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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If you'd like to receive my blog posts direct to your inbox just enter your email address in the box below and follow the instructions. You'll probably need to confirm by clicking a link in your email inbox and then you will receive my blog each time a new entry is published. You can, of course, cancel your subscription at any time.
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