Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Slowcooker yoghurt... it works!

This is more of a household blog, so guess it comes more under being sustainable or frugal than a smallholding blog (as such). If we had our own dairy supply then I guess we could relate, as a produce or bi-product of that use of that produce… But then this goes to show anyone can do it and I’ll let you know whether or not it’s cost effective.

Now I have read many blogs etc. about those who have produced their own yoghurt, from both pasteurised and raw milk; whether it be as a cost saving measure, as a means of minimising preservative or other additives in theirs and/families diets. Personally I’ll be using pasteurised store bought milk (as I believe the sale of raw milk in Queensland is illegal). And I’ve been meaning to try this out of pure curiosity, and because I have been experimenting a lot with my slow cooker recently (automatic/electric crock pot). As the cooler weather has prompted you to dust it off and use it for everything (or at least for a few weeks anyway).

I guess they really are one of those pieces that (if you’re like me), you go through phases with; you either use all the time, or it just gathers dust in the cupboard. I guess part of my reason for trying this was to prompt me to use my slow cooker more regularly.


To be honest now I have done this, I cannot believe how straight forward it was.  I made mine using a cup of lite Greek style yoghurt (my usual). It need to contain some active cultures; I believe there are a few variations. The two in mine were L.Acidophilius and S.Thermophilius, both commonly used in the  commercially production of ‘Acidophilius’ type yoghurts… Basically they curdle the milk and split it into yoghurt and whey.

L.Acidophilius is naturally occurring in the human gastrointestinal tract, so some strains are often considered to have ‘probiotic’ characteristics, but that wasn’t the reason it was important. (in this instance, but good to know).

Milk; I use 2 litres of store bought pasteurised full cream milk. Though I believe you can use any (I read a blog where a lady used UHT).


-              Poured my milk into the slow cooker and put it on high.

Many of the blogs I read varied in time; from 90mins to 2hrs 30mins, but most that mentioned a temperature agreed it had to reach 180°F or 82°c, so using a meat thermometer I checked at roughly 30 minute intervals… Mine took 3 hours to reach this temperature. (Probably as I kept taking the lid off to check). But at this point it did have a slight skin. I understand this is to remove any impurities in the milk (though as a pasteurised product I cannot see there should be any).


-              Once it reaches the desired temperature, turn the slow cooker off and leave to cool.

You need the milk to cool to 110-120°F or 43-49°c

-              Once cool spoon a couple of ladles of warm milk into a mixing bowl (remove the skin if you have one and discard).

-              Then add your cup of yoghurt to the bowl and whisk together, then whisk back into the rest

of the warm milk (in your crock pot) for at least 6 hours, overnight is good.

-              Replace lid and either wrap with a (clean) towel (or similar) or place in a warm spot.

I was cooking dinner, so once it was finished (and we’d eaten so the oven wasn’t hot) I placed the bowl/insert in the oven overnight.

-              Spoon a cup of the yoghurt into a container dedicated as your ‘starter’ clearly label and store this in the fridge. This is for next week’s batch!


You should have yoghurt! I did see some posts where people ate it like this, but I strained mine for hat thicker, Greek style finish. So to do this;


-              Place a sieve or colander over a bowl (you will need clearance underneath).

-              Line your sieve or colander with either cheese cloth, muslin or coffee filters. I opened up a couple of coffee filter papers to cover the surface of the sieve.

-              Spoon/ carefully pour your yoghurt into the sieve.

-              Leave to drain (I placed mine in the fridge whilst I went to work).

- Then divide into storage containers and pots as you desire and store in the fridge for up to a week.


To eat add honey, sugar or stevia as desired along with fruit and other syrups or flavourings (milkshake powder etc. works well).  I am wary of adding fruit til I want to use it, as the acids could break down the yoghurt.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Hatching chicks (and other poultry)

Given we have hatched a few chicks out over the last week, we felt I should blog about incubating and hatching; as it’s been quite a while since we discussed it.


Now we are not experts and are only able to comment from our own research and experience. Always feel it is necessary to stress this, as I am sure there others that would do things differently, or have had different experiences/ outcomes. Especially as we do this on a small scale using fairly cheap/accessible equipment.

Previously we had compared the results and operation of ours to that of a borrowed and more ‘advanced’ (though older) incubator (that belonged to a friend); leant to us as we had excess eggs to incubate.


To be honest our simple system suits us fine.


Anyway, starting from the beginning (and no we do not wish to debate which came first!). This may seem like an obvious point; however we do regularly get asked whether you need a rooster to get eggs and/or chicks. So just to clear up any misconceptions- hens on their own will still produce eggs, however they will never be fertile. Therefore you need a working rooster/ cockerel in with your desired mother hens to (hopefully) produce fertile eggs.

Generally free ranging our Indian Games
are penned when the girls are laying
So how do you know a cockerel/rooster is ‘working’… to be honest other than witnessing them in action (and some are more discrete than others) the only true answer would be to incubate the eggs. However in theory if their crowing, then they should be capable to ‘working’. Although in fairness our current Light Sussex rooster was working well before either of us saw him in action or heard him crow. As such we had not incubated any eggs from the girls, one hen actually sat and hatched out a couple of chicks, proving he was in fact ‘working’. But he has been the only one we have had that has been that discrete and quiet.

Another sign that the cockerel/rooster is working would be war marks on the hens. Some males can be quite rough on the girls. And as a result the girls may have less or thinning of the feathers on their back, even bald patches around the back of the neck and occasionally a few missing tail feathers.


Not to get too side tracked, the main factor is you either some laying hens that have a rooster in their flock or you need to source ‘fertile eggs’. We have been asked to sell fertile eggs in the past, but to be truly honest neither of us are completely comfortable in doing this. Only because we’re hoping they are fertile, given they have been collected from hens running with a rooster. Not because we have any way of guaranteeing that they are in fact fertile.     


There’s a really good blog about the myths of fertile/in-fertile and incubated/non-incubated eggs, that explains a lot of the common misconceptions.


If you are collecting your own eggs this may take a few days, depending on the size of your flock and their laying rate. Many laying breeds will lay daily, given they are not moulting , broody or affected by the weather. Naturally a hen may lay 10-12 eggs before ‘sitting’, though I have had young girls sit on as few as 3. So the first egg they lay could be 10+ days older than the last. Personally we only collect for up to a week at a time, though generally we try to set our eggs within 5 days.  Only because the blastoderm (fertilised point within the egg) [non- fertilised would be hens genetics only and is called a blastodisc] is suspended awaiting the right conditions to develop into an embryo, and eventually a chick. This genetic material will have a shelf life, as does the rest of the egg. So we try and set them as soon as possible.

Remember a fertilised egg will still never be a chick unless it is set under the correct conditions (under a hen or in an incubator), so are perfectly good for eating.

When collecting your eggs we once read (and don’t ask me where) that the eggs are best stored point down. We also write on our eggs using permanent marker what kind of chick/chicken it is or is from. And once they are ready to set we also add the date.

We have had comments regarding this, it is not ideal to plaster your egg in graffiti as the shell itself is porous and any chemicals etc used on the outside could affect the developing chick. In the same way that dirty eggs are not ideal for the same reason; and if you’ve ever kept chickens you will learn that some are naturally cleaner than others! (this does not seem to be a breed thing, its individual). So brush off as much ‘dirt’ or other contaminants as possible, but do not clean the egg. At most I have used a clean cloth and dampened it with warm water, then immediately dried the exterior; as water will also affect the egg… So best to do as little to the egg as possible. Also store your eggs in a cool dry place, not more than 25°c, else you could start the process. We have successfully incubated refrigerated eggs before (though only as an experiment) and this does appear to affect the rate of successful incubations... so refrigerated eggs is not ideal. (Please do not try incubating eggs in your fridge as they are likely to be older and not to be fertile to start with- as egg producing farms do not require their eggs to be fertile, and therefore would not have a rooster with them to start with).


Either way once you have collected or received your eggs you will need to set up an incubator. Ours is a simple 48 egg (max capacity) unit, with a temperature dial and the humidity is controlled by the amount of water in the base.

As I mentioned earlier we have tried another model that had digital temperature settings along with humidity controls. However we found that we were studying it too much. And I know others that have had mixed results with these set ups and think it’s probably from fussing or fiddling too much. The more you can change, the more we would. But we have had pretty good results with our basic system, so we’re not complaining.

We generally clean ours and like to sterilise it before use using Breathe ezy, a form of stabilised chlorine dioxide that is used in the poultry industry and is water soluble. (But this is purely personal) Once clean we set the unit to temperature and pour warm water in the base. This is then run for a day to warm up. We check the internal temperature using a digital thermometer over an hour or so to ensure it is maintaining temperature. Ideally it should be between 37°c & 38°c for chickens.

It would also be an idea to let your eggs rest at room temperature whilst the incubator is warming up, especially if your eggs have been shipped- this will allow for the contents to settle.


Now with this level of basic you do have to perform some tasks that an automated system would do for you; such as turning the eggs. This needs to be done from day 3 (first 2 days they are o be left alone) and then to not be turned for the last 2. In theory a chicken egg takes 21 days to incubate (turkeys and most ducks take 28 days and Muscovy ducks and geese 35); though the temperature and humidity levels can affect this also. In our experience we usually see some movement, evidence of hatching on the 20th day and most/ all are our by the end of day 21.

Easier if they are all due the same day,
but not always possible
Very basic controls
A hen would naturally rotate the eggs throughout the day, so that the embryo develops in a suspended position and doesn’t become stuck to either side. We turn ours morning and evening; when we have eggs set this just becomes part of the routine. So the incubator is set up in an accessible place, ours is on our kitchen bench. That way it is visible and will jog your memory… as they saying goes “out of sight, out of mind”.  You also need to monitor the water levels, top us with warm water to maintain the humidity level. Both temperature and humidity will fluctuate according to the external environment. In winter the unit may have to work harder to maintain the temperature, whereas summer months the humidity maybe higher.


So once your eggs are set, we are back to the subject of fertility, or at least successful incubation. After 5-7 days it is possible to “candle” the eggs. (this is easier with some eggs than others- ducks for example have a more opaque shell, where chickens and turkeys can be quite translucent). Candling involves placing a light (torch etc) onto the eggs surface in a darkened space. So that light passes through, illuminating the internal form- if any. An unsuccessful incubation (or possibly non-fertile egg) will have a distinct fluid form and the yolk will be visible. A successful fertilisation and incubation will have evidence of a solid or evidence of a dense form, not fluid and possibly even visible veins. As the incubation progresses the form will become more opaque, eventually creating a shadow within most of the egg, allowing for an air sac at one end.

We remove all the unsuccessful eggs, as this allows for room to set more. If left to sit, birds appear to be able to tell if incubation was successful also. As they will systematically discard eggs as the incubation progresses; allowing them to concentrate on the potential young.


So you have turned your eggs til the 18/19th day and you are now waiting for the chicks to hatch. Again as the saying goes “don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched” and this couldn’t be more true. Even with successful fertilisation and incubation, this does not mean you are guaranteed chicks. These little ones have quite a traumatic and exhausting beginning to their lives, and not all make it.

You may hear chirping and tapping from inside the egg and even see the egg moving/rocking. This is normal and the chick inside is making a break for it. You may see a circular form appear, with a crack of 2 across it. Under which there is a break in the membrane allowing the chick t breath. Once they are strong enough (as this process can take a day or more), they will gradually chip their way around the end until they pop their way out… so yes they do crack the top off like the cartoon imagery suggests.

It is very tempting to ‘help’ the young birds out, but you have to be careful if you do decide to do this. As if you tear the membrane it can and therefore the chick will bleed out. On the other hand exhausted chicks may become dried and not survive either. We will flick away the broken shell from the initial break through, insuring the membrane has been broken (so the little one can breathe). But then try not to interfere too much.

Once out these wet alien looking forms may have a small sack or even the other part of the egg attached- leave this alone! They will detach naturally and absorb the remaining sack. They then need to remain in the incubator until they are completely dry and fluffy- 24-48hours. They do not need to eat/drink during this time (that’s what the remaining sack is absorbed for).


So what do you do with them next?

Our first day old chicks (bought) in our make-shift brooder
(i.e. cardboard box)
recently replaced back of wardrobe
They still need to be kept in a warm, controlled environment. Naturally the mother hen would perform this duty by keeping them in under her wing (or general body feathers). We mimic these conditions by placing them in a brooder box. Ours is constructed from an old wardrobe we have in the shed. That can be divided into numerous compartments, to accommodate a number of varying stages of chicks. But a simple cardboard box would suffice. Within your brooder box you will need to line the base (usually newspaper and saw dust), they will need access to water and food- we use this opportunity to treat our chicks for works and coccidious (these are just precautionary- it's a disease generally associated with intense breeding, as its passed through faeces. Not nice and can be fatal in young birds... so just in case) and the feed needs to be fine milled (or you can buy specific chick crumble- this will be high in protein and have a dose of the relevant medications already in it). Then you will need a means of maintaining the temperature- so we use a light and have a digital thermometer to monitor.

Wardrobe brooder with new light, mesh lid and thermometer

We had to replace our light this week. Our previous lamp was a simple bulb plugged into a mains supply, with a lamp shade- bought from discount table at the local hardware store about 3 years ago; this finally gave up the ghost. So this time we bought a mains supply light, meant for use as an outdoor light. Our other light we use is a work light.  The only problem with this one and the old lamp is that during the last 3 years the laws here in Australia have changed and all interior bulbs have to be ‘energy efficient’. This is great, except we were using the lights for their heat (a bi-product of the light itself and the most energy inefficient part). Therefore interior bulbs no longer generate the same level of heat that they used to. Hence the change to flood light style bulb, that in themselves are a bit more pricey, but the lower wattage bulbs (after all we don’t want to fry them!) will still produce the heat we require.

This light is fitted to one end of the box. This allows the chicks to move away or towards the light, depending on the time of day. Fitting the bulb to one end of the box also allows us to either open up or divide our wardrobe set up into sections. So as the birds get bigger and develop feathers (and can maintain their own body temperature) we can give them more space. But if we have a number of birds at various ages/stages we mount the second light (our work lamp) and move he slightly older birds into this section (as they will require less heat from the lamp). 

Once you have your box with lamp be aware of your positioning of food and water. As you don’t want these under the lamps direct light. But you also want to allow for some space free away from it also. As you don’t want the chicks to huddle or congregate too close to the water, in particular. Like I said they will do this to get warm or cooler and they may fall asleep in the water… it has been known.

I would also advise you don’t scatter too much in the way of saw dust/shavings near the water, so you will forever need to scrape it from the base. We also avoid using waterers with deep lips for the younger birds. Having lost a turkey poult this way in the past. Other suggest putting marbles of small pebbles in the bases to weight it down and prevent the water being too deep. I’m just not sure about placing foreign object too close to young birds, but if their large enough that they will not swallow them, then this shouldn’t hurt.

Depending on the time of year and you climate, the chicks will need to remain inside for a good few weeks; definitely until they develop their proper feathers. And in the colder months I have been known to place a work lamp in their outdoor hutch at night for the first week or so. But then comes the fun time of transitioning them to their outdoor lifestyle.


Thursday, 10 July 2014

Another pig in the freezer

*Usual warnings apply as this post includes some details of butchery.

So Saturday was D-day for our second Berkshire; second born and raised here at least. The other we prepared as a spit pig for St. David’s day back in March.  We actually worked out the other day that this was the seventh pig we have killed and processed for ourselves. Some were born and raised here. Our first was purchased from a local breeder as a kill pig. [He was supposed to go straight to the butchers, but they closed in the mean time… but that’s a whole other story]. And we have assisted friends with a few other than that along the way. So I guess you could say we have processed a few and hopefully we're getting the hang of it! 

St. David's day spit pig celebration

Well I say we, Matt and friend did all the hard work. I had minimal involvement on this occasion- not really meant to be lifting, stretching etc. And until our cold room is up and running (yes it will happen one day!) we are still relying on the kindness of friends to use theirs. So we are not planning any hams or bacons (as this requires weeks/months of use). But one day we will expand our processing to involve these too. But for now it does mean that the processing itself was reasonably quick.

I have gone over the process of home butchering a pig before, so there are more in depth posts on here http://www.maes-y-delyn.com/2013/03/streaky-became-pork_26.html (again she was a little on the large side... in fact bigger than this one).

heating the water  ready
We kill our pigs onsite (to minimise stress) and then transfer to the shed (and in front usually) to process.  To be honest we had under estimated how big this little guy was. As compared to our breeding pair he still appeared small. But we do not tend to notice how big our breeds are now, as we have had them since young and don’t notice their growth creeping along.

So we were surprised as he barely fitted in the bath tub!

The bath tub is used to scold the pig to make removing the hair as easy as possible. The temperature of the water is ideally 64°cand you have to act quickly. As you want to agitate the skins surface as much as possible without it beginning to cook the meat.  Most of the hair will come away with the blade of a spade or scrapers. But anything left, as in this case due to his size he almost filled the bath; making moving the water etc very difficult. Meaning we had to finish with shaving the carcass. Not such a neat finish for the meat.

We have also been questioned in the past as to whether our pigs are the same animals as those pictured in latter stages. As the Berkshire breed is ‘black’, a common misconception. Especially as the literal translation of the Japanese name being ‘Black pig’. When they are in fact still white skinned, just predominantly black haired. Something that is of benefit to us given the severe affects the sun can have on pigs skin as much as humans. Making them ideal for free ranging in the Queensland climate.

Once dehaired, the boys set about gutting and cleaning the carcass ready for hanging in the cold room. Again the unexpected size meant the jib used to work on the previous pig and goats was a little low and required adjustment. Now pigs do not require the hanging time of other animals (cows, deer etc). 24-48 hours is generally more than enough, prior to processing. So within a few days the cuts were bagged and tagged (an essential tip for home killed meats, or if you buy in bulk).  Hopefully we still have enough freezer space for our half of the big girl in a couple more weeks.

Colour variation in a home reared, slow growing breed

Friday, 4 July 2014

Winter garden, better late than never!

So we are well and truly into winter. It’s strange as it officially begun on the 1st of June, then the winter solstice (shortest day of the year) was on 21st, signifying that the days should start to draw out from then on and we’re heading toward summer. Yet the coldest month here is July?… and it has definitely delivered to far!

This is an old pic, but I love the colours the sky produces in winter
I guess ‘cold’ being in the tropics is all relative. Nothing (such as buildings) is really geared up to deal with colder weather, including the clothes… and even the ex-pats! But in gardening terms we don’t have to worry about frosts (as it doesn’t get that cold) and the days are (generally) warm (but not hot), dry and sunny. So no excuse really for not getting in the garden. Or in fact any of those other projects we had been putting off due to heat, humidity or rain!

Now as a general rule I would advise ‘little and often’ when it comes to gardening. This way you avoid it becoming a ‘task’ and it is enjoyable. This year however I have neglected my patch(es), [yes you’ve guessed it here come my excuses] initially due to being (very) ill through my pregnancy, which happened to coincide with the hot and wet months. Meaning any chance I felt well enough the weather seemed to have other ideas.

Really I needed some dedication, and I am ashamed to say it- as this post is being shared as part of the Garden Share Collective. A group of dedicated and inspirational garden bloggers (of all shapes and sizes- that’s their gardens I mean). But I guess I have returned as I initially joined the group to commit to posting about my gardening. As I felt it was probably one of the more neglected parts of our smallholding adventures- at least in posting terms. So I am fessing up and putting things right.

So this month, given the ideal conditions… even if mine is developing at an exponential rate; I am 31wks writing this. So keen to get things under control, before I develop another ‘reason’ to put it off. Besides we want this lifestyle to be part of our child’s upbringing… So I guess I had best start as I mean to go on.

So I guess the key was to break it down into sections- both for my planting plan and work wise. So that it wasn’t such an over awing chore, manageable sections that I could turn around into productive gardens sooner provide a positive morale boost. And as I had sown some seeds that had sprouted as well as purchased a few seedlings that required a home, these were great motivation to get started.

So here’s the overall plan (from the beginning) and I have taken a few more shots as its gone in. As like the best laid plans, things change (or develop). A plan is not essential, but I like to be organised and it helps to know what I put where… for reference at a later date. But especially if you’re going to attempt ‘companion planting’ or some other combination gardening techniques to best utilise space etc. it doesn’t hurt to have a plan.

In our case I started by clearing the ground level bed, this has previously been (last year) my ‘vine bed’. Its not raised like the other beds and is therefore great in the drier months, as it is closer to the natural water table and requires far less watering; ideal for some thirsty vine plants. The issue is in the wetter months it is far wetter and has been known to become water logged.

So this year I am going for a little structure and rotating my growing in this area. So the plants I do put in do not become too out of hand. And I can hopefully make the most of the moist conditions for the dry season.

So I dedicated a weekend to weeding this and the smallest (adjoining) garden bed. As it suited my planting arrangement; for those I needed to get out first. And the second bed seemed achievable. Now it didn’t take all of two days to clear these, probably about 2-3 hours. Then we turned the soil using the rotary cultivator (Matt bought me for my birthday last year). Before allowing the chickens at it for a few days- now chickens can be both friend and foe to a garden; they are great at clearing weeds, providing fertiliser and turning over soil- scratching around and dust bathing etc. But they are a nightmare if sowing seeds or planting our seedlings. So once they had enjoyed their ‘holiday’ in the patch I set about planting out, setting up trellises and frames for the climbing plants and (vitally) fencing the beds off.

The frames are simple bamboo and twine arrangements, for trellises I recycled the garden mesh that I attempted to use as a barrier for the garden last year. It was too low and far too easy for the chickens to penetrate. But did work well as a plant support and is quick to put up.

For the actual fencing, this year we’re going chicken wire. So star pickets in- meaning it can come down as quickly as it went up (if necessary). But its taller, more stable and hopefully far more effective! But due to the height, this does also restrict our access- as I don’t need any reason not to weed! So am having to plan for gates and it obviously has to look presentable.

In planting terms the beans are dwarf varieties- purple king, cherokee was, snake beans,- each bamboo A frame supports 2 varieties (one either side) and the final frame supports both snow peas and sugar snap peas.

In between these I have planted a few sweet potatoes that had been divided and begun sprouting (these are great for growing from scraps). I am hoping they will help supress weeds whilst the beans and stakes can provide support if necessary. At the moment I have left space alongside to expand the beans and peas that could eventually use for pumpkin vines. If I decide to grow them in the veg patch this year. As they do produce quite well in the pig or chicken pens (on their own) or I may interplant some in the landscapes or by the compost heap as a weed suppressant.   

Next I have 2 varieties of Eggplant (aubergines)- these are seedlings I bought and not ones I have grown from seed. (I am hoping some heirlooms may pop up in the patch from last year- if so these will be transplanted too. Although I will probably still order a few more varieties, as I love the diversity of the heirlooms I have grown in the past, where these are little more (I want to say traditional, but that’s the opposite of what I mean)- but in line with what’s in the supermarkets. The other issue with buying seedlings is that to buy 2 varieties I now have 12 plants and really 2-3 is more than enough to supply a family and have a few for friends and the pigs. As these are a good yielding plant once they are going! So I am thinking I will be making plenty of chutney later on this year. The same can be said for my zucchini plants. I have 4 black jack these will produce a steady supply of the dark green variety, so I will keep an eye out at the local markets too, as I love the yellow and golden varieties.

And then I have a couple of tomato varieties. It’s funny that I plant so many different types of tomatoes, considering I don’t particularly like them. But I keep trying in the hope that I will find a variety that I like to eat as they are, other than that other people like them and they are very useful for the kitchen. That and I still love the smell of the plants; remind me of my Bamp’s (on my Mam’s side) and Nan’s (on my Dad’s) greenhouses. But this year I am trailing a technique of supporting the plants using twine, treaded from one stake to another (something I saw on River Cottage Australia)- so I’ll let you know how it goes. As in the past I have found trellises are never tall enough, or stable enough to support the eventual weight. And wire surrounds become cumbersome and I end up cutting my hands and eventually ripping the whole plant out, as I cannot prune the older branches or get at the fruit. So I’ll let you know how this goes.

Then along the length I have planted a couple of cucumber varieties on stakes and trellises. I have tried to plant height in between or amongst vines (depending on how dense or large they tend to grow). TO maximise the space we have without overcrowding the bed. So hopefully I’ve got the balance right- guess only time will tell.

Then in the raised bed I’ve plated quite a few chilli and capsicums (pepper) varieties- habaneros, jalapeno, sweet yellow, golden wonder, purple beauty. I probably got carried away, but also found a few ‘discounted’ plants that didn’t look as desirable. But I figure if I purchase 1 variety for x amount and get 6 good plants then that’s fine, but if I can get 6-8 good plants of 4 varieties and a few that maybe salvageable, then I cannot seem to help myself- they find their way into my trolley! Guess it’s that bargain logic, along with the idea that you could be saving something.

Along with some corn (again a salvage purchase as A. I don’t really like corn and B. I’m not growing fields of the stuff, I’m just trying it). Again these are all plants with height, so I have planted my Asian vegetables in this bed, as they are lower growing, fast turn around and will thrive in sun and partial sun (if the corn or chilli/capsicum plants get too big).

I still have 3 raised beds to do. I have some lettuce ready to plant out and radishes and beetroot seedlings on their way, so I will probably start with the end bed made from 3 converted pallets. Then the one nearest the cow paddock, as this has fennel and celery still going in it (under the weeds).
What I have already done is the herb patch. A bit unusual to separate a herb patch from your veggies- especially as so many make great companion plants. (Tomatoes and bail, eggplant/aubergine and tarragon etc.) But ours is situated at the front of the house, along the side of the shed. In what was (when we bought the place) and unproductive landscape garden, whose main purpose was to screen he shed from the view of the living areas (I guess). Which not only seemed that it would interfere with the shed slab as it got bigger and more established, but seemed to provide an ideal environment of snakes and spiders. Which was less than desirable... so they had to go!     

I could have planted out a decorative bed, but it made far more sense as a herb patch; due to its convenience from the house and therefore the kitchen and it still provides a wonderful welcome scent when you’re approaching the house.
The existing herbs were weeded and pruned; the basil that had seeded (and died) was removed and the rosemary that was being suffocated by what I think was a tropical type of lavender and tarragon was relocated. Hopefully it survives (fingers crossed thrives) in its new position, but realistically it cannot do any worse than where it was. So once replanted, along with a few new seedlings, including a few basil plants that had shot up in the fire pit- where we had burned a few old basil branches- as mossies and flies don’t like basil.  I added a few new seedlings’ a second variety of oregano, sage, coriander and parsley. Once bedded in and watered I mulched- now mulch for those experienced gardeners, or really anyone who has been paying attention to most gardening programs/magazines of late would know mulch is a summer thing. But as the summer is drier, so you mulch to conserve water and in winter you want the rain to penetrate the soil.  On that logic I am mulching (it doesn’t appear to have done any harm in past years). As here (in the tropics) winter is our dry period, or little rain and extended cooler, sunny months. And a big win it helps prevent or supress weeds. [But if you have any advice on this matter please comment]. For mulch we use ‘cane trash’ which is widely available from local growers as sugar cane was once the primary industry of this area, and is still an extensive part of it.

I have also ‘fed’ and mulched our fruit trees as these are fruiting well and need tending to. If you read regularly you might be aware we have had quite a good citrus yield this year- especially from our lime tree. All our trees are still relatively young so this was both exciting and surprising. So plenty of lime recipes over the last month- marmalades, cordial/squash, key lime pie, curries, as well as a few trials- like freezing segments for drinks (flavour and ice cube in one!). Am sure there will be a few more to come.

 So over the next month I intend to clear those remaining beds. Sow a few more seeds/beans both directly and in seedling trays and hopefully plant out a few more that have started. Hopefully it will be productive then and require minimal attention around my approaching due date.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Chicken Day- making the most or surplus stock.

OK here come’s the usual warning: as this post contains discussions regarding butchery, techniques and some imagery of the preparation of animals for consumption.

It’s been a while since we had our last ‘Chicken day’, but it was well over due. So Sunday was Chicken day, probably should be referred to as Chicken D-Day, or rooster D-day as most of them generally are. But I guess we’re focussing on the outcome more than the process itself.
A Chicken day has been planned for a while now, it’s just been due to time that we hadn’t committed and set a day aside for it. Don’t get me wrong, an individual bird doesn’t take all day to process. But it does take a little forward planning and it was a good morning’s work.
Chicken Day- one of Ffion's favourites
In terms of preparation we pen our birds away for 12-24 hours prior with access to fresh water. Other than the food we coax the birds in with we do not feed them again after this point. Though as our ‘pen’ generally tends to be in the garden, they still get to graze or eat any passing bugs. But the aim is to make gutting etc. as easy and clean a process as possible. *Removal of grit sacks and stomachs can be quite a messy job if they are full.
Then on the day we set up our work area. You need to set up an area to undertake the deed itself.  
We set up our ‘killing cones’ in an area away from site of the pen- the aim is to not stress the birds any more than necessary. Although if you have ever seen chickens around a dead chicken you would have to wonder how much notice or affect it actually has on them. (As they are natural born cannibals!).
Anyway our cones are our method. There are others, and I could debate each in terms of whether or not they are humane etc. But at the end of the day you are ending a life and there is no ‘pleasant’ means of doing this. For us it’s a matter of making the process and quick as possible, so not to cause the bird unnecessary stress or pain.
The cones present the bird (or its neck) and restrict movement; which is more important after the fact.  The actual act involved removing the head in one movement with a sharp knife. This is a technique we have evolved to, over just cutting the throat and bleeding the bird. As it ensures the bird is definitely gone and we are not just hoping and relying a drop in blood pressure to ensure the bird has gone.
Keg set up
Dunk bird
Once bled we quickly scald the bird to ease the plucking process, this is not ‘necessary’ but it does make it a lot easier. So we set up a keg which is heated using a gas torch. The ideal temperature is 64-74 degrees. And you only want to submerse the feathered areas for 30-40 seconds, so you do not want to cook the meat (agitating also helps). Some also use detergent in the water (to help break down the fat cells). Apparently it also helps with plucking. We’ve never really felt this was necessary.
And then you need a clean workspace (preferably with a table/ flat surface (that’s easily washed down) to pluck and gut the carcases. Your tools- I suggest a sharp knife, poultry scissors are great, containers to cool the finished birds in, before transferring to the fridge (and then freezer) and bags or smaller containers for any other parts you intend to keep- offal, feel, necks etc.
I would also advise a bin/disposal receptacle (I line a bin with a liner) to collect the feathers and unwanted guts.
Container to cool carcass
I have discussed butchering methods of poultry on a number of occasions so I won’t bore you with the details here, but if you want to look them up there’s a few (with variations- different birds/technique’s).
Chickens from August 2013
Skinning from April 2014- an alternative to plucking
Ducks from October 2012
Turkeys from November 2013
Old English Game hen- Mum (to few)
On this occasion we were culling our excess roosters- well one Silver Sussex about 1 year old and a few ‘mongrels’, both roosters and hens all roughly 6-7 months old that are surplus to requirements.
Well generally raise our roosters for the table (at least those that do not sell or are not desirable for our own breeding program); this is a consequence of breeding and rearing, as there is limited demand for roosters. But they fulfil a purpose here.
As for the hens, none are laying and most were unintentional hatchlings, courtesy of a cross hen (Old English Game cross layer) that had a habit of disappearing for weeks, to return with a clutch of chicks in tow. Pretty sure they were all an Indian Game cross; some were very distinctively’ Baloo’ (our big blue Indian game rooster).
Our Indian Game flock
A few others were hatched from our Indian girls, though we also had a young Plymouth Rock rooster running around with them, and these were clearly crosses! We had considered these maybe a promising dual purpose cross. Thinking the males may produce fair sized table birds, and hoped the hens would be more productive than the Indian Games (Cornish). Only we reared 3 roosters! So I guess we’ll only find out the answer to one of the two questions.
Culling this variety of breeds (or cross breeds) actually made some interesting observations. The largest bird was the Silver Sussex rooster; dressed out at just over 2.2kg. But given that he was also the oldest (by 5-6 months) this is probably less than surprising. I must admit we wouldn’t normally have a surplus rooster for that length of time. Particularly Sussex as they are pretty aggressive; at least toward each other.  Generally as a breed the males will dominate and even kill younger or weaker males from quite a young age. So they can be difficult to grow out together.
Plymouth Rock x Indian Game (with yellow legs)
What was more interesting was the colouring of the flesh- this rooster was the palest. Many people seek this quality in a table bird. I guess it’s mostly aesthetic, or in keeping with the ‘norm’; similar to those found on your supermarket shelves. From our personal experience we prefer the yellower game bird colouring, more along the lines of your ‘corn fed’ birds from the supermarket. Only these are fed grain, they are predominantly grazers. But then our pure Indian Game birds have yellow legs; a feature that greys if the birds are laying, moulting or confined.
It was very interesting that not all the birds had yellow legs- although all had Indian Game in them (with the exception of the pure Sussex). And those that did had that stronger yellow to their fat and flesh. Only one of the three Plymouth- Indian crosses had yellow legs, and therefore flesh. This one was also the largest and heaviest of the three.
Beer-can, BBQ Chicken dinner
So now we have streamlined our flock back to Pure Sussex and Indian Games (large Cornish), with the exception of our two very old girls- Wellsummer and Rhode Island Red cross that are about 6 years old.
So from a successful ‘Chicken Day’ we have a few good size birds -1.4kg (that largest hen) to 2.2kg. Interestingly the largest Indian game x Old English game rooster was 2kg and he was only 6 months old (this was the one we roasted for dinner).
The others were a fair bit smaller; the Indian Game cross Plymouth rocks, two were 1.5 and 1.7kg, but the third was a lot smaller. The smaller birds we processed and joined, bagging cuts accordingly… so many chicken dinners to come!
We also keep the heart, kidneys and livers; Whilst I cannot eat liver at present (as I’m 30 weeks pregnant and the high Vitamin A levels are not advised). We will probably make pate from them and freeze it for now.
Madogs a fan of Chicken Day too
The feet, heads etc. and some other offal (lungs etc) all go to the dogs, either on the day or saved for future feeds… Yes Ffion & Madog are always enthusiastic for ‘Chicken Day’!
I do know of those who eat the feet, especially those who participate in ‘yum ca’ and we have used some ourselves in the past. But this isn’t a delicacy either of us are fans of or for stock along with other bones, but as we use other bones and roasted carcasses for this and the feet do feed someone I don’t feel too bad.

Even the blood was saved and used. Although not for feeding us (though we do use pigs blood, so I guess it wouldn’t be a stretch). But we captured the blood and used it on the garden. A watered down concoction, combined with worm tea was spread on the freshly planted veggies, as it’s a good source of nitrogen… After all most fertilisers you buy commercially are ‘blood and bone’.