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

The ABCs of Homesteading: M is for Meat

Hams

This is the eleventh post in the ABCs of Homesteading series. Click here to read the rest of the series.

People lucky enough to live in wealthy countries tend to eat a lot of meat. Per capita, Americans consume about 200 pounds of meat per year or 230 pounds if adjust for vegetarians. To put that in homesteading terms, that's a market-sized pig per person (6-8 months to raise) plus about 20 chickens or ducks (3+ months to hatch and raise) each year. Alternatively, a 1200 pound steer (raised for 18+ months) yields about 490 pounds of meat and could feed just over two people.

The Difference Between Homestead and Industrial Meat

Thinking about meat consumption in terms animals lives and the resources it takes to raise them is a necessity on the homestead. It also makes it is easy to see why our current meat consumption is only realistic if you ignore the environmental and human side effects of an unsustainable meat industry.

Homestead meat, in my opinion, is instead about using animals to benefit your land while raising and slaughtering them with dignity and appreciation for their sacrifice. Caring for livestock changes your perspective on how much meat you can and should eat. The amount of work that goes into keeping healthy animals and slaughtering at home helps define the upper limits for homestead meat production.

On our homestead, we eat about one hog and ten ducks per year. We raise extra hogs for friends and family. We often luck into some free deer, beef, or rabbit meat. Our individual consumption works out to less than half of the national average and will be reduced further when our young fruit and nut trees begin to produce.

I also raise 75 extra ducks per year to sell at farmers markets. Raising more ducks than we can eat helps build fertility in our soil and establish our edible landscape (see The ABCs of Homesteading: E is for Edible Landscaping for more details) and helps off-set our feed costs. Many states allow on-farm poultry processing using simple tools like a kill cone, knife, scalding pot, washable table, and food-grade hoses. Dedicated freezers and water tests may be required. Labels with meat handling instructions and freezer bags are also needed.

The Realities of Raising Animals on the Homestead

Taking an ethical approach to raising livestock for meat doesn't mean accidents don't happen or that things don't go wrong. They do. We are still fallible human beings. In nature, not all animals make to maturity. Curiosity kills the chicken as easily as the cat. Animals wander too far from safety and get eaten by predators. Or, they have birth defects that manifest as they start growing.

Other concerns aside, industrial farmers do a pretty good job of raising animals to maturity. Pre-market mortality rates are only about 4.8% for broiler chickens and about 8.3% for hogs from weaning to slaughter. Compared to what you might experience, particularly in your first few years of keeping livestock, those are pretty good odds.

Part of the reason why homestead losses might be greater is because we often avoid culling weaklings and runts. As caretakers, we root for the underdogs even when it doesn't make sense from a financial or time management perspective. Having nursed quite a few sickly animals, I have learned that even with my best efforts, very few weaklings make it to maturity. By intervening, I prolong their suffering. Still, sometimes I just can't help but learn that lesson again.

Mostly though, homesteading losses are greater because in giving animals access to pasture you face a host of challenges that a secure, controlled poultry or hog house would not have. You also aren't likely to resort to antibiotics and other medications to ensure health. In offering animals access to a varied diet on pasture, you increase the chance that animals will become malnourished or poisoned. Wild animals may have good instincts about what to eat for optimal health, but not all domesticated breeds do. Animals on pasture are also exposed to the elements, predators, and accidental hazards that don't exist in an engineered environment.

Pigs

Why Pasture Raising is Worth the Risk and How to Improve your Odds

Despite the extra challenges, I can tell you with absolute certainty that these animals prefer a life outdoors, and all the associated risks, over a life of confinement. I know this because my animals actually spend their first few weeks in confinement and I get to experience their sheer joy of discovering pasture each time I raise them.

To balance the risks with a reasonable rate of return, I confine young animals to protected areas for their first few weeks at the reLuxe Ranch. That gives me time to become friendly with our livestock, so they aren't afraid when I deliver food or water, and keeps them protected until their survival instincts are better developed. Our livestock also acclimate to a diet of formulated feed so that even when on pasture, they will still have a preference for, and access to, balanced nutrition.

Following are a few more details on how we keep our livestock.

Pigs get a small, electric-fenced area, inside a physical fence, until they are wire-trained. I introduce them to pasture slowly and increase the size of their paddocks when they demonstrate routine use of their centralized food and water supply and shelter. Pigs get lots of pets and come running when they see me which makes it easy to do health checks and make adjustments to their diet as needed.

Poultry spend several weeks in the brooder and greenhouse before I give them pasture access. In the interim, I throw them lots of cut greens and herbs in addition to their formulated feed.

Chickens get overhead protection until they are at least four months old because we have a healthy hawk population. Usually we just keep them under our fruit trees for a while.

All livestock get rations of formulated feed equal to at least 50% of their diet.

We raise animals adapted to pasture rather than confinement,e.g. heritage breed chickens instead of cornish crosses, even when that means it takes longer to grow them to maturity.

All animals have specific mineral needs for optimal growth. Ducks will become lame and die without sufficient niacin so I add it to their feed until they become good foragers. Goat health declines quickly without sufficient Zinc and Selenium so I tested our soil to make sure we had sufficient levels and I offer free choice minerals during periods of confinement (e.g. bad weather) or when any member of the herd shows early signs of declining health. Pigs have a number of specific needs you can learn about at the Pigsite. Since our pigs eat a lot of formulated feed, I rarely need to give them supplements, but I refer to the list and adjust their diets as needed if I notice any changes in their health.

Resources Related to Raising Livestock

You can check out my other blog posts about raising animals if you want more information.

1. The ABCs of Homesteading: D is for Ducks;

2. The ABCs of Homesteading: G is for Goats

3. Hog Killin: Raising Hogs, Killing Hogs, and Eating Hogs - A Three Part Series

4. The Tale of the Complicated, but Meaningful Lives of Meat Ducks at the reLuxe Ranch

Also, if you are specifically interested in raising chickens for meat and eggs, I recently teamed up with Marjory Wildcraft at the Grow Network to write a 154 page eBook companion to Marjory's video (available for purchase) on Raising Meat Chickens.

Making Meat Last

Now that we've covered the ethics and challenges of raising animals on the homestead, let's focus on what comes after the slaughter. You can process poultry or rabbits with nothing more than a knife. You can eat them the same day, store them in the fridge, or make things like turkey jerky, duck prosciutto, chicken strips, or rabbit rillette with a short curing period.

To slaughter and eat a full-grown pig, though, you either need to share with a lot of families or find methods of preserving your meat. Since it takes eight months or longer to raise a pastured pig, we tend to expect the meat supply to last at least that long.

Freezing Meat. Freezing is the easiest form of meat preservation. Cut your portions into single meal servings, bag it, label it, and freeze it. Depending on who you ask, frozen meat lasts for 6 months to a year. Once you add spices, cut that estimate to 3 to 6 months.

Deep freezer temperatures fluctuate less than stand-up freezers. They also tend to be more energy-efficient. For longevity, keep your freezer full to better regulate temperature. You can add bags of frozen water to fill empty space. Vaccuum sealing also seems to extend the freezer life of meat.

Fresh Sausage. Fresh, uncured sausage, is essentially meat that has been ground, seasoned, and sometimes stuffed in casing tubes. There aren't a lot of rules for making fresh sausage.You can use whatever spices you like and add breadcrumbs, wine, or whatever your prefer. Ratios of 15-25% fat to 75-85% lean meat tend to work best when making cased sausage links.

Casing diameter determines thickness of sausage and impacts the length of your cooking and curing time. For simplicity, I use 32-35 mm casings for everything. This means my breakfast sausage is grill size and my fermented sausage are more like sausage sticks, but it works.

The one “biggie” is that anytime you pack meat in casings, make lots of holes in the casing surface with a safety pin or sausage pricker to release trapped air that might otherwise provide a perfect environment for botulism bacteria. Also, if you plan to cold smoke your cased sausage, then add Instacure No. 1. For those worried about nitrates, I like to quote Meredith Leigh, Ethical Meat Handbook author, who says “I use cure, I wear mascara, I drink whiskey...I'm just that kind of girl.” Cures may not be entirely wholesome, but botulism is lethal.

 My personal favorite fresh sausage is Boudin Blanc. There are lots of ways to make it. I throw all the ingredients in a mega-bowl, mix it with my hands, run the mix through the meat grinder using the medium plate, and then again with the fine plate. After that I stuff it in pig intestines using a manual cast iron stuffer, twist it into links (alternate your turns clockwise/counterclockwise to keep them from untwisting), and hang dry for a couple hours before freezing (or eating).

reLuxe Ranch Modified Boudin Blanc

Ingredients

17 pounds cubed lean pork cuts
3 pounds cubed pork fat
3 quarts heavy cream
8 medium onions
4 cups sourdough breadcrumbs
8 tbsp fresh thyme leaves - minced
16 tbsp salt
8 tbsp unsalted butter

My Boudin Blanc isn't the most elegant and it only has ingredients we use routinely or make on our homestead, but it's always a crowd pleaser. Meat and fat quality varies from pig to pig, by breed, and time of of slaughter. Cook up some sausage mix and adjust spices and fat to meat ratios if necessary before stuffing.

Sausage

Fermented Sausage. For cured or fresh sausage, the initial processes are the nearly the same – mix ingredients, grind, stuff, hang, store, etc. But, since you won't be putting fermented sausage in the freezer, and the curing period is longer, you will want to use Instacure No. 2 in your mix. This breaks down slower than Instacure No. 1 and offers better long-term protection against bad bacteria.

For fermented sausage, the right ratio of fat, to meat, to liquid, to sugar is really important. Following tried and true recipes is a good place to start until you get a feel for the “chemistry” involved.

Using a starter culture is also helpful. If you've noticed that white, papery rind on the outside of Brie cheese, that's the result of a form of penicillun that creates a living wrapper around the cheese to protect it from bad stuff. The white molds you buy for fermented sausages, like T-SPX, perform a similar function and make your sausages look like fancy charcuterie instead of summer sausage. I get the most uniform mold coating when I soak the casings in the starter culture before stuffing. If you forget, though, you can always roll your finished sausages in the culture before you hang them.

Fermenting sausage is similar to fermenting cabbage to make sauerkraut – only with more requirements. You need to control the temperatures, humidity, and air circulation in your curing environment for several weeks or longer. Most people use fermentation chambers for this.

To make one, plug a working refrigerator into a temperature override and control device, add in a humidifier and humidity sensor/control device, and a mini-fan for air circulation. Then set your temperatures and humidity according to the instructions in your recipe. This site, Meat Curing at Home - The Setup, gives more details and brand recommendations.

Not all instructions include using a circulating air in your chamber. But, if you are fermenting in hot, humid weather, you are likely to need one. I find that running a fan whenever your fridge starts to smell like ammonia can head-off some fermentation problems.

You'll want a scale to take starting “green” weights of your sausage before you hang them and then use your drying weights to help determine when to adjust your humidity during the aging process. For best results, use you can also use that scale for preparing recipes that rely on ratios or weights rather than cup measurements.

Here is a link to one of my favorite recipes How to Make Dry Cured Spanish Chorizo Castellano. You can also modify this recipe to make your own custom sausages. For example, instead of 2.5% Pimenton de la Vera you can substitute in Hungarian smoked paprika, Indian curry, or Merguez spices. Also, note, dextrose is a form of sugar extracted from corn. If you are concerned about GMOs, buy non-GMO dextrose. Or, if the idea of using something extracted from corn freaks you out, then increasing sugar quantity works too.

Whole Muscle Cures. Don't let this term scare you. Whole muscle is just another way of saying chunks of lean meat. This is the easiest way to preserve meat other than freezing. Country Ham or Procuitto are classic examples.

To make a country ham, mix up your cure, massage it all over your meat, and wrap your meat in parchment (not wax-coated paper), stuff it in an old cotton pillow case, and hang it in a barn/shed for 2-3 months. Unwrap, cold-smoke (if desired), and hang dry for another 12-18 months. Waiting to eat it until it is fabulously funky is the hardest part.

Country Ham Cure (For 50 pounds of ham)

Ingredients

4 pounds sea salt
1 pound brown or white sugar
10 tsp Instacure # 2
Pepper, Crushed Red Pepper, Paprika (if desired)

Full instructions: How to Make a Country Ham - University of Kentucky

Even with plenty of cure, mold happens. We just leave it on and cut it off when we slice into our meat 14+ months later. Since you will lose at least 40% of your weight while drying, and some to mold, it's good to start with a large hunk of meat. This is why hog hind legs are a favorite. And start curing in cool weather to cut down risks for maggot infestations.

You can also bury your ham in salt for several months, then dig it out, and air dry it. It takes a lot of salt to cover a ham and it is slower to dry. But the result is delicious.

Plan to use Everything but the Squeal, and maybe even that. 

Everything but the squeal is a common expression related to processing pigs. The reality, however, is that usually about 40% of the animal goes to waste unless you plan for the parts. Here are a few ideas to get you started thinking about ways to make the best use of an animal's life and death.

Homestead Workers. Use pigs to break up compacted earth before planting. Goats can be used to clear the undergrowth of a forest to make access easier. Chickens are awesome at compost pile turning or digging in soil amendments. Ducks can be used for regular fertility in established planting areas as they are less harmful to a landscape than other livestock. Pekin ducks and turkeys will sound the the alarm when visitors or predators arrive. Finding ways to capture manure or allowing your animals to direct-fertilize your landscape is a great way to build soil.

Homestead Products. Put down a thick layer of straw below your kill zone to catch the blood and add it to your compost pile. Add boiled, pulverized feathers to your feed mix. Feed your pig intestines to your chickens and your poultry intestines to your pigs. Use whatever you can't figure out how to use for trench composting.

The bones and skin of any animal make great stock. Boil the heck out of that stuff to extract all the goodness and make a condensed stock that stands up on its own. It can be pressure canned in small jars for long-term storage. Since it is so dense, you'll actually need to dilute it to use it.

All bones, after being used in stock making, can be dried and ground up to make bone meal for the garden.

Skin can be used to make pork rinds. You have to scrape the fat from the skin, cut the skin into squares, and dry them on really low heat in the oven. This takes some time and work, but once done, when you throw those hocky-puck looking squares into a pan of super hot lard, they'll fluff up into clouds of crunchy deliciousness.

Eat the organs – liver especially! Make pate or liverwurst.

Head Cheese

From pigs, make jowl bacon just like belly bacon. Use the rest of the head to make head cheese by boiling it, skin and all, in savory herbs and spices. When tender, but not falling off, pick the meat from the bones, including the tongue and brains (if you are up for it). Set aside the meat to cool and reduce the unstrained stock by half to boil it into an adhesive gelatin. Strain, cool, and beat a few tablespoons of stock with the meat, chopped parsley, salt, pepper, and a tablespoon or two of red wine or balsamic vinegar. Then ladle all this into a foil-lined baking pan, refrigerate until firm, and slice and eat with mustard, pickles, and toast. Head cheese stock makes great beans.

Mindful Meat Consumption

Conscientiously caring for an animal and then taking its life is never easy. But until we have comprehensive solutions for what happens to all of our domesticated breeds if we don't eat them, abruptly ending thousands of years of agricultural interdependence with livestock just doesn't seem like a reasonable answer to me. For me, right-sizing meat consumption, respectfully raising and slaughtering animals, and eating with deep appreciation is a good starting point for solving some of our industrial agricultural problems at home.

For information on meat alternatives to help scale back your meat consumption to a sustainable level, stay tuned for my next post The ABCs of Homesteading: M is for Mushrooms.

 Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina in 2014. Together with her partner Matt Miles, she raises goats, poultry, pigs, herbs, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape at the reLuxe Ranch. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Tasha also is also a contributing author for The Grow Network. Find Tasha at The Way Back , reLuxe Renderings, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Never a Dull Moment

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A rainbow makes an appearance at the farm just after a recent storm.  Weather is often a farm event provoker (or crasher), but it’s not the only player!  Photo by Kara Berlage.

If you’re one of those folks who has your day planned down to the quarter-hour, keeps a tidy “to-do” list at hand, and likes to plan well in advance (and stick to it), then homestead farming might not be for you.

I do keep a “to-do” list, when I can remember where I put it.  Something (often multiple things) get done every day…they’re just not always what’s on the list.  So I take my que from a Joel Salatin trick and write it on the list and cross it off!  At least it helps me feel better about the day’s accomplishments.  That item should have been on the list anyway, right?

While other fields certainly have their hiccups, farming inherently is full of surprises, last-minute changes, unpredictability, and a large amount of variables that necessitate the need to change your plans at a second’s notice in order to avoid disaster (or do your best at cleaning up after one).  “Never a dull moment!” I often hear from folks after explaining the week’s happenings.  That was even more the case with this week!

Unpredictability!

Of course, weather is an immense variable in any kind of farming.  Haying cannot be booked in advance—waiting for that perfect three-to-four-day dry stretch often involves giving the green light the morning of.  Storms arise and it’s “drop everything and run” to batten down the hatches, tie down the chicken tractors, and stuff wheel barrows and other small items into sheds to avoid damage or loss.  A mild day that turns baking hot means doubling back to open windows in the brooder coop and turn on the fan, only to return with haste in the evening as the sun sets and the temps plummet.  And oh how many nights by headlamp have I been out in the garden covering sensitive plants because frost wasn’t previously predicted.

The unpredictability of animals is also high on the list of crashing the day’s plans or keeping us up at night.  The ewes give birth at all hours, pigs escape their fencing, the guard donkey refuses to come in from the pasture at night, or a turkey is found sitting on the roof of the coop…just waiting for the next owl.

This week, amidst all the heavy rains and flooding that seemed to bring in “round two” of mud season on the farm, Kara and I were finishing up evening chores.  We were feeding our Kunekune sows and boars by the light of the headlights on our utility golf cart when Kara climbed in to check one of the pregnant sows.

It was Clara’s first pregnancy—a red-and-black speckled pig who was hanging out with her white friend Tilly—and usually the ladies show a ready udder (“bag up”) ahead of time, giving us enough warning to move them into the barn for a clean, dry, comfy farrowing.  But Clara had been keeping her pregnancy a secret until recently, and when Kara climbed into the pen, she said, “Uh, um, we’ve got milk.”

That meant her labor was imminent.  It was pitch black out—not even a moon to be seen—and it was her first time.  The experienced sows gladly trundle over to the barn (sometimes faster than Kara can run), but Clara was not in any way eager to leave her friends into the dark unknown, even when we cajoled her out of the pen.  So I was given the task of making sure she didn’t wander off while Kara fetched the ATV and our homemade pig sled on skids we normally use to move around batches of teenaged piglets.

Fortunately, Clara was a very calm gal about the whole operation, and we were able to safely load her into the sled and glide across the muddy yard, pulling right up to the barn door.  Kara had the pen all ready, filled with nice straw, and the other moms with their young piglets grunted with anticipation.  We opened the back of the sled, and, with a little patting and prodding, Clara came out and waltzed into the pen.

We did it!  And a good thing too.  By three in the morning, Clara had given birth to seven piglets.  Much better in the barn than out in a muddy pen!  Whew, averted that disaster.

So Kara’s still pretty sleepy from getting up several times in the night to check on Clara and make sure that the delivery went well when, in the middle of morning chores and feeding sheep, she hears a rumble-bang-crash!  It came from the red barn and sounded like broken glass.  No!

Fortunately Kara had been where she could even hear the event.  Racing over, she found that a ruffed grouse had exploded from outside the barn, through the window, breaking its neck and catapulting 12 feet into the barn.  The window was right over a pen of medium-sized pigs, and glass was everywhere.  And, in their classic toddler-like behavior, the pigs were picking up the glass and trying to eat it.  No! 

She climbed in, madly picking up bits of glass as fast as she could.  Meanwhile, Mom and I are at the Creamery with a brunch rush, and Steve is at the home of a computer client.  While at first, it seems like everything was going to be alright, one of the gilts (young female pigs) took a downward turn from glass ingestion.  Kara was on the phone with us, we were on the phone with the vet, but there wasn’t anything that could be done to save the pig.

When Steve returned to the farm (and we have survived two burnt rounds of “open-faced California” sandwiches), he found himself assigned to help Kara butcher the 40-lb. glass disaster pig.  Talk about putting a real kink in the day!  The poor pigger and the kamikaze grouse were all finally finished and in the fridge by 4 pm…still on the same day as the piglets were born.

For instances like this, you have to be willing to change plans on a moment’s notice.  If Kara had waited to investigate the glass sound, more of the pigs in that group could have been lost.  And if she hadn’t been willing to butcher right then, all that meat would have been lost.  And if we hadn’t moved Clara at “o-dark thirty,” her piglets might have been lost.  When prioritizing your time of the farm, often lives are in the balance.

Then last night, during chores, all the lights went out in the barn and coops, right in the middle of milking.  It was a scramble with terrified sheep in the parlor in the dark and frightened baby chicks with no heat lamps, but we were able to string up extension cords to the garage (which still had power) and get most of the dairy back working until our kind electrician dropped his evening plans and came over to replace a faulty breaker.  Otherwise, there was no power to the bulk tank and milk would have been lost.

Goodness, never a dull moment on the farm!  Time to head off to the next priority.  I’ll be feeling lucky if it happens to be something on my to-do 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 www.northstarhomestead.com


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Compost Hot Water

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Jean Pain’s work, and many that have followed, inspired hot water compost experiments to commence on our homestead! We were not happy with the performance of our solar shower so we set out to find a better way to get “free” hot water.

Solar Shower

We are located in North Idaho on our 40 acre homestead. We continually look for ways to live simply and self-sufficiently. Making hot water with electricity and propane are quite easy and we will do that when needed but we would like to figure out ways to reduce our dependency on this kind of power. During the warmer months, we especially look to reduce our energy requirement with natural processes. A solar shower along with using the gray water from the shower seemed like a natural fit. However, due to the cool nights here in North Idaho, even in the summer, we would frequently only get water temperatures up to 85-90 degrees. This is good and I’m sure with some tweaks we could improve that but it’s not good enough. Quite frankly, I like to take hot showers! The ideal temperature for a shower, for me, is 105 degrees. We had to find another way.

Function Stacking

As a permaculture practitioner, I don’t know why I didn’t see the function stacking potential sooner in this instance. We have six large composting bins that we use extensively. These bins are near our solar shower/dry composting toilet structure. We were viewing these elements independently and never considered how each element could benefit or work synergistically with one another. Element placement and integration is probably the number one area for improvement we see when working with clients. In our case, I missed the function stacking opportunity for compost hot water integration with the seasonal outdoor shower. Let’s stack the functions of the compost to not only make excellent soil, let’s use the compost to also make hot water for showers but then let’s also use that gray water to provide moisture for plants!

Compost Hot Water Experiment

The experimental hot water compost pile we built was simple and the goal was to test and document the results. We are monitoring the temperature of the pile, the temperature of water entering and exiting the pile, the approximate amount of hot water we can make and finally how long the pile will produce hot water. Our prediction is that the pile will produce enough heat for hot water for 30-45 days.

Building the Pile

We built a pretty standard compost pile following the generalized recommendations regarding carbon to nitrogen ratios. Our pile is composed of manure straw, plant material, and animal offal (unused parts from animal processing). We layered the materials appropriately and built the pile using a cattle panel bent into a circle. The pile started at about 4’ high and 5’ in diameter. We knew this was a relatively small pile but we were anxious to get the experiment underway. In order to run the hot water through the pile we used standard garden hose as tubing. This is not ideal and when we build 2.0 we will change this part of the build. We used it because we had it and it was simple. The best materials for this application are probably PEX, CPVC or even coiled copper tubing. Essentially, you want to use something that can withstand high temperatures even though we are not talking about really hot water.

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Volume and Performance

We used 125 feet of ¾-inch garden hose in the pile. The volume of hot water in the pile is approximately 2 gallons at any given time. I say approximately because it’s hard to be precise when it comes to the pile because the temperature differences at different levels, both vertically and horizontally, vary. The bottom line is we get about 2 gallons of hot water at any given time. The ground water, during this time of year, comes up at 50 degrees, goes through the pile, and comes out right around 110 degrees. We actually add a little cool water to have the perfect shower. This works out to be right at 2.5 gallons per shower. As a side note, the average shower taken uses 10 gallons of water.

Using an 18 degree compost thermometer we have documented the temperature of the pile in the same location. Unfortunately, this is only one location and not representative of the whole pile.

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24 hours

90 deg

72 hours

155 degrees

2 weeks

145 degrees

3 weeks

126 degrees

Lessons Learned

Compost Hot Water Experiment 2.0 coming soon!

Our main lessons learned:

1. Increase the volume of tubing in order to increase the amount of hot water

2. Use PEX or CPVC as piping instead of garden hose

3. Increase the size of the pile for increased “burn” times

4. Employ a small jet pump to recirculate water to increase the amount of hot water production

Overall, this has been a wonderful and fun experiment. Not to mention, we have saved on heating costs, increased water conservation and stacked functions to make our property a little more self-sufficient. Happy compost hot water making!

Sean and Monica Mitzel are the proprieters at Huckleberry Mountain Homestead & Breakfast and homestead with their family on 40 acres and are using permaculture principles and strategies for the property. The property is a demonstration and education site where they teach workshops and raise dairy goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, and ducks. To learn more about the Mitzels, visit The Prepared Homestead. Read all of their 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.

Why Be More Self-Reliant?

A lot of people will say that it is easier, more efficient and infinitely more practical to pay for what you want to get, rather than go to the trouble of making or doing it yourself. In our age, when stores are so reliable and offer a mind-boggling array of products and professional services can be obtained for almost anything, wouldn’t it make more sense to shell out a little more money and make one’s life a lot easier?

Or, to rephrase this, why would I go to the effort and expense of building, cleaning and maintaining a chicken coop, buying and caring for chickens, providing a constant supply of feed and water, dealing with predators, pests and diseases, when I can simply go to the supermarket and buy a dozen neatly packaged eggs?

Why should anyone sweat and work hard repairing a water heater, or building their own house, or sewing their own clothes, if it’s possible to invest that time and energy into earning more money, which can be later transferred to professionals to do the same job more neatly and more effectively? There are many reasons.

A radical homesteader from Connecticut who prefers to call himself Xero says, “Consumerism to a large degree only exists because it profits off of our own loss of skills. Over the last hundred or so years people have undergone what I see as a horrifying loss of survival skills.

Without these skills, without the ability to survive on one's own, one must depend on already manufactured, and continuously manufactured goods and services to stay alive. These goods and services cost money. In order to get said money, one must submit to paid labor. Sometimes one can find labor that is fun and fulfilling, but that doesn't represent the majority of folks, especially on a global scale.” 

Many handy skills, especially anything connected with building, home repair, electricity, etc., do indeed save a lot of money directly and with comparatively little trouble. So can growing your own food, if done right. But there are other things to take into account as well, such as:

Food quality and freshness – the food obtained from one’s backyard, whether it’s vegetables, eggs, milk or meat, is infinitely superior to anything that can be bought at regular supermarkets for a price anywhere near reasonable. It is fresher, tastes better, offers more health benefits and you know exactly what it was or wasn’t exposed to.

Food variety – when I go out to the garden to pick some fresh mint for my evening cup of tea, I’m getting something I can’t obtain from a store-bought teabag. I don’t usually encounter fresh mint or lemon balm at the store. At my own backyard I can grow different varieties of vegetables and herbs, raise alternative egg sources (such as ducks), and in general provide something more interesting, food-wise, than standard supermarket fare.

The satisfaction of working with one’s own hands to create something useful or edible is unequaled. It gives a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment unsurpassed by anything else.

The emotional and mental effect of a simple life – for some people, living on a plot of land and homesteading is an emotional necessity, no less. It’s what they need to do to stay sane and productive. Others are content to live in an urban setting, but find that they need frequent contact with nature and growing, living things in order to de-stress and preserve their peace of mind.

Locally sourced production makes sense ecology-wise and community-wise. There’s something incredibly satisfying to know you’re consuming food that had been grown right where you live.

Home-raised animals are healthier and happier and lead far better lives than commercially raised ones, even if both end up in the pot. Thus, by keeping some chickens and goats or a cow, you are actually reducing the amount of suffering in the world. When I see our chickens happily strolling around the yard in the afternoon sunshine, I often can’t help but think of their unfortunate counterparts locked up for the entirety of their short lives in commercial battery coops, never seeing sunlight.

And finally, but perhaps not least importantly: products and services that are readily available today might not be so in the near future. It is the belief of many wise people that our current economy is not sustainable. I do not have the ability to predict whether we are facing something like the Great Depression in the near future, or simply economical fluctuations, or even nothing at all – but it’s good to be prepared. In case prices go up and store shelves empty, the people who know how to grow their own food, fix their own roof and make a little go a long way will be a lot more comfortable than those who have become used to a lifestyle of frivolous spending.

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 Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blogRead all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here.


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Keep your Baby Goats Safe with These 11 Practical & Easy Tips

Love those Baby Goats!

Now that kidding season is behind us here at Serenity Acres Farm (www.serenitygoats.com) and our last goat kidded on June 22nd, it’s time to review that wonderfully exciting and scary time and evaluate what we’ve done or what we could do better to keep our kids (and their moms) safe and healthy. Nothing is scarier than the “baby siren” going off, the bone chilling yell of a kid in trouble. We always tell our newbies “when you hear the baby siren, just drop everything and sprint towards the source, you may only have seconds to save a kid’s life”. Their prompt response: “what is a baby siren”? “oh, you will know when you hear it”.  Most of the time, it’s a drama queen moment, but there are those times when you do only have a short time to make a difference between life and death.

The Size of Water Buckets Matters

If you have to use water buckets around kids instead of automatic waterers, use several smaller 1 gallon feed buckets rather than five gallon water buckets to minimize a kid climbing into a five gallon water bucket and getting stuck upside down and drowning, or being dropped into the water bucket during birth and drown or best case just getting wet and chilled. The little water buckets are not big enough to hold a kid and are light enough that they will tip and dump water and kid if something happens. Worst case with the little buckets, the kid will be wet or will have a bucket stuck on its head. The loudness of the siren will not be diminished by a bucket on the kids head.

good size of bucket for kids

Lay the Water Bucket Handles Flat.

Every bucket has a handle. Every kid is curious and will stick its head into the bucket. If the handle lies flat, the head will come back out and nothing happens. If the handle is propped up somehow, leaning against a wall, the kids head will come up and get stuck under the handle. The bucket will tip, the kid will get scared and will activate the baby siren and end up with a dangling bucket on its neck or over its head until you come and take it off.

bucket handle bad

bucket handle good

Latch all Gates Tightly to the nearest Wall or Fence

Kids are curious and adventurous. Small spaces magically attract them. The gap between the gate and the stall wall or the gate and the fence will be seen as a challenge to explore and get stuck in the small space. Goat kids seem to know only one gear, fast forward. Reverse has not been developed yet. To avoid the resulting baby siren, latch all gates tightly to the wall or fence so that they can only move a little, create no gaps and can’t lock anyone in or out accidentally.

Plug All Small Gaps Anywhere

Small gaps attract little goats and they will attempt (and most often succeed) in squeezing through small gaps once into the wild beyond. Then panic will set in because mom cannot follow and they will forget how they got there. Kid proof your pasture and your pen to avoid small gaps to the maximum extent feasible. If you have gaps under stall walls, fences or gates, kids will crawl under and get stuck, or will get stuck on the other side exposed to dogs, maybe even traffic, have no access to water, or be exposed to other hazards such as poisonous plants or chicken feed.

Keep your Kidding Pen and Surrounding Areas Litter Free

Goat kids are like human kids. Everything they see has to go into their mouth and be eaten. This is not so tragic if it’s just a dry leaf. This can have bad consequences if the kid eats a piece of plastic, or swallows a nail or eats a length of bailing twine. Plastic can’t be digested and can cause damage in the intestines; same the bailing twine, a nail can cause damage by piercing something vital. Glass bottles are a no. While you are picking up the litter, keep an eye out for nails that are sticking out or other sharp edges. Trust me, your goat kid will find them.

Keep your Kidding and Kid Pen Free of Unnecessary Items

Kids will mess with everything you leave in their pen. They will step onto a pitchfork and push on it until it falls over. They will climb into or under a wheel barrow and push on it until the wheelbarrow falls over, and dumps the kid or falls on the kid. Don’t leave anything with sharp edges unsupervised in a kid pen. The same goes for your coffee cup, expensive liquids, paper towels, baby wipes, your straw hat and the house dog.

Clean your Kid Pens at Least Twice Daily

Kids are especially susceptible to coccidia which are of course continuously shed by their moms. Coccidia most often are transferred by fecal matter = goat pellets, which of course kids have to taste. You will not completely avoid coccidia by keeping your kidding and kid pens clean of pellets, but you will substantially reduce the incidence of coccidian in your kids.

No Metal Wire Hanging Hay Racks in your Kid Area.

Those metal wire hanging racks seem innocent to be sure, but you realize that they are not the first time you have to extract a kid from one of those with the head and neck threaded through the wires of the hay rack.  This is a result of their desire to explore small and windy spaces. This is one of the more dangerous ones as a kid can break a neck or leg very easily by trying to get out, or hang itself if they hayrack is hanging just high enough. Know those long black feed troughs for goats with the little wire rack on top? Yep, we are taking those tops off as well ever since we had a goat kid stuck in one of those with the head and neck threaded through one of those.

hay feeder to avoid with kids

feeder without metal

No Hanging Wire Hooks, Bungee Cords, Latches and Snaps

Anything that hangs down will be chewed on with the attempt to swallow. That attempt will get the hook stuck in or through the cheek, esophagus, lips or other important body part. Always make sure that any hooks, snaps, cords, and latches are out of reach or securely tightened.

bad hook hanging

Watch your Heat Lamps

Heat lamps are great for cooler and cold weather to keep newborn and very young kids warm. Do not use metal heat lamps with exposed bulbs. They get very hot and can burn a kid, and when (they will) a goat chews through the cord and the heat lamp falls into the hay or straw, it will cause a fire. The best heat lamps we have found are the red plastic ones with protective dome from Premier 1. Yes that is a plug and I’m not getting paid for it, but they are as safe as heat lamps can be. The only bad thing about them: to pry the white protective grate off requires more squeezing power in my fingers than I can ever muster. But, they withstand bumping and jostling and do not get hot.

heat lamp

Last but not least, fencing wire

It is important to have a strong fence to keep unwanted visitors out and the kids in. But, remember to check those tension wires and wire braces for gaps big enough for a goat kid to fit under, up and through.  Once the head is stuck, it is guaranteed that a kid will move into the narrow end of it, cutting off its airflow and suffocating. In this case you don’t have much time if the baby siren sounds. We’ve rescued a couple of kids and sadly, lost one this way. Since then we have been replacing all twisted wire braces with single wire strands.

I’m sure there are many more words of wisdom on how to kid proof your baby goat area. In addition to the 11 practical preventative tips, we also check on all our animals four times a day: morning and evening feeding, noon check and bed check. We do have a camera system with sound to monitor the baby goat pen (which includes the moms since we dam raise) and we always, always keep an ear out for the baby siren, and we sprint as fast as we can when we hear it.  

More bendy kids

Happy Goating and Good Luck for the next (or your current) kidding season. Julia

If you are curious to find out more about our farm and Serenity Goats Soaps & Skincare at, here is a great little video shot by film students from West Palm Beach in Florida.

Julia Shewchuk owns and operates Serenity Acres Farm on 80 acres in Florida. Serenity Acres runs on solar, is Animal Welfare Approved-certified, host to  WWOOFers, and is the home to  dairy goats, 12 Black Angus cattle, 100 laying hens, 3 horses, 2 cats, 5 house dogs, 8 livestock guardian dogs, and 2 ducks. Read all of Julia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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How to Handle Cow-Calving Difficulties

Matilda at 48 hours

We chose to raise Dutch Belted cows on our homestead because heritage breed cows are good at taking care of themselves. They survive well on grass without grain supplements, they instinctively care for their young, and for the most part, they have easy births. Calving difficulties do happen though, and we want to be prepared when that happens.

How to Check for Calving Difficulties

How to recognize when your cow is in labor: Keep track of your cow’s due date and begin watching her about a week before. Labor could be underway if she goes off by herself, gives repeated low-pitch moo’s, and alternately stands and lies down. There’s no need for us humans to do a thing if calving progresses well.

When to call the veterinarian: We once lost a heifer when waiting too long to call the vet. Therefore, I want to share two calving situations where our intervention may be necessary. If you have watched a cow in labor for an hour, and there is no progress, call the vet. If you see the bag of waters break and the calf is not born within 20 minutes, call the vet. In these situations, the cow and calf need assistance.

Learn to feel for calf position: There may indeed be times when we don’t know how long the cow has been in labor. There are other times, especially in the middle of the night, when five minutes seem like an hour. If you’re not sure what’s going on, and if your cow will allow it, go ahead and check for the calf’s position.

To check for the calf’s position before a hoof has even peeked out, halter the cow or put her in a head-gate or stanchion. Next gently put a gloved hand up the cow’s vagina no higher than your wrist. This gentleness is important because we don’t want to break the bag of waters. You should be able to feel a foot—hopefully two—with a nose just above and slightly behind the hoofs. If you feel two hoofs and a nose, stand way back and allow the cow the peace she needs to deliver the calf herself.

calf in birth canal

How to feel a breech presentation: We were watching our Dutch Belted cow, Rosie, because she was nine days late in delivering her calf. She finally went into labor early one morning but then didn’t seem to progress. I gently felt about six inches up her vagina and found one hoof—with the curved side down.

Look at your cow’s hoofs in the calm of daylight to see the curved side up and the flat side down. Sounds silly, but when the adrenaline is running high and we homesteaders aren’t experienced in feeling up the birth canal, it’s confusing! When the curved side of the hoof is down, the calf is coming out back-legs-first. Call your veterinarian.

Be Prepared for Calving Difficulties Ahead of Time

Have a good relationship with a caring vet: If we’re raising heritage breed animals, we shouldn’t need an armamentarium of birthing equipment—that’s for the vet to bring. But we do need a vet who is caring, relatively close-by and willing to come at inconvenient hours. If you don’t have a vet yet, ask around and establish a relationship before any emergency arrives.

Basic tools for pulling calf: Calving difficulties come in degrees and not all require a vet. For example, some calves are a tight fit through the birth canal and disappear back up the canal between contractions. We keep clean hand towels in the barn which we can wrap around the calf’s ankles when they emerge. Even handier are chains designed to wrap around the calf’s ankles that have handles for you to grip.

calf-pulling-chains-and-handles

Pull on the calf’s ankles when the cow is having a contraction, but keep enough tension between contractions to prevent the calf from being pulled back up into the birth canal. Your force should be steady and downward, at about a 45 degree angle. Once the calf's head and shoulders arrive, the calf may make a rapid entrance onto the ground. Don't worry--it will be okay.

Build and Maintain a Community

It wasn’t only the vet that helped us with that breech birth. We have a neighbor with whom we often exchange favors. Because he says he’s always awake at 5 a.m., he was the one doing the early morning checks. He was the one who found Rosie in labor on the ninth morning and he was the one who waited to see if her labor was progressing (it wasn’t). After an up-side-down hoof was found in the birth canal and the vet was called, he then drove his Kubota back up the country road and came back with his $800 calf-puller and suction equipment for the calf. The vet arrived within 20 minutes and brought his brother along for good measure.

It truly took a team to get this large, breech heifer out and breathing well. Although everyone’s adrenaline was probably as high as mine, each person cared enough to wait and see that both mother and calf were okay. This dedication could not have been purchased. It came from having a community of caring people.

In this time of contention, we often hear that differences of opinions, ethnicity or religion are barriers between us. I repeatedly find that is not true. Basically, we humans are compassionate and go out of our way to help each other.

As essential as knowledge and equipment are in handling cow calving difficulties, we also need a community of neighbors. The time to build a community is now—before calving difficulties arrive.


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Hatching and Raising Peafowl

peafowlchick

A day-old peachick. Notice that the flight feathers are already present. 

Not long ago, we embarked on the adventure of raising peafowl, having obtained some fertile eggs to put in our incubator. This is the beginning of a project we have dreamed of for some time. 

While peafowl - unlike chickens, ducks or geese - might not seem like the obvious choice for a small homestead, raising ornamental poultry of any kind might actually be a wise move from an economic standpoint. Peafowl, pheasants, quail and ornamental chicken breeds such as Silkies can fetch a very handsome price, if you have good breeding stock. And the expense and effort of raising them are not much more than of the usual feathered homestead companions. 

Peafowl, however, do need to have enough room to roam and exercise, so that the males can strut and spread their tails - a magnificent sight. Those beautiful feathers can also be collected whenever they are dropped, and used or sold for crafts. And, of course, if you let your birds free range, they will provide pest control on your property by consuming bugs, spiders, grasshoppers, etc. 

Now to hatching. Obtain peafowl eggs from a conscientious breeder with good, healthy stock, and be sure to get the freshest eggs possible to maximize hatching rate. Set your incubator to 99-100 F and 60% humidity and, if you don't have an automatic turner, turn manually 4-6 times a day. The peachicks should hatch on day 28 or 29, and you can stop turning the eggs around 3 days before that. You will probably be able to hear cheeping from inside the eggs a day or two before hatching. 

Once your peachicks have hatched and dried off a little, transfer them to the brooder - which can be a simple cardboard box with a heating lamp, a dish of water, and a dish of food. Briefly dip each peachick's beak in the water to teach them to drink, and tap your finger in the food tray until they begin pecking - this might take a day or so. I've heard that professional breeders keep their peachicks on game bird starter, but we just give them regular chicken crumble with high-protein supplements such as hard-boiled eggs (which they go crazy for), cheese and sardines. They also get fruit and vegetable scraps for a diverse diet. 

Unfortunately, we have experienced some power shortages during the final days of hatching, which left our precious peafowl eggs without heating for hours on end. It is one possible reason why many of our peachicks were hatched with leg problems - both splayed legs and curled toes. We put the toes in a cast of cello-tape, and stabilized the legs with the help of soft wool thread, and the chicks were completely fine in a couple of days.

Our hand-raised peachicks are very friendly, and love to be handled, snuggle up to us, and sit on our shoulder. I find them to be less independent than chickens of the same age, which might have to do with how long young peafowl stay with their mothers in nature - up to one year. 

Peachicks are hatched with flight feathers and start flying pretty soon, so you will want to cover your brooder with a net to make sure they don't fly out. Once they grow and you move them outside, provide them with a tall roost, the taller the better. In nature, peafowl like to roost in trees, but I wouldn't let my birds sleep outside on account of predators. 

Raising and breeding peafowl is a long-term venture - while chickens may start laying and setting at 6 months, peafowl take a lot longer, and it may take them two years to reach reproductive maturity. The male's train of feathers does not reach its full growth until three years of age. 

Two more things to take into account: peafowl are loud, especially males during breeding season, so if you have near neighbors you might want to consider them as well; and they poop a lot, considerably more so than chickens, which makes cleaning up after them somewhat labor-intensive. 

There are several breeds of peafowl, the most common, as well as, in my opinion, the most striking, being the Indian Blue. Our young peafowl belong to this breed, and I am looking forward to seeing the deep blue of the males' chests, and the iridescent green of their tails, once they grow up. 

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 Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blogRead 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.