Monday, June 30, 2014

Lavender wheat heat packs

Soon after the invention of the microwave someone must have realised that you could microwave a small sack of wheat and use it to keep people warm. I remember seeing them in physio clinics in the early 90s. I wonder who first had the idea! I first made one when I was at university, living in a small cold house and too cheap to pay for heating. Sometimes I would get up in the middle of the night, freezing and unable to sleep, and reheat my wheat pack before going back to bed! I had to leave that one in NZ (due to biosecurity you can't take plant or animal material into Australia), so I made another one when I got to Australia, and now I thought it would be useful to have more than one, so I’ve made some more. This time I included dried lavender from my garden as well as the wheat, so they smell nice too.

I prefer wheat packs to hot water bottles because when they cool down, they stay around body temperature.  Hot water bottles tend to turn into "cold water bottles", which is quite unpleasant.  Also you don't have to deal with pouring boiling water into a small hole, risk of the bottle bursting and getting the temperature just right.

ingredients: wheat and dried lavender flowers
the challenge is to sew the top without all the wheat falling out....
Wheat packs are very easy to make. All you need to do is sew a small sack from a leftover piece of fabric and fill it with wheat. You might find it difficult to find the wheat though. I bought mine from our local stock feed store, and as they sell it lose, I was able to buy 5 kg, instead of an entire 20 kg bag. If you are in the city, you could try your supermarket (try the pet section) or health food store (bread making/flour section), but if you can get to a stock feed store it will probably be much cheaper. If you can’t find wheat, apparently you can use many other fillers, including rice, corn and beans, and even cherry pits!

I made four inner sacks from an old pillow case, then I made four removable covers from some pretty fannelette fabric that I bought.  Its not really necessary to have an inner and outer sack, but I thought the pillow case was getting a bit thin, and its handy to be able to wash the cover if it gets dirty.

The completed sacks

To use the wheat pack, you just put it in the microwave for a few minutes with a glass of water, so that the wheat doesn’t dry out. The exact time will depend on your microwave power and the temperature you want, however, I must now include a word of caution. It wasn’t until I was researching for this post that I discovered that several people have been killed in house fires resulting from innocent little wheat packs (more information herehereherehere and here). I was blissfully unaware of this fact and have been using them for the past 10 years without incident, but it turns out that if you microwave the packs for too long, even with the glass of water in the microwave, you can overheat the bag and cause the wheat to ignite. If you are using a new pack or a different microwave to normal, do a couple of minutes to start with and test it out first. Don’t throw it straight into your bed and walk away. Wow I never knew that something I use so regularly could be so dangerous!

Have you made or used wheat heat packs?  Any tips?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Should you eat animal products?

If you follow the popular media you might be feeling guilty about eating meat, even dairy products, for a number of reasons.  There's a few things you should know about eating meat...

(By the way, I haven't written this post to attack vegetarians, I just thought you all might find this information useful, what you eat is your choice, but I hope that it is an informed choice).

Meat and climate change

Meat and your heart health

Michael Pollan follows a steer from farm to feedlot

Meat and animal welfare
The animals that we eat are domesticated, that means that they can no longer survive in the wild, just like your pet dog or cat, they rely on humans to help them find food, water and shelter.  Farmers spend their days tending to these animals.  If they weren't expecting to sell them, they wouldn't want to spend that time caring for them, and those animals would not exist.  However, that is not to say that we don't owe these animals a quality of life.  I find confined animal feeding disgusting and completely inappropriate.  Chickens should not be kept in cages or barns, pigs should not be kept in barns and small pens, cattle should not be kept in feedlots, all these animals should have access to pasture and freedom to range.  If we make the choice to eat meat, we must take responsibility for how our meat is raised.  If you can't raise and kill the animal yourself, then you should know how it was raised and killed, and be happy that the animal lived a good life and had "one bad day", as Joel Salatin says.

The Meat and Livestock Association of Australia (to which we pay fees every time we sell animals through a saleyard and are therefore members) has recently come up with a campaign to promote meat eating. They have devised a huge marketing campaign around the word "bettertarian", with tag line "Eat with understanding. Make better choices. Feel better.".  If you check out the associated website you can watch several videos about the concept, and follow three non-farmers who won a competition to visit a farm.

I am torn.

I like the idea of bettertarian, I think that's a good philosophy, we should be trying to find out where our food comes from and make the best choice using that information.  But I find it a little misleading that the word "sustainability" is mentioned repeatedly in the videos to describe a farm that is not organic.  Using chemicals is not sustainable.  We use chemicals occasionally when we can't see a suitable alternative, but we recognise that it is not a long-term solution.  Also the farm that they show in the videos is a beef and lamb operation, they do not discuss feedlotting at all, are we to assume that this farm is finishing beef on pasture?  Because that is not representative of the bulk of the beef industry.  This just feels like a marketing campaign to trick consumers, not to educate them, and that is disappointing.  It is also disappointing that farmers continue to raise meat in ways that they are not completely comfortable with explaining publicly.  Farmers should be proud of what they do, and yet we continue to use confined feeding operations because consumers are demanding CHEAP rather than QUALITY food.

How can you find out more?
Since I've been spending more time in Brisbane and talking to people at work, I realise that people in the city compared to people in more rural areas, are pretty clueless about where their food comes from.  Its a good start that you're reading my blog, and there are a few other good sources of information about HOW to find out more:

Arabella Forge's Frugavore: How to Grow Organic, Buy Local, Waste Nothing, and Eat Well - my review here

Jennifer McGruther's The Nourished Kitchen  (also her blog Nourished Kitchen) - my review here

To be absolutely sure that you're buying ethically-raised, sustainable meat, you must either speak to the farmer personally, or buy certified organic.  It is more expensive, because they don't raise as many animals in one place and they have to be audited, but that's how you know that its good food.  I wrote about it here.  In Australia, look for the bud logo of Australian Certified Organic.

I would also encourage you to try to visit a farm, either a farm stay or a day visit, so that you can learn even more.  Two blogger farms that I would love to visit are:
Kim's Little Black Cow Blog - they have a farmstay int he Hunter Valley and do day tours
And Purple Pear Organics with Mark and Kate, who are also in the Hunter Valley, and also do day tours around their permaculture farm.  

I'm sure there are many more, not in the Hunter Valley!  Please share links below if you can recommend any farms to visit.

So what do you think about eating meat?  eating organic?  and visiting farms?  Do you know what you're eating?  Do you care?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Setting up another worm farm

Worm farm kits from Biome

Even if you are not confident with compost you will find worm farming to be amazingly easy. I was scared at first that I would kill my worms, as there seemed to be so many rules about how to look after them, but after two years I’ve realised that as long as you keep your worms in the shade and feed them occasionally, they will be just fine. They will continue to produce compost and worm wee for your garden (and worms for your chickens), even if you forget them for a few weeks. I started with a tiny handful of worms, and they have gradually multiplied to the point where I think I have enough to start another worm farm.

All you need to start a worm farm is a container to keep them in (either a commercial worm farm or one of the many DYI options on the web), some worms and some scraps to get them started. If you buy a commercial worm farm it usually comes with some coconut coir that you soak in water, this is somewhere cool and moist for your worms to hide until they’ve built up some compost for you. You can use wood shavings or newspaper instead, just something that’s not going to go mouldy. My first worm farm was $50 from Aldi, and this latest one was offered by a friend who had tried worm farming and given up, so it is a commercial one, but didn’t come with all the accessories (or even a tap and legs!).

My worms eat everything that goes into our compost bucket, including onions and citrus (in small amounts, if I juice a whole bag of lemons I put the skins in the compost instead). They also eat weeds from the garden. When you only have a few worms to start with, just give them a handful of scraps and see how they go, you don’t want it to go mouldy and stinky before they finish eating it. As your worms multiply you will be able to gradually feed them more. Mine currently eat the entire contents of our 4 L compost bucket once a week.

the top layer (that the worms are eating now)

the next layer (compost!)
Your worms need to be kept a comfortable temperature (around the same temperature that we humans prefer), in summer they need shade, but if you get cold winters, they may need some sun through winter. I kept mine in the garden at first, for convenience, but then the meat ants kept getting in and eating the worms, so I had to move the worm farm onto my potting table, which does get some sun in summer, but seems to be ok. You also need to keep your worms moist, if you lift up the lid and it seems a bit dry, you can pour some fresh water over all the worms and the compost. This will drain through the farm and you can remove the excess and use it on the garden. I leave a bit of liquid in the reservoir over summer to make sure they don’t dry out completely. You also need to put a cover over the worms (as well as the lid of the worm farm), either an old towel or a few sheets of damp newspaper, or some carpet underlay, this helps to keep moisture in the farm (the worms will eat the towel and newspaper, so be prepared to replace these regularly!).

worm "wee" (yeah, I know, its not wee, its leachate)

more "wee"
When you fill up one layer of our worm farm, you should be able to add or swap (depending on your design) another layer so you have an empty bin at the top again. You just keep adding more scraps to this top bin and the worms will climb up and start eating when they’ve finished with the other bin. You can then use the compost from the first bin on the garden. When I didn’t have so many worms, I tried to pick most of them out of the compost and put them back in the worm farm, but now I just tip them all out on the garden with the compost. The worm farm worms don’t survive in the garden, as they live on food waste, unlike earthworms, but I’m sure they contribute by feeding the microbes in the soil when they die. Ideally I should tip the compost out for the chickens to pick through first, I just need to figure out how I get it back when they’ve finished spreading it around!

step 1: figure out which bit is which 
step 2: wood shavings, food and worms

step 3: damp layer of newspapers

That is how easy it is to start a new worm farm. Any tips to add? Do you find worm farming easier than composting?

Worm farm kits are available from Biome, click the banner below:

Worm farm kits from Biome

Monday, June 23, 2014

How to tell if your house cow is on heat

If you want your cow to continue producing milk, at some stage she’s going to need to have another calf.  Essentially you have two options, either artificial insemination (AI) or a bull. We have tried both. If you’re going to use artificial insemination, talk to your vet a few weeks in advance and arrange with them to have the appropriate semen ready. You will need to call them again on the day your cow is in “standing heat” (explained below) and arrange for a house call. In total this only cost us $100, but we are only 10 km from town, a vet may charge considerably more if they have to travel further. There is no guarantee that artificial insemination will work the first time and you may need several visits to get the timing perfect. When the vet came, he just asked us to lead Bella to her bales, he didn’t need to restrain her any more than we do for milking. I was surprised how good Bella was, considering how much she kicks us when we are trying to milk her, she didn't seem to mind having the vet's hand up her rear end at all!  Here's the full story about Bella and AI.

You will need to learn to recognise the signs that she’s on heat, this will allow you to track her ovulation cycles so you can work out the ideal timing for her to be artificially inseminated or for her to visit the bull. A cow’s cycle will last around 21 days, so after you have noted her coming on heat a few times, you should be able to predict the timing fairly accurately. Our dairy farmer friend says that cows are “moody like women”, and I have to agree, you do see Bella in different moods and when she's on heat she gets particularly short-tempered. A couple of days leading up to standing heat, Bella will bellow at us when she sees us and try to ride the other cattle (including her calf).  When she's in "standing heat" she will stand while the other cattle try to mount her, and this is the ideal time for insemination, by either method.  She will also usually have a swollen vulva and some mucus discharge. After standing heat there is usually a very small amount of blood discharge (which you can often find as a line on her tail). The most important thing is to closely observe your cow and take notes of any changes in behaviour so that you can begin to get an idea of the timing of her cycle.

Here's Bella and Molly when Molly was still a heifer
We were worried that Molly, being a heifer, would be more difficult to artificially inseminate, so we looked for a suitable bull, and we found Donald, the Dexter bull. Dexters are tiny, he was only 1m tall at his hips, but he was big enough to get the job done.  Donald only cost us $300, and he has produced five pregnancies and three calves before his unfortunate demise, so he has earned his keep, but he was extra work and an extra mouth to feed  He broke fences several times to fight with the full sized bull in our neighbour’s paddock (more about keeping a bull on a small farm.). Using a bull is easier than AI because you don’t have to identify heat exactly, he works that out for you. However, you may find that you have little choice in the timing of the pregnancy, as cow and bull will break fences to be together when the time is right. If you don’t have space or inclination to buy a bull, you can often borrow or rent a bull, or take your cow to visit someone else’s bull.

Whichever method you chose to get your cow “in calf”, you will also need to decide what breed of bull (or semen) you want to use. We chose small bulls so that our cows have small calves and (relatively) easy births. You may also choose to use a meat breed if you want to raise the calf for meat, or a dairy breed if you’re hoping for a baby house cow.

Remember how cute Monty was as a calf?
Some helpful information about artificial insemination and heat detection here and here.

How do you tell when your cow is on heat?  Do you use AI or a bull?

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

Friday, June 20, 2014

Bore water for small farms

"As I’ve written previously, secure water on your small farm is one of the most important inputs no matter if you just want a small vegetable garden or to keep livestock as well. One option is dam water, but on some properties the soil doesn’t hold water, and if you don’t get regular rain, dams can dry up.

If you can find good bore water on your property, you are guaranteed a supply of water, even through a drought, however it is not always easy to find water underground."

Read the rest of my article on Farmstyle

What's your experience with bores and bore water?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Knitting is a survival skill

I was lucky to go to school while the importance of teaching kids such life-skills as cooking, sewing and constructing things from wood and metal was still recognised. We spent several weeks in each class, several hours per week. I believe that many schools no longer teach these skills, which is a real shame, and the subject of another post entirely. My point here is that I learnt to sew when I was 11 and I got a bit of practice making different things. The school had the same sewing machines as my mother’s Bernina, so I was able to practice at home as well. My parents gave me a new Brother for my 21st birthday. I am not a brilliant sewer, but I am comfortable with cutting out and sewing fabric, especially simple projects like curtains, which can be pretty handy for making what we need and saving money.

While I learnt to knit around the same age, I never practiced much had never learnt to follow a pattern or any fancy stitches. I did not (and still do not) feel as comfortable with knitting, but I am forcing myself to learn.

Why bother to learn to knit when I can sew what I need? To some extent knitting and sewing cover different applications, but where there is overlap, I see several advantages to knitting:
  • Knitting is portable – you can take it with you nearly anywhere.
  • Knitting is quiet – I can knit in front of the TV or listen to the radio without drowning it out, as the sewing machine does.
  • Knitting is potentially more self-sufficient – with the right tools you can spin wool from fleece and knit the wool to make nearly any shape. If you can’t buy fabric, you can’t sew anything, and making fabric at home is not as simple as spinning fleece (not that I can do that yet!).
  • There are certain things that are suited to knitting rather than sewing, such as socks, that are high use items I would like to be able to make.
While there are certain large items that I would never attempt to knit, lately when I have “needed” something, like a cover for our tablet computer, or one of those fluffy seat-belt shoulder pad thingies, that I could easily sew up in minutes, I have decided to knit instead. Even though it takes longer to knit, it is an opportunity to practice, and I am seeing the results. I am getting faster and more confident.

If you are new to knitting, my advice is to look for simple projects that you might normally buy or make another way, and knit them instead. The simple things that I have made include a warm wooly headband, button-up snood (just a short scarf really), the cover for our tablet and a seat-belt shoulder pad. I then tried out more technical patterns such a snood “in-the-round” on circular needles, fingerless mittens, socks and a vest. Now I’m working on an alpaca shawl in a lacy stitch that uses slip stitches, and knitting two together, something I never thought I would be able to do when I first started.

My next step is to learn to crochet with wool (rather than just finger-crocheting rag rugs!).

What do you think? Do you choose between sewing and knitting?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Winter Woodstoves - Using wood ash

As you know, through winter we heat our home and cook using a woodstove, so we produce lots of wood ash as a result.  Our current woodstove has a very clever design where the ash tray can be pulled out and emptied easily, this makes cleaning much more pleasant than when you have to scoop out all the ash.  We have to clean out the ash tray every couple of days if we have the woodstove burning every day.

eight acres: how to use wood ash in the garden
 A bucket of wood ash
We don't see the ash as a waste product though.  Wood ash is all the mineral matter remaining from the wood that was burnt, so its great for adding minerals to garden soil.  It usually also contains some unburnt carbon (biochar).  I spread the ash through the garden and tip it into the compost as well.  Wood ash is good for chickens to dust bath with, so I put it in their nesting boxes with a layer of wood shavings.
Spreading wood ash on the garden - I just hose it into the soil
I thought it would be simple to find out the mineral composition of ash, but it took me a while to figure out why the elemental composition didn't add to 100%.  Then I realised the balance is oxygen, as all the elements are present as mineral oxides.  Anyway, the composition depends on species of wood, the part of the tree, the growing conditions AND the temperature of the fire, but roughly, its 30-60% calcium oxide, 20% potassium oxide, 10% magnesium oxide, 10% sulphur oxide, and small amounts of iron and sodium oxides, as well as trace minerals.  So wood ash is a good source of calcium and potassium, and some other minor minerals.  Both calcium and potassium and very important for healthy plants, so wood ash is a great way to return these minerals to the soil.

The clever ash tray on our wood stove
Two things to consider before you start spreading wood ash around:

1) make sure it is completely cold.  I spread ash directly from the woodstove onto dry mulch once and had to very quickly stamp out a fire, even though it didn't seem hot at the time, it was still very hot inside.  Its also best to use a metal bucket to store ashes, plenty of fires start from plastic buckets of ash melting through, and keep the bucket on concrete or dirt rather than wood or plastic.

2) test your soil pH as all those mineral oxides form hydroxides with water, which will increase soil pH.  Soil pH tends to decrease as calcium ions are leached, so usually it is safe to add wood ash to maintain calcium ions and a neutral pH (7), but if you have naturally high pH soil, then don't add wood ash.

Speaking of hydroxides, the other use for wood ash is to soak it in water to make lye for soap making.  This is the traditional method, and much more difficult that using purified sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) like we can do today.  I'm tempted to give it a go one day though.

How do you use your wood ash?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Training our Taz - puppy months and dog years

When we got Taz, our little collie kelpie cross puppy, on the first weekend in January this year, she was only 11 weeks old and tiny, everyone we talked to joked about how much she would chew our things and how much trouble she would be. Truly I dreaded having a puppy. I hadn’t had one before, but I had heard that they can be difficult. I would have been happy to adopt an older dog from a shelter and skip puppy-hood altogether, but we wanted to have the opportunity to train our dog to behave around chickens, and maybe to help us herd cattle, so we needed to start young.  Here's what I wrote about her back in February.

Now that we have had Taz for 6 months and she’s about 9 months old, the puppy times don’t seem so bad at all, and I am glad that I didn’t miss them, its been really lovely to watch Taz grow up so quickly. I credit our relatively satisfaction to several factors. First, we started with a smart puppy, she does want to learn and want to please, she only wee’d inside once in her life before she figured out that wees are done outside, toilet training took exactly one day. Secondly, Taz has looked up to Cheryl (our 12 year old kelpie cross that has been with Pete since she was a tiny puppy) as a mentor from the moment they met. Although Cheryl is herself not always a paragon of obedience, she has taught Taz doggy manners. Taz is the bottom of our pack, she has to wait for Cheryl to finish with a toy or a bone before she can take it. She suffered several warning bites to the nose before she learnt this, and we let dogs be dogs so that Taz learnt her place. Naturally, she recognises Pete and I as higher in the pack order than herself, because that’s how Cheryl sees us, but it was much easier to let Cheryl teach her. 

We also had a little help with understanding what to expect from a puppy, both from an excellent set of dvds that I bought early on, and some personal counselling from Ohio Farmgirl (leader of a very impressive dog hoard, if only Taz could be half as smart as Titan), which made it easier to recognise and deal with each stage of development. In particular, we were prepared for Taz to be quite timid at first, as she got used to living with us and we needed to coach her through this stage by exposing her to lots of new things and people, but in a non-confronting way, and not to force anything really scary on her. She spent a lot of time hiding under our bed. She has now gained confidence and is happy to explore (unfortunately also happy to visit the neighbours by herself) and bark at the whipper snipper (thanks to Chez for teaching her that one), where in the past she would have hidden away.

We also learnt to use a puppy box, not as a punishment, but as a safe place where she could relax during the day. We use the dog box from our ute, positioned under the veranda, as the puppy box. Taz loves her puppy box, we leave the door open and she often pops back in there if she is scared, or just wants to lie down, she knows that’s her safe space and it obviously brings her comfort as she never resists going into her box when we ask.

We have tried to train Taz at her own pace. We choose one or two commands that we want her to learn and focus on them until she gets them. Taz quickly learnt to come, sit, lie down, stay, get in her box, get in the car, get on her mat, give us five, and wait before she eats. The main thing to remember is that puppies don’t understand “no”, we had to start using positive commands. If we didn’t like what she was doing, we had to call her using “come” or to stop her jumping, tell her to “sit”. For chewing, we tried OFG’s suggestion of “that’s mine” and replacing the offending item with a puppy toy (not sure if she quite got this one, but doesn’t hurt to try). For the record, she has chewed up my prescription sunglasses, and all the thongs (jandles/flip flops) in the house and she has a habit of stealing socks from the laundry basket, and the cheapest way to keep her supplied with puppy toys is to buy an armload of soft toys from an op shop (charity store).

Over the last few weeks, Taz has noticeably calmed down. She still spends all day in her dog box (as much to give Cheryl a rest as to stop her going visiting by shimmying under the gate), and in the afternoons we let her out and throw toys for her (and she plays tug of war with Cheryl). In the evenings she comes inside and calmly lies on her mat or goes to bed in our room without being told. The dvd said that we could consider each month of a puppy’s life to be equivalent to one year for a human child, so now Taz has come through early childhood and gained her confidence and she is equivalent to a 9 year old child heading towards teenager years. The point of this analogy is to say that even when a dog has reached its full size at around one year, it probably is not yet mature in its attitude, more like a teenager, and will not be fully mature until closer to 18 months of age.

I think its really sad to see so many puppies offered for give away at 9-12 months of age. I guess these puppies were not trained or treated appropriately when they were younger and now they are big and the chewing and crazy jumping is not so cute anymore, so its time to get rid of them. Puppies don’t come with a manual, but its not hard to get advice and spend some time helping them to become obedient, happy and settled mature dogs. We never even considered that giving a dog away was an option, so that meant we had to put the time and effort into making Taz, the puppy we chose, into the dog we wanted.

Now that we have got her to this stage is time to think about training her with stock, except we don't have many at the moment!  She is very confident with herding the house cows and their calves, so as soon as we have some suitable weaners in a yard, I'm sure she will learn quickly a few basic commands.

Any thoughts about training dogs?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Choosing chooks - which chickens are best for you?

I had a question on the eight acres facebook page about what type of chickens I recommend (table and layers) and whether we keep them together. I thought it was a great question and I didn’t think I could answer that in one facebook comment, but it makes a great topic for a blog post....


Of course the actual ideal chicken for your situation is going to be different to my ideal chicken, but here’s some general points to consider:
  • If you are going to breed chickens, its much easier to have one breed or type of chicken to do everything you want chickens to do, then you don’t have to worry about keeping multiple roosters and keeping flocks separate. However, if you have the space to also consider multiple types of poultry, for example, keep a laying hen breed, and turkeys for meat. Or ducks for eggs and chickens for meat, that is another solution. Different poultry eat different bugs, weeds and cause varying damage to mulched gardens. One of the main ideas of permaculture is to have each element perform many functions and each function satisfied by many elements. It also aims to develop a system with minimal work, and keeping too many different types of special chickens is extra work!
  • If you are not intending to breed (and in my opinion, unless you live somewhere that you can’t keep a rooster, setting up to breed is the most self-sufficient option), then you can just buy whatever combination of breeds suits you, in that case there’s nothing wrong with just buying hybrid laying hens and meat chicks for maximum production (apart from the ethical issues of supporting this type of production model).
  • On the other hand, you could choose to support heritage pure breeds of chicken. The main problem with buying pure-bred hens is that most breeds have now been corrupted by the show chicken industry. They are bred for the way they look, not the way they lay, so you can’t believe any of the old statistics for egg-laying, although in general, the bigger the bird, the fewer eggs she will lay (and the better it will be as a table bird).
  • However, if you start with some pure-bred hens and start your own breeding program, you can start to select from the traits you want, and start to develop a breed that is best suited to your conditions. 
  • In that case, I would recommend a dual purpose bird that is also suited to your climate and predator conditions (for example, some birds naturally have more feathers for colder climates, and white birds are not ideal if you have a problem with airborne predators). Also consider if they will be free-ranging or kept in a coop, as some breeds have better temperaments for foraging and free-ranging.
When we first had hens, we just bought whatever mixed up hens were cheap at the market, we didn’t know what breed they were or anything. They laid well at first, and we bred a few chicks, and then laying decreased and the birds were quite small for meat. We started to learn more about different breeds and decided that we wanted to get Rhode Island Reds because they were supposed to be good layers and good table birds (for meat). We bought, at great expense (well it seemed expensive at the time), a quartet (a rooster and three hens) of Rhode Island Red chickens from a show breeder. Honestly, they didn’t lay any better than the mongrels, but they were bigger, so when we bred from them, the roosters were a decent size for eating.

Then we decided that we wanted hens that laid more eggs and our chicken-enthusiast friend bought us a trio of elderly White Leghorns as a wedding present, as they are a breed that has a reputation for laying eggs. The rooster, Ivan, was lovely, and they all had pearl earrings. We then travelled a ridiculous distance (one hour, one whole hour!) to buy four White Leghorn pullets to add some younger birds to the flock. They all looked nice, but they didn’t really lay any more eggs than the Rhode Island Reds.

some of the chicks we've hatched
Ivan did not get on with the Rhode Island Red rooster and to cut short a rather long story, we now have a mixture of Rhode Island Red, White Leghorn and crossed hens, most of which we hatched ourselves, as well as some commercial hybrids. We are trying to cover all our options here. We want to be able to breed our own chickens so that we can eat the roosters and keep the hens to lay more eggs. We want a breed that does lay more eggs and is adapted to our conditions, so we are hoping that hybrid vigour (mixing the two breeds) will help that, but in the meantime, a few commercial hybrids also maintain our egg production. 

What do you think?  What type of chickens do you raise and why?

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 9, 2014

Planning a property using permaculture

Every property is different and every person has different hopes and dreams for their property and different abilities to achieve them, too, but I think there are some general ideas from permaculture that could help you get started with a new property.

First, do nothing (or do very little anyway).

That’s right, do nothing for months. Well don’t do nothing, but don’t jump in and start any major projects until you’ve spent some time observing your property. In permaculture, this is the “Observe and Interact” principle. You need to understand as much as possible about your property before you make any major decision. This is also a good time to use the principle “Use small and slow solutions” because they are much easier to change if you realise you missed something later on, compared to big and expensive projects which you will be effectively stuck with.

Things you should be observing during this time include:

Water flow, rainfall (when and how much), frost/snow times and severity, high temperatures (when and how high), wind direction and speed, vegetation types, soil types, local animals (native and feral), slope/terrain, sun position at different times of day and times of year.

Obviously during this time you need to maintain what you already have on the property, but if you have a few months or even a year before you HAVE to make major changes, this is a fantastic opportunity to observe your property and decide what you want to do in a way that works with the property and the natural resources available.

Next, plan, design, envision what you want for your property.

 Again, permaculture can help you, especially the principle “design from patterns to details” and provide some design tools, but the most important thing is to keep an open mind. There is an excellent example of a permaculture design process on the blog permacurious which explains both the observation phase and the functional analysis, and then how to put this all together into a plan. Functional analysis is where you consider all the functions that you might need on your property, like “dispose of waste” and “source of protein” and then you list all the elements that could supply those functions. For example, compost, worm farm and council collection are all elements that could dispose of waste, and chickens (eggs and meat), legumes and cows (milk and meat) are all sources of protein.

A worm farm generates compost, worm wee and worms
Then you can work through and make sure you have at least one (preferably two or more) elements to satisfy each function, and you aim to have elements that satisfy more than one function, each element may also have needs that must be considered as well. A worm farm produces compost, worm wee, worms to feed the chickens and a method of waste disposal, but it also needs a shady position and plenty of waste to feed the worms. Chickens can provide meat, eggs, bug eating and scratching services, but they also need food, water and shelter. A garden can provide food and herbs, it need a source of fertility, water and maybe shade as well.

This is where you start combining elements that work together, and then you can start thinking about how to locate those elements so that they are at a sensible distance to reduce the work that you have to do on a regular basis. Perhaps you intend to use the chickens to fertilise the garden – then you need to design a way that they chickens can be IN the garden so you don’t have to move chicken manure. Or if the worm farm is going to take your garden waste, put the worm farm in the garden. Not everything is going to work out perfectly and there are going to be other factors that prevent your optimal configuration from working, but it is worth taking the time to plan. This is where you should also start to think about permaculture zones and sectors, but this post is getting too long already! I got into this a bit in another post last year.

Splitting Cheslyn Rise into zones for land use
When you are considering your elements and functions, keep in mind some of the other permaculture principles – how will you catch and store energy? Obtain a yield? Use renewable resources? Produce no waste? Integrate rather than segregate? Create diversity in your system? Use edges and marginal resources? And how will you create a system that is flexible enough to respond to change, including the gradual development of your system?

A word of caution though, don’t get stuck in this phase, you can over plan and never get anything done, give yourself a time limit, work through everything a couple of times, and then get started. If you use slow and small solutions, and keep observing your plan, you can change things as you go. Also, make sure you include future elements in your plan, if you know you want to keep goats, think about how they will fit in and where you will keep them, so that you can integrate them into the system more easily when you are ready.

The dairy cow provides milk for the dogs, the dogs provide... security duty and cuddles

Get started!  But don’t start everything at once! 

 Just pick one thing to focus on and do it well. When that is sorted, start the next thing. Sure your system is all interdependent, but you can have some temporary systems in place as you develop everything. If you have inputs or outputs from an element that you haven’t developed yet, you may have to temporarily do things a different way until that element is ready. For example, I got my worm farm ready in preparation for feeding aquaponics fish. We don’t have the aquaponics set up yet, but I can feed worms to the chickens in the meantime. At our new property, I want to have the chickens free-ranging in the orchard when the trees are big enough, but while that is getting established, we will have to buy chicken food (to supplement the worms). In the example on the blog above, Calamity Jane actually worked out a rough schedule of when each element would be introduced, this would really help with the planning. Don’t get stressed if things don’t go to schedule either, sometimes it will take longer than you expect, just try to enjoy the learning experience!

On our property at Cheslyn Rise we have been really lucky to have so much TIME to observe. We had the property for 9 months before we started organising our house, so that was plenty of time to think about where to put it and how to position it (and it was kind of a relief to have the removal house as we didn’t have to consider the layout of the house as well!). We did a rough plan of the house yard so we could decide where to put rainwater tanks, septic trench and driveway around the house immediately, and also pencilled in where the shed, garden, orchard and “dairy land” would go in future, so it can all work together. Unfortunately our local electricity utility put the power pole in the wrong place, so we had to respond to change and move the house pad over a bit! Luckily it was a few weeks BEFORE the house arrived! And we have continued to observe the property and think about what we are going to do next.

Very generally, that is how I think you should go about planning a property from scratch. If you want to know more about permaculture, try the books I recommended in this post, or book yourself into a permaculture design certificate and start giving it a try.

What do you think?  How do you design a new property?

Friday, June 6, 2014

How I use herbs - Marigold, calendula and winter tarragon

In some countries Calendula officinalis is referred to as “pot marigold”, but the plant I call marigold is Tagetes patula, or French marigold (Tagetes erectus is African marigold, although both originate in North America), and I call the other one calendula (originating from the Mediterranean). Fortunately, both of the flowers are edible, so it doesn’t really matter if you get them mixed up! They both have blooms ranging from yellow to dark orange, and they both self-seed and come up all over my garden, mainly in spring and autumn. And while we’re on the subject of Tagetes, I also grow Tagetes lucida, known as Winter Tarragon or Mexican Marigold, as a perennial in a pot.

I mainly use calendula flowers for tea. I just pick the flowers and allow them to air dry, and then remove the dried petals. Calendula is said to have many health benefits due to its beta-carotene content. Calendula also has skin healing properties and the petals can be used to infuse oil to make an ointment, or the cold tea used as a wound wash (Uses for Calendula and more here).

Calendula (Pot Marigold)
Marigold has health benefits too (particularly relating to controlling inflammation), and the dried petals can be added to tea, but the main reason that I allow it to proliferate in the garden is for the allelopathic compounds that it produces. “Allelopathy is a biological phenomenon by which an organism produces one or more biochemicals that influence the growth, survival, and reproduction of other organisms.”  The chemicals can be positive (encourage growth of another plant or animal) or negative (discourage growth), and in the case of marigolds, the “roots release the chemical alpha-terthienyl, one of the most toxic naturally occurring compounds found to date. This compound is nematicidal, insecticidal, antiviral, and cytotoxic” (source). Although there is some disagreement about how many marigolds, and which variety, are really needed to have any impact on nematodes, they grow easily so think it can’t hurt to have a few around the garden just in case they are doing some good, and they add some colour amongst the green.

The winter tarragon is also lovely in tea, is has an anise flavour, apparently its similar to tarragon, but I don’t have any tarragon to compare it to (the calendula and marigold petals don’t add much flavour to tea). The yellow flowers can also be used for tea, but my plant has only just set flowers so I haven’t tried this yet (I want to save these flowers for seed). I hadn’t read much about this plant in my herb books, but a quick google search has revealed some surprising properties. I personally have not noticed any psychoactive effects! But then I don’t smoke it or use it in large quantities either. Apparently it can be used as a treatment for strike by lightning (have to remember that one), and also can be added to bath water. That last one is serious, I have been adding various herbs to bathwater lately and it can be quite pleasant to have a nice smelling bath, I’ve been thinking about preparing a jar of “bath tea” to keep in the bathroom (as I never remember to have the fresh herb ready at the appropriate time). If you don’t have a bath, you can fill a wide bucket with warm water and have a foot bath instead.

Winter Tarragon - nice in the bath
The flowers of all three plants can be used as a natural yellow/orange dye or food colouring.

Do you grow any marigolds, calendulas or tagetes spp? (spp means several species, I’m getting fancy with the nomenclature now!) How do you use them?

How I use herbs - Mint, Peppermint and Spearmint

How I use herbs - Aloe Vera

How I use herbs - Basil

How I use herbs - Ginger, galangal and turmeric

How I use herbs - Marigold, calendula and winter taragon

How I use herbs - Lemon balm

How I use herbs - Soapwort

How I use herbs - Comfrey

How I use herbs - Nasturtium

How I use herbs - Parsley

How I use herbs - Borage

How I use herbs - Herb Robert

How I use herbs - Purslane

How I use herbs - Chickweed

How I use herbs - Neem oil

How I use herbs - Rue, tansy and wormwood

How I use herbs - Brahmi

How I use herbs - Yarrow

How I use herbs - Arrowroot

How I use herbs - Lucerne (afalfa)

How I use herbs - Lavender

How I use herbs - Rosemary and Thyme

How I use herbs - Oregano or Marjoram

How I use herbs - Sweet Violet

How I use herbs - Gotu Kola

How I use herbs - Lemongrass

How I use herbs - Coriander (or cilantro)

How I use herbs - Dill


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Farm update - June 2014

May weekends have been dominated by lantana spraying and installing insulation.  Neither of which are much fun, but had to be done.  Since our little bull Donald died from lantana poisoning, we realised we had to take it more seriously.  There's not much lantana at Eight Acres, we dug all that out when we first arrived, but at Cheslyn Rise, we knew we had a few bushes, and then when we went looking for it, we found it EVERYWHERE, and huge bushes 2m high and 2m wide.  We decided we needed to get it under control quickly, so spraying was the best option (and after that we can start chipping out the smaller plants as we find them).  In total we spent four days and sprayed 800 L of mixed up spray using our tractor sprayer.  The only good part was that while we were walking through the bush looking for lantana, we saw some areas of our property that we had never been to before!  I am hoping we can return for more peaceful walks without all the chemical handling gear.

We have finished the insulation, and a few other little jobs, we we are hoping for a final inspection soon. (House update back here).

giant white leghorn hens!  I don't know how they stay so white...

the chicks that hatched with the guinea fowl keets, we are hoping that the
chickens have a calming influence on the guineas
Garden update here, in summary, there are an awful lot of chokos....

Taz with her new toy....
....until Cheryl took it off her.  Cheryl likes balls...
Here's some dead lantana, I told you there were some big bushes!
(I didn't want to put this ugly photo up first)
and putting the tin back on the roof after installing insulation was a challenge

Remember how I said I was going to write an ebook about our house cows??  Well I did write something (40 pages!) but then we kept having more experiences and I just kept adding to it.  The past few weeks I've been reading back through it and trying to come to a final version.  New experiences can go into future editions, I've just got to get this thing finished!  I started another blog site to sell the ebook from - - there's not much there yet, and I'll tell you here when its ready, but its really is coming soon, I promise!

Here's Taz again with another toy, she wouldn't let thin one go,
but Cheryl wasn't interested anyway, its not a ball
This is where I've got up to with knitting the alpaca wool I wound into balls.  I'm using big needles, so its growing quickly, and mistakes are not obvious.  I keep getting lost in the pattern, so I wrote it out and then I have a post-it note to keep track of which row I just finished. How do you keep your place in a knitting pattern?

Here's Pete's birthday cake cooked in the woodstove -
my article on woodstove cooking is in the latest Grass Roots magazine
A few interesting blogs from this month
Sustainable small holding - lots of permaculture info
Videos about essential oils from Weedem and Reap

And finally, its time to think ahead to Plastic Free July.  If you haven't done it before, check out their website and register, give it a go, you will be surprised by how much plastic you use and how easy it is to reduce your plastic waste.  We will be joining in again and I'll be posting about how we reduce plastic all through July.  If you want to start preparing, Madeleine at NZ Eco Chick has some great posts to get you started.

How was your May?  What are you plans for June?

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