Saving Georgia

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The next morning I expected to find Rosanna either dead in her pen or with a prolapsed uterus or both, but she was at the gate ready to go out and spend the day in the paddock with her sisters. She asserted her position with headbutts to a few key players, and marched down the paddock with the other does who had kidded, who were all still calling out for their kids.

Rosanna’s doe kid, Georgia, would not take a bottle. She made a strange ‘mah’ sound that was not like the normal bleat of a newborn kid, and she walked slowly, falling down often. In stark contrast, her brother was hungry, talkative, and would not stay in one spot for a second. I kept them together in the house for the first couple of days, hoping that Johnny’s activity and contact would help Georgia’s little body figure out what to do.

rosanna kids

Georgia and Johnny

It took ages to get Georgia dry, due to all of the lubricant and detergent that had been used to facilitate her birth. We had been tube feeding her each time her brother had a bottle, offering the teat first to no avail. By the afternoon she was bloated, seemed to be in pain, and I decided to take her to the vet to see if anything could be done.

The vet asked about my tubing techniques and gave some suggestions as to how to avoid getting air in Georgia’s stomach during tube feeding. She also diagnosed her as a ‘dummy kid’ based on her odd walk, odd voice and inability to suck. She sent us home with advice to keep tube feeding until Georgia could take a bottle and hope for the best.

The next morning I found Rosanna dead in the goat shed, curled up as though asleep. Presumably the drugs she had been given after her difficult birth kept her comfortable for long enough for her to lie down with her sisters and previous year’s kids, and quietly succumb to internal bleeding. I had never lost a doe at kidding before, despite assisting several. In a normal year it would have been a disaster, but under the circumstances it was just another drop in the bucket.

I put Georgia and Johnny out with the other kids, hoping that the throng of little bodies would help Georgia’s systems come online. In dummy kids, as with dummy foals, it is believed that a failure of the newborn’s body to respond to the prompts of birth to switch to ‘outside mode’ is the cause of the syndrome. Newborns are inactive with poor muscle tone and absent suck reflex. In foals there has been dramatic success with simulating the pressures of the journey through the birth canal using ropes. I read all I could find about dummy foals and dummy kids. One goat breeder told a story of a dummy kid she had who was ‘cured’ by an unrelated doe licking her like a newborn. But the likely outcome was that I would have to get milk into Georgia by any means possible until she was able to move onto solid food, if I was to keep her alive.

kiddie pile

Kiddie pile – find all nine

After four days of tube feeding, Georgia was behind in her milk consumption and starting to look skinny compared to the others. She was doing okay, but slow, weak and unsteady on her feet. Continued tube feeding irritates the throat, and there was the concern that if she did try to suck and swallow she would find it painful, which would deter her from trying. At the end of day five, she finally took milk from a bottle. Only 150ml at first and her throat did seem sore, but over the next few days I kept her on four feeds a day and she started to catch up to the others. She had another visit to the vet that week to rule out joint ill, but her lameness was deemed to be related to her brain injury, and it resolved on its own.

It probably took a month before Georgia was 100%. She is still bottle fed, as there are only eight spots on the lamb feeders and nine kids, but she can drop 900ml at a feed, and leaps, climbs and bounces like all the others.

lambbar madness

Lamb bar madness

The kids are now nine weeks old, and living full time in a small paddock in the back corner of the house yard. My other goats are all gone, except for two special goatlings, Dutch the buck, and Cosmo, a wether who keeps Dutch company. Those four are kept in the small paddocks at the front of the property, where nobody goes except me to check them. The hope is that I can get some kids from the two goatlings, who are daughters of my foundation buck Tazzy, and add them to the current nine to keep my herd viable for the future.

In the next few weeks we will find out if the kidsnatch has been successful. Previous kids started showing symptoms from 10-12 weeks. If we can get through to December without any signs of respiratory illness, we can start to look towards the future. Otherwise there will be more questions, more tests, and likely the end of my goat breeding enterprise.

 

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#kidsnatch2018

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Any doubts I had about whether I wanted to continue with goats at all quickly evaporated the moment Merida was born. A single doe kid, heavily mottled, from my big, spotty doe known as Katie. Katie’s mother, Elcarim Meredith Q*, was the first Elcarim Doe to be awarded a Q* and also my first doe to win a Best Udder Overall sash. Katie was the best of her five daughters. She was also potentially my highest volume milker ever, having twice produced over 5lt in 24hrs in herd recording on her first lactation. Believing I had more time, though, I planned to wait until her second lactation to try for a Q* award for her.

We snatched Merida from her mother at birth, as planned, and Matt cleaned her up while I milked off some colostrum, of which Katie had plenty. It then took me over an hour to heat the colostrum to a temperature that would kill any pathogens without destroying too many antibodies and hold it there for the required 60 minutes. My many hours of standing over a pot of milk with a thermometer while making cheese was good preparation for this. We had more than enough colostrum for one kid, so I was able to keep some in the fridge in case we needed it later.

merida

Merida

Merida was a quiet house guest, and she was bopping around the lounge room within a few hours. She would make a little bit of noise early in the morning but then go back to sleep until it was time to feed her again. She made the transition to milk replacer without any problems, and we were on our way. That was Thursday.

Titania was acting strangely a couple of days later, but had zero udder development. Juliet was enormous, and I had been penning her by herself at night for a few weeks to give her a chance to rest in her own space without all her relatives crowding around her. Saturday night I put Titania in the pen with Juliet.

Titania was my favourite doe, a daughter of my foundation doe Traybonne Rianna DM. She was Rianna’s 15th and very last kid. Even as a two year old she was a powerful, capacious doe who I had high hopes for in the show ring as a milker. As a goatling she was shown under four different judges, three of whom sashed her Champion goatling, including Murray Grills who described her as ‘a freak of nature’.

I almost didn’t check the shed camera at 11.30pm, having checked it half an hour earlier, but I was anxious and worried about missing a kidding. The 11.30pm check revealed kids had been born, and I rushed out to the shed, mobilising the rest of the household to prepare the towels and cleaning gear and meet in the shed.

When I arrived on the scene it was obvious that the kids were Titania’s. Three of them, two standing, one just born, with Juliet working on cleaning one of them. I grabbed them one by one and plopped them over into the next pen to get them away from the does. The words of the breeder in Queensland who had undertaken a similar operation were ringing in my ears – ‘I didn’t let the does clean them up, if they hit the ground I left them’. I thought about leaving Titania’s kids there, worried that being licked clean by the other doe could be enough to infect them. But Titania still had no udder development and no milk at all. If I left her kids with her they would starve.

Rohan arrived with a big plastic tub and I put all three kids in it and sent him off to the garage to help Matt clean them up. I then went into the laundry, put all the clothes I was wearing into the washing machine, scrubbed my hands, put on clean clothes and went out to inspect the new arrivals.

Two enormous bucks and a little doe. And boy were they noisy. They yelled the house down all night. The leftover colostrum from the previous kidding came in handy, they all had a feed. By now it was well after midnight.

Those three kids bleated their little heads off all night. Nobody got much sleep. The next morning I set about creating a pen in the garage where the kids could live for a few weeks until they were big enough to move outside.

titania kids

Titan, Antonio and Portia

Titania was named after the Shakespeare’s Queen of the Fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So two of her kids got their names from Shakespeare characters, Portia for the doe and Antonio for the buck with the big white body patch. The other buck I named Titan, after his mother.

That night Matt volunteered to keep an eye on the camera while I got some sleep. Juliet was very close to kidding, and a little after midnight she was in full labour, so I went out to supervise. Things didn’t seem to be moving along, so I scrubbed my hands and went in to assist. I found a kid presenting spine first.

Juliet was enormous from about halfway through her pregnancy, and I had helped her birth quads the previous year. I was expecting to have to help her out again. She was Titania’s older full sister, and had achieved her Q* the previous year. She was also a Best Udder and Best of Breed winner, who achieved a classification score of 85 on her first lactation. She was not a very big doe, but a very hard worker. I was very keen for a doe kid from her.

I managed to figure out which end of the first kid was the front and got one front leg and a head pointing in the right direction, but I could not for the life of me find the other front leg. I warned Rohan, who was once again waiting with the plastic tub, that the kid was in a funny position and might not be alive when I got it out. I took the head and one leg and decided to see if the kid would come out with the other leg still back. Thankfully he did, and he was very much alive. I pulled out another two kids and sent Rohan over to the cleanup crew while I milked Juliet, who had loads of colostrum.

Three bucks. Not exactly what I was hoping for to carry on the legacy of my best doe. But all alive and vigorous. And thankfully not as noisy as Titania’s kids. I processed the colostrum, fed the kids and got to bed somewhere around 3am. Sticking with the Shakespeare theme, they all got names from Macbeth. Angus for the tall, rangy red buck who came out first, Banquo for the leggy but skinny red kid with a white stripe down his face, and Duncan for the big black and tan kid with the curly tail.

juliet kids

Juliet’s triplet bucks

By now I was sleep deprived an pretty emotionally drained as well. While Katie had kidded several days late, Titania and Juliet were four and five days early. I had only Rosanna left to kid, and by the following afternoon it was clear I would not have to wait long for her.

Rosanna was the only daughter I had of Elcarim Sienna F115. Sienna was the doe who pioneered long lactations in my herd, milking for 643 days on her second lactation. I did not milk test Rosanna on her first lactation, but she raised an enormous set of twins which would have taken a good 4lt per day. She was given a classification score of 83, and was a best udder winner and Best of Breed winner. But as well as all that she was a sturdy, healthy doe who ate well and never seemed to get sick.

She laboured for a few hours with little progress. Around 7pm I decided it was time to intervene. I managed to locate a couple of little feet, but there was not much room to move. I had hold of two feet but could not find a head, and I wasn’t sure if those two feet both belonged to the same kid. After some time I was able to establish that there was a kid presenting with two feet forward and the head was right there, but I could not get the head through. After about an hour of trying to deliver the kid, I was exhausted, and had to admit that I was out of my depth. We called the vet to assist.

It was 9pm by the time the vet arrived. And very soon it became evident that it wasn’t any lack of skill or effort on my part that prevented me from delivering Rosanna’s kid. The vet worked for what seemed like ages, and eventually pulled out a bloodied and mostly inactive kid. He confirmed that it was alive, then put her into the tub for Rohan to take over to the garage. The second kid came out much more easily, a little buck. The vet gave Rosanna painkillers, anti-inflammatories and antibiotics before heading off.

I was shaken and upset by the events of the evening, but relieved that kidding was over. Rosanna’s first kid was a doe, the image of her mother, who we named Georgia after the song by Vance Joy. I tasked the boys with naming the buck, the only proviso that it had to be the name of a song, and they came up with Johnny B Goode.

So now we had nine kids to go on with, three does and six bucks. No more does to kid, no more sleepless nights. But that didn’t mean that the hard part was over.

 

August, 2018

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August has been a shit month.

July was bad enough. End of financial year in a growing business with financials to prepare for five different countries and deadline after deadline looming was a living hell that almost broke me.

But July was nothing compared to August.

On August 1st I went outside to find one of my young does in labour, four weeks early. She had been at it for a while. I tried to help her deliver the dead kids, but had no luck. At that stage I still thought I had a viable herd of goats, so my intention was to save her and breed her again next year.

At the same time, one of my doe kids, Poppy, began gasping for breath and crying out. I left the aborting doe, put Poppy in the front footwell of my car, and rushed her into the vets. She had been treated a couple of weeks earlier for pneumonia, but clearly treatment had not worked.

Ultrasound revealed that Poppy’s lungs were full of fibrous, infected tissue. She just could not get enough air in. The gravity of the situation struck me as I realised that the bug we thought we had beaten the year before was back, seemingly more deadly than ever.

Poppy was euthanised on the table, and samples taken for testing as part of a Significant Disease Investigation. At that point, although we had lost Poppy, I was optimistic that her death would lead to the identification of exactly what disease was attacking my kids and how we could cure it.

At home, reeling from the loss of Poppy and the threat still looming over her three siblings, I was still unable to deliver Cookie’s dead kids. So Cookie went in for a cesarean. The operation went well, with three dead kids found and one removed alive. That evening I took home Cookie, my poor dead Poppy, and a four-week premature doe kid named Tinkerbell whose eyes were not even open yet.

I nursed Tinkerbell through two days, sleeping with her on my chest after the heat lamp globe blew on the first night. I took her to work on the first day so that I could monitor her temperature and tube feed her at regular intervals, and worked from home on the second day. And when she took her last breath she was in my arms, and I cried my heart out for the little baby who never stood a chance.

Cookie’s dead quads brought the number of kids lost to 11, all by the same buck. A second Significant Disease Investigation was submitted, although no infectious cause was found. I have a theory, but I can only really guess at what the cause was.

It took weeks for the testing to be completed on the tissue and fluid samples from
Poppy. Her three siblings were still coughing and sounding congested, although still bright and hungry. On August 8th Elaine, the first doe due to kid, gave birth to a perfect big, red doe kid, who we named Selena. Selena was self-sufficient within 24 hrs and I thought perhaps my luck was about to change.

The night of August 18th was freezing, wet and wild. The next morning I found my poor old New Forest Pony mare, River Valley Starbelle, standing in a puddle with mud on every inch of her. She was unable to walk, had a temperature below 34*, and even had mud on her eyeballs. Clearly she had been down during the night. It took two and a half hours to get her to walk the 100m to the shed. The vet came and gave her some painkillers, warning me that Starbelle would probably not survive, but that her best chance would be if we could get her to the equine clinic where she could be put in a crush and examined more thoroughly.

Not only did I have no means of transporting her, I didn’t think I would be able to coax her into a horse float if we could even borrow one. Not only that, but it had taken me months to get Starbelle back from a lease home, and she had been with me again only 8 weeks. She was 24yo and probably going to die. I wanted her to die at home, not in a horse float or in a horse clinic dedicated to animals of higher economic value. We managed to get her into a pen with some straw and hay and water and waited for her to warm up.

Around 10pm, just as her body temperature was nearing normal, Starbelle lay down and died. The cause was most likely a twisted gut, twisted uterus or intestinal impaction. She had come home in foal, which was unplanned but seemed like a fitting finale to her career as a broodmare. Unfortunately it was not to be. Instead we had the logistical difficulty of removing a large dead mare from the shed, through the muddy yard, to a place where the livestock removal truck could safely pick her up. It was a daunting task that went a lot more smoothly than we anticipated.

That was Monday. On Tuesday I called the vet clinic again to see if there were any results available from the tests done on Poppy or on Cookie’s kids. Finally I got some information.

No infectious cause was found for Cookie’s dead kids, it was simply dismissed as one fetus not being viable and affecting the others, eventually taking out the whole pregnancy. No consideration was made for this being the fifth similar loss of kids.

No bacterial cause was found for Poppy’s pneumonia. There was one test pending, that being for an organism called mycoplasma. I had heard of mycoplasma and knew it to be a disease that was incurable and could only be eradicated from your herd by snatching newborn kids and destroying all the adult goats. It was the worst case scenario. The vet seemed to think that mycoplasma fit the profile of the problems I was experiencing. I started doing some research.

If I was going to snatch kids I had to act quickly. I had a doe already past her due date, and three more soon to kid. I got in contact with a breeder in Queensland who had dealt with mycoplasma in her goats. We talked on the phone for an hour. She mentioned the things she noticed in her herd before her kids started getting sick. Problems with the milk. High cell counts, but no bacterial cause detected upon testing. A high incidence of mastitis that did not always respond to treatment. These were all things I had also noticed in my milkers.

Her goats had suffered from a strain of mycoplasma that causes arthritis in kids. Another strain causes pneumonia that does not respond to antibiotic treatment. That would certainly explain the respiratory issues in my kids that were not resolved by antibiotics. That strain also causes eye infections, sore joints in adult goats, and mastitis, problems that had also occurred in my herd. It seemed more and more likely that mycoplasma would be discovered as the culprit, and I realised that the only way to save my herd was to snatch the new kids and sacrifice the rest.

I don’t think I have ever felt such a sense of loss. It was like a darkness had descended over me. For two days all I did was cry. Mostly in bed. I would wake up and remember what was going on and wonder how I could possibly get through it. I formulated a plan, talked about it with my family, and resolved to try to save the kids due to be born over the next week. But even as I tried to come up with a solution I could live with, I found myself spiralling ever deeper into hopelessness. I felt that the time had come to give up goats altogether.

 

Crossroads

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I’m going to publish this in a few sections, not only because it is an ongoing saga, but also because it is a harrowing tale.

I have heard of dairy goat breeders giving up breeding due to the relentless nature of the challenges that breeding dairy goats has a way of throwing at you. Some breeders have bravely fought on in the face of tragedy, while for others the shine has faded over time with burgeoning herds reduced to a handful of animals to reduce the physical and emotional burden.

Over the years I have occasionally paused to wonder what level of disaster would motivate me to give it all up. And while I am not there yet, there is definitely the possibility that I will reach that point at some time in the next year or so.

As it stands the future is uncertain. At least, it is certain for the majority of my goats. But before we get to the details of the story, I want you all to understand why I have made the decisions that I have made.

Before kidding started this year, I had about 23 goats. I never intended to run that many, or to kid as many does as I have been for the last few years. But some things have been going on in the herd that have prevented me from selling more than a couple of kids each year. And so numbers have grown. With animals in quarantine due to CLA (cheesy gland) infection, I couldn’t use my paddocks the way I wanted to. With the majority of milkers living with my goatlings and kids, I couldn’t feed them the way I wanted to. It was reactive, not proactive, management. I kept the ones that lived, buried the ones that didn’t, bred the does that howled when they came in season, and wondered when I would get some answers as to where all these problems were coming from.

Each time it seemed like I was about to have one issue beaten, another would show its head. I don’t like to think about how much money I have spent trying to keep my goats healthy. Every staff member at the vet clinic knows me by name and all the vets know my address. When I think about how four years ago I didn’t have access to a vet who would treat small ruminants I try not to think about what I would have done if these new vets hadn’t moved to town and opened their clinic when they did. I probably would have given up already.

While vaccination and quarantining was getting on top of the CLA infection, more and more other problems were popping up. As my skills and experience with birthing goats and giving newborn kids the best chance at survival grew, I was faced with things I could do nothing about. In 2016 I lost half of my kids due to does aborting or kids being born that did not survive more than a day or two. We never found out the cause of this. In 2017 we were hit with respiratory disease in the kids and antibiotic resistant pneumonia. We managed to save all the infected kids, and with the help of an off-label vaccine we thought we had this beaten. But then six months later my out-of-season quads got sick, and that was when the situation quickly came to a head.

Along with sick kids, I had lame does, eye infections, and a high rate of mastitis. Sometimes treatment worked, but more often than not it didn’t. Milk cultures performed on does with obviously infected udders came back with no infective agent detected. Cell counts at herd recording time were often high with no obvious explanation. Then my raw milk cheeses stopped working. I attributed the lameness in the does to overfeeding, the mastitis to bad luck and maybe the dirty ground, and the problems with the cheese as an error on my part. The eye infections were just a coincidence. But when the vet suggested that the respiratory disease in the kids might be caused by an organism called mycoplasma, all the pieces began to fall into place.

Mycoplasma is incurable. Animals can be asymptomatic while shedding the organism intermittently. Infected animals can test negative. The only way to eradicate it from a group of goats, without wiping out the whole herd, is to snatch kids at birth and dispose of all the adult animals and any youngsters who have been exposed.

To be clear, we have not been able to confirm the presence of mycoplasma in the herd. The doe kid who died, the catalytic event, had many tissue and fluid samples taken for testing. No infectious agent was found. But this kid had lungs that were almost completely solid from infection. Something caused that. Something that did not respond to the sorts of antibiotics that can usually be relied upon to clear up bacterial infections in the lungs. Suspicion is that the antibiotics in this kid’s system prevented any bacteria or other organisms from being cultured in the lab. Her illness was not caused by nothing. The mastitis and the problems with the milk in the does were not caused by nothing. The abortions, the lameness, the eye infections, were not caused by nothing. And whatever ‘it’ is, I don’t want it in my herd and I don’t want to risk passing it on to anyone elses animals.

I was left with a couple of options. I could do nothing. I could just let my animals live out their days, knowing they were infected, not breed or milk any more and never let any of them leave the property. That seemed like a good idea for a while. But I had five does in kid at that time. And doing nothing was probably going to lead to all of their kids getting sick and dying. So I couldn’t do nothing. I couldn’t sit back and watch my kids get sick and die.

I entertained the idea of snatching the kids at birth, milking the does, feeding the kids pasteurised milk and trying to get milk awards for my does. But the sheer workload promised by the process of milking, pasteurising milk and feeding kids was beyond overwhelming. I would be setting myself up to fail. The main flaw in that plan was that by going between the infected milkers and the healthy kids I would be risking transferring infection to the clean animals, which would render the whole exercise a waste of time. It was just not a workable option.

I was very fortunate to be put in contact with a breeder in QLD who had managed to save her herd after a confirmed diagnosis of mycoplasma in all of her milkers. She talked me through her methods and left me in awe at how she kidded her does in the paddock, snatched their kids and managed to salvage her stud all on her own. Her recommendation was to snatch the kids and have all the adults put down and disposed of. She also suggested that if I had a suitable place to isolate them, I could run on a couple of special goatlings for another year in an attempt to get kids from them.

And so, with all this to consider, and the shock and grief of the situation still very near the surface, I gradually formulated a plan.

I have snatched nine kids from four does who all kidded in the past week. Eight are doing well, and the ninth is making slow progress but I am hopeful for her. These kids are made up of six buck kids and three does. They are being raised on milk replacer.

Two goatlings, a buck and a wether will be housed in the small paddocks. These are all apparently healthy animals, but must still be treated as infectious due to the fact that they were born and raised with the main herd. The wether is to keep the buck company. The goatlings are both daughters of 5lt+ milkers, by my foundation buck. Their bloodlines are important, but with only three doe kids this year and one of those not yet out of the woods, they are also a degree of insurance. There is still the possibility that our kid-snatching methods have not been successful and our current babies will still get sick, so those last two young does will give us another chance if our first attempt fails.

Maybe you would have done things differently. Maybe you would have wanted to save as many animals as you could, whatever the cost. Maybe you would have just shot them all and been done with it. But due to the suffering I have seen and endured through the course of these events, my primary motivators are that I don’t want any other breeders to go through this and I don’t want to watch any more of my goats suffer. I want a clean, healthy, small herd.

When you are so hurt and so emotional due to facing the reality of losing not just valuable, productive animals but friends and pets who have given you so much, it is hard to put the welfare of the animal first. But I had to separate not just my pain, but also my ambition, from the needs of my animals. And in this, come up with a plan that would leave me functional for my family, my work and my remaining animals of all varieties. It really is not just about my needs. Gaining milk awards and bringing home show sashes have been big motivators for me in my dairy goat journey, but the goats don’t care about that. They care about having shelter, knowing where their next meal is coming from, and having their family around them. They don’t care how many Q* points they earn, how many Australian Champion points they have, or what their classification score is. They just want to eat and stay dry and hang out with their mothers, sisters and daughters. They don’t like being sick or lame or having sore udders.

At the end of the day, I can live with losing most of my goats if it means that it will mitigate most of the risk of infection for other breeders and for my hopefully clean kids. Maybe my snatched kids will still get sick at 10-14 weeks, at which point I will have to decide whether I try again, whether we look harder for a definitive cause or whether that is my cue to give up goats altogether. Either way, I’ll never show again. If it all goes to plan I’ll breed my does sparingly, and I will source any future bucks under strict biosecurity protocols.

There is still a hard road ahead. But I can see a way forward now, where ten days ago I could not. Nothing is certain, but we can try.

 

 

Going For Gold

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After losing most of my Silkies in the great poultry slaughters of 2017, I was left with a pair of buff chicks. These are descended from the first buff hen I bred a few years earlier. Buffs have always been my favourite colour of Silkie, but I hadn’t been able to get very many, so I had previously concentrated on blacks and blues.

Most Silkies in Australia are not bantams at all, they are in fact a standard breed. Bantam Silkies are rare in Australia and you would know if you saw one because they are tiny.

In their pure state, all Silkies are white, and the best birds you will find are bred entirely from white stock. In order to introduce colour, white Silkies were bred with other breeds, mostly Pekins, to get the range of colours we are used to seeing in Silkies today. But since white is recessive, it will pop up in a population even after generations of breeding for colour.

Of course when you contaminate the gene pool by adding in colour, you then have to work hard to get the important Silkie characteristics back into your birds. Things like proper pillow or button combs, black or very dark faces, 5th toes and of course Silkie feathering. Silkie feathering is also recessive, so your first generation of crossbred birds will all have regular feathers, so to get the Silkie feathering back and retain the colour you have to breed first-cross birds together and from there start selecting for Silkie feathering and fancy colours.

In Australia we have been breeding coloured Silkies for many years, so there are a lot of birds to choose from with Silkie feathering, fun colours and varying degrees of authentic Silkie characteristics.

All of this makes them quite interesting and fun to breed.

I started working towards my ideal of buff Silkies with a clear gold colour, good Silkie characteristics including dark faces and five toes, good vision (eyes not obscured by their fluffy heads), with good fertility. Bonus traits will be maintenance of good body condition (Silkies tend to run a bit skinny), and laying for longer before going broody.

My foundation birds are Prince Harry the rooster and Citrine the hen. I also purchased Fanta, an unrelated hen.

harry

Prince Harry – a nice looking little bird with good colour and no breed faults, but he is kind of aggressive which is not ideal.

citrine and chicks

Citrine with her current chicks. Note the white chick – we have had one white chick in each of the three hatches this season. Citrine is a robust hen and good mother, with no breed faults.

fanta and chicks

Fanta with her current clutch. She has lovely feathering and a nice dark face, but I keep having to trim the feathers around her face so she can see. She is also quite flighty.

Too many feathers around the face can obscure a bird’s vision, and while this is not a problem in exhibition stock it is a definite handicap for farmyard birds in mixed flocks. The feathers make it difficult for them to find food, find each other, find safety and avoid bigger, bossy birds. Birds who are feather blind tend to be thinner because they are less efficient at free ranging. They run into things and freak out when anything touches them. It does make them easier to catch because they can’t see you sneaking up behind them, but this also means they are more likely to be taken by predators.

Our oldest chicks are almost mature and they show a good contrast of good and bad. Normally I might keep one chick from a clutch and either sell or eat the others (hence why I want birds who are easy to fatten).

Rose and Redboy are the two I’ll be retaining from this group.

rose full

Rose is a classic fluffball with excellent Silkie feathering.

rose face

She has a nice dark face and button comb and an upright pompom.

redboy full

Redboy has a bit of excess feathering in front of his eyes, but he has good feathering and a great deep red colour.

redboy face

He has a classic pillow comb and dark features.

redboy face side

Check out those excellent blue earlobes!

redboy foot

Nice neat 5th toe and lots of feathers on the middle toe. His toes are straight and his feet are strong.

The other real plus that Redboy has is a great temperament. He is not at all aggressive and he is relaxed to handle, making trimming his face feathers less of an issue.

The younger chicks are still to young to sex, but their other characteristics are becoming visible.

This little one has a nice flat comb, but a look at its feet shows an extra toe. Most chickens have four toes – three main ones at the front and a smaller one at the back. Silkies’ fifth toe is due to polydactyly, a genetic condition which gives extra digits. In line-bred birds you can get even more toes, and while some breeders don’t mind this, I prefer to select away from it.

silky chick face

This is a healthy six-week-old chick with a nice button comb. Still too young to tell the sex, but if it is a pullet she will make a nice little backyard bird.

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Note the extra toe visible, coming off to the right of what should be the last toe. This will not affect this bird adversely, but it’s not something I want to perpetuate in my flock.

If you want a bad example, check out this guy. He is from the same hatch as Rose and Redboy and shows how even full siblings whose parents are also full siblings can inherit very different genes.

This bird has excellent Silkie feathering, despite not being the colour I was after, and he is a good size, but look at that upright comb – a complete no-no in Silkie breeding.

white rooster

I’m always happy to rehome pullets with breed faults because at the end of the day a chicken is a chicken and no matter what colour she is she still lays eggs and can lead a productive life. I won’t pass on a faulty rooster, however, because I feel that I have some responsibility to the breed and I’m not keen to send faulty roosters out into the world to produce more faulty birds. Fortunately, Silkies taste like chicken, which is why birds that are easy to fatten are important to the process. I can’t keep them all, and I certainly won’t breed them all, but in the end they all contribute in one way or another.

 

How I Make Passata

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This is going to be a pictorial post about how I make passata. There are probably more correct or more traditional methods, but with the resources I have available this is the way I do it.

As you will see, I peel my tomatoes, but that part is optional. I think it makes for a better texture to not have tomato peel in my cooking. You can also skip the reducing stage and process your jars straight from cold, but you will end up with a lot of water in your jars this way.

As well as plenty of ripe tomatoes  and some salt, you will need:

Two large saucepans

A couple of large bowls

Sharp knife

Cutting board

Food processor or blender

Slotted spoon

Wooden spoon

Ladle

Funnel – a regular funnel is fine, but a wide-mouthed canning funnel will make life a bit easier

Empty jars – about one per kg of unprocessed tomatoes, plus a spare just in case

Stovetop of countertop preserving unit

 

 

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Step 1 – Source your tomatoes. Bigger fruit are better as they are quicker and more efficient to skin. Saucing varieties with fewer seeds are ideal. I used a mix of Hungarian Heart and Amish Paste, with a couple of rogue San Marzanos.

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Step 2 – Slice their bottoms. This makes them easier to peel as the skin will split where the slice is.

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Step 3 – drop tomatoes a few at a time into boiling water. Leave them for a few seconds – the exact time depends on the size and variety of tomato, but about 10 seconds is a rough guide.

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Step 4 – scoop your tomatoes out of the boiling water and into a bowl of cold water.

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The skins should slide right off.

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This will leave you with a bowl of skinned tomatoes and a bowl of skins in water.

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Worms love tomato skins, so if you have a worm farm you can tip the skins, water and all, into your worm farm.

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Step 5 – chop your tomatoes into pieces if they are very big and discard any hard green cores. Put your chopped tomatoes into the blender.

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Chickens, ducks and geese love bits of tomato. Cats not so much.

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Step 6 – process the tomatoes until most of the lumps are gone. This may be the point at which you realise you have put too many tomatoes in the food processor, so make your next batch a little smaller if this is the case.

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Once processed the tomatoes will look pale and be thin and frothy.

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Step 7 – reduce the tomato puree. You may want to add salt at this stage, the information I was able to find said 1tsp of salt per kg of tomatoes.

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Simmer until the tomatoes have reduced in volume by about half and started to thicken.

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Taking a ‘before’ photo can help you know when you have got the level of the tomatoes in the pot down to about half. This takes about an hour, depending on how many tomatoes you are processing and the peculiarities of your stove.

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Step 8 – pour the passata into jars (recycled passata jars are ideal). There are a few ways to process from here, but I do a hot water bath because I need to keep my jars in the cupboard for up to several months.

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Follow the instructions on your preserving kit.

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Once the jars have cooled make sure that all the seals on the lids have popped down. If any have not store those jars in the fridge and use them first. The others can go into your storage space.

Half-Time Garden Update – Part 2

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It’s amazing how many things you can do in a garden that I didn’t know about before. Solutions to problems, opportunities to grow things that would not normally grow in this part of the world, and tricks to make your soil healthy. I’ve discovered the joys of composting, worm farms and mulching, and started experimenting with a whole lot of plants I never bothered with before.

In The Greenhouse

I had a very poor tomato harvest last year, which came down to a combination of overcrowded and poorly supported plants, and invasion by rats. What fruit didn’t rot on the floor was munched by rats as it became ripe. The plant supports were not sufficient to hold the plants up, so they collapsed and lay on the ground, creating a steamy jungle of tomatoes that the light and air could not penetrate.

So this year, with the flash new greenhouse and sturdy supports in place, I was determined that my tomatoes not suffer the same fate. I started Hungarian Heart and Amish Paste from seed, and planted one variety along each side of the greenhouse, leaving room for my tropical fruits and capsicum plants in the back. I put in quite a few alyssum seeds to bring bees and outcompete weeds, and added a few cosmos and calendula along the front of the beds for good measure.

The tomato plants grew well, and as they got taller and started to set fruit I found myself obsessively removing the non-bearing laterals to keep the air circulation and light through the lower reaches of the plants. Sometimes I brought out great armfuls of snapped-off branches. I wasn’t completely sure that it was the right thing to do, as some studies show that you get more fruit from not removing branches, but it seemed to fit with my understanding of why the previous crop failed.

It seems to be working. The low fruit are starting to ripen and they are looking good. I have several plants along the Amish Paste side that definitely do not look like Amish Paste, one in particular has nice round red fruit more like a Grosse Lisse. A couple of plants on this side have suffered from blossom end rot, which may be related to the heat. Hungarians are my tomato of choice for bottling, as they are easy to peel due to their size, and I was mainly growing Amish Paste to prove that it could, having had trouble with them previously.

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Hungarian Heart tomatoes turning red in the spacious lower parts of the greenhouse.

In the greenhouse I have also grown basil successfully for the first time, and my capsicums are starting to fruit. This is the first time I have grown California Wonder from seed as well.

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Happy little capsicums, on a bed of alyssum, with basil in the background.

Fruitful Endeavours

The succulent Dragonfruit is growing like crazy, and its neighbour the Brazilian custard apple remains cheerful it its pot.

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Dragonfruit climbing up its support.

Over in the warmhouse, the avocados are putting out lots of new growth in response to more regular watering, and threatening to collapse under their own weight. I will keep an eye on them and possibly prune the crowns back in winter if they don’t become strong enough to stand on their own.

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Young avocado tree working hard.

My citrus have also expressed a liking for plenty of water, showing a real possibility of growing some fruit to maturity. The little potted orange tree I look after has several developing fruit, and the Tahitian lime on the front porch looks like it may bear again if I look after it. My lemon tree seems to have finally recovered from the -7* frost-nuking it got a few years ago, and the front porch Valencia is putting out lots of new growth.

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Developing oranges on ‘Granddad’ the orange tree.

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My lemon tree is beginning to flourish again.

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The Valencia on the front porch, showing lots of new growth.

Elsewhere, my figs have recovered from a sneaky late frost that took all of their early leaves and the Preston Prolific is living up to its name. The Mariposa plum tree has about half a dozen fruit ripening under its net, and the little Elder tree is starting to show signs of putting in some growth.

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Happy fig tree with its young fruit.

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The Mariposa plums are starting to ripen.

A Forest of Food

What relative newcomer to Permaculture is not inspired by the idea of a food forest? A collection of interconnected plant guilds, set up for minimal maintenance to produce all sorts of edible goodies.

I was struck by the idea to turn a big neglected raised bed into such a space. With a big Honey Locust at one end, and a previously undiscovered olive tree at the other, I embarked on the huge job of clearing all the weeds and grass and filling in the gaps with desirable species.

The bed is probably 15m long and a good six or seven wide at the broad end. Among all the lost and dead things are a giant flax plant and along the way I also found a couple of seedling plum trees and a large silvery bush that smells like curry. I pulled several trailer loads of weeds from this garden, starting at the narrow end nearest the house, and set about filling in the gaps.

I started with three small apple trees and a pair of hazelnut bushes, and built around these, adding sages, flowers, aromatic plants and herbs. Species include the ever-reliable alyssum, more calendula, borage and nasturtium, a stevia plant, pineapple sage, the Permie’s friend comfrey, lemon and lime balm, a Balm of Gilead grown from a stem picked at Chestnut Farm, and a small but determined feijoa tree. I also have yarrow, rosemary and something called pizza thyme that I could not resist.

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The front section of the food forest.

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Balm of Gilead claiming its place.

Having lost several young stone fruit to leaf curl, I learned that you can grow them from seed, and that although they take a few years longer to fruit, the resulting plants are much hardier than grafted trees. Since a dead tree is never going to fruit, I decided to give it a go. I saved pits from a few nectarines and peaches and much to my surprise, in the spring some little trees emerged. These are now growing under the Honey Locust.

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White nectarine, grown from seed, with no sign of leaf curl.

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This olive tree stood unnoticed in this garden for two and a half years. Now it has become the inspiration for my food forest.

Free Plants

As well as stonefruit trees grown from pits, and vegetables grown from saved seeds, I had a go at propagating wormwood from cuttings. A few have already made it to the farmyard where they are surviving despite a few raids from determined goat kids, but this one took a bit longer so has grown to quite a size in its pot. It will join the others once the weather cools down a bit.

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Wormwood, struck from a cutting in a re-used pot.

Pond!

I’ve wanted a pond for ages. Inspired by a work colleague’s garden ponds, I bought a simple black pond liner, dug it in a few inches, and built around it with rocks and soil. Then I added some plants to the outside and situated a magnolia next to it that I had found languishing in another garden. The magnolia is happy for the water, the little creepy plants around the edges are doing quite well, and the collection of plants in the water are growing rapidly in the warm weather. I’ve had a few transient Eastern Banjo frogs pop in, and the local birds love having a good spot to get a drink. I am looking forward to the pond lillies blooming and hope that the system will work without a pump once the plants start to cover the surface more.

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My pond. Yes, those rocks were heavy.

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The magnolia was not too bothered by being uprooted in summer, it is very grateful for all the water it gets now.

What’s Next?

From here there will be many weeks of watering, weeding and the harvesting will start to ramp up. As harvest time hits high gear, preserving becomes a high priority. The tomatoes are about to take off, which will mean many afternoons of skinning and bottling fruit, making salsa and passata. The zucchinis are also gearing up for their high-yield time, meaning lots of zucchini pickles, zucchini slice and zucchini chocolate muffins.

Many of my plants are a few years off producing much, especially my little fruit trees, but they still need to be maintained and cared for.

I’m not into ‘low maintenance gardening’, I love to spend hours working in the garden, connecting with the earth, getting my hands dirty and marvelling at how things grow, the amazing variety of food I can produce, and the hundreds of things I can do with that food. But the more that the design reduces the workload, the more things I can add to my garden. The more I learn, the easier things get and the more surprises and miracles I can work in my yard.