Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Tractors: So many choices and sizes. What size do I need and what implements do I need to go along with it. Decisions, decisions and the choices are almost endless plus sizes and brands are enough to make your mind spin. Perhaps my tractor ownership will help someone else in considering their needs. When I bought my first tractor there were only a couple dealers in the area. One foreign made and one domestically manufactured. Preferring to buy domestic I went to that dealer first. The sales person was standing alone at the counter writing something on a small pad. I waited for him to stop and look up but he didn’t so I asked him if he could show me some of his tractors. I was told to wait he would be with me soon and 20 minutes later he was still scribbling on that paper and ignoring a customer looking for my first tractor purchase. That made the decision easy for me since I resent being blown off and ignored as a potential customer.

That second dealer turned out to be a bonanza of useful information and equipped me with the tractor that fit my needs and had me trained and using it in no time. It also turned out to be affiliated with the cooperative we were members of. He initially questioned me about our circumstances and what I thought I needed a tractor for. We needed one to haul firewood and move snow in the winter. He fitted us to a tractor that was perfect for our needs and had a snow thrower on the front and a blade on the back. That tractor worked perfectly for 15 years and never gave us a problem and did much more than it was probably designed to do. Nothing ever broke on the tractor and it started and ran every time I needed it. So why would I ever consider trading it in on another tractor if it was that good?

Earlier this year I caught my foot dismounting our tractor and fell off of it. I was not injured seriously but did get a painful groin pull. Anyone who has ever had a groin pull knows that it not only hurts but you can’t lift your leg up easily until it has healed. The platform where my feet went when I was operating the tractor coupled with the more rigid shoe soles put on boots now days and my older stiffer joints made it too small for my feet and I had several close calls in dismounting. Living remotely as we do I didn’t want to be laying on a pile of rocks waiting to be discovered so I checked the newer models for more foot room. Eureka! The new models had been redesigned over the years and had a larger platform for my feet and less obstacles. Additionally I know parts don’t last forever and with the annual snowfall we receive I was concerned if a part did wear out or break due to years of stress and needed replacement we are a long ways from a repair facility. Last winter our snow came in waves where I would just get one storm cleared and another would arrive. Maybe it was time for a new tractor due to redesign and aging tractor parts.

I called my cooperative dealer and told him my plan and he invited me to come see the newer redesigned models. I was unaware that there was an unadvertised special going on at the time where the manufacturer would take $1,000.00 off a second implement if you bought an implement with a new tractor. I had always wanted a front end loader to move heavy packed snow in the winter and dirt and rocks in the summer. When I was told about the deal on the second implement my choice was easy - a front blade to push snow off the driveway when it was not practical to use the snow thrower. The two photos show my old tractor loaded on the trailer to take back so the dealer could swap the sub frame onto the compatible new tractor. The other photo is the new tractor with the front end loader. That is why I personally decided to upgrade my tractor and implements.

Looking for that first tractor? I would suggest the first step would be to find a dealer that will ask pertinent questions regarding your needs and then match you to a tractor that suits your needs. A dealer that will answer all your questions regardless of how simple they may be. A dealer who will let you test drive a tractor and use the implements coupled with hands on instruction emphasizing safety procedures. A dealer who will provide site service if you should need it. A dealer who will tell you what options you need and leave the decision to you with no crafty sales pressure. If you can find such a dealer the rest should easily fall into place. It is also helpful to ask friends who have a tractor how it performs. From the time I bought my first tractor until I upgraded it recently more brands and dealers have surfaced. I drove right past at least five dealers to get to someone I knew would put me on the proper piece of equipment and at a price I could afford. I’m a strong believer in farm cooperatives and I have never been disappointed by the one we are members of. My small tractor parked next to one of the giant ones looks like a toy but like small and large dogs, the small tractor doesn’t realize its small and does the work of a bigger one. Perfectly sized for our use and it all started with a rude and disinterested dealer who wouldn’t take the time to even show me his product. 

A good dealer is instrumental in being fit to a good tractor and accompanying implements. As a customer I would go back to the same place time and time again. He has my trust and confidence and over the years we have become good friends also.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their lifestyle go to their personal website.

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 milk can

When you have as many goats go through kidding as I do, eventually you have to do something with all that milk. In the past I’ve done things like feed the milk to the chickens, but it always seemed wasteful. Many people I know who have goats and pigs often feed the pigs the extra milk. If you’re butchering pigs, it’s not as bad, because the milk does a great job in fattening up pigs. But there is another way to preserve that milk goodness, and that is to make cheese.

My Introduction to Cheesemaking

I actually stumbled across how to make cheese reading somebody’s blog. They were making microwave mozzarella, which incidentally is very delicious. My first attempts were pretty abysmal, and I wasted a lot of milk. So, you get the benefit of learning from my mistakes. Now that I’m an “old pro,” you can rest assured that this will work. I’ve made this with both cow’s milk and goat’s milk, and it turns out fine. There are some tricks that you need to know about your ingredients, but I’ll get into that later.

Understand that go through a lot of milk to make a little bit of cheese. A gallon of milk will only make enough cheese about the size of a baseball to a softball, if you’re lucky. The rest of it is whey, which you can use for other things, including a treat for any of your animals. You can also use whey instead of water for more nutritious bread, if you bake bread. Otherwise, you’re going to be something a lot of whey down the drain, which is a bit wasteful.

Sourcing Your Ingredients


The first thing to be aware of is the type of milk you use. You can use either raw milk or pasteurized milk, but you can’t use ultra-pasteurized milk. The reason why ultra-pasteurized milk is no good in cheesemaking is because ultra-pasteurization overcooks the milk and it will not form curds that you will make into cheese. There’s nothing more frustrating than using ultra-pasteurized milk and discover that you have nothing but hot milk with very little separation.

Standard grocery store milk is almost always ultra-pasteurized. If it lasts a long time, i.e. more than a week, you can rest assured that the milk you’re using is ultra-pasteurized. If in doubt, ask the milk producer. Here in Montana, we have two producers of milk that only pasteurize. Since I use my goats’ milk, I pasteurize on a daily basis, and do not ultra-pasteurized.

To make microwave mozzarella, you will need a whole gallon of milk. I usually use day old goat’s milk, but I hear that the fresher the better.

Other Ingredients and Supplies

You’ll need the following things to make microwave mozzarella:

• Citric acid and rennet — both types used in making cheese. Do not use the generic citric acid. I don’t understand what the difference is, but if you use anything other than that which is intended for cheesemaking, you’re going to be disappointed. The place where I source my cheesemaking ingredients is New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. They even have some beginner kits that I highly recommend, including a mozzarella kit.
• A pot large enough to heat up milk on a stove
• A nonreactive spoon
• Non-chlorinated water
• Microwave
• Microwave-safe bowl

Next time, I’ll go through the recipe for your very own microwave mozzarella. So stay tuned.

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Homesteading has become the heart of the do-it-yourself movement. In this era of sustainability, homesteaders take their lifestyle to varying extents. Some choose to live life completely off grid and exactly as our forefathers, while others opt for a lifestyle with modern technology mixed with a sustainable lifestyle. Think iPhones, beer brewing and square-foot gardening.

Regardless of the depth of involvement, the use of heritage animals is an integral part of the homestead community.

What makes these animals so special? They're the Adam and Eve of present-day livestock.

Love Those Real Cows

Genetically modified organisms, more commonly called GMOs, riddle grocery store shelves. If you try to find corn that hasn't been modified or treated with a product from Monsanto, you're going to have to buy local from a farmer you trust. As an average consumer, we're used to worrying about the state of our produce, and, sure, we try to buy grass-fed meat, but that doesn't mean the meat is coming from a heritage breed.

Heritage animals pre-date the GMO livestock that most of us eat — even though most of us aren't intentionally picking non-heritage meat. Unless you know the farmer, it's almost impossible to guarantee your meat is from a heritage animal because the USDA hasn't actually acknowledged "heritage" as a label.

Why Do They Matter?

Heritage breeds were carefully bread to encourage genetic traits that best fit for a lifestyle of survival. Basically, these animals had to survive harsh conditions and live for a long time. Remember the game Oregon Trail? How many times did you have to buy more oxen when you played Oregon Trail in school? Well, those were heritage breeds made for a hard life.

Modern-day livestock is made to grow quickly and thrive on growth hormones. They're also inbred, which means they're more prone to sickness, which is a prime reason that heritage livestock is so important.

In fact, according to the GRACE Communications Foundation, an organization focused on increasing public awareness of environmental issues, "83% of dairy cows are Holsteins ... and 60% of beef cattle are of the Angus, Hereford or Simmental breeds." Because modern society has bred these specialized, fast-growing animals for food production, there are 1,500 different breeds of heritage livestock in danger of extinction.

Heritage animals enhance the genetic diversity of livestock. Should something happen to any of our sensitive genetically modified livestock, we need to be able to fall back on our slow growing, but hardy, heritage animals.

Why Should You Invest?

Whether you're looking to expand your homestead or just fill your belly, heritage animals are the most sustainable choice you can make. These animals are meant for normal, outdoor weather without any sort of growth hormones. That means they grow at a much slower rate but your homestead will be able to support the animal instead of being forced to buy food loaded with the growth hormones needed for their inbred genes.

These breeds are the perfect fit for a homestead, plus you'll also be helping to conserve a global resource. As you go through the process of choosing your herd, keep in mind you'll still have to adjust your land and buy equipment to fit the needs of the animals. Cattle, for instance, need more than just a fence. Happy cows require a clean and healthy environment, and odds are good your homestead is perfect for them.

Photo by Skitterphotos.

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It is no secret that summer is a hectic season on a farmstead. As the snow melts, the waiting work unfolds before us. There are endless tasks to be completed in a limited amount of time….it can be daunting. Leisure becomes a thing of the past as we scramble to prune the trees, prepare the soil, plant the crops, weed, harvest, process the bounty, re-sow, repeat. And, of course, there are the animals and bees that require a similar amount of care and attention, implements and tools to be fixed and usually children to be raised.

For most modern farmsteaders, this list of chores happens in the hours before and after attending to another ‘real’ job; the 9-5 kind. To be fair, many farmsteaders are happy for this routine. In an age of unlimited convenience, we are a unique breed of individuals that still value hard work and gain satisfaction from doing a job ourselves….even if it means giving up our free time to do it.

The secret to being a successful long-term farmsteader is to find a balance that supports both mental and physical well-being and allows you to accomplish your goals at the same time. For our family, this has taken years of practice.

The burn-out rate for new farmsteaders can be pretty high. The utopian visions of a self-sustaining lifestyle often excludes the very real truth of an aching back, extreme mental fatigue, and the  financial stress of undertaking a new endeavor (That deer fence isn’t free, folks). However, it is possible to make it through the early years by learning a few hard-won lessons.

Lesson 1 - Be realistic with your time; life is long(ish). You don’t need to turn your entire yard into a victory garden in one season. Time is a commodity like all other goods. There is a limit to what can reasonably be accomplished before that commodity runs out. Set small, attainable goals that fit into your time budget.  For me personally, I have been slowly building our orchard over the course of the last 4 years. The first season I mapped out the location of where I wanted all of the paths and all of the crops to be located. Over the next couple of seasons I gradually added fruit trees, blueberry bushes, raspberries, black cap raspberries, grapes and even a flower bed. It would have been impossible to accomplish the entire vision in one season and if I had tried, I would have failed. Likely, my plants would have died or I would have lost the area to weeds. By slowly adding to the landscape I have been able to mentally ‘ease’ into caring for a new area without feeling overwhelmed by the task of doing so. This slow but steady approach has also offset the financial burden of the project, allowing the cost to be spread over several years of work. By staying within our household budget, we have harbored very little stress over the monetary expenditures needed to do this project well. This low stress approach does wonders for personal health. Everyone knows that stress is a killer.

Lesson 2 - Stretch, a lot. Recently, I realized that as I am getting older I need to spend a great deal more time stretching than I did when I was younger. It doesn’t take much to make me stiff these days. Stretching is the best way for me to combat chronic back pain and sore joints. I prefer yoga but even simple toe touching and back bends will help to loosen up tight hamstrings and realign your spine. Massage is another powerful tool that is not to be underestimated. This is a great way to bond with your partner as well. Even a brief foot massage can make the difference between a positive attitude and a negative one.

Lesson 3 - Leave the work behind. Once in a while it is imperative that you leave the farmstead. Yes, there are always jobs needing completion, but for the mental health of your family it is necessary to find some time to recreate somewhere else. A four hour vacation at the beach may be all that is required to rejuvenate you for the week ahead.  Longevity in farmsteading is dependent upon the healthy relationships you have with your family…..cultivate this through play.  It is also good to use your body in a different way than what is required through farm work. I have a paddle board and take to the water regularly. I also like to swim. Both of these activities keep my musculature well-rounded and help to eliminate the chance of accidental injury while on the farm.

Lesson 4 - Get lots of sleep. I am a long sleeper compared to my husband. My natural state requires 9 hours of sleep a night. The year that I was ready to quit the farm was the year that I pushed myself to exhaustion by cutting away at my required sleep.  I only trimmed about an hour half of sleep off of my schedule each day, but it was enough to completely disrupt me physically and mentally. In the end, any additional work that I was accomplishing by being awake an extra hour was a detriment to my wellbeing and certainly affected my overall attitude towards my family and the work that lay before me.  I also have a tendency toward getting sick when I neglect my sleep. There is nothing worse than missing a day of farm work due to illness....especially when it is self-imposed due to sleep deprivation.

There are many other lessons that I have learned along the way that have made our current lifestyle possible. Through thoughtful reflection, I believe these four in particular have made the difference between success and failure for us.  Farmsteading is nothing short of rewarding although it has its hurdles. Making time to care for yourself is of utmost importance. Being able to successfully navigate through the hard times (both physically and mentally) is what make the good times so much sweeter. 

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I'm fairly new at celery as this is only my third year growing it. I guess that's because I'm not the biggest fan of it. It's got its place but it's just not a vegetable I use that often. Tom likes it better than I do so we figured we'd give it a try. Of course our last two years were filled with tough, stringy stalks because I was a beginning celery grower and didn't know what the tricks were.

One of the tricks to growing tender celery is to give it a lot of water. Well, I live in California where it doesn't rain throughout the summer. I'd feel terribly guilty if I had to dump a bunch of our precious water on the celery just to have tender stalks. One of the things I've noticed while growing celery is that it doesn't come out with nice, thick, upright stalks that are all clustered together in the center. It's more spreading and shrub like. But dumping water on it doesn't seem to solve the problem of short stalks, does it? No, really, I'm asking because I haven't tried dumping a bunch of water on celery.

There is another option though for producing tender celery. A farmer taught me about a trick they use for growing celery. Blanching the stalks with these rectangular cylinders that you slide over the plant. It keeps sunlight from reaching the stalks while forcing the plant to grow straight and bunched, which makes them thick and tender. You can buy these special cylinders or you can use half gallon milk cartons with the tops and bottoms cut off. We don't drink commercial milk so that wasn't really an option for us. Instead we used cardboard and the ubiquitous duct tape.

The process was pretty easy. Just cut 18"x8" rectangular pieces of cardboard and then fold them in half. Fold each half in half again so that when it stands up you've got an 8" tall cylinder.

Duct tape the seam closed. That's it. Super simple.

The celery should be about as tall as the cylinder or a bit shorter. You just want the leaves popping out of the top. Grab the plant pulling all of the stalks together and slide the cardboard tube over them. Now just wait for the plant to be ready for harvest.

Rachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!


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Most of the spring transplanting is done around my garden, with a record-late planting date for my tomatoes (June 8th) and basil (18th) due to the persistent cold and damp weather. I transplant several hundred of plants every year all which I've started from seed, either indoors or in the groud under our simple glass-top cold frames. An early spring start is sometimes necessary, like with tomatoes here in Maine's short growing season or beneficial, like with crops in the Brassica family, to give the plants a head start so to not be such a likely prey for pests like slugs and flee-beetles. In early July I'll start my rutabaga and Chinese cabbage in a small open space in our garden and about a month later transplant them after we've harvested our garlic and early potatoes.

A correctly done transplanting will eliminate stress for the plants and expedite the resumed growth. I pay close attention to the forecast when it's transplanting time and act a bit differently depending on which crop I'm working with.


Cabbage, kale, broccoli and broussel sprouts will not do well in heat so it's important to either wait for some wet weather or be very diligent with covering the plants and water them. I try to let nature do as much work as possible for me so if I see the right conditions coming up and the plants are big enough to take being dug out and moved, I tend to drop everything else and get to work. If the sunny days persists I do my transplanting in the evening and cover the plants with pots until they are established.

I plant my brassica seeds in tight rows and when it's time to dig them out I first thin out all plants that are too small and then water the plants pretty heavily so the soil stick together better around the roots. Never expose dug plants to sunshine or drying winds, not even for a few minutes! I usually dig out 20 or so plants, use a tray to carry them to where I'll plant them next, dig a small hole with a trowel (a mason trowel works great), put the plant in, fill in with a handful of compost and push the dirt back around the plant. I form the soil so the plant sits in a small depression that will catch rainwater.

Brassica grows new leaves from the center so I plant them deep enough that the stem is buried all the way to where the new growth shoots out without covering that part. I snip off most of the bigger leaves, to give the plant less tissue to keep alive. For all plants I can think off – vegetables, trees, shrubs and flowers alike – the general protocol is to encourage strong roots before any top growth. While it might seem like it'll set the plant back to trim off leaves, the plant will establish roots faster and catch up in size quicker.

Most Brassica I space 22-24 inches apart and when the transplanting is done I mulch the entire bed to keep the moisture in the ground and the weeds down. I use seaweed but anything that covers the soil will do.


Lettuce can either be started in succession, with a row or a few rows planted every few weeks but I've found that for me it works better to transplant, through which I achieve both the right spacing and a form of succession, since the transplanted plants will be slightly set back compared to the once left in place. I plant a number of rows in early spring when it's likely to be damp and not much for bugs and when the plants start to get crowded I thin them out by pulling some and carefully digging others until I have about 6-8 inches between each of the plants. I cut all the leaves off the ones I dig out, once again to let the root get established.



The desired weather to transplant tomatoes is very different from what I look for with most other crops. Tomatoes is a warm weather crop and does not like it cold or wet. My general guideline is to plant when the 10 day forecast shows little to no rain and a low temperature that stays in the 50's. This can be tricky, because at the end of May when this weather is first likely to appear, the tomatoes might be pretty big in their pots and starting to show symptoms of stress. Tall “leggy” plants with flower buds, yellowing leaves and brown spots are all signs that the roots need more room than my 3 inch x 3 inch pots allow for. If I had around 10 plants and the cold weather persisted, I'd transplant them to bigger pots. At this stage, I usually care for about 50 plants, some for me and some for others, and they already take all the room we have in our house so I can only cross my fingers and keep checking the forecast.

I rather transplant my tomatoes at the beginning of a dry and hot stretch and water by hand than waiting for rain to relieve me from the work. Cool weather is OK, but tomatoes does not like wet feet. Nor wet leaves, since many common tomato diseases, such as early blight, starts with plants unable to dry out. I bury the plant to its neck – the second leaf stem from the top – and give them plenty of compost or seaweed to grow in. The entire stem that's buried under ground will form a root and strong roots will give strong plants. I snip off all flower buds until solstice and while I perhaps have to wait a few days longer to eat the first fruit, I'll get that back many times over by having strong, robust and well rooted plants that will be resilient to disease and produce for a long time into fall.

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“Heidi is straining, but she’s not having her kid,” I said. I was looking at the blonde Lamancha with some reservations. She had her first kid this season on the ground now, a very blonde doeling, and I knew she had at least one more kid inside her. But something was wrong.

A Kidding Headache

Every year I go through playing goat wet nurse because I seem to have one or two goats who have difficulties. This year, it appeared to be Heidi’s turn in the bucket. So, I had my husband hold Heidi while I once again stuck my hand into the birth canal to feel what was going on inside there. With each year, I learn more things and I also build on the knowledge. Heidi was contracting hard on my arm, which hurt like the dickens, but I knew I had to find the kid. I found one leg.

It felt like a rear foot. So, the kid was backwards. No biggie, except I needed to find the other foot. And that’s when I ran into the grapefruit.

It’s Not Supposed to Be Like That

Grapefruit? Yes. I felt something about the size of a grapefruit attached to that leg. I scooted my hand around and found the other leg. Then, I started pulling. Only the grapefruit was keeping the kid from leaving the birth canal. I pulled and pulled. At this stage, I figured the kid was dead and I needed to save the mom. So, when the doeling came out, she had a swollen stomach and gasped as amniotic fluid poured from her.

Alive, but barely. I swung the kid, trying to get her to expel the fluid. It kept pouring out of the little one, but I still couldn’t get her to get rid of it all. In this way, I lost the doeling. Not because of anything I did, but rather what I couldn’t do, that is, get that airway cleared. This is when I learned the term meconium where the fecal material gets sucked into the lungs. Not good. And darn impossible to fix at home.


The little one who was alive we named Galadriel. She seemed okay so we cleaned her up, tied her cord, dipped it in iodine, and left her to recover with mom. The next day, she seemed a little off and she didn’t look like she ate at all, so I took her to the house and started feeding her. She wasn’t the best drinker, but I went ahead and gave her colostrum, including a store version of colostrum. That’s when she started running a fever.

If you’ve ever had a newborn critter run a fever, you know how crazy your life can get. I started her with antibiotics (that was an adventure in dosage guessing because she was smaller than my cat). I gave her yogurt mixed with water, corn syrup, and a small amount of electrolytes. Then, we had another emergency —  this one with a dog — that we had to tend to.

We lucked out and surprisingly, Galadriel pulled through. We couldn’t return her to her mom because she was too small and delicate. But her appetite picked up. I figured I won this round.

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