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Starting small

PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:51 28 March 2014

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Moving into a smallholding for the first time can be confusing as well as exhilarating. Katie Thear advises

A reader called Bob wrote to me to say that he is, at last, moving into a smallholding after keeping chickens and bees in the suburbs for many years. He sees an opportunity for growing more fruit and vegetables, to expand his bees and to keep more layers, initially to sell eggs and honey at the farm gate. Later he hopes to try geese and turkeys, but for the moment, he’s concerned with priorities. Most of his field boundaries, for example, are post and wire fences embedded in overgrown hedges. There are gaps in the hedges and he doesn’t think that they’d keep in poultry or keep out foxes. Bob also wants to know whether he can sell the eggs as organic, if he feeds his flocks on organic rations, as he does now. He says he has limited resources.

Bob is right to concentrate on priorities, and boundaries certainly come into that category. Far too many people rush into keeping poultry without realising that they have a duty to protect them against predators. If the existing hedges don’t provide protection, I suggest he invests in some portable electrified poultry netting that can be erected around the hen house and ranging area, with the whole lot being moved to a new area as necessary. This provides immediate protection for the birds while allowing time for the boundaries to be dealt with properly later.

There are a lot of questions to be addressed before a smallholding can be developed so it’s worth taking a general look at priorities. These will obviously apply to smallholdings in general, not just Bob’s specific situation.

Make a plan!

In fact, there are two plans involved here. The first is to draw up a geographical map of the site, showing all the fields, hedges, buildings and other features, including the use to which they’ve been put for the last few years. Work out where the prevailing winds come from, which areas are in sunshine and which in shade for long periods of time. Try to establish whether there are any frost pockets. All of these factors are important for positioning poultry and animal houses, as well as for growing fruit and vegetables.


The second plan is a business one that includes a predicted cash flow for at least two years. It involves making a hard-headed and realistic appraisal, not only of what the owner wants to do, but what is possible. There’s a great temptation to try and do too much, too soon. With a smallholding, this can be rushing out and acquiring a random selection of animals and poultry whose produce may not even cover their keep.



Finance is obviously a key issue, and if resources are limited, the activities will also be curtailed. Drawing up a business plan not only helps to clarify a set of ideas and put them into perspective, but also allows those ideas to be taken seriously if a loan is needed. Most banks have free booklets on how to draw up a business plan. The Farm Business Advice Service is also available locally through Business Links. This provides up to three days of professional advice resulting in an action plan and is available to those with a CPH number (see below) and who spend at least 75% of their time on a core farm business.


 Acquire some skills


 Land-based and livestock activities require practical skills and it makes sense to acquire some of these before launching into a new enterprise. The welfare of animals and poultry is paramount and there’s much to learn about their needs. There are many short courses available on every aspect of smallholding life, including lambing, hedging, machinery maintenance and livestock husbandry. Agricultural colleges, local farm training groups and many other organisations run courses. Look out for their advertisements in the magazine.



Getting some good reference books on the appropriate topics is also recommended. If funds are limited, it’s always possible to get them through the local library. They will obtain a book to order if it’s not one they have.
Land status

If an organic enterprise is envisaged, it’s important to establish what the land has been used for in the past. Have any chemicals been applied? If land hasn’t previously been used for organic production, a conversion period of two years is required to give time for a viable and integrated system to be built up. The period may be reduced to one year if evidence shows that no organically prohibited substances have been used for the previous 12 months. Prohibited substances include chemical herbicides, synthetic fertilisers and synthetic pesticides.


 


Before land can be put into organic conversion, the owner needs to be registered with one of the organic certification bodies, such as the Soil Association (tel: 0117 914 2412) or Organic Farmers and Growers (tel: 0845 330 5122). They will require conversion and management plans, which is where the plans referred to earlier will come in useful.
Information and possibly financial aid with land conversion is available from the Organic Entry Level Stewardship (OELS) scheme run by Defra (helpline tel: 0845 933 5577). There is no minimum holding size. 
 


Boundaries

These may be hedges, ditches, walls, banks or fences. Whatever they are, their position needs to be established and their condition maintained. Overgrown hedges, such as the ones Bob describes, can be cut back to a reasonable height and depth, keeping the base slightly wider than the top. This will enable the shape of the original hedge to be seen, and it encourages new growth, which will help to fill gaps. Large gaps may need the planting of new saplings such as hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, or hazel, Corylis avellana. These may need protection in their early years.
Ditches need to be kept clear, without cutting into the sides, for this may contravene the site line. Ditches are usually vital in draining the surrounding land as well as indicating boundary lines. If any major ditching or hedge cutting of a shared boundary is to be undertaken, it’s prudent to do so with the agreement and co-operation of neighbours.



Post and rail fencing can, if necessary, be covered with galvanised netting to fill the gaps between the horizontals. Depending on the livestock, this could be pig, sheep or poultry netting. It should be well dug in to prevent burrowing under and be well braced at the corners. A tight wire running through the top will help to prevent sagging but beware of over-straining in case it breaks and whiplashes! Unless electric fencing is added, the fence will need to be at least 2m (6.6ft) high in order to stop foxes and, ideally, have an extra 30cm (1ft) overhang to prevent scrambling over.
Electric fencing can be added to a boundary fence if required. This involves having two horizontal wires placed about 15cm (6in) in front of the fence, one at the top and one at the bottom. If necessary, more horizontals can be used. Alternatively, portable electric netting can be used, as referred to earlier. Bear in mind that there are different types and the correct one should be used for the particular livestock. Sheep netting, for example, will keep sheep in but won’t exclude foxes, so for poultry, it’s essential to use poultry netting.

Pasture

Most smallholdings have some grassland but, all too often, it’s neglected so that rank weeds such as thistles, bracken, nettles or ragwort have become established. The ideal pasture should be well drained and have a pH value of 6.5. It’s worth carrying out some soil tests in different areas in order to establish the relative acidity/alkalinity. If it’s very acidic, it will need an application of lime.

Any waterlogged areas should be drained, unless they’re associated with a natural feature such as a hollow with a pond and stream. On level land, the problem is often surface ‘panning’ where the earth has been so compressed that water collects on top. This is frequently the case around field gates where there’s a lot of human or livestock traffic. Breaking up the panned area allows water to drain through more effectively.

Grassland may be permanent pasture such as that found on some traditional dairy farms where it’s used for rotational grazing and hay crops. More often, it’s made up of temporary leys that include meadow grasses, clovers and herbs, which are periodically ploughed and reseeded. There are many types of rotations in use, depending on the site. One example might be: grass/clover ley for three years – potatoes – legumes – brassicas – green manure – roots – back to grass/clover ley. There are also many different seed mixtures available, including hay mixtures or those suitable for specific grazing animals. Short-growing grasses, for example, are more appropriate for free-ranging hens that can’t cope with longer growing ones.

Using pasture crop rotations in this way increases organic matter in the soil, builds up fertility, keeps weeds under control and disrupts the life cycle of parasites. If the area is only a small field to be kept as permanent pasture, it still needs to be properly maintained. Rank weeds need to be removed, the grass should be kept mown or topped and periodically scarified (rake scratched) as with a lawn. Bare patches can be reseeded and the pasture fed with an environmentally acceptable fertiliser such as calcified seaweed. Where animals and poultry are given access, it should be on a rotational basis with a period of ‘rest’ for the land to recover.

Fruit and vegetables

The kitchen garden and orchard will also benefit from soil testing. They need to be sited in sunny areas not affected by frost pockets. Fruit growers often refer to the necessity of ‘atmospheric draining’. This is the practice of having protective hedging or netting such as Tensar or Rokolene so that cold air from frost pockets can disperse. These protections also allow some wind to pass through them, reducing its force but without contributing to a downward spiral that can occur with more solid structures.

Plan the growing area and work out the crop rotations in the kitchen garden. If produce is to be sold, then concentrate on fruit and vegetables for which there is a demand in the area. This will entail some research before going into production, but organic produce will bring the highest return. It may be possible, for example, to set up an organic box scheme where regular customers take a selection of whatever is available at a particular time, and on a regular basis. Some will collect them from the farm gate, while others will wish to have them delivered.

It’s a good idea to choose modern varieties that have been bred for resistance to disease as well as good flavour. Study the catalogues! Where fruit trees are concerned, choose those on shorter rootstocks such as M26 or M27 so that they don’t grow too high for picking. It’s also important to have a range of apple, pear and other fruit varieties that will pollinate each other and provide crops over an extended period. For example, the dessert apples George Cave, James Grieve, Cox Orange Pippin and Adam’s Pearmain provide crops from early, through mid-season to late in the year. The crab apple Golden Hornet is a useful tree, not necessarily for its own fruit, but as a good pollinator of other apple varieties. Buy fruit trees and bushes from specialist suppliers who will provide expert information based on experience.

Poultry do well in orchards, although young trees may need to have protection while they become established. Trees provide shade and wind protection, and also encourage the birds to range over the whole area, rather than just outside the house. Guinea fowl are particularly good at getting rid of insect pests.

Bees

Bees fit in very well with a fruit and vegetable enterprise. Our orchard was home to free-range hens as well as bees. As long as the hives are sited so that hens (or people) don’t pass directly in front of the hives, and the bees’ flight path is directed upwards by a fence placed about a metre (roughly three foot) in front, there’s little likelihood of stings.
The pollinating activities of bees help to ensure good harvests, and local honey is always popular. Joining the local beekeeping society is essential, for beekeeping is very much a co-operative activity. Most societies are affiliated to the British Beekeepers’ Association (tel: 02476 696 679). It’s important, for example, that all the beekeepers in a particular area co-ordinate their activities when dealing with the varroa mite that can infest and cause disease in bee stocks. Local societies also provide practical help and information, and supplies such as honey jars and labels can often be purchased through them. They also keep members up-to-date with any new regulations, such as the extra labelling of produce requirements that were introduced in 2004.

Livestock

Anyone with sheep, goats, pigs or cattle has to register with the Animal Health Office (AHO) of the local Trading Standards office and obtain (from the local Defra office) advisory information, including the welfare codes that apply. A unique CPH (county, parish, holding) number can then be issued. Each animal must be identified by means of a tattoo or ear tag, with appropriate records kept of movements from one site to another.

For cattle there is also an additional passport that is necessary to keep details of any veterinary treatments administered. These include vaccinations and worming preparations as well as any medicines such as antibiotics for treating illnesses. There are specified ‘withdrawal times’ after treatment during which meat and other produce can’t be sold. These are often longer where organic produce is concerned. There are also certain ‘notifiable diseases’ such as foot and mouth disease, sheep scab and fowl pest whose presence must be notified to the authorities.

Bear in mind that there are also diseases that are transmissible from livestock to humans, so a good level of hygiene and handwashing should always be observed after contact with animals. A copy of the health and safety publication The Occupational Zoonoses is available from Defra.

Animals need adequate housing and protected grazing areas, with sufficient pasture to allow for rotational use. A properly equipped trailer will also be essential where transport is needed to an agricultural show or abattoir, for example. Supplies such as hay, straw and feeds will need to be bought in and stored on a regular basis.
Choice of breeds is important. The small-scale breeder is perhaps best advised to concentrate on pedigree traditional breeds. In this way, purebred stock can be sold to those with an interest in pure and rare breeds, while crosses of these with a more commercial breed can be produced for meat. An example might be a commercial Duroc pig crossed with a Large Black sow that produces pigs which reach pork weight more quickly and that have fuller hams. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust looks after the interest of many traditional breeds of sheep, pigs and cattle (tel: 0247 669 6551).

Joining the local branches of national livestock organisations is also recommended for their ability to provide help, information and contact with other owners of the same type of animal. They include the British Goat Society (tel: 01626 833 168) and the British Pig Association (tel: 01223 845 100). There may also be a smallholders’ association in your area. The library will usually have details of local organisations.

There may be financial help in the form of subsidies in some areas of the countryside and for some animals such as sheep. What used to be the 10 main subsidies have now been replaced by a single payment under the Single Payment Scheme. To find out if you qualify contact Defra’s helpline (tel: 0845 933 5577).

Poultry

Most smallholders will want to keep poultry, whether it’s just a few for household eggs or a larger flock for selling produce. They will need a secure house and ranging area, with the facility for keeping them inside or separated from wild birds if avian influenza becomes a risk. Appropriate nest boxes are required for laying birds, while perches or other roosting areas are needed by most poultry apart from waterfowl. Straw bales are often used for turkeys, who also appreciate outside perches.

Compound feeds, including organic, are available for each type of poultry. They will also need grain such as wheat, insoluble poultry grit and, of course, feeders and drinkers that should be kept away from wild birds. Birds can be bought as day-old chicks or older. It’s also possible to buy hatching eggs, but obviously, a certain proportion will fail to hatch or will be males to be disposed of. Even purebred males can be difficult to sell or give away, unless they’re particularly fine examples of their breed. Incubating and brooding facilities will be required for young birds.

Anyone with 50 or more commercial birds has to register with Defra’s Poultry Register or its equivalent in Scotland and Wales. For the purposes of this legislation, the birds involved include chickens (including bantams), ducks, geese, turkeys, Guinea fowl, partridges, pheasants, quail, pigeons (only those reared for meat), emus, ostriches, rheas, cassowaries and kiwis. It refers to all these birds that are reared, given, sold or kept in captivity for commercial purposes, including breeding, showing, production of meat or eggs for consumption, production of other commercial products and the restocking of game. You’re not required to register if you have fewer than 50 birds, or if they’re kept as pets, or if they’re for your own consumption only. Those who need to register or have any questions can call the Poultry Register helpline (tel: 0800 634 1112).

For any other purposes, poultry are recognised as being chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and Guinea fowl, and there are organic standards for these groups. When it comes to eggs, however, it’s only chicken eggs that come under the Egg Marketing Regulations. Surplus eggs from a small number of chickens can be sold at the farm-gate, as long as they’re not graded into sizes. If they are, the producer must be registered with the Egg Marketing Inspectorate of the area (ask the local Defra office for the appropriate contact).

If eggs are sold as organic, it’s not sufficient just to feed them on organic rations, as Bob seems to think. He must be registered with one of the organic certification bodies mentioned earlier. The land must also be recognised either as having been converted to organic status or being in the process of conversion.

Whatever type of poultry is to be kept, they should only be considered if the terrain is suitable for them. Geese, for example, will need good grassland because this is the mainstay of their diet. Ducks need access to a pond or other water source that’s clean, well aerated and deep enough to dabble about in. Chickens, turkeys and guinea fowl need well-drained land with trees and hedges for shelter and security. All will need to be protected against the fox.

The choice of breeds will be determined by the reasons for keeping poultry. If it’s for commercial reasons, it makes sense to use hybridised crosses suitable for outside conditions, unless good examples of productive traditional breeds can be found. 

For table chickens, suitable breeds would include the French Sasso and the Hubbard-ISA range of birds. These are available under a variety of names, depending on the supplier, and include Poulet Anglais, Cotswold White, Devon Bronze etc.

Commercial geese would tend to be Legarth strains, although Embdens and their crosses are frequently used. Where ducks are concerned, Kortlang Khaki Campbell and Cherry Valley 2000 make good layers, providing a consistent supply of eggs in winter when hens’ eggs may be declining. Even so, it will still be necessary to provide some winter lighting for all laying birds when the days are short.

Table ducks are usually Pekin/Aylesbury crosses such as the Cherry Valley SM3. When it comes to turkeys, the Kelly strains of Bronze are more popular than the white feathered birds which, in recent years, have become associated with intensive production. These are available in different weight ranges, which is useful if the turkeys are to be grown to fit the average oven. Over-large ones can be difficult to sell, especially if orders for a certain weight have been accepted in advance.

Small numbers of poultry can be killed at home for sale at the farm gate but the site should be registered with the local Environmental Health department. Recommended reading is Practical Slaughter of Poultry from the Humane Slaughter Association (tel: 01582 831 919).

There are many who prefer to keep traditional pure breeds, rather than commercial strains. This helps with the conservation of the old breeds, and on a small scale, the longer rearing times or the reduced egg numbers may be acceptable.

Useful organisations include the Poultry Club of Great Britain (tel: 01476 550 067), the British Waterfowl Association (tel: 01892 740 212) and the Turkey Club  (tel: 01988 600 763).

This is, at best, a brief overview of the possibilities of developing a smallholding. Everyone will have their own ideas and interests, but there is no substitute for planning and research. After all, politics is the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary! (Torajiro 1882)

Further information
 The Smallholder’s Manual, Katie Thear. Crowood Ltd
 Starting with a Smallholding, David Hills. Broad Leys Publishing Ltd
 Organic Poultry, Katie Thear. Broad Leys Publishing Ltd 




This article is from the April 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine.
<< To order back issues click the link to the left.

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