Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Stupid is as stupid does

This is my 100th post, and I was planning on writing something 'deep and meaningful'. Instead I'm going to write about something stupid and embarassing.

You know those injuries, always self-inflicted, where the pain hurts less than the embarassment of telling someone what you did? Well, I was giving the lambs their first set of worming treatments and vaccinations this morning. I was feeling proper farmer-like, doing my own basic vet work, practicing my sub-cutaneous injections (yeah, I'm totally down with the lingo). And while daydreaming about how self-reliant I was being, I accidentally injected some lamb vaccine - which includes a dose of Clostridium bacteria - into my own hand. After I'd already stuck it in the lamb's neck once. That's two chances for infection then.

Well done farmer Jen.

The long and short of it is it's not life-threatening. The doctor gave me a week's course of antibiotics and my tetanus is up to date anyway (If you've read my blog before, you will know that this is not the first stupid thing I've done). But calling the vet, who's a friend of ours, to ask him what the procedure is if yourself with..ahhh...lamb vaccine? I am never going to live this down.

And the worst part is that I can't drink while taking antibiotics, so no evening 'Brandy and Ginger' for a week!

We started egg collecting today, and as we walked down the rows filling our baskets it started to snow. We've just stoked up the wood stove and dinner's in the oven. We're due a cold snap and temperatures of -1C overnight. The wind chill is making it worse.

Duckling update: Barbara is being a super-duper mom replacement and the ducklings are being well-tended. At least someone around here knows what she's doing .

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The transplant was a success...

I swapped Barbara her dummy egg for a pair of ducklings, and she settled right down on them. No questions asked. I've been checking every hour in case of 'rejection' but both parties seem happy with the arrangement. I even tried to feel under Barbara, and found a tiny head poking up from under her wing, and was given What For by the new mother. So far so good.

The incubator was quickly washed out and a new batch of eggs set this morning, as a favour to a neighbor. She'll take delivery of those day old chickens, and I expect I will have some of my own Pekin and Barbu d'Uccle eggs to put in there next.

Mike finished catching up hen pheasants for breeding stock yesterday. And just in time as the first eggs are appearing in their enclosures. I think there's about 2,000 breeding pheasants in there this year. We're going to start collecting the eggs this week, and every day for the next few months.

Pheasant breeding pens, in the middle of summer and a nice dry spell

Unfortunately, this year egg season is coinciding with mud season, so we'll have to wash all the eggs before setting them. At peak time, we pick up 1400 eggs a day.

A few day's worth of pheasant eggs, trayed and ready for incubation

That's a lot of washing. I really hope the weather picks up soon.

Monday, 29 March 2010


Announcing the new arrivals -

Two ducklings hatched this morning, with a bit of assistance. I will let them warm up and dry off in the incubator overnight, then Barbara the Silkie hen can take charge of them tomorrow morning. Charles the cockerel was raised by two mother ducks, so I'm hoping that the adoption process will work in the other direction too. If not, there's a heat lamp and space in the pantry. What's two more orphans to feed?

They are pretty cute.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Ten Acres - Now What?

Walking the boundary of Milkweed Farm

Now that Milkweed Farm is officially ours, I've started to worry that I won't be able to manage ten acres. Which is ridiculous because we already have 30 acres and we manage that just fine. But we have tenants for that farm (Mike's started calling it Teasel farm) and they manage it. I just do the paperwork. I can totally do paperwork. But I'm going to farm these ten acres myself. Do I know enough about being a farmer?

It's ours as far as those trees

Well, I know the first principle is that the land you have determines what kind of farm you have. If you fall in love with a steep-sided hill farm, you're going to end up with a flock of sheep, because that's what thrives on a slope. Milkweed farm is flat, and the sward (grass) is good. In fact it's certified organic as the previous owner raised organic grass-fed beef on it. We have lots of options.

The dew pond in the corner of the field - we can extract water from it for livestock

Too many options are confusing. I need to narrow them down in order to find this farm's purpose. When I'm not sure about something, I fall back on what I know: research. Luckily there's a local Agricultural College (my old alma mater ) with a pretty good library. As it's too wet to get on with spring chores I used the opportunity to rummage through their stacks for titles like Fieldcraft and Farmyard, Grassland Smallholding, and The Profitable Hobby Farm.

Maybe it was the change of scenery or the comfort of a library environment, but some thoughts came clear. I know that the farm must pay for itself, and contribute to our overall income - no more fooling around. I know that I want to keep the organic status, at least in principle (the accreditation can be expensive). And I know that I'm going to make some mistakes. It's inevitable.

After a walk around the field this morning, we decided to start with what needs doing - namely fencing, and clearing up some weeds that are encroaching on the field margins. We need to clear this in order to put the fence in, and reclaim around an acre of field that would be going to waste otherwise.

We also had a good look at animal scat and prints. This field is a magnet for deer and wild pigs, which it great news not only for our freezer, but also for our pockets. Harvesting the wild meat will earn a profit, around £50 an animal. And as we are the landowners, any pig or deer I shoot belongs to me - no estate tax, no pigs destined for London markets.

Pig workings in the field

To that end, I popped up to the local gun shop and got a good deal on a new high seat. A high seat is just what it sounds like: a seat about 12' off the ground, tied to a tree. It gives you a good, safe vantage point to shoot from. And as there are no big aerial predators in Britain, deer don't bother to look up in the trees for danger, so it's good camouflage. Two deer to the game dealer will cover the cost of the high seat. We won't be putting livestock here to graze until late in the year, so the wild animals won't be pushed out. I can harvest them all summer.

Can you see the track that the animals have made coming into the field?

At home, the livestock are thriving but muddy. The lamb pen is more mud than grass, churned up by tiny feet. My calendar says that the duck eggs in the incubator are due to hatch in the next day or two; I candled them and 3 out of 4 were developing. She doesn't know it yet, but Barbara the Silkie hen will be adopting any of the hatchlings. She's broody on a dummy egg, on standby.

The lettuce and mixed greens are growing on in the greenhouse, despite the fact that a family of rats has decided to make a home underneath it. The holes are so large, the greenhouse is in danger of subsidence! I need to start trapping again.

It's dark, all the dogs (and the gamekeeper) are asleep. It's time for me to go to bed too. Maybe I'll just have a look in the Organic Farming and Growing book first.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Home Again

After a fantastic visit with my sister in San Francisco, I have just returned home and found everything as I left it - wet dogs, a chainsaw in the pantry, sheep feed and a glut of eggs in the porch. The lambs are fatter and more demanding, and two chickens have gone broody on eggs. And it's raining as per normal.

Even though my daily life is very rural, I like urban life well enough, especially its many conveniences like public tranport and longer opening hours. What I wasn't prepared for was people, more specifically their germs. After 10 hours in an airplane breathing in recycled air steeped in all manner of international sickness, I ended up contracting flu and spent most of my holiday flat on my back staring at the TV. I'm still laid low with it now.

But, hey, a break is a break and it was a change from my normal routine and a chance to catch up on rest before the season gets into full flow, and more importantly spend time with my sister.

And we have good news to report - the field is officially ours! Mike has named it Milkweed Farm, though "farm" is a bit grand for a 10 acre patch. We have sold the first cut of hay already to pay for some much needed fencing. More on that to come.

Apologies for this short and rambling post, but I'm dragging around doing the bare minimum until the flu and the jet lag passes. I was attempting to make us some dinner when Mike came home with another pheasant anomaly for me:

The cock bird has a crossbill. It's not an inheritable birth defect; rather a result of the physical position he was in inside the eggshell. Mike must have let him go on as a chick. He advocates giving everything a chance. If the bird had to feed completely in the wild from the ground, he probably wouldn't have survived. Because we put down hopper feeders, the bird was able to scoop wheat from the feeders and thrive (though he's a bit small for his age).

Mike was so impressed by his resilience he said to the bird, "Well, you managed to survive the hard winter, I reckon you ought to have some fun this summer" and has decided to put him in the breeding pen as a reward. That's an insight into the male psyche for you. I find a cup of tea and a good book is quite pleasant, but I'm pretty sure the bird would agree with Mike on this one.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

On Hiatus

I'm away as of tomorrow and won't be updating the blog until I return in two weeks. Though I'm looking forward to a break and a change of scenery, I will miss home. The lambs will be bigger, the daffodils will be flowering. The bluebells and the wild garlic are just starting to show in the woods now. The grass will probably need mowing by the time I return. The farmers have started rolling their fields to flatten the heaves made from frost and cows grazing. They may even be ploughing when I get back. Spring lambing will be underway. And we'll be starting to collect pheasants eggs to hatch. It's the start of our busy season.

I will be sure and tell you all about it when I get back.

Our lambs will be grazing here as soon as they're weaned - right above Mike's trout fishing pond. How convenient!

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The herbivore's dilemma

I'm going to visit my sister in San Francisco next week. It's only for 10 days but you would be surprised how much food our small menagerie can get through in that time. Partly to be helpful and partly to assuage my guilt about leaving Mike behind to do all the chores, I did a mega-animal feed shop today. Dog food, pony chaff, wheat for the chickens. I topped up the bird feeders and the chicken feeders, and rotated all the food in our feed store. I dropped off some wheat to our neighbor farmer, and "borrowed" a bag of his haylage for the lambs.

I've started the weaning process, and the lambs are protesting. Loudly. They have started to eat lamb creep, which is a concentrated pellet with the all vitamins and minerals they need to grow. They are investigating the grass but they don't seem thrilled at the prospect of being herbivores. Not when there's warm milk to be had.

We've gone from bottle feeding 5 times a day, to 3 times a day. While I'm away, I expect Mike will reduce that to 2 bottles a day. Which is great for me, because I won't be here to hear their woeful bleatings and feel sorry for them.

To help Mike out, I'm introducing them to haylage - a very palatable and nutritious form of dried grass. You can easily make a hay net out of an old feed sack with a couple of holes cut out at lamb height. They weren't sure what to make of my jury-rigged contraption when I put it in their pen:
I'm not gonna try it...YOU try it....

Their natural curiosity seemed to prevail in the end and they gingerly sampled this new offering:

If you think THIS is gonna make up for the milk, you got another thing coming

It's a start. I didn't realise that with orphans, you really need to introduce them to different foodstuffs early or they won't recognise them as such when they're mature. I made this mistake with Big and Little lamb, who turned their noses up at stubble turnips and hay, and demanded concentrates. This not only made them unsociable, as they bleated like babies for their twice-a-day food hit but it also added to their, shall we say generous, layer of fat.

Hay and haylage is the way forward for these ladies. A fat ewe is not a healthy ewe, and it makes their future lambing difficult if not dangerous.

Speaking of fat, I thought I would work off some of mine by taking the busiest spaniels on a long walk. I was reminded of how much fun fossil hunting is when Mike brought me home that ammonite the other day. I walked along the river bed while the dogs ran amok, and I found these:

L to R: a fossil bivalve, relative of the clam; small complete ammonite; lg outer ring of ammonite and small inner one.

The nature table has expanded to include the nature windowsill. I will keep my eyes peeled and hope to add more finds soon. As you can imagine, the days just fly by in rural England. I only hope San Franciso is this exciting.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010


I took the pack of dogs quad biking yesterday for some exercise, but we didn't come back empty-handed -

That's a cock pheasant on the left and 5 fallow deer legs on the right. Dulcie retrieved the pheasant, probably ill or injured if it was caught by the dog. And Jazzie brought me the first deer leg, shortly followed by the others in turn, each with a leg in their mouth. Podge didn't want to give hers up and chose to carry it proudly the rest of the way home.

It's worrying to find deer parts like this cut off and left in the woods. It can be a sign of poaching, a big problem in the countryside. It turned out the underkeeper had shot 2 fallow for the larder so the legs were accounted for.

Even in the off season the dogs are providing services - clearing up sick and injured birds, and helping catch out potential poaching. I don't know what switches on in the dogs' heads but if they find anything of interest, they seem compelled to bring it back to me. Deer parts, pigeons, rabbits. Pip brought me a lamb's tail this morning. The lambs' tails are falling off (rings are put on which constrict the blood flow and eventually 'dock' the tails). Pip was excited to find this treasure and carried it into the kitchen to show me, tail wagging (hers not the lamb's).

We were down at the vets early this morning. My sick hen didn't make it to the log pile yesterday. I was concerned about the high mortality we've had with that strain of Barbu D'Uccle, and I began researching the symptoms. This was a terrible idea. Can you get hypochondria by proxy? By the time I'd finished looking at all the poultry diseases it could be, I'd convinced myself it was potentially a notifiable disease, that I would have to tell the Ministry of Agriculture and the flock would be destroyed. Plague, pestilence, death...

Terry, our sensible friend and a partner at our local vet surgery talked me down. I brought the hen to him for examination. Marek's disease. Which is what I thought before I spiralled into a panic. Terry kindly put the hen down for me with an injection (no logs were involved), and we devised a vaccination program for this year's hatch to combat the disease. Terry tells me that Marek's disease, which is a virus, is prevalent in nearly all smallholders' flocks. Vaccines which must be administered to day old chicks are not 100% effective. Older birds cannot be vaccinated.

While at the vets learning about chicken diseases, Mike mixed up the lamb's milk for be helpful...  

How one man can make so much mess from a litre of water and 200g of powdered milk? There was laughing and teasing over spilled milk. No crying.

He made it up to me though. No of course he didn't clean up after himself, but he did find me two really cool things: 1) a hermaphrodite pheasant

The brown birds are the females, the brighter colored bird front and right is the male. The bird front and left is hermaphroditic, and a good example.

From the neck up it has the coloring of a male, and the chest is darker. But the rest of the body is hen-like. It has underdeveloped sex organs so cannot lay eggs or fertilise them, so it's asexual. Mike's put it in the laying pens anyway because he knows I love anomalies, especially medical ones.

2) A large ammonite

We live in a geologically rich area, particularly ammonites and belemnites. Mike found this in a nearby field when he was soil testing with the agronomist. He even washed the soil off it before he gave it to me. It won't fit on our nature shelf so it's in the windowsill where I can admire it from my reading chair.

Podge is happy with her deer leg, I'm happy with my fossil, and Mike's just happy I didn't make him clean the kitchen. It's great when your needs are small and easily fulfilled.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Spring Animal Round-up

It's amazing what two days of back-to-back sunshine will do for your humour, and for your productivity levels. There are hints of the spring to come, at least in the sunshine. In the shade and in the wind you can tell it's not quite here yet. The daffodils are late. Some of the early varieties like 'February Gold' haven't even begun to bud yet. That is the topic of talk in the village - which spring plants are out, which aren't, which were out this time last year. Everyone agrees that it's been a good year for snowdrops.

I have one houseplant - an african violet which I won last week at a charity quiz night. My Aunt Meg has the greenthumb when it comes to these temperamental plants. She had a picture perfect display of them in her stairwell windows. Even as a (supposedly) trained gardener, I haven't got the affinity with this species. It probably wasn't a good start that I left the plant in the back of the truck for 2 days before I remembered it was there. But I'll do my best and enjoy the deep violet blooms while they last. I have had the sense to move it out of the truck and into the kitchen window.

The chickens are dusting in dry places and sunbathing. If you've never seen a flock of chickens sunbathing you'd be forgiven for assuming a car had just driven through the garden and run over every bird on the way out. Bodies everywhere, laying on their sides with their wings out. Occasionally there's a flap flap and some scratched dust kicked into the feathers, so you know they're alive and well. Or come outside carrying a bowl or pot and create a mass poultry resurrection. I estimate that they can go from dusting to feasting in under 3 seconds.

I'm moving 3 surplus cockerels to the woods today now that the guys have got the fence and feeders finished. I hate knocking them on the head when they're healthy. They can pretend they're jungle fowl and make their way in the (semi) wild. The Barbu D'Uccle hen hasn't improved any. It's the same condition that affected her mother Paula and her sister, but I don't know exactly what it is. I can only put it down to an inherent weakness in the strain. I think it's best if this weakness dies out with that line rather than perpetuating the problem. So we're visiting the log pile this morning.

No hens have gone down on eggs yet, so I trust that they know this break in the weather is only temporary. I set the duck eggs for Lady S this morning but early eggs usually have lower fertility. And there are only 4 eggs which are now over a week old. The odds aren't great but you never know. Nature always surprises me.

Chicken folk say that your early hatches tend to be more hens than cockerels and late hatches more cocks than hens. I'm going to monitor our chicken crop this year and see if the theory stands up.

We've had our first spring related injury yesterday. Eudora the lamb was gambolling (is that the term for lambs?) with her sisters and shortly after I saw her favoring her front leg. I sat her on her bum (it's so much easier to handle sheep when they're still pint-sized) and felt around the digit for a thorn or swelling, felt for any heat in the leg and looked for signs of scald. Nothing. She's still limping today so I'll keep an eye on her. I stopped the shepherd as he was coming through the village on his quad bike and asked him for a second (more experienced) opinion. Too much frollicking, quite common in lambs when the weather turns he said. Other than the sports injury, they are growing fast on their bottles of milk.

The horses are sulking from the lack of grass and it will be some time yet before enough shoots poke through their paddock to keep those fatties fed. I bought up all the surplus hay bales from a local farmer, and filled up our truck and trailer. I hope will be enough to see them through. It depends on when the ground warms up and the grass gets away. It's hard to predict.

Finding small bales of hay is difficult nowadays. Most farmers produce huge bales that have to be moved with a special fork on the front of their tractor. I watch them go down the road sometimes with the bale skewered in place. If it's haylage, you can smell the sweet fermented grass. It smells like spring. As I was humping bales into the trailer by hand, I imagined our ten acres being contract cut into round bales like that, and stacked on the field. Enough food for even the longest winter. I was dreaming of grass species that I would overseed to make it palatable and nutritious for the stock. And the agronomist coming to take soil samples so I could organise my fertilising plan and rotation. Pigs to turn over an area, then a catch crop of kale for the sheep to graze. Then a winter tares to feed the soil. Turn it in when spring comes and use that as my vegetable plot.

Any hint of spring makes me daydream like this. Any one of you who has been reading through a stack of seed catalogues knows just what I'm talking about. It's possibilities. As Charles Warner wrote "Hoe while it is spring, and enjoy the best anticipations."

As I'm anticipating this weather won't last forever, I'm off to take the dogs for a run behind the quad this morning and let them get some sun on their backs.