Happy New Year to you all!

I write this in a brief retreat inside for the few hours in the middle of the day when we are not feeding and watering. The winter months seem to be ones of concentrated animal husbandry with all the same jobs needing doing but with less daylight in which to do them - add to that the endless buckets of water we had to carry because all the pipes were frozen and there isn’t much time left for anything else. But somehow, one just soldiers on as the animals are the most important thing, and it’s lovely, it feels kind of pioneering as one slips into survival mode. There was a brief 12 hour period in December when the temperature got up high enough for the water pipes to flow in the chicken run but other than that its been trudge trudge trudge! Sadly the Christmas excesses means despite all the extra miles walked we haven’t lost a thing; roll on lambing, I usually manage to loose ½ stone!

When it snows I am reminded of something my grandmother once said to me - “Your life lies out before you like a field of untrodden snow, be careful how you tread for every step will show”. The dogs loved the snow, and there wasn’t much chance of an untrodden field as it looked like we had an army through the snow with all their playing. Meg’s puppy we kept, and called ‘Skye’, has fit right in and gives as good as she gets, although we have deduced why you don’t see many dogs her colour on farms - she is almost exactly the same shade as concrete, and certainly of slushy snow, so one has to be vary careful when driving around to check she’s not too close! She is already showing a keen eye so watch this space for news of one man and his dog…

Skye penning geese & showing promise!

The sheep coped well with the snow covering but we are romping through our meagre hay supplies as it is far easier for them to park under the hay rack than paw at the ground to find winter grass. The frozen ground played havoc with their feet and we had several go lame at once, so when we brought them in to take out the various rams, we ran them through the footbath before sending them back out as one big group again. The Gotlands refused to go back out and parked themselves firmly in the straw bedded shed for 10 days; their feet were better within 24 hours. Once the ewes have run with the ram it is important not to stress them too much by handling, turning them up to sort out feet etc. but the Gotlands are so laid back that I was able to go around each ewe as she laid in the shed and treat her feet while she chewed her cud and barely noticed me!

Three generations of Dixon hounds!

Once it became obvious the snow wasn’t going to go, I managed to evict the Gotlands as they couldn’t stay in forever and brought the expectant Shropshires up the lane so they could run in the field behind the lambing shed and come in and out as they wished. They too made their preference be known and have spent most of the time inside so far.  We had a few problems with them lambing last year (it was freezing then too if you remember) and I wondered whether it was because I had confined them to the shed until they had lambed - not being used to being shut in for so long - but evidently they would have chosen to stay in, so that’s good. They are due from now on, so we are hoping it stays milder from then.

In the marginally slower November/December period, I had time to list our courses on some smallholder training websites, something I have been meaning to do for ages, and had an almost instant response which is gratifying. The first course of 2011 is ‘Lambing’ and hopefully the Shropshires will hold on until the course day as some of them look huge even now and fit to pop. We are running a number of courses again for the Devon Association of Smallholders and also for Duchy College. Our 2011 schedule has a few new courses and looking to improve all the time we have decided to source a couple more sheep (any excuse)… one comment we repeatedly receive on Sheep course days is that it was really useful to see the differences in size, nature, wool quality, meat cover etc of our 3 different breeds of sheep. So, with that in mind, we have already collected or ordered some breeds that smallholders typically start with from the following: Poll Dorset, Jacob, Wiltshire Horn and Whiteface Dartmoor, then a couple from rarer breeds that I have long been tempted by but cannot justify a whole new flock, some Portlands and a Norfolk Horn. Very exciting - or am I just getting broody in my old age?... Some have come from friends as a swap and others have come from as far a-field as the Lizard and ‘Adam’s’ Costwold Farm Park.

Shorthorn heifer 'Rose' grazing Spring Field in the autumn

Pig progress has been good this quarter. Our Skylark has now farrowed 12 Duroc cross little ones, a very large litter for a first timer. She managed to feed them well but we had to wean them early as they were beginning to really take it out of her despite how much she was fed. We didn’t put her straight back to the boar so she had time to recover. Our ‘Defender’ boar has been named ‘Rusty’ - I’ll let the Land Rover buffs among you work that one out - and had grown to a size now where he is keen to get to the girls. We’ll be putting him outside next week with the sows once the boar on hire goes home, so he should be happy. With the freezing and snowy conditions, we brought all the pigs inside except for the adult sows and visiting boar who fared amazingly well in the cold. Their ark was lovely and snug. We will be expecting the next litters in March all being well, then hope to space them out a bit to get regular litters every 2 months from then on.

Pig fame - if you have been watching ‘Edwardian Farm’ on BBC 2 over the winter, you may have seen glimpses 2 of our Large Black gilts making periodic appearances. We sold them to nearby Morwellham Quay back in March 2009 and they may well be coming back to breed to our new boar in the next few months. They normally have free range of a much larger paddock than the ‘behind the privy’ accommodation shown on TV! Its been lovely to watch the program as in just about every episode there have been places and people we know making appearances.

The incubator is already running with the first 70 eggs of the year and several of the breed pens have started laying well again. It hardly seems 5 minutes since we finished hatching and cleared out the chick sheds for their winter disinfection. We hatched several late batches last year to enable us to sell Point Of Lay hens in the spring when demand is highest but it is always hard rearing young birds over the winter (particularly this winter), they never do so well, so I think we will stop hatching in September this season. The new and rare coloured Silver Laced barnevelders are proving to be the most popular with several orders for hatching eggs on the waiting list.

Silver laced barnevelder

After 4 years, Ian is finally putting a tractor back together rather than fixing one.  He’s had 2 DB 990’s in pieces with the aim of making one good one from the pair and is fed up with tripping over various parts in the workshop (or is that me?!) Having spent months and months restoring the training rooms/office to then move straight on to the new livestock shed, he felt he needed to do something for himself. Fair enough! On that note, the new shed is looking super but still needs walls… owing to delays brought on by the need to obtain full planning for the shed, it became obvious we weren’t going to be able to get the cattle into it this winter so they have been shoe-horned into a makeshift pen in the wood, but seem quite content with a far nicer view of the woodland goings on rather than us driving in and out of the yard! They are looking much better this year and are doing well on the round bale haylage we made from the neighbouring field (minimal food miles for them)! This June/July we will have our first grass finished Shorthorn beef for sale so we will need to start thinking about taking reservations for 10Kg mixed meat boxes (including mince, steaks, joints, & stewing beef) available by collection, delivery on route back from the butcher or further a-field by next day courier delivery. Further details in the Spring newsletter but if interested, please let us know.

The riverbank in snow

At the beginning of the year our thoughts turn to plans for the next 12 months: finishing the livestock shed before next winter, putting up the poly tunnel (its been here for several years awaiting attention), taking the vegetable garden in hand, planting more conifers to ensure successional harvests of Christmas trees, finishing the house painting and having a successful lambing season, oh, and do I say it every year… more time for ourselves? Who knows what will actually get done and what unexpected direction we will turn in? Watch this space!

Available now:

Luscious creamy white Shropshire lamb skin rugs £45 each

Various poultry including pairs of POL Black Cochin and unrelated Ixworth pairs

Hatching eggs are beginning to be available again

Spun Aran & 2/3 ply wools

½ Balwen hogget frozen and ready for collection £50

Oven ready free range chicken

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