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

Can Chickens Live in Harmony with Cats and Dogs

We love cats – not only for the cuteness factor (which, I admit, is a biggie), but also for their usefulness. Our two kitties, who live mostly outdoors, keep our yard and home mouse-free. They will also go for lizards, snakes, and even grasshoppers and bugs – practically everything that moves. And they are territorial, so they keep most feral cats away. I think every homestead could benefit from a couple of barn kitties.

Chicken-Cat Interactions

But what about chicken-cat interactions? Our chick season usually starts in spring and lasts throughout the summer. How would we keep our cats from going after baby chicks? Cats don’t usually mess with adult hens, let alone roosters, but chicks and pullets can easily fall prey to them. One way, of course, is to keep the chicks confined in a secure pen or coop until they are big enough to no longer be threatened by cats.

However, our cats and chickens – along with baby chicks – live together harmoniously and, so far, we have not had problems. What I find most interesting is that our cats will, unfortunately, go after birds – but won’t even blink when they see a chick passing right next to them.

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One of our cats sharing a treat with a broody and her chicks.

The key here is getting a kitten and rearing it with chickens and chicks from a very young age. Feed them together daily. Put out some treats – for example, some chopped egg, cottage cheese, or leftover rice with bits of meat – and let your chickens and cats eat together. The cat will get used to seeing the chickens as yard companions, not potential prey. I often see baby chicks snatching food right from under the cats’ noses, and the kitties bear it patiently.

Clarification: Our chicks don’t roam the yard on their own when they are very little. Those raised by broodies are introduced to the great outdoors from their first days, but they are always under the watchful supervision of Mama Hen. Incubator-hatched chicks remain indoors, under our protection, much longer.

Chicken-Dog Interactions

Dogs are a slightly different matter. Some breeds have the hunting instinct too deeply ingrained in them to ever be trusted around chickens. We used to have one German Shepherd/Belgian Malinois cross who would rip chickens apart just for fun whenever she had the chance, and I can’t remember a more stressful period in my life. We then moved on to a little Chihuahua who was smaller than the average rooster and did not pose too much of a threat.

Many people, however, actually count on their dogs to protect their flock of birds. I do not have first-hand experience with this, but it appears the right way is to choose a suitable breed of a Livestock Guardian dog (such as Great Pyrenees) and bring it up with chickens from a puppy, rewarding good behavior and nipping unsuitable behavior in the bud. If we ever try this, I will be sure to let you know.

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Connect with Anna on Facebook, find her as SmallFlocksMom on Earthineer, and read more about her current projects on her blogRead all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here


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A Year at Bees of the Woods Apiary: September

September is the time of year when we really start focusing on making sure the hives are ready for winter. Here are some of the things we have been working on!

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Removing Honey from Beehives

September is when we remove honey supers for the final time this season. This batch of honey tends to be a darker, sometimes mahogany color. We don’t get a lot of it, but it is nice to have some for our customers who prefer a darker honey.

However, we need to be careful not to remove too much honey from each hive. The bees will need sufficient honey stores to make it through the winter ahead. So, we went through and removed the top one or two honey supers from each hive that produced honey this year. We then sort the frames. Any that are not capped, or are partially capped, we will put back on any hives that seem to be “light” on honey. The frames that are completely capped we will extract for ourselves.

You may now be asking, how do you know if a hive seems light on honey? There are a few ways.

The first is to visually take a peek — does the hive body below the supers you removed have capped honey? That’s a good sign. We like to overwinter our hives with at least 1 deep and 2 medium boxes, or the equivalent.

The second is to check the weight of the hive by gently lifting the back of the hive so it “hinges”. My husband is pretty good at estimating the weight of the hive this way. We like to have about 100 pounds. of honey left on each hive. My general rule of thumb is that if I can’t lift the hive, they are in great shape. If I can lift it with difficulty, they probably have enough, but I should keep an eye on them and possibly feed them. If I can lift a hive easily, they definitely do not have enough food, and I should feed and add frames of honey instead of extracting it.  Again, this is based on my strength, but it seems to work well.

Storing Honey Supers

It isn’t a good idea to store honey supers when they are still wet with traces of honey left over from extracting.  his can lead to moldy frames come spring. Here is how we store our honey supers.

After we have extracted the honey, we place the super of empty combs above the inner cover of a hive, with the outer cover on top. We leave it there for one full day, and then remove it. The bees in the hive clean out the cells, and we are left with nice dry frames.

It is important not to leave the super over the inner cover for too long, as they may begin to store honey it in!  We then take the super of dry frames, and put it in a large, sealed garbage bag. We freeze it for at least 24 hours, and then stack it in our honey house for the winter. We have never had a problem with moldy frames using this method!

Robbing

One word of caution: When removing supers or checking hives this time of year, it is important to not do anything to encourage robbing. Hives should not be kept open any longer than necessary. As you remove honey supers, it is important to keep them covered – both tops and bottoms.

It is also not a bad idea to reduce the entrances of all of the hives in the beeyard when working on them in the fall – again, it helps to discourage robbing. If robbing does begin, it is important to take steps to put a stop to it quickly. My previous post, Honeybees and Robbing, has some tips on how to prevent, and put a stop to, robbing.

Checking Beekeeping Supplies

Finally, this is a good time to check on the supplies you will need for winterizing your hives. Make sure you have enough functional mouse guards – mice can wreck havoc on an unprotected hive. If you wrap your hives, it is a good idea to make sure you have everything you need ahead of time, especially if you have added hives this year!

Happy Beekeeping!

Jennifer Ford is a science teacher and co-owner of Bees of the Woods Apiary outside of Altamont, New York.  Over the past seven years, Jennifer and her husband have expanded the apiary from two to 18 beehives, and share what they have learned about beekeeping with others through mentoring programs and presentations. Learn more about Bees of the Woods Apiary and beekeeping in general at www.BeesOfTheWoods.com or on the Bees of the Woods Facebook page. Read all of Jennifer’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posthere.


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Why Raise Heritage Breeds of Livestock?

Heritage breed animals are important elements of our farming history, and helpful additions to any small farm. Heritage breeds diversify a farm and the gene pool of their species, and often will add a colorful splash to your barnyard.

Our forefathers often had a more permaculture way of farming, not raising any one animal strictly for meat, milk, or eggs, but reaping the benefits of milk or eggs in their animal's youth and eating their meat once they aged past useful production. Because of this less specialized style of farming, the breeds developed by our ancestors are often both full bodied and prolific at egg or milk production, making them ideal animals for a small farm or homestead.
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In the poultry world heritage breeds are often some of the most colorful and fun to keep. A heritage breed chicken is defined by the Livestock Conservancy as a breed recognized by the American Poultry Association that is naturally mating, has a long and productive lifespan, and a natural, slow rate of growth. Similarly, heritage ducks, geese, and other animals should lead long lives without growing unnaturally fast or mating through artificial means.
 

Heritage breed animals are not just important because of their versatility on the farm.  They also help to diversify the farming industry. According to recent studies, within the United States more than 83% of dairy cows are Holsteins, similarly 75% of pigs are one of three main breeds, and the majority of chickens in factory farm come from only few select breeds.

There are many reasons that diversifying the breeds available to the American farmer is important, including increasing disease resistance and expanding the genetic pool. 

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Heritage breeds also connect us with our past in a unique way. There is something special about connecting with your roots by keeping the same breeds of livestock on your farm as your ancestors did. It’s not just farming with ducks and pigs, it’s farming with the same curved beaked fliers (Dutch Hookbill) or single hoofed hogs (Mulefoot Hog) as generations before have raised.
 

Raising these breeds responsibility also does a great deal to preserve types of livestock that might otherwise go extinct. Beyond their many useful attributes, these breeds and their rich legacy deserve to continue diversifying the American farm.

Smaller homesteads may find that adding heritage breeds gives their farm a splash of color or a great conversation piece, which alone can bring attention to a small local farm.

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Thanks to the ubiquity of the large scale, monoculture farm, there are a great number of breeds on the Livestock Conservancy’s list of endangered breeds.  On their list of chickens alone there are almost forty breeds considered Watch, Threatened, or Critical. These include some of the most spangled chicken breeds, including the Modern Game Fowl which resembles a long-legged, skinny man — the bearded and feather footed Faverolle, and even the remarkably hardy Russian Orloff chicken.  

If you have a small, family farm, heritage breeds are the way to go, even if their rich history is not a priority for you. Their versatility alone makes them perfect for the small farm, and harkens back to a time when all of our food was grown and raised by families that needed to diversify in order to ensure the health of their farm and success of their harvests.

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It is not hard to raise heritage breeds.  More and more farms and hatcheries are breeding these rarer types, making them more accessible to a beginning farmer. In our small farm flock several of our chickens are heritage breeds (including one Faverolle), all of our ducks are on the Conservancy’s watch list, and most of our flock of thirteen geese are historical varieties, including a Roman Tufted goose which is currently considered in Critical status.
 
If you are considering breeding heritage breed animals, make sure not to cross breed which further dilutes the types. Try to mix strong genes, breeding good egg layers or animals with the perfect identifying marks of the breed with each other. With a little bit of attention it is easy to help bring these rare types back to their iconic place in the American barnyard.

Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is rebuilding a 200 year old homestead in rural Maine, using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Find Kirsten online at Hostile Valley Living's site, Facebook page, and Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts here.


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Simple, Low-Budget, Off-Grid, Gravity-Fed Water System (with Video)

Since moving to our off grid property just over a year ago, we've had plenty of adventures learning how to become more sustainable and self sufficient. One of the big challenges that we've had to work through has been setting up a long-term, off grid water system. After looking into lots of different methods over the course of the entire year, we've finally established a system that works for us- at least for now. We are tiptoeing towards long-term water sustainability, and our newly-established gravity-fed water system is the right step for us at this time.

The full year we took to better understand the layout of our property and our water needs before getting this system working was completely worth it. There's a lot to be said for patience, and we hope you might learn a thing or two from our process.

The Journey to a Sustainable Water System

When we first arrived on our property, our plan was to either dig a well or collect rainwater. However, we quickly learned that those options weren't the right fit (cost or efficiency-wise) for our situation. Our long-term water plans were delayed and we got by with portable water jugs that were easy to fill up on a quick trip into town.

This strategy worked through this past fall and winter, but it became ineffective when we needed a large supply of water to seal the joinery in our DIY cedar hot tub. With only our portable jugs as a supply, water leaked out faster than we could pour it in. and we knew that if we wanted our tub to be a success it was time to move towards a long-term plan for our water system.

hot-tub-filling

Obviously there were more pressing reasons to update our water system than keeping our hot tub full (fire protection and garden irrigation for example), but our struggles with our tub provided the push we needed to design a better system.

Building a System That Meets Our Needs Today

To be clear, this isn't going to be our permanent water system. Frankly, our property and our budgets aren't ready for that step right now. Rather, it's an improvement on what we had before, and it has given us the opportunity to learn how gravity fed systems work while also learning more about the water needs for our property. Will we be using this same system in five years? Probably not. But, we'll have learned a ton through experience and most likely will be able to reuse or sell the pieces of this system when the time comes to update it.

The Details of Our Gravity Fed Water System

Our decision to build a gravity fed water water system came down to two main reasons.

Lower power demands. We won't have to worry about straining our pump or limited power supply (even though we do have a small solar power setup) if gravity is doing the hard work!

Great learning experience. By building a small system, we were able to find out if gravity fed systems fit our homesteading needs. When we expand our system in the future we will be better informed about what works well for us.

Nine months of carrying water to our property has given us a good sense of our weekly consumption (roughly 70 gallons per week) so we knew we needed to build a system that could fit that capacity. We settled on a 625 gallon Ace Rotomold above-ground cistern tank placed on a hill roughly 70 feet above our home.

Because there isn't any water delivery in our area, we've been filling the cistern with municipal water from town that we transport in a 275-gallon IBC tank that fits great on our utility trailer. To get the water from our truck into the cistern, we rely on a ½ horsepower 110 volt 8 Amp ¾-inch transfer pump that we power with a small generator.

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This water system has proven itself up to the task, and we are happy to report that we now get clean water out of our faucets whenever we turn them on!

Finding What Works for You

Our gravity-fed water system definitely isn't the right option for everyone. Some people will have better luck collecting rainwater or even digging a well. Heck, nine months ago that's what we thought we would do to! And for that reason, we are so glad we took our time to really learn about our property and our water needs.

Coming up with a sustainable water system is a journey that will look a little different for everyone, but we are so glad that we've come to a solution that works well for us.

Alyssa Craft moved to Idaho after purchasing 5 acres of land where she will build an off grid homestead from scratch with as little money as possible. She is blogging about the journey from start to finish in hopes of inspiring others that wish to take a similar path. Follow her many DIY projects, getting started with solar power, building a wood-fired hot tub and milling lumber with an Alaskan chainsaw mill. Follow Alyssa on her blog Pure Living for Life, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. View Alyssa’s other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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From Corporate Drones to Organic Farmers: Putting Our Plan into Action

From hatched plan to landing on the island of Puerto Rico to buy a farm took us about a year. There was the usual tying up of loose ends in California that had to be done. A necessary first step was for us to decide what we had accumulated during the 10 years as a couple and 40+ years as individuals we would keep and what we would donate, sell on eBay, or leave with friends.

This took several months, which brought us to mid-January. In that 6-month period, we took several strolls through our neighborhood. So much had changed since we bought our home in the fall of 2001.

Photo credit: www.publicdomainpictures.net

Children playing with their dogs and their neighbors’ kids, and grown-ups sitting on front porch rockers had been replaced with For Sale signs that sat for weeks and months. Once in a while, one would be swapped out for a Foreclosure sign.

Selling a House During the Great Recession

The excitement we had between the summer and fall of 2007 gave way to pessimism and even fear. As we accepted that we were amid the worst recession the U.S. and the world had seen since the Great Depression, our hopes of reinventing ourselves looked bleak.

I confided to one of our neighbors that we feared we’d be stuck in this home, jobs we no longer loved, the lifestyle we wanted desperately to escape because we’d never be able to sell our house. What I really feared was that if we didn’t leave, my doctor’s prediction that I wouldn’t live to see my 45th birthday would come to fruition.

My neighbor in turn revealed that she and her husband had quietly sold their house before a For Sale sign was ever placed on their front lawn.

She gave me the name of their real estate agent who’d successfully sold their house in less than a week. How could this be when there were houses in our neighborhood that sat on the market for weeks and in some cases months, as well as a few that had already foreclosed or were short sales?

I could barely get through the door before I told Paul about this discussion and he gave me the “yeah, right!” look, but agreed to call him.

Complete mess

The next day we took off from work to clean our house and tidy up. Things were in such disarray with boxes packed, color coded tags on everything that indicated its fate: to donate, to sell, leave with friends and the little that would come with us — assuming we could pull off a miracle.

At 5:00 that evening, Ray Galvez walked in our home and said he loved what he saw. We figured he told this to all his potential clients. We showed him around. He had a bunch of questions we hadn’t expected to be asked:

“Who did your tile work?”

“Who came up with the color scheme for your walls and who painted them?”

“Who designed your front and backyard?”

“Who does your landscaping?”

Expecting a different answer to each question, he was pretty surprised to hear the one word response for each one was the same: “We did.”

Front yard

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Even more back yard

“I can’t make any promises but I think I could have your house sold pretty quickly.” I am from New York City and we’re famous for spotting scammers pretty quickly and calling them on it.

“Please don’t blow smoke up our butts. We’ve seen the numerous For Sale signs all over the place. What’s different between our house and all those that are sitting on the market with no end in sight?”

“That’s a good question. I already know that you owe considerably less on your home than it’s worth.” Paul and I looked at each other and then back at Ray. “It’s my job to do my homework before I consider whether a house can sell or not.”

“I can think of half a dozen people who will fall in love with your house and make an offer before the week is out.”

It was Wednesday. I gave him a raised eyebrow.

Maybe this guy was blowing smoke up our butts and maybe he wasn’t, but all we could do was think about our neighbors whose house he sold before a For Sale sign was put out.

We signed a contract and as he walked out the door, he called someone. “I found your dream house. Can you meet me tomorrow at 2:00?”

We hired Ray not just because he was a good great real estate agent—which he was and still is. As a pillar of the community in our small town of Fillmore, Ray spent years building relationships with Fillmorians long before he started selling homes. As a result, within 24 hours and before our house was even on the market—just like our neighbors’ home — we had three legitimate and respectable offers.

Paul and I owe a debt of gratitude to Ray Galvez. I would not be sitting here writing these blogs had he been unable to sell our home during a major recession. 

6 Months to Spend With Family and Decompress

Rather than leave immediately for Puerto Rico, knowing it may be a while before we would see our families again, we spent six months on the east coast so we could be close to them. We rented a house in upstate New York (outside of Woodstock).

Our nephew's graduation summer 2008

We lived half an hour of my brother and some of my cousins and within a five-hour drive of Paul’s sisters and their families. Although we were anxious to get started with our new life, we’ll never regret our time with family. And honestly it was nice to decompress.

20+ years in corporate America had taken physical and emotional tolls on us both. We couldn’t have just jumped in to our new life.

'Bienvenido a La Isla Del Encanto': Assimilating to a New Life in Puerto Rico

We arrived to Puerto Rico on September 17, 2008. We rented the same house we’d rented for 2 weeks during our last stay on the island. Our hope was to put in an offer within six months but not sooner. We needed to familiarize ourselves with the area first, integrate ourselves as quickly as possible and learn Spanish.

To the extent that two Americans who’d been in the corporate world forever, who spoke only ten words of Spanish between them, who moved to an area where there were very few English speakers (intentional for many reasons), whose fashion choices and mannerisms made them stand out like sore thumbs, we managed to make friends very quickly. We have always been quick to apologize for and poke fun at our “beautiful Spanish,” which was and still is disarming. It immediately drops people’s defenses and breaks down barriers.

Integrating ourselves as quickly as possible was critical for two reasons: Ex-pat depression is very real. Having known only a handful of people before we moved to Puerto Rico, we had to gain a foothold in our new community to avoid feeling isolated, which can lead to depression.

One of the biggest reasons people return home when relocating to a new country is that they set themselves apart from their neighbors (usually subconsciously). And let’s face it, that’s the easy thing to do. The language is different, customs are different, the food is different, the music is different, and so on. So many differences, it’s easy to allow those differences to convince people that it will never work. The older people are when they relocate, the risk of being unable to assimilate or at minimum integrate increases.

The other reason was that we wanted to let people know why we moved. Because we never allowed our differences to overshadow our similarities and our common goals, we made friends quickly (many of whom we have to this day) and people were happy to tell us about properties they knew might be for sale.

Learning a New Language in Your 40s

Ain’t easy! It has improved greatly from our first few months here but that’s not hard when we started from nothing. We continue to improve and moreover, we continue to make fun of ourselves and ensure people it’s our problem not theirs.

Within two months of arriving here, we saw a farm that we fell in love with. It turned out to be in what’s known as herencia (pronounced airenceea). This means the owner or owners have died and the property has been willed to the heirs. Unless all the heirs have agreed to sell the property, move on. It could be years, even decades, before that property will sell.

Yum Yum (left) and Gigi)

While we didn’t buy the farm from this family, we ended up adopting two of their German shepherd dogs.

We continued looking and while many were nice, they weren't for us. By February 2009, we found another (potentially) perfect piece of property, ironically the next farm over from the one that was in herencia.

The old house

Buying Land in Puerto Rico

15 acres on paper, but likely closer to 18, 1,500 feet up, the 750-square foot house was about 400 feet from the road. We made an offer and it was accepted.

Another reason we needed to integrate ourselves quickly is so people saw us as locals serious about buying a farm to work not as rich retirees who were unaware of property values.

US Census taker

The day we closed on the property and we took the keys, we drove up to see it. No sooner did we open the gate and right behind us was a census taker. We always wondered whether it was odd timing or if he had been sent there.

A complete OMG! moment! Nearly two years after we’d made the decision to change our lives and reinvent ourselves, Paul and I were the owners of a farm on Puerto Rico. The first order of business was to expand the house so we could live in it.

Sarah Ratliff and her husband, Paul, abruptly quit their jobs after 20 years into serving a lifetime sentence in corporate America, moved to the interior of Puerto Rico, and bought an 18-acre farm. The goal with their farm, which they namedMayani Farms after one of their two “starter” goats, is to be self-sustaining (versus selling anything). Sarah is a freelance writer who recently published the book Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide. Follow Sarah on Facebookand Twitter, and on her website, SarahRatliff.com. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here


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Self Sufficiency and Sharing Resources

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The garden box looks like it is ready to fall apart. That is due to a bear walking on top of it. 

Most homesteaders seek what is referred to as "self sufficiency." I have blogged on this topic in the past, but there are so many facets to the subject that writing could be extensive and exhaustive. Being able to grow your own vegetables is personally rewarding and provides a source of food that you know hasn’t been washed in something or treated before you get it. Gardening is the most often used term when talking about food self sufficiency.

Our personal garden is still producing well into the fall season. It is a small garden, but then it only has to provide for two people. Insects are not a problem in the mountains but rodents are a major problem, which is why we grow most of our vegetables in an aboveground garden box totally encased in hardware cloth (photo above).

Beyond producing your own vegetables, there are other aspects of self sufficiency. Having livestock is not allowed in our community due to deed restrictions, so that is not something I can intelligently write about. Raising livestock and fowl is another aspect of being self sufficient and before you purchase property, it is wise to make sure you can have livestock before you invest your time and resources in the parcel of land.

Rural Law Enforcement

There are multiple aspects to self sufficiency that are not always so obvious. Where we live, at the outermost end of our county with a low population density, we don’t have an abundance of law enforcement personnel or wildlife officers. In fact, our one wildlife officer covers several counties and on the rare occasion I have called law enforcement, the only officer on duty was many miles away. If you have someone breaking the law and the response time is slow or non-existent, you may end up having to deal with the situation yourself.

If you have not been trained or have had experience in dealing with a poacher, vandal, or thief, the situation could easily escalate if you end up having to deal with it yourself. These types of people don’t usually just say "darn it, I was doing wrong and got caught." They will fight back or get belligerent. If you are not capable of handling a situation like that, it is best to do what you can from a distance and not try to resolve it on your own, because the consequences could escalate and turn dangerous.

Having an idea of what you would do ahead of time is important so you are not left to reacting to the moment. Our nearest neighbor is almost a mile away and while we have a manager for our community, I have seen a mob mentality suddenly spring up in our community and that is a recipe for disaster. My plan would be twofold: If they were on our property and posed an imminent threat, I would take any necessary measures to protect ourselves and our property. If they were not on our property or posing an imminent threat, I would take photos and wait for law enforcement to arrive even if it was the next day.

From my observations, seeking self reliance is not much different than the numerous examples we witness each and every day. Our politicians don’t talk with each other but instead talk about each other. Our community leaders don’t talk with the people they represent but close ranks and wait for problems to come to them. In short, people don’t seem to talk or interact with each other very much any more.

Building Community to Share Stories and Resources

One good aspect of self sufficiency is that there are blogs like this where people in different communities and different parts of the country can have meaningful dialog with each other, if desired. People striving for self sufficiency seem to want to share successes and failures with each other and having a place to do that facilitates dialog. Unless people talk with each other on a meaningful level, obstacles will remain in place and our society will continue to be divided and fearful.

I have been around for ¾ of a century, and when I was young, my family and our neighbors all had gardens and we shared within our community with each other. It wasn’t called self sufficiency back then — it was referred to as exercising good common sense.

One neighbor had a cherry tree (my mouth still waters when I think of those tasty cherries). We had a peach tree, another had grapes, and another had an apple tree and all fruits were shared. On our street, the houses mostly had a front porch and during evenings, the neighbors would sit on front porches and talk to each other or just walk around the block to say hello to each other.

I just recently saw on the news a shooting because one person thought the other person looked at them wrong. We seem to have lost our ability to communicate with each other and that leaves many fearful and untrusting. Even though there are numerous social media sites, we don’t connect with each other anymore on a more personal level and hence, have become divided and polarized over issues that are hardly worthy of our attention.

Self Sufficiency Means Community Development

We need to learn to talk with each other once again, whether it is over self sufficiency or another topic. We should not be forced into self sufficiency due to an economic downturn, but instead be prepared in case it ever does occur again.

Self sufficiency doesn’t mean isolation. It means being more reliant on ourselves for some of our basic needs, but it certainly doesn’t imply eliminating others from our lives. A group of self-sufficient people can work together to form a community like I recall in the post-depression years described above.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their lives in the Sangre de Christo mountains of southern Colorado, go to their blog site:www.brucecarolcabin.blogspot.com. They live in a small cabin with their four German Shepherd Dogs at 9,800 feet elevation. Read all of Bruce's remote-living blog posts for MOTHER EARTH NEWS here.


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A Dignified Look at Chicken Butchering Day

In case you hadn’t heard, Farmstead Creamery & Café is closed on Mondays. We call it the “barn-muckin’ chicken-pluckin’ hay-balin’ day.” Well, today was one of those days in the chicken pluckin’ department — aka, chores-reduction day.

Preparing for Chicken Processing Day

It really starts the day before, when you skip feeding the tractor (movable pasture pen/shelter) of chickens that have grown to maturity, which usually leads to a grumpy reception from the plump, white bodies with bobbing, red heads. “Excuse me, chores-ster, didn’t you forget something?”

Skipping feeding for the day isn’t about me being stingy with the grain. There’s still plenty of grass and clover with the twice-daily chicken tractor move, as well as bugs to chase and catch. Withholding feed is the poultry version of GoLightly treatment before a colonoscopy. It helps get everything cleaned out, which means much less messiness on their big day.

That evening, the lightning flashes, the thunder crashes, and even the National Weather Service calls our house to warn about the storms that rage in a ragged band across the state in a line that reaches all the way down to Texas. Of course, always, right when you first introduce those 4-week-old chickens to life in the tractor (vs life in a more protective coop), something happens with the weather. But now, here we were, one night away from butchering, facing the grips of another storm.

Fortunately, the cooling effects of the Chequamegon National Forest sliced a window of green in the radar rainbow of yellows and reds, and we passed unharmed. No trees snapped in two and no power outages to keep us up all night. The chickens by morning were still eager, dry— and hungry. Sorry about that part, kiddos.

Gathering Processing Equipment

The preparation is almost the biggest part of butchering day. There’s the hoses to round up, and the extension cords. There’s the scouring and placement of tub sinks, prep tables, and buckets. There’s putting up the canopy and tacking drum liners into place. And then there’s the cantankerous scalder.

Now, our chicken butchering methods have taken great leaps and bounds from 15 years ago, when we butchered the first 27 Cornish Cross meat chickens. Back then, we had a hatchet, a stump with two nails, a large pot of water boiling over an open fire, and our fingers.

These days, we have a cone system (like Joel Salatin uses in the documentary “Food Inc.” and during his MOTHER EARTH NEWS Fair demonstrations), a propane scalder shared with another farmer, a drum plucker, and a lot more experience. If you’re feeling a little lost in all this jargon, don’t worry, Spellcheck has no idea what most of these words are either!

Let’s walk through the butcher station system in a friendly way. We actually encourage folks who order chickens from us to come and see the operation and learn how it’s done. Most who are brave enough to take us up on the idea whip out their cameras, pull the kids out of the backseat of the car, and wonder at the humanity and science of the affair in comparison with the nightmarish trauma of commercial poultry processing. It’s important to take ownership of where our food comes from and how it is produced. If you’re not ready for this story, though, I’ll see you next article.

The Chicken-Processing Process

Catch pen. First, there’s the catch pen. This is where, after taking a ride in the back of my utility golf cart, the chickens lounge about in the shade of a balsam, pecking at the grass or watching for bugs. At this point, life is still pretty nice in the land of chicken. If they do understand what is happening beyond the world of their catch pen, they don’t exhibit any signs of distress or anxiety.

Kill cone. I catch a chicken, place it head-first into the upside-down road cone, and Grandpa removes the head with a knife. No running around headless, since the bird is confined within the cone like a tight hug. This also prevents bruising of the meat. After the bird has been sufficiently bled out, it’s time for a hot bubble bath.  This is where that renowned scalder comes into play.

Scalding. Here’s the science part: Feathers don’t want to come off a chicken — they’re there to protect the feathered beastie from cold, heat, wet, and dry. If you’ve ever tried to pluck a bird without any treatment after death, you’ll know it’s not easy! Therefore, to get that nice, clean, creamy-colored skin everyone likes to see on their chicken, it’s necessary to shock the pores of the bird’s skin. This is accomplished by dunking them in hot, soapy water (about 145 degrees Fahrenheit) for close to 50 seconds, followed by plunging the chickens in a bucket of cold water.

The soap cuts the oils on the chicken’s feathers, allowing the hot water to penetrate (scalding), while the quick change from hot to cold prevents the skin from cooking. Now the feathers will pull out easily.

But if the water is not hot enough, the feathers won’t come out, and if it’s too hot for too long, the skin will start to cook and tear easily. Trying to maintain a standard temperature over an open fire proved to be near impossible and more liable to melt the toes of our shoes as we leaned precariously over the pot to dunk soggy chickens. It’s amazing how much they weigh when soaked in soapy water! This is why a thermostat-regulated propane scalding tank works considerably better.

Getting the poultry jacuzzi to light can sometimes be an interesting ordeal, laying on the ground with a lighter while holding the magic (though very hidden) red plastic button to ignite the pilot light. But once it gets going and regulated (even if that means wrapping the scalder in insulation on freezing butcher days), the scalder is one of the most important tools in the process.

Plucking. The next phase is the plucker. That used to be us. Originally, it was optimistic to do four to five chickens an hour when everything was by hand. Tail and wing feathers are the worst, and must be tackled first before the bird cools too far. But today, with the drum plucker Grandpa made from a Whizbang kit, we finished 50 birds in a couple hours.

Two birds at a time are placed inside a half-barrel lined with rubber fingers. The bottom disk spins on a motor, and the chickens bounce around inside. The rubber fingers pull at the feathers and the centripetal force flings them out the bottom between the rotating disk and the side walls. When the scalding is just right, there’s only a few pin feathers and a little on the tail that needs hand picking. It’s amazing!

Butchering. Mom and Kara are experts at the leg and neck trimming as well as evisceration. Knives whirl, hoses spray, and the hearts and livers are saved for the giblet bags.  Then we all chip in on pin feathers (quality control), while the birds chill in tubs of cold water.

Packaging and freezing. Then they’re bagged, weighed, labeled, and tucked in the fridge while the whole system is scoured and put away for another day.  The catch pen is empty, but in its place are 50 beautiful, clean frying or roasting chickens for folks to enjoy at their table — real food from a real farm where the chickens had real chicken lives.

So, if you really did make it to the end of the article and didn’t “chicken out” at the title, here’s a pat on the back for you. For those of us who choose to eat meat, being knowledgeable and responsible about how it is raised and prepared should be part of the noblis oblige of life as an omnivore. When we own and respect it, then there is dignity. When we ignore or divorce ourselves from it, that dignity is lost, and we can easily become pray to corporate manipulation. When was the last time Tyson invited you to their butchering day? 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. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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