Tag Archives: backyard livestock

Homesteading Update

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Well, let’s get the confession over with first. There is no garden this year. There was a garden, but through a program of careful neglect, we managed to ignore it till it went away.

I’m still trying to figure out how to juggle taking care of my children and getting things done outside. Obviously my great-great-grandmothers managed it somehow. It can be done. I just haven’t figured out how they did it yet. Babywearing is great, but it’s not particularly practical for working outside in a South Carolina July.

Anyway, as a result, I’ve been on a bare-bones maintenance program around here, and the garden paid the price. We had such a hot, dry summer, though, that even the gardens people actually remembered to tend around here yielded very little.

So, no vegetables, but we do have a few home-grown chicks. I’ve had multiple broody hens over the years, but none have ever stuck it out long enough to hatch the eggs. This year, though, two girls teamed up, sitting on the nest together most of the time and taking turns at eating and drinking. They managed to hatch out a total of eleven chicks, nine of which survived and are doing wonderfully.

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The only thing we’ve expanded in the last few months is the rabbitry. We still have (and love) our American Chinchilla trio plus their eight current offspring, but now we also have standard Rex. If you’ve never felt Rex fur before, there is no way to describe its softness.

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This is Julep, a young castor doe. We also have Moon Pie, her castor half-sister; Blackberry, a young black otter doe; Cassie, a mature castor doe who gave us six beautiful kits a few weeks ago; and Creole, a young silver marten buck. Later this month we’re picking up a little opal buck as well. Rabbit math. It’s worth than chicken math. Seriously.

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There is something really therapeutic about caring for them, though. They’re soft, quiet, and friendly, and I find the routine of filling water bowls and doling out pellets and hay very pleasant. Not that I linger over the process — I’m usually either grabbing a few minutes while the baby sleeps and the boys watch a video or else I’m waiting till Ben gets home and trying to get everyone taken care of between supper and darkness.

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One of Cassie's kits.

But I do stop to snuggle the occasional baby bunny. Wouldn’t you?

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Seriously cute.

Prelude to Winter and Hens that Refuse to Lay

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Well, we didn’t get seven feet of snow here this week, but there are flakes on the forecast for Wednesday. For a place that’s usually sunny and seventy degrees on Thanksgiving Day, that’s pretty crazy. In fact, on the first of November, there were several inches of snow to the north and south of us, although my personal snow-free zone still seems to be fully functional.

I haven’t confessed to The Boy yet that it’s probably my fault he doesn’t get to go sledding when kids four miles away are building snowmen. For now, I’m just hoping that this snow-repelling power isn’t some sort of voodoo that I’ve passed down to him and his brother!

One thing I love about cold weather is how much more pleasant it makes the daily chores. I absolutely hate being out in the smothering humidity of our South Carolina summers, but on cold days, I can bundle up. My heavy Wall’s 12/8 jacket is big enough to zip over my growing baby belly, my Muck Boots keep my feet warm and dry, and with some work gloves, I get everyone fed and watered so much more comfortably than in the summer heat.

I’ve run into a strange problem this year. The pullets I hatched out on February 9 and the ones I bought the next day (in case I had hatched out nothing but roosters!) have never started to lay. They’re 41 weeks old, and I’ve never caught one of them in a nest or seen any evidence of eggs being laid and eaten. I’m really at a loss, but at this point, I’m seriously considering culling the whole bunch of them and starting fresh next spring. They’re eating laying pellets like there’s no tomorrow and we’re not seeing any return on all that feed. So we’re going to change brands and see if it makes a difference, and in a few weeks, we’ll make a decision. This is a first for me, so it’s hard to know what to do.

The rabbits continue to be wonderful. I just love them. I bred Anne, one of the California does, to the AmChin buck (George) last month in hopes of getting a better growout rate in the kits. She was due two days ago and hasn’t nested yet, but she’s made a little tunnel in the nestbox bedding and tends to put off pulling fur till the last minute. Based on her crankiness these past few weeks, I’m pretty confident she’s pregnant. Should be interesting to compare her litter (provided she has one) with whatever we get from the larger AmChin doe, Martha, who’s due on December 4. I’ll post photos as soon as I can.

Hope everyone has safe travels this week and a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Incubating!

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We’ve never tried incubating our own eggs before, but we got a new rooster a couple of months ago who takes his procreating duties very seriously, and he seems to have inspired our old rooster to do the same. After noticing that just about every egg we were using was fertile, I dug my old incubator out of the back corner of my parents’ basement.

(Full disclosure: I think I once plunked a couple of quail’s eggs from who-knows-where in there for a few weeks, but with no knowledge of turning, humidity, or even proper temperature, the venture was doomed from the start.)

I was happy to find that after 25 years on the shelf, my Hova-Bator (made with pride in Savannah, GA) still works perfectly. It’s holding its temperature and… well, that’s about all it really has to do. I do the turning (three times a day) and keep one of the channels full of water to maintain the humidity.

None of this is very difficult, I know, but I was still pretty sure that I would somehow mess it up and end up throwing out all 13 eggs. It’s Day Six, though, so I decided to do some candling and see if anything was happening.

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*stunned silence*

There’s actually something in there! That little dark blob behind the “X” is the beginnings of a fluffy baby chick! I can see it moving, apparently from the force of the heartbeat that started after two days of incubation! I haven’t killed it yet!

In fact, all three of the white eggs and at least three of the four brown ones are developing. The blue/green eggs are impossible for me to see through with my little flashlight, but I’m optimistic, mainly because the Easter Egger hen seems to be the new rooster’s special favorite.

That bright crescent at the top of the egg in the photo is the air pocket. It will grow larger over the next two weeks, and shortly before the chick begins to hatch, it will pierce the membrane with its beak and begin to breathe air. Seriously, could that be any cooler?

So, while I realize that we’re only 1/3 of the way there and there’s still a lot that can go wrong, I’m kind of ridiculously excited.

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Goat Tales

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Goats are becoming increasingly popular as a good livestock choice for small-scale homesteaders. Depending on the breed, they can provide milk, meat, or fiber, and since they reproduce relatively quickly and often have two, three, or even four kids at a time, they’re pretty cost-effective. They’re also hilarious. And annoying. And I miss them.

Goats are escape artists. They like to help prune trees and weed gardens, but unfortunately, they don’t know when to stop. They love nothing better than getting themselves into impossible situations and then standing there and screaming until someone arrives to rescue them. Then they repeat the process multiple times. Basically, they’re troublesome and infuriating. Do not get goats. Ever.

Or, go get a goat. Or two. Because they’re fantastic. I’m serious.

One of our nanny goats and her baby grazing happily down near the stream.

One of our nanny goats and her baby grazing happily down near the stream.

We bought our first goats around the time I was in fifth grade. I thought they were beautiful: a big, brown, Nubian nanny with white dapples and ragged horns, and a rough-coated, calico, crazy-eyed billy. Josephine and Napolean.

I remember that I got to skip part of a school day for the arrival of the imperial couple. The note my mom wrote for me said that I needed to be home to receive some livestock, and I remember feeling very grown up when I handed that note in at the school office. That’s right, ladies, I’m a genuine farmer, and I have livestock to receive.

We wanted the goats to clean out an area of woods at the back of the property, and they were definitely up for the challenge. Within a couple of weeks, the place looked like a park. They started with the poison ivy, which is apparently like candy to them, and then they moved on to the privet, ivy, and who knows what else.

Their willingness to eat just about anything can backfire, of course, sometimes with serious consequences. Josephine found a tiny shrub of mountain laurel which had apparently washed down from the state park upstream and taken root in a cleft of the creek bank. It can be deadly, but being a goat, she scarfed some of it down.

She then spent the next week convalescing in a cozy nest of blankets in our basement, being fed hot oatmeal and hay. I’m pretty sure that she was actually feeling better several days before she showed it.

Her first kid (in her life with us, at least) was born on a Sunday afternoon, in the yard between the pool and the creek. We were having a picnic on the pool deck, so we had front row seats for the delivery, the efforts at standing, and the first, faltering steps. We promptly named the baby Billy the Kid and took about as many photos of him as normal people take of human babies.

There were other goats and other kids over the years, of course. Some were easy keepers, and some seemed determined to wreak as much havoc as possible. Some of the nannies were good mothers, but several weren’t, which meant that we ended up bottle-raising their kids in diapers in the house. There was nothing funnier than the look on a visitor’s face when a diaper-clad baby goat moseyed into the kitchen.

This little pygmy lived indoors for a while B.B.B. (Back Before Babies) And yes, he's standing on top of a computer which is sitting on top of a dresser. And no, we didn't put him there.

This little pygmy lived indoors for a while B.B.B. (Back Before Babies) And yes, he’s standing on top of a computer which is sitting on top of a dresser. And no, we didn’t put him there.

You cannot watch a baby goat (or better yet, a pair of baby goats) frisking around in the grass and not smile. It’s biologically impossible. They run and leap and twist and bounce and climb and play king of the mountain and are just generally adorable. And then, exhausted, they tuck themselves in close beside their mama and sleep. This probably explains why the tops of their heads smell like sunshine and fresh grass.

We sold our last two goats a few years ago after months of trying and failing to keep them in the pasture. They went over, under, or through every fence we put in front of them, and they usually ended up in the garden. They went to a great home with a man we’ve known for years. and at the time, we were relieved to be rid of them. But now somehow we find ourselves talking about when we can get more.

Gluttons for punishment? Maybe. Better than being gluttons for mountain laurel.

Just watching a little TV. What's so strange about that?

Just watching a little TV. What’s so strange about that?

Summertime Blues

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An unusual year we’re having. First, we had spring, a season we typically only see mentioned on the calendar. Now, here we are in late summer, when the grass is usually brown and crunchy underfoot, and we’re setting rainfall records. Fifteen inches in July alone, and we’ve had more rain in the past seven and a half months than we were projected to have for the entire year!

Now don’t get me wrong — I’m grateful for the rain after years of drought. And like everyone keeps saying, “It’s nice to see the lakes full.” But really. Everything in moderation.

The tomatoes are spindly and growing ever taller, searching for nearly nonexistent sunlight. The mosquitoes have organized and are demanding better wages and flying conditions. And the ground is so saturated that the rain in recent weeks has just been running off in torrents, filling the ditches and damaging the roads.

Oh, and weakening the trees. Which is how we ended up with three down in our yard a few weeks ago. A weird storm came out of the northeast, and I’m guessing we were hit by a microburst. Whatever it was, it did some major localized damage. Besides our big pine tree and two tall oaks from the woods behind us, the wind took down the last of our neighbor’s three huge oak trees (all three gone within a year!), then crossed a field and felled four large trees in one yard on the other side.

Our splintered pine tree. We'll be putting in a line of Leylands or Thujas soon for privacy on that side of the property.

Our splintered pine tree. We’ll be putting in a line of Leylands or Thujas soon for privacy on that side of the property.

Both of the oaks behind the house landed on the power lines, and one came down smack dab in the middle of the chicken tractor, killing two hens and trapping two more, while four managed to escape from the wreckage. Because the downed power lines were draped over the whole pile, I couldn’t even rescue the Marans hen I could see, let alone search for any other survivors. Fortunately, when the power company guys (who must have been very nice) arrived the next day, they got her out unharmed and put her in with the escapees I’d already captured.

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Looking at this, I’m still amazed anything survived. The Marans hen was trapped in the corner on the left in this picture.

We stayed at my parents’ house until the power was restored, so it was two days after the storm when I found my little red partridge Silkie under the splintered tractor, alive, but with one foot crushed under a 2×4 that had a lot¬†of weight pressing down on it. We got her out, but I really didn’t know how much damage was done and what her chances of recovery were. After a few days of rest, though, she was running around with hardly a limp. Now you’d never know she had been injured.

Crushed tractor

Here it is after the tree was semi-cleared by the power company. The Silkie was sitting quietly in the corner on the right, apparently waiting for rescue.

The destruction of the chicken tractor has really exacerbated our overcrowding problem, since all of the girls from the tractor have had to move into what had been the portable extended run for the main coop. I sold my five Buff Orps last month and hope to sell the ten Silver Laced Wyandottes this weekend. At that point, we should be back down to a manageable flock size. Oddly, most of the ones I’m keeping are the older hens. They’re just still laying too well for me to get rid of them, and obviously people buying adult hens would rather have the younger ones.

In the midst of all the mayhem and losses, one of the two surviving Gold Stars from this spring has started laying. It’s amazing to see how the cycle of life carries on in spite of what must seem to those chickens like nearly apocalyptic events.

Not bad for a first egg!

Not bad for a first egg!

Life goes on inside the house, too. Ben is working an insane number of hours because of “back to school,” so we probably won’t get to see much of him until late September. The 47-mile drive tacked on to each end of his 10+ hour workday certainly doesn’t help. He’s only had three days off in the past month, so his homecoming is a big deal every evening. The Boy is always waiting to open the door for him and tell him the latest news, and The Baby lights up and starts trying to push off of me to reach him. Daddy is pretty popular in these parts.

I’m staying busy with kids, critters, and the everyday. What life might lack in excitement, it more than makes up for in cuddles, giggles, and kisses.