Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Should You Buy Chickens?

There's been a lot of sturm und drang in the poultry world over the past couple of days, primarily due to a certain woman who blogs about chickens and who has gotten very popular, and a video she made that stirred up the exhibition poultry people (I count myself as one of those even though I am not actively showing at present.) I'm not going to get into all the details and hash it all out here, suffice it to say, the tons of discussion has made one thing clear to me.

There are two basic types of people who own chickens: those who treat them as pets, and those who treat them as livestock.

Of course, there's a lot of grey in there, it's not all black and white. But if you boil it down, that's what you get. Most people who breed chickens seriously treat them as livestock. I am one of those. If you ever catch me kissing a chicken or putting a diaper or sweater on it you will know I've gone 'round the bend and should have my keys taken away.

But either way, there are some cold hard truths that people need to face before they get poultry. And the main one is, what will I do when a chicken needs to be culled?

There's that word, culling. It means, bluntly, usually, to put to death. To remove from the breeding pool. To kill.

And if you own chickens, sooner or later, you're going to have to kill one (or more, more likely, as time goes on.)

There are very few vets who deal with chickens, and the ones who do, generally don't know as much as the seasoned poultry breeder does about the birds. Poultry health is typically not something vets learn in university, and for the most part, most of the medications breeders use on chickens are off-label, as there just aren't that many developed for chickens.

I don't know who said it originally, but I'm pretty sure it was poultry judge and longtime breeder Matt Lhamon who quipped to me early on in my chicken adventures "The best cure for a sick chicken is an axe." And sadly, it's true.

Chickens are peculiar. When they become ill, they hide it very well until they are very ill, and close to death. So once a chicken starts showing signs of illness, they are usually too far gone to do anything about.

As well, there's the problem of the law of averages when it comes to hatching chicks. Give or take, about half of the chicks that hatch will be males. And unfortunately, most people don't need a flock of half males and half females for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that a lot of males will fight each other, sometimes to death. I find a good ratio of males to females is about 1 male to every 8 or so females. So then you have to decide, what will I do with all those extra males?

You can try to sell them of course, or give them away, but if you do it's likely they'll wind up being killed anyway to make dinner for someone. No one wants a yard full of cockerels as pets. And I prefer to keep my extra males and eat them myself.

So ideally, before a person gets chickens, they need to ask themselves, "Will I be able to kill a chicken when the time comes?"

If you can't answer that question with a yes, then you shouldn't get chickens, in my opinion. Of course, your mileage may vary, and I am sure there are lots of people who get chickens who don't ever kill one I suppose a vet, paid enough money, will euthanize a chicken, but I know I've never gone that route. But over time that would get relatively expensive, and isn't a really practical way to go.

I encourage friends who have the space for them to get chickens, I think it's a great thing for kids to learn about animal husbandry, and nothing beats an egg warm from the hen when it comes to taste. But anyone thinking about it should also be sure they can answer that question. Because sooner or later, the time will come when you'll have to kill a chicken.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

You Can Help The Bees

These days bees seem to be in the news a lot. People often ask what they can do to help the bees, and one way to do so is to provide them with water during the summer. If you want to go even further, you can make a simple sugar syrup to fee the bees during the dearth (when most sources of nectar are not flowing.)

You can add either liquid to any number of containers: a plain plastic plate with some rocks in it, a bucket with some corks, or a chicken waterer with some pebbles. The important part is to a) ensure the bees have good footing so they don't drown, and b) if you're feeding sugar syrup, to do it right, and change it before it gets moldy.

A small bucket with corks for the bees to perch on,
and a handkerchief for them to suck water out of,
works very well (they won't roll the corks, don't worry.)

Making sugar syrup for bees is easy. You use a ratio of 1 part granulated white sugar (nothing else please, not honey, not corn syrup, not brown sugar) to 2 parts water.

I use an electric teakettle to boil the water (recommended to remove anything that might make the syrup mold faster), pour it over the sugar, stir, and let cool.

A simple plastic plate with some rocks for the bees to perch on.

Another great way to help bees and other pollinators is to plant wildflowers and trees in your yard which provide nectar for them. A long list of these for plants in North America can be found on Wikipedia here.

It's also really easy to sow white clover in your lawn. It doesn't get too tall (cuts down on mowing) and is a good source of nectar for the bees throughout much of the summer.

Even the simplest of things, like a bucket of water with some corks, can a great help. Just remember to change it regularly and keep it clean. And thanks! The bees appreciate it.

Even a chicken waterer with some pebbles works.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Splitting a Bee Hive

Earlier this week I was invited to help a local friend "make a split" of one of her beehives. Beekeepers do this to keep strong hives from swarming and to ensure the bees have enough space to grow.

Bees reproduce by swarming. In nature and in apiaries, sooner or later a strong hive of bees will run out of room, and will feel the urge to swarm. A swarm generally has the old queen with it, who will accompany a large group of foragers and nurse bees to a new location a scout finds for them.

The hive left behind will have newly laid eggs, from which they will hatch a new queen. Every egg laid by a queen bee has the potential to be a queen, it is the nurse bees who decide when to create a new one, either to supersede a queen which doesn't live up to their standards, or to replace one that has been injured or has died.
A strong hive booming with bees

Making a split allows a hive to grow without going through the swarming process. Beekeepers who are paying attention in the spring know that splitting a hive will both a) give the bees the space they need and b) give them yet another free hive of bees!

It's a pretty simple process, but you do have to pay attention. The way my friend N does it is to start by inspecting a hive to ensure it's healthy and has a booming population.

She leaves the queen behind in the original hive body, and moves four frames of new eggs, brood, and nurse bees to a new hive. It's important to ensure you have newly laid eggs, as the bees need one under three days old to convert to a queen, which they do by feeding the developing larva royal jelly and making the cell large enough to hold the larger queen body.
Choose four frames with
newly laid eggs and brood

Once she moves the four frames, N uses sliding dividers in the hive to close the frames up, which ensures the bees don't have too much space to try to keep warm, which can be problematic. Brood needs to be kept warm, and if the bees have to protect too much space as they're doing so, the brood might suffer and the new queen not hatch.

In a week or so N will check the new split to ensure they've made a new queen, and take other steps if they haven't. Simple and effective, making splits is a skill every beekeeper should know how to do.

A finished split

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Planning a Garden

My friend Ame runs a wonderful non-profit, Fox Run Environmental Education Center not far from me, and she recently posted a blog entry which goosed me into making plans for our expanded garden this year.

I had done some research over the past several years, and found some very useful garden planning software at GrowVeg.com which I decided to start using this past week. I really like the functionality of this software, although the interface is a wee bit slow at times, but that may be my internet connection and not them, hard to say for sure.

I like that I can choose a number of different shapes in which to organize the plants, from square raised beds to round containers, and even triangles for fancy herb garden plots.

I decided to keep it simple for the herb garden this year, as it will be new. I made two raised beds, and two containers. One raised bed will need rich, loamy soil, the other a more dry, sandy environment. And in one of the containers I am going to attempt to grow Rosemary, which is apparently hard to do successfully, but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained right?

This is a screen shot from the GrowVeg software.

One of the features of this software I like the best is the ability to create a Plant List, which shows the entire list of plants you're planning to use, as well as sowing and harvesting times (both indoor and outdoor sowing for those plants which need it.

There are a number of other features which I've only begun to explore, but these two alone have saved me a lot of time/effort.

It is a subscription service, and costs $29 a year. I will note, because it wasn't clearly mentioned on the website, that you can only create a total of five plans per year for that price, which honestly seems a bit low (I was able to negotiate an additional five with their support staff, but don't know if they'll do that for everyone, so don't get your hopes up.)

All in all, it's worth the price if you aren't a pen and paper kind of person (which I am not) and it's definitely worth a look-see.

And fwiw, those of you planning to grow onions this year, get them sown into the inside flats, it's time! (Thanks to Vicky Tewes of Thistlehair Farm for reminding me.)

Thursday, November 24, 2016

How to Render Beeswax

One of the most valuable things that beekeepers get from our bees is the wax that they make. It's valuable in several ways, not the least of which is for the frames we give the bees to use. When bees have drawn comb (used their wax to make the honeycomb that they store honey in or use for their brood and pollen), frames can be used over several times, and that saves bees the effort of drawing new comb every time they need it.

Wax that has been rendered and filtered twice

So when we harvested honey this year, we used an extractor (thanks S & L!) and used its centrifugal force to whip the honey out of the frames (after we remove the caps) and save that valuable drawn comb, as opposed to just crushing and straining all the wax and honey off the frames

After extraction of the honey the cappings, which are scraped off and drained, are very useful for a variety of things, not the least of which is candles, lotions, lip balms, and to melt and use to add to new frames to assist the bees in drawing them out later.

The process of rendering the beeswax is fairly simple, although it does take some time. (Also, see this great video, which is one of several from which I got the inspiration for this post. Thanks Cameron.)

I used the following:

A cheap slow cooker (which will be dedicated to wax from now on)
Some cheesecloth
Some paper towel
And of course, wax that needs to be rendered

How To:

Put about two inches of water in the bottom of the slow cooker.

Over that, stretch a double or triple layer of cheesecloth. I taped it to the slow cooker at both ends, the corners, and the middle.
Cheesecloth and paper towel over the top
of the slow cooker, taped to it.
Over that stretch a layer of paper towel. Tape it down as above.

Over the whole thing, put a large rubber band of some sort (the slow cooker I bought came with one.)

Then place the wax cappings on top of the paper towel (and any extra comb you've scraped off which the bees made in places they shouldn't have, which is called burr comb.)

Cappings and brood comb ready to melt
Turn the slow cooker to low, cover it, and let it do its thing. I suggest being patient and not using the high temperature setting, as it can cause the wax to boil, which makes it not smell as lovely when it's done rendering.

Check it about every half an hour or so. And do not leave the slow cooker unattended, too much of a fire risk.

After an hour or three you'll see the wax has mostly seeped through the layers of filter, and there's some ugly black stuff left. This is called slumgum, and is all the dirt that has been brought into the comb by the bees tiny feet, plus other general detrius.

Slumgum left behind
Once all the wax has melted through, turn the slow cooker off and let it cool completely. Once it has, remove the filter material, but save it, as it works very well as fuel for your smoker when you use it to inspect your hives.

You may need to slide a knife around the edge of the wax, but the water should have allowed it to form into a nice patty. Lift it out and there you are.

Patty of wax after first filtering

I find that most times I need to repeat the process, as the first time some of the yuck gets through the filter and seeps into the water, and winds up on the underside of the wax. And you'd be surprised how much dirt a seemingly clean patty of wax still has when you filter it twice.

Filter material after second rendering

When you're done, you have clean wax you can use for any number of things. I made candles, which I'll write about in a subsequent post.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Ditch the Meal Kit Delivery Services, Friend a Farmer Instead

I keep getting ads on my Facebook feed for various meal kit delivery services, which ship ingredients for meals right to your door. Aside from the fact that I live on a farm and am working hard on producing much of our own food, these services bother me for a number of reasons.

Buying meal ingredients such as vegetables, meats, and fruits from your local farmers is healthier, and you can source foods which are raised organically, humanely, free from nasties you don't want in your food, and you can bask in the glow of knowing you're supporting your neighbors. We're out there, and you can find us easily on Facebook, other social media, or via the Local Harvest website.

By buying locally you're reducing your carbon footprint, because your food doesn't have to be hauled for hundreds of miles by trucks which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions (don't get me wrong, I love my OTR trucker friends, but every small step can add up in a big way.)

These services really take the creativity out of planning and cooking your own meals. Meal planning can become a family activity, sit down and do it once a week and get your kids involved. Too many people, adults and children, really don't have any idea where their food comes from. Having it magically arrive in a box at your door removes you and your kids even more from the process and your local farmers.

These services are really harming farmers in your areas who do CSAs, Community Supported Agriculture. Your local small farmers need your support, and you need them! Do you really want all your food grown by huge monoculture factory farms, some in other countries? Many CSA's now include recipe suggestions for the food you purchase from them, and allow you to tailor your order to include or exclude things to fit your needs.

There's no way you're saving money with such services. They wouldn't be doing it if they didn't have a huge profit margin. Studies show that spending just $100 a year locally has a measurable benefit to your community.

So while these services sound really cool in theory, the bottom line is, not so much. Support your local small businesses, the farmers, the processors, the feed stores, the garden stores. It really does make a difference. And you'll love the food, I promise.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Happy World Egg Day!

Breeding poultry being one of the things we do here, we eat a lot of egg dishes. Heck, some days we have as many as 16 dozen eggs in the fridge! So we've learned to be creative with recipes that use a lot of eggs. Here are two of my favorites. They'll use a total of a dozen eggs; one uses 12 egg yolks, the other 12 egg whites.

Golden Sponge Cake


12 egg yolks
3 cups cake flour
2 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla
½ tsp lemon extract
1 cup cold water

- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Sift cake flour and sugar (separately) once before measuring.
- Sift together three times: flour, baking powder, and salt.
- In mixing bowl, beat egg yolks on high until very fluffy and thick.
- Gradually beat in sugar.
- Beat 2 more minutes on high and scrape bowl.
- Turn to #2 speed (low) and add vanilla, lemon extract, and cold water.
- Then gradually, but quickly add sifted flour mixture while beating on #2 speed, scrape bowl. Beat only enough to blend, about 2 minutes.
- Pour batter into an ungreased 10 inch tube pan.
- Bake 1 hour or until golden brown.
- Invert cake to cool.
- Loosen sides with spatula or knife and remove from pan.

I make the sponge cake first since the yolks don't have to be room temp.

Angel Food Cake


1 ½ cups egg whites brought to room temp
1 ½ cups sifted powdered sugar
1 cup sifted cake flour
1 cup sugar
1 ½ tsp cream of tartar
1 ½ tsp vanilla
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp almond extract

- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Sift powdered sugar and cake flour separately once, measure for correct amount and sift together four more times.
- Place egg whites in a large bowl, add salt, cream of tartar, vanilla, and almond extract.
- Beat on medium speed until soft peaks form.
- Gradually add sugar 2 Tbsp at a time.
- Beat on high speed until stiff peaks form, but not dry peaks.
- On lowest speed add powdered sugar and flour.
- Take off of mixer and finish mixing by hand with a rubber spatula folding over easy.
- Pour (spoon) into an ungreased 10 inch tube pan.
- With a knife or spatula, carefully cut through batter in circular motion 6 times to release large air bubbles.
- Bake at, on lowest rack in oven, for 35-40 minutes or until golden brown.
- Invert pan until cool. Loosen with spatula and remove from pan.