Sunday Homestead Update

It has been a crazy couple of weeks.  Surprisingly, not with the busy-ness of Christmas, but instead just with things here on the homestead.  We cut back a lot of Christmas gatherings this year and thus have had a very nice, laid-back and fun month, which I am so glad for.  So what has been going on around the homestead that is crazy?

Anya, our LGD, has been living in the back barnyard, a pen adjacent to the main barnyard, because she was still maturing and had accidentally licked to death a couple of different chickens last year as a pup.  For the most part this guarding situation worked fine.  Her presence and barking kept everything away even though she wasn’t in the same pen with the chickens.  Well, we noticed that her digging and barking started getting out of control in November.  LGDs like to dig nests and dens to lay in, which doesn’t bother us, but she was starting to boredom dig and her pen looked like a disaster area.  In addition, she was barking incessantly.  Previously, she only barked when there was a reason, and yet she had started to bark a lot more and we couldn’t decide when it was necessary and when it wasn’t.  At the time we didn’t know why she was barking so much.  But now in hindsight we are able to see that she was feeling like she couldn’t do her job of guarding thoroughly since she wasn’t in with the chickens, and so she was making up for that by barking extra trying to keep things away and protect the chickens.  And that was made worse because there was a bobcat hanging around.

Unfortunately it all came to a head when the bobcat jumped into the barnyard, grabbed a hen, and took off with her while poor Anya was freaking out not even 5 feet away but unable to do anything because she was not in the same pen.  Clearly, the bobcat hung around for long enough to figure out that Anya wasn’t in the same pen and couldn’t get to it.  And then it picked the farthest corner from her and from the house, which still wasn’t far from her at all, and waited for the chickens to be over in that area.  We found the spot where it took the chicken and ate it, not 50 yards from the barnyard.

So we were in a pickle because the bobcat now knew that he had an easy source of food, and poor Anya was out of her mind frustrated at the whole thing because all her instincts were telling her to guard and she couldn’t.  So we closed the chickens in their enclosed pen for a week to protect them while we figured out what to do.  Meanwhile, we let Anya live in the main barnyard during that time.  We were surprised to see that her inappropriate digging and barking behavior stopped immediately.  Which is what led us to believe what I said above about the cause of those behaviors being her frustration at not being able to do her job.  She was content and happy and went back to lazing around in the sun and watching over everything.

Since she is now 2.5 years old we decided it was time to give it another try with her living with the livestock.  Our previous attempts had gone pretty well, except that she still had too much puppy behavior and wanted to play with the chickens, leading to them getting killed.  She never killed a chicken to kill or eat it, she just held them down and licked them to play with them.  So we were confidant that she would be able to be a reliable LGD once she matured.  We carefully began putting them back together.  First with us in the barnyard, then with us around but not right there in the yard, then with us checking on the situation often but not being outdoors the whole time.  I am happy to report the transition has gone beautifully.  She is happily living in the main barnyard with the flock of chickens and guarding them well without playing with them nor hurting them.  She has more space to live, the big soft compost piles to lay on, and more sunshine in the cold winter months (the back pen is on the north side of the barn and doesn’t get much sun).  She seems completely content to live with them and do her job guarding them – no digging, and no excessive barking.  I love seeing a dog happily doing the job they were bred to do and fulfilling their purpose.

So if you have a young LGD that has made some mistakes…don’t give up hope!  Keep training them and keep giving them time to mature and they will most likely come around.  It is what they were bred to do.

 

The second thing that has been crazy on the homestead was the sudden and unexpected return of three of our sheep to the farm.

In December of last year we made the heartbreaking decision to sell off the last of the livestock – our flock of 6 sheep – and just keep chickens, because our son’s medical issues and hospitalizations had us weary, exhausted, and unable to keep up the care of the livestock and still give our family what it needed.  You can read about it by clicking here.  It was a hard decision, but a good one.  This year has been a very hard one as far as the medical issues and we had unexpected hospitalizations and surgeries along with a scheduled hospitalization and surgery, plus many medical appointments far from home – it was very nice to not have the livestock back home to worry about during it all.  But not having the livestock also took a part of the joy of the homestead with it, and we all missed them desperately.

 

Our son’s situation and prognosis have not changed.  What HAS changed is that we have been able to do a lot of emotional healing this year.  And we have found a new level of acceptance of the situation as it is as well as acceptance of the unknown to come in the future.  In that healing and acceptance we also realized that this could go on for many years and we don’t want to miss out on living the homesteading life that we love so much because we are “waiting” for things to get better when they likely are not going to get better.  We didn’t wait for “perfect”timing to start the homestead, we just started it.  And we love it and it is such a blessing.  It is kind of like waiting to have kids until the “right” time.  If we had waited to have kids until the “right” time we never would have had kids.  Life is a constant ride of ups and downs and if we wait until it feels stable to live the life we want to live, then we will never live the life we want to live.

We needed the rest and healing that we gained this year.  And we don’t regret the decision to sell them all.  We needed it.  And we don’t want to take on more than we can handle and do poorly at it because we are overdone.  But we were starting to feel ready to get back some livestock and get back to living the homestead life we loved despite the other things in our life that made it harder.  And then the opportunity to get our sheep back was dropped in our lap.  Isn’t it wonderful how those things happen at just the right time?  The people who bought them had their own life situations going on and were cutting back the flock.  Did we want to buy back any of our sheep, or their offspring?  Yes we did!

They hadn’t been bred yet though, and we don’t want to miss a year of breeding, and the end of their breeding cycle is fast approaching.  Most sheep are able to breed from about September through the end of December, though some breeds can breed out of season.  Our ewes are of breeds that breed out of season, but we had never tried past December.  In addition to the fact that the later they are born the younger they will be next year when winter hits, and we don’t want to go too far into that.  So time was running out quickly to get them bred.  Because of that, in a whirlwind and only 3 days from when we were offered them, we had three of our sheep back on the property!  We decided not to get back all 6 because we want to keep things easier and more manageable since our son’s medical situation is still an issue.  Plus, once they lamb we will have more sheep on the property for half the year or so, and thus we like to keep the base breeding flock down to 3-4 sheep.  We carefully discussed and selected who to bring back so that we would have the best wool flock possible, plus body size for meat as well since we butcher some of the offspring.

In the end we decided to bring back Fiona, our flock matriarch and the first sheep we ever owned.  She is a Merino x CVM cross, with a shorter fine-wool white fleece (which gives us options of dyeing the yarn).  She is an excellent mother who has had twins.  Here she is back in 2017.

And Rose, who was born on our farm in 2017 and is such a sweet girl with a beautiful medium staple, moorit-colored, fine-wool fleece.  She is a purebred CVM.  She has not given birth before, but her mother was an excellent mother who also twinned.  Here is Rose as a lamb (and with Anya as a pup) and now as a grown ewe:

And Fergus, who was also born on our farm in 2017.   He is a 1/4 Merino, 1/4 CVM, and 1/2 BFL, with a soft and yet long-wool silver and black fleece.  We used Fergus for our breeding ram right before we sold them and we were able to see the offspring from the matches we made and they turned out very nice.  This is Fergus as a lamb and as he is now.

We have a nice range of colors and textures in our little flock, plus good size for meat.  They are all living together and we are hopeful (and expecting) the girls will still have another heat cycle and they will get bred.  It will mean the latest lambs we have ever had – May/June birth estimates.  But better late than never!  And it will be a nice change to lamb in reasonable weather, since we normally are lambing when it is oh-so-cold.  You never know, we may like the change and keep it in the future.

Chickens, sheep, and guard dog all in the same barnyard together again…it feels so balanced and just right.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday Homestead Update

A frigid winter week on the farm meant checking on critters often and spending a lot of time by the fire working on Christmas presents.

Knitting And Sewing

I finished all the Christmas Eve flannel PJs!  4 pairs of flannel pants and one nightgown.  I purchased Mr. Smiles’ PJs because he still isn’t quite big enough for the flannel PJ pants to work for him.  So all that is left is PJs for me.  Hopefully I will get to that in the upcoming weeks.  Sorry, I don’t have any pics because they all got wrapped before I could photograph them because I didn’t want anyone to accidentally see them.

But mostly I have been knitting, knitting, knitting like crazy trying to finish the on-second-thought-maybe-I’m-in-over-my-head projects I chose to make for Christmas presents this year.  The good news is that I finished one, which leave only two more to complete.

I asked Mtn Man to delete this post from his email and not read it so I could show you his present, which is the one I finished this week.

It is an afghan that I partially designed by taking the pattern Stag Head Pullover by Nora Gaughan and making it into an afghan (instead of a sweater) and rearranging the antlers to make them look more like the mule deer in our area.  I used “Everything Yarn” that Mtn Man made in the mill.  I am SUPER happy with how it turned out and cannot wait to give it to him.  I think he will love it.

So now I just need to finish the dress for Little Miss and socks for Young Man.  I am hopeful no one will have to get their Christmas presents still on the knitting needles, but I am accepting that it might happen that way.  Time will tell…for now, I need to get back to my knitting.  🙂

Homesteading with Kids – Part 1 – Babies and Toddlers

I often get asked how we do all the homesteading we do, while raising and homeschooling 5 kids.  Families with kids go perfectly together with homesteading!  I thought I would share some of the tips and tricks for how we accomplish it all and get the kids involved.

First, we will focus on the youngest ages, birth to about 6 years old.  This can be the most challenging and time-consuming age range.  But I look at it as an opportunity to teach them and build a relationship foundation in them that will lead to them being capable helpers and enjoy involvement when they get older.

Many people feel like they can only work in the house, garden, and barn when their toddler/young child is sitting in front of a TV or other screen, or otherwise distracted or sleeping.  There are some things that are just too hard for me to accomplish with a toddler in tow and those things I wait until nap time to do.  But for the most part, baby/toddler/young child is always by my side as I go about my day.  We do not have TV and we do not expose our younger children to screens in any form.

So how do I go about all the tasks with the little ones with me?

Newborn-6 weeks

I plan carefully before a baby is due to arrive.  I make sure to make everything about life as easy as possible because I think it is important that I am resting and soaking in all the time I can with the newest member of the family.  I make plenty of freezer meals and make sure that we don’t plan butchering or other big projects during that time.  If things come up that absolutely HAVE to be dealt with I do them when the infant is sleeping (which happens a lot throughout a day) or I wear them in a front sling-type carrier (my absolute favorite is the Mobi Wrap).  But for the most part I lay low during the first 6 weeks and by planning ahead I am able to take a lot of time to just cuddle my newborn and rest.

6 weeks – able to walk (about 1 year)

At this age I use a wrap/sling carrier and have them strapped to me.  When they are smaller they are strapped in front, and as they get bigger they move to the back.  I can often be found in the garden or barn with a baby strapped on my back as I work.  I have had some back problems in the last few years because of an injury so I can’t do it for as long at a time as previously, but I have found that if I use a back support/brace that is elastic and velcros around my my back from very low to about mid back it really helps me to wear the baby longer.

Once the baby can sit, another option when I can’t wear them is Blanket Time.

I have a specific floor blanket that is about 4 ft by 4 ft, and I set aside some specific “blanket time” toys that the baby can only play with while on the blanket.  Then I teach them to stay on the blanket and not get off during blanket time.  To do this I set them in the center, say in a happy voice “it’s blanket time!” and give them the special toy.  Then I pretend to ignore them and be working on something a couple feet away.  If they try to get off I quickly put them back on the blanket and say firmly “no, stay on the blanket.”  They usually try to get off many times in the beginning, and I expect that so I don’t get myself exasperated constantly putting them back.  I don’t end a session unless the child is staying on it, even if they are only staying for a few seconds.  The first session lasts only about 5 minutes, and I slowly increase the time over a week or two until they can happily play on the blanket for thirty minutes.  All my children will try to get off occasionally, even after they are really good at staying on, but I just be careful to be 100% consistent with putting them back and never ending without them staying on of their own accord.

Once they have learned to stay on the blanket it is a very convenient skill to use when I can’t be wearing them.  I never leave them alone on the blanket, I am always working a few feet away.  So we still have that side-by-side interaction of keeping the baby with me, but I have freedom to not be wearing them and not have them right in the middle of what I am doing.  For example, if I am working in the kitchen, I set out the blanket and work while the baby plays.  Or even working somewhere outside, I can set the blanket on a flat spot and work within a few feet of the baby while they play (outside takes some extra practice since it is a new environment and they want to get off and explore).  I have also used blanket time at church and Bible study.

A similar option would be to use a pack-n-play if I really need them to be confined.  And I do use that is special situations, but usually I like to use the blanket because I think that learning to control themselves and stay in one area is a good skill for a child to have.

I also use a stroller sometimes when I am out and about around the homestead working and can’t be wearing the baby.  They are strapped in the stroller right next to me while I work.  I am talking to them constantly and teaching them as we go.  It is amazing how much little ones can understand when you just talk to them as if they do understand from a very young age.  As we work in the garden I am showing baby the carrots and saying “this is a carrot, it is orange,” and other such things.  Learning colors, identifying objects, identifying animals and their sounds, and counting can all start right around the home and farm just by keeping a conversation going with your little one while you work with them with you.

Able to walk – 4 years

I will warn you, these can be the very challenging years.  This is when a little “helper” is not very helpful at all.  But it is important to keep them involved and give them opportunities to help so that they will see that they are an important part of the family and farm and will want to continue helping as they grow.  This stage involves a lot of messes and mistakes.

I keep my little one that can walk next to me and let them “help” with whatever I am doing.  They can reach up and open a smaller gate or door, hand me things, pour the feed into dishes and feeders, use the hose to fill waters, water plants with a little child-size watering can, pick weeds with guidance (some non-weeds will be picked as well), harvest veggies from the garden (some stuff I don’t want harvested gets harvested sometimes too), sit on a kitchen counter and stir things in a bowl, add ingredients, wipe a table, help mop a floor, help fold laundry and deliver it to drawers and closets….the list is endless.  This is all done right next to me – not on their own.  They just do my day with me.  And yes, it makes the jobs harder and take longer, but it is putting in time building a relationship that will matter long-term.  I know this from experience because my first couple of little ones that were constantly with me are now teenagers who I have great relationships with, and can help around the homestead all one their own and really enjoy it too.  Of course not every kid will grow into a teenager or adult that loves homesteading just because they were raised this way, but even if they don’t love homesteading nor plan to have a homestead when they grow up, they still love the family unity and the time spent helping with something for the whole family.

4 – 6 years

This is where some independence comes into the picture.  They are still going through my day with me, but they can be sent to do things as well.  Like we fold the laundry together and then they can take the piles to the different drawers and closets on their own and then come back to me.  Depending on the child they can also be trusted to water the garden without me right there, or harvest a certain area.  For example I show them the carrots and tell them to pull up all the ones that they can see the top of the orange part of the carrot and then I go to a different part of the garden and harvest something else.  I am still close by, but not right next to them overseeing everything.  Sure they might pick some that aren’t supposed to be picked, but the sense of accomplishment they get as they are left to do it “on their own” is very important to their development and character.  When I come back and see what they did I don’t point out the ones that were too small to harvest, I just praise them for their good work and talk about how wonderful it will be to eat what they have picked.

These are the ways I am able to homestead and keep my baby-6 year old right by my side, learning, helping, and having fun.  Next time we will discuss ages 7-11.

Put Your Chickens to Work Making Compost

When we first started dreaming about the set up of our homestead, we knew we wanted a shared barnyard situation in which the livestock all lived together in the same barnyard area during the day, and then went into their separate stalls and pens indoors at night.  We felt this was an easier and less expensive set-up to build when you are restricted by space and terrain (we have 3 acres on a mountainside).  So the plan was to build a barn, with an attached chicken coop, and then attach the barnyard fence in a way that all the animals can get outside into the same yard.

You can somewhat see our set up in this picture from 2013…we have the barn with two stall doors, and the coop is the smaller attachment on the left in the photo, and it all opens into one big barnyard.

There are several benefits to this set-up, but with this post I am focusing on the benefits to the chickens, and the garden.

We all know the benefits of free-ranging chickens – healthier eggs, lower feed costs, and more space for the birds which helps their health and quality of life.  But there are also drawbacks, mainly – predators and having chickens wander where you don’t want them, such as in the garden, or on the front porch leaving droppings.

And we all know the amazing benefits of having good compost in the garden beds.  Our garden can definitely attest to it, as we averaged a pound of produce per square foot of gardening space in our garden this year – and that is grown on a short season (10-12 growing weeks), cold climate (down to 40F throughout the summer nights), high-altitude (7,500 ft) garden – all things which limit a garden’s productivity, BUT it is filled with our own barnyard-made compost.

The shared barnyard method, which also incorporates a compost pile into the barnyard that the chickens have access to, is the key to both removing the downfalls of free-ranging chickens, and to creating amazing garden compost in a shorter period of time.

By keeping the chickens in the enclosed barnyard area they are much safer from predators.  Good fencing not only keeps the chickens in, but keeps the predators out.  It limits their risk to only predators that can jump the fence, or aerial predators.  But with all the human smells and activity, those are even limited to only the ones that are bold enough and hungry enough.  And in our barnyard, the Livestock Guardian Dog keeps even those out, so our chickens are safe from predation.

Keeping them in the shared barnyard also keeps them away from places we don’t want them to be, like the garden or front porch, while still giving them the opportunity to free-range.  The shared livestock barnyard is full of great things for the chickens to forage and eat.  They can scratch through the droppings from the other livestock, as well as the leftover hay and feed scraps, to find all sorts of bugs and seeds and forage – all of which would just be wasted if they were not in the shared barnyard.

In addition, we dump our compost pile right in the middle of the barnyard.  It consists of all the kitchen and garden scraps, as well as everything we clean out of the barn stalls and coops when we clean them.  So it has a big mix of food and garden scraps, hay, straw, pine shavings, and plenty of poop from all different breeds of livestock.  We put it in one big pile in the middle of the barnyard (not near the fence lest it be used as a way to climb out).  The chickens then are able to scratch through it all, finding all sorts of things to eat, and turning and aerating the compost for us at the same time.  Because the chickens are doing all the hard work for us, our compost maintenance consists of adding stuff to the pile as we have it, and then every few weeks going out and raking the pile back up into a pile since it has been spread out by the chickens.

Here is how it looks when we have it all raked up:

And here it is after about 3 weeks of work by the chickens…quite spread out:

We then rake it back into a pile, which is stirring and turning it even more, and we continue adding to it.  Usually we start with one pile higher in the barnyard, closer to the barn so it is easy to clean the stalls out into it.  That is the less-composted pile.  Then, as it begins to turn more and more into soil we move it down to a second pile lower, and start adding the fresh stuff to a new upper pile.

Then, come spring it is time to “harvest” the black gold.  We take a wheelbarrow (or a tractor, when we have access to one) into the barnyard and scoop up the compost that is finished and take it to our garden.  And the cycle continues.

Other gardeners in our area have told us that because of the cold climate it takes them approximately 2 years to get their compost to the point it can go into the garden.  They are using compost bins that they manage and turn on their own, and their compost is mainly kitchen and garden scraps.  Here at our homestead we have easily had plenty of compost each spring to fill our garden after only a year of time for it to breakdown.  Some years we have had so much that we were able to share it and give it away to other gardeners as well.  And because we do the shared barnyard method it includes all the poop, bedding and feed scraps left from the animals, thus being a more balanced compost.  And it composts faster because we let the chickens work on it, which speeds up the breakdown, and leaves us with rich black gold to use, all the while feeding the chickens and cutting our chicken feed costs.

Over the last 6 1/2 years we have found the shared barnyard method, with a compost heap in the middle of it, to be a super-efficient way to manage our little backyard homestead.  It benefits each of the different types of livestock, especially the chickens, and makes for a super-productive garden as well.