Restocking

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When you get used to having 30+ birds in your flock, being brought back down to less than ten is quite a shock. In some ways there is relief at having less beaks to feed and less birds underfoot. It solved the ongoing problem of ducks bathing in the back troughs. But it also puts gaps in the group, and this absence of birds and the gaps it creates lead to new problems.

I was left with no mature rooster, no drake and no gander. And four flighty Muscovy hens, very keen to sit on eggs. At entirely the wrong time of year for purchasing a new drake. Most breeders either had their main working drakes who they did not want to part with, or recently hatched boys a long way off being able to work. I advertised a few times, scoured the poultry sales pages, and nothing came up. Meanwhile I was having to evict cranky Muscovy hens from beautifully crafted nests to save them the bother of sitting on eggs that would never hatch.

While Debussy the gander was not particularly aggressive as far as ganders go, his presence did lead to Agnes the goose displaying a dogged determination to create a nest, lay some eggs in it and defend it, which was a nuisance. But without her mate, Agnes was clearly lonely, and took up attempting to mate with the Muscovy ducks, who were unfortunately happy to let her. A goose has a serrated beak, and a longer neck than a duck. Agnes’ misplaced breeding instincts led to ducks being bitten around the head by that serrated beak. They lost skin and feathers, and one duck nearly lost her eye.

I tried keeping the goose separate from the ducks, but the ducks would fly into the pen with the goose. I had decided to replace the gander with another female goose to avoid the problems associated with a breeding pair of geese, and as my poor ducks were repeatedly mauled, this became more and more urgent. Again, wrong time of year, most female geese were sat on eggs or raising goslings, and I could not find any for sale.

We took a trailer load of goats the Bendigo Show, where Titania was awarded Champion goatling and received a cash prize. After the judging was completed, we went for a walk around the show and wandered into a shed full of poultry accessories and various birds for sale, including a pen of young female geese. So that is the story of how Titania the goat bought a goose.

I selected a bird, and after a bit of a fuss where a couple of bantam pullets escaped and had to be retrieved from under tables of bird cages, Matt carried our new goose to the goat trailer, where she traveled home in the kid cage. Gertrude, aka Gertie Goose, soon became friends with Agnes and within a few days the duck maulings ceased and my goose quota was back in balance.

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Matt carrying Gertrude through the Bendigo Showgrounds.

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Agnes and Gertrude

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Don’t mess with Gertie Goose.

After some months of asking around and searching sale pages, I finally stumbled on a Muscovy drake. I was willing to travel up to 90 minutes to buy one, so insistent were my ducks that it was hatching season, but in the end I only had to travel to the next town. I picked up a scruffy two-year-old drake from a fairly large flock. He had no name, so in keeping with the M names for Muscovies, I named him Murray.

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Murray the Muscovy

I have heard repeatedly that Muscovy drakes are aggressive, and always thought I had hit the jackpot with my old drake Muscles, who had been hand raised and was a wonderfully friendly bird. But after a little over a month, Murray has proven also to be quiet and friendly, and while he is not quite confident to eat out of my hand, he does follow me quite closely to make sure I am bringing the food and to see if I have anything edible about my person.

Once Murray had arrived, my black and white duck Moana was quick to set herself up with a nest and start putting eggs in it. I had to take the first few because it takes about a week for a duck to lay fertile eggs once you introduce a drake to the flock, and she ended up sitting on only two. They have both hatched, and are perfect. I have another duck sat on 13 eggs, tucked securely behind several pieces of wire mesh, and these are due to hatch in about a fortnight.

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Murray’s first ducklings, hatched by Moana.

But from loss there can also be opportunities. Through pure chance, I was left with only a pair of related buff Silkies. I have always wanted to breed buff Silkies, but only ever had the occasional one pop up in a clutch. So with no mature rooster, Prince Harry the buff Silkie was allowed to grow up into the position of boss chook. I bought an unrelated buff hen, which gave me a buff trio consisting of Prince Harry, his sister Citrine, and the new hen Fanta. Citrine soon got to laying, and I let her sit on six eggs, of which five were fertile and hatched. Of those chicks four were buff (the other is white), and it looks like I will have two buff pullets to run on. This gives me a fairly stable little family of buff Silkies to breed on with.

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Prince Harry

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New girl Fanta, with her epic pompom.

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Citrine with some of her chicks.

I also picked up a couple more red laying hens to back up old Josie whose eggs have poor shell quality these days and don’t make it back to the house without breaking. One hen, Summer, lays an egg every day in a well-concealed abandoned duck nest. The other hen, Sandy, is suspected of stashing her eggs out behind the shed somewhere and while we found one nest a little while ago, I have not been able to find where she is laying now.

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Sandy’s nest is in there… somewhere.

There is one vacancy I would still like to fill, and that is a friend for dear old Ramona the Silver Appleyard, whose sister was killed. Ramona is going on six years old and is currently our only quacky duck. She doesn’t fit in with the Muscovies, and doesn’t fit in with the geese. Although she does seem quite happy, I hope to find her a quacky duck friend.

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Ramona Appleyard, all alone in the middle of the flock.

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Me and You and a Dog Named Boo…

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It began with Rohan stating ‘um… there’s not enough poultry in there’.

When you round up the same flock of 30-odd birds every day you get a sense of how many there should be, even before you employ the head count. Being nine birds short is pretty obvious.

We found one of the missing birds. At least, we found her body. One Pekin duck confirmed dead. Five Silkies, one Hyline, two Pekin ducks and a Muscovy missing, one Muscovy refusing to come off the dam. Ten birds gone in broad daylight. They call it ‘dispersal’, when young foxes leave their family home and go looking for their own territory. Young foxes lack the life experience to be cautious and leave their hunting to night time.

Six days later it came back. Four more birds dead. The boys spotted the geese wandering in the front yard and went to investigate. The geese had flown out of the farmyard to safety, most of the ducks had fled down the paddock, but poor Muscles my beloved tame Muscovy drake, too heavy to fly and still recovering from his fight with the gander, was killed. Also killed was my last Rhode Island Red hen, my evergreen little bantam Australorp and my senior Silkie hen.

I felt completely helpless. In the two and a half years since we moved to the new house, we had only lost a couple of birds, and those were ones who ventured to the far reaches of the property. The foxlight and the night pen kept the majority safe from predators. A killer that struck during the day was a whole new ball game.

We built a pen for the remaining three Silkies and one Hyline layer in the house yard out of an trampoline frame and a 1000lt water container. We planned a new chook yard within the house yard that the dogs could patrol. And then the killing stopped for a while. I moved the chickens back to the farmyard.

When I came home one afternoon to find that not only had the rest of my Pekins been killed, but also my large 6yo gander, I began to despair. A 6yo gander would put up a much bigger fight than a newborn Anglo Nubian kid, and my young does were due to kid in a few weeks. I was desperate to keep not only my birds but also my new kids safe.

We had talked about getting a Maremma before Rufus the barn cat came along, but decided that a large dog was not compatible with the cat. I had more recently asked about Maremmas and cats on a livestock guardian dog discussion group, and been assured that cats and LGDs could and often did live happily together.

I got on Facebook to see if any dogs were available nearby and by pure chance found pups for sale locally. A couple of messages and a phone call and I had bought a Maremma pup. He would come home the next day.

Boo was an unbearably cute white fluffball. He took to the goats straight away. He is not allowed out with them unsupervised yet, but he has the makings of a good livestock guardian. Most importantly, we have not lost a single bird to predators since he arrived.

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Boo just after he arrived.

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Breakfast time, day 2.

Boo is now about six months old, and parks his front paws squarely in my chest when he greets me. He loves to go down the paddock, roll about in the grass, and curl up with his goats. He is also fond of chasing goat kids at times, so he is still kept restrained unless there is someone to watch him and tell him off if he gets too rough. But his guarding instinct is clearly evident in the way he responds to strangers and the way the goats will all seek shelter and huddle together when Boo makes his Big Dog Bark.

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Boo at nearly 6 months.

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He is slightly bonded to his humans too.

I have started to restock my poultry. I was left with four Muscovy hens, one red layer, two buff Silkies, one of my Silver Appleyard ducks and a goose. Down from a mixed flock of 30 birds. I have added a couple of red laying hens, as well as another buff Silkie pullet, and another goose to keep poor lonely Agnes company. I still need another Muscovy drake. My older Silkie hen is currently sat on six eggs, so hopefully we’ll have a few more Silkies before too long.

The cat was originally unimpressed with the big fluffy pup in his farmyard, but he has grown used to Boo and is no longer bothered by him. They are not quite friends, but they have an understanding.

It takes at least 12 months for a Maremma to be settled and reliable around stock, and by the time I raise him on premium large breed puppy food and make sure his parasite treatments are kept up to date, it would probably have been cheaper to build a poultry fortress within the house yard. But I like for my birds to be able to free range, and my goats are beginning to rely on the presence of their protector. He is very different to regular dogs and takes up a lot of my time, but I should be able to rely on him for at least ten years of service once he matures, and I love an organic solution to a problem. Most of all, Boo is a wonderful member of the community, with an important part to play, and we all love having him here.

 

Farm Update

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I’ve been finding it hard to find time to write over the past few months, and the simple explanation for that is that I have been working more hours. My job had got to the point where I just couldn’t keep up with everything I had to do in the time I had available, and since so much of what I do is time-critical I spent most of my time feeling like I was chasing my tail. So I put my hand up to do more hours.

This has meant that while work is less stressful because I actually have time to get everything done on time, I have less time at home and I have to go to bed earlier so that I can get up earlier. The rest of the family have had to learn to do more around the house and since I no longer have time to do everything I am also no longer the default person to look after everyone else. We look after each other, we all pitch in, and we all benefit from mum bringing home a bit more money each month.

I took a break from soapmaking and writing just to let everything settle down. Like anything else, it comes down to priorities. You make time for the things that make the most noise. But you also need to make time for the things that you get the most value from, and value can definitely include enjoyment.

When I found myself home alone on Sunday with the sun shining and the birds singing I was almost overwhelmed with excitement and an urge to get as much done as possible while I could. I popped out at 9am to do the milking and ended up having ‘breakfast’ at about 2pm.

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Hanging out with my farmyard friends

I sent Maia and her kids out into the world for the first time. Those babies got to feel the sun on their backs and the dirt under their feet, as well as meeting the rest of their family. This was especially sweet since little Gaia had been treated for sepsis two days earlier, and the vet had warned me that he did not expect her to live.

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Maia and her kids, Gaia and Reuben

Moving in and out of the house and between the shed and the garden, I got the milking done, cleaned the goat pens and delivered some straw to the garden beds. I did some weeding, thinned the silverbeet, cleared the dead tomato plants from the small greenhouse, baked the sourdough, did four loads of washing, replanted some strawberries, pruned the apple trees and cleaned out the cat litter. It was glorious.

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Yay! Sourdough. My lunch for the next fortnight.

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The food garden, with the berry nets up to allow for weeding, pruning and planting the strawberries.

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None of my winter vegetables sprouted last year, so I cheated this year and used the greenhouse. So far so good, cauliflower, beetroot, cabbage, broccoli and lettuce.

I sat down for a bit around 3pm and ventured out again an hour later when Leo the Italian Greyhound started complaining that it was getting cold and he wanted his coat back on. This seemed like a good time to go around closing up the windows and the big greenhouse door, and put the blanket back on Stella the old Thoroughbred who also got to get her kit off for the day. I was wondering what feat of culinary genius to make for dinner when I found that old Rianna, my boss doe, was about to have her kids.

I popped her in the kidding pen I had prepared earlier and set off to get the furthest away tasks done, which meant wandering down the paddock carrying a Weatherbeeta horse rug trying to find two full-size Thoroughbreds who seemed to have disappeared into the 10 acre paddock. I found them in the back corner behind the dam wall, re-clothed old Stella, took some pictures of the impressively full dams, and headed casually back up to the shed.

Where I found this…

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First kid out, nothing to do but keep on with my to-do list and check on Rianna occasionally. I got the goatlings and bucks in the small paddocks fed, put the poultry away, fed the cat and put out the call to Matt to pick up some dinner on his way home from work.

We ended up with a small but nice set of twins from Rianna. They were a little slow to get going, the buck was frustratingly resistant to feeding from his mother, but they are doing well now and feeding themselves.

After such a long dry Autumn, the recent rain has been very welcome, but it is much wetter here than we have seen it previously. The main dam is at its highest level since we moved in after almost drying up completely a few months ago. The interesting bit of earthworks described by the real estate agent as a second dam actually looks like how I imagine the previous owner had intended the water trap on his golf course to look.

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The main dam

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The back dam, aka hole 3

Days like this give me the enthusiasm to press on through the cold and wet, to make plans for the spring and start thinking about what to plant where. I’m hoping to do a lot more seed propagation this year, rather than buying seedlings, so I’ve got some equipment to use the small greenhouse to start seeds. I’ve started mulching and weeding the vegetable garden and ordered some seeds for the spring and summer crops. I hope to get some peas and beans planted next weekend, and I’m thinking about where I might be able to plant some hazelnut trees.

The daffodils and wattle trees are blooming, the geese are getting aggressive, the ducks are laying and the pregnant does are expanding alarmingly. Spring is on its slow march toward us and will be here before we know it.