Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Double Down.

Posted on | August 27, 2014 | 1 Comment

Every year I make the same exact mistake.  In January I carefully make diagram after diagram of the summer garden.  I arrange the plants, move the beds, build trellisses, and make compost heaps.  All on paper.  Because these things are much easier to move on paper than they are in real life.  I especially consider the gradual turning under of the summer garden—a process by which the pigs root up and mix all the withered plants, the mulch, break-through weeds, and and a new batch of barn manure to prepare beds for fall planting.

Ideally, the garden beds are arranged so that the first crops to fail are grouped together (first the peas and carrots, then potatoes and onions, followed by the lettuce and brasscias, eventually the zucchini and summer squash, etc, etc).  So the pigs can be contained in a movable pen placed over one bed filled with spent, browned, exhausted crops and then quickly and easily slid over to the next bed.  That way the garden gets turned in a nice orderly procession and the pigs are kept away from tempting crops that are still producing.

But somehow, between January’s perfectly arranged diagram and the fall planting in September, all chaos breaks loose.  Perhaps it happens when I start squeezing extra transplants from the greenhouse into any space available.  Or maybe it gets thrown off when I find a new variety in the garden store that I absolutely have to try so I add or extend a bed to fit it in.  Could be last minute reshuffling to accommodate all those confusing companion planting or crop rotation charts.  Might even be the alarming tendency for plant rows to be mislabeled or left unlabeled because I had to rush off to pick someone up from sports practice, or stop to chase down an escaped goat, or spotted a snake slithering through the mulch and couldn’t really tell whether it was an Eastern hog snake or a copperhead so garden activities had to be canceled for the day.  Regardless, by the time I return to the garden I often have trouble remembering what seeds I planted where and I end up overseeding or simply seeding in a different spot than I had planned.  Garden charts just don’t account for snake sightings.

When the summer heat broke and we experienced our first morning in the 60’s, I stood in the garden considering fall plantings and surveying the damage.  Yep.  A random assortment of garden chaos.  With tomatoes flourishing next to overgrown lettuce beds, decayed zucchini next to sprawling pumpkin vines, almost-ripe watermelons trellised over the remains of the onion crop.  It looked like the pigs would have another year of forgoing a convenient 16 X 8 rectangle pen of cattle panels for an arbitrary assortment of  trapezoids, parallelograms, and rhombi.  These would be patched together with scrap panels and designed to put the pigs over the crops that need to be turned under, but at least a snout distance away from the thriving peppers, eggplants, tomatillos, and melons.

Except this year I made another mistake.

That’s right, people, a double down on the garden failures.

This year, I don’t have any pigs.

Last year’s pigs were so big that we’re still working our way through their tenderloins, shoulder roasts, and hams.  So we didn’t bother to get a spring piglet.   Which was a shame when the farm was producing the extra foodstuff  favorites of pigs.  It was disappointing to pour out extra goat milk, toss a discovered nest of hidden chicken eggs (therefore, of an unknown age, undetermined developmental status, and inedible by humans), or eat every single last piece of crookneck squash ourselves, but it was really depressing now.

We don’t till in our garden and yet I was facing off with this:

Enough to make a farmer cry tears in her bacon.

Luckily, I own way too many animals a diversified farm operation.  Pigs aren’t the only crop-grazing, dirt-tilling critters around here.  (Although they are the most delicious ones.)  The chickens were my next best bet for turning under the garden.  They’ll eat the majority of greens and even what they won’t eat they will trample down or scratch up by the roots.  They love digging through mulch and soil for grubs and bugs and create light fluffy, perfectly mixed piles of compost.  Sure, the raised beds would have to be reshaped after the chickens flung the contents around, but reshaping light, loose debris with a pitchfork is a whole lot easier than turning the soil with a shovel, hoeing the remaining weeds and clods, and then leveling with the iron rake.  A whole lot easier.

Too bad the pen creation wasn’t as easy.  Because chickens need one thing that pigs really don’t.

Predator protection.

The garden is surrounded by an 8′ fence to keep out critters.  But that fence is made of chain link which is easily scaled by the opossums and raccoons that feast on unprotected chickens around here.  Our chickens had to be secured at night if they were going to be separated from the livestock guardian dogs and placed in the garden.

Good thing I still had a chicken tractor in the garden.  Kind of.

What I had was an 8 year old chicken tractor.  Which worked fine when I got my first 4 chickens.  Those chickens were moved merrily around the farm, enjoying fresh grass and bugs every day and the security of a locked coop every night.  Of course, I only used the chicken tractor in that capacity for 1 year.  Chickens, being like potato chips, are way too addictive to have just 4 of them.  I mean, have you ever only had 4 potato chips???  Unless the kids only left 4 potato chips in the bag.  Or worse, they left just enough dregs of chips to equal 4 full chips if you tip the bag and funnel those dregs directly into your mouth.  Not that I’ve ever done that….

So by the next year I had a substantial flock of chickens.  Too substantial for a movable pen so they had to have a permanent stationary coop.  Since they had a permanent stationary coop, we had to let them free range to get the healthiest chickens with the healthiest eggs.  Once they were free ranging we had to put up a fence to keep loose dogs and daytime predators out of their pasture.   Once we had a pasture there was no reason not to fill that pasture with other critters like ducks and goats and sheep and pigs and ponies.  As soon as that pasture was full of critters, it only made sense to get a livestock guardian dog to guard all those critters.  And then that livestock guardian dog needed another livestock guardian dog as a friend.  Because, really, can you imagine the pressure of all that responsibility?

Yes, I know.  That’s kind of the equivalent of looking at the potato chip bag with its pathetic chip dregs and saying, “Screw it, who wants to go to Walmart for another bag of chips?”  And then coming home with 4 full bags of chips—sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar, barbecue, and ridged.

Please.  You know you’ve done that, too.

Anyway, the chicken tractor got demoted.  Initially it was used in the barnyard for hens with newly hatched chicks.  Then we built a brooder room in the barn.  So it was moved down to the garden for the guineas.  The guineas did a decent job of eating garden bugs without destroying the veggie plants.  But they were too loud for the neighbors.  So the chicken tractor became an excellent garden shelf to set tarps and row covers when not in use, to stack all varieties of sprinklers, spray nozzles, and hose connectors, and to hold rolls of bed edging.  Plus, a place to stash rocks where they were out of the way of the lawnmower but available for holding down paper mulch or hammering in garden stakes.

The downside of the chicken tractor being used as garden shelving was that it hadn’t been moved for about 6 years.  And as I assessed it’s chicken holding capacity, I realized there was no way it was moving ever again without falling completely apart.  Which meant that if I wanted to use it to protect the chickens as they turned over the summer garden, it had to stay in place.  The fencing had to come to the chicken tractor.

Combining the immobility of the chicken tractor with the haphazard arrangement of the beds to be turned over, I figured trapezoids, parallelograms, and rhombi were a pipe dream.  Heck, quadrilaterals seemed unlikely altogether.  I gathered a variety of cattle panels, fencing rolls,  PVC pipes, rebar, tarps, shade cloth, hay twine, and set to work.  I ended up with a decent straight stretch over the squash.

The rest of the pen was a free for all.  Where I ran out of cattle panel, I used some flexible plastic netting.  Even though I could have easily cut the netting with scissors, I didn’t bother.  It would easier to roll it back up on the roll when I was done with the pen if I left it in one piece.  Besides,  the intact roll added a little extra support to the wobbly PVC pipe post.

If the panel or fencing had squares that a chicken could squeeze through, I attached some of the garden edging.  I also left that on the roll instead of cutting it.  For the same reasons as above.  Plus, cutting wire is so successful at creating sharp ends that poke me despite my best efforts to avoid injury that my hands and legs start to spontaneously bleed whenever I get out the wire cutters.  Just to get it over with already.

When I ran out of cattle panels, fencing, and edging, I just started making do.  One section of the pen was created with an unused utility gate with the gaps covered by a trap, some shade cloth, and a scrap piece of field fencing.

Tractor Supply and Southern States can claim whatever they want.  But “For Life Out Here,” whatever is laying around the farm works just fine “For Those Who Do.”

I hung a piece of shade cloth for lounging under in the heat of the day.

I used some bamboo garden stakes to add extra roosts to the chicken tractor and I set the water trough right beside it to discourage the chickens from hopping onto the roof of the tractor and then hopping out of the pen.  I knew the chickens were capable of getting over the few 3′ tall sections of cattle panel but I hoped they had an incentive to stay in (lots greens and bugs) and no reason to get out (chickens hate to be separated from rest of the flock).

Overall, it was a success.  What the pen lacked symmetry, it made up for in purpose.  If it’s durability was in doubt, that just made it easier to take down when the job was done.  If the design was indecipherable, that just meant it would be harder for the chickens to find their way out.  After all, several times as I tied fencing to posts and attached shade cloth or garden edging, I found myself trapped inside the perimeter or wandering the outside of the fence trying to get back in to where I had been working.  If I couldn’t find my way out, surely the chickens couldn’t either.  Probably.  Maybe.

Then in went the chickens.  I chose 8 of the older hens plus Michael, the less dominant rooster.  I added a couple sheep to help with weed control.  Although the sheep’s role in the garden was short-lived.  (Flexible plastic netting and PVC pipes might hold chickens. But they don’t hold sheep.)

Now I’m just letting the chickens prepare the fall beds while I prepare to can tomatoes and pickle peppers.  In between rescuing the couple chickens that fly out of the pen, then pace the fence, frantically looking for a way back in.

Oh, the mind of the chicken is unknowable, Grasshopper.  Completely unknowable.

Love is….

Posted on | July 9, 2014 | 2 Comments

….the summer garden.

This post designed to make gardening look so awesome that you, too, join those of us who spend our free time weeding, watering, hauling compost to melons, staking (and restaking) tomatoes, spreading straw over potatoes, onions, and carrots, trellising cucumbers and beans, pruning herbs, mowing or mulching between the garden rows, and, of course, harvesting.  Any time spent inside the air conditioning is for hopelessly scrubbing at the dirt embedded under your fingernails and in the crevices of your cracked gardener hands, plotting against squash bugs, and planning the fall garden.

And, of course, arranging the harvest into impressive, delectable food art to inspire future gardeners.  Because misery loves company it’s all worth it in the end.

Step away from the pool, people.

Come on into the garden.  It’s sweltering buggy lovely in here.

Plus, that leaves an empty lounge chair by your pool for me.  As soon as I finishing putting in the pumpkin beds….

Second Cuts: A Guide to Shearing Your Sheep For Felting.

Posted on | July 8, 2014 | No Comments

I forgot to tell you that I sheared the sheep.  I forgot to tell you because it happened this spring when we were busy with fishing and farm tours, strawberries and sports award banquets, birthdays and brooder room set-up.   So much was happening at once that I was forced into reactive mode instead of proactive mode.  Not to say that we are usually proactive around here.  We’re not.  There’s way too much procrastinating around here to be considered proactive.  But at least I can say I am usually forced to be reactive because my time and energy is always consumed with unplanned emergencies—a kid home sick from school, a deer deciding to take out the front fender and headlights on the car, pasty butt on the chicks, Colorado potato beetles spreading from the potatoes to the eggplant, finding out it’s Dollar Day at the Goodwill only when I drive by and see the overflowing parking lot and line of people around the building, etc.

This spring the emergencies couldn’t even compare to all the preplanned events that were eating up my time.  Why did I think 4 kids in 4 different sports was a good idea?  Why?  Why? So it wasn’t until we were on farm tour that I realized everyone’s sheep, except for mine, had already been sheared. I mean, everyone’s sheep.  There were NO unsheared sheep.  Even the hair sheep had been trimmed to keep them comfortable in the rising temperatures.  As a matter of fact, most of the sheep had been sheared so many weeks earlier that their fleece was already growing back.  It was embarrassing.

I had noticed that my sheep were starting to look like bath mats from behind….

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Place Your Bets.

Posted on | June 22, 2014 | 3 Comments

A full house is almost impossible around here.  One of the kids is always missing—sports, sleepovers, birthday parties, camp, play dates, any excuse to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.  Sometimes we’ve got one pair.  Occasionally we’ve got three of a kind.  Sometimes we’re busted.

In the beginning it was disorienting to count heads and come up with fewer than 4.  My heart would pound and my breath would catch as I’d realize that not only had I finally lost one, but I had no idea what the missing child was wearing.  No idea.  Not even a haphazard guess.  What kind of a mother couldn’t describe to police what her child was wearing before he or she wandered off in the Food Lion???  (Besides a mother that makes them dress themselves, wash their own laundry, and put it away in their drawers and closets on their own.  And should I admit those facts to the police?  Is it even legal to make kids do their own laundry nowadays?)

Even worse, what if the stress made me stumble over his or her birth date like I do in front of the pharmacist after a bout of illness in the kids??  People, it’s confusing to have some children that are born 2 years apart and some that have birth years that are back to back.  (Anyway, who’s fabricating stories in the CVS to get illegal pink eye medicine??)  God help me if the police asked me when I last had all 4 kids together.  Surely we all arrived in the car together.  Right?  I mean, probably.  Maybe.  Um,….were they all in the car when we got here??

Eventually my brain would override my panic and I’d remember that the missing child was at a bowling birthday party or swimming at the neighbor’s house or staying after school for practice.  As the kids grew I even got accustomed to the absences.  Lately it’s unusual to have all the kids together.  I’ve become resigned to it.  I figured the days of all 4 of them trooping through the house, battling over board games, rushing in and outside, building forts, and playing tag through the yard and the woods were almost finished.  Maybe even over.

My parents did not yield so easily.  They weren’t about to fold.  No, they were ready to call against baseball games and sleepovers.  They were ready to raise  the stakes.  And for the past 2 weekends we’ve had all 4 kids together.  All in one place.  All day long.  That’s right, people.

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This Is Why.

Posted on | June 18, 2014 | 3 Comments

The other day we came home to find the sheep and the goats wandering down the driveway.


We put them up without a lot of hassle.  As a matter of fact I didn’t realize the real problem until the next day.

Because there’s a ton of lush grass in the front yard to graze.

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They’re heeeeere.

Posted on | June 12, 2014 | 1 Comment

No.  Not them.


That’s right.  Summer squash is here.  Zucchini, cocozelle, patty pan, white bush, straight neck, and crookneck. Read more

Good Job.

Posted on | June 11, 2014 | 5 Comments

I suspect we have a predator in the hen house.  Last week one of my chickens limped her way to the feed room for breakfast.  Upon examination she did not have any visible injuries, no bleeding, no lacerations, but her leg appeared pulled out of the joint.  She recovered.  A few days later I found a dead chicken laying in the pasture.  She also did not appear to have any visible wounds but I thought her neck was broken.  Both chickens were part of Michael’s harem.

As the less dominant rooster in the flock Michael often roosts on some old pallets in the buck pen with a small group of his hens rather than fight for a spot on the roosts in the chicken barn.  The injury and death was very discouraging. Read more

Size Matters.

Posted on | June 5, 2014 | 4 Comments

I realize there are instructions on seed packets and information on the plastic plant stakes in veggie transplant trays.  But, really, who pays attention to that stuff?  The seeds are getting sown in whatever manner that they fall from my hand.  I’m not mixing them with sand (from where??) or putting them in a salt shaker or drilling individual holes with a stick.  I will cover shallow seeds with a toss of dirt from the shovel or push large seeds in with a  fingertip.  That’s about all the personal attention any seedlings get from this farmer.

After all, why do I need to sow the seeds in perfectly spaced rows?  I consider thinning seed beds that were oversown as a feed supplement to the animals in the barnyard.  The fat pony would never touch a large, dried up carrot or mealy over-sized radish when she was raised on tiny, sweet mini-carrots and spicy bits of radish roots.  Even we are accustomed to the delicate and fresh shoots of new seedlings.  Who wants a well-formed but boring head of lettuce when you can nosh on delicious snippets of loose leaf bibb and buttercrunch?

It’s the same thing with vegetable transplants.  The squash plants are going into the squash bed in the manner in which they will all fit.  Ditto the tomatoes, the peppers, the eggplant, etc.  Because is the writer of the plant stake going to come and add 3 feet to my raised bed to get the correct spacing?  No, he’s not. And until he arrives to haul down 2 wheelbarrows full of compost to add 3 feet to the row, the plants are just going to make due with the room available.

Besides, some of the seeds don’t germinate and some of the transplants die.  That’s Nature’s way of making appropriate spacing in the garden.  Who am I to argue with Mother Nature?  Not to mention that I’m bound to step in a soft, newly sprouted seed bed at least once while backing in the wheelbarrow or carrying a bale of straw or driving in a garden stake.  And even though I garden in flip flops, they are size 10 flip flops.  Size 10 takes out a lot of little seeds.  And if the transplants are a little too close for the plants to grow comfortably, try dragging the garden hose over them when you’re watering.  Severely crushed plants will wither and die and some will get torn out by the roots.  At the very least, limbs will get cracked off, ensuring no single plant branches out and takes up too much room.  This is called “pruning”  and all the professionals do it.  Probably.  Maybe.  Eh. Read more


Posted on | June 4, 2014 | 2 Comments

So The Other Half got up, put the dogs out to go to the bathroom, made lunches, signed permission slips for all the movies that the kids will be watching instead of doing school work during the last week of school, put some kids on the bus, drove some kids to school, let the dogs back in so they could begin their morning nap on the couch, and filled and started the dishwasher.  Which meant that when I finally rolled out of bed at 8:15 am (O.M.G. 8:15 am!!!!) the house was quiet and most of the chores were done.

I stood downstairs for a minute, baffled.  I was well-rested, the kids were gone, the kitchen was clean, and I had 10 hours until I had to go to work.  What in the world was I going to do with myself???  Luckily Big had left the last of his chocolate Easter bunny on the counter so I settled in for some nibbles as I planned the rest of my day.

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Loose Chickens.

Posted on | May 31, 2014 | 4 Comments

There’s a lot of debate regarding free range chicken.  Technically, the government considers “free range” to mean that the birds have access to the outdoors.  But it doesn’t actually mean they spend any time out there or that it’s more than a gravel yard.  Most people (as opposed to the government) consider “free range” to mean chickens that are allowed to roam around a natural area, foraging for some of their food and choosing their favorite place for a dust bath.  Although, with the rise of egg mobiles and portable electric netting, lots of chickens are rotating through fields and woodlands in movable pens.  Which some people consider to be “pastured” chickens instead of free range.   Of course, there are also “cage free” hens.  That simply means keeping chickens in a facility without cages.  No limits on crowding and no guarantee of sunlight or open ground, just no cages.  There’s “humanely raised” chickens—-a definition that is totally up for grabs.  Or there’s Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved—-with documented standards.  Very documented.  Like so-long-I-only-managed-to-read-the-first-30-pages-before-I-lost-interest documented.

Around here the chickens are fenced out of areas instead of inside them.  They are fenced out of the landscaping in the front yard.

No swimming in the pond, ladies.

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