Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Monday, August 25th

This week, my morning chore assignment was to be on the project team. I like working on projects because your activity changes daily and it gives you a good idea of what kind of farm related trouble shooting you can expect when you’re in the swing of things on your own farm. Today’s project was to take the feed buggy out to the fields where we have broilers and fill the feed bins. The feed buggies are very large and need to be brought out using a tractor, so Tim, my project partner for the week, and I teamed up to get that done.

We spent that morning and most of the rest of the afternoon doing some work on a new pasture at one of the Polyface rental properties. This involved more time with the chipper, collecting firewood and organizing the posts Joel Salatin had made out of some of the trees he had cut down. I did get an opportunity to use the hay mower with Jonathan, one of our apprentices, which was a blast. It’s a huge machine and it was really fun to drive. Going around one corner, I did miss a little strip of grass, which I’m told isn’t too bad for your first try but it would have been nice to have a perfect first run.

Tuesday, August 26th

Tuesday morning’s project was reconnecting a piston on one of the tractors (It sounds harder than it is. All we had to do was put a pin and some spacers in.), cleaning out the 6” of bark and sticks from the bottom of the wood trailer that had come loose during all our firewood collecting into the piglet pen and loading up lumber and tools for some fence repair we were going to do later that day.

After breakfast, we spent the rest of the day at one of the larger properties Polyface manages. Our objectives were to repair some fencing and a section of a corral that was broken over the past year by a wayward bull and catch a steer who had escaped through a section of fence from the comfort of his lush pasture and cattle friends into what has to be some of the most dense brambles I have ever seen. Daniel Salatin decided that since catching the loose steer was more of a toss up time wise that we should do that first. There were several of us there and we broke into two teams each starting at opposite ends of bramble land with the plan to regroup once someone found the steer. Thankfully Hannah, our eagle eyed apprentice, spotted him about eight minutes into our quest. I say thankfully because the brush and thorns were over five feet high and looking for something, even something as large as a steer, was a bit of a challenge. As you can imagine, this steer was stressed out and unhappy because he was alone and away from his companions and wasn’t really in the mood to be directed as to where he should go. It took a group effort to get him across the field and over to his pals, but the relief he clearly felt from being reunited with his herd made the whole production it took to find him and get him there worth it. After Operation Steer Reuniting was completed, we moved the entire herd across a country road and down a driveway to their new pasture. This move went very well and we stopped to eat and regroup before spending the rest of the afternoon on repairs.


Wednesday, August 27th

When you’re on the project team, one of your weekly jobs is to catch birds on processing days. Today was a big day and Tim, apprentice Jonathan and I were responsible for catching nine pens worth of birds, which came out to 560. This speaks a lot to how much we’ve learned over the past few months, as we were able to catch all those birds in about 45 minutes. If this were a month or so prior, catching this many birds would have taken us a lot longer to complete. To catch birds from the broiler shelters, we use boards to herd them towards the front of the structure and take off the two removable covers. One person then gets in with the birds and hands them to the other, who puts them in the chicken crate. We then move the crates to the flat bed trailer and bring them down to the processing shed.

After breakfast, we headed down to the processing shed and got to work. I should have known something was off because I kept bursting the gallbladders of the birds I was gutting, rendering their livers unsalable, which is unlike me. One gallbladder even exploded on my face. Gross. Totally my fault, but still gross. I’m usually good for bursting two or three over the course of a few hours, not six in ten minutes. I then suddenly didn’t feel fell, went to get a drink of water and ended up going back to bed. I think what did me in was a migraine, but whatever it happened to be was unpleasant and I felt bad for having to leave the line. Nobody minded, as we’ve had our share of sicknesses, sore backs and the like, but you always like to think of yourself as invincible and it can be frustrating when you’re reminded that you’re not.


Thursday, August 28th

Thursday morning, project people are in charge of doing restaurant load up. We pull food from the freezers and walk in refrigerator, assemble orders in coolers and load the truck for Richard, our affable and very intelligent driver. (I really enjoy talking with him, in case you can’t tell.) Once that was done and we had eaten, we headed over to a Polyface rental property to gather pigs to send to slaughter. Pig herding is a bit of an art because pigs are very smart and quick, despite their large size, and are very sensitive to cues from those who are herding them. Eric, our apprentice manager, was there and between his directions and some of the pig nuances we have learned over our time here, we were able to get the trailer loaded.

We spent the afternoon working on whole bird cutups. I had mentioned learning how to part out a bird a few weeks ago, which we call parts and pieces. Whole bird cutups are a bit different because where doing parts and pieces yields packages of parts from many birds (You would buy a bag of just wings, legs and thighs, necks, boneless breast, etc.), whole bird cutups are one bird cut up and packaged with all the parts. I enjoyed learning how to do this, as it involves using a meat cleaver (I’m hardcore now.) and arranging the pieces so they look nice for resale. There was hay stacking going on as a result of Monday’s mow, but I was so excited about learning how to cut the birds apart that I opted out. Some of the boys love working with hay, so I didn’t mind letting them have their fun.

Friday, August 29th

Friday was another big processing day, which meant project people needed to catch another 570 birds. We got this done quickly, following our Wednesday bar setting and we spent the rest of the day processing, bagging, freezing and doing more whole bird cutups. It was a big day and we got a lot done.

The Weekend

This weekend I went to New York City with my roommate Greer and happened upon the Union Square Farmers Market. I’d like you farmers to note that there are farms getting $40/lb for pork tenderloin and $5 for a half dozen of eggs. Take heart and sell your products! While we may all not live near New York City, there are people who will pay a fair price for our food and we need to get creative and find them.

I hope you all had a great week and look forward to giving you next week’s installment.


Making a Winter Checklist

We live at 9,750’ elevation and receive significant snowfall each winter. Our snow season can also run 6-7 months in duration. When we bought our property back in the 70’s the HUD report said we averaged 264” of snow each winter. Weather patterns have changed since that report was made but we still have substantial amounts of snow so it is still wise to pre-prepare for the annual event in advance. I have a check list that I go through prior to the first snow because once snow starts it is usually too late to make preparations.

firewoodFirewood: A Top Priority

First on the list is do we have enough firewood since we heat our home with a woodstove. We burn anywhere from 9 to 11 cords of firewood a winter. A cord is 4 feet high, 4 feet wide and eight feet long. I always take inventory to make sure that we have the necessary amount on hand but I like to keep an extra 2-3 cords un-split on hand in case we require more. I cut those logs to 48 inches long and keep them nearby and accessible. Our wood shed holds almost 6 cords so that firewood is always dry in case we have wet snows.

Maintenance Objectives

Has the necessary maintenance been done? Has our chimney and wood stove been cleaned and checked for problems? Are the exposed exterior portions of our garage, wood shed and house plus the board walk and picnic table all sealed or stained as needed? Are all the yard tools hung in their proper place and equipment put away so it is not buried or inaccessible when the snow arrives? Have the driveway markers been put up so I don’t run off the driveway with the tractor/snow thrower when the snow builds up? Have I gone down the driveway to pick up loose rocks and sticks so they are not picked up by the snow thrower? Has the snow thrower been serviced and ready to go? Are the garden boxes ready to be covered with snow and prepared for next season? I usually plant my spinach in the late fall so when the snow melts in the spring it will sprout and is hardy enough to withstand the late spring frosts and snows. Are garden carts and wheel barrows stored properly? Have I shut off outside water and drained the garden hose? Is the pantry adequately stocked?

Grounds and Property Checklist

I usually do a last minute inspection of our property to make sure all the branch piles have been hauled off to the community burn site or mulched. Once covered with snow it will be too late to deal with this contingency. Are the raspberry, currant and gooseberry plants all trimmed back as they will be covered with 6-8’ of snow and ice? Have I stored the utility trailer in a place where it can be accessed? Have I disassembled our mist system we put up each summer as part of our wildfire mitigation? Are the log splitter, wood mill, pressure washer and mulcher all serviced for storage so they will be ready to go next spring? Are the water cans and water storage containers emptied so they don’t freeze and split? And lastly have I found the snow shovels and put them in a location where I can get to them when needed?

Items to Be Checked Off

Then there are things like the tractor and our vehicles that need to be serviced and made ready for the winter months. We take our vehicles to a mechanic to get them ready but the tractor I do myself. When it is 10 degrees outside with the wind is blowing it is not a good time to try to service a tractor. We have our vehicles serviced in town but I like to put a good coat of wax finish on the exterior before it gets too cold. After going through my mental and written check list I always manage to forget a few items that when discovered usually have to wait for springtime and hopefully are not that important.

Winter Project Checklist

When the snow finally arrives I like to have the assurance that I have done all I could before hand to be ready for single storms that may dump up to 6 feet of snow. We make sure there is emergency water on hand where it won’t freeze. During the winter is also when I do my inside projects. This winter I will use the lumber I recently milled out to make two stand up closets for our clothes. I also hope to make two interior doors and a new solid wood front door. I also use that time to clean and sharpen chain saws I use through out the summer. I clean, sharpen and adjust my wood working tools as well as those tools I use for mechanical projects and outside hand tools.


Anyone who may have the mistaken impression that homesteading in a semi remote area where climatic conditions can be harsh might be mistaken. There are endless tasks that constantly need to be addressed and what I have learned is no matter how well prepared I am I always manage to forget some obvious and vital preparation that it is too late to deal with when the snow starts flying. Getting ready for our long winters requires a lot of work. I have found that by doing most of the preparation done before winter starts it leaves time for those inside projects as well as spending time snow shoeing and sledding throughout the winter. The least amount of snow we have received has been around 120 inches and the most has been around 340 inches. When living as we do being prepared is clearly a virtue not to be ignored because of the hard work required in getting ready.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and mountain living go to:


I recently came across a copy of Successful Hatchery Operation – compiled by the Service Department of The Buckeye Incubator Company and the Newtown Giant Incubator Company, Springfield Ohio, U.S.A.

Published in 1926, it is self-described as -“A Text Book on Methods of Hatching and Selling Baby Chicks For Profit!” (Their exclamation point, not mine.) Intrigued, I poured myself a cup of coffee and settled down to see what I could learn.

The first thing I noticed was that writers seemed to be a bit more polite in the early 1900’s. In the introduction, the text declared that The Buckeye Company “desires in no way to promote propaganda of any kind, but simply to narrate plain statements of fact concerning a giant industry.” I think that a few national news agencies would do well to heed by this timely advice.

Along with that statement of neutrality, the introduction ended with this incredibly civilized signoff –

“Should the reader desire information other than given in this book, a letter addressed to The Buckeye Incubator Company, Springfield Ohio, will receive prompt and detailed acknowledgement.

Who wouldn’t want to read a book that was so careful of its readers’ feelings and needs? I like that, I felt like I should be drinking tea with the milk added first instead of my mug of black coffee.

The Baby Chick Business

Chapter 1 begins with The Baby Chick Business:

From this early beginning the commercial hatching of baby chicks developed slowly until the about 1918 or 1919, when poultry conditions demanded and newly developed equipment made possible its sensational growth. From hatcheries of only a few hundred egg capacity, the business has grown until today hatcheries of over one hundred thousand egg capacity are fairly common, and there are several hatcheries in the United States whose capacities range from five hundred thousand to one million egg capacity each. Altogether there are at the present time about seven thousand commercial hatcheries in the United States. Last year these hatcheries produced somewhere between four hundred million and five hundred million chicks.”

Egg Production

If those were the numbers in 1926, I wondered what they could possibly be today where we have more sophisticated machinery and better conditions. I looked up egg production and found this on wikipedia: “Between 2007 and 2010 a total of about 90 billion eggs were produced by per year.”

That number is simply staggering. 90 billion eggs. If you figure a hen lays an egg roughly every other day, we are talking about a lot of hens laying a lot of eggs. And a lot of anything means big business. Thinking about those numbers, I wrote to Murray McMurray Hatchery, one of the biggest rare breeds hatcheries in the U.S. "Can you give me an idea of your egg capacity? I'm reading a 1926 hatchery guide and it talks about some hatcheries in the US with 500K to 1 million egg capacity each. If that's what was happening in 1926, I'm sure the numbers are much greater today." And then feeling like I should end on a polite note, I added: "Many thanks for your help. Your reply will receive a prompt and detailed acknowledgement." Even though I received an automated reply telling me that someone would get back to me in 2-3 business days (and of course, I sent this out at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday) within half an hour there was a reply in my inbox.

"Hatchery started in 1917 and has grown tremendously, especially in the last 15 years.
Capacity increased this last couple of years by nearly 40%. somewhere between 130 and 150 thousand eggs a week but this time of year 35,000 weekly.

Murray McMurray Hatchery"

Either that Murray McMurry Hatchery has excellent customer service (which from previous encounters, I can vouch that they do) or I ended up winning them over with my courteous signoff after all. I guess using honey to catch those flies is as old as, well, at least 1926. So If we go with the low average of 130 thousand a week (to adjust for the slow season) that comes to approximately 6,760,000 (that’s a 6 in the million position) from just *one* hatchery. No wonder people went into the hatchery business. Apparently chicks and eggs are gold.

Well, well, I had thought I was going to have some chuckles from this old chicken hatchery guide, but it looks like that was not to be the case, instead this old dog was definitely learning a new trick or two. I went to brew another pot of coffee, I think this book and I will be spending a lot of time together.

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons. Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences and lessons learned living with chickens (yes, chickens).Visit her blog at


We rarely encounter health issues on our humble homestead, except mundane ailments involving chiggers, poison ivy or ticks. Still, I enjoy adding to my library of old-time cures and concoctions ― just in case.Doctor Jarvis

This summer, I was ecstatic to find a charming old book by a country doctor who believed it was imperative he study folk remedies to gain the medical confidence of his patients living close to the soil on back-road farms. Deforrest Clinton Jarvis, M.D., (1881-1966) wrote Folk Medicine: A Vermont Doctor’s Guide to Good Health at age 77 after spending decades gathering home cures that he said were as, or more, effective than those organized medicine taught him to use. "I believe the doctor of the future will be a teacher as well as a physician," Jarvis wrote. "His real job will be to teach people how to be healthy."

I especially love that the copy I found in a used book store has a penciled list of specific ailments paper-clipped to the first page, which leads me to envision a three- or four-generation household. The list includes: Honey for bedwetting, Page 105; Treating overweight, Page 68-69; Apple cider vinegar for arthritis, Page 91; and Castor oil for liver spots, Page 147. Inside, a homemade bookmark made of a torn slip from a medical pad advertising “Polycillin-N” is handwritten with “honeycomb treatment for sinus cold.” Did someone perhaps discard a physician’s prescription and instead found a natural remedy in this old book?

Medicinal Benefits of Honey and Apple Cider Vinegar

Jarvis is best known for advocating doses of honey and apple cider vinegar three times daily to prevent and/or cure many common illnesses including arthritis, rheumatism, asthma, high blood pressure and colds. The delightful elixir (one teaspoon each of honey and vinegar in a glass of water) also restores energy. Already in 1958, Jarvis noted that our modern diet of fats, starches and nutrition-depleted processed foods made people sick, weak, overweight and listless. I wonder what he would think today of our synthetic and genetically modified foods laden with chemicals. When he first began learning folk cures, Jarvis said many old-time treatments did not make medical sense to him, such as chewing the fresh gum of a spruce tree to cure a sore throat in a day. Jarvis’ further studies led to “considerable readjustment of orthodox approaches.”

The fifth-generation Vermonter not only sought the input of country folks for indigenous medicine, but studied insects, birds and animals to learn how they kept healthy. He watched wild and pastured animals to see what they ate and how they cured themselves when ill. Jarvis noted that humans are terrified to miss a meal, but animals know to retreat to a dark, secluded spot without food until they are well again. "If you care to go to school, go to the honey bees, fowl, cats, dogs, goats, mink, calves, dairy cows, bulls and horses and allow them to teach you their ways,” Jarvis wrote.

Jarvis believed that everything people and animals need to survive could be found in nature. We hadn't thought of it that way when we gave up buying commercially produced soaps and whatnot years ago. We simply wanted to avoid as many chemicals as possible. Now we use only all-natural stuff, such as our local Back Forty Soap Company’s goat milk soap. I am sure Doctor Jarvis would approve.

Folk Wisdom on Food and Health

Jarvis discovered that caged mink fed too much protein will develop bladder problems and kidney stones, in many cases dying. But left to their own devices, wild mink supplement their carnivorous diet with berries and leaves. These same ailments plaque humans eating a protein-rich diet. So, eat your greens. Farm children fascinated Jarvis, who discerned that children, like animals, have self-protective instincts about food. Studying Vermont children younger than 10, Jarvis discovered that these young children chewed cornstalks and ate potatoes, carrots, peas, string beans and rhubarb – all raw and fresh from the garden. The youngsters also gobbled “berries, green apples, ripe apples, the grapes that grow wild throughout the state, sorrel, timothy grass heads, and the part of the timothy grass that grows underground. They ate salt from the cattle box, drank water from the cattle trough, chewed hay, ate calf food, and by the handful, a dairy-ration supplement containing seaweed; they even filled their pockets with this, to eat during school.”

Folk MedicineJarvis speculates adults have lost much of their natural intuition toward food and health. Probably more so today, we are influenced by such an avalanche of advertisements and advisements that we don’t even know what’s good for us anymore. “If we were wise enough to carry into adult life the instincts of childhood, we would make a point of eating fruit, berries, edible leaves, and edible roots that would not be cooked,” Jarvis wrote, adding that those who retained their natural impulses are fond of salads and, consequently, healthier.

“Your body, designed for the living of primitive times, expects to receive a daily intake of leaves,” Jarvis wrote. “In these more civilized times the body still needs these leaves as much as ever, in order to better stand the stress and strain of modern living.”

Following Vermonters who live close to the soil, he found many eat beechnut, maple, willow, apple, chokecherry, poplar and birch tree leaves. Elm tree leaves are said to be the best for quickly relieving hunger. Pages 48-55 list numerous wild edibles and their benefits.

Throughout the book, Jarvis gives examples of how honey and vinegar or a combination of both restored health to humans and animals. Not just any honey and vinegar will do, however. The honey must be raw (not pasteurized) and unfiltered, the darker and cloudier the better. Vinegar, too, should not be filtered or distilled. Processing destroys nutrients and beneficial bacteria.

Drinking Switchel for Good Health

 honey and vinegar

My husband and I have been enjoying swigs of raw apple cider vinegar before each meal for more than five years. We fill our gallon jug with it at the local feed mill; we also buy local raw honey by the five-gallon pail. And, like I said, it has been years since either of us has had a cold or flu. We’d never mixed honey and vinegar before, so I was eager to try it when I began reading Jarvis’ book. As I was visiting St. Paul, Minn., at the time, I walked 2 miles to the nearest health food store for some raw honey and vinegar and hurried back to my daughter’s apartment with the goods. I was immediately hooked on the delicious sweet and sour concoction, also known as switchel or honegar.

A quick search on Mother Earth News’ site revealed others who have followed Jarvis’ advice. In 1973, reader Sue Gross wrote to Mother Earth News in Feedback on How to Raise and Keep Goats to say how she fed vinegar to her goats, successfully curing mastitis and worms. Also, author Laurie Masterson wrote of her mother serving honey and vinegar water with crushed ginger root to the field hands in this 2014 article, Switchel Recipe.

To learn more, please see our blog, Folk Medicine Book Pushes Honey and Vinegar.

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.



Wel, it’s official: We have a blended family. But not in the traditional sense … the members of this family cluck and lay eggs.

We purchase our Red Sex Link chickens from our local feed mill at 20 weeks of age so that they begin laying eggs shortly after they arrive. We’re finding that they lay quite reliably for almost 2 years, and then their production drops off. Here at Sunflower Farm they go into early retirement and live the life of leisure. (From what I understand at other farms they might end up in the soup pot once they have stopped laying.) I guess they are bred this way but they go downhill pretty quickly after their production ends. We’ve had 5 elderly chickens pass away and in every case they were fine one day, stopped eating and got very quiet and were dead the next day, usually curled up somewhere in the coop.

Raising Backyard Chickens

This spring, most of our ladies were getting on in age, so we ordered another 12. With the CSA we’re finding more people interested in purchasing our eggs so we felt it was a good time to expand the flock. We also watched a few documentaries recently, including this CTV W5 episode on the conditions of commercial egg farms and it seems pretty brutal to me. Our ladies live a great life, have room to roam in their pen, get out and free range after they’re done laying at 11 am, put themselves to bed when the sun goes down and eat like queens. Sometimes I wish I were one of our chickens!

I also decided that there are economies of scale here. I’m up at 6 am (during the summer months) to let them out of their coop and we coddle them all day, regardless of whether there are 4 of them or 24 of them. So we decided to double our flock and added 12 new ladies this spring. Then one of our neighbours got 4 chickens and discovered she was really allergic to them, so we offered to take them and added another 4. We’re paying Heidi in eggs for them. So now we’re at 27 chickens … and it’s pretty awesome!


Michelle insists on keeping old and new chickens separate for a few weeks to make sure that they are all healthy and won’t be spreading any illnesses. So we put the new ladies into the new coop I fashioned from a shed I got from our neighbor Alyce. We kept the two groups apart for about a month or so, and gradually introduced them by letting them free range together. Then I fenced in a walkway between the two pens and the blending started. When one of the new ladies ran into one of the old ladies on their daily walkabouts there was some tension for a while. I’ve blogged about how many terms in our language come from chicken behaviour … “flew the coop,” “hen-pecked” or in this case the ladies were just establishing the “pecking order.” After a while this was established and they started getting along just fine. At dusk the old ladies retired to their coop early, but the new teenaged chickens stayed out as a late as they could. This summer they drove me nuts, because I was ready for bed way earlier than they were!

For the last few weeks as I’ve opened up the old ladies’ coop, which I do first, I noticed that several of the new ladies came out of it. It was like they were having a sleepover. Some of the older ladies were already using the nesting boxes in the new coop so we decided it was time to force them all to sleep in the one larger coop. I bribed them all into the new pen before dusk and then closed off the walkway. And low and behold all 27 ladies were snuggled up harmoniously on the two roosts in the new coop. It was pretty cute.

Oh yes, and I have a new theme song. In the morning we serve the ladies bowls of large flake oats with sliced ripe bananas and warm water. Michelle likes to come up with new treats for them from the chicken blogs she reads. So once I’ve let all the ladies out I head over to their three bowls and fill them up with their breakfast. They love this but it is very hard to walk with 27 chickens milling around my feet, anxious for their bananas and oatmeal. So I have now absconded with (I was going to say that word that ends with jacked and starts with hi, but I’d have the authorities down on me) Billy Joel’s song “Piano Man,” which is an awesome song, but I’ve changed the lyrics to “Sing us a song you’re the banana man, sing us song tonight, cause we’re all in the mood for … some bananas… and you’ve got us feeling just right..”

Then I put the bananas in the bowl and stand back because I could lose a finger… or a hand pretty fast with the feeding frenzy that ensues. Our chickens are spoiled. They spoil us with their awesome eggs. Life is good on Sunflower Farm.




My little hill farm in Royalton, Vermont—host to the Bob-White Systems micro dairy—is housed on 40 acres of badly-abused land. When my wife Wendy and I bought the farm in 2001, most of the old pasture had grown in or been stripped for gravel. Up until the early '90s, the land served as a junkyard and the last stop for totaled cars. Needless to say, the land was in bad shape and needed rehabilitation.

Since Bob-White Systems is a research facility, we do not sell the milk that is produced on site. We drink what we can and give the rest away as barter (i.e., milk to neighbors raising pigs in exchange for pork). Still, there is plenty left over. A few years ago I got wind of research being done exploring the benefits of using raw milk as fertilizer. Early reports were favorable, and I finally got around to trying it myself last summer. Here is what happened—and why I am a convert to this natural method of fertilizing my pastures.

How to Use Raw Milk as a Soil Ammendment

I bought a 40-gallon three point hitch sprayer (like this one from Demco) that fits onto my tractor and started spreading the raw milk on my pastures. I try to spread in the evening in order to slow the evaporation process but, in reality, I spread the milk whenever I had time. Since I have a 30- gallon bulk tank, I spread 30 gallons of milk at a time. This takes about twenty minutes of actual spray time. At first, I had concerns that the smell of the milk would bother our neighbors. Luckily, it didn’t; there was no smell. And, the cows had no objection to grazing a pasture recently sprayed with milk. For reference: They object to grazing on pastures where manure has been recently spread.

At first, I didn't notice any immediate improvement in the quality of the pastures, but last summer was the first summer that I did not have to graze my cows on a neighbors’ land. My pastures held up through the season and provided enough grass for my cows. This year, there is no question that the pastures are more lush. In fact, my cows can't keep up. The turf is much thicker and contains a much higher percentage of white clover with fewer weeds and wild strawberries. The grass is healthier and provides more nutritional value and dry matter for my cows, which equals more and better feed thanks to the raw milk.

Price of Raw Milk


I understand that I am in the unique position of having access to surplus milk. Even so, the milk that I spread is much less expensive than commercial fertilizer ($23.20 per hundred weight of raw milk versus $30 per hundred weight for fertilizer at my local farm supply store).

If you have (or have access to) excess milk, it might make sense for you to spread it on your land, even if it is only the milky rinse water (from cleaning your milking equipment). The only caveat is that you have to spread the milk right away or keep it cold and agitated so it doesn't separate. You cannot use a conventional sprayer if your milk has separated. Another option is to mix the raw milk with your manure.

Whatever you decide to do, surplus milk and milky rinse water should be viewed as a resource rather than a waste product on the dairy arm. As you can see, putting it to work, rather than throwing it down the drain, works for me, my cows and my pasture, and it can for you, too.


 Off Grid Cabin

I am taking the back roads to a sustainable lifestyle out here in rural Texas. What started with my love of the great outdoors has turned into an all-natural, less complicated way of living. Before long all my work and an assist from Mother Nature will provide for all my needs here at The Sunflower, my off-grid farm and outdoors retreat. 

In the current issue of Mother Earth News, Managing Editor Jennifer Kongs presents interviews of a whole host of off-grid, self-sustaining folks from Florida to Colorado. I'm not as far along in my quest as these awesome homesteaders but I applaud their efforts and have redoubled my own.  For five years I've been living off the grid, the last in a straw bale cabin, growing a huge garden, raising free range chickens and sharing my knowledge and experience with others. Now if I can just help convince all of you that you can and should do it too! Going off-grid and becoming self- sufficient won't happen overnight; I'm still working toward that 100 percent goal. There's so much to do... secure your food and water sources,  build housing and barns, produce electricity, but that's the fun of it---you never get bored!

Commence your journey into the homemade light like I did, by simply adding a solar panel, batteries, a charge controller and some lighting to an outbuilding or on your patio at your current residence. Kits are available but try to piece all the components together yourself; assembly instructions are found throughout Mother Earth News back issues, Real Goods and other catalogs, and all over the Google. It's a simple and inexpensive way to get experience with 12-volt/DC electricity. A couple of hundred bucks and you're in business! If you've ever worked on cars, boats or RV's it'll be really simple. Add to your system with a 12-volt fan, stereo, television, coffee pot, etc. All of these creature comforts can be found at your local truck stop, RV lot and on the Google. You may even locate a nearby manufacturer of solar panels or batteries...BONUS! Shopping local hurts no one. If it's windy in your locale, add this homemade wind generator to your battery pack to help keep your system charged up when it isn't sunny.

My Cabin Power: Solar Panels, a Wind Generator and Batteries

Living in a travel trailer for several years, I learned about 12-volt DC power by necessity, however charging up the batteries every other day with my truck and a pair of jumper cables seemed counterproductive so I invested in my first solar panel almost immediately. Holy Mama Cow, it worked! Electricity straight from the sun! It wasn't long before I added a larger panel and better batteries along with more lights, a DVD player, a coffee maker and other "luxuries" for living in the middle of nowhere, unplugged from the grid. All of a sudden I had my own power source and it wasn't all that complicated. Who knew?!

My straw bale cabin is powered with solar panels, a homemade wind generator, and 6-volt "golf cart" batteries. It didn't take me long to go from lights inside the cabin to fans and heat in the chicken coop. A Big Rig space heater/fan does the trick for my 4'X8' coop and I just plug it in to my system as needed. I can't let my fancy chickens freeze their tail feathers off. Check out all the trucker electrical gadgets on your next fuel stop.

How I Moved from Travel Trailer to Straw Bale Cabin

Cabin Interior

Light Portals in Bale Walls

Five years in a 24-foot travel trailer may seem like an adventure to some folks — you crazy kids mostly, but I was never so ready to pack up and move out since I left the broom closet they called a dorm room at SWT. I read up on alternative and sustainable building techniques, then attended straw bale workshops in Texas and California.  Back on my little farm I started building a location for the cabin. North Texas is a big wheat producing area so there was plenty of straw to be had in the early summer following harvest. A straw bale house would be the least expensive and most energy efficient for me so I made a deal with a local farmer to use his square hay baler along with my tractor on his 30 acres wheat field, which after the harvest and my baling, produced 550 bales.

(NOTE: Ask the custom combine crew to remove the cutters and spreader from the back of the combine as they harvest the grain. This makes for longer straw cuttings laid out in concise rows behind the combine, and for tighter bales.) Chances are good that there are grain farmers near you with whom you might strike a deal. Remember, you want bales made from the straw without the grains, even if you buy them already in the barn.

Shaping Straw Bales

I knew how to weld thanks to Texas State Technical College and had access to scores of used oil field pipe, so I built my cabin frame (inner and outer walls) entirely of steel, topped it with a steel roof from Metal Mart and it all sits on a solid concrete slab. With the bales stacked, custom cut and pinned together within the framework then encased in an earth plaster coating, I  now have a great little 24' by 15' cabin.

It takes very little energy to heat and cool a small bale and mud cabin, a huge plus here in Texas. I use candles and a wood stove in the dead of winter, and suction fans and a homemade air conditioner in the hot summers. We've been in a serious drought for six years so securing a water source was critical. I struck a deal to build another straw bale cabin  in exchange for drilling a water well. We hit fresh water just as the lake dried up. Hiring a professional is sometimes the only way to go. If you drill for water get a pro. If you're in north Texas I can recommend a driller.  His expertise, now clearly evident in my completed well, pumps 1200 gallons of drinkable water in a day's time. It's self-contained, fully automatic, solar powered and hasn't missed a lick since it was completed. And no monthly bill.

Food Source: Garden, Chickens, Bartering, Hunting and Trapping

  Chicken Soccer

Chickens, chickens, chickens. Get some. Chickens will soon be your best farm or backyard friends as they go about eating bugs and other pests, even fertilizing your dirt, all the while supplying you with fresh eggs and wholesome natural meat. And if an occasional game of futbol pollo breaks out, get excited about it. 

Plant a vegetable garden half the size of a normal backyard and you'll have all you can eat - fresh and canned. 

My garden is 40' X 40' plus I have a small wheat field. I water the fruits and vegetables constantly, spray all of it with a homemade organic cocktail of bug and disease killing juices, extracts and witches brew, and add a lot of chicken poop to my compost for use in the garden beds.  There are so many tomatoes this year I have already canned 50 jars plus fed everybody in three counties, and I also have some other garden goodies safely stored. Plant vegetables suitable for your climate and soil. I suggest using heirloom varieties for better nutrition and taste.

 Garden Bounty

 Here are a few hints from an old blog post I hope will help you.Heirloom Organic Tomatoes

While I realize hunting is offensive to some readers, it's something I've been doing since an early age. My grandfather started me fishing and hunting when I was a kid and he always told me never to kill an animal for sport, only for the table. I've stuck to that principle and in today's world of antibiotics, water and GMO infused beef, pork, chicken and just about all meats, I'm happy to eat a grilled venison backstrap or wild hog tenderloin instead. This issue's "Green Gazette" features an article on all the additives in supermarket meat. It's just not healthy. Deer and wild hogs are true free-range, all-natural meat sources and are plentiful out here in the country. Wild hogs are so numerous in Texas that hunting and trapping them My Grandadprovides a way to make a living for hundreds of families. I supplement my income by selling live hogs to a local Bel-Tex buyer, and I stock my freezer with fresh, natural pork in the process. When you come for a weekend workshop, you can sample some of my homemade sausage if you'd like, then decide.

I'm not in the cow-milking business just yet but I do know a local milkman who will trade milk and butter for eggs and veggies. Even chocolate! I'll bet you have something you could trade a local farmer or a builder... computer skills, labor, artwork, homemade wine (or really good California reds from 2007), everyone has something! Seek out your neighbors or a farmer in the area. Most of them are friendly and who knows, you might learn how to milk a goat and make chèvre.

My Reasons for Going Off-Grid

My love of Mother Nature drew me back to the country from the rat race. Raising livestock, trading with friends, and working outdoors is fun for me. Corporate quarterly sales spreadsheets and those who create them are not. I'm a minute or two passed my 50th birthday so my health is also a concern.  I do not think GMO, herbicide and pesticide infested foods are nutritious. There's some research to back up my claim... on the Google. Grasshoppers and green bugs won't touch the genetically modified vegetables but it's perfectly safe for us to eat? Yeah, I'll be growing and eating my own as much as possible in hopes I can stay as healthy as I have been. Couple of dings is all, and I want to keep it that way.

Making Sausage

So here we are, outside our new energy-efficient digs, eating an organic cantaloupe we grew on bamboo trellises, talking about how far we've come in a few years. Envision the lifestyle. Take that first step with adding some solar lighting to your backyard. If you do it yourself, it will happen. The guidelines are there thanks to Mother Earth News and many others so go for it! If you're waiting on me you've got your hat on backwards.

Good luck to you and please contact me if I can be of any help. If you're near DFW or a seasoned traveler, I offer weekend tours and training. Come see!

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