Chicken Updates

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I realize it’s time for a chicken update. We currently have 15 chickens, all laying hens. The ones we hatched this year are varied in breed and coloring. They are beautiful! They aren’t work horses like our older chickens though, and egg production has been seriously lacking ever since the equinox in September. Many chickens need at least 12 hours of sunlight every day to lay eggs, and apparently our newer breeds fall into that category! We were so lucky the last two winters because our production breeds kept laying all winter long. That’s not the case this year. No, I don’t use a light in the coop. I believe in letting nature decide how to keep the hens happy and healthy.

Our older girls (there are seven of them) have all ceased laying this month. One by one they molted and stopped laying. Some are recovering from their molt but haven’t started the egg cycle again. The new girls (there are eight) are barely laying. We get about two eggs a day from our fifteen chickens.

We’ve had two sicknesses and one death this fall. First, the loss – Tocker was one of our New Hampshire Reds from the first batch we hatched. She was Ticker’s sister and was a nice, dependable hen. This fall she went broody, and since I don’t break my girls when they go broody, I let her sit. She sat on her imaginary eggs for a long time – two months – before she finally got up and went back to the business of being a chicken. All that sitting must have drained her resources, because she launched into a hard molt. I have never seen a molt like the one Tocker went through. ALL of her feathers fell off. All of them. The poor thing was so cold, and in so much pain as her feathers started to grow back. If she sat down, her feather shafts would bleed and hurt, so for days she didn’t sit down. I kept a heat lamp running and she stood under it at night. One night she stayed in a part of the coop that was colder, with no lamp. I couldn’t pick her up to move her because she was in so much pain when she was touched. I figured she knew what she was doing. The next morning we found her dead in the coop. Why? I wish I knew. Was she too cold? Too depleted of minerals and protein? Too tired from standing up for days on end?

Rest in peace, Tocker.

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Our two sicknesses resulted in full recoveries, thank goodness. Ticker was in very bad shape this summer, and I had mentioned her issues in this post. After she recovered from sour crop, things took a turn for the worse. By the end of the summer she was listless and her feathers looked awful. She would kind of stand still and hunch over all day, eyes shut the whole time. I figured out after I wrote that post that she didn’t have scaly leg mites, so I ended up with two big tubs of vaseline that I’ll probably never open. She did have something wrong with her crop and digestive system though. It was either worms or mechanical issues with her crop. I dewormed her and she improved slightly, but still did not recover fully. Then, on the advice of my neighbor, I fed her a handful of grit. She gobbled it up. Within days she was a whole new chicken. She had more energy and she went through a soft molt, losing all the old feathers and regrowing new, shiny ones. Since the chickens free range on our gravel driveway, I hadn’t considered lack of grit as a primary issue, but it turns out that it was. From that point on I have offered grit to all the chickens on a regular basis.

The second sickness involved Ruby, also one of our original hens. Ruby had some listlessness similar to Ticker’s, but different. She recovered on her own and I’ll never know what ailed her.

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At this point all the hens are doing well, thank goodness! Fuzzybottom, one of our best layers, is finally molting. She hasn’t molted at all in her 3 years, if I remember correctly. After watching Tocker molt (and then die), I’m concerned that Fuzzy will lose too many feathers so I’m keeping an eye on her. Aside from that, the girls are good! If they could change one thing, it would be the weather – the snow is a big drag for the chickens, as they prefer the lush green grassy pasture of the summer. And really, who doesn’t?

Around here we are giving thanks for good health!

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Happy December!

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Happy Holiday Season! I am really looking forward to the December excitement this year. I’ve finally broken through my resistance to our cold and snowy winter weather (it only took ten years :) – I think our warm wood stove has something to do with my pleasant thoughts of winter).

‘A’ and ‘H’ are at a great age for celebrating the holidays. At 9 and 7 years old, they look forward to the magic of the holiday moments (not just Santa… they love lighting the candles on the menorah, setting up the tree, making presents for their loved ones…). They’re tremendously helpful too, which makes everything so much easier and more enjoyable for me. We’ve fallen into a tradition where Jeff and I set up the tree, I put the lights on, and the girls add all the ornaments. I love it and so do they. Sure, the ornaments are largely at the bottom of the tree, but that makes it more beautiful.

In the past few weeks we have seen a lot of our family! The girls saw all of their grandparents in the month of November, which is noteworthy because they all live several hours away. We met our new nephew, my sister’s son, and he is just as precious as all babies are when they are brand new. We had a low-key and fun Thanksgiving here at home with my other sister and more grandparents.

Now it is December and we are excited for what lays ahead! This month we are going to be making gifts just like we do every December (I’ve been pinning!), and there are some fun homeschool activities we’re undertaking too. We are planning to visit the Mark Twain House while it’s decorated for the season, and if we have time that day to tour Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house, which is right next door, we’ll do that too. ‘A’ and I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin a few years ago and we loved every page of the story. It would be nice for the girls to see where she lived.

We will be taking on robotics lessons soon! The girls have on their wish lists the LEGO WeDo construction set and programming software. This blends two of the things they love right now: LEGOs and programming. The cool thing about this set is that they can program a robot to move around in real space, not just move through a 2D maze on the computer screen. I think this is going to jump start a whole new creative vibe here at the Village Homestead.

One more thing we’ll be doing that is not necessarily fun or exciting but necessary: we are going to prepare and practice a family fire plan. Over the Thanksgiving weekend we were woken in the middle of the night by our smoke detectors (they all go off at the same time and it is loud!), and although we ultimately determined that one particular smoke detector was overly sensitive and there was no danger to us that night, I was a little alarmed at our response to the emergency. I was out of bed and knew I had to wake everyone else, but in my sleepy state I was more focused on finding the “fire” with the intention of putting it out, instead of focused on getting shoes on my girls and calling 911. I guess it’s good that I have a “can-do” attitude and I think I’m capable of handling an emergency, but the middle of the night with the smoke alarms blaring is not the time for me to demonstrate my abilities. After the fire department cleared the house that night, I realized that we have no plan in place. No meeting spot outside, no experience feeling doors for heat, no rehearsed escape route. The false alarm last week was a great first step in seeing how we each react to smoke alarms in the middle of the night, and it’s time to put that knowledge to use and form a plan!

Looking forward to a fun-filled month ahead!

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First Snow!

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We had our first snow last night. It was a dusting, but enough to get us all in the mood for winter. The new chickens were freaked out by the snow this morning – it was their first time seeing it and they were afraid to leave the safety of the coop. It was funny to see, but probably not too funny for them.

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Buttoning up the beehive for winter

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Last winter was cold and this winter is supposed to be similar. I’ve lost beehives in the last few winters – once because they starved to death and the other time because they froze to death. There aren’t many things as sobering as cleaning out a hive full of dead bees in the spring. It is downright depressing, and replacing the bees takes money and effort. A year ago at this time I had only one hive, and by the time spring arrived, I was left with none. As my hive sat empty after the mass die off, and before my order of a new package of bees arrived from Georgia, our apple trees bloomed. The blossoms were plentiful and fragrant, and I was reminded of the days in the previous year when the honeybees covered the apple trees, collecting nectar and pollen, fertilizing the blossoms. We had so many apples in our harvest that year – so many that I could barely keep up with the applesauce production. We felt blessed.

This year there were no bees to cover the apple trees. No bees to collect nectar and pollen, or to fertilize the blossoms. By the time summer arrived I could see that there were no apples on the trees, and we had no apple harvest this year. When I realized how important my bees were for the apple harvest, I quickly saw that a die-off in winter was more than an inconvenience – it was a serious problem. This winter I am determined to keep the bees alive, and I’m starting by addressing the two issues that plagued my hives in the past: food and warmth.

Cold Weather Food

After I harvested honey earlier in the fall I started feeding the bees a sugar syrup to help them increase their honey stores for the winter. As the weather cooled I stopped the feedings because liquid sugar is of little use to bees when it gets cold. In order to convert the syrup into honey, they need to fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. When it’s cold, the bees cluster and conserve their energy, so fanning syrup isn’t an activity they undertake. When it gets cold outside and the inside of the hive stays warm near the cluster, the water left in the syrup turns into condensation and clings to the top of the hive. When the water droplets get heavy enough, they fall down onto the bees, and the cold drops kill the bees below. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Cold weather feeding means providing low-moisture sugar stores. More on this in a moment.

Keeping the Hive Warm

The hive is kept warm in a few different ways. The first rule is to provide a wind break so that the cold winter wind doesn’t whip straight into the hive. If you don’t have a natural wind break such as shrubs or trees in front of the hive, you can erect a wall of hay bales a few feet from the hive, making sure you place them in the direction of the wind. Here at the Village Homestead there is a good wind break provided by trees and shrubs.

The second way to keep a hive warm is to keep the profile low. Hot air rises, so the closer the cluster of bees is to both the top and bottom of the hive, the better. You know how cathedral ceilings in a home look nice, but they aren’t great for keeping the room warm in the winter because the hot air rises to the ceiling? The same principle is in effect in the hive. If too many boxes are on the hive going into winter, the warm air will rise, leaving the cluster of bees below exposed to the cold.

I am convinced that one of my hives died from cold exposure because I put a box of honey frames on the hive at the end of the winter, and the warm air rose to the top. The bees had food stores, thanks to those honey frames I had stored in my freezer all winter, but they didn’t live because they couldn’t stay warm in their cluster. This year I want to minimize the cathedral ceiling phenomenon in the hive.

A third way to keep the hive warm is to keep out excess moisture. I said earlier that moisture in the hive will collect on the top of the hive and rain down as cold water droplets that kill the bees. Moisture is always in the hive because the bees are living organisms and in the course of breathing, eating and moving around, they create condensation. It is important to have a way to remove the water that collects.

Candy Boards

This year my solution to both of these issues – feeding the bees and keeping them warm – is to create a candy board for the hive. It’s a very squat box that goes on top of the brood chambers (and directly under the inner cover). The box is lined with hardware cloth and newsprint, and filled with a sugar-water mixture that is mostly sugar. This set-up directly addresses all of my issues: the bees have food to last them through the winter; there isn’t a lot of extra space at the top of the hive for warm air to collect; and condensation is absorbed by both the newsprint and the sugar mixture. Extra condensation escapes through a hole drilled into the side of the box. I think it’s a brilliant idea. No, I didn’t make it up myself – a lot of other beekeepers are making candy boards for their hives. I took my recipe from the blog Tilly’s Nest – her instructions are pretty good, and if you would like to make one too, head over to her site and follow what she did. 

A few notes on making the candy board: the sugar solution will be very dry while you are mixing it, like damp beach sand – not wet enough to build a sand castle, but not dry enough to flow through your fingers. Mix it with your hands. When you are ready to put it in the candy board frame, pat it in really well. Push down on the sugar mixture and pat, pat, pat until it is a solid mass. Let it sit overnight to harden. Before placing it on the hive, cut away any extra newsprint. If newsprint peeks out from the hive, it will wick moisture into the hive – exactly the opposite of what you want!

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Entrance Reducer and Mouse Guards

Two more things to think about when closing up the hive for the winter: entrance reducers and mouse guards. An entrance reducer simply reduces the size of the entryway at the base of the hive. It keeps the cold air out and allows the guard bees to catch a break instead of expending all their energy on guarding a big entrance during the winter. I actually leave my entrance reducer on year-round for young hives.

Mouse guards are a must if you live in a cold area. Mice seek out warm, protected spaces and can crawl through small holes. A beehive is an ideal winter home for mice. It’s warm and protected, and usually close to a field. Once inside a hive, mice can eat the honey and soil the brood chamber with their droppings. Here in upstate New York we worry about exposure to hantavirus as well. My mouse guards were fashioned by Jeff and I love how easy they are to use. He made a five-sided cube of hardware cloth, the width of the hive entrance, and attached two pieces of wood inside the cube. The pieces of wood are no taller than the entrance so that they can slip in easily. When it’s time to add the mouse guard, I simply slip the wood pieces into the hive entrance until the open side of the cube meets up with the hive body. You can see it in action here:

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Checklist for Buttoning Up the Hive

  • Reduce the number of boxes to the lowest number the bees need for the winter. I use the 10-frame size, and leave two brood chambers for the winter cluster
  • Add an entrance reducer and a mouse guard to the entrance
  • Create a wind break using hay bales if you don’t have one already
  • Put a candy board on top of the brood chambers, and put the inner cover and outer covers on top of the candy board
  • Place bricks or a heavy stone on top of the outer cover to keep the cover on tight; or use bungee cords to secure the cover to the hive

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Project Feederwatch has begun!

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The girls and I participate in Project Feederwatch every year, and it just started up for the season. It’s a citizen science project set up to collect backyard bird counts between November and April, and is organized by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We select two consecutive days each week and record the highest number of each species that visit the feeder at the same time. It doesn’t sound very exciting does it – I mean, who cares that 7 House Finches came to our feeder today? The researchers at Cornell do. They use our data to record trends and draw conclusions. Earlier this year they determined that climate change is altering the habitats of birds. The data we submit gives scientists a good overall view of bird activity in the US and Canada.

We watch the birds and record data partly because it’s a good idea to be a citizen scientist, but really, we do it because we love to watch the birds. ‘A’ and I could sit all day at the window and welcome all of our feathered friends that come to the feeders. Our Project Feederwatch work provides a good excuse for us to indulge in a favorite activity. It makes me feel less lazy. We have to watch the birds, it’s our job. Researchers are counting on us, we tell ourselves.

In my feeders this year I have black oil sunflower; nyger; safflower seed; and suet cakes. I put the feeders up last week and it took a few days for the birds to start coming. The chickens love to eat any seed that falls to the ground, and when I let them out of their run in the morning, they head straight over to the feeders for a snack. Setting up the feeders this fall was a piece of cake because I was smart enough to thoroughly dismantle and clean all the feeders last spring {finally!}. There was nothing sketchy or questionable about the condition of the feeders when I took them out of storage last week. I love it when I plan ahead and things go smoothly… if I can just remember to do that kind of thing more often!

If you are interested in participating in the project, it is not too late to sign up. I think it’s a good experience for children. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has science lessons available for homeschoolers, and there are so many opportunities for science experiments of your own. We have always been happy with our experience. Happy Birding!

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Around the Homestead

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Another fantastic fall weekend in upstate New York. My dad and stepmother came for a visit; my sister had a baby (we haven’t met him yet – she lives in Connecticut); my girls are happy and healthy; the chickens and bees are doing great. What else could I wish for?

Here are some shots from around the homestead today.

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A Research Project and the IIM Process

4-IIMThe girls and I are doing a group read of The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis, a story about a girl growing up in Afghanistan. The main character has a very different life than ‘A’ and ‘H’ – her home, her freedoms, her opportunities for education, are all foreign to my girls. They want to know more, so we are undertaking a group research project about girls in Afghanistan. We are following the IIM method for this project (we say “double eye m”), which is short for Independent Investigation Method. The IIM program encourages students to put together a systematic plan for conducting research before they even start. That sounds like no big deal, but it really is! If only I had been introduced to this method when I was in school… life would have been so much easier! Research projects can seem as though they are enormous and impossible to undertake, and the IIM process breaks it all down into small, manageable steps. Things like selecting a topic, choosing research tools, and writing out notes are all broken down into small steps with deadlines. Steps with deadlines are the key to completing a research project!

The part I like the best is the system for taking notes. You take simple notes (called notefacts) that sum up an idea, and mark each notefact with a number that corresponds to a source (a book, video, article, etc.). You write the whole bibliography for each source before even writing out the first notefact. That right there is brilliant. How many times was I up late writing out my bibliography? Too many to count. After all the notefacts are written out, you cut them up and organize them. This is the elementary-level system. I don’t know how it works for higher level research yet.

I know, it doesn’t sound like a revolutionary system, but it is when you compare it to how I was taught to do research projects (or should I say, how I was NOT taught to do them). This is coming from someone who has written a lot of research papers. My degree is in history – for a while, my entire life was about reading and writing. I think the IIM process is a great way to approach research projects.

Here is a video that shows you more about IIM: http://vimeo.com/jonmossedtech/tuss-iim. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of good IIM resources online. The website about IIM has links to books for sale, and there are some reproducible pages on another site I found. If you are teaching the method, I highly recommend getting a book with the reproducible pages. Making research as easy as possible is the key to success!

If you have any research project tips to share I would love to hear them!

 

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Little Changes…

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Goodbye October, Hello November… November, you are my least favorite month of the year, because you drag me, kicking and screaming, into the winter season. By the time this month is over, all the leaves will be off the trees, we’ll have seen our first snowfall, and it will be cold enough to warrant a coat and hat each time we leave the house. But here you are, November, so let’s get used to each other. Happy thoughts, right?

Our family life has been very full. Homeschooling is in full swing with lessons and assignments every day, punctuated by many field trips. I am having a lot of fun with the girls this year, and I think they are enjoying it too. Now that they’re in the 2nd and 4th grades, the type of work they can undertake has changed and increased. I expect a lot more from both of them and they don’t disappoint me. Here’s a flavor of the work they are involved in:

They begin every day by watching the NBC newscast from the night before – it gives them a glimpse of the major headlines and helps them to be well-informed students;

We are all reading The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis and will have a series of discussions when we finish the book;

The girls love history and geography, so we are cruising through the geography of the United States, complete with mapping projects, and they are learning about the history of New York State;

Next week we start our Project Feederwatch citizen science project, where we will spend 2 days each week observing and counting the birds at our feeders until next spring.

These are just some of the exciting things that are happening at our homeschool this fall.

While school life rolls along at a good clip, I am finding my inner personal life to be in a state of transition. I stopped working at the farmers market for the time being, and I am still adjusting to losing that part of my identity. In the past, when I left a job, I usually had a plan for what lay ahead. This time I’m not moving toward anything in particular. What I have gained by not working, though, is priceless and much needed: down time with my family. We are so busy during the week – all of us – and weekends have become a time for us to be together and relax in each other’s company. I’m welcoming some additional little changes in my life this fall: I’m picking up my first pair of BIFOCALS {gasp!} next week; I’ve stopped drinking wine {completely – another gasp!}; and I’ve been busy selling honey and herbal tinctures from my garden. I’m taking a class on herbal medicine through the Herbal Academy of New England and I have learned so much about how herbs work in the body. I am lucky to have a garden full of medicinal herbs, and I’ve spent the summer and fall harvesting, then tincturing or drying them. I can’t wait to experiment with even more mixtures this winter.

One of my favorite garden herbs is catnip. Yes, the same catnip that makes cats go crazy! I grow a few plants in the garden and it is wonderful in a hot tea blend when you want to relax and sleep well. It’s the best herb I’ve ever used for soothing upset stomachs and minimizing gas pain. It works beautifully for both children and adults… we drink a lot of catnip tea at our house! Grace enjoys catnip too, of course.

Speaking of Grace, she turned 15 a few weeks ago and she’s definitely showing her age. Here she is relaxing on ‘H’s drawings…

Hello November!

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Preparing honey for sale (I’m excited!)

25-honey-labelsI’m excited! My honey is officially for sale. I’m labeling it today and am now taking orders for local sales. The honey is packaged in 1 lb. jars and is available for $6/jar. If you’re in the Galway/Saratoga area, click here to send me an email and we can discuss delivery arrangements.

I have plastic bottles available for shipping and will price out shipping options for all of you who live a bit further away.

I’m looking forward to preparing all the wonderful fall foods we love that are sweetened with honey… roasted vegetables, braised carrots, wheat breads and more.

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