Friday 31 August 2012

Long day at the lamb sale

6.00am Sunrise over Ben Hiant

The lamb sales  mean an early start. Ewes and lambs have to be brought into the handling pens, the lambs shed off and loaded. Then its sixty miles to Ft. William auction mart, 30 miles of single track road and the ferry at Corran narrows.


8.00am Lambs and a cast ewe loaded and ready to go

The sale starts at eleven and this year mine were number 12 in the ring, just as the buyers are getting into their swing hopefully. Unloading, penning , washing the trailer and sorting takes time  but there are usually neighbours there to help.

11.30 am Nan Maclachlan moving  lambs to the sale ring

Despite the sale prices being down generally I did better than last year, averaging £45 a lamb due mainly to the Charolais x Texel tup who produced some  fast growing meaty offspring, just what the buyers want.

1.00 pm Blackface lambs from Skye in the sale ring

Good quality Blackface lambs were in demand. There is no better roast lamb than heather fed Blackface cooked very slowly in the bottom of the Rayburn oven.

5.30 pm Home

Home at teatime and the end of the Shepherd's year. All of the lambs to be sold have gone and its time to start the preparations for next twelve months. The new year starts with eleven ewes, four shearlings, one ewe lamb and the tup.

Friday 24 August 2012

How to weigh a goat with a piece of string

Livestock owners need to know the weight of their animals in order to work out rations, to administer the correct dosage of medication and to keep track of growth rates. Livestock scales are the most accurate way but when you only have a few animals they are an expensive item. There is a weight estimation formula based on body measurements in inches (Its an American formula, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Service). A dressmaker's tape measure or a piece of string can be used.

 Here's how to do it....

  • Measure the length of the body from the point of the shoulder (A) to the pin bone (B)
  • Measure the circumference of the heart girth (C)
  • Heart girth x Heart girth x body length / 300 = Liveweight (lbs)
  • Divide lbs by 2.2 to get kg. 
  •  Today, according to the formula, Hebe the smaller kid weighed 21.4kg and Acorn 25.5kg.
You can use this method for cattle and sheep too. For horses the  conversion factor is 330. 

Some of the world's rarest ducklings

The little red and yellow hen (Silkie x Lt. Sussex) has just hatched  four Shetland ducklings from six eggs. These are  not for me I hasten to add. I have enough poultry. These are for Innis Ferguson at Sonachan, I promised him ducklings in the Spring but his duck house wasn't ready, now it is so they'll be installed soon.

The Shetland Duck was saved from extinction by Mary Isbister a Shetland Crofter who also breeds Shetland geese and cattle.

Shetland ducks
Shiny black feet, legs and bills

Hay for the goats

It takes six days of dry, breezy, sunny weather to make good hay and we don't often get  spell like this on the West Coast. A cow needs two tonnes of hay to feed it through the winter and on the basis that one cow is the equivalent of eight sheep or goats we will need four tonnes of hay and or haylage for the winter. We made seven half tonne big bales of haylage last month
20 bales safely stacked in the byre

Yesterday I collected 20 small bales, roughly half a tonne; nine in the van and eleven in the trailer from Ian Wilson who farms above Loch Ness. This is for the goats, its too good for the sheep. Luckily some Farmers still make small bales of good hay for horse keepers, Smallholders and Crofters. The big round bales need big handling equipment, big barns and big flocks.

Perhaps I'm a bit paranoid about winter feed. In 1976 after a long, hot and dry summer I had 200 beef suckler cows and their calves to feed and no silage. The grass just didn't grow in 1976. To feed them I had to buy 400 tonnes of barley straw. The straw was fed with rolled barley and urea and the cattle were never better. So with 30 ewes and two goats I'm still worried about having enough winter forage. Perhaps I'll get some more next week.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Stall feeding goats

I'm stall feeding the goats like an African farmer, carrying cut branches in to them. In Africa its to keep them under control to stop them destroying crops but I'm doing it until their paddock is fenced.   They get a mixture of sycamore, hazel and bramble plus weeds, rose-bay willow herb and knapweed . Pruning the lower overhanging branches doesn't harm the trees and the goats love it as a supplement to their hay. They don't get too much though as it might upset their digestive system.

This why they're called straining posts

John Alec and Dougie are nearly finished the fencing so the kids will be outside next week when the weather is fine. The next bit of expense is a field shelter so they can stay out all day whatever the weather. One reason for choosing Toggenburgs is that they are reputed to be hardier and more weatherproof than other breeds

Saturday 18 August 2012

Fencing the hill park

Work started this week on the boundary fencing behind the house. Its sheep netting and plain wire, good enough for sheep and goats ( with an electrified top wire) but not for cattle, they need a barbed wire on top and barbed wire is nasty stuff.

Strainer post and stobs
Erecting a stock proof fence is a skilled and arduous job anywhere, but here on thin soil over stone and rock its even more difficult. The holes for the strainer posts should be as deep as the depth of the spade and the whole integrity of the fence depends on how well set the strainers are.

A bottom wire between the strainers acts as a guide for the placing the stobs. The stobs (intermediate posts) are set 3m apart in a pilot hole made with a steel bar, then they are hammered into the ground with a mell (heavy broad faced hammer).

John Alec and his brother Dougie got all of the materials up to the hill, placed eight strainers and the stobs in four days. The gates; netting and the wire go on next week then the goats can spend the daytime out of doors.

The geese are getting fat

We ate one of the geese this week superbly cooked by Mrs Campbell: it fed seven with meat to spare, liver pate and fat for future cooking. This one was hatched on 6th April; at just over four months old it weighed 16lbs plucked. I doubt if there is a more efficient animal when it comes to converting grass to succulent meat.

These large birds are very strong , you cant dislocate their necks by hand like chickens. I have never met anyone who could. The most humane slaughter method is to hold the legs, lower the head to the ground and then shoot them in the head with a .22 rifle, stunning and death are instantaneous.

Of course if you keep geese and eat them you need somewhere to do the plucking, preferably a large outbuilding as there are lots of feathers and the bird needs to be hung from a strong beam. Its impossible to pluck all of the down so you have to singe these feathers off with a spirit lamp, not something you want to do in the house.

Next time you are looking for a new house, if there is room to pluck a goose its probably big enough and has enough sheds; you can't have too many sheds!

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Wicked weeds

Goats are very inquisitive and try to sample everything that comes within their reach by nibbling and tasting. My fields seem to be infested with killer toxic weeds. Of the 223 UK plants poisonous to livestock that I found on one website, I have three, bracken wasn't listed.On their daily walks the goats will, from time to time, try to taste foxglove and bracken, there is some ragwort about but they show no interest yet.


All three are deadly killers in different ways. The entire foxglove plant is toxic and as its a biennial the basal leaves overwinter. It affects the heart and I have been told that you only have to touch a foxglove for your heart rate to change. Its deadly in very small quantities.


Like Foxglove the entire Ragwort plant, if eaten, causes irreversible liver damage and kidney failure but a very large amounts have to be eaten for this to happen. My goats ignore it completely. There is no legal requirement for occupiers of land to remove ragwort but DEFRA can under the, "Weeds Act" 1959 require the occupier of land to take action.

For more information Google the Ragwort facts website; see comment.


 I also have a plum tree and although the green leaves are not toxic; if the leaves wilt because of storm damage or frost and turn yellow they become deadly. On wilting glucosides in the leaf turn into hydrocycanic acid (HCN) and sugar. The sugar makes the leaves attractive to livestock and the HCN kills them, a few handfuls can kill a cow.

 Despite annual cutting there is bracken everywhere and animals will not normally eat it, the goats would have to eat large quantities over a long time but eventually fatal internal hemorrhages would occur.

Because the hill park is not fenced yet the kids are kept in their large loose box with a daily outing for browse and exercise so the danger of poisoning is minimal especially as they are well fed and not hungry. When they do go out to graze it may be necessary to keep them in at night to fill up on hay so that they are less likely to experiment with poisonous plants.

Friday 3 August 2012

The art of woodburning

Freshly felled timber has a water content of about fifty per cent, this is why "green" wood hisses and smoulders, much of the heat goes to driving off the water. To get the most out of your logs the moisture content needs to be about 20 per cent. This means you have to season it for at least a year. The load of softwood that arrived yesterday is for late winter / early Spring 2014.

Its larch which has a higher calorific value than pine and the other softwoods.  You probably wouldn't want to burn larch in an open fire because it spits and sparks but its fine in wood burning stove.

Firewood is sold by volume and these loads are about 2..5 cubic metres. The same volume of hardwood, oak or ash, has twice the  calorific value so its more expensive and best used in the coldest weather, December to March.This is part of the "art" of wood burning, knowing when to use each type of wood. The next arty bit is the seasoning, I use the Norwegian method because we all know that Norwegians are the best at everything; getting to the South Pole, using their oil and gas revenues sensibly for the common good, blowing up Nazi heavy water plants, weather forecasts ( etc. I read that they, the Norwegians, stack their logs on pallets in a sort of beehive shape. Like the old peat stacks So this is what I did today and I am so pleased with the result I had to show you.

These firewood stacks, 1.25 tonnes in total will be covered with a small plastic stack sheet and left until winter 2013/14.

Hopefully the hardwood will come in the next week or two and it will be stored the same way.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Goats don't eat laundry and tin cans

Browsing bramble
Walking the goats is a good opportunity to observe their grazing/browsing behaviour. If they walk through a sward of grass and clover they aren't a bit interested. Where wild shrubs come down to the path they get really excited, exploring with their sense of smell and their prehensile lips. Today on a short walk up the old drove road they sampled; hazel, sycamore, birch, heath, bell heather, sow-thistle, rose-bay willow herb ( Fire weed in N. America), grass seed heads and brambles. What is worrying is that they were keen to eat bracken and foxglove, both toxic to goats. My strategy to deal with this is to give them access to good hay during the whole time they are confined in their pen so that at least any toxic plant material is diluted by the large amount of hay in the rumen.
Balancing on hind legs
In Africa I have seen goats in the very tops of trees when browse was desperately short. Apart from tree and rock climbing they are very adept at standing on two hind feet to reach low branches.

Of all the plants they sampled this morning Rose bay willow-herb seems to be the favourite. A small piece of digestive biscuit is also highly regarded.  The image of the cartoon goat eating clothes on the washing line or even tin cans is because they explore everything with nose, lips and taste buds. They are very fastidious and won't eat anything that has fallen on the floor of their pen.