Today the chickens were foraging about the pasture, and I saw what I thought was one of the Wyandotte roosters hiding under the picnic table. It looked a little strange, though, so I shooed it out for a better look. It was a rooster all right, but not one of ours! Moments later, there were sounds of a panicked chicken from the goat pen, and I wondered why Jenny, the white bantam, was so excited. Then I realized that the little white chicken had a black tail and a big red comb, meaning it was not Jenny. Sure enough, it was another strange rooster.
Apparently someone dumped these two roosters at our farm this afternoon. Paul is pretty sure that they weren't there when he stopped to let our poultry out, so there was only about a three hour window.
Both birds are pretty boys, but we have plenty of roosters already. I plan to keep the two biggest to breed for the beginnings of a meat breed, but the others are destined for the stew pot. Actually, I kind of like the larger of the two new roosters. He's heavier than any of the Wyandottes, and has a mellower personality. I might keep him instead, and cull all of the Wyandotte roosters. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no use for a bantam rooster. The bantam hens are fine because they mostly get their own feed and they provide us with small eggs, but I don't intend to breed any more of them. So unless there's someone who wants a mongrel bantam rooster, he will probably end up in a very small stew pot.
The larger rooster has a beard, so I think he might be part Ameraucana. His markings are similar to my Silver Laced Wyandottes, except that he has a lot of red feathers mixed in with the black and white. I'll have to get a picture, since he is quite striking.
Speaking of striking, things are pretty restless in the poultry yard with two new roosters around, making a total of six. The bantam's strategy was to hide amongst the hens on the roost, which seemed to work since he was completely ignored up there. The big one didn't start any fights, but he pretty much held his own when the others challenged him. He and Jack quickly reached an agreement that Jack was king, but the Wyandottes kept pushing the fight even when he tried to surrender. They're always very flashy and aggressive, which is why I probably won't use any of them for breeding. It's kind of funny that the two chickens I most want to propagate are both mongrels of unknown origins.
I just finished reading Louis Bromfield's Malabar Farm. It was both inspiring and depressing. Inspiring because they achieved such amazing results on the worn-out farms they started with, but depressing because most of the problems that Bromfield saw in agriculture of the time were not solved and indeed continue to be even worse problems now. It was also depressing because some of the techniques that Bromfield was so enthusiastic about in the 1940s have turned out to cause even bigger problems than they solved. For example, Bromfield was a huge proponent of specialization, because it allowed for economy of scale and more efficient mechanization. Now that most agriculture in the United States is specialized, we can see how unstable a system it is.
I'm putting this up so that I don't have to keep recalculating it every time I order more. This works out to about 16% protein, and the birds have access to oyster shells so that the layers can get their calcium. They also have free choice kelp for trace minerals.
The Australorp pullets are really starting to lay now. They make such cute little eggs, hardly bigger than banty eggs. They'll get bigger, of course, and in the meantime it frees up the larger eggs to be sold. Between the banties and the pullets, we're now getting enough eggs for our own use.
A few days ago, I thought that Buffy (one of the banties) was going broody. She's normally the wildest chicken we have, the sort to run away squawking murder if a person so much as looks at her, but that day she was just sitting on the nest even though I was only a few feet away. I stuck a couple of duck eggs on the nest for her to hatch. It turns out that she was just in the middle of laying an egg when I saw her, because a little while later she was back out in the pasture like normal and there was an extra egg in the nest. So I took my duck eggs back. I need to test out my incubator, and if it still works, order an egg turner for it so that I can hatch some eggs this spring.
I was afraid that this would happen, but of the 72 apple seeds I planted, only two sprouted. The rest turned into big balls of mold in their trays. One of the seedlings wasn't able to break out of its seed completely, so that leaves only one healthy apple sprout. Well, it's a start. I'll collect more seeds this fall and try again. I think I'll also keep track of their sources, since I have no idea which seed produced this sprout.
This afternoon I doubled the size of the dug area in my garden. It had taken three days of work to accomplish the previous amount. Part of the increase was because I am now far enough away from the chicken pen that it was becoming more difficult to throw the sod clumps to them, so now I am just turning them over into the already dug area. But I definitely feel more able to do the work, after just a week of practice. I could have dug more today, but it was getting late and the chickens needed to be brought in after their first day out on the pasture. I'll do more tomorrow.
I said earlier that I intend to plant corn, beans, and squash in the goats' bedding areas in order to put the extra nitrogen to work. However, I've been doing some reading about gardening, and apparently the uncomposted (well, partially composted) manure will interfere with the growth of plants until it is composted. This is probably true, but I would like to see for myself exactly what happens. So now I will put in an identical patch of corn, beans, and squash in the previous winter's bedding location and in a normal spot in the garden.
Plot 1 is the less composted location. It is sod covered with maybe half an inch of spilled hay and a lot of goat manure and urine. I am working on digging it about a foot deep to mix the hay and manure into the soil and to break up and kill the grass. I will probably plant the corn (the first of the plants) in May in order to give the hay and manure time to begin decomposing.
Plot 2 is the location of the goats' shelter and feeder from two winters ago. Last spring, summer and fall we kept a pig on that location, and she thoroughly mixed the soil, bedding, and manure together, and added more of her own. She was removed last December, and the soil has been untouched since then. It's black, crumbly, and easy to dig. I will prepare that plot the same as the first, and plant the corn at the same time.
Plot 3 will be typical, unimproved garden soil in Paul's garden. All of the garden has received some goat and pig manure and some digging from the pig, but outside of Plot 2 it is scattered and random. This will be the control, to see if planting in a freshly manured spot is more profitable than planting in normal, unimproved soil.
Since planting times for the beans and squash will depend on the size of the corn, it's possible that the different plots will be ready for them at different times. I will keep notes on growth rates, healthiness, and yield for the three plots. I believe that the pre-composted plot will outperform the uncomposted plot, but I am interested to see how big a difference there is, and whether it is even worth it to plant an uncomposted plot.
Last year at around Thanksgiving, sweet potatoes were on sale for something like $.19/lb, so I bought a bunch. Although I like sweet potatoes, Paul doesn't, so the last couple have just been sitting there the entire time. A few months ago, they started to sprout, and now many of the shoots are six inches or more in length. I figure that since they are here, I may as well try planting them and see what happens. Our summers are hot enough that they should do well, from what I've read. So now the sweet potato ends are suspended in water to help the sprouts (actually, they're called slips, I've learned) get bigger. When they are a foot long, I'm supposed to cut them off and put them in water to form roots, and then plant in the soil when it is warm. It's an interesting process, and I'm looking forward to see how it works out.
Eventually, the pond pasture will be completely converted to a permaculture forest garden, but the first step is removing most of the grass so that it doesn't compete with the new fruit trees. I also need nursery space for the osage orange and apple trees that I intend to grow from seed, and room to experiment with open pollinated varieties away from Paul's garden. I really dislike using motorized equipment, so I am tackling this area with nothing more than shovel, rake, and hoe. I'm finding Steve Solomon's book Gardening When it Counts to be very useful with regards to tool use and maintenance. It's amazing how much easier it is to use a sharpened shovel, compared to a blunt one straight from the store.
I'm not following all of his advice for preparing a garden plot from sod. He says to dig deeply and turn the sod clumps over to expose the roots, and then dig them again in a week to further kill the grass. I'm sure that works, but since the pond pasture is immediately adjacent to the chicken pen, I have been digging shallowly, just underneath the grass roots, and tossing the sod to the birds. It's still too early to allow them out on the pasture, so they are loving the worms, grass, and other goodies in the clumps. I lose a little bit of soil this way, but I will replace it with compost (and the chicken bedding will eventually go to make more compost as well), so I think I come out ahead. Once the sod is removed, I'll go back and dig more deeply to prepare the seedbed.
Since I'm out of shape from a long winter of inactivity (and, oh yes, seven months pregnant), I've been doing my digging at a slow, steady pace and only a little bit at a time. With a sharpened shovel it's really no strain at all, and I feel great. Honestly, I think it would be more dangerous for me to operate the tiller than to dig with a shovel.
In addition to the tree seedlings, I also intend to plant some sort of bush beans, sweet potatoes (more on that in the next post), bushel gourds to make containers out of, and the first of the grafted apple trees and blackberries. I also want to transplant a young oak to one corner of the pond pasture to eventually provide shade to the chicken pen.
I have a couple more little plots I want to work on. There are several spots in the main pasture where the goats spent a lot of time this winter, so there's way too much nitrogen and compaction for the grass to come back easily. I intend to dig those areas up and experiment with "three sisters" planting: corn, vine beans, and squash all grown together. The beans grow up the corn stalks and the squash shades out weeds and helps keep raccoons away from the ripening corn, or so I've read. I look forward to trying it out in practice. After the three sisters are harvested, I'll let those spots go back to grass for the following year.
My main hard drive finally died (after months of death throes) so I've only been able to use Paul's computer for the last several days. I have a new hard drive and a new operating system installation, which at least gives me internet access, but there's still more work to do to make my computer fully functional again. Even though the repairs went pretty well with few glitches, it was a strong reminder of how much I disliked computer support work when I was in it. I would much rather mow a hayfield with a scythe or dig in my garden with a shovel than deal with computer problems. At least in the hayfield or garden, my mind can slip into a trance-like state while my body carries on the work. I end up with a rested mind and a tired body, and sleep easily that night. Whereas with computer work, my mind is frustrated and exhausted yet my body is restless.
Today, at least, the weather will be relatively warm and I have no appointments or meetings, so I plan to go apply myself to my new garden plot and move it a few steps closer to planting.
Last fall, I collected seeds from as many different local apples as I could. Some were cultivated, grafted varieties, some were wild pippins (grown from seed), and some were rootstock that had grown up when the top died. I read on the internet that the proper way to store them was in moist sand in the refrigerator, since they need a period of cold in order to germinate.
Yesterday, my plan was to pull the jar of seeds out and set it in a warm place until they started to germinate, and then plant them in seed starting soil. The seeds had other ideas. Even though the jar was at the back of the refrigerator (cold enough to freeze entire gallons of milk), all of the seeds had already started to germinate. Unfortunately, there was also a little bit of mold beginning to form on the top, so I don't know if all of the seeds are still viable. At any rate, I've planted them in flats and we'll see what happens. Next year, I obviously need to modify my seed storage system. More research is in order.
In other apple related news, yesterday my Anyone Can Build a Whizbang Apple Grinder & Cider Press book came in the mail. Last year we were buried in apples that were too small and irregular to be worth peeling and processing, and I really wanted a way to make cider from them. I've been hearing about the Whizbang plan books for years, but this will be the first one I try. I also have my eye on the garden cart plans.
My dad gave me a stack of old seed catalogs, and it's really interesting to look through them. On the surface, they look pretty similar to modern catalogs, except there is more text and fewer pictures. However, the plant descriptions betray different attitudes and priorities of the gardeners of the time. One of the catalogs says of a variety of sweet pea, "This is the most vigorous Early Spencer Sweet Pea I have ever grown, and constitutes the richest tone of rose-pink ever produced in a Sweet Pea." Do many people even grow sweet peas for flowers anymore? I imagine that in 75 years there could be similar incredulity over our current catalogs, with all their lawn care gadgets and chemicals.
There was also an old almanac-type book from Better Homes and Gardens, which I haven't had a chance to look through yet.
Finally, my dad took me to a bookstore in Salt Lake City called Ken Sanders Rare Books. There was unfortunately no agriculture section, but I did find an old book on tanning leather in the craft section. I already have a book (Tan Your Hide!) but I've read reviews that say that it's not very accurate or useful as an instruction book. I hope that this one will be better.
As an aside, in March Wendell Berry will be at Ken Sanders. When I saw that, I immediately wished I had scheduled my trip for March instead of February. I haven't read any of his fiction, but his agricultural essays are thought-provoking and beautifully written.
We spent the afternoon and evening working at the farm. My main plan was to add some more bars to the goat feeder, since one of the goats has been getting her head caught. This would mean taking all of the bars out and drilling new holes for the new placements. However, the goats thought that a human messing around with their feeder meant that they were going to get a treat, and they were mobbing me so much that I just took the bars out and called it a day. There will be somewhat more waste now that they can really get their heads in there, but fresh pasture is only about a month away so I'm not too worried. Once they're transitioned back to eating forage, I'll reattach the bars on the feeder.
I also attached the mineral feeder to the side of the hay feeder, so now that has a permanent location. When they were in the forest I had been hanging it on a new tree in each paddock, but that was not very stable. Now I can just pull the feeder along with the goats wherever they go on the property.
We'll be closing out last year's compost pile at the end of the month, so Paul and I worked on preparing the next location. We add to a pile for a year, and then let it sit for a year, so this spring we can finally start using compost that we started two years ago. Anyhow, there was a lot of wood on the ground from an old haystack where I wanted to put the next compost pile, so we gathered that all up and made a bonfire. There was a cold wind, so that fire was nice. I also began picking up garbage and debris, and gathering things that had gotten lost under the grass and then the snow.
Finally, I started dismantling what was left of this year's haystack. Much of the hay that is left will be the base of the new compost pile, and the rest will go into the chicken pen. I'm leaving most of it alone for now, though, because the farm cats live under there and I don't want to take their shelter while it's still cold. I also need to come up with a new shelter for them so that they don't leave when I finish taking the hay away.