Thursday, 10 October 2013

Plucking work!

I harvested four meat chickens this week - stunned, bled and hung them in the chiller to relax. I would love to tell you that I weighed the chickens and calculated their feed-to-meat ratio and harvested them because I knew they were at the peak of their development. This is a lie. Like all jobs tackled around here, there was a much more basic reason: the meat chickens were getting a bit cramped in their shed so I freed up floor space by harvesting some of the biggest birds first. And we were out of chicken.

The underkeeper ran them over our plucking machine for me this morning. These ex-chickens are eleven weeks old, fed on medium protein food, on a free range system -

I bought two varieties of the same ' Farm Ranger' meat breed, one with brown feathers and one with white. The brown feathered variety is meant to grow marginally slower than the white variety; I wanted to stagger my chicken harvest, a half dozen at a time, because it's so tiring to do them in bulk. And, if an emergency came up and I had to put off the harvest, I would end up with a freezer full of fat chickens. That's a costly waste of chicken feed.

Once plucked, we found no obvious difference in growth rates between the brown and white varieties. The only difference is that the white ones pluck easier and more cleanly than the brown birds. The coming cold weather means that the birds are changing their feathers, so the brown guys are extra stubbly.

White Ranger (L) and Brown Ranger (R) with its five o'clock shadow!

There's some good flesh on them already, and only a little fat. Gutted and packaged, each weighs just over 2 kilos (about 4 1/2 lbs) each. I can leave it another fortnight before harvesting a few more cockerels. This is great news as there are 114 partridges in the chiller that need plucking for the weekend.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Lambing - the Post Game Roundup

Lambing officially finished at 1.30am this morning when L817 produced twins. I tended to the little lambs' needs: tubed them with warmed colostrum (mom's milk was slow), navels iodined (to prevent navel ill), a squirt of Orojet (to prevent watery mouth), dried off with a handful of straw while the ewe recovered. A final rummage in the straw to find the afterbirth, and dispose of it in a hedgerow far from Milkweed (to appease foxes) and I was back in my bed by 2.30am. Relieved.

It was a good lambing season. The scan showed 25 foetuses. We lost one in a difficult birth, and Eunice produced one undeveloped lamb (its twin is fine), so we have 23 healthy live lambs, 10 boys and 13 girls. Thirteen seems to be our number. Thirteen ewes were pregnant this year, and between them they produced 13 ewe lambs. The lambs not put to ram, or that lambed in spring, are grazing another field, and there are 13 of them too.

This was our first year lambing at Milkweed. I converted the two stables to lambing sheds, and it worked out great. I divided one shed into 4 individual birthing pens -

Empty stable...

...pens made from hurdles to encourage bonding, and a mesh door guard added to deter foxes...

...not quite at full occupancy...

When the wet weather came in, I was unbelievably grateful for these sheds. On those late afternoons when the sun was going down, and a ewe was starting to pink up and paw the ground, I could put her straight in a pen even before her water broke. When I came to do night checks, I meant that I didn't have to hunt the far corners of a ten acre field, and hope that I found her and her lambs before a fox did. Instead, I could climb over the fence, still in my pyjamas, and peek into her birthing pen.

When I needed to lend a hand as sheep midwife (we had quite a few lambs try to come out with a leg pointing backwards), mom only had a 5' square space to try and elude me. Babies landed straight onto rubber matting and dry straw, not sodden grass. On nights when fierce wind storms erupted, mom and babies weren't battling the elements. That takes its toll on both their reserves.

My friend and shepherdess neighbour Bridget (we're lousy with Bathshebas around here!) has experience of lambing indoors and suggested a nursery shed. Like a middle school for pre-teens, a nursery shed means that smaller twins and triplets can start stretching their legs and playing together while still relatively protected. So the second shed became a nursery room -

Spare straw bales make perfect climbing platforms and sleeping corners, and I can quickly pinch one when I need to clean out the birthing pens in the other shed for the next occupants. 

Like every maiden voyage and trial run, we had a vague plan and adapted it as required. It cost more in fuel to make the four mile, 4-hourly runs over our 23 days' lambing and I've fed ten bales of hay already using an indoor system. The yard around the sheds got pretty muddy with the extra traffic of tiny sheep feet when I shut them in every night, but we can simply top up the stone surface to fix that. All in, I count our Milkweed lambing as huge success. I think my flock, including the 23 newcomers would agree with me.

These are the shed graduates -

There are eleven big enough to stay out in the field now -about half the lambs- and they hang around in peer groups like high school kids. Of course, like teenagers, they still seek out their mothers at meal times. I will put a special lamb feeder with lamb pellets on the field this week, to take some of the pressure off of their mothers to produce milk. The lambs graze a bit now, and chew the cud too.

Tonight will be my first night in 25 days that I don't have to set the alarm for a 3am lamb check. I'm almost welling up with tears as I write this. I'm really tired this time around. Unfortunately I can't get a break or a day off, as our first shoot day is Tuesday and there's so much to get done before then. The dogs are too fat after a good summer and their fitness level is questionable. I will have to be careful and ease them into shoot days, perhaps swapping dogs at lunchtime so they're only doing half days to start, especially on warm days. I combine long dog walks with picking fruit for jams and chutneys, so the dogs are stretching their legs but I'm not concentrating on refreshing their training while I'm elbow-deep in a blackberry patch. They will all be slightly wild the first few days out.

Fraggle has fallen victim to the "Spud effect", i.e. she learned to answer to her nickname so Fraggle is out, and Tink is in. I prefer the name, and it's so much easier to use. Mike of course calls her Stink, and it's often an apt description of the little dog. Tink sailed though her gun dog puppy classes and we passed out last weekend with "top marks" according to the trainer. If I can keep her hunting drive in check, Tink will be an awesome force both beating and retrieving. She won't see the shooting field this year; she's just six months old now. For the moment, she's content walking with Spud and Quincy, and rolling in leaf-strewn mud holes or cow pies.

OK, by popular demand, one more cute lamb photo -

Next week it will be pictures of meat chickens and pheasants hanging out at ice camp.