Composting is part of homesteading, but – and it hurts to say this – I’m really bad at it.  Thinking back on our composting efforts since we moved here, our efforts to produce “brown gold” have yielded more comedic failure than compost.

Even before we moved into the house, I set up a 3-bin compost system using pallets.  This was an idea I’d been drooling over for years and I was thrilled to finally have the space to do it.  The idea is to set up three adjoining bins, fill the first, then after it has sat for awhile, fork it over into the next bin (thereby aerating and turning it) and later do the same into the third bin.  Meanwhile, the first bin is again being used to collect new compostables.

My first challenge was that the system did not turn out nearly as pretty in reality as it had in my head.  It was hard to line the motley assortment of pallets up neatly and get them to stay standing.  Worse, once I started to fill the first bin, I found that the compostable materials exited through the gaps in the pallets.

Pallet Compost System

Nevertheless, I persevered, stapling feed bags and old election posters (tres chic, no?) to contain it.  Months later, when I tried to turn it for the first time, I found the pile had been more desiccator/preserver than composter.   It looked unchanged, and I realized that, due to lack of rain, the pile was too dry.  That is when I discovered that the location which at first had seemed “perfect” was in fact not very well thought out.  It was so far from my nearest water source that it took three hoses joined together to trickle a little water into it.  This I did overnight (though I felt silly “watering” my compost pile).

I decided to move it and selected another location.  I wanted it close to the house and a water source, but out of sight.  Behind our propane tank seemed like a great spot – we’d barely be able to see if thanks to the camouflage provided by the propane tank, and there was a spigot close by.

HWA and I spent a day taking apart the pallet system, hauling the components to the new location, then setting it up again.  At the end of the day we stood back and admired our efforts.  With HWA’s help, the bins were better aligned and it looked almost as pretty as I’d envisioned years before.  What we didn’t notice was that ours weren’t the only eyes admiring our work.  You see, “behind the propane tank” meant just inside the pasture.  The sheep decided the new structure was a set of sleeping chambers built for them.  Almost as soon as the last nail was hammered, they lay down – two sheep per section – and, though there was no shade from the overhead sun, for the next few weeks we rarely saw them sleep anywhere else.

By far the biggest challenge however, was finding compostable materials.  Where other people find their compostables baffles me.  When I ask the question I get that look people give when explaining the obvious to an idiot, and the answers are generally “lawn clippings, leaves, kitchen scraps”.  So – let’s go through these one at a time.

Lawn clippings.  I’ve used mulching mowers my entire adult life so barely know what lawn clippings look like.  I briefly considered contacting lawn services to ask for clippings but realized I didn’t want the chemical fertilizers that would likely come with them, so scrapped that idea.

Leaves.  First, trees only drop their leaves for a few weeks of the year.  Second, when they do and I mow, the leaves are mulched along with the grass.  Third, any that fall between mowings are quickly hoovered up by the goats and sheep.

Kitchen scraps.  We eat our fair share of bananas and oranges and drink way too much coffee, but don’t have enough peelings and coffee grounds to fill a compost bin.  Most other kitchen scraps go to the chickens.

Which is why the sheep got to keep their sleeping quarters – we simply did not have anything to actually put IN the compost bins!  So, I’ve given up on composting.  I do still collect banana peels and coffee grounds – but these days I collect them in an old coffee can on the kitchen counter and once it is full I take it straight to the veggie garden.  I dig a small hole, dump the contents and walk away, leaving the earthworms to enjoy a feast.  The earthworm population in the garden has exploded – perhaps because I am feeding them? – and, while burying my compostables may not be the same as creating brown gold in a composter, my kitchen scraps ultimately DO end up providing nutrients to my veggie garden.


Garden Changes

The veggie garden has been evolving over the last three years.  When we moved here there was no garden so we had to create our own.  We started with an area that had been “lawn” for at least 20 years.  That year we had no choice but to till since the sod was well established and the grass deep rooted.  After tilling, we spent hours removing the clumps of grass that had been tilled under.  Even so, that first year our weed crop far exceeded our desired crops.

Year two we tilled again.  HWA, BOF and I worked hard to get ahead of the weeds early in the season and were then able to keep up through the summer. The garden looked like a garden and produced well; we harvested and canned a lot.

This year – year three – we made some major changes to our methods.  Now that the weeds have been largely controlled, we decided not to till and instead are using deep mulch.  Over the winter, whenever I cleaned out the chicken coop, I spread the bedding over the garden area to age and create a deep layer of mulch.  We also took advantage of any other forms of mulch we found – for example, I ran last year’s tomato plants through my leaf shredder and turned them into usable mulch.  By spring the entire garden area was covered in at least 4″ of mulch.

The mulch serves multiple purposes.  First, it makes it harder for weeds to grow, as it blocks light to weed seeds, preventing them from growing.    Second, the few seeds that try anyway are easily pulled, as the layer of mulch is loose and friable.  Third, the mulch keeps the ground underneath moist.  When it rains, the moisture is retained in the ground instead of evaporating, reducing our need to water.  And last, as the mulch breaks down, it provides nutrients to the growing plants.  By not tilling or adding fertilizer or other chemicals, we have allowed the soil organisms and earthworms to reproduce and grow healthy colonies that are ready to nourish our veggie seedlings as we plant them.

So far, we are thrilled with the “no till” method of gardening.  Every other day or so I pull any weeds that have tried to sprout.  It takes no more than 20 minutes, compared to the hours per day we spent in previous years.  And our veggie garden is starting to look like a “real” garden at last.

Looking from north to south. The cattle panels will serve as a trellis system for the tomatoes as they grow.

Looking from north to south. The cattle panels will serve as a trellis system for the tomatoes as they grow.

The stakes mark the 4' wide garden beds and 2' wide walkways between beds.

The stakes mark the 4′ wide garden beds and 2′ wide walkways between beds.

Raising Meat Birds

I read and research a lot, both online and via magazines like Mother Earth News.  I also listen to podcasts related to farming and homesteading.  Time and again, when someone refers to raising meat chickens, it turns out they are raising Cornish Cross. So, I thought it might be worth talking about an alternative to the traditional Cornish Cross meat bird.

First, what is a Cornish Cross?  Well, technically it is a hybrid bird, created by crossing a Cornish with a White Rock.  In reality, I know of several people who have tried to recreate the Cornish Cross using these two “ingredients” and the chicks that resulted did not grow nearly as big or fast as the chicks sold in the feed store.  So I have my suspicions that the hatcheries have their own secret “recipe” – a closely guarded secret – to creating the fast-growing meat bird labeled only as “Cornish Cross”.

Regardless of how it is created, a Cornish Cross is “engineered” to grow to eating size in only 6-8 weeks.  That’s right!  From hatch to butcher in under two months.  This is all wrong in my book.  In order to achieve that kind of growth, something has to give and in this case it is quality.  Quality of life for the bird.  Quality of the final result: the meat.  Cornish Cross chicks have little desire to do anything but eat.  Towards the end of their lives they sit in front of a feeder and eat almost non-stop.  Their growth rate is too fast for organs to keep pace so if not butchered by 8 weeks of age, it is highly likely their heart will give out.  But worse, their legs cannot grow strong enough, quickly enough to support their weight, so they cannot walk far, and frequently one or both legs are broken by the time they are butcher age from the stress of trying.

Chicken meat sold in grocery stores – even that sold in health food stores and at farmer’s markets labeled “free-range” – is almost exclusively Cornish Cross.  Regardless of the labeling there is nothing healthy, humane or wholesome about a Cornish Cross.  It doesn’t matter that they have access to free-range if their legs and hearts can’t support their actually doing it!

On our homestead our primary goal is to produce food that is better than food we can buy.  Our feeling about raising Cornish Cross is that if we sit a bunch of chicks around a feeder all day – how is that any better than food we could buy?  We decided there has to be another way, and it turns out, there is.

Several years ago I traveled across our state to acquire my starter flock of heritage Barred Rock and New Hampshire Reds.  Most people are familiar with these breeds and don’t think highly of them.  That is because all they’ve known are hatchery birds of these names.  The lines I acquired can be traced back over 100 years and bear little resemblance to their hatchery counterparts.  Hatchery barred rocks are scrawny, with irregular barring and they are bossy and unfriendly, both to the other birds in the coop and to people.  By comparison, my barred rocks are huge and meaty.  Their barring is known as “zebra barring” because it is tight and well-spaced.  And in the coop they are quiet, docile and non-aggressive.

A barred rock hen (front) with a cockerel behind her.  The cockerel still has a lot of growing and filling out to do as he is only 5 months old in this picture.

A barred rock hen (front) with a cockerel behind her. The cockerel still has a lot of growing and filling out to do as he is only 5 months old in this picture.

My New Hampshire Reds are similarly striking.

New Hampshire Red rooster.  The vivid orange color is a beautiful contrast to the zebra stripes of the Barred Rocks.

New Hampshire Red rooster. The vivid orange color is a beautiful contrast to the zebra stripes of the Barred Rocks.

Both Barred Rocks and New Hampshire Reds were developed as “dual purpose” birds.  In other words they can be kept to provide either eggs or meat.  No, they don’t grow to eating size in 8 weeks like a Cornish Cross.  But they do grow to eating size in about 16-18 weeks.  So, what I do whenever a batch hatches, is to make a notation on my calendar when they are 16 weeks of age.  Then my calendar sends me a reminder that it is time to butcher and that way I don’t risk raising them too long.  I’ve found that age to give me optimum meat to feed ratio.  Yes, they will grow bigger if raised for longer, but the amount of feed it takes to add on every pound after this age isn’t worth it.

So – my meat birds get to live for twice as long as their Cornish Cross cousins.  And their lives are ever so much more worth living.  They start their lives with a mother who protects them, teaches them how to forage and keeps them warm under her at night.  Almost from hatch they free-range and get to eat lots of greens and bugs.  As discussed in previous posts, this makes for healthier, happier birds but I believe it makes for healthier meat as well.

Which brings me to the meat.  Is it tougher or stronger in flavor than Cornish Cross?  That is hard for me to judge as I have not eaten commercial chicken in so many years, but I can attest that the chicken meat we produce here is very tender and tasty.

So for anyone who has previously raised Cornish Cross and sworn they’d never do it again due to the smell, or for anyone wanting to raise healthier meat than they can buy, there IS a viable alternative.

Dung Beetles

This year, evidence of dung beetle activity is everywhere and – given my recent musings about poop recently – I couldn’t be happier.  Alas, I have no pics of my own to show you because dung beetles are nocturnal and I am quite the opposite.  But I can offer you this.  The work of the tunneling type looks not unlike the poop is turning into a pile of worm castings.  Here you can see a pile of goat or sheep poop that has been partially recycled. 100_1438   And another: 100_1432 While here the beetles – fortunately nondiscriminatory – have begun work on a cow pie: 100_1436 And last, here you can see a pile of poop that has been almost entirely “reclaimed”: IMG_0580

What we’ve learned about dung beetles is that this tunneling type lays its eggs under these piles of dirt, and the larva feast on the broken down manure until they are mature enough to fly off in search of a pile of manure of their own.  We are glad that we followed our instincts and left the piles of dirt undisturbed!  However even more exciting than the recycling of the manure itself, is the role that dung beetles play in parasite control.  The life cycle of the internal parasite begins when it excretes its eggs in the manure.  Once hatched, the larva crawls up a blade of grass where it waits to be consumed by the next grazer to come along, infecting or reinfecting the animals in the pasture.  However by drying out the manure and turning it into piles of dirt, the dung beetles interrupt parasite life cycles.  This is very good news for us, as we hope to reduce – and ultimately eliminate – our need to use chemical dewormers on our animals.

There a virtuous circle at work here in that the less we use chemical dewormers and insecticides, the more the dung beetles can help us.  It’s little surprise that oral dewormers result in poop toxic to dung beetles, but perhaps more surprising is that the sprays and powders we apply to our animals externally also harm dung beetle populations.  I love the idea that by not deworming, we can encourage dung beetles who will further decrease our need for deworming.

Needless to say we’re not complaining that the dung beetles have chosen to help us with our poop situation.

Poultry Management

Earlier today I heard from someone who bought turkey eggs from me last year.  She hatched a Bourbon Red tom, of whom she had recently sent photos.  He was in full strut – looking just like his sire – and appeared to be a gorgeous bird.  Unfortunately the message this morning was that he had died.  He looked fine yesterday; today he is dead and she doesn’t know why.  This has left me pondering.  Her poultry do not free-range.  In order to maintain purebred eggs, she pens each breed separately.  By contrast I have almost no pens.  A hoop coop is my only means to separate birds and I use it sparingly – for a broody hen sitting on eggs, a group of juveniles to help them transition from brooder to main coop, or short-term when I too, need to ensure eggs are fertilized by a particular rooster.  Otherwise, my birds all sleep in the main coop at night and have the freedom to range anywhere on our fully fenced property by day.

I do this primarily for ease of care.  Fewer pens means fewer feed and water bowls to maintain.  Less hassle with heated bowls and extension cords.  Less time spent building coops or shelters and maintaining runs.  Substantially lower expenses for materials for all of the above.  And, in the event I am sick, injured or on vacation, it is easy for someone else to care for them.

I enjoy lower feed bills as a result of the birds foraging.  They eat grass, clover, dandelions, burdock, compass plants (to name only a few) along with all the bugs they can find.

In summer they are able to seek out the coolest spot they can find to hang out – under bushes and behind objects that cast shade.  In winter they similarly have the freedom to find a place to stay out of the wind so they can keep warm.  When keeping birds in pens, it is hard to provide them with the conditions they require due to changing weather patterns and many of the losses of penned birds can be attributed directly to their inability to keep warm and dry or to stay cool.

But over time I’ve started to wonder if having the birds free-ranging isn’t only advantageous to me, but to the health of the birds themselves.  I’ve noticed that after birds have been sequestered in the hoop house, their priority upon release isn’t to flap their wings and run or fly.  It isn’t to seek out buddies (or in the case of roosters, hens to be mated).  Their priority is to eat greens.  After the door is opened, they run immediately to greenery and start eating almost desperately.

Clearly there are nutrients in the greens and bugs they find for themselves that are absent in prepared grain formulas.  And I believe those nutrients are essential to their well-being.  My birds are exceedingly healthy.  I haven’t dewormed in a couple of years because I haven’t seen any evidence of the need to.  And it has been years since I’ve lost a bird to illness or disease.  By contrast, birds raised in pens often don’t thrive – and, as in the case of the turkey who died this morning – their deaths are sometimes unexpected and the cause undetermined.

I’ve always found watching the birds foraging, peaceful.  But over time I’ve become convinced that the freedom they enjoy doesn’t just make my birds happy or lucky – it helps keep them alive.