Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Homesteading with dogs makes good sense as their enhanced senses are very useful around a remote homestead. Our breed of choice is the German Shepherd Dog but which ever breed or mutt you happen to choose to live with on your homestead is strictly up to the individual and the type of homestead involved. All three of our GSD’s are rescue dogs; we prefer to adopt from a rescue as opposed to raising a dog as a puppy. Those who have raised a dog from around 8 weeks old to adulthood know how demanding that can be and how those milk teeth like to find something to chew on frequently. That something may be your favorite boot/shoe or as large as your sofa. This is an appropriate time to write about rescuing a canine companion because some who buy puppies for the holidays will in about 4-5 months be turning them in to a rescue or shelter because they find they can’t deal with them. Puppies like to chew and they do not come with family skills so the new owner will have to do all the training. It takes a tremendous amount of patience and skill to raise a puppy.

Since I’m not familiar with other types of homesteads each person will have to determine their own needs and choice of a fur friend. Our homestead is situated in the mountains at a high elevation and surrounded with thick woods. Our goal was to incorporate into our family our four legged fur friends that will fit our lifestyle needs since we frequently see bears, coyote, mountain lion, bobcats, and sometimes wolves. We don’t particularly need our fur family to protect us although I’m sure they could. We just want to know when something is around so we can exercise reasonable caution. This is where our GSD’s work well because of their high intelligence, keen smell, hearing and eyesight. Humans generally communicate by hearing, seeing and lastly smelling. Dogs mostly communicate by smelling, seeing and lastly by hearing. When dogs are born they are born blind and deaf. They manage for the first three weeks with their sense of smell and the other senses then develop. We also wanted a breed with traits where we could also meet their needs.

Dogs have a sense of smell - depending on the dog which is 1,000 - 10,000 times more acute than their human counterpart. Dogs can break the smell down into parts and can tell which direction it is coming from. Coupled with a dog’s acute hearing which is about 4 times the distance that humans can hear they can let us know if there is anything around that we should be aware of. Our dogs have peaked ears and when they hear something outside one or both ears will turn in the direction of the sound. Dogs also have keen sight but lack the ability to see things clearly close up or at a distance. With those two exceptions the remainder of their sight is excellent. Dogs also have the ability to sense fear and can quickly detect the emotions of humans.

Having now covered the keen senses of dogs it should be apparent why having them indoors with us on our mountain homestead is practical. They are excellent family members who keep us entertained and give us support, comfort and companionship. Beyond being family members who love and constantly display loyalty their senses help us to relax more by knowing they will alert us if anything comes around. When we see a nose go in the air or ears suddenly perk up we know there is something that may need our attention. They are also good judges of human character. We have consistently found when they remain aloof with people or display clear indications that they do not like that person that we should be equally cautious of that person.

Our preference is the German Shepherd Dog breed because of their intelligence, loyalty and family adaptability. They can solve problems, and are careful and calculating in evaluating situations. They rarely back down when confronted which is why we keep ours on leash because wild predators are also not likely to back down. That combination can create a dangerous situation and we want to keep our fur friends safe. We have seen how a pack of coyotes will try to lure a domestic dog off by taunting it and then running from it while leading it into ambush. I once took one of our dogs out after dark on a leash before we put in a 6’ high fence around our back yard and suddenly he stopped dead still and gave a low growl. A few minutes later I went back out with a flood light and found 8’ from where we stopped the fresh tracks in the snow of a very large mountain lion. That sudden alert by our GSD and his quick judgment saved us from a nasty situation.

Another time I was walking one of our dogs down the driveway on leash and less than 20’ away a mother black bear with two 8-10 lb. cubs came up out of the ditch suddenly. I recognized the mother bear and was not alarmed as I knew she meant us no harm. She had used our home in the past to raise prior cubs and train them. Our GSD did not sense any fear in me and sat next to me on command without any problem. We stayed in place while she trained her cubs on how close they could venture to us for about 15 minutes. When her lesson was over we all moved on safely. Had I shown any fear that could have turned into a nasty situation because our dog would have immediately sensed it and reacted to the danger.

Our dogs play a vital role in our lives as valued family members but they also have their work in alerting us when there is something outside due to their constant vigilance. In summary homesteading with our canine friends makes our family complete and provides us with a level of safety that can’t be duplicated in a home security system. Our security system can think for themselves and evaluate potential situations and alert us when needed. Besides, our family of canines are very well trained plus their size alone can intimidate other animals. I don’t think any homestead is complete without our canine friends to complete it.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their canine family go to:

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Genetics: Breed for Small, Stocky Cattle with Short Legs

For optimum grass efficiency, you should be breeding for a small-framed animal. Your specific farm environment will naturally sort out your ideal mature animal weight. You will end up culling animals that are too big because they will be poor performers. Over time a dominant genetic type will emerge, bloodlines that your farm has selected specially for performance in your exact micro-climate and under your management program. However, efficiency always increases as mature weight decreases. If a 1,000-pound cow and a 1,400-pound cow both eat “X” amount of grass in one day, the big cow will use a larger portion of that grass just to keep herself alive. The small cow will be able to fulfill her maintenance energy requirements with less of that grass, so she can put a larger amount of it into milk, body condition and gestation. Small cattle are capable of weaning a larger percentage of their body weight than large cows for this reason. Commodity cattle producers are often too preoccupied with calf weaning weight to focus on what percentage of cow weight their mama cows are weaning. Of course this is bound to happen in an industry where calves are sold by the pound. However, you can carry more cattle on the same amount of land if they are smaller. Would you rather have one six-weight calf to sell or two four-weights? The small cow strategy pays off! You’ll also appreciate it during calving season, because you’ll have far fewer incidences of dystocia when breeding to a small bull. This past summer, I bred my Red Angus herd to a frame-size-2 Belted Galloway bull weighing around 1,100 pounds.

The cattle you select for and breed must also be of correct conformation and type for grazing, in addition to being small. A slab-sided, late-maturing, tight-gutted, spindly-legged animal has no place in a grassfed operation. This genetic type has been developed for speedy grain-finishing in feedlots. Leave them there! Grain cattle often have pinched, restricted heart girth areas (right behind the front legs) and flat sides that hardly stick out at all. Choose females with huge round ribcages, which protrude significantly when you look at the animal from front or back. There needs to be room inside them for a lot of grass and a calf. You should look for stocky cattle with short legs and not overly thick bones. The show cattle industry has been selecting for big bones, which is totally counter-intuitive for meat production. A large volume of bone decreases carcass dressing percentage. If it’s sold by live or hanging weight, the buyer gets stuck paying for a bunch of useless bone. Short legs and finer bones are indicators of grass efficiency, because there’s less body weight that will require extra precious grass just to stay alive. Breed the stilts out from under them. Aim for cattle that resemble tanker semi trucks: a huge volume of gut “tank” space to hold grass, short “wheels” to get around on, and a wide, stocky frame.

Management: Breed and Manage for Cattle You Don’t Have to See All the Time

Of course, you can’t see your animals’ legs if you don’t see your animals at all! Beef cattle are not like dairy cows, which require constant labor inputs. You shouldn’t have to be working with them more than once per day at most. In some situations, you can check your herd every few days, or even go months without seeing them (in the case of Western ranches). Choose the management protocols YOU want to implement on your farm, and breed for cattle that fit into them. If an animal makes you step outside your routine daily workload, cull it! For example, you can decide “I don’t want to check my calving females at night.” Then go to bed. In the morning, your herd should be happily grazing and new calves should be sucking. If anything has gone wrong, cull the animal in question. (Of course, provide prompt veterinary care to alleviate suffering and keep the animal(s) alive until you can sell them. But don’t give them a chance to do it again!) A veterinarian once told me, “the best medicine is trailer-mycin, it cures everything!”

So now you have a bunch of short-legged grass-type cattle. In my next article, I’ll discuss how to hide those tiny cow legs in lush, plentiful grass through proper forage recovery and allocation.

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Veteran survival instructor, and author of 16 not-self-published books about the outdoors (including the critically-acclaimed adventure novel, The Mackinac Incident ), Len McDougall reveals one of the simplest, yet most valuable, navigation tools that woodsmen have relied on for hundreds of years. 

You can find my books at Barnes & Noble and on

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 ice skating

I love skating on our pond. It’s one of the many things that make living here awesome. We’ve been corresponding with a lot of readers lately who say “Oh, I just dream of living like you do.” Many seem to work at jobs they’re not overly enamored with. So let me state, just to make you feel better, that I have no plan on how I’m ever going to retire. I’m going to have to keep working until I drop dead in the potato patch. And really, not a bad way to go I think. Better than wasting away in some institution.

That being said, since we moved here 15 years ago, when I was 40, I’ve had a pond to skate on, and I love skating on my pond. I am overjoyed when I skate on my pond. Just going round and round and round and zoning out and smiling like a mad man. It helps that the pond is right under the wind turbine. “I” put that up! I did that! And it powers my home, especially at this time of year when the solar panels do much less of the “heavy lifting.” I can see both of my solar arrays from the pond too. “I put them up! I did that! OK, I did all that with the help of my neighbor Ken. He’s awesome too!

I’m not sure where this love of skating came from but ‘the force is strong in this one.” I spent part of my childhood in a house along the St. Lawrence River, which drains the Great Lakes into the Atlantic Ocean. So I grew up skating on outside ice. There were the rare times when the ice would freeze thick enough to skate on without any snow on top. You could cross country skate. If you wound up and slapped a puck as hard as you could it would take you 10 minutes to catch up to it.

After we moved away from that house we spent many Christmases at my parents’ cottage on a lake and I always shoveled a rink. So when we moved here having my own rink really was a dream come true. When I skate on my rink I do not think about my lack of retirement funds, or just how long it will be before we’re burning the furniture to stay warm. I just think how lucky I am to have this little bit of frozen water beside my cozy little house off the grid that I can skate on ... whenever I want … for as long as I want … in whatever direction I want.

I do think about the monetary value of this rink. What do you figure it costs to build a hockey arena today? Half a million dollars? A million? So the way I figure it, as I skate around, I’m worth a million bucks! Take that evil mutual fund companies that run ads trying to scare me about the terror of retiring without sufficient funds … in the stock market … which always goes up in value … forever … right?

I particularly like skating at dusk. There is nothing like the feeling of zipping around on a pond where I can see our cozy little house all toasty warm-looking, lit by the batteries charged by the sun and the wind, heated with wood that absorbed carbon dioxide as it was growing. It’s simply magical.

Pond skating is a very Canadian (and northern American) thing to do. There is a great song by Tom Cochrane called ‘Big League’ with the line “Sometimes at night I can hear the ice crack, it sounds like thunder and rips through my back…” Our pond cracks and makes horrific sounds when we skate on it. Joyful fright.

ice skating 

In our book, Little House Off The Grid, I talk about our neighbor Ken who has been so instrumental in the evolution of our home to one that runs so smoothly. One night before we had completely moved here I came up during an ice storm to test a generator. It was winter and I was dressed in arctic survival gear, constantly in fear of running the truck off the road and freezing within minutes. Ken stopped in on his way home from work. Despite the freezing ice pellets that were being blown around, Ken was dressed in leather shoes with a leather jacket that was undone showing a cotton shirt and tie underneath. He skated across the frozen lawn and said, “Well at least there’s no black flies!” BEST… LINE… EVER!

When we moved here I had a backhoe come in and dig out the spot where water had sat the previous spring. It was a natural indentation so I thought if I scooped out some soil/sand, we might have a shot at a pond, and therefore a rink.

Then a few years later Ken was over one day with his ATV and offered to clear the rink after a big snow. He couldn’t get much traction so his brother-in-law Cyril stood on the back of the ATV. Still not go. So I got on. There we were, 3 people on a one-person ATV, 27,000 lbs on newly formed ice with a great weight of snow on it as well. I was lucky that I was perched precariously on the very back of the machine so I could jump off the moment it all went crashing through the ice. I was wishing I’d put a rope near the pond so I could pull Ken and Cyril out. And how were we going to fish the ATV out once it plunged to the bottom? Ken, as always, is never fazed by any of this. He gets a kick out of my constant state of panic.

As we were plowing the rink Ken turned to Cyril and said, “Cam made this!” referring to the pond. I would never take credit for the work of nature or some Supreme Being or life force, but I have to say it was the SECOND BEST LINE EVER. “Cam made this!” And that’s why I love Ken like a brother. And why skating on my rink is a joyful, joyful, joyful thing to do.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


Cow Milking

The Importance of Testing Milk (Raw and Pasteurized) and Your Animals.

One big benefit of running the private and FDA-certified Bob-White Systems Dairy Lab is that we get to see what works and what doesn't work to keep milk clean. “Clean," for our purposes, means that it passes Vermont's Tier II Raw Milk Standards, which happen to be some of the most stringent in the country, more so than federally regulated pasteurized milk standards. At the lab we perform FDA-certified testing to ensure raw milk producers are compliant with Vermont’s standards. We also perform non-FDA certified tests for diagnostic services. That means we see all kinds of milk, with all kinds of problems, and we help producers troubleshoot many different issues.

Vermont’s Tier II Raw Milk Standards require that raw milk intended for retail sale pass four tests; Total Bacteria Count below 15,000 cfu/mL, Coliform Count below 10 cfu/mL, Somatic Cell Count below 225,000/mL (500,000/mL for goats), and no Antibiotic Residue found. “cfu/mL” stands for Colony-Forming Units per milliliter; bacteria form colonies, and this is the number of colonies per milliliter of milk. Antibiotic residue looks for traces of cow penicillin or other antibiotics that could affect people with antibiotic allergies and probably contribute to the creation of the notorious MRSA and other antibiotic resistant bacteria. Every state has it’s own set of regulations and laws regarding raw milk, more info can be found at the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund and the map below.

Raw Milk Map

Federally regulated, commodity raw milk for pasteurization must have a Total Bacteria Count less than 100,000 cfu/mL and a Somatic Cell Count less than 750,000/mL (1,000,000/mL for goats). Pasteurized milk must have less than 20,000 cfu/mL of bacteria, 10 cfu/mL of Coliform and no requirement on somatic cell count (they don’t increase after leaving the cow). It’s important to note that Vermont’s Tier II raw milk is “cleaner” than pasteurized milk you buy in the store. However, the fact is that failing these test standards doesn’t mean the milk is harmful. A high count only means the milk was produced and handled in a way that could support harmful pathogens, were they present. In other words, if harmful bacteria were to enter your production practice, it could flourish, but it might not be there at all. These test standards are the tools we currently have to assess milk safety, so that’s what we’re going to use.

Animal Health for Clean Raw Milk

With that background in mind, we’ve pulled together a few basic guidelines that will help you produce “clean” milk in your micro-dairy, homestead, or small-farm. This first post begins with the animals.

Start With Healthy Animals. Imprecise as the tests may be, they can still help you to find a healthy animal. High counts on any of those regulated tests will tell you that something is wrong. In addition, Bob-White Systems offers other diagnostic testing that is not covered under Vermont’s standards, but are still quite important.

We offer a New Cow Test and a New Goat Test that can be performed with a small sample of milk sent through the mail. This$60 test can help you to avoid unbred cows, sub-clinical mastitis, staph infections, Johne's and Leukosis diseases, Coliforms, E. Coli, and bad milk quality (low fat content). One visit from the vet is more expensive and time-consuming than this test. Also, studies show that 89% of U.S. farms have at least one cow with Leukosis, and 40% of the American dairy herd is infected.

Veterinary care is important. In addition to testing the animals, having a vet look at your prospective cow or goat is an excellent way to avoid other health issues that don’t pertain to milk. Vets see so many animals; therefore, they have an excellent idea of what a healthy animal looks like and can help you avoid hoof problems, diseases and general poor health. A vet can also tell you about the body condition of that animal, if it will need a lot of extra feed or if it seems relatively hardy. Having purchased a Jersey in very poor condition I know it takes a long time and a lot of work to put weight on a thin animal that bears a calf every year.

Between a vet visit and milk testing, you can feel confident that the animal you bring home will be a healthy addition or beginning to your herd. That peace of mind is worth a lot.

My next post will cover the milk parlor and milking best practices.

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snowy barn

I enjoy operating my Micro Dairy year round though I have to admit spring and fall are my favorite times of the year. I am not a fan of the extremes of winter or summer. I can get the most work done when the temperatures are moderate and, at 63 years old, I tend to hide from the high summer sun rather than bask in it. At least during the winter I can put more clothes on to stay warm outside. 

Winter certainly does present its own set of conditions that farmers in snow country must adjust to every fall. First, there is darkness; it is dark when I wake up and dark when I do my evening chores. Having good lighting inside the barns and out is very important. The flood light outside my barn has a motion detector so it turns on and lights up the barnyard when the cows or I go outside when it is dark. That is very helpful. I also recommend installing lighting in the sheds or other outbuildings where you work in the winter. But don’t feel the need to do everything all at once. Every fall I like to make one or two minor improvements to my Micro Dairy in preparation for the winter. 

Next there is the snow, and when it snows there is always plowing and shoveling. In the fall I try to make sure that the areas where I push the snow are open and clear. That means making sure that my firewood is stacked and all my machinery is out of the way. I take down temporary fencing next to the road and driveways. Plowing snow is non-productive at best so I do all I can to eliminate complications and or opportunities to damage my tractor or other pieces of equipment.

I have to admit that sometimes the thought of the coming winter in Vermont can be a little daunting, especially if you operate your Micro Dairy alone, as I do. Back when my wife and I had a larger farm and milked 70 Jersey cows, our kids were younger and chore time was a family affair. Everyone pitched in. But now it is just me, trudging up to the barn in the snow and cold every morning and night. Since I am neither a hero nor a martyr, this winter I decided to lighten my load and sell two of my four cows. I kept one bred heifer and one milking cow so I would have milk to feed a beefer calf I am raising. Doing that essentially cut my chore time in half and reduced the hay and grain I will feed out this winter by 50 percent.


Milking cows twice a day can get tiresome, especially when you also have a day job. It is important to remember that having a small farm or a Micro Dairy allows you the flexibility to sell a few, or, even all of your cows and take a break for a season or two. If you have a larger herd you can sell your milkers and keep your calves and heifers and get back into it slowly when they begin to come into milk. The choice is yours. There is no dishonor in taking a little break.

I believe the keys to preparing for the upcoming winter of a Micro Dairy in regions that get cold, snowy and dark at 4 p.m. are first to make small improvements to your facility that will make it easier, quicker and more efficient to operate. Make a list of any small annoyances from the previous winter that you can correct. And then look for opportunities to reduce your workload wherever and however possible. Selling two cows and putting lights in the shed adjacent to my barn has made a huge difference for me this winter. Owning and managing a Micro Dairy is a matter of choice. Don’t allow yourself to get stuck in drudgery. Keep making small improvements to your farm and routines and soon the warm spring winds will once again blow and the grass on south facing slopes will begin to green up. In the meantime, button up!

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In previous blogs I've shared my thoughts on the connection between humans and nature and how global warming is a sign of a weakening spiritual link to the natural world. Most agree nowadays that climate change is indeed caused by humans' actions but it might not be as clear as to why humans proceed with these actions when they are obviously threatening our own existence.

Abundant fossil fuel has allowed us to remove ourselves from nature, to be protected from inclement weather, live untouched by natural limitations of resources such as food and water and take charge over other, or most, living creatures whether it's hunting wild game or raising livestock for meat production. We are here and nature is there. What happens in nature, to many, simply doesn't happen to them.

But once we have established, and accepted, that as a problem, many now start to look for a solution. A lot of people would say that Dennis' and my way of living is part of the answer. Homesteading, a self sufficient, organic food production, solar power, simplicity. But in all reality, any individual's actions only matters so much – even someone with a considerably bigger carbon footprint who — for example — drives his or her car to work every day, live in a conventional house with an oil furnace and several appliances and follows a pretty typical western consumer pattern would still, in the greater scheme of things, only be responsible for a fraction of the problem. Hence, up against China, the tar sand extraction, dysfunctional global summits and the endless cry for economic growth, changing that lifestyle would only contribute to a fraction of the solution.

The life Dennis and I pursue as homesteaders is the result of our concept for what a sound and healthy life in this world looks like. I walk through life on a path blazed by ethics and values based on my respect for all life and on a long term sustainable approach where I wish to leave this world a better place than when I came. Every day I'm faced with a number of choices and decisions that I make based on what will best keep me on my path and allow me to navigate through life with intention and focus on those values. Every day I choose how to spend my time, how to interact with the people and the place around me, I choose where to get my food from, how to make my money and what I do with it, if we really need the purchase we consider or if we could make it ourselves. Often I have to decide whether to ride my bike or take the car doing errands around the island and if, on a day off, we should go for an outing that involves a drive or stay closer to home.

Some days I feel like I did pretty good, that I thought things over and didn't rush and take a short cut by — for example — throwing industrially produced grain to our pigs instead of going to our neighbor to gather wind blown apples. Other days I don't do as good, I get impatient and hop in the car to get the stuff from the hardware store just so we can keep doing what we're doing but rarely at the end of the day do I feel that I gained much in the greater context by that little bit of time saved. But when it's all said and done and I lay my head to rest at night, I think that this is as close to saving the planet as I'll come. To form a set of principals for my life, to let that be my path and to follow that path to the best of my ability, one day, one decision, one question at the time.

So I don't look at China or the tar sand or the global politics when I think about saving the planet. With all due respect for those who fight the cause on that level, it is not where my heart and mind are. My greatest influence is over my own life and to stay as close and clear to my values as possible. To share this lifestyle is a social responsibility, through the Hostel and by going out in the public to say that you too can find a path to follow. And in that message lies that it's okay to do something, even if it's not on the level Dennis and I are doing it. I often find myself telling people “every tomato plant counts” as a way of saying that if your life only has room for one tomato plant, go out and plant it. All the small things and the good heartened attempts that brings us closer to nature count. If one tomato plant will keep someone on their blazed path, I believe it will make a difference. It might not be highly visible in the context of global warming and increased carbon dioxide but it matters if it means we can go to bed at night thinking, and truly believing, that we did our best.

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