Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Some thoughts on Henry David Thoreau

After a few days of hot dry weather it was time to collect up the onions ready for drying out and storing. This morning I managed to complete the task before the predicted rain came. And rain it did all day, gentle but continuous. Apart from regularly checking on one of our sows who is due to farrow, much of the rest of the day was spent indoors; it was a time for musing and a philosophical interlude.

Henry David Thoreau 1817-62

A book that smallholders, frugal life-stylists and others might find of interest is Walden; Or a Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau. This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Thoreau (1817-1862). His most famous work, Walden, was published in 1854. I first read this some years ago and re-read it from time to time and continue to find it of great interest.

Walden recounts Thoreau's two years, two months and two days spent living alone in the woods by Walden Pond outside the town of Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau describes building a cabin, growing crops and his detailed observations on nature and the changing seasons. In the process it also elucidates his own spiritual development as a result of this experience and it also provides a vehicle for expounding on his philosophy of life:-

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Whilst Thoreau maintains an esteemed place in American literature, he has had some recent criticism largely in relation to contentions about the full authenticity of his experience in the two years spent in solitude at Walden Pond.  Nevertheless, much of his philosophy remains relevant today.

Thoreau was in many ways ahead of his time. He might rightly be regarded as a founding thinker of what eventually became the ecology movement. Moreover, as early as the 1840s he observed what he argued was the dulling effects on ordinary working people oppressed by the prevailing economic system. Thoreau also railed against the distorting effects of the cult of consumerism. He advocated a simpler lifestyle and doing without material objects that are unnecessary for a fulfilling life. He was an early frugalist and minimalist. Self-sufficiency and independence are the hallmarks of personal fulfillment. Despite his Harvard education and middle class, though not particularly wealthy, background he acquired and utilised many practical manual skills which he needed in order to survive his Walden experience. 

Thoreau saw an intrinsic value in nature and argued that we should therefore live in harmony with nature. Thinking about today's weather, for example, here is what Thoreau had to say about rain:-

"...the gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house to-day is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too. Though it prevents my hoeing them, it is of far more worth than my hoeing. If it should continue so long as to cause the seeds to rot in the ground and destroy the potatoes in the low lands, it would still be good for the grass on the uplands, and, being good for the grass, it would be good for me”.

Thoreau often used the seed as an analogy. Just as the seed provides evidence of nature's "creative genius" so human beings contain within them their own creative power. This should be allowed to flourish with vigour.

A central feature of Thoreau's thought was the importance of awareness. Taking time to observe minutely details of nature that might otherwise go unnoticed or taken for granted: the beauty of a flower; the changing shape of the bubbles under the winter ice covering the Pond. It was important to him to obtain the fullest experience from each moment of existence:-

"I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life..."

This sensitivity of the moment resonates with the current fashion for mindfulness as an antidote to anxiety and emotional disharmony.

I would not accept all that Thoreau advocated without reservation. His well known quote: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" did seem to have a ring of truth about it in the time when four hours of my day were spent commuting, but it has an otherwise dismissive, if not arrogant, tone. A critique of government might be justified but his undermining of state institutions (including a refusal to pay taxes) sits uneasily, especially with current political developments. It is somewhat reminiscent of recent attacks on Supreme Court judges as being traitorous for a decision some disagreed with. Finally, although Thoreau exhibited in some ways a deeply spiritual perspective on life he found all organised religion anathema.

Despite all this there is much else he did write about that remains relevant in our individual and collective attempts to make the most of our time on earth, and in a way without also wrecking it for future generations.

Monday, 28 August 2017

The Great Confinement

Anyone who keeps poultry will have had to undertake measures to meet the requirements of the DEFRA Prevention Zone restrictions against the avian flu strain H5N8 last winter. This caused quite a bit of inconvenience and for commercial producers a real worry for their businesses. For some smallholders with perhaps 20, 30, 40 or 50 birds, having to confine them, especially if you had no suitable outbuilding available, involved some rather makeshift solutions. For commercial producers with many thousands of birds they were confined to large barns. The birds were not very happy and resulted in lower egg laying rates, and for poultry keepers it involved much more mucking out and increased feed consumption as their birds were no longer able to range about. 

The restrictions were first imposed at the beginning of December 2016 initially for a period of 12 weeks. This time period was significant because producers marketing free range eggs or poultry meat are allowed to keep their hens indoors for a maximum  continuous period of 12 weeks if they wish to retain their free range status (and consequent price premium). In localities where there were recorded outbreaks, Surveillance Zones were  imposed with more stringent restrictions. In the event, in February 2017 the Prevention Zone restrictions were extended for a further 12 week period. Some free range egg producers had to re-label their eggs 'barn produced' as a result. On 13th April the legal restrictions were lifted but good practices in bio-security continued to be strongly advised for all poultry keepers.

The restrictions legislated for were basically to keep all poultry indoors or if that was not possible to provide enclosed, netted runs to keep wild fowl separate, and to ensure food and water was kept under cover. DEFRA approved disinfectant for footwear wash, clothing and vehicles on entering areas where poultry are kept were rquired and 'poultry gatherings' (such as shows or auctions) were banned.

There was some debate about the effectiveness of such measures in preventing the spread of outbreaks of avian flu and it was evident that many 'backyard' poultry keepers simply ignored the regulations despite the threat of a £5000 fine or even imprisonment. In practice it would have been difficult for DEFRA to monitor effectively compliance. 

A total of 13 outbreaks of avian influenza were recorded in the UK flocks between December last year and June this year of the 1000 or so outbreaks in Europe. Six of those UK outbreaks were in 'backyard' flocks comprising fewer than 200 birds. One of the problems with this is that a 10 kilometre Surveillance Zone with much stricter regulatory requirements were imposed which might then impact on commercial producers caught up within this radius.

Even if there are doubts about the effectiveness of avian flu restrictions, and whatever views may be held regarding intensive production systems, I think it is important that smallholders and other small scale poultry keepers demonstrate a responsible approach (and also keep within the law) and adhere to any regulations and  guidance. DEFRA has provided some updated guidance for backyard poultry keepers:-

Why am I bringing this all up now? Well the migratory season for wild birds is nearly upon us again and the east coast and the fens of East Anglia are particularly exposed. After some time of no new outbreaks of avian flu, on 7th August a mute swan in Norfolk was found to be affected. My suspicion is that DEFRA will err on the side of caution if there are further outbreaks in the autumn and restrictions might then be re-imposed. Bear in mind also Brexit negotiations and alternative trade discussions are underway and there is a good chance DEFRA will want to re-establish and then maintain country free status currently due to be re-instated from September 21st and there will be strong commercial pressure to protect the poultry industry and export potential.

I'm by nature an optimistic individual but this does not prevent me from being prepared for future reasonable risks. Therefore I have been spending time this summer constructing a much larger netted run area than time allowed to be put in place for the last outbreak. At the moment my egg laying hens have about a quarter of an acre to roam in. In December 2016 we only had a matter of days notice to have appropriate measures in place. If needs must then I'll already be set up for any future confinement.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Delights of poo picking

When our children (three girls) were young and we drove past farmland that had recently been manured there would invariably be cries of "eewwww" or similar. And invariably at the same time I would take in a deep breath through my nose and say "lovely" or similar. Hence the creation of the family myth that Dad loves the smell of poo. 

The fact of the matter is that although I do not class the smell of poo among my favourite scents I am not repulsed by it in the least. It should be pointed out here that I am referring to the poo of herbivores such as sheep and cows and not that of carnivores like cats and dogs, nor indeed omnivores such as humans. Steaming pats of cow dung, and the defecated output of horses, sheep and pigs are fine. 

The reason for this is that I see (and smell) manure in its wider context and it's deeper significance. Any serious gardener or smallholder appreciates the value of bulky organic matter (BOM) for improving the soil. I can never get enough of it. So when the smell of a manured field fills the air I think of all that goodness going into the soil. Digging in manure (or perhaps just adding a thick mulch layer if you prefer) into the vegetable plot or flower bed is one of life's satisfactions. This is particularly so as you see the soil gradually improve with each passing season.

When I visit the gardens of friends and acquaintances I'm not convinced that they get the same level of satisfaction from manure as I do. Just take a look at their composting area if they have one. It is frequently a chaotic mess. There is little sign that it is integral to their horticultural operations.

On my sandy soil I need a lot of BOM and I have to be systematic with manure collection and composting of vegetative material so that it is sufficiently decomposed ready to add to the growing areas in late winter or early spring. I'm just about self-sufficient in this area but would never turn down the offer of more. I currently have five bays measuring 6' x 6' x 4' high. These are each filled in turn during the year and manure is a major contribution.

Composting area showing different stages of de-composition

Commonly quoted advice is to run your pigs on a piece of ground so that they can dig it over and manure it ready for growing vegetables the next year. You can then rotate round and save yourself a lot of effort digging and manuring each year. As a one off exercise to prepare fresh ground to become a vegetable plot this might be useful. Otherwise this is impractical advice if you have any experience of pig containment and all that it entails with fencing and electrified wire. 

I have two permanent pig paddocks and move the pigs between them each year. To keep the paddocks reasonably clean and help minimise the risk of worm infestations I collect the pig poo every morning after feeding (them not me). I pick up a 40 litre trug full each day and this all goes into the compost. 

I do the same in the hen houses and chicken manure will have some chopped straw included as well. I use chopped straw for bedding in the hen houses in preference to wood shavings as the chopped straw rots down much quicker. Poo picking in the hen houses each day and topping up with fresh chopped straw if need be makes the bedding last longer before it needs completely changing.

With the sheep I pick up the poo around the hay rack and troughs and where they tend to lie down but otherwise leave it to manure the grazing fields, relying on the weather to break it down. In the spring when the grass is lushest and the sheep produce big poos (not the maltesers  that they tend to produce later in year) I might also pick that up too. Being of a slightly wetter consistency this is a useful complement in the compost to the dryer pig poo.

Poo picking doesn't take that long each morning and it is gratifying to see the compost bays gradually fill up. Manure also acts as a composting accelerator so when mixed with vegetative matter from the vegetable plot or garden the decomposing process works really well and you can feel the heat being generated. I visit the composting area daily and my heart leaps with joy when I see steam rising from it. It augers well for the future.

Monday, 21 August 2017

A day in the life

What is a day on a smallholding like? Obviously it will vary between individuals and holdings and, on any one holding, what time of the year it is. Here is a description of a day which I would say is fairly typical on a day when there are no other commitments off the holding.

The day started at 6:30 as usual and once the cats and the dog were fed it was off to feed the livestock. First the three hen houses were opened up and feed and water levels in the drinkers were checked. The same for the turkeys. The turkeys are not shut up over night. They have a netted enclosure and prefer to roost on the 3' foot high perches I've built for them. If they had their way they would fly high up on a tree, wander off and be vulnerable to foxes. They lead me on a merry-go-round if I try to round them up in the evening as they don't go into the shed that is available to them willingly. They are very hardy and don't seem to mind the cold.

Next the pigs are fed, making sure that their food is spread along a line about 8 or so feet long so that they each have plenty of space and the younger ones have ready access for their share. Whilst they are feeding I fill up the water troughs. The weather looks to be another sunny day so I also applied sun cream to the pink saddle of each of the Saddleback pigs to protect them from sunburn. I then pick up their poo in their paddock, a daily task, which goes into the compost. I collect about a 40 litre trug full. Before taking it to the composting area I revisit the hen houses and poo pick their too. If need be I top up their bedding with chopped straw. As the outside tap leading to the pig trough is located in the chicken run I turn off the tap whilst I'm at it.

I look over at the ram and his companion wether to check they are okay then collect some hay for the ewes and lambs who are in another field where the grass is now running thin. I have another field ready with some good re-growth ready to move them onto at the beginning of September which will flush them ready for when the ram re-joins them in October for tupping. All the ewes look like they are returning back to condition except one older ewe which I need to decide whether to tup her one final time this year or call it a day.

With the sheep sorted I go back and check I turned the tap off. Because I'm on auto pilot with the early morning jobs I sometimes can't remember if I turned the tap off or not.

Then it is on to the greenhouse and watering plants in there with a hose: a count to ten for each plant planted in the greenhouse border and a count to five for each pot grown plant. I turn off the greenhouse tap and head indoors for breakfast. On the way I check to see if I turned the tap off to the pig trough. Yes, I thought I had.

After the breakfast the main task for the day was to despatch the last two of the meat birds. We buy in batches of 20 day old chicks and grow them on. We have been dispatching two at a time over the last three weeks. It takes us about two hours to complete the task from setting up to clearing up and putting them in the freezer. These two came out at 3.4 and 3.2 kilograms respectively which is about average for the whole twenty birds. As usual when we despatch it was chicken liver and hearts for lunch today.

Last of the batch
Ready for the freezer

One task which was quite pressing was cutting off the tops of the potato plants. Yesterday evening I noticed some signs of blight so felt it best to clear all the top growth and burn it to prevent it creeping down into the tubers. 

What else today? Mowing the garden and vegetable plot areas. Spraying the gravel drive. Weeding the brassica beds. We also made some spicy tomato chutney. About 4pm the afternoon round of feeding and trough filling was done. The hens also get some mixed corn.

After dinner is when we usually do some harvesting as the day is cooler and it is a task with a more leisurely feel. Today plums, tomatoes, blackberries, autumn raspberries which are now coming through, courgettes and a cucumber. 

The last task at dusk is to shut up the hen house (and double check I turned that tap off).

Alongside all of this were the usual myriad of activities of everyday living. I sleep well at night. 

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Battle of the brassicas

The cabbage is the most ordinary and widely available of vegetables. Yet, for me at least, it has been difficult to get a decent crop. Despite its humble qualities I like cabbage very much. But it seems nearly all other creatures like it equally much and have no inhibitions about helping themselves to their share. The same goes for its more fancy relatives in the brassica family like broccoli, Brussel sprouts or cauliflower. (Someone once described the cauliflower as a cabbage with a college education).

To begin with there is the phytomyxea parasite that causes club root, then flea beetles that eat away at the leaves. But for many people the biggest sources of attack on brassica plants are pigeons and the caterpillar of the cabbage white butterfly. Pigeons will readily strip newly planted brassicas leaving behind a skeletal framework of leaf veins. If ruination by pigeons is avoided then the next wave of attack will surely come from the cabbage white butterfly. Its caterpillars have a voracious appetite and will soon turn cabbage leaves into doilies. In the world of brassica growing it is truly a Weapon of Mass Destruction.

In the arable field adjoining us there is a tall 100 yard long leylandii hedge planted as a windbreak. It is also shelter to squadrons of pigeons that carry out sorties on my vegetable plot, over which they have a perfect (literally) birds eye view and readily spot when the brassicas are planted out.

When I see shelves of perfect cabbages and cauliflowers in supermarkets I can only assume that they have had the life sprayed out of them and as smallholders we don’t like that do we? For this reason, if none other, I will continue the battle.

If I am to grow brassicas, then, it is essential that I have adequate defences in place. For very large areas one option is simply to drape fleece or netting over the crop. This can be a nuisance when it comes to weeding which is important to keep on top of for a healthy crop. Another alternative for smaller areas is a building something like a fruit cage, but that can be expensive. A number of smaller, movable cages might be the answer. The ones I built which I describe here are robust, withstanding strong winds, but at the same time easily lifted to carry out weeding or other operations. Watering is not a problem as it is easily watered through. They also look quite attractive and are cheap and easy to make. I now have half a dozen cages.

Here’s how you can go about constructing them for yourself.

What you need
You can make the size of your brassica cage to suit your own needs. Mine used the following materials (Fig. 1):-
Roll of scaffolding netting
4 x 2m x 15mm plastic plumbers’ tubing
2 x 2.4m x 38mm x 45mm treated timber lengths (roughly 8’x2”x1.5”)
One more of the above cut in half to create 2 x 1.2m lengths
1 x 2.4m x 38mm x 25mm timber length to be used a s a croosbeam
2 x 80cm x 38mm x 25mm timber lengths to be used as upright supports.
Tools: power drill, Phillips screwdriver, tape measure, staple gun, scissors, screws.

To start off, the two shorter timber lengths were screwed on to each end of the longer timber lengths to create a rectangular wooden base (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1

Next, the plastic tubing was screwed into place at 80cm intervals along the long lengths to form four arches to support the netting (Fig.2). Two screws were used for each end of the tubing to keep the arches vertical. Note that by reducing the width of the cage a higher arch is formed from the plastic tubing. This might be preferable, for instance, for taller crops such as Brussel sprouts.

Fig. 2

For extra strength a cross beam was fixed along the apex of the four arches and this was further supported by two uprights at each end of the cage (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3
Scaffolding netting was stapled in place over the cage. About a 4m length is required for this size cage. The rolls I buy are conveniently 6 feet wide which is just the right width needed. I find it easiest to keep the netting taut by starting in the middle on one side and working outwards to each end. The netting should be folded to create a neat finish on each end panel (Fig.4). Excess netting can be trimmed off.
It is important that when choosing netting to cover the cage that it is of small enough gauge to prevent butterflies from entering. Many of the horticultural nettings for sale are too big in this respect, hence the usefulness (and cost-effectiveness) of scaffolding netting. I have not found any problems in the light levels within the cage using scaffolding netting and I have also found that water can readily access through the netting whether that is from rain, hose or sprinkler.

Fig. 4
Here are some of the cages in situ.

These brassica cages can go a long way in defending your cabbages. To keep up your spirits in the battle of the brassicas you can do no worse than listen through headphones to a Churchill speech whilst hoeing:-

...we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength, we shall defend our [cabbages], whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

To an insignificant flower

Here is a poetic interlude on a rainy day in Suffolk. When smallholding, gardening or out for a country walk, it is good to take notice, not just of the task in hand or the dramatic or panoramic. This is by John Clare (1793-1864), one of our best poets of rural life. It is taken from  Poems of Rural Life and Scenery (1820).



AND though thou seem’st a weedling wild,
Wild and neglected like to me,
Thou still art dear to Nature’s child,
And I will stoop to notice thee.

For oft, like thee, in wild retreat,
Array’d in humble garb like thee,
There’s many a seeming weed proves sweet,
As sweet as garden-flowers can be.

And, like to thee, each seeming weed
Flowers unregarded; like to thee,
Without improvement, runs to seed,
Wild and neglected like to me.

And, like to thee, when Beauty’s cloth’d
In lowly raiment like to thee,
Disdainful Pride, by Beauty loath’d,
No beauties there can ever see.

For, like to thee, my Emma blows,
A flower like thee I dearly prize;
And, like to thee, her humble clothes
Hide every charm from prouder eyes.

But though, like thee, a lowly flower,
If fancied by a polish’d eye,
She soon would bloom beyond my power,
The finest flower beneath the sky.

And, like to thee, lives many a swain
With genius blest; but, like to thee,
So humble, lowly, mean, and plain,
No one will notice them,—or me.

So, like to thee, they live unknown,
Wild weeds obscure; and, like to thee,
Their sweets are sweet to them alone:
The only pleasure known to me.

Yet when I’m dead, let’s hope I have
Some friend in store, as I’m to thee,
That will find out my lowly grave,
 And heave a sigh to notice me.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Cut flower bed

It's nice to have vases of flowers about the house; they gladden the heart. We quite often buy a bunch of flowers for this very reason but now we have our own ready supply. The reason for this is that I have introduced a dedicated cut flower bed into one of the vegetable plots, something I've been meaning to do for a while. 

It is salutary to note that 90% of cut flowers bought in the UK are imported, mainly from the Netherlands. This is an astonishing figure given we are reputedly a nation of gardeners. But we are also a people who like convenience. For us at our smallholding, it's gratifying to be able to grow your own flowers for the house and, as with vegetables, trying to be self-sufficient for as much of the year as possible.

One reason for establishing a dedicated cut flower bed is that I always feel uneasy picking blooms from established flower borders in case it detracts from the look of the border. And it would because I would notice it. In practical terms plant borders would not be able to sustain regular cropping in the same way a cutting bed can do.

I began preparations last winter. First I covered with black plastic a newly dug over area which had also been manured. I aimed to start in the spring with as weed free a soil as possible. Some time needs to be spent researching the plants that are going to fill the bed. It will be an ongoing task to find attractive flowers that are also suitable for cutting and to refine the cutting plant list. 

Most plants were seed grown half hardy and hardy annuals which is a relatively cheap way of producing lots of plants. However, in order to stretch the cutting season for as long as possible, other plant groups were used. Narcissus and tulip bulbs for early and later spring flowers. Some perennials were included as more permanent plantings. The plant list for my inaugural year comprised:-
Sun flowers

Part of the cut flower bed

Simple arrangements have most appeal 

Next year I will add more perennials, some summer flowering bulbs and review the selected cultivars. For example, I have grown a couple of different sun flower cultivars but one grew far taller than what the seed packet indicated and was too gargantuan for any vase of realistic proportions. 

As far as managing the the cut flower bed is concerned, each of the cultivars are grown in 20' rows. They can be planted quite close together within the row, but it is helpful to ensure that each row is sufficiently spaced to allow for weeding and preventing one row overshadowing another. Regular weeding is required. Some support might be necessary, not so much for individual plants but rather like the need to use stakes and string to support a row of broad beans. Watering was required, particularly during the hot dry spell in late spring and early summer and also bearing in mind our sandy soil. I used pelleted chicken manure as an initial feed when planting out but have not needed to carry out additional feeding as the plants have all flowered prolifically. Of course regular picking helps to promote continuous flowering, and that's exactly what they are there for.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Chinese plum sauce

The vegetable and fruit plots continue to be gratifyingly bountiful as you might expect at this time of the year. Some crops are arriving in torrents and whilst we enjoy the delights of freshly picked produce thoughts also turn to how best to preserve some of the crop for future consumption. 

Our venerable Victoria plum tree is serving us well once again as I am sure it has for previous generations before our own time here. We are freezing quantities of plums for future crumbles and the like by simply cutting them in half and de-stoning  them. Freeze spread out on a baking before bagging them up for storage.

Something new to try this year is Chinese plum sauce. With a Chinese wife a lot of our meals have an oriental orientation. The Chinese mainly use plum sauce as a marinade for meat dishes, such as with pan fried duck breasts, or as a dipping sauce. We always have a jar on the go in our fridge purchased from a Chinese grocery store. In future we will have our own, home produced plum sauce.

Here's what you need:-

1.5kg plums, stones removed
1 onion finely chopped
300ml water
170g sugar
1 teaspoon grated root ginger
1 glove chopped garlic
120ml rice vinegar or cider vinegar
Teas spoon corundum coriander
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 
1/2 teaspoon 5 spice 
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground clove

Here's what you do:-
  1. Bring to the boil plums, onions, water, ginger and garlic and simmer for about 30 mins
  2. 2. Press through a sieve and return to a clean pan; stir in sugar, vinegar, coriander, salt, pepper, 5 spice and cloves.
  3. 3.
  4. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 45 mins until the consistency of apple sauce.
  5. Fill into sterilised jars and seal.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Inseminating a pig

Early in May I inseminated a pig. I think one of our British Saddleback sows is now pregnant. If she is, then this will be the second time I have been successful with artificial insemination (AI). The problem is that pigs often do not show signs of pregnancy until relatively late in their gestation. But I should expect to know for sure fairly soon.

One of our British Saddleback sows

Basically there are three options available if you want to breed pigs. The first is to  keep your own boar. He is then readily available to mate with your sows, and possessing instinctive expertise in this area normally means he will do a good job and when precisely to go about it. Keeping a boar can be quite an expense because of the additional feed and vet bills, and he will need his own separate accommodation at times. The other thing to bear in mind is that if you only have two or three sows then that might be insufficient to keep a boar busy enough.

The second option, therefore, is to borrow or hire a boar for a few weeks at a time when the need arises. A variation of this is to send your sow away to spend some time with a friendly boar. This saves on costs but will involve movement licences, attending to bio-security arrangements and adhering to standstill requirements. There is also the problem of finding the right boar within reasonable travel distance, especially if you are breeding pedigree stock. This arrangement might work for some but I found it problematic. As a result I pursued the third option of AI.

AI has its own challenges. For me the primary difficulty is the issue of timing. Sows come into season every 21 days, but there is only a two, or at most three, day window of opportunity when she is fertile and receptive. This means recognising the signs that the sow is in season. The two main signs are an enlarged vulva and a reddening of the vulva. However, with black pigs (or largely black, in the case of our saddlebacks) reddening of the vulva is not apparent and often, especially with first time mums, there is little sign of the vulva swelling up either. You have to be vigilant to notice any changes. Some recommend using a tape measure to measure the distance between the anus and the vulva each day and identifying when the gap is at its smallest. As it is, I am in the habit of checking daily the look of each sow's vulva in the hope of becoming as acquainted as I can with their cycles. There was an additional sign I noticed which was a slight trickle of fluid from the vulva around the time I thought she was in season. The other thing to try is to press down on the sow's back (mimicking a boar) and if she stands still for you then that could be a further sign she is ready for you. That has worked quite well for me in corroborating my suspicions.

The actual process of AI  is relatively straightforward. You can send off for the supply of semen from specialist providers. I use a company called Deerpark Pedigree Pigs based in the north of Ireland who I have found very helpful. They supply three 'doses' which are administered morning, afternoon and finally the next morning. After that it is a matter of waiting for signs that the sow is 'in pig'. The abdomen will eventually show signs of expanding but for me previously it was the undercarriage dropping that confirmed the pregnancy. 

The length of gestation is traditionally cited as three months, three weeks and three days. That is 115 days. The piglets invariably arrive within a day or two of that period. With the sow I AI'd, we are now on day 86. All being well, 29 days to go.