It's Chicken Time Again.

Dan 2015 triple 01 smNow that we have passed the solstice and it’s all uphill from here, in a length of days kind of way, poultry activities have taken an upturn and its chicken time again. Even if I was innocent of all knowledge of the lengthening days, I would know that it is chicken time as people suddenly start calling and emailing me every day asking for birds and eggs.
I start actually taking orders in August. In the mean time things are afoot for this year’s breeding season. Over winter all the ladies have been living in one big house with the oldest and most experienced bloke to keep them all safe. “Why one bloke?”, I hear you ask. The sad truth is that he was the only breeding cockerel from last year to survive the predations of Aquila audax fleayi, the Tasmanian wedge tail eagle. Fortunately(?) a pair of these endangered eagles successfully bred near us last year. Our property was in their hunting range… It was the first time I had ever lost adult cockerels due to predation. The even sadder part is that the eagles would sometimes kill, or fatally wound, birds and leave them there uneaten. It could be due to young ones learning to hunt and trying for things that are too big for them to carry yet. Or maybe they have only learned the killing bit and not the eating bit.
Anyway, long story short, last season was flaming death from above. All told about eight breeding birds bit the dust. One hen was a three time eagle attack survivor, by the second attack she was the only one not injured and was firmly in the chook house and wouldn’t come out for days. Clearly she had learned, and hopefully she will pass her lessons learned on to her chicks and flock mates this year. I remain committed to free range breeding, however it is hard to see predators take birds, especially when they don’t even have the decency to eat them.
The high level of predation last year can be put down to a couple of things, a good season for eagles and hawks and the fact that last year I built new chook houses that are much further from the house than the present ones. The eagles especially don’t like to come too close to the humans, hawks are a bit more used to humans and I did have one plucking chicks from a yard very near the house last year. I ended up making it fully enclosed as a result.
In more cheerful news last year’s young blokes have been growing out and showing their true colours. I have chosen three newcomers to be this year’s lucky winners; Forrest, Dan and Darkness.
Forrest 2015 triple 02 smDan 2015 triple 02 sm
Darkness 2015 triple 02 sm
They were moved to their respective breeding sheds today. After they have had time to settle in there and make them their own, ladies will be joining them.
When I first moved to Tasmania I found that Barnevelders were quite inbred here and also had a trait I had not seen elsewhere. In any given hatch there would be a number of very light coloured chicks. Barnevelder chicks should be brown, with dark brown stripes. Here’s one I prepared earlier…
smallest barnevelder sm
This is actually the smallest chick I ever hatched. Lighter for scale.
Somewhat undesirably the chicks were coming out like this. Some dark but many light.
barnevelder day olds sm
When these birds feather up as adults they all look like Barnevelders should. I suspect what has happened is that at some stage someone has crossed Barnevelders with something else in an effort to combat the kind of inbreeding that often happens in places with a small population of birds, like here is Tasmania. This is not an unreasonable approach if you don’t have any other options. However it is not optimal, so this year’s breeding is focusing on, among other things, elimination of these light coloured chicks. Last year I tagged all the brown chicks and it is from these that this year’s breeders have come.
 

So You Think You Want Pigs?

Perhaps you are considering a pet pig, or maybe you want some pigs for meat or for farm jobs like ploughing. There are some important questions you need to consider; Will a pig suit your environment? Is there enough space for a pig? How much sheer destructive power will be unleashed if a pig enters your life?

Here is where we have put our four pigs to start with. This area is 10 metres x 12 metres. Here it is on the day we put the pigs in there. Note that there is electric fence around the inside at about 6 inches off the ground. There is also electric fence around the top of the enclosure to stop possums getting in because we don’t want the pigs to eat any meat.

Pigland 01 sm

Pig enclosure 12th of April

The pig people had been locked inside their lovely red house for the first week they lived with us so they could become accustomed to their new surroundings. Now they have freedom. We replaced the gate that had been keeping them locked inside their house with a half door so they can get into and out of the house and yet retain some of the straw in the house. They immediately pushed most of the straw out of their house onto the ground.

This is actually a feature. It means stale straw doesn’t build up in the house necessitating the cleaning of said house. Stale straw is all one really needs to worry about with a pigs house as they otherwise keep it really clean. Once they could go outside they immediately selected a designated poo area and from that moment there was a very clean pig house. Stale straw is a problem as they will eat their bedding straw. This is one reason we use Barley straw as it is very nutritious. For now we just keep throwing about a quarter of a bale of straw a day into their house, along with a half a cup of diatomaceous earth. This tops up the straw they push out and ensures they have enough cozy straw bedding for cold nights.

Four little heads poke cautiously out of the house, and then, in the blink of an eye, they are all outside exploring, snuffling and digging.

browsing in the world 01 sm

If there was a job description for pigs it would say “dig all the things”. Digging is pigs raison d’être. What are they digging for? Pigs are omnivores, just like us, so they are digging for roots, worms and fungi, as well as eating pasture. They will also eat small mammals, newborns of larger mammals, eggs and young of ground-nesting birds and reptiles. Basically they will eat anything they can catch, just like us. Including us. Pigs have basically the same teeth as we do; molars, pre-molars, incisors and canines. Theirs are just a bit more hardcore.

Porcine teeth

lateral view pig teeth

Human teeth

lateral human teeth

Pigs are not mild mannered unassuming animals. They are like industrial strength dogs. Smarter than dogs and fast, really fast. And cunning and ruthless. If you fall down and can’t get up in your pig pen they will eat you. Which is only fair, because we will eat them. You have to respect pigs. Pigs are very smart (but you probably won’t be able to see that article because Elsevier thinks it is more important that they should make money than that research should be shared so read this instead) as smart as a three year old human. Now imagine a 300kg three year old and you will have some appreciation of what keeping pigs is like.

So the pigs are out and about investigating their new environment having a great time. Just one problem, they can’t get back into their house. As you can see in the image below, the pig house is raised off the ground. This is important to keep the pigs both dry and warm as we live in sunny Tasmania and it’s coming on for winter. In this photo you can also see the rocks that were there from the last time we had pigs. Sadly these new pigs are too small to get back up into the house via said rocks. If you look closely you can see that there is a row of apples across the front of the inside of the pig house. This was our attempt to motivate them to try a bit harder to get back into the house. This was a total failure. Their little legs are just too short. Pigs seem conscious of their bulk and don’t like to get into situations that involve any kind of unsteadiness on their feet.

pig house rocks sm

We set about ensuring easy pig access. The end result is this ramp, made from logs stacked up and packed with dirt with straw over the top.

pig house ramp sm

After some cautious exploration the pigs love it and can now sleep snug in their house.

pigs snug in their house sm

Time passes and the piggies affect their environment. They eat the green things and dig. Only five days after they are released they have already done this.

Pigland 02 170415

Pig enclosure 17th of April.

As you can see they have turned over a considerable amount of the area.The left hand corner appears almost completely unscathed, this is because it is the pig toileting area and so they don’t like to dig it. We have added some hay for them to eat and to dig into to start preparing the soil for the thing we will do after the pigs have moved on, which is plant something.

Ten days later it is like this. They are also noticeably bigger. They have dug in most of the hay we provided them, as well as the straw that escapes from their house daily.

Pigland 03 270415

They have eaten a lot more of the vegetation and turned over much more earth. With a bit of rain things are starting to get slippery in pigland. It is now strictly gumboot territory though there is still some greenery.

Two weeks later, it looks like this.

Pigland 04 120515

90% of the greenery that was growing is gone. The entire are has been turned over. After having 55mm of rain over these two weeks portions of the yard are now gumboot eating mud slicks. Four three month old pigs have destroyed an area of 120m2, an area similar in size to many suburban back yards. If this is all the space you have available then perhaps pigs are not the animal for you, unless the gumboot eating mud slick look is what you are going for.

Time to give them more space.

more space 01 sm

This is the paddock area that they four little relentless growing, digging machines now have access to. When we let them out they wouldn’t go out at first! Their egress had been restricted by an electric fence. Now that it was suddenly gone it took them a while to come to this awareness. At first they absolutely would not cross the line where it had been. It was the line of pain, and the pigs had come to respect the magic pain giving white tape. We lured them out with apples and eventually they crossed the line. Once out they immediately ran around the entire perimeter of their new area until they decided that under the trees was the place to be. Here are Midnight and siblings overlooking their new domain.

midnight and siblings under the trees sm

Future posts will detail how they treat this new extended area. But in the mean time here is a video showing just how good they are at digging.

Yeah, I Can Do That

There’s a spring-fed dam down the bottom of one of our paddocks which used to have plenty of water, and a few bulrushes. After what I’ve dubbed the “eight month summer” from October 2012 to May 2013 (i.e. eight months of below average rainfall), most of the water in the dam was gone, and there were rather more bulrushes. Flash forward to the end of last summer (approximately February 2015), and we had all the bulrushes and no bloody water.
01-all-the-bulrushesWe figured either the dam was leaking, or the bulrushes were drinking up the water. Seeing as there wasn’t any water in the dam, I though it’d be an ideal time to pull the bulrushes out; relatively easy access, and once we get some more rain through winter, we’ll be able to figure out what the dam is doing one way or another. Having pulled out a small patch of bulrushes over the course of ten minutes or so, I thought to myself: how hard could it be? (The astute observer will note that this is a weak form of the deadly old rhetorical “what could possibly go wrong?”)
For those who have never experienced bulrushes first hand, they are a reed up to a couple metres tall, with a stalk anywhere between 3-10cm at the base, and as far as I can tell, they grow in maddeningly sticky mud. Apparently parts of them are directly edible, you can use them to make flour, and I suspect you can even brew beer from the roots with some effort, but that’s a project for another time. Any individual bulrush is not too much of a pain to pull out of the ground, assuming some upper body and/or arm strength. So I decided to spend half an hour each morning pulling ’em out, and dropping them in place, so I could stand on the resultant reed mass to get to the ones in the middle of the dam where the ground becomes seriously boggy. Here’s a photo of the swathe I cut down the north side of the dam over the first day or two:
02-swathe-north-sideIt’s important to note that we don’t own any heavy machinery suitable for this task, so the entire job was done solo, by hand, in gumboots and gloves. After about a week, it was starting to look like an impressive impact (note – this photo is facing back the opposite direction from the previous photo):
03-week-oneAfter two weeks I got bored with dropping flat areas, and decided to make a few paths to liven things up:
04-boredAfter about three weeks, I had the whole lot down, if you ignore a couple of small patches above dam height that are embedded in blackberries:
05-all-downThe next task was to get all that crap out of the dam. Again, handwork (just drag the damn bulrushes outta there), but I did find a heavy rake useful. Later, after the rake broke, I resorted to a hoe for lighter dragging. Here’s the middle of the dam after a few days:
06-middle-with-waterAnd after about another week:
07-another-weekThere were frogs and spiders. I managed to photograph one of the frogs:
08-frogFinally, after seven weeks in total:
09-clear-0109-clear-02It’s basically clear now; there’s a smattering of bulrushes attempting to regrow, but I have high hopes that it should at least be manageable now if we keep on top of it.
It sounds pretty impressive to say this was a forty-nine day project, but it was actually “only” about twenty-five hours work. On the other hand, if I’d attempted to do the whole twenty-five hours back to back, I’d probably be dead now.
In other news, we have several piles of semi-dried bulrushes:
10-pilePossibly we should investigate basket weaving.

Amazing Bread

This is the simplest – and at the same time possibly the best – bread recipe I have ever made. No kneading, no bread machine, and you get good bakery-quality bread for something like $1 per loaf, assuming you’re buying flour in 5kg bags. Here’s a handy how-to video:

If you’re more textually inclined, read on. You will need:

  • 2 + 2/3 cups warm water
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp yeast
  • 5-6 cups plain flour
  • A little bit of extra flour – rice flour is excellent, but whatever you’ve got handy will be fine
  • A cast iron pot with lid (or possibly a casserole dish if you don’t have a suitable pot)
  • Patience, because you have to leave the dough overnight – this is not instant gratification bread, but it’s worth the wait

Put the water in a bowl, sprinkle in the salt and yeast, and stir until everything is dissolved. Add the flour – you want somewhere between 5 and 6 cups, the aim being to create quite a sloppy dough. Mix it all together with your hands, but just for long enough so that it’s even. More flour gives a firm dough which in turn will result in a very dense loaf, whereas less flour makes for fluffier bread, so really the moister the better (Morgan insists that “moister” is not a word, but I think it’s perfectly cromulent). If the dough sticks annoyingly to your hands, it’s a good sign.
Once the dough is mixed, cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and put it in a warm place for 18-24 hours. On top of (or even inside) a rack of computer equipment is ideal, but if you don’t have one of those, a warmish room will work fine. The tea towel will dry out eventually, so make sure to keep it damp, say, with a spray bottle of water, or just take the towel off the bowl and run it under a tap.
After 18-24 hours, tip and/or scrape the dough out of the bowl, and roll it around in some more flour. Bonus points for folding it a bit and ending up with a nice round ball shape. Rice flour is excellent for this part of the process, because it gives the loaf a nice golden outer crust. Put the dough back in the bowl under the tea towel for about another hour.
Finally, the baking. Put a cast iron pot with lid in the oven and preheat to 250°C. If your oven won’t go that high, just put it on maximum. Once oven and pot are nice and hot, wrangle the dough into it, put the lid on, and bake for 35-45 minutes. I usually set a timer for 35 minutes, then pull the bread out and stab it with a knife to see if it’s done. If the knife comes out clean, you’re good. If there’s a bit of sticky stuff on the knife, return the bread to the oven for another 5-10 minutes.
Once it’s done, take the loaf out and let it cool on a rack for a little while, then eat and enjoy!

Amazing Bread

The finished product (rice flour variant)

And Then There Were Pigs

We are very happy to again have pigs. These guys had just been tackled by a couple of large humans and put in a box which was put on top of a ute for the longest drive they have ever had. Then we had to get them from the box to their house. This meant individually picking them out of the box and carrying a squirming, squealing (loud – oh so loud – no really – really fucking loud) creature across a paddock. Despite being only eight weeks old they are remarkably strong and determined. Here they are, ensconced in their fancy pig house wot we made. Notice that it has double walls which are insulated with straw in between the two layers of the walls. It’s cold here.

who are you sm

“Doesn’t look very fancy” you say…

moving the pig house 01 sm

Here is a photo of it being moved from the shed where we built it down the hill to where it lives now. Please do not notice the dodgy arse way we have loaded it onto the carry all.

“What kind of pigs are they?” you ask. The very nice lady we bought them from told us the mum was a Saddleback and the dad a Berkshire. The mum was all black and we didn’t see the dad. The pig on the right in this photo is a Saddleback. They are a black pig with white across their shoulders and forelegs.

Wesse and kids

The pig in this photo is a Berkshire pig. They are a black pig with white feet.

Adelaide_champion_Berkshire_boar_2005

We have one all black pig (female) and three black and white pigs (two males and one female). Not saying they aren’t exactly as advertised but… I suppose it’s possible… The main thing is they are healthy, well formed pigs.

three little pigs 01

They settled down after we had put them in the house which is packed with barley straw. Straw is better for use in animal houses than hay, as hay has too much moisture and will go mouldy quickly. Barley or oaten straw are preferable to grass straw as they have substantially greater nutritional value. Lots of straw to start with is great as it gives them somewhere to hide when they are feeling uncertain of their new surroundings. Also it keeps them really nice and warm, it’s going to be 3 degrees celcius overnight tonight and 12 to 15 tomorrow.

Soon there were apples and they began to realise we weren’t all that bad. Though they were still keeping a good eye on us.

This is my apple and I am totally watching you sm

Looking at them from behind made me think they look a lot like hippos.

Hippopotomus pig

hippoptamus

In fact hippos were originally first classified as being most closely related to pigs, because of their teeth. But later DNA evidence revealed they were actually most closely related to cetaceans [1].

I must confess I already have a favourite. Here she is. I think I will call her Midnight. She looks just like her mum.

black pig 01

Finally, after several apples, they relaxed and began to explore and enjoy their new home. Eventually they came close enough to us that we could see they had lice, so we put plenty of diatomaceous earth on them, and in their house. Last time we had pigs they also came with free bonus lice. Three days after the diatomaceous earth treatment they had none. However we do put diatomaceous earth in their house regularly. It is composed of the fossilised remains of diatoms, a group of algae with the unique feature that they are enclosed within a cell wall made of silica.

Diatomaceous_Earth

There are two types of diatomaceous earth, food grade and industrial. The former is so named as it is totally edible. The latter is used in industrial filtration processes and some swimming pool filters and is totally not edible. The food grade has a wide range of uses for many animals, including humans. We put it in our grains stores to prevent insect attack. This means it coats the grain so when animals eat the grain they ingest the diatomaceous earth as well. We also dust our hens’ houses with it to prevent lice and mites. As a result our birds never get scaly leg mite.

Diatomaceous earth is a mechanical rather than a chemical method of controlling insects [2]. It has a two fold method of killing insects. Firstly it is composed of very sharp, small pieces. Insects have a layer of lipids on their carapaces to help them retain moisture. Diatomaceous earth scratches this layer and as a result moisture escapes, making the insects dehydrated. Secondly diatomaceous earth is very absorbent, for which reason it is used in kitty litter, and this adds to the insects’ dehydration sufficiently that they die. Because it is not toxic one doesn’t need to be bothered about it building up in the environment.

Until recently it was quite hard to get hold of here in Tasmania and we had to buy it in bulk from Fossil Power, although it costs as much for shipping as for the product from them. Recently it has become available here at Riverbend Farm in Margate.

half nose pig 02

When one gets pigs it is vitally important to keep them completely contained for a few days until they realise they live here now. Otherwise you may never see them again. Stout fencing is required. We keep them shut in the pig house for four days and then let them out into a 10 metre by 12 metre fenced yard in the middle of a paddock. This yard has electric fence, one strand at six inches off the ground and another at eighteen inches off the ground, on the inside of a wire mesh fence. This has proved to keep pigs contained. Once they get too big for that area we open the gate and let them out into the paddock.

Our goal is to try to create an environment they won’t want to leave, so we provide them plenty of space, access to pasture, a comfortable, dry house that is raised off the ground and we make a special effort to hang out with them and play. This is no work at all as they are incredibly funny and intelligent. They will chase a thrown ball, though they haven’t got the knack of bringing it back to us so we can throw it again. We also make sure they know we are the source of yummy foods so they will come when we call. Having said all this though they are very wilful and determined animals. They will charge electric fences to get through them even though they know they will get zapped so it isn’t wise, at least at first, to rely only on electric fences to keep them in.

One of the reasons it is important to keep pigs contained is that if they eat meat they can get the parasite trichinosis, which can be passed on to humans who eat them. For this reason it is illegal to feed meat to pigs in Australia [3].

We will be feeding them a crushed grain muesli made by Tasmanian Seedhouse [4], who are a local feed supplier who grow their own grains. When grain is crushed it looses nutrients quickly, which is why we choose a local supplier. We soak it in milk to start with as milk is $1 per litre. This feed is 16% protein, 2% fat and 7% fibre and contains the following:

Barley, Wheat, Triticale, Peas, Soy, Salt, Dical Phosphate, Lime, Canola Oil, Lysine, Threonine, Methionine, A (retinol), D3 (Cholecalciferol), E (α-tocopherol), K (Menadione), B1 (Thiamin), B2 (Riboflavin), B3 (Niacin), B5 (Pantothenate), B6 (Pyridoxine), B9 (Folate) B12, (Cyanocobolamin), H (Biotin), Calcium (Ca), Phosphorus (P), Sodium (Na), Chlorine (Cl), Zinc (Zn), Copper (Cu), Iron (Fe), Manganese (Mn), Iodine (I), Selenium (Se), Cobalt (Co).

It is designed as a whole feed, but these guys will be getting out onto pasture pretty quickly. Pigs can do very well indeed on pasture alone [5], although young pigs do need their diet supplemented as they cannot eat enough vegetable matter to provide them all the nutrients they require. Also, all our apple trees have ripe fruit on them at this time of year so things are looking good for the pigs.


  1. Scientists find missing link between whale and its closest relative, the hippo.
  2. Diatomaceous earth under the microscope by Dr. Stuart B. Hill.
  3. Don’t feed food scraps (swill) to pigs.
  4. Tasmanian Seedhouse
  5. Pastured pigs.

Welcome to Down South Farm

I always find it strange writing the first post on a blog. It seems a bit like a pretense, “Here’s a blog, but it only has one post”. I do hope you will all bear with us while we get this blog together. We will be posting all kinds of stuff about chooks; feeding, breeding, incubation, health care, recipes, and anything else we can think of. There will also be information about the other things we do on our farm, all the other animals we keep, farm management and basically anything else that crosses our minds.

Many of you will no doubt however be most interested in buying birds. I know this as I have been inundated with enquiries about when they will be ready. I’d like to thank you all for your patience. The birds are now ready and you can place your order on the Chooks for Sale page. I must caution you all that the demand for birds greatly outstrips supply so everybody who has enquired is not going to get birds. Each year we breed more birds, and each year we are unable to satisfy demand. For this reason we have decided to limit each order to two pullets per customer so that more people will get birds. Don’t fret if you don’t get birds from this first release, there will be more birds available in about three weeks.

Many people ask me why I don’t take advance orders for birds. The answer is that I did that once before and it was very bad. Mostly for the very practical reason that one shouldn’t count one’s chickens before they hatch. If 20 eggs go in the incubator about 17 will hatch. Of those, some will be male and some female. I don’t know until the birds are twelve or so weeks old exactly how many of each sex I have. So taking advance orders is a guessing game at best and certain unhappiness at worst. I have had hatches that came out 75 per cent male! Because of this I have decided that the way to go is to just wait until the birds are totally sexable and offer them for sale then.

Below is a photo of one of our roosters, Ginger. Sadly he recently got another spin of the reincarnation wheel after he was bitten by a snake and came to a rather grisly end. He was a bit of a tail feather puller so the hens won’t miss him so much, and I certainly won’t miss his attacks. He got me a good one with a spur puncture wound to the calf just days before he died. He didn’t like me feeding his hens and would take any opportunity to send me a message via flying spurs. He also nearly beat his dad, Neo, to death a couple of months earlier. But, to be even handed about it, Neo had given him a couple of good beatings when he was younger so it was rooster payback. Ginger is now buried up on top of the hill in the Pet Sematary next to a cat named Chicken and a chicken named Lady.

Ginger the expsycho rooster

If there are any topics that you would like us to write posts about please let us know and we will do our best to oblige.