Category Archives: Livestock

Aims for 2019

Well 2018 was a poor year for us smallholding wise. My pregnancy and then recovery meant we didn’t do much. Very limited planting, limited harvesting, no lambing, we stopped keeping geese and a lot of maintenance jobs piled up.

I am finally able to get back to work a bit, although it is still limited. I’m itching to get on with jobs though. I thought I’d make a little list here of the things I would like to accomplish this year. It’ll be interesting to look back on at the end of the year.

We ended 2018 by finally moving the shed in the orchard (walking a 6×4 shed was an experience), painting it, getting a (partial) roof on and moving the young flock of chickens in. I’d like to finish the house: get the other side of the roof on, perches and poop trays in and get an automatic pophole and window in. Built in, easy access nest boxes would be great.

D’Artagnen and his 9 ladies seem fairly happy, except for one who insists on breaking out to lay in her old spot. She’s going to be a handful that one.

D’Artagnen and his ladies

Next up is improving our fruit and veg production. We’re halfway there with the polytunnel raised beds and I’d like to get those finished. There’s also the beds outside to raise. The fruit patch is in dire need of weeding, mulching, more bushes planting and a cage over the top.

The polytunnel

The area between the fruit patch and veg patch has been earmarked for ducks and will need fencing, clearing and seeding. The shade polytunnel also needs clearing and seeding for next year’s chicks.

Our future duck patch

I’d also like to get some willow planted around the holding and repair a lot of fence posts that our ram lambs knocked down. And I’d like to sort out the sheds, greenhouses and polytunnels so that we can actually find things, and maybe look into planning to replace our storage polytunnel with a small barn, we really need a better lambing place.

Ok there’s a lot of jobs I’d like to take on. I don’t know that we will manage it all, but we’re gonna give it a go. One of the big things I’d like to challenge myself with is getting out 5 days a week for more than our morning and night let out/feed/lock up runs.

Even being out for an hour with the kids I can still get a lot of work done. It may sound silly for a smallholder to not already be out 5 days a week but it’s something we’ve found really hard this past year. Between coughs, colds, flu, hospital admittance, bad hips, broken bones and wounds we’ve found we can actually go weeks only doing the bare minimum. And once you’ve been in for weeks it can be easy to slip into the habit. It’s not what I imagined when I thought of smallholding with children but we play the cards we’ve been dealt. I’m hoping for a healthier 2019!

We’ve already managed 6 out of the 8 days outside this year (Saturday I had a smallholding wool crafting group meeting and Sunday we had guests), and I’m so happy with the progress we seem to be making chipping away at jobs. The polytunnel is pretty clear and tidy, I’ve two more cockerels in my freezer and started on the duck patch.

Inside I’d love to get more comfortable with baking and finally try a quiche! Also craft a bit more, I’ve finally finished knitting Rowan’s newborn hat (which just about fits), but I’d like to start and finish more projects. Motherhood the first time round took everything, I’m hoping to carve a little more me time this time around.

His first handknit

We’ll see how I get on with it all, I’m really excited to see what 2019 brings. Happy New Year everyone!

Dans

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In the bleak midwinter

Today is the winter solstice, when the sun sets tonight it will start the longest night. I’ve celebrated Yule (the solstice) for about 17 years now but my understanding of it has really changed since becoming a smallholder.

I started on this smallholding journey because I felt called to becoming more in tune with nature, not just growing our own food and raising our own animals but doing it whilst following the seasons and working with nature.

It’s really worked well in that respect. You can ask Sam or I at any time of year what time sunset will be and we can tell you (we still aren’t great at sunrise, my bed calls to me too!). We can look outside and tell you how much light is left in the day. In short, smallholding has made us very aware of the sun.

The shortening days have been hard on us, especially as we were doing the bare minimum during my pregnancy. The jobs have piled up and now, when I’m starting to be physically able again, the days are so short.

Walking back from the sheep this morning I felt quite disheartened. Sam, Chi and Rowan are sick, Rowan with a very high temperature. I’m the healthiest of the lot but I’m still sniffly. The sheep are just finishing off the last bale of hay, I’ve never reversed the trailer and Sam still can’t drive the Honda with his broken foot. We need to move the sheep on but the rams broke a load of fence posts which need replacing. The bigger cockerels need slaughtering so that the smaller ones can grow. The new chicken house needs a roof. That’s just the urgent stuff, there are jobs everywhere I look and things have started getting muddy.

It feels like an awful lot on a day where my scar is hurting and a sick baby means I’ll likely be sat cuddling and worrying if he’s getting better. Our solstice morn had been bleak, I was up for sunrise but the rain made it a bit anticlimactic.

Now, walking back and feeling overwhelmed, I was blinded, the sun had broken through the clouds and was returning. The days will stop getting shorter. It was a bit of a beautiful and hopeful moment. I enjoyed it for a while and then took a picture.

It’s not all sunshine and roses though. Our weather patterns are all over the place and winter has been very mild so far. I’m fully expecting things to get worse before they get better, more mud, frozen water buckets, frozen taps and snow, but the sun is returning and every day brings us closer to long warm summer days. I’m going to try and hold onto that between now and Spring.

Solstice blessings to you all, may the sun shine brightly on you and your lands.

Dans

P.S. Sam came up with a hay solution. We can get 6 bales in the back of the Honda so I’ll do that, which should last us until he can drive the Honda again.

Our first homebred hogget

*TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES* There are pictures on this post but unfortunately they aren’t showing up. Please let me know if you can see them, as it’ll help me fix this.

 

Our first homebred lambs were 18 months old in November. Cisco was a really lovely ram in looks and a good temperament so was traded to another smallholder in exchange for Django, our new ram. Cisco has 6 girls of his own and I’m crossing my fingers that we hear of some lovely lambs from him next year.

 

The shearling ewes were put in with Django along with our 3 mature ewes. If everyone lambs then we’ll have a lot of sheep on our 2.5 acres, especially if the shearling ewes have twins. If that happens then I think we’ll be looking at selling some ewes with lambs at foot. We could also sell some stock at weaning. Everyone has been covered by Django at least once so its a wait and see what we get now.

Lots of lovely coloured bums

That left Crichton and Crais. Although Crais had done a lot of growing he was still smaller than Cisco and his horns weren’t quite growing in the right direction. As he was kept intact there was no option of him being a friend for a ram. Crichton was lovely and friendly but that also made him a bit dangerous. He thought he was people but he was also most likely to butt you. He did it a few times to me through the fence if I wasn’t scratching his chin right. Both boys were destined for the freezer.

From left to right, Cisco, Crais and Crichton

The night before they went, after they had been penned up safe, Sam and I had a discussion about meat. We raised these lambs. Crichton was so friendly. Could we eat them? Did we want to eat them?

The answer to the latter for me was yes. I am a meat eater, I don’t see that changing, and with the way my gut is, meat is one of the few things I can eat without trouble. Despite being a meat eater I also care passionately about animals. Some people find that hard to marry but I believe that it’s ok to eat animals if they have had a good life and a good (quick, low stress) death. I’m not completely there yet but I’d like all my meat to come from animals we have raised or have been raised by people we know. As to the former question, I feel that if I can’t eat meat I have raised then I shouldn’t eat it at all. I guess I believe that I should be aware of the animal and the life that was sacrificed.

The hogget from our homebred sheep wouldn’t be our first homebred meat. We have eaten chickens that we have bred. Sam felt that the sheep were closer to us, more relatable and that made it more difficult. We both went to bed with slightly heavy hearts that night.

Ingredients for a homegrown feast

One thing that came out of the conversation was looking at our consumption of meat in general. As a family we eat a lot of meat. We also have a lot of meat on the freezer. We talked it through and realised we were saving our homegrown (and other smallholder grown) meat for ‘special occasions’ and sharing with friends and family. Whilst it’s nice to share, doing this was keeping us away from the aim of only eating meat from known sources. We need to stop ‘saving’ meat in the freezer. We also decided to make an effort to reduce the amount of meat we buy in. I am working on buying only 2 fresh dinner meats a week. Everything else should come from our freezer (or kievs and pizza – our meals for overwhelmed days). Lastly, we decided to reduce down our consumption. See about meals without meat where we can and reducing meat portion sizes where we do eat meat.

A mutton shoulder from last year that we decided to stop ‘saving’

When we got the meat back I have to admit I was nervous. As they were intact rams which were living close to the ewes I was worried about ram taint. I didn’t even advertise the meat for sale in case it was inedible. As soon as I got the meat into the fridge and freezers I cut a bit of us and fried it. I’ve never sniffed meat with such suspicion. Thankfully I needn’t have worried. It was delicious and we tucked into fried chops that night.

Pan fried hogget chops – delicious

Despite not advertising we sold 3 halves by word of mouth. Selling always worries me in case people aren’t happy with what they bought but everyone reported that the meat was the best they’ve had. It’s a wonderful feeling producing good meat.

We got the horns and skins back as well. The skins are salting on the polytunnel and will be sent for tanning in the new year. The horns are outside waiting for nature to work it’s magic and the cores to come out.

One of the skins pre-salting (it was very dark by the time I could work on them)

All in all I’m feeling very positive about the whole thing. Now that Django has covered the ewes the ball is rolling for the whole process to start again.

Dans

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Guide to broody hens part 1: setting up

We’re only in our 3rd year of hatching chicks but the learning curve has been steep. We started not knowing much at all about chickens, then through reading blogs, articles and books and asking lots of questions on forums and Facebook groups, we have found our footing. I feel quite confident now about hatching chicks with a broody, although there is always more to learn!

I’m on a few smallholding/chicken related groups and I’ve found myself answering a lot of questions with the general gist of ‘help my hen is broody, what on earth do I do?’. I’ve always given a detailed response as to what we do and then to my surprise others, who seem very experienced, liked my suggestions and even better the original poster would come back and say that the advice helped. Given that I learnt through others being generous with their knowledge, it feels really good to be able to give back. So that is what I am doing here, hoping to write a post that someone can stumble across and be helped by.

So you think you have a broody chicken, what now? Firstly is she really broody? One of the signs of a broody chicken is being in the nest box overnight (or even worse, being missing over night due to sitting somewhere else). There are other reasons for this though. Your hen could be being bullied by the others so not able to perch, they might not be used to perching or could be avoiding the house for some reason such as red mite. They can also start sitting simply because other hens are sitting in the house. They won’t actually want to sit on eggs though and will be very flighty if disturbed. A really broody hen will be in a nest box most of the day, not just at night. If you try to remove her from the nest to get to the eggs underneath her she will be very resistant to moving and may well peck at you.

So the chicken is definitely broody. The next step is to decide what you want to do. This is really important, depending on the hen if you just leave her with infertile eggs or no eggs she can waste away. It’s not healthy. If she does steal eggs from other hens they can be a variety of ages and she can potentially collect too many. If she has too many under her then they don’t all get the right conditions, develop at different rates and possibly not hatch at all. I know of someone who had a hen sitting on 20 odd eggs and only had 1 hatch of the lot.

Lastly you need to think about what you will do with the chicks. Odds are 50% will be male, can you keep the males? Rehome them? Both have their own difficulties, males can sometimes fight between each other and not many people want to home a cockerel. The last solution for the boys is the pot (which we do) but you need to think about if you will do the deed yourself or send them off to a butcher. The hens are less complicated, you can eat them, rehome them or keep for egg layers but do make sure you have a plan in place. There’s also the extra costs of feeding the chicks as they grow which you should take into account. It’s bad practice to breed any animal without a plan for its life.

So, once you have had a good think about it all, you have two options really. The first is to help the hen to have a clutch of chicks and the second is to break the broodiness.

Now we hadn’t previously tried to break a hen of being broody, although we have had some give up on us. We are having a go at breaking a broody hen (Carrie) as we have enough chicks and she went down with wry neck when she was last broody. I’ll let you know how it goes. Having no personal experience with breaking a broody I can only regurgitate the standard advice. A wire dog cage raised by some bricks at each corner with food and water inside. The aim is to get cool air blowing underneath her and no way for her to nest. Leave her in there for 2 or 3 days (making sure she is safe at night and no predators can stress her) then let her out and see what she does. If she goes back to the nest then back in the cage (sin bin) again for a few more days. It should work. We have also had hens break broodiness by being disturbed too often, but this isn’t guaranteed and they probably weren’t going to be the best broody hens anyway.

Christie in our sin bin

If you’re letting your hen sit then you need to support her through the process. Ideally she needs her own accommodation. Other hens will badger her to get to the nest box, stressing her out and laying eggs in the clutch that you will then have to sort through. When the chicks do hatch there is a danger that other hens may attack them if they can and also the potentially for the other hens to eat the chick food, which if it is medicated is a big no-no.

A broody coop needs some certain features to make life easy for you and the hen. The most basic requirement is to be predator proof. Rats will take eggs and chicks from under a hen. Corvids will steal from nests too. Worse still a sitting hen can go into a trance like state, no challenge at all for a fox, think of the term ‘sitting duck’. A solid bottom so no one can dig underneath, a covered top so no one can swoop down and solid/wired sides so no one can wriggle in and you’ve got the basics covered.

A nice dark area for her to nest in is good. Large enough for once the chicks start running around a bit too. If you can have a covered area with more light that’s great too, the food can go there undercover and gives then hen somewhere to stretch her legs a bit if it is raining. An outdoor run is a great addition as when the hen does stretch her legs she can do a bit of digging for grubs and vegetation as well as the standard poultry feed, a varied diet is good, it also gives her a great protected space to show her chicks the world. For your ease something that allows the roof to open will be helpful. You can easily check on the hen then and push her off if needed, grab eggs to candle and introduce chicks after dark if needed.

A good broody coop

So you have accommodation sorted now you need something to sit on. If you don’t have a cockerel your eggs will be no good. If you have someone selling at the gate locally it may be worth asking if their eggs are fertile (we have had people do this with us). You can also buy in eggs, some breeders sell them for you to collect and there is wealth of eggs on places like ebay that can be posted to you.

The posted eggs

There are pros and cons to this. We have been able to source a wide variety of breeds that we just couldn’t get from our local area by buying via ebay, but we have also had hatched chicks that look nothing like what the breed should and had some truly awful hatch rates (1 out of 6). It’s a gamble and if you can collect eggs in person I always would but if there is no one locally selling what you want it is worth trying a posted batch of eggs. Hens can also incubate other breeds (ducks, turkey, geese etc) but I haven’t tried it so I can’t comment.

Once you get your eggs let them sit point down at room temperature for at least a couple of hours. If it’s your own eggs then as long as they are 10 days old or younger they should be ok. Viability drops off after that. We generally wait until after dark to set eggs under a hen. All chickens get more docile after dark and are much easier to move and to fool. The postal eggs all get candled now to check for cracks (white, cream and blue eggs will show this, possibly light brown but with dark brown eggs you’ll likely have trouble seeing much). I also write a number on each egg in pencil, going over it several times. The eggs get placed in the broody coop nesting box and the sleepy hen popped on top of them.

The next day I check on the hen several times. It’s ok if she is off the nest for a little bit. It’s less work for you if she is able to get herself up to eat, drink and poo. If the hen is out of the nest every time you check and pacing up and down searching for a way out then you may be in trouble. It’s worth in this case letting her out and seeing what happens. If you find her in a couple of hours back in the main hen house (or trying to get into it if you have a penned system) then she has probably imprinted on the place she was nesting rather than onto the eggs. Take her back to the house and shut her into the nesting area for a day or two, she’ll imprint onto these eggs and nesting area.

If she is walking about as happy as Larry and showing no signs of being broody at all then she was fickle and you no longer have a broody hen. If you had left her in the house where she had been sitting she’d have likely gone off the nest at some point later. We had this happen with Aurora, she appeared broody but bolted as soon as she had the chance.

Aurora when we thought she was broody

As you can get fickle hens we always test a hen’s broodiness post move now. So we place either rubber eggs or some eggs we don’t care about hatching or eating from our flock (generally small eggs that may or may not be fertile) into the broody coop and put then hen on them. If she sits on them for a day or two we give her the fertile eggs we want hatched. To do this we wait until after dark and then lift her up to take the temporary eggs away and pop the new ones under her. It only need be 1 or 2 temporary eggs you give her, hens can’t count very well so she won’t be bothered by 2 eggs being replaced by 6 or even 9.

So now you have a broody hen, sitting in a broody coop, on a clutch of eggs you want hatched. Give the hen access to her normal feed and water and a little bit of corn each evening might tempt her out. We push our broody hens off the nest every 3 days if there are no signs she has been off the nest (changed positions, been seen off the nest, broody poo to clean up). If we think she is getting up herself we leave her be.

Brienne waiting for her eggs to hatch

I should say something about broody poo, it is quite awful stuff, huge and smelly. You will know it when you see/smell it. It’s more of a cow pat in consistency than a chicken poo. Do be prompt at clearing it up and do check the nest. Some hens that don’t get up have been known to poo in the nest getting it on not only the bedding by the nest but also on the eggs themselves and eggs that are kept warm for 21 days with poo on them aren’t good for anyone.

Broody poo

Keep feeding and pushing off your hen if needed. You are all set for the broody hatching process though. My next post will be about what to do while the hen is sitting and getting ready for the eventual hatch. I’ll do another after that about what to do once the chicks are hatched and then, if I haven’t already covered it all, a trouble shooting post for all the little tips we have picked up when things have gone wrong! I hope that one day this is all helpful to someone and if you’ve seen something in here that you think is wrong or you think ‘I wouldn’t do that’ please do tell me, we are still learning and always open to different views on how to do things.

Dans

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Scaling back

Well you may remember a couple of months I was saying how hard we were finding everything at the moment. My hips were starting to go, I was banned from lifting due to pregnancy, Sam’s knee was still very much out of use after the cellulitis and due to his disability he does a lot of smallholding activities kneeling so that he has a stable base, the weather was awful with everything flooding and the grass not growing and it all just felt a bit overwhelming.

We did send the geese to the freezer after that. The combination of no eggs being laid, running out of grass for them and extra work for Sam when he was already stretched thin, just proved too much. In hindsight I realise I should have either had them jointed or put them up for sale before sending them to the abattoir but hindsight is 20:20. Instead they are in the freezer and will get eaten at some big gatherings through the year. I do really miss having the geese around but in actual fact it has been a blessing, it did relieve the pressure and allowed us to look at the orchard again. The chickens now have safe free roaming of the smallholding and can forage in the orchard, we’ve also set up the broody nursery in there. I noticed a lot of ants and thus aphids on the young fruit trees in there so we will be pulling up our chicken wire ‘goose excluders’ that we have set up around the trees so that the chickens can do a good job scratching around those trunks for ants and other grubs. I like to think we will have geese again but if we do we’ll be changing our management to have them following the sheep grazing.

A fair amount of roast goose in our future

The other area we have scaled back is the growing. I wanted to grow something this year, maybe not expand on last year but still be growing as I loved eating our home grown passata for several months and would like to do it again. Unfortunately we also decided to work on raising the beds and having the chickens free ranging meant that they were straight into the polytunnel to have dust baths in our beds. As a result of that, and general disorganisation combined with a strong urge to nest meaning I wasn’t sowing seeds until very late, we have only just got our first plants into the polytunnel. Some netting over the unused doors has been a successful short term measure to keep the chickens out but the polytunnel cool enough. We still have nothing outside and we only have 2 veg beds raised in the polytunnel. The growing is most certainly scaled back this year.

All of this may be for the best though. The baby is due in August which is our peak harvest season in the polytunnel. We are unlikely to be able to do much in the way of food processing this year and no matter what we do the plum, apple and pear trees will be dropping their fruit on us which will likely mostly go straight into the freezer. Not growing as much and focusing on the infrastructure should hopefully set us for a good growing season next year. At least that is what I keep saying to myself when I see how empty the polytunnel and outdoor beds are! I am hoping that by this time next year we will have a covered fruit cage with planted bushes (that will mostly be 3 years old and thus should be in good production), 5 raised beds in the polytunnel and possibly the citrus trees planted, internal netted doors on the polytunnel and the 5 raised beds outside.

Sam working on raised beds

Reading a smallholding magazine the other week (likely a back issue as I’m a bit behind) there was an article by the author of Doing It In Wellies (a book I really really want to read). She spoke about getting the smallholding and jumping into everything and forgetting the why of it all because you were too busy trying to survive it. That really resonated with me. She said how they pulled some bits back and stopped to smell the roses and how that really helped them refocus the activities.

Sam and I got into smallholding for several reasons. The first was my health at the time, the PhD had worn me into the ground and down a few layers. We thought a slower pace of life, without as much of the pressure(!) might be helpful. I could do lots on my good days and less on the bad days. For the most part that has worked. Smallholding can be very stressful. There’s never enough hours in the day to get things done. Trying to make a business out of that makes it harder, there isn’t just the physical acts of smallholding and record keeping for animals, there’s also things like this blog, website design and management, courses to do to get the various food safety requirements, endless research, balancing books etc. Then add in the stress of pests, disease and never ending maintenance that any smallholding needs and there is the potential for stress. Throw full time motherhood into the mix and you’d start to question if a PhD might be a relaxing break! But in all honesty nothing I’ve experienced touches the PhD for stress, all the stress related illness I suffered from have disappeared. I am pretty much medication free now, just a vitamin D supplement. I’ve also lost a good 10kg and have put on a lot of muscle. I’m healthier than I have been in a long while and I have the smallholding to thank for that. Job #1 done!

Our second reason was Chi, we wanted her to know where her food comes from. Not just know where but to see it come from there, to understand the process, to know it well enough that she can do it herself. She makes cakes and custard with me, she has watched me kill and pluck and gut chickens, she’s seen me salting sheepskins, seen the wool being sheared, washed, carded and spun. We have picked apples off the tree and pressed them into juice. As her memory gets longer she will start to see and learn the process of growing, of the seeds we sow and plant and water then harvest and compost. She is learning so much and the beauty is she doesn’t know that she is. It isn’t a special trip out or an episode of a show, this is simply her life and I love it. Job #2 done.

The first taste

We wanted to know the history of our food, that the animals had a good life and the crops hadn’t been saturated in pesticides. We aren’t as self sufficient as we would like, I would love a goat or two to produce milk for us as we still buy a lot of dairy. I’d also like pigs for meat and at the very least a local known source of beef, but we have a small acreage and we are doing what we can with what we have. I think the dream of a bit more land will always be with me but we are doing well in lamb (well mutton), fruit and veg, eggs and pork sourced from other smallholders. So job #3 is in pretty good standing too.

Lastly we wanted to enjoy things. This is where we are lacking a bit. We work a lot on the smallholding, we put a lot of hours into getting the place up and running, especially Sam working a full time job and then doing work on the smallholding. Sometimes I think we work so hard on it all and don’t actually enjoy it. I think that is where we got to earlier in the year. Lots of work and very little enjoyment. We’ve got a table set up in the garden for BBQs and have had more this year than the other years previously. We are getting some more garden furniture to dot around so that we can sit and rest between jobs and enjoy things rather than lugging our 2 chairs back and forth over the smallholding.

A rare break to enjoy the weather and spin some wool

I am hoping that this year we will get more of the infrastructure done and build on enjoying the smallholding next year. Wish us luck!

Dans

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Juggling broody hens

Ok so I haven’t actually been throwing chickens in the air and trying to catch them, but it sure feels like I have! Beware this is a little long, but it does contain pictures of cute chicks. I’ll try enticing you in with a video of our first chick of the year:

Our broody journey this year started with a Derbyshire redcap hen (green right, yellow left or yellow right leg band – we didn’t note it down). We cleared up the shed and popped her in one of the tiny triangle hutches as we hadn’t finished doing the maintenance on the broody coops over winter yet. We decided to provide her with some of our own eggs. A few cream legbar, cuckoo maran and white leghorn eggs with our Heinz 57 cockerel, Aramis, being the father. Despite Brienne being a big chicken and a regular layer of large eggs I’ve decided we won’t be hatching from her again. Her eggs have the occassional wrinkle in the shell but her daughter, Cersi, has awful wrinkles and can be quite thin shelled too. No-one else in the flock is affected so I am assuming it is genetic.

Selection of our eggs for our first broody hen

I painted up one of the broody coops (with Chi’s help of course) and gave it a good clean. We also put a panel over some of the mesh to keep it a bit drier and warmer. We had wanted to do some work on the roof, there’s a slightly rotten corner and it needs refelting, but we really needed to get the broody into better accommodation. We set her up in the orchard with a run attached to the coop. We ummed and ahhhed but a few days later we put some more eggs into the incubator. She had 7 eggs under her but we wanted to try and get the most for the work we will put in to raising the chicks so the plan was to sneak her a few extra chicks after hatching for her to raise for us. These chicks were set to be meat birds first and foremost, although if we got some more green or dark brown egg layers they could be added to the flock. Everything was looking dandy.

Painting a broody coop

Then it seemed like Aurora, our veteran broody Daisy, had gone broody. We would only see her for an hour in the morning each day and she wasn’t returning to the coop at night. We caught her and gave her some random eggs that she seemed to be sitting on. At the same time Christie, another Derbyshire Redcap, had gone broody. We rushed to get the other two small houses ready, ordered some pure eggs off ebay (Copper black Maran and Cream Legbar) and set up a broody nursery in the orchard. The eggs arrived and we did a bit of juggling. The first broody hen and her soon to hatch eggs went into the woodland coop, Christie replaced her in the green coop and Aurora went into the blue coop as it doesn’t have a run and we had pretty good faith in her.

The next morning Aurora was gone and showing no signs of being broody at all. No problem, a couple of her eggs went under Christie (we had split them 50/50 3 browns and 3 blues each) and the rest went in the incubator. We had seen a couple of cracks on the Cream Legbar eggs when I candled them on arrival. One started weeping a lot on the first day in the incubator and I discarded it. Having two batches of eggs in the incubator due to hatch at different times isn’t great but it was manageable with the numbers.

Aurora when we thought she was broody

Then the worst happened. The first broody was off the nest and pacing in her pen. I’d noticed her off twice the previous day but I was in and out so assumed she had gone back in. Checked on the eggs and they were stone cold. 5 days from the hatch date. We couldn’t physically fit them in our 9 egg incubator with the others (7 already in there). I did manage to get 3 more in with a bit of jiggling. The aim was to warm them up enough to see if they were still alive, I had to do it in batches though. I didn’t hold out much hope as they may well have been cold for 48 hours by now. A post on a smallholding group had a local smallholder offering to pop them under her broody hen if we needed which gave me some breathing space. We had also been talking about getting a bigger incubator and this, plus the faff of turning eggs daily, pushed that up our priority list. We ended up buying the incubator anyway as it should allow us to follow our original plan of adding eggs to a hatch whilst still having the 9 egg incubator as a ‘rescue’ one.

Old incubator on the left, new one on the right

In the end only 1 of the eggs was still viable, a Cream Legbar one. It took a couple extra days to hatch but did so, followed a day or so later by the 4 we had started in the incubator. We ended up with a hatch of 5, 2 Cream Legbar crosses, 1 Cuckoo Maran cross and 2 White Leghorn crosses. Christie was looking a bit pale in the comb so once the chicks had fluffed up we took away the postal eggs she had been sat on and gave her the day old chicks. To start with she didn’t seem too keen to get up and about with them but then we realised she still had a Maran egg under her, once that was taken away she was up and about and has proved to be a great mum.

The postal eggs went into the incubator and another Derbyshire Redcap hen, Carrie, decided to try her hand (wing?) at being broody. Sam had commented that she was a bit crazy, quite aggressive and she looked at him funny, twisting her head back. I didn’t think much of it. We knew we had eggs in the incubator we could give her but had a couple go rotten already so we wanted to keep them until closer to hatching as with her being a bit crazy we didn’t want to be bothering her lots to candle. She sat on a couple of Daisy eggs. When I checked on her one day I saw what Sam meant about her neck, twisted right round when you opened the coop. It rang an alarm bell so I took the internet, wry neck. Varying thoughts online about it but vitamin deficiency seemed most likely so we started trying to get some baby vits in her. After one dose she was doing really well but we’d had another hen, Chickaletta (not named by us), go broody and I was worried about Carrie so we moved her to the blue coop without a run and left it open in the hopes she would graze a bit more when she got up each day. Chickaletta got some rubber eggs as we weren’t far off hatching the incubator eggs. After the second dose of being pinned and given the vitamins Carrie decided it was all too much and left the nest. She is no longer broody thankfully and the eggs under her hadn’t developed. She is much better now she is foraging but she still isn’t great so she is due to be penned up and given the vitamins everyday for a set time. Fingers crossed.

Carrie and her wry neck

So Christie was happy with her chicks and Chickaletta was sitting, and the postal eggs were doing well in the incubator, although we were down to 5. Then both Brienne (a previous broody) and another Derbyshire Redcap both went broody. I’m running out of housing at this point! We did another shuffle. Christie and the chicks went into the blue coop as it doesn’t open from the top and we don’t need to check them much, we gave them back the blue run which had been used with the woodland coop. Chickaletta stayed in the woodland coop with the woodland coop run and Brienne went into the green coop with no run, again she had been a great broody last year so we trusted her. How foolish. Despite having a nice private suite with a clutch of 9 eggs to sit on she bolted for the chicken house first thing to sit on an empty nest… She did this for two days before we put her food and water inside and locked her in with her eggs. She was still broody but had imprinted on the main hen house. She has the door open today and is still sitting so *fingers crossed* and building a run for the green coop has risen on our priority list. The postal seller has sent us 6 more Cream Legbar eggs to make up for the damage in postage and poor fertilisation rate of the first batch (no development at all on a fair few eggs). Those went into the shiny new incubator and will be transferred to the new broody DRC as soon as we have a house for her, which Sam is picking up today.

Brienne being introduced to her new clutch

It was hatch day for the postal eggs on Tuesday so over the weekend we gave the eggs to Chickaletta to let her hatch them. We noticed the brown eggs pushed out a couple of times and nudged them back under. When they were out again on Tuesday we took them and put them in the small incubator. Wednesday afternoon she had at least one chick under her. Today one of the Marans has hatched in the incubator and the other has pipped, I also peeked at her and she now has two chicks and an unhatched egg. If it is still unhatched this evening (when we will likely give her the hatched chick) I’ll pop it in the incubator.

Hatched Copper Black Maran waiting for its sibling to hatch

So yes, that is our 2018 broody journey so far. It’s been a bit exhausting to be honest and we still have just under 3 weeks before everyone has hatched as they should, by which time we may well have more broodies!

Dans

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Crichton’s brush with death.

Well we have now had our first large animal scare. This is a pretty long post about Crichton. Sam went out last Weds to mow some grass after work and thought Crichton didn’t quite seem himself. He let me know and went about the mowing. Another check once he had finished revealed that Crichton was lying down in the hedge, shivering and non-responsive to food or much else but at least conscious.

I facebooked my vet friend (not sure what we do without you Cassie!) whilst calling the vet. We had an extra slight drama as the vet said they had reduced the practice boundaries and we were no longer covered so he can’t come out, he did give phone advice though. We managed to get Crichton into the polytunnel and gave him some antibiotics (the first dose was subcutaneous though as I was panicking and both vets advised a second intramuscular dose). We also gave an intramuscular dose of ivermectin wormer in case he was carrying a high burden or had haemoncus. He was very pale in his gums and eyelids and very sluggish although at least he was standing in the polytunnel. Checked his temperature and it was 35.6C, sheep should be 38.5C ish  so things weren’t looking good. The vet advised to keep him warm and call in the morning if the sheep is still alive.

On his feet but looking very bad

We set him up a pen on top of an empty veg bed with straw, hay and water and put a fan heater nearby (but not too close) to hopefully help him warm up. The vet said painkillers might help but as we didn’t have any don’t worry. I went back in after a bit and he had moved off the straw to be closer to the heater so I covered him in the straw and moved the heater a bit further in the hopes we didn’t set fire to him overnight.

It wasn’t a good night. I tentatively went into the polytunnel in the morning not sure if I would find him dead or alive. Opening that door was nerve wracking. He was alive though. He had also been eating the soil, it was between his teeth. I stood him up to take his temperature which was up at 37ish, so much improved. Once up he went over to the water and had a little drink which made me feel much better, I got him some nice fresh green hay which he had a bit of then lay down again. I took Chi off to nursery at this point and called the vet for advice. Apparently we were actually still clients, it had been a mix up and the vet would call me back when he could.

You can see the soil he had been eating

The day started heating up, Crichton seemed to get more lethargic and the polytunnel was getting hot so I led him out to the orchard where he just stood whilst I moved the hurdles to pen him there. He ate a bit of grass then lay down again. The vet called back in the afternoon and said he could come if I wanted, 10 mins away. He agreed that Crichton looked very depressed and was very lethargic. Checked the guts in case there was a blockage but everything felt and sounded fine. He was very pale so he gave an intravenous vitamin and drew some blood at the same time. Actually got a really big clot from that so despite being pale he wasn’t very anemic. He gave the painkiller and Crichton did stay standing for a bit more. He got the ultrasound out of the car and checked the guts with that, absolutely fine, checked the liver and it was pretty huge. The bile ducts were quite enlarged and fibrous too. His best guess was that it was either plant toxicity or fluke, with the slight possibility of haemoncus still on the table as it can be ivermectin resistant. The good news was it was unlikely to be clostridium as Crichton would probably be dead already so it wasn’t the delay in heptavac.

Penned up waiting for the vet.

The vet left us with some painkillers and vitamins and recommendation to get an adult flukicide (closantel based) as he didn’t think it was juvenile fluke. I got my microscope out and did a quick (well longer than I wanted) fluke count on the sample I had grabbed from Crichton the night before. Absolutely no fluke eggs but a lot of worm eggs. The fluke test is a sedimentation test, you don’t normally see worm eggs in there unless there is a very very high burden, so the amount I saw in Crichton’s sample was surprising. I called the vet to see if the diagnosis was still the same on the basis of a 0 fluke egg count. Unfortunately I didn’t get a reply. I could have headed out to the agri store but at that point Sam was eyeball high in work, I would be rushing to get there before closing, I was beyond shattered (had said to Sam on the Weds afternoon that I needed some really good rest or might crash) and Chi hadn’t napped, if she napped at 4:30 we would get no sleep that night. Crichton was looking better so we made the decision to wait until Friday morning for the wormer and hopefully the vet would get back to us. He didn’t.

I made the decision to go with the closantel based wormer despite the 0 fluke egg count. It should also kill the haemoncus if the ivermectin didn’t and was a different class of wormer that I could use on the others as we wormed with ivermectin last time. Unfortunately they only had a £66 bottle which made me cry slightly but not much I could do about that, other than calling the day before so they could order in a smaller one. If I hadn’t been so worried about Crichton I could have gotten them to order in a smaller, injectable closantel based drug that would cost a lot less but it wouldn’t get there until Monday (which I doubted as it was bank holiday) and it’s an hour’s round trip if you don’t get stuck at the level crossing and don’t count the time spent there.

Sporting his shaved side and looking better before the closantel drench

Once home we saw that Crichton was doing a lot better. He was loose in the polytunnel with a grassy area penned off outside as it was a cooler day and he was much harder to catch (although still not difficult). He had his daily jabs and the wormer. He kept on like this for a couple days, each day being a bit harder to catch, standing up for longer and eating more. He is still very thin but he is back out with other boys (went back with them on the Monday) and seems to be doing well.

My only guess is that when the grass was low in the other field he ate something he shouldn’t have, or a higher quantity of something he shouldn’t have. None of the others seemed ill, though we gave them all a closantel wormer anyway based on Crichton’s count. The BCS of all the others is pretty good, even runty Crais is looking much chunkier than Crichton. My July sending for meat has been pushed back due to the wormer and I also don’t think there will be much on Crichton at that time. We may have to hold onto them for longer and just hope we manage the grass ok. Maybe a Jan sending off, we’ll see. The ewes are in fighting form, literally, I have bruises from worming them and straddling them to do the wormer was quite difficult, they are solid girls. I think my sheep wrangling days are getting numbered too as bump is getting bigger and making bending hard. Hopefully just to heptavac them sometime this week and then again in 3 weeks time for the ewe lambs and that should be our wrangling over for the summer. Debating treating for flystrike, we were fine last year and we check the sheep quite regularly, but it would give us a bit more peace of mind.

Dans

Chicken house renovations

We’ve finally done the renovations to the chicken house. I have to say that whilst I provided a lot of the ideas for the design the actual work was pretty much all Sam.

Our first attempt at a chicken house had two perches at different heights and two external nest boxes. We soon found that the chickens didn’t like the external nest boxes, they had a slight leak. We used some plastic Ikea boxes to make two internal nest boxes and they proved to be a hit.

As our chicken numbers increased we needed to change the house around. We planned to do the changes swiftly but as always things got delayed. First was putting in longer perches, but this meant that the perches went over the two internal nest boxes and cleaning up the house each week took a lot longer.

Longer, level perches

We now have a shiny new poop tray. It’s been varnished and covers the underneath of the perches so I am hoping that rather than picking poo out of the chopped straw bedding I will be able to simply scrape it off of the tray. This will be so much easier and will be better for composting.

The next step was nest boxes underneath the poop tray. We went for dividers that go from the floor to the underside of the poop tray. We used the same width as the Ikea boxes as the chickens seemed to really like these. We managed to fit 6 in. Due to the depth of the poop tray these boxes are nice and dark so hopefully the chickens will like them. It also takes us to 8 nest boxes between 23 hens, hopefully some of the hens will feel less inclined to make their nests in the bushes. Some of the hens have already started laying in the new nest boxes which is encouraging.

Of course having the nest boxes so far back means that it’s hard for us to get to the eggs. The next development for the house was knocking some panels out of the back of the house and putting a flap in to access the eggs. It took us the best part of a week to get that part finished, using boards held down by paving slabs in the meantime but the job is done.

Then that’s it, the house is finished. The chickens have been a bit disrupted with all the work going on so we’ve seen a dip in the egg laying. It’s mostly the Derbyshire Redcaps, our most flighty chickens. Instead of getting 8 or 9 eggs a day from them we are getting 4, so the others are off laying elsewhere. I’ll have to try and track down those nests and hope that as they see the others using the nest boxes inside the house they will start laying inside again. We are up to 20 eggs being laid in the house, which with 23 hens isn’t a bad day’s haul.

Already queuing

It feels really good to have a big job checked off our to do list. Now to do the same with the other jobs (finish planting fruit bushes and net fruit patch, raised beds in polytunnel and chicken proof doors, fix the shed roof, chicken fencing, compost heaps –  oh how the list goes on!).

Dans

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Best laid plans

Sometimes you can make the best plans in the world and it all goes awry. We’re having a bit of this at the moment.

Easter weekend seemed like it would be a great time to get on top of some of the jobs that had piled up. Sam had 4 days off and we’d just had our first real taste of Spring the weekend before. We started really well, getting into the polytunnel on Friday and doing a good tidy. The chickens we had in there had merged all our beds into one  which we worked at sweeping into individual beds. We are planning to make the polytunnel beds raised beds this year, we have the wood for it but we will see how that goes. On the upside they should have done a good job at removing pests and added a bit of fertiliser. I’d quite like to let some chickens loose on empty beds each year. Whilst sweeping and weeding the beds Sam spotted two parsnips we had missed, they were huge. He also managed to start work on getting our muck heap fenced in as the chickens have been spreading that too.

I busied myself with doing the second coat of varnish on the new poop tray for the chicken house. The plan was to get that in on Sunday when the weather would be drier, it will massively reduce the amount of time spent cleaning the chicken house and hopefully give us some cleaner eggs. I then cleaned out the chicken house in the polytunnel as it was no longer in use, Aurora being back in the main flock and Chihiro being in the freezer. Whilst the varnish was out and as it was nearly finished I threw a coat onto the inside of the roof. The ventilation on the house isn’t great and we found that some days there was condensation inside which was rotting the inside of the roof. It isn’t a brilliant house, I did a review of it here, but it works for housing chicks and broody hens, newcomers and anyone we want to isolate. I know the varnish isn’t a proper fix but hopefully it will help. Chi was kept entertained once she realised she could get into the house. We even managed to play a board game that night, things were looking good!

Saturday was a Chi day, we took her to her first cinema trip which she seemed to enjoy. We were meant to go swimming after but she was very tired and ratty which should have been my first clue something was up. She was asleep by the time we got home and we managed to get another game played. Sunday we had swimming in the morning then the plan was home to make the most of the dry spell. The forecast lied. There was no dry so we went to a soft play instead. Whilst there I noticed Chi was getting ill again, which resulted in a 3 day stay at hospital. Bang went the rest of the plans for the weekend and the next week as I really struggle to take her outside in the cold and wet when she isn’t well. We seemed to be getting better but something else has cropped up that the GP is looking into. Over a week after getting out of hospital and I am still worried about taking her out. Children really can add a random factor into smallholding that you just can’t account for.

On top of that the rain hasn’t helped things. We haven’t been hit as badly as some people but the land is pretty saturated, we’re about to buy even more hay, in April. It feels wrong but there just isn’t enough grass.

The chickens are laying like mad, but we’re getting less people stopping at the stall to buy eggs. Plus the chickens have muddy feet so we’re getting a lot more dirty eggs that I feel bad trying to sell. We have 20 boxes of eggs in the fridge right now for our use. I have to admit I’m feeling a fair bit overwhelmed! There’ll be a post soon about the different bits I’m doing with eggs. On top of that I was so glad to see 4 boxes had gone from the gate yesterday, only to find out that once again no money has been left. We have a repeat offender who will help themselves to several boxes and leave no money. It’s depressing to put so much work in and have people take advantage, especially when you are producing on such a small scale so every sale counts.

One day’s harvest of eggs

It’s also starting to get impossible to get to the Derbyshire Redcap cockerels as the entrance to their polytunnel is flooded, they have also started to fight with each other. The geese still aren’t laying and have eaten through their grass. We’ve made the decision to send the geese for meat. We really wanted to keep the descendants of Athos, April and Abigail but they are all boys and we are struggling with the workload this year. It will be very strange not to have geese on the land. The two cockerels are going too as they are well past time and I don’t know when I will get to killing and butchering them.

The cockerels sizing each other up

Last bit of news was some mucky bums on two of the ewe lambs (Celaena and Caitlin), they hadn’t been wormed when we did the other lambs last year so they got their first dose of wormer. Not before Celaena jumped straight over the hurdles and went for a wander around the area though. She takes after her father I think. We did Caprica at the same time as her bum was a bit mucky. I would have liked to do a worm count first but honestly I’m struggling to get things done. The ram lambs are showing no signs of needing and neither are the ewes so we left them be. They are starting to look quite smart, I’m thinking about trying to sell Cisco for breeding, he’s a great ram lamb, when he isn’t putting his head in a fence, but that’s probably to do with the lack of grass.

All in all we are finding things hard right now. We make plans to get things on track but other things crop up. There’s lots to do, the year is ticking by, Chi isn’t well, I’m pretty useless and the weather is literally raining on us. It’s probably the hardest we have found smallholding since starting and we have had thoughts about packing up. We won’t make a decision now, not in the midst of the bad, but we are longing for some good weather and a bit of a break from all the hardships of winter.

Dans

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Spring has sprung!

Well the last few days it’s actually been cold and rainy but last weekend we felt the first promise of spring in the air and despite the rain it feels like the land is waking and the wheel is turning. We had our first good weekend of outside work, doing a general tidy up of the back garden, snipping back some dead branches on the fruit trees and a bit of late pruning. We got some bigger jobs in too though.

Saturday was mostly spent with me killing and preparing Chihiro, the only Light Sussex chick (now 29 weeks old) that Aurora hatched. He was younger than the two Derbyshire Redcaps but he was becoming a bit troublesome, fighting with Aramis through the polytunnel (which now needs some repair work). There was also the fact that we could do him and return Aurora to the flock. We were a little worried that my nausea would return and we would have killed him but been unable to process him, the idea of doing the Redcaps and wasting the two of them was just a bit too much. I hate the idea of wasting anything from the animals that die for us.  It actually went really well. He was quite large, 3.1kg dead weight, and I was able to pluck him with no damage to the skin (first time). I’m still very slow to process the chickens, it took me 2 hours to get him gutted somehow. I was looking after Chi at the same time who kept coming in to ask questions/for snacks and I had to dig out all my tools only to find they weren’t sharp. Then I also found I couldn’t fit my hand into the body cavity from the top end, and the guts were really hard to remove. Oh and I cut myself. A bit of a nightmare really. He was quite fatty  which I think didn’t help. We really need to work out how to get the chicks more free ranging whilst still keeping them safe. The Derbyshire Redcaps are up next, hopefully Easter Monday. I’ll be very glad to have all the cockerels bar Aramis dispatched, it’s been on my to-do list for far too long.

The feathers came out really nicely after dunking in hot water

Chi being there wasn’t all bad though, we do want her to know where her food comes from. She actually came over for a look and was a bit concerned that I was pulling his feathers too hard. I explained that the white chicken was no longer alive and as such it wasn’t hurting him. I tried to explain that we were going to eat him and we don’t eat feathers so they have to come off. She seemed to accept this then went to play in the polytunnel whilst I stressed that I’d handled it all wrong. When I was gutting him she was a bit weary again, she said ‘too hard’ when I took his feet off but I explained again that he was dead and couldn’t feel it and we don’t eat the feet. Again she seemed to accept this. She said later that we eat the chicken but not head or feet. We had chicken thighs (shop bought) for dinner that night and she had no issues so hopefully I handled it all ok. She has always been present for the killing, plucking and gutting but this is the first time she has taken an interest or commented. If anyone has any suggestions on how to approach it all I’d be really interested.

Chi asking questions

In a moment of temporary insanity I decided to volunteer to set up a winemaking interest group for our local smallholding club (Fenland Smallholders Club). It is mainly on facebook but we had our first face to face meeting on the Saturday night. I was very nervous about it but we did a little bring and taste, question and answer session, a bit about filtering with a demonstration from Sam and a troubleshooter for how to fix a wine that hasn’t come out as you’d like. Was actually quite a success which was a relief!

Sunday was mostly more pottering on the land, catching up on small tasks that had been waiting a while, including a nice new head on the hose so no more trekking back and forth to turn the tap on and off. We did a deep clean on the chicken house ahead of the hopeful renovations next week (new poop tray and nest boxes), it really did need it. We let the chickens have the run of the land a couple weeks back and they discovered the muck heap. What had been quite a tidy heap has been spread by them so Sam worked at getting it into one pile and thinking about how we fence it off from them. Chi had great fun climbing it whilst he did though!

I’m sure she’s helping!

The weather was still good on Monday so Chi and I headed out for a bit. I sorted through the last of the apples from the autumn and did the first coat of varnish on the poop tray for the chicken house. No photos as my phone died.

One last thing. Burnham has made a full recovery. I posted about her being off one of her legs a couple weeks back, you can read about it here. There’s now no sign of a limp and she is back to being found in all the places she shouldn’t be. It was hard trying to help Arwen but ultimately not being able to. It’s a good feeling when we can successfully help our animals.

Dans

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