We’re already having duck drama, and they haven’t even arrived yet.
This past weekend, Dan and I attended the New England Meat Conference in Concord, N.H. One of the classes we took was on raising alternative types of poultry, namely geese, ducks, pheasants (which I’m told technically aren’t considered poultry), and quail. This class was important, as Dan and I placed our order for chicks and ducklings last month and we’re expecting them to arrive the end of April. I was in charge of placing the order (Actually, I kind of assumed this duty because I like shopping) and in addition to our agreed upon chicks, I threw in some Pekin ducks for meat and some Indian Runners because I’d like to see what it’s like to raise ducks for eggs.
Indian Runners have had a special place in my heart since I saw them at the Bolton Fair, an annual country fair held in Lancaster, MA. This was early in my farm infatuation days and when I was walking through the poultry tent trying to get my agricultural fix, I saw this adorable upright duck standing very politely in a cage waiting for the 4-H show to begin. I stopped dead in my tracks, immediately felt a warm feeling fill my chest (it was love) and read on the placard that he was an Indian Runner. Since I was too shy to take his picture, I jumped on Youtube once I got home and spent way too much time watching videos of them running around eating bugs. I was surprised at the sudden affinity I felt for this bird and kept thinking about how nice it would be to have my life and career set up in a way that I could have some ducks of my own. It occurred to me then that I could if I had a farm.
During the Alternative Poultry class, one of the first things the presenter mentioned was not to keep ducks near your house. “They quack all the time.” I could sense the sideways glance from Dan. He continued, “They quack all night. If they hear a dog bark, if a cloud drifts across the moon…” Background info: My dog’s goal in life is to bark at people and small animals. We can also see the moon in New Hampshire. The sideways glance turned into a 90* full body rotation and narrow eyed stare. The sensitive response would not have been laughing, but that’s what happened. All I could imagine is the dog barking at the moon induced quacking spree, then the ducks quacking more because of the barking and the continuing cycle, all happening in the dead of night. Since I will be at Polyface all summer, I will not have to deal with the impending quackapalooza, even though they were solely my idea to add to the order. Sorry Dan. The next order of business will be to find a remote corner of the property we can stick them so Dan can actually sleep where we won’t bother the neighbors either.
The next thing that came up is that ducks are, apparently, really annoying to process. The presenter mentioned that removing the feathers is a huge pain once they’ve reached the pin feather stage and that their skin is delicate and prone to tearing. He indicated we’d have a hard time finding a processor and where we’re not set up to process on site, this caused some anxiety. Since then, I’ve found some licensed places in our state who will process the ducks, but the pricing is double that of the chickens, so we’ll have to build that into our pricing when the time comes.
The First Year
At the conference, many farmers told us the first year is the hardest. As I’m sure all you seasoned veterans know, you have to set up systems, find reputable vendors, analyze which feed is best for your needs, wade through regulations, take care of your animals, make sure neighbors aren’t appalled by what you’re doing, build infrastructure, try to stay under budget, all while building a social media presence and finding markets for your products. Luckily for us, the process has been, for the most part, exciting and fun. It is a privilege to say we’re going to be farmers and we’re happy to pay our dues. I am also looking forward to the Polyface Summer Internship, not only to get away from the quacking (just kidding), but because I have a lot to learn.
As a followup to my post last month about ten tips for getting started with chickens, I thought I'd share what our chicken-keeping friends said they wished they'd known about chickens when they brought their first birds home.
Several readers told me that their biggest lesson was how easy chickens were, how fun they were, or even how much their family could learn to love their birds. The take-home message? Don't delay your own chicken adventure!
Others had more trouble with their poultry flock. Jane often had to coop her birds up in the chicken tractor since they kept invading her garden and Joe found out the hard way that it's a bad idea to mix chickens of various ages. Finally, Mason learned that roosters aren't the only noisy ones in the flock, and that even the hens can bother neighbors. (Some breeds are much quieter than others, so be sure to take this into account when planning your flock if you live in the city.)
One of the biggest problems many of our readers reported was chickens being eaten by owls, dogs, raccoons, and more. I recently shared my own thoughts on protecting chickens from predators on the homestead. My top suggestion is to make a secure coop you can close your chickens into at night, and I also recommend keeping a well-trained dog and rooster to protect the hens. Giving your chickens plenty of bushes and brush to hide amid will help too.
On a related note, many of our readers reported that they learned a lot about good chicken coops from watching their birds reject certain aspects of their current housing. If your chickens are roosting in trees at night, they definitely don't like the coop you made for them! One problem can be poor drainage, another is not planning ahead for manure management, while Charity wishes her coop had more sun, dirt floors, and fewer rodents.
Pests and diseases weren't mentioned much, but mites are sometimes a problem with chickens. Eva wrote in with her advice on mite prevention, which is sure to help if these critters come to call in your coop.
Finally, may of our readers wrote in to tell us that they wished they'd realized how simple chicken care would become after they invested in a POOP-free chicken waterer. This week, you can furnish your flock with an Avian Aqua Miser Original for only $25, so why wait?
Big Sawmill Jobs
All right, I’ll admit it. My sixty year old body just doesn’t do things as easily as it did twenty years ago. Problem is, my brain doesn’t always seem to get the message. I can look at a job and say to myself, “yes, I remembering lifting, shoving, riding, driving, or fixing something like that, so I’m sure I can do it again.” Usually by the end of the day, my brain catches up to what my body has been trying to tell it. This phenomenon is especially evident when I’m running the sawmill. The manual sawmill requires me to do all the lifting and log turning by hand, though I often enlist the aid of “Henry”, my 1953 8N Ford tractor. I have also installed a winch, which helps tremendously.
Meeting the Customer
While demonstrating the Norwood sawmill at the Mother Earth News Fair in Lawrence, KS last fall (great show, by the way), I noticed a fellow watching as I cut one board after another from a fair-sized oak log. After introducing himself as Doug, I learned that he had some fair-sized sycamore trees on his property that had fallen, and he wondered whether I would be willing to come over and take a look to see whether I could saw them up. What I didn’t realize at the time was that “fair-sized” meant up to six feet diameter and forty feet tall! Once again, my brain kicked in without consulting my body. “Sure, I can mill those.” Truth is, I’ve never been beaten by a log, but I’ve never worked on anything this size.
Milling Oversize Logs
A few weeks later, I towed the mill 167 miles to the Doug’s place and went to work. The mill’s 36-inch diameter log capacity is big, even, for many big production sawmills, but we had to set the biggest logs aside for a later date. There were plenty of “small” logs to keep us going for a weekend. Fortunately, he had a loader that was capable of lifting the one-ton logs onto the mill. With careful positioning, we were able to get the maximum-size logs on the mill, and cut slabs thirty inches wide! Just imagine… a table top built from a single board. Sycamore has the best grain pattern with beautiful flecks, when quartersawn, so we did as much of that as we could, most of it with one natural edge. By the end of the first day, we were both exhausted, and I was more than glad to accept Doug’s offer to have dinner and stay over at his place.
With as much lumber as I saw, it takes a pretty impressive log to get my attention, but the lumber that came off was so beautiful, I bartered my work for wood, instead of the usual payment. Over the weekend, we only milled four logs, but wound up with nearly 2,000 board feet of lumber. As I stacked the wood on the back of my old Chevy flatbed and hooked up the mill, I thought about the other possible fates for this beautiful wood. Most likely was that it would have been bulldozed into a pile and burned — or simply left to rot. It certainly was satisfying to know that I had played a part in salvaging the log. My next project is to figure out a way to cut the bigger logs. The potential is mind boggling! Round conference tables six feet diameter, with chairs, and desks all made from the same log. Even the smaller pieces have me thinking about dulcimers, guitars, and other string instruments.
But that will have to wait. The rule of thumb is that wood has to air dry about one year for each inch of thickness, so I have a while to make my plans for it, though I expect I’ll sell most of it. As soon as I finish a project with it, I’ll post more photos.
The best part was forging a friendship with the owner of the trees. It will take at least two more weekends to finish up the job, and I look forward to his hospitality as much as I do the challenge of milling the rest of those logs!
Meanwhile, stay safe & warm, and I’ll try to do the same.
The last few weeks of winter seem to be the hardest on our bees. The crazy yo-yo temperatures, fluctuations in humidity, the wind, varmints looking for an easy meal, and queens who might just not have the right stuff anymore. We always seem to lose a hive or two (or three) and once or twice in our 6 years beekeeping, had them all muddle through.
Not so this winter, we lost our biggest hive.
Recently on a nice day I took a peek at the hives: bees going in and out of the two "smaller hives" but where I had seen lots of bee activity a couple weeks before at the large hive, all was quiet. I opened up the hive and found a mound of dead bees. Bees stuck in comb. Bees in piles. They had starved. The comb was stripped bare. Just heartbreaking.
Why one hive starved and two smaller ones do not makes me think the larger hive just had too many mouths to feed. Or too much varroa.. Or something... I had been putting sugar on damp newspaper (this winter's version of supplemental feeding) on all three and the two smaller hives were making use of it. Not so much with the bigger hive- made me think they thought they had plenty of honey.
Regardless, today it hit 78F. Such warm temperatures this time of year must not go to waste! I girded myself with the tools needed to make a proper spring inspection: a new box of foundation (not drawn out) for each hive, extra hive lid, smoker, hive tool, sugar syrup and plastic spray bottle. (Note: We have transitioned to using three "honey super" sized boxes for brood as well as for honey production/storage. No more deep brood boxes and frames and foundation in different sizes. Everything is the same size and interchangeable! The bees live in three boxes now, not two.)
- The hives stand on screened bottoms that have a removable "liner" board. I began by gently pulling the bottom liner board out of the slot a little bit. I keep it in during winter and take it out when the hard freezes are past. A few puffs of smoke under the hive draws upwards, telling the bees I am coming, and I then begin at the top.
- Take top box off and set on upturned lid. (I have several 2x4 hive stands and extra hive lids.)
- Take second box off and set on another upturned hive lid.
- The third box on the bottom is indeed empty as expected- remove the box and clean off the bottom of the screened bottom board. A winter of debris, dead bees, etc...
- Push the removable board back in place under the screen and set the box that was on top, the first one removed, on the base. It is the new bottom box. I pulled out one frame and saw eggs, larvae and capped brood. The queen is there, somewhere, and that is all I need to know for now.
- The box that was on top is now the middle box. Again, check a frame. No brood but there is some food here. Back in you go.
- The top box is one I just brought up. 10 new frames of foundation. (Disclaimer: I am much against the routine use of plastics, however, I am trying something new. Eyesight is not what is was, and spotting eggs on light colored foundation can be a bugger. Not to mention foundation that weakens in the honey extractor.) We are trying out some black plastic foundation/frames. It came lightly coated with beeswax, but I have read it is not quite enough. Last week I melted capping wax and lightly brushed these new frames with wax. Now as I put the foundation on the hive, I spray a little sugar water on both sides of each frame. Both rewaxing and sugar syrup spraying were recommended ideas I read online to encourage bees to "take" to the new foundation.
- On top of the third box go two quart jars of spring syrup with jar stands. I nudge a black hive beetle trap loaded with olive oil between a couple frames on the top box, near the side. A wooden "deep brood box" covers these, then the inner cover and finally the lid.
- All three boxes for brood have 10 frames; in honey supers, I will only put 9 frames in each box so the bees draw out the cells a wee bit further, making uncapping much easier.
The bees have had their basement cleaned, their house rearranged, new rooms added and two quarts of syrup. I will feed them syrup until they have drawn out the foundation of the newest box, and as I do routine inspections I will rotate out the last two boxes of traditional wood/wax foundation as we go to "all black plastic." They did fly around but were not "pissy" or give off the alert pheromone, raising the pitch of their buzzing to a high whine. Very well-behaved girls.
In a couple weeks the weather may be warm enough for me to give a quick "queen check." All I need to see are eggs or young larvae. I will also note the progress of the foundation drawing, refilling the syrup jars as needed. (If I do not see signs of a laying queen I will order one immediately.)
These hives are fairly small; I will not make splits from them unless the queens go crazy with laying, exploding the population to where three boxes will not be enough space. THEN I will worry about swarming, but that is for another day...
As usual, everything is last minute when it comes to preparing. That’s usually because I’m so darn busy doing everything else that by the time I’m thinking about the kids, I’ve realize that the pen I had the does kid in last season is housing waterfowl because a skunk killed three ducks and my best goose. My husband moved the waterfowl in that pen while we planned to live-trap the skunk.
The trapping never happened because to top everything else off, we had three feet of snow in the last snow event that lasted about a week. Then, the weather warmed up where we were seeing 40s and 50s. That has made for some very unstable snow and a terrible mess. Everything around my place is mud and the snow ripped the woodstove chimney off my barn. We got off lucky, however. We’ve had several avalanches in my area including the one that tore through a house in Missoula.
The only pen my husband and I could seriously consider using as a kid pen was the tom turkey pen. So, we butchered one tom and moved the other two with the young turkey hens today. My husband had fed the critters in the morning and I checked on the girls in the afternoon. Everyone looked ready to pop, but no one really showed signs of it. I had fed the critters the night before and noted that one of my Boer mix girls, named Blaze, laid down and looked a bit uncomfortable. I checked her and made note that she wasn’t showing signs of labor so I just decided to keep an eye on her.
So, when I fed the girls at night, I was doing my checks and noticed something odd with Blaze. Something triangular was sticking out of her. I grabbed her and brought her in the barn. I wasn’t exactly sure what part of the baby it was, but I knew it was a baby. So I reached in and felt around.
Oddly, Blaze had a small birth canal. For a big goat like a Boer mix who was easily close to 200 pounds, I had just enough room for my hand and not much else. Although I’m not sure what Blaze was mixed with, she sounded quite a bit like a Nubian goat the way she screamed as I felt around. The hard thing was the baby’s hock. The kid was breech and tangled. So, I had to reach in and grab the other back leg and pull. After much screaming and tugging, a huge baby buckling appeared.
I was not surprised that he wasn’t breathing. What did surprise me though was his malformed head. He had no eyes and his jaw was crooked. I suspect that he was probably stillborn with these problems and never had a chance even if he hadn’t been malpresented. I have no idea why this happened but I felt that maybe this was for the best. I would hate to have to put down the little guy if he was born alive.
Not knowing if that was her only baby, I put Blaze in the pen and gave her food and water. I checked on the other does and found Annie had no ligaments left in her tail – a sure sign she’s kidding tonight or tomorrow.
I’m going to be busy. It’s midnight and I’m pretty sure I’m going to need to check on Blaze and Annie. I suspect it’s going to be a long night.
Here in the northeast, we have been experiencing temperatures near zero at night, and in the teens and twenties during the day. It has been a long, cold winter for everyone, including honeybees! It is still much too cold to open up the hives to do a thorough inspection. However, this is the time of year when beehives can be lost to starvation, so it is important to try and do a quick check to make sure the bees have enough honey to hold them over until warmer weather arrives, and the first blooms appear.
To do this quick check, you need a day that is at least in the 40’s, preferably with plenty of sun and little wind. We were lucky enough to have a two day break with temperatures near 50 degrees, so we were able to do a quick check of our hives.
While the bees are not usually very active this time of year, they are likely to be very unhappy when disturbed! I take the usual precautions of using a smoker and veil, although it does feel very strange to be walking out to the beeyard with a smoker and veil when there is a foot of snow on the ground!
Assessing Beehive Health in Winter
After gently puffing the smoke into the entrances, I wait a minute, and then remove the outer cover, remove the super of straw (see my earlier post, In the Beeyard: Final Winter Preparations), and then gently pry off the inner cover. Here is what I look for:
1. Where are the bees? If the bees are clustered at the very top of the uppermost super, they may be in trouble. Bees work their way up eating honey through the winter, so if they are already up top, honey stores may be low. If I can hear the bees “humming”, and the cluster is somewhere below the top super of honey so I can’t see them, they are probably in good shape.
2. How much honey is left in that top super? Are the frames of honey in the top super still full? Are about half of them empty? Or, are most or all of them empty? For our area, if the top super is less than three-quarters full, I plan on doing something to supplement the food supply.
If you have determined that your bees may need some help staying fed until the end of winter, there are a few different ways to get some emergency feed to them. If you have any frames of honey you have saved or that you can take from a hive that did not make it through winter, they can be put in an empty super, and set right on top of the current top super. You can also remove empty frames and replace them with full frames, but try not to disturb the cluster of bees – they are trying to keep themselves and the queen warm!
If you plan ahead of time, you can make “fondant”, or sugar candy, to put on top of the upper super. There are many recipes for honeybee fondant online. Here is one link to Bee Hive Journal that has several different recipes. It is important to cut or break the fondant into small enough pieces to fit under the inner cover.
A third way to feed the bees in winter is called the “Mountaincamp Method”. You simply lay a sheet of newspaper over the top super. You can make a few thin slices in it, and pour granulated sugar over the top. Not the preferred way to feed bees, but good in a pinch! Again, if the cluster is already near the top, be careful not to disturb them too much.
Whichever method you choose to supplement your hives, be sure to have it ready ahead of time. This time of year it is important to work calmly but quickly, and to close the hives back up as soon as you can! The bees need time to reform the cluster, and warm up again.
While I am there, I also take some time to clean the lower entrances. I remove the mouse guard, and use a metal skewer to gently pull any dead bees and debris out onto the ground before replacing the mouse guard. This improves ventilation, and gets the hive ready for when the bees start flying in the spring.
Taking the time to do a quick check can help hives that might be in trouble make it until spring, and give you the peace of mind that you have done everything you can to help the bees make it through a long cold winter.
Aeration is the biggest key to a healthy pond and fish and the first tool to invest in, it is an investment similar to building the pond, but now we want to keep the pond alive, even reverse the aging process. When an aeration system is properly calculated and designed for your pond we are able to turn over the entire volume of water once a day which will supply the pond’s oxygen demand. Here’s what happens when the pond is aerated properly with a bottom diffused aeration system. Take for example a one acre pond 12’ deep in the center and the bottom floor is shaped like a bowl.
Sitting at the shoreline is a ¼ hp rocking piston air compressor, from the compressor the air travel down weighted rubber tubing to the bottom diffuser. Once the air reaches the diffuser it emits tiny air bubbles. (These are rubber membrane diffusers, not stones) These tiny air bubbles race to the surface of the pond, as the race to the surface they are each pushing, pulling and en-training water along with them.
After these bubbles reach the surface of the pond they simply pop and the water carried with them creates a “boil” of water, so to speak. This boil is all the water these tiny bubbles have pushed up. In addition to moving water they also push out the toxic gasses from the bottom of the pond which contains carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. The result of these tiny bubbles racing up from 12’ deep water is approx 3800 gallon per minute of water movement, with a ¼ horse rocking piston compressor. The continued movement de-stratifies the water tension allowing oxygen to be absorbed and pushes water out to the shoreline, essentially stacking the pond with oxygen.
With the pond now having the oxygen demand met a few new actions can take place. Fish can now use the entire depth of the pond, essentially making more room for more fish and the pond more inhabitable from top to bottom. With oxygen, good bacteria known as aerobic bacteria can thrive at the bottom of the pond, their job is to consume muck and debris built up each year making the pond shallower and over time would fill in the pond.
Beneficial bacteria’s will now be able to reach the depths of the pond due to the oxygen at the bottom. These are aerobic bacteria’s and thrive in oxygen rich water to consume nutrients left from decaying weeds, leaves, fish waste and everything else that falls into the pond. When the pond does not have adequate aeration those toxic gasses build up and could very well end up with a fish kill.
Don’t get me wrong there are bacteria in the pond but these live without oxygen and produce these foul smells. They also work on the decaying process but are so slow at it they can’t keep up and the pond eventually fills in with muck.
The second effective tool is adding beneficial bacteria’s to the pond. Usually along the shore line and let the diffuser pull in the aerobic bacteria to the bottom to working on the muck. Along the shoreline is generally the worse area for muck since this is the warmest spot of the pond, weeds and algae grow mostly in the shallows and depending on wind direction floating debris ends up along the shoreline.
Don’t worry I know it sounds strange to add bacteria but these are the good guys and yes there could be bad bacteria in your pond from too many geese around, livestock pasture or the septic tank and leech bed are nearby. In the event of fecal coli the aeration system will help to precipitate these toxic bacteria’s.
The specialized bacteria treatments we use are a formulation which contains multiple Pseudomonas cultures, as well as Bacillus cultures. It also contains beneficial enzymes and a growth nutrient to help break down the debris and be consumed reducing the sludge and muck build up plus suspended organics. You’ll see different products for water clarity and sludge and muck reduction, both products have the same make up but the major difference is the sludge and muck product has more of a concentration of bacteria for the bottom muck while the Pond Clarifier for water clarity is reverse in its bacteria make up.
Treatments or the dosage rate of these bacteria products are every two weeks, sine the bacteria do multiply and move around in the pond they also start to die off after a couple weeks.
This is the simple two step method we’ve used for years and have had no problems with algae, like we once had. Back then the pond was almost as green as the grass and raking algae out almost every day. But once we go the correct aeration system sized for the pond it’s no more rakes and the only green is the landscape around the pond. So I’m not caught in a lie we also use pond dye to give the pond an amazing color.
One last note on aeration bacteria treatment and dye is they are not harmful to the environment, wildlife and domestic animals. We’ve been using these products for up to four years now and our dogs drink from the ponds. As do the deer, geese, ducks, turkey and all forms of natural habitat in and around the pond with no ill effects.
In depth details about Pond Aeration can be found in Darrell's book, Pond Aeration 101, different types, how the work and the pond life cycle.
Aeration systems should be designed and calculated for each individual pond to assure proper water movement and that the oxygen demand will be met for that particular pond. Click to see more information on Proper Aeration.