In the last of the series, Jack Smellie discusses how to measure success, make tough decisions and enjoy the breeding journey
They can be heart-stopping moments: the first time you see a calf, covered in birthing fluid, slither uncontrollably to the ground; the moment you witness a chick unfold itself as its eggshell finally splits in two; the sigh of relief you make when the seriously wobbly kid finds its mum’s teat for its very first drink. New life never fails to make an impression and witnessing an animal’s birth is exciting, rewarding and humbling.
The actual birth is, of course, just the start, but in those few minutes the hard work of getting your animals mated, feeding them through the winter and monitoring the pregnancies, all feels worth it. As we watch and touch this new life, the mud is forgotten, the frozen pipes are forgotten and so is the fact that we almost ran out of hay. As we watch and touch this new life, everything feels possible again.
And even better, we then have the privilege of seeing our young stock grow and change, adapting to their environment, developing relationships with their parents and siblings. And sometimes we may get the feeling that the animal(s) in front of us are going to be special: possible show ring contenders or something with great fleeces or markings. They may start to demonstrate desirable characters or conformation.
As has been mentioned in this series, successful breeding is defined by expectations. Sometimes it is successful because it exceeds our hopes. On other occasions, expectations may be dashed, but a change in direction may still result in a successful conclusion. And sometimes you may get exactly what you hoped for. But successful breeding is also defined by attitude: things may not have gone quite to plan, but you can still decide that you have ended up with some great stock.
It is the lot of the smallholder to learn to adapt to the unadaptable, the not-quitegoing-to-plan and to make the best of what each day throws at them.
My own success at hatching 12 rare breed West of England goslings (seven males
and five females) was a little dented when I lost three in quick succession: two to rats and one to being sat upon. And, of course, all three were female. Then I managed to hatch just one from each of my next three batches, resulting in three orphan goslings of different ages that I had to raise (initially) individually. I ended up with a trio of very tame geese who now follows me everywhere and with whom I am utterly entranced. In terms of numbers, it was not a successful breeding experience, but for the joy of getting up close and personal to these charming birds it was a massive hit.
Every breeding experience offers something to learn from, to take successes from and then to do even better next year.
So how do we measure the success? For most of us, the answer is a very personal one based on our expectations and attitude. Two smallholders may have exactly the same breeding experiences and while one may sing their successes from the rooftops, the other may choose to shut the barn door and walk away, head hung low. Let us now look at some of the measuring criteria in detail:
For many smallholders, money is a key factor. Breaking even is a well-used phrase and is often what many strive to achieve. For others, a small profit is essential, while for some they are content to accept that what they are doing is a hobby or a lifestyle that ensures they have happy meat/ vegetables and/or a stress-free existence. As long as they can still pay the mortgage/ rent/bills, they don’t worry about the spreadsheets. It would, however, be daft to constantly breed stock at a loss wouldn’t it? This is surely more a sign of a poorly managed breeding programme and/or undervaluing the animals concerned?
Are you in it for the money?
Workload is often ignored in the world of smallholding other than to accept that if smallholders worked out their hourly rate and compared it to the minimum wage they would be breaking the law. There are two ways of looking at the whole money issue — if you are trying to make money from your smallholding, you don’t need (or even want) to work out your hourly wage, you just need to know if you have enough money to live on and to keep doing what you are doing.
The second way of dealing with the workload issue is to look at it in terms of enjoyment. A friend of mine built up a successful pork business, was selling to a variety of good outlets and ending each day shattered. She turned to her husband one morning as they were slogging their way through piles of pig manure and said: “Are you enjoying this any more?” The money was good, the feedback was excellent, but the workload made them decide to reclaim their lives. Surely if you are not enjoying what you are doing any more, even if you have made money, how can you claim to have had a successful year?
Be honest with yourself
Despite having said earlier that if things don’t quite go to plan you can still claim a successful breeding season, it is still
Successful breeding is defined by attitude. Things may not have gone quite to plan, but you can still decide that you have ended up with some great stock
crucial to be honest about matching your expectations with your outcomes. I may have fallen in love with the small number of geese I raised and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but the reality is that in matching the orders I had overall and felt I could achieve against the ones I actually managed to fulfil, I was adrift by more than 50%. Some of this is easily explained and solved. I have responded to the rat problem by building a totally rat-proof aviary where, next year, I can house the vulnerable goslings at night. Another issue was that the geese didn’t really settle enough in one place to continually lay eggs, so my partner, David Chidgey, and I eventually created a dedicated goose stall which they were happy with. Next year this will be available to them from the start of the laying season. The poor hatch rates in our later sets is harder to solve, although I may try reliable broodies more than the incubator next year, as well as being even more careful about monitoring temperature and humidity. I have a theory about the poor fertility rates in the later hatches. Having hatched our first 12 goslings in the incubator, I then returned them to their parents to bring up. Did this then stop Tom, our gander, from being as active with his mating? Quite possibly.
Whatever animals you breed, it is crucial to look back and analyse like this. It is also crucial to keep records, especially when dealing with large numbers. If you are going to have any chance of being even more successful next year you need to know where the successes and failures were for each individual animal you bred.
If you have stock that underperforms for whatever reason you have to ask yourself if it should remain a part of the breeding programme. This can be a personal thing. A favourite ewe may have difficulty birthing, but her lambs may end up being a fabulous size and quality. You may keep her, another smallholder may not. Some sheep breeders will cull any ewe that loses a quarter or is broken-mouthed. An imperfectly marked pedigree animal may be rejected by one breeder, but still be used by another because most of the time the offspring it produces are more than acceptable.
Tough decisions may have to be made and these will depend entirely on what you are trying to achieve. There are no rules. If you want to ‘carry passengers’ — or not — that is up to you. Judging your success this year is as much about planning next year to be even better as it is about the actual successes you have achieved already.
Happy and healthy
Healthy, happy animals are surely the ultimate aim of all smallholders, whatever creatures they keep on their property and for whatever reason. As I type this I am looking at our sheep. David and I lambed six ewes this spring (Badger Face and Shetland) and while I may have wished for more doubles (we had three doubles and three singles), the resulting nine lambs are perhaps the best we have ever had. Worming issues to date have been negligible, feet issues nonexistent and we have had no scour. All were reared by their mums and after just three months most are now almost the size of the adults with fleeces to die for. So far so good. The ultimate success will only perhaps come when we have sold those we want to sell and the rest are in the freezer, ready to cook for visiting friends and family, at which point we hope at least one person will say: “The lamb is so tasty we don’t even need the mint sauce.”
Be proud of yourself
Success in the show ring, getting perfect markings, better than average hatch rates, hitting the markets exactly right and getting a top price for your stores… personal success is only really measurable against your own expectations. For any smallholder, the first time they hatch their own chickens is a massive success. Three or four years down the line, they will probably have raised the bar and are looking for 75%-plus hatch rates or a return on their incubator investment. Personal achievements are just that — personal — and feeling proud plays a huge part.
It is often said that the next breeding programme needs to be planned the minute the first offspring hits the ground. Breeding females need looking after to raise good stock and so that they remain in good condition for mating in the autumn. As each new animal is born, future breeding stock needs to be sourced: that perfect male. As the numbers of offspring build, start the sums to work out what gets sold, what is kept and what winter fodder will be needed and for how many. That way you will be in a strong position moving into the following spring.
But in between it all it is important to find the time to enjoy the journey.
Sometimes it is difficult to know what the successes are going to be until they happen. It is always good to plan, to be ambitious, to have goals. As smallholders we can often experiment and push the boundaries. Planning for success is exciting, while finding unexpected success is a bonus.
Dotty was one of a set of bottle-reared twins born to a mum with twin lamb disease. Owner Andy Lawrence from Devon says: “This was our first ever lambing and a real baptism by fire”
Carlos, an Anglo-Nubian billy, was home bred in Devon by Joyce Greenslade. Aged just seven months, he sired these amazing kids in 2017 and more in 2018. “And then we lost him to an unknown infection,” says Joyce. “We were totally gutted”
Maya was Carolyn Bailey Kokta’s first ever home-bred Arab. “She fought a variety of ailments, including a hole in the heart, to be placed at the Horse of The Year Show aged only six. She is my third ‘daughter’ and has brought me huge joy and pride,” says Carolyn
Dani Pegley’s Barnie is the first Silver Barnevelder to beat the common chestnuts at the National Poultry Show. She achieved reserve champion.