Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

On Raccoons and Reality

IMG_6927As you know, I have chickens. I have them for eggs, meat, entertainment, learning, and just a little dependence taken away from The Man. This spring I got more layers, turkeys, and some meat birds to expand my flock. For the layers, I got ones that lay cool egg colors. The meat birds were to see if I could butcher them myself.

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Then the verb for my chicken keeping became had.

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Here’s the thing — I could blame the raccoons. I could get angry or weepy and then go out and trap and shoot every last one of ’em. Technically that’s not legal until October, but I doubt any of the neighbors would complain. Then I could go out and trap and shoot all of their relatives that wander onto our property. Then I could trap and shoot all of their relatives that expand into my territory. It’s mine, after all (more or less), so I get to decide what’s allowed!

Or — I could look at it through the lens of reality. Despite their reputations and super-villain masks, raccoons are not evil. In fact, I suspect that they are thoroughly amoral like the rest of the natural world. They didn’t go after my birds because they wanted to hurt me or push my healing back or so they could cackle with malicious glee when I came out to see the death and destruction. They killed my birds because I left delicious, easy food that couldn’t fight back in non-raccoon-proof containers. Er, coops. That’s all. That’s reality.

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I’ve been wrestling with an idea for a while and this situation helped me to define it. See, there’s the reality we’re sold and then there’s real reality. They aren’t the same.

Sold reality: Getting chickens is great for your health, encouraging exercise, fresh air, and laughter (have you ever seen a chicken run?). I’m taking business away from those awful factory farms and I’m doing my part to bring food knowledge back to The People. Maybe I can even start my own business with it. It’s happy and shiny and so Martha Stewarty!

Real reality: I accepted responsibility for animals that would find it difficult at best to survive in Maine without human intervention for a lot of reasons. Food and shelter from the elements were handled well. The massive amount of wildlife was ignored despite several warning shots. Also, egg businesses? They rarely so much as break even.

Now, I had a lot of excuses for not taking the threats more seriously. I may even have one or two legitimate reasons.

Raccoons and reality really don’t care.

This also extends far beyond fresh eggs and masked murdering bandits. This extends into every aspect of our lives, every decision we make.

My butt is dragging so hard on the way to work and I forgot to bring my mug to put coffee in. One plastic to-go cup won’t actually do any harm, right?

Raccoons, reality, and the Pacific Gyre don’t care.

I have to have a job to pay my debts and maybe, eventually, I’ll even get to pay rent again. The only jobs I can do are a 40-mile car ride each way. I gotta pay my bills.

Raccoons, reality, and atmospheric CO2 levels don’t care.

I need clothes. Not only are natural fibers out of my budget range, they’re such a pain to take care of. A few cheap, polyester outfits isn’t the end of the world.

Raccoons, reality, and the plastic we’re drinking don’t care.

I am not going to end this post with how we all need to go vegan and minimalist and if we hold hands and sing Kumbaya loud enough it’ll all work out in the end. I don’t know how to fix this. What I do know is that if we don’t become aware of the clash between the realities and do something to bring them back in alignment, real reality will win. It will win with extreme prejudice. That’s how reality works.

I also know that the first time a raccoon tries to get through the fencing with my new electric charger attached, I’ll be thrilled to report what to do with BBQ coon.

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I Have Bees!

IMG_6840A week ago I installed two packages of bees from Georgia. I think they’re Italians, but they’re some sort of well-behaved, as-domesticated-as-possible breed. Whatever they are, it was probably only about 55 degrees, though sunny, when I slammed the boxes on the ground and shook the stunned bees into the hive (that’s how you do it), and nobody was particularly threatening. I was a bit of a chicken about handling them, but I’ll get over it.

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I left the queens in their cages hung on the back of the hive, but I did pull the corks two days later. I expect the workers have eaten through the candy stoppers by now and I’m hoping both of them will be laying by the next time I open up the hive. Technically you’re supposed to pull the cork the day you install the bees and then not touch anything for a week while they’re getting settled, but I’m just not that good at following directions!IMG_6859

I left each hive with a quart of 2:1 syrup (that’s two parts sugar to one part water) and a scattering of human-quality pollen all hidden under the second hive body to discourage robbing from each other and by other critters. I do plan to get to the point where feeding is a matter of final desperation, not a matter of course, but doing that with a box of bees is going to reduce your chances of a successful start. These girls have already been on a trailer being shipped up from IMG_6841Georgia stuffed in a box with other bees that are not their sisters and a queen that is neither their mother, nor is currently laying eggs. All of this is very stressful, and I need them to raise a whole new generation of bees before they die of old age and over work. That means supplementing them until we have more forage than a few hundred daffodils in flower.

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I will be tracking my hives to see how they do which means they need designations. It seems logical to name my hives after queens, so I’m starting with Amina (from Zazzau) and Boudica (of the Icini). The plan is not to name the queen, but to name the bloodline. As long as the queen in the A hive can be traced to the Amina line it will retain that name. If the line fails, the hive will be renamed. In other words, they can requeen themselves or I can requeen them from a split off that hive and keep the designation. If they’re doing so poorly that I requeen the Amina hive from a Boudica split, the line is dead and I choose another name.

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The one on the right is small cell foundation.

One of the things I’m tracking is the difference between standard foundation and small cell foundation. Since I have two sets of comparable bees that are not currently attached to any foundation, it seemed like an experiment was in order. Amina hive will be trying out the small cell while Boudica hive will be rocking the standard size. My interest in the foundation size has to do with the varroa mite that is causing havoc among American beekeepers as well as in other parts of the world. According to the conventional beekeepers, it’s pointless. According to the treatment-free beekeepers, they didn’t really have success in finding a balance with the mites until they were fully regressed to the smaller size.

My plan is to pursue treatment-free beekeeping to the best of my ability. You can find people vehemently for and vehemently against this in the beekeeping community. Bearing in mind that if you ask five beekeepers a question you’ll get at least six answers, I think that the final decision has to rest with the person or people managing each apiary whether it’s one hive or 1,000, as they will be the ones handling any fallout from it. My interest stems primarily from my concerns about the fragility of our current food system and my lack of interest in supporting the companies that I see as keeping it fragile. After all, Monsanto et al would go out of business in short order if we managed to remember how to feed ourselves without copious applications of chemicals and patented seeds. If I can work toward bees that can take care of themselves in the current, non-friendly environment, then I will be making one step toward a more stable food supply which is a step toward a more stable world.IMG_6876

$10,000

Money’s funny. One number can seem like so much or so little to the same person, depending on the circumstances around it. If I had to pay $10,000- wow, that’s a lot of money! Where would I come up with it? If I were to receive $10,000, it’s a lot of money up until I start paying bills. Then it goes mighty fast.

I was doing some end-of-year looking at my spending in 2016. I’ve been tracking it for most of the year to help me figure out where it all goes and why there’s never quite enough. The number $10,000 came about because it’s an annual budget of modest spending for one excluding rent, food, utilities, renters insurance, and internet. Just for giggles, I wondered what it would take to gross $10,000 from my farming ventures.

If you know anything about farming, then you are familiar with the fact that gross and net income are not the same and often very, very different.

Honey: 1,250# at $8 per #. That’s 31.25 hives (call it 31) harvesting an average of 40# per hive

Nucs (nucleus hives): 67 nucs at $150, but only 56 if I sell them for $180 each

Eggs: 20,000 or 1,666.66 (call it 1,667) dozen at $6 per dozen

It was just an experiment. Everyone knows farming has no security and little if any prosperity attached to it, but some of those numbers looked almost possible. I don’t have much information on the net income for each, but I could make some educated guesses.

For the eggs, with the numbers I’ve been collecting since I got my chicks in the spring, to gross $10,000 I’d be looking at a net of $-20,000 or thereabouts. Yes, that’s a negative. The housing is killing me. I’ll never make money off of the eggs, but eventually I would like to at least get them to pay for the eggs and old hens the family eats.

For the honey, I found a place where I can get a kit with two deeps and buy one medium super for about $173 per brand new hive (2016 prices). At $8 per pound of honey, that’s around 22 pounds per hive to pay off the woodenware. If I’m buying bees, that’s another $125 to $190 or 16 to 24 pounds. With average harvests in Maine in the 40 to 45# range, that means I should be able to pay off even a purchased hive with the first full harvest- which isn’t until the second summer/fall. If I am splitting my own bees and/or catching swarms, I can make a dent in paying off the bear fence in the first harvest, too. Looking at my 31 hives, they will cost $5,363 for the hives themselves, no bees, and $300 for the bear fence with a potential income of $9,920. (31*40*8) That leaves me with $4,257 to either purchase the bees or pay for my time to split hives and catch swarms.

Splitting hives will mean making at least some nucs for my own use, and I can certainly make more for sale. I’ve heard of available patterns for making nucs out of ½” plywood, about four per sheet. At $20 per sheet that’s about $5 for the box. I also need 5 frames and 5 foundations, a total of about $18. That makes the gear requirement around $23. Nucs are selling around here in the $150 to $190 range for local bees, more if the nuc was overwintered. As a newbie I’d probably start selling at the low end, meaning that after deducting the gear, each hive could net me about $127 less the cost of my time. If I manage to make 67 successful nucs to sell, minus $23 per nuc for the gear, I could have around $8,509 to pay for that time.

If I have 31 healthy, producing hives, making 67 nucs shouldn’t be that hard. If I can do both simultaneously, I could spend around $7,204 but gross about $19,970 to net around $12,766. Hm.

These numbers aren’t taking into account some very important information. It doesn’t include rent/lease/mortgage on the land I’m using. It doesn’t include taxes. It also doesn’t account for the hive bodies and nucs that I have to buy and/or build for the hives that are too weak to produce honey or split into nucs. It doesn’t have room for the farm up the way to spray their fields at just the wrong time of day with the wind blowing in just the wrong direction that wipes out most or all of my hives. It doesn’t take into account the time it will take me, a beginning beekeeper, to learn the skills necessary to take care of 31+ hives and build 67+ nucs.

The numbers are still very interesting.

A Good Winter’s Day

I had intended to write a post about some books I’ve been listening to, but then life intervened. It’s been wicked cold the last few days and I got to handle the fallout from a decision I hadn’t thought through sufficiently earlier in the year. When you live in a place where winter is the dominant season but you fail to take that into account when choosing your chicks, frostbite is a probable result. Particularly when the night before the temperature was around -10 degrees F.

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The white tips on her comb and the black skin is frostbite. The white spot in the middle I’m less sure of, but the comb does usually flop to that side. I brought her in the kitchen to thaw out the flesh before she spent the night in the garage which doesn’t dip below freezing.

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The rest of the girls seem to be doing fine in their winter quarters. It’s a partition in our garden shed that doesn’t have a roof, aside from the metal shed roof, so I don’t have to worry about condensation, but I’m also really not holding much body heat. The feed and water are tucked under the ramp up to the exit window so I don’t lose too much ground space that way. The waterer has a heated base that gives off some heat, but the girls seem to prefer getting cozy on the roosts when it’s very cold.

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My chicks are even so classy they have curtains! That bright light out through the window? That’d be snow. The curtains are so I can have the window open but maybe cut down on any breezes coming into the coop. Lucky for me, the only appropriately-sized curtains at the Salvation Army also let in light.

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The next morning it’s confirmed that her comb isn’t going to get better. I slathered on a little coconut oil to help protect the rest of it before I took her back out again. I waited until the afternoon when the temperature was a solid +10 degrees F. A chicken can survive with frostbite, but it’s a painful condition and in this case could have been avoided with just a little thought on my part. At this point, I’ll be keeping the two Leghorns through this winter and next summer, since they are very good layers, but I think they’ll go to the butcher next fall.

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I was also working on another project for my girls at the same time. Making suet cakes. Like a good Millennial aspiring farmer, I found instructions online. The connective tissue between the layers of fat is kind of weird, but the more you can pull out ahead of time, the better the melting process is supposed to go.

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For a long, slow melting, what better way to do it than on the woodstove that we’re using to heat part of the house? It’s not a cook stove, so the top is warm enough to keep the tea water hot, but not so warm that it’ll burn my tallow.

All-in-all it was a pretty satisfying day. I did make a newbie mistake with my birds, but I’m handling it and I’m working on fixing it for next year. I am having a hard time finding cold-hardy breeds that lay white eggs, though. Do you know any? I’m also working on a new skill since rendering fat can be useful as the basis for all sorts of practical things including soap, fried food, and a warming supplement for the chickens for the next wicked cold snap.

Happy Holidays, and stay warm!

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Chicken Update!

It’s been a while since I’ve updated you on my adorable little fluffballs. They are now somewhat less adorable, but still pretty entertaining, featherheads. This is a bit before I put them in their outside coop- two turkey poults and three chicks in that group.

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I did not lose any birds in the early, fluffy days when it’s pretty easy to get them too hot, too cold, too crowded- too anything, really. I had read about this heating plan where instead of lights, you make a “hen” from a seedling heating pad, some sort of arch to hold it up, and towels so they don’t interact with it directly. It gives them a warm cave to retreat into, just like Mama’s wings would be, but without light that can mess up their clock. It worked for me!

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Clearly, they also thought it was a good foot-warmer. I didn’t lose anybody until I put them in their coop outside. It was kind of early, but I was flat out of room in these containers and the little buggers were starting fly out when I opened it up to do anything. I shifted the seedling heaters into the nest boxes for a couple of weeks to give them a little extra heat, and it doesn’t appear to have caused any bad habits. No one died of chill or illness. However, the ducklings didn’t like the ramp so they chose to sleep outside. They were big enough to stay warm, but not too big to be pulled through a gap between the bottom of the fencing and the ground. It happened a couple of nights apart, and I only ended up finding one of the carcasses. The predator, still not sure what it was, had the same idea I did. I bet the ducks tasted good.

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According to my notes, I picked everyone up on May 5. This is one of the two that didn’t match each other. I ordered Araucanas, but apparently you only get real, honest to goodness Araucanas or Amaraucanas from breeders. What you get from a big hatchery is a mutt that should have a blue-egg gene, but isn’t pure anything. So she’s one of my two Easter Eggers. You never know quite what you’re going to get. On August 28 I found three eggs- white, from a Leghorn, and they were expected to be the first ones to start.

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The first eggs are always small- but check out that healthy orange yolk! The Leghorns have been fairly steady- and did somewhat redeem themselves when I found the 17 eggs one of them laid out in the yard. At least she was laying, even if she wasn’t sharing.

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My first thought on seeing this was, “This is why I need a pig. I don’t need to know the egg age to give to a pig!” The next layer started on September 1- one of the Golden Comets with brown eggs. At first I was wondering if the two of them were tag-teaming perfectly since I was getting a brown egg every single day. Nope. The second one started laying on the 18th and they have both been absolute machines. I can pretty much always count on my two brown eggs. The two white layers are fairly consistent, but not like the browns. I didn’t get anything from an Easter Egger until October 8, but they are bigger than the other two and probably took longer to mature. Tragically, it’s a nice, medium, pinkish-beige. I’m still holding out hope that my last hen might decide to lay a green egg, but I’m not holding my breath at this point.

From my first egg until October 20, I have gotten an average of 3.17 eggs per day. However, if I count from when hen #5 started until the 20th, my average is 4.5 eggs per day or 5.25 eggs per hen, per week. Not bad, since one of them is a free-loader!

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My third kind of poultry, of course, were the poults. Didn’t they grow up into a handsome couple! And a very large couple. After quickly outgrowing the chicken coop, as expected, I cobbled together their own cage with parts of the winter garden skeleton. They really outgrew that, too, but Mom was keeping them very well supplied with weeds and garden leftovers, so they were doing ok.

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So ok, in fact, that the little one, Hen, weighed in at 22#. That’s her being “vacuum packed” before freezing. We had to scramble for something to pack them in since I did find someone to butcher them, but he didn’t have any bags that were big enough!

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Tom, however, was so big that he broke the rope the butcher was using to hold him up for plucking. At a healthy 32#, we determined he’d never fit in the grill to live up to his other name- Thanksgiving. Dad dismembered him for me so he should thaw faster when it’s time to get him out of the freezer. Imagine how big they’d be if I figured out a month earlier that I was underfeeding them on protein . . .

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At this point in the poultry experiment, I’ve gotten 180 eggs, 54# of meat/bones, and have had to deal with unintentional loss. I’m about to build coop number two for the winter, since the original chicken coop really isn’t big enough for six hens in a Maine winter. It will be cobbled together temporarily in the garden shed, so coops number three and four will be built next spring/summer. I’m glad I sent the turkeys out this year, but learning how to butcher them myself is still the plan. I also plan to expand the egg operation next year to sell some and I’m considering meat turkeys and/or chickens for the house and possibly for sale. I need to run the numbers. I might also start breeding on farm. Everyone who can really should help to keep heritage breeds around until the rest of America figures out that having one breed of cow, one breed of chicken, and one breed of pig is a poor idea. So far, this experiment is enough of a success to continue it for another year- provided I do a little more planning on the housing first!

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I Have Chicks!

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There is a post in the works that has thing like words and coherent thoughts, but, in the meantime, I have chicks! The leghorns were the first to come out of their corner.

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Do you believe that’s a baby Thanksgiving dinner? Also known as a poult.

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This is a Golden Comet (I think, I don’t have the paper in front of me). They were chosen because aside from being good layers, they’re also supposed to be calm and friendly. So far, they’re the first out to eat in the morning.

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This is an Aracouna- they lay blue and green eggs.

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Or this one is. I’m not sure why they’re a mis-matched set. But they’re both healthy, so we’ll see what we get when they grow up.

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The ducklings are the biggest, heaviest, and most opinionated of the lot. They’re also the messiest, since they think water is for playing in, not leaving in the waterer.

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They look like they all fit in this picture, but when they’re out and about, not so much. I’ll have to split them in half pretty soon, here so I can keep them under shelter long enough to feather out.

6 Simple Steps to Build and Maintain Poor Soil

This post was inspired by someone who hired me to weed a side garden for her. Unfortunately, I believe her land-care tactics are more normal than not.

Step 1– Purchase land that used to be forest, and was never truly turned into grassland.

Forests aren’t good at building soil. When you really get down to it, what builds soil is herbivores eating plants and pooping them back out. There just aren’t as many large animals eating and pooping in a forest as there are on a well-managed grassland. By well-managed, I mean one that is exactly as nature intended, predators and all, or one that humans are managing exactly as nature intended. Over-grazing, under-grazing, and turning it into potato and bean fields are all not in the best interest of a soil builder. If you start with the thin soil you often find in forests and then don’t manage it well, it will not improve with any speed, if at all.

Step 2– Manage the grazers that are on the property such that the favorite grasses never have a rest period to regrow between grazings.

Grass grows the fastest when it is between 3 and 6 inches high. Below 3 inches, there simply isn’t enough leaf space for photosynthesis to support rapid growth. Over 6 inches, and you risk it going to seed. Once an annual, like many grasses, goes to seed, it quits growing. Why? Because the mission has been accomplished. If you never remove the grazers, particularly in the winter and spring when the grass is the most fragile, then the favorite types of grass never reach that magic 3″ height. Everything they don’t like to eat, though? That grows just fine, crowding out the favorites for sunlight and water access.

Step 3– Manage the manure such that it is not able to be utilized by the decomposers that should be living in the land.

There are two ways to do this. One is to leave the manure in the pasture to rot where it is. Given how dry this area is and the fact that we’re working with poor soil, not the best idea. For that to work on a small acerage (probably anything less than 20 acres with proper pasture rotation, around here) there would have to be some pretty awesome decomposers already in the soil. Poor soil simply doesn’t have enough, yet. The second option is to create a manure pile of the size and shape that will encourage composting and then spreading that organic material in doses that the decomposers can handle. This means a tight, shapely manure pile, not a manure sprawl, and you’re probably going to want to water and turn it upon occasion to make sure all of it decomposes.

Step 4– Mis-manage the weeds.

I had to grab a bigger bucket because I’d miscalculated the volume of the weeds I was pulling. The homeowner told me to just throw them in the trashcan. What I said was, “Absolutely not! Then it will go and not decompose in a landfill.” What I should have said was, “Why are you interested in removing organic material from soil that you have said is poor?” Unless the weeds are diseased or have gone to seed, weeds belong in the compost pile. The other major mis-management is to allow the weeds to out-compete the grass. If the weeds are not cut back regularly to let the grass have sun and water, then the grass has no chance to out-compete the weeds. Grass likes to be cut/grazed and weeds do not. Knowing that can change pasture from weeds to grass without chemicals. Just good timing.

Step 5– Use poison.

A friend was telling me about this great weed-killer that she’d started using. All organic, so it was totally safe, right? The ingredients were soap, vinegar, and salt. Ok, so it’s less likely to make your dog sick than, say, Roundup, but there are two points to make here. One- poison is poison. You may or may not outright kill the decomposers in the soil around the unwanted plant or the ones that digest it, but there’s a good chance you’ll weaken them. You’re also leaving less-than-healthy soil for the next thing you want to grow there. Two- you salt the ground of your foes because you don’t want them to grow food to be able to fight back. In a place that doesn’t have the kind of rainfall necessary to wash away salts, why would you salt your own ground? That doesn’t make sense.

Step 6– Complain and warn others that the soil is just lousy.

If you want to make something better, assume there is a way. You just have to look for it. There are challenges that are unique to this area when it comes to building a good, strong soil, but there is no reason to assume it can’t be done. Do some research, ask some questions, and think critically about the information that’s out there. Then allow yourself the time it takes to build it right.

There you go- six easy steps to building and maintaining poor soil. How many are you following?