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

Properly easy (and quick) calving

We’ve barely got used to getting our first calf for 2019 last Tuesday but now all 3 calves have turned up. Compared to last year when the calving was spread out over a few weeks, this time around the whole business has been completed in just 4 days!

We’ve got 3 lovely heifer calves with red ones from Nellie and Primrose plus a black one from Daisy. I’d read online that the black gene is more dominant in Dexters but apparently Nellie and Primrose didn’t get that memo.

Daisy always gives us black calves so her’s is probably no surprise and so far hers have also always been without horns. However this is the first heifer she’s given us which makes a really nice change.

No male calves from any of them is a bit of a first for us but for the moment we’re just transfixed at the speed with which the calves become mobile. In no time at all they are wandering the field with their mothers following after them, nagging them to be careful and slow down!

Daisy with Hattie (left) and Nellie with Ruby (right)

Daisy was first to deliver early last Tuesday morning and her black calf has been named Hattie. Not wanting to be left out, Nellie decided during Thursday afternoon that it was time to join in and her red calf has been named Ruby.

The last to deliver was Primrose this morning and our earlier worries about her being a first timer were completely unfounded. After checking her at about 8am this morning, we discovered just after 11am that she had calved. I was particularly happy to see that she was showing great mothering skills by cleaning the new born and we’ve named her calf Petal for now.

Primrose with Petal tucking into her first meal

As always with our Dexter cattle, no assistance was needed for any of the calves and we could simply be curious bystanders watching the events unfold.

Sadly, our limited amount of land just won’t cope with this many animals so we’ve decided that Primrose and Petal will most likely be sold later this year.

Our cattle stay outside all year round – they’re a native breed and very hardy so the conditions don’t bother them. However that does mean we can’t consider keeping more than 6 animals at the very most through a winter.

Any more than that would mean our fields suffer too much damage and as a result the grass would take a long time to recover the following spring, assuming it recovered at all that is!

She will go to the bull again when he arrives around August/September but we’ll need to reduce the numbers so selling her with her calf seems the best answer. Perhaps we may even sell them with one of our 2 beef steers for company and that would be a nice little starter herd for somebody.

Calving has finally started for 2019

After spending the past weekend incorrectly trying to guess the imminent arrival of our first calf for this year, I should at least have predicted that it would happen while I’m away for work this week.

Some time in the early hours of this morning it turns out that Daisy produced a lovely black calf for us. As is common with our Dexter cattle, there was no need for any involvement on our part although we had made sure they nearer the house last week.

New arrival and attentive mother

This move meant they would be closer to our cattle equipment like strong hurdles and the crush just in case they were needed if any problems came up. It also keeps the cattle in a smaller area because at some point I’ll need to catch the new arrival to check the gender and apply the ear tags

In previous years, Daisy has always given us naturally horn free (polled) calves so I’m hoping this year will be the same. However in the past she has only ever given us male calves so this time I think I’d prefer a heifer (female) calf just for a change!

In actual fact, we’ll be perfectly happy with whatever we get just as long as mother and calf are both healthy!

A day trip for Sissy and Fifi

Since we moved to our smallholding almost exactly 6 years ago, we have made the Northumberland County Show a fixture in our calendar for us on the second Bank Holiday Monday in May.

It’s always an entertaining day out but this year was our first ever attempt at showing pigs there so I made sure my expectations were suitably low. Not least because it would be a long and slightly traumatic day out for all concerned if everything didn’t run smoothly.

As it turned out I needn’t have worried because our Tamworths were impeccably behaved. They coped very well with the attention and the crowds didn’t seem to phase them too much.

Fifi ignoring the general public

As might be expected, I was more concerned about the showing and judging aspects than the pigs were. However this part always seems to be a certain type of organised chaos with pigs wandering in all directions so our 2 fitted in very well.

We had only entered 2 classes – one for Traditional Breed Sow (Sissy) and one for Traditional Breed young gilt (Fifi) – so the hope was we’d maybe have one rosette as a reward for our combined efforts by the end of the day.

Sissy has caught the judges eye

Right at the start of the day we had a small setback when Sissy must have stood on Fifi’s back leg at some point during the journey. Luckily the excellent show vets were able to check her over (it was just a bash, nothing broken!) and gave her an anti-inflammatory injection which really helped.

Sadly though she was still limping during the judging of her class so she was marked down as a result and only got a 5th place. However I’m proud of her for battling through in such difficult circumstances.

Things soon looked up though and by the end of the judging we had amassed quite an impressive haul of rosettes because Sissy came first in her class as best Traditional Breeds Sow.

The win in that class meant she went on to enter the Traditional Breeds Female class against winning female pigs of different ages from other classes. Happily she won that as well to be judged the Traditional Breeds Champion Female and also got another rosette for being the best placed Tamworth at the show.

All in all it was a very enjoyable and successful day out but by the evening we were all happy to get back home to familiar and more restful surroundings

Maybe we’ll try this again next year? Perhaps… but maybe not because it’ll be difficult to match the achievements from this year!