23 July, 2015

Catching up

What have I been up to?

Well, I’ve been writing for the Piedmont Virginian’s blog. My most recent piece is about my current service dog, Xita.

I’ve had to pare down the goat herd due to my health issues, and am shifting over to low-maintenance breeds of sheep that are more appropriate for the pasture we have (as well as being way less work than dairy goats). I successfully crowd-funded a starter herd of Soay sheep, and last weekend a friend and I drove down to get them. They’re amazing little perfect woolly jewels, observe:
Two small and mildly wooly reddish-brown sheep, one of whom is looking at the camera. They are elegant and slightly deer-like (if deer grew wool), but only knee high.

I am especially smitten with my ram, Saltmarsh Ferrington:
A dark mahogany brown ram with massive curling horns and distinct white eyebrow markings deliberately poses for the camera.

Unfortunately our garden was destroyed by goats this year, so there won’t be any vegetable harvest until the fall crops have been planted and gotten a chance to thrive.

Meanwhile, I’m finally dealing with the Veterans Administration trying to get them to admit that the Navy broke me and they should be giving me money. Fun, only not.

14 December, 2014

Have you met Stuart Little?

If you’re one of my Twitter followers, you definitely have. But I couldn’t resist giving such an adorable little guy his very own post. Just look at this face!

A close-up of the face of a tiny black and white goat. He has straight horns about 4 inches long, and his markings give him the strange appearance of a very happy skull. His mouth is full of hay, and more hay is caught in his horns and wreaths his ears.

Stuart wasn’t thriving in his previous herd, and my friend C knows I am a sucker for tiny adorable goats, so she asked if I would take him and give him a chance. Of course I did, since I already had one wee adorable wether (neutered male goat) who was born here. Stubug spent his first few weeks living in what we referred to as his bachelor pad, a separate pen within the main pen for the boys. In there he had shelter and food and no competition for either one. Soon he’d gone from a timid and depressed little guy to one who scampered in circles and yelled at us to hurry up with his hay.

He’s actually never stopped yelling at us to hurry up with the hay since the day he discovered his voice. He now lives in a mini-herd with two other wethers, Frankie and Ben, plus the Very Contrary Sheep who refuses to accept any name I give her. His best friend is Frankie, who is at least twice his size but very, very gentle with his tiny buddy Stu.

13 December, 2014

Useful Books: Mini Farming by Brett Markham

I picked Mini Farming: Self Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre up a year or two ago, and it’s been a useful companion as we figure out this gardening thing. While I suspect we’re never actually going to achieve self sufficiency on a quarter acre, because life is too short, it’s nonetheless handy for people wanting to learn organic growing methods and soil amendment.

There is one problem though. Markham’s writing is dry. Really dry. Dry like California in fire season. I mean, the man even manages to make compost seem boring, somehow. Compost is a fascinating and complex ecosystem, and yet I found myself trying to doze off during his explanations.

But if you can get past the dry writing style and forgive yourself for not achieving food and financial independence in your back yard, Markham provides a wealth of information useful to gardeners of all skill levels and with all sizes of garden. To take advantage of some of his methods, such as preparing a bed through double-digging, you will need a fair amount of physical strength and endurance. He does not, however, require any exotic tools, just your basics and a willingness to get your hands dirty.

18 November, 2014

Grains: Reducing the Carbon Burden

This year we grew wheat accidentally. At least, I’m pretty sure it was wheat. It sprang up around where we’d had some young chickens clearing up garden beds for us, obviously the leftovers from their food. Daniel and I had an excellent time watching it grow, harvesting it, and threshing it.

In addition to the accidental wheat, we tried out Umbrella Sorghum this year, an heirloom variety selected for sugar production that nonetheless produces heavy heads of grain. It grew well despite a three-week rain gap at a critical stage, and I got one good harvest out of it before the goat does escaped their pen and ate all the remaining grain heads.

For next year we have a pile of spring-planted grain varieties to try, and of course I’ll be planting sorghum again since the goats endorsed it so enthusiastically. One of the major outside inputs for us is concentrated livestock feed in the form of scratch grains for the poultry and pelleted grain for the goats. We can’t afford to feed them organic foods, so these inputs are adding substantially to our overall carbon burden. If we can start producing a significant amount of grain on our own, then we can reduce that along with our feed bill. Plus it would be pretty neat to make our own flour for cooking, presuming we can ever afford a hand-powered mill.

Growing grains also provides a lot of other benefits for us. Their root systems help break up the compacted clay subsoil on the property and leave significant amounts of organic matter to improve the soil. Straw from wheat, rye, barley, and triticale can be used for animal bedding or to return atmospheric carbon to the soil via our compost heap, balancing out all the lovely nitrogen our goats and rabbits provide in the form of manure. Rabbits can eat the leaves of corn and sorghum (provided the sorghum hasn’t acquired toxicity by being drought-stressed like ours was this year), and goats relish the stalks of both, providing more feed that we didn’t have to buy.

Conventional grains are also amazingly space-efficient, even when your areas of quality soil are small like ours are. We harvested maybe one square foot of accidentally planted wheat this year, and from that we got a pound of seed which we’ll be planting in February or March. Corn has done less well for us due to pests (our first attempt was eaten by squirrels, this year it was Japanese Beetles who destroyed the crop), but we intend to keep trying, not least because we both really like sweet corn.

16 November, 2014

Welcome, lagomorphs

I mentioned in my last post that we added rabbits to the Manor this past summer. The rabbits are here to provide meat, hides, and high-quality fertilizer. Currently we have two does (female rabbits) and one buck (male rabbit — very handy that these are the same terms used for goats) living in a colony set up that was formerly used for chicken grow out or breeding pens.

We added the rabbits because I wanted a more reliable source of protein than chickens are under our current flock management plan, which is to let them free range and do their thing and raise babies when they feel like it. It’s cheap since they rustle up most of their own food, it significantly reduces the time required to care for them, and it provides the chickens with a much better quality of life than they’d have locked in a run, but it’s not really conducive to putting chicken dinners on the table. It’s actually reduced our egg output, in that now we have to hunt to find where they’re laying the damn things, but not so much as to make us end the great free range experiment.

Therefore, rabbits. The two does are a Flemish Giant named Yeine and a New Zealand/Standard Rex cross named Tegwen. The buck is another New Zealand/Rex cross named Nahadoth. Thus far they’ve put one litter of rabbits on the ground — we lost another litter when I made the ill-advised decision to integrate Tegwen without investigating Yeine’s pregnancy status first. So there are still wrinkles to be ironed out, but over all things are going well. I even managed to process the first batch, when I was deeply worried that I’d be unable to kill something as cute as a rabbit.

It helps that they’re delicious. After weaning we finish them on pasture with a supplement of pelleted food because at this time of year, forage is minimal. The meat is similar to chicken but with a richer taste than even our free-range birds have.

Best of all, during the months when forage is plentiful, they require very minimal food input from us. I cut weeds and grasses for the breeding adults, and the grow outs awaiting slaughter live in a lightweight pen we can move from place to place to allow them to graze. Along the way, they leave a trail of rabbit manure to enrich the soil. Given that a previous property owner scraped up all the topsoil off most of the property and sold it, the grow outs are performing an incredibly valuable service as we tractor them around the area between the goat pens.

14 November, 2014

Welcome, noisy pest control

This past summer we added two new varieties of critter to the Manor of Mixed Blessings: rabbits and guinea hens. The idea behind the rabbits was a more reliable supply of meat than poultry, and the idea behind guinea hens was improved insect pest control.

People will tell you that guinea hens are noisy, not nearly as bright as chickens, and prone to strange panics. When my guinea fowl were younger, I was quite smug because they were quiet and relatively well-behaved residents of the Manor. Clearly, either my guinea fowl or my husbandry skills were superior.

Gentle Reader, nature will make liars of us all, and smugness is unbecoming in a farmer. The guineas hit maturity and the summer began to shift to fall and oh dear.

The first crisis for the guineas was that leaves began falling from the trees. Every time the wind blew and leaves cascaded down, the peaceful air of the Manor was disrupted by the alarmed shrieks of guineas, who would immediately bolt for cover. The chickens usually went with them, I guess on some sort of general Poultry Solidarity Principle.

Just when the guinea flock became accustomed to falling leaves, temperatures got cold enough that I shifted to my cool-weather hat and coveralls. This was the occasion for more alarm, because evidently recognizing people no matter what they’re wearing is not a guinea strong suit. The chickens seem to have no problem with it, but guineas? No, not them.

They’ve also had severe problems learning where the door is on the run they sleep in. When we go out in the morning to let them free range, there’s often at least one or two (this is an improvement, previously it was the whole flock) who will relentlessly beat their heads against the wire trying to get out of the pen. The pen they entered through the door they now cannot locate. The strange disappearance of the door provokes more piercing calls of alarm, because when you’re a guinea being separated from the flock is the Worst Thing Ever.

The Second Worst Thing Ever is to not have a black chicken to follow around. I’m not even sure what that’s about; it’s just that they’ve latched onto “black chicken” as their savior. There are three of them in the flock, and the guineas get incredibly distressed if they can’t find one to follow around. It’s a mystery.

They haven’t been all bad, though. They eliminated an infestation of Japanese Beetles in the corn patch, have eliminated poultry losses to aerial predators, and the one that Sid the Wonder Dog killed when it decided to play in the dog fence was freakin delicious. At this point I’m severely tempted to buy a batch of French Guineas, which have been bred for meat production, to stick in the freezer in lieu of spare roosters.

23 January, 2014

Dealing with Unexpected Thanksgiving Guests

I almost forgot to tell y’all this story. On Thanksgiving Day the husband and I went out to do the chores in the morning and discovered two black vultures had locked themselves in our chicken pen.

The chicken pen is normally left open at all times so that the poultry who sleep there can get in and out to free range at will. The day before Thanksgiving had been cold and drizzly, and we’d tossed some leftovers into the pen so the chickens and guinea fowl could get a good meal and stay dry. Among the leftovers was a chicken carcass, which is probably why we ended up with a pair of vultures.

They were beautiful and by far the calmest of the birds who have gotten trapped in our chicken pen. Once a juvenile Coopers Hawk got in there and couldn’t get out because our three game roosters were taking turns beating the crap out of him. Another time a crow got in and then, despite the vaunted intelligence of corvids, couldn’t figure out how to go out the door he’d just come in. Both the hawk and the crow were upset and panicking, although admittedly the poor hawk had reason to panic what with the roosters trying to kill him.

The vultures on the other hand were very mellow. They didn’t get upset until we got within about eight feet of them. The rest of the time they hung out, preening and exploring and pecking things. We opened the door for them and left them to it, and they continued to hang out on the ground right next to the open door. They preened, they took dust baths, they pecked at the empty feeder. I was starting to feel guilty because here it was Thanksgiving and they’d been locked in all night and might be hungry, so I found them the rib cage of a rabbit carcass we’d roasted and tossed it in to them. They thought food delivery was pretty good.

A few hours later, however, their idyll came to an end when our flock of guinea fowl discovered them and ran them out of the pen. Six guinea fowl are, apparently, able to terrify two young vultures into submission. Who knew?

3 September, 2013

Answering Googled Questions

“do box turtles bite”

Yes. Yes they do. On the other hand, they are turtles. They don’t move particularly quickly, and if you pick them up by the middle of their shell, between the front and back sets of legs, they can’t reach you with their head to bite. In fact, pretty much the only way you are going to get bitten by a box turtle is by putting your finger right in front of its nose and then waiting patiently for it to unbox, examine your finger, and decide to bite you. It might decide to just wander off, instead. Box turtles are pretty peaceful little guys.

This is by far one of the most popular questions, along with people looking for “why can’t I pet a service dog” or “when can I pet a service dog” (A: because the dog is working and doesn’t need you distracting it and B: never. Stop asking me. The answer is always no.) that gets people to my blog.

Just make very sure that the turtle you’re handling is a box turtle before handling it cavalierly. I do not trust the turtle-identification skills of city slickers and other reptile-naive folks. Snapping turtles look nothing whatsoever like box turtles, and are also incredibly aggressive. A big snapper can bite your finger clean off, and they can in fact reach you with their long snakey necks if you pick them up by the sides of the shell. So be very, very sure what kind of turtle you’re looking at before you touch it.

Last tip: always wash your hands after handling reptiles, wild or domestic, and never, ever lick a turtle or other reptile. You can get salmonella that way.

1 September, 2013

Genetic Diversity in Dairy Goats

As I mentioned in my last quick update, I’ve made a conscious decision to cross in a meat-type buck this year, hoping to capitalize on his genetics for parasite-resistance and good hooves. I mean, man, you should see Henry’s hooves. He has amazing hooves that require no fooling with, which is a huge improvement over my dairy does.

The problem I find with the dairy goat world is that there are conformation shows. Conformation shows give me hives, because they reward a specific look but don’t reward things like hardiness, dairy production, and good hooves. The show-winning goats tend to come from herds where the breeders are engaging in some very tight line-breeding to lock that winning look in. The problem here is that tight line-breeding is difficult to do well if you aren’t willing to raise the resulting animals and ruthlessly cull the ones who fail to thrive.

Couple this with some weird genetic superstitions in the livestock world (e.g. it’s ok to breed father to daughter but not mother to son, which from a scientific point of view is an utterly meaningless distinction) and you wind up with things like the prevalence of the G6S gene in Nubian goats, and goats who need regular doses of wormer and frequent hoof-trimming to thrive. These things are problems. The fact that goats are difficult to AI has meant that on a broad scale the Popular Sire problem isn’t as bad as it is with, say, show dogs, but regionally you will still run into the same thing as people rush to the local herds that are winning awards and breeding to those bucks. It’s another huge loss of genetic diversity.

I”m not saying, mind you, that show goat people don’t care about their goats. I know for a fact that many of them love their goats as deeply as I love mine, and care for them incredibly well. It’s just a question of long-term goals for your herd, and I am fundamentally lazy. If I can breed up a dairy herd with good (but not necessarily stellar) production, consisting of goats I hardly ever have to worm with hooves I almost never have to trim, I am all over that. If I can take it further and improve feed efficiency so that the goats in my herd can keep up a healthy weight with smaller portions of grain and hay, even better.

So I’m totally fine with not being able to sell the kids from these first generations for premium prices. But I’m also certain that as I improve my herd, I will find other goat people like me, who are less interested in maintaining purity of breed and an extreme type than they are in hardy, efficient goats that are fun to be around because you can spend all your time with them smooching their noses instead of collecting poop for parasite testing or worrying over their feet.

And I do think the dairy goat world needs to take some cues from the meat goat world, where the goal is animals who thrive on an absolute minimum of human intervention. For that to happen, the goats have to be incredibly healthy, hardy, and resilient, and a goat who can handle what the world throws at it physically without stress is going to be a happier goat in general. It doesn’t mean we dairy goat people have to be less involved with our goats, but it does mean that we need to be very thoughtful and careful about our choices.

There’s also an incredible need for education in basic genetics and what they mean. Breeders need to know what a Coefficient of Inbreeding is and what it says about the risks you’re taking when you cross two animals. Instead of selling babies as young as possible to get them out of the way, we need to be keeping them for at least a couple months to see how they grow and how well they thrive. We need to be keeping track of how often our individual goats need worming, and treating parasite resistance as a trait that’s just as important as good conformation. We need to understand what the tools we use to evaluate goat health actually tell us, rather than using them blindly and half-taught.

Without this shift, we’re going to remain locked into an ever-escalating war with parasites, as one dewormer after another becomes useless because the parasites have evolved to resist it. We’re going to be dumping more and more poisons down our goats because we haven’t been making the choices required to ensure that the goats themselves can take care of the parasite load. We’re going to remain locked into a war that requires stronger and stronger antibiotics to fight off bacteria our goats can’t handle themselves. And we’re going to be spending huge amounts of money on grain and hay that are usually not organically grown and thus add to our carbon footprint, when we could be breeding toward goats who thrive on pasture and sequester carbon while they eat.

30 August, 2013

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