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The Challenges of Operating a Micro Dairy and Producing Safe and Delicious Milk and Dairy Products for your Friends Family and Community

 

Small herd or Micro Dairies can present serious challenges to their owners and operators despite and partly due to their small size.  Personally I have found that a few of the challenges only increase as the herd size decreases.  I have milked Jersey herds from 20 to 90 to 4 cows. The common wisdom of years past was that having one cow was a difficult as having 100 cows.  In reality I found that not to be true today due to advances in technology and improved management practices but managing a small herd of ten or fewer milk cows does present unique challenges.  Most are due to the impracticality of grouping cows according to their breeding and lactation status. 

With my larger farms I found it to be much easier to keep my dry cows in a separate group so I could feed them differently than I fed my milking cows.  I also kept my bred heifers as a separate group in a different barn or in a different pasture.  On of my favorite things to do 25 years ago was to visit my bred heifers in their pasture during a nice summer’s day or evening.  They were glad to see me because I was kind to them and fed them. And when they saw me in their pasture they assumed something good or exciting was about to happen.

Here is a funny little trick for getting cows to come to you in a pasture.  If you go out into a pasture where there is a group of cows or heifers and lie down in the grass they will all come over to smell and look at you.  It can be a bit intimidating if they come running, which they often do. I think they wonder why you aren't up on two feet and need to investigate. My heifers would surround me when I was lying on my back in the pasture like petals of a big flower and sniff my head and clothes and boots for half an hour before moving on.

Now my bred heifers (I usually have only one at the most) stay with my milk cows in the barn or on pasture.  I have found the best solution to grouping dry cows is to have a seasonal herd so they can be all dry and in need of the same ration at the same time rather than trying to keep separate groups for dry cows and milking cows.

I have also found it to be difficult to detect cows in heat if I have less than three cows.  There is no competition among the cows to stimulate the cow that isn’t in heat to mount the cow that is.  If there are two cows or more they will compete to mount a cow that has come into heat.  One cow just yawns, especially during colder or hot weather.  No one really knows why cows will mount another cow in heat.  It is thought by some cow behaviorists that the instinct might be an indicator for the bull in charge of the heard that there is a cow in heat for him that he might otherwise miss. I have even had heifers in heat try to mount me when my back was turned, an alarming experience. The arrival of spring and green grass will make the cows more active and more likely to mount one another.   It makes it handy for synchronized breeding but it also leads to mid winter calving. 

Mid winter calving in Vermont also creates the necessity for a warm maternity pen or box stall.  That isn’t tough to do in a 50 or 100 cow barn but the space is dearer in a four-cow barn.  I don’t have a warm box stall or maternity pen in my barn and I have often wished that I did and do but that would require me to add on to my barn which wouldn’t be worth it for me right now.  I have found ways to manage without one but it is a challenge.

I have also found that it is more difficult to do rotational grazing with a small herd of cows.  Moving the fence every day for three or four cows hardly seems worth it.  It is much easier to simply give them larger sections of pasture for longer periods of time and mow after they move on.  I have found that approach (under stocked and over grazed) to work very well with Silvo-pasture or wooded pastures.  It gives the cows time to browse and open up the understory beneath the trees where I can’t mow.  The advantage is that small groups of cows do a lot less collateral damage to the trees especially root crowns, than larger groups do. 

Small cow numbers also make vet visits more expensive on a per cow basis, especially for herd checks, vaccinations etc.  As a result I am much less likely to call my vet for non-emergency situations and slower to call for emergency situations.  In an emergency I first try to resolve the situation myself rather than call the vet and pay $100 or more for him or her to come to the barn.  Unfortunately that cost me a cow a few years back, which still bothers me.

Throughout the past fifty plus years that I have worked on dairy farms I have usually worked with someone else - be it a boss, a hired man or my wife and kids.  In my opinion there is no better way for a person to allow their personality defects to reach their full potential than by trying to manage a large or small dairy farm alone.  It seems to bring out all the demons.  But, in contrast, operating a micro dairy or a small herd dairy farm is the perfect activity for a family or couple.  The labor involved is not a crushing burden.  Every family member has chores to do and everyone has a purpose and is a valuable member of the management team.  I built my current four-cow Micro Dairy eleven years ago.  At the time my wife, Wendy, made it clear that after helping me farm for years she was not going to be routinely involved in managing the farm or milking the cows.  I was going to be on my own.  My four kids are all grown and are doctors and lawyers and such who live far away and have their own lives. I was surprised at how little I enjoyed doing the chore twice a day after day alone.  I do enjoy having company in the barn.  When my kids were small our dairy barns were full of life and laughter, these days it is usually just me and the radio and my cows. 

But, all is not lost.  I now have grandchildren, the oldest being four, who visit me and love to visit the barn when I am doing my chores.  And every once in a while I can convince my wife to come give me a hand during evening chores.   She’ll throw down hay from the mow or feed the calves while I milk. I appreciate the help and company, even though milking and doing chores only take about 30 minutes when I do them alone.

Just a word of caution, if you are getting into the dairy business and plan on operating a micro dairy or a small herd dairy see if you can line up regular help with the chores anyway.  Otherwise it can be a lonely and somewhat grinding experience.  Milking my cows and doing my chores alone for the previous10 years was just about enough for me.  I am now in my late 60s and my outlook and stamina are not the same as they were even five or ten or twenty years ago.  However I can’t emphasize what a great experience having a dairy farm, large or small can be for a family, if the finances work. But that is a big if.  Find some help. You don’t and shouldn’t need to be a hero to manage a micro dairy

Have fun and enjoy your cows!

Bob-White Systems, Inc., located in central Vermont, serves the rapidly emerging Micro-Dairy market in addition to more traditional dairy farms. We offer equipment, supplies, technology, and resources to enable community based dairy farmers and individuals to produce and market safe and delicious farm-fresh milk and dairy products.


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.

First Time Goat Owner? Be Prepared: Get the Facts, Part 1

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We've had a lot of interest and questions, about our goats, from our farm visitors. We developed a workshop we called "Goats 101" to help answer some of those questions.

Here are some questions AND answers from our workshop:

Where Do I Start?

First, you want to decide WHY you would like a goat. There are several different reasons and you may have more than one reason for wanting one. So, there are different things to consider.

1. Do you just want a pet?

2. Would you like to start some business...if so, what type of business?

3. Would you like to just have fresh milk for the home and maybe be able to make your own butter, cheese, etc.

4. Do you want "meat" goats? Either for food for yourself or to sell?

5. Are you interested in "fiber" goats?

6. Do you just want to clear land?

After you think about the WHY you can start focusing on what breed or breeds would be best suited to those needs. Some people just go on "I like the look of that one so, I'll get it" sort of like how you choose a dog or cat. That's ok too after all this is your decision.

Breeds

There are many different breeds of goats and there are people who are cross-breeding for dual purpose goats or just for a unique look. Sometimes this can be good and sometimes not so good.

Some of the most common breeds for our area are:

Nubian or Nubian mix:

These goats are originally from a hot climate (Africa/India) so, they really don't like cold weather and need sufficient shelter for winter. They have long ears and a characteristic Roman face. These goats are considered "Dairy" goats. They produce good quantities of milk and it's high in butterfat making it good for making cheese. For the most part these are gentle goats. When Nubians are crossed with a Boer goat the offspring will most often be more "stocky" or "meaty" and may be pushy towards their pasture mates. When mixed the ears may still be pendulus like the Nubian but, also have tendencies to "airplane" out which can give them a "cute" appearance. Nubian/Nubian mix make good pets and are good "weedeaters". Most any breed of goat is a good "weedeater"!

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Boer:

These are considered mostly "meat" goats but, are also being used in clearing land. These goats are very stocky or meaty. If being raised as a food product they are usually sold at a young age. Boers have a tendency to be more susceptible to parasites.

Saanen:

These are considered a "Dairy" goat. The butterfat is just a little less than the Nubian but, they produce larger quantities. These are very loving and gentle goats. These goats are from the Alps so, the cold weather doesn't bother them as much but, they still need sufficient winter shelter. All goats dislike rain!!/p> IMG1403 800x600

French Alpine:

These are medium sized goats. These are good milk producers with good butterfat. These goats tend to need less maintenance and be healthier. They don't tend to need hoof trimming as much. The main drawback with these is, if you plan on milking, these goats are very low to the ground and milking is not easy if done by hand. Milkers are fine.

Swiss Alpine now known as Oberhassli: These are a larger version of the French Alpine.

Toggenburg or Toggs: Similar in looks to Oberhassli. Milk production good a little less than Alpine.

La Mancha: These are the goats with no ears. Good milk producer.

Small or Dwarf Breeds:

Nigerian Dwarf are becoming a well liked goat among dairies and creameries. These goats are small but tend to be large milk producers. So you could feed/house 3 where it would take the same for 1 of the larger goats. Drawback...very hard to milk unless you have a milker set-up.

Pygmy: Good for pets. Make sure fencing is sufficient because they are notorious for finding a way out!

Another new name on the market is Kiko...these were first considered a "meat" goat and now more people are using them as dual purpose.

For Fiber: The most well-known is the Mohair goat. These have to be well-maintained and groomed because of their fiber use.

Know Your Goat

**Note** Never stake a goat! This is cruel. Goats are "Browsers" not grazers although they will eat green grass, weeds and herbs. They much prefer shrubs and trees. They amble along eating and then, stopping to rest and chew their "cud". Goats are Caprine whereas Cattle are Bovine and Horses are Equine. Goats are considered Ruminants because of their digestive habits...they have four stomach chambers. This is why they chew their "cud"...this is regurgitation of foods eaten, chewed again and then, swallowed back down to travel into the third stomach. The goat needs good roughage to keep the rumen working correctly. If a goat gets very sick and stops eating there is a chance that they loose this "cud" and imbalances their digestion and they can die if something is not done. Sometimes if they have no "cud" (this is needed to help keep fermentation and digestion stable in the rumen) you can actually remove some of the cud from another goat to help the sick goat. But if a goat is this sick a vet needs to be notified so that you can make sure there are no other illnesses affecting the goat.

Goat Needs

Goats need pasture to roam and browse. They can be kept in small areas if all their needs are met. They must have a grain ration (12-16%) and hay. There needs to be a mineral supplement where the goats can access it when they need it. Keep from the rain because they will "melt" away. They need fresh water daily or access to running water from a natural stream. You need
to have the number to a vet for easy access if your goat gets sick or is injured. You need to keep blood-stop on hand. If the goat gets diarrhea, which they often do in Spring just because of eating too much green foliage, you will need to supplement with an electrolyte. If a goat goes more that 2 days with diarrhea and stops eating contact a vet.

One of the best ways to feed the goats their ration is by using "over the fence" feeders. You can pre-measure their feed and take it to them and then, collect the pan after they have eaten. This keeps their feeders cleaner and the plastic is easier to wash. If you have several young goats you can purchase a multi-feeder that has separations that will feed about 5 young goats at a time. Feeding amounts should be determined by the needs of the particular goat. Anywhere from 1/2lb. per feeding for younger to 1lb. per feeding for pregnant/lactating doe. Breeder bucks also need more feed during the breeding season. Feeding should be done 2x daily...morning and evening.

Watch for Part II where we will discuss Housing, Health/Maintenance, Milking and much more!

Susan Tipton-Fox continues the farming and preserving practices that have been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting "workshop stays" on the farm (extending the farm experience).


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.

Setting Up an Off-the-Grid Homestead in a Hay Field

 

A barren field. Finding our land was actually pretty easy. Not when we first started looking on the computer but when we went out to the area we were interested in and started looking. You would be very surprised at how many properties are for sale that are not listed in any magazine or with any realtor.  In these very rural areas, bulletin boards host many FOR SALE properties from local folks. They have the same hope of cutting out the guy in the middle and reaping pure profit. However, some think that their $15,000 property is worth $30,000.

How We Found Land for a Homestead Property

In the end, we asked an old fella (93 at the time) if he knew of any land for sale,  that we could rent for a calendar year. I knew that if we were not here, we would have a hard time finding land to buy. Getting a good deal on land takes effort. I needed a year to do it. In the end, the old fella just happened to own 20,000 acres all around the area and letting us "use" 3 acres for a year wasn't an issue.

Setting Up a Homesteading Property in an Overgrown Field

We were home, for now. We set up our camper, just like at a camp ground. I opened a couple fold-out chairs for my wife and me, and we sat down to a nice hot cup of coffee. I even opened up the awning.  We looked around at the majestic forest landscapes. I'll tell you what, the air is different out here.  When you are surrounded by huge, healthy forest, the aromas are amazing. Peace. Peace and quiet. We took a few days to soak it all in.

Now. We have things to do. We need water. We need a place to use the toilet. We need hot showers. We need to be comfortable. But first, we need to cut down this hay field to a more respectable grass length. Taming this field took two days, and we did it with a standard 14 horsepower Honda riding lawn mower — six inches of travel at a time as not to bog down the little mower.

Water. With the grass cut, we needed water. A 500-gallon plastic tote will take care of that. And I had just happened to have one that I had sourced at work and was a freebie from my boss.  But that won't work in the winter here. It falls to sometimes -40 below zero here.

I needed to build a small structure to enclose the water tank, and install a woodstove in the same room. That would keep our water unfrozen and give a place for us to sit, as well, to take refuge from the cold.  I also built the roof to cover the camper, leaving a tapered 3-foot gap above it to allow for air circulation. also helping to keep out little 17-foot camper warm in the winter and minimizing how many times the trailer's furnace would come on.  I wanted to burn wood, not propane, all winter.

Bathroom facilities. Now the toilet. The camper had a nice one. But I had nowhere to dump the tanks. No septic system here. I wanted to stay legal, get off to the right start in this new community. So,  we installed a 200-gallon holding tank. When I say install, I mean dug a hole and threw a tank in it. Once full, we could call a truck and have it removed. That's what we did.

Funny to note that when the septic truck came the first time I asked the driver where he unloads. He said they own a field and dump it over 200 yards of grass! What? You just dump it? WOW. Why can't I just do this? Oh tha'ts right: You need a license to dump fertilizer in Canada. What a world.

Ok. Water. Check. Toilet. Check. Hot showers. Check. The camper has an OK shower. It will do for now. OK, now we had basic services.  And my wife and daughter can continue to be girls - not forest people from the great white north. 

Electricity. What about electricity? This one is easy.  I always tell folks, "If you can install a car stereo, you can install solar."  Well, we had 1,000 watts of solar panels and a small 2,600 watt generator. I did my homework on solar energy before we took off from the city. We were able to power things in the summer during the day — but night time would require big batteries. We just happened to have four of those, too, that we had bought beforehand. They were re-conditioned and didn't work for long - but they were cheap and fit our budget at the time.  I do not recommend this strategy.  Buy your batteries new (very important).  Re-conditioned batteries just don't last.  What a waste of money.

With everything functioning well in our little field, we took the summer and unwound from all the action that spring. I wanted a break. A rest from our life.  I was 39 years old.  I had been working away at life - treading water since I was 18.  We needed the break — and we took it.

Lessons Learned for Beginning Homesteaders

The heaviest work we did was haul water from the township office to fill our tank. This sounds easy, but to fill a 250-gallon tank in the middle of winter with 5-gallon jugs is not easy. We also constructed a little cabin on the back of our camper. This held the tank. But I knew, as a crane operator, how heavy that tank would be full. The beams under the floor where the tank went had to be beefed right up. I did this by using 4x4 beams and made six footings under the more than 2,200 pounds of water going right to the bedrock. This tank was now solid and wouldn't rip the trailer in half if the weight shifted.

Things like this are super important. When loading up a structure with weight,  one needs to know how to calculate the weight of it. That much water is dangerous. It can crush floor beams and destroy a building in seconds in structural failure. Don't go at this part without some help of someone with experience dealing with heavy weights. Keep in mind, our plastic tank now weighed as much as a car.

That summer was full of quiet times, good conversations with my wife, and God. Hard work,  good eating and exercise. I even had the elusive "6 pack" stomach muscles for a couple months. A first for me. Amazing what can happen when you eat real food.

Now we had to start thinking about winter. It was September first and we still didn't have a wood stove. But that's another story. To be continued.

Kirk Winter homesteads near Bancroft, Ontario, with his wife, Amanda. They enjoy life 100-percent off the grid and live in a trailer while they build a new self-powered home. They are doing this as they earn the money and are committed to not getting a mortgage check out their progress as they document their entire journey on their YouTube Channel, 46 Degrees North Off-Grid.


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.

Mud Season

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In Wisconsin, they say we have four seasons—Summer, Winter, Deer Season, and Mud Season.  With the way things have been going, this year may see most of winter consumed by Mud Season.  Freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw, with the snow not sticking around.  It makes for a real challenge on the farm.

Hard winters certainly have their hairy moments—frozen water buckets, endless shoveling, and the need to bundle up with 20 extra pounds of gear just to stay warm enough to get through chores.  But the extreme cold of an “old fashioned” Wisconsin winter has its advantages too, including keeping the apple trees dormant longer so that they don’t bloom too early and the flowers freeze, garden pests that can’t take the cold die off, and the frozen ground allows us to drive farm equipment for bigger chore jobs without getting stuck.

But mud season, well, there’s just no way around it.  It’s a mess.  The gathering mud sucks at my boots, drags at my sled or wagon filled with fodder and feed, and pulls our little car around on the twisting, soft lane.  The compost and manure piles wake up too—there’s no mistaking that mud season has its own farmy perfumes.

In the depths of a real winter, the bedding packs in barns and coops stays frozen, waiting for a spring cleaning.  This year, it freezes, then thaws (turning damp and soggy), then freezes again.  While I used to be able to clean out the coop twice in a winter, this year I’m out shoveling every month with another thawed, rainy spell.  Rain every month this year—not normal folks.

Early road bans are a clear indication of the “not normal” status of this winter.  On a farm, these weight restrictions have immediate impact with critical deliveries, especially feed.  Even if they’re not loaded to capacity, the fed trucks aren’t allowed to traverse the country roads, which means that we either have to meet them somewhere and transfer the order in several trips, or they arrive with smaller loads in a pickup, which means more running around for everyone—let alone trying not to get stuck on the gravel lane!

If the mud keeps up, winter boots will trade out for high-topped rubber muck boots (otherwise known as Wellies), and it’s an on-again-off-again relationship with Yak Tracks…followed by a half-hour search for that one you must have lost somewhere while doing chores.  The remaining snow is crystalline, chunky, and slowly revealing the lost bits and pieces buried in all the winter storms.  There’s where you must have spilled a little feed or where that mysterious hammer went off to.  The melt-off makes its own form of springtime archaeology.

The wild turkeys prance and dance on the lane, and my own turkeys think spring has arrived, which means the males start fighting for their ladies, and that means I’m out there breaking up nasty turkey fights.  Maybe the only animals on the farm that are happy about the odd weather are the ducks.  For them, the more puddles, the better! 

And Then It Rains!

One year, the frost was deep in the ground, despite plenty of snow.  And then it rained, and rained, and rained.  Our turkey coop, which sits in a low spot in the barnyard, was soon encircled by a moat.  More rain, and the water continued to rise.  When the tide began to seep into the front door of the coop, we knew we had to act.  Running to town in the truck (there was no way we’d make it out the half-mile driveway in the car), we dashed to the rental center in town to pick up a trash pump and several lengths of fire-fighter hose.

With shovels and hoes, we dug a low spot in the crusty snow below the water for the pump to set.  Chunks of bobbing snow, like gathering mini icebergs, bumped against our rubber boots as we stretched the hose out towards the hill beyond the yard that slopes down to the marshland.  But when we plugged in the well-battered beast, it pulled the water so hard that all the ice collected and choked the system.  So we bared our teeth against our freezing feet, standing nearly knee-deep in the frigid mess, armed with canoe paddles to keep the icebergs away.  Plumped hoses carried gushing water past the woodshed to blast down the hill in a torrent that washed away channels of sod beneath the snow. 

It continued to rain, and for two more days we had to extend our rent, wade the tide, and keep our canoe-paddle vigil.  We’ve since made some landscaping adjustment, but a turkey coop moat is still an annual spring occurrence.  The turkeys hardly seem to mind, so long as their house is dry.  Guess that’s what those long legs are for! 

But despite the flooding, the mess, the slipping and sliding, and all the rest, Mud Season reminds us that spring is on its way.  There may still be a few more snows before we’re through with this roller-coaster winter, but the sun stands stronger in the sky, the banks are receding, and someday eager blades of grass will poke through the mud, followed by crocuses with their cheerful purple faces.  Hopefully the grass won’t wake up prematurely and then freeze off, harming the first pasture growth and hay crop.  While it was terribly tragic that my bees died of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) last fall, but this would have been an impossible winter to keep a hive alive.  Warm, cold, warm, cold.  I really feel for all the wildlife trying to make sense of this season too!

The first lambs are due to be born March 20th—a sure sign of the spring season.  My chick order is in to the hatchery, we’re planning the garden, and the summer season’s schedule is almost finalized.  But it’s hard to know when to spring for spring.  We’ve been farming long enough to have watched eager growers plant early only to watch all their seedlings and transplants freeze out, causing them to have to start all over.  Maple syrupers must be having a terrible time, with some night not cold enough, with other days not warm enough.  Where is this all going?

One thing is certain—mud.  It oozes around my boots, tracks in with the dogs, and flies through the air as they attack the puddles.  If I go missing, check the muddy spots first!  This messy season is not my favorite, but it’s part of the bumpy road to spring.  See you down on the farm sometime.

While we’re all looking forward to the greening pastures of spring, every farmer knows that between here and there…is Mud Season. 

Historic photo courtesy the Fullington family.

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


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.

7 Myths and One Truth About Soap Making

A lot of people shy away from making soap because they think it is really complicated and dangerous as they have had many horror stories about soaps gone wrong. Reading a soap making recipe can certainly give you that impression. But mostly they are just very detailed to keep you out of trouble. My first soap recipe with all the detailed instructions was two pages long and I was very intimidated. A friend took me under her wing and we made my first batch of soap together. At the end I thought: “This is it?” and I have never looked back.

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In this blog let’s address a few facts and common myths about soap making and get you familiar with some of the terminology that you need to know about one method of making soap, the Cold Process method. Other methods exist, but frankly, I’m not very familiar with those and I’ll leave blogs about those to people who can actually talk about themJ. I also want to mention that any experience described in this and following blogs are from personal experience. Any of those perfect batches, imperfect batches and bombed batches have been made by yours truly.

1. Soap can be made without lye – FALSE

In order to make soap, lye has to be used.  That is the definition of soap. An alkali (lye) combines with a fat (animal or vegetable) and makes soap. Now, there are kits on the market being sold as soap making kits, which consist of a soap base that is melted and poured into molds.  Even here that original soap base was made with lye. All you are doing is reshaping that soap base and possibly coloring it. By the way, these soap kits are the safer way to make soap with younger children or anyone who you do not want to be around lye.  Adult supervision is always a must even here.

2. Soap Making is Difficult- FALSE

Soap Making is really not hard. You just have to be able to read and follow a recipe and follow some safety rules.  Just like baking a cake. Measure out the ingredients carefully and exactly and put them into the bowl in the correct order. Baking and making soap alike are not forgiving like cooking. In cooking, we have more liberty to toss in this and that, a bit more of this and a bit more of that, and substitute. In baking and soap making not so. Just imagine you use baking powder instead of baking soda. Or you use 1 cup of baking powder because it sounds good instead of 1 table spoon. The same is true in soap making. Ingredients have to be used and combined in a certain order, they have to be measured exactly, and substitution of ingredients is not such a good idea until you have quite an experience under your belt or unless you work in a chemistry lab where you can blow things up and someone else might clean up after you. A good recipe is the basis for successful soap making and once you have a bit more experience under your belt, there are fabulous  tools  to help you with checking recipes and calculating ingredients: those are called lye/soap calculators and I never use a new recipe or modify and existing recipe without them. Most of the major soap making suppliers have their own calculators, and everyone has one they like to use more, my favorite one is the one on soapcalc.net.

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3. Soap Making is Dangerous – TRUE AND FALSE

Lye is an alkali, which means it will burn your skin. As lye loves to hook up with fat, it will try to react with the oils and fat in your skin to make soap! So when you make soap, wear long sleeves, protective eye gear  (!!!!!!!!) and long dish or cleaning gloves.  The chemical reaction between the lye and the fat will generate a high temperature over 200 degrees for a brief time during the initial reaction and then again during saponification (the next 24 hours). Again, if you handle the ingredients carefully and with protective gear, it is no more dangerous than taking a hot casserole out of the oven. You wouldn’t do that without mitts. I ban my pets and any children from the soap loft during soap making , and I don’t take phone calls that would distract me from my work.

4. Soap Making Needs Special Equipment – FALSE

You will find everything you need for soap making in your kitchen.  If you become addicted to making soap, you will probably get the soap making its own set of pots and utensils but for the occasional soap maker you should have everything you need. Just make sure it’s made out of glass or stainless steel. Plastic or aluminum don’t fare so well with the higher temperatures that occur during soap making and the aluminum may also react with the lye.

5. Soap Ingredients are Expensive and Difficult to Find – FALSE

There are only a few ingredients you need to make a successful batch of soap and they are certainly not hard to find.

1. A liquid. Distilled water is great and can be found in every grocery store by the gallon.

2. Lye.  This is the base or alkali. This one is the only ingredient where I recommend to purchase it through a soap making supply store or online and to buy only  food grade lye for soap making. Food grade lye is way more pure than technical grade lye and will give you consistent batches for that reason. I have used technical grade lye as it is a bit cheaper and promptly bombed most of those batches. I would also not recommend buying lye from a hardware store, as it’s not always 100% lye and most certainly won’t be food grade lye. There are several sources on-line including Bramble Berry, Camden-Grey, Essential Depot and others.

3. Oils and Fats. These are also called the carrier oils. Oils and fats are used in soap making to combine with the lye to make soap and the combinations are endless. We do not use animal fats such as lard, but many do. Lard can be found in grocery stores, so can most any other oil used in soap making: Olive Oil, Sunflower Oil, Coconut Oil, Canola Oil and none of it is expensive.

4. Essential Oils or Fragrance Oils. You can find any of the essential oils in Health Food Stores in small quantities and they work fabulously for soap making. I’d start with an inexpensive one like lavender or orange or peppermint. Forgo the ylang ylang and patchouli with your first batches. Do not buy essential oils or fragrance oils used in candle making or for air fresheners, they do not work well in soap making (they do not react well with the lye) and don’t waste your money on therapeutic essential oils as found in Young Living. It’s well intentioned, but they won’t smell any different than regular essential oils and it will have just cost you much more.

6. Milk Soap isTtricky – FALSE

I started out by making goat milk soap, because goat milk was what I had. We followed a great recipe and I never realized it was supposed to be tricky until I read about that 1 year later.  Goat milk in large batches of soap (about a 40 pound block) will be a bit trickier, but you don’t have to worry about that for a while. Now though, colorants and additives will most likely come out different in milk soaps than in water based soaps because milk soap is not transparent, small batch testing is your best friend here

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7. Goat Milk Soap is White - FALSE

Not so. If you see white goat milk soap, it has been colored, most likely with Titanium Dioxide. Goat milk soap is cream colored at least. The heat in the saponification process will warm the milk and turn the color from white to cream or beige and even to orange (at which point its burnt and you probably shouldn’t use it).  Again there is a trick to using goat milk fabulously easy and I will share it with you when we make goat milk soap.

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So this is the beginning of your soap making. Next blog will go into definitions and details of equipment and then we’ll be ready to follow a very simple recipe and make soap with a two page instruction.

8. You Will Be a Soap Maker - TRUE

Looking forward to going on this journey with you. If you are curious to find out more about our farm, here is a great little video shot by film students from West Palm Beach in Florida.

Julia Shewchuk owns and operates Serenity Acres Farm on 80 acres in Florida. Serenity Acres runs on solar, is Animal Welfare Approved-certified, houses anywhere from four and eight WWOOFers and interns, and is the home to a small herd of dairy goats, 11 Black Angus cattle, 100 laying hens, 3 horses, 2 cats, 5 house dogs, 8 livestock guardian dogs, and 2 ducks. Read all of Julia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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The Sapling: A New Option for Backyard Sugaring

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If you live in the Northeast and have any sort of access to maple trees – from one to one thousand – odds are you are likely to tap them at some point in your life.  It’s hard to resist the temptation to create sweet golden syrup right from your own backyard.  Once you’ve tapped those trees, however, the process of converting sap to syrup (at a 40 to 1 ratio) is a bit more complicated.  Boiling sap in your kitchen can leave a sticky film on every surface so taking the operation outside is a necessity.  Homemade evaporating solutions include everything from turkey fryers to concrete blocks to barbecue grills; hardy New Englanders have tried a thousand solutions.  While they can make for a fun family weekend, most of these solutions are hard-pressed to match the efficiency of a full-scale evaporator, meaning you might spend more time and money on that one quart of syrup than if you were to go to your local sugarhouse and buy a gallon.

Justin and Kate McCabe of Montpelier, Vermont faced just such a dilemma a few years back.  After having moved their family to a home with 10 acres of trees they were determined to try their hand at sugaring.  The first year, they tried the propane grill with a big Thanksgiving Turkey Pan and quickly came to realize the amount of propane they were using far out-paced the return value of the syrup.

They looked far and wide for a better home boiling solution.  The McCabes were dismayed to learn that most of the small evaporators that seemed logical for their size operation cost upwards of $1000 and would require a sugar shack in which to boil.  That’s when Justin, an engineer and patent attorney, decided to try his own hand at designing a system that would be more economical and efficient than the choices he saw on the market. 

After a few trial models, Justin landed on a design that worked for the family operation – the Sapling – a model they describe as “an affordable, easy-to- use, multi-use, portable, backyard evaporator!”  On a lark, Justin decided to manufacture a dozen Saplings in his garage and see if anyone would be interested in buying them.  It didn’t take long for them to sell out and for the McCabes to realize they were on the verge of creating their own small business – the Vermont Evaporator Company.

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“The original Saplings sold to customers in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York!” says Kate Whelley McCabe, “To young families, and retired couples. To beginners and seasoned sugar makers. Several of whom have kept in touch to tell us how happy they were with their product. We couldn’t believe it! We were surprised and delighted.”

The Sapling is not only an economical choice for sugaring, it also converts into a grill for off-season use.  The McCabes reported to me that a new model is on the way that will also allow for conversion to a smoker/pizza oven.  All at about an $800 pricepoint.

If this sounds too good to be true, then get in line, because Saplings regularly sell out.  In fact, a visit to their website confirms that they’ve already sold out for 2017 and are starting a 2018 wait list!

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Beyond being entrepreneurs and passionate stewards of their own land, the McCabes have a strong commitment to doing things “right” which for them means “the kind way, the generous way, the way that shares our success with our family and community.”  When they formed the company, they gave half of the ownership to their parents and siblings as compensation for their contributions – monetary and otherwise – their enthusiasm, and their support.  They are now raising capital, $250 at a time, from ordinary Vermonters through Milk Money Vermont. 

“In my experience,” says Whelley McCabe, “when your ‘shareholders’ are your friends, family and neighbors, it changes everything, professionally and personally. You may have thought ‘buy local,’ ‘support local,’ ‘invest local’ before. But when you are the recipient of that attitude, both the financial and moral support it engenders, it makes keeping your own dollars in the community almost reflexive.”

The Vermont Evaporator Co. is putting their money where their mouth is; they just signed on with a Vermont company to do their stainless welding (the only part of the operation they don’t do themselves) and they use a local marketing company for all of their communications. 

This summer, you’ll find them at the Burlington, VT Mother Earth News Fair, and if you act quickly you can get on their list to purchase a sapling next year at this year’s price!  Visit www.vtevap.com to learn more. 

Happy Sugaring!

Carrie Williams Howe is the Executive Director of an educational nonprofit by day, and parent and aspiring homesteader by night and on weekends. She lives in Williston, Vermont, with her husband, two young children, and a rambunctious border collie. Carrie has a PhD in educational leadership and is passionate about being an authentic, participatory leader in various settings. She is a contributing editor at Parent Co Magazine. Connect with Carrie on The Happy Hive Facebook page. Read all of Carrie’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Processing Meat Rabbits

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The personal decision to start raising rabbits for meat was for the health of our children, and ourselves.  Meat rabbits are becoming a popular addition to many homesteads due to the minimal space they require, and the high volume of meat they can provide. Rabbits are an extremely healthy, and tasty meat. Rabbit meat has half the fat and almost twice the protein of chicken. Rabbits go from birth to freezer in 10-15 weeks, and a pair of rabbits can provide 6-10 kits on average with each breeding.

We breed our does every 10-14 weeks, and have gotten an average of 7 kits per litter. Next to providing our family with hormone free meat, the most important thing was to provide our rabbits with a healthy, stress free, and comfortable life. Our breeders are in hutches, and our weaned kits, or grown outs, are in lawn tractors. From 6 weeks old, when the kits are weaned, to the moment we butcher them they live in a covered tractor, and have room to run and graze.

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We raise Rex rabbits which take 12-15 weeks to reach fryer size, or about 5-6 pounds. There are larger breeds that can be processed a few weeks earlier. We chose the Rex breed, because we also tan the hides, and they are a nice combination for meat and producing beautiful furs.

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We have found that rabbits has been our easiest meat so far to process ourselves. Rabbit meat can be ground into sausage, used in the place of beef, stewed, smoked, barbequed, or roasted. We strive to use every part possible so we fully appreciate and respect the life of the animal. We feel good knowing our food was raised, and processed humanly, and we also appreciate knowing that the meat we feed our family is clean, healthy, and free of hormones.

Melissa Souza lives on a 1-acre, organically managed homestead property in rural Washington State where she raises backyard chickens and meat rabbits and grows fruit, a variety of berries, and all the produce her family needs. She loves to inspire other families to save money, be together, and take steps toward self-reliance no matter where they live. Connect with her on Facebook.


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