Monday, 27 March 2017

How many baby chickens?

It was Mr J's birthday this weekend and I had set some eggs in the incubator with the hope that they would hatch on his birthday. Well, nature has a mind of its own and from late in the afternoon of day 19 in the incubator, we could clearly hear cheeping and peeping of little chicks.

On day 20 I got up to be greeted by two little chicks and throughout the day they seemed to arrive in a gentle but steady stream. As we went to bed there were eleven little fluffy chicks stumbling their way around the incubator.

As so often happens during hatching, I was unable to sleep very much as I get so excited about the new little lives that are presenting themselves in the incubator and so, at 3am or thereabouts, I was sitting in the kitchen blearily staring into the incubator and fifteen little pairs of eyes looked back at me!

On the day of Mr J's birthday, we moved eight of the chicks to the nursery run to snuggle under the brooder (the electric mummy) so that there was more space in the incubator for the more recently hatched birds. By the end of his birthday, there were twenty baby chickens. I had put twenty-seven eggs into the incubator, three were not fertile so were removed at day five, which left us with twenty-four fertile eggs. Twenty hatched chicks from twenty-four eggs is a very good hatch rate and I was delighted.

The day after Mr J's birthday yet another little chick hatched, giving us a total of twenty-one!
I think that we have two hybrids that are Big Red crossed with Diesel, they are very black with a smidgen of brown on their necks, seven Australorp, four Cream Legbars and eight Jersey Giants.

All these eggs were laid here on the smallholding, they are all the off-spring of birds we have here (or have had here as Squeaky and Big Red are no longer with us).

To make space for these little newly hatched chickens, the four week olds (all eighteen of them) have been moved into nursery houses in the chicken field, actually they are just outside the chicken field where I have easy access to them and can attend to them regularly throughout the day without disturbing the other chickens.

Split between two nursery houses, the eighteen chicks are now in groups of nine Jersey Giants and a mixed group of Australorps, Silver Laced Wyandottes and a couple of Jersery Giants (that we know we won't be breeding from as they have the wrong colour legs to be true to the breed standard). They are all doing well, they are feathered and off heat and seem very pleased to have grass to run around on and eat. 

The seven chicks that were in one of the nursery houses have also moved. They have graduated to the shed with the mixed flock and after just two nights in with the older girls, they seem settled and are running around the field very happily. They have learnt that their food and water is inside under cover and also seem to have grown tremendously in confidence and agility,

There have been some other new additions to our flocks. We have a lovely White Sussex girl who has spent most of her time with the young seven, Mr J and I have decided to call her Auntie Mabel. She's a very friendly although somewhat timid, chicken who no doubt will find her feet and settle into the mixed flock very well.

Two new thirteen week old pullets (young female chickens who haven't started to lay), these are a cross between a deep brown egg layer and a very dark brown egg layer and they should (fingers crossed) give us deep to dark brown eggs when they start laying. There are also two more of this cross-breed chicken that are now six weeks old and they will remain in a nursery house for a couple more weeks.

Yesterday four laying girls arrived, three that will also lay dark-ish brown eggs and one that is a Leghorn cross and she lays white eggs. 

Between the new arrivals and our existing flock, we should be able to offer a nice selection of colour of eggs in our egg boxes.

All the newly hatched chicks, the four week olds, the six week olds, the eight week olds and the thirteen week olds cost a pretty penny to feed, so thankfully we are now selling the eggs of the layers to help pay for the feed costs.

I've also sold some of the Jersey Giant eggs for hatching and as long as we continue to see hatching eggs and eating eggs, the girls will pay for their own food. At least during the summer. When autumn returns and throughout the winter, feed costs go up as there is less grass to eat and fewer bugs in the garden and of course, if there is a lockdown again this year, the feed costs will soar as the birds are restricted to being inside.

Not all of the chicks will be laying birds, obviously some will be males and they will either be kept as breeding stock or will feed us throughout the latter part of the year. So today we have fifty chicks that over the next few months will start laying or be moved to a separate area. And that should keep us in eggs for a while!
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Thursday, 23 March 2017

Gluten Free Naughty Salted Caramel Cake

Gluten Free Naughty Salted Caramel Cake


6 ozs Butter
4 ozs Caster Sugar
2 ozs Black Treacle
3 fresh Eggs
1 tspn Salted Caramel Flavouring
pinch of Sea Salt
7 ozs Gluten Free Self Raising Flour
up to 3 fl oz Milk


Preheat oven to 180 C, 350 F or gas mark 4 - 5. Grease and flour 2 x 7 inch cake tins.
Cream the butter and sugar.
Beat in the black treacle and eggs.
Add the sea salt and caramel flavouring.
Gently stir the flour into the mixture.
Add milk if required to make a thick but smooth cake batter.
Spoon cake batter into tins and bake in centre of oven until deep golden brown and a knife comes out of it clean.

When cooked, leave to stand for a couple of minutes to allow cake to shrink away from tin sides and then turn on to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.

For filling and topping (see my video of making the topping here)

3 ozs Salted Butter
3 ozs Caster Sugar
2 tblspns Golden Syrup
1/2 tin of Sweetened Condensed Milk
Generous pinch of Sea Salt

Put butter, sugar, golden syrup and condensed milk into a heavy pan over a medium heat.
Stir continuously to prevent toffee/fudge from sticking to the pan.
When light golden brown and it coats the back of a spoon, remove from heat and sprinkle salt into topping.

To make up cake

Place one cake layer onto a plate, gently pour the toffee mixture over and allow to spread to the edges. 
Put top layer of cake on and pour toffee mixture over it.
Allow toffee mixture to cool before serving to prevent burns.
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Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Wintery social day

Sunday 19th March. What a fabulous day we've had! 

Last year a group of smallholders, most of whom live in Wales, met up at a smallholding in Carmarthen for a barbecue (read about it here) and afterwards we all agreed that it would be good to have a regular meet up and I readily offered to host the next get together. We had thought that we'd have a social event before Christmas, but Lockdown meant that having lots of folks coming to the smallholding wasn't a good idea.

Now that the restrictions have been amended and as long as we are careful with our biosecurity, it feels safer to have friends to visit. So, at fairly short notice, we threw our doors open to a group of smallholders, alotmenteers and all round good eggs. Actually today, throwing our doors open was the last thing we wanted to do, the weather was appalling! We did however want to see our friends.

They arrived sensibly armed with wet weather clothes, wellies and enthusiasm. After a hot drink to warm up, we headed outside for a look around. Now it doesn't take very long to walk around our smallholding especially as at this time of year wandering around the chicken field isn't an option. The lockdown restrictions mean that only essential staff/owners are allowed into the birds spaces and given the feistiness of the roosters, stressing the boys by having lots of visitors is probably unwise.

So, we wandered, as best one can in 40 mph winds, around the annual vegetable garden and food forest area and then the area behind the piggeries. We looked at the three week old chicks and everyone made appropriate ooh and ahh noises. Our little plot of land doesn't take very long to walk around and afterwards we talked about how being a small plot means that we have to make the best use of the available space for what we are trying to achieve here.

I was struck (as I was at the barbecue too) at the resilience, humour, skills and knowledge of this group of friends, I feel blessed to know them. 

After a couple of hours of merriment and refreshments, those smallholders who lived furthest away headed home to be back in time to attend to their animals and by late afternoon all of our guests had left for their own smallholdings.

Our little home returned once more to the quietness that we are accustomed to, with only the sound of the incubator's fan whirring away in the background. I like the peacefulness here when it's quiet, but oh boy, did I enjoy having a houseful of folks and I'm very much looking forward to our next gathering of smallholders.

Anyway, I hope that my friends had as nice a time as I did and before we finish the washing up, I think it's time for a cuppa!
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Friday, 17 March 2017

Let's keep bees!

I've been admiring the blossom on the damson trees for a week or two. Today the wind is making the petals flutter and dance across the vegetable garden and it looks like it's snowing, it's not, it's just the volume of blossoms being blown around.

The folks on the neighbouring smallholding keep bees, well actually, they kept them for the first time last year, but they plan to continue doing so. A few weeks ago I asked whether they would be happy to care for some bees on our smallholding, if we have a couple of hives here. They kindly agreed and said that they'd be delighted to do that. Phew! Because as much as though we like honey and neither of us would do anything to knowingly harm a bee, we are both rather wary of them. The thought of voluntarily poking around in a bee hive does not fill me with any warm fuzzy feelings. But if they are happy to attend to the bees, we'd be more than happy to give them a home!

I mentioned this conversation to my sister and brother-in-law and they know someone who used to keep around 30 hives of bees but no longer keeps that many. So my sister is going to ask him whether he has any old hives that we could use. If he doesn't, we can either buy one or we can make one, whichever way we should end up with a couple of hives tucked away at the back of the piggeries where the bees won't be disturbed and neither will Mr J and I.

However, if we are going to keep bees I think it's important that we also provide plenty of nectar rich plants for them to visit. Last year the fields that surround us were planted with clover and the bees from next door and further afield could be seen flying backwards and forwards all day long. I don't anticipate the fields being left fallow again this year which means that we should ensure a good and continuous supply of flowers that they find attractive.

I have several annuals that have now self-sown across the vegetable garden and I plan to leave them in situ to attract pollinators of all kinds, but I think we'll need more than these to support the potential bee population.

I have two small-ish buddleja bushes, one that was a small rooted cutting at the end of last summer and I don't know what colour it is and the other was a small rooted cutting this time last year. As it grows so quickly, this second bush is now around four feet across and three feet high. It would have been much taller but I kept it pruned last year to encourage bushy, denser growth and it now looks a healthy shrub that is bursting to put on lots of growth this year. I would like more buddleja, in fact, I'd quite like a short length of hedging in buddleja. This would boost the available foraging material for bees very well and so to that end, this morning I have taken some soft wood cuttings. 

Now I know it's rather early in the year to take cuttings, but I felt it was probably worth a try. The worst that can happen is that they don't root and I will have to try again later in the spring or summer.

I selected then strong shoots that have put on about eight inches this year (already!) and to prevent them drying out, I took them inside straight away.

I removed the lower leaves and the largest of the top leaves.
I cut each steam just below a leaf node.

I couldn't find my organic rooting powder, it wasn't in any of the places that I would usually find it, so without any further ado, they went into a wide necked jam jar filled with water.

I've put the jar on the kitchen windowsill and I will check the progress of the cuttings on a regular basis.

Hopefully by late spring I will have half a dozen or more young buddleja bushes that I can plant out along the boundary of the front garden, they will help provide flowers for the bees to visit and later in the year they will help form a much needed windbreak.

With the help of my friend Jane, we have moved some off-shoots of elderberry trees (well, Jane did this and I stood by and thanked her profusely) to form new bushes across the smallholding. The prolific flowering habit of the elderberry will be another source of food for the bees as well as providing us with elderflower for cordial and wine and elderberries for syrups, jams and wine.

Late in the year foraging, will be supported by the vast ivy vines that scramble over old trees and fences in the back yard and behind the piggeries. Hopefully, we will have plenty of blossoms for the bees throughout the year.

Now we just have to wait to hear whether we will be able to have an old hive or whether we need to get busy with the tool kit and create one. Fingers crossed that it's the former!

As I type there are some scones cooking in the oven and they smell like they are nearly ready. To go with a scone, I think it's time that I made a cuppa.
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Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Not enough eggs!

On Wednesday I put a small item on our local community page on Facebook asking whether anyone would be interested in buying some of our eggs. In my last blog I talked about my hope that a couple or three people may want to buy our surplus eggs rather than them going to waste.

Well a few minutes after I posed my question on the community page something amazing started to happen. Someone responded and then someone else and then quite a few more and then it became a rapid stream of people saying that they'd be interested in buying our eggs. As I type there are in excess of 230 responses! It seems that I won't need to do a delivery service, folks are more than happy to travel to collect them from us.

I spent Wednesday evening feeling more than a little overwhelmed, the positive response was a delight and they have kept on coming steadily ever since. As a way to communicate with quite so many potential egg purchasers at once, I set up a Facebook page for the smallholding. And I've amended the original post to say that I've set up a farm page, but still the comments from people interested keep appearing.

Anyway, I ordered some plain egg boxes from eBay (this is an affiliate link) and will spend a while designing a suitable label that I can stick on top of the box. 

Thursday the first of the local residents arrived to buy some eggs. It was very nice to know that the girls' eggs were going to be appreciated by someone else and not assigned to the food recycling bin. Since then several more boxes of eggs have been sold and although I will never become rich (or even make a profit) from farmgate egg sales, the few pounds each week will help towards the cost of the chicken and duck feed for at least part of the year.

The response was so good, that I feel it would be worth having some more chickens, but only if they are good layers and are dual purpose birds that can be used for the table when either they stop laying in the winter or slow down with age. Having additional birds here that cost us money to feed throughout the winter, purely so I can sell their eggs in spring and summer would be pointless. Even I know that it wouldn't make economic sense to do that!

I spotted an advert in our local farmer's store for a trio of Light Sussex birds for £20 and when I texted to see if they were still available, I was told that there were only two left but that they were free to a good home. Well, I consider us to be a good home and so delightfully, we will be picking up the new birds this evening.

There's another positive to this, one that is less obvious, but in some ways more important. And this is that I have met almost more local people in seventy-two hours than I have in the sixteen months since we moved here! It's not that folks here are unfriendly, just like everywhere, they are mostly lovely, it's just that I don't really go anywhere to meet anyone. I am more than happy pottering around on our smallholding and most of the time don't feel the need to venture further afield. I don't go to cafes, pubs or other places that I might bump into people and start chatting and I don't go to the local shop regularly as Mr J does the local shopping. So the lack of socialising is entirely of my own doing and while I am very happy in my own company, it has been jolly nice to meet some new people.

I have however made lots of friends via social media. A group of smallholders chat to each other regularly and at the end of summer last year some of us met up for a barbecue at the home of one smallholder. We had planned to have another meet up in November, but the Avian Flu Prevention Zone meant that it was unwise for smallholders, all of whom are poultry keepers, to go trekking across the country to meet  up, so we delayed the gathering.  
Now that the Prevention Zone measures are relaxed a little, we decided that the next week or two was a good moment to meet up. We can't wait too much longer as lambing will begin for many of the smallholders, so next weekend a few friends are coming to our smallholding for a bite to eat and a bit of socialising. Not only is it nice to be able to see other's smallholdings, but it's great to be able to pick a few brains about ideas for our smallholding. It certainly won't take people very long to walk around it, but the compact size of our land means that we have to make every inch count and work well for us.

As spring has arrived, Mr J and I have started to tidy up after the cold winter months prevented us from tackling too many tasks outside. Of all the maintenance jobs that there are, picking the weeds out of the gravel in the yard is one of our least favourites. So on Saturday, I grabbed a padded kneeler (block of foam) and got down on my hands and knees to work on a particularly weedy and grassy corner. It doesn't take too long to clear a patch, it's just rough on the hands and knees!

And as another growing season is starting my thoughts have turned to the greenhouse and planting seeds. I spent one morning a week or so ago planting seeds into module trays and am pleased to see that some of them have already germinated. Next week I hope to continue with sowing seeds to fill the greenhouse with small plants that are strong and healthy before the end of May when it is safe to plant out the more tender of the plants.

Back to today, before we collect the new birds this evening, we need to clean and prepare the isolation house for the new birds so that they can have a few days in there before joining the rest of the flock. We do this to give the birds a little time to acclimatise to their new surroundings and get used to us and for us to be sure that they don't have any illnesses that they could then pass on to the rest of our birds.

But before I prepare the isolation house, I think there's just time for a cuppa!
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Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Women, ducks and chicken

It's International Women's Day and while I was letting the birds out this morning I thought back to the first IWD celebrations that I remember taking part in, all the way back in 1986, over 30 years ago. I was thinking about how much life has changed, how many differing roles I've had in that time and yet, hopefully, I am still true to myself. I thought about some of the amazing women that I've met, that I've been inspired by, watched (and as best I can supported) struggle through adversities and still hold everything together. And I thought about another woman, one who has inspired me the most throughout my whole life, my sister, who if she wasn't my sister, I would choose to have as a close friend.
Over the last year or so I have met a group of adventurous, bold, brave and inspiring women who have chosen to live a life not too dissimilar to ours. Some are pig farmers, others keep sheep, most have poultry and some focus on plant crops, but all of them have a great sense of humour and a level of grit and determination that has allowed them to thrive in their smallholding lives. Happy International Women's Day to every woman everywhere.

Back to our smallholding.

Yesterday we took a trip out to Stroud in the Cotswolds to buy a secondhand incubator. It's the same as the one we use now, a Brinsea Octagon 20. It will allow us to incubate two sets of eggs at the same time, which means that we can hatch some ducks. 

As if the ducks knew our plans, this morning I found three eggs in the duck house, so all of our girls are now laying. I'll leave it a few days for the new layers to settle into a rhythm and then I'll check for fertility by putting a few eggs into an incubator and candling them after a week to see whether there are tiny embryos developing inside the eggs. As soon as I am sure that they are fertile, I will pop a batch of duck eggs into the incubator to hatch. We have one girl that is smaller and noisier than the others and I think she is a Cherry Valley bird rather than an Aylesbury (although I purchased the hatching eggs as Aylesbury), I don't really want to breed from her, so I will select the larger eggs laid by the other two for hatching and keep the smaller bird's slightly smaller eggs for eating.

Once we have had the first hatch of ducklings of the year (and I've got over the sheer joy and excitement) I will be able to offer hatching eggs for sale secure in the knowledge that they produce good birds. We will grow the hatched ducklings on, keeping a couple of the girls to increase our flock and depending on numbers, sell the other ducks and dispatch the drakes for our freezer. And we will repeat the process throughout spring and early summer to give us a small income and a well stocked freezer giving us some food security for the rest of the year.

We are now getting lots of chickens eggs each day, actually we have way more eggs than I know what to do with. The daily egg count is now in the region of 18 eggs and however much Mr J and I like eggs, even we couldn't eat that many. So I need to find a suitable way to sell some eggs locally. To that end, today I am going to put the feelers out a little more and see if there is a market in the next village for some fresh eggs from chickens that are raised on organic principles. 

I thought that I might do a weekly delivery of eggs to folks who have already ordered them. I would put an honesty box at the end of the lane, but I don't think that there is a safe place for cars to pull over to buy them and the last thing I want to do is cause an accident. I will put a sign out on our lane to show that we have eggs for sale at the farm gate, but securing a regular order of eggs is much more sensible. In an area of lots of smallholdings and farms, selling eggs is not necessarily as easy as it might be, but I hope that there are some local folks who would prefer that their food is raised organically and would like to have our eggs.

Delivering the eggs to the local village would also limit the number of vehicles coming on the smallholding. I am still trying to restrict movements to reduce the risk of the spread of avian flu, although I've put a deep strip of straw drenched in disinfectant in front of our gate which, hopefully, would kill of any potentially harmful microbes from tyres as they drive through it. There's a fine line between suitably cautious preventative measures and utter paranoia about others coming on to the premises. I choose to stay on the suitably cautious side of the line.

I was pleased to see yesterday, that this article in Country Smallholding was published online. I made a contribution to it by sharing my thoughts and ideas with Kim, who wrote the article and by being a case study. You can read it here.

I now need to head outside and tackle some fencing issues, but first I think it must be time for a cuppa!

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Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Compost boost

 Ooh, I've been sent what may turn out to be a rather nifty product to try out. Bio-Enzym make a range of products for the garden and first of all I'm going try out their Bio-P4 organic compost accelerator.

Now those who are familiar with my blog will know that I love making compost, that I make quite a bit of compost, in fact I make loads of compost! The reason for my composting enthusiasm has less to do with any green credentials and more to do with the soil here. Or should I say the lack of soil.
Photo from old property details

The field next to our house used to have commercial greenhouses on it, but sadly they were in a dilapidated state and so taken down by the previous owners of our smallholding. Inevitably some (a lot) of glass ended up on the ground. Then, when they were having the kitchen extension built, the sub-soil that was dug out for the foundations was put on top of the glassy grassy area. Grass and weeds grew in abundance on the field and for three to four years it was grazed by alpacas and a pony, which compacted the soil into a concrete hard base during the summer and a water-logged swampy area in the winter. I exaggerate of course, but only just.

Anyway, the lack of decent soil and the inability to get a spade into the ground to dig it over meant that I decided to create raised beds in which to grow our fruit and vegetables and to adopt a no-dig method of cultivation. But raised beds require soil and the best way to make more soil is through composting. We bought in some top soil but it's £40 a ton and it takes a ton to fill one raised bed to a 4 inch depth. I'd ideally like the beds to be about eight inches deep, so that would cost £80 per raised bed and there are twenty-two raised beds. My budget for creating the annual vegetable garden was, well, zero. So bought in top soil was not a sensible option for filling all the beds. But making my own compost was. It meant that a little top soil could be mixed with a lot of the compost to create a reasonable growing medium. 
Trying to be realistic about my capacity to make compost I've started with beds that are three to four inches deep so that I could at least start growing some food and I plan to build the depth of them year after year. I also didn't make all the raised beds in the first year, but I hope that by the end of 2017, all the raised beds will have been created.

So my composting adventure began quite soon after we moved in, I made one compost bin from three pallets that were lying around the smallholding and that was it, I was hooked on pallet compost bins. 
Since then I have built a fence made from pallets around the vegetable garden, which has made a series of compost bays. Some of the bays will also be for storage and for water collection, but most of them will be filled with compost in its varying stages of decomposition. 

At first I struggled to find enough material with which to make compost, but now that we have the poultry I have a never ending supply of woodshavings with poultry manure and the grass cuttings from the areas that could be loosely described as lawns, masses of leaves from the huge sycamore trees and of course all the green matter from the vegetable garden.

I used a fair amount of straw in the first compost heaps, but I am less convinced now that this is a very good idea. The straw has to be bought in and we have no way of knowing what chemicals were used on the crops before they were harvested and the straw cut. So I will use what is already on site, but will wait until I find a source of organic straw before buying in more for compost making.

Anyway, back to my trial of the compost accelerator, I plan to make a couple of compost heaps next to each other and try as best I can to fill them with the same proportions of materials, so that whenever we take out the kitchen compost bucket, I will divide it between the two heaps, likewise grass, woodshavings, wood chippings etc. will all be divided as equally as I can between the two heaps. Once the compost bays are filled I will use the Bio-P4 on one of the two heaps and see how it works. 

I can check the temperature and also see how well the organic matter is breaking down. Health permitting, I hope to turn the heaps at least a couple of times to add air and mix the 'ingredients' and will water them if necessary during dryer weather.

I will be honest in my assessment of this product, although I was given the product to try, I am not being paid for a review. I will give my honest opinion and as the two heaps will be next to each other, it should be fairly easy to compare the results.
You can find more information about Bio-P4 here and if you want to try it out too, I see that the product is currently half price. If you do decide to give it a go, please let me know in the comments below and we can compare our experiences with it.

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I also post vlogs daily (almost). You can find my YouTube channel here.
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