I added a couple of hens to my four in the chicken tractor yesterday evening. My friend down the road seems to have become the chicken equivalent of a horse trader, and she kindly hooked me up with a lovely Black Giant hen, and a White Leghorn, which for some reason has become one of my very favorite breeds. We added them to the tractor last night at dusk, and so far there has been no squabbling at all: six mellow hens and one bantam rooster who thinks he’s died and gone to heaven.

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Yesterday I planted snow peas—Oregon Sugar Pod II peas from Baker Creek. I soaked them for 36 hours, and coated them with inoculant, and planted them in the bed in front of the greenhouse. That bed is still pretty clay-ey and getting it ready yesterday was some serious labor, though I wouldn’t have been able to do it so early last year. Last year’s manure really improved it, and I’m guessing it will be considerably better next year.

In the greenhouse bed I planted 5 lettuces, and lots of cilantro and arugula.

ED has spent the last several days shearing, especially the Icelandics, who were just starting to rue. February is absolutely the latest we can get away with for shearing the Icelandics—the Cotswolds and crosses can wait a while longer if necessary, though I think she’s going to go ahead and shear everybody now while it’s warm and before they lamb.

We’re really pleased with the two Icelandic/Cotswold crosses. They’ve grown quickly, and have kept condition through the winter. One of them may have gotten bred day before yesterday, so we could be looking at lambs in July. Everybody else is due in March.

The chickens are content in the chicken tractor—we’re getting an average of 2 eggs a day, which should increase rapidly with the day length—which for us is 10 hours and 58 minutes today, but a month from now, on St. Patrick’s Day, will be 12 hours and 1 minute! Yay sun!

The long month has ended and my favorite (coincidentally short) month is well underway. What’s not to love about February? I mean, besides the still cold temps, possible heavy snows, and the knowledge that awful March is coming up! In February, at least here in the southern Appalachians, there’s always the possibility of a few mild and lovely days (like this past 60°+ weekend); the email telling you your seeds have arrived; the noticeably longer days; and Candlemas, the end of winter.

I’m ready to move the chickens out of the greenhouse and back into their chicken tractor, so I can clean up and get some flats of spinach, chard, arugula, lettuce and cilantro going. Chickens are disgusting creatures, by the way, but they have thoroughly de-weeded the greenhouse, so except for the crazy amount of dust and chicken poop, the greenhouse is looking pretty good for starting the season. We’re getting a couple of eggs a day now, and I expect to be getting more soon.

Maeby is ready to be bred this month, so I’ll be contacting our friend with the Dexter bull to arrange a playdate before her next heat. She’s a pretty little thing and sweet, too. We’re looking forward to her horns starting to curve—those pointy spikes are a little unnerving!

Everybody else is doing fine. DH and Bernard are up in Boone with DH’s grandsons this week, and ED and I have enjoyed some breathing room. We’ve had a fairly boring week (in the best way).

I was up at three this morning to see the lunar eclipse, but we had a dense cloud cover, so I just had to have faith that it was up there. I must admit, my disappointment was balanced with relief that I could get back in my warm bed!

This is turning out to be a pretty funky winter, though nothing like last year. At least this year we’re getting breaks between the spells of bad weather, as opposed to last year’s relentless battering. I was able to plant a few things in the garden a week or so ago, right before this latest round of nastiness hit. I managed to get garlic, potato onions and fava beans in the ground. I’ve also been working on preparing a pea bed for February. A lot of years we get a pretty good thaw in February, and I’m hoping to take advantage of it by having a sheltered sunny bed all ready to go, and presoaking my pea seeds.

Speaking of garden stuff, I’ve been enjoying a most inspiring new book. I read about it on the Chelsea Green website and thought it sounded very interesting, and then Ran Prieur gave it a glowing review and I was sold. I’m working my way through it very slowly—which is unusual for me—and savoring it and the feeling of inspiration I have from reading it. The book is Carol Deppe‘s The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self Reliance in Uncertain Times. She has a ton of information, which she presents in a very readable and engaging way, and although the title sounds very doomer/survivalist, it really doesn’t read that way at all. She addresses climate change, personal hardship and emergencies, and ways to safeguard your garden, so that it is still able to produce. She also focuses on five main crops: winter squash, corn, beans, potatoes and eggs. With these crops you can produce plenty of calories and nutrition, and no matter what your weather conditions any given year, something is probably going to do well.

Anyway, this is the most inspiring book about gardening I’ve read in decades. I’ve been ready for a hit of garden inspiration these last few years, as I’ve become both bored and discouraged with my gardening efforts. Last year’s repeated flooding and washing out of the garden certainly didn’t help, and I must admit it was beginning to seem like a pointless effort. So it’s great to be feeling a sense of optimism and motivation again. My afternoon of planting garlic helped, too: I was astounded at the wonderful fluffy black soil in the beds. You may remember that this spring I had to almost start over from scratch—the soil was heavy and waterlogged and seemingly completely devoid of humus. Digging them was as bad as the first year—maybe worse. But with plenty of well broken down manure, and a thorough digging, and our secret ingredient—diluted raw milk—they seem to have made a recovery.

I moved our little flock of chickens from the chicken tractor into the greenhouse for the next month or so. Last year was so unpleasant trying to care for them in the chicken tractor, and now they’re warm and dry and very contented, though not laying any eggs. That usually picks up with the increasing day length, so hopefully we’ll start seeing a little production here soon. They’re a pretty elderly flock, so if we don’t start getting eggs, I guess we’ll have chicken soup instead. We’re thinking of trying laying ducks after reading  Carol Deppe’s book, so that might be this spring.

All the other critters are doing well. Pearl is giving a gallon to a gallon and a half a day of milk, which we’re delighted with. She’s very healthy, and is keeping a decent amount of weight on. The sheep are fine—they’re so much happier this time of year than in the summer. I suppose they’re all bred except for this spring’s lambs, who are probably ready to be bred, but ED wants to hold back and let them get bigger, which means not until next fall. We can’t tell if Dixie the pig is bred. If nothing happens in the next month or two, it will be time to put her in the freezer. Especially since she’s the ringleader of piggy jaunts around the neighborhood.

So all is well this Midwinter Day. Happy Solstice to you all!

We have been focusing lately on gearing down for the winter. Last winter was so hard and stressful, that we’ve been making some tough decisions about animals for this year. Right now our livestock list goeas something like this:

  • 3 horses: Shine, Marlene and Winter
  • 3 cows: Maude, Pearl and Maeby
  • 3 pigs: Bill, Dixie and Beowulf
  • 12 sheep: 9 ewes and 3 wethers
  • 4 geese
  • 4 dogs: Split, Ben, Joon, and Ralfy the Ancient Beagle
  • Chickens: 7 laying hens, and a rooster (in a chicken tractor) and 3 bantams running free
  • 4 cats

So the plan is to reduce the number of big hay-eaters, and anybody else who might be a source of stress this winter.

Maude is going to live with our friends in Damascus, Va, where she will be a pampered only cow. Shine is going to live with her former owner in Boone, NC, where she will be giving rides to disadvantaged kids, which is perfect for her. Bill the pig and the 3 wethers are all going in the freezer, along with the chickens in the chicken tractor, who have frustratingly been eating their eggs.

This is sounding much more do-able!

These days our biggest chore is moving animals around. We are rotationally grazing cows, horses, chickens, and sheep. The cows and horses are grazing a neighbor’s field, and they’re pretty easy, requiring only a single strand of electric wire to contain them. They only graze at night, however, because the heat and bugs are too bad during the day. So they snooze in the cool barn all day, and go out on pasture in the evenings.

The cows’ milk is beautiful, bright yellow and very creamy. We are feeding them so little grain—just a 3 or 4 pound scoop of a mix of chicken scratch and dairy pellets per day. I think we’ll stop that by the end of the week, at least for Pearl, who thrives on forage. Their production has gone down a bit (I think we’re getting 4 or 5 gallons a day from Pearl) but both cows are gaining weight and looking beautiful, and who cares if there’s a little less milk when the input is almost nothing? And, really, the milk is just gorgeous.

The chickens are in a chicken tractor in the garden, and they have done an astonishing job of clearing the rampant weeds.  I really enjoy their company while I work out there digging beds and planting and mulching—whenever I turn up a worm I throw it to them, so they’re a very attentive audience! They’re very busy and content, and they’re laying well.

The sheep are getting rotated around our pasture in their new electro-net pen. They are also putting on weight, even the ewes with lambs. The rams and wethers  look great—time to butcher those wethers soon! I don’t quite have my technique down for moving them—I fall down a lot—but I’m getting better! And the pasture is so dramatically improved this year—already!

I am the most boring person on earth right now. All I want to talk about is grass. I sure have a lot of tolerant friends!

So, as I mentioned in an earlier post, our chicken thing has been pretty much out of control since we’ve lived here, and last fall we finally had to do something, or we weren’t going to have any chickens left.

One group of three young roosters—half Buff Brahma Bantam and half who knows what—had moved into the yard and were destroying flowers beds and garden beds when they could slip into the garden. They were a wily crew, sleeping in the hemlocks outside my bedroom window, and crowing at 4 am with their distinctive crow, which sounded like somebody shouting, “Happy birthday!” in a crazed clown voice. They crowed a lot.

At some point in late winter, we managed to catch two of them and lock them in a cage on the front porch, waiting for the day when we could catch the third and butcher them all together, but the third proved almost impossible to catch. Things came to a head recently when I decided I just couldn’t take the manic “Happy birthdays!” any more, so DH and I really stepped up our efforts to catch him, spending hours a day stalking him, and even going out in the middle of the night to climb the hemlock with a net in hand. All to no avail.

Well, yesterday I’d had enough, and I built a special trap involving lots of old fencing wire and a fair amount of bleeding on my part, but I caught the sucker. I’ve never felt so victorious in my life.

So all three cockerels went under the hatchet, and the girls helped me pluck them. Unfortunately under all those feathers, they were still half bantam, so it’s going to take all three to make the pot of gumbo I have planned for them.

But I bet it’s going to taste amazing.