Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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hand milking

There are essentially two ways to milk a cow. The first is the age-old practice of milking by hand. The second is by machine with buckets and pipeline milkers. More on this second method in my next blog. Cows, goats, sheep, water buffalo, camels and, even, horses have been successfully milked by hand for thousands of years. I milked my first cows by hand back in the 1970s. Milking a cow by hand is not as easy as it may first appear, so it’s best to know what you are getting into before you take on this important farming task.  

Get your technique down. There are a couple of different grips and techniques you can use, which before machine milking, were a matter of great debate.  I think the most important thing you can do when hand milking is to squeeze the milk out without pulling down excessively on the teat. It’s similar to getting tooth paste out of a tooth paste tube.  

Practice. Find a patient and tolerant cow to practice on when you are first learning. Once you learn the skill it becomes second nature.    

Get in shape. My wife's great-great-grandmother was a milkmaid in Denmark. Stories of her having to take breaks between cows to rest her hands on the cool stone walls of the milking stable for relief have been passed down through our family for generations. When you first begin milking a cow by hand, you will find muscles in your hands and forearms that you seem to only use when you hand milk. Until they get into shape, your arms will burn.

Keep everything clean. If you milk by hand, it is imperative to keep your cows and their udder clean. You don't want manure or bedding falling into the milk bucket. Everything you use—the bucket, utensils and vessels that will come into contact with the milk—must be squeaky clean. 

Cool the milk quickly. The milk must be cooled down to 38-40 degrees within a couple of hours after you finish milking. 

Stir the milk. It also helps to stir the milk occasionally unless you want to skim off the cream.  Keeping the cream and milk mixed will help extend the milk's shelf life and fresh flavor. 

Consider the time investment. Cows used to make much less milk than they do now.  If a cow produced one gallon of milk per day, as most did before WW2, you could milk her out by hand twice per day. But, today's cows routinely produce five gallons of milk per day, and milking one out twice a day can take a long time—up to an hour or more. Unfortunately, you can't do anything else when you are hand milking. Plus, you can only milk two of the four quarters of the udder at one time because you only have two hands. If you decide to milk by hand, it helps to be a good day dreamer.

Is Milking by Hand Really Better?

Some people still contend that hand milking is more gentle on the cow than machine milking. I disagree. I think this is a misperception resulting from the horrendous mechanical milking machines developed in the 19th century (More on Early Cow Milking Machines here). They could do — and did — a lot of damage to cows’ udder. Today's modern milking machines are the result of a century of research and development. When properly set up, adjusted and operated, they are very gentle — far gentler than a nursing calf to its mother’s teats and udder. Calves can be very rough and sometimes make their mother’s teats bleed. If you have the time to let the calf stay with its mother to nurse once a day, then it may make sense for you to avoid the investment of a milking machine and milk by hand.

At the end of the day, hand milking is a personal choice for every farmer. Think about the time investment, the number of cows that must be milked and the amount of additional work you have to get done on and off the farm. If your cows are relaxed and your forearms are in good shape, it can be a very rhythmic and soothing experience for you and for the cow. Happy Milking!


Mother Earth News. jpg

I have been a faithful reader of MOTHER EARTH NEWS since it first was published in 1970. The very first edition I read was in newspaper form unlike the beautiful glossy magazine that is published now. I can remember going by the magazine rack in a store while I was getting some walking exercise from my desk on a lunch break and picking up a copy thinking it looked interesting. After getting the copy back to my office started reading and I was hooked for good. Since that early edition, the publication has changed considerably but the underlying subject matter as a guide to living wisely has remained the same. It is still strongly contributor oriented.

Congested Living vs. Simple Living

From that first edition of MOTHER EARTH NEWS which I read from front to back I have discovered that those who gravitate to the magazine are a special breed of people. People who like to do things for themselves, are conscious of the environment, desirous of keeping things simple and living wisely. Those who live in a chrome/glass world and drive upscale vehicles may not be as interested in the magazine but I have learned never to rule anything out and I’m sure there is still hope for those people too. I’m also sure there are those who are stuck in bumper to bumper commutes to work each day that dream or long for a less complicated lifestyle. I remember during my one hour commute to work each day how I would smell the exhaust fumes while I crept along with what seemed a never ending string of traffic. I would dream of a less complicated life where I could be in the country or the mountains with fresh air, pure water, less stress and living closer to the earth and nature.

I have always been a conservationist and reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS helped me to realize that there were many like myself and provided me the desire to one day make a life change from the stressful situation I found myself in. Living a simple life in harmony with the environment and trying to leave our little piece of homestead as natural as possible to what it was when we carved out our home initially and sustaining its suitability for others who may come in the future has been our goal. A conservationist is someone who preserves, guards, protects and exercises wise use of the environment and wild life.

A Single Thought Was Born

It was those many years ago when I picked up that initial edition of MOTHER EARTH NEWS that a thought was born that someday I could live like what the contributors were writing about. A wiser, more simple life without all the stress and conflict of the corporate world. That initial thought was nurtured over the years with each copy of MOTHER EARTH NEWS I read until it became a serious desire and goal. Then as I finally neared retirement age it became more of an obsession to redirect my life. So here I sit typing this on my laptop living the dream that I wasn’t sure would ever happen but finally did became a reality. I can envision someone today picking up their first copy of MOTHER EARTH NEWS and as they read the magazine hatching a thought of one day living a less complicated life too.

When I look around our mountain homestead I now realize that reading all those publications over the years has enabled me to employ many of the things learned that have now made our life better. Making it far better to experience living wisely without the repetitive unexpected surprise events that can challenge a person. Questions I would not have contemplated were answered before the need ever arose by reading Mother Earth News all those years. Reading comments to the editor in each edition reveals to me that others are still making that lifestyle change or planning to. I believe many others have ventured into a new life style over the past 40 years due to the existence of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

While I do not consider myself an expert on living wisely, I now enjoy writing about our life here on the mountain and telling about all the hard work involved. How living in close proximity to wild animals - some that would paralyze people with fear - is actually very normal and they make respectful and excellent neighbors. How every morning as I step outside I take a breath of fresh air that has natural odors and not vehicle exhaust or other neighborhood smells. How pleasant it is to draw a glass of crystal clear water from our well that is cold and refreshing. These and many more things all contribute to our enjoyable lifestyle and it started many years ago when I picked up that first copy of MOTHER. A dream was hatched that day and I suspect that many more dreams have also hatched for others over the years.

Keep It Simple

When I contribute an article to MOTHER, I try to follow the formula from long ago by other contributors and keep it factual, straight forward and informative. This particular article is more for my benefit than other readers as I need to keep reminding myself how all this actually came together for me. I hope I never take our lifestyle for granted or lose its unique benefits. Maybe then I can impart something that will in some small way benefit others in their dream to live a simple more healthy life.

Life Changer

When you pick up a copy of MOTHER EARTH NEWS you don’t know what it may actually inspire in you. A single thought of living life more wisely, simply and efficiently may actually grow into something that will one day redirect your life. I can clearly track my desire back to 1970 when I picked up that first issue of Mother Earth News. I have found over the years that there is something in each issue that I can benefit from. I think it can be fairly stated that Mother Earth News changes lives. I’m sure glad I picked up that first issue.

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

HOMEGROWN pigs in mud

Ah, summer on the farm. The tomatoes and peppers are coming along. The squash and zucchini are booming. And the cows are trying to get their fill of grass at sunup, before the heat of the day sets in.

Sounds perfect, right? The very picture of abundance, joy, and prosperity so many people think of when they hear “family farm.” The truth is a little more complicated. Sure, summer has its strong points but it also has its downsides.

First, let’s talk temperatures. So far, we’ve only had a few days over 90 degrees, but July and August are the usual boilers around here, in West Missouri. We also have high humidity. In fact, nearly every day I’ve watched a World Cup match, I’ve heard that the brutal temperatures and humidity in Brazil make soccer hard to play. And yet our temperatures and humidity in Missouri have actually been higher than those in Brazil. While farming is not a 90-minute endurance of speed, like soccer can be, it certainly takes a lot longer than 90 minutes each day to get our work done. And pretty soon it's gonna be 100-plus degrees, with hot winds and high humidity. It’s like carrying buckets and hoeing in the middle of a furnace.

(Pig image: Our pigs keep cool by hanging out in the water, too.)

Second, weeds. By now, summer weeds are sharp and tough. When weeding the veggie patch, you can hardly pull anything without getting a sticker stuck in your hand or finger. Oh, and don’t forget the poison ivy.

Third, mowing. Sometimes we mow pastures and bale it up (that’s hay) so that the cows, sheep, and goats will have something to eat in winter. Sometimes we mow so that the grass quality will improve for the next round of grazing. Sometimes we mow to kill the weeds starting to go to seed. We also have to mow our yards, which, unfortunately, are usually too large. I hate mowing, but it has to be done. It just never seems to end.

So, how’s a farmer to cope? Easy. Do what every farm family does. Get yourself a cheap little swimming pool. It’s hours of fun for the kids and it takes the edge off. It keeps me cool—and sane. Plus, even for us organic farmers who hate chemical fertilizers and such, the chlorine in the pool can be a very good thing when it comes to killing potential rashes. Yes, here at our house we try to keep the chlorine to an absolute minimum, but it’s still in there.

HOMEGROWN Farmer Bryce's backyard pool

I know. I know. It would be nice to live in a place with cool and clean spring-fed creeks, the idyllic “swimming hole” of so many songs and poems harkening back to the good ole days. But not everyone can live along the Current River in the Ozarks. In fact, if more of us lived there, it wouldn’t be very clean and pristine. Not to mention the fact that it’s rocky, with very, very thin soil. In other words, not great for agriculture.

So, those of us in the Farm Belt cheat. We fill up our pools with water and blast that water with chemicals to keep it clean. It might disappoint some of you who think we farmers are strong and hardworking and stoic in the face of summer’s adversity. But we all need a coping strategy. Mine, and that of most farm families I know, is to pop open a beverage (I prefer Boulevard Beer from KC) and to take a dip.

This post originally appeared on

Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multi-generational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

Photos by Bryce Oates

A floppy Jubilee

In the evenings, after I’ve come home from my 9-5 and the barn chores are complete, my very favorite thing to do is to sit with my goats. This brings me a lot of peace and makes everything feel “worth it”, no matter how horrible the rest of my day has been. Each goat gets a little bit of individual attention, and my pats and scratches also search for lumps, bumps, scratches, ticks, and any other hidden surprises. I feel their coats and try to be aware if anyone is feeling particularly coarse or has flaky skin. Occasionally I manage to snag a hoof and check to see if a trim is needed.

Most importantly, I watch. Each goat has her own personality, her individual quirks. I love watching them interact, seeing their evolving relationships with each other as a herd. Sadie and Flinder, our two girls in milk, are currently trying to hash out who’s herd queen. Our “teenage” girls live to chase the younger “babies” of the group. The “Babies” spend a lot of time perched on the igloos, staying out of reach and trying to avoid harassment.

I’ve always considered this time spent sitting with goats a little indulgent on my part, and even a little on the lazy side since I enjoy it so much and I get to sit down and essentially do nothing. Recently however, I learned just how valuable this observation time is, and how essential it is to goat health and management.

While I was at work the other my husband messaged me and let me know our doeling Jubilee hadn’t finished all of her morning grain and had scoured. Since they were now browsing all of the new Spring offerings in their outside area, I chalked it up to an upset tummy and we gave her some probiotics. As the day progressed my husband let me know Jubilee was eating hay, browsing and drinking well, so I didn’t worry. When I got home and the goats were given their evening grain, Jubilee ate her share and I was reassured she was fine.

Healthy Jubilee

I settled on the floor for my evening goat time, and watched and petted and lounged. Jubilee was in her usual position on the igloo and I decided to take a few photos of her. While I was lining up for a good shot, I noticed her ears were droopy.

As I looked harder, I noticed her expression was a little vacant, her eyes lacking their usual spark. I told my husband I thought there was something “off”, and he reassured me Jubilee was fine. But I couldn’t shake the feeling. I got up and went for the thermometer for a quick check. As my husband held her, we watched together as the reading climbed to 106. Nearly suffocating with panic, I insisted we do it again, thinking it must be a mistake. The numbers climbed. My husband warned me not to panic, but it too late.

Long story short, it was 9PM, no vet available, stores closed, no Banamine on hand. Luckily, I have some really supportive, amazing goat friends who took my frantic calls and helped me get the medication I needed. Jubilee made a full recovery and has been her happy, healthy little self ever since. I also now have Banamine in my goat cabinet.

I am convinced that if I hadn’t known my little goat so well, we would have went to bed that night, and in the morning, found that Jubilee had died. I now consider my goat watching time an essential part of my goat care routine. And I don’t feel a bit guilty about enjoying it.                           

You can keep up with Carrissa and Feather and Scale farm on their FB page on her much neglected blog or check out the Feather and Scale Farm website at


Rollo when he was bornMy current goat kid tally was a bit dismal: five bucklings and one doeling. While I don’t have anything against male kids per se, everyone wants females and bucklings are considered undesirable since they don’t produce milk.

Too Many Bucklings

I already have a buck: Oreo. And while I’ll need a new buck to replace him, I don’t need them all now. Bucks are obnoxious and stinky. They pee on their beards and front legs. During rut, they’re difficult at best. Having six bucks during rut is impossible. Plus there’s absolutely no way I could keep them all away from the girls.

What that means is that I have a lot of meat on the hoof. Goat meat is very tasty – a low fat version of beef – and is very healthy. But buck meat is darn near inedible, so you have to neuter or wether the bucklings.

Wethers Make Good Pets

Another reason to wether a buck is that wethers make exceptional pets. If you’re looking for weed eaters on the cheap, wethers fulfill that roll nicely. Want a pack goat? Think wether. Want a low maintenance goat? Yep, wether again. You can keep wethers in with the girls and never worry about having the does accidentally bred. Wethers don’t fight like bucks either. So, there are plenty of reasons to have wethers instead of bucks. The downside is that they don’t give milk, of course.

This may or may not be an issue to you. For me, all my livestock must do something to earn their keep. So wethers will eventually go to freezer camp.

How I Wether Goats

Other people wether goats in various ways. I band my bucklings when they reach 3 months old. Younger than that and you run the risk of urinary problems. The way I do it can be considered somewhat controversial because not everyone thinks of it as humane. The truth is if you band quickly, there’s no pain. None of my bucklings have ever cried or even made noise while I banded them. The only time I’ve had them scream is when they got tired of being held – and that was before I had a chance to band them.

The Elastator

You use an evil looking device called an Elastator, which you put the neutering band on the four prongs. When you squeeze the handles, the prongs open where you slip the scrotum into the neutering band. You can’t be squeamish with this as you must make certain that both testes are well within the scrotum before you close the prongs and slip the band off of the prongs. The band cuts off blood flow to the testes and they wither and die in a couple of weeks.

The main concern is to not get either nipple caught inside the band. They’re very close to the scrotum so if you’re not sure, keep a set of scissors handy in case you have to cut the band and try again.

It’s best to have a partner hold the buckling sitting on his rear with his legs splayed so you can get at the scrotum. It usually requires that person sitting behind the kid while you perform the banding. Today I actually banded Rollo while he was standing up in the milk stand, happily munching on sweet feed. This was, by far, the least stressful banding. Given that Rollo is skittish with humans and doesn’t like being handled, it shows just how simple and gentle it really is — at least for goats.


The is the second part in a multi-part blog following our "adventures" as we build our much anticipated new pole barn. Click here to read Part 1. We made the decision NOT to build the barn ourselves and are using the same building supply and contractor who built our beloved pole barn house and tractor/hay pole barn. In this post, you will see we are making changes and adapting our plans:

As it turns out, where I thought the barn should go is not where it needed to go. We staked out the dimensions, pulled the diagonals to check for square, and drew a string level.  One diagonal was nearly 48” below the upper corner. That is quite a bit of fill to move around.

In the meantime, we got our first quotes on the project. Realizing we needed more lean-to space and a little less interior, we trimmed the barn to 28x36 adding two 12’ lean-tos on the 36’ sides.  Total footprint will be 52x36’.

barn plans

The bid came in at approximately $14,000- labor included; the 12’ lean-tos are a significant extra, 10’ would have been much less but we already have 10’ lean-tos on the tractor barn, and they “almost” cover equipment, round bales, etc.  The extra 24” will be worth it in the long run.   Plans include two sliding end doors, 4 skylights, insulated roof (prevents that irritating condensation “rain”) and two walk through doors.  We may pour a 10x10 concrete slab in the corner of the barn or outside on the north lean-to for a future milking area.

run off ditch

(Right) The ditch to prevent run-off from flooding the new barn.  After a 2” rain we found the ditch works as planned.

Glenn mowed the paddock with the brush hog, then began to ditch just uphill of the site.  Our soil is thin, on a layer of crumbling sheeted rock, with a layer of clay underneath.  Water will soak into the soil and run off, following the rock layers.  Once the ditch was completed, we saw how much more level the paddock is at the new ditch.  Easy enough, we moved the corners of the barn west 60’.  Now the lowest diagonal is only 12-18” below the highest corner.

The cows will have 3-12’ bays to shelter in during the winter and we will easily be able to put two round bales under the lean-to roof for them.  The goats will be able to go inside the barn.  The actual floor space they will have is about the same as the current goat barn.  We could not see any reason to make it larger, which breaks the number one rule of barn building- always build larger than what you think you will need.


The picture is from an old satellite image before we even divided the field into 16 grazing sections.  The dotted lines represent the peak of the roof.  The working pens are currently adjacent to the old goat barn and the pipe panels, 10 and 12’ sections, are easily moved.

With the barn moved uphill to the west, the original paddock is now divided into two- the working area with the sweep tub and holding pens will all need to be rearranged and configured, but this is actually a very good thing.

Now we need to get up with the dozer operator.  Our neighbor has a dozer but he is behind on his hay and hay always comes first.  We figure a half-day (less actually) is all that will be needed.  We could use our tractor to push the topsoil around, but a trained professional is called for at times.  In the meantime, we will continue to do what we can to better tweak the plans.  We are even thinking that the site of the old goat barn would make a great greenhouse, and that we can definitely build ourselves!

Next blog post:  Dozer work


Hi everyone! It’s hard to believe that this internship is already a month in. We only have three months left! The time has passed so quickly and it’s pretty amazing to reflect back on how much we’ve all learned. I definitely have a lot more to learn, but we as interns have come a long way.

Monday, June 23rd

Shade Structure 2

Monday morning began my week of moving broiler shelters as my morning chore. I had mentioned a few weeks prior that I had gotten the hang of moving the broiler pens. After this week, in the essence of full disclosure and to not create an image of myself as this rock star intern that can do everything extremely well, I want you all to know that while I have a good grasp of the technique involved, I am slow when it comes to actually moving the coops. As I get stronger, I am confident this will change. I like to be good at everything immediately and am sensitive to keeping things running efficiently, so I will admit to having a tiny meltdown because I was flustered by my lack of speed. The way our system operates is we have three interns assigned to move the broiler and pullet shelters and two interns who come behind the movers and feed and water the birds. I felt bad that I was keeping the feed/water people waiting and Tim, one of my fellow interns who was a feeder/waterer, stepped in to help me move the coop. He reminded me we are a team, that everyone is still learning and to not get upset about timing. I appreciated his bringing me back to reality and his assistance that day and the rest of the week in moving the shelters when time was of the essence. We at Polyface are a team and it is nice to work with people who will help you when you need it, be it a hand moving something heavy or a kind word when you need it. Or both.

After breakfast, we headed to one of the properties Polyface manages to set fence posts for some cattle fencing we are building. The property had recently been logged and the fencing configuration needed to be changed entirely. We had brought the hydraulic post pounder, and because the pounder was attached to the tractor (The pounder is time consuming to take on and off), we went directly to another site that needed some fence posts redone once we were done at the first property. It was a busy day of sharpening posts, installing the insulators (plastic pieces that hold the wire in place on the fence post), pulling old posts, installing new posts, removing old cattle fencing panels and installing new wire. We got back to the farm in time for evening chores and after dinner we had a seminar with Joel Salatin on the concept of Cow Days. Those of you who have read Joel’s book Salad Bar Beef will already have an understanding of what a Cow Day is, but for those of you who don’t, a Cow Day is essentially how much one cow will eat in one day. It will take experience for us as interns to get an eye for how much that is depending on the quality of the grasses, but the Cow Day concept is very important in determining how much acreage to give your herd so they can properly mob graze it. This also helps one plan the year; figuring out how many animals one can have, where they can go and for how long.

Tuesday, June 24th

Tuesday morning entailed moving broilers, helping with the buying club load up (we pull meats from the freezers based off an inventory sheet which summarizes that day’s orders), stacking hay in the hay loft and moving one of the pigs and her piglets into a separate corral. Polyface doesn’t farrow piglets, but unbeknownst to anyone, this particular sow had a litter of piglets one night and thus needed to be separated from the rest of the herd. Those of you who have worked with mother sows before know they can be a bit protective, so we had to make sure we had a solid plan of how to get her and the babies from Point A to Point B before proceeding. Everything went well and the pig family is currently enjoying their new digs.

After lunch, we went to a property Polyface manages to make hay. Joel, Daniel and some of the others had gotten to the site earlier, so there was a baler and hay wagons going and bales that were on the ground as some of the wagons were full when they were being made. My job was to drive the truck and trailer while some of the others threw the bales that were on the ground onto the flatbed to stack them. There were some good songs on the radio, but I felt bad that I was in the cab while the boys were trying to throw bales and keep up with the moving vehicle, so I shut it off. We ended up in the property owner’s barn unloading and stacking what we’d collected. We were able to bale and stack over 700 bales of hay for the property owner that afternoon, so it was a productive day.

Wednesday, June 25th

As you all may remember, Wednesday is processing day at Polyface. This was the first time I had been involved with collecting the birds to be processed, so immediately after moving the coops, we set to gathering. We ended up collecting over 500 birds and since we were just one crate shy of what we needed, I got to ride back to the farm on the back of the trailer with a chicken under each arm. I think the birds enjoyed the scenery and I enjoyed their company.

Most of the rest of the day was consumed by processing birds and packaging them. During the processing, I bounced between eviscerating and quality control, both of which I enjoy and we were done by 12:30. After lunch, we packaged the birds based on orders that had already been placed being completed first, parts and pieces needed for inventory and prepping the rest of the birds to be frozen. We were done with this by about 3:30, spent a fair amount of time cleaning up and did evening chores.

Thursday, June 26th 

GobbledegoThursday, for me, revolved around the construction of a new Gobbledego, a roosting and shade structure Polyface uses for turkeys. After morning chores and breakfast, I helped Daniel and one of the apprentices clean the bearings in one of the axles we needed while the other interns went with Joel to measure the existing Gobbledego, get a better understanding of the concept and pull the right amount of wood from the saw mill inventory. During the construction, I was otherwise occupied with the bearings, but once the pieces were done, a lot of us were needed to hold the pieces in place while they were connected.  When it was all said and done, the Gobbledego looked great. The turkeys will be pleased. The rest of the day included clearing away some encroaching walnut trees, chopping thistles, getting caught in a rainstorm while chopping thistles, and moving cows at two of the other properties Polyface manages. After the Cow Days talk, I had a better understanding of why the apprentices place the fences where they do.

Friday, June 27th

Every third Friday at Polyface, we have an extra day of processing. After moving broilers, we collected +/- 460 birds and got to work processing them. I was in the same processing capacity as I was on Wednesday, which was fun. I enjoyed being able to practice and am definitely getting better. As a group, we are definitely getting faster and finished earlier than we did on Wednesday. (Granted, there were about 60 less birds, but still…) Evening chores went smoothly and we had enough time to quickly change before dinner, which is always a treat.

I hope you all are enjoying reading this blog as much as I enjoy writing it. Polyface Field Day is July 19th, which we’re all looking forward to. I hope some of you will be coming so you can see what I’ve been talking about in person. Happy July 4th! See you after Week Five!

Turkey Shade Structure

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