Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Firewood method as a senior

More than 25 years ago, we started with raw, undeveloped land and established a cabin homestead with plenty of very hard work. We finally moved in full-time 20 years ago. We heat our cabin with a Jotul wood stove and grow some of our vegetables.

At the time, we started to develop our property we were both healthy and far more agile. Now that I’m in my mid 70s, all that hard work has done its damage on joints and muscles. We are still able to do the hard physical work but it is done at a much slower pace.

One of the physical attributes I sorely miss is the flexibility and agility that I had before. The natural progression of aging has made homesteading more difficult but far from impossible.

Aging Joints

I had started to work when I was 12 years old as a newspaper boy and carrying those heavy newspapers in a sack several blocks to my customers was my initial indoctrination into heavy work.

When I stop to consider all I have put my body through over the years, I realize that only being impaired by having to slow down is actually quite remarkable. By going slower, the job still gets accomplished — it just takes longer, and I now pay closer attention to working smarter. Homesteading on a mountain side at high elevation is about as hard as it gets, and particular care is needed to avoid tripping over rocks or falling since I am never on flat, uncluttered ground.

My focus goes from performing the task at hand to doing it more safely.

Homesteading in Senior Years

Homesteading when you are almost 75 years old is hard and takes a toll on your body, but I wouldn’t change a thing. In my mind, I’m still 40 years old, but at the end of the day after cutting/splitting firewood, shoveling snow, or just working around our property, my joints and body tell me I’m clearly not 40 years old anymore and neither is my body.

Joints take a lot of punishment in working a mountain homestead like ours, but we are enjoying the benefits of all our hard work in spite of the persistent pain and soreness. To all those prospective readers who may just be getting the glimmer of a thought of doing the same, I would encourage you to go for it. I do not have one single regret, plus the journey is amazing and completely fulfilling.

Gardening Challenges

Perhaps the easiest task I perform is gardening, which is in itself a unique challenge at this elevation since we have voles, moles, chipmunks, ground squirrels, and other critters that want to eat much of what we plant. Through the use of enclosed garden boxes, we do manage to provide some vegetables on our table.

Growing anything in the mountains is a constant challenge. This year, I started seed potatoes in a potato bin and before I could fully protect the potatoes, a chipmunk found his way into the circular container and consumed my sprouting potatoes. Leaving them unprotected one day was all it took for the varmints to destroy them.

I have heard that rhubarb is poisonous to animals and, sure enough, a ground squirrel was eating my rhubarb as soon as it emerged. I found him lying dead a few feet from his ill-gotten passion.

Firewood is Especially Hard but Possible

Perhaps our biggest task each year is the cutting 9-12 cords of firewood. Initially it was all cut and split by hand, but in recent years, Carol has convinced me to use a log splitter, which is a time saver and far easier than splitting it all by hand.

Getting our firewood in for next winter is much harder than it used to be, since we have gotten older so we take frequent breaks and work slower. We have also designed a more efficient method of doing the task: I will cut a little at a time to store behind the woodshed for the winter following winter. Next spring, I will make sure all the firewood is cut to length and then split it and resupply the woodshed.

By working that far ahead, we only have to process what is right at hand and hence be ready for the following winter. We usually cut the firewood in place and carry it to a trail where it is loaded onto our tractor and unloaded conveniently right behind the woodshed until it is needed.

Would I Change Anything?

I wouldn’t change a thing to keep up this lifestyle — physical limitations or not. I am very fortunate to have a wife/partner who is willing to help, and together, we manage to get the jobs done — albeit a little slower than we used to.

Constantly seeking to be self-sustaining is tough regardless of age or physical ability, but as in many things in life, it is the hard, never-ending work that actually serves to keep us more fit and able to continue to do it.

Mother Earth News Provides Inspiration

I have been an avid reader of MOTHER EARTH NEWS since its very first edition all those years ago. With all the reader contributions and articles over the years, I attribute much of our current lifestyle to the magazine and its contributors by providing encouragement. It has given me the inspiration to work toward our current lifestyle and provided techniques to actually make this a reality.

It has been a long journey to get to our present status, but it started when I purchased the first copy of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. I was fully hooked and decided then that a more self-sustaining lifestyle was what I wanted for myself and, step by step over the years, we slowly moved toward that type of life. I do not have any regrets in doing so.

The real satisfaction has been slowly working toward homesteading and self-sufficiency and not instant gratification. When we are no longer able to maintain our lifestyle, the person who purchases our homestead will have the instant gratification but will not have the pleasure of taking the homestead from raw land to what we have presently.

Seniors like myself are coping today on many levels of homesteading and life is good for us, even if a little more difficult. In today's world with all the turmoil surrounding us, I think MOTHER EARTH NEWS is more relevant than ever, because it allows the reader to temporarily escape the numerous daily conflicts and be inspired to a far more pleasant and healthy lifestyle. I am so grateful to be allowed to contribute my very small part to a really great magazine.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their lifestyle go to Read all of Bruce's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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


In last week's post, Off Grid and Free: The Terror of Forest Fires, Part 1, I portrayed the horror of forest fires both with pictures and a written first-hand account via an excerpt from my book, Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness. We've survived multiple fire threats over the last 16 years and I'd like to pass on some information on how we did that.

 When we moved out here, we bought a water pump, fire hoses, garden sprinklers and garden hoses (which serve as sprinkler supply lines). Higher quality sprinklers and supply hoses are available and if I had to do it over again I would opt for those. Our spring ritual is to set up all our equipment long before the first thunder and lightning appear. By doing so, at the first sign of trouble, we're ready.

The first step is to set up the fire pump on our beach. By means of a quick coupler, a 2.5-inch PVC suction line is connected to the pump and extends about 12 feet out into the lake. On the end of the pipe that is in the water, I have a foot valve which allows water to flow one way to the pump but prevents water from draining back into the lake. That's important, because you don't want the water pump to drain of water and thereby lose its prime. The foot valve rests on a rock about 8 inches off the lake bottom so that sand and other debris isn't sucked into the system.

Water Pump Setup

On the output side of the water pump there is a threaded coupler which ultimately connects to standard 1.5-inch firehose. Several 100-foot sections of hose are connected together to make the run up the hill to the house. Mounted on a porch post is a manifold which takes the high pressure water from the pump and redirects it out to smaller feed lines, the garden hoses I mentioned earlier.

We have 5 outlets on this manifold which we can control via individual valves. We can shut off or engage each sprinkler with the turn of a valve. Sprinklers can be mounted singly or in series, so there are some instances where one valve may control two sprinkler heads.

Manifold Setup

Our manifold also has an adapter and valve that allows us to continue a run of standard firehose out to our homestead's perimeter to tackle any smoldering areas and hot spots. We have two nozzles that can be attached to the end of this fire hose.

The first is an adjustable spray nozzle capable of spraying water in a short, wide pattern or a jet of water that can shoot out one hundred feet if need be. Our second nozzle has a narrow opening that delivers a high pressure jet of water capable of pulverizing the ground to reach fire that is smoldering in roots and moss.

Our home and outbuildings are top priority to protect so I head up to the roof of our two story home and mount a sprinkler on a short pole at each end of the roof. A short hose connects them in series and then the feed line drops from the roof to the nearby manifold. Our house and outbuildings are now protected.

1 of 2 Sprinklers on the House

I can also protect the perimeter of our homestead by erecting more sprinklers nearby. The following is an excerpt from my book Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness and has more specific information.

What has saved our home twice?

Sprinklers! Both our own system and those of the provincial fire crews. Part of my spring ritual is to head to the house roof and install two sprinklers, one at each end. I also have full-length trees cut, approximately 20- to 25 feet long, and have a sprinkler head attached to the top of each of those trees. We pick locations around our house site where we can stand these trees back up, like big flag poles, and either wire each one to another smaller tree or attach a set of tripod legs to the pole, so that it can be free-standing. The higher these "flag poles," the more coverage and the better the protection. The Honda water pump with a 1 1⁄2 " firehose delivers pressurized water from our lake to the input side of a manifold, and all the sprinkler feed hoses come off the output of the manifold.

When our property is being defended from a fire, the ground is criss-crossed with various hoses and water lines. The steady drone of the water pump, and the rhythmic "tick, tick, tick" of the sprinkler heads as they sweep through their circular pattern, offer reassurance, a feeling that maybe, just maybe, this will all end well. Water running off the roof, much like it does during a rain storm, reinforces the notion.

Once a fire gets into the crown of the trees, it’s hard to stop. So how do sprinklers prevent property from being incinerated?

The basic premise of sprinklers is to bring up the humidity in the protected area as high as possible, before a fire arrives. The dome of humidity has a tendency to bounce the fire around it, allowing the fire to bypass the protected areas. They most certainly will not extinguish a wildfire!

For anyone living in fire-prone areas, this concept will work for you as long as you have a reliable water source. A swimming pool, pond, stream, or even household tap gives you a chance at saving your home. At a minimum, a couple of sprinklers, proper water lines, and a water pump are all that are needed for some cheap insurance.

Sprinkler in the Perimeter

When a fire threatens, we each have our prearranged assigned duties. Johanna runs through the house closing windows and throwing some clothes and documents in a suitcase. My job is to get the fire pump running. One pull is all it takes to get water flowing from the lake up to the sprinklers.

Donning our survival suits, which have been prepositioned next to the door at the start of fire season, is also a priority. Neither one of us is a strong swimmer so with our survival suits on, we can confidently run into the lake if there isn't time to get to our boat. Taking off in the boat is the ideal plan of escape for us.

For those of us living with the threat of wildfire, it's not a question of if, but when. It's only a matter of time before the woods and grasslands burn. Fire is a natural process that allows forests to rejuvenate. We've accepted that fact and have adapted by taking some common sense precautions. We make sure all combustible debris (leaves, needles, twigs, dead grass) is raked up from the house perimeter every spring.

Over time, we have removed many of the lower hanging branches from trees in the immediate vicinity. Those branches are called “ladder fuels” since if left in place, they have the potential to provide any ground fire a means of climbing up into the crown of the trees. We've encapsulated our home in metal, have sprinklers set up and we have an escape plan should the unexpected show up.

The pump is always fully fueled and the boat is ready to launch at a moments notice. We will never beat a forest fire, but we will survive and we've done everything possible to make sure our homestead remains intact. Two big fires got to within 90 feet of the house, but we are proof sprinklers can do the job. We're still standing proud!

Thanks for reading and I'll be back again shortly.

Ron Melchiore and his wife Johanna currently live alone 100 miles in the wilderness of Northern Saskatchewan. Ron is the author of Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness published by Moon Willow Press and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Connect with Ron at In the Wilderness and on Facebook and Pinterest. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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


You've heard of a one-horse town? Well, we are a one-goat micro-dairy. That doesn't mean we only have one goat to milk but that our milking parlor is set up to take only one goat in at a time for feeding and milking.

We have a small herd of dairy goats. At present time we have 8 does and 3 bucks. This season we've had 3 does to kid — increasing the herd with 4 additional doelings and 1 buck (that is soon to become a wether). We have 2 more does to kid soon.

Offspring of Alby

Among our dairy goats, we have 2 Nubian does, a mix of Nubian/Saanen does, a registered Saanen doe, a registered Saanen buck, a pure Saanen buck and a pure Sable Saanen buck. This is where "Alby" comes in.

We had decided to go from selling state-registered "Animal Feed" milk to getting licensed to sell farmstead aged cheeses. We decided to breed all the does to have enough milk to make our cheeses and to increase, hopefully, our doe herd. The kids we don't keep as replacement for our farm we try to sell as dairy replacements to other farms. The males we keep as bucks we sell as breeding bucks. We don't use or sell as meat. (We are a natural and sustainable farm. No chemical, hormone and/or anti-biotics.)

Our Sable Saanen doe, Black Mist, was bred to our pure Saanen buck, One-More Bubba. We had hoped for at least one doe from this kidding. What we got was the most beautiful Sable Saanen buck...he was just adorable! My sisters saw him and said you should call him "Prince Albert". So, he went from Prince Albert to just "Alby"!

Alby a few days old
When we breed our does, we keep a record of when they're bred and to which buck...this really helps later because it can get really confusing if you have several does. I write this on my calendar then, I also count 145 days from breeding time to see when to start watching the does for kidding. The actual time can be 145-155 days. We like to watch the does and when it is near kidding time to try to separate them out. We also like to try to be there when the doe kids, just in case there is trouble. We have run into problems before with first time kidding. Sometimes the doe will only have one baby and it will be large and she needs help delivering.
This was the first kidding for Black Mist but she did a wonderful job! The baby was perfect and she did really well afterwards...she was a good "Momma"!

Black Mist and Alby together

Alby was about 7 days old when we came to feed one morning and couldn't find him. We called to him and heard him. We found him lying against the barn. He was unable to get up. We tried getting him up but, he couldn't stand. Finally, we worked with him and he was able to "hobble" around. He was having problems with one of his front legs and one of his back — but nothing appeared broken. He and his mother were separated from the herd again.

Now, we had a dilemma. Alby would not get up on his own. He waited for someone to help him up. So, now we had to go at least every 3-4 hours to get him up and hold him while he nursed his mother. We did this for at least 2 weeks. In the meantime, we had another dilemma. Alby was meant to become a whether. But, since he was having problems with his legs we were afraid any more stress (we band to castrate) would cause him more harm. So, we left him a buck and this farm really does not need that many bucks!

Alby started doing much better. He started running and playing. He became an inspiration. We have workshops on the farm and he was a favorite for everyone to make over and pet. We decided to put them back with the rest of the herd and just keep a close watch on little Alby. We were so thankful that he was doing so good! But as everyone knows that lives on a farm things can go very wrong very quickly.

The next day we caught one of the other does head butting little "Alby" and just caught it in time. She too was a mother and she was telling him to "get away." He was re-injured and this time we didn't know if the leg was broken. He just wouldn't get up! We called the vet. We were told the vet we were using no longer treated large farm animals. So, we called the "mobile vet" and had to leave a message. It was the weekend so we didn't hear back until Monday. We didn't know what to do except just try to work with him like before. We finally got him up and walking again even though he was limping.

We just assumed we would have a "special needs" little buck on the farm. But there was a miracle for us and for little Alby! He regained full use of his legs and wasn't stunted at all.

Little Alby is now a Sire. He lays claim to this season's new offspring on the farm.

NOTE: For anyone looking for a pure Sable Saanen buck, Alby, is now ready to be head Sire for his forever herd! We are located in Western North Carolina. 828-682-1405

Susan Tipton-Fox continues the farming and preserving practices that had been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting "workshop stays" on the farm (extending the farm experience). Find Susan on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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


May at Bees of the Woods Apiary seems to be all about trying something new! Read the full year's posts in this series here.

Raising Queens

queen cups blog

This year, we are trying to raise our own queens for the first time. I took a queen rearing class last summer, did a lot of reading, and finally got around to trying out what I learned.

We started out by choosing a hive to graft queens from. We have one hive that we just love. It overwintered well, and built up quickly in the spring. It is gentle, and had good honey production. We knew that we would like to have those traits in more hives, and decided to graft larvae from that hive.

But, before we started grafting, we needed to think about setting up a “starting” and “finishing” hive. This is exactly what it sounds like – hives that are used to start the queen cells, and hives that are used to finish the queen cells.  We decided to go with the Oliver “foolproof method” of queen rearing. We liked this method because you can use just one hive to both start and finish the queen cells.

The grafting takes some practice, but it isn’t as hard as it sounds. You can read about the entire process of setting up the starter/finisher colony (and small-scale queen rearing in general at the Scientific Beekeeping website, a really great resource. Just click here.

Once we had our starter/finisher colony set up, we selected a frame that had a lot of small larvae on it. Ideally, the larvae would be 4 days old when you graft them. At the beekeeping class we went to, they showed us what 4-day-old larvae look like, so we just estimated which larvae would be a good size for grafting. It’s a little tricky, and you definitely will want a good jeweler’s light/magnifier to see the larvae. But after a while, you get the hang of it.

After grafting the larvae, we put the frame into the starter colony. At the beginning of this section you can see a picture of the frame with queen cups that the bees have begun to draw out.

queen cell blog

Two days later, we checked the cells, and found that the bees had starting drawing out about half of them – not bad for our first try!

Four days later we set up nuc boxes. For each nuc box we placed a frame of mostly open brood, one frame of honey and pollen, a “mixed” frame that included some capped brood, and an empty, drawn frame. The next day, we took out our now capped and finished queen cells, and carefully pushed them into the empty frame, and put them back in the nuc.

Now we just had to wait and see if the queen hatches, has a successful mating flight, and returns to the nuc. The successful mating flight part can be trickier than it sounds. The queen has to avoid birds, cars, bad weather, etc., in order to mate and make it back to the hive.

A few weeks later we checked our nucs. All of the queens appeared to have hatched from the queen cells, and while we found the queens in some of the nucs, others appeared to be queenless.

We can now use the queen-right nucs to re-queen a hive with an older queen, sell the nucs to other beekeepers, or keep the nucs to build up our own apiary. The queenless nucs will be combined with the nucs that do have queens to help give them a boost in population.

Raising queens can give you a lot more options for your apiary – I highly recommend giving it a try.

Pollen Trapping

 Pollen pile blog

Our other new venture involved collecting pollen. We had never done this before, but every once in a while someone would ask us if we sell pollen. So we decided it might  be worth giving it a try.

There are are different types of pollen traps, but we purchased a Sundance pollen trap that mounts underneath the hive. Bees go in the entrance of the trap, and through a maze that knocks some of the pollen off their legs as they go through it. I liked this style, because when you have collected as much pollen as you want, you can shut the pollen trap entrance, and the bees would just go in the front of the entrance as they normally would.

I was amazed at how much pollen we collected! It was also really neat to be able to see all of the different colors of pollen that had been collected.  After 4 days, we had over 1 pound of pollen. After we had collected about 5 lbs. of pollen, we closed the entrance to the pollen trap, allowing the bees to enter the hive as normal.

We put the pollen in baggies and froze it to kill any pests. Then we spread it out on white paper to pick out any debris such as bee parts, etc.  We packed it into jars, and stored it in the freezer to help keep it fresh.

This is one of the things I love about beekeeping – there is always something new to try and learn. Happy Beekeeping!

Jennifer Ford is a science teacher and co-owner of Bees of the Woods Apiary outside of Altamont, New York.  Over the past seven years, Jennifer and her husband have expanded the apiary from two to 18 beehives, and share what they have learned about beekeeping with others through mentoring programs and presentations. Learn more about Bees of the Woods Apiary and beekeeping in general at or on the Bees of the Woods Facebook page. Read all of Jennifer’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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


Before we get into the article - so many of you have asked us to share a video of our farm, so here it is — Life By the Bucket. Many thanks to students from the G-Star Filmschool in West Palm Beach. Enjoy.

1. The Safe Way to Open Gates

Always open pasture and pen gates into the pasture or pen, not out! When you enter into a pasture or pen, opening any gate inwards turns the gate into a barrier between you and the animals. If they rush you to get to feed or hay you are carrying, or just to escape, the gate will shut instead of flying wide open and letting everything escape.

This can be quite funny if someone opens the gate the wrong way and all the just weaned babies run out and scatter into the alleyway, but that can also be dangerous if that gate leads to a highway or the escaping animal is an 1,800-pound bull.

Open Gates Safely

2. The Safe Way to Turn an Animal Out into Pasture

When you take an animal out to pasture, turn the animal to face you and the gate before letting it go! If the animal, be it a horse or a goat or a cow, is turned towards you and the gate before taking the halter off and releasing the animal, it has to do a 180 degree turn before it can speed up and kick out. This will give you time to step out of the way and avoid being kicked or run over.

This applies to all animals, even those you think would never do that. An older mare will just as likely kick up her heels and speed off in cooler weather as a 175 pound doe who wants to join her herd mates. It is no fun being run over either way. Those little goat feet are amazingly sharp and sitting down on your tail bone is not comfortable either.

3. Be Safe Around Farm Equipment

Turn It Off, When You Get Off! It’s so easy and saves so much time, on average about 3 seconds, when you leave the tractor or lawnmower running to quickly get off and just open a gate, preferably on an incline.

Tractors and other large farm equipment do not know “ouch” or that the human or the horse is standing right in front of it, and ooops, the gear slips or the break slips and the entire truck, tractor moves forward and right over the unsuspecting human or animal. If you are lucky, it’ll miss you or will just squash your iPhone. If you are not lucky, the tire may run over your leg, or the hay spear will pin you against the wall.

A friend of ours didn’t even leave his truck running, but parked it on an incline, the break gave way and it missed him, but ran downhill, through a few fences and came to a stop at a wall, totaled.

Safe Tractor Driving

4. Safe Riding in Your Golf Cart or Mule

Sit down, don’t stand when its moving! These wonderful time saving and load carrying vehicles might not look and feel so fast, but they can be fast and unstable enough for you to fall out unless you have your behind firmly grounded on a flat surface. These vehicles can take corners fast enough for you to lose balance  and fall out, and then it will run over your foot or your leg, best case leaving you with a bruise or painful road rash.

If you have a golf cart with a roof, which is fabulous in the rain, you can also take a corner too fast and tip it over, best case a dent in the cart. As a driver, it will be your responsibility to ensure that all passengers, those on the seats and in the back, are seated and ready to go.

Fun and Safe Cart Riding

5. Don’t Stick Your Fingers in the Back Of a Goat’s Mouth

Beware of any animal’s teeth! While goats have no teeth on their upper gum and really can’t bite you, the back teeth are razor sharp so goats can snap branches and browse. These molars can snap your finger or give you a mean cut.

Most goats will not bite on purpose, but there are incidences when I’ve had my finger down a goat’s throat, if a goat was choking or to steal cud. I don’t do it lightly and I have been harmed in the process every time. Unless you are sure what you are doing, don’t attempt it and definitely keep your children’s hand out of any animals’ mouth.

Look Ma - No Teeth

6. Don’t Put Your Head and Nose Directly Over Livestocks'

If they raise their head suddenly, they will knock you out (worst case) or on your butt (best case)! Most visitors to Serenity Acres love to pet the animals. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is right way to go about that. Goats head-butt, and cows and horses lift their heads out of harm’s way when they feel there is cause for concern. They do it fast and determined and if your head or nose is in the way, because you are leaning over the animals’ head, your nose will be broken or you will sport a black and blue eye for a couple of weeks.

When petting animals, keep your head off to the side, and as a bonus tip, also never wrap a lead rope around your hands when walking an animal that clearly outweighs you. If they run off, the rope will tighten around your hand or arm and leave a burn rash in the best case.

7. Don’t walk backwards without looking – Really Not Safe

Walk forward, you can see where you are going! Such a simple rule, but easily overlooked.  On the farm we have lots of reasons to walk backwards such as luring a goat into its pen with feed, scooping a pen, or sweeping a concrete floor.

This is the one rule that if not followed, most likely will just hurt your ego, but I’ve fallen over a dog too lazy to move while walking backwards and just my pride was hurt, and I’ve fallen backwards over a mower deck while trying to escape from some wayward wasps and came away with some serious bruises.

8. Know Which Way Livestock Kick and Your Safe Spot to Stand

Cows, horses and goats have different kicking zones. Know them! Horses mainly kick out to the back. If you are standing behind them, preferably about 3 feet away, you are standing in the prime kick zone and will receive the full strength of the kick. To avoid this, stay close to the horse, keep your hand on their body and speak to them so they know where you are. This minimizes the chance of a full force surprise kick.

Cows generally don’t kick backwards, but kick out sideways, as in cow kick. The same safe standing rule applies here, close by and no surprises. Goats, in my experience, can kick every which way and up and also jump on top of you, so here best be prepared and teach them from a young age: “no front feet on humans” and keep your face away from the legs while milking or trimming feet.

9. Wear Closed-Toed Shoes for Safe Toes

Sandals or flip flops don’t belong on a farm! If you’ve ever had a goat, let alone a horse, stand comfortably on your foot, you will appreciate the safety and cushion of a closed toe shoe, even if it is just a croc. All 200 pounds of the goat or 1,000 pound of the horse will miraculously be transferred to that one point on your foot especially if it’s a you’re your bones and skin are no match for a horse hoof, especially when wearing a horse shoe, or even a small, sharp goat hoof.

Closed-toed shoes will also protect you from stubbing your toes on wheel barrels and on steps into the chicken coop, and protect you from squishy chicken poo or dog poo between your toes.

10. Don’t Wear Headphones During Farm Chores

Many people just can’t live without their headphones, but on the farm during chores is the place to take them off! I get it. Scooping poop and doing other daily farm chores can be quite boring without the buds in your ear with a cool pod cast, TedTalk or your favorite tunes.

But here is the rub: when you have the buds in your ear, you are focused on the music and any other sound drowns out. You do not hear the baby alarm when a young goat is in trouble, you do not hear the dogs barking at the hawk stalking your chickens, you do not hear another human calling you to help with a goat, or a cow, or a heavy board. Only having a bud in one ear doesn’t work either, because your concentration and focus is still on the music/talk/podcast and not on your farm surroundings where they need to be.

Too much can go wrong too fast. Just leave the headphones in your pocket and use them on your break. If you want to listen to music, turn the speaker on and have the music in your pocket, in the background. That’s where it belongs on a farm during chores.

Use your common sense and you will be fine.

Julia Shewchuk owns and operates Serenity Acres Farm on 80 acres in Florida. Serenity Acres runs on solar, is Animal Welfare Approved-certified, houses anywhere from four to 10 WWOOFers and interns, and is the home to 58 dairy goats, 16 Black Angus cattle, 278 laying hens, 3 horses, 3 cats, 4 house dogs, 6 livestock guardian dogs, and 6 ducks. Read all of Julia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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A Pyncheon bantam hen was probably the breed kept by the Jefferson as a family pet. The Pyncheon breed is in grave danger of extinction.

In the 1800s, many gardens, homesteads and all farms raised livestock. Animals were integrated into the fabric of everyday life and community commerce — livestock provided local daily sustenance.

Monticello’s gardens and orchards are world famous for the fruit and vegetable production. The volumes of garden notes and sketches by Mr. Jefferson give deep insights into production gardens of his time.

Interestingly, among all his writings, there is very little included by Mr. Jefferson about keeping poultry. Among the few references I could find was a record from his granddaughter Anne Cary Randolph about foodstuffs purchased from the Monticello slaves for the Jefferson household’s fine dining and entertaining.

“On September 29, 1805 the Jefferson kitchen purchased…(among other produce), 47 dozen eggs and 117 chickens." 1 To put that single purchase in context, Anne bought 564 eggs and about 527 pounds of chicken. That’s over a quarter ton of chicken (at an average weight of 4.5 pounds per bird). Chickens were a major source of food and income for the enslaved community.

“More than half of the black adults at Monticello sold produce to the Jefferson household and all but three adults among of them also sold chickens.” 2 So why did Mr. Jefferson not include poultry in his livestock records? It might be because in our founding father days, raising chickens was viewed in some circles as a lower-class activity. “Poultry, held in low regard during the 18th century, was usually omitted from farm stock listings”.3

This helps to explain exclusion of chickens from the livestock accountings for Monticello stock inventories. The belief that chickens are a lower-class occupation appears to be a deeply rooted because still, today, some of the opponents of the backyard chicken movement have expressed that keeping family flocks is for poor people and legalizing chickens would be a degradation to the neighborhood, causing property values to drop. This belief has been proven false.

In fact, chickens are gaining such favor that Virginia Governor Terry McAulfiee keeps a family flock at the yolk-colored mansion in Richmond. However, back in our founding father’s time, European flocks of ornamental and fancy fowl were all the rage — a genuine royal class occupation. Raising bantams was especially the in-thing to do for “gentry-class young ladies." “Ornamental and bantam fowl were becoming increasingly popular (in America) as the colonists copied prevailing trends in England”.4

Mr. Jefferson definitely qualified as one of America’s upper class and was quite active in breeding bantams and ornamental chickens.

A Letter from Jefferson

­In a letter dated November 30, 1806 (Jefferson wrote to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge): "By Davy I send you a pair of Bantam fowls; quite young: so that I am in hopes you will now be enabled to raise some. I propose on their subject a question of natural history for your enquiry: that is whether this is the Gallina Adrianica, or Adria, the Adsatck cock of Aristotle? For this you must examine Buffon etc."5

On June 29, 1807 Mr. Jefferson asked Ellen: "How go on the Bantams? I rely on you for their care, as I do on Anne for the Algerine fowls, and on our arrangements at Monticello for the East Indians (fowel)”.6

This letter (and others) shows that Jefferson was experimenting with varieties of chickens. Mr. Jefferson’s daughter had a pet bantam, probably a Pyncheon hen. This little hen was such a family favorite, that when it died there was a full family funeral for the beloved biddie. The Jefferson family had a pet cemetery. It would appropriate if that pet chicken was buried there with a grave stone engraved with her name and date of death.

Chicken Breeds of Colonial Mulberry Row

The painting Mulberry Row by Nathaniel Gibbs documents chickens being fed by African-American Monticello residents.

"Mulberry Row" by Nathaniel Gibbs includes chickens as a part of daily life along the gardens of Mulberry Row.

What breeds of chickens might have been on Mulberry Row? Colonial Williamsburg has a Rare Breed Program where they researched and selected four breeds that existed during the 1700s. These are the Dorking, Dominique, Hamburg and Nankin Bantam. I’m including the Pyncheon. According to Jeanette Beranger of The Livestock Conservancy, that was a popular breed probably one of the bantam breeds Mr. Jefferson raised and gave as gifts.

The Pyncheon bantam breed still exists but is quickly slipping into extinction as its breeding numbers dwindle. This breed was dropped from exhibitions (American Poultry Association poultry shows) in the mid-1900s.7 There is only one American breeder of Pyncheons listed on the internet.8 We can only hope there are more in Europe.

Loosing chicken breeds is nothing new. Many of the old breeds have become extinct. The Livestock Conservancy lists over three-dozen breeds of chickens in danger of extinction, losing their genetic uniqueness forever.

Chicken Keeping in Colonial Times

The archives of Monticello seem to have very little about the practices of chicken keeping. From description of Colonial Williamsburg, most family farmers and residents let the birds free-roam, without providing shelter. “They drove them to roost in orchards or stands of timber. Chickens were expected to forage for most of their food, cleaning up behind the more important meat and draft animals or occasionally receiving table scraps or grain from their owners. In a town setting, they may have even sheltered them in their houses or other nearby outbuildings”.9

How many chickens were kept at Monticello? No written records seem to exist. But from that single chicken and egg purchase by Anne Cary Randolph in 1805, it is clear there had to have been thousands of chickens that fed not only the enslaved community but also the Jefferson household.

How were these the chickens raised, kept and employed? I believe the answers might still available through the descendants of the enslaved community who raised chickens for Jefferson. The Getting Word oral history project started at Monticello in 1993. This project is to preserve the stories of Afro-American families of Monticello by taking histories from their descendants. An NPR show, entitled: Life At Jefferson's Monticello, As His Slaves Saw It is an excellent description of the project.10

I propose it would be a useful research project to conduct a “Chicken Keeping and Employing" survey of the Monticello African American Descendants to glean information handed down about poultry keeping in the 18th century. I would love to participate in such a project.

I have been presenting chicken workshops at the Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival for several years and always bring my co-presenter, Oprah Hen-Free (a heritage chicken), to show people how dignified, beautiful and personable chickens can be. At a book signing in the gift shop, Ms. Hen-Free, with the usual clucking that represents the sound of a forthcoming egg, presented an egg with as much grace and dignity as can be expected of any fine hen. People were thrilled! The still-warm egg was passed around and marveled at by those who had never held a truly fresh egg,

I asked the staff if this might be an historic egg? Might this be the first egg laid at Monticello since Jefferson’s time? The staff was clearly stunned — and didn’t have an answer. But the question remains: Was that an historic egg? Could Oprah Hen-Free, in presenting a single egg to the Monticello gift shop, possibly have laid the first egg at Monticello in over 100 years? Might Oprah Hen-Free have uttered: “The cluck heard around the world” as a clarion call announcing that it is time to bring chickens back into our culture?

It is clear there were chickens kept by the residents of Mulberry Row. An authentic recreation of their daily lives has to include the 18th century poultry breeds. Not only to recreate glimpses of the lives of the people, but also to preserve the breeds of chickens that served them — so they can continue to serve future generations.

May the flock be with Monticello.

Mr. Jefferson (Bill Barker) holding chicken celebrity Oprah Hen-Free, a heritage bantam Chantecler at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival, 2015.


1. In Our Own Time. Keeping Food on the Table.

2 Ibid

3. Rare Breeds at Colonial Williamsburg.

4. Ibid

5. Ibid

6. Ibid

6. POULTRY. Letters between Jefferson and Martha Jefferson Randolph regarding bantam chickens.

7. Ibid.

7. Pyncheon Bantams, by Brian Heldberg, Minnesota Member The Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities. Backyard Poultry Magazine.

8. Pyncheon Chickens. Rusty Hart, 2531 Vance Road, East Jordan, Michigan.

9. Rare Breeds at Colonial Williamsburg.

10. Life At Jefferson's Monticello, As His Slaves Saw It.

11. Getting Word: African American Families of Monticello.

Poultry pioneer Patricia Foreman has kept poultry for about 25 years, employing chickens to build topsoil for a community farm and co-owning and operating a small-scale farm with free-range, organic layers, broilers and turkeys. Her commercial operation experience includes managing breeder flocks, incubating eggs, pasturing poultry, finished processing and direct marketing. Find Patricia online at and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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



Chickens may seem sweet and soft, but they can also leave in their wake a messy coop!  

I know there’s a TV series out there about dirty jobs. I think the host ought to come out to the farm and clean a chicken coop with me.

It’s not like it was the worst cleaning of the season — that comes with the spring thaw, when the bedding pack is near three feet deep in places, wet and heavy, frozen in the corners, and matted down with straw and wood shavings. That would be a really messy job. Sometimes it takes days to work through the winter pack and haul it away.

So this cleanup after the ladies had moved out should be a breeze in comparison, right? Well,while moving that winter pack is wet and sticky, the spring coop cleaning to prepare for the baby chick arrival is dry and dusty. Very dusty.

Where to Start

First, like with any coop cleaning, we have to scoop out the soiled bedding. Mom backs up the tractor and the manure spreader as close to the door as possible, and we prop open all the doors and windows for ventilation. 

The hens have been out of the coop for a week, while I kept the fan running, so the messy muck from the ducks has dried to a firm, hard pack. Steve scoops while I chip away with the ice scraper, releasing the brown poultry concrete (we joked that it should be called “chickcreet”) from the actual cement floor. Chip, chip, chip — about half an inch at a stroke.

Steve had just bought himself a long-handled scoop shovel. The shovels that have been on the farm as long as I can remember have short handles, which work well for us short ladies, but poor Steve gets all doubled over with an aching back. But now, equipped with his Steve-sized shiny new tool, he was ready for action!

And there was action to be had — a manure spreader full of it. Scoop scrape, scoop scrape, until finally the floor of the 12 x 24 foot coop is cleared. But that is not the end of the story. Oh no, now it’s time for the dust!

Who Knew? Feathers Make Dust!

Chickens do make a lot of dust. This comes in large part from the growth of feathers.  When just developing (pin feathers), these modified scales are covered in a protective sheath made of carrageen. The same material as your fingernails, this sheath then shatters as the feather emerges into full form.

The shattered feather sheaths are very fine and end up collecting bedding dust from the hens dust bathing (a ritual that helps keep their skin pest free) and sticks to the walls, the ceiling, the chicken wire, the fan, the screens, the windows, etc. It sticks like a mat on the top of boards and dangles in odd strings from cobwebs.

Steve and I attack the dust with our best weapons — a broom and a shop vac. I know it might sound kind of crazy, but yes, I use a shop vac to help clean my chicken coop!  Steve is up on a ladder with all the extensions on the end of the pipe, sucking up the dusty froth and knocking down the matted strips. I’m attacking the screens with the broom, clouds of dust fuming out the window.

The fan can be one of the worst parts to clean.  On the inside, the dust has collected near a half an inch thick on the grating, and I carefully brush it off, letting it suck out through the fan outside. But on the outside, the dust has caked on the louvers and the hood. I attack with the broom the run behind the door for cover as a plume of gray dust spews out. Holding my breath, I dash back for another swat.

Inside, Steve is up by the chicken wire that separates the different sections of the coop. Some of the dust is being stubborn, not wanting to come off the rafters. “Oh no you don’t!” Steve taunts. “Come down here where I can breathe you!”

There’s dust everywhere. It’s hard to see. Now and then we have to step outside to catch a breather. Our clothes are a light brown mottle — forget the blue or green that we originally put on that morning. My glasses are coated in dust. I periodically pull them off and blow on them or wipe them with my finger like a windshield.  This process is intense — I’m glad I’m wearing a wide-brimmed hat!

Steve has made his way from the back almost to the front door, and I come behind sweeping up the floor in preparation for spreading the barn lime. Darkness is settling, and there’s another freeze warning, so there won’t be time to spread fresh bedding and heat the space for the chicks tonight. But then, I’ll leave the fan running, and by morning the air will be clear.

What started as a dried-on poopy mess is now cleared to the wood and cement. I’ve repaired any damage to the chicken wire with zip ties, and the floor is snowy with a coat of fresh lime. You can actually see light through the windows, and the screens allow free air movement. It’s a real makeover for the coop, but there’s no question that this is one of those dirty jobs on the farm.

I sure hope those little chicks will appreciate the effort.  But for now it’s time to hit the shower. Whew, glad that one’s off the list! See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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

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