Tuesday, 25 June 2019

An Indoor Day. Mostly.

It's still raining so I've decided to have an office day indoors. Well, mostly indoors; I will have to spend a few hours outside checking my trap lines and walking dogs.

And there's no point going in the garden. The vegetable garden is shocking this year. My beans and squash are way behind. My only good harvest this season may be tomatoes and cucumbers from the greenhouse and fruit from the orchard. Only the weeds are flourishing and it's too wet to walk on the soil and sort them out. It happens like that some years.

Molly likes having office days too -

She "doesn't do rain".

We just finished taking off this morning's hatch of partridge and pheasants. My job (and it's my favourite!) is helping stragglers out of their shells. Here's a short video showing a partridge needing a little help -

I'm only doing it one-handed because I have to hold the camera

In an average hatch, we probably help out about 100 live pheasant and partridge chicks. About half of those survive, so over 12 hatches that's about 600 extra live chicks. Partridge chicks, though smaller, are tougher than pheasant chicks and more of them get up on their feet.

Not a lot of hatcheries do this. Some even feel that it's pointless to rear anything but the strongest chicks. We have to pull out and box all the chicks at a fixed time, so some of the chicks, although strong, are just late.

Mike usually gives these chicks, which we call "wets", to youngsters who like to raise a few for themselves or to young keepers starting out who can do with an extra few free chicks (each chick costs about 70p to buy normally).

When I help the late chicks out of the shell, I try and leave a bit of eggshell on the bottom. This encourages the chick to kick off the shell and help strengthen its legs and straighten out its body after being curled up inside the egg -

The wets go back in the warm hatchers for a few hours together to dry off and gather their strength while we clean down, disinfect and prepare the other chicks for shipment. It gives the wets a bit of extra time to recover.

Other babies this week include two healthy ewe lambs from Friendly ewe -

This one's for your Janice!

Friendly ewe has mastitis in one side, so she's short of milk to feed twins. I bottle feed the lambs a couple times a day to top them up, but they stay with mum for everything else. 

I looked back in my breeding records and see that I noted both ewe 0007 and Friendly ewe had mastitis previously, hence they've both lost one teat (the teat is hard and won't produce milk again). I gave them a free pass from ice camp because 0007's fleece is excellent and Friendly ewe is, well, friendly. Still, they both gave me 3 new ewe lambs in total so it's worth a bit of bottle feeding on my part. 

Ewe 0042 is still left to lamb. I turfed her out in the field a few weeks ago but it looks like she's getting ready to lamb. Finally. I'll bring her back in to the barn and hopefully by the end of the week I will be done with lambs. I will not lamb this late again, if I can help it.

The other reason for having an office day is organise my paperwork for my accountant. Yes, I have hired a farm accountant now, which is a good sign of progress. 

I'm also meeting with the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation tomorrow, to see if I can get a loan in principle against Milkweed & Teasel, our farmland in Dorset. We have found a farmhouse and 11 acres locally that we're going to make an offer on when it goes to auction in July. We may be quickly outbid which is fine, but Mike and I are now concentrating on selling our land in Dorset and buying a farmhouse with land as our final home, here in Wales. The search may take a year or two, which is also fine. 

Of course, I will keep you posted. Until then I will keep expanding our small farming operation here. And paying taxes I hope!

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Elderflowers, Lambs, and a Wet June

I think it's rained for most of June so far. It's cold enough today that I'm wearing a scarf indoors. If I had any wood left I would light the wood stove. Instead I'm making do with a sweater and a hot water bottle.

Until this rain came in. I was getting stuck into my tractor mowing. I still have a few fields to cut and the grass is getting too long to be of good feed value. The weather stopped my work, as did my run-in with a tree branch -

I was watching the mower out of the other window and didn't see the cut branch sticking out. I've ordered another window and will pick up the mowing again when the new window and dry weather arrive.

Just before the rain came, I managed to pick some elderflower heads to make elderflower cordial, a sweet floral drink that is great as a soft drink in sparkling water, or as an addition to gin or prosecco. 

Common elderflower (Sambucus nigra) grows worldwide and is easy to identify. You want to pick the flowering heads when they're creamy white. The photo below shows flower heads not yet open (green), at their peak (behind), and gone over (right). If you use the overripe flowers, your cordial will have a musty, compost-like taste.

I use the River Cottage recipe as a guideline. I do pick them early and on a warm day. I drop all the heads in a bag and give it a half hour for the bugs to leave the flower heads. 

When the cordial is made, I freeze it in batches in plastic leftover containers.

It's not glamorous or Instagram worthy to look at, but it's simple and effective.

When they're frozen, I slide all the batches between wax paper and into a plastic ziplock bag to save freezer space. I can just pull out a few servings at a time through the year.

I also sent my first Dorset x Friesian lamb to Ice Camp -

The carcase looks pretty good. Leaner than a pedigree Dorset.

When I ringed this lamb's testicles I missed one, so he grew a lot quicker than the others. I wanted to put him in the freezer before any hormones made him taste gamey. I butchered him myself so I could have the bones and scraps for the dogs.

I can't tell you yet how he tastes. The same afternoon that I set about breaking down the carcase, Mike was given a whole sea bass from our friend Scotty, and a selection of game meats to try from a new butcher. We've been spoiled for choice!

I had another lamb born last week - a big ram lamb. 

Friendly ewe will lamb next, by the weekend I expect. And I still bottle feed lamb number 7 in the field once a day to keep her topped up as mother hasn't got much milk.

As I'm rained out of the garden and fields, I got on and delivered my fleeces to the Irish wool buyers early this morning.

I still had the big delivery van from delivering pheasant chicks yesterday so I made good use of it. Each of those bags is called a "sheet" so I have two wool sheets to sell. The buyers will grade the fleece then send payment, so I have to wait and see how we did this year.

On a positive note, I've just finished last year's tax return and for the first time I have a tax bill to pay! Normally I make so little on the farm after deductions and capital investments that the government pays me a small refund. This year I owe them - only £28 but still a small milestone for the farm business.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Shearing Day

The bulk of my flock gets shorn once a year. Timing depends on a lot of factors: after the last frost has passed but before it gets too hot, when the flies that lay eggs in fleece start hatching, on a dry day, long before or shortly after lambing, when you're shearer can fit you in.

Hence, shearing is probably one of my most stressful times of the year. My anxiety dreams go from my default recurring "I'm a week late for my university classes and don't know where my class is, plus I'm carrying all my luggage with me" dream, to the " I'm trying to gather my sheep and I can't find five of them, some won't be caught, where did I park the trailer?".

It's not just me who stresses. Angela, my fellow small flock enthusiast, asked me to give her a hand on her shearing day for "moral support". Big farmers with thousands of sheep have no problem getting teams of shearers to work for them - a lot of sheep means good money, usually with commercial (small and less hairy) breeds that shear quickly.

Only some shearers will even consider doing small flocks like mine where the sheep can take twice as long to shear and it's only a couple hours' work for the time and trouble it takes them to set up their shearing stations. I do understand the economics of it all. And, like so many things in farming, if you need it done so does everyone else, all at the same time. We're all competing for the same skilled workforce.

We were lucky to find Kieran. He shears big flocks during the day, and does a few small flocks in the evening. He has a mobile shearing unit that he tows behind his truck. He's only 27 yet runs his own farm with his mother and siblings. Kieran is laid back, friendly and talks to the sheep in a kind voice, never losing his temper with even the worst of my thrashing, kicking ewes.

Kieran set aside time to shear my girls for me. I gathered them and moved them to our lambing barn as rain was forecast and my sheep needed to be dry. Thankfully, the barn holds about 50 sheep comfortably for a couple days as Keiran got held up on some big commercial days. My flock overnighted happily in the barn with plenty of hay for dinner. The extra day also gave me the chance to vaccinate, worm, trim feet and treat any conditions that needed attention, all in a dry barn. Pure bliss!

In the barn ready to be rid of their heavy fleeces

The In box....

...and the Out box

Raw fleece ready to be rolled. The dirt and grease washes out easily.

I roll the fleeces while Kieran shears, and the flock filled two great wool sheets to sell to the Irish wool merchants. Selling the fleece will recoup about half of my shearing bill (and Kieran is very reasonably priced).  Both Angela and I have booked him for next year, sweetening the deal by keeping him in cakes and cider while he worked. Having the barn and a chilled out shearer took most of the stress out of shearing day. I can go back to my "late for class" anxiety dreams now.

There are 3 ewes still to lamb. They're taking their time, probably enjoying the pampering and extra grain rations. I had to move them to a makeshift pen during shearing and they go out on grass during the day, but in the evenings they have the whole barn with fresh straw beds and hay for days all to themselves.

A bit of grass and sunshine for the mums to be. 
The third ewe is a few weeks away yet so I've put her in the field until it's closer to her time.

The shorn flock (minus 6 lambers) have gone back onto good pasture to spend the summer looking at the views and converting grass to flesh. Aside from daily checks, my sheep flock will go on the mental back burner until October, when I will prep the ewes for mating and put the rams in with them for lambs next spring.

Now my focus is on fields and garden. I will take the log splitter off the tractor and put the mower back on (another sign of summer coming!) and cut any of my grazing pastures that have got too long, This will encourage grass growth that is more nutritious for the sheep in later summer, when I need to rotate their grazing. I can't believe it's the first of June already.