Category Archives: The Homestead

Our attempts to get closer to our food, give our kids an idea of where food comes from, and teach them how to work.

When is Enough Enough?

I thought things were getting pretty bad a while ago when our collection of animals grew from ONE dog and three children to a gaggle of chickens, the dog, and a series of feral cats (never more than two at a time).  One thing I’m learning though is that if you are willing to accept responsibility for an animal, someone will be willing to give one to you.   Thanks to the wiles of the coyotes we were down to one cat and had cut our chicken flock substantially, so of course we needed to fill the void with something…  Enter the goat, a bunch of turkeys and a kitten.

In our desire to “simplify” our diet (principally as a reaction to a life-changing diagnosis) we had shifted to drinking raw milk and moved away from highly processed foods or foods with ingredients that are made in a laboratory or manufacturing facility.   Raw milk is delicious but expensive.  Naturally raised meat is worse.  The chickens were round one in a broader effort to have more control over what we eat, but only round one.  While the  best grass-fed raw-milk dairy in Texas is closer than the closest gas station, I sometimes feel like we were single-handedly paying for the farmer’s race car.   Unfortunately, we were tapped out in the home/yard/pasture project portion of the budget, so even if we wanted to, we couldn’t afford a goat or dairy cow.

In spite of our best efforts not to give interest-free loans to the government, when we did our taxes this year we found we would have several thousand dollars we hadn’t planned on.  We decided to use it to build a small barn to shelter things that turn grass into delicious food and string electric fence around about a quarter of our lot (electric fence is cheaper and quicker to install than any other type).  About the same time, a friend was having trouble figuring out what to do with the milk from three lactating goats to the tune of about two gallons a day.  She offered to let us take a few of the goats once our fence was up.  Double good…  she doesn’t have to milk as much, figure out what to do with all the milk she can’t drink, or feed goats she doesn’t get benefit from; and I get to cut down our milk budget by almost a car payment.  Meet “Nipa” – on extended loan from down the street.  She ain’t pretty to look at, but is quite the “sweet spirit.”IMG_8056The goat is about as entertaining as the chickens.  I’m almost convinced she thinks she’s a dog.  Any time the dog comes over, the goat wants to be right there getting a pat on the head.  She spends a lot of the day on top of a large pile of dirt that was left behind when our builder dug the leach-fields for the septic system.  I actually enjoy milking her in the mornings, and Liz  has decided that she doesn’t mind goat milk as long as the milk is clean and free of the “goaty” aftertaste that was the result of our friend not brushing down the goat, thoroughly cleaning the udders, and stripping the first few squirts for the dog or cat (whoever is closer).As if the goat weren’t enough, we decided to try “free-range” turkey for Thanksgiving.   Chickens were easy enough and kinda fun, so we ordered the minimum number of  poults (baby turkeys) you could order from the hatchery.  Several weeks later and we have nine disgusting birds that look a lot like vultures and poop all over the place (one of the original ten got smothered by the others the first night I moved them out of the brooder).  They’d better taste good.  They do eat a lot of bugs and spiders though.

turkeysFinally, we got ANOTHER cat.  We were down to one (the one featured in a previous post) when a friend offered up a few kittens.  Liz brought one home and Michael immediately adopted it as his.   This has been the only thing that seems to work for keeping him out of the chicken coop.  Any time he’s outside he’s got that cat in his arms telling himself that the kitty is “sooo cute.”  He routinely dunks the cat in a bucket of water we leave out for the animals, then rolls it around in the dirt.  When he’s not playing Chinese water torture with it, he’s hanging it by it’s legs or tail.  The weirdest part of the whole thing is that the cat doesn’t seem to mind.Michael_and_Estella

Liz the Coyote Killer

It never fails… the best fun always happens when I’m not around.  I happened to be out of town this last week for work.  Were Liz and I to trade places, I’m pretty sure I’d go crazy with her on the road from time to time and me left at home to manage all the affairs.  This week though, she gave me even more evidence of her outstanding ability and my unworthiness in comparison.

As I was boarding my plane early Friday AM to come home I noticed a voice-mail that must have come in while my phone was going through the airport security protocols or I was rushing madly to make my gate after the planned one and one-half hour drive to the airport turned into three hours courtesy of regional flooding and closed roads.  After barely making my flight (I boarded right before they closed the doors), I listened to the voice-mail.  It turns out Syd had woken early and decided to go out on the back porch and watch the sunrise.  In addition to seeing a beautiful sunrise, she saw half a dozen “crazy” coyotes “jumping” around in the back lot.  Liz was calling to ask what she should do and if it was okay to shoot one.

By the time I called her back, she’d gotten her gun, gone out back, and popped off a round.  The whole pack scattered, but not before killing and eating two of our chickens.  Liz wasn’t convinced she’d hit anything, but a little later Isaac went out back and saw them in the next field over.  One of them could only walk a few steps before collapsing.   I hope the stupid thing dies a slow death.  Over-all, that’s pretty impressive.  Rather than mess with a long-gun she wasn’t particularly familiar with, she grabbed her handgun.  Given where the coyotes were and where the fence was, she couldn’t have been closer than about 30 feet.  A coyote is a pretty small target, and 30 feet is pretty far for a 3 inch barrel.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the pack learned their lesson.  They came back last evening while we were out at Sydney’s performance and killed four more chickens.  I can’t afford to loose any more.  The stupid little birds take forever to start laying eggs, and at the going rate I’ll be out of layers within a week.  In the interest of fresh eggs, I’ll be waiting for them with a big scary black rifle.  This could be an entertaining night…

Gloves are Good and Wow, That’s Red

One of the blessings of this life is that every day presents some form of opportunity to learn.  This week, among other things, I got a somewhat painful lesson about the wisdom of wearing gloves when trying to wrangle sheep, and a reminder that you shouldn’t wear your good sunglasses when painting a barn.

We have a good friend a few miles from here who is single and somewhat elderly.  When her husband died of cancer a little over a year ago, she was left to run the 10-acre homestead on her own.  She’s quite capable, but when it comes to wrestling the Dorper sheep she’s collected, she needs a little help.  Since I like to eat lamb, and since working trades is one of the standard ways to get stuff done out here in the boondocks, I help her out wherever I can, and she reciprocates.  This year, she’ll set me up with a nice lamb to slaughter for Christmas dinner.

Thursday, I took the day off work to work around the yard, and our friend asked if I could come help her immunize her flock and castrate two young males.  I’d never done that before, and the opportunity to learn a new skill sounded kinda fun (evidence that I’m firmly out of my right mind, but I’m happy in that state).  Everything went well for the first few.  We simply poured some grain in a trough set back into a pen, let several wander into the pen, closed it, and went to work.  Unfortunately, after the first round, they got the hint about what we were up to and decided to run for it.

Since they weren’t going to go down easy, it became a game of trying to corner and wrestle them to the ground long enough to get the job done.  It turns out I’m pretty good at it, because I was able to work through the herd quickly enough without much help, much to the surprise of our friend.  That’s when I got the lesson.  We had one sheep left, and she was the most skittish of the bunch (she’d just watched us castrate and immunize her two little boys).   Because she was so cagey, I figured I’d slowly work her into a corner before making a grab for a leg to flip her over and pin her down.

I managed to corner her, or so I’d thought.  She found a small gap about six inches wide between a fence and a tree with knobby bark.  I knew it was there, but I didn’t believe a sheep that fat could fit though a hole that small.  I grabbed hold just as she made a break for the gap, and she dragged me with her, scraping the back of my hand along the bark as she went.  Heavy gloves (you know, the kind I wear all the time when I’m working in the yard) would have been a godsend.

IMG_7845Aside from messing with sheep, I spent the rest of the day finally  painting the chicken coop and barn.  Liz said she wanted a red barn.  Wow, did she ever get one…  You can’t miss it.  I’ve been scraping little red flecks of paint off of my sunglasses for two days now.  If I haven’t learned by now to not wear nice things when working outside or in the garage, I doubt there’s much hope for me.

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Food Faces

I’m not sure why, but Liz and the Kids keep seeing faces in our food.  Just for fun, I’ve decided to share a few that they’ve taken pictures of…

IMG_7711Happy hens make happy eggs apparently.  I don’t honestly know if these eggs were from our flock of backyard chickens or if they were from one of the last dozen or so we purchased at the local meat market before our buzzards started laying.   I think this is just before we started getting our own eggs.  The ones we’ve been getting have yolks so orange it would look unnatural if you weren’t used to seeing eggs from free-range chickens.

IMG_7245Say hello to pickle guy(so dubbed by our kids)…  Last fall we got invited to help glean a pickling cucumber field in the local area and came home with a 5-gallon bucket worth of cucumbers.  This was the first time I’d made pickles in about ten years, and they turned out great.  Along the way, we noticed one jar that had a little more personality than the others.

How’s that for a useless and trivial post?

Free Cats are Hard to Keep

IMG_7797Ever since we moved in here I’ve been saying we needed to get a barn cat to help keep the mice in check.  Even before the house was built, I was certain we would have problems because as I was clearing the land and cutting the brush and undergrowth the path in front of my tractor would almost look like the ground was boiling with all the mice and other vermin scattering in fear of death by power shredder.  Since I cleared off most of their cover and food supplies I wasn’t all that surprised when they moved into the garage to gorge on the chicken feed and anything else not securely enclosed in metal containers.

Not being all that partial to cats I tried trapping.  At first it looked like success because I was averaging half a dozen mice a day and didn’t think they could last much longer at that pace.  However, I was wrong.  The mice turds kept piling up, and the mice who had survived had apparently figured out how to avoid the traps.  The final straw was finding a rattlesnake in the garage.

Now, the environmentalists will tell you that you shouldn’t kill rattlesnakes because they are highly effective at keeping rodent populations under control.  While that may be true in a strict sense of the word, it seems to me to be about as accurate as saying that burning down the house is an effective strategy to prevent it from being burglarized.  If I have a choice between venomous serpents and disgusting rodents, the furry critters win.  Luckily, snakes aren’t the only things that eat mice, and some of the alternatives are a whole lot cuddlier and less poisonous.

One thing we’ve found out here in the country is that there isn’t a shortage of free cats.  A friend of ours connected us with a lady nearby who had been feeding a large collection of feral cats out of pity, and wouldn’t mind getting rid of a few of them.  A couple of them had even been “fixed” so we wouldn’t need to worry about any more little kitties floating around.  Sounded like a deal to me, so we went over to check things out.

Round one:  We only managed to lay hands on one of them, because as soon as we got one, the rest caught wind of what we were doing and took off.  That was okay, one was a start, so we took him home.  Within 24 hours, it had taken off to who knows where.  Apparently it didn’t like our dog, or kids, or food, or whatever.

Round two:  Thinking it might have gone “home” just a few miles from our house, we went back to the cat lady a few days later to see if he’d shown up.  Nope.  “That’s okay,” she told us, “there are plenty more where that one came from,” and this time she had a plan for catching more than just one and was convinced they would stay better if there were two to keep each other company.  A few minutes later we had two more friendly and cuddly demonstrated mouse killers in the truck.  Thinking it may take a day or so to acclimate, we kept these two in a crate for a day to help them get the idea.  As soon as we opened the door, they were gone.  I saw one cross the road from one field to another the next morning, but he never came back.

Round three:  We gave up on the cat lady’s cats.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her we lost two more.  However, one of Liz’s  friends volunteers as a “friend” of the local animal control, and had two lovely cats who were looking for a home.   As I sat here originally drafting this post, it had been a couple days, one cat was perched behind me taking a nap, and the other was running around with the dog playing.  These ones looked like they planed on staying and didn’t seem to mind the aggressive three year old too much, or the dog that thinks they are a self-mobile chew toy.

In the time it’s taken me to take a picture and download it, one of the two new cats (named Jane Eyre) has wandered off.  It kept trying to come inside and seems to have gotten miffed when it didn’t get to follow the dog inside.  All we are left with is Mr Rochester shown in the picture above.  After two days of waiting Jane hasn’t come back.  Maybe she’s just trying to play out the story of Jane and Mr Rochester and will come back after his crazy wife burns down the house, kills herself, and leaves Mr Rochester blind.   Wouldn’t that be dreadful?

Hopefully the one remaining is good at killing mice.

As a side note, any and all cats we happen to feed are OUTSIDE cats.  I hate litter boxes almost as much as I hate snakes.

A Rattlesnake in the Garage

I went out to the garage the other day to look for a tool I had thrown on the pile that has been building since we moved in.  As I lifted an old blanket I saw a small snake coiled up just below my hand.  As afraid of snakes as I am, I surprised myself by not jumping, starting, or even elevating my heart-rate.  Looking at it, it wasn’t totally clear what kind of snake it was, but I decided to pick up a shovel and take care of it either way.

The funny thing about snakes is that when they’re balled up in a tight coil, it’s hard to get to the neck.  When I stabbed it with the blade of the shovel, I missed the neck and caught it right in the middle.  It didn’t like that at all!  It’s reaction left me with little doubt as to what kind of snake it was.  It’s tail (with two small buttons for a rattle) started vibrating furiously, and it’s head started striking repeatedly at the shovel.  Looking at it after I managed to cut the head off, it was obviously a diamond back rattlesnake hatched this spring.

Without thinking about it, I chucked the dead snake over the fence into the chicken yard, and they promptly demolished the carcass, so I don’t have any pictures, but if you grew up where I did, you can use your memory and a little imagination to visualize what it must have looked like.

If you are wondering why on earth a rattlesnake would take up residence in my garage, it might help to know that we had a serious problem with mice in the garage this winter.  It would seem the snake decided to come in to help us thin the herd.  The day after this encounter, we started our adventures looking for a barn cat to keep the mice at bay.  I don’t really like cats, but if it comes down to snakes or cats I’ll take a cat any day, but that doesn’t really say much.

The only other aspect of this tale that is somewhat worrying is Michael’s love for Uncle Mike’s corn snake.  Michael loves to hold and pet Slinkey every time we go over to Uncle Mike’s, and as a result doesn’t seem to have any natural fear of snakes.  We’ve had to reinforce that Uncle Mike’s pet snake is the only good snake, and that he shouldn’t mess with any he finds closer to home.  I hope he understands.  It’d suck to have him learn the hard way that not all snakes like people.  There is more than one breed of poisonous serpent in the area, and I don’t want him to molest any of them.

The Chicken Coop

 

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I had thought I had taken pictures of the chicken coop while I was building it.  True to form, I got busy and forgot.  So… I guess you get to settle with a picture of Michael doin’ what he spends a lot of time doing: Playing with chickens.

Liz decided she wanted a lot of fresh eggs, which translated into an order of 40 chicks (straight run, so about half would end up in the stew pot as young roosters).  The only problem is that you can’t use a standard back-yard chicken coop for those kinds of numbers.  To make things worse, Liz and the kids have grand plans to get even more chicks and sell eggs since babysitting gigs are hard to come by when there aren’t many neighbors.   I settled on a 8X12 shed framed on 24″ centers with a simple corrugated steel roof.  My thought at the time was that if the chickens didn’t work out, I’d still have a usable shed.

Liz originally had grand plans of moving the chicken coop around the yard to spread the manure and lighten the wear and tear on the “lawn,”  so I built it on “skids” with the hope I could drag it around with the tractor.  The only problem I had with that plan, is that the completed coop weighed so much it acted like a road-grater as I pulled it to it’s final resting spot.  In the end I decided we would just have a “chicken yard” for the birds, and leave the coop where it was.

I made the roosts by cutting the corners off of 5 2×2 firring strips with the table saw blade set for 45 degree angle and setting them into 2 2x4x8s notched about every 18 inches, essentially making an 8 foot wide ladder and leaning it up against the wall at about a 45 degree angle.

In one corner of the coop I built a 2’x6′ “isolation room” that we could use as a brooder, and in another I built a bank of 12 1 cubic-foot nest boxes.  Given the way the birds willingly cram onto the roosts, and the internet-derived recommendations for nest boxes and roosts, we should be able to support up to about 45 layers.

The last thing we did was run power out to the coop so we could plug heat-lamps in when it got cold or when we had chicks in the brooder.  That turned out to be almost as expensive as building the coop, but well worth it in the end.

One thing I learned a long time ago is that if you are going to dig a trench and put in conduit, cram as much into the trench as you can afford so you don’t have to dig it again.  Since I had to run pipe as it was, I decided to run 2-20A circuits (one for the coop, and one for a future small barn/animal shed) and pull water out to the corner of the chicken yard so we wouldn’t have to drag buckets from the house when it was below freezing outside.  IMG_7681It’s turned out to be a real blessing to have the freeze-proof hydrant in the chicken yard, and we’ve already used the heat-lamps since Liz and a friend decided to split an order of cornish-rock meat chickens and we had to have a place to put them.   The water and electricity will come in handy when we get the barn built too.

My Experience with Lumber Liquidators Tongling Strand-Woven Bamboo

This is a stub for me to write about my (bad) experience with the Tongling Strand Woven Bamboo flooring we installed in our house.  The quick and dirty version is simple.  It scratches very easily, and scratches are highly visible against the dark color.  It shrunk enough to separate the joints in the middle of the room and leave a 1/2 inch gap in spite of following their recommended maximum span, acclimation time and procedure, and floor preparation, and is terribly difficult to keep clean.   If you are a little old lady who never goes outside, wears felt-soled slippers all day, and doesn’t have pets, this is a lovely floor, but I can’t recommend it to anyone else.  At this point, I’m trying to figure out how I can overcome the pricetag to tear out the NEW floor and lay tile or carpet.

Home Building Progress

The outside of the house is basically finished.

Here is a small shot of the living/kitchen area.  The pantry door is the first to the left.  The french doors open into the office.

This week cabinets are being stained and installed, tile floor is being put down in the bathrooms and laundry room, and light fixtures and fans are going in. The front door is now on and the garage door will be coming soon.  Peter has decided to install the wood flooring in the main area to save us nearly $3000 in labor costs.

I have been looking up how to make curtains for the living room and kitchen.  Lots of fun!