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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#maremmaselfie

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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.

 

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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.

Easter 2016… and an Update on my Resolutions.

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Easter is always a big weekend on the farm and in the kitchen, and this year was no exception.

It began on Thursday evening, when I retrieved the frame of the Christmas turkey from the freezer and set it to boil down into stock. I also got the first cheese of the weekend, an 8lt Gouda, made and in the press.

Friday was a whirlwind of pumpkin soup, halloumi, zucchini muffins, iced tea, chocolate ice cream and a chicken pie for dinner. The halloumi was kind of a flop, I’m pretty sure it didn’t turn out how it was supposed to,  but it tasted pretty good. The soup, made with a home-grown pumpkin that had split and needed to be used up and stock made from the frame from the Christmas turkey, was really tasty. The rest of the family kindly did the afternoon milking and feeding, allowing me to have the pie made by about 8.30pm. It was a long day.

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This was after three runs of the dishwasher…

Saturday had been earmarked as the day to butcher the excess ducklings. After two weeks in small pens for fattening, the eight birds were left for 12 hours with only fresh water. We went out to buy a machete with which to do the beheading, and after visiting about four different stores we finally got one from Ray’s Outdoors.

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Muscovy drakes in their fattening pen.

The longer blade made for a more accurate cut, and each bird was neatly dispatched with one hit. We did the first two, plucked them, then the second two, starting with the big Muscovy drakes. Then the Pekin drake. Then two excess Muscovy hens.

This left two Pekin hens. By this stage I had hit my limit, and I opted to let the last two Pekin hens run free. I’m sure I’ll be cursing that decision come July when I’m drowning in duck eggs, but six birds in one day was more than enough killing for me.

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Ducks hung on the washing line for plucking.

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I can only handle so much blood on my boots in one day.

Due to the age of the birds, most had lots of pin feathers, making it impossible for me to pluck them cleanly. We ended up with two nice clean roasting birds and I decided to skin and fillet the other four. I took as much skin as I could and rendered the fat from it.

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I wish that I had duck feet…

I had been told that Muscovy hens are not worth killing because they are too small. The birds I was able to keep whole for roasting were a Muscovy drake and a Muscovy hen. They dressed out at 1550g and 1300g, with the female being smaller but still a decent size. From the other four birds I got over 2kg total in breast and thigh fillets. It took ages, I was on my feet for hours, but now I have a freezer loaded with duck meat.

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All cleaned and ready for the freezer.

Sunday was another big day, with a trip to Tatura to visit family. I drove one half of the six-hour round trip while my sister drove the other. It was a very nice afternoon with good food and wine and lots of dog stories.

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Off the visit the cousins, equipped with the three most important food groups – cider, goat cheese and sweet chilli sauce.

Sunday night I made the sourdough, which meant no cheesemaking as the sourdough can contaminate the cheese and ruin it. The milk was piling up. I baked the sourdough on Monday morning then lounged around for a bit. I took a gamble and made chevre on Monday night, which worked out pretty well and used up four litres.

So that was Easter. A bit less dramatic than previous years, but it got the fridge and freezer filled with bread and meat and cheese.

As for my goals for the new year… it is now April and I have exercised about five times. I have managed to get back into yoga over the past couple of weeks after avoiding it for six months, so that is something. I know I need to exercise more, and I will. When I find something that is not uncomfortable and doesn’t injure me.

Reducing food packaging has been a challenge too, but somehow I have managed to stay fairly dedicated to it. I have had to give up some things, like corn chips, that are simply unavailable in recyclable or biodegradable packaging. I have discovered Mountain Bread, which I can cut and bake into crunchy thin crackers, perfect for serving with cheese. This comes in a recyclable packet. I have found a brand of oats that is not only Australian grown, but comes in cardboard with no plastic inner.

Recyclable plastic food containers have become one of my favourite things. They can be washed in the dishwasher, frozen, re-used and when they start to crack and break down they go in the recycling. I use them for everything. I’ve been taking my own bags to to supermarket and fruit shop. I buy meat wrapped in a thin bag and paper, rather than on a plastic tray. Everything we buy is compared and considered and where a recyclable or degradable packet is available we take that option. Otherwise we replace that product with something else that will do the job, or go without. We haven’t been able to eliminate packaging waste, but we have certainly reduced it.

What I found particularly interesting is that when I bought my new laptop it came in 100% recyclable packaging. I thought, if they can package a laptop in recyclable packaging, why can’t they package corn chips in something similar? Or frozen berries? It is as though food companies just don’t care.

One friend pointed out that it is hardly fair that consumers have to make sacrifices, buy more expensive options and put in a conscious effort to reduce packaging waste while big food companies and supermarkets go gaily about their production and sale of packets that can only end up in landfill. The amount of fresh food that now comes pre-packaged in plastic is criminal. Things like bananas – organic bananas no less – presented for sale wrapped and on a tray. Grapes pre-portioned into throwaway bags. All sorts of fruits and vegetables on trays and in packets.

Where previously I was determined to buy Australian made or grown products, I found myself having to weigh up between food miles and throwaway packaging. I found bulk rice in a cloth bag, but it had come all the way from Sri Lanka. I opted for Australian-grown rice in a large plastic bag instead, choosing one large packet over several smaller ones as the lesser of the evils. And considering the popularity of bacon, I discovered that there is no way of purchasing Australian grown free-range bacon from Woolworths that didn’t boil down to a big fat throwaway packet wrapped around a relatively small amount of meat.

Growing food at home, buying in bulk and getting as much else as you can from small local outlets seem to be the best ways to keep packaging waste down. We bake a lot, store food in re-usable containers at home and rely heavily on home-made food. It is healthier all-round. And I will continue to work to reduce our reliance on plastic and the amount of rubbish we produce.

 

Your Argument is Invalid Because… DUCKS!

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I can hardly believe there was a time when I wasn’t allowed to have ducks.

I wrote a couple of years ago about going to buy my first Muscovy, Alice, and how great it felt to be able to make my own decision and act on it, even the simple act of buying a duck.

Well, now I have… *counts*… 39 ducks. Thanks to the efforts of my Muscovy girls Martha and Millie.

Last year Martha hatched a clutch of Pekin and Appleyard ducklings, right in the midst of us moving house. These ducklings were by my lovely rescue drake Derek from the RSPCA, and their mothers were my blue egg-laying Appleyard Ramona and two Pekin ducks I had been given by a friend who was battling cancer.

These first ducklings now make up my entire population of white ducks, since Derek and his lady friends have been devoured by eagles over the past 12 months. So we now have DJ the drake, Poppy, Polly and Skinny Duck, as well as my original Appleyard sisters Roberta and Ramona. Ramona is currently limping around with a broken foot, which she obtained by getting in under goats to steal their food. She is a lot better now than she was, but doesn’t seem to have learned anything from her misadventure. Every morning she gets in the goat pens excitedly waiting to take her life into her hands (wings? flippers?) by stealing breakfast from my big, bossy milkers. You can’t give them ten points for brains no matter how enthusiastic they are…

Roberta had it in her head to sit on some eggs this year, for the first time in four years, but Martha wanted to take over. With the right pedigree for the job, plus proven skills, giving the gig to Martha was kind of a no-brainer. Meanwhile Millie had got cozy in a corner on 13 eggs. Between them they hatched 13 Muscovies and seven Pekin/Appleyard crosses.

So now I have 20 rapidly-growing ducklings running around. Interestingly, the Pekin/Appleyard ducklings, including the one-eyed token brown duckling, have started hanging out with the adult Pekins and Appleyards.

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The white ducklings seem to be drawn to their own kind.

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Leela the one-eyed Appleyard duckling, who I think may need to have his name changed to Lee Lemon…

I was never going to get Muscovies, for years I was put off by their appearance, their red caruncled faces, and I had heard that the drakes were aggressive. But since I wanted to hatch and raise some ducklings, I bought Alice who was fresh from hatching and raising a clutch of 21. I was soon converted by the funny blue duck with her hissy little voice an waggy tail. She was sadly taken by a fox one night, but a little while later I bought Millie and Martha. I had a bad run for a while after that, losing my sweet pet duck Monica and bronze drake Maverick. After moving I decided to have another go at breeding Muscovies, adding the big blue drake Muscles to the flock. We had some problems at first, but Muscles is now a big, strong, good-natured bird, secure in his place in the pecking order.

And finally this year we have Muscovy ducklings.

They are hilarious, from their morning feeding frenzy to their evening waddle back up the paddock to the night pen. All stampy feet, hissy-squeaky voices and waggy tails. They flap their stubby little featherless wings and bob their heads, looking at you intently. I think I’ve got six females and seven males, so there will be some boys for the freezer, but there are a couple of really nice girls who will get to stay on. They are starting to feather up and go exploring. They are a range of colours, black, blue, self and pied, with what looks like a barred female. It will be interesting to see how they mature in their colours and patterns.

I could watch them all day, and their little faces make me smile. Millie loves to fly, and I really should clip her wing to keep her out of trouble, but I can’t bear to leave her grounded.

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Millie addressing her duckling minions.

Ducks can be messy, but they are so much fun, such characters, with such complex social lives and happy in any weather. They lay like crazy from July to December and then shut up shop for six months, with the occasional bout of eggs from one of the Muscovies. They can be savage with each other in the breeding season, but in the off season they are as casual as anything.

If you have ever considered ducks, as pets or as production birds, I can absolutely recommend them as long as you have a bit of space for them to forage and somewhere for them to splash about. Their eggs are the ‘whiter whites and brighter colours’ version of a chook egg, with yolks tending to almost red-orange on plenty of green feed. They are huge, up to 100g for a Pekin or Muscovy egg, and are better than chook eggs, in my opinion, for pretty much anything. Their shells are tough, and the eggs themselves will stay fresh for at least a month on the bench, as they are designed to spend a month under a duck at 37 degrees.

I love my fluffy, comical Silkies and my docile and reliable red hens, but since I don’t have to choose any more I am happy to have a yard full of ducks as well.

December Farm Update

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I haven’t been very active in here lately, with my activism stuff taking on a life of its own and my other blog getting 600 hits in two days. I actually had to shut The Barefoot Cook down for a little while to make sure none of the ‘wrong’ people found their way here and started causing trouble.

Now that is out of the way, and I have a bit of time up my sleeve over the next few weeks, I’ve got a few ideas for Barefoot Cook posts that should appeal to those who come here for the cooking, farming and cute baby animals.

My first round of kids from the Epic Kidding Weekend are now 18 weeks old. First born (of triplets) Jimmy has recently gone to South Australia where he is to be a stud buck. Bottle baby Katie has won her first show championship. Sienna’s daughters have grown into big fat sassy monsters, with excellent dairy quality and their mother’s awesome rump and hind legs. Victoria’s boy Greg (aka Buckethead) is now a wether and is taller than all the others, with a temperament reminiscent of our beloved Thumper, who we had to have put down earlier in the year.

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Rohan with Katie (Elcarim Gloria) at Ballarat Show.

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Sienna’s triplets, Ruby, Jimmy and Rosanna. with Cecilia second from right.

Hera’s only surviving triplet, a tiny and exquisite doe named Cecilia, has had a bit of a tough time. She gained the nickname ‘Sausage’ at about a fortnight old, as despite being tiny she put on a lot of weight in a short time and her skin got so tight that she felt like an overstuffed sausage when you picked her up. She somehow hurt her back when she was about a month old, and hobbled around determinedly for a few weeks until with some days in the pen to rest and twice-daily massage from me she came good again. Then her mother suffered a laceration on her teat that took ages to to heal, during which time she would not let the kid feed. Sausage learned to take a bottle, and continued to do so until Hera’s udder finally healed.

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Cecilia (aka Sausage) chilling at the Geelong Milk Test in October.

Then a couple of weeks ago Sausage developed a cough. She was seen panting, with a rattly chest and off her feed. The vet diagnosed pneumonia, prescribed antibiotics and said poor Sausage was probably down to about 25% lung function. She is on the mend now, although a long way from fully recovered, but at least she is taking milk again, which is a huge relief.

So we get to the rest of the kidding season. Maia had a big doe kid by Tazzy at the end of August, who we called Maria. She is a complete spoiled brat who gives any smaller kids hell just for sport, and doesn’t like people. She is only now starting to come up and sniff humans of her own accord. Maia has done quite well at shows this season, winning a first lactation Best Udder class (my first doe to win a Best Udder class against other does) and two Best Anglo Nubian sashes. She has chilled out a lot and become quite good to handle and take out, so hopefully her brat child will become a model citizen with maturity as well.

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Maia and Maria.

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Maia at Geelong Show.

Goatling Elaine had a big buck kid, the biggest we’ve had so far at 4.2kg. He is the last kid by my buck Zeus (also lost to urinary calculi earlier in the year), and while a doe kid would have been nice, a big flash buck is a pretty good outcome too. Elaine has a fabulous udder, with seamless fore attachment. Her kid has been named Ebeneezer Goode, and I’ve nicknamed him Yeezy because he has an ego like Kanye. He is a grandson of foundation animals Rianna, Meredith, Jupiter and Tazzy, with a double cross to Tazzy, and should cross well with my daughters of FitzWilliam to double up on some of my successful female lines.

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Elaine with Ebeneezer.

Last of all was Ambika, who kidded for the third time on December 13th. She kept me up until 3am, when I helped her birth impossibly leggy twins. The first was a buck who looked more like a long-eared giraffe than a goat, and the second, much to my delight, was a black and tan doe with dark ears and hardly any white. The doe has been named Delilah, and the buck has gone as a pet to a local family to be hand-raised.

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Ambika’s kids.

Ambika didn’t start cycling as early as the others, and once she did get into the swing of it she took four cycles to get in kid. Old Tazzy was just about sick of the sight of her, and the only reason she was bred on her fourth cycle was because Matt was standing right there and offered to go and get the buck. I’m glad he did, because I am very relieved to finally have a daughter from her, and it should give Ambi a bit of status in the herd to have a girl child who is half-sister to some of the higher-ranked does. Ambi is milking really well, giving well over 4 litres a day, which, along with bottle baby Jimmy leaving us, has drastically increased the amount of milk I bring in each day.

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Kiddie pile-up.

Now I get a bit of a break from dealing with the sex lives of goats until autumn when I will have to decide which eight does get a chance to kid next year, which bucks they will go to and when I will schedule kidding.

Every year around September, when the poultry start showing signs of breeding behaviour, I think about getting an egg incubator. And every year, a few weeks later when half my birds are broody, I realise that would be a bad idea. I had broody geese, hens and ducks, four ducks wanted to sit at the same time. I am still not really properly set up for birds sitting on nests, and although my Rhode Island Red sat very determinedly, she wasn’t able to hatch any chicks. The geese sat on a few Muscovy eggs and managed not to hatch any.

But my Muscovy girls did a great job, with first-timer Millie hatching all 13 of her eggs in one day like an absolute pro. Martha had a few Pekin/Appleyard eggs, and we had to deal with an exploded rotten egg in the nest around day 25, but she hatched seven ducklings.

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Millie with her brand-new ducklings.

All 20 ducklings are growing at a rate that hardly seems possible. They smash down about a kilogram of starter crumble for breakfast, and spend the day chasing flies and swimming in the clamshell pond. Martha took hers down the paddock yesterday, which is a bit of a worry, but she did this last year so hopefully she knows how to keep them safe.

Old Thoroughbreds Red and Stella have their shiny summer coats on and while Stella, at 20yo, is showing signs of her age with her grey patches and swaying back, Red still looks incredible for her 18 years.

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Morning milking in Summer, with horses.

I finally got sick of the terribly useless rat traps and finding nests of rat and mouse babies in the drawers in the dairy, so I got a barn cat. Rufus had his first trip to the vet yesterday, where his maleness was confirmed and he got his microchip and first vaccinations. He seems completely happy living outside, and is currently spending his nights in a big cage on his big plush cat cave. Once he is a bit bigger he will be allowed to stay out at night to stalk rats.

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Rufus.

That’s probably about enough for one post, except to add that my dear old Rosie dog is still with us, although rather wobbly on her back legs these days. She is 15yo now, and Leo Skinnydog, who was acquired to ‘replace’ Rosie so that Lister (who is still spry, if a little ‘forgetful’ at 14yo) wouldn’t get depressed when she died, is now four years old.

I’ve got plans for a post on the summer garden, how much cheese I can make with over 5lt of milk a day coming into the house, and a Barefoot Cookin’ Chrismas over the next little while, so stay tuned.

 

The Long Cold

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Winter at the new house has been interesting. While it feels like it has been cold for ever, the house is certainly warmer and the grounds certainly drier than winters at the old house.

We’ve had some long runs of soggy days and a couple of very dramatic frosts. But the goat pens are dry and if the farmyard is a little muddy, there are no huge puddles to dodge.

We are kidding a few weeks later this year, which was fortunate because those very cold nights fell on dates that have been prime kidding dates in previous years.

We have four does due to kid over three days starting on August 9th, with another three weeks later and couple more later in the season.

We are down to fifteen goats heading into kidding season. I sold Ambika’s twin wethers from last year, conceding that they were too small to bother butchering and I am not set up with a suitable place to fatten them.

We lost two boys to urinary calculi in the space of two weeks. First was young buck Zeus, who has left one doe in kid. Then, to everyone’s dismay, we lost our beloved pet wether Thumper. Thumper was a happy-go-lucky three year old wether with not a single mean bone in his body. The tallest goat in the herd, his favourite trick was to rear up and put his front hooves on people’s shoulders, asking for a cuddle. This got him in trouble sometimes, like the time he left muddy hoofprints on the classifier’s shirt.

Then one evening I looked out across the paddock to see a huge eagle standing in front of a patch of trees. I went out to chase it off, but it was too late. The eagle was in the process of devouring my brash and over-confident Rhode Island Red rooster, Russell Crow. I have been told that they usually go for smaller birds rather than big mature roosters, and the theory is that Russell was defending his girls when the eagle decided to take him instead.

This came on the back of losing all four of my breeding Pekin ducks in the previous months to the eagles, including Derek the rescue drake. We are now looking at adding a Maremma sheepdog to the family as a livestock guardian, as they are the only method of protection against death from above.

We’ve added a few new chums to the poultry pen lately, including Muscles the Muscovy drake, a trio of Hyline laying hens and most recently a new RIR rooster by the name of Chuck Norris. Chuck is a vocal and hard-working rooster who has come from a flock of bachelor cockerals and seems to be greatly enjoying some female company.

It will be a little while yet before my vegie garden starts to come to life, but some of the cold weather crops are ticking along quietly. I’ve ordered several fruit trees which should arrive soon, and pruned the neglected specimens in the original orchard. There are a few blossoms appearing and plenty of bulbs springing up and flowering, including lots of daffodils and a few bearded irises.

There will be a lot to do when the weather improves, but for the meantime we are concentrating on staying warm and preparing for kidding time.

SilkieDome – An Integrated Poultry and Vegetable System

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When people ask me for advice on growing vegetables, my first point is always start small and try a few different things. Preferably things you would happily eat. Then learn from your experience and expand as you go.

A vegetable garden can come out of nowhere, and the best way to learn is to experiment. I see many proud beginner gardeners with packets of seeds or punnets of seedlings planted in neat rows. Often these uniform seedlings, planted side-by-side, have completely different growing patterns. Rosemary and parsley might start out the same size when you buy them and plant them in your new herb garden, but that rosemary is going to turn into a great big shrub and drown out your parsley.

The climate requirements of different plants are not always compatible either. I always grimace when I see basil and tomato seedlings for sale in chain stores as early as August. These are started in climate-controlled greenhouses. When you plant them in your chilly Ballarat garden they are not going to last long.

Over the years you learn which plants will naturalise, which will die off in the first frost, which will just refuse to grow in certain soils and which are pretty much unkillable. Eventually you will figure out how to grow the plants you like best.

Sometimes you will stumble upon something that completely revolutionises your garden. For me, that something is SilkieDome.

I was introduced to the concept of the integrated garden and poultry system during a site visit as part of the Introduction to Permaculture weekend I attended last year. This impressive mandala garden had a pond in the middle and a series of circular garden beds around it. Atop one of these garden beds was a round poultry tractor, whose residents were cheerfully digging up the spent garden plants and fertilising the bed as they went.

So when setting up the food garden at the new house, I was determined to try this method of gardening. I had hung on to the kids’ old trampoline frame for two years with the intent of doing something useful with it. Finally it has become SilkieDome.

I considered Silkies as ideal residents for the garden. They are small, quiet and don’t need a great deal of space. And my Silkie rooster, Malcolm, has been more than happy to move away from the main farmyard where he had to compete with the big Rhode Island Red rooster, Russell Crow.

The Silkie Family

The Silkie Family

The Silkie family is made up of my white hen Quartz, Malcolm the black rooster, and three of their daughters who hatched in November.

As for the garden itself, we are on to the third bed.

The mandala garden in progress.

The mandala garden in progress.

Now, the real beauty of this system is that it encourages staggered plantings and maintaining season-suitable growth of different vegetables. When you have square, stationery beds, you tend to (or at least, I tend to) plant one block of something and that is it for the season. You grow it, you harvest it, you eat it, and that is it. But with the need to regularly move onto the next bed, you can add a late planting of a warm weather favourite, or put in some plants to harvest in Autumn.

With each move of the SilkieDome there is an opportunity to try something new, or have another go with something that has already worked.

I have plans to put a gravel path between the beds, and in the centre plant something decorative that will attract bees and other beneficial insects to the area.

Each bed is grazed out by the Silkies before I put down a load of garden mix and top it with straw from the main poultry night pen. Since I am basically starting out on what was once a driveway, the garden mix (a combination of mushroom compost, manure and topsoil) will give each bed a head start and allow the plants, and later the Silkies, to make inroads into improving the soil underneath. The thick layer of straw mulch with poultry manure keeps the moisture in the bed, at the roots of the plants where it is needed most.

I have static garden beds, as well as the dynamic ones. I plan to put an area for blueberries behind the greenhouse to take advantage of the afternoon shade. The front boundary of the garden will eventually be filled with rows of berry canes. There is a bed that I put in next to the greenhouse to get me started which will be used for self-seeders and perennials, as well as climbing peas and beans on the climbing frame.

Static bed with climbing frame.

Static bed with climbing frame.

The greenhouse has been so successful for growing tomatoes and capsicums that I don’t think I will bother trying to grow them outside in future.

Tomatoes and capsicums growing like crazy in the greenhouse.

Tomatoes and capsicums growing like crazy in the greenhouse.

It will be interesting to see how the SilkieDome project pans out, and how the winter plantings will go. Will the rotations work out well for the Silkies and the plants? Will I be able to grow anything actually edible through winter?

It is all about experimenting, trying different things, figuring out what works and growing more of what we like to eat.

Just like when I first started out.