Sunday, 22 May 2016

Chicken eggs

Chicken Eggs

I've just had an interesting conversation with a friend who wanted to buy some of our eggs. It started because we have some spare eggs and I was saying that he could have some for free while I had too many but any donations were welcome. When I didn't have spare ones then I'd have to charge. He said that he'd prefer to pay the full amount as he didn't like the idea of taken something free from me.

When I told him they would be £1.00 for half a dozen he seemed taken aback. I then said that they normally sell for £1.50 - I have already lowered the price because when some friends ask for things like this they are quietly hoping for a good deal, such as "mates rates". It then transpired that he was expecting to buy them for 50p per half dozen. We settled on a £1 because the price wasn't an issue, he was just surprised that it costs that much for home grown eggs.

Doing some sums shows the real price of having chickens in the back garden. It also shows economies of scale.

The same is true of vegetables or home made jam, but I'll show the costs of chickens.

If you presume the chickens are to be kept for 5 years, and that you want to have the chickens at full production, so you can have you're own eggs but also sell some, and if you presume you have to protect them from foxes etc the sums are as follows:

Chicken house with nesting boxes, 8ft by 6ft and 6ft tall, self build with guttering and water butt to collect water. £400 one off cost

Fencing, 6ft high metal with fence posts etc £300 one of cost

Electric fence £200 (cost is to cover a faulty control unit as well as initial setup - I had one fail after 1 year) - one off cost

20kg of grit (calcium) to keep their shells hard (we had some soft shells to begin with) - £7

Extras, water bottles, trays, feeders etc - £100 one off cost

Hens £5 ea x 20 = £100, but they only lay at full production for 2 to 3 years. x 2 lots = £200. 

Egg boxes, about 10p each

Feed £6.60 per week (not including driving there to pick up the feed)

Water from water butt but in reality some will come from tap.

The price per eggs over 5 years is about 13p+ which is 78p per half dozen.

That's the cost to us but if you want to sell them and factor in time for wages at £7.20 per hour at about 0.5 hours per day plus an extra 0.5 hours for cleaning them out once per week we have an additional £28.80 per week. An average of 100 eggs per week would take the price per egg to almost 42p - £2.50 per half dozen.

If someone wanted to genuinely cover our costs and pay for our time when they bought some eggs then £2.50 is a realistic figure with those wages at the bare minimum of what anyone would accept. Of course most people expect £10 to £15 per hour for their labour although no one would pay that to collect eggs and look after chickens.

The problem with selling eggs is that the price people see in the shops is based upon huge economies of scale and not quality, or animal welfare.

The next time you buy eggs from the side of the road for 70p per half dozen, just remember they don't know what it really costs them to produce from a back garden. Even the Co-Op is selling large eggs for about £1.50 in our local shop per half dozen.

The price of our chickens was cheap (excuse the pun) as they came from a friendly chicken producer but many people will pay £10 to £15 per bird.

The costs above can only be more for smaller flocks than 20, especially considering that many breeds won't produce 250 to 300 eggs per year as ours do. With your own chickens, depending on the breed, you may have one or some that keep going broody and just sit on their eggs. You may also get a disease in your flock or have particularly bad weather one year which will reduce their egg count.

£1.00 per half dozen is very reasonable, but won't earn you any money to talk about. £1.50 per box is about the minimum you would want to charge if it was part of your income but you are certainly not going to become rich any time soon.  

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Overdue Maintenance

Overdue Maintenance

We're constantly being told to leave bits of the garden wild for wildlife. I do that, it comes in as a handy excuse for not maintaining parts of the garden. It certainly helps attract and keep wildlife, there's absolutely no doubt, but like all messages given over to the public from organisations, such as the Wildlife Trusts, the message has been simplified so much, that when taken literally it doesn't work as people would expect. This then leads to people giving up on that message and it becomes a fad that no one repeats. 

The problem the Wildlife Trust faces, in my opinion formed over the last 3 to 4 years since I have been volunteering for them one day a week, is that the simple messages they give over suffer from being over simplified when really people need to be given a lot more information and educated properly about conservation. The problem with educating people to the required level is that people don't want to put that much time and effort into it. The simple message put over gets through to many many people and the Trusts can justify their grants and the money they spend by pointing out that their message is working, at a superficial level, and that many people support them and know what the message is. When they want volunteers to help that number drops dramatically, especially in the area of site maintenance that I am in, and when a much more hands on educational day is put on, a day where you can meet and talk to an expert in a particular field, such as insects or pond creation, the number of people that turn up is in single figures. Sometimes 3 or 4. There are many different reasons for this obviously.

The example of making a pond to help wildlife, my pond, is a good example, and I think highlights the gulf between the simple messages that get given over and the realities of putting the messages into practice. Especially the reality of maintaining a good wildlife habitat.

The pond when dug is about 19ft by 11ft, a deep section of about 2.5ft with the rest of the depth varying between 1ft and 3 inches. Margins are shallow and sloped. The mounds around the pond were to be wild flowers with the expected odd bit of grass.

I went on a course for designing and building a pond and the things that were stressed were to leave space around the pond to go wild, which would be good for wildlife and don't routinely clean out the pond, not even in winter, because you'll kill and destroy so many little creatures. It sounded good, I took it all in and to this end tried to let nature to it's bit. It worked fantastically well. Frogs, Toads, Newts, Diving Beetles, Pond Skaters, Dragon Flies, May Flies, Leeches, various segmented water worms, mites, water fleas, Shrimps and of course Mosquitoes and Midge larvae , you name it, it appears to now be there.  

The immediate surrounding area has been planted with Willow, Dogwood, some fruit trees and a lot of wild long grass, piles of wood, piles of rocks, drainage channels and some small banks of earth. Lots of places for lots of things to hide. This is bordered by a big hedge on one side. This wild and semi wild area for wildlife is around 50ft by 30ft, maybe a lot bigger, the size is a pure guess.

I'm actually very pleased with the whole area but the reality of how much time it takes to maintain is starting to hit home. The problem with nature is that everything keeps competing with everything else. It's only a problem because I have an idea in mind as to how I want it to look and how much time I want to spend on it and what species of plants that I want to be there. I want diversity, colour and various heights of plants throughout. It's the same with wildlife conservation. We are trying to conserve, keep, something that isn't natural. Paths aren't natural, the amount of different flowers isn't natural, the hedge isn't natural. Nature is constantly taking what I have done and keeps trying to change it. Wildlife is certainly enjoying what I have done.

The simple message of Wildlife groups is keep a wild area. They don't tell you that you'll need to constantly keep it in check.

Within 1 year I could see succession taking place. The big hedge has Blackthorn within it. Blackthorn spreads via its roots underground and new trees spring up all over the place as it tries to spread. I have had dozens of small trees appear within the grass along that hedge to such an extent that although I kept cutting them all down I missed one that appear next to the pond, 20ft away from the hedge. This small tree, which was hidden by long grass, has punched it's way through the edge of the pond liner and come up next to the pond. Another one has appeared at the other end of the pond. From nowhere one of these is now nearly 3ft tall and the damage to the pond liner can't be fixed. In this case it doesn't matter but how many more of them are trying to punch holes in the liner? If I let this area be wild within one or 2 years the whole area would be small Blackthorn. The hedge isn't natural and Blackthorn is very dominant. These types of hedges need constant maintenance. You can't let it go wild unless you just want Blackthorn to spread.

The grass in between the hedge and pond has been seeded with wild flowers many times but the grass just crowds it out. I've even dug up that grass area, turned the turf over and then seeded but one warm winter is all it took for the grass to out compete the flowers. The only thing that has beaten the grass is Dock, Dandelion and Bristly Ox-Tongue - they are doing fine. I'm OK with the Dandelion but not the other two. You can see how this wild area of grass would look over the next few years. Small Blackthorn bushes with increasing numbers of Thistles, Ox-Tongue and Dock etc slowly crowding out the grass until the Blackthorn finally crowds out and blocks the sun leaving the Dock etc at the margins.

The pond is facing the same problem. Grass is colonising the margins of the pond. The grass has now crept in and is growing in the margins. After 3 years the grass is thick and has shrunk the pond by about 2 feet in all directions. The pond is looking tiny.

In the photo you can see that I've already done a lot of work re-exposing the right hand side of the pond but the left hand side is yet to be done. This is within 3 years from the start of the pond. The bottom right hand corner shows the young Blackthorn bush.
This picture is after clearing both sides. You can now see the pond liner on the side where the grass was. 6 full wheel barrow loads of grass was taken out from the margins of the pond. Had it been left, 5 years from starting the pond I think there would only be 1ft wide of water showing in the centre.

I initially tried clearing out the pond in March but realised frogs were spawning so I stopped. I couldn't wait for next winter for several reasons, one being that the pond was now ugly and not so nice to sit next to, as I had hoped and the other being that it would have been a bigger job with more growth. Another reality that has hit home after spending a couple of hours over the last year dealing with is the introduction of Duckweed and Azolla (a floating water fern). Attracting wildlife also brings in unwanted plants. The first year of the pond saw a Moorhen make the pond it's home. Not only did the bird take almost all the water plants and make a nest with them, it also brought with it, I believe, Duck weed. The Azolla has just appeared this year, presumably from another bird or perhaps even stuck to my canoe after a day's paddle and found it's way into the pond.
It might be hard to see in this photo but it shows Duckweed and Azolla. This photo was taken after I spent half an hour in one sitting removing as much of both of these plants as I could. I made little in road even after that time. The two plants both cover the entire pond and the blanket they produce just gets thicker and thicker. They block the light from reaching the pond plants beneath the surface, stop the exchange of gasses and oxygen from getting in and out of the water and rapidly kill the pond. They also stop diving beetles from being able to break the surface and grab air. Scraping this stuff off of the surface also means that many many snails get caught up in it and removed. Many little tadpoles are also just under this and they too get caught up in the net.

The idea of the simple message I was given on the pond training course, don't try cleaning out your pond as it kills and disturbs lots of creatures, even in winter, over looks the more complicated need for management of a pond. Left to it's own devices this pond would be almost totally dead had I not intervened. I still have a lot more to remove and this will now be a constant battle each year. I had a good example of this the other year while canoeing a local drain (man made drainage river to those outside of Lincolnshire). While canoeing I came across a slow flowing stretch which was so full and covered with Duckweed and Azolla that it was very very difficult to paddle through it. The bow of the boat was pushing it's way through the weed causing it to bunch up many inches thick. Just before entering this stretch I noticed a huge amount of fish and had spent many minutes watching them and wondering why there were so many. These fish had swam away from the weeded area and congregated. They were having to move due to the lack of oxygen in the stretch I was about to enter.

While paddling the weeded stretch the boat was causing hundreds of young eels and other fish that hadn't managed to escape to literally jump as they were disturbed and land on the blanket of weed. They were hanging as close to the surface as possible getting some of the little oxygen that there was left in the water (which was at the surface). When I peered through the blanket of weed I could see that all other plant life under the water was gone. The stretch before this weeded area was full of many different plants. This stretch was a good half mile and had become a dead zone. The Environment Agency came out, within the hour of me calling them. They tested the water for oxygen and confirmed there was almost none within the water. Their action also showed how conservation of wildlife is a fashion guided by how prominent the area is. This stretch can not be seen from a road, doesn't have a path along side and is almost never visited by anyone. I was probably the first and only visitor for a year or two.

Had it been else where they would have either taken a boat up it and dragged/ scraped the weed off allowing oxygen and light back in or they would have added oxygen through a chemical in which produces large amounts of oxygen allowing the creatures to breath. The bloom of weed would have only been a temporary thing and would have died away after the summer but not before killing many creatures. The environment needs maintaining if you want to keep diversity. The drain / river here isn't natural, it's man made surrounded by fields pouring in nutrients and fertilizers which cause the bloom. The drain, just like my pond, is or was an area that had introduced diversity and many different species simply by digging and putting it there as is much of what we see around us.

As our modern life changes and destroys natural ponds, rivers and various different habitats with farming, road building and housing, we need to maintain the man made new habitats if we wish to keep wildlife, because in many or even most cases, the diversity won't be there without us constantly working on it. That's the same as my pond. The simple message of leave areas to go wild, just add a pond to your garden, just sow wild flowers, doesn't work on it's own. Left to it's own devices nature will use succession to remove diversity, allow dominant species to take over and then natural selection over years, hundreds of years, may or may not create diversity in that area.

Nature is only diverse and wonderful and very interesting when taken as a whole, over the whole country, or the whole world. Any one little area will see nature destroying life and diversity and going closer to  a monoculture of the most dominant plants in the short term as succession resets everything. This is why as we constantly destroy the natural world, displace nature and force it into ever decreasingly smaller areas we need to constantly maintain diversity and manage those areas that are left. Diversity can't happen naturally in a small area within the time frame of our lives. If we want to see nature and wildlife we have to make it in the areas which are left and then keep tending to it, just like my pond.

This is what I do at the Wildlife Trust as a volunteer, I constantly pull weeds, cut grass to allow flowers room to develop help moving sheep and cattle around the site so they can graze, tread in seeds and dig up the top soil. Conservation is a fashion, we are trying to maintain the fashion of meadows and farming that used to exist 100 to 1000 years ago. The idyllic idea of wild flower meadows and buzzing bees in the country side with pretty little ponds full of frogs was man made. This country was a big wood with areas of marsh, we changed that and nature's succession was reset.  When modern practises stopped grazing animals in rotation on small fields, stopped hay meadows from being needed, stopped hedges from being used to enclose animals as the norm we needed to start to re-create that. It used to be economical to farm that way which is why those habitats formed. Now that it isn't economical to work and live like that, the habitat, which never was natural, now needs the time, money and effort to make it look like that but it's far from easy and the little simple messages that get put out are but pin pricks as to what is needed. It was easy to maintain that period's environment when it was part of our natural life but now it has become something extra, extra work, extra money and extra time it isn't quite so easy to tame nature and produce an idyllic habitat.

We have always fought nature but now it costs money. Maintenance is now the biggest job for wildlife conservation. Conservation is a fight against nature, the idea of letting nature do it's thing doesn't produce what we understand to be diversity and idyllic habitats when looked at on a small scale such as a few acres or a garden or even an entire county.    

Monday, 9 May 2016

Leeks and weights

Leeks and weights

Late summer I sowed a row of leeks and forgot to transplant and thin them. They grew bunched and uneven sizes but we have managed to pull up a few here and there during the last couple of months but today they have started too look a bit tatty. I've pulled them all up so as to dig that bed.

3.6kg of leek. The late sowing was well worth doing.

Potato and leek soup looks to be on the menu.

That takes the total of produce harvested this year, so far, to just under 47kg.

Last year I didn't total up the harvest month by month until June but we're already 20kg up and it is looking like we'll be 40kg up by the end of May. As long as the fox doesn't strike us, with eggs alone we should be able to add 250kg in total compared to last year so my target of 750kg being harvested from the garden is well on course. Providing I over come the slug problem the amount of Cauliflower, Green headed Broccoli, various Cabbage and runner beans should take us well over although that probably counts as counting chickens before they have hatched!

The problem of growing things bigger in pots before planting out to beat the slugs is now causing a big problem. Sweet corn must go out today and the next batch of runner beans must go into the ground just to free up pots to sow other seeds in the greenhouse.

Pot bound Sweetcorn. Another group of them are a week behind these ones
Runner beans will be pot bound in a few days. There are 3 lots of beans all at different stages as I'm still sowing some each time a pot becomes available. Cape Gooseberries need separating and potting up urgently also. I'm hoping to have a few plants in the polytunnel as well as a row of 20 outside.

Tomatoes are pot bound as We've only managed to pot up 20% of them and this year  we have sown hundreds with the hope of selling some young plants plus the tomato sauce made last year for Pizza toppings worked a treat and stores well in jars. Much more of that this year.

The photos only show a small amount of what we have sown. There are trays and trays all over the place. 

Monday, 2 May 2016

Slug wars

Slug Wars

Last year we have a slug problem they devoured a huge amount. This year I thought I'd sow so much more, with the theory being the slugs could have a third of it. 

Last night was the first warm night, around 11 deg C of the year and this morning young tomatoes and cucumbers that have been planted in the poly-tunnel have either gone totally or have leaves missing and are covered in slime.

Courgettes I potted up yesterday and left on the floor of the poly tunnel over night have already started losing leaves.

The pots I can move onto a table, but the ones outside under a cloche are devastated.  

Luckily slugs don't like onions, or so I keep reading. If you enlarge the photo by clicking on it there is slime all over the soil and half a row of spring onions are almost totally eaten, even the tops of larger ones show damage.
There are a few beer traps in the poly tunnel and although they have the odd slug in them they aren't working. Perhaps slugs don't like Carling Black Label.

In the courgette bed outside there are 8 beer traps and they have caught one slug last night.

Today, I have just ordered some Slug Nematode. They are expensive and we have too much growing space to use everywhere but I will try some in the poly tunnel.

We have to get on top of this problem because there are only so many pots and so much space to keep plants in pots until they are big enough to face slugs....and I have already reached that point where some things could do with going out.

A row of peas sown direct have also been eaten by slugs just as they poked their heads above the soil and another row of peas that were raised indoors and then transplanted out have now lost most of their lower leaves. Last year virtually all Runner and French beans were eaten.

There are also news stories about slugs being worse this year as the winter wasn't cold enough for them to hibernate causing them to carry on eating and breeding through the winter....