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.

All stages of pig breeding in one weekend

The past weekend has been a major entry on my calendar for some time because a number of fairly big events were scheduled.

However looking back on it all now, I realise I hadn’t fully appreciated that nearly all stages of pig breeding were involved – artificial insemination on Sissy plus a new litter for Fifi and also 3 meat pigs heading off to the butchers.

Fifi farrows for the first time

Fifi had all week to settle down in the farrowing shed and was getting closer to farrowing so we started final preparations on Sunday morning. This just means gathering the various things we might need at short notice once it all starts. If there are problems then we don’t want to waste time hunting for something crucial that might save a life.

By lunchtime things were clearly moving fast and over the course of the next 2 hours she rapidly farrowed 9 piglets with remarkably little trouble given this was her first litter.

They’re now almost 2 days old and all are still doing well. Almost up to the psychological (and non-scientific) 3 day point when I can start to believe they’ll all survive.

The most important first hurdles have been passed though – getting milk from their mother, finding the heat lamp and getting plenty of sleep!

Sissy AI

After the rather worrying time during the last farrowing for Sissy we’ve decided to try getting her back in-pig as soon as possible.

Another AI for Sissy

Once separated from a litter at weaning, a sow will come into season again within a week.

As usual, this meant careful planning to make sure I could be around to do this, ideally at a weekend. Also it meant timing the order for supplies so they arrive at the right point – it only lasts for about 5 days

In the end it all seemed to go well with the 3 AI attempts spread out over Friday and Saturday. As often happens, at least one attempt was a bit of a disaster but the other 2 appeared to be fine.

We’ll know for certain in about 3 weeks if we don’t see Sissy coming back into season – another future entry in my calendar!

Meat pigs to the butchers

To round off the weekend, there was a trip to the abattoir on Monday to take the first 3 meat pigs. This is never a great day but we always keep things as calm as possible for the pigs.

Having been born and raised here on our smallholding, they travel less than 30 miles in the trailer which all helps.

Considering the nationwide problems with smaller abattoirs closing due to the costs of regulations these days, we’re quite lucky to have something within a decent distance.

Locked and loaded for the trip

The pork from this batch has already been sold out in advance via social to a combination of our loyal regular customers and a few new ones as well.

Once we get the meat back next weekend, we’ll know for certain whether there is any left available or, in the worst case, if we’ve over sold it ahead of time.

There will be another batch of 3 meat pigs heading off in about 6-8 weeks time so anyone who missed out this time won’t have long to wait. We’re also hoping to get a little more bacon from the next batch – we don’t often have bacon made because the pigs needs to be kept quite a bit longer but it’s nice to have it every once in a while.

As well as being some of the finest pork available (according to me at least!), the pork sales help cover the costs of keeping all the pigs on our holding so we’re always very grateful for that.

And off we go again

This weekend was weaning time for Sissy and her small litter of 2 piglets so the farrowing shed became the piglet shed just for one night. In the morning Sissy moved back to the woods for some peace and quiet while the piglets enjoyed a hearty breakfast without having to share it with mum

Tamworth piglets at 2 months old
Tamworth piglets at 2 months old

They’re off to their new home now (at Wilde Farm if you’re interested) and it’ll soon be time for us to see whether Sissy comes back into season as expected or not.

Although it can seem a little soon, the fact is that a sow will come into season around 5-7 days after her litter have been removed. It’s not an exact science so we’ll need to keep a close eye on her over the next week or so just to check

The current plan is to try the AI again with Sissy when she comes into season so that she has another litter during this year.

In the meantime, the shed has now returned to more normal use with Fifi moving in this evening in preparation for farrowing in about a weeks time.

Fifi enjoying her supper in the shed
Fifi enjoying her supper in the shed

Since the only Tamworth boar available as AI at the time was actually her father, this litter is an experiment with crossing 2 rare breeds – something we’ve not done before.

The AI used was from a Berkshire boar so I’m really curious to see what the piglets look like when they’re born.

I can still remember doing the AI with Fifi and, if I’m honest, it really didn’t go very well so I’m pleasantly surprised that she’s in-pig at all. That may mean a relatively small litter in the end but it’s impossible to tell at this stage.

Watch this space for further piglet developments in about 7-10 days!

A tough couple of weeks

Now that some time has passed since my initial worries for Sissy during the first week or two after farrowing, it seems a good time for me to summarise the events for future reference

Sissy farrowed in the early hours of a Monday but seemed to have a difficult and long-winded farrowing with only 2 live piglets in the end. A couple of days after that she still hadn’t got her old appetite or her personality back so on the Friday we called in the vet in to check her over.

Just not her usual self…

Although there was no specific problem diagnosed and her temperature was roughly normal, the decision was made to give her some medication as a precaution. These I believe were her first ever antibiotics as she’s never had anything before and she also had some hormones to help in case her body wasn’t adjusting properly after farrowing.

I was left with a follow-up injection of antibiotics to be given a couple of days later so that I could be sure she’d received the full course of treatment. We also made the decision to get in some fruit and veg for her in the hope that would stimulate her appetite over time.

Carrots (and apples) work wonders

By the middle of the second week she was clearly making good progress (as were the piglets) and she was often happy to take short trips outside with her tiny companions.

At times during this period I did wonder if she had just been trying it on because she was happy for an apple, carrot or tomato but would then ignore her normal pig feed. Suspicious behaviour but I gave her the benefit of the doubt…

Exploring the outside and clearing the unwanted moss

Last weekend was almost 2 weeks since farrowing and thankfully she is broadly back to normal now. She is a very attentive mother and always watches out for her litter but shows no aggression when we are around so that’s the perfect combination for a small scale pig keeper

You don’t always get what you want…

After an unplanned year off during 2019 for Sissy with litters, she finally delivered again in the early hours of Mon 13th Jan. As usual I can’t help wanting to be there when it all happens but that always means a lot of lost sleep.

This time she ended up with just 2 live piglets – a boy and a girl – which was a surprise given the size of her during the build up to farrowing. Perhaps she’ll need to trim down her weight a bit once she’s raised this litter.

My impression was that she had a tough time during the delivery and there was a third piglet which was born dead – always a shame but there’s nothing more you can do. The effort certainly seemed to take the energy out of her and initially she wasn’t eating or drinking afterwards.

First piglet out always gets the prime spot

She’s taken a day or two to get back to her old self but through this period she’s always been very attentive to her small litter and keen to make sure they are able to feed on demand.

Thankfully she’s eaten a little something herself now so she’s hopefully improving again but I confess that I was a little worried for a while.

Under the heat lamp for a snooze with full stomachs

I’m keeping a watchful eye on her both via our special “pig cam” and also by regular visits in person. I hope it’s nice for her to have occasional human company but I’m careful not to disrupt her time with the little ones.

Farrowing preparations for January 2020

This time around I’m a lot more confident that Sissy is actually in-pig and is due to farrow in a little under 2 weeks. I’m very aware that I’ve said something similar before but all the signs are there so far.

When I look back on blog updates from this time last year I’m can’t quite understand how I allowed myself to believe that she was heading towards farrowing. I suspect it was probably because I had noted everything carefully on the calendar and once I saw it there I didn’t question it again. Lesson learned for that time!

This year will be the first litter for Sissy since she won all the rosettes at the Northumberland Show last May. It was quite a day out for all of us and she did so well to win Traditional Breed Champion Female so I felt she deserved a little break.

Sissy (left) and Fifi enjoying their breakfast

Sissy and Fifi have spent the last few months in some woods (an old stone quarry I’m told) in the front fields. However that can get very wet in the worst weather so they’re both looking forward to a change of scene later this week.

Fifi will move to a new pen in the woods at the back where she will be joined by a couple of the younger meat pigs so she has some company. I’m fairly confident that she is also in-pig but I think I’ll do one more check in a couple of weeks time before I can be completely sure.

Sissy will get the luxury of the farrowing shed closer to the house so she can relax and prepare herself. It may not come with spa facilities or a hot tub but it will make a nice change from the muddy woods for her (and for us!)

Sissy looking forward to getting into the farrowing shed

Happy birthday to Esther and Sissy

Today was a special day which normally gets overlooked in the mad rush before Christmas so this year I’m quietly pleased with myself for marking the special event with a blog post

It’s hard for me to believe in a way but our 2 main Tamworth breeding sows – Sissy and Esther – are 5 years old today and they were only 8 weeks old when we first collected them.

From such a subdued beginning as part of our 3rd batch of 4 weaners, they’ve managed to make themselves an integral part of our life here. I can hardly imagine life without them now.

Back in 2015, after gaining some experience with 3 previous sets of meat pigs, we bought another 4 pedigree Tamworth weaners. The idea was that 2 of them would be for meat (the “eaters”) and 2 would be kept for breeding (the “keepers”).

When we collected them from the breeder they were marked to indicate the two most promising to keep and as it turned out over time that was how they developed.

First off the trailer in 2015, the keepers!

It’s quite a contrast to look back at the early photos now particularly as Esther currently has her latest litter for company. I’m sure she appreciates the social aspect but they’re just over 3 months old and probably are a little annoying at times – especially meal times!

Esther – all grown up with little ‘uns of her own

By contrast, Sissy just has Fifi for company at the moment but will farrow in about 3 weeks so she’s quite a size! I expect that if she does know what’s coming then she’s appreciating the relative peace and quiet for now.

Sissy – hopefully with little ‘uns coming soon

Over the years I have learned to treat both sows with a certain amount of respect and caution but not because they are in any way aggressive. If I had to guess, a full grown Tamworth sow must weigh at least 250-300kg so it’s a good idea not to let them stand on your foot or even worse knock you over in the mud!

We will continue to give all our breeding sows the best life possible which will include their retirement years when that time comes. They have been a part of our lives for almost 5 years so they are considered part of the family now

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