Monday Bells gave birth to two little twin bucklings. Here they are drying off and warming up in the cool evening air.
Kids with kids. Need I say more?
You’re next, Auntie Val!
Monday Bells gave birth to two little twin bucklings. Here they are drying off and warming up in the cool evening air.
Kids with kids. Need I say more?
You’re next, Auntie Val!
There is one last post that I need to get up before we kick off the soil building challenge. This is based on a workshop I gave ten days ago at the Country Living Expo but it’s been on my mind for about a year now.
It’s All About the Soil
When I first started gardening I put my back into it. I worked my tail off and enjoyed it, but as time went on and I added animals to the system I noticed some big changes. Sometimes that meant the chickens completely took out an entire winter’s worth of seedlings that I had forgotten to cover, or that the ducks got into the hoop house and did the same thing. But as I learned to remember to fence off critical garden areas, my animals and foul have actually decreased the amount of work that I do in the garden.
Because in the end the most important thing in your garden is not the plants – it’s the soil. If your soil is healthy with good structure, you can eke heaps of the most nutritious, flavorful, gorgeous vegetables imaginable. If your soil is not healthy, your plants may be stunted, diseased, bland and minimal. It’s not about your thumb, it’s about your soil.
Understanding Plant Needs
Healthy plants need water, air and minerals, which are all absorbed by the plant through its root system. Adding decayed (or decaying) organic matter to the soil creates a perforated structure that absorbs water without becoming waterlogged, and creates good airflow. This soil structure not only allows plants to develop healthy root systems, but provides decomposers like fungi, bacteria, earthworms and other critters (the web of soil life) with their favorite food. It’s the waste product of this web of life that feeds the plants. So the goal of the organic gardener is to create a soil structure that feeds the web of life.
A good way to create organic matter is to compost both brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen) things, keeping them aerated and moist. A great way to compost is to let small livestock do it for you.
Good = you scrounging for things to compost and doing all the work
Better = animals providing you with valuable inputs and you doing all the work
Best = animals providing you with inputs and doing all the work
Small animals like chickens or ducks will require some amount of bedding in coops or runs. If you have dairy goats, multiply that amount by fifty. The beauty of bedding is that it already contains valuable manure and urine and counts as a “brown”. “Browns” are hard to come by unless it’s autumn and your neighbors are lining up sacks of raked leaves, or you just shucked an entire garden bed full of corn and have the cobs and papery outer leaves to dispose of.
To keep the ratios right, however, you need equal parts brown to green. Where do you get those greens? Just mowed grass is perfect. But what do you do in the winter when yours and your neighbor’s lawns stop growing? Garden and kitchen scraps are great. And how do you generate enough to match your brown volume?
The Magic Begins
You could find a grocery store that throws away past-prime vegetables and add that directly to your compost. Or you could take those greens, feed them to your chickens, get eggs and then compost the parts the chickens don’t eat. You could also do this with your lawn trimmings. And then your chickens can scratch through to turn the pile (aka their bedding, unwanted food scraps and manure) into compost for you. Are you starting to see the magic?
If you aren’t a composter (or even if you are) you might instead use green manure. This is where you plant cover crops directly in your garden beds, then before the cover crop goes to seed you “chop and drop” or hoe it in. Some manures that winterkill, like oats, will naturally die when the first frosts hit and then decompose on their own requiring no work on your part. Taking this idea one step farther you could plant cover crops that your chickens love to eat, like wheat, barley, oats, kales, lettuce. Build a “tractor” or cover that protects the chickens from wandering dogs or overhead predators and keeps them in the exact garden bed you need worked. The chickens will eat some of the cover crop, scratch (think till) it in for you and leave their valuable manure behind. And all you had to do was scatter some cover crop seeds!
Now imagine an elevated rabbit hutch above a compost pile. The ideal rabbit diet is alfalfa (a green chock-full of nutrients and organic matter), hay (a brown), black oil sunflower seeds (essential fats), some form of protein like cracked peas, and oats or barley. Rabbits tend to spill a fair bit of food. Alone, that food would simply go to waste and possibly attract rodents. However, with chickens, that spilled alfalfa moistened by a waiting compost pile suddenly becomes a green – something difficult for chickens to come by in the winter.
Alfalfa, as a plant, is a nitrogen fixer with long tap roots that allow it to draw deep nutrients from soils. For this reason it’s highly sought after as a garden amendment. In your compost, it imparts great fertility. In your eggs, it imparts dark orange yolks.
Another thing that imparts dark orange yolks? Worms, centipedes and pill bugs that are also attracted to that compost pile. Thanks to the decaying matter but also thanks to the rabbit and chicken manure that essentially predigests the plant matter and makes it especially attractive to decomposers – which are what your chickens really want to eat, and what makes their eggs particularly healthful compared to purely grain fed eggs.
Other things your rabbits spill are hay (a brown which you frequently must add to a compost pile that is constantly “moistened” by rabbits), seeds and grains. Instead of attracting rodents, the seeds and grains will attract your chickens which will happily clean up what would otherwise become a rodent-attracting mess and they will pick through the rabbit manure for any fly larvae.
Now we are turning liabilities (wasted, rat-enticing food and fly larvae, soiled animal bedding, yard waste) into assets (compost, healthy chickens and eggs). This is the beauty of a guild – a combination of things that work better together than they do their own. Sometimes guilds are groupings of plants. In this case it’s a grouping of small animals and compost that helps you feed the web of life. And in return for that (if you so choose), you get the occasional meat and eggs (and dairy if you have mini goats) and valuable compost for your garden.
Now we are really strengthening the relationships between the garden [growing food for] you [and] chickens [and] rabbits, [who work and amend] the compost [which feeds] the soil structure [while increasing] nutrients [which improve health in] the crops, you, and the animals.
The Voodoo of Doo Doo
The compost this guild provides is truly magical but you can take it one step further with the addition of a vermicompost tea brewer. You can make one yourself using a drill, two matching rubber storage tubs, and a piece of hardware cloth.
To make a vermicompost tea brewer:
To harvest the vermicompost tea, simply lift out the top bin and pour or ladle the brew into a recycled glass bottle with a lid (like a vinegar bottle).
It will be as thick and dark as motor oil and so strong that using more than a few drops in a pint of water may burn your plants. Diluted in this fashion, however, it’s pure plant voodoo. You can spray it directly on plant leaves as a foliar or use it to water starts or potted plants. I would never consider starting tomato plants from seed without this voodoo.
Ducks Work Hard (So You Don’t Have To)
Ducks are yet another type of garden helper that love worms and pill bugs. But what ducks love even more than worms are slugs (those dastardly composters that desecrate your garden through spring and summer.) Keeping a few ducks on hand to roam the garden is my favorite form of slug-prevention. So long as there are slugs and bugs for ducks to eat, they ignore your plantings. But once the slugs and bugs are gone they will start helping themselves to your vegetables so keep a watchful eye on them! Ducks produce rich, large eggs prized for baking but unsupervised, they can be more hindrance than help in the garden. Use with caution.
This last magic guild requires substantially more fussing and planning to pull off.
In nature, tilapia eat a wide variety of food including plankton, green leaves, fish larvae and decaying organic matter. You can mimic that in your backyard using rabbit poop (recall that it’s really partially digested, nutrient-dense green matter?)
Tilapia need temperatures near 80 degrees F to grow well. You can achieve this by building a sun porch or small green house attached to the south side of your house to take advantage of escaped heat and sunlight. If you build your winter rabbit housing above the tilapia pool (which could be as simple as 55 gallon drums with aeraters and filters painted black to help absorb as much of the sun’s warmth as possible), the rabbits will feed the tilapia and help to warm the structure with their body heat. In the summertime when temperatures inside get above 80 degrees F, you’ll want to remove the rabbits since they do best with slightly cooler temperatures. You might even position your rabbit housing so that it’s only partially above the tilapia tanks, then add a compost pile under the remaining section of rabbit housing.
The combination of composting organic matter, rabbits, escaping heat from your house and sunlight may be enough to heat the tilapia water. If that’s not sufficient, a small space heater on a low setting overnight may be all you need.
You may even consider keeping your laying hens (or new chicks) in this greenhouse to benefit from the increased light, warmth, and to speed up the composting process which will generate more heat. More light and warmth will increase winter egg yields. You can use the top of the rabbit housing as a place for early spring starts (so long as the chickens cannot fly up and eat them). The starts will also benefit from the warmth and increased light. If your greenhouse is large enough, you could add some heat loving plants.
Selling backyard eggs, spring salad greens and heirloom tomatoes fresh off the vine (and perhaps grown directly in the compost?) in January might generate enough income to pay for your space heater and then some, thereby subsidizing your tilapia operation.
It’s also possible to add a hydroponic garden into a tilapia setup, and to combine tilapia with a duck pond but the setup becomes much more expensive and complicated as you need to prevent the ducks from eating the fish and the plants as well as filter the fish and duck waste safely (the duck waste presents a problem for the fish and for leafy green edibles).
For a farm named after goats, I don’t post very many goat pictures. In part that’s because it’s nearly impossible to take pictures of goats. If you’ve have children you’ll notice you have lots of pictures up until the time they start crawling and then suddenly they start trying to take the camera out of your hands so you stop taking pictures for awhile. It’s like that with goats. As soon as you get the camera out, they all want to taste it.
That adorable expression they were sporting seconds before the camera appeared? Gone. I seriously need to work on my goat photographing skills before the kids come.
And then there are those goats that just don’t look cute at first glance.
But they quietly follow you around, strategically getting in your way and gazing stoically with big, soulful eyes until you have to stop mucking and pet them. When you stoop to refill a water bucket they take advantage of your position and suddenly there is a warm, fuzzy nose on your shoulder. They are happy to sit and nuzzle as long as you have time, or until the moment is broken by a loud, alfalfa smelling belch.
I know some goats are pushy and stand offish. I don’t own those goats. My goal here is to breed heart melting bundles of backyard milk. My plan was to get one pair of goats yet suddenly, just a few months after moving here, I accidentally have five bred does.
That means ten to fifteen babies coming this spring. I have no idea how much milk I’m in for but I’m guessing a lot since one goat provides us enough milk to drink. I see a whole lot of cheese in my future.
If you’ve been following my blog for awhile you know that I used to milk Mona – and Bessie was but a babe when I first met her. They are both in the book and Mona graces the cover. That picture of me milking looking all crazed and irritated with wrinkle lines on my forehead? Those wrinkle lines were well deserved because Mona is one tough cookie and my goal there was to get the picture taken before she laid down on the milk stand. So Mona and I go way back.
It was my intent at my little house in the city to buy Mona and Bessie because my friend who owned them needed to sell them. Mona was loud and upset her neighbor and that upset my friend. I realized I couldn’t have Mona at my house upsetting MY neighbors and once I had fallen in love with goats there was no looking back for me. So move I did but unfortunately the house transaction did not go through before Mona and Bessie needed to leave so they went to live with another family on the Peninsula.
I was heartbroken, and so was my friend but life went on. Shortly after we moved here my friend emailed me that Mary was in Greenwood distressing neighbors there so I went and rescued her. And then I went and got another goat briefly to keep Mary company but that goat was not so friendly and she and my son had an altercation so she went back to her former owner and I got Mary’s little wether Starr to keep her company.
Then I got an email that Val (who is Bessie’s sister) and Bell’s were living in Yakima and the lady needed to get rid of them by the weekend so I drove over to Yakima and brought them back. Suddenly no goats had become two goats and two goats had become four goats. Now four goats have become six goats. The goats seem to be increasing in numbers around here nearly as fast as the rabbits. Just wait until spring when each goat has two babies…
It’s been freezing here at night lately, and I’ve had some stern talks with myself when the alarm goes off in the morning. The waters are frozen solid and need to be thawed which entails bringing each one inside the house and running it under warm water. It’s quite a distance from the rabbitry and the poultry yard to the house with an armful of ice blocks. Today the fog never lifted so I could just make out the first ring of trees of the surrounding forest, and the tops of the tallest ones in the cloud cover. It’s quite amazing to live in a place where it can sometimes feel as if you are the only one around.
The chickens mainly stand around with their heads sucked into their bodies like turtles, trying to stay warm.
What was a box of fuzzy day old chicks a matter of weeks ago have become half-grown birds. In the cold they huddle together under the heat lamp, not growing or eating much. Which is why most people don’t start meat birds in October. But this is my year of epic mistakes and experiments. Sooner or later something is bound to be a wild success. I just haven’t hit it right yet.
One other epic failure. While I was in Spokane, my hastily made hoop houses blew over in the wind and the ducks found the winter brassica starts that I got from Cascadian Edibles. All the cabbage and broccoli that was going to be our winter and early spring meals nibbled down to just the cover crop seeds I had scattered.
All the well made plans I had for getting the orchard and garden done this fall, waylayed by kitten-induced bursitis. I’m still hopeful I’ll get the orchard in before Christmas. The garden will just have to wait. In the meantime I’ve got some soft goat ears to nuzzle.
Husbandry is one of those things I never really though about when I lived in the city. You max out how many animals you are allowed to have and try to be sure each one is as productive as possible. Or your numbers are so small you write them off as pets who don’t need to earn their keep. But as you increase in numbers that feed bill suddenly becomes staggering and you start to look at things with a slightly different bent.
I’ve gone from eight-ish chickens and ducks (who counted?) to thirteen chickens, six ducks, two turkeys, eleven rabbits (with more on the way), twenty-five 3 week old roosters (if I can remember correctly), and four goats.
Of my thirteen chickens I have three biddies not laying, three roosters, and three too young to lay still. So I’m feeding thirteen and only four are producing. I have attachments to the biddies as part of our original flock. Two roosters are for the breeding program and the other follows me around like a puppy. He was the tiniest chick we named Peep so the fact that he’s become an endearing and quiet rooster (and possibly transgender I’m wondering…) makes me remiss to put him in the stew pot.
I keep finding new chicken breeds that I think would be good for us. I love the Delawares for their fast grow-out (think meat) and inquisitive personalities, though the eggs are smaller and their white plumage makes them stand out to overhead predators. I love the cuckoo and copper Marans for their large dark eggs but they take forever to grow out so don’t carry much meat. I love the Easter eggers for the fun way they contribute to the egg basket – always a surprise to those new to backyard eggs. I want to try Welsummers and barred rocks since I’ve heard they have fast grow-out as broilers and make consistent layers. And then there is the dependable Rhode Island Reds. For awhile the only hen laying was my decrepit RIR who was sleeping in a dog house without supplemental light. You’ve got to love that.
How many roosters do I feed all winter just so I can avoid buying chicks this spring? Sure it’s fun to try so many varieties but the feed bill does add up…
My first two ducks are Cayugas, laid back, amusing, good slug eaters with few bad habits. The next two were Runner Ducks – more like hyper, small dogs that yip and eat eggs if given the chance. I’m not at all fond of them but they are pretty and honestly have such a tiny amount of meat on them that they are not worth processing. The other two are ducklings just a few weeks old so not producing eggs or eating slugs yet but since Flip and Flap are aging they’ll be slowing down next year so I consider these my V3. More overhead in the feed and poop schlepping department.
The turkeys, Snoodle and Snella are young still, not quite big enough to breed or eat. I think I probably missed Thanksgiving dinner and if we eat them now I’ll have to buy hatchlings next spring. At least if I keep Snoodle and Snella all winter, their offspring will be raised naturally, learning to forage from their parents as they should. Less work for me next spring but a higher feed bill this winter. Perhaps I can sell turkey chicks next spring to offset their cost.
I’m still trying to determine the right number of rabbits to keep. Obviously I need a buck and should be keeping a backup buck because things do go wrong occasionally. As far as I know there is no bunny Viagra and there is always the possibility he may suddenly get sick. Without a buck there are no more bunnies. Each bunny needs to be about six months old to breed and is out of commission for part of the time while nursing and raising kits (bunnies). In order to have multiple litters going you need multiple does. How many? I’m not sure yet. All bucks need their own cages, and does do fight occasionally. Any doe and litter need a private cage. So in addition to the feed and hay bill there is the cost of separate water and feed containers, night cages, resting pads and bunny huts.
And then there are the goats – the reason I’m here, at Dancing Goat Gardens. Loud Mary from Greenwood (whose neighbors are still rejoicing that she’s gone, I’m sure) is settling down as lead goat. She’s lovely when she’s not being bossy and pushy and loud. Her teats and udder have been slowly improving throughout the fall and her milk is increasing, although it takes forever to milk her out and those teats are still not much bigger than a cat’s. I may be exaggerating but it takes so long to milk those tiny things out that my hands cramp. She’s an unregistered mini-Nubian so can never be bred to a full sized buck to increase udder/teat/milk and her offspring will never command a good price. But perhaps if I breed her she’ll come into a nice udder and good milk supply this spring and perhaps she’ll have some nice does (although her first birth was two bucks.) Should I breed her this winter? Or try milking her through now that she is producing and increasing in supply? Right now she is producing a half gallon a day which is pretty good for a first-time mini freshener this far into fall.
And speaking of Mary’s bucks, Starr is growing, eating and pooping. I’ll never get milk from him so he is either for pet or for meat. And we have an awful lot of pets around here already.
Then there is Val and Bells. I have been watching them both closely and rushed Val up to the buck in Snohomish several times, only for it to not be the right time. Val is so sweet and so calm and so mellow. Her udder and teats are a dream, she’s quick to milk out and was producing really well in September. Although that supply has dropped since then, she is also a first time freshener with the opportunity to improve this next go around. Bells is young still so I’ll be breeding her in December if I can catch the cycle right. And of course each one of these planned breedings means considering which buck. Do I go with one that has more Nubian or proven milk lines? Do I go with one that’s calmer and mellow and hope to breed quiet into the line?
Each breeding means a stud fee and pre-breeding testing costs so there is more money spent. Now that the bushes and trees in the pasture have lost most their leaves and the grass is wet, the goats are inside most days, eating spendy hay. More money spent.
And somewhere in a spare bathroom there are twenty-five meat broilers. All roosters, started late in the season, using a heat lamp to thrive. I’m hoping to move them outside onto grass once they feather out but it’s so late in the season they will surely require more food to get to a decent dress-out weight. More feed, more wear and tear on the lawn since the grass is no longer growing, which also means it’s not as nutritious and bugs will be deeper underground and harder to find. More in feed, more money spent.
I’m experimenting, making mistakes, hopefully learning, and buying a lot of feed. What I’m not buying though is meat, eggs, milk, compost, straw, mulch or a lot of other soil amendments. So that feed bill comes back to me in many ways.
Although I’m not making much progress on the garden or orchard this fall, I need to step back and remember how many new animals I’ve created shelter and fencing and otherwise favorable conditions for. My goal here at Dancing Goat Gardens is to create a biodiverse farm where each animal can be healthy, thriving, content and contributing to create a group of experimental gardens that provide a well-rounded diet for many families, and for the web of life on this property.
So no more self-indulgent whining. I’ve accomplished a lot in the last four months. I just need to focus on getting my feed bill down (perhaps Carnation needs a new livestock feed Co-op?) and keep moving forwards before winter really sets in.
How about you? What are your fall plans and struggles?