backyard chickens, chickens, duck eggs, ducks, farming, gardening, raising ducks, raising turkeys, turkeys

Beginning Homesteading Its All About The Birds

When we first moved to our first and only home 23 years ago the first thing we did was plant a garden. We always loved to grow things and as time went by the garden expanded, but something was still missing.  One day while visiting a friend, we realized what was missing.  He had a beautiful flock of laying hens free ranging in his yard.  As we talked with him they scratched and ate, he even gave us a few eggs to take home and try.  When we cracked them open for breakfast the next morning,and saw the beautiful yolks, we knew it was time for us to take the leap into chickens and homesteading. img_1077

Laying hens are an inexpensive and easy way to raise your own food, even in a small space.  We converted part of our shed into a coop, and built a run made of wire that we salvaged from a friends junk pile. The inside of the coop was 4’x8′ which was plenty of room for 6 birds, nesting boxes and a roost.  The run was 8’x8′. Predators are always an issue so we were sure to bury a few boards along the edge of the run.  Now comes the fun part, ordering chicks!!!  We chose various breeds that were all good brown egg layers.  We ordered them through our local feed store, this limited our variety, but saved us on shipping, which can run as high as 35 dollars.  Ordering straight run chicks is like playing craps so be sure to order chicks that are already sexed, so you do not end up with roosters. When the chicks arrive they will need to be put in a brooder, which is really just an enclosed space with a heat lamp.  When you pick up your chicks the bonding will begin immediately.

 

We found ourselves spending lots of time with them.  Sometimes we would even hold them while we watched T.V. We put our first set of chicks in a brooder in our sons room to keep them safe.  This was a huge mistake, although they were safe they began to smell, and made a lot of dust .  This was not our best parenting moment, we knew when our son started sleeping on the couch that it was time for them to go to the garage.  After about 8 weeks, we moved them to the coop with a heat lamp.  It takes 20 weeks for most hens to start laying eggs, which is an eternity when you are a new homesteader.  We would run out and check for eggs every morning like kids on Easter morning. Finally we were rewarded with one tiny egg, and then another, and another.   Soon our whole flock was laying and we were now raising our own protein for the first time.

 

In the beginning we ate egg after egg, but over time we couldn’t keep up with our girls .  So we started giving eggs to family and friends.  Our chickens provided us with so many lessons and adventures.  One sunny summer afternoon we finally let the ladies out to free range under our watchful eyes, and with a glass or two of wine we watched them scratch and eat bugs just as we had always wanted.  As the sun set the girls put themselves to bed. IMG_9777 I remember Tracy calling me at work to say the chickens were in the garden.  I came home to her in a pair of welding gloves trying to pick up chickens.  Or when we decided to have a rooster and she was fighting it off with a rake. (if you read her previous blog, “Adventures in Homesteading, a not-so-country girl’s perspective, you learned that she is not a bird person!) IMG_6183 (1)

From this simple beginning our homestead grew and we eventually built the girls a new coop, that was a beautiful addition to our yard.

They say chickens are a gateway animal, and they are right.  Most birds are similar to raise and soon after the chickens we ventured into ducks.  If watching chickens is like reading a good book, then watching ducks is like tuning into a NASCAR race.  They are so full of sounds and energy.  They lay more eggs than a chicken.  We love to herd the ducks back into the coop at night, its as if they share one brain and move more like a school of fish than a flock of ducks. Plus who doesn’t love a “duckface” selfie.

 

After ducks the next logical step was turkeys.  How could we resist raising our own thanksgiving dinner?  We raised the turkeys separate from the chicken, but it wasn’t long before we realized that even the fattest turkey can fly.

 

The turkeys loved to escape and feed with the chickens.  Seeing a 20 lb bird walking in your yard can only make you smile.  Tucking a turkey under your arm is a little different than doing the same with a chicken, whether you have welding gloves on or not.  Raising birds has so many benefits eggs, meat,  entertainment, tick control, and don’t forget all that manure for the garden.  We couldn’t imagine our homestead without the birds and their noises.  Our homestead adventure started with a simple visit to a friends house.  Who knows where yours will start, but when it does don’t forget the birds.

 

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backyard chickens, chickens, farming, homesteading, pigs

Adventures in Homesteading, a not-so-country girl’s perspective

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Often when we blog, it’s a joint effort, we both share our thoughts collectively. But, in this particular blog, I am going to give you the perspective of some of the adventures in homesteading from a girl who in no way, shape or form, grew up country or as a farm girl. In fact, I am a product of suburbia. I grew up in a nice house with a neatly manicured lawn on a tree-lined street, everything you might envision a suburb to be.

Fast-forward almost 27 years and here I am, on a small homestead helping to grow and raise our own food. I use the word “help” because I am definitely not the brains of the operation, I can’t even keep a house plant alive. However, I can blanch, freeze, preserve, can and cook just about anything you can imagine, often with rave reviews. Any good employer would tell you that the work team is only as good as its weakest link. And, until last week, I really felt like a pretty weak link. Then I had one of those “adventures in homesteading”.

If you follow us regularly, you know that here on our homestead we raise chickens and pigs. I have certainly experienced the occasional “chicken in the garden”, and anyone who knows me, knows I absolutely hate birds. My way of corralling them is usually with a gentle push from a plastic garden rake and if I have to, and only if I have to, I have been known to use oven mitts or my husband’s welding gloves to pick up a chicken and relocate it to where it belongs. (Just envision Ace Ventura in “When Nature Calls” returning that disgusting bat to its cave.) But, last week’s adventure was way beyond an escapee chicken.IMG_0301

I was pulling in the driveway after a long day, (these things always happen when you are maxed out!), talking to my husband on the phone when I said to him, “Oh my gosh, there is a bear in the yard!”. Now this is not really an unusual occurrence because we have seen bears on many occasions in our yard and on trail cameras not far from our home. But on second look, I quickly realized that it was not a black bear but our almost 300 lb black pig, Olive (named so because of her resemblance to a black olive as a piglet) in the yard, out of her pen! Then suddenly, her co- conspirators, “Pinky and Spot”, came to greet me at the car. Now what? Remember I told you that I was speaking to my husband, the brains of this homestead, on the phone? He was on his way home from work, but still nearly an hour away and instructed me to go get some food to try and lure them back into the pen.

So, time to dig deep. I am certainly not afraid of the pigs. They are sweet, loving, smart animals. But all three at nearly 300 lbs scared me a little because I am no match for a pig that size. If one them leaned on my legs, I would be knocked over in a second. Here is the ironic part, and you just can’t make this stuff up, all three were scheduled to go to the butcher the following morning. Somehow, I feel like they must have known and decided to escape.

Back to the luring. I quickly ran to get the food, and of course, as things happen, I needed to open a new feed bag. I opened the first one I saw and filled about half of a 5 lb bucket, ran back to the front yard and fortunately, we do sell a bit of what we grow, and the rascals, I mean pigs, found a pile of ornamental corn that we had for sale. Ok, this is good, they are all in one place.

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We live on a pretty quiet street that a lot of people walk, run and bike on. A lovely couple passed by as the pigs were annihilating the ornamental corn, and just like it was perfectly normal to see 1000 lbs of pigs in someone’s front yard, they commented on how beautiful they are. I tried my best to smile and thanked them, but you can only imagine what was going through my mind. Back to the wrangling. I grabbed some of the corn and put it in the feed bucket. I made a “trail of corn cobs” towards the pig pen. At one point, “Pinky” desperately wanted the corn in the bucket and she went whole head in. I finally lured Pinky into the pen, and knowing their eating habits, I poured out the contents of the bucket and the other two slowly followed.

Keep in mind, my husband is still on the phone, I am sure feeling helpless and laughing quietly at the same time. (I don’t frequently use foul language, but I needed to wash my mouth out with soap later that night.) He instructed me to try and find how the pigs got out. I surveyed the fence but could not find anything on first glance. After my 45 minute adventure to get them back in, there was no way in you-know-what, that I was leaving them un-attended until the brains got home. So I watched, and waited until….

Pinky bolted, and I mean bolted, for a lower part of the fence. I truly had no idea that pigs could run that fast. (not a country girl, remember?) Fortunately, I followed her and got there first. She lead me right to where they got under the fence. I was able to hold the fence down with my foot and when she realized she was not going to win, she went and laid down for a nap, which I also needed. This was about the time that my better-late-than-never husband arrived. The first thing he said when he saw the food pile, “you gave them chicken food!” We laughed and at the same time, I was exhausted from yet another “adventure in homesteading”.

When I lay my head down every night, I often survey my day and I always hope that I accomplished something. On this particular day, I went to sleep pretty proud of myself for being able to get those pigs back in their pen on my own. I still don’t consider myself a farm or country girl, and I am not ashamed to admit that I paint my nails and get my hair done every month. But on this day, I definitely graduated to a “Homestead Momma”. And oddly, I smiled a bit knowing that not only did I have another “adventure in homesteading”, but I was able to share it with those pigs who were off to freezer camp the next morning. Thank you, girls.

backyard chickens, cooking, farming, homemade, homesteading, raising turkeys, turkeys

Raising Your Own Thanksgiving Dinner

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When we decided to raise our own turkeys it seemed like something we should have been doing already.  Thoughts of a huge Thanksgiving dinner complete with our own bird ran through our minds.  We had several years of knowledge with other types of poultry,  so we dove right in.  Once we started our research, we found that we would need to order our turkeys fairly early and that a local farm store would be a better option than mail order.  Mail order required a 6 bird minimum and shipping was very expensive.  Because room is at a premium on our homestead we opted for the farm store, their price per bird was less, and they only had a 4 bird minimum, perfect for our needs. We also chose broad breasted whites, due to the fact that they had the best feed conversion (2:1), and grew the quickest.  Now that the birds were ordered, we jumped in with both feet.  Chickens can spread disease to turkeys, so they would need to be kept separate from our chickens.  We understand that there are varying theories on this, but since it was our first experience, we opted for the separation method. We would need to build a separate coop and run.  We settled on an 8×8 coop to give the birds plenty of inside room. And, as we are sure any homesteader will agree, it could also offer us possible future animal or storage space. A 20×20 run with 3′ fencing was also constructed.  We covered the building of the coop in a previous blog, so if you are interested check it out. IMG_3157

When we picked the birds up from the feed store, they peeped the whole 30 minute ride home in the car unless music was playing.  Once home, we settled them into the brooder in the garage we normally use for chickens.  The brooder had a heat lamp to keep them warm and cozy.  They also loved food.

It wasn’t long before we learned our first lesson about turkeys,  they can fly.  They also liked to be outside the brooder.

You know you are a homesteader when you come into your garage and find turkeys scratching, pecking, and pooping in the middle of the floor.  Moments like these always make us smile and remind us that we are not the ones in control.  After several days of the turkeys going rogue , we knew it was time to be moved out to their coop. IMG_3233

They were so happy with all the new space, but most of all they loved the roost.  We also kept a heat lamp in the coop until they had all of their feathers.  Once they were in the coop for a week we started letting them into the run.

At first they were timid, but they soon found their favorite spots to scratch and lay.  As they grew a bit more, we learned more turkey lessons, how they like to roost outside and a 3′ fence is not high enough to keep them in.  At dusk the toms would fly up and roost on the tallest point they could find just outside the fence.  Every night we would have to pick them up and put them inside.  This became more and more difficult as they pushed over 20 lbs.  On occasion they would all decide to fly over the fence and forage in the lawn, they never went far and just like when they escaped in the garage, it made us smile. Walking in the yard and finding a small flock of white turkeys enjoying their life and gobbling is something we became accustomed to.  After 4 months it was time for the turkeys to go to freezer camp. img_4057

We had processed chickens before, so we were confident we could handle the job.  Dispatching a 23 lb turkey is a 2 man job, you will also need a much bigger scalding pot than the one you use for chickens, so plan accordingly.  Lesson learned. The butchering went well and was much easier than we imagined.  The turkeys dressed out at 23 lbs each. img_4058

We used shrink bags and froze 3 turkeys for future use.  This also required a bigger pot than we were used to. Again, lesson learned.

We decided to cook one right away as we had never had a fresh turkey in our lives.  The beautiful bird was brined and placed in the smoker, it was a tight fit but we made it work. img_4159

We also were able to smoke it over apple wood , that we had saved from pruning our apple trees.  After 8 hours of smoking our turkey was done. img_1417

We were amazed by the juiciness, and how different the texture of the meat was compared to ones we had bought from the store.  Because this first bird came out so well, we are confident that this year’s Thanksgiving bird will be amazing.  When we place it on the table surrounded by our family, it will be the fulfillment of a dream that is American as apple pie, and another reminder that learning on the homestead should never stop.  We will never be connected to the meal on our plate more than this Thanksgiving.  And when someone asks us to pass the turkey, we will know exactly what we are feeding our family, and that our food was raised happy and healthy right on our own small, but mighty, Homestead.

backyard chickens, carpentry, chickens, farming, homemade, homesteading, turkeys

Building a Turkey Coop

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So many times on the homestead projects are born from necessity.  When we want to plant a new crop, or raise a new animal, there is always an investment to make.  Sometimes its as simple as a trellis for beans, other times its an 8’x8′ turkey coop.  This project was born several months ago when we were at the feed store. There were chick order forms laying on the checkout counter.  We took a quick look and to our surprise they also offered turkey poults. (baby turkeys)

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We had been interested in trying to raise our own turkeys for the the holidays, but shipping was always an issue, so this was a golden opportunity for us.  We did some research after placing the order and found out that the turkeys would need a separate area because disease can be passed from chickens to turkeys.

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When we began designing our turkey’s coop,  we decided to make it a more generic structure that could also be used for other purposes, just in case the turkey rearing didn’t work out.  We also wanted it to fit our homestead and look good.  We designed it to match our chicken coop.

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We finally decided on an 8’x8′ structure, which would allow us to use it as storage in the off season, or maybe a small barn for a couple of sheep.  Since we chose the same roof design and materials as the chicken coop, our next stop was Porosky Lumber.  img_2978

My good friend Scott is a purveyor of both fine hardwood and beautiful rough cut hemlock.  He also makes beautiful cutting boards, wood art, and is one of the best conversationalists you will ever meet.

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Scott loaded us up with some of the most gorgeous 12″ boards and 3″ battens you have ever seen.  These will be used for the exterior of our coop.  It also has some natural rot resistance which was a bonus.

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We began by framing the floor from 2″x4″s and used some pressure treated for runners that would contact the ground and would also allow us to move the coop if necessary.  After squaring the frame up by measuring diagonally from corner to corner we added 3/4 inch cdx plywood for the floor.

We framed the walls adding openings for doors and windows.  After this we mocked up our rafters.

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We then cut all of our rafters and made the frame for the roof.  We installed the corner boards on the frame to stiffen the structure before we climbed onto the roof, which we covered in 1/2″ cdx plywood.  We also framed in the gable ends and added framing for vents on both sides.

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We then covered the structure with those beautiful 12″ boards

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Next we installed the soffits and capped the fascia, and installed the metal roofing. We also had an unexpected guest. (Take a look at the upper window/vent)

The next step was to cap and trim the windows, and install 1/2 inch hardware cloth into the windows and vents to keep out predators.  Finally, we installed the battens ripped them down to 2″ for aesthetic purposes.

The last thing to do was build the doors.  We used the same hemlock boards so that everything matched nicely.

img_3103We now had a great looking addition to the homestead.  This building is versatile, and is built with quality materials that should last for decades.  We can’t wait for our little turkeys to move in.  They say that “necessity is the mother of invention”, and that is certainly the case on the homestead.  Over and over we take on new projects that not only make us use our bodies, but also challenge our mind.  Innovation is still alive and well on the homestead, and every time we take on a new challenge, we are rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction that we can’t find on a screen.

backyard chickens, cooking, duck eggs, ducks, farming, homemade, homesteading, raising ducks, recipes

Maple Bourbon Smoked Duck, what “farm to table” means to us

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The term “farm to table” is another one of those terms, in our opinion, that is way over used and frankly, not even used properly. If we were to define our way of homesteading, we would say that the term, “farm to table” applies. On our homestead, we have ducks and chickens. (Our ducks were introduced to you in an earlier blog, so look that up if you did not see it) In all farm or homesteading life, most of the animals serve a purpose, such as eggs from the hens and ducks as well as their meat.  Last fall, we hatched 14 ducklings and ended up with a total of 7 males and 7 females.

As in life and nature, too many boys are not a good thing! Frequent fights and domination can cause quite a ruckus in a flock of ducks. So the tough decision has to be made, it was time to thin the flock. We have a friend that already had a female duck that mentioned that they wanted to get another duck for a mate. So of course, we offered one of our boys and they gratefully took it off our hands. As for three other males, we carefully, and as respectfully as possible, butchered them. No other details necessary here. They went into the freezer for a later meal.

Easter was fast approaching and in thinking of what we had in the freezer for our Easter dinner, we remembered the ducks. One of our favorite ways to have any of our fish or meat is brined and smoked. We have yet to perfect our home-built smoker, so in the meantime we use one that is a part of our gas grill. The wood we use for smoking is apple wood, and yup, you guessed it, from our small orchard of apple trees.

Maple Bourbon Glazed Smoked Duck

1 duck, 2-3 lbs

Cracked black pepper

The Brine (also great for chicken and pork)

4 cups of cold water

¼ cup of kosher salt

¼ cup maple syrup

1 oz of bourbon

1 tsp cracked black pepper

The Glaze

¼ cup maple syrup

1 tbsp bourbon

Whisk together the brine ingredients until the salt is dissolved. Pour over the duck in a large bowl. If you don’t have enough brine to cover the duck, don’t panic, just add a little more water. We also use a trick here that we learned from making sauerkraut. Place a small plate over the duck in the brine and it helps to keep it immersed and to keep it from “floating”. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours.

About an hour before cooking, soak the apple wood chips in warm water.

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After 6 hours, remove the duck from the brine and rinse the duck inside and out thoroughly with cold water. Place the duck on the smoker rack, and season simply with a sprinkle of black pepper. (let the smoke do the seasoning for you!) Smoke the duck according to your smoker’s directions with the wood chips that you have been soaking. We smoke ours at about 225 degrees for 2 hours or until the internal temp reaches 165 degrees. (There are varying degrees of duck “doneness”, this is just our preference.)

After the first hour of smoking, mix the glaze ingredients. Brush the glaze over the duck, then brush again every 15 minutes. After the agonizing wait for your duck to be done, remove from the smoker and enjoy!

So there it is, the epitome of “farm to table”, or in our case, “homestead to table”. We strongly believe in treating our animals, which also become our food, with dignity and respect from their births all the way to nourishing our tired bodies from the homestead life. It’s not any easy life, but the rewards are countless. A meal in our house never goes by without thanking the animals for giving their lives for us, or thanking each other for the time spent caring for the animals, gardening, canning, freezing or preserving, and cooking the meal.