A sunny day means lots of moving around

The miserable weather seems to have gone away (for the moment) so I could start on some of the pending jobs that have been put off due to the wet ground.

First up was a move for the cattle into an adjacent field which, although not perfect by any means, is definitely better for them than their previous watery, muddy home.

There was a slight detour at first when the back garden seemed a lot more interesting to them. This was mostly due to Daisy taking advantage of an opportunity but I managed to herd them back to the right place without too much collateral damage.

Frank is usually the curious one

Once they were into the correct field they soon settled in with a bale of hay and some fresh water. A short time after the photo above they were spotted having a quick snooze in the welcome early spring sunshine.

As I had hoped, a similar kind of move for Esther and her litter went completely to plan with no detours or other shenanigans. So long as the piglets can see their mother they will happily wander along behind her. However if they lose sight of her then all bets are off!

Esther and litter stop for a snack

The hardest part with these moves is keeping everyone moving along together because they can be easily distracted by tasty tufts of grass, an old tree branch or a quick root around in the mud.

There was even a chance for the new (and nosy) neighbours to check on things as we made our way through the woods to the new pen.

Keeping an eye on the proceedings

In no time at all the pigs were happily into the designated pen and exploring their new space. Of course, Esther had to adjust the straw in the pig ark because she’s never happy with my initial efforts but she’s a great mother so I can put up with that.

It may not look much yet but it’s home!

For the piglets the first hour or so also involves testing the electric fence with associated brief squeals but it doesn’t cause any permanent damage for them and they soon learn the limits of the pen.

Now I can see that the weather forecast shows -2° C here overnight but I know the pigs will be fine, huddled in a pile with their fresh straw.

As for the Dexters, I’m not sure they’ll notice as they’ve still got their thicker winter coats for the moment.

Whatever happened to gravity?

Living up a hill in the North Pennines at 1000ft above sea level, I had assumed that water wouldn’t be too much of a problem for us. Why should we worry about that when we are all taught in school that gravity means water will naturally flow downhill.

We are another 200ft above the main village so it would seem logical to expect that any excess water up with us should flow down to the village and on into the River East Allen down below us. From there the water can merrily flow on to join the River South Tyne and then head towards Newcastle before in due course meeting the North Sea at Tynemouth.

However it turns out there is more to this than I first knew.

For one thing, the geology of our general area means that there are many points where water simply emerges from underground as a result of the rock formations. This is not a bad thing in some ways because our house is on a natural spring water supply!

Add to that the fact that drainage in some areas of our small patch could definitely be improved. Not so much to turn all this water into someone else’s problem but just to get the excess to run in the right places where it can be better managed.

Standing water at 8am with rain due all day!
Standing water at 8am with rain due all day!

Another key point is that the upland areas of the UK like the North Pennines, particularly the moors higher up from us, are actually great places for holding up water. I’ve seen many articles since we moved to this area about restoring the peat bogs or renewing the sphagnum moss and such like

I don’t claim to understand the subject in any depth but I can appreciate that if water flows more slowly from the moors at the start of the process then it will help. Reducing the amount of water and the speed at which it flows down will reduce the risk of flooding for built-up areas further away.

Faced with a day of heavy rain today and a small herd of Dexter cattle that live outdoors all year round it was clear that a smallholder with a soft streak like me had some quick decisions to make.

Top of the list, I decided that it would be good to let the cattle have a small section of woodland which would keep them out of the worst of the wind and rain for today.

They may be a hardy breed and quite happy living outside in the UK climate but that doesn’t mean I’d be happy sitting inside my house knowing they are just sheltering behind a stone wall.

Happy to be out of the weather for today
Happy to be out of the weather for today

Pork is selling like hot cakes

Whenever I collect another batch of pork from the butchers there is always a real sense of pride along with all the other obvious feelings. Pride partly because we have produced something ourselves but more importantly we are proud to have reared animals with the respect it they deserve and given them the best life possible while they were with us.

As it turned out, the latest results were some of our best which is particularly pleasing because rare breed pigs (not just Tamworths) can be quite tricky to rear with the right balance of meat and ratios.

In no time at all, our larger pork selections boxes were all sold, in some cases before we had even collected the meat from the butchers. It’s nice to know that the quality of meat from our Tamworth’s is so highly regarded!

Recently we’ve been trying out the Wool Cool insulated boxes from 3R Sustainable Products and have been very pleased with the quality. This will come in very handy for the future as word spreads and we start to deliver further afield either ourselves or by using an overnight courier.

There are now just some assorted individual cuts still available but with more pigs due to go at the end of March there’s not long to wait until we have more boxes available

In the meantime, there is pork fillet – great for stroganoff or stir frying – or some chops and diced pork – both of which are great from our slow cooker. Of course there are always sausages available in a range of flavours including traditional, pork and leek, cumberland, lincolnshire and more.

Don’t want to cook?

If you’d rather eat out then Gary Dall at The Roxburgh, Whitley Bay has done some really interesting things with our pork in the past. Their place in the Good Food Guide 2019 was not easy to come by but it’s richly deserved I’m sure.

Judging by the many great reviews from customers (and the Secret Diner) the results are going down very well but make sure to book well in advance to avoid disappointment

Having said that, I’m not known for being an adventurous eater so I’m not sure that I could bring myself to order some of the dishes. The presentation is always impressive though so if you’re brave enough then keep a look out for pigs heads on their menu in the near future

Farrowing does not always go according to plan

Despite all the preparations, forethought and planning leading up to Esther farrowing there was still a surprise in the works for us.

The theory was that we would move Esther into a stone outbuilding nearer the house a few days before her due date so that we can keep an eye on her more easily. This would also mean she was separated from the 2 meat pigs that have been company for her but were due to go off to the abattoir at about the same time.

Looking okay at breakfast time

Having checked her at breakfast time on the Saturday morning, I was happy that she could be moved into the shed at mealtime that same evening. This would mean the meat pigs could stay in the woods until they were loaded in the trailer on last thing on Sunday or first thing on Monday morning.

Everything was continuing according to the carefully made plans so far…

We got down to the woods to move her at about 4pm and immediately noticed that the 2 meat pigs rushed out to greet us but there was no sign of Esther coming out of her ark. Highly unusual because she’s normally fairly keen on her food and moves quickly even at this late stage of the gestation

As I got closer to her ark the reason became clear, she’d already farrowed 5 piglets and looked to be still in the process of producing more. Luckily she is a very placid mother and happy for us to be around her even during farrowing.

Barely an hour or two old

An immediate change of plans was required, I would not be comfortable leaving a sow with new born piglets in the same pen as a couple of mildly boisterous 6 month old boars.

In the end, the 2 boars got some unexpected luxury accommodation in the farrowing shed for a couple of nights and we left Esther where she was. The pig ark was very sheltered and she’d done an excellent job with looking after them so far. There seemed no benefit to disturbing them at that point especially given that we’ve got some very mild weather at the moment

We’ve not had pigs farrowing outdoors before, mainly because we’re fascinated by the whole process and like to feel that we’re helping by being on hand. There have been a few occasions where we’ve managed to save piglets that where weaker when born but that’s not always possible.

It’s just a fact of life (and death) that sometimes an apparently healthy looking piglet will be born very weak or even dead and while it’s never easy to see though but we just do our best to help where we can.

The final outcome for this litter was 3 gilts and a boar – there was another boar that seemed okay at first but sadly he was dead by the next morning.

Most importantly for the surviving piglets, their mother was doing well and soon up on her feet again. It’s obviously tiring for the sow during the farrowing but she worked up quite an appetite after missing her Saturday evening meal due to the early arrivals.

By Sunday morning she was glad of her extra rations and a chance to come out of the pig ark to stretch her legs.

Glad it’s over and food has arrived

This time it’s for real… I hope!

It’s been a troubling time since the last expected farrowing – mainly because I still can’t quite explain why I misjudged events so completely.

Admittedly it is true that Sissy already had quite a reputation for carrying a few extra pounds compared to her sister (Esther). Added to that is the constant juggling of time between the smallholding activities and a full time job not to mention the usual family commitments.

As a result I’ve been doubting myself even more than usual when studying Esther for any of the usual signs as the expected farrowing date gets closer.

Esther in January
Esther in January

More recently there have finally been enough signs for me to believe that this time we’ll actually get some piglets around the middle of the month.

Although not completely clear from the picture below, there are definite signs of the teats forming up and this could be confirmed by gently checking her underline

Esther 3 weeks later
Esther 3 weeks later

Next on the list of tasks will be a preemptive worming injection sometime over this coming weekend. This will not only help her but also passes the protection on to the unborn piglets. That should mean they get the best possible start to life with no unwanted parasites.

Now it’s just a waiting game and I’ll be keeping an eye on her development. In about another week or so it will be time for her to move inside in preparation for farrowing.

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