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.
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 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.
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.
We’ll see how I get on with it all, I’m really excited to see what 2019 brings. Happy New Year everyone!
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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!).
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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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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!
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.
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I had been trying to do posts on different topics here, but things pile up, I find myself waiting to post until a particular project is finished and finding lots of other things that I’m wanting to talk about but feel I should wait until the earlier stuff has had a post. So I’m going to try forgetting about all that and have a go at doing a post once a week on the various goings on. I can always do a special post on a particular project/adventure when they occur.
So I guess I’ll do a bit of a catch up starting with the livestock. All of the chicks are going like weeds. We found Alice randomly joined the flock one day and had no inclination to go back to her chicks so I guess she was done with motherhood. Her chicks (the cross breeds) will be joining the flock in a couple of weeks. We managed to get 3 definite hens and 2 that I think are cockerels but they have no tail feathers to speak of so far.
The Derbyshire Redcap (DRC) chicks are so flighty that we are having a bit of trouble keeping them contained, they just fly over the heras panels, but we got 4 hens and 2 cocks, 1 of which is really quite stunning so will try selling him. We are about a month of having them join the flock. I was a bit nervous given how much trouble the DRC pullets had given us but thankfully they are all now going into the house and have even started laying (had to wait until 30 weeks!). Just waiting for the eggs to increase in size a bit and then we shall hopefully start having eggs on the gate again. We’ve been in a bit of a low patch and I’m pretty sure we have an egg thief/eater. We’re getting a camera set up in the house to have a peek.
The lone chick (Ixworth) is starting to feather up now, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a hen. It won’t be ready to join the flock until Christmas time though. Not our greatest hatch ever but Aurora is happy with her chick.
We also had some surprise hens. A neighbour is moving away and had 3 hens that she wasn’t taking with her. We agreed to take them in so have 3 Rhode Island Red hens that were born in 2016. They are laying well so should have their eggs in our boxes soon. We’ll introduce them to the flock at the same time as the cross breed chicks. They aren’t a rare breed but I’m a bit of a sucker for taking in animals.
We lost Boomer, one of the Cuckoo Marans, about a month ago. Like Aino we have no idea what happened. Happy and healthy in the run up, no marks, no swelling and a good body weight. I guess it will just be one of those things. So we started the year on 8 hens and a cockerel and now have 23 hens, 3 cockerels and 3 possible cockerels. I have a lot of naming to do! The chicken house had a bit of an update so we have more space and better perching in there for the birds. Just need to update the poop trays and nest boxes.
The geese really are growing like weeds. They are huge. Really huge. They still have a couple of their baby feathers but are well on their way to adulthood. There’s at least 1 gander, possibly 3. They have just started making adult noises so we’ll be watching for their behaviour and sounds to attempt sexing them. The two white ones are destined for the butcher but I would like to keep the other 3 if we can. We are just in the process of getting them some new housing built (our first real building project) but for now they are in the trailer, safe from foxes at least.
The sheep are doing really well. We have just separated off the lambs from the ewes, and the ewe lambs from the ram lambs and Cisco was having a bit of a try with one of the ewe lambs. Really hoping we didn’t leave it too late and aren’t surprised by lambs in January! They have all just turned 4 months. It’s a bit noisy out at the moment but that should settle . Once the ewes have dried off we will put the ewe lambs back in with them.
Three of the ewes are off to slaughter at the start of next month. I’m quite nervous but so far things are coming together. We have people interested in the meat and will hopefully secure the orders and get deposits before they go off. I’ve talked to the butchers about cuts, the food safety officer should be coming around soon to give us our hygiene rating for selling the meat, I’m looking into distance selling as one buyer is quite far away, I’ve applied for our registration to handle Animal By-Products so that we can get the skins and horns back and been in touch with the tannery so they can process the skins. I’m also doing my food safety course, although we won’t actually be handling the meat. There seem to be a lot of different plates spinning with this but it should be a good learning experience. The abattoir is a small one, attached to the butchers and there has been some good feedback about it so hopefully the girl’s last journey will be as smooth and non-stressful as it can be.
So I guess that’s a very long way of saying that despite being quiet on here we’ve been busy busy, and that doesn’t include all the harvesting and processing. More on that in the next post!
We were a bit rushed into our first attempt at hatching chicks. One of the Brown Marsh Daisies went broody and we scrambled to get things together for her. As such we ended up with a less than ideal broody coop. The chicks quickly outgrew this and despite building an additional run for them it was soon evident that they needed to move to larger accomodation.
Between my poor woodworking skills, Sam working full time and us trying to keep Chi entertained whenever we do anything we realised that we wouldn’t have time to build the kind of coop we would want. It needed to be not too large (as we weren’t wanting to having many chicks at one time), easy to clean out and moveable.
I searched the net and came across the Woodland Chicken Coop from the Chicken Coop Company. It seemed to tick all my boxes, I especially liked the slide out tray and the ability to open both the side and the top. It was on a special sale as well so we quickly bought it, there was less than 24 hours of the sale left.
Unfortunately, as with most rush purchases, all was not as it seemed. We put it together easily enough (of course with help from Chi), and moved the chicks as soon as possible. I was really happy with it, until I went out the next morning to let them into thier new run. It was 8am and the house was in the shade of a large mirabelle plum tree but the window was steamed up. I quickly let them out and when I opened the roof door the heat hit me in a wave. I then realised there was absolutely no ventilation on the coop at all. Sam quickly got to work with the drill to get some holes in the highest point. I went and looked at the website again to see if I had missed some instructions about ventilation but there was nothing. I was surprised to see that the coop was on sale again, at the same price we had paid, but that sale was also ending soon. Ah the eternal sale.
Within the first week we noticed the second problem with the coop. The nesting boxes are level with the perches. Chickens like to perch at the highest point and so you want your perches higher than the nest box to keep things clean. The chicks were sleeping in the nest box or perching on the edge and then pooping in the nest box. I cut out some of the cardboard packaging that came with the coop and created a false wall so they could no longer access the nest boxes. Afterall no-one in there should be laying. Bodge job #2.
The coop was moveable, which was an important factor for us as with such a small run we were moving them to a fresh patch of grass regularly. A nice feature would have been a way to keep the ramp lifted up as trying to stop it from hitting you in the face when you are lifting the coop wasn’t the easiest thing.
The coop then seemed to be ok, until one day in the autumn I opened the roof door to find black mould along the underside. The ventilation job Sam did must not have been good enough. Unfortunately he had drilled holes on all the available ‘good’ space. They say for ventilation it shouldn’t be level with the birds heads so that they don’t have a draught, but the way the roof slopes that is only possible on the top most corner.
Then the final problem hit on a slightly windy day. We were under the bird flu prevention zone and I had covered the run with tarp held down with some bricks. I went out to check the tarp was in place once the wind died down a bit. I was very surprised to see the tarp in place but 3 cockerels running around the field and the roof door, that I had been so in love with, over the fence and in the other field. It had ripped clean off it’s hinges. Although there were good locks on the run, the side door and the nest boxes, there was no catch at all on the roof door. The wind must have got under it and raised it (it has handy locking arms to keep it open for you), then taking all the force of the wind it would have been too much for the screws, especially with the damp damage from the lack of ventilation.
The upside of the coop was that it was indeed very easy to clean out. I had read about small openings and hard to clean out coops but this one was a dream. I think the multiple entrances, sliding floor and removable percehes really help.
In short I think I have learnt my lesson and will stick to things we have built (should be easier now Chi is older) and sheds we have modified. Having the problems with this one has really made me appreciate our job on converting the shed into a hen house. We’ll fix up this coop, see what we can do about ventilation and use it as a quarentine coop for new or sick birds.
Well this weekend it was Mother’s day and Sam’s birthday but that didn’t mean a restful weekend!
It started on Friday evening when we caught up the sheep ready to move them to some fresh grass. We took the opportunity to do a body condition score (BCS) on them. This is basically feeling their backs over the hip area to assess how bony or fatty they are. This gives you an idea of how they are doing and what feeding they need. Especially Arya who we know is carrying twins as this can put quite a strain on her body. We also took some poo samples so we can check the worm burden of the sheep.
Saturday wasn’t too bad, a trip to B&Q to pick up some supplies and had a quick lunch out so we could get straight to work at home. First job was a delivery of manure. I’m trying desperately to improve our soil so some free organic matter seems like a good bet. It’s horse manure though so a bit weedy but we don’t have cow manure in great quantities in this area.
Next was the usual jobs around the holding, including cleaning out the chickens. We’ve been having a slight problem with mice. Our house is filled with lovely deep bed of chopped straw for the chickens to jump off the perches onto. Unfortunately, this winter mice have decided it’s a great place to live. First it was two nesting which we cleared out. Then about a month later we had a young family which we also cleared out. And now a month or so later we have had 1 in there which I cleared out Saturday. I basically move all the additional things in the hen house (plastic nest boxes and a wooden step for the hens to reach the higher nest boxes) and chase out the mice. It seems to work as they stay away for so long, but I think we need to look into some traps if it persists.
Then I decided to brush off my very rusty skills to do a faecal egg count (FEC) on the samples we gathered on Friday. This tells us what eggs are being shed by the ewes and if they need worming. It was a nice low count of about 150 eggs per gram (epg), which wouldn’t be anything to worry about. However, I found a single Nematodirus egg. This is a type of worm that can be quite bad for lambs to get so the ewes will need to be treated in the next coming weeks.
Sunday, the day of rest right? Especially as it’s Mother’s day and a birthday? Well I was up at 8:30am and Sam stayed in bed until about 9:30am with Chi. Then it was all go again. The guy who owns the 0.5acre plot across the road has said we can graze the sheep there. It’s quite overgrown at the moment and the grass won’t be very nutritious so we’re going to send Anya and Aelin over there as they shouldn’t be pregnant and are being a bit of a nuisance to the others. But there is a pile of rubble at the back and the guy goes in regularly to get bits from his storage container so we’ve bought heras panels so that they sheep are safe and he can get to his stuff. They arrived bright and early so that was the first job.
Our next job was to finish marking out the berry patch. We marked out the blueberry row a little while ago and got some planted. We marked out the rest of the spots and cleared more of the area but there’s more moss and grass to clear and then of course the bushes to plant but I can do that on my own. Thankfully of the 31 fruit bushes we bought at our local garden centre it looks like 30 have made it through the winter and are budding. I’m holding out hope for the last one but we will see. They varied in price from 50p to £2 so pretty good value.
Next we had an impromptu chicken rescue. Aurora had got into the goose area and one of them went for her, judging by the squawking and honking I heard. I ran over to check she was ok and found her on the other side of the fence, on the bank of the drainage ditch that runs along our smallholding. There’s chicken wire along the bottom so she would have had to fly back over. I ended up climbing over the fence and trying to catch her on a steep bank. That was not fun but we got her back safe and sound.
No rest for the wicked, a quick drink of squash and we were back to work. We pulled back the weed proof fabric that we spread over the intended veg bed. It was much better than it had been but some bits were still growing. We dug out some of the bigger stronger tufts of grass, raked the area to be somewhat level, flattened out the fabric and marked out the veg beds. We’ll plant through the fabric this year, then in the winter we will pull it back again, mark out the beds top with well rotted manure. Or at least that is the plan. We’ll see how it goes.
The clocks going forward meant that it was still light out so we headed across the road to start putting up the heras panels. We managed about half before Chi woke up and we had to head in for dinner whilst Sam saw to the animals.
For the last job of the day Sam went to get a combination of Chinese and Indian for dinner whilst I baked him a birthday cake. It was an experimental apple and redcurrant cake. I thought I used enough redcurrants but they are quite subtle so I think I’ll double amount next time.
With all the stuff getting done, the plants growing, the buds on all the trees, the sheep getting bigger and all the eggs rolling in it really feels like the year is turning.
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Another long gap between posts. I’ve been updating the facebook page at least weekly with little things but to be honest it has felt very quiet on the smallholding for the last month. Not much has been going on, but as the blog has been mostly focusing on apples recently (or at least it feels that way!), I’ll try and give you an update on our livestock.
We plodded along with the bird flu restrictions hoping that they would be lifted at the end of Feb. Unfortunately the news came that they would only be partially lifted. Contact with wild birds must still be prevented but in low risk areas, like ours, birds can still be let out. There are a bunch of extra precautions that need to be followed, including use of things to scare wild birds away, keep feed and water under cover, making regular visits outside to scare wild birds and doing a full risk assessment. We had hoped to be ready to let the birds out at the start of March but we had a bit of a nightmare with some guys chopping some trees down for us. The job was quoted as 2 days but has taken 6 days spread over 3 weeks and we have now told them we’ll finish it ourselves. It took the plans for release right off the table as the felled branches littered everywhere and moving around our (very) smallholding became difficult.
We did finally manage to let the geese out earlier this week though. We cleared the branches from thier orchard, re-sited thier house (which Storm Doris tried to do roly polys with), fenced off the trees that wild birds can roost in and made enough of a path to walk the geese around. They were very happy to be out again and have even started laying inside thier house which is a first. Last year they were insistant that laying in the bush was far better! I want to get some more cds up to act as bird scarers but we’ve not spotted any wild birds in there and all the food and water are undercover. Our next couple of jobs for the geese centre around thier ‘house’ and include sorting out the roof, cutting the door in half, adding some ventilation and painting it. Fingers crossed I’ll have some pictures of a swanky new goose house soon!
The chickens have been getting by in thier enclosure but they were longing to be outside. Unfortunately thier area is harder to keep bird free as they have access to the area under the leylandi and too many pigeons roost there and poop on the ground below. The issue was that it was the leylandi that were being trimmed and the area below them was a mess and we couldn’t fence it until we cleared it. If the guys had finished the job when they said we would have let them out a lot sooner. In preparation for letting them out I installed a shower curtain in thier run. It’s a clear one, hung over the entrance to the where the food and water will be undercover. This should deteer the wild birds but allow our (brave) chickens through. The chickens were a bit hesistant, especially Aramis, but they all go through it fine now.
i also wanted to do a similiar thing for the pop hole, my first attempt at covering the pop hole failed though. I used an old compost bag sack turned inside out as I thought the black would give more privacy inside and make some of the other nest boxes more appealing. However, our chickens are a bit dense and pretty much refused to go through it either into the house or out. I ended up taking it down and putting up a clear feed bag. This went a little better although Sam still had to help 3 of the hens to bed tonight. A couple more nights of checking they have all made it to bed and we should be good. Unfortunately I only took a picture of my first attempt.
We gave up on the idea of getting the leylandi fenced off and decided to claw back a bit of the garden for Chi. So we’ve halved the garden using bamboo canes and the scaffolding netting, which has given the chickens the ability to be let out again. Freedom finally! Two of the chickens tasted freedom slightly early though. We had to use the same scaffolding netting to fence the area off as we had used to cover part of the run. Buffy and Alice saw a chance and jumped over the panels leaving the rest of flock utterly confused as to how to get out. I’ll be getting some more bird scarer cds up tomorrow and then that’ll be their area done. The hens had a great time scratching around for insects, whilst Aramis ran around like crazy mating with all the girls.
All of the chickens are back in lay now. Brienne (our mixed breed hen from our first hatch) is laying large brown eggs whilst Buffy (our White Leghorn from our second hatch) has much smaller eggs but in a lovely white. Buffy’s eggs are starting to get a bit bigger though so I still hold out hope for the breed average of ~55g. So far Akira’s eggs have all been fine, we had an awful problem of ridged eggs from her last year. The only other thing of note is Awen. She was a bit off colour in the autumn and we even brought her into the house one night to perk her up. She has seemed better since the new year but now she has come into lay her eggs have been a lot smaller than they used to be, with only one normal sized. The other day we had the smallest egg ever from her, 22g. We thought it would be a wind egg (just egg white, no yolk) but it was a complete egg, just teeny. All in all the eggs are piling up so we’re going to have to start selling at the gate soon, hopefully by the end of the month. I just hope people stop to buy some!
We have had one very sad event over the last month. I went to the hen house one morning and only 8 of the chickens were outside. I went in to get eggs expecting to see the other hen inside laying or scratching away but she was upside down under the perches. She must have died in the night and fallen off the perch as she had been pooped on overnight. I checked her over and she had been dead a while but there were no wounds and more importantly absolutely no signs of bird flu (I was pretty terrified when I saw her). I had had a good long sit down with Chi the day before watching the chickens and all had looked happy and healthy. This was Aino, and she had a good shape, a bright red comb and face and bright eyes. Nothing to indicate she would be dead the next day. Apparently they can get heart problems that do them in suddenly which is what I suspect happened. She was a character of a hen, always coming in an open door to the conservatory, living room or kitchen. She bossed the flock around when she was top hen and did a stellar job of brooding and raising her chicks. RIP Aino
I’ll try not to leave it so long before the next post, which I think will be an update on the sheep as you haven’t heard about them in a while.
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Aside from the usual festive season and a late tupping, December had the added surprise of bird flu, which although we had known about it being in the continent we were hoping it would pass us by. For those that don’t know bird flu was spreading through Europe in November and a Prevention Zone was set up in the UK on 6th Decemeber. That basically means that everyone with birds had to do everything they could to keep wild birds away from thier birds. At the bare minimum that meant keeping the wild birds away from your birds food and water as bird flu is spread through contact with bodily fluids. Cases of bird flu were reported in December, in wild birds, in a turkey farm in Lincs and in several backyard flocks, mainly where there were ducks and chickens together. Waterfowl can get bird flu but don’t show symptoms very well. Chickens drop dead quite quickly though. If you want to read more about the current bird flu situation in the UK the DEFRA page is up to date.
As it affects waterfowl differently we started by getting the geese into the shade tunnel. It’s a large polytunnel with butterfly netting over it and weed proof fabric down but no doors. We cleared out the left over plants from the last owners (we haven’t used this tunnel for anything yet), patched up some holes in the netting and nailed some tarp to the door frame. We also set up a small shelter using an old door and some chairs so that there was a dry spot for thier food and somewhere to get out of any heavy rain. Netting isn’t ideal as wild birds can still poop on it and it gets washed in with the rain, but it is better than the birds using the goose baths or drinking water as a bird bath or hopping all over the ground they graze on. The geese made it into a slippery muck bath pretty quickly so we had to shovel it all out and threw 3 bales of straw down. That seems to have done the trick but it’s starting to get mucky again now so will need to refresh.
Geese are grazers though, and grass is the bulk of our geese’s diet. There was some grass growing over the weedproof fabric in the polytunnel but they ate through that pretty quickly. We tried them on some hay (with grit available to help them break it down) but they weren’t interested. They did pick at grains from the bales of hay though. They were having corn each night anyway as the weather had gotten cold and they kept eating that but seemed to have little interest in the goose food mix we bought for them. I saw an oppertunity and switched them to the flubenvet worming layers pellets in the hopes of getting them wormed before the breeding season hits. They weren’t interested at first but are eating it now. They are still looking in good condition (apart from April who has alway had a very prominent keel, even after they were wormed with an ivermectin injection), so I guess they are getting enough to eat. I’ll be so very glad to let them out again when the time comes though!
The chickens were a bit more difficult. If we put them in either of our other polytunnels there would be nowhere foxproof for them to perch. After losing Bellatrix to what I suspect was a goose attack I really didn’t want to put the chickens in the shade tunnel with the geese, even if it was partioned off. They also don’t do as well in the wet as geese do. The best option seemed to be to keep them in thier current house, but even though it is a shed rather than a coop it still isn’t big enough for them to be in there 24/7. We ordered some aviary panels the night the prevention zone was announced with a 3-5 delivery. We wouldn’t be complying immediately but at least we would have something in the works. Unfortunately the seller was awful. I emailed on day 3 to find out if there was tracking and was told the parcel would be with me on day 5. I emailed again on day 5 as it hadn’t arrived (after cancelling all our plans on days 3-5 just in case it came) only to be told it had been dispatched that day and would be with me in 3-5 days. Ebay were awful and just said I could refuse delivery and get a refund if I wanted. They arrived on day 8 and as soon as the chickens went to bed I set about building a run with cable ties, tarp and some scaffold netting. It was pretty tricky building it as the light went, without a torch (because I was too gung ho and just rushed into it), especially when I dropped the black cable ties on the floor!
The chickens seemed to be a lot happier in there than I expected but slowly the layer of fallen leaves and bits of grass poking through started to turn into mud and they started to look unhappy. I didn’t want to use straw as I had heard about that harbouring bacteria and giving the chickens respiratory problems. I took the plunge and threw some of thier indoor bedding down. It’s schopped straw treated with pine oil and isn’t the cheapest but they were over the moon with it. Scratching about and nice clean feet again. It’s lasted about a week and what I put down went further than I thought, so I’ll get some more down tomorrow.
The chicks were the easiest to deal with. I used the estimated 3-5 days before the run would arrive to intergrate Aurora and Buffy into the flock (our last broody hen and her 15 week old daughter). Buffy was a bit younger than I would have liked but I didn’t want to introduce them into the pen as there wouldn’t be much space for hens to hide before the pecking order was sorted. I had been thinking of killing the boys before Christmas so they wouldn’t be in too long and the coop they live in comes with a run so we just threw some tarp over it. That was fine until I went out one day and was greeted by 3 cockerels running around. I thought I must have left the side door unlocked when I put them to bed, or the wind something open. Well the wind had blown something open, the roof off the coop had been ripped off it’s hinges and was over the fence in the goose area. We had a rush job of herding them into the big polytunnel then moving the house and run and getting them inside that. They would be ok in there as we could still open the polytunnel doors for ventilation with them being self contained. It’s the last time I buy a commercial chicken coop though.
The prevention zone was due to be lifted on the 9th Jan but instead it was extended until the 28th Feb, which is very depressing. I think the chickens will be ok but I am not sure how the geese will cope with the breeding season whilst still in there. I was hoping to get them back out on grass before then, and I don’t know where they will lay as it is all so open in the tunnel and they like to be under bushes to lay. I’m now trying to come up with some sort of additional housing in there so that they can lay inside. Any suggestions are welcome.
On the upside we are getting eggs again finally. One of the Brown Marsh Daisies is giving us the odd egg which is nice. Buffy and Brienne (the two female chicks we hatched last year) have started to lay as well. Brienne is laying nice >60g eggs whilst Buffy is laying <30g eggs. I have no idea what breed Brienne is, the egg was advertised as Copper Brown Maran x Rhode Island Red, but she is pure white. Either way I think I might hatch some of her eggs this year, as she is a big bird producing big eggs, and a cross with Aramis (also breed unknown) could produce some nice chicks.
The chicks weren’t very happy in the polytunnel though and had started to fight each other, so when the news came that they would have to be in for another 2 months we decided that d-day was upon them. We killed them the other weekend and got ok weights from them 1.2kg and (Bifur), 1.4kg (Bofur) and 1.6kg (Bombur).
It’s still not a task I relish doing, and I was a bit grumpy and stressed out leading up to it, but I was able to give them a quick end and we now have food in the freezer. Serving up our roast chicken and veg to my family for Christmas dinner was a really proud moment. Next year our own goose! Looking at how long it takes me to process them though, we may end up sending them away in future. We reckoned about an hour to pluck and then another 40 mins to an hour to process in the kitchen. That isn’t too bad if you have the time, and I am sure I will get quicker as I get more experience, but at the moment, with a toddler and still trying to get everything to set up here, it may well be a better use of time to have someone else do them.
I had another butchery task this month. We were gifted two phesants, shot the day before. Unfortunately, this was a few days before Christmas. They got hung up and I stressed about them until I could see to them after Boxing Day. I skinned these ones and I hated it, I do definately prefer plucking. I was quite shocked to see that they had full crops and gizzards, and that they were full of corn. Then I saw how much fat they had on them and how yellow it was. I had thought that with phesant shoots they were released and then you went huting them, but these birds can’t have been released much before they were shot and were fattened up ready for the shoot. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that, but I’m not sure I will be accepting any more phesants from shoots, fresh roadkill may be ok.
The last achievment of December was that I finally braved facebook. We have a page! Pretty much just random updates from the smallholding but hopefully interesting enough to people. I’m trying to get some advice from trading standards as to what we need to do to start selling our produce and hopefully get this smallholding somewhat productive in 2017!
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