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

17 June, 2013

Things to Eat: Daylily Buds

So daylilies are invasive and beautiful and at least around here, incredibly prolific. Did you know they’re also edible? You can eat the shoots, tubers, buds, and flowers. Evidently dried flowers are used in some Chinese recipes as “golden needles”, and they can be used to thicken soups and gravies. We have an abundance of them here at the Manor, because as it turns out they are perfectly willing to spread from seed if you don’t deadhead the buggers.

Anyway, if you want to reduce the number of seedpods they produce without wasting them, here is Andrea’s Simple and Easy Recipe For Daylily Buds!

You will need:
A bunch of daylily buds, just when there is some orange on them but before they mature and open.
A clove or two of garlic (garlic to taste, really)
Olive Oil
Skillet that will hold the amount of daylily buds you have picked.

Step one: Go dig up a garlic bulb from your garden and grab a couple cloves. Alternatively, you may purchase garlic at the store, but it won’t be as good. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Step two: Gather as many daylily buds as you feel like you want to eat. They are delicous, so plan accordingly.

Step three: Wash and drain the buds to get any bugs off them that may be lurking.

My hand holding a paper plate on which are many freshly-washed daylily buds, all about 3 to 4 inches long.

Step Four: Heat your skillet to a high medium or a low high heat and coat it in olive oil. Then add just a wee bit more olive oil. Wait for it to be good and hot, then crush your cloves of garlic directly into the pan. Stir the garlic around a moment and enjoy the smell of sauteeing garlic.

Step 5: Dump your daylily buds in the skillet. Sautee until the bases are a bright, vivid green and the tips have caramelized.

Step 6: Put sauteeed buds on plate, grab your fork, and dig in. They are mild, crunchy greens with a taste sort of like a green bean but not quite.

10 June, 2013

Outcrossing for Genetic Improvement

I’ve finally found a buck to breed three of my goat does to this fall. I’m extremely pleased, as I found a Baylis line Spanish Goat buck reasonably nearby that I can cross my ladies to.

As I mentioned in the Case Against Purebred Livestock, the loss of genetic diversity represented by randomly closing gene pools is a serious problem. In dairy goats, heavy selection for milk production has also meant the loss of some important characteristics like parasite resistance and low-maintenance hooves. Breeders are willing to worm their dairy goats frequently and trim their hooves before every show, so you wind up with animals that are higher-maintenance and not as hardy as they could be. Kind of like if you see Dobermans with uncropped ears, you will see a weird variety in those ears for purebred dogs, because Dobes have been shown cropped for so long that there’s been little selection pressure for a standardized natural ear.

All of which explains why I’m excited to find a Baylis buck to whom I can outcross. The Baylis line goats aren’t as weirdly bulked up as Boer goats (for instance) and have a long body and angulation reminiscent of dairy “type”, so the kids shouldn’t look radically different from dairy goats in general appearance. But hopefully they’ll carry some of their daddy’s parasite-resistance and slow-growing hooves. I will probably keep the best doeling from the lot, a girl of moderate size, good udder attachment, and who doesn’t need worming around weaning time. And then I can use her to braid together dairy and Spanish genetics, looking for that one in a million goat who thrives on minimal grain, minimal worming, and yet produces sweet, creamy milk in a reasonable quantity. I’m very much willing to sacrifice extreme dairy production in return for hardiness, it seems to me that the bargain represents in the end what is best for the goats.

8 June, 2013

Holy Crap Bees, also I am a forgetful planter

So I have no idea what the viney things at the south end of our garden are this year, other than “Some kind of melon or squash” but whatever they are, we are going to be drowning in them. The strawberries are already producing epic amounts of berries compared to previous years, the zucchini have just started flowering and as soon as a flower open a bee gets to it and it closes and sets fruit, it seems like.

Turns out having a busy hive of resident pollinators really does make a difference. I’m more than a little bit afraid of what’s going to happen when the beans and peas start flowering. The peas nearly buried us last year and that was without a beehive 50 feet away. This year I suspect we’ll be trolling the streets of Fredericksburg and Culpeper looking for cars with their windows down so we can leave bags of peas in them.

But next year I’m definitely keeping a record of what I’ve planted where, so I have some idea what kind of fruit or vegetable the garden is about to bury us in.

6 June, 2013

This year, people, this year.

Inside the last month I’ve felt kind of like we were The House Of Death. My rehab project goat Chism didn’t make it — the vet thought he was too far gone by the time he got to me for me to actually save, and I wound up having to have him put down. Then we lost Barachiel, our big black long-tailed Sumatra rooster, and yesterday we lost Captain Crooked Toes, our ginger-red standard Old English Game rooster.

Chism’s death was a blow, and I’m still grieving him. He deserved better, and it hurts hugely that I wasn’t able to save him. I ended up having to take him to Tidewater Trail Animal Hospital since the goat vet couldn’t make it out here for a couple days when I called. Dr. Andi sent him on his way with love and kindness while I scratched his special very itchy spots on his face. They’re normally dog and cat vets, but came through for me in a big way on this one and I can never say enough about their professionalism and compassion and wonderfulness.

Barachiel and Captain Crooked Toes were smaller blows, but still. They weren’t even on the list of “Roosters I Would Like To Drop Dead And/Or Put In The Freezer In Plastic Bags”. They were both gorgeous, but more to the point they were not only gentle with their hens but valiant in the flock’s defense. Both of them have gone up against hawks who were trying to prey on the flock, pitting their rooster selves against predators designed for killing while the hens got away. The only bright spot is that the standard Old English Game hen just hatched five chicks, and two of them look to be children of Captain Crooked Toes while one looks to be from Barachiel, so provided the little fluffballs make it to maturity we haven’t lost their genetics entirely.

Death is a part of agriculture as old as the first human being ever to domesticate an animal, but for me at least it’s never an easy part. Even a rooster destined for the fridge is an individual who deserves care and compassion, and every death deserves to be honored. Especially when it’s a death for my benefit, for that matter. But being human it’s hard not to get attached at least a little bit, and these three deaths were all so wasteful.

3 June, 2013

The Case Against Purebred Livestock

The more I work with chickens and goats (and dogs for that matter), the more convinced I am that the designation “purebred” for animals is not only useless but harmful, and that livestock shows, in which animals are judged for conformation rather than production, are a poison to agriculture.

There’s certainly a case to be made in favor of purebreds, in that they can be very predictable in terms of appearance, behavior, and important measures like feed conversion (the amount of food an animal needs to produce milk, eggs, meat, wool, or some combination thereof). But the downside is that limiting the gene pool artificially is actively harmful to populations.

In goats, we’re starting to see a problem in Nubians because of the G6S mutation, a recessive that can cause a goat to fail to thrive and then drop dead suddenly at quite a young age. Scientists estimate that 25% of the population of Nubians has it, and so far not nearly enough breeders are testing for G6S status on their Nuban herds, which means it can pop up unexpectedly. For the small breeder for whom each animal is a friend and pet as well as milk producer, the emotional impact can be terrible. For commercial dairies, it can represent a serious loss of income to have doelings start dropping dead.

Among chickens, you see formerly productive breeds that are no just feathery lawn ornaments. The Buckeye, for instance, was bred to be a thrifty, hardy free-range bird that required minimal human input to put meat and eggs on the table. Extensive breeding has made it a bird that is more comfortable sitting in coops eating pellets from a feeder rather than a wily hunter of bugs and seeds. When I went looking for a free-range Buckeye flock to try and bring some actually useful Buckeye genetics in, I couldn’t find a single one within range of me, and there were perishing few nationwide.

The popularization of the incubator, brooders, and wide availability of pelleted feed, along with the growing crop of people who just want a couple hens for the back yard, means that the chickens our great-great-grandparents knew are hard to find. Incubators allow every single egg to hatch, even those that produce weak chicks who need coddling in a brooder. Likewise the coddling in a brooder allows chicks to live that don’t have the physiology to handle local weather conditions, diseases, and parasites. These chicks grow up to be the chickens who need constant deworming, climate-controlled coops, and other interventions to survive. Which is all very good and well if you want a couple hens for your backyards, but when you want meat and eggs for your table that sort of chicken is not terribly useful.

Meanwhile, people like to pay premium prices for “purebred”, show-quality chickens, or even just purebred rare chickens. Often these birds are the product of extremely limited gene pools. While some people will assert with a straight face that inbreeding does not affect chickens, they are either lying because they want to sell you poultry or they’re woefully ignorant. Loss of genetic diversity will get you chickens who fail to thrive, drop dead mysteriously and unexpectedly, who have poor feed conversion rates, and who are so damn stupid they won’t even come in out of the rain (nota bene: show quality silkies are NOTORIOUS for this).

Part of the problem, a big part of the problem, is that people are raising livestock for pets these days. Our ancestors avoided the pitfalls of inbreeding by ruthlessly culling any animal who didn’t perform and putting it on the dinner table. Today’s “homesteaders” are often unwilling to cull this hard, and that goes triple for people who are hoping to cash in on the craze for expensive rare breed livestock.

And therein lies the rub. While it’s important to preserve these reservoirs of genetic diversity, it’s equally important that they not be degraded into uselessness by a refusal to cull animals that don’t perform by removing them from the gene pool one way or another. Otherwise we just wind up with more sad fat Buckeye chickens sitting in cages at shows, unable to fulfill the promise of their ancestors.

10 May, 2013

Busy bee watch the world go by

I did my first hive inspection since releasing my queen bee from her little cage yesterday, and am happy to report that the hive is thriving! There was brood in all stages of development from eggs to larvae to pupae to capped, there were cells of stored pollen, and best of all the bees had drawn at least some comb on all eight of the bars I’d started them on. I gave them two more bars to work on, a new jar of sugar syrup, and opened up another entrance to the hive so the foragers would have an easier time getting in and out.

Establishing the hive has been a fit of drama in and of itself. I got my first package of bees this spring from Virginia Bee Supply, one of two local apiaries, after doing my internet research and finding nothing but good reviews. I picked the package up at the end of March, brought it home, went to install it in the hive and…the queen was dead.

A beehive cannot live without a queen. In a normal hive if something happens to her, the workers will make an emergency replacement if they have brood of the right age to turn into a queen cell. But a package of bees doesn’t have any brood, it’s just 3 pounds of loose bees who have to start from scratch. With no queen, they’re basically a headless body and doomed to die.

So I called immediately and let Virginia Bee Supply know that my queen was dead. They told me to wait 3-5 days because there was probably a queen loose in the package. Weather conspired to make me wait a week, and when I opened the hive all I Found was dead bees. I sent them an e-mail to explain that to them, and they told me to combine the remaining bees with another hive. No good, I didn’t have another hive. Anyway, what I had paid for was 3 pounds of bees and a live queen. Not, y’know, 3 pounds of dead bees who just didn’t know it yet. I sent them another e-mail and suggested that the appropriate thing to do at this point would be to refund my money.

And then I didn’t hear from them for two weeks. At which point I e-mailed them again because what I had left was six bees clinging morosely to the inside of the hive. I recapped our previous correspondence and again requested a refund. This time they got back to me and said of course they’d refund me, since they hadn’t heard from me since the initial call to say the queen was dead, they assumed everything was fine.

Insert sound of record screech. Wait, what? I had the e-mail right there in front of me where I explained that I didn’t have another hive and would like a refund please. You know, the one they ignored. Right. Anyway, I got my refund out of them about a month after receiving a box of dead bees flying. Meanwhile I had ordered another package from Pigeon Mountain Trading Company.

I waited anxiously for a ship notice from them, and never got one…but one morning while the neighbor was working on my truck and my CRV was still dead, I got a call from the post office saying that there was a box of bees waiting for me. Wait, what? So I called the neighbor and got him to hurry on my truck and went and got my bees a couple hours later, much to the relief of the postal worker. He was pretty sure the three hitchhikers on the outside of the package meant that the bees were escaping, despite my reassurances.

That second package arrived hale and healthy and ready to go, with a marked queen in her little cage. She was significantly larger than the dead queen in the first package was, for that matter. And her colony is thriving, working away at filling up the hive with comb and brood and food. They’re building beautiful straight comb on the top bars just like they’re supposed to, almost as if they’ve read the same books on top bar beekeeping that I have.

It’s fascinating to just stand outside the hive and watch them work, really. You can get quite close and they do not partiularly care; once you get to about three feet out a guard bee will bonk you with her head to warn you off but otherwise they are too focused on gathering pollen and nectar to bother a quiet human who just wants to stand and watch the foragers zoom in and out.

At any rate, Virginia Bee Supply may be a great place to get hives, and even a great place to get bees if everything happens like it’s supposed to, but my experience suggests they’re rather useless when something goes wrong. Bees from Pigeon Mountain are great, and they have good prices on things like protective gear, but don’t send shipping notices when mailing you three pounds of stinging insects who will make your post office personnel very, very nervous. Hopefully this will be the last time I need to buy a package, though. I don’t intend to go into professional beekeeping, after all, and would like to top out at 2-3 hives. I hope to be able to establish those hives by splitting my original hive, since these are such lovely, peaceful, productive bees. I’ve also contemplated ordering a queen from hardy survivor stock that a localish apiary sells when it’s time to split the hive.

6 May, 2013

I am the chicken grinch.

Every so often, someone writes to me to ask my advice about keeping chickens. Their goals usually boil down to “we want eggs” and sometimes also “we want to teach our children where food comes from.” These are admirable goals, even if the second one is rather dishonest — the eggs in the supermarket do not come from pet hens in backyards but from battery farms where the hens have a space about as large as a sheet of paper. I will go on record as saying I don’t think its a good idea to spring the realities of factory farming on your three-year-old, but neither do I think you need to outright lie.

Anyhoo. This has become more common as the backyard chicken thing takes off, although I think it’s now reached critical mass, and these well-meaning people often have some really drastic misconceptions about what keeping your own chickens means. I am then left with the unenviable position of pointing out all the problems with their plan.

1) You will certainly get fresher eggs, but unless your hens are free-ranging and the majority of their diet coming from pasture and bugs, the nutritional profile of the eggs from your hens is going to be pretty much the same as the ones you get in the supermarket. Free-range eggs are lower in cholesterol and higher in omega fatty acids, but eggs from a hen who lives in a coop in your back yard and eats commercial chicken feed with the occasional snack of kitchen scraps are not free-range hens.

2) Your eggs will not be “hormone free”. Hens in commercial egg farms are not treated with hormones to make them lay, as there’s no need. You can force a hen to lay by manipulating the level of light to which she’s exposed, which is what commercial egg farms do. Dairy is another story entirely.

3) Your eggs will be free of antibiotics. Some commercial egg farms do prophylactically treat hens with antibiotics. They need to because their hens are living in miserable, high-stress conditions. So as long as you’re not treating your hens with antibiotics, your eggs will be free of them. Keep in mind, however, that your hens may get sick and need treatment. They may get worms and need treatment. If you withhold treatment they need in the name of organic breakfast eggs, you’re an asshole.

4) You will not make money on chickens. You just won’t. You cannot compete with the economy of scale that commercial producers can leverage. It will cost you more to keep 3 or 4 hens at home for the eggs than to just buy your eggs at the grocery store, even if you are buying organic free-range eggs. I used to keep a spreadsheet amortizing the cost of feed and chicken facilities over the number of eggs produced. It got too depressing when it bottomed out at around $1 an egg, so I stopped.

You will also not make money selling offspring from your chickens. You are competing with the big hatcheries, and the people who will pay serious money for chickens are not going to want yours unless you have dedicated yourself to building a reputation on the poultry show circuit. This will take you years. There is no financial incentive to keeping chickens on a small scale.

5) There are only two ways to ensure you do not get roosters: either don’t keep chickens, or only buy adult hens. Vent sexing is 80-90 percent accurate, so even if you buy from the commercial hatcheries, you may still end up with a rooster or two. This leads us to another hard truth: as my friend s. e. smith stopped just short of saying when covering this, the name for extra roosters is “food.”

Even people like me, who live in the country and want roosters because we have a self-sustaining dual-purpose flock only need one rooster per ten hens. There is not a large market for pet roosters. It doesn’t matter if he is the sweetest rooster ever, if you tenderly hand-raised him for 8 weeks in a brooder in your spare bedroom, whatever reason you’re trying to convince yourself of. He is a surplus rooster, and the word for surplus roosters is “food.” If you are going to keep chickens, if you are going to hatch some eggs to teach your children about the miracle of life, then you have to come to terms with that.

You can try to sell your spare rooster. If you price him too high, say over $5, the odds are very slim anyone will buy him. If you price him under that, the odds are good that the person who comes to get him is going to eat him. If you can’t handle that, then hatching your own chickens or buying them as chicks is not for you. Stick to buying adult hens.

6) If a breed is “rare” then the odds are the gene pool is small and unhealthy. Someone is going to be upset with me for saying that, but it’s sadly true. Blue-laced red Wyandottes, a very pretty chicken, are the type I’ve seen it in most recently. They have a hard time thriving as chicks, and even as adults seem prone to mysteriously dying at a higher rate than other chickens.

People will try to tell you that “inbreeding doesn’t matter” with chickens. These people are at best misguided and at worst consciously lying to you. Chickens that have been relentlessly linebred for a particular look will have problems with fertility, with thriftiness, and with hardiness. You will end up babying them along and they’ll still drop dead at an alarming rate. THe problem here is that to keep an inbred line of animals healthy, you must cull relentlessly for fertility, thriftiness, and hardiness. Most people don’t. Beginner chicken owners are better off with a common breed purchased from a large hatchery, where egg-laying productivity matters, unless you want to have to coddle your chickens along for not much return.

If you truly want chickens who can thrive free-ranging with minimal human intervention, look for a flock of farmyard mutts. Local predators will have done the culling if the farmer didn’t do it herself.

7) The very last brutal disillusionment I have for would-be chicken owners: hens are loud. A hen’s egg-song is often just as loud as a rooster’s crow, and goes on for a lot longer. A hen will yell the characteristic “BWOCK BWOCK BGAWK” for as long as five minutes straight without ceasing. There are individual variations, of course, just as there are individual variations in pitch, length, and volume of rooster crows. But you should probably let go of the idea that you’re going to be able to keep chickens in an urban or suburban setting without your neighbors noticing.

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