Crying Fowl

Since the moment we started farming, we have cheerfully and gratefully taken in rescues and castaways of all descriptions.

IMG_1287We started with a flock of Rhode Island Reds we found on Craigslist. Driving almost an hour to collect them, we didn’t realize what we would encounter when we got there. The asking price ($2/bird) seemed a little to good to be true, but we wanted to start somewhere.  It turned out that these birds had been slated for factory farming and had already had their beaks clipped.

At first, this made me really sad. Then, after about a week of having them on the farm, I saw what it really meant to give a creature a second chance. Despite the beaks being clipped, they were able to peck and eat and forage; the free-ranging and organic feed turned their eggs from anemic and watery to rich and deeply colored; even their feathers seemed to brighten and shine.

DSC_0001That was almost four years ago and now our flock of roughly 50 chickens has diversified to eight or nine different breeds and a daily collection of eggs that looks like an orbicular artist’s palette.

Then, when we started to think about keeping goats, we heard from a woman who was going through a divorce and couldn’t keep her beloved doe, who happened to be pregnant. We happily adopted her (the goat, not the divorcee) and eagerly awaited her babes. Of course, not long after her kids were born, another local friend wondered if we’d like to take in her doe as well.

Of course we would.

Somewhere in there, yet another friend was having a bullying problem with her ducks and roosters. One poor duck was the victim of vicious roostering shenanigans and something had to give. Until this point, I had been vehemently anti-waterfowl. After all, we don’t really have a consistent source of natural water on our farm, and ducks are obnoxiously noisy, and I don’t even like duck eggs.

None of that got in the way of us taking two ducks on as well.

So, when I got a text last weekend that said simply, “Hey Laura! Would you like guinea hens?” I knew what was next for us on applewood farm.

DSC_0020We were given three guinea fowl (or The Italians, as they’ve come to be known), and they are the most delightful and fascinating living versions of Muppets we’ve ever seen.

They move like mini vultures, hunched and graceful, and their feathers are a speckled grey-purple that any fly-fisherman worth his or her salt would pay good money to use for tying flies.

Watch them for any amount of time and you just KNOW that Jim Henson must have encountered some of these birds in his travels.

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Our confusion

They are quirky and odd; they are majestic and weird. I was instantly in love.

The very best part? A group of guinea fowl is called a confusion.

I’m a big fan of collective nouns. There are so many wonderful ones.  It started when I learned that a group of crows was called a murder and went on from there.

Among my favorites are an exaltation of larks and an unkindness of ravens–now I get to add a confusion of guinea fowl to the list.

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Horrible

A few people warned me that guinea fowl are cacophonous creatures whose nonstop, discordant crying would make me wish I’d stopped at ducks. The truth, however, is that they are absolutely lovely. They are no noisier than any of our hens, quieter for sure than our roosters, and considerably less annoying than the horrible geese who live two houses over and honk like the world’s worst car alarm, day and night.

The calls of the Italians vary depending on the time of day and, seemingly, their state of mind.  If it is daytime and they are calm, they can sound like mewing cats. If they become agitated, the calls morph into the sound of dogs chewing squeaky toys. At night, they are almost entirely silent except for the occasional conversation that best mimics a group of rocking chairs creaking in unison.

But, mostly, they move quietly through the day eating ticks and spiders and anything else that comes their way.

Maybe we can get them to eat the neighbors’ geese.

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Spinning Out of Control

I had absolutely no intention of spinning honey today.

I hadn’t even planned to check on my bees, really, but then I noticed that one of the hives had an alarming absence of activity.

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The ineffectual security system.

Upon closer inspection, I saw that the mouse guard had been moved from the entrance and when I dug around the main entrance, I was greeted by the wreckage of thousands of bees.

Now, unless the bees themselves moved the mouse guard so they could collectively decompose in a pile at the foot of the hive, my guess was that we had company.

Uninvited, unbidden, bee-murdering company.

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Chateau de Souris

While this hive had been alive and well just a few weeks ago, today it was a buzz-free crime scene. When I opened it up to take a look, my worst fears were realized. The hive was silent and, as I disassembled super after super, I encountered at least three complete nests, four scurrying field mice, several ruined frames, and a whole lotta honey.

The mayhem unleashed within the hive body by these miniscule morons is impressive, to say the least.

Now, not every mouse that moves into a hive will destroy the hive. Since bees focus all their energy on caring for the queen throughout the winter months, a mouse that gets in will live fairly unimpeded, eating honey and wax and hunkering down until spring. Once the weather warms up, however, an unlucky mouse will find itself the subject of a bee onslaught reminiscent of Hitchcock’s birds.

Our mice fared much better.

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The aftermath

It seems as though these guys managed to work their way through the one super that happened to be housing the whole colony. While this devastated the bees and did extensive damage to the frames, it did leave a significant stockpile of honey that I had no choice but to spin.

And this is where a perfectly pleasant day turned impressively haphazard in a short couple of hours.

I guess I’d never appreciated how much organization and planning a day of spinning out honey required. After today, I feel it is fair to say that one should not “hurry up and spin some honey.” Because that’s what I did.

I quickly unpacked and washed the equipment, shlepped the honey-heavy frames up to the deck, filled a bucket with hot water, and dropped a couple of frames into the spinner.  I started trying to crank the arm when I remembered that I needed to secure it to the ground for stability, so I hammered a few nails through the feet and resumed spinning. A moment later, it occurred to me that I’d completely skipped the step of uncapping the honey (this is especially important if one wants the honey to be released from the frame) and was simply giving the frames a county fair-style ride.

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Wood slats and foundation wire and beeswax, oh my!

Once the frames were appropriately uncapped and spinning, things really started to go south. I’d assembled a number of new frames back in the autumn and had, apparently, used the wrong size nails.

This resulted in frame after frame simply falling apart in my hands, leaving me with dripping, sticky hunks of honeycomb that couldn’t possibly be spun.

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Superglue is my friend

As the frustration mounted, I persevered and, as I started to spin the next frames, one of my plastic spinner lids popped right off and cracked in two–one half flying across the deck and the other dropping INTO the spinner.

I did not start crying.

But I was losing daylight and the temperature had really started to drop. All I could do was start a fire in the wood stove and move the whole operation inside. The only way this project would ever be complete was if I was able to warm everything up enough to allow the honey to really flow.

I enlisted the help of my daughters to hold the spinner steady while I cranked the handle and, eventually, we got through the whole slapdash production, warts and all.

 

imagesLosing a hive is depressing. It is not the end of the world, however, and I will make a split of another hive at the end of May and start again.

But this time, I’m paying the cats extra to sit sentry.

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Spring has Sprung

When we were kids, our dad would always mark the arrival of spring with one of his typically silly sayings. It went like this:

“Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where the flowers is!”

While it is only mid-March and anything can happen, weather-wise, between now and summer (e.g. blizzard, ice storm, mud slide, swarm of locusts, etc.), the signs of spring are everywhere you look.

Not poop

Not poop

It is times like this that we realize what a gift it is to live on a small farm where nature offers up a bounty of edibles that is ours for the taking.

The chickens are laying prolifically and, from time to time, even in places where we are able to find the eggs! After a long winter of feeling like we were feeding chickens only so that they could poop with reckless abandon on every outdoor thing we own, finally getting some eggs seemed like a real boon.

The sap flowed generously from the sugar maples and has been boiled down into lovely syrup.

Tree juice

Tree juice

Even though we missed an entire week of sap collection, we still felt like the trees were giving it their all and making sure we’d have syrup all through the year.

We don’t have enough trees to justify a tubing system, but tapping six or seven trees each year seems to provide us with what we use as a family, which is pretty cool.

Even considering the budding of the fruit trees, the pushing through of the garlic and flower bulbs, and everything else spring has to offer, the best part, without question, is the moment I know for certain that all my bee hives have survived the winter.

All is well.

All is well.

Several times throughout the winter, I’ll go up to the hives and press my ear up against the side to listen for the audible vibration of the hive body. Sometimes it is loud and clear, other times I am sure there is no sound and the hive must have died. It is difficult to wait for a warm and sunny day to open the hive just a little to have a look and see what’s what.

The best possible sign, however, is activity around the front of the hive.

Spring is a dangerous time for bees, though. The weather begins to warm, but there are no flowers in bloom and food is scarce.  This is the perfect time to supplement their food supply with bee patties, but we’ve also noticed that the bees thoroughly enjoy the dust that sifts out of chicken feed and cracked corn.

The chickens wisely avoid their feeder when it is swarming.

Pathetic garlic shoots

Pathetic garlic shoots

It has been a tough winter and spring for our garlic which, although sprouting, looks about as bedraggled as I’ve ever seen a garlic crop look.

We will keep our fingers crossed that the upcoming warm and sunny days will correct the damage done by the one-two punches of cold-hot, cold-hot, cold-hot…

It is a busy time for us now–seed planting will be happening soon, the garden needs tilling and the soil needs amending. Before we know it, the chickens will go broody and we’ll start seeing new chicks hatching all over again. It is a time of renewal and of hope.

DSC_0020And there the flowers is.

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Pig Nest

This past Sunday, we finally finished the last two pigs from our original Gang of 14.

We really should have finished them sooner, but time hadn’t been cooperating. And when you only have two pigs left, you have to be able to finish them together; you can’t leave one pig all alone. They are far too social and, in winter, they need each other to help stay warm.

DSC_0039This winter has been significantly milder than the previous two. We’ve seen only a handful of days with below-zero temperatures and snow has been infrequent at best. Still, it’s a rough gig being a naked pig on icy-cold nights.  As the days passed without us finding the time to organize a kill, I wondered how our last two ladies were managing.

Turns out, pigs have mad skills in the HVAC department. I knew they were excellent at keeping cool in the summer through their deliberate and totally obnoxious use of water (spilled out of their drinking troughs) to make refreshing mud baths, but how they kept warm in winter seemed more of a challenge to me. So, I skulked around them for awhile to see what they’d been up to.

Five words: Coarse hair and pig nests.

When you finish pigs yourself (as opposed to sending them out to an abattoir), you see everything from the death to the scalding/scraping to the hanging/evisceration to the butchering. The scalding/scraping part is the hardest because you need to lower the animal (usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 lbs.) into a tub of scalding water to loosen the skin and hair enough to make scraping possible. You then need to lift it back out of the tub and onto a table where you scrape off every last bit of skin and hair.

In the summertime, this is pretty easy. The skin stays warmer longer and the delicate hair doesn’t provide much resistance. It’s a better job for colder weather, however, because being able to hang the pigs in 25 degree temps allows us to work without the pressure of time (no flies, no danger of the meat getting too warm) as well as allowing us to hang the animals until we are ready to butcher.

Bad hair day

Bad hair day

A pig in 25 degree temps, however, has grown long, luxurious locks of wavy, coarse hair over her entire body.

By the end of January, the amount of hair on our girls rivaled that of our dogs.

There was no way these pigs were getting scalded and scraped–there was simply no way to work fast enough in the cold to remove that level of hair.

So, 86 pig cracklings. Alas.

The other notable effort in the pigs’ efforts at keeping warm is what I can only describe as a Pig Nest.

The nest

The nest

Their shed is a short, angled structure filled with hay bales in the winter, which we let them break up however they please. As the days get colder, they pleased to build an actual nest, which they used to snuggle in whenever they weren’t eating (roughly 23 hours a day).

I didn’t manage to get a shot of them in their nest, but they would lie in there, yin-yang style, and I swear the temperature in that drafty little structure would hit at least 20 degrees higher than whatever it was outside.

Those porkers are insanely efficient.

And, as it turns out, the legacy they left behind reached beyond a Great Deal of Pork. That pig nest has almost instantly become a favorite laying spot for the chickens.

Maybe they’ll grow into it.

 

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Saying Goodbye to Goats

Things have been a little bit more difficult than usual here on the farm of late.

Circumstances have caused us to pare back and refine our focus, which is to say that money is tight and we are finding it hard to keep up.

We are down to our last two pigs. The finishing and butchering of the others went really smoothly and these last two will likely be finished this weekend or next.  We won’t be keeping breeders this year for a couple reasons.  First, despite our constant supply of organic compost from the restaurant and cheese shop, pigs are expensive to feed (and there’s that whole we’re-out-of-money thing floating around).

And then there were two.

And then there were two.

Second, caring for pigs over-winter is a true and profound pain in the ass. While chickens and goats can have heated waterers to prevent freezing, pigs will just eat, flip over, and bludgeon to death any snout-level item or apparatus. This means that at least twice daily, we have to drag about 150 feet of hose from our cellar (where it is kept to prevent it from freezing) through the farm to the pigs’ water trough. We then have to use every drop of hot water in our water heater to give them a chance at getting plenty of water before it starts freezing over again. Then we have to shlep the whole thing back to the cellar so it will be ready when we need to do it again later that day.

So, no new pigs until spring.

And really, that’s fine with me.

What’s not as fine with me, what’s fairly breaking my heart actually, is that we’ve decided to rehome all of our goats (see para. 2). I think I’ve mentioned in previous posts that we’d originally started keeping goats with the idea that “the girls would be for milk and the boys would be for meat,” and that from the moment the kids were born, we knew we’d no sooner eat one of them than one of our dogs.

So, for the past three years, we’ve had six goat kids born on our farm (three boys and three girls, as fate would have it) and we’ve treated them, quite honestly, just like dogs. If I had a bigger house, I’d bring them inside. I’m certain of this.

We are not eating them, certainly, but we are also not even milking them. We did milk Cindy after her two kids were born, and that went really well.  We didn’t separate her from the kids overnight (as is recommended) because I couldn’t bear the all-night crying (theirs and mine).  But what did work was to do one evening milking while she ate dinner. We would get a healthy amount of milk daily and the kids would, too. Win-win.

When Dot and Janie kidded this past summer, however, I (again) couldn’t bear to separate them from their babes, but the problem was that I also couldn’t manage to do an evening milking with five other goats running around. Our set-up just simply isn’t that refined. It became a nightly comedy of I Love Lucy proportions trying to sneak food to the other goats, lure the potential milkee into the stand, try to close a hay-blocked door, and milk an unwilling mama.

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Dogs.

After the third night in a row of overturned feed buckets, goat kids squeezing in through under-door gaps, and spilt milk jugs, I gave up.

So, because I can’t manage to take meat or milk from our goats, and because they are not free to feed, I thought maybe we should try to find them a farm that could give them something more.

I didn’t look very hard. A big part of me just wanted to keep these guys regardless of how little sense our relationship made at that point. A bigger part of me knew, however, that there are bigger farms with better grazing, proper milking set-ups, and loving farmers who would make their goat lives the best they could be.

That’s when Carol found me.

Carol runs Heather Ridge Farm in New York on the other side of the Hudson River. She sent me a note asking if I still wanted to rehome my goats and we started communicating back and forth for a few weeks. Once I researched her farm a little, I knew that not only was this EXACTLY the kind of place of which I’d dreamed my goats could live, I also started to pack a little bag for myself (y’know, just in case there was extra room in the car).

We arranged a pick-up date that was a little over a week away and Dave and I started preparing (mostly mentally) for the goats to leave our little farm.

Goats don’t require a whole lot of maintenance, but one of the unenviable tasks that needs regular doing is what we lovingly refer to as Mani/Pedi Day. This is the time-consuming, two-person, not particularly easy process of trimming each goat’s hooves to clear away dirt and excess hoof and avoid fungal infections and the like.  We got four of the goats done one day, but the sun went down and we couldn’t finish the last two.  It took another couple of weeks before we could get back to finish the job.

We finished the last two and happily announced to Carol that the goats had all been trimmed and would be good for the next few months.  She was grateful.

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Pick-up day came and we brought Carol and John down to meet their new goats.

The whole event was very calm and peaceful and I’m pretty sure the goats were on their best behavior because, quite honestly, John and Carol seemed like super nice people to go be a goat with.

Once everyone was acquainted, the ten of us made our way to the truck.  The goats have always followed me whenever they were out of their enclosure–this made it easy for me to get them to go where I wanted, but it made loading them onto a truck quite difficult.

Wait for us, Mom!

Wait for us, Mom!

I had been hoping to capture this moment on camera, but every time I tried to move a little away from the action, the goats started walking toward me.

So, I ditched the camera and joined in on getting the goats.

Dave and John did the lion’s share of goat lifting until our whole little herd was aboard, eating hay, and trembling only slightly.

It wasn’t until they were all loaded up and getting kissed goodbye that Boo, our smallest doe put her front legs up on the side of the truck, apparently specifically to show me that she’d managed to avoid getting her hooves done.

Which means that somebody else had to go through it twice, because I definitely trimmed six goats.

That girl will go far.

I will miss them. They are excellent, beautiful, friendly goats and they are headed for a much better way of life than we were able to provide. Dot and Janie will be bred again and the lovely line of Boer-Sanaan will carry on, browsing, bleating, and making a general nuisance of themselves.

And maybe, one day when things are different, we will be able to buy some goats from Carol and John. Maybe even some of our kid’s kids. Who knows?

So long, Goats!

So long, Goats!

 

 

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You Can Lead a Duck to Water…

We have roughly 50 chickens living on applewood farm at the moment. Two of these chickens are ducks.

The chicken-ducks look like regular ducks, but they hang out with the chickens all day, eat chicken feed, and don’t have any instinct for finding water.

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Chicken-Ducks in not-water

While we don’t have a great deal of natural water nearby, we do have a tiny pond-like situation just beyond the back garden.

The ducks have been there; they know where it is. But, like the chickens, they simply will not go there on their own.

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The Great Chase

Because normal ducks are water birds, and because we do have a tiny pond, I feel strongly that these creatures should swim in the pond.

So, I chase them there.

I follow them around the farm, shooing them away from the trees and the bushes and the roaming gangs of chickens until they have no choice but to follow the path to the pond.

Once there, they will waddle down into the water and swim and bathe.

For about a minute and a half.

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The chicken-ducks reluctantly pretending to be real ducks

And then, presumably because they are actually chickens and not ducks, they leave the pond and head back over to wherever they were before I came along.

Now, because there is no other natural water source, we keep a restaurant bus tub of fresh water near the house for the chickens and barn cats to drink. The tub gets rinsed out and refilled almost every day because it gets pretty dirty pretty fast.

One day, I noticed that it got REALLY dirty REALLY fast and that this continued to happen day after day. That was right around the same time that I noticed the feathers.

Not long after that, I discovered this:

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So, it turns out that the “ducks” prefer drinking from, and bathing in, a half-filled bus tub of marginally clean water blessed by chicken beaks and cat tongues over a reedy pond with delicious muck and plant life.

Maybe I’ll work on teaching the chickens to swim–there’s a perfectly good pond going to waste.

Sigh.

 

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Give Bees a Chance

I love bees.

Because I love (and respect and admire) bees, I maintain some hives.

I am, however, in the category of what one might call “super hands-off” when it comes to manipulating those hives. What this means is that I keep bees so that the bees will be alive and continue to be beneficial to my gardens and to the world in general. I do not keep bees so that I may have honey, but this does happen to be one of the happy side-effects of their continued presence on this farm.

Lovely, docile, non-attacky pollinators

Honey bees–lovely, docile, non-attacky pollinators

I would go so far as to say that I love all pollinators, but that would necessitate the inclusion of the despicable ground bee, so that is a declaration I’m not willing to make.

Some people say, “But ground bees are beneficial pollinators!”

And that is totally true.

And some people say, “But ground bees rarely, if ever, sting!”

And THAT would be chicanery of the highest order.

Because those bastards sting at the slightest provocation and those stings burn like electricity. And if that weren’t bad enough, they don’t even have the decency to die after stinging because there is no such thing as a queen ground bee, so no one in the whole hive has a barbed stinger.

So, my love for bees begins and ends with honey bees (Note: carpenter bees are also jerks and I am indifferent on the subject of bumble bees). 

We ignored the ground bee nest as long as we could. We wanted to give them every chance to live their bee lives and pollinate as they were meant to do.

Sadly for all of us, the profound jerkitude of these Flying Hailstones of Pain convinced them that the best possible place to set up shop this spring was right on the path between the chicken coop and the pig enclosure.  You know, the path we walk on at least four times a day while carrying buckets of feed.  The same path that, when let out for their daily walk, the goats like to graze.

The scene of the crime.

The scene of the crime.

This, to the bees, seemed like the ideal real estate opportunity.

Many times over the summer we found ourselves inadvertently agitating the invisible nest, letting loose a volcanic gush of stinging insects, and then scrambling away before one or more of them could attack.

Many times over the summer, the goats weren’t quite so fast or quite so lucky.

By the time the third goat had been stung, and a group of hens had been run out of the coop screaming, we’d had enough.

As I typically do when embarking on a new project, I did some reading about the best way to get rid of ground bees. Since we are an organic farm, we wouldn’t want to introduce any pesticides to the situation (something folks don’t always realize is that when bees are exposed to pesticides but are not killed by them, they will carry those toxins wherever they go, spreading them far beyond the area being treated).

Many of the non-pesticide methods were simply ineffectual.  The most popular advice was to use copious amounts of water to make the area inhospitable to the bees.  We tried this repeatedly, but seemingly had the world’s only aquatic ground bees.

Like this, but with bees

Like this, but with bees

I imagined, just below the surface, thousands of bees watching their lair filling with water, then popping on tiny little swim caps and diving in sideways, in formation, to begin an elaborate water ballet routine.

So, THAT didn’t work.

After trying a few other less-aggressive methods, we finally settled on the indisputable power of FIRE.

We knew that a small amount of gasoline, burned completely, would do some damage to the immediate grassy area, but wouldn’t spread into any of the surrounding areas.  We were willing to sacrifice a small portion of grass to stop the painful attacks on ourselves and our animals.

A lovely night for a bee roast.

A lovely night for a bee roast.

So we poured a little gas and lit a match.

Since Dave is a firefighter, I let him manage the whole combustible affair and only asked him four or five (or six or seven) times afterward if he was absolutely certain the fire was out and the chicken coops and pig shed wouldn’t burn down overnight.

He was sure.

The smoldering wreckage

The smoldering wreckage

He moved the fire and soil until the hives themselves were unearthed and we could see that the job was complete.

I have to admit, as a beekeeper, there was something tremendously sad in seeing that hive comb ablaze and knowing that we had made a decision to destroy pollinators.

But then again, those little bastards were stinging us every chance they got.

Now we can walk freely around the farm without fear of attack.

Until that bear shows up again.

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