Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hay, hay, hay

We bought and brought home a bale of hay yesterday, a round bale weighing 700 lb.  Our winter supply, which we got in October last year, is nearly finished.  This is the tail end of the feeding season here in the Cariboo.  Our animals will keep getting hay for a couple of months, depending on the weather, but we feed them a decreasing amount of it.  Already, they are down to three feeds a day instead of the four they were getting during the cold weather.  By late May, they'll be ignoring the dry stuff and nibbling on twigs and greens instead.

Goats (and sheep, too), like a hay with lots of variety.  We get something with plenty of alfalfa in it for the winter, but for the spring hay, we like more of a mix.  My herd really appreciates having weeds in their hay, as long as there are a variety of them.  Sometimes, we'll get cheap hay from a farmer who is trying to develop a new hayfield and has things like burdock, willow shoots, and thistle.  These are all delicious to my bunch.

We find hay to be pretty expensive here.  For the mix that's strong on alfalfa, we paid around $175/ton.  The mix we're going to buy to finish out the season is more like $125/ton, but the outside of it is weathered, so there will be more wastage.  I estimate that each of my adult goats eats half a ton over the winter.  Luckily, they can find all the forage they need on our walks for six months of the year.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Darn It!

Knitting has become cool.  Reduce, Re-use, Recycle is the latest mantra.   "Retro" is cool.  Obviously, then, darning should become the latest cool "retro" skill.

Once you've put many hours of time and care into knitting a pair of socks, it doesn't make a lot of sense to throw them away because of one little hole.  Here's how to darn it:

Thread a blunt needle with yarn that matches your sock yarn in colour and weight, if you want the patch to be inconspicuous.  If you want to show off your skill, thread it with a contrasting colour.  Put something round into your sock to hold it in shape while you darn: a lightbulb, or an orange, maybe.

Sew a series of parallel lines across the hole, making a few stitches in the good fabric adjacent, to "anchor" the yarn.

Now sew a series of lines perpendicular to the first set, weaving the yarn under and over in a basketweave pattern and again "anchoring" the yarn  in the good fabric.

Your patch is done.  Show it off.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Barnyard cleaning the lazy way

A dirty barnyard is bad for the health of the animals that live in it.  Foot rot and parasites, for example, can be problems because of having the animals standing in manure.  So, I need to clean.  How can I do it as lazily as possible?

Timing is critical in doing things the lazy way.  Today is a gorgeous early-spring day.  The sky is a brilliant blue; the snow is dazzlingly white.  It's far to nice to stay inside, but the snow is too soft and sticky for winter play.  It's a perfect day to clean up outside.

Attitude is also important.  I look at work with the wheelbarrow and fork as being a free fitness workout.  It also leaves my mind free to wander at will, either thinking things over or, more often, simply being in a "Be Here Now" kind of meditative state.

Here are my tips for keeping the barnyard cleaning lazy:
  • Keep few enough animals that one person can clean up after them all.  Getting in over your head is not the lazy way.
  • Don't make your animals eat in the summer where they poop in the winter.  (Mine free range, mostly.)  That way, you won't feel pressured to pick up every single turd.
  • Work at a nice, leisurely pace, taking time out often to admire the sky, visit with the animals, or listen to the birds.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

New chickens

Signs of spring:  the first Canada geese are flying over, high.  They must be scouts; there's nothing for them to eat here yet.  Tobias listens attentively when they honk.

We acquired a dozen new young laying hens on Sunday afternoon.  They came from the flock of the same friend who started us off with our flock so many years ago.  These hens aren't related to our original ones, but they are very similar, as my friend and I have the same kind of ideas about breeding and raising chickens.  Hers are more docile than mine, however.  I think everyone's are.

It didn't take any special procedures to integrate the new hens with my flock.  We just put their cage in a pen in the barn with a pan of grain nearby, and opened the door.  The hens came out when they wanted to.  At dusk, we checked to make sure they had all made it into the barn before we closed the door.  Now, four days later, you can barely tell which are the newcomers.

We almost never have any social behaviour problems with our flock.  No bullying, fighting, or pecking.  I think it's because they have so much space.  I added up all the linear feet of roosting space, divided it by the number of chickens, and came up with three feet of roost per bird.  The square feet of foraging space is infinite.

With extra hens, and the lengthening days, we soon will be overwhelmed with eggs.  I can hardly wait!  Omelettes, custard, angelfood cake, devilled eggs...mmmmm...

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Weather Records

,Signs of spring:  I heard the spring call of a saw-whet owl today.  The goats are showing their joy of life by dancing.

For 20 years, I've been keeping weather records in a garden/nature journal.  Since 1994, I've also recorded the early-morning temperature on a graph.  It's not at all scientific, just the temperature on my porch whenever I get up, but it's interesting.  Here are three different years: 1998/9, which was one of our warmer Cariboo winters (I also recorded the daily highs that year); 2008/9, which was fairly cold; and this year.

In my journal, I make note of significant dates, like when I first hear frogs peeping, or when the ice comes off a local lake.  It's amazing how similar the dates are from year to year.  The difference between an early spring and a late one is about a week.  In 1999, the first robins arrived at my place on Mar 12, the first geese of Mar 14, and the cranes on Apr 26.  Snow was off the garden on Apr 2.  In 2009, the robins arrived on Mar 20, the geese on Mar 19, the cranes Apr 22.  The snow was off the garden on Apr 13.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Introducing the Farm Cats

Without our cats, we'd be knee-deep in mice and voles.  We notice it right away when the cats get too old to hunt.  Usually, getting another cat is not hard.  One of the bad parts of rural life is the tendency of people to allow their barn cats to breed freely, or to move away and abandon their cats, or to drop off their unwanted cats near a farm.  Luckily for us, and unluckily for the poor cats, our Cariboo winters are too harsh and the predators too fierce to allow a feral cat population to develop here.

Still, we've adopted many cats over the years.  Right now, we have three.  The eldest is Anwyn, our barn cat.  She appeared in 1998, obviously living wild.  As soon as we could catch her, we had her spayed.  Since then, she's lived in our barn.  We feed her, and give her affection when she allows it, but she's never been really tame.  Now, as she ages, she's spending more time close to the house, and letting us bring her inside on the coldest nights.

Our other elderly cat is Churchill (or Church, for short).  He appeared, shivering on a -25 evening, outside the general store where I was working in early 2000.  He has been an incredible hunter over the years, but he's slowed down lately.  He's the kind of cat who's friends with everyone he meets.

Savanna is the baby of the bunch, though she must be 4 or 5 years old now.  We found her starving under a house that the human occupants had vacated.  Something must have killed her mother, and she was nearly dead.  She was just a scrap of fur draped over a skeleton.  She survived though, thanks to the fresh goat milk we gave her.  We call Savanna our "princess" because she is not only beautiful, she is also spoiled and demanding.

Sometime soon, we'll need another young, hunting cat.  Floyd will be happy -- he adores kittens -- but I'm not sure how Savanna will react.  It should be interesting.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hootenanny Cafe

Signs of spring:  The road has big bare patches where the ice has all melted off, and there are a few patches of bare ground under large trees on south-facing slopes.

A kind of talent show called the Hootenanny Cafe was held in our local community hall in January and was a great success.  A second one took place on Saturday evening.  Anyone who wanted to perform was given a 15-minute time slot.  There were storytellers, dancers, poets, musicians, and singers.

I'm not sure whether anything like this happens in the city.  In a small community like ours, it seems to come together without too much effort.  There aren't lots of rules and regulations, and the hall rental fee is very low.  The organizers have put some effort into posters that they've tacked up on bulletin boards around town, but the most important advertising is word-of-mouth.  Friends, relatives, and the first people to arrive help out with equipment and decorations.

I knew most of the crowd (spectators and performers) on Saturday.  The acts were all enjoyable, but "professional" performances weren't necessary.  All the artists love what they do, and the crowd appreciated the effort they made.  The whole idea was to have fun, and we did.  After everyone had had their 15 minutes of fame, the rest of the evening was devoted to a musical jam.

One of the things I appreciate most about rural living is the balance of solitude and socializing.  I can have as much of either one as I like.  If I'm in a solitary mood, I can go days without seeing or speaking to another person (except Charles, of course).  If I'm feeling sociable, or having a problem, my neighbours are right there. 

Anyway, we're all looking forward to the next Hootenanny Cafe a couple of months from now.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Refrigeration off the grid

Signs of spring:  The first spring flowers are blooming.  They are wind-pollinated, so they don't need to wait for the insects to come out.

Alder catkins

Birch catkin

Willow catkins

Refrigeration Off-the-Grid

Refrigeration off the grid isn't much of a problem in a cold climate like we have here in the Cariboo.  It's even less a problem when your diet consists mostly of fresh food grown on your own farm.

Most people stuff their fridges full of leftovers and things that don't require really icy temperatures (like pickles and produce). As long as you eat any leftovers promptly, a cold room in the basement is enough refrigeration for most things.

Our cold room takes up the north third of our basement.  It's three feet underground, with a dirt floor, and it's well insulated on all four walls as well as the ceiling.  This keeps it isolated from the rest of the house as well as the outside, and the temperature stays pretty constant year-round, at a few degrees above freezing.  There is a small vent to the outside to let cool night air in through the summer, and we can open a door to the heated part of the basement if it gets too cold in the winter.

Meat and milk are the two items that need colder temperatures.  We hang our milk in a basket in the well to keep it cold.  It's a time-honoured method.  In mid-summer, even the well isn't cold enough to keep the milk fresh for longer than a couple of days, but when you have a constant supply of it fresh from the goat, there's no need to drink two-day-old milk anyway.  We eat much more meat in the winter than in summer.  In winter, the meat can simply be stored outside in a cabinet.  Whatever we're going to store for summer use gets pressure-canned.

Milk basket being lowered into a snow-surrounded well

Occasionally, we use our propane fridge; for example, if we butcher and then are too busy to do the canning right away.  Most years go by without our using it, though.  We find it mostly to be an unnecessary expense.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Starting Seeds 2011

Tobacco seed pods and seeds

It's time to start the very first garden seeds -- tobacco and celery.  Both of these take a long time to grow to transplant size.

Our house is extremely small and it gets fairly cool at night, but we do have lots of south-facing windows.  Some years, I've had hundreds of transplants growing inside, but this year it won't be quite so crowded.  One three-tiered shelf by the window might be enough.  By the time the house is getting really full, the weather is nice and we're outside most of the time, anyway.

I start all but the biggest seeds in egg cartons, the styrofoam ones.  (I wouldn't buy styrofoam, but I will recycle it for someone who does.)  They get filled with the dirt that I stored my carrots in over the winter. This is the only soil I have that's not frozen under two feet of snow.  I know, I'm supposed to use only special, sterilized, seed-starting medium, but I rarely have any problems from using the stuff out of my cold room.

Since I'm starting seeds that like warm soil, I close the egg cartons and put them on a high shelf in the vicinity of the stove.  I'll check them every day, watering if they dry out, until the seeds start to sprout.  Then I'll start opening the lids for light and putting them on the shelf by the window during the days and moving them back up for the night.  This goes on until they outgrow their egg cartons and are ready for transplanting.  In the case of tobacco and celery, it will be a few weeks.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tobias Winter.mpg

There's a kind of soft quacking sound and a little splashing coming from the driveway area.  Tobias is in his little "pond" first thing this morning.  The night temperature stayed above freezing last night, and he's happy.  As I walk by on my way to the barn, I greet him, saying "ha, ha, ha, ha".  We learned to do that when he was a chick with his sister, many months ago.  After any separation, no matter how short, they would happily laugh together in greeting.  This morning, he laughs back at me, "hee, hee, hee", then goes back to dabbling in the pond for breakfast grain.

He takes off when I'm halfway to the barn and lands by the doors.  Most mornings, he'll spend several hours with the goats, eating hay with them and just hanging out.  Then he's ready to come back over to his pond for a nice, splashy bath and some corn for lunch.  We keep his water just slightly warm for him and he likes his grain best when he eats it out of the water.  He always appreciates a companion; luckily, our dog, Charlie, is his friend and sits near him in the driveway so that together they can watch the world go by.

We've been taking him flying as often as we can all winter, on warm days.  Sometimes, he flies along beside the truck.  (We have to keep our speed up around 40 mph or he passes us and then cuts in front of us.  At 40, though, he seems pretty relaxed; I think he could fly faster if he wanted to.)  Other times, we go along the creek on snowshoes and he waits till we get ahead a ways, then swoops past us and lands.

Obviously, Canada geese are meant to go south for the winter.   Tobias showed us that quite clearly.  He got bogged down in the deep snow, his feet were cold, he couldn't swim in the pond.  He seemed to adjust to the cold as the winter went on, but we can see his spirits lift with every rise in temperature.  Only a week or two more and his relatives will start flying over.  We're looking forward to seeing him start his proper goose life, but for now we're enjoying his company and storing up memories.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Cougar Brings Us Sheep

Signs of spring:  This morning, when I stepped outside, I heard a crowd of little birds twittering in a tree.  I couldn't see them and don't know what sort of bird they are -- likely one of the many warblers or sparrows that migrate through here -- but I know that I hadn't heard that sound all winter.  To me, that makes it official:  spring is starting.

The rancher sprang to his feet at the sound of furious barking.  What he saw made him go for his gun. Loading it and rushing outside, he glanced at the carnage in the sheep pen on his way past, following the dog.  Down the hill, splashing across the creek, Rover was hot on the heels of a cougar, and the cougar had something white in its jaws.

By the time he caught up, his dog had treed the big cat.  It was on a branch, twenty feet up.  He aimed carefully and fired.


The lamb fell first as the cat dropped it.  It fell near the rancher, the cougar thudding down a second later.  He bent down to find, unbelievably, that the lamb  was still alive.  Carefully, he scooped it up and carried it back to the house, laid it in a box, and picked up the phone.

We'd been living in the valley for four years by then and I guess we had a reputation for being both caring and careful with our animals.  When we arrived at the ranch, there were three lambs waiting.  Two more had been found injured.  Their mothers were dead, but the lambs, it seemed, had received a quick shake to break their necks, and it hadn't quite worked.  They were obviously hurt, but could move all their legs, so we decided to take all three home and see if we could nurse them back to health.

We installed the patients behind the cookstove on a bed of papers and hay.  We treated the two with the injured backs for shock, with warmth and a bit of water with electrolytes.  Charles started clipping the hair away from the wounds on the third lanb's rear legs.  Both legs had been torn wide open, but the tendons were intact.  As he clipped, he found more cuts, then more again, and after lots of careful work, he'd pretty much shaved the poor little guy from tail to head.

Over the next few weeks, all three seemed to be making progress.  We moved them into a pen in the barn and rigged up slings so the two ewe lambs could begin to exercise their legs.  Unfortunately, the progress these two were making only went so far, and in the end, they didn't make it.  The little ram who had been up the tree with the cougar thrived, though.  We named him Sammy and turned him into quite a pet.  He'd trot around at my heels as I went about doing my chores, and he loved to be cuddled.

Sammy grew into a fine young ram.  He was a breed called Katahdin, and had hair rather than wool.  We bought him a pair of ewes and started our flock with these three.  When Sammy was two years old, he turned mean -- not with the ewes, but with people.  For the next eight years, we couldn't turn our backs on him, and I was very sorry that I'd raised him as such a pet.  He was beautiful, though.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A question of Style

A friend of mind once startled me by saying that she enjoyed my "survey questions".  I had no idea what she meant.  Later, I realized that there usually is some idea that I'm pondering, and I end up asking everyone I know to give me their thoughts about it.  So, here's one of the questions occupying my mind these days when I'm thinking philosophically.

In a blind taste test, I would be able to recognize bread that I had baked myself.  Somehow, every loaf I make is similar.  I say that it has my "style".  This is in spite of the fact that I don't follow a recipe, I use different types of flour, and the conditions in my house are not constant.  A good friend makes bread in much the same way I do (I learned my method by watching her) but her bread tastes quite different from mine and has her distinctive style.  Why is this?

One person I talked to said that the same thing applies to everything we do.  He feels that a carpenter can tell who built somehting, for example.  Is that the same thing?  Is it completely physical: the spacing of nails or the vigour of kneading?  Is it more esoteric: the "vibe" or energy you put into something?  I'm undecided about this, tending to think that there is something more than the obvious explanations, but still looking for examples and ideas about "style".

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Starting the Chicken Flock 1994

Our flock of chickens was started in 1993 with a half-dozen mixed-breed hens we bought from a friend.  They were mainly Rhode Island Red and Barred Rock crosses.  We wanted them to raise their own chicks, so we added a banty hen and rooster to the mix.  Over the years, we've brought in new blood in the form of Buff Orpington hens and, for roosters, an Araucana and a Black Jersey.

The flock now has about two dozen hens and two roosters.  They're a very colourful bunch.  Some could probably trace their ancestry back a dozen generations on this piece of land.  I don't feel as if I own them at all; it's more like they cohabit the property with us -- except that we provide their grain.

At this point, the flock is more interesting than productive.  Not only are they fairly old, on average, but they also seem to have reverted to their original, wild, practice of laying only in the summer months.  For the past three years, they've quit laying completely by October and started again in early March.  The fact that we don't provide lights or heat is only part of the explanation, since for the first decade they laid right through the winter, just at a reduced rate.

We lose very few chickens to predators, although they are completely free-range.  They are a pretty cautious bunch, but I think that sharing the barn with the goats and sheep also helps.  Having all those hoofs and horns around probably deters the small hunters.  The only problem we have occasionally is with the birds of prey.  (See my post of Jan 30.)

The hens will be starting to go broody by some time in April.  I try to discourage them, with limited success.  If they had their own way, they'd likely raise a couple of families each summer and I wouldn't get any eggs at all.  I expect some return for all that grain I buy for them!