27 October 2008

almost winter

Winter is getting closer every day - when I go out to milk the cow in the mornings, I see a skiff of snow on the ground, and in the shadowy areas of the yard, sometimes there's a trace of white on the grass even late in the morning.

It is a relief to have most of the 'must be done before winter' tasks completed. There is still more to do, of course, there always is, but we have a lot accomplished already, and it is good to stop and take note of what we have managed to get done.

We have fencing in place to hold everyone for the winter. This was a big job, and it's taken some time to figure out the best layout that keeps the animals close enough to manage in the cold weather and yet still gives them access to the shelter and the space they need to be comfortable. The sheep feeding pen is in place, and working well so far (there's a fair bit of wasted hay, but we're working on that), and the cows have a big hay feeder and a comfy barn. The gates are sturdier than they've ever been, and we have moveable panels that we can configure in a variety of ways, giving us more flexibility.

The addition of the cows did require some careful planning: the cows move in and out of the barn every day, but the sheep only need to get in the barn if there is a problem. This meant we needed easy barn access for cows and reasonably easy barn access for sheep. We ended up dividing the winter pasture into two sections, with the one directly in front of the barn doors designated for the cows, and putting a small gate from the sheep feed pen into the barn 'courtyard', which we can use to move a sheep into the barn if the need arises.

Winter also means worrying about frozen water troughs and plugging in tank heaters. To simplify our chores and ease our electrical bill, we made an opening under the fence between the sheep and cow pastures that is sized to hold a water trough. The trough slides under the fence and the sheep drink from one side and the cows drink from the other. This way we need only one tank heater in play, and we have only one trough to fill. It's a bit of a hassle to pull it out to empty it, but the animals don't seem to mind sharing, so that's good at least. While the weather is cold but not downright freezing we have been using two heavy duty bubblers (sort of like the kind you put in an aquarium) to keep the water moving. So far, this has kept the water from icing over. It won't work in the deep cold of full winter, but the bubblers use much less energy than a heater, so we'll use them for as long as we can.

The Reluctant Farmer got the chimney swept (a messy dirty job, but one we very much appreciate), and we have had fires going the last few nights. Tonight we'll burn a special chemical log that helps keep the creosote on the chimney to a minimum. We have a good bit of wood cut and stacked, although The Reluctant Farmer plans to go cut some more, as it's hard to have too much stocked up.

This morning we woke up to find the grid power was out - the Boy and The Reluctant Farmer got laptops fired up in the 'original house' (which runs on solar power) and with a fire going in the wood stove they were comfortable and able to work. During the winter they'll probably work near the fire more often, so it'll be even more important to have a good store of wood set by. The wood is nearly free (this stuff costs time, of course, and the fuel for the chainsaw, but the trees are ones that had to be cut down anyway to bring the power lines through), so it makes sense to heat with wood when we can.

Oh, and the cement is in place for the base of the wind tower: it's had time to cure now, and we should be raising the tower and hooking up the wind generator in another few days. We had a huge windstorm on the weekend that knocked down trees and caused some substantial damage around us (none here, thankfully - an old tree did come down but it didn't hit anything on the way to the ground) ... capturing all that energy would be a good thing, but we'll certainly want plenty of guy wires in place to stabilize the tower!

I'm so glad we are able to have power and heat even when the grid is down. Mornings like today make me realize just how good it is that we have alternatives to the 'usual way'. Then again, mornings like today also make me realize that if I didn't have to follow the artificial schedule set by the office workday schedule, I could follow the schedule set by nature and not even try to get started until the sun comes up!

19 October 2008

How to save on your heating bill this winter, without spending a fortune

We have a lot of glass in this house. We like having all those south facing windows as they give us light and warmth, however, once the sun goes down, all that glass is a rapid heat-transfer system, swapping the heat from indoors with the bone chilling cold of an Alberta winter night.

Last year, when we had the really long, really awful cold snap I did make some window quilts and they made a huge difference. The trouble is, hanging them is a real hassle, and on cold days, although we'd like the sunshine, the window panes are still very cold to the touch ... meaning if we uncover them, we're losing precious indoor heat through the glass.

We did purchase some Energy Film at Home Depot last year and tried it on one of the windows: the stuff actually works really well! There is a bit of distortion when you look out the window, but it's not significant, we can still see the sheep and chickens and cats and cows, and the odd little warble in the view is of no consequence. A very simple test proved the effectiveness of the plastic film: just touch the uncoated glass with one finger, and the coated glass with another. The difference in temperature is dramatic.

The downside, of course, is that this stuff is expensive. It's around $30 (perhaps a bit more, I can't quite recall) for a 24"x48" piece. Now, we do need to see out of some of the windows, so it's worth it to pay the extra so we have 'viewports' that are not covered by heavy drapes or other cold blocking techniques, but we certainly can't afford to cover every window with this stuff.

This is where the bubblewrap comes in. You've probably seen this suggested somewhere or other and thought it was too weird to be true ... but it really does work, and it really is both cheap and easy.

We picked up three 20'x24" rolls of bubble wrap at Staples for about $12 per roll (yes, that is twenty feet of bubble wrap), and covered almost all of the remaining windows in the house. We'll need another few rolls (and a ladder) to finish the high front windows, but this morning's chill temperatures gave me the opportunity to try the 'finger test' on the bubblewrap as well: yup, it works.

There's still a chilly space between the curtains and the window, and we use fairly heavy draperies that go all the way to the floor wherever we can. This provides a space for that 'cool air pocket' to sit, further slowing the transfer of heat to outside and cold to inside.

If you want to try this, here's what to do:
  • Get your hands on some bubblewrap. The stuff with the tiny bubbles worked better for me than the stuff with the medium sized bubbles, and I didn't even want to attempt using the stuff with the great big bubbles, but use whatever you can find.
  • Get a spray bottle and a pair of scissors.
  • Go to the window you want to cover, and unroll the bubblewrap. Hold one edge against the bottom of the window, stretch up to the top, and mark the place where you need to cut. It's really easy to cut straight lines on bubble wrap: the bubbles act as built in guidelines.
  • Cut the bubblewrap to fit inside the window, without much overlap onto the frame, and ideally, without much open glass. Lots of our window panes are just a bit over 24", so we just leave the edges uncovered, or, if we need to see out some of the time, snug the bubblewrap right up against one edge and leave an open space where you can peer out at the world.
  • Get your spray bottle (filled with water or vinegar and water, or whatever you clean windows with) and spray the entire window, generously.
  • Push the bubble wrap against the wet window and squish it into place, smoothing from the middle out so that the whole thing is smushed into the water and against the glass. I tried some with the bubble-side-in and some with the smooth-side-in, and I think I've settled on bubble-side-in as being a better stick. Some of your bubble wrap may flop over and peel itself off after a day or two, don't lose heart: just respray and restick. Eventually it'll decide to stay put. I think some of it needs a bit of time to adjust to an unrolled position.
  • Voila: you have now started on the road to saving a bunch of money on your heating bill, you have improved the comfort level of humans who must sit near these windows, and you are still getting sunshine into the room!

If you want to try the Energy Film, you might want to consider what we did on the patio door as a cost-saving measure: we have a large, three-pane door. We do need to see out of this door, as it looks out over one of the pastures. We hung one piece of Energy Film on the centre panel, and all the rest of the glass (including the bottom portion of the center panel which the Energy Film didn't cover) is coated in bubble wrap. Lots of light, some restriction of the view, but we can still see outside. Also, it turns out that the bubble wrap with tiny bubbles will fit behind the patio door when it is slid open, so you can even put bubble wrap on the 'underneath' panel of your door, and still get the door open.

Here's to keeping warm and using less fuel to do it!

For more energy saving ideas, check out Solar Gary's excellent site: here's his article on bubble wrap insulation, it includes a calculation of the payback period, too ... which is very short!

The Boy's Experiment, or, the Wonders of Compost

The Boy had an assignment to do for Science class: he had to take two jars, plant seeds in each, and then add compostable materials and a worm (if he could find one) to one jar, and leave the other as a control.

Here are his observations:

(Describe what you smell and see, measure the height of the plant, count the number of leaves and describe their shape and colour.)
Week 1
Jar 1 is the one without compost, jar 2 has compost. Jar 1 has 2 small sprouts and smells like dirt. Its 2 plants are 13mm and 2mm. Jar 2 has 3 small sprouts and smells like apples as I added left over apple skins to it. Jar 2’s plants are 13mm, 2mm, and 1mm. Jar 2 also has a worm.
Week 2
Jar 1 has 1 plant now which is 11mm tall and it still smells like dirt. Jar 2 has 2 plants and they are 30mm and 27mm tall and smells like compost. All of the plants have three leaves that look pretty green (see Jar 2 week 3 for best leaf picture). Jar 2 also now has some eggshells.
Week 3
Jar 1 smells like plain old dirt and now has 6 leaves and grew to 20mm tall. But the other two in jar 1 are far ahead at 60 and 50mm tall with 10 leaves each. It smells like compost still and all the leaves are very green. We also found out we are growing carrots.
Week 4
Jar 1’s sprout grew to 35mm and it still smells like dirt and has 6 leaves. Jar 2’s are 90 and 120mm tall with 13 and 18 leaves. It smells like fresh dirt and plants and the leaves are not purple; they're still green.

The pictures tell an amazing story of their own:

Compost works!

The barn has a door!

The barn now has a door!

With the cold weather coming, we decided that a door for the barn would be very welcome. It's not really necessary for the cows and sheep, they would be warm enough inside with straw bedding and walls to keep out the wind, but when it's time to get milk in the mornings or assist with lambing, we humans would definitely appreciate four solid walls!

The Reluctant Farmer stopped at UFA and picked up the necessary hardware to hang a sliding door. There's a long tube with a slot on the bottom, special hangers to suspend it from the barn wall, and two rollers that move smoothly along the tracks to slide the door back and forth. if you look really closely, you can see a small metal piece at the bottom left of the door opening: that's a catch to hold the door when it slides shut, so that it doesn't bang in the wind but is held tight against the building.

The door will be painted in the next few days (the weather is looking reasonable for this sort of thing) and then we'll be all ready for winter!

I suppose saying something like that pretty much guarantees an early snowfall, doesn't it? Maybe I'd better be quiet.

The Reluctant Farmer and his Chickens

As you can see from the photo, the Reluctant Farmer is anything but reluctant when it comes to his chickens. :)

The new junior hens that he purchased are doing really well outside, the gray and white ones are Barred Rocks, and there's an Ameraucana hen who is very friendly and has the oddest looking green legs. There were three lovely Isa Brown hens, but we have only been able to locate one recently ... although we have had sightings of a hen that could possibly be the second one.

Egg production has been very low of late, which is normal come winter, especially with older chickens. The new junior hens are just about ready to start laying, and the Reluctant Farmer has rigged lights in the coops, so we are hopeful this will improve the rate of production.

The Reluctant Farmer is most interested in two breeds: the Ameraucana and the Barred Rock. We have 18 barred rock chicks still inside and doing well (we lost one to a bad case of 'eye guck', but everyone else is growing like crazy), but we've only got the one Ameraucana hen. We had talked about finding a rooster, as well, and in doing our research, we found a photo of an Ameraucana rooster in the colour pattern called wheaten brown ... and it looks just like our Sherman, and our other unnamed rooster (Sherman Junior?).

You tell me: here's the link to the Ameraucana website, and here's our two roosters:

14 October 2008

Independence Days Update

Well, it's definitely fall. There has been hard frost for several nights, and I didn't manage to rescue most of the tomatoes . We are in the mad rush to prepare for winter, and thanks to the recent Thanksgiving weekend, we have had time to do that last push of outside stuff so that if the snow came tomorrow, we'd be ready. Well, almost: the wind tower still needs to go in. We meant to do that on Monday, but it rained, and the concrete won't set if it's raining.

Okay, on to the update.

I did get soil into three little pots on the windowsill, and I put a few calendula seeds into one of them. Yes, I should get some lettuce going, but the calendula seeds were handy so I stuck them in the dirt. One has already poked it's little head out!

We emptied out the garden this weekend. All the potatoes are in, sorted and stored, and the tomatoes (green though they were), the mullein (dehydrating to be made into tea for coughs and other ailments this winter), milk thistle (nasty, horrible plants that I will never again attempt to grow ... but I did harvest the seeds, they are good for your liver), the last two carrots (which we ate raw), the beets (the leaves are drying for winter chicken feed and the beets are going to be eaten this week), and more calendula (and there's still more out there). Seeds from some of the lettuce plants and a few of the beans have been harvested for next year.

As noted: mullein is dehydrating, milk thistle seeds soaking in vodka (yes, you soak the seeds in alcohol to make a tincture that helps your liver: weird, but the active ingredient is not water soluble, so whatcha gonna do?), beet greens are drying for chicken feed, egg shells have been baked and crushed for chicken feed, and more calendula blossoms are soaking in oil to make ointment.

My sister sent a parcel with some bubblewrap in it, and that was cut and stuck to several of the bedroom windows with a spray bottle of vinegar and water (it took a few tries to get it to stick, but it's on there now). We sorted more clothes and put them in the bins, and brought out the winter gear as the cold has arrived.
We did a bunch of outside work, preparing for winter: there's a proper gate to the cow pasture, the sheep have a feed pen, and the hay's been delivered (well, half of it anyway).

Managed Reserves
The potatoes were sorted into 'eat now, eat soon, and pack for later' piles. The 'pack for later' pile was stowed in a big plastic bucket filled with sawdust carefully saved from construction: a layer of sawdust, some potatoes, another layer of sawdust, more potatoes ... the bucket is now sitting in the hallway, which is the coolest spot in the house.
Some bulk things were found at good prices so a few big bags of alphabet soup noodles (the kids LOVE having these in the soup, they'll eat any kind of broth if it has alphabet noodles in it), black pepper, and onion soup mix came home and have been put into jars in the pantry. There are also some jars of raisins, cornmeal, and elbow macaroni put away.

Cooked something new
All those green tomatoes meant it was time to try some recipes: I made fake raspberry jam (which isn't too bad), fake raspberry fruit leather (the jam, done in the dehydrator ... which is very sweet, and okay, but not great), and a green tomato soup (which I really didn't like). In the end, I have decided that by far the best use of green tomatoes is as yeast food: all the tomatoes were dumped into a large bucket with a sliced orange, some yeast nutrient, a few raisins and a lot of sugar, then drowned in water and ignored for a few days. Last night I filtered the mush through my strainer and the remaining liquid (and the orange slices and some whole green tomatoes) is happily fermenting in the living room. It has a lovely citrus and yeast smell, with no real tomato scent at all ... so hopefully green tomato wine is drinkable. I hear it needs to age for a whole year or more ... I'm thinking it'll probably make a nice summer wine for July of 2010.

Reduced Waste
We used up some more lumber from the pile of barn board we have out in the pasture where an old shed was knocked down, and we continue to do our usual routines for composting and such. We are rescuing as much as possible to dehydrate for chicken feed, both to reduce the waste (we have plenty of compostables thanks to the livestock) and to reduce the feed bills. And, it's good for the chickens!

Worked on local food systems
Well, we have a bunch of chicks growing like crazy, meaning we will be able to eat some of the surplus chickens out in our yard before long ... that's pretty local. We tried out a new butcher for the last batch of lambs that went in, I'll be picking up the meat tomorrow and we'll see how that is. We have another very local butcher we also want to try, as well. Oh, we got our listing up on EatWild, although we've had no contacts yet, still, it's a good place to start.

08 October 2008

Eat Wild!

The Eat Wild website is one of the major listings for grass-fed producers.

We are now listed!

Check out the whole site for more details ... there are benefits for animals, for farmers, and for your health!

This is why we prefer to eat the critters we have fed ... we know what went into them, we know they had good, low-stress lives ... and as a result, we know that what ends up on our plates is good for us!

07 October 2008

Milk Progress

Okay, I know, you're probably tired of hearing me rhapsodize about milking the cow. But really, it's exciting. Honest. It is.

This morning, I milked for 15 minutes, two handed, into the bucket held between my feet ... and I got nearly a litre of milk. And, I got most of it into the bucket (the first few days of milking, I had soaked knees).

Progress, I tell you, progress!

05 October 2008

The Great Chicken Venture

The Reluctant Farmer has decided that he really likes chickens. They are great fun to watch, poking around the yard and scratching at the dirt to get to the bugs, and as long as we provide them with basic shelter, access to water, and a scoopful of feed now and then, they are perfectly happy.

Our current flock of chickens is made up of hens we acquired from friends who were downsizing for one reason or another, and we really aren't sure how old most of them are. As chickens get older, they lay fewer and fewer eggs ... so although we have around 15 or 20 hens outside, we have only been getting one or two eggs a day. That's nowhere near enough to meet our own needs, never mind the few regular customers we have managed to acquire.

This is what got The Reluctant Farmer looking for chickens: we need more layers. Now, when you start looking for chickens, you are confronted with a huge variety of choices: there are so many different breeds, and they're all good for different purposes. The Reluctant Farmer found all this really interesting, and he's been researching different heritage breeds, and watching for someone in our area with the types he likes.

Last week, he picked up three lovely Isa Brown hens who are in prime egg laying condition, as well as several almost-old-enough-to-lay chickens of a few different breeds: Barred Rocks, an Ameraucana (they lay green eggs), and a couple of cross-breeds. They look so very tiny next to the full grown hens, but in another few weeks they, too, should be big enough to start laying eggs.

The core of the Great Chicken Venture, however, is the batch of nineteen Barred Rock chicks that were picked up on Saturday. These tiny little peeping creatures are presently housed in a large cardboard box under a heat lamp, eating chick starter like there's no tomorrow and making a constant happy racket. The Reluctant Farmer is hoping to raise purebred Barred Rocks, and sell them to other people who want to have chickens of their very own.

The whole Chicken Venture seems to be a 'guy thing' in this house: The Reluctant Farmer is the ringleader, and both of the boys are crazy about chickens too. I think it's just great ... they have so much fun looking for eggs and watching them grow, all the rest is "just jam on toast", as my kid would put it. :)

02 October 2008

Milking Routine

We're on our way with an actual morning milking routine!

Sasha and Darth are penned up in the evening ... I put hay in their stalls, and they agonize over going into the stall, knowing that I'll close the gate behind them. Eventually their desire for hay overrides their desire for freedom, and in they go.

The Reluctant Farmer has made some changes to the milking stanchion for me, so I can reach in and get to the business end of the cow more comfortably. There's also a very clever 'tailgate' at the back: a bar can be raised up to let Sasha in, and in the 'up' position, the bar latches into a regular gate latch, so you can push the bar up and latch it into place. When you need to drop it down, you just reach up and press the latch release, and down it comes. Very slick! This keeps Sasha from backing out of the stall, and keeps her positioned so I can easily reach the udder.

At the moment she still moves her feet around a fair bit while I'm milking, so I'm milking one handed into a bucket that I hold in place with my other hand. I figure eventually we'll get to where the bucket can be set down and I can milk with two hands, but this is working and that's exciting enough for now. :)

Yesterday was the first 'milk into the bucket' day, and we got about a cup of milk. This morning I got at least twice that amount, with only 15 minutes in the barn. Sasha is really quite cooperative about the whole thing. Even the washing that has to be done before milking commences doesn't seem to annoy her in the least.

Once I come back inside, the milk is poured through a cloth filter into a clean glass canning jar and put in the fridge for the day. We tasted our first fresh milk last night - and it was amazing! It tastes like ... well ... like milk! Very fresh, clean and creamy (we didn't separate the cream out ... most of the cream comes at the end of the milking, and I didn't milk long enough to get to the rich stuff). Yes, we do know how to pasteurize the milk, but given that our cow is healthy, grass-fed, and free from mastitis, and that none of us have compromised immune systems, we're choosing to drink the whole fresh milk. It sure tastes good, and there are many advantages to raw milk (when it comes from healthy cows milked in a sanitary environment, of course).

There it is... the first bottle of milk!

The whole process is just so amazing. I mean, sure, it's nothing earth shattering or stunningly scientific, but when you wrap your hand around the teat and feel it fill up with milk, then hear that stream of milk rushing into the steel pail ... there's something really incredible about being involved in that.

A cow of my own. Fresh milk in a pail.

That, for me, is a dream come true.