Thursday 20 September 2012

Intensive sustainable crofting - lime

All other things being equal the most profitable farms are on the best soils; soils that are neither acid or alkaline but neutral, soils that are well drained but not drought prone and soils that are deep and well structured. Here on the West coast of Scotland, with few exceptions, we have thin, stony, acid soils in the lowest land classification category. In other words they are not inherently fertile. High rainfall, high wind speed and the short growing season compound the difficulty of growing anything.

Sanna Bay in 1968 shell sand and lime rich machair grassland above the beach
So where do we start if we want to increase production per hectare of grassland or arable?  Soil acidity has to be the first limiting factor. The soil analysis for my hay park shows it to be strongly acid, around pH 5.3  to neutralise it will require 2.5 tonnes of ground limestone per acre. I know, I'm  mixing metric with imperial measures, its my age.

Ground limestone is bulky, heavy stuff and it comes in 20 tonne loads, four times as much as I need. My neighbours need it too so we have ordered a load between us at £42/tonne. Its the distance, 50 miles from the quarry at Ft. William and the narrow roads that push the price up. Historically shell sand was carted up from the beaches but they are protected areas now. The ground limestone will be delivered in 1 tonne bags in the next week or two and applied with a borrowed lime spreader.

We should see an immediate return on the investment with more grazing and higher yield of haylage / silage next year and for several years to come. It doesn't end here. Next the soil needs phosphorous and potassium so that clovers will grow, fix atmospheric nitrogen and make our crofts more productive and sustainable.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Intensive, sustainable crofting

The World Bank has just announced that in June and July world wheat and maize prices increased by twenty five percent and that global food prices jumped ten percent. Drought in the USA and E. Europe ( climate change induced?), speculation in feed grains (getting rich at the expense of starving brown children) and production of ethanol from feed grains ( it's blended with petrol to reduce dependence on imported oil) have driven the price rises.

"Lazy beds" intensive crofting S. Uist 1930s

Against this background the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that to feed the world in 2030 an increase of 50% in world food supplies will be needed. Smallholder farmers; this includes Crofters, could have a key role in feeding the world by supplying local markets with high quality produce but some big changes in management of soils, crops and stock will be needed to develop intensified, sustainable crofts. Intensification and sustainability need not be mutually exclusive, there is scope to increase crofting's food output without damaging the environment. Its been done before, see pics.
Intensive production of potatoes on lazy beds- Vatersay

The Scottish Crofting Federation has joined the "Food Sovereignty" movement. Rejecting the proposition that food is just another commodity that can be subject to speculation and a component of international agri-business. The movement also supports the contributions and rights of food providers, including; crofters, peasants, pastoralists, fishermen, and small scale farmers who it claims are undervalued and their livelihoods are threatened by industrialised food production.

A "hay burner" at work, no ethanol needed

 At the risk of "turning you off" I want to devote some future posts to how this might be achieved in the  crofting counties. After all the great thing about blogs is, you don't have to read them, they are free and you are free to comment.

The photographs are from, "Crofting Agriculture" by Frank Fraser Darling. I hope they are out of copyright.

Scottish Crofting Federation

Honey harvest

West Ardnamurchan is probably one the most difficult places to keep bees and produce honey.Mainly because the weather in Spring is so often cold, wet and windy at a time when the bees need to be out foraging for pollen and nectar. For each of the last three years I have had to feed sugar syrup during May and into June to keep the colonies going. If the bees get to August in good shape and there are good flying days we can get some honey. This year one of my hives that started as a nucleus in early Spring and produced eighteen pounds of honey today. We had a very good summer it was warm and sunny with a good nectar flow mainly from bell heather, heath and rosebay willowherb.
Removing the cappings from the comb


Extracting the honey from the comb for bottling calls for some specialised kit. The cappings  are sliced off the comb into a jam pan. The frame holding the comb is then placed in a centrifugal extractor, the high speed spinning throws the honey out into the extractor. Honey is then strained through a fine mesh  to remove tiny bits of wax, bits of bees and other stuff you don't want to eat. After the filter it settles in a tank and then is drawn off into the familiar honey jars.

Spinning out the honey

We do have one advantage here; there is no varroa mite. So far our geographical isolation has been a barrier to this global bee parasite that reduces the vigour of the bees leading to the eruption of latent bee viruses. So if you are a beekeeper  and you're thinking of moving to Lochaber with your bees...Don't! because your bees will be infected.

 We don't have any oilseed rape either so no neonicotinoid insecticides. These kill bees by disrupting their ability to navigate and find their way home. They have been banned in France but not in the UK of course.

Filtering and settling

Honey processing can be very sticky. If you are not careful drips of honey can be distributed throughout your house. You'll find it on door handles, cats, dogs, carpets and in your hair. Bare feet, newspapers on the floor and frequent hand washing minimise the mess.

Some of the final product, "Golden Ardnamurchan Flower Honey"

This could be "rare" honey, to go with the rare breed hens, ducks and goats! Some jars waiting for labels. I'd make a fortune if I could produce this honey commercially it has a unique flavour.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Don't count your chickens.......until they're hatched

Eggs are packed in specially made crush proof polystyrene boxes
The season for hatching next year's layers is starting. Eggs set under a hen or in a brooder now will hatch at the beginning of October and the pullets will start to lay during March / April 2013.
In most respects the modern hen behaves just like its Red Jungle Fowl progenitor. After laying an egg the hen sits on it briefly and then returns to normal behaviour even after several eggs have accumulated in the nest. When the clutch is complete, 10 - 12  or 15 eggs, incubation becomes continuous. It is only when incubation starts that the embryo begins to develop, until then it is in suspended animation.

Poly box  inside a cardboard box packed with crumpled newspaper, "The Guardian"

It's this suspension of development that allows us to collect fertile eggs and send them all over the UK for hatching. The eggs that are sent have to be fresh, not more than 3 or 4 days old and a whole lot of factors can affect hatchability. There's an optimum storage temperature of around 12C, in storage they should be turned daily and otherwise left undisturbed. Changes in temperature, atmospheric pressure and rough handling can all affect hatchability so the eggs are packed in crush proof  polystyrene boxes and posted for next day delivery.

21 days later
At £2.00 each these eggs may seem expensive but add up the costs involved. These eggs are from pullets hatched from eggs imported from Germany in January this year. Then there are 5 months o rearing to the point of lay. Unrelated  cockerels have to be red and reared. Some birds will not make the grade and they have to be discarded, then there are extra nutritious breeder rations. They also have a unique selling point; Bresse Gauloise are a rare breed in the UK. If 90% of your eggs hatch this is very good, 75 - 80% is what One can reasonably expect and less than this is disappointing.

Friday 7 September 2012

Goat accused of robbery

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with crofting but its further evidence that goats get an undeserved bad name the world over.

I don't know if I should show you this because I can't verify its provenance and veracity but it does look like a newspaper cutting.

It came in an email from a Zimbabwean friend.  Seems rather unfair to the goat which probably doesn't have a driving licence either. The Nigerian vigilantes haven't been to Specsavers but at least the Kwara State Police have a sense of humour and don't take themselves too seriously.

Thursday 6 September 2012

More work for the scythe cutting rushes

After bracken, rushes are one of most vigorous, widespread and pernicious weeds of pasture here in the Highlands, they grow best on damp ground  that usually needs draining and lime. The rush grows from seed and develops a huge base of up to a square metre. Cattle will graze the young tops in Spring but sheep won't touch them. The rush clumps grow bigger until they finally coalesce until the grass is excluded.

The common rush Juncus conglomeratus
  This must be the reason why SGRPID pay us to cut the rushes under the "Land Management Options" Scheme that I have signed up for. It should increase the productivity of the grassland but might not be so good for snipe and woodcock.

Rushes out compete the grass and exclude it

The answer is more hard work with the scythe, clumps have to be cut flush with the ground even if they consist of a substantial mounds. Cut material can be raked up, dried and stacked for bedding or burnt when it's dry enough.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Goat myth unscientifically tested

Since I got interested in goats I have come across many myths and prejudices about them; they smell, the eat anything, goats milk tastes peculiar, goats butt people and finally goats cause brucellosis. None of this is true.

Female goats don't smell at all if kept in clean quarters with good ventilation. Male goats certainly do smell awful during the rut, from September to March they reek. So I'm avoiding keeping a male.
Only a passing interest in the washing line

Cows milk, sheep's milk and goats milk are all easily contaminated and take on extraneous tastes. Milk taken from a healthy goat, milked in hygienic conditions into a clean container and then quickly cooled is indistinguishable from cows milk.

Goats are fastidious; they won't eat food that's fallen on the ground and they don't eat laundry as in  comic books. Today we carried out a totally unscientific test of the laundry eating myth.  When taken to the washing line they only showed a passing interest in my rugby shirt and then carried on devastating the brambles.
Brambles....real goat food

Again comic books and some older male goats are responsible for the butting myth. Like most of us, with advancing age they can become grumpy and pretty tough customers. Arguments are settled by head butting as in cattle, sheep and Glasgow.

When British servicemen traveled to all parts of the Empire via Malta many of them contracted, "Malta Fever" from the milk of the island's goats which was infected with Brucella melitensis. The last time the disease was diagnosed in Britain was before the Second World War.