Monday 27 February 2012

The Crofter's Cow

From: Crofting Agriculture, F. Fraser Darling, Oliver & Boyd 1945

Frank Fraser Darling was probably better know as an environmentalist but he started out as an agricultural adviser and farmer.During WW2 he farmed Tanera Mor in the Summer Isles and wrote technical articles on animal and crop husbandry in the Highland weekly newspapers. I have a copy of his collected essays published in 1945, its beautifully illustrated with black and white photographs like the one above.

" The Highland breed may be reckoned a beef breed primarily, but useful milkers can be found among them. One of the great advantages of Highland blood in the Crofter's cow is the placidity which is such a marked characteristic of the breed. It is much easier to be able to go out to the cow on pasture in summer time than to bring the cows into the byre and a good way of ensuring clean milk."

When Fraser Darling wrote this just about every croft had one or two milk cows. But in the mid-sixties  milk, butter and cheese became available in even the remotest crofting townships and the daily chore of milking was no longer necessary. Any cows that were kept on became suckler cows rearing one beef calf each year. Milking cows have all but disappeared. The only crofters I know who milk a cow are the Barbours at Strontian who keep a Jersey house cow.

If you want to grow your own dairy products in 2012 there is an alternative to the cow. You could keep two goats. Two because they are social animals and need a companion.

The best way to sell anything; goats, cars encyclopedias, is to concentrate on the positive points and deal with the objections as they arise. So here goes: Goats are delightful individualists, they will eat almost anything and can survive on land where cows would starve. Goats are much more efficient converters of concentrate feed
into milk. Milk production is about right for most families. You can freeze goats milk (its naturally homogenised ) ten kilos of milk will make a kilo cheese or over half a kilo of butter. They are small and altogether easier to handle.

Before Christmas our local further education organiser set up a short course on "Goat Keeping" the response was extraordinary a whole lot of people came out of the woodwork as potential goat keepers be it; milk and milk products, meat and fibre production or pygmy goats as pets. As a follow up we are holding a Sunday afternoon goat discussion with goat based meat dishes for lunch sometime in April. Its called, "The Crofter's Goat".

Thursday 23 February 2012

Ixworth hatching eggs and young stock for sale

When Reginald Appleyard set about creating the Ixworth breed in the 1920s and 30s he wanted a top quality table bird that would lay a lot of eggs. In other words the Ixworth would be a dual purpose utility breed. The skin and legs would be white, as demanded by British consumers and the eggs shells lightly tinted. Initially the new breed was successful commercially and it won the "Best new breed" award at the London Dairy Show. If you are over 60 years old you might just remember when chicken was a luxury food, it only appeared on many family dining tables at Christmas. The Ixworth with its gamey flavour and texture fitted this niche market well but it soon fell from favour.

Ixworth cock by Steven French

Less than 20 years after its creation the broiler industry got going; fast growing, intensively reared American hybrids raised indoors in huge flocks revolutionised the market. Industrial chicken production meant low cost and wide availability, Ixworth numbers fell rapidly. In the 1960s numbers fell so rapidly it almost became extinct. It is still officially a "rare breed".

If you want eggs and poultry meat for your own table or if you have a market for table birds in say a local restaurant then the Ixworth is worth considering. The cockerel in the painting above  was the great grandaddy of my Ixworth flock and made excellent "Coq au vin" at the end of his working life.

I have Ixworth hatching eggs for sale from March until June they are £2.00 each and sold in multiples of six. The eggs are delivered by Royal Mail Next Day Delivery  costing £6.50 ( packed in crush proof polystyrene boxes).  So far the Royal mail has never let us down however they do take two days to get to Shetland.

A sample of eggs is tested for fertility each month and if 50% or more of your eggs are clear when candled at seven days I will replace them free of charge if you return the clear eggs in the original packaging. The parents of the hatching eggs will be those in the banner image at the start of the blog, they have been together as a pen for two years and the cock was bred by Ian Simpson in Norfolk. Ian won the Best Ixworth in the National Poultry Show in 2010.

In September I plan to have a small number of point of lay pullets for sale with an unrelated male if you need a breeding pen. Young stock can be collected or I am prepared to deliver them within Lochaber.

To order Email; 

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Driech day activity

Another one of those driech west highland days, can't see Mull, and the byre roof, stripped of roofing felt in the gales is sodden. The byre is classed as an "historic building" in the crofting counties and so qualifies for a restoration grant of up to 50 per cent of the cost, in theory. In the black and white postcard picture below the byre can be see below and to the left of the house the walls are wooden and the roof metal. This was probably taken in the 1940s or 50s after the metaled road was constructed in front of the house.

Postcard of Kilchoan from Sue Cameron and W. Ardnamurchan Historic Photographs website.
 There is a snag. I went on line to start the application process but soon lost the will to live. First you fill in a 35 page pre-application application. Once this has been vetted some months down the line you are told if you qualify to make the actual application which if successful might mean a 20 per cent grant. So the application process achieved its objective....... I decided not to bother.  I'll do the job with second hand roofing sheets and locally sawn timber at less than the cost after grant.

My neighbour Alistair thinks the byre was built in the 1920s, it housed the house cow or cows. There is a concrete floor with a "grip" ( dung channel) running across it and draining into the field. Calves were kept in small adjacent pens and they were probably let out to suckle the cows once or twice a day.

It has been used just as a general purpose log and feed store since I came. It would make an ideal goat house (more of that later). The roofing sheets are box section steel (wriggly tin) coated with some weatherproof dark green stuff against salt, wind and rain. The rusty, unsightly old sheets of wriggly tin on the walls will be replaced with timber, boarded and battened.

The image below, taken by Alistair in the 1950s shows the byre from the south with what appear to be windows in the south facing wooden wall.
I took delivery of a load of cladding for the walls last week from and to my surprise and delight it was cedar. I had been expecting Douglas fir or hemlock but Sandy Macdonald at Ardslignish had just milled it from trees felled to make way for the new road up Drynie Hill between Loch Moidart and Mingarry. It smells delightful.

As soon as it dries up the "Playboy Joiner" and myself will make a start. We need more purlins in the roof and to add some 4x2 to the walls framing, perhaps even two windows in the south wall.

Craigard and the byre in 1950s (Alistair C. Cameron)

Saturday 18 February 2012

Homegrown eggs for better sponge cakes

For a steady supply of homegrown eggs you need a few hens....right? Well, not necessarily. Ducks are more proficient and efficient egg layers than hens. The most highly selected hybrid hens based on the White Leghorn lay 250 - 280 eggs a year but Khaki or White Campbell ducks lay 300+. This is after 60 years of highly scientific selection and breeding of the hen while ducks have been largely ignored. So in my search for a small scale, sustainable poultry production system I am trying some ducks this year and the first batch have just hatched.
They are Khaki Campbells, the best egg layers. They have been known to lay 360 eggs a year and the surplus males are good table birds, so they are a dual purpose utility breed.

Why are ducks more efficient? The eggs are up to 10 per cent heavier and although ducks eat about 20 - 30 per cent more feed they are still more efficient converters of feed than hybrid hens because of the larger number of bigger eggs . On free range they are even more efficient as they forage for grass, insects, molluscs and worms.
Ducks are more resistant to disease, mortality rates are lower and they are hardier. Ducks cope much better with cold, wet weather and need much less elaborate housing and they are easily confined by a two or three foot fence. The clinching argument for some people is that duck eggs make much better sponge cakes.

So why aren't we as a nation eating 11billion duck eggs a year instead of  11billion hen eggs?. Largely because ducks are much more difficult to fit in to large scale,industrial, intensive systems. There is also a lingering  prejudice against duck eggs based on  stories about salmonella and food poisoning during WW2. Studies have shown that duck eggs actually keep longer and stay fresher than hen eggs, especially when refrigerated.

As a smallholder or domestic poultry keeper with some grass, you have a big advantage, ducks aren't at all difficult. They do need more and deeper water to wash their bills and eyes so water has to be changed more often. Ducks soon turn a small pen into a sea of mud, so don't keep them in small pens. Unlike free range hens you will probably have to drive your ducks into their house at dusk and you have to leave them locked up until after 10.00am by which time they will have laid their eggs in the house. If they get out earlier they drop eggs all over the place. There's also a minor culinary drawback to the egg whites; they take longer to whip up into meringues.