Rat Dogs

Couch posse.

Couch posse.

Having a small posse of dogs on a farm can be a wonderful thing.

Dogs are insanely loving, unwaveringly loyal, occasionally obedient, and generally disgusting (ours relish dining on found chicken and cat poop as a discerning human might enjoy oysters on the half shell or a particularly fine beluga caviar).

Our contingent of canines happen to all be pit bull mixes.

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Pit-Wirehair

Darwin is a pit-wirehair,

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Pit-Hound

Charlie is a pit-hound,

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Pit-Human

and Mickey is a pit-human.

Or, at least he acts like it.

At bedtime, Mickey not only climbs onto the bed, he pulls back the covers and climbs underneath them.  I only hope we aren’t in his way.

The terrier in all of them means that they were bred to hunt and kill small creatures without being directed.

They dig frantically, bark relentlessly, and are oblivious to anyone and anything around them in those moments.

This prey drive is surprisingly strong and proves challenging when you want the dogs to leave things alone.

Like chickens.

And barn cats.

And cars driving toward them.

We have, with great success and not a lot of effort on our part, been able to train the dogs to leave the cats and chickens alone.

It’s really not that difficult a process.

Dogs respond incredibly well to consistency and treats.  The key word in that sentence is “treats.”  Dogs love ’em.  Get a good training treat and you’re more than halfway down the road to success.

Now, to be fair, we can’t seem to train our dogs to stay on our property, fetch a ball, or even respond to their own names from a distance of ten feet, so we’re not honking our own horn TOO very loudly.  But they don’t kill the chickens, they only chase the cats a little, and they don’t pee in the house.  So, we’re all good.

Going ape-shit.

Going ape-shit.

They do, however, go ape-shit over rodents.

And this is absolutely fine by us.

You wouldn’t think so, but they are able to discern between being allowed to chase one type of creature and not another.  They will actually spend a morning “ratting” around the chicken coop and won’t even glance at the chickens.

They are all determination and focus and they are ALL about the rats.

Awful though it may be, the sad truth on this little farm is that springtime is when we start to see evidence of the rats that have burrowed into and around the sheds over the winter.  They have learned that the sheds are relatively warm, have water and food, and are protected from predators.

Until now.

As the rats start to become braver with the warming weather, their burrow holes become more daring and prolific.  Walking into the coop a week or so back, my foot sunk into what HAD been terra firma but was now a fairly thin covering over a rat tunnel.

Gross.

And so, it was time to release the hounds!

Because Mickey is almost ten years old, he stayed inside and surely looked for rodents on the backs of his eyelids from under the covers.

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Tilling the coop

Darwin and Charlie, on the other hand, spent at least an hour doing a better job of turning over the soil on the floor of the chicken coop than any power tiller could have done.

When the day’s ratting was done, they’d only managed to dispense with two.

They were some seriously happy dogs, though.  And I’m sure they made the remaining rodents VERY nervous.

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I Soiled Myself

We are NOT scared to plant!

We are NOT scared to plant!

As we seem to be cautiously dipping our toes into Actual Spring these days, my fear of starting seeds has begun to subside.

So, we started the day by digging out our seed trays and then heading over to the local garden supply store to get as many bags of organic seed-starting soil as we could find.

But, we could find zero.

Sadly, there was no shortage of the commercial, fertilizer-rich stuff.

That stuff was everywhere.

A start.

A start.

They did have organic potting soil and, while this isn’t ideal for starting seeds, it is a good jumping-off point.

We decided to make our own seed-starting soil and considered what we’d need.

Our soil is heavy and clay-rich.  Because of this, we are constantly (by which I mean, yearly) adding infusions of rotted horse manure, home compost, and organic topsoil to slowly change the composition of the soil we need to work.

Adding organic vermiculite to the soil

Adding organic vermiculite to the soil

For seed-starting, however, we needed to mix the potting soil with vermiculite to condition the soil.  This addition helps create air channels which allow the soil mix to breathe.  The air is necessary to allow for healthy root development and expansion, as well as maintaining vigorous plant growth.

This mixture creates a balance between moisture retention and sufficient drainage–the two most important features for seedling success.

If the soil becomes too wet, something called “damping-off” can occur.  This is a fungal disease that ends with the depressing death of the newly-germinated seedlings.

They literally drop dead.

This is not a good way to start a garden.

Our mix.

Our mix.

Just as undesirable is if the soil dries out too quickly.  In this case, the seedlings will simply lose color, shrivel up, and die.

By including organic compost, topsoil, vermiculite, and rotty manure in our mix, we hope we’ve hit a harmonious note that should yield good results for our seeds.

Now, if we could just find a way to convince the stores that organic supplies are worth keeping on their shelves, perhaps more folks would use organically-produced products.

In the meantime, I guess we’ll all just have to soil ourselves.

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Waiter, There’s a Bug in my Sap!

Sallow Moth in a sappy grave

Sallow Moth in a sappy grave

Collecting sap late last night, I was surprised to find sallow moths in nearly every bucket. In some cases, the moths were on the inside wall of the bucket and could be saved, but largely they had met their watery demise in the short-lived bliss of an ill-fated sap bath.

To me, this served as a strong indicator that the sugaring season is starting to wind down. As the insects begin to come out of hibernation, we know that the warmer days are on their way and the freezing overnight temperatures so necessary for sap flow must be coming to an end.

What ALL moths look like to my daughter.

What ALL moths look like to my daughter.

After encountering about two dozen moths at various stages of viability, I was grateful I hadn’t asked my teenage daughter to help carry sap.

She has a totally insane fear of moths.

Her reaction to seeing one would make Janet Leigh seem downright pleased to see Anthony Hopkins open the shower curtain, by comparison.

Checking the buckets again this evening, I expected to encounter another day’s infusion of moths.  But today’s find was even worse.

The final swim.

The final swim.

Bees.

Nothing makes me sadder than when I find honey bees dying.

I realize their life span isn’t particularly long, but as a beekeeper who spends a lot of energy keeping my bees alive, it is heartbreaking to find them meeting an untimely end when they were just looking for something to eat.

This time of year, when warming days are balanced by the occasional cold snap, the bees have mostly used up their stores of honey. Tricked by the sunny, warm days, they venture out in search of flowers which, obviously, they won’t find.  Without supplemental pollen and sugar, they will starve before the first dandelions bloom.

We provide pollen patties to help the bees through this confusing time of year, but the sap in the buckets clearly proves too powerful a draw for those who have ventured far enough from the hive.

RESCUED!

RESCUED!

But sometimes, it’s not too late.

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DIY Easter Egg Dye

Here’s a project for folks who like stuff cheap and easy.

It’s not that I have anything against store-bought egg dye kits, it’s just that I came across some dye recipes and they were crazy easy and we already had almost everything to do it.

Here’s what we used:

  • Shredded beets (about a cup)
  • Purple cabbage (about half a head)
  • Ground Turmeric (two tablespoons)
  • Red Onion Skins (some)
  • Yellow Onion Skins (also, some)

One at a time, we boiled the items in about a quart or so of water.  Once they were boiling, we covered them and let them simmer for about 20 minutes, until the color was really vibrant.

DSC_0005Each color was strained through cheesecloth and cooled.

The eggs were hard-boiled and then cooled to room temperature.

Because some of the colors promised different results on white eggs vs. brown eggs, we tried both in these cases.

DSC_0006The eggs were fully submerged in the dye and then placed into the refrigerator to chill until the color was bright.

This ended up taking about an hour and a half or so (but I’m impatient and they probably should have been left longer for better results).

DSC_0001In the end, we got colors very close to the promised outcomes.

More than anything, it was really nice to do this from scratch.

I doubt we’ll be buying store kits again anytime soon.

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This is Pretty Sappy

Buckets on trees collecting sap.  VERY high-tech.

Buckets on trees collecting sap. VERY high-tech.

This is our third year of boiling maple sap for syrup.

The first year, we scored about 25 gallons of sap from a friend who just couldn’t bear to boil another drop.  We drove to her place, collected the buckets, and took them home to boil.

This was the ideal Intro to Maple Syrup Making.  We dragged the portable burner and the tank of propane out to the driveway and set the sap to boil.  As the volume in the pot lowered, we’d add another bucketful.  We did this over and over (and over and over) until we’d boiled those 25 gallons down to slightly more than two quarts of syrup.

That’s right.

The ratio of sap to syrup is a frustratingly small 40:1, meaning it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

And, it takes FOREVER.

Starting last year, we tapped our own trees and increased our yield significantly.  Even only tapping eight trees, we still managed to collect something like 50 gallons of sap (a little more than a gallon of syrup).

Indoor boiling--a carefully thought-out decision.

Indoor boiling–a carefully thought-out decision.

Because we forgot to fill the propane tanks and because the portable burner was buried under tons of stuff in the garage and because we are disorganized and kind of lazy, we “decided” to try boiling indoors.

It worked out fine, albeit crazy-slow; and that’s how we’re doing it again this year.

There are only two real downsides to indoor boiling–

One is that it is sloooooooooow going.  One five-gallon pot can take three or four hours to boil down, maybe longer.  Then, consider the infusions of sap that are added along the way, and you’ve got yourself a good two- or three-day investment into syrup making.

These guys would be stoked about the atmosphere in my kitchen right now.

These guys would be stoked about the atmosphere in my kitchen right now.

Unlike boiling sap over a large open flame or, better yet, in a proper evaporator, the indoor process just doesn’t generate the same quality of heat and doesn’t cover nearly the surface area.

It is, however, what we have available.

Two is that your home becomes the sap version of a Russian bathhouse, only without the fat men with back hair wearing nothing but waist towels.

My pores are so sweetly clogged

My pores are so sweetly clogged

And even the steam room effect is really not so bad now that the days are just warm enough to crack open the windows. After several months of dry winter air, a little moisture is pretty welcome.

So, we will continue to collect sap until the trees tell us they are done for the year and we will continue to boil the sap until it has all become syrup.

So worth it.  Thanks, trees.

So worth it. Thanks, trees.

Like honey from the bees, sweet syrup from the trees is just one more gift from this little farm.

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WTF, Chickens?

Back in January, I wrote about the plethora of eggs we’d been getting from our hens.

That was two months ago, and the ladies have only become more prolific since then.

Since we track our eggs daily, we tend to notice small fluctuations in numbers.  These fluctuations are typically indicators of how good we are at finding where the hens are currently stashing their goods.

Their hidey-holes tend to change weekly or, if we’re extremely lucky, every other week.

Just as we trick ourselves into believing we know all their stash spots, the chickens change them; a clutch develops in some hidden nook, and the neglected and undiscovered eggs begin to freeze.

For example, until recently, we knew the hens were laying in the following five spots:

  1. The mud room milk crate
  2. The dog carrier in the garage
  3. The bag of pine shavings in the garage
  4. The floor of the goat shed
  5. The chicken coop

Note that these are listed in the order of most-commonly used to least.

Over the past couple of days, our egg tally was starting to wane.  The difference was only a couple of eggs per day, but clearly the girls were on the move.

Since the garage has been the favored spot for the vast majority of our feathered mamas, I thought I’d start my search there.

Chicken baby bonanza

Chicken baby bonanza

I glanced in a few corners and behind a couple of hay bales.

Then, I looked on the floor between some hog fencing, some bricks, and a piece of scrap plywood, and found the mother lode.

By the time I went through this stockpile to determine which eggs, if any, hadn’t frozen, I realized that just a little closer to me, down in the blanket-lined-box we’d provided for the barn cat, was ANOTHER shit-ton of eggs.

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We are helpful.

And I don’t think they were laid by the cat.

But I really don’t know.

What I do know is that I found 54 eggs in the garage today.

Of those 54 eggs:

  • 15 were frozen and were thrown to the dogs for snacking,
  • six were not frozen, but were WAY too gross to keep, and
  • 35 were perfectly good, clean, lovely eggs.
Bonus material

Bonus material

I just wonder where they’ll be stashing them next?

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Branching Out

I am having a seriously bad hair day.

I am having a seriously bad hair day.

The one mature apple tree on our property needed pruning.

Almost three years ago, we planted five apple trees, four pear trees, and a peach tree in various spots around the farm. While these timber babes are starting to need the occasional trim here and there, they are, for the most part, still too young to need much in the way of maintenance.

The Big Guy, however, needs loads of trimming in order to ensure healthy growth and to avoid having branches break under the weight of fruit at the height of the summer growing season.

Interestingly, this particular tree seeems to only produce apples every other year.  This may be due to the type of wild apple tree it is, OR it may be due to the fact that it wasn’t regularly/properly pruned for many years.  Possibly both.

Furthermore, the apples it does produce are really, really terrible.

But, even really terrible apples are worthwhile.  For one, the pigs and goats LOVE them. For two, when cooked and sweetened, they make wonderful apple sauce.  For three, when juiced and fermented, they make a perfectly good cider vinegar.

Chimney, the apple tree gnome, in a prison of vertical shoots.

Chimney, the apple tree gnome, in a prison of vertical shoots.

So, we do what it takes to maintain the tree.

The easiest part is removing the vertical shoots that grow up from the main branches.

The not-so-easy part is climbing to the very top to do the maintenance that really needs the most doing.

The idea behind pruning is to allow the tree to grow in a way that benefits it.

I am NOT receiving Vitamin D right now.

I am NOT receiving Vitamin D right now.

Left to its own devices, a tree such as this will become a wild tangle of growth that will eventually criss-cross itself to the point of preventing sunlight to reach the lower branches.

This is would be like sitting out in the sun to get your much-needed vitamin D with a tarp over your head.

And that’s not good.

So, we remove any large branches that might be blocking too much light from reaching the branches below, any diseased or broken branches, any growing vertically or straight down, and any growing inward to the tree’s center.

Stilts, anyone?

Stilts, anyone?

All of this upkeep needs to happen annually to ensure the continued healthy growth of the tree.

And we’ve done that to the best of our admittedly-limited ability.

But we still can’t reach the top.

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