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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Beautiful day and spring on the way

Mother Nature has blessed us the past couple of days with some early spring temperatures.  Gorgeous weather combined with a wonderful visit from family didn't do anything for my productivity.  As the length of daylight seems to grow so does the to-do list.  Sometimes you have to stop and enjoy family and playtime lest that piece of paper makes you its slave.  

Ignoring the mountain of items to do and while playing king/queen of the snow pile, you can't help but notice the air thick with the smell of boiling sap.  Two days of sunshine and warm temperatures have the sap running full bore.  There will be no boiling on this farm again this year.  An inexpensive, used and in-need-of-repair hobby rig and salvaged wood shed is in the plans for next year if only to supply us and our baked goods for market with that sweet gold.

Little man and his Pop (my father) played in the snow; I am not sure which one of them is more tired!  Pop also took a look at my oven/electrical problem.  Farmers market is looking a lot more promising now that the oven appears to be working again.  I have learned how to fix and build a lot in my years, but one thing I don't monkey with is electricity.  Replacing a light fixture or an outlet are not out of the question; changing out breakers in the main circuit panel - not by these two hands.  Thankfully Pop has more than my lifetime's worth of experience in that area.

With a couple of days away from the off-farm job, this weekend's list is especially ambitious.  After family departs tomorrow, there is hope that the kitchen wall project will finally come to conclusion.  Tomato starts, which are already a couple of weeks late, will finally see their place in pots, albeit inside the house for now.  Minor vehicle maintenance and perhaps some jams and jellies from that which was frozen at the peak of freshness will also be crossed off the list.  The incubator will be double checked, cleaned and fired up before weeks end.  Three or four dozen eggs into the incubator means three or four less in my refrigerator.

Warmer weather and melting snow have encouraged the chickens to venture further than the garage and across the dooryard.   Spring is fast approaching, this farm will be amazing this year and this woman is ready to make it happen!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

No March piglets

Friday night, as I returned to the farm after my off-farm job I noticed some flirting across the fence line between Sally and Zeb.  I parked the car, put my bag and my groceries down and started across the driveway.  "Hey piggles!"  Sally turned straight towards me and bee-lined for the new gate that Little man's father completed earlier in the week.  Zeb followed intently, nose pressed as close to the fence as possible.  Stepping over the electric fence I was almost knocked over by a sow who wanted nothing more then through that gate.  One check around her back side and I knew that the farrowing hut could be knocked down a rung or two on the priority list - she was in heat.

By the time I had said hi to Sally and Little One and checked them over for anything out of the ordinary, Zeb had decided it was late and he retreated to his hut.  Concerned, I headed over to look closer.  He had a little loose stool, probably from the rich food scraps that he had been consuming during the past week.  I would watch him.  I left them separated overnight and checked on them in the morning.  Sally jumped right up out of her hut and waited for me at the gate again.  I checked on Zeb - he wasn't warm so I took the risk and let Sally into Zeb's pen.  He was still pretty cozy in his hut and didn't pay her any mind for the first 5 minutes.  When Sally decided she wanted to snuggle, Zeb perked up and realized that she was over for a visit.  I left them to their business and ran some errands.  When I got home she was in his hut and he was doing anything he could think of to get her to come out and play.  She had enough and as I got out of the car, she met me at the gate to go back with Little One.

Sunday was a little bit chilly and forecast to snow pretty heavily.  I wasn't sure if I wanted to leave Sally with Zeb all day long or not.  Little man's father had fed and watered the pigs and they didn't even stir.  Their huts and all that hay was pretty warm.  An hour or so later I went outside and Zeb was waiting on his side of the gate.  "Hey piggles!"  Sally jumped right up and was ready for another day with her buddy.  I opened the gate and she went right over to Zeb.  For three or four minutes she stood and I waited to witness the actual sealing of the deal.  I guess Zeb had some performance anxiety so I left them alone.  While I went about my chores I would intermittently check out the window and across the dooryard; I never did witness a 'completed' breeding this weekend.  

By the time it started snowing in earnest early Sunday afternoon, Sally had taken up residence in Zeb's hut and he was standing out in the weather.  It took a few minutes but Little man's father and I got her back to her side with Little One.  Zeb came out a few more times Sunday night in the white-out conditions looking for her, but retreated back to the warmth of his hut pretty quickly.  Monday morning I checked Sally before I left for my off-farm job.  It didn't look like she was in heat any more.  

I will note the calendar for 21 days from this past Thursday and see if she comes into heat again.  Little One is almost due for her second heat this week as well.  If she is on schedule then I will probably try and get her and Zeb together in March.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Chickens & Eggs

As February passes the halfway mark I am thinking about firing up the incubator.  I have been incubating chickens on the farm for several years.  Unfortunately in 2015 I didn't add any new hens and the girls that were here were upwards of three years old.  The incubated eggs from last spring did not do well and we had less than 40% hatch/survival rate.  In order to increase that rate this spring, thirty one new birds were purchased from the feed store and added to our flock last fall.  One rooster was purchased to freshen up my breeding stock and the remainder of the birds were allegedly pullets.  Amazingly I now have seven roosters in my flock when I went into winter with only three.  So far the extra boys haven't been too much trouble.  As the weather gets warmer, they will start to fight over the top roost in the coop.  In addition to my seven boys there are 53 girls.  

Before the new birds were added to the general population, most of the older hens got three days solitary confinement in the brooder box to see who was laying and who wasn't.  Each of the girls who gifted us with an egg got a blue band.  Those that didn't lay an egg gifted us with a good meal.  This year, depending on my hatch rate, between 12 and 25 birds will be ordered from the feed store.  I will choose a different breed of heavy layer, this time by color alone.  Last year it was golden comets and silver-laced wyandottes, each of them got a yellow band.  I will probably go all white or all black for a stark difference.  All seven boys are completely un-related to the girls so my hatching success should be much better.  The choice of band color will be left up to Little man.  Anyone who doesn't have a this years color band or a yellow band will go into the freezer at the end of the 2017 season.  Birds that are given to us or traded to us will get yellow bands if they were last years birds or blue bands if they were the year before that or older.

In addition to keeping better track with a physical identifier, I have been much better at keeping track of numbers.  Little man's father collects the eggs most days and he and Little man count them as they are put in the refrigerator.  That number is entered onto the calendar and once a week they get entered into a spreadsheet.  Unfortunately for some of the girls, the number of eggs being produced (20-22 on average) is far less than the number of birds (53 laying hens) in the coop.  It will be time again to start segregating birds.  The brooder box will be solitary confinement until a few days before the eggs are scheduled to hatch then it will be cleaned and made ready for babies.  Since we have been pretty good at eating down last years stores, there is room in the freezer for chicken n' biscuit or chicken soup chicken.

I've thought about getting rid of all but a few of my chickens for personal consumption but many of the summer visitors to our small town enjoy bringing their grandchildren down to visit the birds as they run all over the farm.  Next winter, however, I will need to do a better job about lining up customers so that I am not carrying 50 - 60 dozen at any one time in my refrigerator.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

My lists and lists and lists

After realizing that my to-do list didn't hold me accountable to times of year or weather, I went to visit the library and found a good guide to help me focus my plans to ensure that the mulch got added before it snowed and that the fruit trees didn't get pruned until after it had snowed.  This whole farm planning approach brought to light several things that we weren't getting accomplished that really should have taken a much higher priority.  It also showed me that I was focused too much on the little things and not making enough time for bigger things that would increase efficiency and save time in the long run.

Revisiting my whole farm lists at the turn of the calendar also helps me ask hard questions like - why should I keep the chickens if they aren't paying for themselves and is it a better business/lifestyle decision to breed piglets here on the farm or source feeder piglets each spring and perhaps take the winters off from swine related tasks.  Maple syrup has not been on our to-do list for the past couple of years as a direct result of this annual review.  My time in the spring has a much better return on investment if it is spent on vegetables and spring building tasks then it is watching sap boil.  It might be more fun to hang around the arch and visit while the sweet maple steam wafts out of the pan, but if I am going to achieve my goal of being home when Little man gets off the school bus, some things have to take a back seat.

Now I keep lists of many things: how many eggs the chickens lay each day, dates when the pigs come into heat, groceries needed, projects, stuff that we need for the farm, stuff that I need when I can find some extra cash, dates of birth for both pigs and poultry, expenses, seed inventories, projected harvest dates, etc.  I also compile a weekly list - well, actually it is three lists.  Little man's father cringes as the pen and papers are set next to my cup of coffee on Saturday morning. 

First is the grocery/errand list - we need to eat and so do the animals.  Groceries, feed, and supplies that I need to complete weekly chores go onto this list.

Second is the meal planning list - sometimes I am lucky enough to start this before Saturday.  The plan is to use up some of the oldest things in the refrigerator and freezer first, then supplement with groceries.  This time of year the freezer inventory is dwindling and shopping sales is more important than ever.  By completely emptying one of the freezers, I can consolidate, shut it down and clean it out before the first spring produce and broilers are harvested.  Many an argument has also been prevented with this list as neither one of us can say we didn't know what to make for supper or that we didn't have the ingredients to make it.

Third is the weekly to-do list.  I make a big list of everything that needs to get done during the coming week and include a project or three from the farm planning list.  Then each day I add two or four tasks to my daily planner that are related to the bigger list.  Some days I get two done, other days I get five or six done.  By the following Saturday the goal is to have better than two thirds of the previous weeks tasks crossed off.  This particular list also helps to ensure that my house is presentable when people stop by.

It turns out that my list making process is actually proven effective and written about by bloggers much more important than I.  This past weekend the fruit trees were pruned before we got 12 plus inches of snow on the farm.  Unfortunately, somewhere under that snow are the new supports for the greenhouse roof.  Maybe I should be planning a little more than one week out...

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Making waffles, saving squash, greenhouse update, and almost getting fired

I was pretty excited when I got home last night, the temperature outside was 14 degrees and the temperature inside the greenhouse was 36 degrees.  My compost pile, combined with a partly sunny day had kept the temperature above freezing.  The bubble burst this morning as the thermometer read 13 degrees inside the greenhouse; the outside temperature was just above zero.  My little eight cubic foot compost pile will not be sufficient as the only source of heat for my 250 sq. ft. greenhouse.  A girl can dream.  

January is still too early to be planting seeds outside of a controlled temperature environment.  The free piles on the side of the road will be perused and craigslist, facebook, the local newspaper, and local bulletin boards will be carefully watched for items that will help make our farm projects better.  Who knows, somebody might discard a portable wood stove or some other heater that could keep my little glass house warm.

Free piles and tag sales have been pretty good to this house over the past couple of years.  One of Little Man's favorite breakfasts is waffles.  Tag sale left overs yielded this slightly ancient waffle iron.  It makes the perfect size waffles to be reheated in the toaster. (A huge bonus since the oven died right before Christmas.)  The waffle iron cannot be left unattended as it is powered by the old fashioned fabric wrapped electrical cord.  It has absolutely no safety features like automatic shut off, a temperature light or a timer.  Trial and error lead to five-minutes for the perfect waffle once the temperature gauge on the top reaches bake.  Eggo waffles were on sale this week at the grocery store, but the list of ingredients was longer than my arm.  Good food is worth the time to make homemade waffles.

Saving seeds and freezing squash also helps save some money.  With a 700+ lb yield of squash from the garden this year, I baked and froze squash in two cup bags.  One bag is enough to make a rich pumpkin pie or one dinner of butternut, blue hubbard or mama mia squash.  The seeds are dried and put up for spring planting.  Most years, the squash is true to its breed, however, every once in a while we will get a cross breed that is a little unusual.  They all still taste really good.

Although I still have to have an off-farm job, my heart is still 23 miles northeast next to the lake.  While at that off-farm job today, I was told (albeit jokingly) that I was fired.  Standing in the middle of the hallway, I didn't think about where my next paycheck was going to come from or if my resume was up-to-date; I was actually pretty happy thinking about all the projects I could get done on the farm.   As I headed back to my desk, I was actually sad that I didn't get fired.  Hmm, maybe it's time to try again working on the farm more and off the farm less.