Two years strong and planning for our first CSA

We have reached our two year anniversary!

We have done so much and learnt a huge amount in the process. People have been absolutely wonderful and supportive with the journey we’ve had and the philosophy we follow. It has been great to see just how excited children (and quite often, their parents) are when they come for a visit, with our little goats being the highlight for most.

Now that the weather it turning for Winter, we have let the chooks take over the garden patch … and I can tell you that 60 ish birds can strip half an acre VERY quickly. They’ve done a great job clearing out all the slugs and critters while liberally spreading their leavings without me having to do so. Win-win!

Reflecting back on the last year, I would say that I regretted not installing a more robust irrigation system … something worth remediating this Autumn.

Even though the season is coming to an end, with our online sales stopping, we have kicked off the planning of a Community Supported Agriculture programme or CSA. Check it out on our page Our 2016 Spring-Summer CSA. Now that we have a comfortable crop rotation happening and have identified what crops we will be offering as part of the CSA, there is a whole raft of communications, information packs, labels and packaging that needs to be organised and sourced.

Thank you to everyone who has helped make this little geek of a farmer happy. All I can hope is that everyone has the bravery and opportunity to follow their dream. For me, it took several years of planning, lots or research and even more mistakes, an appreciation of the small things that are on offer from people and a truely amazingly patient husband to get me there.

Even though my hubby seriously dislikes my goats, his assistance in all things mechanical or powered by a motor has seen me recover quickly from my bouts of frustration when things need fixing or (usually) I’m stuck unable to start the darn thing.

Thank you everyone.

A request for training

The last few months for us have been beyond hectic. So much so that this little blog has fallen to the way side due to us simply falling into bed at night from sheer exhaustion.

We’ve sold our excess produce at the Foragers Market in Bulli several times, raised a new batch of little egg birds, fended off foxes, broke new ground in our market garden, been asked multiple times to train different groups of people and taken on a full time role managing a very large IT service (you can’t take the techie out of me). Just crazy!

Last week, we met up with a couple who are passionate about permaculture (like us) and who would like to swap a few hours of work a week with knowledge and training of what we have accomplished. Why not! I said.

So today was the beginning of a practical experience “brain dump” for them. Given that we didn’t go around with pen and paper, these blog posts will serve as a reminder for them on what we accomplished and a summary for you out there about what you can do yourselves.

The morning started out with a run down of what they wanted to learn. We decided to start with a bottom up approach and start with soil … the building block of a healthy eco-system and a brilliant market garden. We looked at the difference between sandy loam, pure compost, different mulches and heavy reactive clays (our primary soil type here). We touched on our “lazy” composting technique along with the how and why it works for us. We also explored our experimental, onsite composting piles and the importance of replacing nutrients from another source if you are selling produce from the land.

Next we started looking at some of the different guilds we had set up. Our key discussion points were around our Plum, herb and Tower of Jewels (Echium) planting and those of our Apple, Artichoke and Foxglove planting.

We then had a walking fruit salad by visiting some of our apple trees as a snack then headed back to the house to start preparing our upgraded chicken tractors (see our original Chicken Tractor soil fertility post) for our new generation egg birds. While our trainees assembled some new, stainless steel treadle feeders, I finished rolling out some dough for bread rolls for lunch, then had a break for morning tea.

The upgraded chicken tractors were secured from fox attack and nice fresh straw was added in, we transferred 35 of our 10 week old chicks to their new pens to grow out before being introduced into the chicken caravan in a couple of months. We’ve learned the hard way that the young birds quickly learn to squeeze through the mesh of the electric fence surrounding the chicken caravan and prefer to escape and scratch in the market garden. Sorry girls, you’re going to be somewhat incarcerated until you fill out some more and you get too big to fit through the mesh! Enjoy your home under the old pear tree for a few weeks.

Once we were happy that they figured out how to use the treadle feeders and that the water was set level, the guys set about harvesting some snake beans. They learned the correct technique for harvesting beans to ensure that the subsequent crops are not affected, then we had a break or lunch.

I mentioned that we needed to turn a few of our roosters into dinner, and our guests decided that they wanted to help and learn… so they learned how to calm the birds, slaughter them humanely, pluck them, evicerate them and de-bone them over a couple of hours. Lots of work!

Once we had cleaned up the meat and rinsed it, we used our post hole digger to quickly dig a couple of holes to bury the feathers and carcasses.

Phew! What a day. Thanks guys for your willingness to get involved and learn things that that most people are too afraid to tackle. I hope you enjoy your ethically grown and much loved rooster pieces. Remember to wait until next weekend to cook them so they are no longer in rigor mortis.

The story of our little goat herd and Piccolo … a Saanen kid with a broken heart.

We love our goats here. They are moved onto fresh pasture daily … sometimes twice daily depending on the quality of feed available. We started in March with out first rescue goat Pixie. She is a miniature feral who’s Mum was taken from her straight after weaning. She was frightened and was looking for comfort when she came over to us. She bonded with us immediately and has since been taught to use a lead rope … with some treats for persuasion of course!

Little Pixie
Little Pixie learning to use a lead rope

Two months later, Thunderhorn was left behind by his Mum when he was 4 days old. He was a stubborn feeder and refused to feed for 5 days solid until we used real goats milk and a silicone nipple. He learned to groom himself after being taught by our cat. It was a sight to behold!

Baby Thunderhorn
Baby Thunderhorn cuddling

Four weeks later, Limpit was rescued from a dog attack. He was going to be put down, so the owner gave him to us. His muscles were severely torn and he could not walk other than a couple stumbling steps. For his first week with us, he slept in the goat house and nibbled on the straw bedding. Then for the second week, we had to move him out into the pasture every morning. From week two to six, he slowly recovered, starting to limp around on his “knees” … hence the name. Now you wouldn’t know he had serious injury except for the fact that he does not jump and frolic like the other goats …. he’s much more sedate.

Only two weeks following the rescue of Limpit, Nightmaid joined us. She was a little black kid around one month younger than Thunderhorn …. so we had two kids on the bottle now! She was not as fussy as Thunderhorn, and took the bottle at the first feed.

Four weeks later, we bought Fawn (Saanen cross), Mrs Moo (Fresian coloured cross), Tinkle (miniature feral) and Mrs. Moo’s baby (which has since been named Socks).

New goat herd
New goat herd; (L-R) Fawn, Tinkle,, Mrs Moo, Socks and Nightmaid.

Six weeks later, we rescued eleven little goats in a 2 week period. They were all runts who could not follow their Mum. The reason there were so many abandonments was two fold; firstly, the majority of the goats were first time Mum’s and not as patient, secondly a neighbour’s dogs had recently taken to the sport of attacking the goats … they have since been dealt with. But this made all the goats very skittish and a lot of the baby’s could not keep up with a fast moving herd.

Four of the babies had their Mum come around to look for them and were re-accepted. Four were re-homed after being taught how to drink from a bottle, and the remaining three have stayed with us. Lots of little mouths to feed now!

Bottle feeding goats; (L-R) Shadow, Meatball and Nebula
Bottle feeding goats; (L-R) Shadow, Meatball and Nebula

This brings us to Piccolo. We were contacted by a frantic owner from Wollongong who had recently bought three pure bred Saanen kids a little over a week ago. They were given some vague instructions by the owner and sent on their way. Two of the kids were just over two weeks old and the other was just over 3 weeks old.

It turns out, that on the day the goats were handed over, they were de-horned (not dis-budded), had castration rings fitted and been taken away from their Mum’s. These little guys were essentially sent to a new home in shock and without any bottle training! After a week of struggling with bottle feeding, and the little goats getting obviously weaker, the two smallest one’s died. The third one, Piccolo, was failing fast. After visits to the vet and a diagnosis of “failure to thrive”, we received a phone call asking for help.

During our first meeting, we ascertained that the small amount of milk he was ingesting was still being digested … which was a great sign. So he came to us very thin, almost unable to stand and constantly shivering. He had burned off most of his brown fat and was on the verge of giving up.

We treated him like a new born: Feeding every 3 hours, warm jackets and blankets to sleep on, he bedded down in the warm greenhouse and was constantly in contact with us and our scent. He was being force fed through a free-flowing teat and he stopped shivering constantly after 36 hours, which was the first sign to us, that he had a chance. Feeding was a messy task as he fought taking the bottle, but necessary.

For 3 days, there were very few improvements, but on day thee, he suckled! We had added real goat milk to his bottle and it seemed to be what he wanted. On day 4, we substituted the teat from free-flowing to a silicone suckling teat … and he has been guzzling ever since! His first feed on his own took 25 mins. He was not able to suckle for long periods and had to take lots of breaks … but he did it!

By the end of the first week with us, he was suckling like a champion and down to three solid feeds per day. He started to gain weight and even frolicked a little. We introduced him to the rest of our herd and he even spent the night cuddled up with them. Perfect!

His owners were kept abreast of his progress and after the traumatic experience of the two little one’s dying on them, decided to ask me to find a home for him … which we did!

A neighbour down the road from us wanted a pet goat for their children to raise. When they came for a visit, Piccolo walked straight up to one of the Mum’s and asked for a cuddle by rubbing his head on her leg … she fell in love with him! They went home, built a house for him and came over the next day to collect him.

Enjoy your new home Piccolo. It was wonderful to watch you recover into such a loving little goat. We will come to visit you regularly.

Piccolo's new owners are very excited!
Piccolo’s new owners are very excited!

Caring for pasture raised chickens … electric netting, chicken tractors and chicken caravans

There are many different ways to house your chickens, but when your aim is to ensure that your birds get access to plenty of fresh pasture daily, there are a few problems that need to be addressed: Predator protection, Portable Housing, Feeding and Watering.

Predator Protection

We are located in the Sydney basin (in Australia). What that means is that we have to contend with a rather large population of feral foxes, wild dogs, bored neighbourhood dogs, a few native hawks and a resident pair of Wedge Tailed eagles. Just a few things 😉

While we have had the occasional loss of a bird to a hawk, we noticed that they only seemed to prey on the smaller birds. So this was easily remedied by ensuring that all our birds are in an enclosed “avery” until they are at least four months old. Plus the hawks are hesitant to attack anything too densely packed together, so keeping the chickens close to each other is important.

Our resident Wedge Tailed eagles are actually more scavengers, preferring a carcass to a live bird. So the loss of a live chicken to these guys was negligible. The Wedge Tailed eagles easily carried off our geese that the fox killed one night … we were at the house deciding where to bury the 3 geese carcasses and an eagle came in and took off with one while we weren’t looking!

That only left us with how to deal with the four legged predators … and found that we had to  make a decision on a portable fencing solution. After copious amounts of research, we decided to try out electric netting fences. We have tried two brands of electric netting fence so far and they each have their pro’s and con’s. Here is what we found…

Thunderbird Electric Poultry net:

Pro’s: Lightweight, has steel post step-in’s that don’t bend or warp,

Con’s: Easily tangled, lean pullet breeds can squeeze through the holes

Recommendation: This netting solution has one live wire and an earth, which can conveniently be any of the steel post step-ins. While this is the lightest net, the vertical stays between live wire are not very rigid and cause the net to tangle easily when moved; when moving it at night (which happens usually during Winter) this can be frustrating. The biggest problem we had though was that the smaller pullets could easily squeeze between the holes. Now we’re now talking bantams here, but rather leghorn pullets, which are quite lean birds but not a small bird. Because a birds’ feathers are essentially made of keratin, they are insulated from the effects of the electric pulse. This was a major issue for us, as the birds learned very quickly that there were lots of yummy tidbits in the garden beds nearby. Also, we were alternating the use of the Thunderbird net and the Kencove net in moving our birds. On the night that we were using the Thunderbird net, a fox did manage to get into the enclosure and slaughtered 24 meat birds inside one of the chicken tractors. We’re not sure how it got in either as the fence was operational on all lines. Finally, customer support was non-existant from Thunderbird. When we wrote tot he Thunderbird team … no one even bothered to respond! For these reasons, the Thunderbird Poultry net gets a big “NO” from us.

Kencove Starternet:

Pro’s: Light weight, difficult to tangle, small holes in fence, can be run as either a live wire and earth or a double live

Con’s: has plastic step-in’s which warp easily (but these are about to be replaced free of charge by our supplier with a new solution), more expensive.

Recommendation: Although the cost of the Kencove product was $60 more, it has paid this back by ensuring that the chickens do not have access to our growing beds. There is nothing more frustrating than finding a few chickens happily dust bathing in freshly prepared growing beds or pecking out fresh pea sprouts!  Also, the fact that the stays between the live wires are more rigid ensures that the fence does not tangle as easily as the Thunderbird netting solution. So the Kencove Starternet gets a big “YES” from us.

Portable Housing

Choosing to keep your chickens on pasture makes housing much more difficult than just erecting a shed. One of the main reasons we chose to raise our birds on pasture is that the birds don’t sleep in their own excrement and have fresh clean pasture available to them each day. This reduces the potential for parasities and bacterial infections to affect the flock as their home is clean, fresh pasture and not soiled bedding.

We have tried two methods of portable housing for our chooks. Both have been home made to meet a particular purpose at the time: The Joel Salatin style chicken tractor and a trailer converted to a chicken caravan.

Chicken tractor:

If you have read any of Joel Salatin’s books, you will see that he is willing to share with you all the trial and tribulations of keeping animals according to their natural rhythms. His chicken tractor was excellent. Now while he has stated that foxes don’t like change and won’t dig under a chicken tractor that is moved daily … they must have a different breed of fox in the US because the foxes here don’t give a toss how often it is moved … if it can be dug under then it will be! We lost a few birds on our first trial night …. so added a wire skirt around the tractor. This needed to be pinned each day which proved time consuming. We then teamed up the chicken tractors with an electric fence …. HEAVEN! The perfect solution.

Here are a few of our meat birds and Plymouth Rocks in their tractors.

Our Plymouth Rocks teenagers checking out the crazy person who might be bringing tidbits to nibble.
Our Plymouth Rocks teenagers checking out the crazy person who might be bringing tidbits to nibble.
6 week old meat birds on pasture inside their chicken tractor
6 week old meat birds on pasture inside their chicken tractor
Chicken caravan:

We increased our laying flock to a little over 100. In doing so, we needed to have a portable solution for lots of chickens which was off the ground in Winter so the birds did not freeze at night … hence the idea of the chicken caravan.

There are multiple solutions out there. Even some amazing commercial ones which have solar powered chicken excluders on the nesting boxes to ensure that the eggs are clean. While these solutions are time saving, we just couldn’t justify spending around $10K for a portable chook house. So we built one instead for a fraction of the cost.

Here are a few images to describe what we did. The downside of the chicken caravan is that you need a vehicle to move it around any great distance. It can be pushed around by hand if you are only moving it a short distance though.

Feeding

Chickens are gluttons! If you left a bag of feed out for them to eat from, they would scatter the entire bag everywhere within minutes, searching for their favourite morsels. Plus, if you are using pelleted feed, this would quickly dissolve easily with assistance from the morning dew.

Chickens need to be rationed in their meals. Always provide enough food for them to be happy, but not too much that it is wasted. For our 100 egg birds, we have found that the perfect amount of feed for them is around 5-6kg of feed per day. The rest they get from the pasture (insects and vegetation).

We use stainless steel treadle feeders in our enclosed pens, but these are cumbersome to keep moving around. We have also used plastic automatic feeders, but these are susceptible to cracking when left out in the sun for extended periods.

For our field birds, we use large plastic trays. We fill four trays (each holds around 1.5 kg) and sprinkle on Diatomaceous Earth as a wormer and Cocchidiosis treatment. These get placed inside the electric fence every morning and they are mostly empty by evening. Yes, they scratch some out on the ground but they clean it up during the night when they get peckish.

Watering

There are so many different solutions out there for watering and we have tried many. For us, we have found that the best solution are two to four 15L stainless steel waterers. We are looking at a barrel system for the upcoming summer months as the chickens need lots more water then.

Making sourdough bread at home.

Freshly baked bread is one of those things that many people think is really hard to do. Further to my previous post about Home made bread, there is another method of bread making that we relish … Rye starter sourdough!

If you want to go into the in’s and out’s of sourdough … look it up on the Internet. This post will be all about baking your bread once you have some starter. We sell a Rye starter at our Farm Gate in our DIY Sourdough kits.

Storing your starter.

Treat your starter like yoghurt. When you’re not using it, seal it and store it in the fridge. It keeps for several weeks in the fridge as the fermentation process slows down. If you do not intend to use your starter for more than a few weeks, you can also freeze it. To reactivate a frozen starter, simply defrost it naturally (no microwave, people) and then follow the next step: Activating your starter.

Activating your starter.

Consider your starter as a replacement for yeast. Like yoghurt, it contains bacteria which ferment and create bubbles, making your bread fluffy. So before making your bread, you need to “wake up” your starter. This process is called activating it. We usually activate our starter just before going to work, so when we get home up, it is ready to use!

To make a small loaf of bread, you will only need about half a cup of starter. This is how you do it:

  1. Take your starter out of the fridge. If it is not in a container that is at least 500mL put it in one. Make sure it is not metallic.
  2. Add half a cup of room temperature water to your starter and mix it up. Tap water is OK for this but filtered is better as too much chlorine can kill off the bacteria in your starter.
  3. Add 4 heaped tablespoon of light rye flour to the mixture and stir it in. Don’t worry if there are some flour lumps, that is fine.
  4. Cover your starter with a loose lid and leave it on your kitchen bench. If the lid is sealed onto the container, as your starter starts to ferment, the gasses will build up and then pop the lid off. Old fashioned bowls with glass lids or small casserole dishes with lids are perfect for this. You can also recycle plastic 600mL cream bottles. They are perfect for storage in the fridge later too.
  5. Your starter will need to ferment for around 4 hours. If it is warm, it will need less time. Conversely, cold weather will mean that it takes longer. Your starter is ready when it is no longer reacting and there are plenty of bubbles on the surface. You can tell it has stopped reacting because the mixture will slowly start to “deflate” and leave a “tide mark” on the bowl it was fermented in.

This is what an active starter looks like when ready to use. Nice and bubbly and you can see that the starter has started to deflate since there is a sludgy tide mark halfway up the side of the bowl.

Activated sourdough starter ready to use.
Activated sourdough starter ready to use.

Making your dough.

You can substitute yeast for sourdough starter in any bread recipe you have. Just leave out the yeas, then when you measure the wet ingredients, substitute at least half a cup of starter for every 600 – 750 gram loaf (regular loaf tin).

We like being a bit lazy in our bread making technique, so here is a recipe you can follow if you don’t like kneading. You can do steps 1-8 right before having breakfast if you want fresh bread for dinner, then steps 9 – 11 as soon as we get home. Alternatively, if you’re an early riser, do steps 1-8 before going to bed then 9-11 as soon as you get up so that you can have fresh bread for breakfast.

Ingredients:

  • Half a cup of rye starter
  • 3\4 cup of water
  • One cup of light rye flour
  • One cup of white flour
  • 1 teaspoon of salt

Method:

  1. In a non metallic bowl, measure out half a cup of active sourdough starter. Add the water and mix well.
  2. To the water and starter mixture, add your flour on top then sprinkle your salt on the flour. If the salt comes in contact with the starter, it will kill off the bacteria.
  3. Mix your flour in so that it becomes a sticky ball like this…

    Bowl of soughdough dough, mixed and ready to rest.
    Bowl of soughdough dough, mixed and ready to rest.
  4. Let it rest for 15-20 mins. This is important, especially for wholemeal flour, as it allows the flour to absorb the water.
  5. Get a small bowl and add around half a cup of rye flour to it. Rub a part of your kitchen bench top with vegetable oil (we prefer olive oil but others are good too) and then lather your hands with oil.
  6. Using your hands, sprinkle the surface of the dough liberally with flour (yes your hands will get flour stuck to them), then turn out the dough onto the kitchen bench and sprinkle more rye flour on the sticky side.

    Sourdough dough sprinkled with flour before kneading.
    Sourdough dough sprinkled with flour before kneading.
  7. Lift and slap down the dough onto your bench for about 5 mins. This is a form of kneading which we find very therapeutic when we are upset – very good for anger management. Your dough will become elastic. If it still feels too wet and sticky, add a little more flour to the surface and keep slapping it down.

    Slapping down dough on the bench top ... great for anger management.
    Slapping down dough on the bench top … great for anger management.
  8. First rise: Once the dough is nice and elastic, shape it onto a floured board and then cover it in a moist cloth or tea towel. Leave it to rest for 4-6 hours, away from any cold draughts. Longer is fine. If you want to be lazy at this point, you can place your dough into a loaf tin instead and skip step 9. This will mean that your bread will have larger bubbles in it rather than little ones. It should easily have doubled in size.
  9. Second rise: Line a loaf tin (or you can just line a cookie tray if you want a home made shape) and place the dough into the tin. Leave it to rise for 2 hours.
  10. Bake: Place the bread into a cold oven. Turn your oven on to 230 C and bake for 15 mins. The mouth watering aroma of fresh bread will have started to fill the house by now, so turn the heat down to 190 C and bake for a further 20 mins. We use a fan-forced oven which provides consistent heat quickly.
  11. Your bread is cooked when you tap on the top and it sounds hollow. Take it out of the oven and turn it out onto an airing rack. Leave it for at least 10 mins! It is still cooking inside. If you cut a fresh loaf as soon as it is out of the oven, you’ll find that it is still doughy and does not have a nice texture. You’ve waited this long, so just hang in there for a few more minutes.

Enjoy!

Farm gate produce available from April 27.

We’ve just uploaded our Farm Gate Order Form for next week (April 27). If you would like to pre-order before arriving onsite, please fill in the form and we will invoice you.

All our produce is sold on a first-come-first-served basis so ordering in advance is recommended to avoid disappointment.

Along with fresh produce, we will also be selling a limited number of preserves and DIY kits.

This week, our DIY kits include Home Made Sourdough and Schnitzeled Eggplant with salad and mash. Everything is included with the exception of a couple of kitchen staples (e.g. oil for frying, salt, pepper, water, butter and milk).

On our inaugural Farm Gate opening day, as a one-off offer, in the event that we do not have enough fresh-produce available for you to purchase, you can fill in an order form onsite, pay for it and we will deliver it to you for free on the Wednesday (April 29)!

Here is a link to our Farm Gate Order form for April 27 for your convenience… https://littlefieldmice.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/farm-gate-orders-2015-04-27.pdf

Alternatively you can navigate to our Online Store and find it there. For address details, go to our Facebook page https://facebook.com/LittleFieldMice

Wild mushrooms are nothing short of awesome!

There are so many different things you can forage for a meal or part of one. Dandelions and chickweed are our favourite salad substitutes around here, but nothing is more exciting than mushrooms!

There are a number of mushrooms that are easily considered ‘beginner’ level mushrooms. One of the most easily recognised ones is the Slippery Jack.

These golden fungus grow directly from the roots of pine trees, and are especially prolific in pine plantations after a very good soaking rain followed by warm temperatures. They pop up following a shallow pine tree root where the mycelium (kind of like mushroom roots) has grown in the bark of the root waiting for the perfect conditions to fruit (aka grow mushrooms).

We have around 60 mature radiata pine trees on our property which have been producing Slippery Jacks for more seasons than I remember. We used to stomp out in our gumboots as kids and excitedly decimate them in all sorts of childish madness, not realising how delicious they were.

Wild Slippery Jack mushrooms

This morning, we harvested an unexpected boon courtesy of mother natures’ excellent rainfall and warm Autumn weather. After finishing our morning chores, we collected about 2kg of these glorious mushrooms in our jackets (we had warmed up enough not to need them).

Slippery Jacks are easily identified by several key features…
– they are golden in colour
– they have a slimy top surface (unless it is very hot and has dried out, then sprinkle water on it to check)
– they have a spongy surface underneath (no gills)
– when you cut the stem, it is yellow throughout
– when gently crushed, they bruise very easily
– they only grown under pine trees

Here is a pic of one we split in half. You can see the bruise in the centre caused by us pushing roughly on the cap. Also, you can see how fleshy it is and the sponginess.

Slippery Jack mushrooms split through showing fleshy insides, sponge and bruising

To prepare these guys for eating, you need to peel the top slimy layer off (this part tastes bitter in purpose so other animals don’t eat this tasty morsel). Then remove the stem completely and rinse the sponge as it usually has dirt and or pine needles attached. Set aside to dry off a bit or pat dry with a cloth or paper towel (use an old cloth as the mushroom spores can stain fabric) and then slice up and cook however you desire! Delicious fried with onions and garlic in butter, added into soups or as part of a stroganoff. Yummy.

This basket is off to be shared with our local Seedsavers group.

Basket of prepared Slippery Jack mushrooms