Thursday, June 30, 2011

Farm Sounds

We woke this morning to the sounds of a cow mooing and a rooster crowing.  For the first time, our farm sounded like a farm.   Rob and I laughed several times this morning about how far we'd come in just six months, in so many ways.  Everyone in the family would say that the move has been a good choice.  We are happy with the property, house and people.  The scarcity of friends for the children and me is something we are all positive we will overcome.  We believe that the difficulties of keeping animals alive was our preparation for harvesting animals later.  All of us have learned that becoming attached is not a great idea.  We are ready for the next challenge.

And as so often happens, when you're ready the challenge comes.  For us it came in the form of five chickens, a rooster and a steer.  If you've been following our plan you know that we decided to shoot for self-sufficiency first.  For us that means making as much of our own food and food for our animals as possible.  The garden is producing, the bees are buzzing, the chickens are growing.  Our four remaining layers are about 13 weeks old.  The 100 chicks are a week old.  I wrote a few days ago that our plan was to prepare for two horses and a cow/calf pair. 

After further discussion and the purchase of a 1964 GTO, clearly not a farm vehicle, we thought it best to put all further animals and fencing on temporary hold.  Horses would not have brought us closer to being self-sufficient.  Their dietary needs would take us in the opposite direction from self-sufficiency.  The cow/calf idea, while I am sure it's in our future, is a commitment that I'm not ready to make.  Twice a day milking seems daunting, especially when I've never really milked a cow.  As we were making these decisions, another opportunity fell in our lap. 

A friend of a neighbor lost his job and must move.  He was looking to sell two dog runs, five chickens, a rooster and a 8 month old steer.  If we were interested in taking them all, he'd be happy to cut us a deal.  We purchased the lot for considerably less than we'd have spent on the dog runs if we'd bought them new.  We were trying to decided how to provide fencing for our puppies as they grow older.  The dog runs can be assembled as one large pen so that problem is solved.  Since the chicken massacre, we've been talking about increasing our laying flock and how to best go about it.  We now have a flock of 9 chickens, five that are already laying, and one rooster.  The cow solution was so elegant that I never would have thought of it.  One steer to raise for six more months or so and then meat in the freezer.  We are moving closer to self-sufficiency every day.

And so, with our new additions, the sounds on the farm were different this morning.  The birds are still singing, the bees are still buzzing but the sound track is definitely more farmish.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bees at Home

Yesterday, I painted the two brood boxes that I bought from Randy and Teresa.  They recommended that I have two brood boxes per hive in preparation for winter.  I'd prepared one brood box and one super so it was necessary to paint the new brood boxes and get them in place as soon as possible.

Today I visited my hives for the first time since unloading them on Friday night.  My task was to put the new brood boxes in place and put the inner covers in place.  Unfortunately, the weather barely cooperated.  It poured rain most of the day, clearing at about 3pm.  At 4:30, after the sun had been out for a bit to dry things up, I lit my smoker and went to the hives to take care of business.

The trip was a success.  I didn't linger or remove any frames.  I just put the boxes on the top, slid the inner covers into place, replaced the outer covers and moved out of range.  While the bees weren't as upset as they had been on Friday night when we'd placed the box, they were not the relaxed bees that I'd seen at Randy and Teresa's.  I also was upset to crush more of them than I had thought necessary.  My use of the smoker was not nearly skilled enough to make the bees do anything and brushing them aside just brought more out in the same place I'd cleared.  I'll be doing more reading about how to handle and manage my bees as I preform necessary tasks.  The next time I open the hive I'll try to do it on a sunny, sunny day at 2pm.  Maybe that will allow me to deal with fewer, more relaxed bees.

I did learn a lot from today's bee time.  I learned that my jacket leaves a lot to be desired as far as function.  The pockets aren't deep enough to hold my gloves, hive tool or long lighter securely.  One deep pocket on each side would be a much better arrangement.  Another feature I'd like on my jacket is a two way zipper that could be unzipped from the bottom and from the top.  It would have been nice to have my jacket opened while I was preparing the smoker and getting ready to approach the hives but because the zipper closes at the top and is covered with a Velcro patch it's tough to zip and unzip once the gloves are on.  I also learned that bringing the lighter and extra fuel for the smoker to the hives is a good idea.  I've got so much to learn about bees and the best way to keep them but I've made a start.

Bringing the Hives Home

Friday night, I became a beekeeper.  Beekeeping has been an aspiration of mine for several years.  I read books about bees and dreamed of the day that I'd have the freedom and time to try my hand at bees.  I spent several days over the last month studying even more, preparing my hives, selecting my bee sights and gathering my supplies.  I had everything but the bees.

Teresa and Randy Wagoner supplied me with the bees.  Their house was situated on a residential street with average size lots, the tenth house on the right.  From the front, other than the bee wrap on the mailbox, it could have been any house.  Entering the back yard you immediately realized that this was not an ordinary house.  This was obviously a bee house.  Seventeen or more hives were scattered at various places and levels around the lot.  Hives were stacked on benches, the barbecue pit, the bed of a pickup truck.  Bees flew with purpose in and out of the yard landing on the hives and disappearing.  The bees weren't interested in us.  They had jobs to do and they were too busy to pay attention to anyone or anything but the task at hand. 

Upon my arrival, Randy and Teresa gave me a crash course in bees and the art of caring for them even before we suited up.  I learned about the equipment they choose to use and why they like it.  I learned how they care for their equipment and harvest their honey.  I learned about the work and process of keeping bees.  I learned how to light a smoker.  I learned that Teresa was a lot more particular about the way the hives looked than I thought I would ever be.  Randy seemed particularly concerned that I'd never been around bees, known anyone that kept bees or seen a real bee keeper in action.  His last question to me before we suited up was, "How do you feel about stings?"

After we suited up, we went right to the first hive.  Randy and Teresa prepared two ten frame brood boxes for me earlier in the day.  The comb had been trimmed back evenly, the propolis had been scraped off the frames and brooder box.  They'd inspected the hives and were certain that the bees I was taking home were going to give me a good start, even though I'd begun so late in the season. 

The hives were overflowing with bees.  I was pleased to discover that the bees didn't freak me out.  I hadn't expected to freak out but then I'd never been in the midst of more than 10,000 bees.  The activity inside the box was so fascinating that I hardly noticed the bees that flew around my head.  Plus, Randy was talking as he worked through the hive showing me the differences between brood cells and honey cells, pointing out eggs and larvae, helping me see the difference between workers and drones, searching for the queen.  There was so much to see and learn. We moved ten frames from the Wagoner's box to mine then strapped the first hive closed and began working on the second.

The second hive was busier as the sun began to set.  Bees don't fly at night so as dusk moved into night, every bee was finding their way home.  We worked more quickly through this hive.  Randy was concentrating  on moving frames and locating the queen.  Since we'd been through the first hive, he didn't linger over identifying brood and honey, he did show me some drone cells that we hadn't seen in the first hive. 

We finished the second hive with just enough light to check out a hive that was building queen cells.  The hive wasn't a healthy one and the Wagoners were hoping to be able to save it.  They were expecting to have to combine it with another hive before fall in order to give the bees enough food and brood to last the winter.

As I drove home with two full bee hives in the back of my truck, I marveled at all that I'd seen and learned in those two hours.  Bees were undoubtedly the coolest animals ever. 

With a Peep Peep Here and a Peep Peep There

Our four survivors

Our farm is now home to 104 chickens.  We had our four survivors.  You can read more about our first chicken experience here.  On Thurday morning, we received the much anticipated call from the post office.  Our day old chicks had arrived and were making quite a racket.  Could we pick them up, please?

Boxes o'chicks
We arrived before the post office opened and waited patiently to be the first customers of the day.  The man at the post office commented that he'd never had any box o'chicks that were as noisy as ours.  We hoped that meant that they were healthy and eager to enjoy their new lives on our farm.

Our brooder seems to be working perfectly for the new tennants.  Six weeks in it before we move them to chicken tractors and then six to eight weeks before we harvest them.  It seems hard to believe that we'll be eating these cute little guys in the winter.  I suppose it will be easier as they lose the cute factor and move into chickenhood.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Chicken Plunge

When we began planning the farm chickens were the first animal on our list.  We intended to start with two dozen dual purpose birds, harvest some and leave the others for layers.  We began our project successfully in April.  At first I'd intended to mail order our birds but after asking questions at the local feed store I discovered that they ordered their birds from the same hatchery.  Instead of having our birds shipped, we decided we'd get them from the feed store so that we could have the fun of picking the chicks we wanted.

Bright and early on chick day we got to the feed store and picked out 18 chicks. My nine year-old son had been disappointed to discover that the feed store only had pullets.  He wanted roosters and so he was willing to wait until the next day when we could drive to Tractor Supply and hopefully find some cockerels or at least a mixed run and take our chances.  We were in luck.  Plymouth Barred Rocks were the bird of the week.  My son was thrilled! Not only was there the possibility of a rooster but the birds were black and white. 

We started our chicks in a make shift brooding area in the chicken coop.  I used some boards to box in an area under the heat lamp.  That worked fine for the first day and night but then the temperature dropped.  The second night they were moved into our sun porch in a plastic storage box that had been previously used for Christmas decorations.  The chicks stayed happily on the sun porch until they were two weeks old and the temperatures rose a bit so we moved them to the brooder in the chicken coop. 

The brooder area, a coat closet size space with a door, worked perfectly and the chicks lived there happily until they were eight weeks old.  At eight weeks the chicks were transferred to the coop and seemed to glory in their new expansive digs.  We'd succeeded in raising 24 healthy chicks to the stage where they were feathering out and turning into teenage chickens.

For a few weeks we enjoyed watching the mature feathers come in and took pride in the colorful flock that we'd raised.  Then disaster struck.  A neighbor's dog, that had always been penned, got loose and used her shot at freedom to devastate our flock.  Four chickens survived the massacre.

After cleaning up the carnage, we took stock of our chicken situation.  Free range chickens were not going to be possible on the farm.  We couldn't put our chickens in danger like that nor could we put ourselves or the children through the unexpected loss of so many animals again.  We understood that we'd intended to kill about half those birds but with a plan and for a purpose.  The dog's killing of the chickens had been unplanned and pointless.

As we researched and talked about possibilities we liked the idea of the chicken tractor, a movable home for chickens so they can be grass fed without the danger of predators.  After checking the hatchery website we discovered that we could order 100 meat birds for $35 and that those day old chicks could be delivered shortly after we returned from our scheduled vacation.   We were more confident of our ability to raise chicks, had a better understanding of how to use our facilities and felt that the increased temperature would make it possible to start the chicks in the larger room off the main coop.  We put in our order for the chicks and began to prepare for their arrival.

In a few weeks, the chicks will arrive and we'll continue the saga of the chickens but for now we've definitely taken the chicken plunge.  By purchasing that many meat birds, though admittedly we are hoping for a few dual purpose pullets that we could add to our remaining four layers, we've committed to harvesting them.  We are figuring in October we'll be developing a whole new set of chicken skills.

Priorities and a Plan

One of the things I've learned about the farm in the last few months is that it's easy to lose sight of the plan.  At small farm college, we were encouraged to come up with a mission statement.  That mission statement would help us determine what things we should and shouldn't do with the farm.  If it doesn't fit the mission statement, we don't do it.  Unfortunately, we haven't gotten a mission statement with enough focus to aid in decision making.  There are too many choices and acres in front of us and not enough education or experience.

Rob has been working at brush hogging the pasture in preparation to build fences.  The kind of fence we build will need to depend in part on the animals that we intend to keep in or out.  We are clear about what we want to keep out but not so clear on what will be kept in.  Yesterday, as we walked the pasture and talked about fencing options and locations, we realized a couple things.

First, we live in an area where there are generation farmers.  The families have farmed for years with the current generation learning from and building on the efforts of the last.  They own the same land, use the same barn and tractors, raise the same livestock and live in the same houses.  As newcomers it's not fair to us or them to expect that we will catch up in a year or two or ten.  We are homesteaders, starting from scratch with about as much experience as the first settlers had when Ohio was just a territory.  We start out with the advantage of a comfortable home and the ability to build a farm for pleasure not out of the necessity of survival.  As new farmers, we can't expect to have or do what our neighbors can.  Who would have thought that "keeping up with the Joneses" would extend to cows and tractors?!

Second, despite the myriad of options, we need to stick to our plan. Impulsively changing our plan will not help us feel more competent or joyful about our farm.  When we bought the property we were interested in owning some horses, building a vineyard, having bees, chickens and a dairy cow or goat.  Even though we have experienced cattle and meat goat farmers around us who have offered to help us, we aren't really excited about beef or meat goats.  The losses we've experienced with animals have let us see that raising meat animals probably isn't for us except on a small scale.

Third, there's no need to rush.  The farm isn't going anywhere.  The work isn't going anywhere.  We can research, learn, ask questions, plan, implement and move forward slowly.  A few months ago we decided that this first year was our learning year.  Reminding ourselves that learning takes time isn't always easy.  We both have a vision of this farm complete.  The truth is that we may never get there.  The bigger truth is that it will take years and years to get close.  For the farm, patience doesn't mean waiting.  Patience means moving forward, deliberately and with lots and lots of hard work.

After realizing these three big lessons, we have returned to our original plan.  We are preparing for two horses and a cow with her calf.  We'll be spending the next few months designing and fencing pastures with an eye on the future keeping in mind gates and expanding somewhere down the line.  We plan to use five or six acres for the pastures right now and keep our options as open as possible for the rest of the pasture land.  By September, we plan to have our horses and a cow for milking.

We are going to increase our chicken population and build two chicken tractors.  In October, we plan to harvest 80 of our chickens and keep the other two dozen for layers.  We are learning more about growing grapes and starting a vineyard.  We've picked out the area of the farm that we think is most likely for the purpose and will be working for the next nine months to get it ready for planting.  There's a huge learning curve for that project and we are slowly working our way up it.

It's good to have a plan and to keep it in focus.  We may not have a clearly defined mission but I'm sure that will come with time and hard work.  Everything here seems to depend on those two ingredients.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Farmers or Mowers

One thing we've learned about the farm this spring is that we are either waiting or scrambling.  Some things move at a set pace.  Feeding chickens is routine.  It happens several times a day and isn't determined by weather.  I suppose there are other jobs like that and we'll find them soon enough. 

So many of the spring time jobs are weather related.  The farmers in our area have been waiting for the rains to stop and every time the water lets up, even a little, they are scrambling to catch up.  We had a really wet spring and most fields didn't get planted until the third week of May. 

The weather didn't affect us quite as much as the farmers but it did keep us from getting started on the pasture as soon as we had expected.  Rob bought a brush hog for the tractor and has been spending most of his spare time mowing down the years of growth in the pasture behind the barn.

The yard is also extensive.  The previous owners must have mowed around seven acres.  A ridiculous amount of grass to manage if you have any intention of a life beyond mowing.  Several times I've asked Rob if our purpose here is to be farmers or to be mowers. Our intention is to be farmers but right now it seems like we spend a lot of time mowing.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Beginning Beekeeping

I spent several hours Saturday before last at the Happy Bee'Supplies, a local mom and pop shop that sells supplies for beekeepers.  The owners of the store have the shop set up in a building next to their home which is a challenge to reach.  You leave blacktop about four miles from the house.  Two miles out the road narrows to one lane and then the last challenge is the steep gravel drive.  I suppose if you aren't willing to face the challenges of the drive, you probably aren't cut out for bees.

Dave and his wife, Mary, gave me all the advice and guidance I was hoping for as I purchased the supplies for my first two hives.  I left the store with a box of hive parts, a new spotless white jacket with hood, gloves, a smoker and a hive tool.  I also left with the name and number of a couple, Teresa and Randy Wagoner, that agreed to supply me with two nucs upon my return from vacation.  The trip was an amazing success.

This past Sunday, I spent several hours assembling frames and hive boxes.  I have two supers but one of the brood boxes was missing a side so I was only able to assemble one of those.  I also assembled 40 frames.  Borrowing a friends air compressor and nail gun was such a blessing.  I think I'll be buying Rob both of those tools for Father's Day.  They made the job go much more quickly than pounding nails. 

Because of the mindless nature of the job, I was able to relax into the task.  There's something about repetitive work creating a pile of completed pieces that I find utterly satisfying.  In college, I did temp. work and often was assigned to do various factory assembly jobs.  The work wasn't challenging but there's something about doing the same thing over and over.  It allows you to strive for the perfect performance and see the outcome.  Assembling frames was like that.  I found peace and satisfaction in driving the nails straight, becoming faster in my assembly, working out the best system through repeated tries.  Forty frames flew by too quickly.  I look forward to needing more supers so I have the opportunity to build more frames. 

Several tips I have for assembling hive boxes and frames.  Get a nail gun.  Lay out all your pieces within easy reach.  Be sure your wood glue is made for exterior use.  When you begin to assemble the frames start with the super frames.  They are easier to manage because they aren't as deep.  It's good to have the practice before you try the brood frames. 

I'll be picking up the lids and the missing brood piece on Tuesday and asking the folks at the Happy Bee lots of questions.  Do I need a Varroa screen?  All the bee books say I do but it didn't come with the hive.  What about a queen excluder?  Again, the books say it's necessary but it wasn't included.  And do I need to have an extra super or two on hand, ready to go?  What if my bees are really busy?  I also don't have crown boards, that might not be important during the summer but I'm sure the bees will need it in October.  

I'm planning to paint all the boxes on Wednesday.  Two hives will be complete and ready to go before we leave for vacation. The bees are scheduled for pick up on Monday evening after we get home.  I've been dreaming of having bees for years and they are only a few weeks away. 

Small Surprises

This morning when we went out on the porch to feed the puppies we found an unexpected guest.  A barn owl had found it's way into the screened area and was seaching in vain for the door.  It would perch on the back of the porch rockers then launch itself into the screen. 
The owl was a tiny thing.  Not much bigger than the puppies.  Brown and gray with eyes as big as it's head.  I was surprised at how grown it looked for such a little package.  It had presence.  Perhaps that was because of the eyes.  They had focus. 

We opened the door and left it propped.  Before long, the owl found it's exit and flew away.

It's good to remember that there are nice surprises that happen everyday.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Loss of Farming

We've been struggling with change since we moved onto the farm.  And loss, lots of loss.

Any change brings with it a sense of loss, even a good change.  There are things we let go in order to move forward.  Those losses we expected.  What we didn't prepare ourselves for was the nature of nature.  We didn't prepare ourselves or our children for how things happen that are beyond our control and how you just have to roll with it.

Our dog ran away in our first month on the farm.  He was a suburb dog.  He'd gotten out before, roamed a bit and returned.  He got out here and just kept running.  I'm sure, to him, the fields looked like heaven and he was all for it.  We never expected that our change in location would bring that loss.

A friend donated a barn cat to us.  The cat disappeared only to be found dead in the yard a few days later.

We bought our daughter a potbelly pig for her 12th birthday.  The first time she took it on a walk, the pig like the dog smelled freedom, slipped his leash and headed for the dense undergrowth of the back pasture.  We haven't seen him since.

A neighbor brought us a goat that the mother was refusing to feed.  He said if we wanted to try and keep her alive we were welcome to her.  We bottle fed her for five weeks.  She seemed healthy and happy.  One morning my 14 year old daughter took the goat her breakfast and the goat was dead.

The neighbors dog got into our hen house and destroyed 20 of our 24 chickens.

We adopted two puppies from a neighbors litter.  One of the puppies was so worm infested that she had to be put down.

We are still wondering at the lessons we are supposed to be learning from loss.  My 9 year old son would tell you that he's learning that farming sucks.  My 12 year old daughter says the skin on her heart is becoming thicker.  My husband has chosen his lesson as one of immediate caring and thankfulness.  Be good to what you have and thankful for every moment because nothing is certain.  It's a good lesson. 

I'm torn in the lesson I choose.  It could be that we are to learn that animals and plants on a farm are just part of the cycle.  It's all here to be managed and cared for by us and we are to do our best.  But as with plants, animals have a season and are not permanent.  The other lesson could be that we should only invest what we can afford, be it love or time or money.  Investing more than you can afford into anything is not a wise choice. 

I'll continue to cope with the loss and look for the lesson.  I'll help my children look for their lessons in our daily life.  And hopefully, the puppies we have and the chickens we are expecting will bring joy and not loss.

Wordless Wednesday - Lilacs