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Archive for January, 2014

I’ve alluded a few times to our primary goal for 2014 – minimizing our workload. We have constantly felt behind in the last couple of years; behind on the weeding, behind on the hoof trimming and barn cleaning, behind on the lawn mowing, behind on the renovations and projects. When Baby M came along, we felt even more squeezed.

 

That garden's too big!

That garden’s too big!

 

This year, the plan is to limit the garden, rather than expanding it. Last spring, we plowed up a smaller garden plot, in a more convenient (visible) location between the house and the barn. I am reducing the number of labor-intensive ‘preserving’ crops (tomatoes, shelling peas), and slightly increasing the real estate allotted to ‘fresh eating’ crops (spinach, broccoli), in the hopes that we will enjoy more produce while it is fresh, and spend less time worrying about what, exactly, to do with nine bushels of green tomatoes.

 

green tomatoes

 

We also dug up about half of the raspberries from the field garden, and relocated them to a spot near the new garden, in rows in a patch of lawn, so any suckers can just be mowed down when we mow the grass, rather than having to be laboriously dug out of the rows of beans and corn in the garden.

 

Some of our extra garden space is going to be planted into annual flowers, so that there is something taking up the space and competing with the grass; we don’t want to have to re-dig any beds, even though we don’t want to invest huge amounts of effort in the gardens this year.

 

Less veggies, more flowers!

Less veggies, more flowers!

 

We only bred one doe this year, and she is a third-time kidder, and proven good mom. She is not my easiest milker, but she has been hand-milked, and is familiar with the stand and the routine. We chose not to breed any of the first-timers, since we do not want to run the risk of bottle babies.

 

No bottle babies this year!

No bottle babies this year!

 

We will not be getting day-old chicks this spring. They are cute and cheap, but labor-intensive. If we need replacement hens, we will bite the bullet and buy pullets at the point of lay – girls with all their feathers and minimal needs.

 

day old chicks

 

So why all the sudden focus on labor reduction? Well, that is happy news. Baby M is going to be a big brother come July!

 

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Well, we thought we had done okay with the critters in that month-long stretch of -30C temperatures, but now that it’s warmed up and we’re having a chance to really examine everyone in the sunshine, we’re finding some frostbite on the chickens, particularly on the combs, and, on some of the roosters, the wattles.

 

Rooster with frostbite on his comb

Rooster with frostbite on his comb

 

We think it has to do with humidity. Last winter, and even earlier this winter, the chickens weathered colder temperatures without issue; we’ve seen -40 with no frostbite at all. However, those were all short cold snaps – a few days, at most. This time, there were only three days in a month-long stretch where it was warm enough to open up the barn and coops and let the critters roam around outside.

 

Normal comb

Normal comb

 

With so many creatures breathing in such a confined space, the humidity does build up right along with the body heat. Especially in the barn, where we have a coop of chickens next to two stalls full of goats, it can get almost muggy after a few days with the doors all closed up tight. Interestingly, it was the roosters in the barn coop that seem to have suffered the worst frostbite, even though that barn would have been warmer than the small coop.

 

Frostbite turns the skin black, and, after a while, the dead skin sloughs off, leaving a smooth surface (unlike the usual ridges and texture of a rooster comb). We don’t normally do much of anything about the frostbite after it’s happened (we prefer prevention), but we do monitor the affected chickens, as sometimes there is a little blood when the dead skin is coming off. The blood itself is usually minimal, but if it starts attracting the attention of the other chickens, it can become a problem, as they will peck at it and cause much bigger issues. We’ve had to quarantine a badly affected rooster in our first year. He didn’t even have bad frostbite…but he did bleed a teeny bit, and the hens went after him like sharks.

 

You can see some lighter-colored pinkish spots on the comb, where the dead skin has started to come off.

You can see some lighter-colored pinkish spots on the comb, where the dead skin has started to come off.

 

It looks like a couple of roosters are going to lose parts of their combs, and a few have black spots on their wattles. Nobody is bleeding, which is good. We are going to have to revise our tactics for long cold spells, though, and find a way to air out the coops to keep that humidity down.

 

Poor rooster!

Poor rooster!

 

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I just read an article from Slate about how the ‘Do What You Love’ mantra devalues actual work, as well as entire socioeconomic classes of people who do the dirty and unloveable, but so very necessary, jobs that keep society running.  You know, the shelf-stockers, hospital janitors, and farm laborers of the world.  It was an interesting perspective, and one that makes sense to me, though I had never considered that particular angle before.

 

I have the sort of job that lots of people covet.  I have my own office, work (fairly) predictable hours, and get paid quite well.  I get benefits – good ones, like paid sick time, a pension, and four weeks’ vacation.  My work is challenging, has creative elements, and often is under minimal supervision.   Sounds dreamy, right?

 

sunflower

 

Well, it has its challenges, too.  I carry a great deal of responsibility, including a threat of lawsuits and other legal action, or even people being hurt or killed if I make a poor recommendation or fail to consider all of the information in a case.  My clientele is difficult at best, and the physical work environment ranges from depressing to dangerous.

 

I don’t love my job, though many of my colleagues do.  But you know what?  I think that’s okay.  I strive to do a good job of the things that are required of me, and I recognize that the structure of a work week is good for my mental health.   I’m grateful to have a secure job that pays well, and I do truly enjoy my colleagues, who are a smart and funny bunch.  I may not love my job, but I’m committed to it, and I do get gratification from writing that stellar report, overcoming challenges, or meeting that super-tight surprise deadline.

 

There are lots of things that I do really love, things I am good at, and could marshal into a business or career if I wanted to.  Travel writer, portrait photographer or pet portrait photographer, market gardener…there are things I love so much that I do them for free, or even pay for the opportunity to enjoy them.   Here’s the thing, though:  I think they would become work if I had to do these things day in and day out, for my living.  I could see dreading ‘yet another trip’ if I didn’t get to stay home when I wanted to.  Some days, I don’t feel inspired to pull out the camera, but leaving it in the closet wouldn’t be an option if that was paying the mortgage.   I don’t know how long I would continue loving those hobbies if I were forced into them, day in, day out.   It seems to work for some people, but I don’t think it would do it for me.

 

cat portrait

 

The other issue is money.  The job I have pays in a way that small-town photography or one-family market gardens just don’t.  It pays enough to enjoy all of my hobbies, and gives me enough time off to pursue those things.   As a market gardener, I doubt I would have the time or the money to travel overseas.  As a travel writer, I’d never be home to plant or tend the garden.

 

temple restoration, Egypt

 

As it is, I do lots of different things that I enjoy immensely – blogging, photography, gardening, travel, canning, mentoring…the list goes on and on.  I DO do what I love.  All the time.  I just don’t get paid for it, and I do a job I don’t love in order to have the time and money to do the rest.  It’s really not a bad compromise, as far as these things go.  I am happy with the lifestyle I have, and wouldn’t trade it, even for a job I loved.  It’s just not necessary.

 

squash harvest

 

So I’d say go ahead and do what you love, but maybe recognize you don’t always have to get paid for it.

 

Eiffel Tower at night

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Well, the cold snap in the US seems to be over, now, and our own month-long run of -30 C temperatures seems to have broken, as well.  I noticed a recent spike in traffic to a few of my posts from the last couple of winters, but didn’t really draw the connection until just now…folks have been searching for information on how to manage livestock in extreme cold, but my poor visitors have mostly gotten anecdotes about me feeling sorry for myself and about frozen-solid chickens.  I thought that even a belated post might be useful to somebody someday, so here are some observations about coping with extreme cold.

 

winter pic

I’m not going to say much about dressing for the cold, since that’s been done to death on the internet.  Dress in layers, and take layers off as you become warm.  Make the outer layer windproof if you can.  Windchill is much more dangerous than just cold, especially if you are only outside for short periods – an hour or two – Hubby routinely goes out to shovel for a couple of hours at a time in -30, as long as there’s no windchill.  Of course, he’s acclimatized to this weather, and appropriately dressed, more or less.  He’s never gotten frostbite, even though he doesn’t make much effort to cover his face; the moustachesicles get pretty impressive sometimes:

 

moustachesicles

The  chickens seem to cope pretty well with the cold, overall.  Our breeds are suited to colder temperatures, but we don’t heat the coop, even when it’s -40.  Our main tactic has been to insulate; our primary coop is an old shed, and we stack old bales of hay and straw around the structure to cut the wind and keep it warm.  We try to get the stacks as high as the heads of the chickens on the top rung of the roost, as someone has used the shed for a target for shotgun practice, so it’s anything but airtight, and we don’t want anyone to get frostbite when they’re sleeping.  You don’t actually want the coop to be totally airtight; you need some airflow to keep it from getting too humid, which will cause problems with frostbite.  The birds also get a deep layer of bedding, and as much feed as they want.  They eat half again as much at -40 C as they do at zero degrees or above, and they need all of that energy to keep warm.   We have had some issues with frostbite in the past; Gallus, our original rooster, had a pretty spectacular comb until he encountered his first major winter freeze.  We’ve since learned to keep the coop shut on really cold days, which keeps the birds inside, and also helps keep the temperature up.  While I’m sure it hurt to lose that comb, it doesn’t seem to have slowed Gallus down too much.

 

Before his first encounter with real cold

Before his first encounter with real cold

 

All healed up, but not much of a comb left

All healed up, but not much of a comb left

 

The frostbite itself makes the combs and wattles turn black in the frozen parts, and eventually peels off.   If you come across this, you will need to monitor that the other chickens aren’t pecking at it and keeping it from healing, as it sometimes bleeds as the damaged tissue sloughs off.

 

One challenge is collecting the eggs before they freeze so solid that they crack, which takes no time at all in -40.  The cracked eggs are okay to eat, as long as the shells are clean; we just thaw them on the kitchen counter overnight.  They need to be used immediately once they’ve thawed, though, as bacteria can get in through the crack.  Whatever we can’t eat ourselves, we feed to the cats and dogs, who really appreciate the extra protein.  Eggs that have frozen but not cracked are fine, and we just put them in the cold room to thaw.  As far as we’ve been able to tell, they keep just as well as unfrozen eggs, and behave the same when you cook with them, so we don’t even check anymore, beyond looking for the cracked ones, of course.

 

When it gets below about -25 C, we tend to leave the barn shut up, and the body heat from the animals adds at least ten degrees in there.  The barn cats are bright enough to stay inside, and we’ve built them a cozy insulated shelter out of hay bales.  So far, they’ve never had any issues with frostbite, even on their ears.  However, the barn cats are outdoor critters, and acclimatized to the cold through the fall and early winter, and they know enough to snuggle up together in the shelter.  Like the chickens, the cats are free-fed – we put out bowls of food, and they can have as much as they want.  They put on several pounds each of fat in the fall, which helps them stay warm, too.

 

If we had a sudden huge drop in temperatures like happened so recently in the US, though, I would consider bringing outdoor cats and dogs inside, or locking them in a garage or barn, as they may not be equipped to deal with the cold.   At the very least, they need some sort of insulated shelter, including insulation between them and the ground, that is windproof, dry, and small enough to warm up with just their body heat.  Stacked bales covered with a tarp would probably do, but remember to insulate the bottom, too, either using a layer of bales, or a thick bed of straw or blankets.

 

The goats and alpacas mostly cope fine, as well, but again, they grow a thick coat in the fall, and we give them extra grain as it gets colder outside – the colder it is, the more hay and supplements they get.   We take out warm water twice a day, and they drink their fill immediately.  The buckets freeze over in a couple of hours, or less when it’s really cold.  We’ve found that the goats drink more when the water is taken out warm, rather than cold, and it probably helps them maintain a good temperature.  Some people say that the buckets freeze slower if you use cold water, which may be true, but for the small difference it makes in freezing time, we go with the warm, especially because the goats drink so much more when we take the warm water out.   I have heard of people putting sweaters on their goats, which is probably a good idea in a sudden cold snap; we’ve never done it because we worry they would lose their winter coats.

 

If you are milking in winter, make sure the udder, and especially the teats, are completely dry when you are done.  We minimize trimming the udder as much as possible, and leave some fur, especially on the back, even when we do trim.  I just brush the furry parts of the udder thoroughly with a soft brush before milking to make sure there’s no crud falling into my milk bucket.  I take a towel out with me to dry everyone off after milking.   However, since I’m not fond of milking -30, we’ve taken to drying the girls off by late November.  While this doesn’t maximize our milk production, it does minimize everyone’s discomfort.   We freeze milk and make (and freeze) lots of cheese in the summer, to tide us over.

 

Our biggest issues with the goats has been with kidding during cold snaps.  Our first year, we were kidding in March, and at least four kids came when the temperatures were below -20.  All of those kids got frozen ears, and two lost part or all of their ears.

 

Poor Luna lost her ears to freezing at birth.

Poor Luna lost her ears to freezing at birth.

 

We’ve since started breeding for kidding in late April or later; this year’s kids will come in mid-May.   I know of breeders with unheated barns who treat kids like day-old chicks; they confine them using straw bales, and hang a heat lamp overtop.  Other breeders keep their kids indoors in playpens for the first couple of weeks.  Either tactic works fairly well if you are bottle feeding, but not if you’re dam-raising your kids.   We’ve learned to keep the pregnant does confined for the last few weeks of their pregnancy, and we do our best to keep the maternity stall well-insulated and draft-free.  The kids are most vulnerable to freezing just after birth when they are wet, so it’s important to make sure they are dried off quickly, which has involved us ‘helping out’ with towels when momma wasn’t working fast enough.   When they are cold, kids tend to stand all hunched up with their back arched, and look really miserable.   If we see that going on for any length of time in cold weather, we bring the kids into the house periodically for ‘warm-up’ sessions, and take them back out to their dams every couple of hours to eat.

 

We’ve had kids collapse from cold before; if you’re quick, they can recover without issue, but you need to get them warm, fast.  We’ve used 2L plastic juice bottles filled with hot water from the tap, wrapped in towels and tucked around the kid.  Remember, too, that kids need extra food when it’s cold, and make sure your does are producing enough, and/or you add a bit extra to the bottles if they’re living in an unheated barn.

 

Cold is not bad if you are prepared for it, but I can imagine it would be awfully miserable if you didn’t have, and couldn’t get, appropriate clothing and supplies.  I know some of my American friends really struggled.  Hopefully everyone has come through okay, and is at least starting to warm up now!

 

Bundled Up

 

 

 

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