2016 Quick Recap

At the beginning of 2016 we sat down and planned out what to do with our income over the winter and spring. We decided we needed a truck for hauling hay and animals, a grow light for starting plants and we needed to till up the garden as well as a larger area for planting other things and we also wanted to build a greenhouse. For animals we needed to refresh our egg laying flock and I wanted heritage birds this time. We also needed a billy goat to breed our dairy goat in the fall so we could have more milk again.

In March we purchased our grow light for starting plants indoors. This turned out to be more difficult than we had anticipated because we didn’t realize just how close to the light plants need to be to not be “leggy”. So we started many little tiny seeds in little tiny peat plugs that fit into one little tray under the light with no problems, but that didn’t last for very long. It only took a couple weeks to outgrow the light and we ended up with plants sprawled all over our small room. Most of the plants survived transplanting and I did get a decent harvest. img_3402

We did purchase a big diesel 1 ton duelly truck but we’ve since realized that it is much more than we need. Yes, it would haul cattle and hay bales and all kinds of huge things, but it’s a little overkill for us. Besides which, the truck is rather unpredictable and neither of us being mechanics means it doesn’t work half the time! Rather frustrating to have a big truck sitting in the driveway while you haul firewood, pigs and goats in the back of your car anyway.

In April we purchased our billy goat as a bottle-fed kid from the dairy we originally bought our dairy goat Didi from. Since they knew we want to keep any females we get from this mating, they called us when they had a buckling born from good hand-milking lines (good milk and easy to milk). He was such a cute little guy (an Alpine-Toggenburg cross). The children named him Stormy and enjoyed bottle feeding him right from the start. It did take him a while to outgrow his habit of trying to get milk from a human’s hand, arm, sleeve or pantleg, which was a little annoying on occasion but so cute!

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In April we also tilled a portion of our land and then completely re-dug and re-designed the garden. Future note to those who want to till land that hasn’t been worked in a really long time: Don’t! It needs to be plowed not tilled if you want to turn the soil well. It was a nightmare trying to pull the tractor tiller through huge clods of soil and grass that kept bunching up under the tiller. We overseeded much of this land in clover for our bees and our goats, after we staked out the parameters of our greenhouse and garden.

The garden redesign worked beautifully. I chose to do long (36′) rows of 3′ wide raised beds (just mounded soil at this point) so that I could more easily figure out exactly how much of each crop I was planting for harvest.This year I also started strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and asparagus.

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Rhubarb in the front square with Jerusalem artichoke to the right.

Unfortunately our harvest wasn’t the greatest because we got so busy building our greenhouse and it took so much more time than we had anticipated that much of the garden got completely overgrown with “weeds”. An interesting note, when we tilled in the spring, we also tilled under all the straw mulch from last year, and as you can see in the picture below in front of the sunflowers, it grew barley! So if you do much with straw, be careful with tilling that, it is not a sterile product and if given the chance, it will sprout. I never would have found out what all the grass was if I hadn’t completely given up on my garlic patch because I couldn’t tell what was grass and what was garlic. I let it grow and later a farmer friend took a look and asked why we were growing barley.

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Our chickens were purchased in May, I did get a small flock (one rooster and 6 hens) of juvenile mixed-breed heritage birds. They have some Maran, some Americauna and some Barred Rock in them. We also got 6 silkie chicks. These were meant as pets for the children but they are a little young to be able to handle them now that the chicks are mature and it turns out we have 3 roos and 3 hens! For now, then hens make great broody moms and will hatch out whatever eggs I want them to (I hope).

 

Our entire summer was spent working on the greenhouse, with a few quick breaks for family visits and a 2 day camping trip. Our trip was lovely and some much needed family time away from the busy worklife of the farm. Please see my post on the greenhouse for more information about that.

 

Harvest time always comes so quickly and we never seem to be completely prepared for all the produce. I didn’t get the potato or tomato harvest I was expecting, the potatoes because of not weeding the patch, and the tomatoes because of not getting them out into the greenhouse soon enough. Still, there was the mid season harvests of peas, beets and beans, and salad greens and then the carrots and squash just before the frost. All in all it was a very productive year for work on the farm. We are looking forward to what 2017 brings.

 

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On “Deep Litter” and mucking out

Last fall I read about a method of animal bedding called “Deep Litter”. The basic principle is simple: you don’t muck out the barn for months. Instead, as needed, you add new layers of bedding to the existing used bedding creating a nice deep pad of insulation under the animals, in my case specifically goats and chickens.

I loved the idea of this method. After having mucked out the chicken barn in winter the year before, I liked the idea of not mucking out for the entire winter. Besides, this was supposed to add warmth to my barn and maybe the water-er wouldn’t freeze this year and with the goats and chickens sharing the same air space (separated by pallets and chicken wire) perhaps I wouldn’t need heat lamps.

Deep litter lived up to it’s claims. Admittedly it wasn’t as cold this year with the super-charged El Nino, but we still had a few nights of -23 to -28 C and for most of December to February the temperature was below freezing. I noticed in November that the water did freeze up overnight but by the time February came, with the depth of litter I had on the floor of the barn (about a foot) the waters were fine. The barn was always reasonably warm for milking, and I had no problems milking with bare hands.

The floor of my barn is wood so I try to keep a reasonable layer of bedding down anyway, as I don’t want the floor to rot away before I can afford a new barn. For the chicken portion of the barn I use wood shavings, I added 2 bales of shavings every month and a half, so it is good and caked full in there. The last time Ivan shoveled shavings away from the door so it would close (improvements need to made to the design) he said the bottom layers looked like dirt, so I would guess that it actually is composting in there. In the goat stalls I use straw for bedding. Between the goat stalls and the chicken nests I went through 6 small square bales for the winter.

But there is one thing the books about deep litter failed to talk about in detail: The spring muck-out!! So far I have only mucked out one goat stall. Spring is really only beginning here so the bedding is only just starting to stink (it really didn’t stink at all during the winter months). So I mucked out the milk-goat’s stall last week and will do the other goat stall next week and the chicken pen the week after. Why the week spacing between them? My back needs the rest.

Here are my notes and thoughts if you are considering doing deep litter:

  1. Have the right tools ready. Mucking out manure soaked straw with a spade really doesn’t work. Get that really nice manure fork from Peavey Mart or UFA. It will be worth the few dollars.
  2. Wear a mask. As you work down the layers of bedding it really stinks. Partially rotted manure and urine is seriously disgusting. I use safety glasses and a full filtered breathing mask.  For the rest of the day, the smell of manure hung over the acreage. Thankfully it dissipates as the pile sits.
  3. Make sure the design of your barn allows for easy mucking out. I did not do this. I was trying to maximize the space in my barn, getting 2 goat stalls and one chicken pen out of a 12×16 barn. My aisle runs parallel to the wall with the door in it, and is only 2.5′ wide. Trying to maneuver a full wheelbarrow out of that is not an easy task. I do intend to do a design overhaul to the barn before next winter to make the mucking out easier.

I will do deep litter again, but I will be better prepared with easier access, better pile location and I do have a nice manure fork now.

Our Animals: an overview

IMG_1630Having grown up in the city without even a pet, 2015 was quite an adventure and adjustment for me. We bought our dog, Molly, in 2014, soon after moving to the country but 2015 was when we started with farm animals.

Chickens arrived in January. We were able to get 30 free chickens from a friend’s Dad who had got 50 layers from a hatchery and then decided he didn’t really need that many eggs. So we agreed to take 30 of them and over several cold winter days we converted our small barn from storage to chicken coop. We used Rubbermaid tubs for nests, turned upside down with an opening cut in the side. I do not recommend doing this. Nests on the floor just get filthy dirty, but we were trying to be economical and fast. Our roosts were just 1×4’s with props under them, in 2 rows along one side of the barn. They worked pretty well for the first 8 months we had the chickens.

For feed, I started with just getting commercial feed and kitchen scraps. Then when summer came the chickens got to be free-ranging all over the acreage. I didn’t lose any chickens to wild animals, our dog is really great at keeping coyotes at bay, just by barking. We did have quite the time trying to find eggs! Occasionally we would come across a stash of eggs hidden in the grass somewhere, perhaps 30-50 of them from a couple weeks of laying. When you get 25-30 eggs a day as I did that summer you don’t tend to miss 3-5 eggs a day for a little while.

bees2In April, our 3 hives of bees that we ordered arrived. Ivan put together pre-made Langstroth hives and also added a layer of high-density insulation foam to the outside of the hives. This is an alternative to wrapping the hives for winter, it allows the bees to still be able to leave the hive for water and other needs on warm winter days and it also helps to insulate against heat in the summer. For more information on how this works, this is the youtube video we used.

In June we bought a dairy goat. Our main motivation for doing so was to provide our 2 children with fresh, wholesome milk. We’ve since discovered other additional uses for the milk and other benefits from the goat. She does keep a good area of grass clear and also enjoys the young weedy saplings that we have such a time trying to clear our property of, and she produces great manure for the garden and orchard.

With the milk we started making yogurt, a simple cheese and kefir. We still make Kefir and enjoy it, but no one really cared for the yogurt or the cheese, so I had quite a surplus of milk. Since I do not have a lot of experience in farming or gardening or animals, and I love to read, I tend to read a lot of books on the different subjects. My book for dairy goats was (and still is) Storey’s Guide to Raising Dairy Goats. In the book, the author mentions the possibility of making soap from extra goat milk and recommends another book, Milk Based Soaps by Casey Makela. It’s not a long read, very easy to understand and with a great traditional goat milk soap recipe to learn from. So we decided, why not? Ivan made the molds and I collected the equipment we needed, then we made soap, and more soap, and more soap! We decided we may as well sell some of our extras and started searching for, and applying to local markets. We started with a Christmas craft show in December and this summer we’ll be selling at our local summer markets.

IMG_7092In mid-summer we also got 3 kittens. We got a little tired of seeing mice every week at least once in our house, and they seemed awfully adept at escaping traps and avoiding bait. So we got cats instead and that has been a success. For a while we watched the cats catch mice in the fall, and then for the entire winter we have been mouse free in our home. The barn is another story. I need to move at least some of our cat population (now 5) out to the barn.

Fall of 2015 brought a rush of projects to get ready for the winter. I didn’t want the goats to continue sleeping outdoors with just prevailing wind and rain shelter but wanted them to be in the barn, along with the milking stand! So, once again, we were out renovating our small barn. We were able to get 2 goat stalls, one small (for kids and/or milking stall)and one large to fit the 2 goats that we will always keep so our dairy goat is not alone. We also were able to still keep the chicken coop in the barn at one end. This way the body heat of the animals is shared between them all and we didn’t have to plug in any heat lamps for the chickens in the winter.

This year things will be different in the chicken department again, as we are planning to slaughter our old hens for meat (anything can be slow-cooked, right?) and get 5-10 birds for laying hens, placed into 2 small portable coops to move around the property every few days rather than having them actually free-range. This will be a nice down size in our flock which will help with lessening the work load in one area as I pick it up in other areas, like getting a buckling to raise to breed our dairy goat with, and doubling the size of my garden.

More on our garden and orchard next week!