Sunday, 29 June 2014

I appear to have become a sheep farmer

These beautiful Shetlands (sheep, not ponies)
are a very welcome addition to the smallholding,
Somehow over the last two weeks I have gone from having 9 sheep to having 23!

The nine I got from the Rare Breeds Farm are doing very well and are finally managing to make an impact on their patch of grass. However, this is just one section of the meadow...there are another 8 sections and the grass is still getting taller!

The nine lambs are what is known as cade lambs. When a ewe has triplets the third lamb has to be taken off her. If it can't be adopted onto another ewe then it needs to be bottle fed. It will probably end up slightly smaller than its brothers and sisters, but not appreciably so.
The advantage of buying in cade lambs is that they are incredibly tame, all the more so if they have been raised on a rare breeds farm where they are the main visitor attraction.

Hand-reared livestock. Fairly tame!
Basically we aim to purchase the lambs when the grass starts growing and they go on their final journey when the grass stops growing. That way we have no worries about lambing, feeding and housing over winter or long-term health issues to worry about. We don't have to worry about getting in a ram to cover the ewes either.

The other advantage of this system is that we can buy in as many lambs as have been pre-ordered by customers, plus a couple for ourselves. In fact, we have decided to operate an adopt-a-lamb scheme in the future. This is effectively pre-ordering of a lamb but with a more personal touch. People will be able to choose their lamb and visit it if they wish, although some will probably prefer not to see the lamb grow up in the knowledge that they will eventually be eating it! But, as a friend of mine said, "All livestock is deadstock".
If the scheme takes off, I plan to e-mail people photos of their lambs too.

The disadvantage of buying in lambs each year is the fact that availability varies from year to year. This year it proved extremely difficult to get hold of cade lambs and by the time we found a source May was almost over. It had been a warm and wet May and the grass was approaching elephantine proportions. Sheep are supposed to prefer to graze shorter grass, but with a little help from a hand sickle they have gradually got at least one patch under control.
The other disadvantage, of course, is the expense of buying in the lambs, but this is partially offset by other savings such as not having to buy in hay for the winter.

However, I have for a while had a yearning to keep a small flock of sheep throughout the year too, to complement the bought in lambs. I was keen to go for a 'native' breed, partly because being smaller they tend to lamb independently and they are well adapted to our winters. Also they are much happier to eat weeds and scrub and won't need anywhere near as much hay through the winter. They'll certainly help out with the mammoth task of eating all the grass and hopefully the grass won't romp away each spring before I can get the cade lambs in.
Being smaller, the native breeds are shunned by commercial farmers. After all, costs are pretty much the same whatever the size of the sheep, so it does not make sense for them to keep smaller sheep. But the smallholder does not have the same considerations as the large commercial farmers producing meat for a wide public. That small  native breed sheep will contain more flavour in that compact body than any commercial sheep. In fact, breeds such as North Ronaldsays and Shetlands are highly prized for their hogget or mutton. Keeping them into at least a second year means that they reach a more acceptable size.
The clues to their hardiness, if you know your British geography, are in their names, their origins being in the rugged, far northern isles of Orkney and Shetland.

And so it was that I had my eyes out for some Shetland sheep and when some year old rams were advertised locally and the price dropped significantly, I decided to take the plunge. Picking them up went without a hitch. They were more stubborn than I am used to, but the horns came in handy for 'leading' them into the trailer.

Three of them have quite magnificent horns. In fact, I have been asked to make sure I get them back when the rams eventually meet their maker. Apparently they are highly prized as handles for walking sticks or shepherds crooks. I digress. Those horns were the vital clue to the fact that these rams had not exactly been effectively castrated as young lambs! Clearly the rings had missed their mark.
This handsome boy may well end up as our breeding ram.
This boy is safe.
As a 'wether' he'll make a good companion for a more virile ram.

I wasn't sure about taking them, but I decided that even if they got too boisterous, I was buying a lot more meat than the sheep actually cost me. Besides, I would be able to choose the best one as a potential future breeder. The one who was no longer intact would make a good companion for him too.

These four ewes (one out of picture) are fine specimens.
I'm very happy with my purchase.
Now, anyone with any competence in arithmetic will be puzzled. For this still only makes 13 sheep. Well, I was on the lookout for maybe four more Shetlands, preferably ewes. So when I saw an advert for ewes, some with lambs, at a very reasonable price, I was quick to enquire. I was told that there were four ewes without lambs and two with. There were four lambs, all rams. I could have the lot for £250. I never quite planned to buy another ten, but somehow that's what I came home with! If it proves too many, I can always thin the flock down a little. But for now I can choose the best to  keep and they will certainly begin to make a bigger impact on my jungle of meadow.
Shetland lambs certainly have the cute factor.
The rams soon got over their initial excitement.
When I brought them back, I decided to let them in with the four rams, hoping that at this time of year the rams wouldn't be too interested in the ladies. As it was, they went into 'lad mode' for about half an hour, strutting around, sniffing the air and preforming some pretty impressive headbutts on each other! But it wasn't long before the calmed down. Better still, the new sheep came out of the trailer and headed straight for the nettles, which are now almost all gone. In fact, anything not in the paddock seemed infinitely more tempting for them than the grass. A short stretch of temporary electric fence has made sure they don't jump the rickety old fence in their eagerness to eat the hedge.

This ewe and her two lambs think the grass (or hedge)
is always greener on the other side.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

John the brave beekeeper collects a swarm

Not many photos for this one I'm afraid. I am not a kamikaze blogger. Read on and all will make sense.
I spent last weekend in the Extremadura region of Spain. It was sort of my stag weekend, though there were considerably more birds involved than beer. If you know me by now, you'll realise that last sentence was not as damning as it may sound, for I enjoyed spectacular view of vultures, eagles, storks and my first ever European bustards.... yes, bustards.

That's nothing to do with this post though. I returned to the smallholding late on Monday and come Wednesday Sue was off on her headteachers conference. It is rapidly becoming an annual tradition that Sue goes off on conference and John has to become an emergency bee-keeper! And this year was no disappointment.

Our hives have been doing well this year and we have had our first significant honey harvest, 130lb so far.

But while I was away in Spain, Sue found 20 queen cells in the middle hive. This is a sure sign that something is amiss. Either the bees are not happy with their queen or they are doing so well that they are preparing to swarm and are laying the foundations of a new colony before they go.

So, left on my own, I was fully expecting to witness a mass departure of bees. They usually choose a warm, muggy afternoon to go and we've had our fair share of those these year. But as it happens, my emergency beekeeping duties stemmed from elsewhere when, on Thursday evening, there was a knock at the door from a local farmer informing me of a swarm of bees on the verge outside his house. For all I knew, they could even have come out of one of our hives earlier in the day.
I rushed around grabbing what I needed, squeezed into Sue's beekeeping suit and jumped in the car.

I arrived to find a dinner plate circle of bees huddled together on the tarmac. A small group had unfortunately been run over by a passing vehicle. They did not look like any of our bees, these ones being almost black. I scooped them up in my hands and into a box, making sure to get as many as possible. When bees swarm their soul aim is to huddle around the queen, so they do not go into attack mode. Allegedly, they've stuffed themselves so full of honey in preparation for their adventure that they are actually incapable of stinging. I kept my thick leather gloves firmly on, not wanting to test out this theory!
I got them home sealed tightly in their box in the back of the car, then set about hastily assembling a hive. All this while I was attempting to make my first ever pizza from scratch as a practise for the blokes baking group on Friday.

So, come about midnight, I finally got to sit down and tuck into my pizza, which was absolutely delicious.
Pizza. From scratch. Lish!
I set the alarm for 5.30am as I had a very busy day ahead of me. It would start with pouring the bees into their new hive and I wanted them to still be in sleepy mode when I did this. It's amazing how bees in a cluster behave just like a gloopy liquid. You do just literally pour them in then leave them to settle.
Then I had some sheep to collect, a horse manure collection to make and in the evening I was hosting the blokes baking group again.

Fast forward to today and there I am in the paddock with my new sheep (more on these in my next post) when a bee starts persistently buzzing me. I stayed perfectly still for a couple of minutes but the bee just seemed to be getting increasingly aggressive until it dived straight into my hair. Time to pull it out and leg it back into the house.
I guessed that Sue must have upset them and if they were this cross I would be spending a couple of hours safely inside (hence the break in my work to compose a couple of blog posts).

Sue waits patiently, but these bees
aren't giving up that easily.
It wasn't long before Sue appeared with two dozen bees angrily circling her head. She sat and waited, but these bees weren't giving up that easily. In the end she had to walk away and then make a run for the door and get in before the bees caught up.
She then explained why the bees today were quite so angry.

Sue had gone out to give some syrup feed to the colony of bees I had collected. However, unable to see a queen (that doesn't necessarily mean there wasn't one in there), She decided to take a tray of eggs from the middle hive. This would give the bees something to work on to start a new colony if indeed they were queenless. At the same time, it would keep the middle hive busy and maybe distract them from swarming.

Monster hive
But bees are full of surprises, for when Sue opened the middle hive she found it eggless, a sure sign that somehow they had lost their queen. This is where the tactic of destroying the queen cells to prevent swarming comes unstuck, for the bees had known better than Sue. Those queen cells were not being made as the foundations of a new colony, they were made to make a new queen.

So Sue decided to take two trays of eggs from the monster hive, one tray to put in each of the other hives. It was shortly after this that the monster bees took exception. They streamed out in a cloud of smoke and aimed straight for Sue's face!! Fortunately the veil did its job and protected her. SHe quickly put the lid on and beat a hasty retreat.

We both survived without getting stung.

Sue has now headed off to Holbeach for her dummy run on the hair and make-up for her wedding makeover. I am about to venture back outside to spend some time with my new sheep. I could be back inside sooner than I planned.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Lardy dardy - making leaf lard from flare fat

It's a bit of a cliché, but they do say that the only part of a pig you can't eat is the oink.

Working with the butcher when Daisy was being turned into sausages gave me the chance to try a new product, for he presented me with what is known as the flare fat. This is the fat from inside the pig, around the kidneys and inside the loin.

The flare fat can be rendered down into leaf lard, the highest grade of lard. I never before realised that there were grades of lard, but then why should I? I'd only ever seen the one grade of supermarket lard.

So I decided to have a go at making my own lard. It's a bit out of fashion these days, but it is still the product to use for classic short crust pastry and flaky pie tops. It will certainly come in useful at the Blokes Baking Group.

Making lard from flare fat really couldn't be more simple. All you need do is cut the fat into cubes and heat. As it cooks down, pour off the fat into containers and then just wait for it to set solid. It does need to be kept in the fridge or frozen if you want to store it for long.
I decided to use the microwave method. I filled a plastic bowl with chunks of flare fat and set the mike for 4 minutes, at the end of which the chunks of fat had softened and reduced considerably. I poured off the liquid lard and then returned the bowl to the microwave for a further 4 minutes, repeated the same procedure and then went for a third go in the microwave. Here's what happened!

One very hot plastic bowl!
So my advice would be to always use a Pyrex dish, or switch to the stove top method in a saucepan, which is the option I took.

While I did this, I had all Daisy's bones roasting off in the oven. These went into a giant pot along with a few old vegetables, a couple of handfuls of herbs and a couple of pieces of skin to help jellify the stock.

Several hours later the whole lot had reduced down nicely. We (Sue) separated out the stock juice then boiled it down further. The end result was a rich, concentrated stock which turned nicely to a jelly and is now sliced up and stored in the freezer. There's plenty of it too.
Those winter casseroles will be even more tasty now!

Back to that leaf lard. The saucepan method worked well. I gradually poured off the rendered fat until all I was left with was a small pile of crispy fat pieces - tasty but very unhealthy!

I left the lard to cool and it gradually set to a pure, white colour, then into the freezer. I can't wait for an excuse to make some short crust pastry. I sense a steak and kidney pie coming along.

The end product
Premium grade leaf lard, plus a few unhealthy nibbles.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Daisy, Daisy!

Daisy was a good pig. She came with the farm when we bought it and it wasn't long before she had her first litter. She was always a brilliant mother and gave us 30 piglets in all. The sound of her contented grunts is sadly missed.

But she was in danger of turning into a pet rather than livestock. If we carried on like this, we would pour an awful lot of food into her and then, one day, we would find several hundred pounds worth of pig passed away, leaving us with a big problem to deal with.

But our options for Daisy were limited. Our small butchers would not be able to deal with turning such a large sow into sausages. The best they would be able to manage would be to turn her into an awful lot of mince. And the butchers attached to either of the abattoirs I have used, so I'm told, just out all their sausage pigs in together. If I out Daisy in, I wanted Daisy back, not somebody else's meat reared goodness knows how.

So when the Cambridgeshire Self Sufficiency Group were planning their sausage making demonstration and Paul the friendly butcher suggested using Daisy, it seemed like a perfect solution for the old girl.
We would be able to make her into all sorts of sausages, plus a few other well chosen cuts of meat - an old sow like this is no longer suitable for the most tender cuts - and everybody, not least us, could learn how to make sausages thanks to Daisy.

I've already written about the adventures of getting Daisy into the trailer and off to the abattoir. Well straight after lunch last Thursday I headed off to pick up Daisy's carcass. (Sorry to be so matter of fact about it, but that is the best way to deal with these things. I have no problem looking after animals, even naming them, then eating them. In fact, I have a problem with people who are not willing to face the fact that they are actually eating what was a living animal.)

It was, however, pretty disconcerting to be given Daisy's head first. It did still look like Daisy, but if you've ever seen a dead body you'll know that there is something missing from it, the spirit is gone. When the heart stops beating, the essence of a being leaves it. Nevertheless I determined to make sure that Sue didn't have to see this.
We then loaded Daisy into the back of the car. She really was quite a size. The carcass had a lot of fat on it. Usually, if this were a weaner, I would be ashamed at such poor rearing, but I guess this was a sign that Daisy had become more of a pampered pet.

I met Paul at 2:30 and we proceeded to get the room ready to start the mammoth task of turning Daisy into meat. As Paul says, "livestock is deadstock". This is a good thought for all smallholders to hold on to.
Our task was not helped by the malfunction of Paul's mincer - he had lent it out and it seemed the smallest piece had broken off rendering the whole machine useless. Emergency phone calls were made and a couple of non-commercial mincers duly arrived.
From nowhere, too, reinforcements arrived to help with the task.
I'm sure we slowed Paul down considerably, but he is a very patient man and was keen to teach us as much as he could.
The sausage making was actually quite straightforward, though there were a few techniques to be mastered. I had purchased ready made mixes of spices, herbs and rusk. These were mixed with a little water, then about 20lb of meat was minced and the whole lot was mixed, kneaded and pummelled by hand until we had sausage meat. This was loaded into one end of the sausage making machine and by turning a handle the meat was forced out of the other end into the waiting casings. We used natural hog casings, which we had washed and loaded onto the nozzle at the end of the machine.
The person stationed here had the job of trying to make sure the sausages remained the same thickness and the skins did not split. Obviously there were a few misshapen souls, but on the whole we ended up with some decent sausages. Paul showed us how to twist and tie them and voila!
You'll have to imagine the finished product, as this is when my phone ran out of battery, so no more pics.

When I say that we ended up with some decent sausages, we actually got about 160lb of sausages in the end! In fact I was so busy mincing, mixing and trying to bag everything up and label it that I never actually got a go at the business end of the sausage making machine.

We also made a boiling sausage, made from leaner mince mixed with red wine and garlic, ideal in cassoulets or to use for meatballs. In addition to the sausage, Paul cut the back legs (the front ones are actually referred to as hands and not legs) into quite a few lovely gammon joints and a few roasting joints for us. We got spare ribs too, a couple of strips of loin, plus a whole load of mince and diced pork.

In the evening the rest of the Self Sufficiency Group turned up for the demonstration and a barbecue. They were all amazed by the shear quantity of meat which had come from one pig. Some chose to have a go at the various sausage making activities, others were content just to observe. Everybody enjoyed the barbecue and the Daisy sausages went down very well indeed, as did the bunny burgers supplied by Mick.

The only pity was that we were kept so busy turning Daisy into sausages that I didn't really get to socialise or enjoy the barbecue. But it seemed more useful to get Daisy processed (sorry that sounds harsh) while we had the help and the machinery at hand.

Overall, I felt this was a fitting end for Daisy. I was immensely proud of Sue, too, for coming along and helping out. She hadn't been sure if she would be able to bring herself to, but in the end I think it helped her.

I was determined not to waste anything. This would have been disrespectful to Daisy. As well as all that meat, I had six bags of fat and bones in the car. Making the best use of this would be my Friday task.

Meanwhile, if anybody wants to buy any Daisy sausages, please email me. You will know that they come from a pig who was treated well and had a good, long life. You will know too that they contain no dodgy ingredients, no factory sweepings, no eyelids etc. You will know that they were hand crafted by expert sausage makers!

We have available, at £3.80/lb:

Lincolnshire (sausages and sausage meat)
The Great British Banger
Chilli and Coriander
Old Dubliner (peppery, sausage meat)
Romany (herby)
Hickory Smoked
Thank you Daisy.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Oh Golly!

30th April
4th May
16th May
Goliath, the goose that doubles in size every week, is growing up fast. He still follows us everywhere, but has become a little more independent, occasionally wandering off to nibble on some delicious bit of greenery. He has very eclectic tastes in leaves. He has been banned from the polytunnel, since his feet are so big and he just blunders about with no concern for the well-being of my precious seedlings.

Golly now has most of his first feathers, has developed a noticeably Roman nose and his wings are getting longer by the day. He has discovered that he likes water too. In fact, he loves water, swimming, splashing, dipping, somersaulting.

I have managed to leave him in the loose company of the other geese a few times too. I wouldn't exactly say they've adopted him yet, but he's come through unscathed.

9th June

Today Golly is spending his first day alone outside, protected within a run, and some time this week he will start staying out there at night. He's getting far too big for his dog cage on the hearth. But he's still not too big to enjoy his cuddles or nibbling my hair. Or to be carried around when his legs are tired.

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