Of Mice and Various Snakes and new Duck Feed Station

As mentioned in the previous post, our region is experiencing a near-Biblical plague of mice. "It's due to all the moisture we had this Spring, plus the flood displacing so much wildlife", someone mentioned. Unfortunately, where there's a plethora of mice, there's snakes, and not just the cool ones that mind their own business and snarf down a rodent now and then. Like the rat snake we adopted from friends, which was captured due to it being lazy and hanging around the chicken coop for easy eggs. That's a cool snake.

First off, mouse management soapbox: I implore you, do NOT use sticky traps outdoors. It will trap ~anything~ that crosses its path, including small bunnies, squirrels and the aforementioned snakes, cool ones or otherwise. It's a horrible way to die. Instead, we had the local pest control company come out and install poison-bait boxes. They double-checked for us and confirmed that any poisoned mice (the product they use causes quick death via severe dehydration) are safe for consumption by both mammals and other avians, including chickens.

[Oh, speaking of chickens, "Veronica" made a full recovery, yay!!!]

Next, we're reconfiguring areas close to the house and animal shelters that are conducive to mouse habitat. We knew for sure there were mice living under one of the duck shelters. Demolishing the shelter moved to the top of the timeline lickety-split when I found a @#$!! rattlesnake in the nesting area.

Thankfully, I was awake enough during that morning egg check to see the snake before I reached down. It was having a nice snooze. I didn't recognize it at first, so got a long stick to lift it up in order to check for rattles. Rattles there? Yep. It didn't start getting annoyed until I tried to move it out, so I closed off the area to keep the birds out, got on some boots & jeans, found the square-edge shovel, and went back out. The snake was now gone. Kinda glad I didn't have to kill it, but that also meant there was a rattlesnake on the loose, the first we've seen since we moved to this property. Eep.

New duck feeding station, front view. 
Spouse made a new, bigger feed station to replace the old duck shelter /feed station (we still have one other shelter, which is plenty big enough for all). It's configured with the roof slanted and on a hinge, so the roof will shed water off the back, and the roof can also be lifted up if you don't want to bend down to grab the feeder. This weekend, he started moving the old duck shelter out of the pen and found... a couple of dead mice, and two very comfy & satisfied rattlesnakes living in the old mouse nest. No wonder the ducks were avoiding the shelter.

Spouse decapitated the snakes as quickly/humanely as he could (see square shovel still on roof of new feed station), created a stable base, and installed the new feed station to replace the old one that had been part of the now-removed old duck shelter. I may end up putting a rain gutter and spout on the back, connected to a large tub, as an additional source of water for the ducks to play in during the rainy season.

New duck feeding station, back view.
The dogs have been taken in for rattlesnake vaccines. You get the first vaccine, then a booster at three weeks, then a shot every six months. It doesn't prevent illness from bites, but instead gives the canine more time to be taken to the vet for treatment. The vet reported that one poor local dog was bitten four times, and the owner said it was the first time in 30 years they'd ever seen rattlers on their ranch. Seems like the Hill Country is a buffet for the snakes this year.

When all's said and done, it doesn't bother me too much to have found rattlesnakes on the property. We've been fortunate to have avoided them for this long. It does mean taking a few more precautions before doing certain kinds of work, however, but that's manageable. As the area settles in for the Long Hot season, the mouse population will start dwindling, which should do the same for the snake population as well.


Sometimes You Win One

"If it's any of these other things, there's no cure" said the vet. "But her symptoms could also, possibly, be toxoplasmosis, brought on by eating infected dead mice." [And good word, we've plenty of mice this year. More on that later.]

Twisty chicken head - eep!
Our smallest Ameraucana was no longer roosting. She could eat and drink, no problem. She gobbled down mealworm treats, and attacked pieces of fruit with gusto. She would, however, twist her head around to almost backwards whenever stressed in the slightest, and her equilibrium was off, making hopping up or down difficult. Off to the vet. Our regular guy was out of pocket, so we took her into the city, and were lucky enough to get a vet who not only knew avian medicine, but also had his own flock of hens. I decided to take the long-shot and work with the hen as if she had toxoplasmosis, and readied myself for days of force-fed antibiotics.

So, toxoplasmosis: most know it as something that can infect cats, and can pass in their feces. Toxoplasmosis infection can also pass through a human and harm a fetus, so that's why you see all the warnings about not letting people clean cat litter boxes while pregnant or immune-compromised. Toxoplasmosis is also carried & passed by other mammals, including raccoons and mice.

"Veronica" spent three long days in the recovery cage. She felt lonely, and let us know loudly and often. We'd move her from room to room to be with us, but far enough away that she wouldn't feel stressed by our movements. The fourth morning, she was showing some improvement, so I let her out into the general population. That evening, she was climbing up the roost ladder partway - still not getting up to the roost, but much better than before! I brought her in for evening meds, and put her in the recovery pen so I could easily nab her for morning meds the next day. She wasn't twisting her head so much this time, either. Gave her meds the next morning, let her out again. Last night, she was on the roost! She was having a bit of trouble due to two other hens trying to get her to move, but she was hanging on as best she could. Brought her in again for the evening meds, and back into the recovery pen until morning, when she'd get her next dose. She didn't twist her head around once during the carry into the house, nor when I took her out of the cage this morning.

It's a sad thing about modern, mass chicken breeding: they're not bred for longevity and health, so veterinary medicine is still catching up on how to manage complicated or long-term hen health issues for home flock owners. As we saw recently in the U.S. with the poultry bird flu, oftentimes the easiest way to solve the problem is to kill the entire flock, sanitize the housing, and start anew. Sometimes, however, you win one, and that's Veronica this time.

More on poultry and toxoplasmosis at this link. Since our birds have full run of our acreage, there's continued risk of toxoplasmosis, but less risk than if they were in an enclosed area. Think the mouse issue will be in the next post. It's been biblical around here.


Memorial Day Flood 2015

One never wants to be Weather Channel famous. The wall of river water - runoff from a huge & fast 10-inch deluge of a storm further upstream - hit our area (and others downstream) like the fist of G-d.

Witnessing the effects of the destruction will catch your breath in your lungs. Driving over the bridge south of town  (which was 30 feet above the water, and still not high enough), people slow down, and sometimes swerve, viewing the damage. One witness wrote an article in The Atlantic, called "Paradise Lost: What the Texas Floods Swept Away".

Spouse and I had recently toured a neighborhood that was settled on the banks of the river, idly considering a move to that gorgeous water. After all, our geese and ducks would enjoy it. What we do for our birds... Well, all those houses are gone now. They probably won't be rebuilt.

There's a huge effort to educate landowners, recommending they let nature start to heal itself, by leaving the downed trees and brush near the creek & river banks to act as nurseries for new trees and brush to grow (pdf - see second page).

The response of people to help was amazing: there were at least three different volunteer reception centers set up to handle the influx in the first few weeks. It's now six weeks post-flood. We're past the immediate emergency, and are now the midst of long-term efforts to help people clean up the damage, and make repairs where feasible. We're "down" to one volunteer reception center, but there's still folks coming in to help, and we are most grateful.

If you're interested in photos, check out this Google Search. Personally, I just didn't have the heart to take any photos, and was more than a little irked by all the out-of-town disaster p0rn oglers. My thanks to those locals, stout of spirit, who documented the damage in photos and arial/video shots.

Us? Our place is fine, we're up on a hillside, a fair bit away from the river. Those who were on the river proper, even if up on a hillside - that's another story. One of our friends said "I will never again complain about all the stair-steps we have to take to get down to the river" - they were on a cliff, over 40 feet above, and lucky. The only inconvenience for our little neighborhood was the seasonal creek-crossing flow-pipe got clogged with debris, and water was running over the road. I had originally thought it was silted up, but one of the neighbors driving through the low water observed it was mostly debris. He hopped into the creek and started clearing. As I drove by and saw him waist-deep in the water, I couldn't help but hop in to help. Got it done, and learned a great deal from him about the history of our community and the little road we're on.

To end this post on a lighter note, here's a pic of Gerdy at the vet, getting ready for laser treatment on his feet. One of the vet techs put the goggles on his eyes as a joke. The other snapped the photo. The rest is giggle history.


Spring has arrived, and boy-howdy are we happy

Winter felt like it would never leave. I can only imagine how folks in the Northeast feel, where some just now are seeing crocus and daffodils, and trees budding.

Here, we're experiencing daytime temps in the 70's. The trees have already leafed out. Viewing the hills shows a patchwork of green canopy ranging from bright to dark. The live oaks have shed & re-leafed, and their flowers have dropped. The first wave of wildflowers are starting to fade - bluebonnets and paintbrushes - and the second wave is coming into bloom: firewheel, "indian blanket", and coreopsis. Around the farm, we also have a couple varieties of native purple sage flowers, daisies, and verbenas.

The hens are laying eggs in abundance. Spring brings the best eggs, as the hens are eating fresh young greens and loads of newly hatched bugs.

The geese have finished their egg-laying season, and are much quieter. We can sleep through the night now without bolting awake due to noisy nest fights or woo-frenzy.

The ducks are thrilled with all the Spring rains we've had, making messes of puddles wherever they find them.

The dogs are no longer napping on the porch; their preferred spots are the grass or the kitchen doorstep (I'm guessing because that's where we store treats).

There's a truckbed full of compost waiting to dress the orchard trees and the veggie beds. Suppose I better get to it!


Dogs & Eggs

How do we manage our bountiful harvests of duck, chicken and goose eggs?
  • Perfect eggs are sold through the on-line co-op directly to members who order them.
  • Cosmetically "imperfect" eggs (stains, odd shapes, etc.) are saved and eaten by Spouse and I.
  • "Sketchy" eggs (thin shell, hairline crack, found in sunshine, etc.) are saved, cooked hard, and fed to the dogs.
If there's ever been a time where our dogs have looked at me in utter adoration, it's been when I've topped their kibble with cooked eggs.


Dog Debacle & Redemption

It was all my fault.

It was easier to get Bandit into the cab of the truck instead of the bed, because the used utility truck we own was/is jacked up for bushwhacking. Though the truck bed tailgate is out of easy reach, Bandit can get her paws up to the cab floor. Once she's on her hind legs, all I need to do is lift her arthritic hips, and let her walk forward. Her sister Maggie can jump into the truck cab all by herself, so this should be easy, right?

Yeah. You know where this is going.

In the interests of efficiency and saving time, my keys, purse, phone, and full travel mug of coffee are placed in the cab's center console before getting Bandit inside. From there, as they say, "chaos ensues".

Center console with coffee and purse overturns as Bandit gets into the truck and decides she is going to drive. Bandit's paws and underbelly also happen to have soil all over from digging up a cool spot under the trees, so soon there is soil mixed with coffee mixed with nervous dog saliva all over the vinyl seats, floors, and dashboard. Swell. No time to do more than wipe the driver seat with a nearby towel, and off we go to the vet. Bandit continues to insist on driving, or at the very least sitting on my lap en route. I strong-arm her aside for the blessedly short 2.3 mile drive, while giving thanks for automatic transmission. Bandit is the poster-dog for pet-seat restraints.

We get to the vet. I step out of the cab and get ready to leash her when she leaps from the truck seat and starts a panicked run off the vet property. Gawds, this day is getting better & better. A vet tech witnesses the commotion, and makes an end-run before Bandit heads into the local subdivision. So glad she loves the vet techs. Bandit practically drags me into the vet office after capture, trailing the tech.

I pick Bandit up later that afternoon. The tech helps me lift Bandit into the truck bed instead of the cab, as I still don't want anyone but myself driving. I bungee Bandit's collar to a tie-down in the truck bed to deter a potential suicide leap while on the drive home. I was not looking forward to lifting her out of the truck bed by myself, but I'd rather get her home safe and deal with a torqued back from lifting than wrestling the wheel with her on the road. Party pooper, I know.

Photo: Bandit is unbungee'd at this point, I swear.
Here we get to the redemption part. Perhaps some rare moment in the past when I wasn't crabby, I made someone smile and accrued some positive vibes. Don't know how else to credit the idea that pops into my head on how to get Bandit out of (and in the future, into) the truck bed. Next to our driveway is a section of deep/high cutout on the hillside. I back the truck up to the cutout, and drop the tailgate. It lines up perfectly with a level patch of ground. Maggie, excited to see her sister, bounds up the gentler part of the slope and runs into the truck bed to get a good sniff of Bandit. I stand around feeling smug, admiring my handiwork, then wonder why Bandit isn't leaving the truck.

Oh, right. She is still bungee'd to the truck bed.

Bless the unconditional love that dogs give us. I'm not sure how Bandit survives our relationship.


Portents & Signs

 This could be a sign...

...that we need to ride our bikes more often.

Happy May Day!

[pic: Inca dove.]


The Shark Cage

Baby chicks are adorable balls of fluff. Chickens, baby or full grown, are also predators, and not above cannibalizing their own, alive or dead. Natalie of the wonderful Chicken Blog wrote of having a "shark cage" to protect her hens from predators. I've had to create a shark cage to protect some of the chicks from each other.

Feather picking can happen for any number of reasons. Boredom, noticing new blood feathers emerging (the sight of blood gets them into a frenzy, just like sharks), too small a pen, poor feed, too hot... the possibilities are many. This flock is the first I've raised - and I think I've raised at least four - that this has ever happened. After finding three butt-pecked chicks (now five-week-old pullets) in the space of thirty minutes, figured it was time to change things up for the flock.

It was time to move them to the Big Blue Room.

The first of the butt-picked. My cuddle buddy, a rooster.
First, sequester the butt-picked. Sprayed Blue-Kote on their backsides to clean and dye the area so the red isn't so obvious, which in turn dyes my own hands & arms in the overspray. It's the gentian violet. Awesome. Great for temporary tattoos. Left them in the living room with towels, food & water. They mostly pooped on the towels. Mostly.

Next, I looked around, and figured the easiest place to put the new digs was directly behind the 10'x10' coop (the Home Despot modified shed), under the sprawling oak. Good protection from any northern winds, and a nice combo of sun and shade for the pen. Snagged a roll of fencing, moved a pallet of rotting straw that was in the way, set up a pallet against the coop as a temporary roost. Trimmed the low oak branches, moved rocks, set up a protected feed/water area. Put eyebolts on the coop wood trim, attached a large tarp for rain protection, then bungied the opposite ends to the oak branches. Set up a "shark cage" within the new digs for the injured pullets, and set up the heat lamp so the heat would be shared by both areas.

The new palace.
Last but not least: capture then move the 27 pullets from the porch pen to their new digs. One chick eluded my grasp and managed to fly over into the duckling pen, freaking out the ducks. The ducklings huddled with fright in a corner as the chick strutted around, proud of her skills. [Spouse laughed when I told him this part. "That's right, b*tches, I can FLY!"]

Duckling: "What-what-WHAT???"
The chicks were in turn freaked out by the Big Blue Room at first. "No porch wall! No ceiling! What's this weird stuff beneath my feet? AIIEEE!!!!". Took a better part of an hour for them to calm down and come out from under the pallet. Took a little longer for them to forgive me.   

A few of the chicks, now on top of the pallet. They learn fast. 

Overnight, a cold front blew in (of course!), and this morning found part of the fence blown down. Thankfully it was early enough that the mature hens hadn't decided to check out the new girls, and the new girls weren't too keen on exploring yet. Threw some chopped lettuce into the center of the pen to distract the chicks, then fixed the fence. 

Whew. Quite the 24-hours for chicks and human alike. 


Feel Free to Laugh at Our Pain

Video was taken a few years ago, but the situation remains the same: it's egg-laying season for the geese, and the geese are crabby. Thankfully it's only four months out of the year.


I Love This Goose & Duck Feeder, Okay?

Installed the last new poultry and waterfowl feeder a couple weeks ago. It took the place of an old goose feeder station that used two baby pig troughs mounted on a backboard. While prepping for replacement, dug out the sunken pavers that held up the old station so it could be re-leveled. When I saw all the worms wriggling in the dug-up soil below, I called over the hens so they could have a snack.

I've seen at least one of these girls swallow a small snake, whole. Despite those kinds of instincts, these hens did not understand the concept of eating worms. What???

A few brave souls would eyeball a worm, pick it up and give it a shake. They'd then drop the worm and walk away. Ooookaaaay. I had to make up for that obviously bad call by scattering some scratch for them to eat. I have a reputation to maintain as the biggest providing rooster, you know.

photo of the Saturn 3 (smaller feeder)
courtesy Premier 1 Supplies
Moving along: All the moving, digging and leveling done in the area of the old feed station left me smelling of waterfowl spit and old fermented grains. The work (and smells) were worth it all, however, as the new station is nice and level, and there will be so much less waste with these new feeders, Saturn 15's from Premier 1 Supplies (and no, I'm not getting paid for this review, it just took a long time to find a good feeder large enough for ducks and geese).

The Saturn 15 has larger feed openings than the Saturn 3, and easily fits most duck and goose heads, although you could always remove every other "bar" on the grill if you needed larger openings. The feeders have eliminated a good 80% or more food waste, which is a significant cost savings when it comes to organic chow.

Some things I've learned about using feeders - in general, and specifically the Saturn 15 - for ducks and geese:

Photo of ours, the Saturn 15.
Not as pretty as Premier 1's photo. 
1. Since they need to drink water to wash down dry feed, one needs to keep drinking water near the feed station. They will often grab a mouthful of feed then dunk their beaks in the water. This can lead to drinking water needing refreshing twice a day, so the grains don't start fermenting.

2. When ducks & geese move from water bowl to the Saturn 15 feeder, their wet beaks can leave moisture in the feed, which may clump and block feed in the tower from refilling the base. You'll want to raise the tower to sit at its highest level on the base, and to check the feeder to ensure free-flowing feed. I give our feeders a few shakes every night to ensure the base is filled.

3. If you don't hang the feeder, the small "hat" at the top of the feeder can get knocked off by a stiff breeze or a curious goose. I use a carabiner clip at the top to keep the hat on the feeder. The hat also keeps chickens from trying to roost at the top.

4. Although feed gets eaten rather quickly around here, the fats in organic feed/grains can go rancid if kept too warm for long periods of time. Keep feeders protected from direct sunlight. Spouse built these wooden feed protectors for both sun and rain protection.

The one downside: we had hoped the new feeders would keep out the dogs, who believe that being fed twice a day is not quite enough. Since they no longer have the easy access like they did the old feeders, they've taught themselves to lick the feed out from between the grill bars instead. *sigh*. Dogs.


A New Pack of Poultry, A New Drama of Ducks

Due to the Egg Laying Strike of Winter 2013-2014, Spouse has agreed we need to refresh our poultry flock, especially with breeds that will lay in cold weather. What we've ordered this year (all bulleted links go to McMurray Hatchery, who thankfully let us mix & match to meet their minimum):

Cagney, our Phoenix hen with her chicks.
We're also updating the duck flock. The Khaki Campbells we currently have enjoy a reputation as good egg layers, but appear to have no mothering instinct whatsoever (with possible exception of Moe, but no definitive proof yet). We're adding Welsh Harlequins to the flock: they have Khaki Campbell in their bloodline, but also have nesting/motherhood instincts. Much easier to add to the flock when you can "let mama do the raising". The geese? They can live and lay eggs well into their 40's, and what goslings they do raise can be mean bast*rds from what I've been told, so we're just gonna stay happy with what we have.

Due to ordering minimums with the hatchery, this means our flock will (gulp) double at onset. Since the Welsh ducks, Pioneer chicks and Welsummer chicks are all straight-run only (you don't know what mix of males & females you'll get), I'm guessing we'll get at least half males, which means duck & chicken dinner by Summer. Some of our older hens may be freezer-bound as well. Killing and cleaning is not fun, nor should it be. On the other hand, if I'm going to be a meat eater, I should be responsible for my diet. I make sure to take excellent care of our flock, with healthy food and plenty of space to roam and socialize. For other meat needs, we do our best to purchase from locals who we know raise their animals with ethics and kindness. I realize it is a privilege to be able to do so. Anyhow...

Khaki Campbells from 2010, just a few weeks old. 
The night-time duck pen will be easy enough to expand, but the chicken coop will require some modifications. We'll probably take down the shelving to create space for more roosts. We currently have in place a 10-space nesting box, and have a three-space nesting box in reserve that we can add if necessary. We could also build a six-space box out of wood, there's plenty of online plans.

I went ahead and ordered duckling-specific starter feed. Some say you can feed ducklings chick starter, but from what I've read, ducklings have higher niacin needs. Since we want the females to be long-term layers, I'm thinking it's better to start them out on the best chow possible. I'll later transition them to the organic chicken chow with supplements once they mature.

I'm oddly nervous about raising a new flock from scratch. It's been a few years. We should receive both the ducklings and the chicks by the end of February. [Expect many pictures and much squeeing upon their arrival.] Timing it thusly, they should be feathered out and ready for protected outdoor pens (until they're large enough to be integrated with their respective flocks) by end of March at the latest, which is two weeks after the last average frost. Fingers crossed that there may be a rooster from the bunch that can get along with Lucky and be spared the ax. There will be no shortage of females for their harems!

Lucky the Roo. He's a right handsome bird, he'll have you know.


*splutter* Winter?

I mean, what the heck happened to Fall??? Texas has been hit with wave after wave of Arctic downdrafts. The cool concrete flooring I wax so joyously about in the Summer now feels like a block of ice, and this year (like last year, and the year before) I swear to get a couple of good sized area rugs to stave off frostbite. I mean, it's so bad that when Spouse surprised me with a pair of insulated muck boots for Christmas, I almost cried - I need them for inside almost as much as outside. Of course, I could just buy the d*mn rugs already...

The biggest event since last post has been The Flood. Our area received eleven inches of rain over a single night, ripping up the roads within AND leading out of the community. Spouse and Uncle brought in a few loads of roadbase right away to patch up our biggest ruts, but we ended up needing three more dump-truck loads to complete all the needed repairs. Our next-door neighbor was a tremendous help, loaning his time & tractor skills not only to repair our culverts and rutted road, but also assisting other neighbors, and doing what he could to temporarily shore up the community road until we all finish fundraising for a pro fix. If it weren't for him, we'd still be 4x4'ing to get anywhere. Thank you D. (and spouse T. for letting him!), more "spontaneous" smoked ribs coming your way!

pic: tangerines, satsumas & limes
In the category of "Hopes & Dreams", the first seed catalog to arrive this season was Good Seeds from Baker Creek Heirlooms, right before Christmas. Second in the mailbox was Bountiful Gardens, the gold standard for everything heirloom, untreated & open pollinated. I've put in a catalog order for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in hopes of more varieties that will work well in our semi-arid region. Our "average" last frost is in mid-March, and if I want any Summer tomatoes at all, I'll need to start seedlings in early February.

While the garden may have been an epic FAIL in 2013, we had a nice Winter harvest of citrus. There are still some fruits ripening on the trees, but initial harvest of limes gave us enough for two ice-cube trays full of juice, which was promptly frozen & stored for future use. Other limes were used fresh for personal libations, on those few porch-sitting, warm weather days.  Spouse shored up & modified our old kit greenhouse to accommodate the taller citrus trees. The structure has done well by us: it's been a greenhouse in the Winter, and secondary duckpond structure in the Summer. We really need to get a bigger, sturdier greenhouse built in 2014, however, as this one is on its last legs. The plastic joiners can only be repaired so much, and the geese have chewed the edges of the plastic tarp cover to ribbons.

pic: yes, the geese did this
The chickens started their annual egg-laying slowdown around late August, and all but two hens went on outright strike until the other week. Our girls are getting older, but even the youngest (who are less than 2 years old) said "meh". Of course, when the light wanes the girls lay less by nature. We could put a 12-hour timed light in the henhouse, which would trick the girls into laying a few more eggs during Winter... but, nahh. Just two weeks after Solstice, however, the two youngest girls started adding to weekly egg tally, and I'm guessing by late February, we'll be back up to a decent production, enough to sell again. May get a handful of Welsummers to freshen up the flock this Spring. Had high hopes the Welsummer rooster would work out and give us a few pretty babies, as Lucky's progeny turn out too flighty for my preference, but Lucky the Leghorn rooster Did Not Want. The two roosters fought until bloody, with Lucky getting the worst of it. Lucky ultimately won the war by virtue of being a known good roo to the ladies. The Welsummer was shipped off to a new home. Perhaps I'll wait for another rooster & homegrown chicks after Lucky retires to the henhouse in the sky, so to speak.

pic: Nutmeg the Cubalaya, RIP
Speaking of chickens, we did lose one of the Pecking Order Enforcers from our first hand-raised flock, the small yet mighty Nutmeg. She'd been slowing down for a couple of months, and (what turned out to be) her last two weeks I'd bring her inside the house at night, where it was warmer. During her last week, she'd walk towards the house at dusk instead of the coop, and wait for me to bring her inside. She was the only hen that Bandit the dog would willingly share morning breakfast. She is survived by her sister Cinnamon, and two others of the original flock. We will miss her.

Now that Bandit's been mentioned, I must report that most of our savings for a garage has been spent on getting her knees repaired - yep, both back knees. One blew out late Summer, and the other right before Thanksgiving. It's a good three months of rehab (thankfully, we can do that for her ourselves), then three more months before the knee is solidly healed. Not that I know all that much about joint repair and rehab, mind you. I'm not bitter, I swear.

We still have the full flock of ducks: nine hens, and one drake. The ducks experienced a major egg slowdown like the chickens this season, then egg production rose these past few weeks as well. I'm on the lookout for paperboard duck-egg cartons, so if you happen to see any in your 'net wanderings, drop us a line in the comments? Gracias!

pic: Queen Moe,
in dressing room sans costume
Queen Moe had a moment of stardom this Fall when she won Second Place (in the "exotics" category) at a Pet Costume fundraiser for a local convalescent center. I whipped up a pumpkin cape for her back, and prayed no-one would judge for quality stitching. She beat out a horse painted like Nemo the clown-fish, but lost to two small children who painted up their hermit-crab aquarium so their crabs looked like they lived in an undersea world. [One friend mock-huffed "ageism!" Never compete against small children with pets*, or something like that.] Moe was a right trooper, letting herself be carried to, and petted by, all the seated patients in attendance. Her Majesty let me know she was ready to go home by tugging on my shirt towards the end of the event. Not sure where the video of her doing the shirt-tug is hiding, so the pic with ribbon award will have to do.

Last, but not least, we're now preparing for the arrival  of Extreme Goose Crabbiness, also known as Goose Egg-Laying Season. There have been signs, such as heightened annoyance (versus regular annoyance) when anything non-goose gets near, and some of the ladies have been seen checking out the undersides of bushes and other likely laying spots. No synchronized head-bobbing in the Pool o' Woo yet, nor any gander battles either, thank goodness. We wait with bated breath, chewed fingernails, and protective gear at ready.

*"Never work with animals or children." - W.C. Fields


State o' the Garden & Orchard, Wrapup Fall 2013: FAIL

Tomatoes: FAIL. Blight, blight, blightedy-blight blight. We may have trucked in the disease with the load of compost from a local garden center. Not one decent tomato this year. Nada. The plants could not keep ahead of the blight.

Chickens stalking Emma's food bowl. The garden is too
depressing to photograph right now.
White potatoes and Yellow onions: FAIL. The tops died back within a few weeks of planting this Spring, with only a little bit of root/tuber growth. Being lazy, I left the remainder in the garden bed over the Summer, continuing to water so as to keep the soil microbes alive. Oddly enough, now that the cooler weather has arrived the potatoes and onions both are sprouting anew. Not sure how far they'll get before being zapped by Winter, however.

Lettuce: FAIL. It got too hot, too fast. One lone little lettuce plant survived the Summer's heat & glare. I left it alone, and it is now going to seed. Why not?

Sweet Potatoes: FAIL. Rabbits were our nemesis here, as they'd sneak through the fence when we didn't close it carefully. Sweet potato greens are juicy and sweet, and the bunnies would chow down. The leaves keep coming back, however, so there may be some small tubers to harvest come early Winter, but I'm not counting on it.

Some not-so-failures: the sweet basil went nuts, two plants growing almost four foot tall. The sicilian oregano planted in the strawberry bed (didn't know where else to plunk it) almost took OVER the bed. It will be parted out and replanted come Spring. The strawberries took to the new bed as well, and will probably fruit nicely come next season.

Lettuce gone to seed
Must have left some partial sweet potato tubers in last year's old bed, as there's greens sprouting all over. Last year's crop was riddled with corking, however, so I'm not counting on these potatoes being edible.

[As a side note to my prepper-minded friends: this year's garden failure really hammers home the lessons from our grandparents & great-grandparents, to save/set aside as much as possible during the "fat" times, because the lean times are gonna happen no matter how well prepared we think we may be. I honestly thought this year's garden was gonna knock it out of the ballpark.]

As far as the orchard goes, once all the trees go dormant, we plan to cull a good many of them. The experimental almonds and cherries will go. So will the peaches. We'll probably pull all the fruit trees from the "front yard" as well, as they're not thriving. What DOES work on this property so far: apples, pears, plums, figs, and apricots. Not bad. We may try the cherries and almonds again once we get some soil berms and better rainwater catchment developed.

Spouse has rebuilt the "temporary" greenhouse, making it taller so we can fit the nine potted citrus trees (and other potted plants) under its eaves. Next year, we will really need to build a new greenhouse - the trees will not fit another year.

Onwards and upwards!


DIY Duck & Goose & Dog Pond Filter system

Spouse writes:

The eight geese and two dogs foul up the goose pond in about 4.5 days during the summer. The pond filter we have used for the last few years was a pressurized number that used an external pump. The old pond pump worked under horrible conditions. It had to pump goose poo "soup" continuously. It was stepped on when the dogs jumped in to cool off in said soup. The geese chewed on the power cord while making aforementioned soup... you get the idea. We have gone through a lot of pumps. The current incarnation is more of a pump in a cage. We have a regular 500 gallon per hour pump in this box (http://www.homedepot.com/p/Total-Pond-Mechanical-and-Biological-Filter-Kit-MF13010/202278958). It is connected to a 15 foot length of lead free 5/8 lawn hose connected with a ½ inch adapter. The old pond filter was just too small to take  - err – "soup" and make it spring fresh.

<insert boring design explanation of latest pond filter operation>
I wanted a large three stage filter. The first stage is mechanical filtration at the pump to make sure that the submerged pump runs without incident. The second stage is a a clarifier so that any particulate that makes it past the mechanical stage settles out before the third stage. The third stage is the biological stage. Bacteria - living in some sort of media - consume and filter out the remaining wastes still in the water. For the media, I am using three bags of lava rock.
<end boring design explanation of filter operation>

The resulting filter is part gigantic aquarium filter, part pond filter, and only slightly overbuilt (I hope). I used the filter described here (http://www.runnerduck.com/pf1.htm) as the basis for the new filter with just a few modifications. I switched to 55 gallon drums. I added an extra tank for a clarifier. And swapped out the filter pads for 3 bags of lava rock to host the aquarium bacteria that were going to convert the soup to clean water.

Here is a is the end result...

[the completed project]
Water is pumped from the pond through the light green hose into the clarifier.(the barrel farthest from the pond. The water enters the clarifier from the top which allows the particulate to fall to the bottom and the water flows out the side and into the media tank.. The water is piped to the bottom of the media tank under a plastic screen which is elevated 4 inches off the bottom. View from the top before the lava rock went in. The plastic screen rests on s stand made out of PVC as detailed on the runnerduck page link above.

[media tank BEFORE lava rock was added]
Here it is with the media barrel loaded with lava rock.

First thing I found out was use real bulkhead fittings like these: http://www.homedepot.com/p/1-1-4-in-EPDM-Washer-Bulkhead-MPT-x-FPT-Union-PL-1846-1-1-4-inch-Bulkhead-Union/203258816
Trying to make your own out of pipe pieces scavenged from the plumbing aisle only results in leaks, cursing, and a floor show for the geese who inevitably arrive to supervise.

Second: size the outlet bigger. But maybe not this big:

[the outlet. the filter screen below in the pond was temporary]
That is a ½ inch inlet being drained by a 3 inch outlet. Sort'a of like a grapefruit launcher loaded with raisins. I did have a one inch outlet but that barely kept up. I doubled the size of the bulkhead fitting to 2 inches but all I could find on short notice is the three inch pipe with an adapter.

Here is the inside of the media barrel with water running through it.

The pump has been running for 4 days and the water is just as clear as when we filled it up after cleaning it the last time. The water clouded up for a few hours after I added aquarium filter bacteria but otherwise it has been clear. The animals are certainly using it. The chickens play with the bubbles produced by the outlet stream. One of the dogs, Bandit, has been in it every day as have the geese so the filter appears to be working. We will still have to clean the foam filter on the pump box but that takes a fraction of the time compared to doing a full dump* and scrub. We still need to figure out a way to clean the bottom of accumulated leaves, feathers and whatever else the geese pull into swim with them. But so far the new filter system has been successful.

*d.a. writes: the aforementioned "dump" is actually pumped out to each of the fruit trees. It takes awhile to do so, but we don't waste water here in South Central Texas, y'all.


State o' the Garden & Orchard, 2013

Where to begin? It's another season of slow progress, due to shoulder issues that continued to haunt from last year. Second surgery completed in late March, and hopefully this is the last one needed.

Fresh compost & new bed for for fig. Geese say, "MINE".
One tremendous help for both my arm and our little farm: the new-to-us truck, affectionately nick-named "The Beast". It has a big bed, and with a couple of trips were able to haul in enough bulk compost to add several inches to all the orchard trees and the veggie beds.  Saved a goodly amount of money with the bulk purchase as well, and look, Ma: no plastic bags!

Although Spring was not kind to the orchard (a warm Winter and a cold Spring), the fruit trees that were able put out a crop have been doing so nicely. The apricots have come and gone, with 99.9% getting snagged (again!) by the local wildlife because I was too drugged out during recovery to remember to protect the bottom 2/3'rds of the trees. Ah well! The pears, figs and apples are fruiting, and so is one of the plums. The two oldest plums are not, however, so we're now suspecting a mixup at the nursery - these have to be accidental ornamentals. Was thinking of cutting them down & replacing, but a friend suggested pruning back and grafting with non-ornamental plum cuttings. Still thinking about that option.

Figs abundant.
Spouse put in two more raised beds, but instead of creating beds that are angled on the bottom to follow the line of the rocky hillside, he dug out & leveled spots for his 4'x4' forms. He says he won't be doing that again, ahem. We now have a dedicated strawberry bed, and the rest of the beds have combinations of tomatoes, herbs, peppers, onions, white- and (soon to be planted) sweet potatoes. We tried to grow a late crop of Spring lettuces and spinach, but the seedlings were fried in an early heat wave.

"Devil's Claw", a volunteer. Rumored to be a good tomato
hornworm trap. If so, then welcome, little buddy!
This year we're going to experiment with red shade cloth, 30%, for some of the veg beds during the hottest part of Summer. In theory, red shade cloth is supposed to allow more of the light spectrum while also protecting from harshest light of the day, and some folks swear that their tomato yields increase with red shade cloth and/or red mulch. For the shade structure itself, we looped a cattle panel over each of the three upper beds. The panels are a bit too long, look a little Dr. Seuss-y, but it'll work until we decide to do something more sophisticated. I'd like to cut them down a bit, then sew a fitted greenhouse cover for each Winter greens & other foods.

Tiny barrel cactus in full bloom. Beauty. 
Speaking of greenhouses, if we can get around to renting the equipment to level an area, we hope to construct a greenhouse using corrugated panels, like this one. Although the panels don't run the "correct" way, this particular design uses its materials efficiently with very little waste. May need to modify slightly for a solar-powered exhaust fan, as even in Winter the solar gain on our southwest facing hillside can be significant. Oh, and we need the bigger, taller greenhouse because I purchased an additional seven citrus (lemons, limes & satsumas) to go with our current few. They were on sale, and the ones we already had were lonely and needed buddies. That's what I told Spouse, anyways.


Twenty Bales in a 19-Bale Truck

Alternate title: "Don't ever let a country boy tell you how much your truck bed will hold." - Spouse
We've done things like this before - see "Moving Via the Nail-biter Express" - and it was well past time to do it again. I found a good deal on the season's first fresh straw bales* on Craigslist, and asked Spouse to help me to pick up a truck-bed's worth. I was thinking ten, maybe twelve bales max. We got to the farm site, the guys started loading, and then there was a brief confab between Spouse and Farmer about estimated safe load. "If you stack them like this, you should be able to fit a few more...". Well, we know how that goes. Twenty bales of straw (and cash paid out) later, the Farmer quickly skeedaddled, and we were left with a load that wobbled back & forth like a Dr. Seuss sketch as we hit bumps and turned corners. The bungee netting I had brought wasn't strong enough to keep everything firmly in place, so we hit the closest hardware store we could find for more tie-down straps. And a bathroom break. We almost sh*t ourselves driving the few miles there. 

Load (relatively) more securely in place, next decision was how to safely get back home before dark. Choose the faster toll road? 80-miles-an-hour may cause problems. Choose the slower freeways? More turns, heavier traffic, but the lesser speed limits might be safer. Spouse chose the latter, and white-knuckled it all the way home. Other farmers on the road were looking at our load like we were crazy. And crazier still: we kept driving, going past our home and into town to get pizzas. Neither of us were gonna be in the mood to cook after all this. 

We got home just before dusk. "So," says Spouse, "which would you prefer to do in the dark? Take care of animal chores or stack straw bales?" Decision: animals first. Then we set up two wood pallets for stacking. [Not a good idea to stack hay or straw directly on the ground here, as ants will quickly make the bales their new home.] Stacked nine bales (3x3x3) on one pallet, eight (3x3x2) on another, and the remaining three stacked on a couple of cement blocks. Done. Whew. 

Moral of the story: Why do ridiculous things like this yourself when you can do it vicariously through our blog? On the other hand, the good news is we've enough straw for our raised vegetable beds and bedding for the ducks for probably the entire year. Sweet!

What's the difference between hay and straw? Hay is made from dried grasses and greens (like alfalfa), and is meant for livestock consumption. Straw, on the other hand, are the castoff stalks from harvested cereal grains like oats, wheat and rice, and are not meant for consumption. Straw is used for animal bedding, a lightweight mulch for veggie beds, and sometimes even structures are made from straw bales. In a garden setting, the difference between laying down hay versus straw is kind of like laying down sheets of paper versus small bamboo stalks. If it gets wet, the "paper" (hay) will mat down, whereas the "bamboo stalks" (straw) will shed more of the water and not mat. Both will decompose eventually. Straw is less expensive as well, about one-third the price of hay.  


Be right back...

Another shoulder surgery, illness, then allergies have kicked my backside left & right. Once it becomes easier to type, the blog will return to its usual at-least-twice-a-month schedule.


Keep Calm and Raise (Hell-)Geese

The geese finally started laying their eggs about the same time I posted "Resistance is Futile for Us Beginners". It was a huge relief to know the egg-laying season was kicking into gear, for the sooner the season starts, the sooner it ends.

Raise "Hell-Geese" Would Be
More Appropriate For Our Flock.
[pic/shop: MilleLacsImpressions
Miraculously, I found each and every nesting site as they were created, and have deduced the laying cycle as well. We're retrieving an average of 10 eggs a week from six females. The opportunity for egg poaching by the dogs is at an all-time low. Maggie is miffed.

About a week before egg-laying started in earnest, Spouse fenced off the side and front garden beds, for in past years there were unholy 4:00 AM squabbles/shrieks over nesting spots under two of the rosemary bushes - one of those bushes being under our bedroom window. A third creeping rosemary bush on the far corner of the house was left out of the fencing equation, logic being:
  1. it had never been used as a nest before, and 
  2. it appeared to be too small for them to scoot under and lay eggs. 
There is no appealing to logic when it comes geese.

They have chewed an opening into/underneath the rosemary canopy and created a cozy little nesting spot. At this point, it is too late to fence it off, as the geese will find ways to dislodge or even literally climb the fence in order to get into an established site. Since it's just one nest close to the house - most of the girls have created nests elsewhere - the 4:00 AM squabbles are happening "only" every other night or so.

I'm counting out the sleeping pills. If I time it right, I may have enough to last the season.


Chest Freezer: Defrosting & Organizing Tips

Step 1: Take out the bodies, and hide them. Okay, okay, just kidding, it only LOOKS like our freezer could hide bodies. This post is for folks who are new to chest freezers and bulk frozen food storage - learn from my mistakes, and save yourself some cash.

You may be wondering why a stand-alone chest freezer (or older freezers) develop ice, where frost-free freezers do not. Self-defrosting freezers allow themselves to "warm up" a little to melt/dry out any beginning ice crystals or humidity, then quickly go back to a deeper freeze. The trade-off for the convenience of less work is faster "freezer burn", where your meats, vegetables and other goods get that dried out look, develop ice crystals and a funky taste if you keep items in the frost-free freezer for too long. You can get freezer burn in a regular freezer as well, but it usually takes longer to happen. No matter which you have, be sure to wrap/package your goods well to ensure longest freezer life possible.

Although we've a couple of good-sized portable ice chests, there's not enough room to store all our frozen goods when defrosting our chest freezer. Speed is of the essence. Some invaluable tools to make quick work:

  1. Don't wait until the entire freezer is wall to wall ice. Seriously. 
  2. Nylon pan scraper
  3. Plastic-edged dust pan
  4. Bucket

The stiff nylon pan scraper - there are all sorts, but this style's my favorite - is cheap, sturdy, has multiple uses, and won't scratch or puncture your freezer. Come on, you KNOW you've wanted to take a knife and hack the ice, right? Big no-no. This scraper will negate the need for melting the ice with a blow dryer or a pan of hot water, and will get the ice out faster. Find the edge of the ice, place the scraper edge against the wall and on an angle to the ice, and use short-sharp-quick scrapes to knock the ice off - done right, the ice will break off in chunks. Be sure to wear gloves to guard against possible scraped knuckles. Sometimes the ice won't come completely off the freezer wall, but as long as the frost hasn't melted into a solid ice block, the scraper will wear down the frost in a few short strokes.

Once all the ice is scraped down the sides, use a plastic edged dustpan (again, to safeguard against scratches or knicks) to scoop up the ice. Put ice in bucket, and dump where convenient *. That's it. If the freezer has been open long enough where a bit of condensation has developed on the inner walls or the floor, wipe with a dishrag. Easy peasy.

When the scraping is done, try to come up with some sort of organizing system when it's time to put things back. Perhaps one bin for pork, another for beef, one for produce, etc. That will make it easier to find what you need.

While you're at it, you may as well inventory what you have while you're putting things back. Write down what you have, and the amounts. Unless you have impeccable handwriting skills, you'll probably want to transfer the information to a spreadsheet of some sort. There are plenty of different inventory sheets available on the 'Net to choose from, or use your own software or even hand letter. Be sure to leave extra space for adding new items, or new quantities.  Put the finished inventory sheet in a conspicuous place where everyone can see it, especially whoever does the most cooking.  I find putting the inventory sheet front & center on the  refrigerator door very helpful, so when I go to stare at the fridge contents, I am first confronted by the fact that yes, we DO have things to cook in the house. Gold stars if you can manage to mark down quantities as you use them.

Do you have any tips for cleaning or organizing your freezer contents? Please do share them in the comments, and together we can make life a little easier - at least, as far as freezer maintenance is concerned.

Don't dump ice on plants, indoors or out: the freezing meltwater can damage roots and possibly kill the plant. 


Resistance is Futile for Us Beginners

Resistance may take the form of making a list of what's essential or telling yourself to stick within a certain budget, but try as you might, it happens to all us beginners: we buy way too many different seeds for the garden our first few years.

Our initial overindulgence in new seeds (and seed catalogues) originates from an unholy combination of ambition and ignorance. We're excited, we want to try everything, all at once, right now! And why not, it's only $3 a packet to try! Unfortunately, we don't know how well certain plants will do in our soil, our particular little micro-climate. The seed companies aren't always helpful, either, not stating if a plant will do better in alkaline or acidic soils, or if a tomato will grow well in a container, or even if it will set fruit in hot weather (and exactly how hot is "hot", anyway?). To be fair, printing catalogs is a pricey affair, so they're cramming as much info into as few pages as possible and counting on us to do our homework. On the other hand, they're also trying to make a living for themselves, so the beautiful photos, illustrations and descriptions are set to enthrall our senses, and lure us into feelings of green-thumb optimism & omnipotence. "I just know I can grow Himalayan blue poppies in my alkaline, scorching-hot caliche soil! I must have them!!!"

A few garden battle-scarred years later, you'll eventually find your seed-buying equilibrium. You'll discover which vegetable plants do best in your garden (and which ones you actually prefer eating). You'll know which flowers thrive versus wilting & pouting, and what bugs & diseases your little plot seems to attract most. Hard-won wisdom in hand, you'll have the tools to narrow your seed/plant choices  for the next gardening season - that is, if you can resist the temptation to try just one more variety of "x". After all, it's only $3.00...

[pic: cleaning out the old seed packets - what the heck was I thinking back then? Oh, right...]


No Goose Eggs Yet?

There's been no breeding dominance fights between our ganders, Billy-Bob and Gerdy. No canoodling in the Pool o' Woo. No squabbling (aka 'shrieking') under our bedroom window for a nesting spot under the big, bushy rosemary - prime egg-laying real estate, if you're to believe the geese. The relative silence... scary.**

Last year the chaos started at Winter Solstice, and here we are near the 1st of February and no eggs in sight. Last year, the egg-laying season also lasted close to six months, instead of the usual four. I'm not sure what this egg-laying season will bring. I'm hoping for a short but fruitful season this time. Spouse was starting to peruse roast goose recipes towards the end of last season.

In other goose news: reading the current McMurray hatchery catalog, I ran across the following blurb on page 52:

"Geese can be expected to breed past 30 years of age and a 40 year old is not uncommon. 101 years of age is the record."

Holeee crap. Billy-Bob/Bobble-Goose/Bobble-the-Hut, the hunchbacked goose of nine lives, may outlive us all! I began scrambling in my brain, thinking of how to make arrangements for our squeezles after our deaths. Since then, I've read from other breeders that 15-20 years is the usual lifespan of a domestic goose... whew! Still, may have to reconsider the thought of getting some Weeder/Cotton Patch geese.  I think our current flock will keep us on our toes long enough.

** ADDENDUM: Spouse just found out that the geese, who have been hanging out under the (new to us) truck in the mornings, have been chewing on the brake lines. They may be waiting to hatch their young until after they kill us.

[first pic: goose napping on the porch, giving me the hairy eyeball as I snapped her photo through the window. 
second pic: Billy-Bob, the nine-lives goose.
third pic: proof...]


The New Era

Now that the apocalyptic fantasies for 12/21 have passed with nary a whisper, let us get to work on the serious issues that face us, instead of hoping for some event to destroy or re-create our world anew, allowing us to avoid responsibility.

My wishes for the New Era:
  • Humane treatment, healthy living spaces and nutritious food for all animals, especially those we raise for our consumption or companionship. 
  • Healthy means of raising crops that give back to the soil & community as much as the end product fills our bellies. May that food be nutritious and safe as well, and enough for all.
  • Healthy planet - we clean up our messes, and stop making new ones. 
  • Healthy relationships - learn to listen twice as much as we speak, and remember respect goes both ways. 

In short, let the New Era bring health for all beings, all interactions, and for the planet itself.

Stepping off my soapbox for now... here's things I've shared or found in other venues:

Beautiful poem by Morpheus Ravenna Faith in the Incandescent Sun - "Solstice Night".

Photo of Glass Gem corn, courtesy of Mother Earth Newsvia Twitter: Gorgeous! '@MotherEarthNews: A stunningly beautiful corn variety..."Carl's Glass Gem" goo.gl/WioYZ' a rare Cherokee corn

Speaking of food: I'm not a huge fan of lentils, but this lentil stew recipe is amazing. I substituted the root veggies called for in the recipe with what I had on hand, and also substituted sausage for the bacon (again, what I had on hand). I could see this being made as a vegetarian dish as well. The extra olive oil & balsamic vinegar added at the end makes the dish outstanding.

Sleeping all tucked into their backs, the geese look like becalmed ships in a harbor:

via Twitter: Just watched Lucky, rooster #1, chase off Baron, rooster #2 from romancing one of the hens. Now THAT is "c*ck blocking".

And speaking of Lucky, think he's trying to find something in his back pocket in this pic.

May the season, and whatever holidays you might celebrate, bring you happiness, peace & well-being.