Tuesday 31 December 2013

"Drying off" Pia : A holiday from milking

Pia (at the back) celebrating
Pia the British Toggenburg started milking on 4th March 2013, 294 days ago. Since then we have recorded her milk yield at every milking; she has produced 745kg, three quarters of a tonne of milk. Now its time for a rest before she kids again on 27th March. A hormone assay of her blood sample that Kenny the Vet took before Christmas shows that she is pregnant but we don't know how many kids she'll have, that will have to wait until the ewes are scanned in February.

After ten months milking she needs to build up her reserves of body fat and to grow the foetus ( or foetuses, we don't know how many yet) before giving birth. We started the "drying off" process this week by reducing her concentrate feed to about 0.5 kg sugar beet pulp. She gets as much good quality hay as she can eat.

Next we stopped milking in the evening. When the udder is overstocked (full) and not milked out there is a negative feedback system of hormones that tells the brain, "don't produce so much milk".

Two weeks from now we'll milk on alternate days and then around the end of the month stop milking entirely. All of the time she has to be monitored for mastitis (bacterial infection of the udder). At this point we will infuse each teat with a long acting antibiotic to further combat mastitis and she will have two months off , eating and idling before the next lactation.

Monday 30 December 2013

Living with a septic tank : Don't put anything in the toilet bowl unless you have previously eaten it.

There is a downside to country living and its to do with drains. Every country house I've lived in I have ended up with my head in the septic tank. The reasons are legion;  bad design, no design, disposable nappies (diapers) and cooking fat are the most common causes.

Returning home from Christmas I discovered that the drains were blocked. this is not difficult when the stuff is welling up around your feet.

Yesterday was spent in diagnosing the problem. After much swearing, splashing about and digging we decided that the blockage was between the inspection hatch and the tank. The solution would be to rod the pipe from the tank end if we could find the outlet. This was difficult to find as I believe in not interfering with nature ( septic or otherwise) and leave the system to its own devices. This has worked well for the last five years but a digger was needed now.

Today Hughie brought the mini digger and we unearthed the access point. After more swearing, splashing and rodding we provoked  a geyser of shit with a plug of congealed fat on top.... job done.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Backyard dairy farming : Flawed economics?

So far there has been only one comment from the worldwide readership on the profitability or otherwise of our backyard  dairying.

"I ain't no accountant, my arithmetic is sub-standard, but you have invited comment about your goat milk analysis, and I have issues. Yes you are retired and have oodles of time to play crofter, but there are other unacknowledged opportunity costs.

Dormouse goes on to list the other people involved in this project; in particular Dale who does half of the milking. Her input makes up the bulk of the unacknowledged opportunity costs. However, everyone needs a hobby, even when she's a management consultant.

Dale's input is not a cost to her at all, it is an enormous benefit in terms of : ....fresh milk, early rising, fulfilling vigorous activity, communing with the goats, cheese, yoghurt and kefir from time to time. That's enough I'll stop.

Of course my analysis of our costs only applies to backyard dairying. If the enterprise was expanded to say, 100 goats, assuming a market for the milk, it would not be possible to use a price of £1.55p a litre (Mr. Morrison's supermarket price), we would have to take a wholesale price and of course there would be real labour and capital costs involved.

I don't wish to appear paranoid but there's also the argument for self-reliance in food production. Because the supermarkets have most of their goods in the store or on the road in trucks , "just in time management" , we are only three days away from food riots if the system broke down for what ever reason. Goats, hens, potatoes lots of teabags and a big bag of flour might be quite useful.

Further reading: If you want to learn more about backyard cows and goats find  a copy of; The Backyard Dairy Book. Prism Press, Dorchester 1972 its out of print but Amazon and ABE Books will have it.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

An edible hedge and windbreak

300mm willow pegs 250mm apart
I need a fast growing hedge at the bottom of the hay park it's to provide a sunshade (we really do need this in summer) , a screen for the wire fence ( its new but unsightly) and a source of goat fodder. The fastest growing, cheapest to establish and most palatable tree for goats is willow.

Willow will grow from "pegs" these are branches a bit thicker than a pencil and up to 12mm in diameter cut to about  300mm in length. Two thirds of the peg are inserted in the ground, the right way up then firmed in and kept free of grass and weed competition until it's well established. The ground has to be damp but not waterlogged, the sandy / stony raised beach down in the corner should be ideal. I'll need to protect them from voles and rabbits with plastic tubes too.

David and Michelle got their willow by the burn pruned I got free willow pegs which have been planted using a round steel crowbar to make the initial hole. Just have to stand back and watch them grow.

Thursday 12 December 2013

Water harvesting for the sheep house.

Only about four weeks to go before the sheep come inside for the rest of the winter so have been fitting the new sheep house out with troughs, its the kind of rough woodworking that I'm good at, I'll never be a cabinet maker. I was once told that the difference between a joiner and a Carpenter was that a Joiner worked to the nearest millimeter whereas a carpenter worked to the nearest house.

The design is meant to provide an effective barrier and feeding trough. The length of the trough is important as pregnant ewes need lots of space to feed, 50cm (20 inches in N. America and Wales). Only one more job to complete, we need a water supply. Tapping into the water main is horrendously expensive so the plan is to capture rainwater from the roof.Here is where I have to revert to Imperial measurement, Seventy square metres (77 sq yds) of roof should harvest how much water?

If an inch of rain falls on an acre of ground that inch is equal to 22,610 gallons (27,154 US galls). this is where I have to open a spreadsheet! The roof area is 0.0159 acres so it receives 360 imperial gallons for every inch of rainfall (1617 litres for every 25mm rainfall).

So no shortage of supply its just a matter of finding a couple of containers that are big enough.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Backyard dairy farming

I know its dangerous but when I'm driving I've a tendency to think about things other than traffic, I often find myself on autopilot. Today on the A82 after collecting some very good hay from Ian Wilson up in Glen Urquhart I was thinking about the economics of our home milk production. Since March Pia has given us over 700kgs of milk, most was for drinking but we've also made cheese, butter, kefir and yoghurt.

In Morrison's supermarket in Ft. William this morning goats milk was £1.55p a litre so if we had wanted to consume the equivalent amount in supermarket milk it would have cost £1,085 in total. there have been production costs of course at about 0.75 kg concentrates per litre costing around 45p, then 2kg hay a day at about 25p/kg; total food cost is £1.70p.

Average daily output 2.5kg milk @ £1.55/litre is worth £3.88p

Average daily food costs @ £1.70p /day

Average  daily surplus over feed cost £2.18p

Total surplus for 300 days £654

"But what about the other production costs and overheads" I hear you cry.........

Well..... I'm retired so the opportunity cost of my labour is zero, vet fees and medicines might have been another £40 at most, bedding £40 and miscellaneous costs £10. That still eaves a surplus of £600.

You are now very welcome to pick holes in these figures but I think that I can now make a good case for backyard goat farming to keep two or three families in high quality milk and dairy products more cheaply than buying the equivalent from a supermarket.

Of course you'd need two goats ( you can't keep one on its own) a garden, a loose box with a yard and friendly cooperative neighbours who want to be part of your neighborhood backyard milk production coop because you do need some time off from feeding, milking, mucking out etc.

Monday 9 December 2013

Pregnancy diagnosis of goats..... why bother?

Hebe more interested in food than the Vet
Its just over two months since Hebe and Acorn were mated and they've shown no sign of oestrus since so they are probably pregnant. But you can't 100% sure that lack of oestrus means pregnancy so I asked Kenny the Vet to check with his ultra-sound kit. The unit emits ultra sound waves from a hand held transducer placed against the skin of the abdomen. But with our hairy and slightly overweight Toggs he couldn't get a reading.

We've had to go for the lab based approach, some hormones are elevated during pregnancy and can be detected in the blood, samples were taken and there'll be a result in ten days or so.

You might think,"why bother you could just wait for the kids to turn up". But knowing when  kids are due gives us an accurate date for drying off Pia, two months before kidding she has a holiday from milk production. It also helps with the accurate timing of vaccines and extra feed.

Thursday 5 December 2013

One hundred mile an hour winds

Not ghostly sheep:Camera shake due to the wind
About 5.30 this morning there was a flash and simultaneous crash of thunder directly overhead. The power went off and rain was battering the window. When I got outside to look for damage the roaring north westerly might have been an approaching train, it almost knocked me off my feet. Sheep troughs were strewn about the field and he ewes themselves were cowering in the lee of a knoll. Most of out shelter is against the south west wind.

At nine o clock, the storm had moved on south, the kitchen window was grey with salt; electricity and  FM radio were off. All was not lost. I had Melvyn Bragg on Long Wave, coffee brewing on the Rayburn and an oil lamp to light my keyboard a mix of old and new technology, as long as the battery lasts. All the buildings, trees and the poly-tunnel were still standing.
New tech and low tech

Its 1.30pm and the lights have come on again I can put away the paraffin, candles and lamps until next time.

Sunday 1 December 2013

Ben Resipole and the technophile

Rob and Zak at 845m
We all know that the Norwegians are world leaders at; being Vikings, getting to the S.Pole first, blowing up Nazi heavy water plants and putting their oil income into a sovereign wealth fund instead of giving it to the all ready rich. Until yesterday I thought they were world leaders at forecasting Scottish weather (www.yr.no). Saturday was supposed to be bright and sunny and after a week of dreichness the views from the top of Ben Resipole would be magnificent. Not so... the Norwegians failed , it was wet, cold and claggy above 500m.

At the top, 850m above Loch Sunart we met two walkers who had come up from Strontian by the East ridge using  GPS. this was no ordinary GPS, apart from being bright orange it "tweeted" the owner's current location to has girlfriend in London! As an elderly curmudgeon I marvel at these pieces of high tech kit and how necessary they are to the mountain experience. In the Tiso mountain equipment shop in Glasgow last month I saw a tiny video camera, size of a matchbox,  that attached to your climbing or canoeing helmet  and presumably tweeted your partner with current location and activity.

We got back to the car, six and a half hours after parking it,  by following the burn that led us to the top and instead of tweeting Dormouse I used my land line phone before an early bath. Oh.... and apologies to the man in the yellow jacket I didn't realise he was in the back ground, "gazing upon the hedge" as Shakespeare has it (A Winter's Tale).

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Foot trimming : A goat pedicure

Fig.1. Seriously neglected feet a job for the Vet
Wild goats and the ancestors of our goats kept their feet in shape running and jumping on rocks that wore down the horny surface. But ours are on wet ground and soft bedding plus horn growth is stimulated by their protein rich diet. If the feet aren't trimmed every six weeks or so they become deformed and open to infection with foot rot. (Fig. 1)

When you are foot trimming single handed its not easy to take photographs so these rough sketches of what happens and what to do will have to suffice today.

Fig.2. Trim the edges of the claws and the heel so that the foot is flat
Goats don't like this operation so have to be restrained with a halter or a neck yoke. I use the milking stand so the animal is higher up, distracted by some feed and locked in the yoke. I try not raise the foot too high because its uncomfortable an unstable for the goat. Starting with the near side hind foot I clean off any muck on and between the claws. then I trim the edges of the horn with the foot shear to the point where the foot surface is flat (Fig.2). If the heel is overgrown then this needs to be trimmed flat too.

Fig.3. From all angles the underside of the foot should be flat
When all four feet are done the animal should be standing on the absolutely flat surface of each foot (Fig.3)

Friday 22 November 2013

Seed for a quickthorn hedge : "One for the rat, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow".

Hawthorn : Tough and hardy
Its well into November and probably the best time to collect hawthorn seeds; any earlier and they might not be mature, leave it any later and the birds will have had most of them. So this afternoon I headed up on to the hill to collect seed from local trees. Hawthorn is tough, it grows old on the thinnest soils in the most exposed places and of course its spines  make the established quickthorn hedge an impenetrable barrier to livestock.

The fence that John and I completed in the summer will probably last twenty years. When 2033 comes around the posts will have rotted at the base and it will need to be replaced.... not by me. A well maintained hedge on the other hand lasts hundreds of years. The plan is to plant a predominantly hawthorn hedge outside of the new fence.Three hundred metres of boundary fence will need over 2,000 hedging plants 40 - 60cm tall,, mainly hawthorn and blackthorn that cost about 70p each, the same as erecting the fence. I'll try to grow my own, it'll take three years to get them to the point of planting and a further three or four years to establish a hedge.That's a long time when you are 70.

Get the berries before the birds
The berries have to be soaked in water and then mashed up, this releases the seed from the fruit pulp. The seeds are then planted in a suitable mixture of leaf mould and sharp sand and left outside for 18 months to germinate. You have to be patient to do this.

There's an old farming adage about sowing seeds,"one for the rat, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow". In other words sow four times as many seeds as plants required. If I want 1,000 plants, have to sow 4,000 seeds. Another trip up the hill will be needed.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Start of another Shepherd's year : Our new Charollais tup goes in

The new Charollais tup went in with the ewes this afternoon (6th November). As you can see from the keel on the ewe he started work immediately.

This is ten days earlier than in previous years on the grounds that we'll be lambing indoors so the weather isn't quite such a problem and there should be earlier grass because the ewes will not have been out there eating it for three months before lambing.

When it comes to the lamb sales in August the lambs will be ten days older and that can make a difference in the sale ring, they are a bit bigger.

As you can see from the photograph this tup has a good meaty rear end and a long broad back all good points from the butcher's point of view. Charollais are also easier lambing, I'm told, because of the smaller head, we'll see.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Hard working goat - 650kg milk in 240 days

Its eight months since Pia kidded and started milking, during this time (240 days) she has yielded 650kgs of milk. Its quite remarkable for an animal weighing about 70 kg. If things go to plan she'll milk until the end of the year (300 days) and will have produced somewhere between 730 and 750 kg in her first lactation; three quarters of a tonne of milk.

Ideally she'll be dried off around day 300 and will have two months rest before she kids and starts milking again. The dry period is  an opportunity to lay down some subcutaneous fat because during the early weeks of lactation she cannot take in enough food to support production. The fat on her back is a store of energy to be mobilised when its needed.

On the graph you can see quite a lot of daily variation in yield. This is biological stuff, you don't get straight lines and smooth curves. Differences between days are probably due to; the quality and quantity of  forage and the weather; on cold wet days when they are outside the goats would rather stay inside their hut than go foraging so nutrient intake is lower and milk yield is lower as a result.

This is nothing compared with the yield of Moonlin Dialara in  an extended lactation ( over 300 days); she produced 5,478kg in her last officially recorded lactation reported in the BGS Journal last month.

Goodbye Raffles : Gone but not forgotten

It's a lot quieter in the goat house today. On Sunday Raffles went home to Sheildrum and his pal Cyrus. I cleaned out his pen at the first opportunity. Although I have got used to his odour I'm told the village can do without it. Before he left I rubbed him all over with a cotton rag and put it is a screw top jar. The, "buck rag" will be useful if we think one of the girls is on heat, one sniff of the rag should put things beyond doubt.

Hebe and Acorn have not come back on heat but we won't be sure about Pia for another week. Then they can go off to the Vet for a PD ( pregnancy diagnosis) with the ultrasound scanner and look forward to a busy time in early March.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Billy goat soap

When I offer Hughie milk in his tea he asks," is it billy goat milk?".
So if I'm making goats milk soap why not call it "Billy Goat Soap", its certainly eye catching. It probably wouldn't sell too well in the Jo Malone shop, but Jacqui's craft shop is a different matter. Its worth a try.
Billy goat soap

Goats milk is so versatile you can make cheese, butter, kefir, yoghurt and now soap. The milk is a natural, soothing moisturiser. This product has been tested by Dormouse and found satisfactory although she doesn't stray far from Jo Malone stuff in the black and white boxes. These boxes, by the way, are very useful in the workshop for storing nuts, bolts and screws they last for years.

I'm told that to sell in a craft shop your product has to be tied up with raffia. I have tried but as usual my gift wrapping looks as if I was wearing chainsaw gloves when I did it.

Social behaviour of goats eating home made bread

Its one of those W. Highland days when Mull has disappeared behind a curtain of rain, the wind is howling in the chimney, ferries have been cancelled and I'm expecting the power to go off any minute. The kitchen and the goat house are the two places to be, both are warm and comfortable. the goats are inside. There's no point in turning them out; they'd just spend the day in the field shelter, not eating and looking miserable.
Pia, Acorn and Hebe

Their greatest treat is an old heel of bread baked dry in the oven and when I give it to them their social hierarchy is immediately evident. Pia the biggest and oldest has a sense of entitlement she's there first. Acorn is number two greedy and socially ambitious. Hebe hangs back, darts in, nibbles and drops the bread, she's nervous and knows her place because she's the smallest.

The implication of this behaviour for goat keepers is that the animals need plenty of room when they are feeding and a partition of some sort like the space between feeding buckets in the picture. If they were all fed at once in a long open trough Hebe wouldn't get her fair share.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Homeopathy for goats : It seems to work

Neither of them has horns I just like this silhouette
We've been waiting for Pia the British Toggenburg to come on heat for over a month. The other two were mated within a week of Raffles arriving here; their heats provoked by the season, pheromones and his seductive body odour, its a melange of rancid soap, lynx deodorant and goat urine. You have to be here to appreciate it. Despite his macho presence Pia was unmoved.....until this morning!

When she got up on the milking stand she was bleating, wagging her tail from side to side and trying to kick the milk pail over. Normally she is so easy to milk even when the shed is full of chattering visitors. After getting half the morning milk I gave up and penned her with big boy. They mated twice in as many minutes, a case of " slam bang, thank you Ma am", no finesse. She was up for it again at eleven when I went out to check on them so the performance was repeated.There's no sign of Hebe and Acorn coming on heat so hopefully they are in kid and due in early March.

Another homeopathic remedy

This time last week we were considering taking her to the Vet for an examination and perhaps a hormone induced heat. However, Kate, my daughter is a homeopath and she suggested an inducement; folliculinum. It seems to have worked, avoiding drug treatment and a Vet's bill.

Saturday 26 October 2013

Thirty tonnes of sheep feed causes major traffic jam

Most of the granulated sugar that you eat is extracted from sugar beet. The sugar beet pulp that is left behind is an excellent feed for ruminants and horses, its high in calories and soluble fibre and lowers the over all cost of the animals ration.
 Each October the Crofters of Kilchoan and W. Ardnamurchan buy a thirty tonne load of beet pulp between them for winter sheep feeding. Today the pulp arrived causing the usual traffic chaos as it was being unloaded and transferred to trailers and pick ups. At least six drivers were slightly inconvenienced.

Friday 25 October 2013

How to pluck a chicken

My Mother reckoned that when you were choosing a house you needed a place where you could pluck a goose; if you had space to do this then that covered just about all of your domestic workspace needs. From about the age of ten  I looked after the poultry and did the plucking. Not many ten year old children or adults pluck chickens these days so here's an illustrated guide.

First kill the chicken by dislocating its neck quickly and humanely. If you don't know how to do this visit the website of the Humane Slaughter Society, they have a publication, Practical Slaughter of Poultry A Guide for Small Producers 2nd Edition (pages 17-20).

Put a loop of bale twine around the legs just above the feet and hang the bird above a receptacle for the feathers.; a dustbin or plastic tub. This has a similar effect to bleeding, the blood drains into the cavity caused by the neck dislocation.

Start plucking immediately from the base of the neck towards the head. Take a small clump of feathers between your forefinger and thumb, pull firmly down towards the head.If you let the bird cool down too much plucking will be more difficult. It's easier on your fingers if you wear a pair of nitrile milking gloves, the blue ones that Vets use.

Next begin to pluck feathers from the breast starting at the neck and working towards the tail again pulling the feathers towards the head. Work upwards to include the legs right up to the start of the scales. If you take too big a clump of feathers you are likely to tear the skin.

Pluck between the legs then starting at the tail pull feathers upwards, when the tail area is done work your way up the back towards the tail. Now only the wing feathers are left.

Pull out the quills by grasping each one and tugging them as before pluck the feathers on both side of the wing and the edges. finally go all over the bird taking out any stubs or feathers that have been missed.


Twenty minutes from start to finish

I didn't realise until Hanno told me this morning that its OK to kill a bird then pluck it and give it to a friend but it is illegal for you to eviscerate it. Sounds a bit daft so it must be true .

Wednesday 23 October 2013

How to make "Chevre" - soft goat's milk cheese

Homemade and bought moulds
 This is a longer post than usual because its a, "how to do it" piece for my cousin Helen who has been trying to make cheese since the summer.

Make it with supermarket milk if you don't have a goat.

Improvise, don't buy specialist equipment at this stage your kitchen probably contains all you need.

Moulds are expensive so use plastic drinks cups, yoghurt pots of various sizes or even old  baked bean tins. Make holes all the way to the top because you are going to completely fill the mould and the cheese shrinks to about 20% of the original volume of curd. If you abhor wast feed the whey to your pigs or make ricotta with it.

                         5L Goat's milk pasteurised
                          Calcium chloride
                          Mesophillic cheese culture

                         The cheese culture, rennet and the calcium chloride you can get in small quantities on Ebay.

                        Large jam pan
                        Smaller pot or can to go inside the big one
                        Dairy thermometer or a jam thermometer
                        Slotted spoon
                        Roasting tin and wire cooling rack
                        Cheese moulds


1.  Pour the milk into a stainless steel pail or pan, place the smaller milk container in the water filled jam pan and heat to 31C. Add 1/4 teaspoon of calcium chloride diluted in 1/4 cup of water. The calcium chloride replaces the calcium lost in pasteurisation and helps with curdling.
2.  Warm the milk to 31 c and remove from the heat.
3.  Sprinkle the culture grains 1/8  teaspoon over the top of the milk, stir gently to mix well. Stand at room temperature 21C for 35 - 40mins.
4. Add 1/8 teaspoon rennet dissolved in 1/4 cup of non chlorinated water. Mix for 1 minute with your clean hand and arm from the bottom of the pan.
5.  After 25 mins test for coagulation of the milk. Stick your middle finger into the curd and then bring it up horizontally, if the curd is ready there will be a clean break in the surface. If it looks like yoghurt and doesn't break leave it for another 5 - 10 mins.
6.  Cut the curd with a long bladed knife. Hold the knife vertically and cut from one side of the pan to the other about 12cms apart, repeat at right angles then at an angle to the surface to produce walnut size pieces.
7.  Let the curds rest for 10 mins, then fill the moulds to the top, scooping the curds out gently with the slotted spoon. Stand the moulds on a cake cooling rack over a bowl or roasting tin because the whey will start to flow from the moulds and the cheese will start to shrink.
8.  Leave the moulds to drain for 4hrs then flip the cheese. Invert the mould over your hand, the cheese will fall into your palm then put the cheese back upside down, Leave the cheese to sit in the mould over the rack for 12 hours at room temperature.
9.  Unmould the cheese by turning upside down on your palm, place cheese on draining rack for two hours.
10.  Place a good pinch of salt on a sheet on waxed paper or a flat pale. Sprinkle or rub salt over the cheese surfaces and then return to the drying rack for 4 - 6 hours.
11. Refrigerate and use within 15 days.

The almost finished product drying before refrigeration

How to get a Croft : Matrimony, patrimony and parsimony

The SCF "Crofting Induction Course" was held in Kilchoan last weekend and the question most people wanted answered was, "how do I get a Croft?" I have heard it said that there are three ways on getting into farming, this probably applies to crofting too:

Matrimony -   Marry a Farmer's (Crofter's) son or daughter.
Patrimony   -  Get Daddy to buy one for you
Parsimony  -   Don't spend, spend, spend!  SAVE, SAVE, SAVE!

This presupposes that there is a market and that there are crofts for sale but they rarely come on to the market. Many unused crofts still belong to absentees who have a range of motives for hanging on; it was Granny's home, they might go back some day, they have forgotten about it or there has been the possibility of decrofting some of the land and selling it for building.

Things are changing. The new Crofters Commission is committed to dealing with absenteeism and to ending speculation in crofting land.  This could eventually bring more crofts on to the market for young people with energy, ideas and commitment to the way of life and the highlands and islands.

Bringing crofts held by absentees back into use is a slow process. Last year, according to the Crofters Commission Annual Report only seven crofts in Argyll and Bute we re brought back into crofting use and throughout the Crofting Counties a total of 22 crofts or 172 ha.

Forty per cent of us (Crofters) are over 60 and of those five per cent are over 80. But don't hold your breath we are tough and hardy and will hang in there.

Here's a strategy for getting into crofting
  • Learn all you can about crofting, keep up to date by reading the Crofters Commission website from time to time, join the Scottish Crofters Federation they have a register of  aspirant Crofters.
  • Acquire skills in; livestock husbandry, growing food, building, fencing, walling.
  • Be realistic, it rains a lot, winter days are very short, you need 365 day a year commitment when you keep livestock you need another source of income become multi-skilled or have a readily transportable skill such as IT, or guiding tourists in the Antarctic summer like my neighbor Trevor.
  • You need a partner, its even tougher on your own
  • Give up consumerism, you need capital, parsimony is still a necessary condition for a crofting way of life.
  •  Search solicitor's, estate agents and auction mart websites, when crofts come on the market they will be advertising them.
  • Find out about woodland crofts 
  • Be single minded, determined and lucky.
         This should provoke some comment. I haven't had any for a while.

Monday 21 October 2013

Is drinking raw milk safe?

There are few drinks more refreshing than a glass of cold milk straight from the fridge. We drink it raw and unpasteurised. but is this safe? The official public health line is that its not safe but a recent paper in the Journal of food protection says it is safe.

Cool, clean, refreshing and raw
I suspect that the answer is, "yes and no".

YES.... because the milk you buy in the supermarket  has never been cleaner or safer.Milk passes from the cow, through a clean closed system with  micro filters straight into a refrigerated bulk tank. We've come a long way since the 1940s when our milk was carried to customers in churns on a horse drawn milk float then ladled out into the customer's jug. That's when pasteurisation (heat treatment to kill bacteria) became universal and was probably one of the most effective public health measures ever.

NO....because we hand milk into an open container placed directly underneath the goat and its exposed to a highly contaminated environment. We do keep the goats clean, clean the udder with an antiseptic wipe, sterilise the milking pails, filters, containers etc., then its into the freezer for a couple of hours to get the temperature down as quickly as possible.As an Irish colleague of mine once said of a different problem,        " that's all very well in practice Tom, but does it work in theory?"  

No.... it doesn't work in theory for young children and soft cheese making. So on these occasions I heat the milk in a bain marie to 72C, hold it at that temperature for 15 seconds then cool it rapidly to 4C to kill the bugs.

To read a summary of the original paper go to; New Studies Confirm Milk A Low Risk Food - WSJ.com

Tree surgery and energy saving

There was a time before tumble driers.  Then everyone, including the kindly condescending Toffs of Downton Abbey, ( I know, they had servants to do it!) dried their laundry on lines in the wind and sun. The energy cost was zero.

After the recent hike in energy prices, +10% here in the W.Highlands (Boondocks to our American readers) we will be paying 12p/Kw h. So that means my 700 watt tumble drier will cost 84p ($1.36) an hour to run. Its wasted money and adding to global warming.

Outdoor drying needs sun and wind but the drying green has become increasingly shaded by the sycamores along the boundary, they also reduce the wind speed. Amputation was called for to get more sun and moving air. Matt the tree surgeon had it done in less than an hour.

As a by product there is also a quantity of hardwood to go on the woodpile plus leaves and sycamore keys for
Eats shoots and leaves
the goats and fresher laundry..... a wind wind situation perhaps?

Saturday 19 October 2013

Eggs get to Turkey intact but don't count your chickens until they've hatched

Last week I had a request from a blog reader in Turkey; could he buy some hatching eggs? I explained how difficult it is to ensure that the eggs arrive intact and still fertile. Rough handling can break the eggs, changes in temperature and atmospheric pressure and  delays in the post all reduce the fertility and hatchability of eggs. Despite this he insisted that he wanted six eggs. So I packed them as usual in an egg box, surrounded with packing chips inside a strong cardboard box and took it down to the Post Office.

Today I had an email with these pictures to say that they arrived yesterday, intact. So in three weeks time we'll know if they were still fertile.

I have all but given up selling hatching eggs because although they leave here at around 70 -80% fertile they can be nothing like this when they arrive, customers are very disappointed and I have to reimburse them. this did not happen in the past and I wonder if the Royal Mail is doing something different. Are the packages being X-rayed and transported in the unpressurised holds of cargo aircraft even when going to the home counties?

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Crofter's day out : Buying a Charollais tup

He has some growing to do but there's a really good tup in there
Its nearly time to put the tups (rams) in with the ewes, the 15th November and we don't have one. If we had kept the Charollais x Texel that we've been using for the past two years he'd be mating with his daughters. What to buy? and where to go?

For some time I have admired the lambs produced by Charollais  males, they have  well muscled rear ends, long backs, they grow quickly and are easy lambing, but where to find one. Charollais are still a minority breed and apart form big national sales like that at Kelso in August they aren't easy to find in your local market. There is a breed society with
Home in the gloaming
a website and a list of breeders with stock for sale. This is how I tracked down the tup we bought today.

Alistair and I set off for Doune at seven we had the choice of ten shearlings, not easy because they all looked good but we came away with the one in the picture. After some lovely homemade soup and an hour of farming craik. This type of conversation is what Dormouse calls a "4 x 2 moment" i.e. largely, but not exclusively male and technical.

Home in the early evening with crepuscular lighting effects on Ben Hiant. After a four hour ride in the trailer we thought it best to let him settle down for the night in the trailer with a bucket of water and some leafy hay. Tomorrow we'll give him a couple of wether lambs as company until he starts work.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Humble designs Day 3 : Sheep house finished!

A sheep house with proportions of a Palladian villa and possibly the Aegean behind
I'm a bit late with this, its now Friday, day 4 , but I had to visit the dentist an all day, 120 mile round trip to Fort William. "Its a solid wee shed", I've been told, 12m x 6m with enough space for at least 20 ewes, storage of hay and straw and a bit over.  The ventilation should be fine too with two open bays and a volume of 250 cu m. All that's left to do is to put a couple of 10' steel gates on the open bays and to make up the floor level.

Friday 11 October 2013

Humble designs Day 2 : The sheep house roof goes on

This is all happening remarkably quickly. Today , Wednesday, the framework was competed and most the roof sheets went on. They've obviously done it before and they don't hang about. Should be finished by Friday evening.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Humble designs : The sheep house goes up

Of the 175 posts that I've done by far the most viewed is on the renovation of the old byre. So here is the next and last of our, "Humble Designs"..... the new sheep house.

Its day 1 and its going up quickly Jim and his team had all four corner posts in place within an hour of arriving. Must have been the good post hole digging! They are well equipped with the ultimate builder's toy. Their Unimog crane  handles the 4m poles easily, it has its own generator for power tool operation and of course its highly mobile and maneuverable.

There are three things that people love to watch; fires, running water and other people working so its a really nice day for me leaning on the fence spectating.

Monday 7 October 2013

A weather proof hay feeder for goats

Even here at the end of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula there's occasional; "fly tipping" and the nearer you are to an urban area the more likely it is. When we lived in Kent there was a kind of ecological succession to it starting with a mattress, then a TV or defunct fridge and finally a supermarket trolley.If you are lucky, like me you might find an abandoned wheelie bin miles from its original home in a ditch or bit of woodland.

Cut a 25cm diameter hole about 40cm from the bottom on the front face and you have a weatherproof hay feeder that takes exactly one whole bale of hay.  Pop the bale in, cut the strings, tie the lid down with a bungee cord then tie the bin to a fence or strainer post. Its definitely weatherproof but nothing is really waste proof where goats are concerned.

The bin I found was 150 miles from home, I checked on AA Route-planner so the local authority were unlikely to come and pick it up.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Mating rituals again : Hebe gets the hots!

The result of on-line dating for goats
When I went up to the hill to collect the girls at milking time there was a lot of bleating going on. Hebe was obviously in heat, bleating, wagging her tail from side to side and in a big hurry to get somewhere. Where? was pretty obvious, Mr Raffles smell must have reached Skye by now, she wanted to get to him. Shameless!

There's nothing romantic about goat mating, lots of sniffing then, "wham, bang.. thank you ma'am" and its over.

I hope it is. If she hasn't been fertilised then she'll be back in heat in about 20 days. If she has mated successfully the kid or kids will turn up on 6th March 2014 +/- 5 days.

The Sheep House phase 1 : Digging the post holes

I've undertaken to dig all of the holes for the sheep house uprights, ex-hydro poles about 25cm in diameter and 4m long. they need to be at least 1m deep in a tight straight sided hole like a fence strainer. The ground is packed quarry waste with limestone rock underneath when you get down to about 750mm. Its hard going but luckily Phillipo an Italian stonemason living in the village offered to do it he must be 40 years younger than me so so he got the job, ten holes a metre deep.

The last one was hard rock, limestone, all the way down. It was luckily the last one. Had it been the first we might have given up, but a totally blunted drill bit and three hours late it was done. so its all ready for Jim Reid and his builders on Tuesday.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Egg packaging disaster

Nice orange yolk!
One of my hatching egg customers had seven broken eggs out of twelve yesterday luckily she was understanding about it and I'll send replacements on Thursday. She  sent this photograph.

The new packaging needs a rethink to counter the rough handling in the postal system. When there are 12 eggs in the box. they'll need to be better separated better so will try an egg tray inside the box with packing chips all round .

Its not easy trying to be Eco-friendly, "it seemed like a good idea at the time!"....... should be my epitaph.

Monday 30 September 2013

Diet selection by domestic goats on a really nice day

I have instructions from Dormouse to slow down, take siestas and idle. Today was ideal idling weather," Indian Summer" so I took the goats up the hill. They do need a leader....Me. Otherwise they just lie about in the sun chewing cud. If I set off up the hill they follow and discover a wonderful smorgasbord buffet of vegetation which they can't resist. They eat more than they would have done and Pia gives more milk, more in.... more out. Yield is largely determined by intake of energy.

When I stop to sit down, they stop and start grazing / browsing whatever is available, when I move they move until I stop again in a new patch of grass or shrubs. Lying on dry heather in the sun is a good time to observe their grazing behaviour. This afternoon they ate, common rush, yellow flag iris leaves, bent grass, red fescue, Yorkshire fog, mosses and lichens and some that I must have missed.

There's a PhD in this for someone, field observations while lying

in the sun, with the wind rustling the grasses and goats contentedly eating. The lab and statistical analysis could be done in a warm place in the depths of winter... the title, " Herbage selection by domestic goats ". I'll have to see if there are any references.

Eco-friendly hatching egg packaging

Eco-unfriendly packaging
Hatching eggs are normally posted in polystyrene boxes like those on the left, the two halves are taped together and the eggs are just about 100% safe from crushing even by the Royal Mail.   But polystyrene is nasty stuff it takes years to break down in the environment and its energy intensive to produce.  There didn't seem to be any alternative until I did some research after the postal charges increased.

Eco-friendly packaging
Royal Mail define a "small package " as not larger than 165x165x165mm. It is possible to get strong cardboard boxes of this size that will take up to 12 eggs nested in biodegradable packing chips. The chips are light weight and dissolve in water, they are shock absorbent and insulating so I am trying it out on my hatching egg customers, no complaints so far.

The box can be re-used to transport day old chicks or other stuff  as it is strong enough and well ventilated. The customer does have to open the box carefully.

Sunday 29 September 2013

Mating rituals Pt. 3 : Meet "Drumturk Raffles"

Drumturk Toggenburgs
We did a twelve hour round trip to Bridge of Cally yesterday to collect "Raffles" a male Toggenburg goat. He traveled well with  stops to see how he was doing and to give him some water. On the whole he was quite relaxed considering it was his first trip in a livestock trailer. His breeder and owner Denise showed us her herd including this year's kids and a new very good looking male born this year.

A 2013 kid and Mum

Mating should be effective and timely. Artificial insemination is only about 60%  effective and expensive when semen, hormone treatment, Vet's time and transport are all added up. Raffles offspring this year are good looking kids from high yielding mothers.

He had enough of traveling when we got home and dragged me out of the trailer and into the shed. We had backed up to the door as a precaution. This morning when I brought the girls down from the hill for milking he snickered and whinnied but they totally ignored him....girls! Now, Sunday lunchtime
he has settled down, eating rosebay willowherb, some hazel leaves, hay and coarse mix so he must be reasonably happy.