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Farmer Fail and The Circle of Life

The two table lambs go off to slaughter today. It’s the first time I’ve ever taken any of my animals off the property to have them converted into food. I’m naturally nervous and a little stressed by it and feel like it’s a farmer fail, but after raising them for 9 months I just couldn’t […]

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The year in review

It feels weird to be doing my year in review now. When you’re a shepherd of tiny Neolithic British sheep you start to really understand why British Celts started their new year around the first of November – late October and early November are when the sheep start breeding the new lamb crop, you see. […]

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Preface to my guide to a comfy apocalypse

As some of you know, I have a Patreon thingy set up, where people who are so inclined can pledge a monthly donation in return for various rewards. The money keeps the sheep and goats fed and I’m hoping we can start work on my credit card bills. To that end, I’m writing my guide to a comfortable apocalypse and publishing the chapters there monthly.

Once the thing’s complete it will be available as an e-book in various exciting formats, but if you want to read the first draft in all its gory unedited messiness then a mere $3 a month gets you access.

Anyway. Here’s the preface to the thing.

Andrea’s Guide to a Comfortable Apocalypse: Preface

Who Should Use This Guide?

This is intended as a general purpose guide to get you started on preparing for the post-apocalyptic future as comfortable as it can be, like you’re in the finest bed and linens. That future may come because of the zombie virus, the oil and water wars, or just a generalized collapse of western civilization due to an overdose of end-stage capitalism. The strategies outlined in this humble offering may help you continue to live in relative comfort after whatever end is coming for us arrives. It may also be useful for authors and other creative sorts who need to know enough about small scale agriculture in a modern setting to sound convincing. My techniques, while historically based, often veer from the historically accurate, and this guide should not be used in an attempt to authentically recreate a historical lifestyle. Thousands of years of human innovation are not discarded lightly, and I try not to do it without good reason, e.g. the expectation that the technology to support a given method will no longer be available once niceties like electricity have gone the way of arsenic face paint.

In each chapter I’ve attempted to sort the subject matter into categories ranging from skills and techniques almost anyone can practice (always depending upon available resources) to those that require you to have at least a little land and privacy, or generous zoning laws (or zoning enforcement that’s inclined to look the other way) and neighbors who aren’t easily appalled. While my treatment of long-term survival skills is somewhat frivolous, picking up a few can give a person great satisfaction and a warm fuzzy feeling of self-sufficiency.

They can also serve as a valuable connection to our more precarious past and the ancestors who made it through to get us here. While I don’t advocate shedding technological advancement in daily life just for the hell of it (except when I do), there is something almost spiritual about taking part in activities that were part of human and community life for thousands of years, even when you’re doing it while taking advantage of relatively recent accumulations of scientific knowledge, technique, and materials.

In short, anyone with an interest in small-scale subsistence agriculture should use this guide, and hopefully enjoy themselves while they do it. Go forth, and fear zombies no more.

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I’ve been putting off writing this post

Not long after lambing season kicked off, our regular hay guy ran out of hay. No big deal, I thought, we’d just use another supplier to get us through the couple of months until his first cutting was ready. I found someone else who could deliver round bales and thought my hay problems were solved.

And then sheep started dying. I looked for parasites, I looked for subclinical illness, I wracked my brain and laid awake at night going over every detail and came up with nothing. Sheep kept dying. I dreaded doing the chores because I didn’t want to find another one down.

Finally in desperation I sent hay samples out for testing. It was the only thing that has changed. And changed it had. Results came back showing levels of copper much, much too high for sheep. The lab said the overall profile of heavy metals etc was common for hay fields that had been treated with biosolids – aka dried sewage. The hay from those fields is fine for cows but lethal for sheep. I hadn’t even thought to ask when buying the hay, and as a result of my mistake I lost two Soay ewes and their lambs plus my little Rambouillet wether.

I’m still grieving my sheep. I hate that when I make mistakes, it’s my animals who pay, sometimes with their lives. The only recourse in this matter I might have is small claims court but that’s a roll of the dice and I don’t have the time or energy to pursue it. I did leave the guy a message telling him not to sell hay to shepherds anymore.

The happy ending is that my regular hay guy had a fabulous first cut after a wet spring, and with healthy hay, summer grazing, a protein tub, and slightly increased grain rations the rest of the sheep are recovering beautifully. The goats thrived, their mineral needs are more similar to cattle than sheep and they require amounts of copper that will kill their ovine cousins (I normally provide it via rumen bolus).

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Sometimes I’m the goat grinch

There’s been an article going around Facebook about a farm here in Virginia that’s soliciting volunteers to help provide round-the-clock care to the approximately 90 baby goats they’re expecting this spring. People are very enthused, and last I heard the farm had way too many volunteers after their plea for volunteers went viral. And in the middle of people being very enthused, here I am, very disgruntled.

Spice, a tan baby goat with a black blanket, black knee stockings, black nose, and nifty black diamonds over her eyes heads toward me with a mischievous look on her face.
Baby goats: more weirdly fragile than you think.

The first reason I’m disgruntled is that this isn’t a non-profit farm that’s asking for volunteers. This is a for-profit goat dairy that is asking for people to do work and not get paid. I have no idea what actual labor law says about this, but ethically it’s a goddamned nightmare. They’re separating mothers and babies at 24 hours after birth so that they can maximize the profit they’ll make by maximizing the amount of milk they take. In short, they are making money off the unpaid labor of these people, and that’s not ok. They also have no idea where these people have been or how well they understand biosecurity. Lord only knows what a big pile of volunteers is going to bring in on their shoes and clothing that may harm baby goats.

The second reason I’m disgruntled is that this is actually a terrible plan for caring for baby goats. It’s incredibly easy to kill a baby goat by over-feeding them, for instance. Baby goats will literally drink enough milk to kill them. If they’re using formula instead of milk, having differently mixed formula from meal to meal (eg one batch a little weaker, one batch a little stronger) is another great way to make a baby goat sick. Unless you’re monitoring every single volunteer (which then means you’re getting up every four hours to supervise the feedings, and they’re trying to get out of the lack of sleep that comes with raising baby goats) you are risking the health of the kids in the name of profit.

They could, of course, choose to leave the mothers and babies together for two weeks and then separate them overnight, milking the mothers out first thing in the morning. This would give the babies the best opportunity to be healthy while letting the owners get sleep during the early weeks of baby goat life and wouldn’t require a bunch of people to supply unpaid labor. But it would also cut into their profits. Margins are already tight on dairy farms, so they may not feel this is possible.

In short, this isn’t a warm fuzzy feel good story. This is about a for-profit business engaging in practices that endanger the goats and exploit people for free labor. No bueno. There’s a reason I offer to barter with my friends who come to help out.

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A new year, new ewes

Excitement! My friend Kate-with-Soays (not to be confused with my friends Kate-the-author or Kate-with-cats-and-soap and yes Kate-with-Soays needs a website) hit upon a fabulous deal on Soay ewes, at less than half their usual sale price, and graciously shared it with me! You may in fact have noticed the latest round of crowd-funding to expand the herd.

The new ewes have genetics I don’t already have, and have been sending time with an equally worthy ram. This will mean at least five but potentially eight ewes unrelated to Ferrington will be here, opening up the possibility that I can isolate his daughters from him and keep him an extra year before I move him on. Which would be nice, because I’m fond of Ferrington. He’s small for a ram and mellow and good with goats, sheep and humans (pigs occasionally drive him to violence and have learned to avoid him). So another breeding year with him would be no hardship, really.

The three new ewes are mouflon-patterned like my current flock, but come from South Carolina. And that is the extent of what I know as Kate-with-Soays will be surprising me with three of the six she picked up when she made the trip to get them. Unless of course the rain here in the southeast stops and she gets a chance to get pictures — cross your fingers!

At any rate, they will be here in January and then there will be an unstoppable deluge of pictures over on Instagram (they also get automatically broadcast to the farm Facebook page), so stand by.

Other things to look forward to: lambing should start in February, so cross your fingers that the winter stays mild. Ella and Mabel’s lambs will be raised for meat, Soay lambs get to live and grow wool. There may also be piglets around the same time, all of whom will be available as pasture-maintainers, pets, and meat. And of course now that rabbits are back up and breeding like, well, rabbits, there will be an endless assortment of meat bricks, a few of whom will get held over to provide prime furs next winter.

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Math is hard?

Yesterday was exciting in a bad way, as we discovered several baby rabbits born on the wire in their mother’s cage. This wasn’t her fault but mine, I had miscalculated her due date and didn’t have a nest box and hay waiting for her. Luckily all of them but one were still alive and kicking, so I tucked them in my shirt to warm them while we got a nest box set up, and then installed them. The mother went immediately to work putting the nest in order (humans are apparently very bad at making rabbit nests) and hopefully I’ll find them still in the land of the living when I check on them in the morning.

Normally, of course, baby rabbits would be born in the colony, but it’s severely in need of rehabilitation at the moment. Once the Christmas geese are harvested this weekend work on converting the former large poultry pen into rabbit spaces can begin in earnest, including putting down wire around the edges to prevent young rabbits from escaping via digging out. The trick will be to escape-proof the colony areas while simultaneously allowing rabbits to do things like dig, which make them very happy and also prevent losses to the ungodly warm and humid southern summers.

My incompetence aside, it’s nice to have baby rabbits around again. Rabbits are a faster and more reliable source of meat than poultry for us, most especially since to have chickens ready for harvest as quickly as rabbits are I’d end up raising mutant meat chickens and I refuse. I don’t want animals who can’t enjoy their lives while they’re here, and meat chickens most assuredly have problems doing much beyond eating and sleeping if you want them ready to go in 8-12 weeks.

In other news, the warm, mild winter continues. We’re sleeping with windows open to avoid overheating because it’s not quite warm enough to need air conditioning but not cool enough to keep heat from accumulating in our snug little house. The onions, garlic, peas, and other fall-planted crops that were meant to go dormant are instead having a grand old time with the rain and gentle sun. The one exception has been the einkorn wheat, which has gone surly and sleeping just as it’s supposed to.

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The rabbit colony still lives!

Many months ago we moved juvenile ducks outside into the large covered poultry pen, which turned out to be a terrible idea. Two of them promptly went through rabbit tunnels between the colony and the main section and proceeded to make a terrible mess of the colony, which meant that we got no rabbit meat at all this summer.

I was just beginning to ponder moving the last two rabbits, Nahadoth and Syenite, out of the colony and into cages when lo and behold, we spotted a tiny Naha look-alike hopping around in there. Hooray! Whatever the ducks did, the colony is recovering! If this little guy makes it to adulthood we’ll probably use it in the breeding program just on the general principal that as the first survivor, it’s a tough little booger.

Meanwhile the Christmas geese are the last feathery occupants of that pen, and one they’ve been slaughtered we’ll be converting it to a hybrid cage/colony set up for rabbits. I’ve found rabbits to be easier, cleaner, tastier, and more productive than poultry in general, so while we’ll continue to use the advice we got from the BBENYC Exterminator to keep a free range flock to help with pest control and composting, rabbits will be responsible for the bulk of our protein production.

But I digress! Look carefully at the cinder block on the left side of the photo:

image

You can see Naha, my black and white colony buck, catching some sun in the house. His lady Syenite is behind him but since she’s black and in shadow you’ll have to trust me on that. And there peeking out of the cinder block on the left is a tiny black and white rabbit, like a miniature version of Naha. Evidence of resurrection!