Let’s Talk Turkey

Turkeys are easy and profitable. They forage all day long as they roam around playing follow the leader. Even if you have to keep them in a turkey tractor or run, notice when one starts to walk the others follow. It's the fowl version of a pack animal. They'll eat nothing but bugs, grass and other vegetation if you have the space to free range. And unless you have predators that can climb trees at night, that's where they'd rather sleep... in the trees... no need to build a coop. Even though it takes a chick a bit longer to grow to harvest size (about 5+ months) that's still a great profit margin. As I write this I get caught up in yet another private conversation (with me and myself) where I'm scratching my head wondering why I didn't do this sooner..?

turkeys6Like chickens, turkeys let the light and the seasons dictate what they do and when. Turkeys want to lay low in the winter, and then mate like crazy and hatch chicks in the spring. At some point afterwards (while the hen is broody and sitting on her eggs) move the toms to seperate quarters, they aren't very careful and can squish the babies. Sometimes an overly aggressive tom that wants to resume mating will even (purposely) kill the chicks as they try to follow momma around... talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time! Hens however are very good at what they do. They are very careful, protective, watchful and nurturing. Though possible, it is a rarity to find a tom with these qualities.

Fertile turkey eggs can survive a long time. You'll often find a pile building up (in a very secret place) long before the hen goes to sit on it. It could be two weeks or longer but she'll get around to it. Once she goes broody, she transforms into a dedicated egg brooder/hatcher for sure. It'll take the better part of a month before you see the hatchlings.  Once they start to emerge mom will keep a sharp eye on the chicks, keeping them under feather most of the time. If you can, provide a nesting box on the ground and she just might use it. (Most hens prefer tall grass or another inconspicuous spot.) If you find that she's laying eggs everywhere BUT the box, try moving it. It just doesn't look like a safe place to her and a different location could change her mind. And if you keep your turkeys in a confined space, make sure she has plenty feed and water during the entire ordeal.

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One difference between chickens and turkeys is that chickens grow to full size just a bit quicker. But don't fret, your turkeys (depending on the breed) will be a really good size well before the end of the year for that fabulous meal we all love. They are similar to chickens in that the older they get the tougher the meat, especially the legs and thighs. After a year it'll be stew meat. Tag the tom and hens in order to tell them apart when it comes time to harvest, you'll want to keep them around for the sole purpose of making many more since they'll be good producers for up to 10 years.

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This fine gentleman is a Chocolate Heritage tom. The snood on a tom's head expands and retracts. It hangs down when he wants to look beautiful for the ladies and it can also determine the pecking order, where other males look to the tom with the longest snood. And it almost always reveals the mood he's in: hanging down = fired up about something! The tuft of hair sticking out of his chest is called a beard and can be seen as a way to determine age. A large tuft (like the one above) indicates this guy is about two years old, maybe older. But females can sometimes develop small beards too so don't use it as a way to determine sex.

Turkeys have excellent eyesight. They'll see you long before you see them. It's funny because our hogs have really poor eyesight and mostly rely on ground vibration to know what's going on around them. So I have a different approach to tending to each. With the hogs, I start "talking" to them from afar so they know I'm coming. I hear a grunt and all is well. But the turkeys are way ahead of me so I don't look directly at them and even have to pretend I don't see them at all. Direct eye contact makes them (especially new moms) very nervous. They know why they're on your farm! I can hear 'em now, "I'm not stupid! You're gonna eat me someday! Everybody loves turkey!" Unless you have an unusually friendly turkey, keeping your distance is ideal.

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With that in mind, a free range homesteader should try hard to gain the turkey's trust so it remains calm to avoid flight*. Turkeys are very fast runners and can sense your every move. If one gets out, then just say hasta la vista. And although they really don't want to fly, they certainly can and will if threatened. In the fall, I let my turkeys roam the garden to clean up the bad bugs. We have deer fencing all around and yet they're perfectly fine roaming from one end of the garden to the other and back again, never trying to escape. Well one day, a red fox got in and every one of my turkeys shot right over that 8 ft fence without hesitation or difficulty. But they must really like living here, because the group came back within minutes and I was able to walk the group into the run**. In other words if they want to and they're out in the open, they can just leave. I think I must be trustworthy.

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As with most farm animals, the male to female ratio is 1:many. My plan was to have one tom to five or more hens but it didn't quite work out that way. I ended up with three toms believing I purchased only one. After fighting it out I learned the hard way that only the strong survive and so now I'm down to two. Too bad. So with one tom dead and the other tom keeping a safe distance, we're in a pretty awkward situation right now. The main tom is the biggest, strongest and loudest. He's a real good gobbler and makes a lot of chicks. He constantly fluffs his feathers all spring and does a dance that causes a powerful vibration, making a sound like a low drum roll. It's all very attractive. The two toms seem to be coexisting so far mostly because the "backup" tom knows his place. I suppose the real test will be when I move them back in with the hens this fall.

Speaking of such, you definitely want a good gobbler. But watch out, gobblers will attract wild turkeys and before you know it, you're the neighborhood turkey wrangler! It may sound entertaining but when other turkeys come around and start hanging out all the time, it can mean no peace for your homestead. For example: our main tom wants to immediately fight with the second-in-charge when other toms are within eyesight; it's as if he thinks the rafter*** grew and now he has to prove all over again that he's still numero uno. Silly gobbler. If hunting wild turkeys is allowed in your area then kudos to you, you've found the equivalent to a duck call for turkeys! Otherwise, try to be diligent in chasing the outsiders away so your tom doesn't feel threatened and go completely bonkers on you.

turkeys2I'll continue to update this post as we learn and grow. Especially where raising the poults is concerned, I know the information on that subject is a bit sparse! Sorry! Keep checking back, okie dokie? 🙂

*If you're property is predator-free then clipping the wings would be an ideal way to prevent flight. But keep in mind the turkey cannot escape a fox, coyote, etc. if it can't fly.

**To get a domesticated turkey to go where you want it to, calmly walk behind it and use your arms to direct. Want the turkey to go right? Hold out your left arm and take one step to the left and so forth. It's as easy as conducting an orchestra, directing traffic, waving a yellow stick to taxi an airplane...

***Turkey terms:

A full grown male turkey - tom or gobbler
A full grown female turkey - hen
A just hatched baby turkey - sometimes called a chick
A baby turkey - poult
A young male turkey - jake
A young female turkey - jenny
A group of wild turkeys - flock
A group of domesticated turkeys - rafter

Resources:

outdoornews.com
wikipedia.org

Life, The Homestead And Everything

“Having solved all the major mathematical, physical, chemical, biological, sociological, philosophical, etymological, meteorological and psychological problems of the Universe except for his own, three times over, [Marvin] was severely stuck for something to do...” ― Douglas Adams. Life, the Universe and Everything

Whose journey is this anyway? I sit here on my golf cart to take a look around, I think to myself "Wow, the homestead is beautiful! And we aren't even done yet!" I am beat to a pulp yet I want to do more. Yes, I remember the pep talk at the employee meeting at my very last job. Boy o boy was it geared up to excite. The boss believed we'd give 1000% to help build a business that someone else owned. And then 5 o'clock finally came around. Whew! That was a close one.

Here it is. Everything.

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By mid May all the summer food is planted. For some reason I decided to use the entire overflow garden rather than fix the chicken garden. Crabgrass completely overtook it and left us scratching our heads. I was completely overloaded with my 'to do' list so we just covered it with a heavy duty garden fabric and mulch. We'll come back to it at some point in time. But thanks to a little planning, we had extra rows ready to go so the animals could still enjoy yummy treats like pumpkin, watermelon, chard and corn.

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The best advice I can give? Get organized and stick to a schedule. That is the answer to running things smoothly, lest they run you. Okay then, we get the first thing underway. Pickling is top priority in June since the cukes seem to all come at once. And there is a lot of squash right behind it. I grab my go-to recipes and get to work. The hubby has been able to stay home more these days, and so he gets to work on cutting the grass. He enjoys working for only himself too.

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And then the tomatoes start to hit ya. You can never have enough plants because each new variety is more delicious than the last, right? By the end of harvest you've achieved the impossible: you've grown the perfect, prize-winning tomatoes.

Tomato Salad

Equal parts of thinly sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, throw in a little bell pepper and onion, a little chopped basil and minced garlic. Toss with your favorite vinaigrette. Optional: Salt/pepper to taste.

eggs

Every component of the homestead works hard. No employee meeting necessary. Got eggs? I do. The hens do not disappoint and I have plenty eggs all year long. Good for our breakfast, hard boiled for the hogs and crushed (shells) in the garden. In fact, so much of what the homestead produces is multipurpose. Sustainability at its best. And my favorite expressions "trial and error" and "practice makes perfect" also help describe the very spirit of sustainable living. You make it all work together... it's just what you do.

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As I continued the journey around the gardens I realized this was a great year for summer food. Oh, it was a hot one (and sometimes unbearably hot!) but it was worth the buckets of sweat because so much more than we could have imagined came out of my humble little kitchen garden. It doesn't always happen that way you know.

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Again, what a great year for growing food. 300 feet of beautiful heirloom potatoes were harvested in August and will feed us all winter. This may be the perfect staple. Store potatoes in a single layer in a cool, dark place or can them, diced in a little salt water or dehydrate them.

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My attempts to contribute to "Fluffy Butt Friday" on Instagram are constantly foiled by this gorgeous gal who watches my every move. Why do I raise chickens? Well, the silent questions I ask about the way things are happen to be a hot topic in my brain, and I wonder if anyone else feels the same? In my opinion, "Where did this come from?" should be the question on every brain as we peruse the grocery store isles. Some farmers. They really take you for a ride. Catch a few good documentaries like Food, Inc. and get yourself on the right track.

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The plot sizes vary in our little town but 5 acres seems to be common. Some of our neighbors have large, pristine homes with manicured lawns and flower gardens. The maid service washes away the grime inside as the gardeners drive up with their leaf blowers and weed killers so that it all stays perfectly perfect. That's it, they believe they've found the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Our pot of gold? It's a bit more complicated than that. It's nice to hear the cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster every morning. But they don't just wake you up each day, they fertilize the eggs that become the delicious chicken dinners for your family each week. What happens within ourselves when we grow and raise our own food? We instantly gain respect for life. We stop being wasteful, we stop being picky and we stop being victims of the current food system. And the hubby is a vital part of this operation, building and fixing things in his shop. But he doesn't just think of it as a hobby, he builds the out buildings, fences and is remodeling our home. We save a small fortune because he can work on our cars and more. What happens within ourselves when we build and make the things we need and use each day? We take pride in it, take better care of it and never take it for granted. We don't have to chase the gold. We know we've been sitting on it the entire time.

Mr. Tom Tom is missing some feathers because of molting but that doesn't stop him from doing his dance! The turkeys follow the hogs after a rotation. They do a good job spreading out poop and cleaning up before it's time to re-seed the paddocks. How much more can we add to our little farm you ask? How about a mama cow and calf, fish, ducks and bees? These should round things out nicely, I think.

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Our homestead is my universe where every day I head out to learn something new about myself. Only recently did I discover that it's the reason why I'm here. Every inch will have a purpose. Every inch already has a name. Maybe when it's all said and done I'll create a directory, a guide of sorts with a 'you are here' arrow pointing to the very spot you're standing in and details about how it all came to be.

Chickie Central (coops and runs for meat birds and egg layers)
Pig Palace (shelters and paddocks for hogs/piglets)
Turkey Terrace (a turkey tractor for 2 turkey families)
Duck Dynasty (pond w/nests for several duck varieties)
Aquatic Acres (tilapia tanks in greenhouse)
Bovine Boulevard (barn and paddocks for a milking cow and calf)
Market Garden (large, mostly for the farmers market)
Kitchen Garden (small, for our family and for testing new varieties)
Chicken Garden (fruit and veggies for (all) the animals)
Fruit Tree Garden and Bees' Bend (honey bee boxes near all gardens)
Herbs and Flower Garden
Staples Garden (everything from wheat to sorghum and beyond)

Top it all off with our lovely home and the hubby's shop and you've got quite the little community.

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To enjoy life for what it is.

The hubby and I finally started the remodel. He asked me how I was holding up without a proper kitchen. "Hang in there, we'll have it done in no time." I responded, "The end of the day is just the beginning again. That's everything to me."

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today's harvest basket

the powerhouse duo

Runnin’ On Swine Time

It's all about timing. The male and female will mate until she decides it's over. About a week. Then you separate them and start counting: three months, three weeks, three days. She'll start preparing the nest and then have her little piglets almost to the day! And don't worry about making too much a fuss over it; mama knows just what to do once they're born. A few weeks later the piglets get weaned. Less than a week after that the sow goes back into heat and it all starts over again. Yep, it's in the timing. The cycle starts all over again and you can plan your vacation around it.

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This sweet gal was first called a gilt. After her first litter, she graduated to a sow. (A fabulous blog by the Jeffries Family Farm has a complete list of terms here.) She alone tells the boar whether it's time to mate and when it's over. She's tough enough to fight him off if he doesn't listen to her, so you might want to separate them to keep her safe while she's pregnant. Keep a close watch for her signals so you'll know just what to do.

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A good way to tell when she's in heat is by paying attention to her behavior - she'll become agitated and show a desire to be with the boar. Her vulva will be slightly swollen, stiff and possibly leaking fluid. When you allow them to mate, she will plant her legs firmly to the ground to help the boar easily mount her. (She won't help him at all when not in heat.) Allow them to mate over the course of a few days to a week, where you've witnessed at least 3 matings yourself. Use your instincts to decide when she's just tired or she's had enough. Sometimes after separating them she'll seemingly go back into heat; it just means she wasn't done, only tired.

If you have more than one sow in heat at the same time and you're okay with having multiple litters, then by all means, put them in together with your boar. The boar can sometimes stress out one sow, but there's time to rest if he has two or more to choose from. And if he is the tired one, don't be surprised to find the gals sniffing, nudging and even "humping" each other! They are not confused, it's just what they do. You'll also find them sometimes fighting each other over the boar which is perfectly normal. It will sound rough and tough but it's all bark, no bite.

When it's over, she's as happy as anything and will go about being blissfully pregnant*, completely ignoring the boar's cry for attention. As stated above, she'll fight him off and even run when he comes sniffing around. She'll continue to grow and eat a lot more. In about 3 months her teats will look as if they'll burst and she'll start building a farrowing nest. Provide plenty fresh straw and a private space (under cover if possible). Watch her carefully if you wish to be there for farrowing. We have yet to catch it... it happens so fast! She won't need any help unless you're concerned about it taking too long. (Talk to a vet that specializes in farm animals.) If she's used to you scratching or petting her and seems to be okay with you being near, then an occasional stroke on the head or back might be comforting. Otherwise stay clear, you don't want to add to her stress.

birth

Things will be a bit bloody afterwards but not too bad. Eventually (could be 2 or more days) she will come out to eat and bathe in the wallow which will help to clean her up. Hopefully, all piglets will survive but if not, remove any piglets that are stillborn. Hang a flytrap nearby because the smell will attract plenty. Don't worry about cleaning out the nest until the piggies are more mobile and can get out of the way. And remember, if one squeals, the sow might take it personal and get upset with you.

The piglets will immediately find their way to the teats to nurse and fight each other to do so. The only thing you might watch out for is whether mom is careful enough to keep baby piglets from being squished. It's sad but it can happen. Do a search online, there are a few good ideas about how to manage the problem. But for now you can simply sit back and enjoy the newest addition to your homestead.

jackSide note: If you have only one sow, your boar will get agitated from time to time while separated from her, so you might want to move him farther away so he can't smell her. This is where another mate would come in handy. Boars can service many sows (up to 20!) and may abruptly discharge on his own if there isn't another female to mate with. Frustrating to say the least. Look into building a little harem for the poor fellow if you can... 1 or 2 more sows perhaps? But continue taking care of him as normal and he'll do just fine.

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The next part I suppose depends on you. When it comes time to wean the piglets, many people do it in just two weeks. (That could be for higher production farms?) I've even read as late as a seven or eight weeks. This helps the piglets get the most nutrition from mama before switching to solid food. But I went by our sow's timetable. At exactly three weeks and one day she was ready to get outta there! Nursing piglets takes a lot out of her and it was obvious. I opened the gate to the next paddock over and she immediately walked through and never looked back. She watches her piglets through the pallet fencing from time to time before she plops down into the wallow for a well deserved nap. Now that she's on her own it will be a short period before she is in heat again. Start watching her closely by day 3 or 4.

And there you have it, a full circle. Almost to the day. 🙂

Piglets And Older

Once weaned, the piglets will begin to cry like crazy for their mama. It may last 2-3 days (or longer) but once they get used to solid food and little bellies fill up for the first time, they relax and learn to live on their own. Shortly after, they forget all about mama and go into a rambunctious-mode that will have you laughing out loud! They play, dig, run, jump, fight, roll around and... hump! Like rabbits, they instantly know what those parts are for. They'll nudge each others' underside, sniff around and mount - boy or girl it doesn't matter. But don't worry, it doesn't mean anything right now because it'll be months before they reach sexual maturity.

As time goes by and month # 2 approaches, you'll notice an increase in appetite. Not only is grass-fed swine a much healthier way to raise them, it's also a great way to keep costs down up til harvest. If that isn't an option for you, sell the piglets and let someone else raise them. In fact, if your sow farrows large litters (at 2-3 times a year) then selling piglets could become a steady supplement to your income.

As you get close to month # 4 you might consider separating the males from the females. Depending on the breed, the females can be ready to mate as early as 5 months. And now with your males separated, it should be easier to make your next big decisions. (Early slaughter for meat, fatten up for bacon, keep or sell for breeding, etc.)

Feeding (updated)

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Many farmers experience their weaners starving after being weaned because they just don't want to eat solid food. But I also think it's a matter of trust. They trust their mama. They know you are not an enemy but it's still very hard to trust you. There is something called creep feeding that can possibly make things easier. It can help the piglets get used to more solid foods while still with the sow. Place a shallow tub of milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, soft fruit bits, etc., in an area the sow can't get to. They'll have learned to eat without fear and so now, when mama is gone, they at least know that food is for eating when searching for a teat that isn't there.

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Our first breeding pair was raised on commercial feed. Because they are heritage breeds, I assumed getting them to feed on grass would be easy. Not so and not even close. If grass fed pork is important to you then know that feeding it to them from the start is the way to go. The sow (or other grass fed animals like goats or cows if you raise them all together) should be the one to show piglets how to eat it. Otherwise, it will be a long haul getting full grown swine to switch. Give them fresh fruit and vegetables, in addition to commercial feed. Add in nuts, old bread, hard boiled eggs (shell and all). Then introduce some barley fodder and finally, grass. If possible, grow clover, chard and other yummy treats along with the grass. Slowly reduce the amount of the commercial stuff and hope for the best.

If using a commercial feed a good rule of thumb is to feed 'em twice a day. For the young'uns, it's 1 pound/day at a month old, 2 pounds/day at two months, etc., topping out at 4 pounds/day until fattened for slaughter. Depending on the breed this can be increased to 6 pounds/day for a very large, full grown hog. If you're not sure about the amount to give, don't worry, it'll be obvious. Most breeds eat when full and then stop. Some hogs (like Jack!) eat out of boredom so leaving the commercial stuff laying around is not a good idea. A larger than normal belly and jowl is an indication to cut back.

When feeding fresh food like pumpkin and peaches, give them as much as you like and compost what isn't eaten. (If a lot of fresh food is leftover it could go bad and they may not want to finish it.) You can pretty much leave grass fed swine alone to graze all day, but since they are not ruminants (cows, sheep, deer, elk) make sure to add some kind of protein supplement (fodder, nuts, milk or whey, hard boiled eggs, etc) to their diet.

Deworming

Everyone we talk to is worried about parasites. It just seems to be associated with pork. Too bad our country has had such experiences with big farms and their dirty practices, because it doesn't have to be that way. And using commercial dewormers (aka, chemicals) is a poor solution. There are so many natural dewormers your pigs will eat and actually enjoy.

For centuries, European farmers raised swine in pastures and followed the cue they picked up watching wild hogs in the woods - to provide charcoal for their animals. Trees occasionally catch fire and so charcoal (burnt wood) is all over the place, and pigs instinctively know to eat it for good health. In fact, it makes the top of our list as the best way to deworm your pigs.

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And of course you guessed the next one, right? Pumpkin is a very close second. It immobilizes worms allowing animals to expel them with ease. We feed it to our chickens, seeds and all, as a dewormer and it works on pigs too. But I think as pigs grow larger (getting close to hog size) they'd have to eat lots of it to effectively fight off the little buggers. But it really is great to grow and have around.

Garlic, rosemary, lemon balm, black walnuts and more are used by many organic farmers around the country for deworming their animals. (See resources below.) We plan to try 'em all and I'll have more info right here soon.

Flu

Pigs can give each other influenza. And they can give humans flu-like symptoms too (and visa versa)! While it is rarely a serious threat, it's still a good idea to treat it. If your pigs have a runny nose and/or sneeze a lot, start watching for mood changes and poor eating habits. If you suspect the flu, wear a mask and gloves while tending to them. Clean the pen and rotate often. Always wash your hands after coming into contact with them. Feed them fresh veggies (especially squash and chard) to help your sweet darlings feel better and get well soon.

More information on swine flu:

Swine influenza (Wikipedia)
What People Who Raise Pigs Need To Know About Influenza (CDC)

Rotation

Since we just talked about deworming, I have to mention rotational grazing. It will allow you to clean up and regrow, preventing stagnant spaces that parasites thrive in. Our four paddock system makes rotation very easy. I just open the small gate next to the house and the hogs walk right through without any extra convincing on my part. Makes it super duper easy peasy to dig out a flattened wallow too, without an anxious hog getting in the way. Farms with lots of acreage generally use hot wire fencing that can easily be moved around. Rotation also allows the earth time to repair itself... and now your homestead is a sustainable thing of beauty.

Final Thoughts

Well, that's all for the time being. As we get close to deciding what to do with our first litter I'll continue the discussion on it. From selling the livestock to harvesting, look for more information after the first of the year, 2016. I think anyone that has the land to spare should look into buying a boar and sow breeding pair. If any other animals gave such a return it would be worth the extra time to raise 'em. Our homestead feels so diverse and well-rounded now! 🙂

*Tip: If your sow isn't pregnant, then she will go back into heat in about 3 weeks.

Resources

Mother Earth News
grassfood.
Modern Farmer
**The Pig Site (for creep feeding)
**Little Pig Farm (for deworming)
**Sugar Mountain Farm (for large-scale rotational grazing)

**These are my favorite go-to sites for everything swine... loaded with information!

Eyes On The Prize: Jack And Tammy

It seems I must confess: I didn't think I'd love any other farm animals as much as I love my chickens. But I was wrong. So wrong. Even up to the day we brought home our breeding hogs, I had doubts about the whole thing.

You see, we recently purchased a boar and a sow (both heritage breeds) from a lovely couple within driving distance. I knew I wanted grass-fed pigs to save money and be healthier to boot. The Large Black kept coming to mind and so it was settled. Then I saw a Craigslist listing and I couldn't believe my eyes. Only 45 minutes away lived a family selling their heritage hogs, the exact breeds I'd been reading about! It was meant to be. Upon first visit I was introduced to two Tamworth sows and a Large Black boar. We ended up taking only one sow because I was so stuck on Large Blacks, but as it turns out Tamworth hogs are even more rare... endangered. (Hmm, should I go back for the other one?)

The sow was pregnant and so we had to wait. Not just for farrowing but until the piglets were weaned. That gave us a chance to see the piglets and to know the mix was a good one. The sellers had repeat customers who say the meat is the best they've ever had. And since a boar can (ahem!) service up to 6* sows, we can find a Black Heritage sow for him at some time in the future. For now, this fine swine couple can help us kick-start a new chapter in the book of husbandry here on the homestead. The boar was nicknamed Jack by the sellers. The hubby named the sow Tammy.

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Meet Tammy the Tamworth and Jack the Black.

The ride home was short but hot! The hogs immediately went for the wallows and mostly slept until that evening. Once up, they got to know their surroundings (and us) and settled right into their new home. They seem happy.

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Me being me, I had feeding time all worked out in my head. In reality, it's been hard to get them to leave the commercial stuff. (I don't understand why you'd feed a heritage hog bagged feed when they naturally eat grass. Oh well.) But that's what they got used to and so when I tried to give them a little barley fodder it ended up over at the chicken run instead. Really, it's Tammy who continues to eat mostly commercial stuff while Jack is more open to foraging now. But Tammy LOVES walnuts and it just so happens that most of the shade around here comes from black and English walnut trees. I'm thinking I can also introduce some fresh foods from the garden, along with the fodder I grow, to help broaden her palate. Baby steps but I think she'll get there.

Two major feedings happen each day; once in the morning and once in the early evening. They go back and forth, eat a little feed, look for walnuts, eat a little grass, etc. Before finally wandering off to do something else. After watching them the first few days it was pretty easy to guess the amount of food to put out so it doesn't go to waste.

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A major sleep-fest happens after the morning meal (especially if it's hot). This is Jack's favorite place... along side the wallow. I almost feel bad that Jack will be alone most of the time when not mating. He's quite sociable. He listens for my golf cart and races to the gate to meet me. He knows the hubby's voice and can't wait to get his back scratched. He seems to be comforted when I "sit" with him while he lounges in and around the wallow. I'll scratch his head and then talk to him for a while, he'll lay down knowing that I'm just on the other side of the fence.

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Tammy, however, likes to be alone when not in heat. And she certainly doesn't need to be scratched or talked to. In fact, she was a bit afraid of us at first... shock of a new environment maybe? She's since warmed up though and will let me come close enough to scratch her ears (for only a moment) before she's off exploring. She's quite the independent gal.

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They are so much fun.. like great big, snorting puppy dogs! As we get to know each other, the friendships will just grow and grow. And guess what? We think Tammy is preggers and look forward to welcoming piglets real soon. The last litter was black (mostly, some had brown stripes) with big floppy ears and lovely eyes just like Jack. Oh man how I love ya!

*I found out later that this number can be much higher for some breeds... up to three times!

The Pig Palace

As the days close in on us and the hair grows grayer, we're reminded that time is a precious commodity and we should always make the best use of it. So at this point, we're ready to move forward and raise more animals. And we're switching it up a bit by building a "Pig Palace" and getting ready for our first breeding pair. At first, we were confused about what breed to raise and then wouldn't you know it, a wonderful blog turns up in my Google search that was instrumental in helping us figure out a way to do it cheap and healthy. I discovered heritage breeds that are grass fed. You just provide a few supplemental foods here and there, and the rest of the time they're a grazin'. Better for them, better for us. I decided to raise one breed in particular: The heritage Black Hog. A semi-endangered, mild-mannered creature with big floppy ears that prefers to eat grass. "Oh good golly! Where do I get 'em?!" And so the research began.

All together now, "WHAT?!!! WHY NOW?"

pallets

Okay, let me explain why now? since y'all know we originally planned on getting them a lot later. The hubby and I sat down and talked about the cost of raising the different animals we intend to add to the farm. So we ran the numbers. Besides poultry, pigs/hogs kept coming up as the most cost-efficient way to make extra money for the homestead as well as providing a lot of food for our family. The return is just enormous. I always knew I wanted to raise them someday, but after that conversation we realized it should be sooner than later.

pg3

Since we're on a small farm/family homestead, we'll have to limit it to one breeding pair and somehow keep the piggy family confined. And then it hit us. Building the house and paddocks would be practically free. How? Pallets. We found a roofing supply company that allows us to pick up pallets anytime we want. Four truckloads later and we have enough for a nice little corral.

pf3

Three pallets are held together with 1x3 redwood boards at the top and bottom. This makes a very strong fence panel.

pf2 pg1

An opening at either end makes it easy to slip the panels over metal fence posts. A few other things were done for strength and stability like, placing pallets perpendicular to the panels (say that 3 times fast!) and the occasional stake wherever it was needed.

pg5

The paddocks will somehow be blocked off at the bottom all the way around to prevent teeny piglets from squeezing through. (It's not overkill, you should read some of the crazy stories of the little escape artists getting out!) The whole thing is just shy of a 1/4 acre. At each corner is a gate. This is Piggy Northeast. It's what we see from the back of our home. Sweet.

pg8

Finally get to use hinges the hubby had laying around for ages! Hold onto everything folks, you just never know...

pg4

A piece of scrap wood, scrap metal and a torch are more fun than a coloring book and crayons.

pigpenlayout

The house, Piggy Central, is in the center. We decided to put the house on a diagonal, this way it's easier to divide the space into four equal parts and keep the building as simple as possible.

Update: While designing this I didn't realize that our boar would need more than one sow for mating, and so we've decided to add three additional paddocks (per sow) along the outer edges. One for mama, one for her weaned babies and an extra large paddock as the weaners turn into growers and get close to finishing. Only the sow that is about to farrow will stay in the center and get use of the main house. Whew! That was a close one! But if you choose to just keep one sow, this layout works beautifully. (more)

pg6

The property is on a very gentle slope so for Piggy Central, we buried four posts, added a raised dirt floor and leveled it off. We'll top this with a thick layer of hay to make a nice, comfortable bed. More pallets make the walls. (We'll cut out the doors later.) We chose the pallets with little to no gaps because it will help to block most of the wind and it looks like I'll still have some patching to do. We get pretty high winds in the spring and late in the fall so it will be necessary to close up any gaps along the bottom where they sleep if need be. Ventilation will be at the top. The hubby crafted a jig for his sawmill to cut shingles and pig central is the first project to get 'em. It's a standard water-shed roof and I'll dig a channel and hope it runs toward the main drainage for the property. (I'll add a post that concludes this adventure with what worked and what didn't... after the piggies move in.)

pg7

After all that, we still needed more pallets. We needed 20 more for the interior fencing. Now thatsa lotta pallets!

So that brings us up to date with this project. But let's talk more about the pigs. When I found a pig farm within driving distance, I called and confirmed they would be ready to sell in about a month. I stood up and shouted, "the piggies coming!" Just couldn't help myself. (blush) Another bonus is they have a sow and a boar for sale that are not from the same family. Instant breeding pair with no shipping. How easy and convenient is that? But we can't decide if we want full grown hogs or piglets to start. We'd better decide quick though... I meet with them in a couple of weeks when one of the pregnant sows will give birth. By the way, is that a precious gift or what? I mean, right off the bat, I can see the babes being born! Awesome.

The kind woman in charge of the pig farm was all too eager to help with any questions and said I could call her anytime. And so I did. I just let it all spill out. What particular grasses should I grow? What supplements can I grow that they like? Do pigs get bored? Is there a natural treatment for deworming and keeping other pests like flies away? (Not sure if she knew what hit her..?) Now with the answers all locked up in my head and piggies on the way, I'm inspired to create a page that is all about raising pigs. Okay, maybe we should just finish the Piggy Palace first. One thing at a time. 🙂

No Time For Debate, Gotta Harvest That Chicken

Responsibility. The main reasoning behind the farm-to-fork movement. It is why I want to raise and harvest my own chickens. You see, I feel as if I have no right to get involved in the debate about the inhumane treatment of chickens, or the poor quality of eggs and meat at the supermarket. Why? Because I can actually do something about it. I'll just feed my family myself! In the end, business is as usual. The industry will always try to get away with something if it means making more money. So that makes me responsible for me. For us.

The five stations at a glance.

Now, if I couldn't raise my own animals for meat, I'd find a nearby farm and make every effort to only shop there. Or maybe find a farmers market with a vendor who sells meat and start asking questions about it. Anything to keep from having to fight the big guys over food... who'll end up doing whatever they want to it anyway. I really ain't got time for that! Only time to take things into my own hands...

I started with the layout and set up 5 "stations". These helped me (appear) to be organized and the entire process happened fast and easy. The hubby seemed impressed. I used a canopy for shade and put walls up so the chickens (and neighbors) couldn't see what was going on.

The harvest station is the first stop. We decided to mount the cone to a makeshift stand mounted onto a table. Once we go in full bore, raising and harvesting 50+ meat birds each year, we'll make the entire setup more permanent for sure. You'll need a killing cone and a place to mount it, a bucket placed below (large enough to hold everything you harvest that day), a trash bag or other disposable liner, rubber gloves and cleaning supplies (it helps to keep the flies away if you clean up from time to time).

Then it's a quick step over to the dunking station. You'll need a large pot of water and a way to heat it. Ours is a super large stock pot heated by a torch to 150 degrees. Use a thermometer to be ever so accurate. You don't want to cook it right now! Tip: Another blogger says to add a bit of liquid soap to the dunking water to help loosen the feathers. So we did it this time and then we'll compare it to a time we do without... and of course, let y'all know about it. Other helpful items: Oven mitts and a dish towel. 

Next it's time to pluck them feathers and so the plucking station is just another step away. We decided to buy a plucker that attaches to a drill no less (see resources below) but there are many options, from hand plucking to a full "drum" style plucker. And keep a rake or broom handy... the feathers go everywhere!

The evisceration happens next so you'll need to set up a station with a table, a plastic cutting board, a sharp cleaver, a very sharp paring knife, rubber gloves (if you didn't use them at the first station), an apron, bowl or bucket of clean water and towels to wipe up. Tip: If your table is made of a slick material and the cutting board slides easily, place a towel or rubber shelf liner underneath to keep it steady. Also, if you decide to keep the liver, heart, etc, then make sure to keep a second bowl of ice cold water for keeping the innards.

And here's our final station: A cooler full of clean ice water. Okie dokie, let's go into the harvesting details. I'd break this down to 9 steps. And they are not as difficult as you'd think. Really, if you can gut a fish, you can do this. In fact, while harvesting my first chicken I realized how much it seemed like all the other gazillion times I prepped a chicken for dinner - with just a few extra steps. And before you know it, you're done.

Step 1: Daze. When it comes time to go into the run or coop to get your chickie, don't even think about it, just go. Get hold of the feet and turn it upside down for a few seconds. This puts the bird into a trance-like state which, in turn, is calming to you making the whole thing easier to handle. Whew!

Step 2: Kill. Place it head first into the cone and pull the head downward; stretching the neck just a bit.

Make the first cut clean and swift on the side of the neck, just below the skull and through the main artery.

Make another cut on the other side.

Step 3: Bleed. After about 20 seconds, the blood is almost completely drained which causes the body to do 2-3 jolts/contractions as a result. If you keep hold of the head you can spare yourself a real mess. And don't worry; when it's over, it's over. The whole thing takes less than a minute, from the time it goes into the cone to it being completely bled out. This is definitely the best way to harvest in my opinion.

Step 4: Dunk. In order to pluck, you first must dunk. Hold the entire chicken under the hot water for a total of 10 seconds, pull it out for a few, then dunk again. Do this several times; testing the large wing feathers for looseness. If they pull out easily, you're ready to pluck!

Step 5: Pluck. Plucking by hand can be tedious. You might want another helping hand to break the monotony of it. Or get yourself a fun little tool like this:

 

 

 

 

Super cool!

Step 6: Trim. After the feathers are plucked (and don't worry about the teeny tiny stuff... you can get that later) use the cleaver to remove the head and feet. If you plan to use the neck, make sure to cut close to the body so the majority of the neck stays intact.

Next, find the joint near the end of the leg and beginning of the foot and make the cut there. You can save the feet along with the innards if doing so. From what I understand, it makes good stock.

Step 7: Gut. And now, about those innards. Hmm. You should really take a look at this post (off site link) for an excellently written, detailed how-to. (But I should warn you, The Girls' Guide To Guns And Butter has a few extra steps that others don't do, so you decide.) In short, you're trying to cut an opening so you can reach in and pull out the guts, all while avoiding the poop tract (which is down by the tail). Why so careful? The bowels aren't very pleasant at all, and will contaminate the meat. I suggest cutting a little skin near the bottom of the breast first before going into the flesh. This gives you a clear visual of where to make deeper cuts.

When you're in, you're in. Time to grab and pull. If you've ever prepped a chicken for dinner, this is very similar, just more stuff to pull out. (And don't worry, it isn't too bloody or smelly.) The innards are attached near the tail; carefully sever the lot as close to the tail as possible. And again, try not to pierce the poop shoot... please.

Do a double check to make sure you pulled everything out. Toward the back of the cavity is the heart and lungs and can easily be missed. Save what you will and dump the rest into the drip bucket to be buried or thrown away.

Step 8: Rinse. Clean off any feather stragglers and other mess in the bowl/bucket of clean water. Get ready to change the water for each bird you harvest. Tip: We dig a shallow hole in the ground for the feathers and water from the dunking pot and cleaning bowls. Cover the hole with a big heap of dirt and mulch so you don't attract unwanted visitors.

Step 9: Bathe. The poultry needs to go into an ice water bath for about two hours. I think it has to do with tenderness? Okay, I know... off to do more research... I'm on it.

As we get better at this, I'll add more info, extra tips and more. I have to say that I'm real proud we made another giant leap toward independence. I didn't realize just how grateful I'd feel! My animals are healthy and active. My garden is organic and good. My food is clean and free. And I didn't have to debate that with anyone. 🙂

Resources

Heritage Fells Foodstead
The Girls' Guide To Guns And Butter
Home in Disarray
Tiny Farmhouse
Power Plucker
Homesteading Today

The Dutiful Homesteader: September

First chore: Collect more seed

a nice variety

We started this last month and so the chore continues:

It’s easy to harvest seed in a wide variety of crops. All you need is the space to let them sit out and dry for a while. Some, like squash and melon seeds, will need to be washed and then laid out on a towel to dry. Pepper seeds don’t need to be washed, only laid out for a short time. And peas are dried right in the pod on the vines. Most seeds are ready to sow the very next season. Store inside an envelope or recycled paper, stick it in a jar and put it in a cool, dry place… they’ll last years!

 
Tip: Got lemons? Don’t let these seeds dry out if you plan to use them. They need to go straight from the lemon, get washed and then planted. Start in a teeny pot with a small amount of starting mix… they’ll want to be transplanted soon afterwards to soil they really like (sandy, well-draining) so don’t leave them in the starting mix for very long.

Next chore: Stock up the pantry with your own canned goods

saucy sistas

I don't know about you, but even with last month's freezing and dehydrating chores, I still have bucket loads of tomatoes to deal with! So it's back to canning because we love our homemade canned foods so much, right?

Super-easy tomato sauce

Wash tomatoes and throw them in the pot. (No need to peel and seed them.) Cook for several hours; until super mushy. Run the mixture through a food mill and return to the pot, keeping it very hot. For each sterilized quart jar, add two tablespoons vinegar or lemon juice. Fill the jar with the tomato sauce to a 1/2 inch head space. Add one teaspoon each: Canning salt, minced onion, minced garlic, basil and oregano. Follow the main canning page using the water bath method and process for 40 minutes (quart).

Next chore: Clean gutters

Save yourself a major headache and do this before the crazy weather hits ya. Follow these easy steps:

  1. Clean out leaves and other debris (throw it in the compost pile)
  2. Check all spikes and make sure things are tightened and secured
  3. Check all downspouts and secure any loose rivets
  4. Wash out gutters with a powerful sprayer (keep the angle low/tilted so nothing gets damaged)

See all tips and advice at DIY Network.

Next chore: Clean and set out rain collectors

We'll be setting up some of our own this year, so look for more information soon.

Next chore: Let the chickens clean up your garden

We're still cleaning up the summer plantings and everyone has to chip in... including the chickens! Here is the reminder from last month:

Chickens do wonders in the garden… as far as cleanup goes. They are so destructive that allowing them into the garden prior to cleanup is iffy. But when it comes to end-of-season gardening, let ‘em in because they will eat, till and fertilize all day long. Some farmers use chickens to turn compost piles, since they are nonstop with digging and pecking. And if you have a weed problem, they’ll take care of it; save your back and let them do the rooting for you!

 
Chicken poop decomposes quickly and will be ready to go by spring. A chicken tractor helps when you want a specific area targeted. Think of it as a portable poop machine that’ll give your garden beds a much needed boost. You can also do what we do and use portable fencing to target areas that need cleaning and fertilizing.

 
Here’s a great article on how to do it right: Chicken Proof Garden

Next chore: Build bed covers (hoops) or cold frames for late fall beds

looks good now...

Veggies (like lettuce) love cooler daytime weather. But freezing nights? Forget about it. So here's a tip: You can extend the growing season by covering them up when the lows get really low. If you're a makeshift mama like me then follow these steps as outlined here for an easy hoop house:

  1. Use straps to secure bent rebar to the outer sides of your raised beds
  2. Cut 6 mil plastic to size
  3. Staple a 2 x 4 to either side of the plastic (if you have a small box) to easily roll up one side for access or, cover two large raised beds (pictured above) and create your own 'mini green house', entering through either end
  4. Weigh down the plastic by the bottom of the beds with brick or whatever you have on hand

The point is so the hoop houses can quickly be removed and put away; and they will use up very little storage space.

Final chore: What to plant this month

how to beef up on iron

Like in springtime, we've got major sowing/planting going on. This planting schedule assumes you are in zone 8 or 9 and practice succession planting… so you may also see the same items listed on other months.

Seed or plant the following: Beets, Bok Choy/Pak Choi, Broccoli, Cabbage, Carrots, Cauliflower, Celery, Chard, Cilantro, Collards, Garlic, Kale, Leeks, Head and Leaf Lettuce, Mustard, Onions, Peas, White Potatoes, Radishes, Shallots, Spinach, Turnips

Resources

The Farmer Fred Rant
The Weekend Homesteader Series (amazon.com books)
Real Simple
Martha Stewart Living
pickyourown.org
DIY Network

The Dutiful Homesteader: August

First chore: Start collecting seeds

glorious seed...

It's easy to harvest seed in a wide variety of crops. All you need is the space to let them sit out and dry for a while. Some, like squash and melon seeds, will need to be washed and then laid out on a towel to dry. Pepper seeds don't need to be washed, only laid out for a short time. And peas are dried right in the pod on the vines. Most seeds are ready to sow the very next season. Store inside an envelope or recycled paper, stick it in a jar and put it in a cool, dry place... they'll last years!

Tip: Got lemons? Don't let these seeds dry out if you plan to use them. They need to go straight from the lemon, get washed and then planted. Start in a teeny pot with a small amount of starting mix... they'll want to be transplanted soon afterwards to soil they really like (sandy, well-draining) so don't leave them in the starting mix for very long.

Next chore: Continue freezing veggies from the garden

Depending on where you live, this chore has either stepped up or is slowing down, but either way it still makes it to the list for August:

Using my Seal-a-Meal machine I cut the bags to size and seal one end. Blanch the veggies for one-two minutes in gently boiling water, run it under very cold water (or keep a bowl of ice water on hand) and let it sit out on a towel to dry. Fill the bags leaving enough room to seal the other end and let the machine do its thing. Most veggies last in the freezer for up to six months.

Next chore: Let the chickens clean up your garden

a very complicated chickie

Chickens do wonders in the garden... as far as cleanup goes. They are so destructive that allowing them into the garden prior to cleanup is iffy. But when it comes to end-of-season gardening, let 'em in because they will eat, till and fertilize all day long. Some farmers use chickens to turn compost piles, since they are nonstop with digging and pecking. And if you have a weed problem, they'll take care of it; save your back and let them do the rooting for you!

Chicken poop decomposes quickly and will be ready to go by spring. A chicken tractor helps when you want a specific area targeted. Think of it as a portable poop machine that'll give your garden beds a much needed boost. You can also do what we do and use portable fencing to target areas that need cleaning and fertilizing.

Here's a great article on how to do it right: Chicken Proof Garden

Next chore: Dehydrate tomatoes and more

tomato power! oh, powder, that's it

Near the end of the harvest, tomato plants just bust out with more tomatoes than we can sometimes handle, right? That's when you must tap into your inner mother squirrel and put 'em up. A great way to do it is to dehydrate them and turn them into a powder for thickening/flavoring sauces. Think about dehydrating other big performers too since just about anything can be stored this way.

Next chore: Stick to a house cleaning schedule

The entire cleaning schedule that I use breaks it down to a daily, weekly, monthly, biannual and annual schedules, so that housework doesn't get too far out of hand. This is the monthly schedule and remember, you’re just trying to stay ahead, not be perfect.

Monthly: Clean out the microwave, oven and fridge. Wipe down the kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Wipe down towel racks, toilet paper holders, hooks and other fixtures. Dust the laundry area/room. Vacuum upholstered furniture. Dust behind TV. Wipe down doorknobs, light switches, windowsills and baseboards. Extra for this month, clean inside and outside of windows (assuming the weather is still fair).

Final chore: What to plant this month

greens have it good

Like in springtime, we've got major sowing/planting going on. This planting schedule assumes you are in zone 8 or 9 and practice succession planting… so you may also see the same items listed on other months.

Seed or plant the following: Beets, Brussels Sprouts, Broccoli, Cabbage, Carrots, Cauliflower, Celery, Chard, Cilantro, Collards, Kale, Leeks, Head Lettuce, Mustard, Onions and White Potatoes. Thin strawberries once again and transplant established runners.

Resources

The Farmer Fred Rant
The Weekend Homesteader Series (amazon.com books)
Real Simple
Martha Stewart Living
pickyourown.org

The Dutiful Homesteader: July

First chore: Begin clearing up summer plantings

cleanup

Summer fruits/veggies harvest times vary so much, that you could wait until it's all over to begin. But then you'll have one big monster-of-a-work load on your hands and little time to do it. So maybe it will work out for you to start doing a little at a time..? For example, salad greens that claim to be a 'summer' variety don't really last all summer, and so long before the tomatoes are finished doing their thing you'll have to figure out what to do with the bolting lettuce and spinach. So get a head start and clear out the bed and replant or begin enhancing the soil for the next crop. Clean up areas under fruit trees and mulch.

Tip: Get rid of bad weeds (like crab grass) by pouring boiling water over them. This kills them all the way to the root making it clean, easy and permanent. Pay extra care to not hit plants you want to keep!

Next chore: Prune berry bushes

Now is the time to prune dead/broken branches off your berry bushes. And also if you're pruning to shape the bushes. This month we're just tidying things up. So don't confuse this with pruning old canes that already bore fruit; this should be done in early spring.

Next chore: Wash and lime the chicken coop

lime away

On a very hot day, clear out all bedding and litter. Wash the perch, nesting boxes (and the floor of the coop if necessary) with soapy water and then hose the whole thing down, inside and out (using a powerful sprayer if possible). Start early enough so there is time for everything to dry out and then repaint the inside with your lime mixture. The lime usually dries very quickly so the chickies will be back in their coop in no time.

Next chore: Store and/or dehydrate garlic, onions (and peppers)

This chore was also added to June since planting/harvest times vary, and goes something like this:

We cannot have enough onions and garlic in our lives and we’ve grown plenty to get us through the entire year. When the onion family has flowered and is ready to leave the building, it’s time to dry them out a bit for long term storage. (Find out more about it here: First-Time Grower, Long-Time Lover.) Then take storing them even further by dehydrating your own minced and powdered cooking helpers. Trust me, you’ll be so happy you did.

And don't forget to add peppers to the list as the cayenne, ancho and chilies begin to ripen. That's a lot of money saved now that you don't have to purchase those teeny bottles of dried spices at the grocery store anymore. What a ripoff!

Next chore: Start freezing veggies from the garden

easy, breezy, freezing

End of June through July is usually the time when all the green beans just bust out with way more than we can eat, so freezing them is a must. I love the fresh taste (better than when I can them) and so we eat more when stored this way.

Using my Seal-a-Meal machine I cut the bags to size and seal one end. Blanch the veggies for one-two minutes in gently boiling water, run it under very cold water (or keep a bowl of ice water on hand) and let it sit out on a towel to dry. Fill the bags leaving enough room to seal the other end and let the machine do its thing. Most veggies last in the freezer for up to six months.

Next chore: Stick to a house cleaning schedule

The entire cleaning schedule that I use breaks it down to a daily, weekly, monthly, biannual and annual schedules, so that housework doesn't feel like I'm getting worked (over). I just took out the once-a-month portion and added it here, as well as the biannual schedule. Remember, you’re just trying to stay ahead, not be perfect.

Monthly: Clean out the microwave, oven and fridge. Wipe down the kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Wipe down towel racks, toilet paper holders, hooks and other fixtures. Dust the laundry area/room. Vacuum upholstered furniture. Dust behind TV. Wipe down doorknobs, light switches, windowsills and baseboards.

Biannually: This month and then again in January we'll be cleaning all garbage pails. Clean the coffee maker, stove hood and washing machine, and then wipe down the dryer. Wash the curtains and/or wipe down the blinds. Dust/clean the forgotten things: Moldings, ceiling fans, lamp shades, etc. And finally, vacuum and flip your mattress(es).

Final chore: What to plant this month

This planting schedule assumes you are in zone 8 or 9 and practice succession planting… so you may also see the same items listed on other months.

Seed or plant the following: Brussels Sprouts, Celery, Corn and Parsnips. Thin strawberries and transplant established runners.

Start in pots: Broccoli, Cabbage and Cauliflower.

Resources

The Farmer Fred Rant
The Weekend Homesteader Series (amazon.com books)
Real Simple
Martha Stewart Living
pickyourown.org

Wood Ash: A Hen’s Best Kept Beauty Secret

Trying to go Au naturel in providing everything your chickens need for good heath? It's hard to do isn't it? So what about using DE (Diatomaceous Earth) for mite prevention? It's a natural substance so it should be okay to use, right? Well, do you raise your own bees? Do you depend on them in your garden? Then you'll have to give the DE a rest (or take extra special care with it) since it seriously affects the bee population too, sometimes killing them. But don't give up yet, there is a better way.

What's a hen to do?

According to This Old House, a cord of wood can produce up to 50 pounds of ash. They have a cool list of things you can do with it too. But did you know that wood ash (fireplace ash; no BBQ coals, etc) will help keep your chickens mite-free? Yep. Mites are on the list of little buggers that head for the hills when they come near it.

taking a beauty bath

Dust bathing is a natural thing for your chickens to do. It may seem like they've gone insane but they instinctively know that rolling around in dirt will keep them clean and bug-free. My girls love to roll in soil that has no enhancements (completely dead, dry dirt from the field) or my recipe for a chicken-approved beauty bath: Wood ashes and sand.

Best Kept Beauty Secret

love to recycle

We burn a lot of wood during the wintertime and so we always have plenty of ashes hanging around. We store it right out in the field by the compost and mulch. So after I rake the run I grab a couple of heaping shovels of ashes...

got it!

...and I add a shovel full of sand to it and mix well. It's about 2 (maybe 2 1/2) parts to 1. The reason for using sand? It weighs the ash down so it won't blow around easily and turn everything into one bit ash pit. It's just enough to keep them comfy.

inspection time

I dump it in their favorite corner for bathing. Kinda like their "spa" area where they usually leave each other alone so a hen can get herself clean. The White Leghorns-in-charge go in and do the initial inspection. All is good.

rollin' in the deep

All day long they take turns or sometimes double up. And remember, chickens poop everywhere so keep it raked so they'll continue to use it. Replace this as needed and you'll have a flock of happy chickies!

Mite prevention

If you don't have a place to store a whole pile of wood ash, then try to store what you can in a bin somewhere. Use it sparingly by simply dusting your chickens with a handful each month. (See video below.) Stick to your cleaning schedule for changing the bedding, cleaning the perch and raking the run, and everything should be okay.

Got mites?

Check out this fantastic video on how to treat your chickens:

Reader question: Isn't it dangerous to use since wood ash makes lye?

Answer: Well, so far we've had no problems. First, lye doesn't just happen. It's a process that takes days to happen by soaking the ashes in water (Read this.) Also, your chickens probably won't bathe in it if it's wet. They prefer it to be very dry which is something you'll have to pay attention to. Use your best judgement and when in doubt... just say no! 🙂

Market Garden Update: Tomatoes, Cows, Secrets

Yet another month has passed and it seems we've just begun. The updates here are piling up, so I thought I'd get started with the market garden. The hubby has begun to plan (quite intensely I might add) the framework for my little farmstand. We found an old motor boat on the property and the trailer for it is in great shape, and will be the way I stay mobile. So while that is plugging along, it's up to me to step things up in the garden.

muscle men

While it doesn't look like much, this is a little over 300 garlic plants and I didn't expect every single plant to do so well. I mean, I want to start out small and grow each year... according to what I can handle all by myself, you know? So why did I get so ambitious with 80' rows?! Silly me. I sure hope it all sells. I didn't get into a farmers market yet, so I have to hope that people will stop by the roadside to buy from me. Oy vey. And if that ain't enough, off to the left there is a couple of 50' rows that will grow tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.

30' too short or 50' too long?

Each section will have one row of tomatoes, one row of bell peppers and one row of potatoes in it. See the wooden markers there? That is where a tomato plant will be. That's about 22-24 plants per row. Do I have to ask again? What was I thinking?!

In between each tomato plant are several helpers. Garlic cloves are planted right next to each plant. Then I transferred onion bulbs sporadically throughout. And finally, I seeded marigolds. Lots of 'em. These plants are the best things to happen to your tomatoes; warding off all kinds of bad critters.

makeshift is my middle name

Since we have such a problem with birds around here, I thought I'd help the little plants by covering them with this fabric cloth. We bent rebar and stuck them into the ground, then I used clothespins to keep the cloth in place. It's so funky-looking, but it works.

mighty little red machine

To take care of the next sections I'll be needing later this year, we're putting the chipper to work. While the trees are barely beginning to bloom, we'll be pruning fools trying to cut out all the dead stuff in them due to years of neglect. And that makes for some very fine mulch for the gardens. The (colorful) chipper is one of those proud Craig's List finds that just needed a little tweaking. And now it's so powerful, you can practically stuff a small tree in it and out comes beautiful, wee bits of mulch. The plants are going to love it.

can i please have a cow now?

So as I continue snooping around out there, I move toward the back of the property just behind the market garden. This will be perfect for a family cow. I know that is well off into the future, but I can't help dreaming about it. I have all kinds of magazine articles on raising cows clipped and organized in a folder. I know that this area (at least an acre) is enough land to raise it. The trouble would be the eucalyptus back there... not sure if the grazing would be all that great.

stop right there

But the fences are all in good shape back here, so we'd have no trouble getting set up.

out of sight...out of mind

And here is where the barn would go. On purpose, I might add. It'll serve as a way to keep the smelly cow stuff away from our living spaces and cover up the neighbor's (ahem) "storage". With the greenhouse right beside it, the unwanted view will be a thing of the past. Yay!

pssst! it's my secret garden

I finally wander over to an area right between the fruit trees and where the greenhouse entrance will be. But wait a minute. I'm not sure I should share this with you. You see, it's a secret. Yeah, an area that is just for moi. I saw the idea in a magazine and decided to create a place that feels private and peaceful. But I suppose it takes a good imagination to see it right now. I plan to continue the path for at least another 20 feet; allowing it to meander along the fence line. I'll add loads of tall, bushy plants on either side of it, and stick in a bench somewhere along the way. Soon, we'll get back to work on this and you'll see... this will be a farmgirl's perfect getaway.

Feed ‘Em This, So You Can Eat That

The plan to start the chicken garden is underway. Finally. I mean, I probably should have done this last month when I planned out the other gardens, but this seemed a bit overwhelming. Who do I know that's grown their own feed before? Not one person. So I put it off and put it off. Then this happened:

Since I have a whole mess of eggs all the time, I like to scramble up a bunch all at once so we can have egg muffins for breakfast throughout the week. This time I started crackin'... one egg, two eggs, three.. um, hmmm. Clearly some of the hens are not eating all the chard and pumpkin I give them. When you feed your chickens these nutrient-rich foods, the color of their eggs will show it. I now know that the color of the egg is a good way to determine the health of your chickens. Sometimes the whites have extra color too. Another clue is in the shell. It should be strong, not paper thin like what we were used to buying at the grocery store. Hearty eggs = healthy girls.

So I know I have to consider that chickens have likes and dislikes when it comes to their food, just like we do. The hard part will be trying to please them all. The chicken garden plan needed to be readjusted for this very reason. So I went back to the drawing board, did a bunch of research, and came up with something that is the combined advice of several farms and other online sources, especially the Sustainable Seed Company (where my first plan got its start). The idea is to give them exactly what they need at the right time of year. Makes sense to me! What I ended up with is a recipe for a dry mix, and a list of fresh food to grow.

The Dry Mix

As I mentioned, this is based on several different recipes, and here are the portions that I came up with. I divided the trash can (where I store my feed) into 13 parts so they get enough of everything they need. Summer looks a bit different than winter and that has more to do with the temperature than anything else. Corn helps the chickies stay warm, allowing them to get through rough winter nights. But I'll have to keep watch because they really like it. A little too much!

I have all the seed I need to start these six ingredients. A short list of other good stuff to throw in includes barley, sunflower seeds, kamut, lentils, quinoa and sesame seeds. If I add these I'll have to buy everything. (Except maybe the sunflower seeds. I read that you can just let them have at the flower heads and you're done.) Once I figure out how to grow it all, I'll have to figure out exactly what a "part" adds up to so I know how much to grow. Everything seems easy enough to harvest except for the sorghum. Like wheat, a special technique is used to harvest it properly. Well then, this has turned into quite the ongoing saga hasn't it? As I learn, you'll read about it.

Update: I since decided to take more time to figure out how to grow the grains, and so I'll just buy them in bulk to make the feed this year instead. I realized we need a lot more room to grow enough to fill two garbage cans. (duh!) So I'm growing small patches of each and then I'll harvest one square foot to know exactly what is needed for next time. We have the space to start growing it on the other end of the property which just makes more sense. Right now I have lots of corn and peas started for the remainder of the mix. Stay tuned, should be interesting!

Fresh Food

First and foremost is pumpkin. The flesh and the seeds. It is a non-negotiable item that aides their digestive system throughout winter. Pumpkin also immobilizes worms and parasites in the chicken's system, allowing them to poop it right out. And the deep color of their eggs is a sure sign they're eating it and benefiting from it. If you have pullets (or your hens are bantam size) make sure to chop up the seeds (just a bit), otherwise, toss in chunks of pumpkin and watch it disappear.

I'll grow several cover crops in designated "free range" areas that I can move the mobile fencing to so the chickies can have at them. These crops include alfalfa, clover, annual rye, mustard, buckwheat and cow peas. These are especially good for energy and digestion.

Since they eat so much fresh food during spring, summer and fall, it cuts down on the amount of dry food they eat, so I won't have to make as much. These seasons are so much fun for the girls because they get a wide variety of foods to eat. Kale, chard, lettuces and other greens are a big time favorite for the Leghorns. Tomatoes, grapes, melons and squash are loved by the Rhode Island Reds and Americaunas. And they'll be able to scratch under fruit trees too, (a plum tree and a pear tree) so as fall approaches these trees will drop plenty for them to eat as well.

Growing all this extra food won't be easy, and I'm thankful we have the room for it. On the other side of my kitchen garden is a spot for it all. I haven't figured out if the entire thing should be enclosed or if the areas should stay separate..? Either way, it'll work out for the chickens since it's close enough to the coop and we can direct them here when it's time to clean up in the fall.

Because I won't be buying the special "layer feed" from the feed store anymore (provided this all works out!), I'll have to supplement the extra calcium that's added to it with oyster shell. Again, I'll know if they need it by the eggs they produce. And since they scratch all over the place now, I don't have to worry about grit.

With my plan above and some nice grubs, beetles and a lizard or two, this shows promise. And yep, it's all for the eggs we eat folks. And eventually the meat too. Because when they eat right, so do we!

Update: The "test" grains (oats, flax, millet and sorghum) are coming along nicely. Here's to all going well, right?

don't hate us 'cause we're beautiful

Update: This will be the last update before I add new posts on how to harvest the grains and put together the chickie food. But as you can see, the grains are just about ready, the corn is drying on the stalks, the sunflower seeds are ready to go and the girls have been eating all the fresh food I give them throughout the summer. The feed store bill has already been drastically reduced. I can't wait to test this later this year... stay tuned!

feed 'em this!

Baby Mama And Me

Two of my hens have been riding in the Mini Cooper for a long time now. This area was (and still is) designated for new birds that I buy in the future. But for one reason or another, these two just don't cut it with the rest of the gang and have to stay here. So when we extended the run the other day, I let out Baby mama and Big bird to see if the others would notice. For most of the day, everything was great. Or, went as expected I should say. They were so distracted by the excitement of having new areas to scratch in, that only the head chicken-in-charge cared enough to start trouble... at first.

Big bird is very big. Big but young. She's a Blue Laced Red Wyandotte (not a Maran like I first thought) and I have no doubt that she'll do well once she's ready. When I let her out she held her own against the head Leghorn for quite a long time, but she just didn't know how to integrate herself like the other three latecomers. (I bought two sets of five birds, and 3 of the second five did really well and have thus been accepted into the club.) So back to the Mini Cooper she went.

But what about Baby mama? Oh dear. Baby mama is just too little. I didn't realize (more like wasn't informed) that she is a bantam and although she's already laying eggs, she won't get any bigger. Once the excitement of scratching up the new territory wore off, the other hens began terrorizing her and she had to stick with Big Bird the entire time. She's just too small to fight back on her own. It wouldn't be a big deal since I know they have to fight and work out the order of things, but she just lays there and lets them gang up on her. So sad. Back to Mini Cooper for her too.

Now I'm confused. When Big bird is finally ready to leave, which won't be long, do I start a second group of bantams just so Baby mama won't get lonely? Do I give her away? (She's the only one laying green eggs! I love those eggs.) Well, I suppose that is why this is listed under my rantings category. I think I'm a bit perturbed about the whole thing. What to do...

I suppose keeping two groups of birds isn't a terrible idea. As I rethink this I will let you know how it all works out. C'est la vie!

Feathers, Freedom And The Nitpicking Bad Girl

This girl has an obsession. Or maybe she has an addiction. Or a deficiency that has led to an obsession or addiction. Yeah, that's it. You see, some of my chickens are doing this thing called "molting" where they shed feathers like crazy. You would think it would only happen during the summertime and not the freezing cold of winter, but it happens at anytime of year.

This is another chickie that seems to be molting. I have three Rhode Island Reds and two of them are losing feathers in the exact same place - by the tail. I also have three Wyandottes, two White Leghorns and two Ameraucanas... but none of them are molting right now. And all are doing fine with nutrition and health.

So what's the problem?

The first girl is picking out the fluffy feathers. Not just one or two here and there, but she's picking at the other two Reds relentlessly. So at first I thought it had to do with nutrition. After all, these soft under-feathers are like caviar to the bird who needs extra protein. So was that it? Step up the protein? That's what I thought at first, so I began to feed the hens chopped walnuts. I always turn to this site for help in what they're allowed to eat and nuts are on the list. (Thank you!) I know that walnuts are loaded with protein so then all I had to do is see if they like 'em. And they do! And together with the expanded "free-ranging" area where bugs can be discovered they should have all the protein they need.

But the girlie didn't stop. She then moved onto the other birds who show no signs of molting, so it seems that feathers are not the goal. Her whole attitude has changed. She's been attacking the others for no real reason and so into the bad girl jail she went. A little while back I found myself making the choice to buy Purina feed instead of the organic feed I started out with. The choice was a matter of convenience since I was on the other side of town from my regular feed store. Big mistake. It's obvious they don't like it as much and there must not be enough protein and other nutrients in it, and could possibly have led to the bad girl issues I'm having. It's something I have to seriously consider when it comes time to grow my own feed.

This is the bad girl jail. It is four panels held together by bungee cords. The hubby and I knew that this would be moved around and possibly configured in different ways so rather than building a cage, using panels made more sense. The end goal is to add two more long panels, two medium-sized panels and one more short panel to make it a big or small as necessary. I think it'll come in quite handy when adding new birds to the lot.

So, I know what you're thinking. Isn't it typical to remove the "picked on" birds rather than the trouble makers? Well, maybe not. I've been using a method I call "go to the corner" where if you have one or two trouble makers in the flock, then they get sequestered to an area where all can see. Over the course of 3-5 days, the bird(s) will be knocked down a notch on the pecking order pole (for a little while) and that should fix the bad attitude. And it's worked so far. The Leghorns were quite the bullies so I tried this method and I haven't had trouble out of them since. But I'm a little worried about this Red not learning her lesson. She is very stubborn. I mean stubborn! She watches me and constantly tries to walk out of the gate with me every morning and will not take my boot as a hint to stay put. She isn't happy with the tree branch some of the others like to fly up to, and she doesn't play follow the leader. She likes to stand around and look at things... outside of the fence. Hmm, maybe I should rethink this.

So I decided to let her spread her wings. She seems to be the kind of girl that needs lots of room. It's hard for her to coexist with the other hens and she just needs something to distract her. I get it. I don't work well in groups either. Enter the movable fencing. It's an idea the hubby came up with that allows me to expand their outdoor space to any part of the yard that I choose. And that was it! That's what it took to keep her happy and believe that she's free. Now she has so much to discover that she could care less about the other girls. So no more jail time for being a bad girl, just fun time.

Looking for a movable fence too? In the pet stores, they can get pricey and really aren't built for chickens. So building it ourselves was our only option. We took the leftover deer fencing and cut it into about 15-20 foot lengths. We stapled fence posts to it about every 6 feet. (The hubby milled these himself! Makes me proud.) About a foot of fencing was extended to hang past the bottom of the posts.

The hubby added two 3/4" pipe straps to the bottom of each post and made sure they were attached so they'd be slightly wider than the pipe. The hubby then made stands for each post using dado cuts and screwed on a 12" pipe to each one. That's it. I just place the stands where I want them, and slip the posts onto the pipes. Easy on, easy off. I use twist ties to attach it to the original fence. And since we sometimes get high winds in the evenings, I throw on a few (found) bricks to keep them stable.

We made two so far, extending the fencing about 30 feet. I used both to create this (really big) area for the girls to roam around in. They've already torn apart the compost pile and found a buffet to eat, including the biggest grub I ever saw in my life. (Where's that camera when I need it?) And when they get close to completely scratching this area all up, I'll just move it somewhere else. Cool. We also thought about making little tunnels to guide them to areas that are farther out still. We'll see.

And all to make one hen happy. (sigh) Wait, what's this?

She's gazing out beyond the run again? Will she ever be satisfied?

The Dutiful Homesteader: January

First chore: Write down your garden rotation plan

Sit down this month to do this chore. It's the perfect month for it since most of the gardening you do happens indoors anyway (if you're starting seeds) and let's face it, it's cold outside! The following example is a rotation plan that can serve as a starting point for your garden. Gardening this way is something I've learned to do just recently (well, just this last year) and it just makes sense. It works as a wonderful way to grow organically by warding off bugs, fighting disease and repairing the soil. So start with a plan and then rotate...

Year #1

Row 1 - Fallow with oats and/or annual ryegrass (add extra compost prior to planting)
Row 2 - Tomato family - eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes (first year composting only)
Row 3 - Onion family - garlic, onions, leeks, shallots (first year composting only)
Row 4 - Legumes - beans and peas, clover, vetch (no extra compost needed)
Row 5 - Cabbage family - broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, chinese cabbage, collards, cress, kale, kohlrabi, radishes, turnips (very light composting prior to planting)
Row 6 - Fallow with buckwheat and/or white clover (add extra compost prior to planting)
Row 7 - Lettuce and Beet family - artichokes, chicory, endive, lettuce, beets, spinach, Swiss chard (first year light composting only)
Row 8 - Legumes - beans and peas, clover, vetch (no extra compost needed)
Row 9 - Grass family - grains–corn, oats, rye, wheat (add extra compost prior to planting)
Row 10 - Tomato and/or Squash family - eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, melons, summer and winter squash, pumpkins, watermelon (light composting prior to planting)
Row 11 - Carrot family - carrots, celery, anise, coriander, dill, fennel, parsley (no extra compost needed)
Row 12 - Legumes (or) Onion family - beans and peas, clover, vetch (or) garlic, onions, leeks, shallots (no extra compost needed)

Year #2 (rows move over one space)

Row 1 - Tomato family - eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes (no extra compost needed)
Row 2 - Onion family - garlic, onions, leeks, shallots (no extra compost needed)
Row 3 - Legumes - beans and peas, clover, vetch (no extra compost needed)
Row 4 - Cabbage family - broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, chinese cabbage, collards, cress, kale, kohlrabi, radishes, turnips (very light composting prior to planting)
Row 5 - Fallow with buckwheat and/or white clover (add extra compost prior to planting)
Row 6 - Lettuce and Beet family - artichokes, chicory, endive, lettuce, beets, spinach, Swiss chard (no extra compost needed)
Row 7 - Legumes - beans and peas, clover, vetch (no extra compost needed)
Row 8 - Grass family - grains–corn, oats, rye, wheat (add extra compost prior to planting)
Row 9 - Tomato and/or Squash family - eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, melons, summer and winter squash, pumpkins, watermelon (light composting prior to planting)
Row 10 - Carrot family - carrots, celery, anise, coriander, dill, fennel, parsley (no extra compost needed)
Row 11 - Legumes (or) Onion family - beans and peas, clover, vetch (or) garlic, onions, leeks, shallots (no extra compost needed)
Row 12 - Fallow with oats and/or annual ryegrass (add extra compost prior to planting)

...and so on. The original post has more information about it - that's here. Don't leave out the compost and mulch... it's been very, very good to me and I recommend this method to everyone.

Also, I am a very visual kind of person. I need to see charts and graphs and... colors. 🙂 So after I type it, I pin it, onto a cork board or some other big ol' in your face, chart-of-sorts. I make it visually pleasing with colorful paper and pictures. It helps me stay organized because I have no choice but to focus on it each time I walk by. Then I know it'll get done. This year I think I'll try using flash cards with the plant names on them, then velcro them to the garden rows laid out on the chart... this will allow me to easily move each card one row over each year, or to mix it up!

Next chore: As you use up your canning goods, store water in the empty jars

This is a good idea for an emergency water supply - especially during the summertime when wells run dry. Save the lids from used jars and wash everything in the dishwasher, using the sanitizing cycle. (Or you can also sanitize the jars in the oven or a water bath.) If you're on a well, boil the water prior to storing it. If not, chances are that your municipal water supply already has chlorine in it which means it will store for a very long period of time. There is no need to actually can the water, it should do just fine whether you take these extra steps or not. But check it every six months just in case, and be prepared to change it every January (yearly) if you don't use it all up.

Next chore: Create a budget and plan out the year

Your time indoors is best spent doing the one thing that can quickly get out of hand and make your head spin. Budgeting your money for the year. If you do this then you won't be shocked when it's tax time, and you'll realize what your spending habits are before it's too late. And I suggest using a good program like Quicken (and Quickbooks if you run your own business). The key to not going crazy when using this kind of software? Set it up properly from the start. I have a subscription to a wonderful newsletter called Growing For Market and in their latest issue, there is an article titled "Better Bookkeeping" that talks about this very thing. Learn the program well, set it up properly and then the rest is very easy from year to year.

Next chore: Plant blackberry and raspberry bushes (while dormant)

If you don't already have a bush and you always wanted to plant one, now's the time to jump at the chance to do this chore. If it's possible, do it on a sunny day. Sunny days are a fluke this time of year and you know it, so don't hesitate! Forget the cold. Think 'jam'. How great would it be to walk outside and pick a bowl full of berries for canning? Now think 'free'. How high will you hold your head at the farmers market when you pass by a table of over-priced, teeny weeny baskets of last week's berries? Let these thoughts motivate you!

Next chore: Clean out chicken coop litter

By my own experience, I've calculated that every six months is sufficient enough for this chore. And this is only if you decide to use sand like we do, otherwise, the schedule will be more often according to the type of litter you use. This is the first (and easier) cleaning of the year. The second is in July when you clean it from top to bottom. This time, all you have to do is shovel out the litter, sweep and replace it with new stuff. The addition to your compost will create a really nice well-draining soil to plant in. Win win! Do this the same day you plant your berry bushes.

Next chore: Pick a day to tidy up all gardens

Another one to do on your day outside. Though the real tidying happens in October, wild weather may create a need to re-clean. And weeds don't seem to ever take a break. Make the most of the only good weather you'll have for a long while. Weed all gardens (vegetable, flower), rake leaves and pick up wind-blown items.

Next chore: Stick to a house cleaning schedule

The entire cleaning schedule that I use breaks it down to a daily, weekly, monthly, biannual and annual schedules, so that housework doesn't feel like I'm getting worked (over). I just took out the once-a-month portion and added it here, as well as the biannual schedule. Remember, you’re just trying to stay ahead, not be perfect.

Monthly: Clean out the microwave, oven and fridge. Wipe down the kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Wipe down towel racks, toilet paper holders, hooks and other fixtures. Dust the laundry area/room. Vacuum upholstered furniture. Dust behind TV. Wipe down doorknobs, light switches, windowsills and baseboards.

Biannually: This month and then again in July we'll be cleaning all garbage pails. Clean the coffee maker, stove hood and washing machine, and then wipe down the dryer. Wash the curtains and/or wipe down the blinds. Dust/clean the forgotten things: Moldings, ceiling fans, lamp shades, etc. And finally, vacuum and flip your mattress(es).

Final chore: What to plant this month

Seeding in between storms isn't easy. A simple covering helps them get established and stay warmer.

This planting schedule assumes you are in zone 8 or 9 and practice succession planting… so you may also see the same items listed on other months.

Asparagus, Bok choy/Pak Choi, Head and/or Leaf Lettuce, Mustard, Peas, White Potatoes and Radishes.

Start in pots: Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Peppers and Tomatoes.

Resources

The Farmer Fred Rant
The Weekend Homesteader Series (amazon.com books)
Real Simple
Martha Stewart Living
Growing For Market
Quickbooks and Quicken

Chickens Love Wintertime!

My chickens love water. That I knew about. My chickens love the rain. Okay, interesting. My chickens get mad at me when I try to keep them out of the rain. Golly gee whiz, gimme a break already! While the chores have me winterizing the coop and run, the chickens seem to be annoyed that things are changing.

For example: This girl loves to waddle in mud. Just look at her feet. Shameful. But when it really starts to pour I don't allow them to go out into the "outside" area. I make them stay in the covered run so as not to get too muddy. No, I'm not a mean chicken mom, I just know that a lot of health issues can arise if the chickens don't dry off every once in a while, or if the weather is too cold. But do they understand that I'm just doing my job? All I get is whining and angry squawks when I walk by. And I get the dirtiest looks from them, I tell ya!

I've been using a bedding from the feed store and mixing it with shavings from redwood that came off the hubby's planer, just to stretch it out a bit. It's pretty soft and the chickens really seem to like it. But I noticed that since they've been getting damp from rain, the bedding gets a little damp too and then it slightly stains the eggs! Who knew? (I still think it's a good idea to use the redwood, just not during wet weather.) But did they care that I care? When I changed it, I received loud cackles and flapping wings as if I upset their entire world!

This girlie thinks I'm insane when I keep her inside. She and the other Wyandotte love to fly up into the tree outside right after they've pigged out first thing in the morning. As I enter the run to change their water and make sure all is in order, she jumps up onto the stack of logs and looks me up and down. If she could talk I'd suspect she'd say something like, "She can't keep us inside all day! Just who does she think she is?"

She started laying eggs* for the first time this week. Awesome! They're super-looking too... speckled, which I didn't expect. But wait, it's wintertime. Why has she started now and why an egg a day? Don't these chickens know it's the wrong time of year for high production? Not one has slowed down and now this! Hmm.

"Don't you dare take a picture of my backside either!"

Okay, fine. But I still have to lay out mulch and clean the gutters. The hubby has to shave off a bit of the coop door because it sticks. I moved the metal garbage bin (that holds their feed) into the run. And I'll hang the waterers and feeders so they don't get them muddy. The girls are just going to have to understand that this is how it is at this time of year. Wintertime and wet weather may be fun, but there are rules we all have to follow.

Do I really look like I care?

*Update: As soon as I finished typing this, my littlest Ameraucana laid her first egg! (jumping for joy) What a beautiful green color! But again, it's the end of December... go figure.

Egg Days Of Summer

As summer continues to wind down, the egg production has picked up. All three Rhode Island Reds are laying eggs daily and have joined the big girls' club with my two White Leghorns. My mom, sisters, niece, sister-in-law and my son have all received their first dozen eggs in a recycled carton with our homestead name on it. FAB!

I love a mixed up carton of eggs. Just wait until the Ameraucanas start giving us blue eggs! And now it looks like one of the Wyandottes may be next. That means I'll have a dozen eggs every two or three days. I HAVE to figure out what to do with them since I have an RV-sized refrigerator (little room for storage). The goal is to be able to sell the eggs, but until then I must find a way to use them up or give them away. And I still want more hens. Wow.

The task at hand is to get the ball rolling on legally selling my eggs; in other words, get to work on the paperwork. I know that in California I must have regular inspections too. No doubt this will take money upfront. (It takes some to make some, right?) Then I'll get started on cataloging the activity around here from day to day. Without really knowing what will be required of me, I went ahead and put together a record of things an inspector may want to know (just in case). This includes a list of vitamins I put into their water, the type of fly/lice control I use, what I feed them, my cleaning schedule and more. I have yet to find a vet but that is next on the list. The facilities are clean, the hens are happy and I am ready to test the waters. By early next year I hope to have many more hens and a handful of regular customers. Cool.

With me and the girls, it's the perfect partnership and they seem to know it too. This is a zoomed-in picture of my Rhode Island Red laying an egg. I don't want to get too close and disturb her peaceful state. They seem to go into a contemplative/focused mood and want their privacy. This lady is one of only three hens (so far) that announces an egg arrival: cackling a rhythmic song as they exit the building. "It's a tough job, but someone had to do it!"

Because I trust real people who tell their real experiences over the textbook instructions, I have learned that washing the eggs is a no no. You see, egg shells are porous. If you wash them too soon, you can remove the protective coating called 'bloom' and bacteria can pass right through the shell. Many people wash right before using them, but even more people never wash them at all! Eggs will get an occasional smudge at which point you can decide if you want to wash them. But really, keeping the nesting boxes clean usually takes care of that issue because eggs are very clean - and that's by design. But I'm almost positive that washing the eggs will be necessary in order to legally sell them. It helps the general public feel safe due to the many unsafe practices of some farms.

I recently found out that if I want to sell at a farmers market, the inspectors will make sure I always keep the eggs refrigerated which means I'll have to consider a special setup from the start. And I have to learn how to grade the eggs. It takes a certain amount of equipment to check the inside quality of the egg (or I have to learn how to candle each one) which will also need to be monitored by inspectors.

In the grading process, eggs are examined for both interior and exterior quality before they’re sorted according to weight (size). Grade quality and weight (size) are not related to one another. Eggs of any quality grade may differ in weight (size). In descending order of quality, grades are designated AA, A and B.

Source: http://www.incredibleegg.org

The exterior quality must be checked for cracking, texture and of all things, the shape. Seems that anything odd automatically gets a grade B. Once the grade is determined it gets displayed on the carton, along with the date the eggs were collected, our company name and contact information.

At the least, I can skip all of this and sell directly out of my home. Yes, as crazy as it sounds, in California you can legally sell eggs from your home without a license or inspection as long as the customer comes to you. This is true of many items you want to sell because it is a 'take your chances' situation that makes the consumer responsible and not you. It would be up to them to check your facility prior to purchase. No wonder the Craig's list pages are booming with egg sellers!

Now that pumpkins are in season the girls will be eating a lot of them which will turn the egg yolks a cool orangish color. I wonder what grade I get for that?!

References

http://www.homesteadingtoday.com
http://www.backyardchickens.com
http://www.incredibleegg.org

Side note: For anyone that has noticed the paper towel (of all things) as a huge step backwards for me, please read my explanation (and apology) at the end of this page.

Mini Cooper

I had to do something about the babies that were not received well by the other ladies. I now understand why the couple I bought them from divided their chickens into size and type categories. There's just no getting around the pecking order and its affects, so keeping the babies safe is top priority. We started by cornering off a portion of the run but that made them stir-crazy, so we sectioned off a larger portion of the run:

Then we expanded the run area for the divas so that part of it was semi free range (sorta) and we can tell they are super happy about it:

This turned out better than we expected because it makes the babes feel like they're a part of the action while giving the rest of the ladies more room to spread out. The only problem is that silly-little-a-frame-coop-thingy the babies have to stay it. It isn't safe or weather proof. So, the hubby has agreed to build a mini safe house for them.

He agreed because it will practically be free since we already have the materials here. He took the shed down not too long ago (what an eyesore that thing was) and now we have more than enough to build the mini cooper. The only thing we had to buy for this project was the insulation and a couple of latches. Cool!

A standard box-frame with a slanted roof and raised to save the ol' back while cleaning.

An easy way to add insulation to a small structure like this is to build it backwards. Build the inside walls first and then add the insulation onto the outside.

Cut the insulation to size and add the siding on top of it and your good to go.

Once the sides went up, the roof went on which left a gap for venting. There will be a large door across the front that will open for easy cleaning, but it will also serve as a way to cover up the venting. And a smaller chicken door will be cut into the large door. Nothing but a perch will go inside since this will not be used for layers. Just the bitties - and eventually mommies and their chicks.

Because mini cooper is so tall, the ramp is extra long. We know it'll be necessary to change it for birds smaller than our current babes. But this works for our needs at the moment.

Of course I had to paint mc... and eventually I will paint a coat of lime on the inside. Now, how to beautify it? Well, once I can unpack everything, I suppose I can get out my Cricut and create stencils for painting flowers on it and what not. I think I'll hit up my old magazines for some ideas.

A board across the front allows the (large) door to be removable; slipping in and out without the need for hinges. A small landing for the ramp was attached to the bottom. A large piece of plywood sits on top for now... so that we can see if it will shield the babies from rain in winter. If not, we'll come up with something else. I added sand to the floor of the coop and will make a small scooper for the brilliant method I learned about and put into action. It's working out to be the idea of the century. Hmm... where do you get a mini pooper scooper for the cooper anyway?

I Could Have Been A Crack Pusher

Feeding the girls is a bit confusing for me since I want to give them what they want and need for good health. But the opinions out there vary so much that I just had to take a step back to try and figure this out on my own. So to get started, I purchased their feed from the local feed store which seems to be satisfying them for now. It is a combination of nutrients that are tailored for layer hens. I also have an "all flock" feed for the smaller birds. But I do plan to switch them to a diet made up of organic, homegrown feed in the future. The idea came from a company where I buy some of my garden seed from out of Mendocino County, California... they also sell a "chicken garden" package that has everything needed to "grow" a well-rounded meal for your chickens! Nice. So I think I'll start there. To make the transition easy on the girls, I decided to feed them our leftover fruits and veggies 1-2 times a day (along with their regular feed) until the day they are switched to my homegrown feed. (I follow the chart listed here for now.)

It all started out well. Leafy greens and tomatoes are a hit. They also love all kinds of squash and raw corn left on the cob.

I usually leave our garden plot with a few things that the insects started in on... they are perfect for the ladies and makes me feel good that there is no waste. If I happen to find a few tomatoes full of pill bugs well then I just hit the jackpot. Bugs equal protein and I feel like I'm doing a good job taking care of them. (Maybe there's an award for 'Best Chicken Mom'... hmm.)

I also give them fruit which they love. A half-eaten slice of watermelon and a few grapes from the front yard and they're good to go. The girls also love cantaloupe, pears and apples. Can't wait to try more fruits next year.

The feed store has a scratch mix that I started to give them as a treat, but then found that they liked it so much, the fresh food wouldn't do! So I decided to break the crack habit and use it only as a "scratch and find" food. Before I let them out of the coop in the morning, I take a handful and sprinkle it around the yard and behind pots, etc. This serves two purposes: One, it gives the mean girls something to do all day (I have two Leghorns that get bored and on occasion, they pick feathers off the other girls) and two, it allows the second class girls to eat right away and not have to wait for the chick click to finish eating first (the first five - Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds - have formed a click that the Wyandottes and Ameraucana can't join right now).

The (eventual) plan is to feed them according to what is in season for optimal health. Just like you and me, this is a good thing for chickens too. In-season foods are exactly what they need at that particular time of year, because the foods are at their peak in vitamins and nutrients. For example: Feeding pumpkins to chickens throughout the winter not only makes their eggs turn a beautiful orange color, but it helps them fight disease and expel worms that plague them during that time of year. Awesome, right?! Here is the breakdown from the Sustainable Seed Company:

(The comments are by Farmer John explaining the feed package.)

Corn - Perfect for cracked or whole corn. An excellent storage corn that produces loads of high protein kernels. The staple of any scratch recipe. No farm is without corn or any modern homesteader for that matter.

Chard - A fast growing, huge chard perfect for poultry greens which are absolutely vital to good growth, egg production, chick development and health.

Pumpkin - Most farms have forgotten to use pumpkins for their poultry. They are perfect because the abundant harvest of huge, nutrient rich flesh that stores easily through the winter when it is hard to find good feed. Pumpkin will give you the deepest, most delicious orange/yellow egg yolks. My egg customers always rave about my eggs when I'm feeding pumpkin.

Millet - The staple in any bird feed. Grows fast and produces huge sprays of heads loaded with seeds your birds will gobble up.

Peas - Browsing forage is a staple for all Turkeys and makes up a large part of their diet. They relish peas as will the chickens and ducks. Dundale will provide a quick fast forage for your birds on the ground or harvest for easy dry storage.

Oats - Oats are an important source of energy when fall weather sets in. We start using more oats in our mix as soon as the cool weather settles in and the birds need the extra carbohydrates to keep warm.

Flax - You've heard all the good news about how heart health Omega 3 is, but find it hard to swallow flax every morning? Feed it to your chickens! We use flax to produce the most nutrient dense omega 3 eggs that our customers go crazy for!

Grain Sorghum - This is a standard in all scratch mixes. Grows a lot like corn, but is more drought tolerant. Your poultry will devour the seed and the goats/horses/cows will appreciate the leafy stalks.

They have a few other suggestions that I have to ponder over before I dive right in, but this is an incredible start. So as we begin to grow their feed, harvest and prepare it, we will of course let you know whether or not it all works out. If we have to resort back to chicken crack, we'll let you know that too.

More info: Don't forget the grit. It's nothing but a bunch of little rocks but it will save your chickens from a long list of digestive problems. Chickens (and all birds for that matter) need it so the rocks can roll around in the gizzard to break up their food. Some people add it to the feed, but I just keep a pile in a spot where they can easily find it, then they can just go get some as they need it. And don't mistake oyster shell for grit... it's actually too soft and meant only to be a calcium supplement. Find a good granite grit and you're all set. If you're raising chicks, then it may be best to buy grit made especially for them (in teeny weeny pieces). Free range birds don't need the extra help since there will be plenty of rocks to choose from in your yard. 🙂

Click here to learn how to stop chickens from eating feathers.

Population: 1 Dozen

The growing egg production can't happen fast enough for me, and I don't know why... I haven't come up with a plan to sell them (or even give away for free). All I know is that chickens make eggs so let's open the floodgates already!

Sweetie Pie and the other White Leghorn have not disappointed me. To date, they have laid 20 eggs between them. And as you guessed it, I'm waiting for the day these gorgeous gals turn the numbers right-side up. There will come a day when the egg, meat and manure production will pay for itself, and hopefully turn a profit. We will see...

Now, I like the color white. I'd just like to have some brown and blue now. Is that too much to ask? At least I know our eggs are as nutritious as they can be because they come from my own farm! That is a proud statement that I could only dream of before. I don't know what the previous owners fed them, but these girls now get all their vitamins in their water and feed, as well as daily treats to fruit and veggies, and the occasional treat to "crack for chickens": scratch. They are healthy and their eggs are healthy to eat. Yum.

Here's to raising the population on the homestead from a dozen (10 chickens and the two of us) to greater numbers. 🙂

The blog is moving to a new location. Please visit https://oldhomesteadhideaway.com/blog. Thanks!

The blog is moving to a new location. Please visit https://oldhomesteadhideaway.com/blog. Thanks!