The chickens are laying again… at last!

After an extended period with no egg production from our chickens, last week we finally got some more eggs out of them. Despite our regular supply of layers pellets and plenty of corn for the long, cold winters nights they had obviously decided to close the egg production down until the days start getting longer.

First egg for 2019

First egg for 2019

As a result we’ve not had our own eggs for many weeks and eventually had to buy some which was a real novelty after all this time. The pleasure of eating eggs from our own hens was becoming a fond but distant memory.

In the past we have bought a few new point of lay hens in early Autumn with the idea that they might produce some eggs during the winter months when out older birds have stopped. This worked well for the last couple of years but unfortunately we never got around to buying more hens last autumn and we took the opportunity to adopt some locally as their owners were emigrating to New Zealand.

Some of the motley chicken crew

Some of the motley chicken crew

The adopted chickens – Colin the cockerel plus his 3 hens – settled in very well and fairly quickly integrated into our existing flock with very little trouble. They all share the same hen-house now without any problems although some seem to prefer the next boxes over night and don’t want to join the rest on the roosting bars which are higher up.

Perhaps they’re too tired to flap up to them at night or maybe they’re just scared of heights?

 

There’s always more to learn!

After the anticipation of an impending farrowing and my failure to spot some key telltale signs, I eventually had to admit that Sissy was not actually in-pig as I had originally hoped.

It would seem that she was just taking advantage of a lapse in concentration, my own (incorrect) assumptions and the chance for a few quiet nights on her own in the shed

Once I realised that nothing was going to happen, it was obviously time for Sissy to take the Walk of Shame to a new pen in the woods. I wasn’t interested in mucking out that shed anymore for a freeloader!

On her way to the naughty step

On her way to the naughty step

To her credit, Sissy was extremely well-behaved and happily led the way round to the woods so perhaps she is trying to get back in my good books. She also adopted a very apologetic expression on arrival at her new accommodation…

Suitably apologetic I hope

Suitably apologetic I hope

As it happens, the remaining 4 meat pigs have now reached the age where I need to separate the 2 non-castrated boys from their 2 sisters. Taking the path of least resistance is always the best option when moving pigs and the first one I got into our trailer was a gilt so that decided the way the move would go.

Now Sissy has a couple of 5 month old gilts for company and, since one of them could potentially replace her if necessary, maybe she will pull herself together when I next try the AI

After all, this unfortunate situation can’t all be my fault or can it?

Friendly company or rivals?

Friendly company or rivals?

And so we’re preparing for farrowing again…

It seems like no time since the last farrowing but after some thought I realise that was actually back in August 2018. I probably should have been more aware of that because we still have 4 meat pigs from that litter and they’re doing really well

Happy families in the woods

Happy families in the woods

Preparations for the farrowing shed were going well earlier this week and included some minor repairs to the piglet corner protection which takes a bit of a beating each year. After putting down some fresh straw with the food and water troughs nicely organised, the quality control team assessed the results and gave it a 5 star rating!

Inspection team hard at work

Inspection team hard at work

Moving Sissy in from the woods was thankfully relatively straightforward, apart from a minor detour when she decided to explore the next door field rather than head back to the farrowing shed. This caused a brief moment of panic because I know that our Tamworths love to explore new places and we didn’t have the time for that sort of excursion today.

Luckily my glamorous assistant was on hand with a pig board to steer her back in the right direction and normal service was resumed very quickly…

No exploring allowed today

No exploring allowed today

With impeccable manners as always, she (the pig not my assistant) simply trotted alongside me all the way back to the outbuildings. She wasn’t even particularly interested in the feed bucket that I was carrying and almost seemed to remember the route all the way to the farrowing shed.

Almost back to the shed

Almost back to the shed

So now we’re all set and the waiting begins. My calculations can be fairly accurate since I know exactly when the artificial insemination happened and using an estimate of 114 days, I’m hoping for a Sunday farrowing. As I recall Sissy seems to favour farrowing during the late afternoon/evening based on past litters so maybe there won’t be any sleepless nights!

Autumn cattle update

We’re now plunging headlong into autumn and the bull has been to visit recently so I thought I’d post a quick cattle-based update with some great pictures I’ve managed to take. Before long they’ll be starting on the winter feed – hay and silage – so it’s nice to have some pictures of them while there’s still some grass around!

This time we stuck with the same bull that we had hired last year – officially he’s known as Baranduin Delta – since we were pleased with this years calves when they turned up in June.

Also we had to consider that this year Primrose would be served as well but as she is a heifer from the first bull we borrowed – Rosewood Glenkinchie – we cannot use him again if we have any of his offspring.

Delta - a real gentle giant

Delta – a real gentle giant

There’s no easy way to be sure exactly when each female gets served by the bull as we can’t spend every moment watching them but at different periods during his stay he will tend to hang around one of them for a few couple of days. By watching out for this behaviour we can make a note of the general date when she may well have been served and then count ahead about 9 months to predict the calving date.

Not an exact science by any means but when this years calves arrived I was only out by roughly 2 days which was quite pleasing.

All the single ladies - Primrose, Nellie and Daisy

All the single ladies – Primrose, Nellie and Daisy

At just over 4 months old now, the 2 calves from this year are filling out nicely and doing really well. Of course, Frank is a year older and as a result he obviously considers himself to be in charge.

This year also saw us experiment with leaving Quinn to grow his horns rather than do any dehorning. This is normally done to prevent risk of injury to us while handling and to them in their occasional (but normal) disagreements, However the work to do this is always a traumatic experience for both us and the calf so this year we decided to leave Quinn alone and take any good or bad consequences in due course.

Although I’m not supposed to have favourites, I do have a soft spot for Daisy since she has always given us naturally polled bull calves (i.e. no horns at all) so this has never been an issue for her offspring.

 

The boys trying to look mean - Frank, Quinn and Garry

The boys trying to look mean – Frank, Quinn and Garry

For the moment we’re back to a nice looking herd with the 3 cows and 3 bull calves but eventually we will need to face the fact that we cannot keep that quantity on the amount of land we have for them. Eventually it looks likely that we will have to sell Primrose because when they all calve next year there will definitely be too many for our available grazing land.

It’s better to face up to this rather than overgrazing the land which would is just not a sustainable approach.

Possibly the most expensive lamb ever

Sadly there has been very little time in recent months to update the blog as much as I’d like but I didn’t want to miss the chance to write an update about the lambs we raised this year.

Since they arrived back in April we have learned the hard way just how expensive it can be to raise cade or orphan lambs. However we’ve also really enjoyed the experience of keeping sheep if only in a small way and now have some limited appreciation of the differences in comparison to our Tamworth pigs and Dexter cattle.

We were only raising these orphan lambs to get a rough idea of what it’s like to keep sheep so we were never too worried about the experiment being a financial success. Of course, with milk powder at £50 per bag and the 9 lambs getting through at least one bag every week at the peak, there was no danger of us making any kind of profit.

Luckily they get weaned from the milk within a fairly short period but even after that they still had some supplementary feed as well as the grass just to make sure they got a good, solid start. By comparison our Dexter cattle are completely grass-fed with no supplementary hard feed so this was a bit of a shock to the system for us.

All aboard for a road trip

All aboard for a road trip

All 9 of them went off to the butchers a couple of weeks ago and despite them being a little undersized we were very happy with the results. Our main worry this year was to make sure that we spread out the meat production a little as we had two batches of pigs to send off as well as these 9 lambs. This meant that we decided to stick to our planned dates rather than reschedule the bookings so that we could avoid overloading the freezers

Despite their smaller size, the fact that there were 9 of them meant that we still got quite a large amount of meat back in one go. Luckily we had an advance order for specific cuts from a well-regarded chef in Whitley Bay but eventually we still decided it was better to get yet another freezer rather than risk running out of space.

Perhaps you can’t call yourself a real smallholder until you have at least 3 chest freezers?

I’m not sure we’d repeat this experiment with lambs every year and I’ve definitely not got the time to take on a flock of sheep all year round. I’d like to think that we could something similar again in the future but perhaps we can try to make it a little more cost-effective if possible

And what would you expect to be on the menu at a time like this, obviously it had to be roast leg of lamb for Sunday lunch…

Whole leg of lamb going into the oven

Whole leg of lamb going into the oven

Another day, another litter of Tamworths

Despite my best efforts with the calculations from the date of the AI, in the end Esther decided to hold on to her latest litter for an extra day or so. Past experience with her litters seemed to show that she was fairly reliable at 113 days but maybe she lost count this time!

After spending nearly the whole night with Esther on the Monday, I gave up waiting and went to bed around 5am for a couple of hours of sleep. She had been exhibiting all the usual signs for imminent farrowing – nesting with the bedding straw, restlessness etc – but apparently decided the time wasn’t right.

Even after a few years of breeding pigs I still can’t quite bring myself to leave the sows alone to get on with it themselves. There’s always a nagging thought in my mind that if someone is around then any complications that happen can get dealt with swiftly.

Esther snoozing and still no piglets

Esther snoozing and still no piglets

Through the morning on Tuesday we checked her roughly every hour or so until eventually she started delivering them at around 10am. Luckily we already had everything ready such as handy cloths, an iodine spray and even everything needed for helping any slightly weaker piglets

First 3 piglets

First 3 piglets at about 10am

In the end, she produced a litter of 10 healthy piglets which is well above the average for the Tamworth breed. Sadly there were another 4 piglets either born dead or beyond saving but perhaps that’s for the best because 10 piglets are already quite demanding and so more would have been a greater strain on Esther.

There were a couple of piglets that were born alive but a little weak so they were immediately cleaned up and placed into the warming bag until they showed more signs of life. This is just a simple combination of a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel in the bottom of an insulated freezer bag but it really does work wonders.

Sickly piglets in the warming bag

Sickly piglets in the warming bag

With this litter Esther has proved to be an even better mother than before and all 10 are feeding well. There was a little variation in sizes of the piglets at birth but even the smaller ones are doing well and able to fight their way on to a teat when needed. As time goes on any size differences will usually even out but we’ll certainly be keeping an eye on the smaller ones as they develop.

The milk bar is fully occupied

The milk bar is fully occupied

Even a few days after all the excitement of the farrowing, I still find myself stopping off at their shed to have a look and check on them.  If I’m quiet I can even sneak into the shed while they’re all sleeping and grab a picture like this:

A full set of sleepy piglets

A full set of sleepy piglets

Finding some time for the produce

It’s never easy combining a full-time job with the various smallholding tasks but it’s particularly difficult at this time of year when everything is growing like mad and providing edible produce. Thankfully I haven’t bothered to mention the courgettes this year because the blog readers would be as sick of them as we are at the moment!

For some reason, this year our redcurrants have been ignored by the wildlife so we actually managed to get a half decent crop from the 2 bushes. This was our first ever crop of redcurrants because in the past I’ve left them as a sacrificial crop so that the blackcurrants didn’t get taken.

A quick first attempt at a redcurrant cordial proved to be very successful with some of them but the rest have been frozen and will be dealt with when there is more time available.

Surprisingly good redcurrant cordial

Surprisingly good redcurrant cordial

It’s now the turn of the blackcurrants to be harvested and they’ll also end up in the freezer for now but I’d rather that than lose them completely. Next year may be even better as I took 5 or 6 cuttings when pruning the blackcurrants and it looks like most if not all of them have taken very well.

And as an extra bonus for this summer, there is even a (very small) harvest to come from the blueberry bush which had been considered as a completely lost cause last year. It was transplanted in the spring and given some TLC which appears to have done the trick

All I need now is a recipe that uses only 3 blueberries…

Better late than never, a hay update

Although it was some time ago now, I never did manage to put anything on here about the hay making this year. I won’t even both coming up with any excuses, there just aren’t enough hours in the day at the moment I guess.

Given that the weather so far this summer has been hot and dry, it’s no surprise that hay making went without a hitch in the end. The first week of July was considered to be as good as any time particularly since the dry weather would mean poorer quality hay if left for too much longer.

Hay cut and baled, just waiting to be brought in

Hay cut and baled, just waiting to be brought in

The field was cut on the Monday, turned a number of times over the next couple of days and then baled by the Wednesday evening. Our neighbour has the right equipment so we’re happy to pay him for the work and all this happened  while I was away for business.

Once I returned though, there was no avoiding the fact that the hay bales needed to be brought into the barn. Luckily the lack of rain this year meant that I could take a couple of days over the task without any risk to the hay while it sat in the field.

This year we got around 150 bales in total which is considerably down on the yield from the same field last year. This is taken from a roughly 4 acre field but only 3 acres of it was considered good enough to cut due to rushes and nettles around the edges.

Part of the hay inside the barn

Part of the hay inside the barn

As a result we’ll need to buy in extra feed for the cattle over this coming winter but that’s quite a common situation for many people this year. Hopefully we can get our winter feed sorted out before any mad rush pushes the prices up too far though.

The field is slowly starting to recover now and, if I’m honest, we could do with some rain soon but I know you have to be careful what you wish for sometimes!

Cut, baled and recovering nicely

Cut, baled and recovering nicely

Another Dexter bull calf – the mighty Quinn

Nellie, our second Dexter calved successfully overnight last week and was also 2 days after my prediction based on the bulls interest last year. Any illusion of accuracy with this on my part is more by luck than judgement if I’m completely honest.

Quinn

Quinn

The result was another bull calf (our second this year) that we have named Quinn based on a rather convoluted and unnecessary method for calf naming using the next letters in the alphabet starting from the mothers initial.

Since she has been with us, Nellie has produced Oscar, Primrose and now (the mighty) Quinn. It wasn’t too easy having to work with the “Q” initial but in the end I’m happy with it and the name seems to suit him.

It seemed a good idea at the time since the names would always start with different letters – for example, Daisy has given us Elvis, Frank and now Garry. However, this year we expect Nellie, Daisy and Primrose to all be served by the bull so if we stick with the plan my “Q” dilemma will return next year when Primrose has her first calf!

Quinn (left) and Garry

Quinn (left) and Garry

As for the earlier calving by Daisy this was all completely unaided and apparently free of any complications although we’ve been a bit concerned about actually seeing the new calf suckling on the mother.

This is mostly for our peace of mind because the little guy is obviously doing fine so he must be getting milk, he just never does it when we’re around in the field. Maybe he’s a little shy…

Growing update – success and setbacks

While reviewing the older blog posts in preparation for the recent blog update covering our first 5 years on the smallholding, I realised that the livestock still take up a much larger part of our work than was originally expected. I’d even noted this in a blog post last summer but somehow I’d never managed to deal with this imbalance.

Originally I had expected that growing fruit and vegetables would be an equal part of the work involved and hadn’t thought there’d be quite such a focus on animals. Obviously that is just the result of the decisions taken over time and these were all based on the options available at the time so I can see how we’ve ended up in the current situation.

In an attempt to rectify the balance a little on the blog, here is a quick update on the successes or otherwise with fruit/vegetables for this year (so far)…

Soft Fruit and Top Fruit

While the blackcurrants have been a roaring success, the red currants have usually taken the role of a sacrificial crop. We never lose many blackcurrants to the birds but the redcurrants are always picked clean. I think that this year I’ll make a greater effort to properly net the bushes in the hope that we can at least try some of our own redcurrants.

The fruit trees (apple, plum, pear) continue to make good progress but, during the bad snowfall in March, things must have been tough for the local wildlife. As a result the bark was stripped from most of our fruit trees and I’ve kept my fingers crossed since then in the hope that they’ll pull through.

Apple blossom - Spring 2018

Apple blossom – Spring 2018

 

Pear blossom and bark damage

Pear blossom and bark damage

Autumn onions

I left it a bit late last autumn when planting out my red onion sets but despite my failings there is still a decent enough showing in that raised bed. With any luck we should have a usable crop and it’s been a good lesson to learn about the proper planting times for crops going into the ground in autumn

Mixed results for the Red Onions

Mixed results for the Red Onions

Lambs and seeds

Continuing the general theme of reporting minor disasters, one batch of seed sowing suffered quite badly with an attack of lamb hooves. The “little darlings” pushed their way out an enclosure and over the relatively soft rabbit protection I had in place.

Having just sown some rows of seeds only a few days earlier, I was less than impressed and I plan to use the whole episode to help me get over the difficulties of sending them off to slaughter in due course.

As can be seen in the picture below, there were a few gaps in the rows where carrots and lettuce should be but I’ve now re-seeded them and hopefully we can still make use of the space.

Limited seed sowing success

Limited seed sowing success

Success comes at a price

To end on a high note, after a couple of failed years trying to grow courgettes, I have finally managed to raise some that didn’t die within a week or so of being planted out. Unfortunately I can already predict the likely outcome when they start producing because I always plant too many and never learn that lesson!

Luckily we quite like courgettes and if necessary can probably find someone who’ll take any spares but if all else fails then the excess can easily go to the pigs and chickens

You can have too many courgettes

You can have too many courgettes