Charlie was the two-year-old wether that we hand-reared after he was abandoned by his mum.
He was one of a pair of twins and his mum only looked after the other one. I found him in the paddock, not even cleaned off by the mother, and I thought he was dead. Then he moved.
I took him inside, rubbed him down and put him in a towel by the fire. Soon after that, he took his first steps in our lounge room. He grew quickly and was soon back outside with Hoover (the other orphan that year). He never lost his familiarity with us and, unfortunately, that was what led to his demise.
Recently, when either of us was feeding the sheep he would become more and more pushy. He would circle our legs, just as he did as a lamb, to get fed. In the last couple of weeks that escalated into butting at us, whether we had food or not. He was becoming dangerous and could have caused serious injury to Niki or me. He had a head like concrete and could not be dissuaded.
Today, I took him into our sheep yards, gave him some sheep nuts to distract him and ended his life. It was quick and he had no idea what was coming. We won't waste his life and he'll be in the freezer by the weekend.
Another lesson we have learned: don't hand-rear male sheep. Or, if you do, don't let them grow past one year.
Posted by Farmer Wan
It's drizzling outside.
That simple fact makes me want to leap about and drink lots of wine and dance and sing because it's the first rain we've had since 14 August.
With more on the way, I'll remove impending drought from my list of Things To Lose Lots Of Sleep Over and focus on telling you about our winter.
1. Earning a crust
Not content with merely being an enthusiastic consumer, Farmer Wan is now officially a contributing member of the NZ wine industry. He's personally responsible for pruning 9,870 of Marlborough's 24 million grape vines, a feat that took all winter.
I, in keeping with my role as a damned fine writer, spent the frigid months in my stuffy, overheated office and surfed the Net under the pretense of working.
With our finances back in a semi-liquid state, we immediately bought a sprayer, a wood chipper and food.
2. 2014 saffron harvest
It wasn't a good season. Last year, we ended up with just under 41 grams. This year, we didn't even reach 20 grams. But we had reassuring feedback from Mark, the guy we grow for:
Although your volume wasn’t as much as you want/expected, the quality is exceptional. Beautiful colour and aroma and it has a really nice feel to it indicating that the moisture content is spot on. . .
So we must be doing something right.
3. Fodder willows
As part of the permaculture strategy of "many elements for one result" we're aiming to future-proof Muntanui against drought by planting alternative sources of livestock fodder.
I've done a fair bit of research into fodder trees and shrubs, both native and exotic. I decided to start our planting this year with something relatively easy: Japanese fodder willows (Salix schwerinii 'Kinuyanagi').
This is a vigorous shrub willow, reaching 3-4m and producing up to 10 tonnes of edible dry matter per hectare per year -- perfect over summer.
In July, we planted 60 willow poles in a trial plot on our worst bit of land (it's unproductive anyway, so good for experimental stuff). Farmer Wan's sister was staying with us at the time and helped with the planting, so we named the area Fiona's Block in her honour.
If the poles strike well -- and they're doing okay at the moment -- we'll plant 300 more next winter.
4. The Bionic Hound
It hasn't escaped our notice that Buddy The Dog seems to have a strange effect on people. Confirmed dog haters, frightened little kids, nervous older parental types -- they all end up enchanted with him.
I've just discovered that he has snuck into the boot room and scoffed all the cat's food, so I am most emphatically not enchanted with him right now. However, there's no denying that the Buddy Effect is a real and powerful phenomenon.
With that in mind, I thought his fans might like to see how he brought us three thousands steps closer to bankruptcy this winter.
This medical procedure has a long name which I've blocked from my mind and an even longer price tag which I can't for the life of me forget. It's what happens when your stupid dog ruptures a cruciate ligament.
For the first 6-8 weeks post-surgery, he was confined to quarters and only allowed out on a lead for five minutes a day to do his business. We really loved that bit when it was snowing.
He goes for his next x-ray in a week. I'll keep his devotees posted.
5. Third anniversary at Muntanui
Our third anniversary slipped by on 28 August. After a frosty start, it was a sunny day. One of our heritage faverolles chooks resumed laying and produced her first egg of the season. The plovers returned from wherever they go over winter (Western Australia, I think) and started attacking any other birds that came near them.
It was a good day. We were happy. And there'll be plenty more of that to come.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Back in August of last year I wrote about my first experience of butchering the back half of a pig, which had been kindly given to us by a friend in the village.
This year things got a lot more serious on the farm and it was time for us to complete the full cycle of life from birth to death for some of our animals. I had known that this day would come eventually, but it is a hard one to prepare for having no previous experience.
Back in March it became very apparent that we had too many sheep (27 in total). This was after a successful lambing season, on top of the fact that we didn't sell or slaughter any of the previous year's lambs. They were eating us out of house and home (or at least all of our grass down to its roots).
Something had to be done.
The idea had always been to start eating our own meat. We thought it would be our steer (Stew) who would be first in the freezer, but he has a reprieve for another year.
Not knowing the first thing about slaughtering, dressing or butchering livestock I called upon a local farmer (Farmer G) to ask some advice. He offered to come round and assist, an offer I took up straight away. I had completed our sheep yards earlier in the year so Niki and I were able to muster the sheep and separate out one of last year's wethers and return the rest of them to the paddock. I am not embarrassed to say that I thanked the animal for its life. We had been responsible for it from birth through to death.
Warning: Graphic description of slaughter follows
Farmer G and his wife came round on a Friday afternoon and I was all set to go. I had my .22 ready, sharp knives on the bench and plenty of nerves. Farmer G told me what to do and I got on with it. A clean shot to the back of the head at point blank range was enough to down the wether. Next was bleeding it out as soon as possible. This involved cutting the throat, ensuring the jugular was severed. During this there was quite a lot of reflexive movement and it was necessary to hold tight (by the way, there was absolutely no doubt the sheep was already dead).
We then moved the carcass to the shed and began the dressing (skinning and gutting) process. Once we were at this stage, it was much easier to see the animal as future meat, not the same as the sheep that had been walking around only 10 minutes ago. We started cutting the skin at the knees (careful not to cut the tendons which are needed whole for hanging) and worked away (front and back legs). Hoisting the carcass to hang in the shed was an effort even with two of us and I promised myself I would purchase a pulley for next time. Once the carcass was hung it became much easier to separate the skin using a closed fist to punch down between the skin and the brisket. Apparently in abattoirs there used to be the job title of 'left handed brisket puncher' just for this task. Once the skin was removed all the way to the neck, the head was cut off and the head and skin/fleece were removed. I would, in future like to use as much of the animal as possible, but this time I didn't plan to save the skin.
Next was removal of the offal, a task to be carried out carefully to avoid any contamination. All of the stomach, intestines, etc. went into a blue plastic bin for later disposal (great for worms). Then there were the heart, lungs and liver. I kept the very healthy looking liver. Niki and I had liver and onions for lunch the next day, it doesn't get any fresher than that. Once the dressing was complete the carcass was wrapped to keep the flies away and left to hang for a few days (being late summer a couple of days was enough, in winter it could easily hang for a week or more). Meanwhile Farmer G's wife was in the kitchen with an emotional Niki. I was exhausted!
Of course, dressing the carcass is only half the job. Unless you are doing a spit roast it's a bit hard to fit a whole sheep into your oven! Luckily one of our near neighbours is a retired butcher and he had already offered to give me a hand turning my sheep into useful cuts of meat. A few days after hanging the carcass he came over to show me what to do. We spent a Sunday afternoon in the shed with a trestle table covered in plastic, a large piece of untreated eucalypt as a chopping board and lots of sharp knives, an axe and a machete. We turned the carcass into 26kg of recognisable cuts of meat - chops, roasts and shanks. I think I'll need a few more goes at it to get better and know what I'm doing, but I now have a grasp of the basics.
I bagged up all the meat, weighed it and, except for a shoulder put it all in the freezer. Niki slow-roasted the shoulder the following week and it was truly delicious. What an amazing experience to have a plate of food in front of you where everything on the plate (4 vegetables and meat) came from our farm - that's why we're here.
Since then I have slaughtered, dressed and butchered a lamb and taken 9 other lambs to the sale yards and sold them for a good price, we sold 2 others to neighbours. We are now back down to 10 ewes, almost manageable for the little grass we have left.
Postscript: After packing and weighing the meat I calculated how much it would have cost to buy the same cuts at the supermarket using a well known supermarket website. The 26kg of meat would have cost me $467 at the supermarket. I could have probably sold the live animal for about $70-80. That tells you something straight away - somebody is getting well paid for meat - and it's not the farmer!
Posted by Farmer Wan
"There's something wrong with Spidey," said Farmer Wan. "I think you'd better come."
That was yesterday afternoon. Only the day before, Friday the 13th, our big blonde cow Bonnie had slipped a calf (miscarried) for the second year in a row. And now, it seemed, Spidey was sick.
"Sick" was an understatement. He was foaming at the mouth and staggering. We could hear an awful gurgling in his abdomen and he was fighting to breathe.
Poison, I thought, but that seemed ludicrous. A few days earlier, we'd moved the sheep into the orchard because it's the only place where we have any decent grass. There were native tree plantings by the fence that I knew were harmless -- coprosmas and flaxes -- and some non-toxic ornamentals bordering the driveway.
We did have have a bit of buttercup in the drainage ditch, but a local sheep farmer had told us the sheep would avoid it. Maybe Spidey wasn't poisoned at all. Maybe it was bloat, or something.
I won't go into the gory details. Suffice it to say that we did everything we could think of while Spidey's condition grew worse. Farmer Wan asked me to call one of the local farmers for advice. I rang five different people but no-one was home. By the time I ran outside again, Spidey was dead.
It took a while for Spidey to grow on me. He wasn't particularly attractive and he was incredibly greedy. But in our first lambing season, we lost a ewe in horrendous weather and one of the other ewes started pining for her. She parked herself in one of the sheep shelters and refused to come out. She didn't eat or drink for three days and for all that time, Spidey stayed in the shelter with her. When she eventually came out, he did too. He remained by her until she started to eat and drink normally again.
I loved him a little bit for that.
Today is Farmer Wan's birthday. He spent this morning burying Spidey and Bonnie's dead calf.
And I loved him even more for that.
There were two small, undigested leaves in Spidey's stomach -- obviously the last things he ate. We took them with us into the orchard to find out what killed him.
We located the culprit down by the fence, a small shrub in amongst the native plantings and partially obscured by a large flax. I'd never noticed it before.
"Rhododendron, maybe?" I said. "But it looks way too small and I'm not sure."
Farmer Wan cut some of it, brought it inside and jumped online.
"Rhododendron minus," he announced.
This is a dwarf rhododendron and the physical description certainly matched what we had. The toxic effects matched too.
Farmer Wan dug it out and then found two others, both partially hidden by flaxes. None of the bushes were over 50cm high and yet they're so incredibly toxic that two little leaves were enough to kill a full-grown ram.
Ironically, the former owner of this place loved rhodos and had planted more than 50 on the bank behind the house. When we bought the property, I invited her to take them away if she wanted them and said that if she didn't, I'd probably rip them out and burn them because they were poisonous. She did take them out and I thought that was the end of it. These other three in the orchards were missed, although it's possible they were planted by someone else further back in the ownership chain and no-one else knew they existed.
So RIP, Spidey. Lambing will be a bit poignant this year and I suspect it's a birthday that poor Farmer Wan will probably want to forget.
Posted by Farmer Nik
The Concise Oxford Dictionary's definition of "grit" in the colloquial sense, reads:
Strength of character, pluck, endurance.
To which I'd like to add:
1. Spending an entire afternoon and early evening doggedly broadcasting seed with a manual spreader over a rough, sloping 1.5 hectare (approximately 4.5 acres) paddock, then harrowing it in the tractor.
2. Watching while torrential rain washes most of it away over the following week -- and not weeping.
So I guess the next post should be about our efforts to renew our pasture. . .
Posted by Farmer Nik
Just when we thought we'd almost recovered and caught up with everything after the totally mental month that was March, Farmer Wan discovered these:
Note that there are five of them. Five. Plural. In 2012 and 2013, the season began with singles -- lone, brave little blooms that shoved their heads up first to take a look and report back to the others. We had plenty of time to get excited and to speculate about the size of the harvest. This year, with five flowers on Day One. . . well, who knows. It'll either be huge or it's the entire haul. That would be un-fun.
I took a bit more care with the plants this time, watering them with worm tea when they were actively growing last winter. Once they had all died away in early summer, we didn't do much to the beds except weed them two or three times and top them up with compost. It's been a mark of how busy we've been that the topping up bizzo didn't actually get finished until the end of last week. Ah well. Saffron plants are tough little suckers. We breed 'em resilient up here in the mountains.
I'll try to update more frequently from now on. She said optimistically.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Hay: growing it. Cutting it. Baling it. Buying it. Swapping stuff for it. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about hay, which is only natural, given that it's what keeps our animals from keeling over and carking it in winter. Until we can supply enough ourselves, we'll never feel really secure.
This year, we're looking at swapping some of our lambs for half of our neighbour's hay and we'll cut and bale the grass in the orchard as we usually do.
We started our first cut towards the end of November. Wielding the scythe was hot, hard work and I was dreading the prospect of spending three or four days doing little else. Then the farming gods took pity and sent us an angel in the form of Pierre, the French backpacker. We gave him a ride into Blenheim one afternoon and he, in turn, came back a couple of weeks later and stayed at Muntanui for eight days. Not only did he cook us an amazing three-course meal and improve my French, he also helped Farmer Wan to complete the scything and then stuck around to assist with building The Machine.
You might recall that last year, we played around with the idea of making mini-bales and haysacks, neither of which was very practical or sustainable. The Machine, however, is different. It produces decent-sized bales (still not as big as standards, though) and the design allows for a satisfactory degree of compression. Although it was designed for baling pine straw, it still works well for hay. There's a picture and instructions for use at http://essmextension.tamu.edu/pinestraw/baling.html and the plans can be downloaded from here.
The plans didn't stipulate the length of the twine slots, so Farmer Wan adjusted them to suit: 360mm long by 40mm wide. He also had to replace the lever, which snapped (due to his unearthly masculine strength and power -- the man's a demi-god, I tell you) while he was compressing a bale, .
This solution is still time-consuming but it's definitely better than anything else we've tried so far and it will suffice for the small amount of hay our orchard produces. Next year, we'll have to look at other options because Farmer Wan's just sowed a new hay paddock. More on that another time.
Posted by Farmer Nik
We have a bully: a chook bully that goes around ripping feathers from the breasts of some of her sisters. We know this to be the case because Farmer Wan recently caught her in the act. Unfortunately, he was doing something else at the time and wasn't able to stop her. Now he can't identify her. I have my suspicions but can't be sure unless I catch her at it again.
This behaviour, known as "feather pecking" is dangerous for the victims. Chooks will peck at anything coloured red, including tiny blood spots advertising the vacant real estate where feathers once lived. The more the wound bleeds, the more they'll peck at it.
Chooks are cannabalistic by nature. 'Nuff said.
Feather pecking, according to that repository of all knowledge, Wikipedia, is a behavioural disorder common in birds reared for egg production, especially if they free-range (caged birds either don't have the room or have their beaks trimmed). The behaviour is transferable -- once one bird starts doing it, others will follow -- so naturally we want to nip it in the bud, especially as we've recently bought two 10-week-old pullets that we'll add to the flock once they start laying.
The best way to protect the three birds who are worst affected would be to remove them from the flock until their feathers have re-grown. We can't do this because there's nowhere else to put them -- we've already got the two pullets housed separately and two broody chooks sitting on eggs in two other houses.
Chook tattooing, anyone?
The next best solution is to disguise the bare skin by staining it darker. Most of our chooks are Brown Shavers, so their pink skin contrasts strongly with their brown plumage. We tried an iodine-based spray, which just stained the skin a darker shade of pink. Then we read on an American website about stuff called Blu-Kote. It's germicidal, fungicidal and the active ingredient is gentian violet (anyone of my vintage might remember having it painted on their skin for childhood chicken pox lesions -- it bloody hurt). Gentian violet definitely stains anything it comes into contact with, so we thought we might give it a try.
The product isn't available in NZ. Our vet had something similar but it was prescription-only medication and would involve driving a balding chook nearly 100km in to the surgery for a consultation, and then paying a lot of money. Anyone who takes a chook to the vet becomes a laughing stock around here (we know because we did it once, back in the very early days), so we decided it would be easier and cheaper to order the stuff online.
When it arrived, Farmer Wan read out the warnings, including this one:
Not for use on horses intended for food.
I'm loath to turn our baldy chooks toxic and the jury seems to be out on how this stuff affects eggs, so I've decided to try a food colouring-based alternative first and see how effective it is. The Blu-Kote is there only as a last resort.
Minimising risk factors
We're also trying to control some of the factors that seem to make chooks more prone to feather pecking by:
1. Ensuring the hen houses are clean and air quality inside them is good
2. Adding extra protein (blood and bone) to their food
3. They already have plenty of room to roam around in, so there's not much more we can do about that
4. Giving them a big, beautiful toy to play with, namely:
We were told his name was Lucky (possibly because he avoided the Christmas roasting dish by being bought by us) but I promptly changed it to Rocky, purely so that I can greet him like this:
He hasn't stopped the feather pecking but the hens adore him and I've noticed the three worst affected girls snuggle up next to him at night, so maybe he's doing some good. I've also noticed that a couple of other chooks are sporting brand new bald patches as a result of Rocky's amorous attentions. Have you ever seen a rooster mount a hen? It's brutal but at least we'll have plenty of fertile eggs to shove under the broodies.
Young Rocky, having now settled in quite nicely, crows lustily whenever he feels like it. This then sets off our little bantam rooster. They yodel back and forth at each other until the bantam starts sneezing. This can be hilarious or a total pain, depending on whether it's three in the afternoon or five in the morning.
So now our poultry numbers total eighteen: 11 Brown Shaver hens, two Brown Shaver pullets, a Pekin bantam hen and rooster, Rocky the Light Sussex rooster and two very special girls I call the Oooh La Las (they're a story for another day). Our enslavement is complete.
I'll let you know how the blue girls go.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Happy New Year! 2013 was a cracker of a year at Muntanui and we're hoping this one will be even better. I think it will be -- if we're able to overcome our biggest challenge yet.
In 2014, the last of our savings will run out. Without that financial backstop, we're facing the very real prospect of being broke. Impecunious. Fiscally challenged. Impoverished. Indigent. Penniless. Insolvent. Poor.
A little scary, I'll admit.
It's easy to play around at farming and being sustainable when you know that if it all goes belly-up, you're covered. Sell a few eggs here, flog off a couple of plants there, make your own bread from scratch and feel virtuous and proud that you're living the dream.
And we are living our dream, no doubt about that. We're as happy as tiger worms in a bathtub full of additive-free cow shit. We just have to work out how to make it pay more. So, before our impending penury forces Farmer Wan to do anything desperate (like this or this), we'll get creative. We'll ruthlessly cut our expenses (all future visitors to Muntanui: please bring alcohol and lots of it), we'll barter and we'll make the most of hitherto-unexploited opportunities. We've put together a couple of cunning plans and we'll share them with you, in good time.
Meanwhile, here are some pretty pictures taken around the garden in early December, back before it started raining and didn't stop.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Thanks for your company this year! We hope you have a happy Christmas and that 2014 brings you much merriment, love and all the right kind of surprises.
Back in the New Year . . .
Posted by Farmer Nik
About Ewan and Niki
Scottish mechanical engineer with a deep and abiding passion for good food. Outstanding cook. Builder of lots of stuff. Cattle whisperer. Connoisseur of beer. A lover rather than a fighter.
Kiwi writer and broadcaster who hates cabbage, even though she knows it's good for her. Chook wrangler. Grower of food and flowers. Maker of fine preserves. Lover of dancing and wine. Definitely a fighter.