Homesteading and Livestock
Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.


Lambing Basics for the New Shepherd

ewe nuzzling lamb 

Ewe nuzzling lamb. Photos by Sheryl Campbell

Spring is my favorite time of year. It’s when our lambs are born. We originally starting raising Katahdin hair sheep as a more entertaining way of keeping our pasture areas mowed. We also chose this breed because they lamb easily and are good mothers. Being newly-minted shepherds we figured we should have sheep that knew what they were doing since we didn’t have a clue.

Our sheep typically lamb in the early morning hours and we find them nursing happily when we get out to the barn in the morning. That’s how most of our lambs are born.  Quickly, no fuss, and without human interference.

Lambing can be a scary time though if you’re not experienced. Lots of stories circulate of having to stay up all night in the barn with the sheep throughout the birthing season. True if you buy more difficult breeds than we did, but not so with Katahdins. Fears about still born lambs, breach births, and skittish ewes can make people shy away from raising their own sheep. But buy a hardy, self-sufficient breed, and prepare ahead for unlikely emergencies to be ready to handle anything gracefully.

Important Lambing Supplies

Lambing Kit for all Births

  • Old towels
  • Nutri-drench
  • Betadine
  • Small cup (like a Dixie cup)

Additional Emergency Supplies

  • Long latex gloves
  • Vaseline
  • Lambing rope
  • A halter
  • Vanilla extract (you’ll see why)

 bottle feeding

Emergency Nursing Supplies

  • Powdered lamb formula
  • Powdered colostrum substitute – or frozen colostrum from a prior birth
  • A lamb bottle and nipple

We keep all of the items from the first two lists in a handy tub to carry out to the lambing shelter with us. We keep our ewes in a permanently fenced winter pasture that includes a 3-sided shelter large enough to divide into large birthing pens when we think they are within a day of giving birth. Emergency nursing supplies are rarely needed so we keep them stored in the house. If you have to use them, follow the instructions on the containers.

What Happens on Lambing Day?

In a typical birth, the ewe’s water will break, she’ll go through a period of labor, and she’ll give birth. On our farm this typically happens in the dark morning hours in early to mid-March. By the time we arrive on the scene, the ewe is generally finished licking her baby clean. Lambs take 30-60 minutes to get fully on their feet and figure out the mechanics of nursing.

new lambs with mama

 New lambs with mama

At that point we simply dry the lamb a little more with the towels, give it an oral squirt of Nutri-drench for extra energy, and dip the remaining piece of the umbilical cord. To do this put a little Betadine in the cup, hold the cup firmly against the lamb’s stomach (with the cord inside the cup), then quickly flip the lamb and cup upside down and back upright. This disinfects the stub to keep out infection without making a lot of mess.

When Things Go Wonky

The gloves and Vaseline are for when you need to “go in” and straighten out a lamb in the birth canal. They, and a clean towel, are also for when you need to help pull a lamb out that is only partially birthed. The lambing rope is for serious situations when you need to fully help the lamb out of the birthing canal. We’ve not had to use one in the decade we’ve been raising sheep. The halter and vanilla are for those times that the ewe rejects a lamb, or just can’t figure out how to nurse. By restraining the ewe with the halter you can help a lamb to latch on and nurse even if the ewe is not cooperative.

Every now and then, a ewe rejects a lamb, refusing to nurse it and kicking it away. For the full time shepherd with a large flock there are a number of things that can be tried. For small operators like us, we’ve discovered a handy and quick solution. We found a new use for vanilla when one of our ewes rejected her smallest triplet. Nothing in the sheep books seemed to work.  Since sheep can tell their lambs by smell, we decided to work by scent.  Rubbing vanilla on the ewe’s nose and on the lamb’s bottom convinced the mama that this was indeed her baby – he smelled just like her! Our vet denies that this can work, but we’re leaving the vanilla in our birthing kit as it’s worked every time we’ve used it over the years.

triplets nursing

Triplets nursing

Lambing season is our favorite time of year!  It is such a joy to see how God designed the ewes to give birth and care for their little ones right from the start. It is humbling and awe inspiring when we are privileged to help out. It is relieving when we don’t have to. Watching lambs gambol across the meadow to explore their new environment makes any work we have to do well worth the effort.


 

Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth Gardener and Grit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

 


 

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5 Great Reasons Homeschooling Complements Homestead Living

 

Photo from Pixabay

Growing up on a homestead provides an incredible childhood for children, it offers them a level of freedom which simply isn’t available to most American children. Many people who raise their children on a homestead, like to incorporate homeschooling into their lives too.

Homeschooling and homesteading complement each other really well, and while they are both time consuming endeavors, the rewards are well worth it!  The reason they complement each other so well, is because there is already a wealth of hands on things for your children to learn about through simply living life on a homestead.

Most homeschoolers choose to include some element of curriculum in their days, such as a great math or English curriculum, but the vast majority of their time is spent doing hands on learning around the homestead.

Every Day Life is an Opportunity for Learning

Hands on activities provide a wealth of experience for children. They will learn simply through watching you go about your daily chores and copying! One example of this is keeping chickens, which is essential for any homestead.

When you keep chickens as a homeschooling family, it isn’t just for the purpose of getting delicious fresh eggs. This one simple activity can provide children with an abundance of learning opportunities.

If you include them in the process right from the beginning, they’ll be able to help design and build a chicken coop and run. They can also research the different breeds of chickens to help choose the ideal chickens. During this process, you can include a bit of geography as you look up where certain chickens originate from!

Once the chickens are in their home, there are so many opportunities to learn about animal care and building empathy for animals. Caring for the chickens also teaches children the importance of taking responsibility, and the value of daily chores within family life.

Young children learn about where our food comes from, and for older children, keeping chickens can instigate conversations about the importance of eating fresh and local food. Younger children can learn colors and counting through looking after their chickens, older children could set up a small egg business and learn how to calculate profit etc.

If you decide to have some of the eggs fertilized, there are many great lessons about the cycle of life, how new life is created and caring for baby chicks. Through this one aspect of homesteading, you can see just how much of an education you’d be providing for your children, simply through living everyday life!

Freedom

One of the main reasons many people choose to homestead, is for the freedom which it offers in many different areas of life.

Financial freedom, the freedom to plan your own day, the freedom to live off the land. This works hand in hand with the freedom that homeschooling brings. As a homeschooling family, you can choose where, and when you want to homeschool, plan your own days and work around the different priorities that are necessary for running a homestead. 

Personal Preferences

Many parents choose to homeschool their children because of religious beliefs, political reasons, or perhaps their needs weren’t being met in a public school. Whatever the reason, as parents we want to know what information is going into our children’s heads. This is similar to the reason that so many people choose to homestead – we want to know what food we are putting into our bodies.

Both homeschooling and homesteading allows us to ensure that everything going into our children’s bodies, both information and food is good and pure!

Quality Time

If you’ve ever been in the public schooling system, you’ll know that there isn’t a great deal of time left for families to spend time together after a full day at school, an hour or so of homework, and all the afterschool curricula activities. One of the main benefits of homeschooling and homesteading, is the quality time that it allows families to spend together.

Doing chores together can really strengthen bonds between children and parents. It gives you plenty of times to instill your family values into your children, to ensure they have a strong connection with you, and a deep knowledge of who they are. When you spend so much time together, it also requires plenty of teamwork and compromise, which are both fantastic lessons for children to learn. 

Outdoor Learning

A study from the Nature of Americans, found that 8-12 year old’s spend triple the amount of time inside, sat in front of a screen, than they do outdoors! When you raise your children on a homestead, you don’t need to worry about the amount of time they’ll be getting outdoors, because you can pretty much guarantee it’ll be more than they spend indoors!

There are so many opportunities for outdoor leaning, from growing plants, pulling weeds, and caring for all the animals! Physical activity just becomes an integral part of their lifestyle, rather than something that they have to make time! Homeschooling and homesteading complement each other really well. There are plenty of benefits to both ways of life, including more freedom to do the things you enjoy and spend quality together as a family!


David Woods is a carpenter, outdoorsman, and author with more than 30 years of professional woodworking experience. He is the author of best-seller How to Build a Log Home and has educated more than half a million people on how to build a log cabin via his blog, Log Cabin Hub. 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.

Senior Homesteading: The Reality

roofline
Photo by Pixabay/alluregraphicdesign

There are some jobs that seniors probably should not do on a remote homestead. The reality, however, is that getting someone else to do them is not always possible. We heat our small cabin with a wood stove and burn approximately 9 to 12 cords of firewood throughout each fall, winter, and spring seasons.

Our home is an A-Frame construction, and hence the wind cap is over 30-plus feet from the ground. Any sensible person my age would have someone else go up and swap out the wind cap, but this senior homesteader still does it himself.

I can clean the chimney from inside the house but the windcap has to be done from the exterior. For many years, I would climb up to the top of the house, remove the wind cap, and climb down with it in one hand while holding onto the ladder with the other. Then, I would wire-brush the cap clean and climb back up to replace it.

My wife suggested that we purchase a second wind cap, so I would only have to make that trip once and I could swap them out each year. The process of replacing that wind cap is scary, even for this 75-year-old guy who has done it for many years.

I strap myself into a climbing harness and go up the ladder and tie off on the top rung of the ladder. Then, I have to turn and face out to be able to reach the wind cap (see photo). There is nothing in front of me but thin air, and it looks much higher from up there than the 30-plus feet it really is.

unnamed,jpg

Usually, positioning the ladder is the hard part as getting it up from the garage on a steep incline to its needed position is strenuous and awkward. Then, lifting the heavy ladder into position is equally difficult.

Once it is in position, it is only a matter of climbing almost straight up, holding the clean wind cap in one hand and the ladder with the other hand. I tie off my climbing harness on the top rung and turn around and take one wind cap out and put the other one in, then reverse, then go safely back on the ground.

Aging Infirmities

One year, I paid someone who installs chimneys to take the wind cap down. It was clear they were close to petrified when they had to turn around on the ladder and face out and then reach out to take the wind cap off.

I haven’t wanted to put anyone through that again, so even though I’m getting up in age, I still do it myself. With stiff joints, lack of agility and normal aging aches and pains, I can and still do it, but I go slower and use more caution.

I would sum up the experience by saying when you turn around and reach out for that wind cap, if you have any heart problems, they should be revealed at that point. It can be done but clearly is not for everyone or the faint of heart, nor anyone with balance problems or dizziness.

Felling Trees

With several acres of heavily wooded property on a near 45-degree slope, there are trees that need to be dealt with regularly. They die of disease or overcrowding.

Another fairly dangerous job is cutting them down for removal. With two very painful knees, resulting from prior surgeries necessitated by sports injuries, when a tree starts to fall off the mark, it can be pretty scary. You have a chainsaw running in your hands and a tree that may fall where you don’t want it to fall. In spite of all the precautions you may have employed, the tree may not always react as you had hoped.

In the past, I have started to cut into trees that are rotten inside and start to fall almost immediately. When that happens, you need to move fast, which can be hard to do for us seniors. I have compensated for that contingency by always making sure I have an unfettered escape route before I even start the cut.

Once, I cut a wedge from a tree and had not cut more than 2 inches into the 15-inch tree when it suddenly gave way and came crashing down. I had an escape route planned and narrowly avoided injury. Thinking things through before acting is wise and safety conscious.

The other hazard is not only finding the right escape route but being able to back away fast. When the tree comes down, it often has the base bounce up, and if you are caught with the base under the chin, it is probably all over.

Trees also tend to hit and bounce either right or left, which can cause injury if you guess wrong. Another associated problem is bucking up trees on the ground. The log can roll and if you are downhill, you need to move fast to keep from being rolled over by a heavy log. While it is harder to buck up a log from the uphill side, sometimes that is the best course of action if you can’t move out of the way fast enough.

Two of Several Problems Faced by Senior Homesteaders

These are just two specific areas that can be dangerous to a senior homesteader and that should be planned for. By using good common sense and extreme caution, the job can be done even though we are slower, gimpy, and less agile.

Remote homesteading at any age is hard, but it is much harder when you are senior in age. The glamor of homesteading when younger is far different than when you must face the reality of exercising greater caution to compensate for stiffness and decreased agility when you are senior.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their lives in the Sangre de Christo mountains of southern Colorado, go to their blog site Bruce and Carol's Cabin. They live in a small cabin with their four German Shepherd Dogs at 9,800 feet elevation. Read all of Bruce's remote-living blog posts for MOTHER EARTH NEWS here.


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Raise Backyard Chickens for Eggs and Meat: An Overview

hens
Photo by Pixabay/capri23auto

Given the past crazy year of pandemic and food shortages, many people are deciding it would be wise to raise some of their own food. But most of us don’t have the land to grow our own grain, nor raise our own livestock. What’s an erstwhile hobby-survivalist to do?

Once you’ve started a small vegetable garden, one of the easiest ways to provide some of your own food needs is with a small flock of backyard chickens. You can raise them for eggs, for meat, or for both. But you need to know a few things before running off to the farm store for chicks.

Following is an overview that will help you think through some things before you get started. You should also consider purchasing Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens which discusses the birds in more detail.

Municipal Regulations

flock of chickens 

Quite a few municipalities allow chickens (at least hens) these days - even in towns and cities. While hens will cluck when they lay eggs, only the roosters crow. Check with your local town or city government to see what the laws are in your area. If you live in a development, also check with the home owners’ association.

The Myths

Roosters only crow at sunrise. Nope, not true. Roosters crow because they like to, and they like to morning, noon, and night. Roosters aren’t a good idea if you have neighbors close by.

Home-grown eggs have baby chicks in them. Not necessarily. You need a rooster to fertilize the eggs, otherwise you just have egg white and yolk inside the shell – no chicks.

You need a rooster to get eggs. Definitely not true. Hens lay eggs all on their own. Roosters only fertilize them.

Brown eggs are more nutritious than white eggs. You don’t eat the shell, you eat what’s inside of it. An egg’s nutrition is determined by what the hen eats. The color of the shell is determined by the breed of chicken, much like feather color.

So Many Chicks, So Little Time

Before deciding which chickens to purchase, you need to know what you want them for. If you are looking for maximum egg output consider Leghorn, Ancona, Golden Comet, and Minorca which lay a higher number of eggs per hen per year.

 baby chicks

If you are more interested in meat, then consider larger chickens such as Brahma, Cochin, or Cornish hens. Freedom Rangers are a lovely meat bird that will still forage while growing out as broilers. This is always our choice for broiler chicks. They take an extra 2-3 weeks to grow but live a much healthier life out on grass, producing more nutritious meat.

If you want the ability to have a reasonable number of eggs, while still being able to use the spent layers and excess roosters for meat, then purchase a dual-purpose breed such as Orpington, Wyandotte, or Plymouth Rock hens.

Personality matters. More docile breeds include Cochins, Dorkings, Orpingtons, and Rocks. Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds are more flighty. Not as good a choice if you have small children. If you want pretty eggs, consider Araucanas and Americanas for blue, pink, and green shelled eggs. Or look at the lovely Cuckoo Marans for dark brown eggs with speckles.

Where to House Your Chickens?

You need to consider a variety of factors when making this decision:

  • How much time do you have?
  • How much yard/land do you have?
  • How much money do you have?
  • Will you keep your flock over the winter?

To pasture feed your chickens (letting them scratch out a portion of their existence in a larger fenced area) your chickens will still need a safe indoor area for night time protection. But they’ll only need a couple of square feet per bird. The same goes for completely free-range chickens that roam your property at will. Completely confined birds will need two to three times the amount of coop space per bird.

 amish built chicken coop

Amish-built chicken coop

Your coop needs to have adequate ventilation, nest boxes, and access (both for the birds and for you to clean it!). Most farm stores sell pre-made, and quite lovely, chicken pens that you can set out directly in your backyard. The chickens can roam from there or you can surround it with fencing so they stay within a set grassy area. If you want to build your own coop Mother Earth has you covered with a simple design that is perfect for keeping just a couple of chickens in your yard or part of your garden. Or you can try a sturdier shed coop. If you plan to keep the chickens over winter than the coop needs to be big enough to keep them inside for longer periods of cold (combs and wattles tend to freeze below about 17 degrees).

Food Decisions

Chickens are omnivorous.  That means they will eat anything. I do mean anything! Although they don’t seem to be big fans of citrus. For meat birds, use a broiler bird feed mix and allow them access to grass and bugs if you bought a forager breed like the Rangers. To make sure your laying chicks grow well it is advisable to start them on a balanced chick starter/grower food. Once they reach 16 weeks old switch them over to layer/breeder mix.

Packaged chicken food can be purchased at farm stores, some pet stores, and specialty shops. You can buy medicated or un-medicated, non-GMO or standard, no-meat-products or otherwise. It all depends on what matters to you.

 chickens making compost

Chickens making compost

All chickens benefit from having the ability to peck at grass/weeds and dig for bugs and worms. If at all possible, give them some area of lawn or unused garden to dig in. If you generate even a little bit of food scraps, throw those into a pile in the chicken run. Chickens will peck at the scraps and turn it over and over to create compost for you. If you struggle with stink bugs or Japanese beetles on your plants you can collect and give the bugs to the birds for an exciting treat. Just go out in the early morning with a jar of water and knock the bugs into it. Dump the bugs and water into an open tray in your chicken run. Mmm…mmm…finger-lickin’ good! They’ll disappear in seconds.

It’s Really Quite Easy

Chickens are fun to raise and very entertaining to watch. Eggs from your backyard chickens will be full of nutrients and really fresh. If the birds get grass and bugs, notice how the yolks will be much more golden. You’ll know where your meat came from and how it was raised. Whether you have a little money or a lot, a bit of time on weekends or free afternoons, you can be raising your own delightful mini-flock of chickens this year. Give it a try!


 

Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth Gardener and Grit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

 


 

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The Bovine Telos: Animal Welfare for Today's North American Beef Cattle

Angus Steer on Pasture

Photo by Steve Maxwell

Telos was a word originally used by Aristotle to describe purpose. Animal scientist and philosopher Dr. Bernard Rollin wittily adapted the term for the animal behaviour field. To Rollin, the telos of an animal is its innate nature: its personality, its desires, likes, and dislikes. One of the greatest parts of studying animals is becoming familiar with the unique telos of each species you work with. I got to know cattle in my teens when I started working for Jim and Birgit Martin, owner-operators of Pure Island Beef, a northern operation centred around a natural lifestyle for the animals and a high-quality product. Birgit and Jim are industry leaders in Ontario agriculture, and I was lucky enough to connect with them over zoom to chat about beef cattle welfare. You can watch the entire interview on YouTube:

The Bovine Telos

What do cattle want in life? It’s easy to anthropomorphize and imagine that animals desire the same things we do. Part of the study of animal behaviour is giving up personal bias and letting the results of controlled experiments speak for themselves. Like other farm animals, beef cattle are motivated to perform specific behaviours rooted in their wild ancestry. As Birgit put it, “cattle aren’t necessarily the most ambitious animals.” My experience and current literature suggest that social contact in a herd, mutual and solitary grooming, opportunities to lie down comfortably, and exercise are the most notable desires of cattle outside of the basics. 

The North American Industry

In North America, the life of a beef animal begins on a cow-calf farm, where breeding and early growth is the focus. Most animals are then trucked to larger growing and finishing operations called feedlots, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away. On many cow-calf farms, animals enjoy a pseudo-natural lifestyle on pastures or ranges. This production style caters well to their telos. Feedlots are confinement facilities. Although they maximize efficiency, it takes more knowledge and consideration to run a feedlot profitably while also maximizing animal welfare.

Too Much Transport?

Although Jim praised the progress that has been made in animal comfort on Ontario feedlots, he didn’t hesitate to express his qualms about the structure of the industry. Across North America, animals are transported in trucks multiple times over their lifetime, moving from farm to farm, sometimes at very young ages. Although producers are highly experienced with loading and trucking animals safely, conditions during transport and the change of surroundings are major stressors for these animals. 

Improved Welfare on Feedlots: A Win-Win? 

When I brought up the subject of animal welfare in feedlots, Jim told me that “It doesn’t pay to not do it well.” When I heard this, I couldn’t help but think about the words of professors who’ve taught me that high productivity often isn't linked to good welfare. After reading some literature however, I found that recent experiments are suggesting that Jim is right when it comes to beef feedlots. A 2020 review from Texas A&M compiled results indicating that feedlot cattle who are provided with more space, softer floor surfaces, and the opportunity to lie down on straw not only have better welfare, but also show superior performance from a production standpoint. 

Changing an Industry: Top-Down or Ground-Up?

Despite the fact that ‘doing it well’ may be in the best interests of beef producers, the reality is that best practices with respect to animal welfare are not the standard across North American beef industry. I’ve often thought that the obvious solution is legislation - make best practices law. Jim and Birgit’s perspective as producers challenged my position. As Birgit put it, “if it’s legislated from the top down, the cost is entirely borne by the producer. If it’s an industry initiated change from the grassroots up, the cost can be spread across the supply chain.” Jim added that he’d sooner like to see more widespread education for new producers before new animal welfare legislation.

What Can Consumers Do?

Support Progressive Producers. I believe that reducing your impact on animals is crucial, but of equal importance is putting your dollars in the right place when you do purchase meat. When it comes to beef, the North American industry involves a lot of live transport, and not all feedlots adhere to best practices, but that doesn’t mean that producers moving in the right direction don’t exist. Pure Island Beef is just one example of an operation committed to providing animals with a semi-natural life that starts and ends under the management of the same people. The welfare labeling programs that I mentioned in my introductory article are a great tool, but they’re not as effective as personally connecting with the people behind your beef. Research progressive beef producers before making a purchase. Look for the farmers who run a pasture-based operation and raise animals from start to finish without transporting them across provincial, state, or national borders.

Don’t Take ‘Local’ at Face Value. My province of Ontario is home to the largest urban population in Canada, but comparatively few cow-calf farms. The result is that the beef bought by Ontarians can be advertised as ‘local,’ but most of the time this means that cattle were born in the west before being transported for hours or days on highways to feedlots in Ontario where they were finished. If you can’t find a progressive producer in your immediate area, become more open to beef born, raised, and finished in a distant province or state. As Birgit put it, “It makes sense [for animal welfare and the environment] to transport the product in a refrigerated truck rather than truck the live animal to the market.” 

Be Open to all Perspectives. In the animal welfare debate, producers are often demonized or pushed to the sidelines. I was incredibly lucky to open this conversation to Birgit and Jim and learn from their perspective. I’ve come to believe that sustained improvement to the human-animal relationship won’t be accomplished by argument or iron-fisted rule making. It seems to me that the best path forward is for each side of the debate to thoroughly understand other perspectives so that animal-based industries can move forward with cooperation, focus, and harmony.


Jacob Maxwell is a biology student and veterinary hopeful in Ontario who divides his time between animal biology coursework and hands-on experience with veterinarians and animal researchers. Connect with Jacob on his blogA Try-Hard's Guide to Having Fun, and on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and LinkedIn. Read all of Jacob’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.

Home, Garden and Orchard Layout

Cleared and Staked Out Area
Cleared and staked out area.
 Photo by Ron Melchiore

The Off-Grid and Free series recounts one homesteading couple's journey to build a new homestead in Nova Scotia.

The last time we corresponded, we had cleared out a section of property, flagged out the location of house, garden, orchard, well, septic and solar array and were ready to do the nitty gritty on the house.

A Quick Personal Update

But first a bit of house keeping. As many of you know, we moved from the wilderness of Saskatchewan to Nova Scotia to start our third and final homestead build. It was my intent and desire to write occasionally to bring you along on the journey and share some of what we’ve been up to.

To be honest, I’m still finishing the “eternal house,” have just started building our greenhouse, am working on getting ahead on firewood etc. and I’m simply maxed out. But we still have the pep to get things done; in fact, part of the last year was taking some of that pep and training for sprints to compete as an old guy. I used to run sprints as a younger man and then gave it up for about 35 years. I paid a high price last year in terms of time and pain (torn quad, gimpy knees, torn hamstring) but I set the Provincial records this winter in my age group. I have no desire to toot my own horn and I mention it to offer encouragement to all that no matter your age and aspirations, it’s never too late to follow your dreams, including living a more self-reliant life.

In regards to this self-reliant life we’ve enjoyed, a little over a year ago, we were asked by a publisher to write a book about self-reliance. That book, The Self-Sufficient Backyard: For the Independent Homesteader took an enormous amount of our time to write. We compiled 40 years of experience and knowledge into one comprehensive book and we can now breathe a sigh of relief that it is on the market and we can get back to building our homestead. I’ll provide a link below for anybody that cares to check it out. Now let’s get back to our post.

At the time we had the roadwork done to access our small clearing in the forest, we also had the excavator dig a well to confirm we had a viable water source here. Based on the positive results, we installed the well and staked the house location properly in relation to that well.

One of the reasons we chose this exact location is because the view of the ocean is directly in front of the house which faces south. Perfect! We want the house to face south and having a view of the ocean as well is a bonus. With my properly set compass and 100-foot tape measure, I set out to locate the corners of the house.

Compass and Declination

I should mention that it is important at this stage to have a compass set with declination factored in. In North America, you might be off plus/minus 20 degrees from due south if declination isn’t taken into account.

In a nutshell, the earth’s core is molten iron and it creates a magnetic field that is slowly migrating around. The fields created by this molten iron core are in a northern “zone”. This is magnetic north which is what your compass will point to whereas the axis the earth spins on is true north. Depending on where you live, true north might be east or west of magnetic north. Declination is the difference in degrees between true north and magnetic north based on your particular location. There are websites dedicated to showing declination for all areas and then it’s simply a matter of finding your particular area with the amount of declination and adding or subtracting those degrees from magnetic north (what the compass points to) to find true north. Once you have true north, 180 degrees from that is due south. Most compasses have a way to modify and set the declination and many modern GPS units do so automatically or have a user entry.

House Layout

Getting back to locating the house, I drove a stake in for the back corner (NE corner) of the house. To be the most accurate, I then set my compass right on the top of the stake and used that as a stable platform for siting the next corner (SE corner) due south. I didn’t pound any stakes in too deep since they will need a bit of tweaking. I ran my 100 foot tape measure and measured the appropriate length for the house and set the southeast corner. I repositioned the compass on top of that stake and repeated the process with tape measure and compass to find the last 2 corners. In my case corner 3 was due west (SW corner of the house) and corner 4 was due north which was the northwest corner. I then took my tape measure and measured both diagonals. The idea is to make those two measurements exact. By doing so, I know I have a perfectly square outline.

It may take some tweaking to get a perfectly square shape. If the diagonal measurements are unequal it means I have a parallelogram. The idea is to turn that parallelogram into a rectangle or square which will be the ultimate shape of our house. Equal tape measurements signify we had right angles for all 4 corners. Now we knew exactly where the house would sit.

We needed to make sure the solar array was also facing due south and we needed to consider if the nearby trees would shade those panels on the short days of mid-December when the sun is at its lowest angle. It’s easy to overlook that when you are laying everything out in summer and the sun is high in the sky. It will be a huge problem if one sets the solar array and doesn’t take potential shading in winter into account. It is deceptive how low an angle the sun can track in winter especially the further north one lives.

Our greenhouse would be attached to the south side of the house. We needed to clear and make sure trees would not be a shading issue there as well.

Garden and Orchard Layout

The garden and orchard were the next areas to tackle. Johanna researched the proper spacing for the various types and quantities of fruit trees and fruiting plants we wanted to grow and using graph paper laid out where everything was to go. To start with, we wanted to plant cherries, peaches, plums, apples and pears along with grapes, blueberries, currants, strawberries, black berries and raspberries.

Once again using tape measure, stakes and sledge hammer, we tentatively pounded stakes in where every tree was to go in a logical, orderly manner. The corners of plots where asparagus or strawberries were to go were marked out as well. Each row of fruit trees was staggered from the previous row so that the sun had the best chance of reaching each tree once they were fully grown.

The Start of Our New Garden
Photo by Ron Melchiore

When the excavator was finishing the driveway, we also had the man rip out the roots from some of the orchard and garden sections and rummage around for any boulders it could find. And it did find numerous boulders which were piled off to the side. The excavator saved us weeks of back breaking work by wrestling with stumps and rocks in both the orchard and garden areas. As it was, we still wrestled with boulders and rocks every few feet while tilling. Slowly but surely, we have lugged or dragged them out one at a time and tilling is becoming easier with each passing season.

Boulder Wrestling
Boulder wrestling.
Photo by Ron Melchiore

By the time the excavator had plucked rock and roots out, we were well into June but decided to try planting a small garden. It was a pathetic garden since the soil needed some serious work but it still gave us a sense of accomplishment to have a small harvest by summer’s end.

The last thing we used an excavator for was to dig out the basement. It was our intent to only have a partial basement that would house a few supplies and be a cool area for our root cellar. The rest of the area under the house would be more of a crawl space. We figured this would save us money on building costs. Less concrete having to be poured for the basement floor; less digging with the excavator which charges by the hour. But at the suggestion of the operator, he advised us it would be easier in the long run to dig the whole area out for a full basement and in hind sight, it made the job of laying out the footings a much easier task.

We ended up only pouring concrete in one area of the basement while the rest was left with a vapor barrier and foam insulation as a floor finish. Now we have lots of room for storage as well as our root cellar.

Frost level in our area is 4 feet so our excavated hole was 4 feet deep. We had to make a split second call on taking the advice of the operator since he suggested digging the whole thing out after he had started. But in hindsight, I wish we had given it a little more thought. I would have only had him dig down 3 feet and then all the fill taken out of the hole could have been banked up around the house which would have made a good grade for water drainage. Additionally, and this would apply to anyone, being a foot higher would have lessened the chance of water in the basement. Less digging also would have saved some money.

Next time we get together, we’ll discuss why we chose a dug well over a drilled well and why we chose a new construction technique of ICF (insulated concrete forms) as opposed to traditional wood framing.


Ron Melchiore and his wife Johanna are currently building a new homestead on the coast of Nova Scotia. 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. Ron and Johanna are the authors of The Self-sufficient Backyard: For the Independent Homesteader. Connect with Ron at In the Wilderness and on Facebook and Pinterest.


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Prolapsed Uterus in Sheep: How to Use a Pessary

 Ewes with lambs

Of the various unpleasantries that can accompany sheep farming, the prolapsed uterus is a particularly unwelcome trouble. Fortunately, a pessary can successfully permit farmers to prosthetically secure the uterus, even through lambing, until a veterinarian can surgically address the animal’s condition. 

Pessaries have been used for womankind for millennia: The first mention of a device to assist with symptoms of female pelvic disorders was described by Hippocrates in 400 BC. Women experiencing pelvic organ prolapse (POP) could be inverted on a ladder-like frame and vigorously shaken to move their organs back into place.

Modern pessaries have evolved from such ancient ladder-like contraptions, and are available in varied forms. In sheep, these are used either for the vaginal placement of hormones via an impregnated sponge, or as a “prolapse retainer,” as discussed herein.

lambs in spring

Ewes suffering from a prolapsed uterus require prompt attention. Only the largest of sheep farms is likely to keep pessaries on hand, so a veterinarian is likely the quickest source to secure one. If time allows, pessaries can be purchased online affordably.

Exposed tissue should be cleaned gently with warm soapy water; the moisture also assists reinserting the uterus. After the uterus is pushed back into position (no vigorous shaking required), the pessary is inserted to hold the uterus in place. The pessary has a small arm on each side, intended to be woven into the sheep’s wool as anchor. In practice, these arms can untangle and release, necessitating a rewashing and replacing of the uterus. It is thus recommended that the pessary arms be further secured with string (that leftover string from grain bags works well!).

Tip: When pushing the uterus back in, it is helpful to position the ewe over a square bale of hay. If she fights, she can’t collapse to the ground. It also helps to prevent her from spinning or running off.

The condition of prolapsed uterus is a distressing experience in sheep farming, and often ends very badly. But if a pessary can serve to get a ewe through lambing, it’s worth every effort to try.

In farming, as in life, something always seems to go awry…. If animal husbandry was easy, it wouldn’t be worth learning. (For a recent video of me with my sheep in Vermont, visit youtube).  

John Klar raises grass-fed beef and sheep, and seeks to educate people about where their food comes from and how large corporate interests wish to dominate food production. He moved to Vermont and began farming in 1998. John and his wife, Jacqueline, built and operated an artisanal raw-milk cheese house, and have raised pigs, chickens, sheep, horses, cows, and goats, and grown many varieties of vegetables and herbs. Connect with John on Facebook, and watch his farming videos on YouTube. Read all of John's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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