"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Welcome Alpacas, Welcome Back Chickens

Austin looks unimpressed at meeting Iris.

It's been raining today, good for my garden, but unfortunate for the alpacas, who are too timid to enter the barn. They look very wet and very cold, having just been sheared, but I can't either entice them or chase them into the barn, where the scary scary goats are. Alpacas are incredibly timid. It's like having a herd of wild antelope out there. I hope they go into the barn at night, because it's going to be quite cold tonight. 

Linda from Lost River brought them over about 11 am. this morning. What an incredibly generous lady. She gave us Austin's recently sheared fleece, all seven or eight pounds of it. She didn't have to do that, I certainly wasn't expecting it, and it's quite valuable. Rowan was ecstatic. Of course, it hasn't been processed yet (Rowan will do that) and it hasn't been spun (we'll find somebody to do that), but it is as soft as a cloud and absolutely beautiful silvery white. I gave her some chevre and some cajeta to take home, as well as gas money for transporting them. 

While she was here, my neighbor's son came over in his truck and told me he'd caught a rooster and a hen and they were in a cage under the cherry tree at his mom's house, if I could kindly go and pick them up. Which I very promptly did. So now I have three of the four escaped chickens locked tightly in the small barn. I told Homero that the time had come to dispatch them as soon as possible. He tried to tell me "oh no, they're too skinny, we have to fatten them up first" but I know he's just trying to get out of killing them. So I told him either he kills them by this weekend or I take matters into my own hands. I just can't risk them escaping again. We have to live with these neighbors forever; I'm not going to let a few stupid chickens jeopardize our relationship.

What, me kill them? Heck no. I'd find a chicken processor. 

Monday, July 28, 2008

Pasture Patrol

In preparation for the alpacas, who are coming sometime this week, we had the pasture field-mowed. Jordan, the local boy I hired off Craig's list and his mid-sized kubata could only do about half the feild, because of debris and large rocks in the other half. This photo does a fair job of showing the difference between the mowed and the non-mowed halves.

The goats love the mowed field. They can see each other. They were literally over their heads before, and the littlest one kept getting lost and crying for his mama. I'm hoping that they will do a decent job of getting blackberries and other weeds as they grow back.
But we still have a problem with the Poison Hemlock. My friend Sarah, garden authority, warned me that topping them was unlikely to do any good; that most likely it would simply spur them to produce more heads. She was right. But I thought, well, maybe REPEATED cutting will fix 'em! I bought a gas powered weed-eater and we cut them all down again, pulling as many out by the root as we could reach and our backs could stand. And of course, many were mowed to the ground again yesterday. I think it might be late enough in the growing season now that they won't be able to stage a comeback.
Our neighbor to the east (there's no neighbor there yet, it's just raw land) has a large stand of them, tall and flowery and waving in the breeze. I don't have their number to call and ask if I can cut them down, but I'm thinking of doing it anyway. I might talk to the next neighbor over, the one on the other side. He has cows, and Hemlock will poison them easier than it will poison goats, so maybe he will agree that it's okay to go cut. Or maybe he has their number.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


These are alpacas, actually. In the top photo are Benji (brown) and Miguel (right behind Benji, with silly tufted ears), and the lower picture is Austen. Miguel and Benji are huacaya alpacas, meaning they have fluffy curly wool, and Austen is a suri alpaca, and he has the most expensive and sought after kind of fiber, long and silky and straight. 

So what about them? Huh? Why am I showing you alpacas?

Three guesses, and the first two don't count. 

Yes, Craigslist. The owner of Lost River Alpacas in Nooksack is purging her herd of unneeded males we are getting three of them. These three. Personally, I could care less about alpacas. You don't eat them and you don't milk them, and I don't knit or spin. But Rowan is in seventh heaven. They don't take much care, just about the same as goats, and they will help eat my extra herbage. We will need to hire someone to shear them once a year, which costs about $35.00 per alpaca. And my guess is we will probably end up paying someone to bring the fleece to a spinnable condition as well. The process is fairly involved. 

And I have to admit, they are pretty cute.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

More Chicken-Capades

We re-caught the long tailed rooster yesterday and kept him in the mama barn all night and all day today and all night tonight and all day every day until we eat him. The short tailed rooster escaped us again tonight. He was roosting in a tree and we thought we could get him with the net (with my net I bet I can get that thing yet!) but he flew at the last second and ran off so fast even Ivory couldn't catch him. Who knew chickens were so fast? I'd put a chicken up against an Olympic track star anyday. 

There are new chicks. The tiny grey mama finally hatched out one funny looking little black and white chick, and two more eggs have tiny holes in them. By morning there should be three. 

But there were only four eggs today.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Chickens Cause Problems

Of the seven free chickens we got the other week, five initially escaped. Two hens were all we had. One hen returned on her own. The other 4, two hens and the two roosters (one with no tail) were at the neighbors. We could hear them occasionally, but we couldn't see them. After a week or a little less, we went over there, rang the bell, and asked permission to try to catch them. "Oh sure," said the nice elderly lady who lives there, Mrs. Johnson. Well, we ran all over the place and chased those chickens to hell and gone, but couldn't catch a single one. They run into the thick bushes and hunker down silently. Homero said he had a big net at the shop, and we'd come back with it the next day.

Turned out, somebody had borrowed the net and he didn't know who; then after he got it back he forgot it, and one day turned into a whole week. Sunday, yesterday, Homero was using the weedeater in the front lawn when two guys came by with a squawking chicken under one's arm. From the living room, I couldn't hear their words, but their tone sounded pretty unhappy.

"What did they say?" I asked Homero as we put the hen in the barn with the other chickens.

"They said the chickens are ruining their mother's garden and could we please come get them already." 

"Were they pissed?"

"They were pissed."

Crap. Homero had the net in the truck, so we went right over and saw the other three chickens basking in Mrs. Johnson's vegetable garden, which did indeed seem to be considerably torn up. Despite being as stealthy as we could, and having a giant net on a pole, we only managed to catch one rooster. The neighbors must think we are some pretty stupid city slickers, can't even catch a chicken. They probably think we shouldn't even be living out here in the country.

We did everything right this time: we locked the rooster in the small barn and waited until pitch black night. Then we carefully took him, still asleep, into the main barn with the other chickens and placed him on a perch and slipped out without waking anybody up. The book says if you do this they will all wake up together in the morning and since chickens can't count they will think nothing's changed.

By the time I got out there to milk the goats at 7:30, the rooster was gone. Presumably back over to the neighbor's. When we catch them next time, I'm going to have Homero wring their necks then and there and make rooster soup. Assuming there is a next time.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Papers for Iris

A full udder is a thing of beauty, but that's not why I took this picture. Iris' breeder asked me to take a side shot and a rear shot of her udder and send them to her via e-mail. She, of course, has never seen how Iris' udder developed, because although pregnant, she hadn't yet begun to "bag out" when I bought her. That only happens in the last few weeks before kidding. Now her udder will never deflate again, it will stay this way, more or less, whether she is pregnant or not. Just like my belly after three children.

I wrote to the breeder because I decided to go ahead and pay to have Iris registered as a purebred Nubian. Then her future offspring will be worth some actual money, at least if they are girls, and furthermore I can register those girls as purebred Nubians, too. Now, I'm not interested in becoming a goat breeder. Far from it. I'm just interested in becoming a better cheesemaker. But kids are a by-product of cheesemaking, in a manner of speaking, and I have to do something with them. Homero wants to eat them, but I can spare their little lives by registering them, because he won't eat a goat that's worth $200. 

Besides, Django and Xanadu aren't registered. We can eat their babies. I'm sure they're just as delicious.

More Cheesemaking Notes

I love the clean pyramid of fresh cheese that comes out of my cone shaped colander. When I make chevre, I don't weight the curds, so I get a big, airy pyramid like this one. When I'm making queso fresco, I press the curds as hard as I can and I get a much smaller, denser cone.

But the cheese isn't salted at this point, so I have to use a fork to mash it all up and stir in the salt. I haven't really measured the salt, I just taste test as I go along, but I'd say I use perhaps a teaspoon or a teaspoon and a half of salt to a pyramid of cheese. (How much does a pyramid weigh? I don't know, it varies. This one was pretty big, probably about a pound.) My guess is that I use less salt than the recommended amount because I am very sensitive to salt and don't like anything too salty. This is an ongoing source of friction between Homero and myself.

I separated some of the chevre for flavoring. This batch is getting parsley, chives, red pepper flakes, and fresh ground black pepper. 

Breakfast. Bread Man's homemade whole wheat bread thickly spread with herbed chevre and a quad-shot of espresso over ice. Breakfast of Champions.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wither All the Eggs?

A couple of weeks ago, I was complaining about eggs piling up in my fridge faster than I could sell them. I actually took a few dozen to the local food bank (where they said they couldn't accept fertile eggs. Go figure.). Now all of a sudden, production has taken a nosedive. It may be because of all the uproar with the new chickens; perhaps everyone still needs time to chill out and settle back into routine. Or maybe it's molting season. Some of the chickens are looking rather raggedy and patchy. All I know is it's seriously annoying; more and more chickens, fewer and fewer eggs. Today I found only five. That strikes me as a ridiculous number. After all, there are sixteen hens out there right now, not counting the new mamas, the setting hens, or the pullets. 

And I have such good trade going! My Garden connection is loading me down with so many greens I have to distribute them among friends and family. Today I traded two dozen eggs for six gallon sized ziploc freezer bags stuffed full of kale, collards, arugula, rainbow chard, and romaine lettuce. And when I got home, I saw that my other regular trader had come by to pick up his eggs (and a few little extras like cajeta and rhubarb sauce) and left me: Two beautiful loaves of homemade bread, a large packet of mixed herbs, and a grocery bag stuffed with rainbow chard. I'm not complaining, but my husband will start to soon if I keep serving him kale. 

Garden Lady will keep giving me greens even if I run out of eggs: she gardens for the love of it and her goal is to get them eaten, however she can. But Bread Man needs eggs for his fabulous baked goods! Maybe he needs some quality jam to put on all that bread.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Not Bad For July

The U-pick raspberries are starting to open, finally, and today I took all the kids and went picking. It was really too hot to pick berries, and there weren't a whole lot of very ripe ones yet. Not quite the quality I want to freeze, but fine for jam. Two quarts and six pints. Last saturday, there were pickling cukes at the farmer's market at 12 for a dollar. So I got five dozen and they made eight pints, half dill, half bread and butter. Add that to the dozen pints of strawberry jam and the innumerable cups of rhubarb sauce, and I am feeling pretty industrious! Oh yes, and the cajeta, of course.

But man, I am really, really glad that I don't live in the days when my family would actually depend for survival through the winter on the food I was able to preserve in the summer. Canning is hard work. And dangerous. I dipped my little finger in boiling water the other day. Boiling jam is even worse, it sticks just like napalm and keeps on burning. I am just not a lady who likes to work quite that hard.

I am working hard enough, thank you. Right now, for instance, I have two goats I gotta go milk, and I really don't want to.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Land of Milk and More Milk

Yesterday, a local goat breeder lady and her 3 year old daughter came over to visit. We had been carrying on an e-mail conversation about my renting her Nubian buck for my goats, and when she discovered the Iris' pedigree she was very exited. Apparently, Iris is a very fancy schmancy goat from a well respected breeder. Her Sire, Polaris, is a famous (locally) buck whose semen sells for $100 a pop. When she found out that I was totally clueless about how to register Iris and her babies and didn't know a thing about goat conformation (I just make cheese, hey), she offered to come over and teach me a thing or two and have our girls meet and play.

She was quite impressed with the twins, and said it's a shame I had the boy neutered. He's apparently got great conformation, and he has the same coloration as Polaris. Oh well. Also, the twins are huge, she said, and they both have little pouches on their necks called milk goiters, which means they are drinking too much milk and getting too fat. At 14 weeks old, they could have been weaned a few weeks ago. They don't need the milk anymore, and I'm not getting it! I wondered how much milk Iris was actually producing, if she was overfeeding twin babies and still giving me a couple of pints a day. 

So last night, for the first time, I separated them. I put the babies in the milking barn and locked the door. Such bawling! Such bleating and screaming! Iris trotted all around the barn yelling for her kids until I got tired of watching the spectacle and went inside. This morning when I went out to milk, Iris was peacefully grazing in the field, but the babies were hollering blue murder. I carefully let Iris in and pushed the twins outside before they could attack their mom, and I milked a good half gallon from Iris. When I let her out, the twins tried to nurse, but there wasn't anything there! Iris hates to have her teats touched when she has no milk, so she kicked the babies away from her. Maybe now she'll wean them. If so, I'll have an evening milking as well from her. If not, it doesn't matter, since I'm more than making up the difference from the increase in the morning's milk.

In fact, I have a serious milk surplus. Right now, in the fridge, I have a pound of chevre and a gallon and a half of milk. I also have a quart of yogurt and yesterday I canned six cups of cajeta. We can't eat more cheese, and I can't sell cheese or milk. I could keep canning cajeta, but what am I going to do with 100 cups of caramel? Add it to the rhubarb sauce in christmas baskets, I guess.

1 gallon fresh goats milk
3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 stick butter (4 tablespoons)

Add sugar to milk in a large kettle. Heat and stir to dissolve sugar. When milk is simmering and sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and add the baking soda, dissolved in an ounce or so of water. Milk will begin to foam up. Replace pot on heat and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until foam subsides (it won't subside completely) and milk returns to a fast simmer. Keep on the simmer for about two hours, stirring fairly frequently, until caramel sauce is a rich light brown and thickly coats a spoon. Stir in the butter, one tablespoon at a time, until fully incorporated.

Ladle into sterilized jars, top with sterilized lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Lids will seal as the jars cool.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Bug Control

The mosquitos are really bad this year. It's kind of surprising, considering the long cold spring, but they eat me alive every time I leave the house after, oh, say six p.m. The fourth of July we were all outside all evening watching the fireworks (my neighbors put on a great show) and completely miserable. I bought the highest level DEET mosquito repellant I could find, but they just don't care. 

This house has a sump-pump, and the old owners made a very fancy system in which the water is pumped into a little fountain and then splashed into a tiny stream and runs down the front yard into a large concrete pond. It's a pretty big pond. Last year when the mosquitos got bad, I decided to empty the pond but I didn't have a pump. So I did it with a two gallon bucket. After a while, noticing that the level of the water didn't seem to be changing, I decided to start counting buckets. After that point, I emptied the bucket 400 times. So I think the pond is about a thousand gallons.  My back was absolutely destroyed for three weeks, and for two days I couldn't hold anything in my hands at all. They were totally nerveless.

So I decided not to do that again. We had to come up with alternative methods of mosquito control. Feeder goldfish are only 25 cents at the pet store downtown. I bought 20, and that's a picture of them up there, for those of you who were wondering what the little orange blobs were. If these little guys do well, I'll add another 50 or so. I'm not sure what will happen when the rains start in the fall and the sump pump begins sending thirty or forty gallons of muddy water into the pond every day, but I haven't thought that far ahead. I'm sure I'll think of something (didn't I mention something about this habit of mine a few days ago?).

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Blackberry blooms in front of the barns

Blackberries are the least of my weed problems. As far as weeds go, blackberries are not so bad; they provide delicious fruit in abundance, and they provide nutritious browse for my goats. Yes, they were threatening to take over the entire pasture before I got goats, but now they are just holding their own. Much more problematic are the many many other weeds that vie for real estate on my little farm. If the lady from the noxious weed board were to walk my pastures (well, first she's need a machete and hip-waders) she'd probably faint into a patch of Scotch Thistle.
Poison Hemlock

I really dislike this stuff. It's seriously poisonous, poisonous enough to pose a real hazard to animals and small children; it spreads like wildfire; it's hard, backaching work to try to pull it out by the roots, it stinks horribly and gives me hives, and if all that weren't enough, it grows in inaccessible places, like in the middle of thistle patches and along the fence line amongst the concrete rubble from the old barn. Every time I go wage a battle against the poison hemlock, I come back scratched, red, bumpy, itchy, and limping. I may eventually need to call in the cavalry: Roundup.

Bull Thistle, one of the million kinds of thistle that are collectively trying to kill me.

I never knew there were so many kinds of thistle. Scotch Thistle, Holy Thistle, Bull Thistle, Milk Thistle; I've got them all. There are two things that all kinds of thistle have in common: lovely purple flowers, and a tendency for their spines to penetrate the skin, dig in, and never, ever, ever come out.
Dock, maybe? It started out small.

This plant is five feet tall and five feet wide. Even when it is only six inches tall, it's impossible to pull up. It loves my garden, shoulders up to the plants I like and shades them.
Whatever this stuff is, I hate it.

Yeah, yeah, the flowers are pretty. I think it's purple loosestrife. That's one of the "dirty dozen" on the county noxious weed board website.

Then there are these big, leafy spikes which sprout up all over the place, get to be about four feet tall, and have both tiny little hairy spines that prickle and stinky, latex-y sap like a dandelion. About two-thirds of the time, they pull up relatively easily, but then just when you've got a groove going, and are starting to think, hey this isn't too bad, I might be able to clear a nice little patch today, you come across one that has apparently sent its tap-root to Tibet. Low back pain for three days. I'd put up a picture, but I can't figure out how without removing all the pictures and starting this whole post over.

And these aren't even half my weeds. I also have a large swath of creeping buttercup (also poisonous to livestock), great tangled mats of shotweed, a quarter-acre patch of something that looks like desert Dandelion and might be some sort of milkweed, and many many more. I like biodiversity, don't get me wrong. I'm sure that my weeds harbor an abundance of life (I know they harbor an abundance of nasty bug life). I bet my weeds could support triple the number of goats that I currently have. If I could cultivate (no pun intended) a relaxed attitude about my weeds, maybe they wouldn't bother me so much. But I can't; they are too much for me. They are overpowering. They are a little scary. I want to be able to move about my own property without being poked, scratched, eaten, and poisoned. The weeds will not crowd me out, damnit!

Return of the Hen!

This evening when I went out to feed the chickens, I saw that one of the hens has returned. The mother hen, in fact. All of the other chickens, roosters included, are her offspring, so maybe they will come find her. And Homero says he heard chickens clucking in the neighbor's barn, and I know for a fact that the neighbor lady doesn't have any chickens, because she told me how much she misses having farm fresh eggs (I left a dozen on her porch). I'm feeling much more hopeful. Now we have three out of the five new hens, and we didn't care about the roosters anyway. We were going to eat them. 

Nobody Here but Us (Old) Chickens

The Chickens have not returned. They still could, but the odds, as they say in natural disasters, are growing poor. On the bright side, the two hens that did stay seem to be doing fine. I saw the black lady with the topknot taking a little private stroll with one of our roosters.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Sometimes I get fed up with myself.  I've always had a strong tendency to rush ahead and do things willy-nilly, not bothering to study up ahead of time on the right way, trusting that whatever the outcome, I can probably deal with it. This approach, as any sane person could tell you, doesn't work so well when it comes to farming. Every time we've brought home a new animal, we discovered that we were woefully unprepared. Our first chickens escaped our hastily constructed coop in five seconds flat and flew away, chicks and all. Our first goats jumped over our four foot fence with ease, running out onto the highway and nearly getting killed. Even our lovely, gentle fat ladies, who had no concept of what it means to be"free range," ran away and spent a couple of nights in the blackberries before slowly becoming incorporated into the flock.

Two of them never returned. Eaten by coyotes? Died of fear and dislocation? Scratching for bugs in China? Who knows? 

Slowly, slowly, I began to overcome my natural intellectual slovenliness and basic inborn laziness and to educate myself. I learned how to put up an electric fence. I learned about goat vaccinations and chicken diseases and scoured the pasture for poisonous plants, which I memorized from a list I found online. I learned the correct way to introduce new chickens into an established flock, which is to put them quietly into the coop at night after everyone is asleep and just let them all wake up together. 

Then I completely ignored all this new knowledge and kept doing things the old, haphazard way. Last night, we picked up the new chickens, five hens and two roosters, big lovely birds. We packed them into a dog crate and I left the crate in the van, waiting for Homero to come home and help me carry it into the coop. He got home around 8:00, which is still daylight this time of year, and was naturally exited to see the chickens. Instead of calmly explaining why we needed to wait until full dark, assuring him that he would be able to see them tomorrow, I let myself get all infected by his excitement and said "Okay! Kids, get your shoes on!" and we all trooped together out to the barn, where all the goats and chickens were wide awake. Somehow the crate got opened before the door to the barn got closed, and then there were chickens flying everywhere and goats jumping up and down and something hit Hope on the head and she started to scream and Rowan reached out and grabbed a flying rooster by the tailfeathers and they came off in her hand and then all the new chickens were running and flying away across the field and we were standing there with our mouths open and only a handful of gorgeous long green rooster feathers. 

Somewhere out there, there is a naked rooster and a gaggle of very confused hens. Actually, we did manage to catch two of the hens and they are still with the flock this morning. I walked all over the property (not easy to do this time of year) with a handful of corn tortillas, which are like crack cocaine for chickens, and called "brrrrrrt, brrrrt," but didn't see a single feather. It probably didn't help that I had a herd of goats dogging my every step. They love tortillas too. 

Past experience leads me to believe that probably most if not all of these chickens will return on their own after a day or two. When our first chickens disappeared and were out overnight, I assumed that they must be dead, that there were so many predators crawling around that a chicken didn't stand a chance out in the bush for even one night. But that doesn't seem to be the case. All told, my chickens have spent a collective month outside overnight, with only three fatalities, one of which was almost certainly inflicted by my own dog. 

Either they'll come back or they won't. Either I'll learn to do things the right way or I won't. Either I'm smarter than a chicken or I'm not. 

Monday, July 7, 2008

Chicken Galore

Have I mentioned how much I love Craigslist? Cruising the farm and garden section this morning I saw that a local lady is giving away her flock of seven Light Brahma hens because her chicken coop is falling apart and she has no place to keep them anymore. Brahmas are a heavy breed, in fact they are described as a "giant" breed on the website of McMurray hatchery, the best place to look for all things poultry related, and are very handsome white and silver birds with feathered feet. Supposedly they are also very gentle and easy to catch. 

I was particularly glad to see that these birds, unlike the majority of chickens given away free, are not elderly at all; they are a year old and should be excellent layers for two or three more years. This is lucky for me. I've been trying to decide how to manage my aging flock for a while now. My lovely fat ladies are starting to slow down on the laying, and I know that next year, they will lay even fewer eggs, and some of them will probably stop altogether. I really should cull them this fall. For replacements, I have the three barred rock chicks that I bought from the farm store (well, I bought five. Three remain alive.), the four tiny new chicks that black mama and yellow mama hatched out recently, and whatever may hatch from the six eggs that grey mama is currently setting. But of course I don't know yet how many of the farm-hatched chicks are hens and how many roosters. This situation left me thinking that maybe I should keep the fat ladies as long as they were still squeezing out any eggs at all.

But now it's a non-issue. With the seven hens I pick up today, plus the three barred rock pullets from the farm store, I have a replacement for every one of the fat ladies. The only remaining problem is finding somebody willing to butcher and dress my fat ladies all at once, cause that's not something I'm willing to contemplate. Is there a chicken processor in the house?