Return

returnWe’ve had a hard couple of months. My mother-in-law was suffering from a terminal illness and was in and out of the hospital with increasing frequency, until the doctor suggested it was time to call Hospice. We spent a good deal of time sleeping on her couch and floor while we got a schedule worked out for 24-hour caregivers and then returning to be by her side for her final week.

In between, we came home to the farm and furiously worked at the chores and projects that had to be finished up before the snow arrived. The long lists got a flurry of check marks and then had to be left to gather dust each time we had to drive back across the state lines to help out. Then, there was the funeral, and now, all the legal steps to tie up loose ends of a life.

It surprises me how my comforting, familiar routine at home can be abandoned abruptly and slip out of my vision with no feeling of loss until, bit by bit, it begins to creep back into place. That’s where I am now. I haven’t looked at any blogs for a month. I got out of the habit of following the news and lost track of the story lines of my favorite shows. I am sure I missed out on some important things, but none of it seemed relevant anymore.

So anyway, here I am, back in the world. During breaks from catching up on bills, chores, and commitments, I will see what I missed in the blogosphere.

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The Spare Kitty

My farming friends have advised me that you need more than one barn cat. This was following a scare in which we found Emmie’s twin lying in a roadkill heap out on the highway in front of the farm. It was not her, though, and I’ve felt that much closer to Emmie ever since thinking we’d lost her.

Still, things happen. I am gradually learning to accept that living on a farm with free-ranging animals that we will lose some of them to predators, accidents, and maybe someday running away from home. My littlest hen, Scooter, disappeared last week and we’ll never know why.  This points to the farm wisdom that you plan for losses by bringing in more animals than you think you need.

So, this weekend when the local shelter had a free adoption event, my husband went over and picked out a sweet little male kitty named Micky. I believe he is not full grown yet, as he acts playful and curious like a kitten and is smaller than Emmie. Micky loves to be held and snuggles up around my neck with his little purr motor rumbling under my hands.

The two cats have not yet become friends. It took no time at all to hear the back-of-the-throat hiss as Emmie faced off with this intruder. I am hoping it will gradually settle out and they will learn to enjoy each other’s company. Currently, Micky comes bouncing out from hiding when I come into the barn and begs me to pick him up for a cuddle. Emmie then sidles out and gives him the evil eye, putting him on fearful alert. I am trying to give them both lots of one-on-one attention so they learn that I don’t play favorites.

It’s surprising to me how quickly we have adapted to loving cats. My husband is terribly allergic and, as I have said, I am firmly a “dog person.” Still, the cat experience in the barn is just as sweet as sitting on the sofa with my beloved dogs. Who knew?

 

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Our First Grape Harvest

This is the third summer since planting our little vineyard and this year we allowed the Concord grapes to form. Last week, I scrambled under a tight time window to get the first batch of ripe grapes turned into juice and jam. Boy, is it delicious!

Picking the grapes was simple. I just snipped the stems and let them drop into a tub. I picked about a third of them, just the darkest purple bunches. Then I swished them around with water from the hose and took the rinsed grapes into the house for a final cleaning and picking them off their stems.

We’d purchased a juicer, which is like a three-piece double boiler. The grapes go into the top pot with a sieve at the bottom. The lowest pot is for boiling water into steam. The middle pot has an opening in the middle for the steam to rise into the top pot and then catches the juice that leaks out  from the grapes above it. The juice can’t leak back down the steam hole. Got that? There is a tube coming from the middle pot with a clamp that allows you to release the juice into another container as it builds up.

This was an interesting experience. I made several batches of jam, learning the tricks as I went along. Strangely, they did not all come out the same. I’ve had plenty of chemistry lab experience so I would have thought I was quite careful but I must have done things slightly differently from one time to the next. With the juice that didn’t add up enough for the jam recipe, I added a smaller amount of sugar to make juice. I always loved grape juice, but this is the really good stuff! Thick and substantial.

Last night I went back out to check the remaining fruit. Oh oh. These grapes were super ripe and were crawling with yellow jacket wasps. I backed carefully away and slept on it, dreaming how I might get my share of the harvest without getting stung. This morning, I tucked my jeans into tall rubber boots and suited up with my honey bee jacket, veil, and gloves. Armored for war, I snipped the clusters right off into the tub and dragged it away with swarming wasps all over it.

I thought I was pretty clever. I filled the tub with water from the hose and the wasps floated up and over the edge along with the tired, wrinkled grapes that were past their prime, and I just swished them all out with a stick. Now, the final, sweetest grapes of all are on the back porch with a towel to keep the bees away. One more session with the juicer and we’ll have saved the bounty of the vineyard for year number one.

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Dyed in the Wool

Technically, angora goats produce mohair, not wool, but I dug in and did the shearing, washing, and dying all in this one labor-intensive week and created some pretty flamboyant piles of colorful fiber. I am quite proud of myself.

I will roll this backwards and show what it took go do the job. Here is a picture of the protective coverings I had to put all over the stove to prevent splashes of dye from getting into the grout and countertops of my kitchen. I only had one splash and the paper coverings captured it all.

I did have some trouble remembering to put on my rubber gloves as I worked with the dye powders, but the stains on my fingers have already faded away.

Before I could process the mohair, I had to soak it all overnight in a special detergent solution and rinse it a million times until the water finally came out fairly clear.

Here it is divided into eight sections  of Eddy’s white hair and Ely’s silver-gray locks.

Of course, the step before that was actually hauling my two boys into the barn stall for their haircuts. I have really struggled to find a regular shearer, so I gave up and decided to bite the bullet and learn to do it myself. A faithful friend came to help hold the goats still while I buzzed them with the big black monster of a shearing tool. After a while, I got fairly comfortable with it and by the time I was done with the second goat I did a pretty decent job. I brought Eddy back in to neaten him up a little and the motor died, so that was the end of that. I’ll have to figure out how to repair the machine.

Here is a picture of Eddy and Ely munching their dinner. Eddy was already sheared and Ely was still weighed down with his full six-month growth of hair. I think we have turned the corner in my farmer-hood. I can do this!

 

 

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Goodbye, Old Isa

I knew when I got chickens that they have a shorter lifespan than dogs, and worried a bit what I’d do when their time came. Well, it looks like I know now.

My first generation of chickens is now three and a half years old.  They rarely lay eggs anymore, and move more slowly around the chicken yard, reveling in their status at the top of the pecking order. I feel bad when I witness some of my old favorites angrily lashing out at the young ones with their beaks to put them in their places. What cranky old ladies they have become.

Isa as a teenager

Yesterday, I noticed old Isa was sitting alone on the roost in the morning. By late afternoon I peeked in and she was still there. I picked her up and petted her, checking to see that she was not injured. I set her gently on the floor and she stood up and looked at me. When I went to close up the gates in the evening, she was still in her spot on the floor so I picked her up and placed her back on the roost so she could stay warm with the flock overnight. This morning, she had passed away.

I guess that is the way to go, warm among your flock and in a safe place. Hopefully she died in her sleep. I dug a hole in the field where the chicken graveyard has gradually formed. Now, I look at my other older hens and my dear rooster, Cooper, and think sadly that their months are numbered as well. I know this is just farm life and the cycle moves on.  I have learned to introduce a new generation of chicks each year and will look at them as “the class of 2016”, “2017”, etc. as we move through the years. The class of 2014 will probably always be my favorite, though, as we learned together how to live on the farm.

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Re-engineering the Chicken Run

20170828_080915I got an idea this month, as I walked out through the chicken run to feed the goats and as usual, the hens all rushed past me out into the pasture. What if we had an inner wall with a door so that I could control when they were able to slip out? I put my inventive husband onto the task and this week we created the new wall.

This is working great, and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before! I moved the chicks’ box to the inside of the enclosed area and now I have a two-stage process for bringing everyone safely in at night. Before, when one or two stray hens came late and I had to open the door to herd them in, there was always the risk that someone else would then slip back out and I’d have to go chasing them around the yard. I don’t like my chickens making me look foolish.

When we’d finished up and I was walking about picking up loose tools, I shooed a hen off the straw bales we store along the wall. Under her, I was shocked to find that some of the hens had taken to laying eggs in a secret nest they’d made in the straw. I had noticed that production had slowed lately, but this clutch contained 20 eggs! 20170826_155341

Those stinkers. I rearranged the straw bales so they no longer have a nice hiding place, and now I know enough to go searching now and then for a secret cache. I’d like to retrain them to go back to laying in the convenient nest boxes, but I’m not sure how to do it. Now, they are laying on the floor in the corner of the coop so I have to walk inside to fetch them

Do you chicken experts out there have any good ideas?

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Are They Old Enough?

20170818_081205This year’s chicks have had a rough go of it. They are seven weeks old now, and I am trying to decide if it is safe for them to be running free. You may remember that I set them up with a door in their cage that would allow them to do this, a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, it was too soon.

One day, I couldn’t find them. I normally could hear the “Peep peep peep” as they clustered around each other running from here to there. I tiptoed carefully around all the places I’d seen them before, to no avail. I’d almost given up when I noticed one step further and I’d have stepped on them, hiding under the weeds in the pasture. They were keeping very quiet and still.

I suspect they’d been witness to a murder. One of them was missing, and my guess is that a hawk had spotted them and picked the first one off, planning to come back for another snack whenever it got hungry again.  I herded them back into their safe haven and closed up their door so they’d be unable to wander into danger again. That is where they have remained except for the few times the enclosure was breached for one reason or another and we’ve had to hunt them down and tuck them away in safety again.

20170824_081722In the mean time, they are growing fast and the largest is too big to slip through the fence anymore. The smallest is still quite little and looks like a baby but she is quick as a shot so if she is alert she should be able to dash out of the way of danger. Her sister was not.

We have four left, out of the eight we brought home this summer. Three died of injuries when they were tiny, and the fourth was the one who was whisked away. I grieve for each one, but all I can do is learn from the experience and figure out how to protect the others from a similar fate. I guess the next time I should buy twice as many as I really need. I am not yet enough of a farmer to look at little creatures as commodities.

As it is, today I decided to give them some freedom and hope they learn to come back to the fenced chicken run at night so they can be locked in safely like their brethren. I hope they all make it.

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Harvest in Full Swing

Here we go again! I know I publish a photo of our veggie harvest every year, but it always catches me by surprise. I thought I’d do a quick check for ripe tomatoes or squash before I came in from the morning greet and feed at the barn. Next thing I knew, I’d had to go back for a bigger tray and then a whole bushel basket because there were way more ripe items than I’d anticipated. By the time I was done, I was dripping wet and my sweaty glasses were sliding off my face into the tomato plants.

I guess it’s time to get down to business and start canning and drying those tomatoes. We have lots of onions too, but rather than dry them out to store for the winter I’m just going to be using them as needed in the kitchen. My huge efforts at hanging them to dry in the barn a couple years ago yielded a bunch of soft rotting onions in the basement by mid-winter. Very disappointing.

I stopped long enough to snap a shot of one of the many butterflies who have taken up residence in our pollinator-friendly fields. It’s a little hard to spot her, but I blew it up and did an ID with the help of Google. I think it is some variety of the Tiger Swallowtail.

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Emmie’s Visitor

It is so interesting having a game camera to let me in on what goes on at night in the barn. I have seen mice sneaking around, Emmie learning to hunt, and evidence that she has slipped outside now and then.

Cat in the doorway

The biggest surprise was when I saw apparent overexposure from the flash in which Emmie came out all white, peeking under the doorway and passing in front of the camera. Further pictures proved that it was not the flash, it was an actual white cat dropping by to visit! The camera records the date and time, so I see this visitor comes by between midnight and 4:00 am every night and they don’t seem to be friends. In one shot, Emmie has her back arched in a defensive posture.

Cats facing off (See Emmie’s eyes)

So now what do I do? Is it okay to have a foreign cat visiting? I imagine she is eating Emmie’s food, but that’s not a crisis. Emmie has been spayed so we won’t be getting multi-colored kittens. I guess I will have to get her immunized for the diseases cats tend to share with one another.

Emmie is getting better at hunting down mice. I captured a video of her chasing a mouse up the wall next to the garage door late at night, but it got away. This morning, she was chasing a baby mouse back and forth in the goat stall, seeming to find it quite entertaining. On my way back to the house from feeding the animals, I found a large dead mouse in the driveway that I didn’t see on the way out. My husband said he’d spied Emmie hunting out in the driveway while I was working in the barn, so I believe it was a very recent kill.

Emmie has come to like my company and now comes meowing out from her hiding places every time I enter the barn, calling out for a bit of petting. Who knew this relationship would progress so quickly? I’m starting to look into cat doors so we won’t have to keep the garage door ajar all winter. I’d like to make a ramp so she can nestle in the hay loft, but I don’t think she’s done any climbing yet.

This is all very interesting and entertaining to me. Just one more member of the family to fall in love with.

 

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Chicken Necklace

20170731_171356I noticed something strange as I walked out to check on the animals, recently. One chicken seemed to be dressed up with a white necklace around her neck. As I got closer, I discovered she had pecked through the center of a half a cantaloupe I’d put out into the compost heap and was now wearing the dried rind as she ran about the yard.

The height of fashion for a hen!

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Glorious Summertime

20170805_073609-EFFECTSAs we slide into August and begin to feel the cooler nights that hint at September, I become aware of the impending loss of yet another summer and to appreciate more what we still have around us. Sure, it is hot and humid a lot of the time, but the vegetable garden is beginning to produce the beans, tomatoes, squash and corn that will keep me busy harvesting for the next two months. I love this season with all its excitement and the rush of activity.

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Baby Chicks in a Big Chicken World

Cutting a doorThis was the week to introduce our five baby chicks to the flock. I wanted them to still have a safe haven to rest and eat without being abused by the adults, but to be able to begin mingling and exploring the world.

We cut a hole in the side of their brood box and made a hinged door that could double as a ramp out of the box, and then attached a bit of screen to allow only immature chickens to run in and out. It also gave me a chance to clean out and refresh their bedding for their second month of life on the farm.

I stood and watched for a while, as the curious adults listened and peered into the new entrance. The babies were too timid to approach and stayed under the heat lamp and in their familiar territory, but once or twice dared to peek out and see those huge chickens looking back in.

This morning, I was eager to see how they’d fared overnight and if  the indoor/outdoor balance had changed. Surprise, while the adults were still penned in and waiting to be released for the day, the babies were all outside the fence, peeping away and looking at the big wide world around them.

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Rabbits, Rabbits, Everywhere!

Rabbit

The bunny population has really exploded around here this summer. All I can guess is that the roaming coyotes have not gotten hungry enough to come onto the farm looking for dinner. There are little babies everywhere we turn, and they are not clever enough to duck into the weeds when they hear people approaching. I keep coming across brown fuzzy mounds with long ears, frozen in place and guessing that they cannot be spotted. I can sometimes get within a yard or two before they bolt.

Tonight, one was surprised as she was hopping into the barn and she scampered from corner to corner, skidding on the smooth cement floor and growing more panicked and unable to think straight. She finally found her way out and I wondered why the cat wasn’t on duty. Emmie came slinking out from her hiding place, stretching and extending her claws as she pinned her eyes on the place the rabbit escaped, but she is still too nervous to go running after something with me in the room.

Goat drinkingThe goats don’t seem to mind rabbits sharing their pasture, and pay no attention. The chickens share their water pail and on a hot day the water level sinks pretty fast by the late afternoon. Ely is always afraid he might get squirted by the hose but was so eager to get some cold fresh water he dunked his lips right in there while I was filling it up.

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A Brief Cuddle

Emmie, the barn cat, has clearly come to see her barn as home. We have an established routine now and maybe once a week she deigns to call out and solicit a visit. Surprisingly, I was the recipient one day last week.

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I heard the little “Mew” coming from one of her hiding places and I sat down to call back to her. What followed was at least five minutes of my rubbing her ears and back while she slinked back and forth under my hand showing me what she wanted.

I held my phone in the other hand and tried to get one good shot to prove we’d had this brief friendly relationship. She did not make it easy, but here is a little documentation of “my” cat and me.

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Angry Birds, For Real

We wage an ongoing battle at our house.  Our love of animals fights on one side, facing off against our irritation with the muddy, poopy mess left when we allow little birds to raise a family on our front porch columns. We allowed a family of finches and another of barn swallows, and then cleaned up the mess and thought we were done with it. Then the swallows came back to start the next generation.

Enough is enough. My husband splurged on plastic spikes to super-glue to the ledges and we sat back to watch. Those swallows are flummoxed. They keep swooping through the porch, landing on the side of their ledges and trying to reason out in their little bird brains how the world changed and what they should do about it.

 

When they tire from hanging on sideways, they swoop up onto the roof and sit there to think about their next move. We are keeping out of the way and only watching through the windows, because they are the real “angry birds.”

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Caring for the Pollinators

We have put a lot of care (and money) into creating a haven for the birds, bees, and butterflies out at our farm. We have several acres of native grasses and flowers and last year planted a swath out along the highway that curves around the northern border of the farm. The highway crew mistakenly mowed it flat in the fall. This year, though, we have put up signs to discourage mowing and spraying if the crew did not “get the memo.”

20170708_090935I think the vibrant bloom is enough to deter anyone thinking they should destroy it by now. In June, it sparkled with red poppies as well, although I don’t believe they are native. I just like seeing some red.

I know from experience that the mix of flowers will change, depending on the weather, the month, and the maturity of the root system. This may be the best year for the Brown-eyed Susan so we need to really appreciate them in the moment.

We think there is an invasive plant trying to get a foothold in the mix. It has a tall stalk, (in some cases 6 feet tall), and looks like it will develop a flower at the top. My husband thinks it is an invasive species called “mares tail” and we have started the exhaustive task of methodically pulling them out by the roots. I’m hoping we are not pulling up something we paid to have planted, but if our little garden is contributing to a problem for the farmers, we have to do our part to stop it.

20170708_091545Do any of you horticulturists out there know this plant? It will take us a week of 2-hour sessions to eradicate it so if it is a case of mistaken identity, I’d like to know sooner rather than later.

 

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Chicks’ First Day

I guess I was a little cavalier about the baby chicks. I thought I’d given them a nice, safe brood box and we left to go to dinner with friends. When I went out to check them this evening, two had squeezed out under the box and were loose in the chicken run. One had the downy feathers scraped off her leg. I scooped them up and put them back into the box but one more was missing.

I looked everywhere. I heard a faint peeping and tried in vain to train my ears for the direction. I was about to give up and call it a loss. Suddenly I noticed a little yellow fluff pinned behind the feeding tray in the brood box. Poor little chicky had gotten herself stuck and she, too, had scraped her feathers off her leg and it was dragging. Who would have thought they could get into so much trouble so fast?

I Googled how warm do chicks need to be, as the weather report said it may get down to 58 tonight. It says the first month they need 95-100 degrees! I quickly set up my red heating lamp and they crowded underneath it.

I feel like such a horrible mother. I think I’ll have to go back to the farm store tomorrow for a couple more chicks, as the injured ones probably won’t make it. We’ve made adjustments to the brood box so they should no longer be able to get out, and I put more effort into teaching them how to get at the water dish. You’re supposed to stick their beaks into it so they’ll get the idea but I don’t think they had caught on yet.

I guess we’ll see over the next week how many survive their early days on our farm. I’d never lost a chick before so I was way too complacent.

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Baby Chicks

20170707_145504It is so hard to resist adding baby chicks to the flock. We’ve told ourselves, “No.” on so many trips to the farm store, but I finally decided we’ll need a new generation to make up for our increasingly elderly original hens.

Today my husband built me a nice chick box to put out in the run and we brought home a half dozen babies. Two each of: Buff Orpingtons (yellow), Silver Lakenvelders (multi-color), and Barred Rocks (black).

I got pictures from a poultry vender called Stromberg’s to show what they’ll look like when they grow up.  The Lakenvelders lay white eggs, so I’ll be able to identify who laid those. The others lay brown eggs like most of the others I already have.

I think it works out well to get your chicks in mid-summer when it’s warm enough out to avoid having to put them under a heat lamp. I have one in case the weather turns, but I think they’ll be fine. We put a roof over half the box for shelter from the weather and they have fresh air and sunshine shining down in the other half.

The older girls and the rooster are all quite curious. When I carried out the box of cheeping chicks, the adults all froze, cocked their heads, and set their beady little eyes on me.  As they age, I’ll engineer a way for the chicks to run in and out of their pen but still duck into it through fencing if the hens get mean and chase them.

Over the next week, I’ll watch for those wing feathers to begin popping out and see if a comb becomes more prominent on any of them. That’s how I noticed that Cooper was turning into a rooster, although it is not what real chicken experts use to figure out the sex. Then I’ll come up with names. I may have only three names if I can’t tell them apart, one shared by each pair of “birds of a feather.”

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Ha – Caught Ya!

spypoint

We bought a game camera and I set it up in the seemingly cat-free barn yesterday. After a series of embarrassing color snapshots of my own legs walking around the barn doing chores, I ran into the nighttime shots that captured Emerald patrolling after midnight.

There were many shots of blurry cat movements back and forth, looking for mice. She has not captured any of her prey (that I know of ) for a while, but I’m pleased to know she’s on the job.

 

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Barn Cat – Reprise

20170630_114637I think I finally have this cat thing figured out. Emmie is living in the barn, for sure, but she does go out to roam sometimes. She left me a dead mouse in the middle of the barn floor. She has taken to hiding under the big mower that the tractor pulls because it is just her height to slide under and watch what’s going on. If she wants to communicate, she will do a faint, “Meow”, but most of the time she wants nothing to do with me.

The other day, the dog was frantically scratching at a hole under the back stairs of the house. I thought it was a chipmunk he’d cornered but then the animal seemed to start fighting back. I put Fionn into the house and listened till I heard a faint sound so I sat down and “Meow-ed” back. After a while, Emmie peeked out and decided she’d come out and allow me to pet her. I carried her back to the barn and closed her in for the rest of the day, but I had to make a decision – should we leave the garage door ajar or try to keep her locked in?

The final verdict is that we’ll keep the door up a few inches, too low for the chickens to sneek in and poop all over the floor but high enough for a little cat to scoot under. I think she’s mad at me for picking her up so I’m going to give her all the space she wants. I’ll talk to her when I’m in the barn but will have no expectations of returned affection.

So, that is the end of the cat story. We’ll see if things change over time but for now I think we’ve reached stability.

One last thing, I like to have a photo to go along with a blog entry and this cat situation has made it really difficult. I put off writing, hoping to get anything to illustrate the story. Enough of this. Here are pictures of my much friendlier pets. Fionn and Beezy in an unusually cozy mood, and Cooper the rooster who always loves me.

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