Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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While it is important to do regular inspections of your bee hives, you can also learn a lot about Hive Entrance Onethe state of the colony just by sitting and closely observing the front of the hive and entrance. Observing the hive from the outside minimizes the disturbance that occurs inside when they are opened up for an inspection. It is also a good way to do a “quick check” of the hive if you are pressed for time. Additionally, I enjoy being able to just sit and spend some time with my bees without having to interrupt their daily work!

While watching the hive entrance, the first thing I take note of is the reaction of the hive to my standing near them. A normal hive will take little or no notice of me, and will continue with its normal activities. If the guard bees approach me, or act in an aggressive manner, it means that there is a problem with the colony that should be investigated. It could be that problems with the queen are making them more “grouchy”, or that night time intruders such as skunks or raccoons are causing the hive to become more defensive. Scratch marks near the entrance are a sign that animals are the problem.

I then take a look at the bees at the hive entrance. A strong hive will have bees stationed at the entrance – the guard bees. These bees are checking the bees returning to the hive to be sure that they belong to that hive, and are not intruders from another hive. The guard bees also keep a look out for other intruders such as wasps, hornets, mice, etc.  

The entrance of the hive should be a busy place – you should see many bees taking off from the hive entrance while others are returning with nectar and pollen. Speaking of pollen – sometimes it is possible to get an idea of what flowers the bees are visiting by looking at the color of pollen they are bringing in. It will vary in different areas, but in our area maple is pale yellow, blackberry and raspberry are grayish, and white clover is a dark yellow. By observing the pollen the bees are bringing into the hive, and being aware of what is blooming in your area, you can get a good idea of what plants your bees are visiting.

Hovering Bees

If you are watching the front of your hive in the late afternoon, you may see large groups of bees “hovering” in front of the hive. They may be moving up and down or moving in a “figure eight’ pattern. These are newly hatched bees that are “orienting” to the hive entrance. If a hive is producing many bees, it is a good sign that there is a healthy laying queen in the hive.

There are also a few things to look for that are cause for concern. One of these is robbing behavior. Robbing tends to become more common in fall when nectar becomes more scarce, and bees are trying to prepare for winter. Signs of robbing are bees wrestling and fighting at the hive entrance, and bees aggressively circling the hive looking for ways to get in. If you see robbing happening, it is important to take steps to stop it immediately.   The hive being robbed could be weakened to the point that it will not survive the winter. For tips on putting a stop to robbing, see my previous blog, "Honeybees and Robbing".

Another concern is bees crawling in front of the hive, unable to fly. If you look closely, you may see that the wings are deformed. This can be caused by tracheal mites (if the wings seem to form a ‘K”), or by varroa mites. Again, if this is observed, steps should be taken to sample for and decide on a treatment plan for these parasites.

A third observation that could be cause for concern is large numbers of dead bees in front of the hive. While it is common to see some dead bees as the house bees clean out the hive, a large number could indicate that something is wrong in the hive and should be investigated further by doing a full hive inspection.

A valuable resource if you are interested in learning more about this subject is “At the Hive Entrance” by H. Storch. This book was originally published in German, and then translated to English and reprinted in 1985. It is considered to be “the definitive guide” to understanding what is happening inside the hive by observing the outside of the hive. It can be a little difficult to obtain a printed copy, but many libraries - especially libraries maintained by beekeeping clubs, may have copies you can borrow. I also noticed that it was available for download on several websites.Hive Entrance Two

So next time you are itching to go inside your hives and see how the bees are doing, consider instead, pulling up a chair. A lot of what you would go into the hive to look for can be determined just by watching the entrance!






air tankWhile we’re constantly on the lookout here for simple ways to do chores without electricity, sometimes slick solutions surface quite by accident. Using a hand water pump as an air compressor to pump up a flat tire was one of those serendipitous discoveries.

After using our hand pump to fill the pressure tank for watering our vegetable gardens, my husband commented about the amount of compressed air in the tank.

Pointing to the condensation line on the outside of the tank, he said, “You know, I bet I could fill a tire with this.”

The next thing I knew, he was digging through miscellaneous parts in the shop. In no time, he came out with an air chuck, hose and fittings. To test his theory, he used the compressed air in our 40-gallon pressure tank to fill an inner tube.

inner tubeThe 14-inch inner tube filled in just a few seconds, without using all the air in the tank. Even if the task required filling a tire to 35 PSI, it could be done.  We would simply drain the water from the tank (preferably by watering some plants), and then pump it up again. After repeating the process, pressurized air is transferred from the tank to the tire – all without energy of any sort except human power.

Most homes with private wells have cold water pressure tanks. When the water is forced into the tank (by hand pumping or electric pump) the air above the water is compressed. As we found out, this compressed air can be utilized.

In any transfer of air from one vessel to another, the air will equalize in the containers. For example, if there is 50 pounds of air in Tank A and 0 pounds in Tank B (or a tire), the air will equalize in each tank. So, to fill Tank B to 35 pounds, Tank A must be pressurized again to 50 pounds and repeated until Tank B reaches 35 PSI.

Of course, the small amount of compressed air at the top of a pressure tank would not be practical for operating pneumatic grinders and such. But, in an emergency, this would be a quick, reliable way to pump up a flat tire. Compressed air could also be transported to the field with a portable air tank.

How to Use a Hand Pump as an Air Compressor

Any hand water pump capable of pressurizing a tank for indoor plumbing will work, along with a pressure tank that has connections for air fittings. (A larger tank will hold more air than a smaller one.)  

air fittingRemove the top plug or cap from the top of the pressure tank and install fittings for a quick-connect air coupling. Connect the air hose to the coupling. The end of the hose should have an air chuck to fit your tire or tube valve stem.

Pressurize the tank by filling it with your hand pump as usual. Do not exceed the manufacturer’s recommended safe limit. We fill ours to 50 pounds of pressure. Now connect the air chuck to whatever needs to be inflated. That’s all there is to it.

The concept of pressurizing air with water is not new, but has been virtually forgotten since fossil fuels enabled humans to compress air mechanically, as John R. Hunt points out in a 1977 Mother Earth News story, Harness Hydro Power with a Trompe. Long before electricity, humans compressed air with the help of falling water from rivers.

“For the homesteader or farmer with a small waterfall or a good-sized stream on his property, the trompe is a natural,” writes Hunt. “It offers a virtually inexhaustible supply of free compressed air ... cool, dry air that can be used to operate a forge, drive machinery, or air-condition a house or barn in hot weather.”

A 1978 Mother Earth News article, Mother’s Homemade Air Compressor, explains how to build an air compressor.

To see a video demonstration and more photos of our setup, please see our blog, Compress Air with a Hand Water Pump (includes video).

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


Hi everyone! I hope you all had an enjoyable 4th of July! This week was a bit abbreviated simply because of the holiday, but there was still a lot of firsts for me. 

Monday, June 30th

poultry houseThis week, my morning chore was to work with Joel Salatin and assist in the moving of the Egg Mobile (the movable chicken coop that houses the free range laying hens) and other assorted farm tasks that need attention. The Eggmobile is moved using a tractor every other day, but did not need to be moved that morning. On days where the Eggmobile does not need to be moved, our responsibilities are to open the nest boxes, which are kept closed at night so the layers won’t sleep in them/mess them up, and check to make sure the birds are all set with food and water. After we did this, we went to one of the fence lines where the neighbor’s cows had gotten through and cut back the brush and plants that had grown up around the area to give the cows better visibility of the barrier. This is good to do even if the neighbors cows aren’t giving you trouble, as branches and such touching the wire can weaken the charge of the fence.

The rest of the day was spent building another Gobbledego. A Gobbledego is a mobile shade structure used for the turkeys and we built our maiden one last week. We will need to build two more shade structures for the pigs, which will be slightly simpler since they won’t need the roosting bars notched in. I anticipate we will be building those within the next few weeks. Since we had built a Gobbledego last week, we were able to build most of it between four interns, but we needed more hands on deck once it came time to lift the two halves and screw them together.

Tuesday, July 1st

Tuesday morning, the Eggmobile needed to be moved. Moving is a pretty straightforward process. The night before, the doors are closed on the coops while the chickens are inside sleeping. We attach the Egg Mobile to the tractor, move it to its desired location, detach it from the tractor, open the doors and then open the nest boxes. The birds are also fed using a bulk feeder, which needs to be filled every few days, so we also took care of that. After we finished with the laying hens, we went and checked on the fence line we had cleared yesterday to make sure nothing had gotten through. (Nothing had.) After breakfast, one of my roommates, Alicia, and I worked with Joel to clear another fence line on the farm. This was more intensive than yesterday’s fence line, as we were clearing saplings, low branches from trees, thickets of tangled thorny plants and all kinds of brush. It was hard work, as Joel is pretty handy with the chainsaw and there was lots of brush coming our way. One bonus was that we hacked down some raspberry plants so I got to trash pick some of the berries before they went in the pile.

After lunch, I spent a few hours with one of the apprentices running errands (ordering tires for the new shade structures, dropping off a broken tractor piston, getting fuel for the different machines here at the farm, etc.) and prepping the nest boxes at the Feathernet, the mobile chicken coop where the pullets live. The pullets are beginning to lay eggs, so we needed to clean out all the debris (old hay, acorns, manure, mouse nests, etc.) from the nest boxes that had been left closed up to this point and fill them with fresh hay. The pullets seemed pretty amped about this whole turn of events because when we’d go to get handfuls of new hay, there were always hens burrowing around in the hay pile being cute.

Once we got back, we got to be involved in an on farm pig processing. Polyface sends their pigs for processing to a USDA inspected facility, but where this was for our own consumption, we did not need to go to these lengths. We have processed plenty of birds here, but this was the first time I had ever seen any other type of animal be slaughtered. The whole process went very smoothly and it was interesting to see how quickly people were catching on to Daniel Salatin’s instructions given our experience with working on the chickens. For example, when he asked us to remove the feet at the joint, we knew what he was getting at instead of tilting our heads quizzically. Don’t get me wrong, he showed us how to do one. We just weren’t as mystified by the process as before.

Wednesday, July 2nd

Wednesday was a big day for me – my first cattle sorting day! Daniel, Will, one of the other summer interns, and I left at 5:30am for one of the properties Polyface manages. We needed to get there with ample time to herd the cows into the pens designed specifically for cattle sorting to be able to have things in order in time for the haulers. Our task was to pick out a certain number of cattle to be finished on pasture at Polyface Farm and the rest needed to be put into groups of 15 (that’s all the trailers will hold comfortably) to go to a different Polyface managed property to graze there. Both Will and I got ample time to work with Daniel and learn how the cows respond to different movements and body language. We were able to get a little over 240 head of cattle sorted and on their way and fencing down by about 1pm.

Following this, we went to another Polyface managed property to sort out a bull who needed to come back to Polyface, ear tag some of the new calves and set up cross fencing. When we got back, we learned that the chick delivery was going to be earlier than expected because of the 4th of July, so we needed to hustle and get fresh bedding and food ready for the new babies. It was a very busy day. Thank goodness Daniel had brought granola bars, because I didn't bring anything and it would have been a long day to go without food!

Thursday, July 3rd

chickensThursday morning was another Eggmobile moving day. After taking care of the layers, I was able to go with Joel while he checked on one of the new calves that was born at Polyface. After my chores with Joel were done, we interns helped with organizing the freezer inventory. Polyface has a large walk in freezer, walk in refrigerator and two freezer trailers so I can see the importance of keeping things organized. There are lots of places for items to get lost and trying to locate a pork belly in a freezer isn’t that much fun when you’re dressed for working outside in the summer.

After breakfast, we all worked on chipping the brush pile Alicia and I had piled up during Tuesday’s brush cleaning. Joel ended up getting in the bucket of the tractor so he could be lifted up higher to chainsaw more of the out of reach branches. The objective of this is to let more light in, optimizing growth conditions for grasses and other types of plants. I ended up being pulled off this project to make a restaurant delivery in Harrisonburg, VA, which I enjoyed. I like seeing restaurant kitchens and meeting the different types of people who buy local and sustainable food. We had some pretty intense rain showers following my return to the farm, so we did under roof chores for a bit until it cleared up and we were able to take care of the outside animals.

Friday, July 4th

July 4th was a pretty light day here at Polyface. We did morning chores and went to the 4th of July parade. We went later on to try and hunt groundhogs, but we didn’t see anything. Alas.

I hope you all are enjoying these posts. Please leave a comment if there is anything you’d like me to elaborate on and I can be sure to do so in the next entry. Thanks for reading!


Having a 16-year-old boy in the house means we go through food faster than I ever thought possible. Things you'd think would last at least a week are lucky to make it two days around here. So, if I want to make granola, it's in my best interest to make a very large batch. The granola recipe below will probably last the average household a month. Here, we'll get maybe two weeks out of it. It takes a lot less time to whip up one ginormous tub compared to making multiple regular-sized batches, but if you want to cut this recipe down, it's easy to do so.

One of the ingredients might make you scratch your head. I learned to add pepper from a recipe for cinnamon rolls. It helps create a more complex flavor profile. Trust me: You'll love it.

Rachel's big-batch granola

16 cups rolled oats
2 cups chopped pecans
1 1/2 cups shredded coconut
3 tbsp cinnamon
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp ground pepper
1 1/2 cups sunflower oil
2 cups honey

1. Preheat your oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a very large bowl, mix together the oats, pecans, coconut, cinnamon, salt, and pepper.

3. Add the oil and honey to the dry mix. It works best if you measure out the oil first then use the same measuring cup to measure the honey. This way, the honey pours easily, without sticking to the measuring cup.

4. Mix all of the ingredients well, until the honey and oil are well incorporated and the dry mix is evenly coated.
Pour the mix onto the baking sheets and press it down into an even layer.

5. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove the sheets from the oven and mix up the granola, bringing the outside edges in then packing it back down into an even layer. Switch the sheet locations and bake another 30 minutes. Repeat this one more time, baking for a total of 90 minutes.

6. Allow the granola to cool completely before breaking it up into chunks and storing it in an airtight container. Enjoy!

This post originally appeared on

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 arts and 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!


Julia & Raisin - picture taken by Joe Sands

So, have you ever, even in this age of the internet, tried to find information on a certain, very specific topic, and just have not been able to find an answer, not even close? Here is the question: What is the best way to wash your goat’s udder and teats before milking?

Easy question, right? We were prepping our lovely dairy goats for milking, and as we were cleaning their udders and teats, we started discussing the best way to clean the udder and teats: Do you wash the teats first or the udder, do you clean the udder from the front to the back, back to front, side to side?

Cleaning the Udder

The internet didn’t provide the answer. Surprisingly, it was a fruitless search. All we found repeatedly was this sentence: “Wash the udder/teats before milking” and then a recipe on how to make your own udder wash or teat dip. To find an answer to our question, we went to Facebook to ask our fellow goat farmers, goat buddies and friends how they do it. Of course, if you ask 15 different goat owners one question, you get 15 different answers and this time was no different.

Is there Even An Answer?

Here are some options, as quotes:

1.” I clean the whole udder first, then use a clean cloth the clean the teats. Then I wash my hands, milk, clean the teats, and then spray the teats.”

2. “I never clean the udder, either before or after, and I don't use teat spray. I've never had a case of mastitis either!”

3. ”I only wash dirty udders, like right after birth etc. I use a warm washcloth with soapy water. During other times I dip the teat, wipe with a paper towel then milk. Then I redip.”

4. “We use a splash of bleach in hot soapy water to wash the teats, strip, then do a pre-dip, then dry with paper towel, then milk. Then we use a different dip for when we are done. We are also looking for new methods, etc. to help prevent mastitis. Considering using rubber gloves to cut down on germ transmission via our hands.”

5. “We also scrub our hands really good before milking, that “imo” is the most important part. We use a teat dip designed to seal the end of the teat off, which prevents entry of bacteria while the orifice closes off. If you have clean hands and they do not lie down for about 15 minutes after milking the orifice is closed. Many people also put some yummy alfalfa hay out that they go to right after milking so they stand and eat while everything closes off.”

6. “Here we wash the whole udder with spectrum udder wash, each teat gets dipped with pre iodine dip, washed with wipes and after milking dip with a iodine barrier dip (Astro-tek). We also sanitize our hands between does and before and after milking.”

7. “Hot soapy water with wash cloth- teats first, then teats with treated disposable dairy wipes, then dry with wash cloth, teats first. When washing udder, I'd say front then back. We shave our udders so that really helps.”

As you can see, the answers run the whole spectrum from not doing anything at all to doing a lot.


Our Answer

We fall somewhere in the middle and here is what we do:

Before the goats come on the milking stand, we brush our goats to remove loose hair from their backs, legs, and underside. Once the does are on the milking stand, we wash our hands, then we pre-treat their teats with a chlorhexadine spray. We wash our hands. Next we use a disposable dairy wipe (Wipe-Out by Immucell) to clean the teats, one side for each teat, and then wipe the udder from back to front around the sides like a figure eight. If the wipe still shows dirt, we use a second, and third or even a fourth teat wipe. As you guessed, a four wiper is a really dirty goat J. This is the time to notice anything that may need closer attention like a cut, abrasion, a sting, or even a rash. We wash our hands again, then we strip, then we wash our hands, then we attach the milking machine. After milking, we teat dip with a chlorhexadine teat dip with aloe and send them out to a yummy perennial peanut hay meal in their feeder. We clean the inflations of the machine with a disposable teat wipe between each goat.

We have opted for disposable wipes because they can just be tossed, and we have don’t have to mess with washing dirty cloths and hanging them to dry. Yes, it is more expensive to buy up front, but measured in time spent to wash cloths, the cost factor probably evens out. We have also found that the particular teat wipes we are using do not dry out the udders, our hands or cause rashes.


We have looked into and tried wearing disposable gloves while milking, but to do it right, you’d have to change the gloves between every goat and we feel a solid hand washing accomplishes the same thing.

We have stayed away from iodine based teat dips and udder washes, even though they may be very good, since many people have issues with supplemental iodine.

Now this works for us right now. As you have read before, there are many other ways to do it and none of them are wrong. The most important thing is to clean the teats and keep them clean before, during and after milking in order to prevent any bacteria from entering the milk canals and therefore minimizing the threat of mastitis.

And… if you have a goat or farm related question, you would like an answer to, don’t hesitate to e-mail me at Who knows, we might be able to find you the answer J, and of course share it with all our readers.


A short TV spot about the full-blooded timber wolves we reared from pups and cared for until their deaths from old age, for a total of 18 years.


House after 75 days

When we started with our grand plan to build a barndominium on property we owned in Texas (while still living in Australia), our focus was on things we could do in finite "chunks" while we were in the U.S. We also focused on doing things that family could supervise if they were discrete projects like coordinating with the power company on the location of the transformer.

Steps to Build Our 'Barndominium'

To recap the stages:

  1. We acquired some acreage adjacent to our daughter and family.
  2. We arranged for key utilities like power and a well while still in Australia
  3. We consulted with the firm to build a large metal "barn"
  4. We coordinated with an architect friend to create the details for the interior of the house, including detailed electrical drawings and other details
  5. We had a roadway cleared and reinforced from the main road down to the construction area

Three years ago (hardly seems that long now) the metal barn was built and I flew in from Australia, joined by a son from California and a week later, Julie joined us from Australia. In one week, we enclosed the exterior of the "house" portion of the barn (we don't have steel on the house area below 10' from the floor). The following week, we finished the siding, windows, doors, parked our travel trailer in the large garage/shop area of the barndominium, locked everything up and flew back to Australia.

Lessons Learned

The following 2 years were slow progress - mostly during our return trips each year. The rough framing of the house was done and most of the electrical rough wiring were completed. We had some lessons learned in this process:

  1. People don't do what you expect.  They do what you inspect.  If you want quality work, be there.
  2. Things cost more to get done when you aren't doing the buying
  3. Doing as much of your own work as you can saves money and increases quality.

A bit over a year ago, I returned, leaving Julie in Australia while I worked very long days (often with key helpers) for 75 days to take the raw frame of a house and turn it into a livable house.  Since Julie does much of her work from a home office, she can't work in a construction zone and while her company does have an office in the area, it's 30 miles away with significant traffic and no real advantage for work other than a faster network than we can afford at home.

Here's an internal view of the house when I returned:

House Condition When I Arrived

And here are a few shots of what we were able to accomplish in about 75 days:

View to the Kitchen

MBR ClosetDecorating the Living RoomOutdoor PorchOutdoor Patio

The large picnic tables on the outdoor patio were built by me and my oldest grand daughter who visited for a couple of weeks.  They were built from wood we re-purposed from the many pallets we received materials on and from some leftover 2"x 6" construction grade wood.

So was it all worth the time and exceptional effort? Absolutely!  Were there times when I felt completely overwhelmed by the thousands of things that needed to be done? Of course. Is there still a lot to do? Every day!

Looking Forward

So what's on the list of things to do in the short term? Cultivating the garden, building a second house on the property for Julie's mother (we'll do a manufactured house to save time) and developing various areas on the property for chickens, bees, animals and a water feature or small pond.

When we first envisioned the property, we had a two year vision from the time we arrived back in the US. I think now it's more like a 4-5 year project. Things take a bit longer than I thought to get done (a perpetual optimist), we've added things we would like to do now that we've been here awhile and (maybe most important) we've learned that not everything needs to be done tomorrow. Sometimes it's nice to take a deep breath, relax for a few days and enjoy the place for what it is - a beautiful work in progress, developed on land where nothing had been grown or developed before.

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