Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

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.

img_6273

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!

img_6253

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.

img_6560

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.

img_6335

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.

img_6558

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!

img_6565

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.

img_6573

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!

img_6579

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 . . .

img_6569

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!

img_6559

Advertisements

I Have Chicks!

IMG_6237

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.

IMG_6238

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

IMG_6239

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.

IMG_6241

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

IMG_6242

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.

IMG_6240

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.

IMG_6244

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?

The Queen is Dead

I would say “Long live the Queen!” but I haven’t gotten a new one yet.

As a first-time beekeeper, my job was to get my hive through the winter and into the first honey flow intact. When I first started poking at them, I was thrilled to see that there were lots of girls climbing around what had been the brood area. It was slightly off to one side instead of truly centered, but if that’s where the queen wants to lay? That’s where the queen lays. I was so excited that I was telling everyone my hive had survived the winter! Until someone asked if my queen had survived. Good question.

I hadn’t had a chance to really get in there and do some spring cleaning until this weekend. Between work, weather, and the hike to get to the friend that’s baby-sitting them for me, it was a challenge. My friend has been watching them- and was really getting a kick out of watching them bring so much pollen back even very early in the spring. I had every reason to think that 100% of my hives had made it through the winter. How many beekeepers can say that?

The dark comb is from brood frames and the light comb is from the top of brood frames or honey frames- those places don't get walked on as much.

The dark comb is from brood frames and the light comb is from the top of brood frames or honey frames- those places don’t get walked on as much.

One of the early chores on a warm day is to check frame-by-frame for leftover honey, pollen, and brood pattern. I wasn’t the most attentive beekeeper last year, so I was also doing a fair amount of scraping off comb that had been laid down where it shouldn’t have been. There was honey left over, which explained why they weren’t really taking much advantage of the feed I had started giving them. As I got closer and closer to the brood, I started to get concerned. I ran into some drone cells (I really should have had my camera with me so I could show you) but I brushed it off as a rogue worker. But no actual brood ever showed up. Seeing as how there wasn’t even any sealed brood, I’m guessing I lost the queen months ago. Since I lost the queen but kept the workers, does that make it a 50% loss, or is it a 100% loss because they will die eventually and not be replaced?

Now, when you lose a queen, you have two choices. You can requeen them by buying a queen or, if you’re good, replacing her with one you happen to have bred yourself. Or you can just start all over again. (Hoping they will requeen themselves only works if they catch the loss when they have very young brood to work with.) In my case, I havea few concerns. With as old as my workers are, would they be able to properly care for a queen and the brood she would have to lay very quickly to get them up to par? I’m not really willing to bank on that, since it’s the very young workers that are nurse bees, not the ones that have nearly worn themselves out. There are also a couple of irregularities in the hive- not all of the drones had hatched and some were clearly dead in their cells, and there was something that looked a lot like sand all over the hive. Are they just being sloppy, or are they diseased?

Do you know what that yellow sandy-looking stuff is? I don't.

Do you know what that yellow sandy-looking stuff is? I don’t.

I’m reaching out to my apiary society for some help in determining whether either of these is a real problem if I decide to re-use the drawn comb and other hive parts. If I get a box of bees and I can install them in pre-drawn comb, that means they can get down to setting brood and gathering nectar that much faster. I could even potentially add them to the workers that are already there to give the population a little boost. The more bees I have already gathering nectar and pollen to feed them, the more of the younger bees in the box can be left inside to nurture the brood.

So far, the suggestion is to leave it in the care of the girls that are left. They should make/keep it tidy themselves. If I lose them before I get a new set to put in there, clean it out as well as I can and freeze the frames for at least 24 hours. This won’t affect any pollen or honey in the frames, but it should kill any mites or other issues in the wax. I will keep you updated as more information comes in.

On a more entertaining note, this video is awesome!

The Season of Water Has Begun

In many places, winter is the season of water. It’s monsoon season, or snow season. Out West, summer is our season of water. Why? Because that’s when we need it and we may not have it. California is at the top of the list at the moment when it comes to lack of water, but they aren’t the only ones that are concerned. All of the states that have lower rainfall than the East Coast are aware that California’s fate may well be ours in the not-too-distant-future.

Fire season has already started here in Colorado. I have a fire about 90 miles south of me that just decided it didn’t want to be contained anymore. While that one isn’t a direct threat to me, it is absolutely something to keep my eye on. My community garden just opened itself back up to us for spring watering, and I did not mulch my garlic bed well enough so the soil is dry as a bone. That’s perfectly normal for poorly covered or bare ground in Colorado. It’s also really bad for the garlic and all of the critters that needed moisture for over-wintering. Despite the silly Kentucky Blue Grass lawns around here, lack of water is simply a fact of life.

Jon Stewart, as usual, brings his wit and sarcasm to the issue of climate change. As he points out, our two most phallic states have totally opposite, yet equally serious, water issues. This is the challenge of climate change, after all. It’s not just that it will increase heat and melt the ice caps, it’s that everything will become more unpredictable. Wet places will get wetter and dry places will get dryer. The fact that we are doing everything in our power to suck water out of the air and water and send it through the sewers really isn’t helping to balance that back out.

One thing that he didn’t bring up was that apparently frackers in California aren’t being subject to any of the restrictions that the citizens are subject to. It is absurd to think that not drinking water in a restaurant will do a thing when the farmers aren’t being told to restrict their water use. I don’t want to make farming any harder than it is, but when the state is out of water, everyone is affected and has to pitch in. What is more absurd is to not restrict the people that take massive amounts of potable water, turn it into poison, and pump it past the groundwater reservoirs to pull out oil. They swear the arsenic and other fun chemicals can’t possibly leak into the groundwater, but I’m not sure how much I can trust that.

After 450 words of bad news, what do we do about it? I think the biggest thing we can do is to buy local, pasture-raised meat. I know, meat’s evil and all that, but what the simplistic headlines don’t bother to do is differentiate between meat sources. Urine and manure from CAFO feedlots are corralled in lagoons as toxic waste. As they should be. They should not be returned to the land. Then there’s all the water that’s used to grow the grains that keep the animals not-dead and very fat up until slaughter time. Meat raised like that is an affront to nature.

When you raise, say, a cow on pasture, you get the opposite result. Grazing animals produce no more methane than the grass would have when it rotted on the ground. More to the point, in a properly managed pasture, the urine and manure they produce soaks directly into the soil, returning both moisture and nutrients to the soil in amounts that the microorganisms can handle. Proper management also encourages the grass to grow to its best advantage, sending carbon-sequestering roots deep into the soil. Between the roots making spaces and the small amounts of moisture added to the surface, a good pasture will help the rain to soak into the ground and back into our groundwater reserves instead of running off the top and right to the ocean.

That’s right. Meat could save us. Alan Savory has dabbled in this a bit.

One really shouldn’t eat meat without vegetables, though. The next biggest step is to grow your own vegetables. If you don’t have a yard, or a patio with decent sunlight, then buy them from small, local, organic farmers that use all of the sensible water-saving techniques that are difficult to impossible to implement on huge, mono-crop farms. If you ask nicely, the farmer will probably be happy to let you come out to see how their land looks and their crops are grown. Just bear in mind that if the sun’s up, you are taking time out of their work day. The best farming, just like the best beef, should actually help refill the groundwater reserves. But good farming will still slow the use of unnecessary water, and shouldn’t be discouraged.

Don’t get me wrong, things like shorter showers and high-efficiency appliances are good. But if we want to do more than just slow the loss of potable water across the world, we need to be proactive about helping the water to go back where it belongs. In the ground, not in the sewers. Preferably without arsenic.

Where Have I Been?

I am so sorry I haven’t been on here in an age- and many thanks to the people that are showing up to read old posts anyway! Life has been throwing me curve balls and I haven’t been dodging quite as well as I would hope to. However, I do believe I am back for the time being.

One of the challenges that I’m coming up against is that I can either work on farms and learn how to farm, or I can hope to afford my own one of these days. I want to do the former. There’s no better way to learn than to do. Particularly for something that requires the sort of knowledge that only comes with experience. One really can’t know if they are able to work outside doing labor for sometimes crazy hours until they have actually done it for a season. It’s how I learned that I can only handle so much weeding, but dodging angry geese every day is fun. Unfortunately, I got started on the learning curve a little late, so I have to go with the latter. Maybe it’s my nesting tendencies finally getting around to having an opinion, but I’m at this point that I’d rather screw up on my own property than learn how to do everything right on someone else’s. The problem, here, is that I have to make that choice.

I am slowly working on putting together a business plan. I do need to have a “normal” job for several more years to make this work, but the sooner I can get my hands on land, the sooner I can start making those mistakes that need to be made as part of the learning process. My main focus right now is laying hens. I think they are something that can have income pretty quickly but can also be handled around a 40+ hour work week. I need some feedback from you folks, though.

  • What is your pie-in-the-sky perfect egg?
    • Feed concerns?
    • Housing concerns?
    • Ethical treatment definition?
    • Heritage or modern breeds?
    • Egg color?
  • Do the above concerns extend to meat birds?
    • What are your thoughts on stew birds?
    • What weights and prices seem reasonable to you?
  • Would you be interested in duck, quail, or other meat and eggs if they were raised similarly to the chickens above?
  • What are the other food/farm items that you would buy locally if you could find them?
    • Honey?
    • Herbs?
    • Feathers?
    • Flowers?
    • Homespun thistle yarn?
  • Delivery options?
    • Would you take a drive in the country to pick up your eggs, or would they need to make it into town?
    • Would you sign up to purchase X dozen every week, or do you prefer to pick them up as needed?
  • What questions and concerns have I missed that you would like to have me (or your other farmers) address?

I know what I want in my eggs, meat, and other food, but if I’m setting up a business, I need to know what you want, too. You don’t have to be local to answer this- but if you are local, let me know how many eggs you’ll buy every month!

I look forward to the feedback to help me get this dream off the ground. Thank you!

Hanna Ranch Movie

I know I’ve been MIA for a while now, and I intend to update you on that and on some of the cool things happening in my life, but for the moment- this movie.

If you live in Southern Colorado (specifically Colorado Springs to Pueblo) or you have any interest at all in the plight of the family farmer or rancher- you have got to see Hanna Ranch. For the local folks, it’s going to be at Ivywild for a few more days. For everyone else, it’s travelling around a bit and available on iTunes. It should be showing up on Netflix eventually, too. It is one place, one ranch, and one family- but a story that I suspect a lot of the agricultural community knows in one way or another.

We need to support our farms. In 30 years, we’ve lost half-a-million ranchers (or farmers in general- can’t remember which) which is a problem. This film clearly illustrates why.