Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The patch is in and planted!

Last weekend we cleared our veg patch. Digging out the last of the raised beds, pallet beds and failed pathways we installed a few years ago.

I have to say the raised beds were great in theory and planned (well the planting out of them at least). And would probably would have worked well in smaller area, but the size of these beds not only meant we needed to trample all over them to reach other parts or other beds. But it became impossible to hoe or strim them and weeding the paths became an extra task that we would occasionally get around too.

So the boards came up and we burned them on the patch, along with some other garden waste; grass clippings, palm leaves and branches etc. We had a little bit of a clear out of our ‘pest’ palms recently; these are not considered native and were planted by the previous owners, most too close to the house or power lines. We also gave the neighbours over hanging trees a little bit of a trim too.

The garden was then weeded out and the soil turned over and evened out; by hand as the rotary hoe had a ‘technical issue’; the primer hoses had disintegrated whilst in storage… *Note to self, ensure there is absolutely no petrol left in it before we put it away.

Even in the rain, we finished the bed by fencing it off and fitting the gate- to make our access easy- lesson learned from last time. The fencing is mostly to keep the chickens off our seeds/seedlings, though for that afternoon we allowed them to pillage- as there were substantial grubs that were not wanted! And they would turn and break up the soil that bit more.

We did leave the ‘pumpkin patch’ (though downsized) was left outside the fenced section- as it is well established (feeding the ‘Cub’ well) and we wanted to keep it from taking over. 

And the other vines have been placed in rows of trellises- low to begin with. However I do have potential plans to add to them and create arches or over head trellising if necessary. Hopefully they will make an attractive feature, as well as a practical means of harvesting.

So prepped and ready for this year’s seedlings and seeds, this week they went in.
Sugar snap peas
Capscicum (Peppers)
Zucchini (Courgette)- seeds only at this stage
Carrots (seeds again)
Spring onions
Asian veg
Still have a few more seeds to go in gradually. And a few more herbs for the herb patch and shrubs for the fenceline (rosellas and a curry leaf tree).

Having experimented with raised beds, sister planting and square-foot gardening, we have decided that whilst rows are probably not he most effective use of space. Space isn’t something our garden is short of. And if the garden or paths are riddled with weeds then that is not an effective use of space either.

We have still opted for companion planting; planting those close together that are mutually beneficial (and avoiding those that don’t). But we have done so in rows, allowing space to hoe (and access). We have also planted in sections, with successive crops; planning for continued growth and hopefully consistent supply; as opposed to gut and nothing. 

The timing of these preparations seems especially apt this year. Whilst the preparing of garden beds are often synonymous of the early months for many in the northern hemisphere. New beginnings and therefore new life is often symbolic of spring in many cultures, here (in tropical Queensland) the most bountiful growing/ planting season is autumn and winter. (So yes we are a little late!)

However for us (me in particular) this year’s clearing out and fresh start or new beginning, to our sad and neglected veg patch (especially of late with our newest addition and the unbearable tropical heat) had many motivations and was especially emotional.

For one, our ‘Cub’. Although we have always been conscious about the source of our food and the pride in producing a meal for someone (or yourself) made from your produce. But having a young child you become really conscientious about what they consume; wanting to give them the best you can.

Gardening with a baby does raise its own challenges- especially here as we are constantly aware of her exposure to the sun (and heat). So the cooler, damper conditions and an unusually long morning nap were gratefully appreciated. Although she did ‘help out’ for some of it, as we want her to grow up with the knowledge and an appreciation of where food comes from and what is involved.

I am also excited to get a few fast flourishing seedlings in to kick start our produce, as we have visitors coming in 2 months, so perfect timing! And I can not wait to get in the garden with my nephew.

The other reason being more retrospective and reflective. Many know that for myself, my grandfather has been a major influence; especially in terms of undertaking this lifestyle. Most of my fondest childhood memories are spending time with my grandparents at their home and their massive garden; transplanting seedlings into grow bags each year and carrying them to the greenhouse. To this day I still do not understand why we didn’t carry the bag there then transplant them! And I still love the smell of tomato plants, despite not actually liking the raw fruit.

Picking and washing beans for Sunday dinner, or helping him pick elderflowers and elderberries from their enormous tree; so he could make wine each year.

I guess his pride in the results of a ‘good days work’ and in providing for his loved ones not only rubbed off on me. But was infectious and was instilled into me. I beamed with pride when I helped him as a child, and I beam when I continue this with our place now. So for me this fresh start for our patch, and my (our) renewed commitment to our veg patch and providing for our loved ones (family) is an ode to him. And a means for me to feel close (following his passing earlier this year)


So be prepared for many veg updates and brags in the coming future.


Thursday, 11 June 2015

Rearing chickens for the table

 Since I wrote a similar piece for pigs, I thought it only appropriate to discuss raising chickens for the table. Especially since we have recently found a breeder that supplies ‘Gourmet table birds’ for public purchase; Gourmet table birds being a heritage breed cross developed by the breeder and not the commercial broilers. We are working with this breeder and a specialist transport company to make arrangements to freight day old chicks here in coming months... So fingers crossed we are not counting our chickens before they have hatched. And you will be reading about them soon!

 So, what should you expect when raising chickens for the table?

In some respects it is not that different to raising chickens as backyard layers (depending on your set up). But in other ways it is slightly. And in this respect I consider chickens to be livestock. This is often a point of discussion with smallholders etc. especially since you can have a couple chickens in suburbia (generally). But these are generally layers and I believe that is where the difference begins.

Anyway, we generally breed Sussex and Indian Games, and then process most excess roosters and spent hens for the table.  
Sussex are considered a ‘dual purpose’ bird and Indian Games make substantial and tasty table birds. However raising pure breeds; particularly unsexed to begin with can prove a lengthy process, as they can take quite some time to mature. Another issue with raising flocks this way is roosters can become aggressive (especially to each other), although this isn’t generally true of Indian Games.

So purchasing stock specifically for the table could be a solution. As they are to have this purpose from the outset and are reared as such from day one.

With all poultry they require food, water, medication (if you wish), shelter and initially as day olds warmth and protection from the elements.

So as day olds you will need to provide a ‘brooder box’. This doesn’t have to be expensive or elaborate. For some of our first layers (we bought as day olds), we constructed a brooder using a cardboard box and a work light with a large wattage bulb.
-          Be aware energy efficient bulbs are meant to conserve energy by reducing the energy lost through heat. So purchasing a specialist heat lamp and bulb maybe advisable. And are generally available from pet or produce stores.
Now as we incubate/breed and in this instance would be anticipating a large number. We will be using the old wardrobe we converted.
-          We also use a digital thermometer to monitor the internal temperature. This lets us know whether to move the lamp up or down.
We also try and set the lamp up at one side, allowing the birds to move towards or away; regulating their own heat.
Best line the bottom of your brooder box; old news paper or wood shavings are great. This just makes it easier to clean and maintain. But be careful not to use anything to slippery/glossy as you can cause splayed legs, something that could affect them for life.
Depending on the number of birds you have and how much mess they make with their food and water will dictate how often you clean out your birds. But as a general rule of thumb I tend to change the shavings once or twice and then do a full clean out (including washing the feeders/waterers) once a week.

Once they have developed their second feathers (generally by 6weeks). They are usually ready to move out. This can vary on conditions and climates. I have been known to put a lamp in an outside chicken coop in winter before now!
Original suburban chicken coop & run
As young birds you may want to place them in a run, or tractor to begin with. This gives them time to adjust to the elements, as well as protecting them from predators. Or even other birds, if you already have other chickens (like us).
Tipshop cupboard conversion
Again these can be as elaborate as you like. We have constructed a number of various versions over the last 7-8 years.  From dog houses, old cupboards to second hand swing sets. But generally the basics remain the same. You want an enclosed area that they can roost and shelter, a meshed area for them to run and experience the outdoors. Somewhere/means of dispensing food and water and for you to access that. And light enough to move.
After a few days we generally begin ‘training’. Allowing the birds freedom whilst we are there and returning them to the tractor for food. This eventually just becomes an evening occurrence.

Swing set conversion

Birds can be kept confined for faster meat production.  This just isn’t something we do.

Food and water.
wider base- better suited to older birds
I have already mentioned you will need a means of dispensing these. There are a variety of examples on the market for all budgets. From simple plastic ones, slightly more expensive metal ones, to the self dispensing ones. I guess what you choose depends on your set up and budget.
Narrow lipped waterer
For young chicks I do warn that larger lipped waterers can be dangerous. As we have had birds climb in, and even fall asleep in them and perish. So I always advise if purchasing a waterer aim for narrow lips. For older birds I often cut up old milk cartons and tie them the tractor mesh. And have paddling pools for free ranging stock.
-          It’s also good practice to dip the beaks of day old chicks into their water source when introducing them to a new environment (i.e. your brooder box). So they know where and what it is.
-          Water needs to topped up and changed regularly.

 As for what to feed your birds. As day olds the grain needs to be fine ground. You can buy chick starter from produce stores specifically for little beaks. These are also generally medicated (at least here in Australia). There are also ‘meat bird’ versions that are higher in protein.
Older birds can be fed mash or pellets. Ours graze, so have access to grass and insects, and there are always those food scraps. So grains, rice, pasta, veg scraps (although onions and green potato peels are not advised) and avocado peels are toxic to all animals. Many people also do not realise you can feed chickens meat. As they naturally forage and eat bugs, protein is an essential part of their diet and makes a great ‘treat’, scrambling eggs is also acceptable.

I did mention that most purchased feeds contain medication, specifically for coccidiosis. This is a disease generally associated with commercial practices as it is passed through faeces. But is fatal to young birds, so we treat all ours, ourselves with a water soluble treatment; just in case.
We also worm our birds as part of our routine (generally monthly). Though this isn’t necessary until they are actually on open ground.

Other than that the main difference between rearing birds to be backyard chooks or roasters is the end result.

24 hours prior to ‘D-Day’ I advise securing the birds and giving them only water. This just makes the process a whole lot easier and less messy.
Then there is the process of culling and butchering. Some specialist poultry butchers will offer this service, however we process our own. This is something you should consider prior to purchasing birds to rear for the table. As you have to deal with the end process.
Personally as a meat eater I prefer to know the life our birds have had. And know I did the best by them. And although that responsibility can be upsetting or unsettling, it does prompt you to do the most with the end result.  

If you care considering a home kill there are blogs under the ‘home butchery’ tab. Including discussions about plucking and skinning.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Are pigs for you? (Piglets go to new home)

It’s that time again, where the piglets go to their new home.  Its always sad to see the little ones go… Though am sure Mum wouldn’t agree with me (she’s usually had enough by now!)

This litter are actually going to a free range farm that specialises in Berkshire pork. Some will make up their Christmas ham orders, the female will be a future breeder. But either way it is good to know they are going to a good home, however long it maybe.

Funnily enough, the arrival of piglets always draws attention. And prompts the questions and conversations; How difficult are they to rear? Look after? Is it that different to store bought? Have we ever costed one of our own? … So I felt it was time we discussed this again.

 A pig’s requirements are pretty basic; Secure environment, basic shelter, clean water, food and company… But some are easier to achieve than others!

The first question I usually ask is; What do you require from your pigs?

What I mean is, consider what you are trying to achieve. 
- Are you looking for fast turn around and meat production or are you looking to rear a slower growing quality product.

- How much room would they have? 
- Inside or out? As some breeds are better suited to more space or outdoors.

Also check with your local authorities as whether you can keep pigs (as with any animal). Here we are registered with DAF and have a 'pic' number (property identification code). Also the loca council allows pigs for domestic use in rural zones.
We rear Berkshire pigs. These are a rare, heritage breed (although becoming increasingly popular with free range producers and individuals). 
There are plenty of great heritage breeds out there that became unpopular or did not suit more modern commercial practices. Each has their own traits- advantages and disadvantages.

Berkshire's will happily graze on grass

Berkshire's are considered slow growing which is ideal for smallholding; as we are not seeking quick turnover or the task of containing larger animals. And slower growing, resulting in more flavour! They are also a coloured pig. So unlike commercial pink or white breeds they do not suffer from sun burn etc. and therefore live and thrive outdoors.

I am being careful about referring to our pigs as ‘outdoors’ as opposed to ‘free range’. As we do supplement their feed (and cannot guarantee free range source) but also as we are not commercial we are not ‘free range’ accredited. However they do roam in the paddock; wallow, root, run, play and forage for themselves- again not all breeds can graze.

So if these are suitable for what you want. Here’s the basics for caring for them

Secure environment

Ours are secured using barbed wire and electric fencing. This allows us to manipulate the pen; changing its shape, so we can allow sections to recover and propagate more fodder. A great thing about pigs is they ‘recycle’ your scraps. And if you feed a pig tomatoes for example and then allow their toilet area to rest, you will often find tomato plants growing f their own accord!

For piglets (pre-weaners) we erect a temporary pen around one of the shed using weld mesh panels. These are more secure for keeping little piggies in, and stops the boar from hurting them too.

Basic shelter, plus weld mesh panels
Once they are of weaner age, we begin ‘free range’ time when we are home, returning them to the pen at night etc. until they are ‘educated’ with the fences.

Basic Shelter

I do stress the basic part of this statement. We started out with a movable, temporary structure and this is more than sufficient for a grower. We gradually established more permanent sheds for farrowing females over time. As we wanted them to have a solid, secure dry shelter to nest in.

Permanent shelter under construction

Clean water, is the requirement most people are surprised by. As pigs are known for wallowing; hence the phrase “happy as a pig in mud” (or other variations).
Smokey having a hose down
Pigs wallow as a means of cooling their body temperature, the mud also creates a natural protection against the sun; like sunscreen. And they will sully a water source to carry out this basic instinct. They do not however like drinking dirty water. And therefore need a clean source, that they cannot contaminate, so they do not dehydrate.

We have repurposed these pods and industrial equipment, used for molasses and dust as self-dispensing water containers. Each holds between 3- 7 days water (allowing for wallowing). As they are smart and will learn how to dispense the water, so they may still lie in some of it!

Food, is probably the easiest. The main thing to know is domestic pigs for consumption should not eat blood or bone. As these have been identified as causing issues/diseases in livestock. And as natural omnivores; wild pigs do consume meat and domestic pigs will if given it.

Another, less known one to avoid- Avocados, as the skins of these are toxic to all mammals, and the flesh is toxic to most animals- pigs, dogs, chickens! I have also read that banana skins can be, but understand that the flesh should be fine.

So ours forage on grass (and whatever naturally propagates in their pen, when rotating). Kitchen scraps; peels, rices, pasta, pulses, dairy- they love eggs, yoghurt, cheese! Leftover produce, anything that goes over, is pre-eaten (bugs etc) or fails to flourish in the garden- often have an excess of pumpkins, aubergines/eggplant, tomatoes and fruit.  Garden clippings; grass, vines etc.

We purchase feed from the local produce store- a specific grain based pig grower. And a plant (sugar) based protein meal, from a local company. 
Feeding in a trough or off the ground is also a good idea where possible. As this not only reduces waste, but animals contract worms etc from being on the ground.
Which brings me to a point I didn't mention earlier Health care
Now I am not a vet and am not going to dish out advice about illnesses, as fortunately we have no experience with this. But we do regularly worm our pigs. Generally I dose thier feed, as this is more likely to be ingested than water. 
We also keep our mob 'light'. So not allowing (the boar in particular) to carry too much weight. As tthis can create a range of problems. Also having a dry environment for them in the wet season is vital in the tropics. As too much exposure to wet causes issues with thier feet and they become lame.
Also as I mentioned earlier white/pink breeds do burn in the sun, and can suffer from cances just like us. 

And their final requirement is company.

Our boar and girls socialising
Pigs are naturally social animals and I would never advise having a solitary pig. They are a herd, or ‘mob’ animal and will seek company. Another reason they are known to make good pets, as if company from their own species is unavailable they will bond with people or other domestic pets (dogs etc).
I have been asked whether boars have to be separated. As many people do this. We don't. But the Berkshire are known to be placid/docile breed. And we have handled our big boy since he was a 7 week old weaner. However we do respect his size and capabilities.

An exampleof the colour and marbling in a Berkshire cut
(this is one of ours)
As for whether it is worth it. You cannot just measure this based on monetary value alone. Kilo of kilo (or pound for pound) I think we worked out a grower was similar to that of commercially purchased mid-range pork. (so not the cheap stuff, but not the free range either).
But more than that, we value the knowledge of everything that has (or hasn’t) gone into our pigs. And we also know how they were kept, and the lifestyle they had. And you cannot buy that kind of satisfaction.  

Besides as I mentioned earlier, Berkshires are a slower growing breed. They are actually renowned as the ‘wagu’ of pork, due to the marbling of the meat itself.

So I cannot stress how much better it tastes.