Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

Common Ground Fair 2017

It’s about time for me to see if I have enough time off available to go to the Common Ground Fair this fall. I dunno, I’ve got a lot of things going on this year. I’m not sure I’ll have the time. Why have I taken to going every year?

It’s kinda like the Ren Faire.

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And a gymkhana.

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With food.

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Lots of food.

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There are things to learn.

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Experiments to study.

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The people watching is epic.

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More food.

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Don’t give me the side-eye when you walk between my camera and horses, buddy.

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And critters.

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How many places will you really hear someone on their phone saying, “I’m watching oxen pull a sledge. Yes, oxen.”

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Guess it’s time to check the calendar!

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The Bears and the Bees

The most recent meeting at the Oxford Hills Honey Bee Club hosted Scott Lindsay, a wildlife biologist from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, to go over information about black bears. Apparently the only state in the lower 48 with a higher population of black bears is Oregon.

At the moment, it is probable that male bears, boars, are are out and about on warm days, 40 degrees and up, but they’re still going back to sleep in between. The female bears, sows, likely won’t be up and around until early to mid-April. That’s also when you’re likely to see cubs in softwood and mixed wood trees. If you do, walk away calmly, since their mother is probably watching nearby.

Interestingly, it takes about a week for their digestion to ramp up after their four to five month hibernation, so their first forays out aren’t gorging. The other interesting piece of information is that as much of a food jackpot as a beehive is, it’s not actually their first choice. If they can find other, natural sources of food, that’s what they prefer. The hard part in the beginning of spring is the limited food supplies outside of the hives ramping up their brood for summer nectar flows.

When I was in Colorado, the bee school emphasized both electricity and physical sturdiness of the structure. Scott prefers making the area around the hive, or anywhere else you don’t want to have a bear, an unpleasant place for the bear to be. This includes electric fencing with a charger giving no less than .5 joules (the horsepower of electricity), and at least a 5,000 volt shock. Something that the bear will remember. However, you can also do things to make the general area unpleasant. There are pyrotechnic shells, cracker shells, that you can get for your 12-gauge. Speak with the ATF and/or USDA for permission. Air horns and firecrackers can also be used to make loud noises. There’s this thing called a propane cannon, but he recommended against using it if you’re in a populated area since it upsets the humans, too. If being annoyingly loud isn’t enough to discourage the bear, you can add some pain stimulus. Aside from the electric fence, you can also get beanbag rounds for your shotgun. If you get rubber bullets, make sure you aim for large muscle masses. The idea is to make the animal uncomfortable, not actually injure it.

If you have a younger bear in the area, they’re easier to train. Because bears are territorial, having a local bear trained to not eat your hives is the best of all outcomes. It will protect its territory, because that’s what they do, and therefore accidentally protect your hives from any not yet trained bears. Not training your local bear means relying on luck to keep your hives safe. Apparently some hives can go years without being touched but half a mile away is an apiary that gets cleaned out on a regular basis. The hard part is that can change without notice. Once the bear finds the easy food source, they’re really, really hard to discourage. A lot of people would like such a bear removed. That’s the second-to-last choice for the department, and it’s also not very effective. First, they’re placed in already claimed territory, annoying the bears on the Quebec border, then they tend to just walk right back home. It really only works with boar bears in the four to five year age group. The odds are, that’s not your bear.

Legally speaking, if a bear is causing harm or damage to you or your livestock, you are allowed to shoot to kill. For it to be legal, you have to call your local game warden within 18 hours. However, most bears have no interest in attacking us and with a little work on our part, they can be discouraged from attacking livestock, too.

One last point. On the off chance that you run into the very, very rare bear that is genuinely predatory and not just trying to intimidate, fight back. Playing dead will not work. However, convincing them that you’re not an easy meal might make them look elsewhere.

A Farmer’s New Year

IMG_6156January has come and gone. Ok, so has February. It is past time to be thinking about what I learned last year and what I’m going to be doing this year. We are well into the season of seed catalogs and getting into the season for starting those seeds. Farming is a highly seasonal occupation, so it’s also time to order bees, chicks, and poults for the coming summer. Unfortunately, I have only just been given permission to put a little weight on my broken ankle and I don’t have an ETA for being functional.

One of the things I learned, after losing my flock to predators, is that I can acquire chickens who are between a few days and a few years old pretty much any time over the summer. However, the older they are, the more habits they’ve established. My current flock is made up of older hens that came from a stationary coop and run that had been scratched down to dirt and younger hens who had been raised in a strictly indoor coop for four months. This has left both groups far less likely to do things like attack the pumpkins I chuck in to them as treats or do serious scratching for bugs. They were getting better at it before it snowed, but they weren’t up to the level of the girls I raised myself and chucked out on grass the minute I could. I also learned that I need to move their mobile coop very regularly to keep the ground clean. That will need to start as soon as it’s warm enough to be planting in the garden where they are currently living. Two strong legs really help with moving the coop.

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Maybe ducklings again? They are adorable.

The latest I can order chicks through the Paris Farmer’s Union is early May. My preferred place to start the chicks, however, is the bathroom upstairs. I should be doing stairs again by the pickup in June, I think. Of course, I also thought I’d be going back to work a month ago. At my bee meeting on Saturday I sat beside a fellow small farmer and we commiserated over broken legs. She broke hers in a February and wasn’t in physical therapy until that August. I was promptly sorry I’d asked about the healing time. There’s not much point in getting chicks in August, since they probably won’t be fully feathered by the first snow. They certainly won’t be big enough to stick up for themselves in the winter coop that is a bit undersized.

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Dead hive in the fall. I think I did the powdered sugar treatment too late. They got damp and caught a chill, most likely.

The real sticky situation is the bees. I have a line on a full 20-frame local hive, but I have to pick it up and do so no later than early May. Because of where my apiary is located, the hive has to be hand carried, and we can’t really break an active hive into smaller pieces to make it lighter. I think my brother will help me with the actual lifting, but it has to be something he can carry, since there’s no way I’ll be able to walk across uneven ground carrying 70# or more of hive and colony by May. The bees are even more time-sensitive than the chickens. If I don’t get them this spring, I won’t stand even half a chance of splitting over the summer to maybe, hopefully, have multiple colonies going into the fall. The other option is to order a box or two of bees. They’re much lighter to handle, but they also won’t have as strong a start and I’ll need to be installing them in mid-April. Of course, they’ll be going into hives with drawn comb, unlike the last batch, so that will help. On the other hand, I’m still going to be on at least one crutch, I’m sure, so checking the queens and feeding them will be extra challenging. Either way, I need to make my decision this week.

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This is last year, this year these are wintering over in the garden.

I had hoped to start a patch of nettles in the yard. I’m not going to be able to get to the boggy parts until it’s too late to plant the seeds. I haven’t even thought about any plants I might want to start for the garden, in no small part because I can’t get down the stairs to our nursery in the cellar. I’ve been struggling with the sprouts I’d like to be feeding my hens before there’s grass available because there is a limited amount of space that I can get to at the moment where there’s both a sink for water and warmth.

Spring is well on its way, the farming year is about to hit its stride, and I am trying to figure out when I’ll be walking again. Happy new year.

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.

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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