Monday, January 21, 2013

Putting your Homestead on Autopilot

Whoo, hoo!  Back again!  Feeling soooo bad these last weeks (months, sigh) has shown me the importance of making your homestead able to function with a minimum of input day to day.  Of course, there are plenty of things to do and plenty of thing you can do any day on a homestead, but today we are going to talk about making it so there are very few things you have to do on any given day.  If you design for ease and functionality, you can save yourself a lot of grief and your animals a lot of discomfort. Now, if you are out for weeks, I can only give you a few hints to have the garden not fall apart.  But you can keep your animals comfortable with only a little help if you plan well (that also means you don't have to go out in the sleet if you simply don't want to).


                 Insulated hoses, a freeze-proof faucet, and automatic shut off valve and a floating de-icer makes this waterer as automatic as possible

  • Automatic water, automatic water, automatic water... absolutely take the time and money to run a water line and have an automatic valve in your tank to give your animals all the water they need.  If you run out, they will develop a lot of bad habits fighting over who gets the water first.  While you are at it, choose a non-freezing waterer or add a floating de-icer (you will have to have electricity for that) so you don't have to drag water to them on cold mornings.  If your area's ground freezes for long periods, you will have to invest in a special waterer that is insulated like this one. Here in the southeast of the U.S., we generally don't have freezing that is severe enough to make more than a thin coating of ice. For the few weeks that all day freezing is a problem, we keep our cattle near the house and where we have a line run to a thermostatically controlled warmer floating in the tank.  The only problem developed when one of our calves thought it was great fun to play with the floating disc and we kept finding it on the ground.  You can imagine our boys, "Really, Dad!  I didn't do it!" 

This season's waste becomes next season's soil!

  • Hey, We want some hay!  Your livestock will be up with the sun - they want to eat then - why make it so they have to wait on you? I have tried numerous things over the years, but my favorite winter strategy is to provide 2 or 3 large rolled bales of hay at a time. They don't fight over a limited amount as they do when I give them a square bale or 2 at a time, and the wasted hay is a nice insulator against the ground.  By the time they have eaten all they are going to get from those bales, you have nice, manure-filled hay debris area that breaks down into beautiful topsoil.  The areas that have housed those bales are noticeable for years - they grow more rye in the spring and more bermuda in the summer.  They are also the spot the herd picks to munch on first when we move into that paddock. 
  • Of course, most of the year, your livestock are eating grass and you want to rotate them to new areas regularly.  Here's the good news - afternoon is the best time to move them!  Moving to a new area stimulates your livestock to start munching on the best of the fresh green grass.  Think of living with a lot of siblings and taking your cookies RIGHT NOW because you know you won't get any if you wait until later.  We think of the herd as being this wonderful, supportive place, but really it's just each animal thinking first of themselves (but living in a group). Kind of a lot like us, huh?  Anyway, the other cool, scientifically beneficial thing about moving livestock in the afternoon is that is basically eliminates the chance of your animals developing bloat.  Bloat happens when cattle eat fresh, green, wet-from-dew grass on an empty stomach and develop gasses that seize up their intestines.  Yucky way to die, huh.  The not-so-scientifically-based cool thing about moving them in the afternoon is that my boots and pants don't get wet from dew.  I know.  Really. (It's just I would rather quietly dig around in the garden first thing in the morning and chat it up with some boisterous bovines in the afternoon.) 

  • Minerals are key - We all need salt.  If you don't have a proper balance of sodium and potassium in you body, you will crave salty things.  Your livestock are the same.  Enter kelp. You can order it from here  or from a number of other sites online.  It looks like green powder and smells like shrimp.  It comes from seaweed and has the same mixture of salts and minerals the ocean does.  I mix mine 50/50 with plain livestock salt and place it in a mineral feeder that protects it from the rain.  Some days they munch it up, and others they ignore it.  I figure they know what they need.  Just to mention, my beef became even more tender after I added this to the regime.  
  • Lastly, worming.  Doesn't it sound like fun to gather up all your suspicious herbivores on a monthly basis so you can give them something they don't want?  Yeah, not my idea of fun either.  Joel Salatin in Salad Bar Beef recommends using Shaklee's Basic H soap in your animals' water supply every other month.  They like it, it's easy for you, it's effective and nobody gets hurt.  Win, win, win, win.  Basic H is an organic liquid soap made from soybeans.  I've had good results thus far.  Here's a link for you fellow science nerds that want to see the background about intestinal worms.  
Okay, so let's review.  Things happen.  People get sick or family comes to visit.  It rains.  Some days you are lazy.  If you plan well, your animals can go stress free with all their needs met even if you aren't rushing to check on them first thing in the morning.  And when you get down to it, your kids or honey will remember a lovely breakfast a lot longer than they will.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

If I Knew Then What I Know Now

So sorry to have been gone so long.  In the last post, I said I had been "under the weather."  Well, that's about like saying the Wicked Witch of the East was 'under the weather' when Dorothy's house fell on her!  While I bear no resemblance to any witch of any compass point, I could consider the name change of "Pitiful Planter of the South" or "Maven of Malaise."  Hmmm...whining is not attractive.  Let's move on...

The title of today's post is...If I Knew Then What I Know Now...
There were a few things I got right from the get-go.  There are plenty more that have been tweaked or outright abandoned.  That's the joy of this hobby / job / lifestyle.  There is always something new to learn or imagine.

  So here are some Things I Would Not Change.....
  1.  I would set up my garden in permanent beds and aisles.  If it is at all possible, I recommend the same to you. Even though weeds have gotten away from me once or twice in seasons past, having the permanent area allowed me to prioritize what to clear and gave me access all through the garden.  Having 100 square foot beds allowed me to plan easily for crop rotation and the number of transplants needed.  Including irrigation as we made the beds has been a huge advantage as the garden has grown.  Watering the garden consists of turning on the water - selecting a zone - and setting a timer.  I have 3 zones, so the entire garden is watered in an hour and a half.
  2. I would still choose to start my garden small - but mostly smart!  Year one I sacrificed one of my 100 square foot beds and planted asparagus crowns (along with some parsley).  I knew I wasn't really going to get asparagus for a few years - each year the beautiful ferns come back, but the shoots are not fat or plentiful enough for harvest. But boy! The wait is worth it!  This year all of us enjoyed full servings of fresh, flavorful, yummy asparagus.  It takes 2 bunches purchased just to give each of the Mavens a few spears - that's $7 in veggies alone!  Not going to happen too often, right? This year was celebrated as week after week we savored this special spring treat. Now, with a little fertilizer and weeding, I can expect decades of spring yumminess. Here's the other first year crop I would recommend:.....Peppers!  Green peppers. Hot peppers. Poblano peppers. Banana peppers. Any kind of pepper you like.  Pepper plants are not terribly bothered by pests - each plant gives you more than a dozen peppers and they save you a boat load of money! 
          Regular green peppers are a dollar each - and that's in season!  Red and yellow can be $2 each!  Ouch!  Here's the real joy - peppers can be frozen with almost no prep! Just slice, freeze on a tray to make sure it doesn't make a solid blob and then throw it in a freezer bag!  The next time you need pepper for fajitas ( or about a zillion other dishes ), you simply pull out the right amount and saute away!  I honestly can't tell the difference between fresh and frozen, but ohh, those months with fresh!  Here's a sampling of a batch that became beef kabobs last summer.  Yum, yum!  Okay - if you don't have a garden yet - how 'bout some pepper plants in a pot or in straw bales?
 Goodness, this is going long.  I have a whole lot more that I would keep the same, and a whole, whole lot more I would change!  I'll work on crawling out from under this house, and you work on getting excited about next year's garden!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mobile Chicken House

Sorry I haven't been with you lately, I've been a little under the weather.  But there's a whole lot more to talk about so today we're going to talk about mobile chicken houses.  In my post Eggs Defined, we discussed that eggs from hens that are allowed access to the outdoors are significantly lower in cholesterol and saturated fats while enjoying higher levels of Vitamins A, D and E.  One technique is to allow your chickens to freely roam the yard, but there are inherent difficulties with that.  First, eventually predators will find your flock.  How depressing to raise a group of girls to egg laying stage just to lose them one by one.  Secondly, they eventually see you as their protector and provider, so your porch feels safe and comfy to them (read yucky chicken poo on your porch).  Another risk is eventually finding a huge cache of eggs cleverly hidden in your bushes - not only have you missed out on those yummy eggs, you are in for a world of stink when you try to trim those bushes!

Enter The Maven Team. My son-in-law, the architect, is so patient with me as I try to explain my girls' needs.  (By the way, those of you who don't have my-son-the-_____, or my-daughter-the-______ yet, look forward to that day!  Having successful children is the greatest joy of all!)  Anyway, architects are trained to see the needs of people (or, in this case, chickens) and design a building around that.  My husband, the engineer, knows how to take a vision and make it a reality.

I was frustrated with designs I had seen online for a number of reasons: some held too few hens, some were too heavy to move easily, some were too flimsy, some required a lot of bending and reaching to load and unload food and water dishes.  I wanted the food and water to be self-contained, and I wanted the resulting coop to be secure and yet movable by little ole me. Today, I will show you pictures of the project in progress.  Many of you will be handy enough to build this coop with just these pictures.  I'll work with the ever patient architect to provide line drawings if you let me know there is a big need.  Here we go:

The end result to help you see the vision along the way!

First, we made a 4 x 8 rectangle out of  pressure-treated wood to go next to the ground, then made a second box from 2 x 3s.  We then made a 4 x 4 box to make the  'second story'.  The corners are 'glued and screwed' for stability, so you see the aluminum foil to keep the glue contained. 

Next, we separated the 2 large rectangles to make a 24"  high box.  We used the same 2 x 3s and 8" strips of plywood on the back to make the opening for the door.  You can see the scrap wood we used to hold the smaller square in place so we can measure in place to make the supports.  The roof is 48" high in the front and 41" in the back.  

Next, we added a plywood shelf to make the nest boxes.  Each box is 12 x 12.  You see here the lip in front to keep eggs from falling out.  You can also see one of the perches, made from a split 2 x 3. 

Here's where things got a little 'creative'.  We wanted a strong support for the wheels, so we added a 1 x 6 board on the left and right, then a filler 2 x 4 to make a solid wheel support.  This, in turn, made an attachment for a 2 x 3 used to support the waterer.  The waterer is a craft box with a snap lid and nipples attached underneath for the chickens to reach up and get the water.  11" is a little low, but the girls have been doing fine and the upper clearance allows you to lift the box in and out without damaging the nipples.  *Note:  stick with the Avian Aqua Miser brand - other, cheaper nipples might not drip well enough for your girls*
You can also see that we attached a scrap piece of wood to keep the box from sliding forward and to discourage the gals from perching on the brace and soiling the feeders.  The feeders are simply 2 rabbit cage feeders screwed into the back. They load from the top and hold a quart of feed each.  

Here's the whole back apartment showing the 2 perches, 2 waterers and 2 feeders.  We finished the back with vinyl siding to keep it lightweight. and covered the top with wavy poly vinyl.  Ask the guy at the hardware store about the vinyl edge pieces and corners, so you know how to finish your corners. I painted the exposed wood white out of pure pride-fullness. 

 We stapled on the chicken wire and attached the wheels with carriage bolts.  We had some ancient Yazoo lawn mower wheels that we spray painted blue, but Tractor Supply carries wheels of all sizes.  Here you can see the back flap made from 3/8" plywood and covered with vinyl siding.  I had a broom handle that I use for a prop to hold open the trap door while I add feed, gather eggs and slide out the waterers if needed.  You can see the supports for the waterers from this angle.  The wheels need to be a little lower - it pulls fine on a level surface, but is hard to pull uphill.  

Here you can see my happy gals munching on weeds.  The 2 8 foot poles give me enough leverage to easily move the house and the door in front is available if needed.  The gals walk along as I slide the house forward and they hop on the perches at night.

I absolutely think this is a viable way for people in the Southeast U.S. to keep 5 - 8 hens year round.  Other areas with snow fall may want to use this in the summer months only, but it allows you to have the 'pastured' eggs without the negatives of predator loss and chickens in your garden.  I'll come back to more particulars later (like adding additional light, choosing feeds, and using this system on a larger scale) because, as you know, there's always a whole lot more!  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Creole Chicken Gumbo (low carb and gluten free!)

There are a few recipes that define a person.  The whole family waits with anticipation as the holidays approach because of 'Grandma's pumpkin pie' or 'Aunt Chloe's homemade rolls'.

The Maven has gumbo.  We moved to Northwest Georgia and discovered that people here did not not what gumbo was.  They made something called Brunswick Stew, which is kind of like bar b q soup.  So the record had to be set straight.

This particular recipe has a chicken base, so it is not too expensive. Generally, my 22 qt. soup pot is full to the brim with a single recipe, but it freezes well as the individual components or as a completed stew.  The traditional way to eat it is over rice, but I eschew the rice and garlic bread and leave those for the carb-eaters in the house.

There are four things to combine. Here ya go:

6 lbs frozen, sliced okra
1 cup vinegar (1/2 cup per pan)
2 tablespoons oil (1 tablespoon per pan)

Spread the okra out on 2 stoneware pans or broiler pans (no need to defrost).  Sprinkle the vinegar and oil over the okra and use your hands to spread it evenly over all of the batch.  Bake at 350 degrees F for 1 1/2 hours, stirring every 30 minutes.  Watch carefully if you use the broiler pan to keep it from scorching.

Roasting like this shrinks the okra and keeps it from falling apart in the broth.  The seeds look like little eye balls if they are floating all around!

Chicken and Broth
Boil 2 chickens in 1 1/2 gallons of water with
12 bay leaves
1 teaspoon liquid crab boil
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons Emeril's Essence seasoning (or your favorite cajun seasoning)
2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon red pepper

Simmer until tender. If you can, chill the broth to allow the fat to rise to the top so you can skim it off.  Pull the chicken from the bones and shred to pieces that can generously cover a spoon.

3 cups chopped onions
1 bulb garlic, crushed
3 cups chopped celery
3 cups chopped bell pepper
1/4 cup bacon grease or oil

In Creole and Cajun cooking, this is called the "blessed Trinity" and is the basis of many dishes.  Saute the veggies in bacon grease or oil until limp.  (do a little dance if all of this came from your garden)

Roux - (pronounced 'roo')
1 1/2 cups bacon grease (or oil in a pinch)
2 cups flour - all purpose for you carb eaters - soy flour or coconut flour for low carb, gluten free or paleo eaters

(Note: here's the reason to go get that iron skillet you've been wanting - the roux is much less likely to burn with the even heat of nicely seasoned cast iron)

Mix the flour into melted bacon grease with a whisk.  It will look atrocious:

Cook over medium heat stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. (side note - those fingernails are gel paint and have lasted 2 weeks while gardening and building a new chicken tractor!)

Slowly the color will change as you continue to stir.  You are looking for one shade darker than peanut butter - something akin to a caramel candy.  If you need to, you can allow it to cool (I have even frozen it before).  If you are ready to assemble the gumbo, just let it sit a few minutes to allow it to cool a little - you don't want it to pop and burn you as you pour it in the soup. (I usually call for help and have Mr. Maven hold the skillet as I scrape out the roux)
Final note on the roux:  if it burns - throw it out!  There is no saving burnt roux!

Chicken and broth, veggies, okra and 2 - 28 ounce cans of diced tomatoes (not drained).  Add warm roux to warm soup and simmer 45 minutes. Add shrimp or crabmeat during the last 5 minutes if desired.   That's it!  Enjoy!  

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bunnies in the Garden :(

Some times things don't go as planned.  A few weeks ago we saw pictures of spinach being planted at a 4" spacing.  Up they came.  One by one, away they went.  In no time, there was not a single baby spinach plant left.  (sad face)

No problem - we'll replant.  Only problem was the seeds were old and did not germinate.  (another sad face)

No problem - still time to replant and figure out if this was bunnies, deer, bugs or a dry spell.  I guess you figured out by the title the culprit.
I have a funky little dog named Ena.  We named her that so when we come home we can say, "Hi! Ena!"  (you may need to say that out loud to get the joke)  Anyway, Ena turns herself inside out to go out in the garden any time she sees me with my tool bag.  Once we get out there, she totally ignores me. Go figure.  At least the cats bask in the shade of the asparagus or okra and look on as if to say, "Very good, human, keep working."

Yesterday, Ena was sniffing about and suddenly I heard "SQUEAK!" - one bunny down.  A few minutes later, "SQUEAK!" - number two.  I'm not gleeful, I'm not distressed.  I didn't even know they were there.  I guess it's just Ena feeling like she is earning her keep.

Anyway, within minutes I found the evidence that would of showed me what to do even without my canine assistant.

I replaced the transplant, but what to do to protect it now?  I'd like to avoid fencing if I can in order to keep the garden inviting, so I have used a product called plantskydd (r) in the past.  It's pretty nasty stuff (smells like blood) and says you cannot spray it on a plant within 3 weeks of harvest, but unlike these bunnies, I have no intention of eating these broccoli leaves.

If my problem continues, I will put up row covers early and cover these babies with light weight insect blocking cloth.

Now, what to do with the spinach?  Replant. Move on.  Reset.  Here's the thing about the garden - just because you mess up, or miss a planting date, or have a deer (or a bunny) come in, - it doesn't mean the dirt stops being dirt!  You are not fired! We'll talk soon about checking germination rates in seeds and pre-soaking seeds for quicker sprouting time.  As always, you can tell: there's a whole lot more!  

Monday, October 1, 2012

How to Make Liquid Stevia

So - I've talked about being low carb since February of this year.  I've also talked about my thoughts on raising as much of my own food as possible.  One of the (minor) challenges a low-carber faces is choosing which alternative sweetener to use.  Because, let's face it, just saying you will never have a glass of sweet tea again in your life might just turn a few of us to the dark side.  Or a cappuccino.  Or ice cream.  Or pie.  Yikes!  I had better change this train of thought!

Wait!  I can have all of those things!  Frequently! Without guilt! Phew! That was a close one!  All I have to do is sweeten it correctly.  There are a multitude of choices in artificial sweeteners on the market - and just as many dire predictions of death and gloom if you use them.  As stated before, I'm not much of a doom and gloom kind of gal, but I did notice that my weight loss stalled when I allowed sugar alcohols (as in sugar-free chocolate) in my diet.  I also noticed a (very) slight uptick when I use the packaged granular sugar substitutes. Then I found out that the extra chemicals included to keep the packets fluffy contain carbs.  No fair!

Enter Stevia.  This is a South American herb that is used as the basis for the newer sweeteners like Truvia.  It has been used extensively in Japan for decades.  Our dear FDA has now seen fit to allow it in the U.S.(fellow science nerds can take a look at a pretty good article here). You can pick up drops at your local vitamin store to the tune of $15 for 2 ounces.  I picked some up and was pleased when one bottle lasted 5 months using is every morning in my coffee and fairly frequently in my iced tea.  5 drops were plenty for my coffee and 6 plenty for a big glass of tea.  Go ahead and get some so you can see if you like the taste (it was no challenge for me).

The real challenge is the price.  I am not going to put $10 worth of drops in an ice cream recipe I've never tried!

My research led me to growing my own stevia and making my own drops this year.  I grew 3 plants over 3 feet tall in my straw bales and 2 more in a regular garden bed.  I will need to protect them this winter, because they are not cold hardy, or of course I can start from scratch next year as well.  Here's the steps I used and the results (including the challenges!).

Step 1:
Cut down stevia shoots and slide the stems backwards down your fingers to pop off the leaves.
Step 2:
Wash them in a salad spinner

You can see that I have 2 different size leaves here.  I purchased the small-leafed variety as a transplant and grew the larger-leafed ones from seed.  Both did well, so don't worry about which kind you find.

Step 3:
Stevia leaves immediately after being covered with vodka
Take the washed leaves and smash them around a bit with scissors or your hands.  Place them in a large non-reactive bowl and cover with vodka.  Cover with a plate or saucer to keep the leaves submerged and leave them out on the counter overnight.  The next day you will have a green liquid in your bowl.
Stevia next day after soaking all night in vodka 
Step 4:
This is where things got a little out of hand for The Maven.  Multiple web sites had instructed to carefully heat the strained liquid without boiling in order to remove the alcohol.  I strained the mixture by placing a coffee filter in a large funnel and carefully heated my green liquid.  I dutifully cooled it down and tried it the next morning. HMMM... I'm not used to vodka in my morning coffee!  I promise - not all of the alcohol was gone.  

Step 4 (plan B):
I put the liquid back into my soup pot and slowly heated it again.  All the while I dutifully watched to make sure it did not boil (as multiple sites said that would make it bitter) - of course, I messed it up and let it boil.  Come on - really - would you have been able to keep something at about 180 for 30 minutes?
Dutifully cooled it again - no bitterness - but also not very sweet!  It took a tablespoon or more to sweeten my tea!
Step 4 (plan C):
Okay - time to ignore the instructions.  I happen to have a cute little slow cooker that is used to keep dips warm.  I filled it with my green liquid, cocked the lid a little to allow evaporation and left that sucker on until the stevia extract reduced by half.

  Tada!  Delicious drops at a fraction of the cost!  Now I can work on an ice cream recipe and not feel guilty about using an ounce or more.  I'm working on that ice cream recipe tomorrow.  Guess you know what that means - there's a whole lot more! 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fall Egg Production

If you have chickens, you've probably noticed their egg production dropping off lately.  Here's the reason:  chickens need about 14 hours of sunlight per day to stimulate their bodies to produce an ovum.  Last weekend was the Autumnal Equinox, which means the sun is hitting the earth straight on the equator.  You can look up sunrise / sunset times and see that the U.S. is receiving about 12 hours of sunlight per day right now.  This will decrease until December 21st, then slowly increase until the first day of Summer.

That shows us that for more than half of the year, your chickens do not receive enough light to make your eggs.  Now, chickens are cute and fun and all, but it's really not worth having birds that do not lay.  So - let's solve this problem.  You will need a electricity, a light of some sort and a timer. That's it!

Set your timer to turn the light on in the morning.  Extending in the evening can leave the chickies in abrupt darkness if you turn it off at night. The last thing we want is chickens with anxiety issues!  If you have a rooster - he will crow for the light.  Sorry.  Don't know how to fix that one.

Your rule of thumb needs to be that the light should be bright enough to read a newspaper.  Fortunately, here in the South the sun remains fairly high in the sky throughout the winter.  If you have the light come on between 3 and 4 a.m. and turn off about 8 a.m., you will still have enough light even in the shortest days of the year.  That is also the coldest time of the night, so a heat lamp will keep your chickies more comfortable.

Let's review - if you choose to have your chickens permanently in a movable pen, you will need to think about supplying electricity somehow from fall to spring.  Maybe park them by the house in the evenings and run a GFCI cord?  The other alternative is to have a winter house with electricity permanently available and only put them in their movable pen on nice days.

The light you choose is your choice.  I chose a simple outdoor flood light with a clamp-on fixture for its durability.  I have been known to bump into my light when working around the coop, and I don't want to risk   glass shards from a broken light or having mercury from a florescent bulb in the coop.

Pine shavings and chickens droppings on the floor will be breaking down continuously, creating heat.  You may need to cover open walls to protect the girls from sharp winter winds, but we have an advantage here in the South because our ground does not typically freeze, so the composting droppings create enough heat for them to get by.

We'll talk later about how to get your girls fresh greens through the winter, so you can still get the benefits of pastured eggs.  (see the difference here)  As you can see - there's still a whole lot more!