Sunday 29 January 2012

French chicks

I decided to get the hatching over with early this year so set 33 eggs (Bresse Gauloise) on 7th January. Today they hatched, 24 chicks from 33 eggs isn't bad (72%) considering they were sent from Germany so had to contend with temperature change, pressure changes and all that shaking about in the post.

I seem to have 10 females and 14 males. How do I know that? I don't really but I was given a chick sexing device last month.Its a pair of magnets suspended on a string and I am sceptical.As soon as someone who isn't a Physicist starts talking about magnetic fields and forces scepticism kicks in. I need  evidence.

Jimmy who gave it to me sells the "Magnasexers" on Ebay and is convinced that they work on poultry, fish and humans.  You hold the egg in your hand and suspend the device just above the shell. If the magnet starts to rotate the embryo is female, if it swings back and forth it's male. So I did this on all 33 eggs then marked them M or F. When they were transferred to the hatcher from the incubator the F went in one side and the M in the other with a strip of plastic between them so that they could not get mixed up. The F chicks now have a black spot from an indelible marker on their heads.
Magnasexer in action

You'll have to wait six weeks for the results. I'll be able to tell which are hens and which are cocks, when their feathers replace the down. May have to put coloured leg rings on one batch in case the ink wears off. There will be no statistical analysis at this stage ( I've forgotten how to do analysis of variance, there is not replication and you probably wouldn't be interested anyway). We will have a straightforward count of Ms and Fs.

There are pros and cons to hatching as early in the year as this. Its cold and dark and this affects fertility, more heat is needed for brooding and the chicks need to be well protected from draughts. There's a widely held belief too that you get more males with early hatches. However, as the chicks grow day length increases and peak daylight should coincide with these starting to lay in late June. The adult birds are also bigger than later hatched batches for some reason. In any case I want to get the hatching out of the way. One more batch of Ixworths next month, then a batch of geese for Christmas in March and I can put the incubator away until next year.

On average it takes 21 days for the fertilised egg to develop into a hatched chick in the incubator or under a broody hen. Unless you believe in the accuracy of the magnasexer you won't know how many of the eggs you set are fertile and have developing embryos until about day 6 when you candle them. The candler is a light source in a box with an egg shaped hole at the top and you use it in a darkened room.  Light passing through the egg illuminates the developing embryo. I candle my eggs after 6 or 7 days and take out the infertiles "clears", these can still be used for baking.

The incubator has to be kept at 37.5C until the chicks start to hatch when the temperature is reduced slightly because the chicks are creating their own heat.Just as important is the humidity. It should be low (40%) until the chicks start to hatch. They need to lose about 11 or 13% of their weight during the incubation period so that the air sac increases in size and the chick will have air to breathe until it breaks a hole in the shell, "pipping". I work out the average weight of each batch of eggs when it is set and then graph the ideal weight loss against actual weight loss once a week to make sure that the eggs are losing weight at the correct rate. In the graph below the rate of loss has been a little more than 11% so within the ideal range.

It took about 30 hours from start to finish of the hatching and the chicks are all in the brooder. This is a brooder especially designed for the Highlands. Its draught proof and vermin proof because I once lost a whole batch to a weasel that got through 10mm weldmesh to attack them. More about brooding and rearing next time.

Friday 20 January 2012

Grow your own 5 a day in the West Highlands?

Growing my own five a day fruit and veg here in the West Highlands is a much more attractive idea than "self-sufficiency" a notion that led many folk into lives of drudgery in the 60s and 70s. Much better to be "self-reliant" that way I get to eat chocolate and bananas but don't have to subsist on kale and tatties.

This isn't the best of  horticultural environments. Soil is thin, stony, poorly drained and acid. Wind and the salt it carries affects all plant growth, winter days are short; long summer days make up for this to some extent. This is extreme gardening. Its much easier to be self-reliant in a warmer, drier, southern climate.

After three seasons of gardening on the margins of the N. Atlantic I realise that a poly-tunnel and a plan are indispensable. The garden "master plan 2012" is based on what I want to eat, how much I want and when I want it. If this self-reliance is going to continue I also need to find out how to keep and store my own seeds as I am totally reliant on a pile of beautifully designed and seductive seed catalogues. These catalogues might not be available after the collapse of the capitalism (financial system), undeniable environmental constraints( climate change and peak oil) and Marx's prediction of class war ( mass shoplifting) all happening sometime during the Olympics.

I want to eat a variety of leaves, legumes and roots throughout the year. This means all year round salads, a range of brassicas, kales, beans, peas and roots. Some of these to be eaten fresh but as all veg growers know you end up eating frozen veg for at least half the year. I only need enough for one except when Dormouse is here, she is a vegetarian and my daughter is even more extreme....a vegan. This means I need to manipulate the plant population in order to get the size of lettuce, broccoli, carrot etc that I want. On the whole none-grain crops (roots, and brassicas) have an asymptotic response to increasing plant population; in other words total yield increases with increasing plant population up to a population where yield stabilises and the individual plants become smaller. Carrot roots, for example, get smaller as population increases beyond a certain point.Forty years ago when I was an Agriculture undergraduate I did my honours dissertation on this! I know what I'm talking about, or at least I did then.

So what is the optimum number of plants per m2 for most purposes when space is at a premium. The answer for some species and varieties is in "Gardening Which" Dec 2011, along with a set of recommended varieties.

Species/variety                   Plants/m2          Distance w'n row cm      Distance b'n plants cm
Cabbage "Red jewel"                9                                30                                   30
Calabrese "Green magic"           9                                30                                   30
Carrots "Early Nantes"          270                                 2.5                                 15
Dwarf bean "Speedy"             35                                 7.5                                  30

These images of the garden in summer are not really relevant but they cheer me up on a driech day like today.

Finally, yield is not the only criterion when choosing varieties especially potatoes. last year I planted Sarpo Mira maincrop potatoes because of their blight resistance. It seemed to rain continuously in August/September, the potato tops were black with blight and completely trashed but the tubers were clean, they've stored well, and are excellent mashed, boiled, roasted or chipped. Those on the left are "kestrel" a 2nd early lifted at the end of July for the village show.

Thursday 5 January 2012

W. Highland winter weather

I don't often feel sorry for sheep but they have looked so bedraggled, dejected and downright sad for the last few weeks of high wind and rain. Their fleeces are soaked, there's no grass and no where dry to lie. I made 12 big bales of haylage thinking that they could be eked out over the next three months until there was some grass at lambing. They have eaten three bales in three weeks; its "comfort food" for sheep,  it can't go on. Today we moved them to the hill park behind the house. Here they have  natural shelter in the hollows and behind rocks, grass and heather to eat and a dry bed. Lack of fencing along the southern boundary meant I couldn't use this bit of hill; but today we strung out 200m of electric fencing and the ewes have their heads down eating, they didn't seem to notice that the sun was out.
At least the poultry have houses to shelter in, until the houses blow away. One lunchtime about three weeks ago when the hurricane was blowing a hooley I noticed a hen house was missing. It had been picked up by the wind and dropped on the drystone wall boundary abot 50m away. The hens were at the gate demanding to be re-housed.

Humans haven't fared much better. We've had power cuts with electricity on and off for what seems like an eternity. Candles and oil lamps soon lose their romantic appeal when you can't get online, read a book or use power tools. As a result of the "European Water Quality Directive" our water is pumped from a treatment plant where it is infused with Domestos to keep us safe and healthy. I have drunk water from hill burns all my life and never had an upset. When the power goes off the water goes off.  About twelve hours later someone usually brings an emergency generator for the pumps. Like the sheep we haven't seen the sun for ages. The next power cut will be different  there is now a shiny 4kw Honda generator in the workshop and of course water in the burn and The Guardian always gets through by teatime. You never thought of it as an evening paper did you.