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Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Quirky Character of Pekin and Khaki Campbell Ducks

Three Backyard Ducks In Snow

Farmyards are fully diverse and integrated communities. They are societies in which different species of animals play differing, varying, and interesting roles. The animals of Stony Kreek Farm are no different.

One such instance is that of our resident "doctors." Yes, our ducks are the physicians of the barnyard. They walk around consulting with one another, quacking to themselves and at the other animals. Ducks are very social creatures and are known for their intelligence.

Comparing Pekin and Khaki Campbell Ducks

We own a total of three ducks: two Pekin hens and one Khaki Campbell drake, or male duck. The Pekin duck originally came from China. It is a member of the Mallard family. The Pekin is best known for its meat and docile temperament. It lays up to 200 eggs per year. When you buy a duck in the grocery store, it is most likely a butchered Pekin.

The Khaki Campbell is a hybrid of several breeds. They originated in Great Britain over 100 years ago. A woman named Adel Campbell crossed Mallards, Rouens, and Indian Runner ducks to produce the breed that is named for her. They are docile in temperament and are known for their laying ability. The Khaki Campbell is known to lay up to 300 eggs a year.

The day begins early at Stony Kreek Farm. Fritz, the Appenzeller Spitzhaben rooster, awakens everyone and everything at 5am. Soon thereafter, you can hear a very loud quack! (Meet Fritz in an earlier post.)

Our two Pekins are called "Peekaboo" and "Skipper." The Khaki Campbell is affectionately known as "Little Buddy." We named the two for the characters on "Gilligan's Island." Peekaboo was named because she slants her head to one side as if to say "Peekaboo, I see you!"

Ducks with Character

The doctors walk around the yard and visit all the animals. Once in front of a group or coop, they circle one another and quack at each other. They will often flap their wings at a situation or at the other barnyard creatures. We call this part of the day, the "consult."

The most fun part of the day is the feeding of all animals. We feed each group separately. The "doctors" was watch with interest as the other animals finish their food and then make "follow-up" visits to collect their "fees." Yes, they collect food from the leftovers from the other animals.
"Quuuuaaack, quack, quack," breaks the silence as the end of the day approaches.

Often, I will yell, "Doctors!" They start quacking to themselves and start making their way to their enclosure.

Ducks are the prescription for a good time and alternative for those of us allergic to chicken eggs. If one is allergic to chicken eggs, that person should not be allergic to duck eggs — I have enjoyed French toast for the first time in my life.

Tom Hemme and his wife, Diana, work to raise crops and animals on Hemme Farm in Missouri. Born and raised in Nashville, Tenn., Tom taught agricultural history and Native American heritage for many years. Follow Tom on his website, Shagadillies.com. Read all of Tom’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Caring for Dry Cows and Promoting Healthy Calvings on a Micro Dairy

 

Dry cow management can be difficult on a small herd dairy for many reasons.  However proper management of dry cows is essential for successful calving.  Traditionally cows are dried off (stopped being milked) 60 days prior to their projected calving date.  Many people new to managing cows are flustered by the idea of drying a cow off and have many ideas about how to best accomplish that with a cow.  Some folks speculate that cows should be dried off slowly over a period of time and may milk a cow they are drying off once a day to begin with or perhaps every other day for a few days.  But after 50 years of drying cows off I am convinced that the best way to dry cows off is to just stop milking the cow and not to milk her again until after she calves.  When you stop milking a cow she will naturally continue to make milk and her udder will swell.  That is good.  It is the pressure that builds up in the udder that sends a signal to the mammary glands in her udder to stop producing milk.  If you relieve that pressure by milking her out occasionally you reduce the pressure and the mammary glands are sent the wrong signal.  I think it is much better to just let the cow's udder swell so she knows to stop making milk.  A simple way to help a cow reduce milk production is to reduce her water intake to the levels required by a dry cow, rather than a milking cow.  Milking cows will drink 20 to 25 gallons of water per day, depending upon the water content of their feed or pasture.  Dry cows will drink up to ten gallons per day.  But if you are trying to dry off a cow you could give her five to eight gallons of water per day for a day or two.  

True, the cow's teats may leak and drip milk for a couple of days or perhaps longer after you stop milking her but that is why it is very important to keep a dry cow in a clean and dry setting.  And if you become worried about the leaking opening the door to mastitis then dip the cow from time to time.  But, believe me, the sooner the udder can swell the sooner the cow will stop producing milk and the quicker the udder will shrink, as the left over milk is reabsorbed by the cow.

The nutritional needs of a dry cow are much different than the needs of a cow that is milking. Before any cow is dried off she should be in good condition with fat on her bones, but not too much.  Her body score should be 3.5 to 4.  In that case a dry cow should be exclusively fed a medium to good quality 1st cut long stem hay until two weeks prior to her calving date.  or you could keep her on a overly mature dry pasture. That will help her rumen get in shape for milk production after the cow calves.  Do not feed her any grain during this period or give her access to lush pasture.  That means you will have to keep your dry cow/s separated from your milking cows.

Do all you can to prevent your dry cows from becoming fat or over conditioned.  Though feeding them grain and/or good hay or lush pasture may seem like the kind thing to do it isn't.  It may lead to serious health problems after the cow calves, such as milk fever and ketosis. If cows are too fat when they calve they may not have the appetite required to eat enough feed to keep up with their nutritional needs.  Instead they may just be content to utilize the fat on their backs which is a sure way for them to develop Ketosis and in rare cases Nervous or crazy Ketosis which can be very traumatic for the cow and the farmer. 

Two weeks before your cow is due to calves is the time to start to "lead feed" them.  That means slowly introducing them to the feeds they will be fed after they calve.  Always introduce cows to new rations slowly.  Cows have very sensitive metabolisms and it doesn't take much to "throw them off".  It is critical to meet the cows nutritional needs during the last two weeks of their pregnancy.  During that time the calf inside her may double in size so make sure she has the feed she needs to keep up with the growth of her calf.  Your cow will not get fat when you are lead feeding her during the last two weeks of her pregnancy.  Just make sure you don't introduce too much good feed to quickly.  Let the cow get used to the new ration.

Dry cow management on large farms is easier because those farms usually have dry cow pens, or even dry cow barns or dry cow pastures where the dry cows can be easily segregated from the milk cows so they receive the proper dry cow rations.  In many cases Micro Dairies, or small herd dairies do not have separate pens, barns and or pastures they can devote to dry cows. And cows hate to be alone and separated from their herd.  So if you only have one dry cow, keeping her separated from the milking cows can be a challenge.  But it is a challenge you have to meet if you want your dry cows to calve out successfully.  Good luck!

 In 1991, Judge created the Vermont Family Farms brand of fluid milk in partnership with Vermont Milk Producers, Inc. This co-operative aimed to develop a new and innovative way to bring farm-fresh milk to the market. You can read all of Steve's posts here.


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What is a Farm Dog? The Best Choices for Working Partners on the Farm or Ranch

 dogs

Quick answer – a dog that lives on a farm.

A more complete answer would describe the breeds that traditionally worked on farms or ranches and were developed specifically for that work. Fast and clever herding dogs; noble and protective livestock guardian dogs; plucky terriers in the stable or field; and the multi-purpose breeds that weren’t specialists but could lend a hand to a hard working farmer or even pull a cart. In addition to their other jobs, most of these farm dog breeds also served as watchdogs for the homestead and companions for a more isolated lifestyle. These breeds remain an excellent fit for farm life as both a true working partner or a family companion in the country.

My new book Farm Dogs focuses exclusively on these breeds and the work they perform. The primary purpose of this book was to help people choose the right dog for their needs. The detailed breed profiles include specific aptitudes and inherited behaviors. Instead of the breed groups used by the kennel clubs, I choose to group these breeds by the actual work they traditionally performed for farming and livestock people.

Livestock Guardian Dogs

Among the oldest of the dog breed types are the shepherd’s dogs or livestock guardians, developed by the transhumant cultures that grazed open land and moved flocks from winter to high summer mountain pastures in places from Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy; through the countries of the Balkans and Carpathians; down into Turkey; over to the Caucasus; and throughout Central Asia into Tibet. In the company of shepherds, they protected sheep, goats, and occasionally other stock from predation. 

Selected over many centuries, these breeds all have physical and behavioral traits in common. Most look a bit like huge, overgrown puppies with curling tails, floppy drop ears, and warm double coats. They are also independent thinkers, strongly protective, low in energy, and nurturing towards their smallest charges. They should exhibit no prey or chase drive directed toward their animals.

Only very specific breeds are livestock guardians – this not a job any other breed can be trained to perform. About 20 of these breeds are found today in North America. Some are well known - the Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Komondor, Kuvasz, Maremma, and Anatolian Shepherd. Less common are breeds such as the Estrela, Central Asian Shepherd, Kangal, Karakachan, Sarplaniac, and the Spanish and Tibetan Mastiffs. Other breeds are even more rare – the Pyrenean Mastiff, Gampr, Tornjak, or Tatra.

Herding Dogs

Long after after the development of livestock guardian dogs, in some areas shepherds began to utilize another kind of dog with their flocks. Some of these herding dogs were bred specifically to fetch and gather animals. Herding dogs might also drive stock between distant pastures or to market, while still others acted as a “living fence” to keep grazing animals out of crops. They also emigrated with their sheep, goats, and cattle to other countries around the world, where they were sometimes changed to fit into new situations. Today, herding breeds are also very popular as companions and in dog sports or activities.

Herding dogs can vary in appearance, temperament, and behavior much more than livestock guardian dogs; however, they are generally medium-sized with coats that range from short and smooth to long and rough, often reflecting the climate and conditions of their homeland. Ears are often pricked, erect, or folded over and tails may be bobbed or long. All herding dogs possess a significant prey or chase drive, which is channeled towards work, along with specific herding traits such as eye, grip, and others. Herding dogs are usually higher in energy, as well as willing, smart, and trainable, but they also vary a great deal in their intensity or ability to relax in the home.

Popular herding breeds include the Border Collie, Australian Shepherd, Pembroke corgi, Rough collie, the Old English sheepdog, and German Shepherd. Lesser known breeds include the English and Dutch Shepherd, Bearded collie, Australian Cattle Dog, Cardigan corgi, Lapphund, Catahoula Leopard Dog, and engaging or delightful breeds like the Icelandic Sheepdog, Samoyed, Pyrenean Shepherd, Mudi, Puli, and others. 

terrier

Working Terriers and Earthdogs

Small vermin hunting dogs were common around barns, stables, and warehouses. Terriers were a more recent development in Britain and Ireland, where they hunted foxes, badgers, and otters in the countryside and rats in the cities. In Germany, the dachshunde and smaller pinschers did the same work. Terriers also emigrated with their owners to new homes in Australia and North America, where they were also selected to fit new purposes.

Traditionally, working terriers and other earthdogs were no larger around the chest than a man’s hands - or spannable - to insure they could slip in burrows and tunnels after their prey. Although their sizes were similar, their coats could be diverse; but they all share common behavioral and temperament traits. Terriers are full of energy, plucky and tough, with strong prey drives. Many are easily aroused and somewhat dog aggressive, unless they were traditionally worked in packs. There are some notable exceptions that make more easygoing family companions.

We are certainly familiar with the Jack Russell, Dachshund, and Miniature Schnauzer, but perhaps less so with the Australian, Border, Cairn, Fox, and Patterdale terriers, as well as the American original - the Rat terrier.

Traditional Multi-purpose Farm Dogs

These breeds – often jack-of-trades – are the most diverse in appearance and behavior. They served both as an extra farmhand and rural companion rather than a specialist worker. Some breeds worked with stock in the farmyard, while others pulled a farm cart, accompanied cattle to market, or controlled vermin. Many of these breeds remain very alert watchdogs, as well as loyal and devoted companions to their families.

These breeds are tremendously diverse in temperament, behaviors, working abilities, and appearance. Some breeds have high energy and prey drive, and need serious work every day, while others are more laid-back and content as family companions.

The Bernese Mountain Dog, Rottweiler, Leonberger, Newfoundland, and Belgians Shepherds are familiar multi-purpose breeds. New to the America, are breeds like the Danish Swedish Farmdog, Hovawart, Pumi, Entlebucher, and Appenzeller. In their homelands, the larger Irish terriers and the Schnauzers were also traditional farm dogs.

The Farm Dog

Focusing on traditional, hard working farm dogs, the profiled breeds were selected for their real working abilities on a farm or ranch, and they remain well suited for country life. My hope is that you will discover a new working partner or family companion, perfectly suited to your needs and preferences.

Farm Dogs is the first comprehensive book on working farm dogs, including color photography and comprehensive descriptions, history, and working traits of 93 livestock guardians; herders; working terriers and earthdogs; and traditional farm and working partners.

Photos by: Sarplaninac @Louise Liebenberg, Grazerie, Alberta; English Shepherd @ Mars Vilaubi; Terrier and Boots by @Alamy; Sennenhund Leuchtender Hund, Wikicommons

With more than 35 years of hands-on LGD experience, Jan Dohner writes for Mother Earth News and Storey Publishing. For more information visit jandohner.com. Read all of Jan's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Heating Your House with Wood, Part I

Hope survives best by the hearth. - Rick Riordan

There is nothing like the comfort of a warm spot in front of the woodstove. Heating the house by woodstove is a way of life. It creates a rhythm to the day, filling the woodstove on a cold day. It is physical and self-sufficient and real. There is no invisible source of heat keeping things comfortable. The source of heat is obvious, tactile and requires your efforts.

Friends talk about coming to our house when electricity goes out and houses get cold. It is known that our house stays warm on those days and provides a haven to others.

woodstove

The key strategy for heating by woodstove is keeping a supply of firewood at the house. Whether you are splitting your own or buying by the cord, you must always think ahead. Running out of fuel is a problem for any system. Know how much firewood you need for the winter. For our 1600 square foot home in Maryland, it is about three cords of wood. Keep at least a cord more than you need, but ideally, stock a whole season ahead. This allows for green wood to ripen before you will need it. Make sure a sufficient stack of firewood is always at hand to keep your heating system at work.

Gathering Fuel

To chop wood or not to chop wood...It takes effort to create woodstove heat. It is not warm with the flick of a switch or the installation of a fuel canister. Phil used to chop our own wood, but started buying cords of wood when we became parents. We have not prioritized chopping our own wood ever since. However, collecting and splitting firewood is a source of exercise and meditation that many enjoy. A tractor and the wood splitter attachment for it are great for processing logs into firewood. Sometimes Freecycle and Craigslist sites will have postings for free wood. Then all you need is a pickup truck and a strong back. Hardwoods are best for woodstove heat.

Stockpile a wood stack close to the house. For us, that is on the deck. The deck keeps it convenient and, most importantly, dry. We have a ramp on the side of the deck, so a wheelbarrow full of wood can be pushed onto the deck. My husband even fills the tractor bucket with wood and drives it so close that the bucket reaches over the front steps. Then he can stack wood onto the deck straight from the tractor bucket. I do not recommend stockpiling wood in the house right next to the woodstove, as that’s a fire hazard.

Every heat source has its benefits and challenges. I like that heating by wood is tactile, dependable, and local. It is also comforting to gather around the fireplace or woodstove on a cold winter day. Rick Riordan’s character, the Greek goddess Hestia, sums it up: “Hope survives best by the hearth.”

Coming Next: Heating Your House with Wood, Part II with challenges and tips.

Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 MOTHER EARTH NEWS Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life on the farm's Facebook Page. For more about House in the Woods Farm, go to the House in the Woods website, and read all of Ilene's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Off-Grid, Organic and Old School

 

I won’t tell you How-To get there, but I’ll show you how I did it. Use the knowledge and experiences of others who live off-grid, garden organically, build naturally, and live a sustainable life. Then, get some chickens, build a shelter, hook up your own wind, solar and battery power, and find your niche in a whole new world. You can live like a boss on your own devices in a place you call your own. If I can do it folks, it ain’t rocket surgery. Check it out... Find Some Land, Buy it, Stake Your Claim: Find 5 Acres of land and buy it. More if you can afford it. Land is expensive but the price hardly ever goes down, and you’ll discover ways to earn a living off the land you’d never learn living in an apartment, next door to neighbors you hardly know, with a view of an old Ford Torino up on blocks and two dumpsters. Including myself, there are at least a half dozen speakers here at this fair who will tell you how you can “Make a Living on 5 Acres” and folks, we aren’t kidding around. Books, videos and classes today on this very subject are in circulation everywhere, especially here. Reduce your carbon footprint, conserve electricity, water and save every penny you can. Train yourself to be frugal, don’t waste ANY food, start a compost pile.

Educate Yourself: Seek out the vast databases of knowledge online, 1000’s of books and magazines, attend fairs like this one, listen to Ted Talks, watch documentaries and videos, and write down everything Joel Salatin says. Everything.

Jessi Bloom can show you how to create a Practical Permaculture paradise, and she’s here today, books in tow. Dan Chiras knows everything about solar power. He literally wrote the book on it. Get one and study up.

Come to the DIY Showcase, sponsored by our host, Mother Earth News, just outside this old roping arena, and we’ll show you how to set up a starter camp, with a 20 year old camper trailer given it’s own power source, solar water heater, chicken feeders, and more. SECRET!: We’re gonna feed as many of you as we can with Yard-Food including The Sunflower Farm’s all-natural, grass-fed beef, my friends Charlie and Laura of Shine’s Farm Stand, brought organic veggies and bread, all cooked with the cultural influences of the Southwest, and possibly Far East.

Produce Your Own Food

Commit to growing your own food, cooking it, preserving it, and staying away from processed foods.

All-natural, organic vegetables, and pastured and grass-fed meats are in high demand. The supply of “Yard Food” is so far below the demand, if you had 500 acres in production you’d still be running behind. Organic vegetable sales have increased on average 10 percent every year for the past 10 years.

Pastured chickens and eggs... You can’t raise too many. In Wichita Falls there’s a food share group of around 100 people who purchase $1,000 to $1,500 in locally farmed groceries every week. The group is usually in short supply of either eggs, or milk and cream, grass-fed beef, veggies and forget about pastured pork unless you had your order in a month ago. If they had two dozen, dozen more eggs today, they’d all be sold. 

Let’s do some math: $4 per dozen X 24 dozen = $96. $96 X 52 weeks = you just put Five Grand in the bank for the year. $5,000 selling eggs. 

How many chickens would that take? 50 hens should just about do it. With a 90% daily laying rate, you’d have 25-26 dozen every week. Joel says: You need a chicken tractor or mobile coop. I made a coop from plywood, landscape timbers, two-by-fours, and reclaimed roofing tin. My chicken tractor resembles a ‘70’s 20 ft. travel trailer, because that’s what it is. Or was. It’ll be all tricked out for chickens this spring. Now we’re up and running, and I promise you, there’s a food co-op, CSA, neighborhood group, or local restaurant who’ll buy every dozen eggs you can get into a carton. I sell them for $5 a dozen all day long, and three moms in Wichita buy most of them. Fresh eggs and all-natural chicken for the table. You just can’t beat it. Well, maybe....

I sort of backed into the grass-fed beef cattle business last year. My neighbor had a grass lease off some folks from Dallas on the property to my south, when they decided to sell it all and live happily ever after in the smog-filled, six feet from your neighbor, fast-food friendly city confines. Mike had 30 head of cows and calves he had to move basically overnight (the 88 acres sold within a week at $3,500 per acre), so we struck a deal to graze them on my place, and I was in on a few head. My sisters and I bought a few more steers to go with them after Mike moved the cow/calf operation to his new place, and here we go. And folks, 17 steers, 36 cows, two bulls, a handful of calves later, and it isn’t near enough to meet the demand for naturally raised, grass-fed beef--- just in north Texas. People are shunning traditional CAPO raised beef quicker than you can shake a stick at it, especially hamburger meat with all it’s deadly ingredients, and the cattle are fed GMO grains, growth hormones, steroids, and antibiotics. No! No! No!

Factory farming is the death of nutrition. Widgets are sold as food to a hoodwinked public. Multinational corporate profit margins do not allow for such noble causes as pasturing cattle or letting them eat grasses for which they are designed. 

So this just happened: We had a cow butchered at the local USDA processor, which made about 550 pounds of ground beef and stew meat. Most of it was sold to friends, family, a local restaurant, and to a food co-op. I contacted the food co-op to let them know we had 100 lbs of grass-fed ground beef for sale, and the manager says, “Let me see how much I can sell.” She posted it on their Facebook page that evening; it was all gone in 3 hours! There’s a big restaurant in Dallas where the owner has been serving up organic and natural fare for almost 50 years. I took some samples of ground beef and 4 oz. cutlets to him, and he want’s to buy direct from The Sunflower Farm. Only problem is, he cooks, serves and sells 350,000 lbs of grass-fed beef every year. That’s at least 700 steers, all rolled into hamburgers, meatloaf, pot roast, chicken-fried steaks and stuffed peppers. 700 head just to outfit one restaurant! The demand is there. Again, how much can you supply? 

Off-Grid

Building your own home sounds like a huge undertaking, and it is. However, if you’ll keep it simple, use some proven alternative building methods, and pilfer as much materials as possible, you can get it done and done cheap. My cabin is straw bale and earth plaster. The framework consists of used oil field tubing welded up and topped with a steel roof. I built it all myself, with a little help from my friends. The planning stage is critical; you should take into consideration what raw materials are plentiful in your locale. Near me, it’s all wheat fields and oil fields, so my choices were easy, albeit limited. If you’re surrounded by bamboo, build your frame from bamboo, then stack straw bales on the frame and mud it all up. Use cob, a mix of mud and straw or other fibers, stuff wooden pallets with the mix, stack them up. and voila! you’ve got a goat barn. Uncle Mud is here to show you how to build with mud and straw all weekend! Go get your hands dirty! If there are plenty of trees on your property, build a log cabin. If you live in the hills, build a cave or an underground home. Limitless awesome hand-built homes. Consult the inter-webs and our host’s publications to find yours.

Supply your own power with a few solar panels and batteries for starters. I’ve been living on 4 Golf Cart batteries and two 250 Watt solar panels for years. If it’s windy on your homestead, add a homemade wind generator to help charge up the batteries. Use a simple solar water heater like this one I have on display. Do it now and you’ll be grandfathered in before the government shills for big energy corporations won’t allow you to do it. Then vote them out.

Make things and sell them. Living off-grid and sustainably is a lofty goal. It isn’t easy but it can be done. Being able to earn money on top of providing your family with food and shelter is important, especially during the transition period, and later when you are set up and experience an abundance of something you grew or made. Homemade Food sells all day, every day, everywhere. Homemade soap, tools, firewood, computer geek stuff, everyone has something they can make, or a service they an provide, and sell it. Make art and sell it. Ours is an appreciative bunch.

YOU CAN DO IT!  

Save up and buy some land. 5 Acres. Start a garden. Containers, aquaponics, traditional... either way get some food growing. Get some Chickens. They take care of themselves. Raise grass-fed cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits.... whatever you have room for on your property.

Build a shelter from whatever you can afford, find, or gain in trade. Start out in a camper or RV while you build your dream homestead. You’ll learn to conserve, live simply yet with many modern conveniences. Seek others involved in sustainable living, real foods and farming, and neighbors with whom you can trade.

Teach yourself to Do-It-Yourself. Can those extra veggies, meats, jams. Eat all you can and sell all you can’t. Artists and craftsmen....sell your wares. Trust the experts and experienced. Most importantly, know that you can live wisely, and happily in Nature.

TODAY is the best chance you’ve ever had to get started on a Sustainable Life, Off-Grid, Organic, and Old School.  Thank you! Now follow me if you’re hungry.


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.

Homesteading on Persimmon Ridge

It is our destiny to draw the dragon’s fire while mainstream culture hides behind its disintegrating deficit, damning us for its complacency. —Gene Logsdon from and describing “The Ramparts People”

Persimmon Ridge shares its secrets only in the wintertime. Most of the year, a tangle of ankle-grabbing vines and prickly briars guard its entrances to foot traffic, obscuring old roads and lanes. Biting hordes of ticks and chiggers join forces with the green wall to keep out intruders. But in winter, the vegetation recedes and the little beasties sleep, if only briefly.

My struggling little honey-and-goat farm sits at the western base of the ridge. My drive way was once an old road that wound through my property and on up to the ridge top. The eastern slope of the ridge is home to a small settlement of mostly related African-American families who have been there forever it seems. Between us live only flora, fauna, and ghosts.

Between us lies a forest upwelling of persimmons, red and white oak, hickory, sycamore, beech, and other hardwoods--home to deer, wild turkey, raccoons, possums, bobcat, owls, hawks, squirrel, rabbit and, the neighbors and I believe, sometimes a mountain lion. The ghosts I speak of are in the bones of the old unpainted houses and of the barns built without nails that decay into the ground along the old road. Trees grow up around and through these old houses and their outbuildings, obscuring them from view on a casual walk.

For many winters now, I have frequented the ridge. When it is passable, I walk the road that disappears into the underbrush behind my chicken coop to start the climb. As I amble along lost in thought, I often look up to find haunted windows, shedding splintered panes of glass, staring back at me.

All That Remains

The midden piles around these homes give me clues to the people who once lived here. Homesteaders. They did not have running water, but they did have springs and wells. They had chicken coops, barns for livestock, and corn cribs. An abundance of old mason jars tell me they had gardens and put up their own food. Old whiskey bottles around the out buildings tell me how they spent some of their time and that this activity occurred away from the house, probably away from the womenfolk. Blue glass milk-of-magnesia bottles hint of constipation, probably a wintertime and late spring malady when fresh vegetables were scarce? A riot of daffodils in late winter tell me that no matter how poor and humble these abodes, their inhabitants loved beauty and looked forward to the bloomtimes.

Hair product tins discarded among the refuse reveal that the inhabitants were mostly black, perhaps descendants of the slaves from the Sowell Plantation that sat just west of my little farm and was cradled by the Duck River. In one old home, a yellowing Readers Digest, dated 1961, suggests the ridge was abandoned sometime during and after the Great Migration in the decades after World War II.

Whoever these people were, they’re all gone. The only visitors now are the occasional hunter and the curious winter hiker.

But the ghosts of these people haunt me as I go about my chores, tending livestock and a modern homestead at the foot of the ridge. How did they live? How did they tend their homesteads? What did they grow in their gardens? How did they feed their animals in winter? What knowledge did they take with them that could help me now if only I knew? They had knowledge of how to live on the land passed down to them since the beginning of humankind—knowledge gone in a generation.

We modern homesteaders stumble about relearning, reinventing the wheel. This trial and error can be frustrating when all of our hard work ends in failure but oh so rewarding when things work out and we reap the benefit of our labor. So I look for clues and glean what I can from my winter walks along the ridge. If I build a chicken coop or a goat shed in the same manner they built their outbuildings--the posts not sunk into the ground but resting on flat stones—will they stand as long as these old buildings have?

Out of the Past Into the Future

I am not trying to return to some idyllic past. The old homesteaders had it much tougher than I do now. Their very survival depended on making a living from the land. They could not run to the Piggly Wiggly if their gardens failed or if their hogs failed to thrive. And a woman alone trying to homestead in those days? Probably would not have been allowed. I am grateful that I am living here now and not back then. But the longer I live this life and the more I learn from the land, the more I appreciate their strength and know-how and mourn its passing. I wish I could sit behind an outbuilding with them, share a sip of whiskey, and pick their brains.

Yes, the modern homesteading that I practice is far different from the do-or-die homesteading of the first inhabitants on Persimmon Ridge, but we also have something in common. Their ridge top homes meant freedom from slavery, a home to call their own, and a place to conduct their lives as they saw fit. They went to the ramparts, away from the plantation, but outside the fortified towns and cities as well. They had to depend on themselves and their neighbors.

After a lifetime of wage labor, my homestead, providing for my own needs as best I can, and bartering with other homesteaders has freed me to live on my own terms. I too came to Persimmon Ridge to claim my freedom. Will I and all the other modern homesteaders still be in places like this in twenty years? Or will our efforts be but memories swallowed up by what comes next? However it turns out, I am grateful for my time here now and so grateful that fear did not prevent me from claiming this beautifully difficult but fulfilling life.


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Prepare Your Chicken Coop for Spring

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Busy chickens at pasture

Though we’re still in the deep of winter, days are beginning to lengthen and, at least around here, spring really seems to be just around the corner. The spring-like feeling is validated by the new grass – as winter is the green season here – and by the narcissuses and cyclamens that are beginning to pop up.

Our chickens pick up the cue of longer days and generally resume laying around February, even though it’s still cold. The young pullets hatched at the end of last season – say, September or October – are generally ready to start laying in February or March.

Late January generally finds me making an enthusiastic survey of the coop and the flock, planning all the things I must do in preparation for spring and the more productive season of egg-laying and chick hatching. So what should chicken owners do at the end of winter?

Nesting Boxes 

Nesting boxes are the most obvious accommodation for your layers. Make sure you have an adequate number of boxes (one per 3-4 chickens). Nesting boxes should be comfortable-sized and sheltered from wind and rain. Pad them with straw, dry grass, dry leaves or wood shavings; you might also want to invest in dummy eggs to encourage your hens to lay there. Plastic dummy eggs can be bought very cheaply in a toy store or ordered via eBay, but ceramic eggs will last much longer and be a lot less easy to throw out.

Cleaning

During the winter, many of us (me included) are somewhat neglectful of cleaning out the chicken coop. Cold, rain, wind, frost and snow simply aren’t very conductive of spending time out of doors. Warmer weather and longer days are just the thing to prompt one to give that chicken coop a thorough airing and spring cleaning. The chicken manure, rotten straw or shavings and other scraps can go in the compost pile; this year I made the experiment of spreading a thin layer of my chicken coop clean-out pile around fruit trees, to let that valuable organic matter gradually sink into the soil with rains. We’ll see the results once our apricots, peaches and pears awaken from their winter slumber.

New Chicks

Once your hens get into the stride of laying, you’re very likely to get a broody or two pretty soon. Make sure you have comfortable accommodations for broodies and new chicks – a sheltered corner in the coop or, in case you are hand-rearing the chicks, an indoor brooder with a heating lamp. If you use an incubator, you might also want to dust it off and check that it’s in working order before spring.

Spring is an exciting season for the backyard flock owner; I always look forward to it throughout the winter, eagerly awaiting the surprises in the form of fresh eggs, new layers and new chicks, and anticipating the growth of our flock over the season. I wish all the chicken keepers in the northern hemisphere a great and productive spring, with plenty of happy hens and delicious eggs.

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. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here


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