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

The Organic Agriculture Research Act of 2018

countrysideEarly this month, Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced the Organic Agriculture Research Act of 2018. This bill would reauthorize the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) until 2023, with a gradual increase of funding, from 20 million dollars to 50 million dollars annually.

“OREI was created over 15 years ago when the organic industry looked very different,” said Kanika Gandhi, Policy Specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “The organic industry has experienced massive growth over the last few years, and all signs indicate that consumer interest in organics will only continue to increase. Yet, despite its growth, domestic organic production continues to lag far behind demand for organic products. It is high time that our national investment in organic agricultural research is increased to catalyze the advancement of domestic production.”

Currently OREI is the only federal program specifically focused on organic research, and it is the only federal farming program whose funding is set to expire at the end of the 2014 Farm Bill cycle. If this bill is passed, it will help ensure that the funding for the program increases to an amount that will bring to the total budget for organic research in line with the current demand and growth projections for the organic farming industry.

Passing the Organic Agriculture Research Act of 2018 would mean that organic farming in America could continue on a level that would keep up the growing demands of the country for organic food products, and continue to further increase the quality of organic farming.

This press release is presented without editing for your information. MOTHER EARTH NEWS does not recommend, approve or endorse the products and/or services offered. You should use your own judgment and evaluate products and services carefully before deciding to purchase.

Women’s Rising Involvement in Agriculture

landOver the past few decades, women have become more involved in agriculture, buying their own farmland and starting their own farms. It is estimated that within the next 20 years, 371 million acres of land will change hands as farmers retire or leave their land to the next generation, with the vast majority turned over to women ownership. If this is a true estimation, then the next 20 years will add to the nearly 300 million acres of U.S. land currently owned and farmed by women.

Research shows that in some areas, women actually get the job done better than men do. Women farmers and landowners have a strong conversation and stewardship ethic, meaning that women are more likely to talk about any farming problems or struggles, and reach out for help.

American Farm Trust’s Women for the Land initiative address the difficulties that women in particular face in accessing conservation programs and resources. The initiative consists of three main components: research in women landowners and their barriers, engaging women in conservation, and technical assistance and policy reforms.

Very little research exists on Americans who own or lease farming and agricultural land, particularly the women. AFT uses their Women for the Land program to fill this gap in research by developing and testing a new landowner survey, focusing on the short- and long-terms goals of women farmers across the country. This survey looks to address the unique hurdles that women face owning and farming their own land.

In 2012, Women for the Land began using “learning circles” for women landowners in the Mid-West and Mid-Atlantic regions. These events strive to bring women landowners together to create a network of knowledge and support, as well as get these landowners in touch with female conservation professionals. AFT keeps the full and updated schedule on their website for women to register for upcoming events in their area.

The Farmland Information Center (FIC) provides information and technical assistance to women landowners, customized specifically for them to help them get ahead in a farming industry typically dominated by men. The FIC also provides a website and toll-free hotline for women to get access to knowledge on conservation programs, farmland protection options, succession plans, and more.

AFT and Women for the Land work to ensure that women have a prominent place in the world of farming and agriculture, and continue to do so long into the future.

This press release is presented without editing for your information. MOTHER EARTH NEWS does not recommend, approve or endorse the products and/or services offered. You should use your own judgment and evaluate products and services carefully before deciding to purchase.

Nesting Boxes ABCs

 hen in box with chicks

It’s mid-February, and if you live in the northern hemisphere, this means that days are lengthening, and though it might still seem like the dead of winter, the biological clock of your chickens unmistakably indicates the approach of spring and the season of egg abundance.

A behavior pattern I have observed in my flock at this season are hens checking out the nesting boxes, and sitting inside them for a few minutes, without actually laying an egg. It’s like they are thinking, “Hmm, I’m going to start laying soon. Check out this neat and comfy spot! Which one is better?”

Chickens like to lay their eggs in safe, snug and quiet corners, and such your nesting boxes should be. To avoid crowding, it is recommended you have one box per 3-4 hens, though chickens, like humans, often have a tendency to believe that something used by someone else is inherently better, and will all try to lay in the same box anyway.

Build a Better Box

With some basic carpentry skills, you can easily build your own nesting boxes out of wood scraps, but even if you don’t know which way to hold a hammer, there are plenty of simple and cheap DIY solutions. Among them are 5-gallon buckets (resting on their side, obviously), old cat litter boxes, large plastic containers with the top cut off, and old re-purposed drawers and crates. The nesting boxes should be stable, so that they aren’t prone to falling even if the hens tend to shove each other, sheltered, and with a rim to prevent the eggs from falling.

Our favorite nesting box solution is the kind of light metal containers we often find near stores that sell spices, nuts, etc. They are rectangular and have a round opening that is the perfect size for the average chicken (see picture). They do rust, but there’s always a supply of new containers free for the taking when we want them.

Your nesting boxes should be padded so that the chickens are comfortable and the eggs don’t break. Straw is a popular choice; wood shavings, dry leaves or pine needles can be used as well. I usually pad my boxes with dry grass I collect from our yard. We also put a dummy egg or two in each box, especially in the beginning of the season, to encourage our chickens to lay there, but that’s entirely optional.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts to provide a comfortable laying place, your hens will still decide that the bushes at the far end of your property are a more attractive spot for egg-laying. It is extremely frustrating to wonder for weeks why a hen isn’t laying, only to follow her one day and discover an immense clutch of eggs you can barely reach. If a hen goes broody and begins sitting in such a secluded spot, and you don’t find her in time, she may well fall prey to a fox or another predator. The only way to break such bad habits is to keep her confined to the coop for at least a week, or however long it takes to see that she is consistently laying in one of the boxes you provided.

Chicken behavior is a fascinating thing, and the start of egg (and, by extension, chick) season is always exciting. Whether you are a new or experienced chicken keeper, I wish you the best of luck with your flock this spring.

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna'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.

Some Tips to Winterize an Outdoor Chicken Run for a Backyard Flock

Coop covered in poly

We recently had a record-setting series of cold days settle upon us. The previous four winters had been mild and we were lulled into complacency about winter preparations for our flock of outdoor chickens. But when this recent cold snap hit, we were not completely prepared for it and had to scramble to make our chickens more comfortable. What follows is a list of some of the lessons we learned and what preparations to make for next year so our flock will fair better when the cold weathers wallops us again.

First, let me set the scene: during the winter our chickens live in a stationary coop with a small door that gives them access to a sheltered run. The outdoor run is framed with 2 by 4 walls and is wrapped in hardware cloth. It is also has a roof framed with 2 by 6 boards and is covered with plywood and asphalt shingles. Now, to make that a comfortable place for the chickens on frigid day:

Make the Outdoor Run into a Cozy Space

As in other years, we had cut and hung a section of plastic tarp to block the prevailing winds from the west and north that blew through the run. But when the cold snap hit, this proved to be insufficient wind protection and, in addition to blocking only some of the wind, was also blocking sunlight - not something you want to do if you wish to encourage your hens to continue laying through the winter. We knew our setup needed improving when our birds started to show signs of frostbite on their combs.

Fortunately, we had some old greenhouse poly stored away that we rummaged up. We took down the tarp and wrapped the walls of the entire run with poly, effectively making it a greenhouse-like chicken run with minimal drafts and lots of natural light. When entering the run afterwards, it was noticeably warmer than the air temperature outside. The chickens seemed to like this set-up better too, as the snow no longer drifted into the run and reduced the space the chickens felt comfortable using. 

Offer High Calorie Foods to Boost Metabolism

Keeping warm requires extra calories, and if the calories come from quality sources, all the better for the chickens. On especially cold days we treated our birds to a porridge made from their feed with a handful of sunflower seeds stirred in. They were also given mealworms or cans of wet cat food, which we mixed into their regular bowl of kitchen scraps, and emptied into feed bowls in the run. When we had enough spare eggs, we even prepared some scrambled eggs with parsley, thyme and oregano. They also enjoyed some homemade suet comprised of bacon fat, flax seeds, millet, and sunflower seeds. We also purchased a suet block and placed that in the run, too.

Continue Adding Carbon Sources

We had an outbreak of ringworms during the cold snap. With all the chickens being confined to the run, we had the ideal conditions for ringworm to spread. We quickly realized that we needed to employ a deep bedding approach in the outdoor run to bury the droppings and make the worms’ eggs less accessible to the chickens as they scratched and pecked about. To combat the worms already within the chickens, we added diatomaceous earth to their feed, gave them freeze-dried and fresh chopped garlic, and periodically tossed them pumpkin seeds. All of these offerings were meant to make the chickens’ digestive tracts uninhabitable for the ringworms.

Provide Activities for Chickens

Our chickens were used to being outside free-ranging and no doubt felt a little bit of cabin fever when the deep snow and blistering wind chills prevented them from getting out on their own. Confined to the coop and run, they needed some extra activities and stimulation. Typically, that excitement came in the form of new straw, which the chickens quickly got busy at scratching through and spreading throughout the run. We also threw scratch onto the straw to encourage even more scratching. When we had a half head of cabbage leftover, we punched a hole through it and strung it from the rafters.

When the weather warmed up enough to melt the snow, we opened the door to the run and let the chickens out once more. I think they were just about as happy as chickens can be with all the space to roam about in and fresh ground for scratching.
Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram. Read all of Rebecca’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.

Practical Advice on How to keep Your Goats Warm and Happy

babies in sweaters 

We’ve lived in Florida many, many years. Half of those years we lived in South Florida where the idea of a hard freeze is 50 degrees at night, and half of those years in North Florida where the temperatures can and will dip into the low 20’s at night. Thankfully these low temperatures usually only last one or two nights, but sometimes they can stick around for up to a week. Now, you Northerners can stop laughing, but the fact is, that while your animals and your wardrobe are well prepared for those below freezing temperatures, our animals and livestock and our wardrobe are not. Our livestock doesn’t grow the protective winter coats, our barns and shelters are constructed for maximum ventilation and shade rather than warmth and our closets typically don’t include any winter coats. Two more challenges we face are the rather large temperature fluctuations from freezing at night to mid-sixties during the day, and the typically early in the year kidding season from December/January through April before the weather gets too hot and the bugs become a pest of moms and babies.

What we have found though, it doesn’t take a lot of money to make sure that your southern livestock of all ages weathers a cold spell well, just some preparation and extra attention for “freeze prep”.

1. Give your goats and other livestock plenty of extra hay to munch on when it gets cold. Heat is produced through the digestion of the hay and can be useful in helping your livestock maintain body temperature in colder temperatures. And depending on availability, extra rations of a high protein forage such as alfalfa or perennial peanut can help the internal engine going.

LBJ enjoying the comfort

2.  Provide shelter for your animals to be able to move out of the wind, and to stay dry on drizzly, rainy days. A wet coat will lower body temperature and will make it harder to stay warm and healthy. Fresh air is good, but a shelter is needed, especially if there isn’t a natural shelter like a tree line. We put up a plastic lining around our kidding stalls. For several years we used 6 mil plastic sheeting which we stapled to the wood, but it had a couple of disadvantages. The goats liked to chew the plastic, it was not that resistant to strong wind and it wasn’t all that easy to put up. This year we switched to hard plastic panels often used for green houses or roofing. It turns out to be chew resistant, it is strong enough to withstand heavier storms and it is much faster to put up and take down; and it is more economical because it can be used year after year. The plastic is only on three sides, still keeping plenty of ventilation during the warmer days, but breaking the wind and rain. The temperature inside the pens is probably about 10 – 15 degrees warmer now.

Plastic Panels

3. Thick bedding will help your livestock keep dry and warm. The bedding insulates them from the ground and helps maintain body temperature especially when they can snuggle into the hay and with each other. Our livestock guardian dogs with their thick coats do not want to come inside the house even when offered. They are happy with the colder temperatures, jumping and playing, but they do snuggle and dig into the warm hay compost for shelter and added warmth. 

4. Give warm mash to your horses and goats to ensure there is enough liquid in their guts to avoid colic and impaction and increase fluid intake. We mix two cups of alfalfa cubes and two cups of beet pulp in hot water to make a delicious soup into which we mix the grain just before feeding. This helps with increasing their water consumption and we do this twice daily with the horses. Our goats don’t like mash, but we do give them warm water to drink during cold weather, sometimes plain or with added molasses. Also considering that milk is about 80% water and if your milkers don’t drink enough, their milk production will decrease. Warm water is extremely palatable for our goats and they will slurp down a small bucket in no time.

Munching Hay

5. Blankets for older or thin horses (we blanket when the temperatures hover near 30) so they don’t have to expend energy trying to stay warm, the blanket is a big help. Southern horses don’t usually grow a really thick coat to protect them. Just make sure to take the blanket back off during the day when the temps climb again. We also put little sweaters on the baby goats for the same reason. Our rule of thumb: if we wear a hat and three layers including a thick jacket, blankets are in order for the horses and baby goats. Dog sweaters from big box stores work great or they can be sewn very easily from a felt fabric.

6. Hang up heat lamps to the ready in the kidding pens to keep newborn goats, lambs, and other baby critters warm. We use the heat lamps from Premier1, which have a protective plastic cover so that the heat lamp bulb doesn’t touch hay or animals and minimizes the danger of fires or burnt skin. Their only drawback is that they are very difficult to open for me to get the bulb in. Actually, impossible for me. I have to have someone do it for me.  

Heat Lamp

Other little farm tasks that we include in our “Freeze Prep” are:

bringing potted plants inside and covering other plants with plastic;
refreshing the automatic waterers in the morning with warmer water from the underground pipes;
keeping the pasture water lines on drip to avoid freezing;
covering well pump lines or other water lines with blankets or towels to avoid freezing to avoid bursting;
unhooking and draining hoses the night before to avoid freezing.

Even though we huff and puff through our few frosty mornings, we love the frost covered grass, the little crystals hanging from the fences and the idea of a crock pot meal in the evening. And of course, there is always a silver lining even with freezing weather in the South: it decimates the worms and coccidia which normally are a year round bane to our existence.  Mother Nature does know best.

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 and eight volunteers, and is the home to a small herd of dairy goats, 11 Black Angus cattle, 75 laying hens, 3 horses, 2 cats, 4 house dogs, 7  livestock guardian dogs, and 1 duck. Read all of Julia’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.

Champion Chicken Breeds


When one dives into the exciting world of chicken breeds, the variety is amazing and, sometimes, dazzling. In this post, I bring you the champions of the chicken world in their various capacities:

Top Egg Layers – White Leghorns are without a doubt the world egg-laying champions, producing up to 300 eggs in their first year. To fuel this little egg factory, a lot of food is needed – White Leghorns aren’t just champion layers, they are champion eaters, too. The drawback, of course, is that after the first year their production declines, as the number of eggs a chicken can lay over a lifetime is limited. For myself, personally, I prefer more balanced producers, who lay less prolifically but more evenly over a longer time, and can go broody and be good mothers as well. Which brings me to the next award:

Champion Broodies – Silkies are notorious for their strong broody tendencies and good mothering skills, and have been used for a long time as excellent surrogate mothers for just about any egg you might like to put under them. Given the chance, many Silkies will be broody throughout most of the year. Cochins come at a close second, and are also a very good choice if you want a reliable broody or two in your flock. Having said that, I’ve had hens from a variety of breeds, including Rhode Island Red crosses, that were very good, consistent broodies, but if you’re getting chicks or young pullets for this purpose, you cannot go wrong with Silkies or Cochins.

Sweetest, Most Docile Breed – Here, too, the golden cup goes to the Silkie. Beautiful and quirky-looking, with their down-like feathering and prolific crests, Silkies are like sweet docile puff balls that are perfect to be held and handled, and make wonderful pets. Other very docile breeds are Cochins, Brahmas, Orpingtons and Faverolles. Disclaimer: this also depends on the upbringing. If you want to have sweet, docile pet chickens, handle them a lot from a young age and hand-feed treats daily.

The Biggest Chicken in the world is the Black Jersey Giant, with 13 lb being the standard weight for males. They were developed primarily as a meat breed. The smallest chicken is probably the beautiful little Sebright, which is mostly ornamental.

The Best Meat Chicken, per growth rate and economical investment, is the Cornish Cross, which makes it the standard choice of the meat industry. Cornish Crosses, however, are hardly a viable breed for the small flock owner – they are not raised to be hardy or, indeed, to survive beyond seven weeks, and if not slaughtered, will probably die soon after, as their skeleton and heart are just not meant to sustain their disproportional growth. Backyard chicken owners who opt for Cornish Crosses to grace their table would be dependent on large hatcheries for fresh batches of chicks every time. For a self-sustaining flock, I would recommend the heavier heritage breeds such as Brahmas, Dorkings, Orpingtons or Jersey Giants. These birds are slower growers and won’t give you as much meat as fast as Cornish Crosses can, but they are actually dual-purpose and will also provide eggs, breed true (that is, the chicks will have the same qualities as the parents), and lead long and productive outdoor lives.

Rarest Chicken Breed – unfortunately, with the industrialization of eggs and meat production, many beautiful local heritage chicken breeds were wiped out. Thanks to the efforts of chicken enthusiasts, many other rare breeds were saved from extinction, but some are still hovering on the brink. One of the most exotic and rarest chicken breeds is the Indonesian Ayam Cemani, black from crest to toe and from feathers to meat.

Best Homestead Chicken Breed – this brings us to the big question: which breed is the very best choice for the small homesteader? There is no clear-cut answer, and it really depends on what your primary purpose is, as well as your budget and your local climate. The homesteader will probably do wisely to choose a breed that is tough, resilient, active, a good forager, and adapted to the local weather conditions. Do your research. Brahmas, for instance, are a wonderful breed, but they just don’t thrive in our Mediterranean climate, panting and puffing and nearly fainting on the hottest days. We are better off with lighter-weight breeds that don’t have such profuse feathering.

Many breeds traditionally chosen by homesteaders are actually dual-purpose, such as Rhode Islands, Plymouth Rocks, Orpingtons and Wyandottes. These breeds are fairly large, hardy, decent to good layers, and will supply you with both eggs and meat, though not as efficiently as industrial single-purpose lines. They will roam your land, getting much of their food on their own if you let them free range, and provide organic pest control. They will naturally go broody, and renew your flock year after year by hatching and bringing up chicks, so that you need not be dependent on hatcheries after you purchase your starting stock.

You can, of course, also opt to have a mixed flock combined of chickens with various characteristics, with a few hens thrown in specifically for their excellent mothering qualities or their interesting looks to satisfy your aesthetic preferences. You may also run your chickens with other birds, such as guineas, peafowl, and waterfowl of all kinds, if you set up a pond for the latter. The homestead flock is usually colorful and varied, rather than uniform and predictable, and I like it that way.

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna'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.

Gender on the Homestead: Why this Mom Mows

Mom on Tractor

The very first purchase we made for our homestead was our trusty John Deere Rider Mower. The very first thing I said to my husband after we made that purchase was "I'm going to learn how to use it too."  

There's a tendency for homesteading projects to be divided along traditional gender lines - dad operates the tractor, mom cans the tomatoes; dad shovels the compost, mom makes the beeswax candles. And while some of these things are true in our house (I actually do make candles, but my husband was the first to try it) we are also very non-traditional in a lot of important ways. 

After all, a homestead is a family affair, and like many modern farmers the choice to lead this lifestyle was a joint choice - one my husband and I made together because we both love the projects and the idea of sustaining ourselves. So it makes sense that we do things together, trade off jobs, and take turns (especially when there are kids to manage too).

But there are some other important reasons to share the work:

We all need more movement in our lives. I've written before about the risks of a sedentary lifestyle and the fact that our families are seeing less and less movement in our every day lives. If we leave the heavy lifting, digging, spreading, and wood chopping to dad, the rest of us are missing the opportunity to develop our muscles through diverse weight-bearing movements. With the risk of osteoporosis and other degenerative diseases in women, in fact, it may be even more important for mom to keep active. Movement can also help you to release stress, and some repetitive movements (like mowing or swinging an ax) can also be meditative in nature as you get into the rhythm of them.

We all deserve a "time out." Let's face it, raising kids is not always a piece of cake. Every parent occasionally needs and deserves time to do something without the kids, but all too often moms are the ones left with the kids when dad goes to do a physically demanding project. He gets an hour of quiet time working his muscles while mom deals with temper tantrums or tries to get the kids outside to play. Likewise, sometimes BOTH parents need to get involved in a project so that our kids get a forced "time out" from parent intervention; eventually the boredom inspires them to think of something to do, and free play magically emerges.

We are role models for our children. The only way that gender lines are going to be dissolved (if you care about that quest, like we do), is if our children see examples of the ways in which we can reject stereotypical role-based assignments. My children see dad in the kitchen all of the time, and they ride the mower with mom. They see dad do the laundry and mom manage the finances. Then they see these jobs traded back and forth. While there are some projects my husband just has the sheer strength or experience to manage better than I do (chopping down a tree, for example, was something he learned how to do in college), and I admit that I sometimes want to fall back on gender norms when I don't want to do something (like taking out the trash or stacking the log pile) I try to remember that my kids are watching. For the most part I don't think my children see "dad's jobs" and "mom's jobs" along gender lines. I hope they will carry that with them into their future relationships and leadership roles.

I'd love to hear from others who are thinking about the intersections between gender and homesteading (or simply gender-divided tasks at home)!  How are you sharing jobs, assigning tasks, talking to kids about who does what?  

Carrie Williams Howe is the Executive Director of an educational nonprofit by day, and parent and aspiring homesteader by night and on weekends. She lives in Williston, Vermont, with her husband, two young children, and a rambunctious border collie. Carrie has a PhD in educational leadership and is passionate about being an authentic, participatory leader in various settings. She is a contributing editor at Parent Co Magazine. Connect with Carrie on The Happy Hive Facebook page. Read all of Carrie’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.