Monday, July 27, 2009

“ To write what is worth publishing, to find honest people to publish it, and get sensible people to read it, are the three great difficulties in being an author.” Charles Caleb Colton

(1780 – 1832: English cleric, writer and collector, apparently well known for his eccentricities.) Which is an over-elaborate introduction to tell you that I’m (we are) published again, hooray! Rush down to your local news stand and purchase the current (No. 61, Autumn 2009) edition of Permaculture Magazine, where, nestled in amongst other excellent articles on such topics as sustainable beekeeping, converting to pedal power, reading the landscape and how to make a shaving horse (that’s a green woodworking tool and nothing to do with beardless horses, before you ask) is our article, entitled “Les Porcs in Permaculture”.

Whenever I write, I always ask Gabrielle to read it through and say what she thinks. It’s an interesting process as the more one reads and re-reads something just written, the more blind one becomes and my writing is always improved by Gabrielle’s editorial ministrations. It’s fair to say though, that after her extensive and beyond-the-call-of-duty input to “my” permaculture pig article, it was only fair to submit it under both our names, so great had her contribution been. Many factual books are jointly written but I wonder whether a novel has ever been published under two names?

Still talking of writing, and of pork and pigs, I contribute, once-a-month, to an American blog called Not Dabbling in Normal and this month’s contribution, entitled Tout est bon dans le cochon is about carcass balance: helping the British pork farmer out by using French traditional cooking. To briefly explain, British welfare standards are higher (i.e., better for the pigs and more expensive for the farmer) than those in mainland Europe but their pork is sold in the same market, making it hard on the British pork farmer. It seems, in England, that consumers are only interested in the loin and the back legs; the rest gets exported to Europe, with little profit to the farmer, i.e., poor carcass balance. The answer is to eat all of the pig raised with higher welfare standards, thereby maximising the farmer’s profit and encouraging that way of farming and treating animals. In making use of every morsel—for devising devilishly cunning ways of transforming every bit of a pig into delicious recipes—the French are, of course, the renowned experts. To read more, click on the link above.

An email popped into my Inbox the other day, announcing that I’d got a “pingback” (my first) from that American blog. One of the vagaries of writing in the 21st century, it tells me that someone has linked to my story. Godfrey Family Farms, in Marysville, California, have read my blog, agreed with the sentiments and then linked to it in their own blog on pig farms and pork for dinner, which is worth reading. Seeing this sort of connection from the other side of the world makes the blog worth writing.

The photo shows Alice, one of our younger neighbours, getting to know our recently arrived pair of Berkshire weaners.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Broody Hen Behaviour and Other Chickeny Mysteries,
Part 2 :

Conventional practice is to build a number of individual nest boxes but we read in a book (on building chicken houses and runs) that hens often like to lay in the same place and end up squeezing into the same box, with a risk of broken eggs. We therefore built one long nest box (the size of four standard nest boxes, side-by-side) with one entrance and no divisions; we’ve found this to work very well and when we open the nest box each day, we find the eggs in one collection, sometimes with an odd one the other end of the box. If two hens are laying at the same time, they often cuddle up close, seemingly trying to squeeze into exactly the same place. The photo at top shows four hens squeezed in together, two broody and the other two laying.

When one of our hens goes broody, we try to separate her from the others and perhaps add other eggs to make up a decent clutch, even swapping small bantam for larger (and therefore more interesting to us) eggs from our full-size birds ... cuckoo! This spring, we had several of our hens go broody at the same time, using up all our alternative accommodation, so that our two Silkies ended up sharing the chicken tractor. (The Silkies are the white ones with Parisienne hairdos-see photo.) As this happened all of a sudden, reducing our egg-laying population drastically, so that we hadn’t got nearly enough eggs to put a clutch under each one.

The Silkies, sharing accommodation had only two eggs to share. One each? No, one on both and then, when she goes for a drink and a bite to eat, the other one seizes the opportunity and sits on the eggs. When both eggs hatched out under one hen, they remained hers, the other hen staying in the chicken tractor in her new role as attentive aunty. We had something similar last year, again with the two Silkies, when one unfortunately lost her chick to a rogue tomcat. We tried to put her back with the rest of the flock in the henhouse but each day, when they were let out, she went straight to the chicken tractor. We let her back in and she became aunty to the other Silkies two chicks, the other hen tolerant of her “sister” (hens with chicks can be very aggressive towards each other) yet it was always clear to see who was the real mum. I say real mum, what ever eggs hatch out under a hen, she’ll treat them as her own, which is, I suppose, how the cuckoo gets away with it.

Another thing we had to do with the multiple broodies and lack of accommodation, was leave one broody hen in the nestbox. When other hens come in to lay their daily egg, the sitting bird would scoop them under her wing, which leads us to our tip : when a hen starts sitting, write on the egg in felt-tip pen (pencil gets polished off as the hen turns her eggs) the day she started sitting and the date three weeks hence, when they should hatch (see photo at the top of
Part 1

If, for various reasons, the first eggs don’t hatch or there are other problems, you can put more eggs under the hen, who will continue to sit. We’ve had hens sit through six weeks, i.e., twice the normal gestation period of three weeks, and then hatch out chicks. We’ve also had hens who have given up during the second sitting, leaving the eggs to go cold. Of course, its a shame to crack open the eggs to reveal well-developed embryos that have died but you’ve got no control over it. With the dates marked, if your vigilant and have other broody hens, you might be able to transfer the eggs to another sitting hen.

I realise I still have many other mysteries to reveal, so hold your permacultural breaths for Part 3.

Monday, July 13, 2009

“Green” or “environmentally-ecologically-friendly” building techniques and materials, Part 1 :

Probably the main reason we chose our house and land some three years ago was that it possessed the rare combination of enough agricultural land for our vegetable growing and animal raising aspirations, along with a plot of building land, which we wanted in order to fulfil a long-held ambition (mine rather than Gabrielle’s, it has to be said) to build an ecologically-friendly home, most likely out of straw bales. I’ll now pause while you make jokes about three little piggies, and then ask me whether it’ll be prone to burning down or being infested with rodents, which is pretty much most people’s reaction to straw bales as a building material.

Now the property also came with our current house (the loft-apartment-style upstairs of a converted wood-framed hay barn) and a cute cob and stone building, which we let out as a holiday cottage. This is probably a very good thing as we still have not finalised our house design and three years in a caravan would probably have done for our young marriage, though I’ve sometimes wondered whether living in a caravan would have pushed the project along a little quicker (only joking Gabrielle!)

A paradox : we have several friends who are doing up older buildings, typically of the local vernacular of stone and cob which, they admit, places restrictions on the size and arrangement of rooms, doors, windows and the types of building materials, thermal performance, etc AND, they often have to spend time and money taking wobbly or rotten stuff down, in order to rebuild it, i.e., three steps forward accompanied by two steps backwards. How much easier life would be, they opine, if they had the carte blanche of a bare building plot. The flip side of that conundrum is that such a carte blanche leaves one with so many decisions to make, it’s paralysing: oh for some restrictions to help us.

The straw bale house is nearing some sort of paper-based conceptual state, with the help of some architect friends but it’ll be a while before we put a spade in the ground. In the meantime, we are converting the upstairs of our barn into another small gite for holiday rental, as the current cottage is successful. We’re also engaged in some alterations to our current house, such as installing a VIP dry (compost-ing) toilet (one that our mothers would be happy to use) inside the house and replacing the front door and building a hemp / lime and wine bottle wall either side of it. We also visit and sometimes help out at friends' houses, where, for example, we’ve had our first encounter working with cob (i.e., earth or mud). We’re gaining experience and know-how which will serve us well for the house build along with making mistakes now, leading to a calmer, hopefully fault-free-er, future project.

The photos show Gabrielle tamping a porridge of hemp chiv and lime between shuttering to create a wall and then a straw bale cabin in Samuel and Julie's garden, which has been coated in a mud slurry to help adhesion of the body coat of earth render, which has been partially applied. After the promised sequel, i.e., More on Broody Hen Behaviour and other Chickeny Mysteries in my next blog, I’ll tell you about the barn roof and what we believe makes building materials and techniques “green” or “eco-friendly”.

Monday, July 06, 2009

What Happens When a Hen Goes Broody? and Other Chickeny Mysteries, Part 1 :

There are some things your parents don’t tell you and schools simply don't teach and even books don't fully explain. Some “Beginners’ Guides to Whatever” seemingly packed with interesting stuff but, annoyingly often, not the actual answer you need. So, after three years of keeping chickens, and in no particular order of priority, here are some of our observations on chooks, chicks and cocks and what they sometimes get up to.

Broody hens : It seems to us that it’s hormonal. Adult hens lay eggs and then there comes a time when they go broody and sit. And broody hens will sit on nothing and not budge, as firmly as they’ll sit on a clutch of eggs.

Just before they become broody, they may change their behaviour and stop laying in the nest box—where you conveniently collect their eggs each day—and find a hiding place, where they’ll lay an egg a day until they have a clutch, whereupon they stop laying, start sitting and go missing. Or, they continue to lay in the nest box, so you see no change to the routine until one day she sits down and doesn’t leave.

They also persuade other hens to lay in their nest, evidenced by clutches of mixed chicks hatching out under one hen. The largest clutch we found was of 22 eggs, which we reduced to a more manageable dozen, eleven of which went on to hatch out.

Perhaps you do notice a change, that you’re not collecting the same amount of eggs as usual each day from their nest box. Then one evening, when it’s time to round up your free-range flock into their fox-proof henhouse for the night, you notice a hen missing. You check out the usual places, call to her, rattle the food bucket and all to no avail. Your heart sinks as you think you’ve lost her to a fox or a dog.

However, the following day, you catch a glimpse of her at feeding time. But then she disappears again. Putting two and two together (lower egg count and missing-appearing-missing hen), you realise she’s gone broody and native at the same time. You continue your sleuthing, as Sherlock Holmes would have done, had he kept chickens, and set up an “obo”, patiently tracking her when she slopes off again, back to her nest. With the help of an assistant, you then grab her and carefully pick up all the warm eggs, transferring the nascent ensemble into another nest box with enclosed run—we use our chicken tractor—where she can sit in safety for the rest of her “pregnancy”.

Part 2 soon … along with the reason why we now date the eggs under our broody hens (see photo at top).