Monday, February 28, 2011

Chicken Happenings

Since it's been a while since I've written about The Girls (yes, we're hooked on our hens even though they've all gotten fat and we can't tell them apart anymore), I thought I'd write an update on how they're, um, laying.  I'm linking up to Homestead Revival's Barn Hop #2 today, so be sure to visit some of the other homesteads by clicking below:

Click here to visit!
I mentioned a few months ago that we got five two-year-old laying hens just to cut our teeth on owning chickens, and we really didn't expect them to do a whole lot besides eat and poop.  Well, wrong we were, and here's a list of their recent activities:

1.  We're now getting anywhere from two to four eggs per day, and I haven't had to buy eggs for almost two months!  Though I don't think the hens have paid for themselves, I can begin to see how eventually getting younger hens and selling eggs could help us at least break even or come out a little bit ahead.

2.  It took about six weeks or so for the hens to acclamate to being at Green Acres.  They used to be terrified of Byron, but now they absolutely love him.  In fact, whenever I open the back door, they sprint/waddle toward the house in hopes that The Man in the Orange Sweatshirt has come bearing gifts.

3.  Ever since scoring some portable electric fencing on craigslist, we've discovered the value of moving the hens to fresh pasture.  Though I mentioned that we've had to buy feed, they eat less feed when given the opportunity to pick and scratch fresh grass, and the egg yolks are the brightest yellow from all that chlorophyll.  Byron also put a pile of compost into their little yard, and they absolutely demoslihed it, finding seeds and other edibles and then scratching the rest of it into the ground.  Next stop?  Our garden-to be!  They can pre-till some more compost for us all they want!

4.  Speaking of compost, when Byron cleaned out their hen house this weekend, he noted that there was very little stench, because he must have hit on the right carbon and nitrogen ratio.  Here's a fun visual:

Nitrogen +

carbon = supreme compost for the garden!
We'll experiment more with that ratio and keep you posted.  For now, happy barn hopping!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Green Acres Weekend Update

I know, I know.  Most of my posts lately have been Weekend Updates.  I've downloaded photos to update you on our house progress, and hope to find the time within the next couple days to put those online.  For now, I'll enlighten you with an exciting and frightening tidbit we came up with yesterday: we have room for 26 fruit-bearing trees!

Byron and I did a little research and measured the area we want to use for an orchard, which is something I definitely want as part of our little homestead.  Initially, I thought we'd plant about six trees or so, in addition to the four we planted last summer/fall.  But after spending some time outside with a tape measure, some string, and some rocks (to mark the tree "sites"), we determined that we could fit 26 trees in this area!

One of the first determinates was spacing.  Apparently, 20' is a good, general rule for spacing fruit trees, though some might have more specific requirements.  Another savvy piece of advice was to go with fruit trees that you know do well in your area, no matter what the nurseries tell you.  Don't get me wrong; I like our local nurseries, but they are in business to sell.  So we need to think about what grows well for other people we know, and perhaps even cultivate some trees we see growing well in the wild, such as persimmon.

Another initial thought I had was to plant only apple trees, but we're now thinking a more diversified orchard would offer us better variety throughout the growing season, and not bombard us with one type of fruit in a two- or three-month time span.  One website even mentioned that certain trees can act as "detractor" trees for birds; for instance, plant a mulberry with some cherry trees, since the birds will prefer the mulberries.  A diversified orchard has us thinking of some more uncommon types of fruit as well, which is an exciting prospect.  So far, here is a very rough list:

Apple (varieties we're considering: Pink Lady, Enterprise, Arkansas Black, Liberty, Honeycrisp, - though we're not sure how well it does in our zone - and Granny Smith)
Pear (the hardiest of the common fruits)
Paw Paw
Che (pronounced "shay")
...and maybe a nut tree?

In our future orchard, we'll plan on letting the chickens loose to help with pests, and one of these days I'd love to undertake bee keeping, which would help with pollination.  But enough of the lofty goals for now...didn't I mention last week that I have a portable hen house to design?  Yeah.  Better get on that.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Green Acres Weekend Update

I admit, I'm a little overwhelmed right now, hence the lag in posts.  A week or so ago Byron made a list of All The Things We Need To Do This Spring.  A lengthy list it was, and I'll probably miss something, but I'll share it with you to give you an idea of all the homesteading sorts of activities we'll be partaking in around here.  Per the usual, we'll be learning a lot and sharing our experiences with you...

1.  Build a fence.  Ideally, we'd like to get a cow or two to raise for beef, and though we'll be moving them around to fresh pasture every few days with portable electric fencing, we need something on the borders of our property.
2. Research getting goats.  Byron has been working on cleaning up an old fenceline, and is thinking that a couple goats would help clear up the weeds.  We'll see if this materializes, as we've heard goat horror stories.  Besides, I did get out this weekend to help him pull up some poison ivy since I'm immune to it.  Not kidding.  I used to try to get it when I was a kid, even to the point of rubbing it on my arms.  I like to think of it as my one superpower.  But Byron wasn't so lucky:

Byron thought the roots were dormant...not so.
3. Paint the barn and outbuildings.  They're in rough shape, and as I am the family painter, this task will fall to me...for the most part.  We had a friend come out and give us a quote on the barn roof (since I don't do heights), and he's giving us a great deal on painting the whole thing. And some other friends blessed us with some barn paint they bought accidentally, which should cover the woodshed and old corncrib. 
4. Repair the barn, which means I get to pretend I'm a structural engineer.  That should be interesting.
5. Order seeds and plant a garden!  Why didn't I say this first??
6. Order and plant apple trees.
7. Design and build a portable hen house.  I design, Byron tweaks, I re-design, and Byron builds.

My as-builts of the old trailer.  Yup, I'm on a roll!
8. Design and build portable houses for meat birds.  Probably.
9. Install new floors in the dining room, and then refinish 500 s.f. of the flooring in the front of the house.  I spent the morning researching a product called Waterlox versus a tung oil/citrus solvent finish.  They're similar, and Waterlox may be more durable because one ingredient is a resin, but it also stinks to high heaven.
10.  Various sewing projects, including:

Reusable facial cleaning pads made of flannel.

Cloth napkins. 

Placemats to protect the beautiful patina on our kitchen table.  I'll be adhering this fabric to some canvas my friend Kim passed on to me...more on that project later.
I'm sure I'm missing something (such as eating and continuing to homeschool).  But apologies for the lag, and I'm excited to share these coming experiences with you!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Maple Madness

Last winter during the Snowpacolypse that pounded the southeast, Byron and I came up with a brilliant idea.  Why not make homemade maple syrup?  Grant you, not the kind you make from sugar, cornstarch, and whatnot.  I'm talking the real deal from our sugar maple tree that graces the front yard of Other House.  Yeah, we're hardcore like that.

This year, we sadly decided that we're way too busy with indoor and outdoor projects to tackle sugaring season, since making maple syrup does require a certain amount of dedication, ventilation, and insanity.  So since we won't be able to commit to the task, I wanted to write a post on the process for those of you who may want to give it a shot.  All we plan to do is tap our maples to see if we get any sap, since we're now in a slightly warmer part of the state and maples like a cooler climate and don't grow as well here.

Seriously, it's fun and relatively simple to make your own maple syrup.  Several types of maple trees exist, and the best for syrup-making are sugar maples.  Any type of maple can be tapped, however, and even hickories and walnut trees will produce sap that can be boiled down into syrup.  Sugar maples, however, tend to give you a better ratio of sap to syrup: 10 gallons of sap will yield one quart of syrup.  And I should mention that trees must be 10" in diameter in order to be tapped.  Our maple was pretty big, and we had three or four spiles in it.

Freezing temperatures at night that climb into the 40s and 50s during the day signal the beginning of sugaring season, since that's when the sap begins to flow inside the tree.  If you have a tree you'd like to tap, you'll need to order spiles, which are like little spouts, online (google "maple syrup equipment").  The rest of the "equipment" you probably have on hand: a drill, wire, milk jugs, tubing, a thermostat, canning jars, and BIG POTS. 

Step 1: Drill a hole, at a slight upward angle, 1½” into the tree and about three feet up from the ground.  Byron marked the 1 1/2" point on the drill bit with some painter's tape.

Step 2: Hammer the spile into the hole. This process does not hurt the tree; the hole will heal naturally after the season.

Step 3: Hang a clean milk jug from the spout to collect the sap. We took a spile to a hardware store and found some plastic tubing that fit snugly over it, and ran that into the cap of the milk jug.  And since we're classy like that, we just used some old wire to hang the jug from the spile.
Keep in mind that sap is perishable must be stored in the fridge and boiled down within a couple days. Choose a day that is relatively free of other activities, since you will need to add sap to the pot intermittently and will most likely not want to be testing out your first batch of syrup at 2 a.m. on a Sunday night.  And I'm speaking from experience!

Most maple syrup producers recommend boiling sap outside because of the copious amounts of steam produced.  But at home, a large pot - or two, depending on the amount of sap you've collected - on the stove will do. Be sure to have decent ventilation. I'm not kidding; we had a fan blowing the steam toward an open window.

When you first get your sap boiling, you won't need to babysit it too closely.  You can check your e-mail, read a blog or two, sterilize your canning jars, etc. But as the sap boils down, you'll want to maybe combine sap if you have two pots going, then eventually transfer it to a smaller pot to prevent burning.  And because boiling points can vary due to altitude, take the temperature of your boiling sap when you begin.

We began with a pot or two like this...

...and ended up with syrup in a much smaller pot.
When the temperature of the sap reaches 7 degrees above boiling point, you have maple syrup! This part is both exciting and tricky because you need to be careful not to let it get too hot...then you'll end up with maple sugar. That may not be a bad thing, but it doesn't work too well on pancakes!

You'll need to filter your syrup into sterile canning jars immediately.  We found that a clean t-shirt, cut up into squares, worked best.  See?  I told you we're classy. 
Whatever you use to filter the syrup, you'll need several of.  We went through a few t-shirt squares each time because the pores of the cloth get clogged pretty quickly.

Our first two jars of maple syrup!  A lot of sugar settled on the bottom of the right-hand jar because we didn't know we needed a fresh bits of t-shirt the first time we filtered.  We ended up forcing a lot of the syrup - and consequently, sugar - through the already clogged pores of the cloth.  But it still tasted great.
Click here for a PDF we found to be helpful, and I'll answer any questions as best as I can.  Happy Sugaring Season...I miss it already!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Green Acres Weekend Update

I'm highjacking the Weekend Update - whatever that is - to list my various and sundry grievances with some of my companions here at Green Acres.  I'll start first with them.

They arrived here long after I came, yet they have received the kind of treatment I deserve.  A brand new house.  Breakfast in bed, pretty much.  Tucked in at night.  And just this past weekend, a brand new yard that I, apparently, am not allowed to play in.

The old yard was fine, and the best thing about it was that I could easily access its many amusements, not the least of which was giving them a little run for their money - or eggs, as the case may be.

And speaking of, he is obsessed with the eggs.  You know, the guy in the orange sweatshirt who always sent them scattering about as quickly as I could?  All of a sudden, he's bringing them treats and praising them for laying a gooey, sticky egg.  I mean, come on!  You'd think they were laying Fillet Mignon.

Anyway, back to the yard.  Like I said, it was easy to access until this weekend.  Then all of a sudden, last night he's putting up this great netting around their house.  I'm serious - I thought he'd actually bought something for me to play with besides those silly turkey feather toys he makes!  I was all rolled up in it, frolicking as anyone with half a brain would expect me to, when all of a sudden he grabs me out of the netting and mumbles something about me ruining that, too!  So I nonchalantly strolled away.  Fine, mister, you could have your netting.

Well, a little while later I realized that this netting was all a new fence for them, giving them an unfairly proportioned size of my backyard.  Fine.  Whatever.  I could probably squeeze through the holes anyway.  He even encouraged me to give it a shot.

That traitor.

I didn't even try to get in - all I did was brush a little too close and OUCH!  I couldn't help myself - I jumped from the electric shock.  Now, keeping my composure is a very important feline quality, as breaking out of character is usually unacceptable, but dang...that hurt!  But as soon as I regained it, I nonchalantly walked away, though yes, it was all a facade.

Apparently he and she both have grand plans for these chickens, and they've even talked about getting more.  Sigh.  They're going to use this portable electric fencing (that they apparently got a great craigslist deal on) to move the chickens to brand new yards every few days.  It's not fair, but I can only hope they buy something nice for me, too. 

As I always like to look at the milk bowl half full, there is a bright side.  That charger that gives predators an electric shock every time they touch the fence?  It won't be plugged in forever.  I heard them talking about getting a rechargeable battery for it to save electricity and diversify their pasturing options and bla, bla, bla.  Well, isn't that special.  Just wait until they forget to recharge the battery.  Game on, bird brains!

I really don't understand why portable electric poultry netting can't double as a fab cat toy.

She made me include this picture.  Boring!

And this one.  I'm falling asleep here, people.

That's better.  C' I look like a chicken killer?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

I tried, really, I tried. But this is a must-read!

Didn't I comment recently that I tried not to get political in this blog?  Do you mind if I rescind that, for just one post?

Amy from Homestead Revival just wrote about the implications of the government's approval to allow Monsanto to sell GMO, RoundUp Ready alfalfa seeds.  I ask you to click here to read her very informative post.

In short, the alfalfa, which most dairy animals consume, has been genetically modified at the cellular level, modifying the DNA with something outside the plant kingdom.  And RoundUp?  That's just an herbicide.  An herbicide with an active ingredient that's highly toxic to humans and animals.  Maybe not right away, but who wants to build up something toxic in his or her body over the years and see what happens?  I don't.

Again, please read Amy's post.  And if it scares you as much as it did me, consider following one of her suggestions to act.  Current and future generations will thank you!