I miss my backyard

I realized today just how long it has been since I have spent any time in my backyard – two months. Yep. That’s WAY TOO LONG. But what’s a mother to do? My priorities are just different at the moment.

But I still miss it. I miss the smell of the grass. I miss the cluck of the hens. And even though I sold the last of my Angora rabbits a few months ago, I’m missing them today too. They went to a great home that will be able to utilize their fiber better than I could.

I’ve hired someone to do some of the maintenance that I have let slip. He’s power-washing the rabbit cages for storage, chopping down the new blackberry vines that keep appearing, and doing some general cleanup. Although I was really happy to notice that last month’s storm did not drop a single tree branch in any part of our yard! That was really nice to discover, given the number of downed branches and entire trees in the rest of the town.

I admired my yard through the window this afternoon as I went back and forth between dealing with laundry and dealing with preschooler tantrums. I will have to make some time to get out there soon. It is so rejuvenating to get into nature of any kind, and nature I can dig my hands into is especially invigorating.

The preschoolers and I planted some seeds last weekend. We had gone to a propagation fair – basically a seed swap with some professional talks. Free admission, free local/organic seeds, free talks, it was great! I picked out some seeds I want to try in my garden this year, and then let the boys each pick out some flower seeds. I got some peat pots and soil that day, and we planted the seeds and placed the pots on the front porch so the boys can see “their plants” every morning on the way to the car. I hope some sprout before the boys lose interest!  I know we’re playing roulette with the weather but the seeds had the boys’ interest so I struck while the iron was hot, so to speak. It’s so rare to get them interested in much of anything.

We still have the chickens, and added a fifth hen to them before Christmas. An opossum or raccoon had decimated a friend’s flock, leaving him with a single  hen. Rather than bring more hens into a coop that needed additional predator protection, he gave her to us. I was pleased with how quickly she was accepted. We placed her on the roost at night in the dark, and she spent about three days being ignored and run off by the others, then everything was fine. No fights, no blood, it was pretty tame as far as introductions go. A beautiful, large, shiny, blue/green-black hen that lays large medium brown eggs.

And about the eggs – I’m glad its winter and the chickens are molting, because I haven’t even been to the chicken coop in those two months! I could have eggs out there and I wouldn’t know about it, but this time of year that is unlikely so at least I’m not wasting eggs. When the preschoolers arrived we realized just how hard everything was going to be for a while, so we opened the coop and run and let the chickens have the run of the backyard. Feeding them now takes 10 seconds in the morning – open the back door to let the dog outside, toss out the day’s ration of chicken feed and call “chick, chick, chick!”. They all come running – five chickens, two legs and wings apiece, no new feathers missing, call it good. Whistle for the dog and close the door.

Although I did get to go in my neighbor’s backyard once! One of the chickens got over the fence. I tossed out the food and only four chickens came running, but I could hear the fifth. Stuck my head out the door and I could see her, running up and down the fenceline. Thankfully I had a guest that morning, someone from the boys’ therapy office, and she was willing to supervise them while I ran next door to catch the recalcitrant hen. It didn’t take long. I opened the gate and shooed her back into our yard where she happily joined the others at eating breakfast, none the worse for wear.

This blog has really undergone some changes in the past two years, hasn’t it? Micro-farming, a crazy amount of pets in a crazy small amount of space, becoming a foster family, and now back to wanting to garden. About the only consistency is that I’m still ranting against the boxes we humans can get stuck in. There is always something else out there that we can see, that tempts us to be more than we currently are. I’m going to get out of my mommy-to-traumatized-kids box pretty soon and get back to nature. It doesn’t mean the kids are going away, it just means that they can no longer be the sole focus of this household, because such single focus isn’t healthy for anyone. Our horizons are going to expand and we will find life outside our current “box”. What box are you going to get out of?

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When did I become a male chicken?

 

“Chick, chick, chick, chick.”

Silence.

“CHICK, CHICK, CHICK, CHICK, CHICK!”

Little red hen heads pop up from the brush on the side of the yard, and fat hen bodies start waddling their way over to where I am. When I step forward, the hens turn in unison and head into the chicken run.

I push the door open further to allow my much larger human body into the run with them, and I distribute whatever treat I brought for them. It might be leftover pizza crust, or some apple cores, or mac and cheese. In a fit of largesse, I may have picked some blackberries especially for them, or the heads of wild grass that are heavy with seed. Whatever I bring, they scarf up like they haven’t eaten in a week, despite the fact they’ve been loose all day pecking at anything that moved.

And then it hits me – I’m a male chicken.

My hens trust me. Like any good rooster, I call the hens when there is something especially good available to eat. I create a safe place for them to be. When they call out in distress, I come quickly to deal with whatever intruder is bothering them. If one is missing at evening, I walk around looking and calling until she is found and rounded up where it is safe with the others. When a falcon decided my yard was a good place to perch, I stood outside between it and my hens until it decided there was no free meal here and it left.

I have sharp eyes, quick feet, and a call my hens recognize and respond to. My “spurs” are a pitchfork, my powerful “wings” are the back of a shovel, and I have a long-lived dedication to my flock of hens.

No matter that I’m a female human, to them I am their very own rooster.

More adventures with opossums, or, this is how marriage works

This morning started out like any other morning. I was half awake, in my pajamas, outside feeding the rabbits and chickens. And then my husband shouted from the garage door “There’s an opossum in the cat food!”

It was suddenly not an ordinary day, and I was very awake.

Turns out a very young opossum had gotten into our garage and into the cat food bag. The cat and dog food bags are stored in an aluminum trash can with a tight fitting lid, but it must not have been put on correctly last night. It happens; I’m just glad hubby looked into the bag before reaching in.

opossum in bag of cat food

Small opossum at the bottom of a bag of cat food

The ‘possum wasn’t going anywhere, so hubby went inside to put on something more substantial than pajamas. I got the pitchfork and decided to make sure THIS opossum never graduated to eating my chicken’s eggs – but hubby had other ideas.

“Do you really have to kill it?” he asked. “It’s little.”

“It will grow up and get the chicken eggs if I don’t” I replied.

“The other opossum never came back, did it?”

“Well, no.”

“I’m sure this one is scared enough and it’ll stay away too.”

I’m thinking “seriously? We own a farm and you want to let a predator live – on purpose?” But he really doesn’t ask for things very often, and I can’t even remember the last time he made a request concerning how I run the farm.

“I could carry the bag outside and tip it on its side, and the opossum will run away.”

“Fine.” I agreed. Fine. I’ll let a predator live at the request of my hubby. He doesn’t have a problem with butchering animals for food, so I know that’s not what’s going on here. If something about this situation is striking him as important to handle in a certain way, then my relationship with him is more important than preventing chicken eggs from disappearing. I think it’s odd, but I will respect it.

The only change I requested was saying: “Just dump the cat food out, too. The opossum pooped in the bag, so I’m not feeding it to my cats. It’s likely to have parasites.”

He agreed easily, with a smile, and carried the bag outside.

So I hope you enjoy these photos of a very young, and very free oppossum running away into the bushes. My hubby likes them, too. I’m still laughing inside about the whole situation, and happy to know that this kind of giving is what makes a marriage.

carrying the bag of food - containing the opossum - outside

Carrying the bag of food – containing the opossum – outside

The opossum, very startled at being dumped out of the bag

The opossum, very startled at being dumped out of the bag. He’s about 6 inches long, plus another 6 inches of tail.

the opossum!

The opossum!

Opossum leaving

Opossum: “Am I really free to leave?”

Opossum: "I'm freeeeeeeee!"

Opossum: “I’m freeeeeeeee!”

The troubles with winter

Brrrr! It’s cold here today! There is a storm warning, and the sheen of white on the ground isn’t frost, it’s ice! Of course, it’s winter and all to be expected.

But winter brings more trouble to a farm than just a low thermometer.

Bedding for animals becomes necessary. Rabbits live on wire floors which become ice cold when the temperature drops. So hutches get a layer of straw for bedding to give the animals somewhere to stand that doesn’t suck the heat out of their bodies.   Of course, that adds to the chore list because the rabbits tend to soil it. And wet bedding doesn’t help them stay warm at all. So it must be removed and replaced on a regular basis.

Freezing temperatures freeze hoses. So the setup that works so well in summer – running long hose lines out to the animals – doesn’t work most days of the winter. The hose freezes solid and doesn’t defrost until at least two days of above-40 temperatures. So water must be toted out to the animals in gallon (or larger) containers. Now, there IS an easy way to fill a five-gallon bucket when the hose doesn’t work. But it’s still harder work than just using a hose.

Use a dustpan to fill a large bucket. Image courtesy of lifehacker.com

Use a dustpan to fill a large bucket. Image courtesy of lifehacker.com

And not just hoses freeze in winter – water in bowls freezes too! Leaving animals with nothing to drink. In summer one bowl of water per day is enough, but some days in winter are cold enough that the water freezes before the animal can drink enough to sustain it for the day. So water must be toted more often the colder it gets. And don’t fall into the trap of trying to use hot water to make it stay wet longer. Did you know hot water freezes faster than just moderately warm water? It’s true! http://chemistry.about.com/od/waterchemistry/a/Can-Hot-Water-Freeze-Faster-Than-Cold-Water.htm

I even had eggs freeze once! In the shells, in the chicken coop. There is so much water in the egg white and yolk that freezing forces the shell to crack, making it unsafe to use the egg even after it thaws. When I get those, they get fed back to the chickens.

Then there are the cold-weather diseases. Cold weather reduces the body’s ability to fight disease, even in animals. So just like humans have cold and flu season in the winter, animals are often more susceptible to illness in the winter as well. I had a rabbit die just yesterday that was apparently healthy the day before. The main culprits in winter are the sheer cold, dehydration, or bacteria/viruses.  You can give your rabbits warm places to go, but you can’t make them stay there. You can give them water repeatedly, but you can not force them to drink. And you can maintain a closed herd, but you can not give 100% protection against bacteria and viruses. Animals are often just more susceptible to dying in cold weather than warm.

Shorter days make chickens stop laying. Their egg-laying cycle is affected by the length of the day. You can put lights in the chicken coop, but that has a fire risk attached to it. And then there is the thought that while you *can* make a chicken lay year-round, does that have an effect on how many years they can continue to lay? I’m not sure of that, but figure that nature is often correct when it wants to take breaks, so I do not light my chicken coop. And instead of four eggs per day, I get five per week in the winter. Oh well. They’ll lay more often when the longer days return.

Wintertime also interferes with breeding. Rabbits even slow down in winter! (Not that they “breed like rabbits” any other time – or at least any time you *want* them to breed.) Whether it is from instinctually knowing that kits have a lower chance of surviving in the cold temperatures, or from the fewer hours of sunlight making them lose interest in doing anything but eating and drinking in those few hours of sunlight, the result is many fewer litters born in the winter.

Winter even freezes compost piles! At least it can if they’re not built large enough or if they’re not working hot enough. Don’t try plunging your turning fork deep into a pile of compost, with your body weight behind it, without first testing to see if the pile is frozen. From experience, suddenly hitting a layer of ice when you expected the fork to keep moving can be painful! A few pots of boiling water poured on the pile is often enough to defrost the ice and get the pile working again.

There is no snow here (or rather, very little) so at least I don’t have to dig my way out to the animals before I can care for them. I had to do that in Colorado, and it adds an extra level of aggravation and danger to everything. Shoveling, not slipping, getting doors open in spite of layers of snow and ice – blech!

So – carry bedding, carry water,  collect eggs more often, check for disease, track water consumption to spot problems approaching, carefully monitor breeding instead of assuming they completed it, watch your footing, and tote pans of boiling water around without slopping it on the pathway … winter is full of chores one doesn’t have to do in the summer.

Nothing alters the rate at which the days become longer, but it’s always a pleasure when the warmer weather returns, even if it’s sporadically at first!

Midnight adrenaline!

I read once that having livestock was publicly announcing your willingness to run outside, at any hour of the day or night, in any state of dress or undress, to deal with whatever emergency happened. I scoffed at that. Certainly there is time to put on pants or a jacket, right?

Nope.

Hubby and I were getting ready for bed tonight when he heard an animal scream. “Something’s wrong with the animals – they’re screaming” he shouted from the other room. And the adrenaline kicked in.

I dropped whatever it was I was doing, and headed for the back door. Thankfully my shoes were right there and I could step into them without slowing down. But no jacket. No time! The flashlight is *always* by the back door. I couldn’t get the back light on, it gets finicky in the cold weather, so I kept on going without it. Halfway through the yard the flashlight picked up the chicken coop – with the chickens outside in the run.

What? “It’s rabbits that scream, not chickens”, I thought. I had been headed for the rabbits and just happened to see the chickens on the way. But a quick flashlight beam across the hutches showed all rabbits in their cages and quiet. Whatever was going on, it was about the chickens. And with them outside their coop in the middle of the night, whatever was going on was INSIDE the chicken coop.

I opened the run and stood in the doorway. Without realizing how useful it was, we had built the chicken coop so one could see inside the pop door from the entrance to the run. I bent over and shone the flashlight beam inside.

Two small red eyes. My heart took an extra-hard thump before I saw the rest of the animal hiding behind part of the perch. An opossum!

I was simultaneously relieved and concerned. Possums aren’t known for attacking people, unless they’re truly cornered and terrified. At least it wasn’t a fox or similar quick-moving and more aggressive animal. But at the same time, I didn’t have room to swing a shovel in the close confines of the coop. I was going to have to persuade slow-moving, comfort-loving, not-afraid-of-humans opossum to leave the coop of his own free will.

Hubby had joined me only half a second behind, coming from a different room. Wearing his boxers. Because, being a good livestock owner, he hadn’t stopped to put on pants! So I had him grab the pitchfork for me, and then hold the flashlight while I opened the chicken coop. (In addition to the small pop door the chickens use, the entire front of the coop opens up like barn doors. I wanted it that way for ease of cleaning, never thinking how wonderful it would be in persuading a reluctant predator to depart!)

First I showed the turning fork to the possum, which hissed at it. Then I poked the possum with it, and it squealed in anger. Ah, finally the source of the “scream” hubby had heard! Maybe one of the chickens pecked it? Maybe it bumped an exposed nail? I poked it again, and the possum bit at the tines of the fork, realizing they weren’t going to move. It ran to the other side of the coop, where I followed it. It ran back to the original side, and into the nestbox. I threw forkfuls of bedding at it, which really annoyed it. Finally it went out the front of the coop and down to the ground, immediately darting behind the door support. I prodded it again and it went up the run fence, pausing at the top where I unceremoniously pushed it over into the brush on the other side. It walked away unharmed.

I want to say I saw the chickens applaud, but it must have been completely in my head because of course chicken wings don’t bend that way. But I closed up the coop, put the ramp back where it belonged, and watched the girls one by one return to the coop to roost for the night.

All but one. Not sure what’s going on with her. I picked her up and saw no blood, no injuries. But she acted a little shellshocked. I gently put her in the coop with her flock, figuring the normalcy of the surroundings might be best for her. Then we closed and locked the door.

We’ll be better now at locking the coop door when it gets dark, rather than when we go to bed. Lesson learned.

Second lesson learned – if you are short on eggs, look for an egg-eating predator. I probably could have caught that opossum several days ago if I had listened to my gut about all the eggs that I thought were being laid but that weren’t in the nestbox when I went to collect them.

Hopefully the short chicken memory will serve my flock well and they’ll be back to normal as soon as they got inside. On the other hand, you can see that I’m still awake typing this out, because the adrenaline needs a bit of time to leave my system.

But hubby did look cute outside in his boxer shorts!  😉

I might as well feed them dollar bills

The price of rabbit and chicken feed is rising. A LOT. The drought conditions that affected the MidWest’s corn crop in the summer of 2012 have been trickling through the rest of the feed supply. If there is less corn, then what there is costs more than it did previously. And those who purchase corn to make something else (like livestock feed) have to charge more for the feed to make their own books balance. Which leaves me holding the bag. Literally.

I used to be able to get chicken and rabbit feeds at 16 and 17 dollars per 50 lb bag, respectively. Now it’s 18 and 21 dollars per 50 lb bag. Yep, chicken feed costs $2 more and rabbit feed costs $4 more.

I can find rabbit food at only $3 more, but it is 11 miles away (round trip), which is about half a gallon of gas. With gas at $3.49 per gallon, I’d spend more going to get the feed than I’d save at the cheaper prices. However, when I have to go that way for another purpose, I stock up with whatever I can afford to get.

I have not yet seen an increase in cat or dog food. The cats are currently eating Wellness brand bagged food. I don’t believe it contains corn. But it does contain chicken, and since the cost of chicken feed is up… then the cost of chicken is up. Or if it isn’t up yet, it will be soon! Which means we can expect pet foods to increase in cost, too. I’m currently cooking natural foods for my dog (she’s having some itchy issues), but foods from the grocery store are obviously subject to the same supply chain issues as livestock feeds. Costs are increasing there, too.

I’ve heard people joke that heat costs so much that they may as well burn dollar bills. Well, the costs of feed are going up so much that I might as well feed my animals dollar bills!

Of course we do things to minimize costs. The chickens get our leftovers. They love oatmeal, spaghetti, and random pieces of meat and veggies. It feels good to not throw away leftovers, especially when they’d have to be thrown in the trash instead of the compost. (Chickens can eat meats and fats that the compost pile can’t handle.) Some creativity helps, too – we went to the movies the other day, and bought a large popcorn. So when we left, I used the free refill to have it filled for the chickens! Might as well, since I paid for the privilege of a free refill and the chickens do well with a meal of popped corn.

For the rabbits, I harvest grass and weeds from the yard, and I occasionally receive stale bread from restaurants. Plus the food pantry where I volunteer sometimes receives vegetable donations that are not fit for human consumption. I try to give the rabbits at least one completely free meal each week. It really cuts down on the costs of feeding them. I’m glad I have a very overgrown yard – rabbits love grass and grape leaves.

With the cats, the only cost saving measure I have come up with is to feed real food as treats instead of buying those expensive little foil pouches of cat treats. They already get bagged food instead of canned food, and I just don’t have a well-researched recipe for home prepared food for cats. I wouldn’t lower the quality of the food I feed my pets any more than I’d lower the quality of the food I feed my human family.

I am enjoying cooking for my dog, and it is indeed cheaper than buying the high quality bagged for her. Only a few dollars cheaper, but every bit helps. I’m doing it because she’s itchy right now and one possible culprit is the food she’s been eating. But now that I have my pressure canner it’s EASY to store homecooked food for her, so we’ll see how long I can keep it up. She absolutely LOVES her homecooked food, and she’s doing great on it.

So maybe I can keep food prices for my animals low enough that I feel like I’m feeding them coins instead of dollar bills. It sounds better, anyway!

A day in my life

A friend of mine recently said that reading my blog makes her tired because of all the things I do. So today, I think I’ll give her a good reason to go to bed early! Here is what today is like in my life…

When I got up this morning, my dear husband had already fed the pets – the dog and three cats that live indoors with us. Supremely sweet of him, and it left only the outdoor livestock for me to handle. So I dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, slipped on my grubby chore shoes, and went outside. Filled up the feed container for the chickens, and turned on the hose.

First up was to open up the chicken coop for the day, so the chickens can use their run. I enter the run and immediately see something weird. I don’t know what *it* is, but *it* is near the far side of the run, so I go look. Great (with sarcasm), it’s the opossum. Haven’t seen him in a couple months. He’s small, I don’t think he’s a danger to my chickens when they’re awake, and he’s locked out of their coop at night. But he’s playing dead, and I’m not going to let my chickens loose on purpose when he’s around, so I leave the chicken run to handle the rabbits instead, hoping that’s far enough away that he’ll get up and leave while I’m gone.

I check on all the rabbits, and everyone is fine. So I fill up water dishes, remove spider webs, and water the grass around the hutches. I don’t mind spiders near the rabbits, but I do object to the dry and hollow flies and other pests they drop around when they’re finished with them – just don’t think having hundreds of those in the hutches is a good idea. So the spiders need to make their webs elsewhere. I water the grass around the hutches because green grass keeps the area cool, and dry baked ground does not. I finish all that and go back to the chicken run.

Opossum on pitchfork

The opossum, laying on the pitchfork.
Is it dead, or just “playing possum”?

The opossum is still laying there. OK, according to Wikipedia, if it is “playing possum” the eyes will be closed at least partially – but they’re not. It also says that if it is “playing possum” it will be drooling/foaming at the mouth – but it isn’t. No smell either, and they usually excrete a smell when playing possum that makes a would-be predator think they’re already in the process of decaying. Hmmm. I think it’s an ACTUALLY dead opossum! So I use a pitchfork to pick it up (it’s stiff, but that is no indication of truly dead vs playing possum) and take it to the compost heap. Threw some compost over top of it to keep any smell away from the neighborhood stray cats. If it’s dead, it’ll stay there. If it’s not there tonight then I was taken in by a REALLY good player of “playing possum”!

Back to the chickens. Open up their coop, throw their food around the ground of the run to encourage scratching and pecking behaviors. Check coop for eggs (none). Clean out and fill their water bowl. Seriously, can my chickens EVER avoid pooping in their water bowl? I’m guessing not because mine always have done that.

Water the garden. See that there are a lot of blackberries ripe today, so I go get a container from the kitchen, turning off the water along the way, and bringing the feed containers back into the garage. (Slipping out of and then back into my chore shoes since those do not ever get worn past the back hall.) Pick the blackberries, and go back inside.

Whew! Morning chores complete, I now get breakfast. It’s blackberries and peanuts in the shell, while drinking water (and a Coke) on the couch, while seeing if there is anything I need to know posted on the various websites I visit.

Shirt, soon to become an apron

This is the shirt that will soon become an apron

Then I decide it’s time to work on an apron I’m making. I bought a super-cheap top at Goodwill that I think will make a really cute apron. It has a loose bodice and two inches of smocking at the top, just straps for sleeves, so it shouldn’t take long. I get the whole thing taken apart and then realize I don’t know where my sewing box is. I haven’t seen it in a while and it isn’t where it is SUPPOSED to be. So I can’t sew the ties onto the back and finish it. Grrrrr. Hubby is studying so I can’t interrupt him to ask if he knows where the sewing box is, so it’ll just have to wait until tonight to be finished.

I baked a cake for a neighbor (on an earlier day) and it’s now time to ice it.  It’s a lemon cake, so vanilla icing should work. I read an article a while ago that said most store-bought icings can be whipped with a mixer to add volume to them, making them easier to spread and reducing the calories in each piece (because the icing will now do two cakes instead of just one). I’m not going to lug out my machine mixer for such a small project, so I try the hand mixer I use for things like pancake mix. No go, the icing is too thick. So I put it in the microwave to warm it up a little, hoping that will help. Well, it’s runnier, but now won’t hold the air I’m whipping into it. Experiment FAIL. So I let the icing cool back into it’s original state while I cut a cardboard box into a flat, thick sheet and cover it with aluminum foil. (I am giving the cake to a neighbor, but don’t want to give away a plate with it.) Put the cake on the foil, and ice it. Looks good.

Walk down the street with the cake and ring the neighbor’s doorbell. No answer. Knock on the door. Still no answer. Seriously? His favorite team is on TV right now and he’s not home watching it??? Whatever, I now walk back home still carrying the cake and put it on the counter. Now I have to keep an eye on it to make sure none of the animals try to take a taste… I trade baked goods with my neighbor in exchange for him mowing my grass, so this cake is pretty valuable and I want it kept in one piece!

rabbit on nest

My doe rabbit sitting on the hay in her nestbox

I remember one of my doe rabbits was put in with the buck about a month ago, and should be put into a hutch alone to prepare for the (hopefully) impending kits. So I go out to rearrange everybody. (Opossum is still in the compost pile. Probably dead, right?) Put another doe in with a buck she’s not been with before, and watch to be sure nobody is going to get hurt. Nah, they’re just playing chase, so I go move the daddy buck to leave the momma-to-be doe in the cage alone. Then I go get the nestbox (and remove all the junk that has accumulated in it since the last time it was used… seriously, why does all this stuff not stay where it’s put? It always grows legs and moves onto whatever it is that I want at the time!) Then I fill the nestbox with hay, scattering hay all over the garage floor in the process. (It’s a new type of hay that’s seriously cheaper, but not baled nearly as well. I’ll have to keep track of how much is wasted to see if it really is cheaper or not. Better write that down or I’ll forget…)

rabbit with hay

Yes, I want hay to eat! You can’t give some to her and not to me!

Go outside to put the nestbox full of hay in with the momma-to-be, and all the other rabbits race to the corner of their hutch that’s closest. Seriously? It’s hot and dry and you want HAY? Yep. So I go back to get the basket, fill it with hay, and bring it out to put some in each rabbit hutch. Momma is sitting in the nestbox on top of the hay, so hopefully she is bred. Most rabbits just sit beside the hay to eat it, not on top of it. Refill the water dish in the hutch of the new couple, in their game of chase they’ve knocked it over, but they’re both tired and thirsty now. Check on the opossum, it’s still in the compost. (Seriously, I am spending WAY too much time checking on this stupid animal that’s probably dead!)

peanuts for lunchGet back in the house, and realize I haven’t had lunch, and it’s way late. So I eat some more peanuts while checking my websites again. Write a touching and sweet status on my FB page for my friends (which of course means I have an excuse to check it more often today, right?)

Then I realize the only meat in the house is frozen whole chickens in my chest freezer, and they’re not going to be defrosted in time to cook one for dinner. Go outside to the freezer to get two of them anyway, reasoning that I can cook one for tomorrow instead. Realize that a rabbit I had to put down is still in that freezer. Whole. Uncovered because of the hurry with which I had to dispatch her before we left on our trip. I decide I don’t have time to deal with that today, but I also don’t want to simply throw the body away because it’s an Angora with all that beautiful fur, so I at least wrap the body in a bag and put it back in the freezer before grabbing two frozen chickens and heading back into the house.

Scrub the sink, fill it with water, and put one chicken in it to defrost tonight so I can crock-pot it in the morning. Put the other in the fridge, after rearranging it so it will fit.

Sdinnerit down to write this blog post, and realize I haven’t done anything for dinner TONIGHT yet. So I get back up, and raid the freezer. I have a package of chicken strips, a package of breaded jalapeno cheese and pepper nuggets, and a package of hashbrowns. That’s so not a healthy or balanced meal, but I’ve eaten nothing but peanuts and blackberries all day, and no way will hubby go out to eat when football is on tonight, and at least I buy the versions of things that are as little-processed as possible, so I say “what the heck, it’s just one meal” and start the oven for the chicken strips. Thankfully I remembered how much heat the oven throws out, and moved the iced cake so the icing wouldn’t melt.

Put chicken strips on the baking sheet, set timer for 10 minutes. Turn chicken, add pepper bits, set timer for 5 minutes. Turn pepper bits, set timer for 5 minutes. Hope everything turns out fine with the temperature on 425 since the chicken is supposed to cook at 400 and the pepper bites at 450. It usually works fine that way, but I’ve never tried these pepper bites before, I got them because they were a freebie. Cook hashbrowns on stovetop at the same time.

But, the hashbrowns aren’t cooking. Gah! Instructions told me to heat oil to medium heat in a skillet, then sprinkle hashbrowns into the skillet until they are half an inch deep. Let cook without disturbing them until the edges brown, then turn the hashbrowns, and continue cooking until done. I couldn’t do that – the sprinkling part, that is. The hashbrowns were frozen in a solid lump. So I microwaved them until they could be pulled apart with a fork, and added them by forkfuls to the skillet. Aparantly that isn’t close enough to work, because although the edges turned brown, they were also stuck tight to the bottom of the skillet and could NOT be turned. The ones that weren’t stuck were still uncooked. So, scrap the hashbrowns because the chicken and jalapeno bites were finished, so I just served them. (Note: I don’t care for the jalapeno bites, but hubby liked them, so that’s OK.) Hubby ate the chicken strips with ranch dressing, I ate mine with honey. Yum. It’s nice to sit and eat dinner.

Time to clean up. Can’t wash dishes yet because the chicken is still taking up half the sink. *Sigh*

Eggs, September 22, 2012

Today’s eggs. Two tan ones from the Rhode Island Reds, and one light green from the Americauna

So I go outside to do the animal chores for the evening before it gets dark. Put on chore shoes, and turn on the water hose. Opossum is still dead. That means it’s really truly dead, right? Maybe I can stop thinking about it now. I collect eggs from the coop – three of them today, very typical for four chickens in their first year of laying. I have three Rhode Island Reds which lay light brown eggs, and an Americauna which lays a light greenish egg. Very cute in the egg cartons together. (The camera makes the green egg look almost flourescent – weird. It isn’t that bright in real life.) When I show my green eggs to people, the first thing they all say is “Green eggs and ham!” Especially funny because that happens to be the book featured on the September page of my Dr. Seuss calendar. Makes me smile every time I see it.

rabbit with hay

Thank you for the dinner and water!

The rabbits are happy to see me. Each gets a filled water bowl, and a scoop of pellets. I would reduce the amount of pellets if they had eaten something like apples or greens, but I don’t reduce it for hay. Gotta remember to count the rabbits in each hutch since I moved several around earlier, and I don’t want to put the wrong amount of feed in any hutch. They appreciate the attention, coming to the hutch openings to say “hello”. The friendliest ones get head scratches before they hop off to eat their dinners.

Chickens want out

My chickens waiting at the door of their run, hoping to be turned loose in the yard

Dusk is almost here, so I decide to let the chickens have this last half-hour of the day loose in the yard. They love it loose, but I’m not sure of their potential to escape, so I always stay outside when they’re loose. I take a book and sit on the deck while the chickens scratch the yard, finding lots of little treats to munch. I’m reading Janet Evanovich’s “One for the Money” series – I just started book eight. Sitting with the chickens lets me get to page 34. When the chickens start making their way back to the run I put the failed hashbrowns and peanut shells in the run for them to pick at before they completely put themselves to bed in the coop. (Peanut shells are great for traction when the weather makes the ground in the chicken run slippery, which it does often in Oregon.) I’ll go back out when it’s full dark and lock the door to the coop, safely securing the chickens for the night.

Grated Fels Naptha soap

Grated Fels Naptha soap looks like grated cheese – but tastes much different!

I go back inside, and grate the soap I need for a load of laundry. Not doing the laundry until tomorrow, but if I wait until tomorrow to grate the soap, you just know something will happen. Better to be prepared, so I grate the soap. The other ingredients are Borax and Washing Soda, which I have already, so no problem there.

The chicken has not vanished from the sink yet, so I go take it out of the sink, put it in a plastic bag, and store it in the fridge. It will make a good after-church lunch tomorrow. Yum!

And now I sit down at 8:30 to finish this blog post, and then tackle a computer game that I want to win. A very busy, but productive day. Hubby will do the dishes later, I don’t have to worry about those.

So, dear friend, have I tired you out yet? Like we discussed earlier, I definately couldn’t do this lifestyle if I had a 40 hour a week office job. But as busy as it is, I love this better. If you get to bed before I do, have a nice dream for me! Mine tend to have chickens and rabbits in them, lately.

We’re home! Update on animals, sunburn, sea snakes, and more

It feels soooo good to be home. I really enjoyed the Philippines, and expect to go back at some point. But home is home. We left Manila at 9:30 am on Tuesday, and landed at San Francisco at 9:30 am on Tuesday. Weird. Had a 4 hour layover, so one of my husband’s relatives who lives nearby came to spend it with us. That was nice! Then we flew the rest of the way back to Oregon. By the time we got to bed that night, we’d been awake for 29+ hours. Phew!

Because of the wonderful housesitter, everything was in order. Whew! It was great to see all the animals well cared for.

Eggs from my chickens

Eggs! 37 eggs from my chickens.

Chickens:  When I left, I expected the chickens to be laying before I got back. They were hatched in March, so they should have started laying at the end of July or beginning of August, but the housesitter said she hadn’t gotten any eggs at all! So I went hunting, and eventually turned up their hidden nest – with 37 eggs in it! I did a float test and all were still good. I’m taking the housesitter a dozen eggs when I see her this weekend, and it looks like omelettes for breakfast (and lunch) for a while until we get through this backlog. Good thing we like eggs! For those who are wondering, the float test with eggs is to put each into a bowl of water. If the egg floats, it’s bad or almost bad and I throw those out. If it sinks and lays on its side, its good. In between are those that bob a bit, or stand on one end. I tend to feed those to animals after cooking them very thoroughly. The idea is that as the edible part of the egg starts to get older and decompose, it also loses some size, and the air cell inside the shell gets larger. The larger the air cell, the better it floats. It has to be well past floating to have that rotten egg smell to it, but better safe than sorry with food.

Female kits

Some of the female kits

Rabbits: The “baby” rabbits aren’t so baby anymore! I use them for meat, so I was happy to see the size they are. I do have a line on selling a couple as breeders to someone else, so they have a stay of execution until that person decides. They’re 13 weeks old now.

The litter is a Californian / American Chinchilla cross. I did not know what to expect in colors from a litter of that cross, but whatever I would have guessed, it wouldn’t have been what I got: From a litter of 8, half are the white with the black tips of a Californian, and half are solid black.

Male kit

The only male kit

Seven are females, only one is male (one of the Cali-looking ones) and I’m not 100% sure it really is male. I think the sex-change fairy is visiting, which is fairly common with little rabbits.

I ought to be able to tell easily at this age, but this male looks rather in-between. I’m calling it a male for safety because at this age they really need separated by gender to prevent an accidental between-siblings litter (in case any of them are precocious breeders). I will not sell that one unless the gender of it is unimportant to the buyer.

Aren’t they adorable? If you live in Oregon and want to buy one for a meat breeder yourself, let me know!

The cats are happy to have me home. My two went into a purring frenzy, and my half-a-cat looks very satisfied with himself, almost as if he’d brought me back himself!

And my Kira, the dog, is just so cute. She tried to ignore me, probably to punish me for being gone so long, but it lasted about 10 seconds before she gave in and started licking my hand. Awwww! She makes my heart melt. She’s the one I missed the most, all I could think about the last day before leaving for home was getting to see her. She’s 11 years old and gets more and more precious to me each day.

I think the garden is pretty much gone. Only one brussel sprout plant looks any good at all, and the sprouts on it are much tinier than they should be. The swiss chard and cabbage got eaten by wildlife. I can’t see where the onions and garlic are because that side of the plot got taken over by weeds. I can’t spend much time outside right now because of my sunburn, so I think I’ll just let them keep growing together and see what happens later.

Yeah, I got a sunburn. I got a BAD sunburn! On Saturday in the Philippines a bunch of us went to the beach. It was a goal of mine ever since I got there, to swim in the ocean! And then I did not put on sunscreen. I wear it at home for the cancer-reduction properties (which are debatable, I know), but I don’t burn even when I forget it. So when I forgot to bring it to the beach I didn’t worry about it. It was only 3 hours, and semi-cloudy.

My sunburn

My sunburn – you can see where the bathing suit strap was, and all the little shiny flecks are blisters. Ouch.

I kept checking my forehead, figuring I’d go into the full shade of the trees when it started feeling hot.It never did, so no worries, right? I enjoyed the ocean and swimming, and the beach and collecting shells. So much fun! Then I got back to where we were staying and showered, and THEN it hit.Bright red skin, hot to the touch, and oh so sore. My whole face, chest, and shoulders. My face healed pretty quickly, and was peeling three days later. My chest wasn’t far behind. But my shoulders kept getting worse and worse and finally today they broke out in hundreds of tiny blisters. Boo! The doctor can’t see me for two weeks, but the nurse says to keep moisturizing and not pop the blisters, but to let them know if a fever starts. On the way home, on the plane, I chose to buy and wear a strapless dress. It didn’t look the most flattering on me, but was much nicer than dealing with straps over those sore shoulders.

I think the only other health issue that has cropped up was some infected cuts on my feet. Probably from the beach day as well. One thing I realized was how difficult it is to clean cuts with water that isn’t clean enough to drink. No wonder the cuts got infected! I started rinsing them with drinking water after I realized an infection was setting in, but by then it was too late. And how in the world do you keep feet dry when you shower? I never did figure that one out. So they kept getting doused in river water. But now that I’ve been home a full day they’re already feeling better. The cuts are tiny, they ought to heal on their own just fine now that the water is clean.

Belcher's Sea Snake

Belcher’s Sea Snake

Speaking of the ocean, I saw sea snakes! Really cool looking. There were two, about four inches long apiece. Irridescent yellow/green and dark green/black. Watching them glide through the water like rippling ribbons was sooo awesome. I watched them until they dove deep enough that I couldn’t see them anymore. When I got home I googled to see what kind they were, and learned they were Belcher’s Sea Snakes. Yeah. Venomous. Extremely venomous! I am very glad that when I see snakes I just stand there and watch them, and that I have never been prone to poking them or picking them up!

It was fun getting outside today. I separated the baby rabbits and put some adult breeding pairs together. I float-tested the eggs, and got them in cartons and into the fridge (I usually let them stay unwashed and on the counter, but some of these are already 3-4 weeks old and already wet from the float test, so fridge it is). I picked blackberries. I watered the garden (or what is left of it). Not bad for not getting up until noon! Jet lag is weird. Hope it passes quickly, tomorrow is packed with stuff to do!

Repurposing old stuff, and how to do it

The obvious downside to me not having an office job anymore is the drop in disposable income that went along with that. So, when I need things for the animals, I can’t just go buy them – I have to be creative.

In spite of that, I am very happy with the supplies I have gotten for my animals. My chickens reside in a coop made from a motorcycle shipping crate. My rabbits live in cages that other people discarded. The cages are supported by a metal bunk bed frame. The cat litterboxes and most of their toys were free from Craigslist.

We’ll start with the chicken coop. We bought a used motorcycle shipping crate, took it apart, added two 2x4s and some hardware, and put it back together as a chicken coop. The shipping crate was approximately 8′ x 4′ x 4′.  Most of it we left intact – the floor, the two small ends, and the back were left just as they came. The front we took off and sawed in half to create two barn-style doors – we attached them to the sides with hinges for human use when we need to access the inside. Then we cut an additional small door in one of them for the chickens to use on a daily basis, attached with hinges and a latch. The roof we removed, and then added a long 2 x 4 above the hinged front doors, and put the roof back on (this time at a slant for rain runoff.) An 8′ long 2×4 added to the inside serves as a nice roost, and as an extra stabilizer for the whole thing. It is up on stilts (we already had scrap wood for those), and the chickens reach it by a ramp (also scrap wood, traction provided by stapled on inner tube that had ruptured). A coat of off-white paint (super cheap because it was a custom tint the store got wrong for someone else.) Viola! A usable chicken coop for up to 8 hens for less than $100, two days, and a screwdriver and paintbrush.

The rabbit cages came entirely from sellers on Craigslist. Some I purchased in Colorado, driving an hour away to pick three huge ones up for $55 together. Some were (unexpectedly) given to me when I purchased the rabbits inside them. Two were free because someone thought they were too rusty to keep and was giving them away as scrap metal. Four of them were $15 apiece and came with a nestbox, three J feeders, a water bottle, several plastic droppings trays and some supports – from someone who simply wanted the barn space more than he wanted money. Sometimes they need repair, but a pair of pliers and some scrap wire is often enough to accomplish that.

The support frame for my rabbit cages is our most recent find. We originally had the rabbit cages up on a frame made from an old dog kennel. But the legs were so skinny that one side was starting to sink into the ground and tip the cages. Plus, it wasn’t large enough to hold all the cages, and some still sat on the ground which was a cleaning nightmare.  We wanted to build a new frame from PVC pipe that would be large enough for all the cages, but it was more expensive than we wanted to pay. Then one day we saw a yard sale just a couple doors down from our house – selling a metal bunk bed frame! The wheels started turning in our brains, and we went to go look at it. Perfect height, perfect width, and the bottom bunk was for a double mattress so it would be great for the larger cages… it looked perfect.  One broken slat that would have held the bottom mattress, but that wouldn’t matter for what we wanted it for. They asked $20 and we offered $15 – they accepted it and we walked home carrying a metal bunk bed frame! (I’m sure we looked a sight! Not every day one sees a bunkbed being walked down the street.) The rabbit cages fit perfectly on it.

Have you ever successfully repurposed something to fill a different need? Here are some tips

1 – Know what you need.
Don’t just know the name of what you want – know what purpose it needs to fill. I did not need “a chicken coop”. I needed a thing with at least 16 square feet of floor space, with a door and windows, and with a top at least 3 feet from the floor, with sides strong enough to resist predators. Knowing that, I was able to asses everything I came across for its suitability. A child’s playhouse would have worked. A large wooden rabbit hutch would have worked. A small storage shed would have worked. And so on. By knowing the bare bones of what I needed, it became easier to find something that would work. Remember that with search terms as well – a search for “rabbit hutch” may not turn up many useful results, but a search for “wire” brought me to the rabbit cages that were listed as scrap metal.

2 – Look for what you need when you have the time to deal with it.
It would not have done me much good to look for things a half hour before a job interview. I would have only frustrated myself with my inability to drop everything and go get a good deal. Most people who are trying to get rid of something want to do so quickly, and they won’t wait even a few hours if someone else will take it off their hands immediately. To deal with that, check at the beginning of your free time. I tend to check listings while eating breakfast.

3 – Always be prepared.
Most people have some sort of emergency kit in the trunk of their car. Spare tire, jack, blanket, maybe even flares and some tools. Mine includes all those and some more – a cat carrier, lots of rope, some cardboard boxes, a long-sleeved sweatshirt. So when I find a good deal I can jump in the car and just go. No need to hunt up a carrier for a new rabbit, rope to tie a cage to the roof of the car, careboard boxes to store feed, hay, or litter, or a shirt to protect my arms while I help round up chickens.

4 – Bring a tape measure.
One of my God-given talents is spatial recognition. I can look at one thing and just know whether it is the same size as something else. But most people don’t have that gift, and that’s why man invented tape measures. Know the dimensions of what you need. Write them down and carry them with you if necessary. Remember to include the sizes of any doorways it needs to pass through. With those and a tape measure you can know for SURE if what you are considering will work.

5 – Be flexible.
My husband and I have jumped in a car at 8:00 at night to get free rabbits, instead of watching a movie. I have driven home from picking up cages with one tied to the roof of my car rather than leave it behind. Our original plan for rabbit cages included them all facing the same direction, but the bunk bed frame has them back-to-back. And all those changes worked just fine. If I had stuck to my original plans I would not now have my current litter of kits, have the largest of my cages, and my rabbits would all still be listing sideways.

6 – Lastly, be safe.
Craigslist is not for dummies. There are weirdos out there. A safety plan is important. Always let someone know where you are going, when you will return, and how to get in contact with you. Carry exact change for your purchase. Don’t make a display of anything tempting to steal – leave your purse in the car, but carry your phone and some pepper spray in your pocket. Don’t be concerned about looking stupid – your safety is more important than any purchase. I almost lost a great one (a manually-powered meat slicer) because I kept turning around to keep my FRONT to the man who was selling it – no way would I let a man I did not know stand behind me. Meet in public when possible (not always possible for heavy items like rabbit hutches that are in someone’s backyard, so use extra precautions for things like that). Bring a friend along when you can.

Repurposing things is FUN. It is great satisfaction to look out at what we have created and know that it was our ingenuity that created it. We’re much prouder of the chicken coop we built than we would have been of one we simply purchased. The friends who “get” our lifestyle think the things we have done are really cool, and their support is awesome to have. But you won’t have those experiences until you get out and DO it yourself.

Bitten by a chicken

Hey, that rhymes! Seriously though, I got bitten by a pullet tonight. Not pecked – bitten. I didn’t know they knew how to do that!

The chickens have been on lockdown for the past three days in the hope of getting them to roost in the coop instead of the trees. But three days wasn’t long enough, and two were back in the trees tonight. So I pick up one and put her in the coop. Pick up the other, and BAM she’s hanging from my arm by her beak! Yes I still have a hold of her legs, but she’s not letting them support her weight – she has her beak holding some skin on my arm and THAT is what is supporting her weight. I yelp, she lets go, and I dash to the coop and put her in before she can think to do it again. That HURT.

I have been pecked by a chicken before, and while it hurts, it’s sudden and then over. I actually dislike the bites worse, they last longer and seem to hurt more. But honestly I had never thought a chicken would really do anything other than pecking. Cats have bitten me, rabbits have bitten me, but never a chicken. Guess it’s a wasted day if you learn nothing at all!

I suppose I was destined to have a strange chicken. She must realize she fits in well with me!