The Year Round: The big freeze turns to grey days

LAST time you heard from us here at White Smocks, we were still in the grip of the big freeze.

It was the toughest test of our buildings and systems for very many years, but only one of the pig houses had its water supply frozen – for about 10 days – and that had relatively few animals in it, so we were able to get through by simply carting buckets to and fro.

Now it's just grey and wet.

We grow a few crops here in the Northallerton area, but the principal businesses are pigs and fertilised eggs for a hatchery which sells chicks to rear as broilers – meaning hens for meat.

We have three large barns, each containing about 10,000 hens and 700 cockerels. When we first stocked the sheds, there would have been more like 800-900 cocks in each but you always lose a proportion and you cannot just throw in a few more. Biosecurity is the number one concern and each batch of birds is a sealed community which lives and dies all together.

A slight dilution of the cockerel presence is expected and should not make any serious difference to the percentage of eggs which are fertilised.

Our current communities have been with us about eight months. Another six weeks and it will be time to replace them. That is a major operation, involving a complete shutdown while the sheds are cleaned and sterilised.

Most of the work is done by contractors but we all pitch in.

It will be the sort of intensive hard work my son missed when he was away at university, studying real estate management.

He eventually decided it was not for him and he is happy to be back on the farm, and my wife and I are pleased to have him here.

The old hens will go for cull value. I don't ask where they go but I suppose it will be for soup and pies. No point beating about the bush – selling animals for food is half of what farming is all about, after all.

Their replacements will be about five weeks old already. I haven't been to see them yet, but I usually do go take a look, to check them for health.

CW 22/1/11