June 5, 2016

How to Acquire Chickens

Apparently, all I have to do is starting thinking about getting a few more chickens and magically they appear.  Not really magically, but they came to me nonetheless.

We've had a lot of attrition this year.  The chickens are locked in their coop at night - dusk to dawn - but are completely free range during the day.  They have 4 acres at their disposal and make good use of all of it.  But that also makes them susceptible to predators.  Sometimes we find one that has clearly been attacked and other times we catch the perpetrator.

One afternoon, I came home early to pick up Jordan for swim practice.  We were very rushed, as usual, and didn't pay any attention to animals.  Jeremy got home later and went down to the barn to do afternoon chores.  He texted me at practice asking if one of the Buff chickens was dead when I got home.  Honestly, I had no idea (great farmer that I am).  Then he snapped a picture and sent it to me.

In total we have lost half the flock over the year - from 10 to 5 hens.  So this spring I started thinking about getting some chicks.  I didn't say anything to Jeremy or Jordan.  Just started thinking about it to myself.  In truth 5 hens is plenty for our family.  But I have friends at work that like my eggs.  If I got 5 more then I could keep sharing.  As it turns out 5 hens were ready to move to our house.

My daughter has been best friends with a girl down the road for the past three years.  The friends is great and they are more like sisters than just friends.  Unfortunately, the friend's parents are getting a divorce and have to sell their house and property.  The girl, with her mom and three siblings are going to move into town and can't take any of their animals with them.  They had to adopt out their dog (that was a sad moment for everyone).  And their 20 chickens would have to go.  The friend was telling me and Jordan the news. She was so sad about a few of her favorite hens, especially one she called Vivian.

Problem solved!  She need to get rid of some chickens and I needed some chickens.  That evening, her and her dad brought over 5 hens, including Vivian, to add to my flock.  The friend is over frequently and always goes visits her hens.  She picks up Vivian and they have a little hug.  I'm glad it worked out the way it was supposed to.

Here is the happy flock before bed time.

June 4, 2016

Hottest Day of the Year

The hottest day of the year has come very early!  There's a saying in the Pacific Northwest that summer starts on July 5th.  Typically in the month of June the temperature may creep towards 90 F once in a while, but it rains every few days and the evenings are still cold.  So we don't worry about shearing the sheep until late June.

It's June 4th and the temperature is going to hit 98 F today and 96 F tomorrow.  We will crush the all time highs for these two days.  This is following the hottest May on record.  The poor sheep are not taking it well.  And that is how we ended up shearing sheep in the hottest day of the year.

A number of years ago we bought an electric sheep trimmer.  The noise scared the crap (litterally) out of the ewes.  Within three minutes of trying it on Lilly, it broke.  So we do it by hand.  It is grueling.  Hours of cutting wool on sheep who are pissed about being chained to a fence and having us pull and prod.  They often do piss on us to show their dismay.

We start with the most difficult.  Pixie has the worst wool.  It mats and leaves little space to cut between the mat and the skin without nicking her.  But this year wasn't nearly as bad.  Next comes Lilly.  Lilly is the most fidgeting animal I've met.  She fights and fights, kicks, head buts.  By the time we finished Lilly at 10am it was already in the mid 80's and I was sweating like crazy.  Jeremy went up to the house and made a picture of Gatoraide for us to share.  I tried to straighten out my back from a couple hours bent over.

Then came Sue-Sue.  I love Sue-Sue!  She's funny.  While we were shearing all the others, she was sniffing my butt and nibbling my shoulders.  She loves cheek scratches.  Sue-Sue is also the tallest.  Which means less bending over.  My back got a little break.

Baby was second to last.  I thought she would be easy considering that she is the smallest.  But even trying to catch her was hard.  At one point she was jigging and jagging and spooking the rest of the sheep.  Pixie freaked and bolted, jumping between Jeremy and I and kicking her hind legs.  She hit Jeremy in the chest and me in the arms.  It will be a nice bruise later.  Finally Jeremy grabbed Baby and we got her ready to go.

Baby held still.  But her wool was a sold mat. Like one of the brown Welcome mats for the front stoop but with little strands attaching it to her body.  We could cut about a quarter inch at a time.  Shearing a sheep a quarter inch at a time take a long, long time.  It was a couple of hours.  And she got nicked a couple of times.  Not bad, but a little bleeding.  I was dripping sweat off my nose and chin and was actually a little out of breath at the end.

Then Notag.  Notag is the best sheep, next to Junior, of all time.  She just hangs out.  The halter and chain weren't completely necessary, but helpful to keep her in one place.  It went very fast.  Thankfully!  My hands were loosing strength and starting to swell.

Now I'm in the living room, with a fan blowing on me.  Showered (cold) to remove all the wool and dirt and pee.  I took two ibuprofen, but it's not helping much.  I'll two more soon.  Typing is hard, like typing with ski gloves on.  At least they are not over heating (it's now 95 F).  We do a pretty terrible job.  It looks like prison cuts.  A true montly crew.  All uneven, tuffs everywhere.

Here is a before and after of Lilly.  You can see all the wool around my feet after the shearing.

November 13, 2015

Frank the Squirrel is a Bastard!

I get it.  Squirrels are storing up for winter. And everyone loves an easy meal.  But they are stealing more cracked corn and oats than the chicken and sheep are eating. And we are on a budget!

It started a couple months back. We keep the scratch and oats and chicken feed in plastic garbage cans under the pole barn between the chicken coop and sheep stalls.  Every day when I came down to toss some scratch and oats around, the lids were cockeyed or on the ground. I was like, what keeps flipping the lids?  Then I saw him - the largest squirrel in the world climbing out of the chicken feed.

This guy was huge.  I mean, draw a mask around his eyes can he could be a raccoon.  The cats are scared of him.  And that wasn't all. He had a whole gang of smaller squirrels on lookout in the trees.  They started chattering as I came down and the big one, which I named Frank, was able scurry (more like lumber due to his weight) away.  The first time I saw him, I said out loud to the animals "Holly shit! That's a huge squirrel."  They baaa-ed and clucked their agreement.

At least the mystery was solved.  It's Frank who is stealing from us.  Now, what to do about it.  I'm not feeding squirrels the organic, expensive feed the animals get. The squirrels can get a job and buy their own food.

First, I replaced the garbage cans with ones that have handles that lock up and prevent the lids from being removed.  Plus the plastic was thicker and heavier than the others.  For a few days, all seemed good.  Except Frank was obviously angry because there was poop and pee all over the lids.  And then I came down one day to find a hole chewed right through the plastic (see picture).  How the hell did they do that and not loose a tooth? I assumed that Frank forced the lesser squirrels to do the dirty work.  A true Godfather. In some sort of show of victory Frank also peed and pooped in the feed.  I had to toss it all out.  Nice.

I went back to Wilco and got metal garbage cans.  Try chewing through that you little bastard! The lids also fit tight.  Apparently Franks has supper natural strength or can organize themselves to work together because a few days later the lids were off again.  Seriously!?  Those lids were tight!  Hard for my daughter to remove.

By now, Jeremy was actively trying to shoot Frank with the BB gun.  A BB won't kill the squirrel, unless you are an amazing shot and can get 'em right in the temple or eye.  Honestly, Jeremy wasn't interested in killing Frank, just discouraging him with some stinging pain.  I'm not usually a fan of torturing animals, but Frank has got to go.  Guess what, Frank was barely phased by being shot.  Apparently his fat layer is like titanium.  I'm convinced he is genetically engineered.

I'd also taken to screaming obscenities at Frank every time I did chores.  Anyone walking by down on the road would think a crazy lady lives here.  The animals were getting worried too.  Their normally calm, kind speaking mom was running at the poll barn yelling"Frank, you little bastard!  I'm going to kill you!"

Next, we attached bungee cords across the lids.  For a month now, Frank has been trying to chew through the bungees (see picture).  He hasn't gotten through yet.  Or I should say that his minions haven't gotten through yet.  They probably cry at night with tooth aches.  At least it's easy and cheap to replace a bungee if they finally get through.

I wish that were then end of the story.  I win, Frank loses.  But no.  Now they are raiding the chicken feeder.  I came home to two swinging and eating like it was a rid at the amusement park. I have no idea how to deal with this.  The chickens are free range, but they need the supplemental feed this time of year.  I can't keep the squirrels out without keeping the chickens out.  I hate to say it, but we may need to put a contract on Frank and change from the BB to the 22.

August 16, 2015

Apple Sauce

I talk to a lot of people who are nervous about preserving food.  It's understandable.  Can you say botulism?!  In reality, preserving food can be really easy.  In the past I've posted instructions for simple preservation, like freezing and making jams.  But a great beginner's step into food preservation is to make apple sauce.

It's mid August now and the apple harvest is just starting.  The early apples, like Romes, Cortland, Braeburn and Gravenstine, do not store well and are best eaten fresh or made into sauces, juice or pie filling.  To get your apples, I highly recommend going to a local farm and buying direct.  Not only will you get a great day out in the country and support local farmers, but you are more likely to get the apples you want.  Stores typically only carry the most popular apples and therefore have a small selection - you almost never see saucing apples at the store.  For the best apples sauce, pick a variety of apples. Get about 10-15 pounds.  These do not have to be pretty apples.  After all, you are just going to sauce them not display them.  Misshapen, water marks, a couple bruises are all OK.  (No worm holes though.)

You do need some basic equipment.  August is a good time to buy canning equipment.  Most stores, even Fred Meyers, have canning equipment on sale.  If you aren't ready to make an investment, ask around.  I bet you know someone who will loan you a few things for a day.  Here is what you need that you probably don't already have in your kitchen:

1) A food mill.  To make nice smooth sauce, like you buy it at the store, you need a food mill.  I also use this to make blueberry jam and cranberry sauce.  Yesterday I made plum sauce with it.

2) A very large, deep pot and two smaller stainless steel pots (one is pictured).  You will use the huge pot on the left to give your jars of sauce a "hot water bath".  That's the processing method.  You need a pot that will fit roughly 8 pint jars and that you can fill to 1-inch above the top of the jars with water - so pretty darn big.  The pot on the right is for making the sauce.  Don't use aluminum because it will discolor your sauce.  You need two because you boil the apples in one and then sauce in other.

3)  The thinging on the left is a jar extractor.  You use this for putting the hot jars into the boiling water and removing them after the hot water bath.  The funnel on the right is for putting the sauce into jars without spilling.  It's not necessary but very helpful.

4)  And you need jars, of course.  I use wide mouth pint jars.  

5)  You'll also need a big slotted spoon, a soup ladle, and a couple of clean kitchen towels.

The whole process will take 2-3 hours from start to finish.  There is some down time, but not much. 

Preparation.  Wash and dry everything, including the jars and lids.  If you have a sanitize setting on your dishwasher, use that to clean the jars and lids.  Keep the jars and lids hot.

Step 1 - Slice and core the apples.  Remove any major blemishes.  No need to peel.  No need to make them look good - just chop them up.  Place into the stainless steel pot, filled halfway with cold water and 2 table spoons lemon juice (to slow the browning process).  Keep going until the pot is full.  Place on stove and bring to boil, stirring occasionally to prevent apples from sticking to the bottom.

Step 2 - While the apples are coming to boil.  Fill the large pot with water to about halfway and put on stove.  Cover and bring to boil.  Since it's such a huge pot, it will take a while to boil.

Step 3 - When the apples are soft and starting to fall apart, move that pot off the stove, on to a folded up kitchen towl.  Set the second pot on the stove with the temperature off.

Step 4 - Place the food mill on the empty pot by hooking the two legs over the edge of the pot.  Use a large slotted spoon to scoop apples into the food mill until it's half full.  Twist the handle clockwise around and around.  Every so often go backwards (counter clockwise) to loosen up the apples and then go around and around again.  Keep going until all you have left are the peels.  It takes a while.  Dump the peels into the compost.  Scoop more apples in and do it again.  Keep going until all of the apples are through the mill.  Add some water as needed.

(If your hot water both is boiling, turn the heat down to medium to keep it hot.)

Step 5 - Taste your sauce.  It's hot so be careful.  Decide if you want to add sugar or cinnamon.  Add a little at a time.  I add 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon, stir and taste again.  You can always add more, but if you add too much there is no going back.  You can add more of the water from the other pot if the sauce is thicker than you like.  Make it perfect for you.

(Let the liquid from the boiling cool and then pour into a pitcher.  Store in the fridge to have fresh apple juice for the next week.)

Step 6 - Start bringing the sauce back up to boiling.  You  need to stir constantly to prevent burning on the bottom.  Slowly increase the heat from low to medium to high.  Thick sauce doesn't boil like water.  It will create bubbles that can splatter.  As soon as I see bubbles, I turn down the heat to medium-low.

Step 7 - While your sauce is coming to boil you need to prep the jars.  Clean out your sink and fill with hot, hot, hot water.  Place the clean, sanitized jars and lids into the hot water.  Make sure everything is covered with water.  You want to be working with the hottest jars and lids possible.

(Turn up the heat on the hot water both, so it comes back to boil.)

Step 8 - Remove one jar from the hot water (use the jar extractor).  Place the funnel in and use a soup ladle to scoop sauce into the jar.  Fill leaving about 1 inch of headspace at the top.  Place the lid on and tighten.  I use a towel to hold the hot jar and tighten.  Use the jar extractor to put into the hot water bath.  Repeat with the next jar.  Keep going until the pot is full - usually about 8-9 jars.

Step 9 - Bring the hot water bath to boil.  When it's boiling, set the timer for 10 minutes.  Then use the jar extractor to move the sauce to a towel to cool.

Note - If you have more than 8 jars worth of sauce, you will have to make two batches.  While the first batch is processing, drain and re-fill the sink with hot, hot water.  Prep the next set of jars.  Keep the sauce at a very slow boil and stir occasionally.  When the first batch is done, repeat steps 8 and 9.  If you have just a little bit of sauce left - like one jar - skip the hot water bath.  Instead fill the jar, put on the lid and let it cool.  Then put in the fridge and eat within a week.

Step 10 - After all the jars are cooled to room temperature, check that each has sealed.  The center of the lids should be sucked down.  Gently push on each lid.  If there is no give, it's sealed.  If it pops down and back up, it didn't seal.  Sealed jars can be stored in the cupboard for up to a year.  Unsealed jars should be placed in the fridge and eaten within a week.  I stick a square of masking tape on the top of each jar and label it "2015 Apple Sauce."  If all you are making this year is apple sauce and you've never canned anything before, then you don't need to label.  But if you make lots of stuff you will forget what you have and when you made it.  I've dug into my pantry and found jars of stuff that are years old.  (Those go straight to the compost.)  And some things look a lot alike - plum sauce, cranberry sauce and pizza sauce look surprisingly similar but cranberry sauce on your pizza is no good at all.

That's it!

The picture below is me and my mom picking out apples in Hood River, OR.  We go to the Heirloom Apple Festival every year and get some awesome apple varieties.  My favorite are called Arkansas Black.  They have a thick skin and hearty flesh, so they store great!

September 4, 2014

Funny Bee Story

It's been a few years since we've had honey bees at our place.  We've tried three times.  Two were bought from the store and the third swarm adopted us.  But I think that we don't have a warm enough place for them because every winter they die.

That's not the funny part.

The first time we tried honey bees on our property, we let our neighbors know.  Not all the neighbors, as required by state law, just the neighbors we know and talk to every once in a while.  Bees travel up to a mile for their pollen, so I suppose we should have talked to a lot more people.  But I figure they wouldn't know my bees from any others out there.  It's not like they have an ID bracelet that says "If found return to Brooks' Hobby Farm."

One Saturday morning, shortly after the first hive of bees arrived, the phone rings.  I answer and the lady says, "Hi.  I'm your neighbor on the north side." (Not a neighbor I usually talk with and therefore didn't know about the bees.)  She continues, "Lola said you guys got honey bees and I think they may be moving into our attic."  (Lola is our wonderful neighbor and probably mentioned it in passing.)  I replied, "Yes, we got honey bees.  Why do you think they are moving into your attic?"

I should note that in my professional career I deal with angry and frustrated people on a daily basis.  After 15 years of trial and error (a lot of trial and error), I have learned how to respond to any unknown entity without 1) being defensive; or 2) revealing anything but simple facts.  I think those are really important tack-ticks when working with neighbors regarding bees, pets, fences, trees, noise or anything else, ever.

Anyway, she asked "Do you have all your bees?"  That caused me a pause.  A hive of honey bees is like 30,000 bees.  Do have them all?  Well, let me go count them and see.  All I could say was, "I think so."

She proceeded to tell me that she was seeing one or two bees fly into and out of the attic frequently for the past few days.  She was concerned that the bees were slowly moving into her attic.  Again she asked if I was sure I had all my bees.  I replied that I would go check.  However, I told her, bees don't move homes like that.  If a hive gets too large for its home, an entire swarm of about 10,000 bees leaves the hive.  The swarm moves, all together, while drones go look for a new home.  When a drone finds a new home, the entire swarm moves in all at once.

We purchase only about 10,000 bees to start the hive. We only had them for a few days at that point, so it was highly unlikely that a swarm had left.  But since she was clearly frustrated and thinking the invasion was my fault, I said I would go check the hive and call her back.

About 10,000 bees - ready to move into the hive
I'm not sure what she thought I would do.  But what I did do was go down and listen to see if there was a lot of buzzing coming from the hive.  There was and a few bees were coming and going to gather food.  Did we have them all?  I don't know.  But odds were that we did. I call the lady back and said yes, we have all our bees.  Thankfully, she accepted that answer.  She didn't have too, but she did.  Her tone because a bit desperate.  She wanted to know what she should do.

I get it.  Most people have a healthy fear of bees.  The sound of buzzing is used in horror movies because it makes humans react and get agitated.  But the truth is that bees (not wasps) are not aggressive.  Honey bees are docile unless threatened.  Yes, swatting your hand at a bee is aggressive and it may react.  Seriously, if someone started smacking you for no apparent reason while you were walking down the sidewalk minding your own business, you would probably react too.  And truth be told, if a swarm of honey bees takes up residence in your attic, they will do a massive amount of damage!

I gave the woman a few numbers to call.  I let her know that she should work with some professionals to get the swarm out of the attic and moved into a proper home.  Perhaps I scared her a little, telling her about how much damage the weight of their honey could cause.  But she was happy to have some people to call for help.

Ok, maybe that story isn't actually funny.  I just can't get over "Do you have all your bees?"