Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Growing potatoes

My first two attempts at potatoes have been a total disaster so far.  Possibly because I just planted potatoes that had sprouted in the cupboard (not proper seed potatoes) and also because our soil had too much clay and went as hard as concrete.  I think we barely harvested more than we planted!  This put me off completely (I'm easily put off by my gardening failures), so I haven't tried again since.

However, when I think about what we produce, we have everything except a decent starchy staple cro[ that could be used as a carbohydrate in a meal if required.  I think that potatoes will be the easiest option (although I'm intrigued by some of the unique cereal suggestions on this blog AND we have some very vigorously growing arrowroot, which is supposed to be good for flour, I just haven't tried it yet).

So I have decided to have a decent go at potatoes this season, following the method seen here (or the results seen there anyway, now I see that the method was actually sent to me in an email) combined with some info from here.  Apparently a large container was used.  So I have an empty drum with the bottom cut out, that was previously used for compost, and I'm now building up  a compost/manure mix in preparation.  Then I'll get some decent seed potatoes (doing things properly this time, although the disappointment will be worse if it doesn't work, I'll have nothing to blame!) and when they have finished growing I can tip the drum over, fork out the potatoes and put the rest of the compost on the garden.

My potato drum (right) next to my weed tea drum and compost bin.

My potato drum filled with manure, comfrey, compost,
hay, lantana  that we pulled out.
On a side note, regarding cereals, one thing that I found very interesting when reading "The Ethics of What We Eat", was the conclusion that eating meat is unethical because we don't actually need it to survive and we could use the same land and water to produce more energy in cereal crops to feed the world.  This works for people who don't produce their own food, but I argue that if you produce your own and have land that's not useful for mass cereal cropping, you're better off raising animals to eat.  They're certainly less work!  Grain is the one thing that is very difficult to grow for a small producer, you need so much equipment to plant and process it.  Animals on pasture pretty much look after themselves.  We supplement feed ours a scoop of grain every day to keep them tame, but they would live without that (not that you'd believe it if you heard the hungry mooing at our place from 4pm onwards).

Have you had any success growing potatoes?  Or grain?  

Monday, June 20, 2011

When things don't go to plan - establishing a new house cow

I hope that others will sympathise with this post.  I'd love to write about how well we are doing with our new house cow Bella, our great milking routine, and how tame Molly is getting, but as usual, things haven't gone to plan!

Cattle are difficult animals, they look dumb, but they are smarter than you realise.  You soon know about it when you want them to do something though.  We had our milking area organised, a nice new concreted slab, under cover and with a light and power, with a crush that we had started building, now converted to milking bales.  Bella used it once.  Then she decided it wasn't to her liking.  So early one morning (5 am) we ended up moving the crush closer to the paddock gate, with two extension cords to plug in the milking machine and headlamps to light our way!  This made things easier as we could now drive Bella through the gate and straight into the bales instead of coaxing her slowly through the house yard, but it was not what we planned originally!

We had to move the milking bales out into the weather as
Bella wasn't happy with our original location
(a covered concrete slab with easy access to electricity!)
We were going to milk Bella once a day, catching the calf in the evening and putting her in a separate enclosure.  That happened a few nights, but the chase got too much for us (and must have been scary for her).  We decided to leave her in the calf pen, milk Bella twice a day and bottle feed Molly so that she would get tamer.  This worked out ok (although it was more milking work than we had planned).  Then I went away for a few nights for work.

Molly wasn't as tame as we expected
and needed to be chased each night to be
separated from Bella (so we could have more milk)
Bella wouldn't go into the bales for my husband.  Then she went in and kicked while he was trying to milk.  He couldn't milk her, even though he tried everything to stop her kicking, she was panicking too much and it wasn't safe for either of them.  So he had to let the calf out and hope that she would drink enough to keep Bella healthy.

Bella wouldn't cooperate while I was away and had a mild case of mastitis
When I got home again things started getting back to a routine.  We managed to get Bella back into her bales and milked, but the calf is still running with her.  Then we found that she has a mild case of mastitis!  We have increased her dolomite intake, added sulphur and garlic to her meals, and are still milking her twice a day to try and clear her up.  This happened because Molly wasn't taking enough milk, so the milk sitting in her udder got infected.  By milking her more frequently we are removing the milk before too much bacteria can grow, and we hope this will control the infection without the need for antibiotics.  While the infection was bad, we couldn't drink the milk, so the dogs are getting everything we milked out (with the calf having the rest).

She seems to have recovered and we can drink the milk again (we have a test kit, so we can tell that the milk is ok), but we're not getting as much milk as before.  Now we have to work out if we want to separate the calf again, feed her on grain and bottle milk to get her tamer.  And see if we can get some more milk out of Bella for cheese making.

It just goes to show that you can plan to milk once a day, make heaps of cheese and have a tame calf......and end up milking three times a day, have no milk you can use and still have a crazy wild calf!   This always seems to be the way with new projects!  We read every book and website and have everything planned and then when we get to the real thing and learn the hard way.

How about you?  Do you find things never go to plan?  Read more about mastitis treatment here.

You might also be interested in my series on getting started with homestead dairy

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Butchering Poultry

Last weekend we got up early and prepared for a morning of killing poultry, not my ideal Saturday morning, but the time had come, we were going through too much food and not getting enough eggs.  We had bred new hens, so it was time for the eldest of the flock to go.  This is never easy, but its part of farming.  We don't keep the chickens for pets, so we always know that one day we will kill them.  If you're a chicken-lover, you might find this hard to read, but if you EAT chicken, even free-range or organic etc, you should read on, as I guarantee that home-killed chickens have a much nicer life and death than any commercially produced chicken, and you should take an interest in where you meat comes from.  This is put well on the site I linked to below:
Most people these days have become so removed from the reality of food production. As a result, we are practically helpless at providing our own food. We depend on the Industrial Providers to supply us with chicken, and just about everything else we eat. In recent years I’ve come to realize that it not necessarily a good thing to be so dependent, especially as food production has become so global. I want to become more food independent. When you grow your own food, it’s safer. It’s better for you. And it sure is a whole lot more satisfying.

This time we had two turkey gobblers (see my earlier post about the turkeys) and three old hens to kill.  There's plenty of good explanations on the net (and another one) that go through the process step by step, and of course there's lots of different options depending on how many you're killing, how often, your budget etc.  I'm just going to tell you how we do it.

How to kill, pluck, gut and prepare poultry to eat

Things you will need to get organised before you start:
  • (Optional) a strong piece of wire to make a hook to catch the chickens, especially good for feisty roosters
  • An ax or machete or clever to chop off its head
  • Chopping block (large block of wood will do)
  • Somewhere to hang the birds to bleed out - we wrap wire around their legs and hang them off a fence
  • Some method of dunking the bird in hot water to loosen the feathers before plucking - we use a crab pot on a gas burner, the water should be about 80 degC
  • Somewhere to put all the feathers so you don't make a massive mess - we use an old feed sack, and then put them in the compost
  1. As for all food preparation, cleanliness is absolutely crucial.  Before you even catch the chicken, you need to prepare an area for the gutting and cutting.  I usually get the kitchen bench clean, and put out all the bowls, knives, chopping boards, newspaper and plastic bags that I'll need.  There's nothing worse than coming inside with a dead chicken and trying to get everything ready!  
  2. Prepare everything you'll need for the killing and plucking.  See the list above.  Get your hot water ready early on as it may take a while to heat up.
  3. Catch the chicken, chop off its head as cleanly as possible and hang it up to drain the blood, this takes 10-30 minutes, so kill the rest of the chickens and get them hanging up before moving on.  This means that the best time for killing is early morning, while its cold and before the flies and ants get moving.
  4. Dunk the chickens in hot water for 20-30s, hang them back up and pluck all the feathers.  Its best to pluck in the direction of growth, so you don't break off the feathers and have to pick out the stubs as well.  The tail and wing feathers will be tough and may have to come out one by one.
  5. Tidy up the legs and the neck with your ax etc.
  6. Bring the chicken to your cutting area.  This is where you have to be very careful to keep things clean and separate the gutting from the cutting.  While you're gutting there is a chance of getting chicken poo on your knife and board, so you need to move to a separate knife and board when you're ready to cut the chicken into pieces or prepare for roasting/freezing.
  7. For me, the gutting is the hardest part, as you need to cut very precisely to avoid getting poo everywhere!  There are some very good explanations on the net, and I don't have much to add, except to say, that if you do cut in the wrong place, its not the end of the world, you can finish gutting and then just wash the chicken in cold water, but its much nicer if you manage to do it properly!  Note for the turkeys: the crop is much larger than a chicken's crop, I cut into the first one by mistake because I couldn't find the edges of it, so expect it to be huge and that will help!
  8. When you've finished gutting, you pretty much have a chicken that looks just like a bought one and you can treat it the same as you would any chicken.  Which has also been explained elsewhere, see Craving Fresh for a good one.
We killed three old chickens this time, so decided it was best to mince them, assuming that they would be very tough, so I just chopped off as much meat as possible, put it through the mincer and made about 3-4 kg of mince.  The two turkey gobblers were young and ready for roasting.  We put the first one straight into the oven, loosely following this recipe, and it came out perfectly.  The other one was bagged up and put in the freezer for later.  They weighed in at 6 kg, so we've been having turkey all week - as cold meat, pasta bake and fried rice :)

Do you butcher your own chickens?  Any tips?  See my more recent post also, with more detailed photos and discussion about growing chickens for butchering.

By the way, my chicken eBook is now available if you want to know more about backyard chickens and using chicken tractors.  More information over at the chicken tractor ebook blog.  Or you can get it directly from my shop on Etsy (.pdf format), or Amazon Kindle or just send me an email eight.acres.liz {at}

What's the eBook about?
Chickens in a confined coop can end up living in an unpleasant dust-bowl, but allowing chickens to free-range can result in chickens getting into gardens and expose them to predators.

 A movable cage or “chicken tractor” is the best of both options – the chickens are safe, have access to clean grass, fresh air and bugs. Feed costs are reduced, chickens are happier, and egg production increases. 

 But how do you build a chicken tractor? What aspects should be considered in designing and using a chicken tractor effectively? In this eBook I aim to explain how to make a chicken tractor work for you in your environment to meet your goals for keeping chickens. 

I also list what I have learnt over 10 years of keeping chickens in tractors of various designs and sizes, from hatching chicks, through to butchering roosters.

Reviews of the Design and Use a Chicken Tractor

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sometimes its easier to breed a steer than to buy one

For weeks now I’ve been telling people that we’re getting cow, and now she’s finally with us and we’ve milked her for a few days. We can’t wait to start making cheese! The most common comments when I tell people about her is: “that will be expensive cheese”. Well, yes, it will be expensive cheese, but that’s not the main reason we wanted a cow. The real reason is far more complicated!

At first little Trevor was a herd of one and kept escaping to find more cattle
We learnt the hard way (as usual) with little Trevor, that cattle like to live in a herd. When Trevor was in a herd of one, he managed to escape through any weak spots in our fences. He would hear other cattle calling out and he wanted to go and find them to join their herd! I don’t know if it would have been different if we weren’t at work all day, maybe he would have considered us to be his herd, but in the end we realised that he was lonely, so we got another steer, a Murray Grey cross, that we named Murray.

So we got Murray to keep Trevor company
When we brought Murray home, we put him in a small pen, as advised by cattle experts (the dairy farmers that we got him from) and were going to keep him separated from Trevor for a few days until they got used to each other. Somehow Murray climbed out of his pen, and Trevor was so excited to finally be part of a herd, the two of them took off up the back paddock and we didn’t see them again for days.

Eventually it was time for Trevor to go to the butcher. We didn’t want to have Murray by himself, so a few weeks before the day Trevor was due to leave, we brought Bruce home to join our herd. The hardest part of putting Trevor on that truck to the butcher was watching Murray’s reaction as his mate was driven down the road and taken away from him. He did laps of the paddock and mooed for several hours. I wasn’t sure afterwards if he was mourning the half-bale of lucerne that we’d used to lure Trevor onto the truck, or that he really missed his mate. Anyway, Murray and Bruce soon became friends and we still had a herd of two.
Then we got crazy horny Bruce to be Murray's mate
Then we moved them both up to Nanango and it was soon Murray’s turn to be butchered. As described in a previous post, we decided it would be easier to have Murray killed and butchered on our property than transport him to a meatworks. The main problem that we encountered was getting another steer to maintain our herd numbers. It was hard to find one for a reasonable price. We don’t mind paying a bit to make sure we get nice meat, but most were advertised at $400–500 and were too old to fit into our killing schedule. We finally found Rocket, a little “Hereford” cross who looks to be more like a “Friesian” cross! And he was still a bull, so we had to “nut” him. But he was only $150.

We got Rocket when it was Murray's turn to go
Bruce didn’t seem to be so traumatised by Murray “going missing” one day, but I guess he didn’t witness him being loaded onto a truck, so he probably thinks that he’s just in another paddock or something. However, we did have his hide hanging up in the house yard to prepare for tanning and I saw Bruce peering over the fence at it, as if to say “hey Murray, is that you?”. Bruce and Rocket are now friends and unfortunately Bruce has been teaching Rocket how to toss his head around and try to get us with his horns.

Well, now its Bruce’s turn to go, so we needed to find a new mate for Rocket. We did have some steers organised to bring to our property, but then we were offered Bella the dairy cow. Bella is about four years old and just had her second calf. She was hand-raised by a neighbour of our dairy-farmer friends and returned to the farm when her owners moved. She is very small, only coming up to my waist, so she doesn’t produce much milk, about 12–16 L per day. She was too tame for the dairy farm and didn’t feel comfortable with the bigger cows, having grown up among humans. Its not often that you get the opportunity to buy (at mates rates) a small tame cow, who just had a calf. She is really the ideal house cow, so even though we really weren’t quite ready, we decided to buy Bella instead of more steers (and then we got ready in a hurry!). And now that Bella and Molly are at our place we have a herd of four (until Bruce goes).

Now we have a herd of four (until the butcher comes for Bruce) 
Anyway, the long answer to the question of why we really wanted a dairy cow, is that we have found it difficult to plan and maintain our herd numbers and having our own cow will give us some control over that. As long as she calves every year, we will have a steady supply of steers (or heifers) for beef. We don’t have space for our own bull, so we will still have to get her artificially inseminated (maybe we will learn to do that ourselves, but if its only once a year, we won’t get much practice!). So in the end we will have expensive cheese and cheap beef ….. and a lovely pet dairy cow that we can get attached to and don’t have to kill! It seems to solve many problems, as long as we are happy to get up early for milking.

Do you keep cattle for your own meat?  And how do you get more steers when you need them?  Do you have your own house cow?

You might also be interested in my series on getting started with homestead dairy

Monday, June 6, 2011

Making Homebrew Beer

My husband and I have been making beer for a few years now and once we get into a routine its pretty easy to keep up a plentiful supply of nice tasting beer. We don't drink heaps, but its nice to have some there when you feel like it and I HATE throwing out cans and bottles all the time.

"[I recommend]… bread, meat, vegetables and beer."

-Sophocles' philosophy of a moderate diet
For a good explanation of the general beer making process see this website, I'm just going to explain what we do, but there are lots of different options to suit different timetables and budgets.  We use a keg system, so that we don't have to clean lots of bottles.  We have two fermenters and usually put down two brews at a time.  We use the big cans of concentrated malt extract and 1 kg bags of dextrose (one day if we have the time and energy, we'd like to try starting from the raw grains, but in the meantime, the cans work really well).  We currently have an ale bubbling in the kitchen and a lager bubbling in the bathroom (suits cold temperature, great for winter), and we make a couple of brews every few weeks, depending on demand.

We have two kegs and a modified bar fridge to keep them cold (hole drilled in the side to put the gas tube through - be careful doing the drilling, the first one worked out fine, but the second one was less successful - the fridge now needs to be re-gassed!).

The basic steps are:
  1. Clean EVERYTHING with mild bleach and hot water (we use the bath as we don't have a decent big tub!!).  This is where some people go wrong.  If everything isn't perfectly clean you can contaminate the brew and end up with that yucky home-brew taste.  We find that if everything is clean the beer comes out tasting great (even nicer than the bought stuff), and that's where it helps to have the kegs instead of lots of bottles to clean!
  2. Boil the jug, tip the dextrose into the fermenter and tip in the boiled water, stir thoroughly
  3. Open the can and tip into the fermenter, use hot tap water to rinse out the can and transfer the water to the fermenter
  4. Use a thermometer to monitor the temperature in the fermenter and top up with hot/cold water until you reach 20 L at the right temperature (depends on the tap water temperature and the beer)
  5. Put the lid on tight, put some water in the u-tube and wait about a week, the beer should start bubbling in a few hours (lager takes a little longer if you're using a proper larger yeast at low temperature)
  6. Clean the keg, transfer the brew to the keg, chill in the fridge and then pressurise with food-grade carbon dioxide (we like to leave the lager in the fridge in a clean jerry-can to clarify for a couple of weeks before transferring to the keg, we also let it ferment a little longer as larger yeast is slower growing)
  7. Pour beer into jug and enjoy!

We have two fermenters and usually make two brews at a time

One of our kegs ready to go in the fridge
and a jerry can full of lager to be largered!
The empty cans are GREAT, we use them for everything - to hold pegs, to store nuts and and bolts, paint tins, feed bin scoops, grass seed scoops, to store dog biscuits while travelling - we have heaps of them now, so they are very useful and there's nothing to throw away :)

Do you make your own beer?  What system do you use?

Friday, June 3, 2011

I made butter!

I was a bit scared of butter, after raw milk yoghurt was so much harder than I expected.  But we were lucky to have a demonstration at the Marburg Show recently.  A couple of elderly gentlemen who used to work at the Beaudesert butter factory had a bucket of fresh milk and were showing people how to separate the cream and make butter.  We spent about half an hour asking many many questions, they were very kind and helpful, so I felt confident that we knew what do to (so much better to see a demo than read a book!).

eight acres: making butter
This is the mess I made.
First I tried the cream (at room temperature, a few days old, not fresh) in the food processor, but it was too fast and sharp and cut the butter to pieces.  So the cream went back into the jar and I shook it a few times and there was butter!  I poured off the butter milk, poured in fresh chilled water, rinsed a few times and then worked a little salt into the butter (to keep it longer) with a paddle.  It was so easy, what a relief, and it tasted lovely!  You only get a little bit at a time, but it doesn't last long anyway, so I don't mind shaking up a jar of cream every few days to make us some butter (a different story if I want to bake a cake though, I might need to plan ahead in that case!).

eight acres: making butter
And this is the butter!
The next time, I didn't use the food processor at all and just shook the cream in a jar, it takes about 10 minutes of shaking, and best if the jar is about half full.  Then you just continue as above, to wash the butter in chilled water (cold from the tap here in summer will melt the butter!).  Its also important to add salt, as this helps the butter to last longer.

Now if you're still wondering how to actually make butter (instead of just excited to see that I made butter), please check out this link, which shows the process step by step.

Do you make butter?  Any tips?

You might also be interested in my series on getting started with homestead dairy

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Simple Life - How did you get here?

You may be wondering what influenced my husband and I to live the way we do. I'm never sure what to call it, its kind of simple, but complicated, and its definitely frugal, but not stingy.  We certainly have everything we want, and not much that we don't need.
Frugality is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language, and yet one that we are culturally cut off from understanding and enjoying.  The consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things, and has failed to teach us the happiness of not having things.  ~Elise Boulding
I can't remember exactly what got me started on thinking that I'd like to change my city-dwelling lifestyle.  About six years ago I was living in a rental property and very proud of myself because I had no car and used public transport to get around (easy to do in a large city).  I think it all started when I went to a conference in which there was a long discussion about 'sustainable development' and 'resource depletion'. That got me thinking about the way we live.  I started to read a few books on various topics:
  •  Capatalism as if the World Matters (Jonathan Porritt) - This introduced the idea of 'natural capital', the parts of the natural world used by humans either directly as resources, or indirectly as sinks for waste or services, such as climate regulation.  Jonathan proposes that we are using up natural capital, in the same way as you would use up financial capital or savings in the bank, when we should be trying to live off the interest, ie allow natural cycles to continue and only using what we can without disturbing them.
  • Affluenza and Growth Fetish (Clive Hamilton) - In which Clive proposes that we would be happier if we 'downshifted' our lives and stopped the over-consumption that has become to common in modern societies.
  • Waste Equals Food (William McDonough & Michael Braungart) - This book suggests that all products are designed with a 'cradle-to-cradle' prespective in which every product can become the raw materials for another product, ie all natural products are can composted and all technological products can be taken apart and used to make something else.  This meant that natural products such as cotton shouldn't be 'contaminated' with unnatural products such as synthetic dyes which can't be composted.
Gum trees on our property - simply beautiful!
I also started seeing a naturopath around this time in an attempt to clear up my terrible acne.  She educated me about my diet and made me consider what I was eating.  After cutting out dairy, wheat, sugar, alcohol and caffeine for six months my skin was perfect.  I probably wouldn't have believed it was possible if I hadn't tried it (and if you think six months is a long time, it reflects how desperate I was to have clear skin after suffering from acne for so long).  I now eat most of those things again, but no additives, avoid sugar and caffeine, and try to eat unprocessed food where-ever possible.  If I start to get a pimple, I know its a warning that I'm reacting to some toxin or allergen that I've eaten.

My first step at changing my lifestyle was to try container gardening.  This was a struggle with no car, in a rental property (but I'm sure it can be done more successfully than I managed at the time).  Then I met my future husband, who already owned 5 acres and had chickens.  This was good timing as we had both suddenly become interested in self-sufficiency (my husband had been using his property for a dirt-bike track until the neighbours complained, so it wasn't chosen with farming in mind!).  I moved in and we started a garden, then we got a steer and more chickens.  We quickly learnt that we were making heaps of work for ourselves by rushing into these activities, but we were so keen to try everything!  We spent many hours searching the internet for answers to our many problems, and found limited advice (which is why I have now started this blog, in the hope of helping others with solutions we've learnt the hard way, through trial and many an error!).

My influences now are less academic and more practical, now that we understand what has to be done (the frugal lifestyle) we need lots of advice on how to achieve it.  I'm currently reading again a book by Jackie French that I got from a farmers market, Organic Gardening for Australia, from 1987.  I don't know if you can still by it, so if you see one at a market, buy it!  Its full of great basic tips for the beginner.  We now have a massive collection of books on all subjects from gardening, to cheese making, to home butchering and sausage making and aquaponics (another dream coming soon).  

More recently I've read both Sweet Poison and The Sweet Poison Quit Plan (David Gillespie), which have reinforced to me the importance of avoiding sugar and additives (with a very simple and interesting explanation of the human digestive system!).

We also buy a few magazines when they have useful articles:
  • Grass Roots (no website, available in news agents and can subscribe on Amazon)
  • Earth Garden (gets a bit commercial, I prefer Grass Roots!)
  • Organic Gardening (Peter Cundall is my hero!)
I've just discovered a great blog that seems to put things so much better than I can: is worth pointing out that contentment is completely contrary to the doctrines of Industrialism, which is the dominant worldly system that we all live within. Industrialism survives and thrives by creating materialistic discontent; by encouraging the natural, inherent covetousness within each of us. People must buy stuff of all kinds, lots of it, for all their days, in order to support the industrial system. I dare say, envy, materialism and discontentment are the lifeblood of industrialism.
Everyone has their own way of living simply, depending on their needs and abilities, its lovely to see all the different ideas and think about what might work at our place.  It seems that once we realise that industrialism/ capitalism is the problem and release ourselves from its expectations we can finally become content with what we have.  Please share your inspiration, I'd love to know how you got here! 

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