Homesteading and Livestock
Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Spring is here! Time to Get Busy!


It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. . .was disheartened by the misfortunes that struck my girls last spring, and I didn’t feel much like blogging. What kind of misfortunes you ask? Well, for the first time in 14 years, I lost ALL MY HIVES! When asking the experts why they had died, I consistently received the standard answer: varroa mites. In those 14 years, my hives never had a serious varroa problem even though they are chemical free. Of course my hives had varroa, just never beyond—or even close to—threshold level.  I’ve always been faithful with regular 48-hr mite drop counts and have never found more than 3 to 5 mites per count! My theory is that by not treating them, my girls have worked up a resistance to the virus passed by the varroa and it did seem to be working for me. . .until last spring. So I got out my microscope and biopsied. The girls had lots of problems. . .of course varroa was one, but there were also signs of paralytic virus, pesticides, etc.

After recovering from the shock and disappointment, I started from scratch with two nucs. They grew and did well throughout the summer season despite a major pesticide kill to one of the hives! On that occasion, I had gone out to the hives to find thousands of dead bees on the ground, surrounding only one hive! Classic pesticide poisoning. Went into the hive and found the nurse bees working on the brood and all was well within. When I checked the following day, the number of dead bees on the ground had not risen and the population within had not dwindled, confirming the pesticide analysis. My home and the hives are surrounded by three commercial farms, which leads me to believe that those girls flew directly into active spraying!

The remainder of the summer went well, as did early fall when mite counts were not a problem.I did not take off any honey because the honey that season was very sparse and I intended to leave it for the girls to overwinter on. Final inspection before leaving the girls to overwinter found that one hive had very little honey but a strong colony with a beautiful queen, and lots of bees and brood. The other was slam full of honey, but no brood! So I combined, giving me one huge hive made up of three deep boxes! The girls went through the very mild winter well. I kept checking on them and their stores by putting my ear on each box and rapping sharply. I was surprised and pleased to get a strong roar from each of the three boxes! Usually, the girls move up over the winter and after a while you won’t get any sound out of at least the bottom box, but these girls were plentiful.

This spring I knew it was time to split the hive. I tried to do it by myself, but deep boxes full of honey are too heavy for this old woman to lift! I did manage to take the top deep off by moving it 5 frames at a time. I confirmed the presence of brood and set that top deep up on its own stand as one split. I also gave the mother hive a medium box since I could see that the remaining two boxes were packed. That was on a Tuesday.

The following Saturday (4 days later) I called my friend Michael to help me. Not only for his ability to lift those heavy boxes, but also because I can always use a second pair of eyes on my inspections! Our inspection revealed that the girls were happy, healthy and feisty (glad my smoker was lighted)!/p>

When we opened the big hive we found that in the four days since I put on the additional box, the girls had filled that new medium with beautiful honey! We took ten deep frames of honey off for harvesting and separated the remaining two deeps. Once we had some semblance of order, we checkerboarded all three hives, rearranging the frames so that each has honey, pollen, brood and space to grow. Now it is a matter of wait and watch. With any luck all three will thrive but I’ll be keeping a close watch on them over the course of the next few weeks at which time I’m hoping I can give you all good news!.

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The Pros & Cons of Eating Duck Eggs vs Chicken Eggs


Chicken eggs are the most consumed eggs all around the world. It's good, it's healthy, it's easy. But some people, out of curiosity or nutritional reason, might be interested in trying some other type of eggs, like duck eggs. Switching to duck eggs can give your boring breakfast routine a refreshing change. Plus, duck eggs are more versatile than you realize at first glance.

Following is a look at the pros and cons of eating duck eggs vs the more conventional chicken eggs.

How Do Duck Eggs Compare to Chicken Eggs?

Duck eggs are just as safe to eat as chicken eggs. The USDA has the exact same standards and regulations in place for duck eggs as it does for all poultry such as chicken, quail, ostrich, etc. While the egg itself is larger than a chicken egg, the yolk inside is also larger in proportion to the white part of the egg. Duck eggs also have more calories and nutrition per gram compared to chicken eggs, but less than quail and goose eggs. Read this article to learn more about how duck eggs compare to other eggs.

Another curious question that most people want to be answered is how does the taste compare? Well, depending on the diet, duck eggs taste similar to chicken eggs, only richer. While the tastes are similar, there are some subtle and some not so subtle differences between duck and chicken eggs.

Pros of Choosing Duck Eggs Over Chicken Eggs

Duck eggs have a thicker shell. This tends to give duck eggs a longer shelf-life than chicken eggs.

Duck eggs are about 50% larger than even jumbo chicken eggs. A rough comparison is 2 duck eggs = 3 chicken eggs.

Duck eggs contain more albumen than chicken eggs. This is the big bonus when baking with duck eggs. More albumen gives your pastries and other baked goods more structure and a higher lift. Cakes and other pastries come out fluffier and lighter than with chicken eggs.

When ducks and chickens are on the same diet, their eggs taste similar. However, duck eggs taste richer and have a creamier consistency. This is because -

Duck eggs have a higher fat content than chicken eggs. Duck eggs contain 9.6 grams of fat, compared to 5 grams of fat in chicken eggs.

Duck eggs are also higher in Omega-3 fatty acids - 71.4 milligrams vs 37 milligrams.

Duck eggs are higher in protein than chicken eggs. This is good news for everyone on a high protein diet, such as the Paleo Diet. An average chicken egg contains 6.28 grams of protein, while an average duck egg contains 8.97 grams of protein.

People who have an allergy to chicken eggs can often eat duck eggs with no ill effects. This is because the proteins in duck and chicken eggs are slightly different. Anyone with a severe egg allergy should always check with your doctor first before you experiment with duck eggs to make sure this is a safe substitution for you.

Cons of Choosing Duck Eggs Over Chicken Eggs

The thicker shell on duck eggs does make them harder to crack. This means you need a little practice to get a clean crack and avoid bits of shell falling into whatever you are making.

Because of the larger size and the larger fat content, you can not substitute duck for chicken egg for egg when baking. You will need to do a little experimenting to see what adjustments you need to make to your regular chicken egg recipes to get the quality you want.

Duck eggs have 3 times more cholesterol than chicken eggs. This is partly because of their larger overall size, partly because the yolk itself is larger, and partly because duck eggs have a higher fat content.

Each duck egg contains 619 milligrams of cholesterol, which is more than twice the daily recommended limit. If you have high cholesterol or heart disease, one duck egg has more than 3 times the daily recommended limit.

Duck eggs are more expensive than chicken eggs on the market. Duck eggs can cost up to $1 per egg, while chicken eggs average under .25 a piece. But if you raise both ducks and eggs on your own, they actually cost very similar.

While duck eggs are higher in protein and other nutrients, they are also higher in calories. A chicken egg averages 71 calories, but a duck egg averages 130 calories. These calories come from a higher mix of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

Duck egg whites are harder to whip up because they have a lower water content than chicken egg whites.

This lower water content can also make duck eggs rubbery if they are cooked a certain way (hard boiled) or for too long. Again, it will take a bit of experimenting to find the best way to cook duck eggs.

Depending on the diet that the duck is fed, the taste of a duck egg can be greatly affected. Ducks prefer a high protein diet over plant matter (think bugs, snails, and slugs). While farmers love this about ducks, it does affect the taste of the eggs. If a duck is kept on the same diet as chickens, the taste will not be affected near as much.

Duck eggs are not as easy to find as chicken eggs. While some upscale stores such as Whole Foods are starting to carry duck eggs, they are not as readily available as mass-produced chicken eggs. The best place to find good duck eggs is still at your local farmer's market.


There are definite advantages to cooking and baking with duck eggs, once you have played around with and adjusted your recipes to compensate for the size, lower water content, and higher fat and proteins. However, if you are watching your cholesterol and counting calories, perhaps switching to duck eggs isn't the right choice for you.

Duck eggs contain a significant amount of cholesterol and fat, but they are higher in other nutrients and protein as well. Eaten in moderation, duck eggs can be a great addition to a well-balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Bottom-line, if you don't have a condition to watch your cholesterol, and you raise poultry in your backyard, duck eggs could be a better option for you than chickens. Otherwise, you probably want to stick with chicken eggs.

Jennifer Poindexter and her husband raise most of their food and a variety of animals in the foothills of North Carolina, where they built a small homestead on very little money. She writes about all of her adventures at Morning Chores, where she shares the knowledge she has gained with others that might want to take the full plunge into homesteading. Read all of Jennifer's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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Training Dogs Not To Kill Chickens


When our German Shepard Sara displayed a predilection for eating our laying hens, I admonished her sharply. She killed another, and I admonished her more sternly. I chained her up, but she wanted to run, and as soon as we trusted her and she knew we were distracted, she’d sneak off and prey on another hapless bird.

Complaining to an old farmer about this unfarmerly dog’s behavior, he shrugged and advised simply (with a New England drawl). “Tie it to ‘er neck.”

“What?” I asked, with a little surprise.

“Tie the dead chicken to ‘er neck. She’ll stop.” the old Vermonter advised.

“How long?” I inquired.

“ ‘Til it falls off,” he dryly answered.

“What?” I repeated, more surprisedly than when I first posed the question. “You can’t do that -- it’s cruel.”

“It works,” replied he. “What else you gonna do?”

So I did it. I employed no growling or angry words. I just said “Sara, now you have a new necklace,” and tied her most recent kill to her collar with a piece of bailing twine. She was immediately unhappy with this adornment, and for the next several days she had a new skulk about her. And a new smell. “Pew,” I’d remark to the poor creature, who could not escape the yet poorer creature draped about her neck. She looked guilty, or mortified.

But she stopped killing chickens. After a few days the rotted bird rotted off, and so did Sara’s hitherto incurable habit. She never attacked another chicken. In fact, she’d skulk away from them, and they were free to range. She seemed to apprehend that one of them might grab her around the neck, and not let go for dear life.

Sadly, Sara later displayed a comparable inclination toward sheep. Though she didn’t kill any, she mauled a few. Rather weightier than chickens, and still alive, I decided against strapping a sheep to the dog’s neck. We found another home for Sara, and bought a Border Collie. I never had to tie any animals around the Border Collie’s neck.

My wife says I shouldn’t post this article because of animal cruelty concerns. I leave that judgment to my readers -- perhaps it would be cruel to the remaining chickens not to tie their erstwhile comrade to the attacker’s collar….

 Photo by Emily Klar

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Preparing a Farm Animal First-Aid Kit

While we all do our best to keep our farms, homes, and homesteads safe, accidents do happen.  It is important that humans and animals are prepared for injuries and have everything on hand to help heal wounds quickly.

IMG_5262You cannot be prepared for every eventuality on a farm, but there are a few key items to keep on hand that will help to sterilize wounds, staunch bleeding, and other quick and vital fixes.  

A farm first aid kid should be easily accessible and stored in a safe place where the items inside will stay dry and un-contaminated.  Check everything regularly to make sure it is all there, and nothing has expired.  Everyone on the farm should know where the first aid kit is kept, and one of the most important parts of a first aid kid is your veterinarian’s phone number promenently displayed so you can reach them quickly in an emergency.  

Every type of animal will have different specific needs.  For example, you should keep an udder ointment on hand to keep teats clean and free of infection in dairy animals, and it’s good to have a bloat treatment on hand for ruminants.  It is important to do your research and know what your animals might need.

First-Aid Kit

There are some universal items to keep on hand for healthy farm animals.  Your animal first aid kid should include:

Scissors Scissors are always useful on the farm, but a clean and sharp pair should be kept safely in your first aid kit.  Scissors are perfect for cutting bandages, or to get a length of twine or other items the right size.  

Gauze/Vet Wrap You always need something on hand to cover an open wound or staunch bleeding.  Stockpile bandages and gauze pads in case of emergency, being able to cover a wound while you wait for a vet can mean life or death for an animal.  

Lubricant Petroleum jelly or another sterile lubricant is good to keep on hand in case you need to assist in a birth or need to take an animal’s temperature.  Petroleum jelly is also helpful to put on frostbite which can occur on bird’s combs and wattles.

Veterinary Thermometer It is very important to be able to monitor your animal’s temperatures if they are acting under the weather, and also to be able to take temperatures after a mother has delivered.  A veterinary thermometer is used rectally, using a lubricant, and a good one will give an accurate digital reading quickly.

Wound Ointment or Spray You should keep several wound treatments on hand.  Blu-Kote is a recommended brand that has both antibacterial and anti fungal properties.  Neosporin is a good option which will work well on animals.  What you are looking for is something that will prevent infection in a dirty barnyard.

IMG_1378Rubbing Alcohol or Iodine Rubbing alcohol, iodine, or saline can all be used to clean a fresh wound.  Keep them on hand for sterilization, and iodine can also be used to dip the umbilical chord of newborns in order to sterilize them.  

Latex Gloves Latex gloves are helpful to keep on hand in case of any messy situation.  They’re useful not only for handling wounds, but they are also essential to have if you ever help a mother in delivery.   

Syringes Syringes are always good to keep on hand for both routine and emergency medical needs.  It is good to have both oral and needle, for both emergency medicine doses and routine vaccinations and worming.

Epsom Salts If you keep hoofed animals, it’s good to have epsom salts on hand.  Abscessed hooves can be soaked in a bath of water and epsom salts as an effective treatment option.  

Flashlight No, a flashlight doesn’t treat any type of injury but you never know when you might need to see in your barn.  Keep flashlights everywhere, including in your first aid kit, in case of late night emergencies or deliveries that start in the pre-dawn hours of the morning.

Nutri-Drench and Electrolytes Electrolytes and immune boosters like Nutri-Drench are great to keep on hand for lethargic animals, although you shouldn’t administer them without checking with a veterinarian or expert first.  Keeping some supplements like this on hand can help you avoid a trip to the vet for an animal that is a little bit under the weather.

For each specific type of animal there are plenty of helpful supplements and tools to keep on hand in case of emergency.  I use garlic and apple cider vinegar regularly as a immune booster for my birds, and baking soda provides digestive support for goats, for example. 

Taking the time to put together a well thought out first aid kit can mean the difference between life and death for your animals in an emergency.  Talk to your vet about your animals specific needs, and be sure to consult them with any questions you have in your farm yard experiences. 

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Capturing a Swarm of Honeybees

So you’ve spotted a swarm of honeybees. Now what?  In this blog post, I discuss some of the basic considerations when you consider capturing a swarm.

Swarm in Tree

What is a Swarm?

A swarm is simply a gathering of honeybees, clinging together around the queen while scouts look for a new home. Swarming is a honeybee colony’s natural instinct to expand and preserve the species. As the colony begins to fill the available nesting space, the bees prepare to divide. A new queen is raised while the old queen departs with a group of bees. This departing group congregates in a  readily identifiable mass on a tree branch, post or some other structure. Swarming frequently happens in the spring so the bees have all season to build and store up food for the winter months.

Don’t worry about finding swarms. When friends and neighbors find out you are a beekeeper, they will call you when they see one. Your challenge is to determine if you are ready to capture a swarm.

On our farm, we have seen two swarms already this year and were able to acquire one. To successfully capture and hive a swarm, it is prudent to be mindful of a few steps.

Scout the Location

First scout out the location of the swarm. Swarms will often remain in one place for a day or so but it is best to move quickly. It is disheartening to gather all your equipment and gear, load everything and arrive at the location to find the swarm has already moved on.  When assessing the location, think through how to safely gather the swarm. Start with access. Are you able to reach it with a well stabilized ladder or from the back of a truck? Perfect. If you are considering balancing your ladder on top of your pickup, don’t.  As wonderful as it is to capture a swarm, it is not worth personal injury or risk.

Also consider how far you will need to carry the hive once you have the swarm inside. You can place a swarm in a nuc (short for nucleus) box which will be lighter to carry. If you are using a ten frame box with bottom board and cover, this will be heavier and more unwieldy.

The swarm we captured landed on an Autumn Olive shrub about three feet off the ground next to a pathway. It was as if the bees were begging to be placed in a hive.

Gather Tools and Equipment

You will need some basic items to capture a swarm. As noted above you can use a nuc box or a swarm trap. At a minimum you will need frames, a box, lid, bottom board and liquid feed. Don’t forget to wear your protective gear. Even though a swarm contains bees at their most docile with no honey or brood to guard, they still have stingers. As you bend, reach and clasp you could inadvertently pinch one of the bees and get stung.

We loaded the ATV with a single hive box containing ten new frames of wax coated foundation, a solid bottom board, an entrance reducer set to the smallest opening, top feeder, heavy sugar syrup, inner cover and outer cover. For ourselves, protective jackets with netted hoods and gloves. Given the location of the swarm we also included loppers and pruners in the tool kit.

Box under swarm

Gather the Bees

Depending on the location of your swarm, you may shake, cut the tree branch, or brush the bees into the box. Work deliberately without sudden movement that will startle the bees. If you are working with a partner, talk through each step so both know what the other’s role will be in this operation.

After  we stationed the bottom board and box of frames below the swarm, one of us held the branch while the other cut. Once the branch was free, we placed it  across the top of the frames. The bees started crawling over and down between the frames. A gentle shake or two and a gentle brush removed the bees from the branch. This step felt very much like installing a package of bees. After about 15 minutes the majority of the swarm was crawling on the frames, into the entrance and along the side of the box.

Bees crawling


Once the majority of the bees are in the box, place the cover and load for transport. Common wisdom suggests taking the new hive a considerable distance from the parent colony to ensure they will stay where you place them. Another option is to close up the hive with a piece of screen for a few days until the queen’s pheromones permeate the hive. Add the feeder style of your choice and fill with a 1:1 sugar syrup. Continue feeding until the bees are bringing in sufficient nectar and pollen to meet their own needs.

Our open box and bottom board were lifted as one unit into the back of the UTV and slowly driven to the new location. Top feeder, syrup and covers were added, securely weighing down the covers with a brick. Since this location was far enough from the parent colony, we used an entrance reducer turned to the smallest opening. This helps the bees defend their hive until they are well established. Our swarm appeared calm and accepting of their new home. Since they have to build all new wax on the frames, we will feed syrup for three to four weeks.

Catching a swarm is a beekeeper bonus. An additional colony is added without the added expense.

Julia writes and blogs from Five Feline Farm where the owners do all the work and the cats direct the show. You can find out more about this small farm on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the web.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Thrifty is Still in Style


Dog kennels are one of those wonderful items that can be used for a wide variety of purposes…and critters!  Photo by Kara Berlage 

Call it odd, call it quirky, call it old-fashioned, call it hoarding, or call it a newer term like cradle-to-cradle, thriftiness permeates the homesteading farmer’s lifestyle.  Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about how old, unwanted sheds would be burnt down and the coals raked through to salvage all the nails for the next project.  Well, times really haven’t changed all that much…save any shed roasting on our part.

It has always surprised me the things people would throw away.  Contractors would come to remodel the old farmhouse or build a new outbuilding, and they’d chuck everything they didn’t use into a huge dumpster.  We’d be out there scavenging, pulling out bits of lumber, pieces of tin siding or roofing, and squirreling it away in our favorite corner stashes.

During the renovation of our 1919 Gambrel barn, some of the boards were so weathered, they were removed and replaced with new white pine.  But were they thrown out?  Oh no!  Those weather-beaten boards came back to life as a run-in pig shelter on skids, roofed with that leftover tin the contractors were going to throw away earlier.

2x4s are gold, never get rid of them!  And screws?  Use them over and over until the heads are stripped bare.  No sense in wasting a good screw.  And old doors?  Put them up in the rafters of the garage—there’ll be a chicken coop that needs one someday.  And the old towels?  Stash them away for lambing.  Rags seem to live forever on a farm!

And wire, that hangs around until its broken to tiny nubs, coiled up, and hung on nails in Grandpa’s workshop room in the garage, next to every tool old and new accumulated for keeping the motley set of equipment running on the homestead.  Old coffee tins hold hodge-podge assortments of rusty nails, others clips for attaching fences to T-posts (never seem to have enough of them around, even when they’re bent and bowed, they still get driven in for the next fencing project).

Ah, fencing…  This week, we were putting up a fresh yard for having some celebrity chickens and ducks at Farmstead Creamery.  This would create a chance for youngsters of all ages to meet some of the animals we have on the farm, without disturbing the crews busy in the pastures.  But while our flock of 150 laying hens move about in the field protected by electric mesh fencing, such predatory precautionary measures aren’t the best mix with toddlers.  So it was time to get out the fence post diggers, the T-post pounders, and some welded wire fence.

When we first started restoring the old homestead, we made a lot of fence.  And I mean a LOT.  Some years, it felt like all we did was put up or take down fence.  Every year, the garden fence went up (and that garden was over 100 feet deep by 200 feet wide, with an additional 30 by 50 foot patch) after tilling, then all came down again in the fall before the major snows.  Now we fence even the garden in electric mesh, so I don’t miss that old style annual fencing project one bit!

But that certainly didn’t mean we got rid of the old fence.  Oh no, it was rolled up and stashed with the rest of the “might use it someday” metal items behind a machine shed.  You know, those “someday” piles could last forever, really.  I mean, who knows when that bowed-nearly-in-half metal pipe gate that the rams tried to destroy might be the exact perfect thing you needed for that in-a-pinch project!

It’s a Theory Anyway

Well, that someday pile got a good workout the last couple of days, creating the “celebrity birds” strong-pen.  In went the fence posts (all repurposed from the re-used fencing stash in the woodshed), then we pulled in one of the summer poultry shelters that has housed pullets or teenaged turkeys in its previous lives.  Then it was time to add the fence.  Rusted, bent, unloved, we pulled the salvaged chunks of spliced fencing into shape with the “come-along” and pounded and clipped them into place.

And in the end?  Well, like most of those kinds of projects, there was just enough of the materials on hand to get the job done—even if it ended up being a motley mix of woven and welded wire.  Those birds would be safe from predators and prying fingers, and the “someday pile” was just that little bit smaller than before.

Plywood is another coveted re-use item on the farm.  One day it’s part of a loading chute to the stock trailer, another a draft shield for piglets.  Then it’s a ramp on this date and a shearing board on that date.  Cardboard also serves similarly, being used for all manner of purposes on the homestead from building chick brooders to offering a protective buffer between the hard, cold concrete and laying on your back, working on the underbelly of the farm truck.  The helpful folks at the local hardware store have grown quite accustomed to the annual call to save “chick boxes” in the spring—storing empty stove and refrigerator boxes for pickup.

Even the Sawyer County Gazette gets involved, bringing over stacks of old newspapers that I dutifully shred for bedding for the young chicks.  Soon they can have wood shavings (also saved by a local sawmill for us, which is a byproduct of their planer process), but for starters in order for the chicks to learn “this is food” and “this is bedding,” shredded paper is the best medium.

It’s all about taking a common waste product and turning it into something useful on the farm!  What could be better, right?  Scrap fencing supplies becomes a chance for a youngster to meet a colorful rooster up close.  Unpurchased newspapers become a comfy home for fuzzy, baby chicks.  Bits of forgotten boards become shelter for pastured pigs.  And the kennel from Grandpa’s black lab Meg who passed away several years ago?  It’s hauled a young sow home from Virginia, brought turkeys to and from the pasture, and even helped take orphaned piglets on a road-trip to Platteville and back.

Some things are just worth being thrifty about.  And it’s coming back in style.  I could dress it up with a few trendy buzzwords like “up-cycling” or “repurposing,” but the outcome is the same.  What might have been thrown out as insignificant or used-up by consumer culture has been given new life, again and again, until it really does finally give up (several rolls of duct tape, packs of zip ties, and some baling twine later) and is lamentably allowed to depart from barnyard service.

Think we can get another year out of this fence post?  See you down on the farm sometime..

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Unlikely Heroes: Ducks


Ducks outside the garden, on slug patrol.  Photo by Megan Barnes 

Ducks.  They’re the comedy team on the farm.  They splash in their kiddie pool, quack, flap, dance around, follow each other, chase bugs, and have the most hilarious antics. 

To ducks, water is endlessly wonderful—the rain, a puddle, a hose.  Doesn’t matter where it’s coming from, it’s simply wonderful…every time.  They’re like the perfect birdy embodiment of the Zen “beginner’s mind.”  Water is new and marvelous, every day!

Ducks are also relatively harmless.  Their feet only have tiny claws and their legs are short and slim, so no tremendous kicking and scratching like turkeys, and their bills are supple and wide, so no hard pecks of hens or ferocious bites of geese.  Their natural tendency is to run away in the face of adversity, even if that adversity is an airplane flying overhead.  “Can I come out now?  Whew…that was scary.”

So ducks, in their whimsy and skittishness, are truly an unlikely hero on the farm—but they changed that story this week.

It started in the fall, late in the fall.  The fence eventually comes down around the garden, the last skeletons of plants freeze solid, and the deer come out of the woods to see if there’s anything left worth munching.  At that point, we don’t really mind.  We’ve already harvested everything we need.  If there’s something left they would like to help them make it through the winter, no worries.

But this year, the deer didn’t stop coming.  And then, they started coming when it was still light.  And then, they didn’t even mind the dogs barking at them!  This was getting way too casual.  Maybe it was our odd, nearly snowless winter, but for some reason the deer had decided to continue hanging out at the farm.

Not cool.  How could we plant the baby broccolis and cabbages?  How could we seed the peas?  They’d all be gobbled up!  Usually the deer aren’t a problem in this way (our original garden fence in 2000 had been to keep out Grandpa’s naughty black Labrador, rather than rabbits or deer.  Now it was the spring of the naughty deer.  What on earth could be left in the garden luring them in?

The chives.  They were mowed right down to little nubbins.  The perennial winter onions would surely be next.  This had to stop! 

So out I got our bundled-up lengths of electric-mesh fence and surrounded the scene of the crime.  But I didn’t want them to learn to jump the fence because it’s only 4 feet high.  The electricity does most of the work as a psychological barrier (rather than a metal or mesh physical barrier fence), but no need to encourage bad habits.  So what to do?

Time to call in the ducks!  Yes, those unlikely heroes of the barnyard that we pasture around the outside of the gardens on “slug patrol,” it was time to bring them onto the scene.  Adding their pen along the side of the garden the deer usually entered, this meant two fences between those quadrupeds and the coveted chives. 

The ducks would also add some activity and noise.  They have a peculiar trait, those ducks, of being able to sleep half of their brain at a time, keeping the other half (and its requisite beady eye) on watch.  So even at night, when the hens are totally snoozed out, they’ll make a ruckus if something approaches.  This noise might startle the deer and make them suspect of tempting the fence and its quacking inhabitants.

The finishing touches?   Nite Guard!  In anticipation of the woodland predators that annually want to sneak a poultry dinner, we invested in some of these solar-powered LED blinking lights that can easily mount to coops, on posts, or other places to keep away night predators.  It makes them feel like they’re being watched, since the blinking is random, and discourages them from drawing closer.

Nite Guard can also be used to discourage deer, with one catch.  It has to be moved about frequently, or they’ll grow accustomed to it.  So I hung one on the duck A-frame shelter.  Because it has an open bottom, I pull the shelter to a fresh patch of grass every morning.  Not only would that blinking Nite Guard (facing the swamp) act as a deterrent to fox and raccoon, but it also would be facing off with those darn deer!

And what has happened since?  Well, somewhere between the electric fence, the second layer of electric fence, the Nite Guard, and the quacking ducks, the chives are growing back quite nicely, completely unmolested.  I like to think it’s the ducks—those unlikely heroes of the barnyard.  Time to bring some fresh water to the ducks.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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