Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Plan for Food Self-Sufficiency

Providing high-quality food for your family year-round takes foresight and planning, plus healthy doses of commitment and follow-through. Whether you grow as much of your food as you can or you source it from local producers, the guidelines here will help you decide how much to produce or purchase. The charts linked to in “Plan How Much to Grow” later in this article will also help you estimate how much space you’ll need — both in your garden to grow the crops, and in your home and pantry or root cellar to store preserved foods. Here’s a step-by-step plan to help you make the best use of your garden space (or farmers markets) to move toward homestead food self-sufficiency.

1. Establish Your Goals

Make a list of the foods you and your family eat now — and note the quantities as well. The charts linked to in “Plan How Much to Grow” further along in this article assume a half-cup serving size for fruits, vegetables and legumes, and a 2-ounce serving for dry grains. If your servings differ from the charts, be sure to adjust your calculations accordingly.
Decide what you’d like to grow, noting the foods your family prefers and recognizing that not every crop will grow in every climate. Research different crop varieties: Some crops — such as melons — require long, hot days to mature, but certain varieties need fewer days to reach maturity, which allows them to be grown in areas with a shorter growing season.
Don’t be afraid to start small and build gradually toward food self-sufficiency. A good starting goal might be to produce all of a certain crop that you use. An early milestone for me was growing all of the green beans we needed for a year and all of the ingredients for the spaghetti sauce I canned. Maybe you’ll aim to eat at least one thing from your garden each day. Keep your goals in mind as you’re planning a garden.

2. Choose a Gardening Method

I recommend following the guidelines of “Grow Biointensive Sustainable Mini-Farming” as developed by John Jeavons at Ecology Action in Willits, Calif., and explained in his book How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits, Nuts, Berries and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. Jeavons’ form of biointensive gardening, which can sometimes produce higher yields than less intensive approaches, focuses on eight principles:
  • Deep soil preparation
  • Composting
  • Intensive planting
  • Companion planting
  • Growing crops for carbon and grains
  • Growing crops for sufficient calories from a small area
  • Using open-pollinated seeds
  • Integrating all processes into a whole, interrelated system.
Using biointensive gardening methods, garden beds are double-dug and compost is made from crops grown for that purpose (some of which, such as corn, also provide food). Together, these techniques create a system that not only feeds the soil but also builds and improves the ecosystem. You can see these biointensive gardening techniques in action on the DVD “Cover Crops and Compost Crops in Your Garden” (available at Homeplace Earth).

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Transitions: Preparing the Farmer for Winter

I enjoy operating my Micro Dairy year round though I have to admit spring and fall are my favorite times of the year. I am not a fan of the extremes of winter or summer. I can get the most work done when the temperatures are moderate and, at 63 years old, I tend to hide from the high summer sun rather than bask in it. At least during the winter I can put more clothes on to stay warm outside. 

Winter certainly does present its own set of conditions that farmers in snow country must adjust to every fall. First, there is darkness; it is dark when I wake up and dark when I do my evening chores. Having good lighting inside the barns and out is very important. The flood light outside my barn has a motion detector so it turns on and lights up the barnyard when the cows or I go outside when it is dark. That is very helpful. I also recommend installing lighting in the sheds or other outbuildings where you work in the winter. But don’t feel the need to do everything all at once. Every fall I like to make one or two minor improvements to my Micro Dairy in preparation for the winter. 

Next there is the snow, and when it snows there is always plowing and shoveling. In the fall I try to make sure that the areas where I push the snow are open and clear. That means making sure that my firewood is stacked and all my machinery is out of the way. I take down temporary fencing next to the road and driveways. Plowing snow is non-productive at best so I do all I can to eliminate complications and or opportunities to damage my tractor or other pieces of equipment.

I have to admit that sometimes the thought of the coming winter in Vermont can be a little daunting, especially if you operate your Micro Dairy alone, as I do. Back when my wife and I had a larger farm and milked 70 Jersey cows, our kids were younger and chore time was a family affair. Everyone pitched in. But now it is just me, trudging up to the barn in the snow and cold every morning and night. Since I am neither a hero nor a martyr, this winter I decided to lighten my load and sell two of my four cows. I kept one bred heifer and one milking cow so I would have milk to feed a beefer calf I am raising. Doing that essentially cut my chore time in half and reduced the hay and grain I will feed out this winter by 50 percent.

Milking cows twice a day can get tiresome, especially when you also have a day job. It is important to remember that having a small farm or a Micro Dairy allows you the flexibility to sell a few, or, even all of your cows and take a break for a season or two. If you have a larger herd you can sell your milkers and keep your calves and heifers and get back into it slowly when they begin to come into milk. The choice is yours. There is no dishonor in taking a little break.

I believe the keys to Milking cows twice a day can get tiresome, especially when you also have a day job. It is important to remember that having a small farm or a Micro Dairy allows you the flexibility to sell a few, or, even all of your cows and take a break for a season or two. If you have a larger herd you can sell your milkers and keep your calves and heifers and get back into it slowly when they begin to come into milk. The choice is yours. There is no dishonor in taking a little break.

I believe the keys to preparing for the upcoming winter of a Micro Dairy in regions that get cold, snowy and dark at 4 p.m. are first to make small improvements to your facility that will make it easier, quicker and more efficient to operate. Make a list of any small annoyances from the previous winter that you can correct. And then look for opportunities to reduce your workload wherever and however possible. Selling two cows and putting lights in the shed adjacent to my barn has made a huge difference for me this winter. Owning and managing a Micro Dairy is a matter of choice. Don’t allow yourself to get stuck in drudgery. Keep making small improvements to your farm and routines and soon the warm spring winds will once again blow and the grass on south facing slopes will begin to green up. In the meantime, button up!

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Hatching Eggs in the Wintertime

It's inevitable — every single year I get the urge to hatch chicks or ducklings, and every single time I decide to hatch them during the coldest months of the year. My logic is simple and honest — if I hatch in the Fall or Winter, then they will be laying by the time Spring and Summer come. But hatching during cold and unpredictable months can be a set up for heartache and failure. Between varying temperature's indoors, the threat of loosing power during a snow storm, and having to keep chicks indoors until they are fully feathered - it's a mess, to say the least.

Never-the-less, I always end up outweighing the pro's to the con's, and the hatching begins in October and normally ends in March — only to start back up again in the Spring and Summer. It's never ending. My most recent hatch was just this fall, when I welcomed a new and ancient breed to our homestead — Icelandic Chickens.

Over the past two seasons I've learned quite a bit through trial and error, and ultimately, hatching through the Winter isn't as scary as it once used to be. Here are some things you'll need to consider and prepare for when taking on this commitment during the harsh Winter months.

Being Prepared for the Electric to Fail Your Incubator

More likely than not, if you're living in a Central or Northern state, you'll receive at least one significant snowfall during the year. In Virginia, the temperature and weather are so unpredictable that I need to be on guard at all times. This means I need to find a few easy ways to keep my incubator warm, if I'm not using a miraculously broody hen indoors.

Having an alternate heat source in your home is certainly a bonus. Using a kerosene heater, wood stove, or hooking up a space heater to a generator will help keep your incubator warm when placing it near the heat source. We heat strictly by wood stove, therefore, I am able to place the incubator near the wood stove and adjust the heat with distance. Humidity, of course, is also something you should constantly be aware of. A dry heat source will quickly wick away the water in your moisture wells. Placing a wet sponge into your incubator helps hold moisture longer.

If having an alternate heat source isn't an option for you, then you can easily wrap your incubator with multiple towels or a blanket and close all of the vents in order to keep the humidity and heat locked inside for a short amount of time until the electric comes back on. Eggs should stay warm this way in your incubator without an alternative heat source for about 2-3 hours, depending on your indoor heat condition. With no guarantee that your power will return within a couple of hours, another easy hack is placing stones in the bottom of your incubator (before the power goes out), as they hold heat inside for a longer amount of time, which is even helpful on a regular basis for when turning your eggs manually.

Some other ways to keep your incubator warm without an alternate heat source — if you have a gas fireplace or oven, you can warm up water and other things on or in it. Warm up water or rice, and place hot water bottles or warm bags of rice inside of the incubator, replacing as needed. Most of all, do not open the lid unless completely necessary to do these things.

No matter what route you choose to keep heat inside of the incubator, you'll need to ensure that you are measuring heat and humidity at all times. I use this digital reptile hygrometer and thermometer meter.

Keeping Hatchlings Indoors

I'm extremely fortunate to have a basement. This means that the smell of chicks isn't nearly as bad as it could be. The wood stove is located downstairs as well, so when the electric goes out, they remain warm and comfortable. Being near the wood stove in the Winter allows me the freedom not to use a heat lamp indoors. Heat lamps are dangerous enough in coops, and I highly discourage them. But they are even more dangerous inside of your own home if not secured properly.

Whether you choose an indoor or outdoor brooder, a heat source that doesn't run off of electric is necessary, unless you have a generator. Once again, a wood stove or kerosene heater may be the best option for you, or other safe DIY heating options that you can create yourself such as the above bags of rice and hot water bottles. These work excellent for chicks as well, as they can lay on or beside them to keep warm.

You more than likely understand how to set up a brooder, but if not, there are plenty of wonderful articles on this website that can help you set your brooder up. In the Winter months, it's a bit different, as they will be indoors longer if you don't have an outdoor brooder set up with a heat source. We choose to keep our chicks indoors until they are completely, or almost completely, feathered. They then go outside into their own "mini-coop" with a regular watt light bulb so that it takes the bitter chill off. We've also used an outdoor brooder with chicks that weren't fully feathered. It is a small and completely enclosed dog house that has been re-purposed into a small coop. It houses a very secure heat lamp with a thick layer of hardware cloth between the bottom, where the chicks are housed, and the top of the coop. This gives us peace of mind, knowing that it can not be accessed by little chickens playing around.

While the chicks are indoors, it's important to change their bedding regularly. For the first few days, I simply add pine shavings over top of their regular pine shaving bedding. But once they reach a week or so old, their feces become much more pronounced. You will need to remove and add new bedding to the brooder daily or every other day. Make sure the bedding is never wet from them knocking water bowls over. If it is, remove and replace immediately. Leaving soiled bedding in a brooder can harbor E-coli, Coccidiosis, and other diseases that can be detrimental to your growing flock, and even to yourself.

Hatching and keeping chicks and other poultry or waterfowl in the Wintertime can be nerve wracking, but it can also be extremely rewarding. Your bond with your new hatchlings can be stronger, simply because of the fact that you are forced to tend to them much more often. Come Spring, there will be several happy pullets preparing to lay their very first eggs, and the satisfaction from them will far outweigh the work you put into them during those bitter months. Ultimately, it is safer to hatch chicks during the warmer months, but if you're hopeful for Spring layers, and you are completely prepared for whatever may come your way, Wintertime hatching may just be the perfect fit for you!

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How to Build a Rabbit House With a Worm Compost Bin

If you have rabbits, you have manure to manage. Whether for pets or meat, rabbits produce a lot of manure for their size. An adult rabbit will create about 50 lbs. of manure per year. Rabbit manure is nutrient-rich, especially in nitrogen, and is a dry pellet that is safe to put directly into gardens or feed to worms. Raising rabbits and worms can easily go hand-in-hand with beneficial results. Building a rabbit hutch with a worm-composting bin is an excellent way to manage the manure, create a garden-soil additive and even raise worms for sale.