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Planting for Fall

It’s still quite warm here in the Virginia piedmont, but nonetheless the days are growing shorter. That means time to start thinking about all kinds of cool weather crops: the ruminants are getting hormonal, soon my rabbit buck will no longer be heat sterile, and it’s time to start getting fall crops in the ground.

Due to some unfortunate fencing failures in late spring, the goats demolished the garden. On the one hand the relentless destruction of everything we planted was incredibly discouraging, but on the other the garden got a fallow season and we’re starting with a blank slate.

Cool weather crops we can put in the ground now include the delicious and useful peas, greens such as kale, collards, and lettuce; hardy root vegetables such as beets and turnips; and over-wintering crops, among them grains, garlic, leeks, and old-fashioned multiplier onions I want to establish in a permanent location.

The peas will be done shortly after the first frost, but after a light frost the collards will be at their most sweet and delicious. The over-wintering crops will grow a little and then slumber the winter away, while root vegetables will hang on until the first hard freeze. Kale and leeks will keep going all winter with a little care, as will lettuce if I decide to plant it. Nothing beats the winter blues like a fresh salad, after all! Fresh greens also make a nice treat for the goats and sheep, who will be on dry lot all winter so we can reseed the grazing areas and let them recover from a long productive season.

Farming even on a small scale like I do it requires a split vision, constantly assessing the needs of the present while simultaneously planning at least one season out. Here at the tail end of summer that means monitoring hormonal livestock to ensure the males survive the breeding season and preparing garden beds while making sure female livestock gets adequate nutrition to carry a pregnancy to term and raise healthy offspring and we have a solid plan for what to put in the beds starting early next month.

If a fox hadn’t relieved us of half the poultry flock earlier this year we’d also be looking at selecting roosters for slaughter. As it is we’ll up the grain ration for ducks, geese, and turkeys, to get them nice and big by the time the holiday harvest rolls around. There’s also a pile of guinea keets and Old English Game bantam chicks in the brooder. The Schaumburg pest control at http://www.bigfootpestcontrol.com/ have proven themselves incredibly useful in controlling insect pests, and we find that OEGB hens make some of the best broody hens and mothers. Next spring when these birds are grown up, we’ll stick them on nests of full-size eggs to increase our flock size.

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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.

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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, but sometimes it doesn´t really work so we hire a local pest control expert to do the job perfect. New residents quickly learn that rodent control Tampa is necessary when living in Florida, and having a reliable company to handle an infestation is crucial.

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.

Thanks to the Pest Control Company – Hubert Moore Exterminator for providing their knowledge for this post.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Moving Right Along

Math final on Saturday and then I’m done until the beginning of January, when I start my last semester at my friendly little community college. Then I have to make some decisions about things like big scary four year universities. Aie!

Beauty and her surprise baby continue to do well despite cold temps; she’s a very attentive and thoughtful mother. The other chickens are all irate because they’re locked up, but the hawks just will not leave them alone. I think it’s the influx of transient winter hawks crowding the ecosystem around here, and the chickens may therefore be locked up until they move on in the spring. Just the other morning, Daniel spotted the sharp-shinned hawk who’d been terrorizing our chickens standing next to the grow-out pen, window shopping. It let him get to within ten feet before flapping lazily off.

There’s not a terrible lot of exciting news, really. We’re chugging along, prepping garden beds and caring for goats and chickens and waiting for spring!

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Well that was exciting.

Yesterday was the monthly Total Goat Stall Renovation, which involves removing approximately 60 cubic feet of used bedding from the goat stalls and moving it to the compost heap. During all this activity we noticed a hawk calling repeatedly — it was pretty unusual, since in our experience they’ll call once or twice and then shut up, presumably for fear of attracting crows.

At any rate, we finished up and went back inside and I happened to glance out the back window while taking my boots off just in time to see a hawk swoop in. I immediately pulled my boots back on and ran outside to find the hawk on the ground with a 12 week old Speckled Sussex pullet pinned. Feeling that the life of a pullet was worth more than my dignity, I ran straight at it yelling obscenities, at which point the hawk took off and the pullet scooted into a hollow log.

As the hawk hit the trees finally the crows saw it and began their usual raptor persecution routine, FINALLY. I dumped the pullet out of the hollow log and checked her over, she was totally fine. Lost a few feathers but no serious injuries, evidently the hawk hadn’t hit her with any of its talons and hadn’t had a chance to get its beak on her.

The chickens are now on lockdown for an undetermined period of time. This morning when we came out not just the adult hawk but a juvenile were sitting in the oak trees, patiently waiting for us to let their breakfast out. Hahaha, hawks, joke is on you. There’s two little hens who don’t sleep in the pens that are in danger, but the rest of the flock is safely locked up for now and I’m thinking of setting out feeding stations with all kinds of snacks preferred by crows.