DIY tips for smallholders

On this page: ... You can pick up the distilled wisdom of someone who spends a lot of time getting wet and muddy, just in case you want to do the same, but quicker. Seriously, these tips here might be of interest if you have your own small holding of marginal land, but not if you are an agri-baron.

Supplying a water trough

When we took over the field, the cattle used to go down to the marshy area at the bottom to drink from the stream. Once we had fenced the marsh off (it got very poached in winter), we put in a gravity-fed trough using some bought items, and a lot of salvage. As long as you don't mind checking the flow every few days, this works remarkably well, and is a lot cheaper than having mains water.

Pre-requisites

Materials

How to put it together

Choose a level spot by the fence for the trough, and if using them, make a base of your bits of wood. Site the trough so it's as level as possible.

Then find a place where you can take water from. There should be enough of a drop to feed the trough easily - you can test this with a hosepipe if your pipes aren't suitable. As our stream has a good gradient up from the trough, we were able to find a small pool to one side of the main flow (less likely to be washed away in a storm) and dam it a bit to get about 10cm of water.

Then, sink the bucket into the stream-bed about 1m away, so you can arrange a short length of pipe from the supply pool, through the dam, and over the edge of the bucket. The bucket acts as a reservoir and silt/leaf trap. A handy piece of reclaimed clay drainpipe serves to anchor the pipe, or you could improvise with rocks. However, for now, don't start filling the reservoir.

Put a fitting in the hole in the bucket and fix the first piece of the pipe between the reservoir and the trough. We have a 30m length between the bucket and the tank, for which length we have put in 2 joints. One was essential to join the pipes we had, and the other was added later at the lowest point before the pipe enters the tank, to allow the pipe to be cleaned out more easily. (It takes a lot of puff to blow up a long water-filled pipe to clear out debris; it's much easier to unscrew the joints and let the water wash the debris out!) The idea is to have a joint anywhere you think debris might collect.

After that slight diversion, back to connecting the pipe. Once you have a long enough piece, drill a hole in the back of the tank and put in the fitting to connect the input pipe.

Then, choose a point on one side of the tank to take out the water (I've had to show it on the front in my diagram, but this is not a sensible arrangement in real life.) Drill a hole a few cm lower than the inlet, and put in another fitting to connect the outlet pipe. If you can arrange it, use a larger-bore pipe for the outlet than the inlet; if not, you could have an overflow hole at the back.

Make sure the outlet pipe is downhill all the way: even a 2-3cm uptilt at the far end can stop the flow if the inlet gets blocked; once it starts again, the tank will overflow because of an airlock. Again, an old piece of pipe or some rocks help to weigh the end down.

Now for the fun bit: start the bucket filling and wait for the water to start running into the tank. It may take a bit of blowing and shaking the pipes to get going. Make sure you wait till the tank is full before you leave, so you can check the outlet is running freely. This arrangement has the advantage that the outlet acts as a skimmer, taking all the smaller debris (hay, dust, pollen, insects etc.) off the top of the water.

Our set-up works all year, even in hard frost, as long as I make sure the flow is good enough. It needs clearing out (by undoing the joints, or clearing the pool, or removing floating leaves from the tank etc.) every few days: more often during leaf-fall and in stormy weather, but in quiet periods, it can go for 2-3 weeks unattended. (Only once was it blocked by a shrew that was sucked into the top supply pipe and exactly plugged it - fortunately, its tail was protruding a little so I could remove it, poor thing!)

A hay-sled

If, like me, you have a long way to take your fodder to the animals in the winter, but no way to get a vehicle there, you might like to think about making a hay sled. My husband built me one from marine ply on a wooden frame; the frame is a simple rectangle with cross-members. It has a chamfer at the front, which allows the front of the base to curve up a little. It has a long rope to tow it by and eyes to attach one of those 6-hook elastic luggage straps. It's just the right size to take a small bale of straw or hay, which is held on by the straps. It slides over wet grass or mud with ease, and prevents the development of gorilla-length arms from manhandling bales. The only improvement I would make is to add a foam pad to the rope where it goes over my shoulder.

(I can't help thinking there would be a market for a plastic moulded version for smallholders, but I have neither the time nor the expertise to develop this.)

A new use for an old bag

Aha - something from IKEA that's almost always in stock, costs just over £1, and is genuinely useful. Also it doesn't have an embarrassing name - just a "blue bag". When you are at the checkouts with your big yellow bag of candles and cushions, Irina the ironing-board, Sven the sofa and Berndt the box-file, look for a rack of blue polypropylene bags with yellow webbing handles. Why not treat yourself to several? They are just the job for carting a couple of flakes of hay, or other messy things, in the back of the car, for carrying wet horse rugs without getting smothered in mud etc. (Won't do much for your street cred, but if you were worried about this, you wouldn't be wandering about with straw in your hair and mud on your jeans, would you?)