Third litter of piglets for Fifi

I never like the idea of talking about important events before they’ve happened and you’re sure how they will turn out. This definitely applies to our sows when they farrow because there are a multitude of things which could go wrong if you stop to think of the worst.

Although I make sure our sows are handled regularly and familiar with having us close by, once they move into the farrowing shed near the house in preparation for the event I still get concerned that unforeseen problems could come up.

So far I’ve been quite lucky and had mostly problem-free farrowing for all our sows – only rarely does a situation come up which means that the vet needs to be consulted. I like to think that our native rare breed Tamworths are made of strong stuff with a good constitution but I’d still rather be prepared just in case

Is there anything cuter than a pile of piglets?

This latest farrowing for Fifi was one of the smoothest I’ve ever had and, apart from it starting at 2am onwards, it was a real privilege to be there the whole time. It also made a change from the winter farrowings we’ve had because I could happily sit with her in just a t-shirt and jeans instead of the full kit of jumpers, coat, thick socks etc.

By the time the sun was fully up on Weds 14th July, Fifi had delivered 9 live piglets – 5 gilts (girls) and 4 boars (boys) – which is remarkably consistent because her other 2 previous litters were also 9 each time. She did have some piglets that were stillborn this time (despite my best efforts I couldn’t save them) which is tough to take for me but that’s all part of the process and she has enough to keep her fully occupied anyway.

They’ll spend about a week or two in the farrowing shed until they’re strong enough and curious enough to move to our designated piglet pen in the woods. In fact this move will have to wait until I finish preparing that pen but I’ve still got a few days before it’s needed

Right now the farrowing shed is their whole world and that’s more than enough to occupy them as they explore all corners when mum isn’t looking. After some feed which is at least 3 times a day, Fifi does like to go outside for a wander and to make use of the toilet facilities in the woods but I’ll save that treat for the piglets once they’re a little bigger

Preparing for farrowing

I’ve now established a fairly reliable procedure to follow in the run-up to farrowing which seems to work for me and more importantly seems to suit the pigs too!

About 5-7 days before the due date, the expectant mother is moved into the farrowing shed – a fancy sounding name but in reality a stone outbuilding nearer the house which is already setup for piglets and also makes my life easier when checking on them.

There is a small “creep” area in this shed which has been partitioned off using wooden sheep hurdles so that only the piglets can get into it. This area has a heat lamp so they keep warm without huddling around their mother rather than potentially being stood on.

Fifi demonstrating the farrowing shed setup

Experience has shown that after moving in the sow very quickly settles into a new routine in this shed with regular trips out for exercise. It’s not quite the solitary confinement that it may appear at first glance and they do still get access to fresh air and grass. However the primary goal of using the shed is to ensure the lead-up and actual farrowing are as stress-free for the pig (and me!).

This is also a good time to deal with a worming injection so that the protection that gives can be passed onto the unborn piglets. For this purpose, we use Panomec which is an injectable form of Ivermectin administered subcutaneously. We don’t want (or need) to give any unnecessary medication but this is a good way to get a specific job done with the minimum of fuss – provided the sow is busy eating at the time of course!

Another important step in the preparation is getting a “farrowing kit” ready in advance. It’s always a good idea to have everything you might need easily to hand during the farrowing rather than having to rush around looking for things. This includes the obvious things like iodine spray, cloths and a travel mug to keep my tea warm. It also includes other less obvious items such as some gloves, a marker spray (for identification purposes), a hot water bottle and a handy sized carboard box with straw for any piglets that need some warming up – although that’s perhaps more important in winter than for a July farrowing.

This will be the third litter for Fifi so I’d hope she’s getting the hang of it all now and won’t need any help from me. Her previous litters have both been 9 piglets which is a good litter size for Tamworths at least. Hopefully she can keep these numbers up again but I’ll settle for whatever she gives us just so long as mother and offspring are healthy

I’ve recently reviewed the records I’ve kept on previous litters from all our sows and that indicates an average gestation of 113 days. Based on my calculations from the time Fifi was in season when the boar was visiting, I’m getting ready in plenty of time before Monday 12 July!

The 8th anniversary and another successful calving

At the end of May 2021 we reached the 8 year anniversary of moving from a previous suburban semi-detached life to our rural 15 acre smallholding in the North Pennines.

On one level we are now so settled here that this is just another anniversary and no big deal really. However when I take the time to consider how far we’ve come, I can fully appreciate the efforts we’ve made along the way, the many new experiences we’ve had in that time and the incredible support from family, friends and neighbours.

Sadly pressures of time with a day job plus the many smallholding tasks and managing our 2 bed holiday let mean that the blog updates are less frequent these days but I will continue to post updates as often as I can in future.

Calving

All 3 of our Dexters calved over an 8 day period in late May with Ruby and Hattie both having red heifer calves then Nellie having a red bull calf. We’ve never had a full set of red calves before and it’s more remarkable when considering that the black gene is more dominant in Dexters. This is best explained in the following extract from a forum post I found:

Red is a recessive – it only shows in animals which have inherited a red gene from each parent – so a red Dexter has two red genes. A black may have two black genes, or it may have one black and one red – the red will not show

http://www.dextercattleforsale.co.uk/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?t=131

Sadly it turned out that Daisy did not hold any pregancy from the bulls visit but that wasn’t unexpected because it coincided with her damaging her udder and ultimately losing a teat. She’s bounced back well thanks to prompt vet treatment and her calf from last year had been enjoying an extended period of milk production as a result so she should be back to normal for next year.

Sly looking good for his sale photo

We had previously known that all these calves arriving this year would mean too many animals in the herd but that can’t be helped. We hope to be selling Ruby plus her calf we’ve named Raquel along with a beef steer from last year in the next week or two but after that we’ll also have to sell Hattie and her calf that we’ve named Ivy.

Ruby and Raquel

That will leave us with just the 2 original cows – Daisy and Nellie – plus the male calf Nellie had this year and the steer that Daisy had last year. The hope is that this coming period of reduced numbers will help our grazing land recover and with luck should also make any hay we get this year last longer through the winter

Our first litter by natural service

After a number of unsuccessful attempts at artificial insemination with the pigs earlier in the year, we decided to try natural service instead and we borrowed a Tamworth boar for a few months.

When he arrived we quickly found that he was very relaxed and easy to work with, so that was one big worry dealt with right at the start. As he is from the Royal Standard male line, we decided to call him Stan during his stay with us.

Stan enjoying his food

Early in September we introduced him to his first lady friend was Fifi and, as the title of this update suggests, Stan must have got to work immediately. As a result, about 15 weeks later we moved Fifi into the shed nearer the house so she’d have a week to adjust ready for farrowing.

Our pigs are mostly outdoors all the time and seem to prefer the freedom that gives them. However, Fifi soon settled into the idea of being housed indoors especially given that the weather was so wet around that time.

From late afternoon Christmas Eve I was fairly sure that something would happen in the next 24 hours if not sooner. With this in mind, I turned on the heat lamp in preparation and settled down with a cup of tea to keep an eye on her.

At about 11:30pm I decided that I should get some sleep for an hour or two but when I checked her again at 1pm she had already safely delivered 9 piglets – 6 girls and 3 boys. This was her second litter and she had the same number as last time which is a good result.

While there were some slight differences in size between the piglets, there were no obviously smaller, runty ones and none were much bigger which might have meant they were able to bully any smaller ones.

A lovely Christmas present

A great result even if it did mean a fair bit of lost sleep for me overnight but luckily Christmas day was a fairly quiet affair and watching the piglets always cheers me up!

A few days later it was time for Stan to head back home, he should have served Esther (in October) and Sissy (in November) as well so he work here has been completed.

Thankfully he was impeccably behaved right up to his departure and loading him into the trailer for the journey back home to Gateshead was a simple process. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t bother to stick his head into the farrowing shed and check on his new offspring or their mother. I suspect his mind is already more focussed on the next lady friend that’s been lined up for him.

Stan loaded and ready for departure

4 years just flies by

In our area, there is a 4 year regime for cattle TB testing as a result of the generally low incidence of the disease here. It’s still a theoretical possibility that they might test positive but it’s fairly unlikely.

When our Dexters had their first ever bovine TB test in Dec 2016/Jan 2017, the event didn’t go too smoothly. As a result I was keen to make sure that this time everything was a little less stressful – both for the cattle and for me!

Over the last 4 years we’ve learnt a lot about the nature and behaviour of our cattle which makes it much easier when handling them. It’s still not a precise science but at least we are more likely to get the outcome we want these days

As it turned out, I got nearly all of them penned first time with just Ruby acting up initially. However this was easily resolved having spent some time recently getting her halter trained. It was just a matter of a bucket with some treats to occupy her while I slipped the rope halter on then led her into the pen where the other were already tucking into some hay.

All penned and ready for the first visit

The first visit last Friday involved 2 injections in the neck for each of them – one injection is Bovine TB and one is Avian TB – along with a quick calliper measurement of the skin thickness at the injection site.

Apparently the idea is that when the vet returns 3 days later, they can assess the injection sites on each animal to look for a reaction. The idea is that each animal should have less of a reaction (i.e. swelling) where the Bovine TB was injected than they do from the Avian TB.

Ruby demonstrating where the injections are done

In the end, the second vet visit on Monday went really smoothly with the whole herd happy to be penned in ahead of time while waiting for the vet to arrive. After getting checked they soon got the all clear and as a reward for good behaviour some more treats in their feed trough

Everyone is happy to get TB testing done

Rain + Pig = mud

On Friday morning we awoke to find a couple of inches of snow had fallen and settled too which was a slight surprise. It wasn’t quite cold enough for it to stay though and it rained occasionally for most of the day so everything turned first to mush then fairly quickly into mud

For most of the livestock this was not a problem, the cows obviously wanted extra hay delivered but that’s not a problem. They are really placid these days and always happy to see me arrive with a fresh bale

Their big moment is coming next weekend when we have our 4 yearly TB test booked with vet visits on Friday and Monday. I suppose there’s always a chance they might have it but we’re in such a low risk area that it’s very unlikely. I’ll still keep fingers crossed though…

We had more pressing activities to handle this weekend. In recent weeks, Esther has been re-enacting some examples of 1914-1918 trench warfare in her pen and the excess of water soon had a predictable result.

Top of the list of jobs for Saturday was to prepare her a new pen and get her moved into something more pleasant. She doesn’t usually have any particularly special requests, just a room with a view and plenty of fresh bedding which I think we managed fairly well

A scenic view across the East Allen valley

Once she made the move into the new pen she seemed happy enough and was soon testing out the house herself!

Esther loves her clean, dry house

A long overdue update

Despite working from home for the last 6 months and hardly ever leaving our holding, it seems to have been impossible to find the time for a blog update.

There are always a number of other tasks that seem to be more important or an unexpected event happens which throws any plans that had been made into complete disarray.

I’ve decided that the best way to initially catch up with blog updates is simply to review one set of events from the last few months. So here’s a general update covering our small herd of Dexter cattle

Calving

Our second cow – Nellie – calved on 14 June without any problems as usual and produced a healthy bull calf that we’ve named Sylvester (or Sly for short). That was an unusually long gap between calves for us with Daisy calving over 2 weeks earlier but we’re just glad that it all went well

Ike (R) and Sly (L) in June 2020

Once the calving is out of the way my thoughts always turn to hay making and I’ve learnt in recent years that the weather can become a bit of an obsession at this time of year.

Hay making

It’s hardly surprising that hay making becomes such a focus when you consider that we’re trying to organise a whole winters worth of feed for the cattle. Luckily our neighbour has all the relevant equipment and expertise so I just need to supply the physical side of things after the baler has finished

Turning the hay in July 2020

Thankfully all went well and we eventually got over 200 small bales safely into the barns with a number of others used as payment for delivery and collection of the bull we hired this year.

Hiring in the bull

The bull arrived in August and had visited our cows previously but was significantly larger than before so he’d put some effort into growing over recent years

He’s a nice calm chap known as Glen but being quite a size and having horns means that I tended to give him plenty of room.

Glen and Ruby his first love on arrival

On arrival he immediately followed Ruby around for a few days so, all being well, I’m expecting her to be first to calve somewhere around the end of May next year

When it came time to load him up for his departure that was also a good time to apply calm cattle handling measures rather than run the risk of an accidental injury!

Hoof trimming

And finally, to complete this update, we come to the hoof trimming in September. This isn’t needed very often but seems to be required about every 2 to 3 years when we find both Nelly and Daisy start having problems with the length of their hooves.

Being outside all year round means they never walk on hard surfaces which might help to wear their hooves down. However it’s a painless process and doesn’t take too long to complete.

Seven years in and loving (nearly) every minute

It’s hard to believe but we’ve now been on our smallholding for 7 years. These days it’s much harder to picture our old suburban house or even the work involved in packing up to move here in May 2013

Hopefully we are becoming better custodians of this place as we go along but there was a lot to learn. Even just understanding the management of the land never mind working with livestock for the first time or adapting to rural life in general.

Our upland hay meadow
Our upland hay meadow in 2013

That’s not to say that this “smallholding journey” has been without problems over that period. There have definitely been moments when I wondered why this seemed to be such a good idea at the start.

Some of the highlights include

What’s not to like about being able to watch as Daisy gives us a healthy new calf just a couple of days ago? Although after the ear tagging this afternoon I’m not sure Isaac is too happy with me now!

Barely 2 days old and pierced ears already

And there have been a few memorable low points along the way including:

Despite those lows, we wouldn’t have missed all this for the world. It’s been a steep learning curve for us as complete beginners. The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is to view any difficulties or setbacks as part of the bigger picture. There has to be both positive and negative aspects to fully experience the smallholding lifestyle so it comes with the package.

Sometimes we reminisce on how our lives used to be, this is usually followed by some laughs at the contrast to our current lives. We’ve been very lucky with this journey so it’s important to me that we continue to move onwards and upwards for the future

Calving with native breeds

One of the reasons we originally decided to get pedigree Dexter cattle was because they are a native UK breed. This means they are well suited to the British climate and able to live outside all year round even here in the North Pennines.

However, as they’re always outside that means they have to calve outside as well. This has previously gone smoothly for us and we try to ensure a late spring calving so the weather should be better.

As luck would have it, this has been a really dry and warm spell so last Friday evening was the perfect time for Daisy to calve. I’d barely switched off the computer from the day job and her behaviour started to change which is always a strong indication.

She managed the whole thing completely unaided as always although I had to watch closely because the whole process fascinates me. Even though we’ve had 9 calves before over the years, there is something special about it.

Isn’t nature wonderful?

Daisy has great mothering instincts and the new born calf immediately got properly washed all over.

The next challenges for the new born calf are getting on their feet and suckling for the first time. It is important that the calf gets to suckle soon after birth because the first milk has lots of antibodies and nutrients that they need for a good start in life.

Thankfully these events all happened relatively quickly and smoothly so we can be sure that this is a healthy calf and he’s got the best start possible

Figuring out how to get to the milk

Before you know it, the mother and calf are wandering around the field as if that’s nothing unusual – apart from the curiosity of the other members of the herd of course.

This is a bull calf and, with some assistance from social media users, Daisy eventually decided on the name Isaac or Ike for short. The initial letter “I” being a decision we made some time ago so he follows on from Elvis, Frank, Garry and Hattie

Learning to moo for the first time

First litter for Fifi – from start to finish

Very reasonably in my opinion, Fifi farrowed during the afternoon on Sunday 8 March which definitely beats sitting up all night for a 4am farrowing as we’ve had quite often in the past.

She produced 9 lovely Tamworth x Berkshire piglets (8 boars and a single gilt) with very little trouble. From that point right through until weaning just over a week ago now, she has been an excellent mother with apparently endless patience and plenty of milk.

Her litter really thrived with her and enjoyed their time out in the woods until eventually at about 7 weeks old it was time for weaning.

Fifi and litter exploring in the sunshine

Since then Fifi has happily settled back into a slower pace of life in a shared pen with Sissy in a fresh part of the woods.

Once they had been weaned, her litter were sold on to new homes and they even behaved impeccably when loading them into the trailer for delivery. This makes them probably the most successful litter we’ve ever had.

All grown up and leaving home

As is usual with pigs, once the mother is weaned you can be sure that she will come into season again within about a week. With this in mind, I decided that it was worth repeating the Tamworth/Berkshire cross-breed with Fifi again almost immediately.

Who’s the daddy? Barlings Lassetter 1899 apparently

Now there’s just the small matter of waiting 3 weeks to confirm that Fifi is definitely in-pig and if she doesn’t come into season then that’s another success for my pig AI skills! I could use an AI success again given that my last attempt with Sissy has apparently failed.

Once it’s been confirmed that Fifi is in-pig then it’s another 3 months or so before she farrows again which should be around the end of August.

Given the fact that we sold out of our latest batch of pork boxes in a single weekend, I have a feeling it may have been better to keep a few from her litter. On the other hand, it will be good to have reduced numbers for the next few months. With outdoor reared pigs it’s essential to rest the land used from time to time to avoid any build up of pests and diseases.

Most of the empty pig pens have now been reseeded with a specific seed mix for pigs. This is a grass based mix which also has things like kale and turnips added which is great for foraging pigs! It will be really interesting to see how well that does in the future.