Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy birthday, dear house!

Six years ago today we moved into a very unfinished house. Our mobile home had been sold, and it was going to be moved away, so we had to get out. We live in a very lenient county. They said we didn't need an occupancy permit, but our insurance company wanted one, so what did the county ask us to do before they would provide it? We needed a working kitchen, a working bathroom, and a bedroom. And that was about all we had!

The floors were bare gypcrete, which is this lightweight concrete that covers in-floor heating, and it gave off this horrible dust that settled on everything. We put three beds in one of the bedrooms like a dormitory, and that's where we all lived for more weeks than I want to remember. Silly me said that the one working bathroom should be on the first floor, although the bedroom was on the second floor. I'm just lucky I didn't fall down the stairs in the middle of the night going to the bathroom. Those were some crazy days.

As the days, weeks, and months passed, and more work was finished, the more we slowed down. We are still not finished. Windows still need trim. Walls still need baseboards. The stairs are still completely unfinished. Our summers are consumed with farm work, so Mike generally works on the house for two weeks a year -- now during his winter break between semesters. And that's when I give y'all an update. Not much has happened in the last two years. This year, he's been spending his Christmas break working on the barn office, trying to get the insulation installed, as well as a new sink. Everyone told us not to move in until the house was finished, and they were right.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Thoughts, please!

As I'm writing Homegrown and Handmade (to be published fall 2011 by New Society Publishers), I keep thinking that there are plenty of opinions out there on some of the topics I'm covering. Right now, I have two things that I'd really love to have your opinions on --

If you're a homesteader, or if you want to be a homesteader, why do you do it? Or why do you want to do it? I'd love to hear from urban homesteaders, as well as those in the country. Why do you grow your own food or cook from scratch or spin wool? If it is okay to include your thoughts in the book, please sign your comment with your name and city/state or city/province or city/country.

If you have chickens, why did you choose the breed (or breeds) that you have? Did they live up to your expectations? If you've had more than one breed, what's your favorite?

I spent yesterday visiting chicken coops in the city of Chicago and will be posting some photos of them soon! I was really impressed by the creativity of people working with limited space for their flocks of laying hens.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

History of poultry housing

I got a little carried away in my research on the history of poultry housing for Homegrown and Handmade, and there just isn't room in the book for all of this information, even though I think it is absolutely fascinating. So, I'm sharing it with you!

A few years ago, some old boards, an old door, and a dozen barrel staves or lath was deemed a sufficient house for poultry, but that day is past.
Poultry World, April 1873, p. 48

The short article that ran with the drawing of Jacob Beier's poultry house praised the beauty, as well as the evidence of well-cared-for poultry that lived within it, as evidenced by the chimney, which provided warmth and cooked food and the windows that could be opened for ventilation.  The article went on to say, "The pains and expense bestowed upon the feathered stock of the country, in the way of improved buildings, is a gratifying sign of progress."

Progress? Only twenty-five years later, there was quite a controversy between farmers over whether the insulated, heated houses were best or the open-air houses. Previously unknown diseases were wiping out entire flocks, because the buildings were breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses. Air quality was horrendous, as many people wrote of the stench. Combs and feet were freezing because of the high humidity in the buildings during the winter.

Once of the most vocal proponents of open-air housing for chickens was Prince T. Woods, M.D., who wrote articles and books for more than two decades. His 1924 book, Modern Fresh-Air Poultry Houses (p. 14) said:

Nature made fowls to live in the open. She provided cock and hen with generous garments of feathers; arranged for constant replacement and repair, heavier underfluff of soft warm down for cold weather wear, a complete new outfit at least once a year, nearly perfect protection against both heat and cold as well as from storms. Housing them is an artificial condition wholly for Man’s convenience and chiefly essential for comfort in care and management and protection against thieves both two and four legged.
Woods received a lot of criticism for his opinion and was called heartless and lazy, but he was not alone. It really looked like the open-air poultry movement was finally gaining speed in the 1920s, but as we all know, it didn't last. Today's commercial poultry farms have put their hens not only in buildings but in tiny little cages where they never see sunlight or fresh air.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dear Santa

Priorities change as you grow up, and your opinions change, too. Gifts I once would have frowned upon, I now covet -- like insulated overalls! It was a real breakthrough for me when I asked for a Kitchen Aid stand mixer for my birthday almost three years ago. I had been one of those who scoffed at the idea of appliances as gifts, but I really wanted that mixer because I knew it would make my life so much better. And I was right. Here are a few other things I would love to have . . .

  • a grain mill -- I've wanted one of these forever, and I actually have one of the cheap hand-cranked models that makes a coarse grind. But I want one that grinds the flour finely enough that my loaves of bread do not feel like bricks.
  • a cream separator -- It wasn't such a big deal that we bought organic butter from the store when we were still buying cheddar and sour cream, but now that we make 100% of our dairy products except for butter, it bugs me. I want to be able to say that we make 100% of our dairy products PERIOD! And homemade butter is so much tastier than store bought. I recently made butter with Jersey cream from a local dairy, and it made Mike's homemade croissants more heavenly than ever before.
  • solar panels -- At Chicago's Green Festival in May, I bought a reusable shopping bag that says, "Solar panels turn me on!" I really, really want to be off grid. In the meantime, I buy what we can afford. We have a solar fence charger, a solar gate opener, and a solar spotlight on one of the barns.
  • a greenhouse -- Now that I have the winter gardening bug, I'm not content with just having fresh salad through the winter.  I want it all! I want to grow spinach, mustard greens, onions, carrots, turnips, and lots of other cold-weather crops. And I want to do it in a greenhouse so I can be in there with the plants out of the wind where it's warm when I'm harvesting my dinner.
  • more land -- I'd love to have a few more acres that don't flood. I don't think I ever blogged about this year's hay field flood, but we got zero hay from our field to feed livestock this year. After the hay was cut, it flooded, so it was all soaked in mud. The bales will just be used as compost and mulch in the garden.
So, if you happen to run into Santa, could you give him my list, please? I've tried to be a really good girl this year!

    Monday, December 13, 2010

    Book review: Raising Goats for Dummies

    Although it is not possible for one book to contain everything you need to know to raise goats, Cheryl K. Smith comes close in Raising Goats for Dummies.

    In 19 chapters, she covers everything from buying goats to milking, using goats for meat, and spinning with mohair. There is even a chapter on misconceptions (goats don’t eat cans) and an appendix with goat milk recipes. Each chapter is meant to stand alone, so if you are expecting kids any day now, you can skip right to chapter 13. I would, however, recommend reading the whole book from beginning to end at some point.

    One section I really liked was “Protecting Your Herd,” where she covers dangers that most people probably would not consider, such as lead paint on old barns. Her reasons to avoid tethering are more extensive than I have seen in other books or articles. In addition to strangulation, which is the usual objections most authors voice, Smith also says that tethered goats are sitting ducks for predators. They might also get the lead line wrapped up so that they cannot reach their water, and if they are stuck in hot sun, they could dehydrate and die. She also tells the story of someone who found their tethered goat hanging from a tree branch. I’m glad she covers the risk of domestic dogs attacking goats, because most new goat owners have no idea that this is a potential problem.

    Smith includes more information on goat health than any other book I’ve seen on the subject, and it is includes up-to-date information on copper requirements, dewormer resistance, and FAMACHA. I was surprised she did not mention that loose minerals are better for goats than mineral blocks, because some goats may not be able to get enough minerals from a hard block.

    I was a little confused about why she said, “Llamas and alpacas are good guardian animals,” but then goes on to only discuss llamas. I was curious to read about alpacas as guard animals, because it is my understanding that they are too small and too shy to be guardians. In fact, I know people who have llamas to guard their alpacas.

    Although she covers fencing in a fairly extensive section, she does not mention the use of portable electric netting, which is becoming more popular with goat breeders, especially those on small acreage. She does talk about using temporary electric fencing with three strands of electric wire, mentioning that a friend of hers has used this successfully. Unfortunately, that type of fencing does not work with all goats, and you only need one goat to teach the rest of them that going through the electric fence is not such a big deal.

    Overall, this book gives goat owners as much useful information as an author can squeeze into 300-plus pages. This book makes a positive contribution to the literature available on goats, and I’ll recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about raising goats.

    This review will appear in the winter issue of Ruminations: Celebrating the Small Farm Goat.

    Thursday, December 9, 2010

    Buying local meat

    As buying local becomes more popular, some people are starting to look for local meat, but one thing often gets in the way. They need to buy a whole or half pig or beef, and they don't like frozen meat, because they think it is inferior to fresh. In fact, one year, when we decided to process our turkeys early than usual, several regular customers said they didn't want one because it would have to be frozen.

    When meat is properly wrapped and frozen, there is no difference in quality or taste. The main reason I prefer getting our meat custom processed is because they have the equipment to properly wrap and freeze it. When we have our meat done professionally, it will last in the freezer a loooong time! We found some two-year-old pork in our freezer one time, and it tasted fine. If we butcher and freeze meat, it only lasts about a month before it gets freezer burn, and then it's blech!

    I suspect that this bias against frozen meat developed a long time ago when they didn't do such a good job of wrapping and freezing, and it just gets passed on from generation to generation. Also, marketers in this country know that people view fresh as higher quality, so the cheapest quality meat is sold frozen because it will last longer (and can be sold more cheaply), and the better quality is sold fresh, which perpetuates the myth that fresh tastes better. There is a lot that goes into the taste of meat, and most of it goes back to the way the animals were raised and what they were fed, as well as the breed and age of the animal. It always makes me smile when people have turkey at our house in the middle of summer and "just know it's fresh because it tastes so good!" We only butcher turkeys in November -- the Saturday before Thanksgiving, so everyone can have their fresh turkeys. 

    Lockers who do custom processing of beef, pork, etc., (versus poultry) typically give you the meat frozen, and this is a good thing. If you stack 150 pounds of meat in a home freezer, it's going to take forever to freeze. The quality of a commercial freezer is a lot better than a home freezer, so the meat is frozen quickly and thoroughly. It's in wire trays, so there is air circulation around the meat. The meat is so solidly frozen that it doesn't even begin to defrost on the drive home, which for me is half an hour. If you tap it on the counter, it sounds like a hammer.

    Our poultry processor gives us the meat chilled, rather than frozen, but it's a one-day process. We drop off chickens or turkeys in the morning and pick up packages of meat in the afternoon. I've heard that freezing meat the day it's butchered can make it tough, so we always wait about three days before freezing it. Freezing birds in our freezer is a fairly even process, because the birds are not flat, so air can circulate around them -- rather than flat packages of steaks and roasts, which would just be a giant cube of meat that would take forever to freeze in a home freezer.

    I suspect that some people do not want to buy frozen meat because they don't know how old it is. However, when you buy meat directly from the farmer, you know how old it is. The animal will not be delivered to the locker for processing until it is sold, because it can't be frozen until it is cut up and packaged, and they need your directions before doing that.

    When you buy a whole or half pig or beef, you call the locker and tell them exactly what you want -- how many pounds of ground, any patties or sausage, how many roasts, and what cuts of steak you want. If, for example, you don't want pork chops, they'll just add that to your ground or they can cut it up as stew meat. If you don't want something -- like tongue -- just tell them that you don't want it. Although we don't eat tongue, our dogs do, so we get it for them. We get everything -- we even ask the butcher for the bones, so we can give them to the dogs. Raw bones can be digested and don't cause the problems that cooked bones do, such as perforating the stomach. They can also smoke bacon and hams.

    If you are accustomed to buying meat in one pound packages, the idea of having 150 pounds of pork could be daunting, but it is not as much as it sounds like. That will fit in two or three picnic coolers, so you would only need a small deep freezer. At only 25 to 50 pounds, a lamb will fit in most refrigerator freezers.

    Once you get a freezer full of meat, you get kind of spoiled, because it is really convenient. The other nice thing about buying directly from a farmer is that you can go to the farm and see how the animals live, and you can ask about things that are important to you, like drug use and feeding practices. So, if you know a small farmer who sells whole pork, beef, goat, or lamb, give it a try. If you don't know anyone, check out Local Harvest or Market Maker to find a farm near you. And be sure to contact them sooner rather than later, because many sell out months in advance. All of our 2010 pigs were reserved in March, and they were not processed until November, so it may also require some planning ahead.

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010

    Chickens and turkeys together? Part 2

    Back in September, I explained that yes, we do let our chickens and turkeys live together, and no we have never had a case of blackhead. I explained several reasons why I believed this may work for us, and in the most recent issue of ALBC News, Terrell Spencer, a Sustainable Poultry Specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology, explains symptoms, prevention, and management of blackhead.

    Spencer says:
    Getting poultry off of the ground and onto roosts reduces the chance of cloacal contact with infected fecal matter. Turkeys and other poultry will huddle together and sleep on the ground in absence of a suitable roost. The direct contact from huddling greatly increases the chance of Blackhead transmission as the birds defecate through the night.

    All of our birds have roosts available to them, and we basically let chickens be chickens and turkeys be turkeys. This also means that most of our turkeys spend the night roosting in trees. We have a perimeter fence, a guardian dog, and llamas to protect all of our livestock from predators. Modern recommendations for raising meat birds (chickens and turkeys) say that if birds roost, their leg meat will not be as tender, although we have never found this to be true. I also suspect that commercial producers don't want to provide roosts because that would cost money, and if you're raising 100,000 birds, that's a lot of roosts.

    Fecal-cloacal transmission as the main source of outbreaks also explains why people who raised their turkeys inside on wire had better luck with avoiding Blackhead. The poop falls through the wire, so the birds are less likely to sit in it.

    Spencer says:
    Frequently moving the flock to fresh pasture minimizes the amount of manure and exposure time that the birds are subject to the pathogens shed in the manure. . . . Reducing the number of birds in a given unit of area (acre, paddock, etc.) has an effect similar to moving the turkeys to fresh ground.

    While commercial producers measure their stocking rate in square feet -- like one bird per square foot or less in confinement -- our 50+ chickens and nine breeding turkeys have access to about ten acres, although most of them don't range much farther than two or three acres. Still, 60 birds on two acres (88,000 square feet) would be 1,467 square feet per bird. When I think of 40,000 birds on an acre -- inside -- all I can think about is how much that would stink!

    Spencer says:
    Ultraviolet light from sunshine, the drying action of wind, the heat of summer, and the chill of winter are all detrimental to the survival of H. meleagridis. Any natural weathering process that breaks down poultry manure -- and therefore the hospitable niche of the Blackhead pathogen -- should be encouraged. H. meleagridis requires moisture to survive and spread, and moving the flock to dry ground makes the spread of disease more difficult. 

    In other words, turkeys confined to buildings are sitting ducks for infections. Our turkeys are outside almost 24 hours a day. They only go into the chicken house to grab a little grain, then they're out again.

    The fascinating thing about recent research regarding Blackhead is that they have discovered the worst transmission is actually fecal-cloaca rather than fecal-oral, which is how people assumed turkeys contracted it, since that is how most animals get most diseases that have anything to do with parasites. In the September/October issue of ALBC News, Spencer said:
    When the turkey is given a constant supply of food, experiments have shown that the Blackhead protozoan is not capable of surviving stomach acids and, therefore, Blackhead is not usually acquired when the turkey eats or drinks. Turkeys that have liberal access to food and water can't get Blackhead orally unless they eat cecal worm eggs.

    And when turkeys are free ranging, the odds of that happening are pretty slim. Maybe one bird could get it, but it would not run rampant through a flock. Also, when turkeys are free-ranging, they are eating constantly, compared to birds confined, which are eating grain (also known as "concentrates") off and on through the day. If they are not eating, the acid level in their stomach goes down.

    I don't think it is a coincidence that Blackhead became a problem at the same time that industrial agriculture was getting geared up and starting to confine birds. Open Air Poultry Houses For All Climates was published in 1912 trying to convince farmers to stop putting their chickens inside. It cites evidence of sickly birds in confinement and zero mortality in birds that were given free range. Unfortunately, the runaway train kept going, and more and more farmers kept locking up their birds. Spencer said the U.S. turkey production fell from 11 million birds in 1890 to an average of 3.7 million annually between 1910 and 1920.

    Of course, some people think we can control all of this with drugs by feeding turkeys a medication that will prevent Blackhead or constantly deworming chickens that live with the turkeys. But drugs are not sustainable. All of them eventually stop working when they're overused. We've seen it with antibiotics in people and with dewormers in goats and sheep.

    In the most recent issue of ALBC News, Spencer says that there are reports of Blackhead-resistant turkeys:
    This strategy is only plausible for heritage turkeys (i.e. not broad-breasted whites or bronzes) as the heritage birds can be bred and selected for resistance. If a Blackhead outbreak occurs in a heritage flock, the surviving individuals may have some trait, either genetic or behavioral that increases their chance of surviving or avoiding a Blackhead infection.

    This is the sustainable answer. Whenever we get into a fight with nature and try to beat it with drugs, we always lose eventually. Scientists thought they had completely defeated internal parasites in sheep and goats 20 years ago, and vets were recommending monthly deworming. Today, the parasites have grown resistant to the dewormers, and on some farms, there is nothing that works when the animals really need it. The one or two goats I lose to parasites every year is nothing compared to the reports of breeders losing 20% of their flocks and herds in the southeast U.S. annually.

    Maybe without even knowing it, I've developed a Blackhead-resistant flock. Or maybe by letting turkeys do what comes naturally -- like run around and roost in trees -- I've created an environment where they can thrive naturally.

    If you are interested in preserving heritage breeds of livestock, even if you don't own any, I highly recommend joining the American Livestock Breed Conservancy. Every other month, they put out a very informative newsletter about rare breeds, and they have an annual conference. They are also responsible for doing an annual census to check the status of rare breeds. It is largely due to their efforts, as well as some very dedicated breeders, that heritage turkeys are not extinct now, as there were only a few thousand of all breeds combined in the late 1990s.

    Monday, December 6, 2010

    Letting go of citified ideas

    It has been more than eight years, and we are heading into our ninth winter here, and I just bought my first pair of insulated overalls. Yes, you read that correctly. Now that I have a pair, I can't believe I didn't buy a pair before now. And I want more. My whole family wants them now!

    It was two degrees Fahrenheit when I woke up this morning, and the temperature has risen to a balmy 16 now, and I just came inside from mid-day chores. I'm sweating. That is hard to believe, but I was not cold at all. Katherine borrowed them last night for chores, and now she wants a pair. Then after her raving about how great they are, Jonathan wanted to try them on when he went outside later. Yes, we're a pretty boring family when it comes to sizes, although the overalls were a little short on Jonathan, because he is three inches taller than me. Still, they covered enough of his legs that he wants a pair now. And this morning, Mike and Katherine almost got into an argument over who was going to get to wear them. So, I need to head back to Tractor Supply and buy more for everyone.

    So, why has it taken me eight years to even try them? Well, this is kind of embarrassing, but every time I saw someone wearing them, I thought they were really ugly. Most people around here wear Carhartt's, and they are the ugliest yellow-brown imaginable, in my opinion. When I was in Tractor Supply last week, I noticed these really pretty pink insulated overalls and went over to look at them. I immediately started to think about buying them, but then a bit of common sense kicked in, and I realized that they would look horrendous after one day of chores. But right next to them were these chocolate brown overalls. Perfect! They are nice and dark, so hardly anything will show up on them.

    The first time I put them on and walked outside, I was in shock about how warm my legs were. Blue jeans or sweat pants with long underwear do not even come close to keeping my legs warm, but I am totally toasty when I put the overalls on top of what I'm wearing in the house. (Yes, I know I'm a wimp. I need three layers on my legs and four layers on top to stay warm.) Katherine went outside to milk this morning by putting the overalls on top of her pajamas, so she didn't have to get dressed for chores then redressed for school. No doubt that is one reason she is so excited about them. Now I know why the farmers out here walk around looking totally unaffected by the cold weather. It's because they're so warm in those insulated overalls! It's not about looking good. It's about staying warm!

    Friday, December 3, 2010

    Winter gardening

    It's official. Low tunnels really do work in Illinois. After a month of freezing nights and now several days of below freezing temperatures, my garden is still going strong. We're having salad with dinner tonight.

    It is a real eye-opener when you discover that your state is importing fresh produce from the north during the winter. No, that's not a typo. Illinois imports produce during the winter from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Canada. But the thing that really pushed us over the edge was that last year, Mike and I attended a conference on organic gardening and learned -- straight from the professor -- that Michigan State grows produce for their residence hall salad bars through the winter. And he showed us pictures of greenhouses filled with gorgeous lettuces and greens.

    Yes, I've owned the book Four Season Harvest for a couple years, but I suppose there was just something in my brain stopping me from doing it before coming face to face with that professor and his slides. Mike and I just looked at each other, shaking our heads, and I said, "We're pathetic. Why haven't we done this?"

    So, we're doing it! Back in September, I planted lettuces and radishes, as well as cole crop transplants, including broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. I continued planting through October. The seeds that were planted later will get a very early start in the spring, supposedly, because the low tunnels will start to warm up in February when there is still snow on the ground. I talked to another Illinois farmer who said he planted potatoes in high tunnels last March and was selling them to restaurants by May, which is when most of us are just starting to plant them. I didn't have any potatoes to plant, but I did plant onion seeds. I have no idea what will happen to the cole crop transplants, but everything is an experiment.  We really have nothing to lose by trying.

    In January, I'm attending a full-day workshop on high tunnels and greenhouse growing, so we can expand our winter garden next year. I've never been so excited about winter before!


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