Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Homestead & Holidays

     Holidays bring a special challenge to the homestead, especially if you intend to holiday away from home. I am blessed to live rather close to my family making holidays here or there flow much easier that most. Either way, homestead chores will need a little changing to get us through the gatherings.
     The week before a gathering I try really hard to get all the harvesting in, preserving things as I go. Often, this means long night hours in the kitchen in order to pull it off. From there the garden is 'on hold' until the gatherings are over. Only emergency chores get done, such as tossing a frost cover on tender items before a freeze.
     Livestock never give us a day off, so chores are done as closely to their routine time as possible. If we are going to be late we try to give them a little extra hay to hold them over until we return; hens are fed early if we will not arrive home until dark. We try to clean stalls/coops a few days before the gatherings; feed is purchased and portioned before as well.
     While our regular work slows significantly, other tasks keep us on our feet. My goal for homestead gatherings is comfort. When a person comes to my homestead I deeply desire they feel welcome, warm, and right at home. The fireplace is going, home made beverages are on hand to share (herbal teas/coffee/cocoa), plenty of comfy seats and hearty food is available for drawing them near. If children are joining us, there are activities set up with them in mind.
      For years when little ones visited us the horses were decked out in their finest attire ready for rides and rubbing; carrot nubs were in buckets for little thank-you's. To prevent fingers from horse bites, children gave treats in an empty bucket instead of handing them with their hands. The tractor would be adorned with colorful corn and leaves; the trailer attached was filled with hay and pumpkins for little hay rides.
      As a quilter, we often planned secret projects for the children- handprint quilts, artwork quilts, or wood working. Slipping off to the wood shed offered privacy as we worked together; I would finish projects if needed, wrapping and delivering them on Christmas. Facing the joy of grandparenthood, I truly believe those days will be upon us once again!
     Holidays on my homestead are not times for pomp and fanfare; no fancy recipes or loud decorations. The heart of my home is a simple one; one aimed at comfort and welcome. My d├ęcor may be simple, colored leaves and pretty pinecones, my dishes may be ordinary, but know you are always welcomed with a warm hug, a thoughtful smile, and the very best we have to offer. Blessings to each of you this Thanksgiving. May we each reflect on the many gracious roads we have traveled and the amazing Lord who has seen us through.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Homesteading with the Weather In Mind

     This week found us facing heavy rains and dropping temperatures. Weather like this finds us bundling up and hunkering down as the wind howls around us. Freezing weather, just like extreme heat, makes milking and gardening quite a challenge left only to the homesteader with deep convictions. The past few mornings have challenged my devotion as my fingers freeze and my plants wither.
      Whether laying out a garden or planning how many chickens to keep, considerations have to be made for extreme weather conditions. The garden needs to fit the season and be planted in time for a reasonable harvest before the weather shift occurs. Knowing my area's weather patterns helps me determine when and how to plant- but it never prepares me for the heartbreak that comes when those plants succumb to the elements. I tend to be a jump in feet first homesteader- planning big and building bigger. This means- I grieve the 80 tomatoes that withered in this summer's 117 degree day or froze in the first winter frost. It took me years to learn you can't fight nature, you have to work with it. These days I plant winter crops that will endure frosts and limit anything I will have to cover or loose- same goes for summer heat.
      Most adult animals are sturdy enough to handle a warm bed/windbreak with freedom to wander about during the sunny hours. Shady areas with plenty of water access relieves the stress during extremely hot days. Texas weather offers only rare occasion to need heat lamps or warming blankets with our goats/poultry. Breeding is worked around the extreme weather possibilities to ensure babies are old enough to regulate body temp and endure with minimal assistance.
       The lesson I have learned, the hard way, is to work within the reasonable limits of your capabilities and know the weather patterns for your area. It isn't reasonable to have more animals than my barn houses or larger crops than I can cover or water. Keeping in tune with the climate around me offers the best guidance to our homestead plans.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

When You Have to be Away

     Yesterday found me away from home touring the beautiful gardens of Mercer in Humble. Due to the time and travel required, homestead chores fell to others which brings to mind the all important task of preparing for time away.
     Homesteading is a commitment that requires our time at home and limits our ability to get away. County fairs, livestock shows, camping or the occasional trip often allow us time to locate a 'sitter' and prepare them to fill our shoes. We invited our home sitter to join us for chores before being left along to the task. While this is preferred, it isn't always practical. When an emergency occurs we need to be prepared and set for a last minute sitter to step in and handle the home.
      In order to be ready for any and every sitter situation, labels are everywhere! Feed bins are located near the coup/stall they supply and labeled clearly: who the feed is for, how much to feed, and how often to feed them, with a note to check water when you feed. Emergency kits are inside each feed bin, specific to that animal with clear directions and phone numbers. A master list is inside the large freezer we store extra feed in. This gives detailed feed times, our feed routine, and special instructions. Brooders contain feed bins specific to their flock and have a master list inside their gate.
Milking directions are posted on the refrigerator next to the milk stand.
     Before we get to focused on the barn, we have to remember the gardens. Our homestead has three large gardens and a greenhouse. While they don't need as much attention as the barn does, neglecting it would be tragic. Each garden has it's own duties which are listed inside the greenhouse. Short term sitters usually face the task of watering and maybe picking a few green beans.
         The notion to pay or not to pay is a touchy one. Often our sitter is someone living close by willing to do the task and take home the rewards: eggs, milk, fresh picked veggies and herbs. My times away have been very short, only a day or two, and are few and far between.
          All of this may seem a bit overkill- let me be honest in saying my lists and labels are a bit outdated and well in need of revamping. With holidays on the way, work that sometimes finds me out of pocket, and all the other little things in life that make being away possible it's definitely time to re-up the notes and get that homestead sitter situation planned out- we never know when we find ourselves having to be away.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Day Away

     It has been a while, but today I am taking a day away from my homestead to visit the beautiful Mercer Arboretum in Humble, Texas. Here in lies an educational adventure in horticulture and beauty. See you tomorrow, hopefully refreshed, inspired, and ready to resume my daily routine!!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Homestead Chore Rotation and Relief

     Chores are abundant on the homestead, but the workers are few. Depending on the size of your family and the age range of the children, the workload can seem ominous. Our family had a system for getting things done, sharing the load, and allowing for rest.
     When our homestead was new and our children school age, our chores rotated on a two week basis. This offered each family member opportunity to learn the various needs of each animal and garden plot. In the barn, rabbits, large stock (horse, cow, donkey), small herd (goats/dog), and poultry were assigned a family member. They had to learn the needs of that stall: water/feed requirements, stall upkeep, hoof/health care and be prepared for emergencies such as injury, illness, or birth. The 'odd man out' was in rest mode- preparing the breakfast for those busy with chores.
     To keep things simple, feed bins were labeled for each stall/animal listing how much feed to give and how many times a day. A first aid kit was in the bin as well, with a procedure checklist for minor ailments. Visiting cousins and friends buddied up with one of the kids getting the opportunity to see how things work and to help out if they were interested. During our foster family years, new family members kept the buddy rotation until they felt comfortable or were old enough to take rotation on their own.
     In addition to the barn chores, we have three garden fields: large crop/fruit, kitchen garden/greenhouse, and the herbal/rose garden. Rotations in these gardens followed suit with the barn rotations. Everyone spent time learning propagation, seed starting, weeding, harvesting, and planning the plots.
     Once the children aged up entering those early teen years chores took on a different routine. In their maturing they sought to take ownership of different areas of the homestead honing those skills and refining the plans. That doesn't mean we didn't take turns caring for things, but their was an overseer to each area. As overseer that teen set up feed purchasing, planned for any amendments needing made, bought, sold, bred and planted the areas they were in charge of- life skills easily applied to so many areas of adult life.
     These days there are less hands on deck. Chores are assumed by those home and available. I am overseer of the stalls, coups, and gardens and I do so gladly for I know the precious memories created from years of sharing side by side.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Homesteading Kids

     Homesteading is a family commitment; a conviction that effects everyone in the house. I am often asked how we got our kids on board with our homesteading desires. This question usually leaves me rather stunned at first- get our kids on board? The answer may not be what you think.
     My husband and I both have backgrounds in family farming- our grandparents owned and maintained large, productive farming set ups. The life lessons we learned there are something we desperately wanted our children to have. From birth, our children were introduced to nature and gardening on small scales- visiting farms whenever we could. When talk of homesteading came up, they were eager to jump in. For me, the challenge was not to jump in recklessly- but to  use the opportunity to teach them planning, prepping, and discerning before implementing.
     Homestead responsibilities fall of each member of the family; anyone old enough to scoop feed will. For this reason, decisions to add new elements to a homestead require the entire family's input. Our plan for new additions was 1. discuss, 2. educate, 3. plan, 4. decide. Basically such topics were a mealtime discussion- we shared our idea and explained the purpose of the new addition. From here, we took time to research the habitat, needs, pros/cons, of the animal/garden/etc. Knowing the commitment a thing requires and how to handle it in an emergency are key elements. From there we have to know if there is room on our property, does housing already exist, and how the feed plan would be setup/paid for.
       After many years homesteading with my children I have to say it is the best decision we made. This life offered them a look at God's purpose, plan, and passion better than any lesson I could have taught them. Seeing birth, death, growth, harvest through abundance and times of failure are things learned best through experience. My children are moving forward, but the family homestead offers a place for them to return to- a haven to visit- a comfort and education they can keep.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Few Common Poultry Questions

   No matter where you go, once people realize you have poultry questions come to mind they just have to have answered. Today, let's stroll over to the pen with a glass of mint iced tea for a little chat about the chicks. From flock care, to pasture practices and even how on earth to take care of the unpleasantness..here are a few I get most often.

1. How do you deal with slime in the water fountain?
    Slime happens.. a lot. Three simple things: vinegar, a toilet brush, and location. Daily we take a splash of vinegar and swish it around the fountain with a toilet brush. Once the fountain is refilled we aim to keep it away from the brooder lights in order to slow the growth as much as possible.

2. What is cage free, range, and pasture?
     Okay, cage free is a bird not living in cramped cage conditions. This does not actually define how the bird lived and ate. Range means free range; the birds were given space to walk around possibly with sunshine and maybe grass. Often range birds diets are primarily grains but supplemental greens may be added. Pasture raised birds have housing, but are out in the sunshine nibbling on their findings in the green pasture. Grains are minimal in their diet.

3. What about the smell?
     It's no secret; chicken poop smells. Keep them clean with a hearty layer of bedding (we use pine shavings or shredded pine straw)..deep and stirred daily. The other question that goes with this is what to do with the poop. Easy answer: compost.

4. How can you kill them?
     Frame of mind. Once you have an understanding of the purpose of the animal and the peace of mind they were raised well the task is much easier. I believe in a healthy live and a clean death. The other question that goes with this..what to do with the 'leftovers'. If you pluck, compost the feathers..other parts are burned. We don't bury unless a hearty dose of lime is added and I'd rather not..so burn it is.

5. How do you store 100 chickens once their processed?
    I don't. Some of my birds go to family and friends. The other reality is I don't process them all as whole chickens. Part of my flock is put up as 'legs-n-thighs'; makes the processing faster and takes up less space.

6. Do you mix your flocks?
    No. Turkeys are raised and processed before my broilers come in and the laying hens are shut off the broiler pasture until the broilers are gone. Every pasture gets a rest and reseed before the next flock gains access.

    Hopefully this helps some of you still considering or working through the beginnings of meat bird raising. If you have questions or would like to share your experiences, please feel free to leave me a comment or send me an email at simplyscaife@yahoo.com.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Homestead Poultry Processing Tips

   Processing time comes and goes here on the little homestead. Unpleasant as it may be, it is a necessary act we have to come to terms with. Spring butchering fills our freezer with healthy food plentiful enough to feed our family and share with others. Over the many years we have honed a setup and work through plan that has served us well making large batch processing efficient and timely. For example, I 'fast' my flock the night before butchering to prevent busted crops and messy processing. Here are some processing tips we keep handy.

   1. Stations everyone! Whether I process alone, or have helping hands with me, stations are the best way to get the deeds done quickly and cleanly. 'Killing Cone' is station one: knives, cones, and lined buckets are ready, waiting, and stay at this station until clean up. 'Break Down' is station two:  cutting boards, knives, bowls of salted ice water, large lined trash cans are on hand for the main processing station. 'Cool Down' is station three: positioned near the sink are sealing bags, markers, and towels to rinse, dry, bag and label. There are also several large ice chests filled with ice for quickly cooling processed birds once they are washed. The final stop is the freezer..but only once the birds are cooled down.

   2. Loose the skin. One of the nastiest parts of butchering poultry is plucking; dipped in boiling water and stripped of every feather these birds leave a fragrant memory you never forget! I skip this all together skinning my birds before processing.
    3. Get to Pieces. Smaller broilers are selected to be processed whole for roasting and making broths, but the majority of my birds are harvested as 'breast and leg'. Leg and thigh are removed as one piece, breast and tenderloin are removed in one piece. This makes storage space stretch farther and helps the meat cool faster further preventing spoilage or loss.

    4. Party! Have a processing party. Grill some meat, bake some treats and invite green horns to come learn the fine art of processing. The more the merrier. Family, friends, local college kids can often be bribed with food..or the promise we often make..you clean it you keep it.

    5. Relax. Plan ahead, play some music, and make the event work for you. My farm boy and I can process 50 birds in a few hours. We set the date, setup the stations, set the radio and get it done in a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere. It helps when the weather is nice.

    If you have never had the privilege of processing your own poultry or if you are considering it, I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and give it a go. Start small, maybe a few birds, and work to a goal that meets your family's needs. Sitting at the table tonight, we shared in good food and the satisfaction of hard work and the provision it brings, the security of a well stocked freezer, and the joy of fellowship shared over the task.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Managing Our Homestead Flock

   Poultry are one of the easiest and cost effective livestock a homesteader can raise. In addition to eggs, our poultry are also raised for meat and for garden maintenance. Our flock is maintained on a limited free range system; after several years, it works for us.
   Housed in a converted barn stall, our flock resides in a coop equip with nests, roosts and feed/water access. Near their coop/stall large feed barrels hold our mix of layer grain and scratch which is given twice a day. The small coop range door (just their size) stays closed until noon each day- this gives ample time for morning grain rations to be cleaned up and nests to be filled with eggs.
   Once the coop door opens our hens have free range of the farm for the rest of the afternoon; open access to grass and grub (bugs) until sun sets. As the sun starts to fade we give evening rations. We also give "mash" or kitchen scraps which may contain: yogurt, fruit/veg peelings, egg shells (washed and crushed), breads/pastas, etc).
   Five gallon water fountains are kept in our coop (shaded to keep cool) and are refreshed in the afternoon- in the summer shallow water pans are filled and set in the shade to help the birds cope with heat stress. In cold weather we use heat lamps hanging from  the ceiling to keep the poultry warm in the evening.
   In managing our flock's health, we try to use the minimalist approach. Sick or injured birds are isolated and assessed; using medication only if necessary. I do not use electrolytes or maintenance medications for my flock. Our hens are allowed to brood and molt as their nature guides them; they also raise their own young if the successfully hatch them.
   As I have mentioned before, we keep roosters with our hens for fertility and protection- one rooster for every ten hens. Dependent upon the breeds we have, our maintenance plan is to refresh the flock every other year. Hens that go out of production are culled once new hens are ready to be brought in. When we add new layers, we try to add new roosters from their own flock- it seems to work better that way. I use a fence panel to section off part of the coop for placing the new additions (after the new birds are close in size to the existing flock). After a week we remove the fence panel to completely integrate the birds.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Moving Forward with Chickens on the Homestead

     With comfort and routine set in on our homestead, so does the desire to press on toward the bigger goals. A productive garden routine was quickly followed by the addition of chickens. The first flock consisted of six straight run barred rocks we housed in a small structure built from scrap and chicken wire. Those little ones paved the way.
      Over the years we have experimented with different breeds and various coop set ups, settling on some clear favorites. The layer flock consists primarily of dual purpose birds, such as Orpingtons and Astrolourps. These breeds are prolific layers, staying in production longer than standard breeds and maintaining a laying cycle through extreme temperatures.
      Achieving a sense of peace with laying hens, we branched even further to a meat flock. Raised in season following 4H, Cornish Cross straight run chicks arrived in early spring and were harvested before summer heat set in. Lessons learned in those years brought us to a place to raise our own turkeys as well. Again, seasonal and temporary, our meat producers are raised in brooders with freedom to roam during the day.
     I am often asked about roosters. The reality is- roosters happen. While I do keep roosters with my flock, I only keep hospitable roosters and only a few. Roosters end up in the soup pot- too many bring fighting in the coop and often lead one to be rather mean. As for the 'noise'- I love it and can't imaging a day without the loud calling of my faithful 'old men'.
      Afternoons often find me pulling weeds in the garden to treat my faithful ladies with. Their chatter thrills me- watching their silly antics brings a special joy to my heart. My homestead would not be complete without the presence of these amazing and often silly creatures that grace my home through their productive presence.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Homesteading: Gathering Wares

     There is a draw- a yearning- that calls me toward old things. Just the nearness of cast iron and flour sack comfort my souls deepest place. It seems I have always had a love for homestead wares which brings us to today's topic- gathering wares.
     On my little homestead few things are as essential to my daily work as a sturdy cast iron pan. There is nothing you can't do with them- and nothing you can do to them. The reality is, those pans will out live me. A heavy chicken fryer with its lid, a griddle or two, and a Dutch oven provide the basic elements for homestead cooking. These three items stay at hand, well seasoned and well used. Some are hand me downs and some were purchased second hand; each a solid investment.
      From the kitchen to the tool shed, again, the oldest items are the best. A sturdy hoe, a walk behind plow, and a traditional metal rake make up the essentials in my garden and barn; daily in hand, well worn and quite handy. Weather and wear do cause need for oiling, sharpening, and the occasional replacement handle- either way, another solid investments.
      No homestead operation is complete without the presence of a worn old truck. Here in we haul feed, hay, rusty parts, and the occasional sick animal. Trees and plants arrive in its bed, and hunting gear travels on long trips. The old truck serves a vital role, offering stability and transport- no home can do without one.
      Then, one that may seem a luxury, is our tractor. Whether mowing, leveling, pulling, or deep tilling, the tractor does some serious heavy work. We made do without one for several years, but when the opportunity arose we jumped on it. These days the farm tractor provides purpose and, occasionally, entertainment. Who doesn't want to visit Aunt and Uncle's house for a tractor ride?
       Since we have electricity, we feel the barn fridge and large freezer are quite vital to the home. Fresh milk, eggs, and meat are kept on hand and ready to go- full year round. It has been a blessing time and time again to have food readily available, and nothing is better for you than what you have raised yourself!
       Farther down on my list are antique linens and quilts, sturdy sewing machines, and the ever loved quilt frame. In my life these items are a comfort, a source of peace, and a way to give of myself. Many a quilt has crossed my hands and graced the table of a celebration. The men would say a shop full of old tools is more vital and important, but I argue- those don't feed you when your hungry or warm you when you're cold. I think they have seen the light:)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Starting Up the Homestead Garden

     Once settled in our home priorities shifted toward the big homesteading list. On the forefront of the needs- a garden. The property came with a fenced area that had been a large garden- during it's production years, regular amending was done and hearty harvests were reaped. Unfortunately, the garden had been left to itself for several years thus presenting a big challenge.
      If you have never embraced the task of reclaiming a garden space let me tell you it is a serious undertaking. Weeds and seeds set themselves deep- and pests over run it. My first gardens on the reclaimed location drove me to tears and nearly caused me to quit altogether. Tilling and turning unearthed new irritants to choke out tender plants wile the bugs voraciously claimed the rest. After my time of falling on the floor and crying until dehydration set in, I picked myself up, found my determination, and dug in my heels.
       We turned the earth once more and gathered piles of reclaimed wood, cinder block, and even some old tires to pair with weed barrier cloths for some raised bed attempts. Simple crops were intensively planted leaving no room for massive weeds. Herbs were placed near tender crops confusing some pests giving us a leg up as we tried to keep our methods as natural as possible.          

       Relieved and reassured of my abilities, we added and amended for several successful years of home harvests. With such confidence came experimentation and the long awaited arrival of our home greenhouse. Simple and hand made, this space offered us extended harvests and early beginnings. Seeds were sown for transplanting and cuttings were nurtured. A passion grew.
       I am not a person to stop learning- I am not one to keep it small. From the original plot there has grown two additional garden spaces, a rotation location and a large herbal sight. This year fruit trees and berry canes find there beginnings as we expand even further. Learning, growing, changing- that is the homestead garden. From those early tests and trials has grown a love of natural gardening, the amazing fascination with entomology (bugs/insects), and a heart for horticultural history.
      The process never ends, but grows with each passing season. I am blessed to be a Master Gardener for my county which affords me the opportunity to continue learning, honing my expertise, and teaching these amazing lessons to others longing to learn. I am honored to teach gardening and nutrition to children, hopefully sparking another generation with a passion for growing and learning.
All of this started with a small homestead garden simply graced with a few sparse green beans and some straggly tomatoes. Starting up the homestead garden started a life long journey for me, and for my family as well.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Let Us Pause a Moment

     In the midst of sharing our homestead path, a few conversations occurred that remind me of my faults. Any time someone shares their struggles and stumbles on their journey toward something new I realize my failing. Let us pause a moment, stepping away from the joy of a homestead path and look deeply at a few things.
     First and foremost we need to look at my humanity. My family and I are real people in a real world who make real mistakes and get real angry. Having been on our journey together for over 20 years, we have fought, fumbled and made complete messes out of almost everything only to have to pick up the pieces and start again. Only today I sat fussing at myself over my inability to keep it all together. I am horribly flawed and desperately wicked- trust me.
     Next order of business to address - I do not have it all together. Not everything gets done, nor does everything stay clean or orderly. Weeds happen- dishes get overlooked- a quilt lies unfinished- cleaning is forgotten. Some days the overwhelming reality of my 'to do' list knocks me clear off my feet and drives me to tears. It is true, I am the person who can't sleep because the brain just won't shut off.
      Last for today, let me say nothing here is intended to pose shame or disgrace on another. Homesteading, self-sufficiency, health choices, and creative/craft hobbies are personal and deeply diverse. My desire is to inspire and encourage each person where they are, with in their means, and to the extent they feel led. Enough shame can be found and felt at the hands of the elite and entitled; I am not one of them for I stand in the trenches with you.
       Tonight I pause for a moment realizing it is far to easy to let our public life seem perfect and precise. It is a temptation to seem to have all the answers and to expect others to follow suite. I pause to share reality and remind us all we are unique, flawed, and fantastic. Let's pause to embrace our blessings, accept our reality, and press forward.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Homesteading: Bigger Steps

     We spent our early years in the outskirts of town surrounded by neighbors, noise, and the occasional nasty tornado. When the property we now own became available we spent many a restless hours planning and deciding if it would work for us, and how we would make that happen. In the end, we decided to go through with the move and start taking bigger steps in our homesteading journey.
      Along with a good size two story house, the property had a large metal building just right for a workshop and barn set up. There was a fenced in area that had once been a rather large garden, a well house, and a back yard that met with untamed woods. Few people lived on the gravel road at that time offering us some distance and quiet. A silver gate hung near the mail box offering us further solitude and peace. Walking the span of land we envisioned chickens and children roaming the grassy spaces, large gardens growing in the corner, and a cottage style/herb bed to welcome you at the front door.
      I had no doubts, only dreams and romantic notions. Settling in was a challenge, for I wanted to jump right on the building and growing instead of planning and plotting. It was my husband's 'wait for it' determination that kept me focusing only one step at a time- realizing the move itself was a big step and every step there after would be even bigger.