I feel like January and February are some of the most creative months for us. The garden and livestock are all in hibernation mode (mostly, the exception being the new lambs). The weather is cold and gray and sometimes white. And so, we turn to making and creating and adding vibrant color to our lives.
Miss C got a sewing machine from Santa last Christmas. She has been working on perfecting her seams and if anyone needs a pincushion or coffee coaster, let me know. She sells them for a hug each She and I have also been working on a project each day. We made a few pillows for her room and then have been making monsters. Each one was completely designed by C and then stitched by me. It is harder than it might seem to turn her drawings into three dimensional stuffed toys. Today we made the blue turtle monster and she was SO happy. I might try to make another tomorrow and give it a different head-to-body ratio (bigger head, smaller body). C has also been making drawings, frames, and pot holder looms. And, about eleventy bazillion loom bracelets. She also took a felt bunting we made last year and turned it into a mobile for her room. I love the way it looks, like bubbles in the ocean.
Morgan also got in on the action. He has been really into stories about zombies lately, so this is a zombie monster with three eyes and blood. Fun times
Apparently making weird looking things is a ‘thing’ for us. Here is a set of zombie princesses vs. cavemen we made in the fall.
I hope you find some time to make something or enjoy something lovely that was made with the amazing artistic eye of a child.
This morning, for the first time ever, I got to see a lamb get born. I actually got to catch one lamb (it was going to drop into the snow) and see another! It was pretty exciting. We knew that two of our ewes were very close, so we were ready. Usually they lamb in the very early morning, but this time, it was around 8:30am. I got to the barn to see Frances on the ground pushing. I sent Jackson back to get Mike and the camera, quickly fed the other sheep and cows and got to her right as she stood up to drop the lamb.
I caught it and then quickly held it to her nose and walked her into the barn. I closed the gate and a few minutes later Mike and Jackson got there. She cleaned her lamb and we assembled a hay stall for her. This worked well for us last year. The hay insulates the sheep and keeps the draft off the babies. They will stay in there for a few days until they are stronger. Then they will get free reign of the barn for a week until they can be out with the flock.
After she cleaned off the first lamb, I again picked it up and held it to her nose and walked her into the hay stall. We closed it up and within a few minutes, the other lamb dropped. She cleaned it and within twenty minutes, both lambs were on their feet trying to nurse. She has one ram and one ewe! It is our first ewe lamb from her which is exciting because she is the best ewe ever and I would like to have a lamb from her. It is very cold this week which is unfortunate, but the lambs are really only at risk for hypothermia in the first hour after birth and only when wet. These guys are dry and warm and so hopefully will be just fine.
Not only did we get to see the birth, but Mike got to film the second one. You can see it on the video below. Just a word of caution, it is a lamb being born, so their are some gooey bits in the video. You can also see more pictures on Flickr.
Happy 2014! We hope you are having a wonderful new year. The holidays were a bit of a blur for us as we were traveling. Now we are back and settled. We have had it in our minds for a while that 2014 would be the year we would get a new dog. Our youngest child is almost four and not such a baby any more. Our vizsla Zsaka is almost 11 and we wanted him to be young enough to help us train the new dog. For those who have ever met him, he is the sweetest, calmest dog imaginable. He is the best family dog. However, he isn’t a *great* farm dog. He doesn’t like to be outside without us and never barks or really marks his territory. We have had many conversations with people over the past year about what breed might be right for us and a few kept coming up that would meet our dual needs (farm and family). Great Pyrenees, Australian Shepard, Standard Poodle, etc. We really wanted to adopt a dog and were given the name of Big Fluffy Dog Rescue. We got what seemed like the perfect dog or us in late November. He was active and smart and great with all of the people. He was supposedly a Pyr-Dalamation cross. Unfortunately, he hated Zsaka, the cats, and had a super high prey drive so having him around our free ranging poultry was a no-go. He ended up going to a lovely home with a female dog and two caring humans and a few horses. The last we heard he was doing great. Having that experience made us really evaluate what we thought we needed. We had wanted an active adult male. In truth what we needed was entirely different.
When we got back from our travels, we got word of a pair of Pyr-Aussie pups were headed up north from Tennessee. We were asked if we would like to foster these girls to see if they might work for us. We thought this would be a great idea. Our needs on the farm are so specific that starting with a puppy and raising it ourselves might be the only way to ensure that the animal works well as a working dog. Having a few puppies to compare meant that we could look at temperament. When we picked up the two lovely fluff balls we were told we had a week to decide. We couldn’t possibly imagine how we could decide in that short a time. In truth, we knew in the first 30 minutes of having the pair. Our Elsa (she came to us as Evie, the one picture below with the white band around her nose) was calm, submissive, sweet, dainty, and smart. Her sister Emma (who was Echo) was brave, boisterous, alert, and VERY smart. Smart is good, but too smart can be trouble We knew pretty immediately that Elsa would be our girl and as the week progressed we became certain. The best possible news was learning that very close friends of ours (more like family) who had happened to be visiting the day we picked the pups up, fell in love with Emma and ended up adopting her. The sisters got to have a play date last night and it was so amazing to see them romp and play. We look forward to many years with both girls and many play times. Elsa is already showing herding and patrolling instincts and is quick to learn commands. We think she will be the perfect farm-family dog.
The goodbye part of our story is very sad. This week our cat Marty died unexpectedly. He was somewhere between 8-10 years old. For the past week he had been keeping to himself more, but we thought it was due to the puppies. I found him downstairs one morning last week looking very rough and thin. We brought him upstairs and gave him water and put him in a clean crate so we could keep an eye on him. He was purring and alert and drinking but not eating. In the morning he had passed. We don’t know exactly what happened but many things point to feline leukemia. He was vaccinated, but he also went outside a lot so he may have picked up something. He was an amazing farm cat and he will be sincerely missed. Ironically, we got him five years ago when our rescue greyhound Izzy died suddenly from cancer. Izzy, Marty, and Elsa all have similar coloring; white coats with large spots. We wonder if they all have some of the same spirit.
We will post updates and pictures of Elsa as she grows. Happy winter to everyone!
We had our first snow accumulation this week (with more called for over the weekend). Winter, though not officially here ’til next week, is definitely getting a jump on things. During winter, activities on the farm slow down. We’re done with harvest and dealing with spring animals and plantings is months away. We still have to keep all our animals fed and watered over winter, something that gets more difficult as liquid water turns to ice. Once the snow starts, however, we get one big benefit — we can use our sleds to pull heavy loads (like food/water) around the farm to our animals. Plus, the kids love it.
Enjoy your winter, wherever you are!
The 2013 garden season has been over for a few weeks. We went strong well into October. I have never put so much time and effort into the garden and it really paid off. Usually by this point in the year, I am completely done with vegetables. This year, I felt like when the garden was finished, I was nicely satiated and am very much looking forward to the next growing season. In the meantime, we have shelves and shelves of delicious preserved foods to eat all winter and spring.
I thought I would share what came out of our garden this year. The way I see it, there are two main goals that we have currently and two more for the future. The first goal is to consume as much fresh produce as possible all year long. We certainly managed to do that. The spring found us relishing the early radishes and lettuces. All summer long we feasted on corn, tomatoes, greens, beans, and fruits. We bought fruits and veggies very rarely, and it was things like onions, avocados, and bananas. We are still eating winter squash and kale and will do so for the next few months. The second goal is to preserve enough from the garden to supply a large amount of our needs through the winter and spring. We did that as well. The only things we needed to buy were apples to make sauce and peppers for making jelly and salsa. Everything else we preserved from the list below was grown here. The last two goals, which are ones for the future, are to also grow enough to preserve our own seeds and then to think about growing enough to have some to sell. In all honesty, selling is not something I have any plans to do, and the only thing I can think of to do that with will be fruit from the orchard as it continues to mature. Our main goal is simply to provide for ourselves.
So, in addition to gorging on fresh vegetables and fruit all summer long, here is what we were able to preserve. These numbers are all rough as sometimes we ate a jar or two that didn’t seal properly, so add about +2 to each item.
- 50 quarts tomato sauce
- 63 pints green beans
- 12 quarts peach sauce
- 14 quarts pickles
- 8 pints dilly beans
- 100 pints salsa (tomatoes from us, onions, garlic, and peppers store bought)
- 15 pints pepper jelly (store bought peppers)
- 6 pints catsup
- 12 quarts apple butter
- 36 quarts apple sauce (from a local orchard)
- 4 pints peach butter
- 2 pints elderberry jam
- 7 pints peach jam
- 12 pints plum jam
- 10 pints strawberry jam
- 4 pints wildberry jam
- 10 pints pesto
- 50 quarts shredded zucchini, frozen
- 4 quarts corn, frozen
- 4 quarts green beans, frozen
- 4 quarts roasted pumpkin, frozen
- 2 gallons peaches, frozen
- 2 gallons plums, frozen
We still had some pickles and jams left over from last year as well, so we will try to eat through those quickly and then enjoy this year’s preserves. We also canned 14 quarts of beef stock so far and will be canning more. It makes me feel very good to know that the basement is filled with such delicious foods and that all of the time and effort I put into the garden is going to pay off nicely.
Every year or so, we’ve been ordering chicks from hatcheries, such as Murray McMurray. We usually get some layers and some meat birds, plus throw in the various duck, goose or turkey. We tend to lose layers to natural predation (the blasted fox!), so need a regular replenishment even if we aren’t doing meat birds. Since we’re going to be up to our eyeballs in meat this year (two cows, lots of lamb), we decided to skip meat chicks and turkeys this year. But we only had 10 laying chickens and only one rooster, so we were still concerned we’d need more layers before long. We had the idea to incubate our own eggs. The price is right (our own layers can provide the fertilized eggs), we would just need an incubator (a one-time expense).
When considering which incubator to buy, I looked at everything from homemade designs (which I decided not to pursue) to the high-end home models such as those from Brinsea. When incubating eggs, it’s important to keep the temperature and humidity at certain levels and rotate the eggs several times a day. Starting at the low end are still-air incubators, which simply have a manually-adjustable thermostat. In the mid-range, incubator’s add fans to make the temperature more even throughout. Automated egg turners are available on some models and the highest end models offer automated humidity control. The Octagon 20 ADVANCE EX digital egg incubator looked so cool (pretty much automating everything), but at more than $400, I decided that was just too much money to justify.
After considering the options for a while, I decided to go with the simplest still-air incubator and manage the egg-turning and humidity myself. I picked up the Farm Innovators Model 2100 Still Air Incubator from Amazon for less than $50. I also added a digital thermometer and humidity monitor to keep in the incubator to help me make sure I was maintaining the temperature and humidity correctly.
The basic rules for hatching chicken eggs are these (other species will have different temp/humidity/duration):
- Maintain temperature at right around ~100° F (I’ve heard it recommended to go with 102° F for still-air incubators, which is what I went with)
- Maintain humidity between 40-50% until hatching, then ~65%
- Turn eggs three times a day, stop turning after day 18
- Eggs should hatch starting on day 21, but may take several days longer to complete hatching
I charted all the values, which helped me remember to rotate the eggs three times each day. I drew X’s and O’s on the eggs, so I could keep track of which ones were rotated each time.
I started 30 total eggs on September 5, 2013.
On day 9, I candled the eggs and saw that many (if not all) of them were viable and growing (in the image below, the dark spot and veins indicate a viable embryo). I could more easily candle the white eggs, the brown eggs were mostly opaque to me.
On day 21, we were hearing odd noises coming from the incubator (chirping and tapping). On day 22, the first eggs were cracking open and chicks were hatching.
That same day, our first chick was completely out of his/her egg.
They started hatching pretty quickly.
The egg hatching project was shared with my daughter, who was thrilled the whole way. She helped turn the eggs and take care of them since we started collecting the eggs from the coop to set.
By day 23, more chicks were out and they were starting to dry off. We’ve never done this before so we were very nervous about what to do and when to move them to the brooder. I guess I shouldn’t have been too nervous about this, because commercially hatched chicks are shipped airmail and somehow survive. All I needed to do is move them 10 feet across the room to their brooder when they were dried off and able to move around on their own (they need to be able to move around on their own, so they can move towards or away from the heat source in the brooder as they feel necessary — without that, they may freeze or cook to death if they find themselves stuck in one spot).
And here are the chicks in their brooder a couple weeks after they hatched, looking happy and as normal as any chicks we’ve ever had.
Finally, today we moved the chicks from the basement of the house (where they were starting to smell) to an enclosed area in the chicken coop. They’ll have a heat lamp out there and lots more space, so I think they’ll like it. The children helped with the move.
This was a pretty good experience. We set 30 eggs. 18 live chicks were put in the brooder. 1 chick died half-way out of its egg. 1 chick died after emerging. 3 eggs looked like they might have died very late. 7 eggs looked to have no action, or died early on. I’d definitely do more chickens, but would also consider ducks and geese (especially if we can collect eggs in the spring). As far as automation, the only thing I think would be helpful would be the automatic turner, but that’s only a matter of convenience. The manual model was completely sufficient to task.
This was definitely a fun project, but practical besides. Since we started the eggs, the fox got two more of our chickens, including our rooster. If we’d waited any longer, we wouldn’t have been able to do this at all. Phew!
I have been wanting to write this story for a few weeks, but I couldn’t do it until I knew how everything ended. That finally happened today. This summer, we had been intending to get a bull on the farm to breed our cows. We didn’t do this last summer when we were supposed to and we knew we would be off cycle. With two cows, we found that breeding every other year and taking in a cow for meat every year worked best. Last year was tricky as we had two young heifers in addition to our two cows and weren’t sure how we would manage things. One of the heifers went in the freezer this past January, and the other one has turned out to be very sweet, like her mother, our “Sweet One”. This prompted us to consider breeding all three cows; the two dexters, and the one dexter-belted cross heifer.
We were given the name of a family who had a 2-year old angus-hereford cross bull they were looking to get rid of. The kids and I went and checked him out and he seemed perfect for what we needed. His owners were a very sweet older couple who had some recent health issues and needed to downsize their herd. By getting rid of the bull, they solved this problem, as the rest were all female. The problem was that he had never been in a stall or on a trailer. Our friend John, an amazing farmer and neighbor, offered to help us with transport. The day we were set to pick up the bull, he came by our farm, loaded up our cow, Sweet One (she was in heat and we hoped this would lure the bull onto the trailer) and we drove over to the farm to pick him up. We knew it was a long shot, and after a few hours and no success we called it. The bull would get a hoof or two on the trailer, but then back off. We took the cow back home and John took his trailer back to the other farm and left it, hoping the family could coax the bull on.
The next evening, we got a call that the bull was loaded and ready to come to our farm. Mike went with John to bring him home. We got him here and off the trailer into the pasture and here is where this story gets crazy. We have leased a bull before. That bull was older and very experienced and was super calm and didn’t take any crap from our cows, especially the bossy one. This poor bull was young and stressed and confused and when the bossy momma started challenging him with her horns, he got scared and ran. First, he went right through the electric fence into our back yard. We were able to walk him back through the gate. Then, he got scared again and jumped over the 4ft field fence with electric on one side and barbed wire on the other separating our property from our neighbors. I cannot even begin to express the feeling of panic that I experienced in that moment. Here is a 1500lb+ bull on the loose. It instantly brought back flashbacks of the time the Boss was missing for 2 days. Shivers.
So, the bull is loose in the neighbors pasture, but seems calm. John and Mike and I were trying to figure out what to do. As they were cutting open the fence to get the bull back through, we got a visit from what can only be described as an angel. Our other neighbor’s daughter was visiting from out of town. This is an amazing woman with over 30 years experience in rodeos and with horses. She was like a bull whisperer. She got on one side, and I got on the other, and luckily, we were able to walk him back through to our property. She seemed to sense that the bossy momma was the problem and suggested I get her in the barn. It took a bit of extra effort. Normally, she would come running for grain, but she did not want to budge. Once she was locked in the barn, the other cows were very friendly with the bull and he calmed down right away. It felt like the whole thing took hours, but in truth it was 45 minutes from the time that they pulled into the field with the bull to the time where everyone was calm again.
Before this all happened, we had talked about bringing the bossy momma to the butcher next fall, assuming the belted heifer bred and calved well. This plan was RAPIDLY accelerated by her behavior. We scheduled a date for her with the butcher for the following day. She hung out in the barn for a day and a half, getting lots of nice hay and grain. On the morning of her departure, we were able to easily get her into the trailer with some nice green corn stalks from the garden.
Mike picked up the meat from her yesterday after almost two weeks hanging. The butcher also commented on what a mean cow she was, but how her carcass was incredible and well fatted. He brought home about 230lbs of ground, 20lbs of bones and 5lbs of tenderloin. I immediately roasted the bones and made them in to stock. We grilled up some meat and had burgers. They were super yummy. BUT, we wanted to run a taste test. This is because she was a bit older and we just weren’t sure how her meat would compare to the premium meat that we get from our other cows. She was 6-7 years old, and they are no more than 2.5 years old when they are brought it. Even without doing the taste test, we liked her meat, however, we wanted to be certain it was a comparable product.
Here is what we did. We pulled off a pound of her meat, a pound of ground meat from the freezer from the last cow, and I bought (shudder) a pound of ground beef from the Better Valu in town ($3.99/lb).
Mike prepped and cooked each of the three meats and I designed a blind test for myself and the kids. We had four categories (appearance, taste, texture, mouth feel) and ranked each of the three meats and tried to guess which was which.
We all thought she was the tastiest, best textured, and best looking meat.
The store bought meat actually came in second (boo) and the meat from the freezer came in third. We think a fair bit of this was due to it being frozen and falling apart on the grill. This was probably due to the fact that we hastily thawed the meat in the microwave, otherwise we are sure it would have come in second. It had great flavor and texture.
We have a number of friends who we lined up before we brought her in who want shares, so we will be getting that sorted out over the next week or two. We are taking about 30lbs of the ground and the lamb from our ewe that kept orphaning lambs and having that made into hotdogs. We will keep about 100lbs of ground, the stock, and the tenderloins. The bull will be going to the butcher in about a month, so we will be full up on beef. It is a very good thing we decided not to raise pigs, meat chickens, or turkeys this year. We will have zero room in the freezer.
Last winter we thought our bees had died. Well, we’re pretty sure they did die! When Jamie checked on the bees in April, the hive was completely empty — it appeared that our bees had fled or the colony collapsed. Sometime mid-Summer, I was out checking on the back of our properly, by the bee hive and I saw lots of nice activity by the hive. It appeared as though another local swarm had colonized our hive. What a wonderful surprise!
Since then, we’ve been meaning to suit up and check out the hive. Today we finally got around to it. We were rewarded with our largest-ever honey harvest — 17 ½ pounds. The history of our harvests goes back to August 2010, our first harvest (with our previous bees). At that point, we got about 10 pounds. The second harvest was June 2012 (we skipped a year because of poor production) and we got about 11 pounds. Both times the honey lasted about a year. With more than 17 pounds this time, we’re going to definitely be on the lookout for honey recipes (including delicious breads and treats). Also, these “local” bees seemed a lot nicer than the bees we had previously (we bought them, shipped in, from Georgia). Don’t know what that’s about, but it was really pleasant working with them today.
We’d start the process by collecting the honey super (the hive body that sits on the top, that holds the “extra” honey that the bees don’t absolutely need) and “capping” the frames. This removes the wax cap on the comb and lets the honey flow out. We’d load our frames into our spinning extractor.
The honey would ooze from the frames as soon as they were capped.
After spinning, we’d pour the honey into our filter bucket. In the top is a strainer, which separates the wax, bug bits and plant matter from the honey which flows to the bottom.
From the filter bucket, we pour the honey into cleaned-and-dried jars. The larger size are 2-pounders and the smaller size are 1-pounders.
Our finished honey. We had another half pound besides.
The honey was darker than we’ve ever seen it. Every other time we’ve harvested it’s been earlier in the year. We wonder if the different bees and later harvest time yielded such a different honey. The flavor is more “earthy” and less “floral” than our previous honeys.
The bees were definitely buzzing around while we were working. They absolutely love the honey and wax and will clean up all the drips and drops.
Enjoy the sound of our bees while we were working in this movie.
Our daughter was so captivated by our honey harvest that she commemorated the event with some drawings!
It feels like the summer blew by. This time of year all our hard work in the garden really starts paying off. We’ve been getting our “cash crop” — tomatoes — for almost a month. The ordinary end product for our tomatoes is quart jars of sauce, which we use all year. A couple years ago we made a salsa that was delicious, we thought we’d replicate again.
Our basic recipe is this one, adapted from here:
- 8 cups tomatoes,
peeled, seeded, chopped and drained
- 2 1/2 cups chopped onion, peeled
- 1 1/2 cups chopped green pepper, seeds and ribs removed
- 3 – 5 chopped jalapeños, seeds and ribs removed (we augmented this with some cherry peppers from the garden, obviously more if you like hotter, less if you like milder or need to make the salsa kid-friendly, like we do)
- 6 cloves minced garlic (we go heavy on the garlic)
- 2 tsp cumin
- 2 tsp pepper
- 1/8 cup canning salt
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup vinegar
- 16 oz. tomato sauce
- 8 oz tomato paste
Mix all ingredients, bring to a boil, boil 10 minutes. Pour into hot jars, process at 10 lbs of pressure for 30 minutes for pints. Makes 6-7 pints.
We scale that basic recipe up by about quadruple. This winds up making ~26 pints, so we need to run a couples batch in our pressure canner (we can fit 16 wide-mouth pints in the canner at one time). We’re using about 15 pounds of chopped tomatoes, not including the sauced tomatoes, 3-5 pounds onions, 2-3 pounds green pepper, etc., each time.
We’ve also found that you can skip peeling the tomatoes if you don’t mind the visual (seeing tomato peels in your finished salsa), as it doesn’t seem to affect the texture. We’ve experimented with the coarseness of the chopped vegetables and we don’t think they need to be as finely chopped as you’d think. That said, we think our vegetables were a little too coarse in our second batch (though it’s still delicious). It’s probably best to imagine eating the vegetables on a tortilla chip and scale that up by 10-20% (because everything reduces in size after being cooked).
Another big milestone this time of year is getting our wood delivery for winter. We heat our house with about 4 cords of wood every year. The kids get so excited about it and love to help. The older two are actually helpful (our little one just likes to watch).
It’s taken a long time to get here, but the garden is finally starting to over perform. We’re getting regular harvests of beans, squash, corn and tomatoes — in addition to the lettuce, greens and brassicas we’ve been getting for some time now. It’s all really delicious. Every year seems to run a little different from the one before and maybe one year all the stars will align and we’ll do everything right.
With any luck, our bounty will keep going well into the fall.
Update: our finished elderberry jelly!