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!

Spring Update 2016

Now that the weather seems to have settled down a little I can safely think about doing a “Spring” update here. We’ve had a bit of everything from the weather over the last week or so – snow, hail, rain, sun, cloud – but the forecast for the week ahead seems to show a more appropriate rise in temperatures coming.

Cattle

After the novel experience of calving over the winter, the routine for the cattle has settled back into something more normal. We still need to book a visit from the vet in due course to deal with the castration of the second calf. It just wasn’t possible to do this as we had planned at about 1 month old but on the plus side this calf was born without horn buds so there was no disbudding needed!

Morning roll call for the Dexters

Morning roll call for the Dexters

They are now getting a little fed up with the feed we give them and are eager for any scraps of fresh grass they can get at. A couple of bags of lawn grass cuttings were happily munched last week but I’m told by others that this is not a good idea because the cows will start noisily demanding more even when we aren’t cutting the lawn!

Chickens

Yet again we’re already well into the “egg hunting” season with one or more of the white chickens deciding to sneak off and find a quiet spot to lay in the woods. It can be frustrating to search high and low but find nothing and then suddenly find a clutch of 8-10 eggs under a well hidden hen.

The odd one out

The odd one out

As for chicken numbers, we have 10 white ones (including a cockerel) that were mostly hatched in our first year here. We also have just remaining one brown chicken – an ex-battery hen – who seems unphased by being the odd one out and is usually happiest wandering around with a single white chicken for company.

Pigs

The pigs seem to be really enjoying their time in the woods and our two sows have done an excellent job of raising their respective litters. It’s been quite an eye-opening experience to have this many mouths to feed and to see how quickly they can get through the pig feed.

First litter at about 2 months

First litter at about 2 months

A definite plan for the future is to look into other alternative sources of feed for the pigs. We can get occasional waste fruit and vegetables from a local shop but this number of pigs get through a lot of feed and we need to keep up a good balanced diet to sustain decent growth rates and to maintain their general good health.

Second litter at about 5 weeks

Second litter at about 5 weeks

Useful notes on our first ever litters

For my own reference in future, I have decided to note down what I can remember of the overall sequence of events surrounding the farrowing for both Sissy and Esther. Looking back now it’s a little bit of a blur mostly because it was our (and the sows) first time for farrowing. I can imagine I’ll forget something crucial which would be helpful for the next time so it’s good to have this noted somewhere.

Despite having a good plan in place in advance, the reality was that there were minor differences between each of the pigs which were dictated by the circumstances at that time. This was not entirely unexpected as many of the books and information about farrowing contradict each other to a certain extent which makes it hard for first-timers like us.

The first litter will be ready to go in a week or so with the second litter ready about 3-4 weeks after that so if you’re interested in supporting a rare breed and would like to produce your own pork then you can’t go wrong with a couple of Tamworth weaners!    Click here for more details

Pre-farrowing:

About 1 week ahead of time we prepared the shed and moved both sows indoors together so they could keep each other company. We decided to farrow them inside as being nearer the house would make the job more manageable for us and besides the weather was too cold to leave everything to nature outside.

Rigged up a heat lamp in a corner of the shed and blocked it off with a sheep hurdle to give the piglets somewhere to get away from their mother

Set aside all the bits and pieces in readiness for farrowing – iodine spray, cloths/towels, bucket for warm water etc.

Farrowing:

We were on-hand for the first farrowing (Sissy) between 5pm and 11pm on Thurs 25 Feb with only 5 born and all survived. The first piglet arrived a little unexpectedly so we had to hurriedly move the other sow (Esther) back out to the woods so that Sissy could have the shed to herself.

Second farrowing (Esther) eventually happened in the early hours of Mon 18 Mar with 8 surviving out of 10 born when we checked at about 7am. That includes one piglet which needed some intensive care at the beginning and at one point we almost gave up on it but he had rallied around a couple of hours later and is now indistinguishable from the others.

Post farrowing:

The piglets had limited interest in exploring for the first couple of days and were just happy to suckle and sleep. The heat lamp worked really well and it only took them a day or so to realise it was a good spot for snoozing

By the end of the first week they are getting much more inquisitive and exploring the shed until a human appeared then they’d scuttle back to the heat lamp corner.

After 2 weeks they were fully active and investigating their surroundings (and mothers food)

By 3 weeks they should be getting at least some hard feed as mothers milk production will peak around that point and then starts to reduce over time.

Both litters were moved out of the shed and back to the woods somewhere around 3 weeks old

Outside living:

It was always planned to move each little back to a prepared pen in the woods, partly to clear the farrowing shed in time for the second farrowing but also so that the piglets get used to electric fencing at an early age. If necessary we could move the piglets back into the shed in preparation for selling them once they are ready to go.

We moved Sissy and her litter by leading her first and returning to carry each piglet in turn (with 2 people). The piglets were between 2 and 3 weeks old so carrying was the safest and quickest option.

We moved Esther and her litter by herding all of them together (with 3 people) because the piglets were a couple of days over 3 weeks old (due to other commitments elsewhere).

Esther and her litter

Esther and her litter

Initially a creep fender was used in the woods to try to contain the piglets until they were used to their new surroundings which worked well for Sissy’s litter for a couple of days. Unfortunately Esther’s litter were that little bit bigger and had jumped the fender within an hour or two on their first afternoon in the woods so it was removed completely in the end.

Once they are all in the woods, the only problem we found was that we needed more buckets as the each group had differing quantities of feed plus each group had a ration of sow rolls for the mother and also another ration of smaller pellets for the piglets. Keeping each to their own feed was eventually only partially successful but so long as everybody ate something I was happy!

Sissy helping her litter finish their food

Sissy helping her litter finish their food