wasn’t allowed anywhere near Nellie for a few days and this effectively completed the weaning process. This was probably a little overdue as he is 8 months old now but he is an opportunist and if the milk was on offer then he made sure he got some!

Daisy feels a bit left out

Daisy feels a bit left out

Even after a week here, both the calves will occasionally try to boss Glen around but he’s quite happy to firmly show them who’s the boss while being gentle enough that they don’t get hurt.

Putting the calves in their place

Putting the calves in their place

Sometimes it’s best to call in a professional

While on the hunt for the missing chicken eggs that aren’t getting laid in the nest box, I came across a major problem with our dry stone wall boundary in the woods.

As far as I can tell this must have happened in the last day or two but I can’t be certain as the ground dips down suddenly here. As a result, it’s possible to go into the woods on the way to feed the pigs without even noticing that anything is wrong down the bottom of the hill.

Inside looking out

Inside looking out

Luckily we don’t have any livestock in this part of the woods although I was considering extending the pig electric fencing to here in the next week or two. Perhaps more importantly though, it’s fortunate that our neighbour has already moved his sheep out of the field on the other side!

I’m perfectly happy to take on any minor walling repairs and I would even consider tackling a small rebuild but this is a bit more than that. After pacing out a quick measurement it seems that the main damage covers around 4-5 metres but any repairs would need to include some rebuilding on each side too.

Outside looking in

Outside looking in

Luckily it’s clear from these pictures that all the existing stones from the section that collapsed should be reusable. We also have a small supply of extras stashed away for just such an occurrence which helps to keep the repair costs down.

It’s definitely time to get in touch with the Dry Stone Walling Association to find a professional though – not least because they’ll be so much quicker than me and besides I don’t think I can spare the time anyway!

Successes and failures in the raised beds

With so much attention focussed on the livestock over the last few months, it made a pleasant change to spend some time on the raised beds were put in place after we moved here.  Even though some of the results this year are not as good as hoped, the simple fact that we can eat fresh produce from the garden is still very rewarding.

This will hopefully be the last year of significant experimentation with vegetables in the raised beds. Over the past 2-3 years I’ve tried a selection of different crops and different varieties of our favourites with the idea of identifying what works best in our location.

For the second year in a row, the dwarf beans have been unimpressive and I suspect that any success in the first year was purely luck. Mostly the problem was down to poor germination but even those I’ve planted out are now looking too impressive. I think it’s likely that I’ll give these a miss for a year or two now in favour of something more reliable.

Dwarf beans and extra carrots

Dwarf beans and extra carrots

As reliable as ever, the leeks always seem to do well here and this year is the third different area I’ve tried them in so they must like the general location.

These will definitely be on the regular list for vegetables to grow and hopefully this year I’ve got the quantity right as there were far too many last year!

Leeks

Leeks

Despite a slow start with the carrots there are now quite a few growing on in the raised beds. It was a battle early on when sowing seeds direct and as a result there aren’t as many as I’d hoped now.

However, compared to the difficulties with just germinating parsnip seeds, the carrots could be counted as a comparative success. Even though we love eating fresh, home-grown parsnip in the winter the problems with getting them started means that I may not bother with them next year.

Carrots and parsnips

Carrots and parsnips

After an unexpected success last year with my first attempts at growing chard, this got another chance again this year and yet again is doing really well.

Easy to grow with a cut and come again approach to harvesting plus it’s really tasty when cooked – this is sure to be on the list for future years.

Chard and self-seeded nasturtiums

Chard and self-seeded nasturtiums

As usual for me, I think I planted the first batch of courgette seeds too soon so they were never going to do well. However the second batch benefitted from my first attempts at using a heated propagator. Of course I now have too many courgette plants again this year but isn’t that obligatory if you grow courgettes?

The 2 onions in this picture were actually planted elsewhere last year but came to nothing so I moved them to an empty this spring. After a few months they’ve developed quite well – perhaps better than last years onions did – so that’s a bit of a bonus and perhaps an indication that they would do well in this bed?

Courgettes

Courgettes

Every year so far swedes have been the most reliable crop I’ve grown here and this year looks to be no different. I seems that nothing I do will stop the swede seeds from germinating and growing into a tasty crop!

Luckily it’s become a favourite in the kitchen too so there’s always a place for swedes in the raised beds.

Swede

Swede

At long last, another blog update

It’s a little surprising to me but I’ve found that the last blog update was last posted way back at the start of June and we’re already well on the way into July! There are a number of reasons for the infrequent blog updates of late but mostly it’s been because there has been so many other things happening.

Pigs

At the start of June we were still busy trying to organise the collection or delivery of weaners as we sold all the piglets from our first ever litters this spring. In the end we sold them in 3 lots with the largest being a batch of 6 weaners that went off to Bill Quay Community Farm in Gateshead.

As might be expected, there were plenty of lessons learned when trying to load up the weaners. Our only previous experience of loading pigs here had been much larger and more tame fully grown pigs that were heading to slaughter and were happy to follow a feed bucket.

It was a lot quieter around here once the piglets had gone but I did miss them a bit if I’m honest. On the bright side, their departure did mean fewer trips to the local feed store now that we only have 2 sows to feed.

Cattle

The main task at the moment is halter training the two calves which will be essential when it comes to handling them for vet visits or, dare I say it, when they eventually head off to the abattoir at about 30 months old.

Progress with this has been good with the older calf (Oscar) already happy enough to have the halter on and to be tied up for a short period.

The focus now is to get the other, younger calf (Elvis) comfortable with the halter because in the next week or two we will need to get the vet in to castrate him. This could not be done when he was younger because he was a little under-developed but on the bright side he was born polled (without horns) so we didn’t need to do any disbudding at all.

Elvis doing well on the halter

Elvis doing well on the halter

Obviously we need to make sure that we can restrain all the cattle properly for everyone’s safety but particularly Elvis during the impending “procedure”. The purchase of a few proper cattle hurdles (10ft wide by 5ft high) has helped this work greatly and luckily the calves can’t normally shift these… unless the mood takes them and they can get a run-up!

Barn Conversion

After a final burst of energy (and finances) the self-catering holiday let in our barn conversion opened to the first paying guests in the middle of June. Since that point the bookings have flooded in and at this point the barn is almost fully booked right through into September which is encouraging.

Living area and patio

Living area and patio

Our guests have come from a range of countries including Australia, America and Belgium as well as the UK and each group is different so it’s turning into a fascinating way to experience the outside world.

It remains to be seen how much interest there will be through the winter months but with some glowing reviews from all guests so far I have high hopes for more bookings to come in the future.

Click here for more information on self-catering stays in our barn conversion

 

 

3 years and counting

Even now I occasionally find myself thinking of our smallholding as the “new” place but it’s been 3 years since we moved here so it’s time for the third anniversary blog update.

The various blog updates certainly make for some interesting reading and it’s at times like this when this blog really proves its worth. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the highs and lows, the lessons learned and above all else the enjoyment gained along the way.

The major projects undertaken over the last 3 years have included the addition of solar PV panels, switching from oil to a biomass boiler and converting a barn into a self-catering holiday let.

Looking back now that seems quite a list to cover in such a short space of time, particularly while also running the smallholding and working full-time so I’m understandably happy to have them out of the way!

Hopefully we can start to enjoy the fruits of all this hard work just a little although I’ve already learnt that there’s no time for a quiet, restful day on a smallholding. There are always more jobs to be done and plenty of future plans to be made.

Cattle

Just a year ago was one of the lowest points in our time here when the cows arrived and promptly jumped 2 stone walls before disappearing into our neighbours field. It was around 2 weeks before they finally decided to come home and settle down.

One year on from the relative disaster of their arrival, our efforts are really paying off and the cows actually seem to like us. Their calves are completely calm with us and sometimes even happy to get a scratch or to give us a friendly lick. More recently the sight of a hose filling up their water is enough to bring them over to “help” as we fill their bucket.

Just a hint of a smile?

Just a hint of a smile?

We have to remember that getting beef is a longer term plan because Dexters are a slow-growing native breed which develops over about 30 months. That’s quite a wait for a steak or a beef burger but I’m hoping that they’ll be the best I’ve ever tasted.

Pigs

Over the course of our 3 years here we’ve gone from novice pig keepers raising our first ever weaners to produce pork for our own consumption through to becoming fully fledged pedigree Tamworth breeders raising our first 2 litters.

Weaners eager for breakfast

Weaners eager for breakfast

After a few false starts it looks like the majority of the piglets from our first 2 litters will now be sold and should leave in the next week or two. I’ll be sorry to see them go but happy to cut the number of trips to buy pig feed.

Currently the plan is to rest the sows (and the land) a little through this year before the process starts again in autumn ready for weaners to be available early next year.

Chickens

Despite our best efforts, the white chickens that we inherited on moving here continue to thrive while laying just enough eggs to convince us to keep them on. Over the course of recent months our last remaining “pet” chicken – Adele – and the 3 rescue hens that we took on a couple of years ago have gone to meet their maker but I like to think that they all enjoyed their free-ranging outdoor life with us.

Eventually we’ll have to restock and at that point we can consider getting some Cream Legbars or similar so we have different coloured eggs just for some variety.

Has it been worth it?

The journey thus far has been everything I’d hoped for but at the same time it has involved a lot more expense than originally expected. The plan was always to spend the early years setting things up for the longer term so it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

There have been a constant stream of new experiences – some better than others – and much there was a lot to learn along the way. Of course, that was the whole point of taking this on in the first place and I’m not really interested in a quiet life.

The initial work inevitably means that there would be a steady stream of sizable bills while we get everything just how we want it but there’s a good reason why you never see a wealthy smallholder!