Monday, November 15, 2010

Liquid Gold

Our crazy trip to Calgary at the beginning of May saw us picking up 2 packages of bees at Beemaid on our way home.  There's nothing like driving several hundred kilometers with a few thousand bees buzzing not-so-happily in the back of the vehicle!  As you can see in the photo below, they are packaged in tubes, with vented caps securely attached to each end, with the queen housed in a small box attached to a piece of webbing in the tube.

The bees overnighted in our basement, with a little sugar syrup to keep them nourished.  We got them installed into their hives in the morning.  We had established comb for them to clean up, complete with some pollen and honey.  It was early May, and while there was some pollen available for them to harvest, the only blossoms with nectar were in my greenhouse, so we put feeders on the tops of the hive and fed them a sugar syrup to give them a head start.

Checking the hives for presence of eggs, larvae, and HONEY!!

Discarded bridge comb built outside of the frames

A frame of brood, the capped brood can be seen sticking out slightly, with capped honey surrounding the young.

We harvested 2 boxes (supers) of honey at the end of July and decided to extract it in the evening after the kids were in bed at 8 pm.  We finished at about 1am, with a bit of cleanup left for the morning!  We haven't extracted honey for a few years and couldn't find our electric uncapping knife, so we used the low-tech cappings scratcher instead.  We extracted in our kitchen, strapping the extractor to the kids wooden table, which wasn't heavy enough to keep it in place so we had to lean on the extractor if the load was unbalanced.

A scratched frame of honey in the 4 frame extractor.  

The cappings scratcher left a lot more wax in the honey than the uncapping knife does, making it difficult to strain.  We had to do a lot of scraping the bottom of the strainer, slowing our progress significantly, hard to take when it's the wee hours of the morning!

This is a 70 pound honey bucket.  We harvested a total of 100 lbs of honey from the 2 boxes of honey.  As you can see, the kids furniture came in handy again!

We discovered a swarm of bees in our extra hive equipment and were able to capture it successfully.  At the end of August we harvested 5 more boxes of honey, 2 from each of the spring hives, and 1 from the captured swarm.  We extracted 2 boxes of that honey, then sickness took over our household and by the time we were well and would have been able to extract, a significant amount of the honey had crystallized in the frames which would have made it very difficult to extract.  This honey will be fed back to the bees in winter if needed or in spring to give them a head start.  

To prepare the bees for winter, we wrapped the hives with bubble wrap to protect the bees from extremes of temperature.  We're hoping for some survivors in spring!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Egg Layers!!

While getting chicks that will eventually lay eggs is exciting, it's even more rewarding to get chickens that are already laying!  We were offered a flock of 24 laying ISA Brown hens, complete with an 8x8' chicken coop, feeder and watering bucket!  The coop was loaded onto a trailer, chickens and all, and moved 4 miles to our yard.  They never skipped a beat, we continued to get between 17 and 24 eggs in the days after the move.

Some of the eggs are just huge! The one on the left is what I would call an extra large egg, the one on the right... OWWW!!

We used some 4' lawn fencing for a temporary fence, but it works so well I think it will become permanent! It doesn't need much support, and is sturdy enough to keep out the dogs and predators. It's more expensive than chicken wire, but it's doing it's job for now!

Fresh eggs are amazing. I love using eggs that are still warm!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Baby Chicks!

Early spring brought huge change on our farm!  We got baby chicks, hatched out more baby chicks, got a puppy, and picked up our cattle!  In mid-May, our first set of chicks arrived. We ordered from Performance Poultry in Ontario together with some other people on the ACE forum. They arrived in good condition and thrived on arrival. I was expecting day-old chicks, but they were probably a week old when they arrived. We ordered some heritage breeds, hardy enough to withstand our winters.

The lighter colored chick with the spot on it's head is a Buckeye.  They are a hardy bird with a pea comb that is low to it's head so it's not prone to frostbite in the winter.  They are a calm bird, dual purpose, easy to handle and are known to chase down and eat mice!  They are a rare breed, and absolutely gorgeous.

The smaller, darker chicks are a Buff Brahma Bantam.  They are also hardy, and know for their brooding and mothering abilities.  I hope to use them for hatching and raising chicks.

These chicks attacked the feed and water immediately!  Their flight from Ontario was a dry one, but they did not seem to be affected at all by the partial day of no food.  Of course it got really cold right after we got them and they lived in our basement for a week until it started getting stinky!  The kids enjoyed being able to go downstairs and watch them, we housed them in an oversized plastic storage tub with a heat lamp dangling overhead.  We had a remote temperature sensor under the lamp so we could keep an eye on the temperatures, especially when we moved them into the garage and the temps fluctuated from day to night.  We had some large wooden crates that we used to house them in the garage, and once they were fully feathered, we moved them into a chicken tractor that we built.  I'll put up pictures of the tractors in a later post!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hatching - a risky business!

My husband picked up this incubator from his mom on the off-chance that we would need it. We initially weren't planning to use the incubator to hatch chicks this spring, but when we didn't receive the Partridge Chantecler chicks that we'd ordered, we began looking for hatching eggs and ordered a water bottle that was missing from the incubator. Our crazy trip to Calgary gave us the opportunity to stop in at a wonderful couple's farm and pick up a dozen Partridge Chantecler eggs. We also picked up a couple of roosters as a favor for a lady who lives in our area, and were given 10 Serama eggs as well. After letting the eggs rest for a day, we fired up the incubator and began the watching and waiting!

The Serama eggs were very small and we had to make some modifications to the egg turning rack for them. The automatic turner was set to turn the eggs every hour, the temperature was set to about 99 degrees. It was difficult to monitor the temperature and humidity, as the dial for adjusting the temperature was very touchy and the humidity depended entirely on how big the puddle was on the bottom of the incubator. We had some major 'oopses' with the temperature fluctuating wildly, the humidity being completely out of whack, and the eggs getting stuck and not turning. These events didn't seem to harm the birds though, they weren't deformed, stuck in their shells, or whatever.

We candled the eggs about once a week. We don't have a real candler, so we rigged up a box with a bright light in it and began the learning process. We had no idea what we were looking for, but with the first candling found several clear eggs which indicates that no chick is growing. We looked up pictures on the internet of what an egg is supposed to look like, and compared that with what we were seeing. Of course the PC eggs were brown, making them difficult to see through. Eventually we began to see the reddish mass of veins and a few veins running across the egg to the shell indicating a growing chick. The second candling was much easier, as the chick inside the good eggs was a dark mass. With each candling we eliminated a few eggs, and at hatching had 10 Partridge Chantecler eggs and 3 Serama eggs.

I was shocked to read in our hatching book that eggs that are not growing before day 9 can be removed from the incubator - and eaten! We didn't... :-)

The eggs were getting noisy, cheeping could be heard from the inside of the eggs. We removed the egg turner on Day 18 as recommended, leaving a hardware cloth screen for the chicks to hatch on. We increased the humidity slightly and lowered the temperature a bit.

We brought the incubator into the living room for hatching, and we hovered over it; it was so fun to watch the progress.  We were totally shocked when the first eggs began hatching on Day 20 instead of 21!  The Serama eggs hatched first, but the Partridge Chantecler eggs were only a few hours behind.

The first chick working it's way around the shell

Top of the shell popped off, they're really packed in there tight!

Pushing it's way out of the shell

First steps, flopping around among the other eggs

The first little Serama chick, they are really small!

A Partridge Chantecler Chick

The final outcome was that only one of the remaining Serama eggs didn't hatch, otherwise it was a great hatch with no deformed or weak chicks!  We are the proud caretakers of 2 tiny Serama chicks and 10 Partridge Chantecler chicks!  All the chicks hatched within a 24 hr period, with all 10 PC chicks within a 15.5 hour span.  I introduced them to water and feed and they are off and growing!  

All in all, it was a fantastic experience.  It's good to know that hatching eggs aren't as sensitive as we were led to believe.  We broke the 'rules' and opened the incubator several times during hatching.  My husband is a 'hands on' kind of guy and couldn't keep from helping the occasional chick out and listening to the eggs to see if there was peeping!  Next year I'd like to try using a broody hen so they can look after the chicks after hatching too, but at least we now we have some experience using the incubator if that doesn't work out!

Monday, May 24, 2010


Finally!  After a winter's worth of planning, the snow cleared and we began the construction of our greenhouse.  We searched online for ideas of how to build an inexpensive, yet effective, greenhouse and found the Alberta Home Gardening blog, where he posts ideas for an inexpensive hoop-style greenhouse, and a year later posts an update with improvements and modifications to make it hail-proof.  We appreciated the simplicity of the design, and of course we saw a few things that we figured we could improve upon as well!

We began with a basic frame, and pounded 4-foot rebar into the ground on the inside of the frame at 2-foot intervals.  The dimensions of the greenhouse are 32 feet by 12 feet.  We used pressure treated wood, as we intend to build beds or use containers inside the greenhouse and are not concerned with contamination in our vegetables. 

We did a few things different than the one posted on the previously mentioned blog, one being that we made it a lot heavier and more (hopefully) structurally sound.  The hoops are made of PVC electrical conduit, two 10-foot pieces spanned this distance perfectly.  To beef them up a little, we first cut 16-foot pieces of rebar to fit inside the hoops, the ends butting against the rebar supports that are in the ground.

Secondly, we used a different method of supporting them, drilling holes through 2x2's and threading the pvc through them.  The result of this, however, was that we now had 2 large sections that had to be lifted into place with a picker truck, thankfully we have access to one!

One concern we have with the modifications we made is that the pvc has a pronounced bend in it where the ground supported rebar meets the rebar in the hoop.  We are hoping this won't become a weak point and fail, time will tell.

We've already had a heavy wet snow since putting the plastic on and saw some flattening of the arches, but with a few 2x8's on the inside holding up the center purlin, it withstood the storm quite nicely.  If we were to do it again, we would likely make the center purlin even more sturdy, either a 2x4 or 2x6 and put a few vertical supports on the inside of the greenhouse.

The ends of the PVC are placed over the rebar stakes and fastened to the inside of the wood frame.

We fastened the hoops on the inside of the frame so we could use the polyfastener from Northern Greenhouse Sales.  We wanted to have a nice tight seal and a method for attaching that wouldn't punch holes in the plastic in case we remove the plastic for the winter and wish to re-use it next year.

The rounded ends of the greenhouse were finished with strips of 3/8" plywood, bent around the arch and screwed into place.  The polyfastener was attached to this strip and we left enough plastic to wrap around to the ends.  We stretched the plastic over the hoops and zipped the inside strip of the polyfastener into place.  It worked really quickly, but it did slice through the plastic in a few places where we were stretching it a bit too tightly.  Our original intent was to apply 2 layers of poly and have a fan blowing between the layers, but we didn't have quite enough so we may do that at another time.  We will just have to open the polyfastener and add a layer.

We used plastic lath, also from Northern Greenhouse sales to attach the plastic to the doors.

We protected the plastic from the rather rough wood on the purlins with a double layer of plastic, stapled in place.

We have made a few more changes since this photo was taken.  We built a window into the door and installed the heat-activated window opener  from Lee Valley Tools.  The door on the other side is yet to have one installed, so when I see that the window is wide open, I know it's time to go prop open the door on the other side!  We installed doors on both ends of the greenhouse for access and ventilation.  We hope to keep the temperature and humidity inside the greenhouse moderate both day and night with effective ventilation and using a couple of black barrels of water inside the greenhouse as heat reservoirs. 

We're ready for the growing season; melons, pumpkins, zucchini, eggplant, flowers and tomatoes are at home in our new greenhouse, growing like weeds already!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Our first Dexters

We bought a Dexter cow, calf, and yearling steer in January, but we couldn't pick them up until the snow melted, and the time finally came!

The cow's registered name is Pioneer Jewel which is a bit of a mouthful, so we call her Julie.

Buttons the steer, Julie the cow, and Tria the calf (her tag number was 3A).

The first meeting between the goats and the cattle:  Goats - curious, Cattle - indifferent.

After researching Dexter cattle for quite some time and calling many breeders and visiting a few farms, we bought a registered purebred cow with a purebred but unregistered calf, and a steer for the freezer.  We learned that they are a dual-purpose breed, meat and milk.  We hope to milk Julie after the calf is weaned, and fatten Buttons up to be butchered for the winter's meat supply.  We understand that Dexters finish very well on grass, with no grain required.  Grass fed beef is higher in Omega 3 fats, so combined with our home-grown veggies, fruit, chicken and honey, we will be eating well this winter!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spring & snow

The dreaming phase of spring is nearly over as the temperatures creep higher and the snow recedes.  Garden, chickens, cows, renovations... all around the corner, just out of sight, although I'm catching a glimpse of the hope of them now and then!

Plans for the garden are moving from the 'thinking' phase to the 'ordering' phase, and I need to finalize what I'm planning to grow this year.  First on the list is scab-resistant potatoes and I'm considering Russets and Norland varieties.  I don't know what varieties we used last year, they were seed from my mom who has grown then for years and we've always just called them the 'red', 'white' or 'pink and white' potatoes!  I read an interesting blog at and am going to attempt to follow their watering ideas for reducing potato scab this year.  I've never watered potatoes in my life, but I think the soil and weather conditions here dictate that I'm going to have to start!

Second, I'm going to be brave and attempt to grow a few more time-consuming plants this year.  Cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli are on the list, and I suspect that there are a lot of pests around that will love to eat them as there is a lot of canola in the area, which are of the same family and like to share their pests around!  It's going to take some vigilance, but I think it's worth the try!

Carrots, beets, and a few turnips complete the root crop list thus far, and some powdery mildew resistant peas are a must.  I'm hoping to plant some corn beside the house in the microclimate created by the shelter of the porch, a few cobs of corn in August would be so sweet!  Beans I'm still not decided about, I'm thinking of a climbing variety that can grow in another microclimate near a building.

The greenhouse (hopefully we will have a greenhouse!) is reserved for frost susceptible long-season plants, tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, and maybe a few zucchini, although after I've had enough zucchini, I might move them outside and allow the frost to take them :) 

I've been reading about square foot gardening and must admit that I'm intrigued.  The option of controlling the soil fertility and moisture and stopping creeping weeds by using raised beds is appealing, as well as the fact that they are generally cleared of snow sooner and the soil warms sooner.  I currently have my strawberries in raised beds and really like the defined space for them, plus I don't have to bend down as far to pick the occasional weed and deal with the runners!  I was planning to do plots instead of rows in the main garden, I think I'll look this a bit more!

Even as the calendar heralds the start of spring, the weather forecast is for flurries and below zero temperatures all of this week.  It has begun already with a small accumulation dusting the outside step, another reminder that the change of seasons is not dictated by the calendar!

Happy dreaming...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Longing for Spring

I've had this happen to me on several occasions.  Store-bought tomatoes ripening in my fruit bowl that sprouted their seeds inside the tomato.  They look fine from the outside, finally looking ripe, but totally sprouted from the inside!  It leaves me wondering what has happened to this tomato to make it do this; I have never had this happen with any home-grown tomatoes!  This last episode has left me looking at my calendar and calculating how soon we could have ripe tomatoes from our own plants.  Of course they have to be seeded, a greenhouse built, and the snow needs to disappear before that can even start to happen, but the tendrils of spring fever are winding their way into my brain and resulting in extensive mental to-do lists and plans for massive outdoor heaters to reduce our snow pack.

A quick trip south this weekend has amplified this longing, a few days with no snow, some sprigs of green grass, a hint of crocus sprouts, and warm temperatures makes me wonder if the allure of the north is worth the length of the winters.  I think it's time for me to go take an extra dose of Vitamin D and shake these doldrums!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Morning delight

Yesterday's frost resulted in some amazing hoar frost today!!  I got a few photos before the sun came out and melted it away.  It's so awesome to see the ultimate Artist at work!

  Our yard fence

Icicle hanging outside the window

 Birch Tree

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Monolith

The recent warm weather is a welcome relief from winter.  Our winter has been consistently cold, with no warm spells to shrink down the snow, and there is a lot of snow!  Going into the barn these days is an adventure in dodging drips and moving things to a drier location as the snow on the roof melts and drips through.

This beautiful but neglected barn was likely moved onto it's concrete foundation about 50 years ago.  The walls are squared logs with perfect dovetail corners.  It has a wooden floor and stalls on the main floor and a huge hayloft above.  The hayloft had straw in it for many years and with a leaky roof above created a perfect environment for rotting the hayloft floor in numerous places.  The barn roof was already in need of replacement when we bought the place, and probably about 10 years before that!  We have the tin to cover it, but soon found out that it's not going to be a simple project.  Last summer we straightened some of the walls and tore off the flare-out from one side of the barn to see what the ends of the rafters looked like.  There is some rot right at the ends and the plate on top of the logs needs replacement.  Knowing that this was going to take longer than the available time we had last fall, we bought a tarp that we were hoping to secure over the whole roof, which meant that all the old wooden shingles and nails would have to be removed.  We got most of one side of the roof stripped, then the snow came and hasn't let up since!

We get asked and we occasionally ask ourselves if it's worth it to fix something up that needs so much work.  I don't think we'll be able to answer that until we're done, but we've got time and money invested now, so forward is the only route!  I envision the gleaming tin roof, solid walls, and a extended flare to make a lean-to outside... and more importantly our hay staying dry in the hayloft and no more water running down my neck while I'm milking!
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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gardening in 2009

A lot of locals tried to encourage us by repeating that the summer of 2009 was exceptional and that things will be better next year.  Time will tell, but I'm not very optomistic...

Our yard is an old farmstead, and while the yard had been maintained for the past 20 years or so, there was no garden and the only remnants of flowers were some peonies with root systems that go down a mile!  We started our garden project in May by preparing the former pasture for the rototiller.  We dug up a few gravel deposits left from another project and filled the holes in the driveway.  While poking around in the ground with our shovels, we realized there was more iron in the ground than was beneficial - especially for the rototiller!  We went over it with a metal detector, flagged wherever it beeped, and got busy with digging.  Oh the stuff we found!  Everything from railroad spikes and rolls of wire to tools and 6 foot pieces of grader blade!  The tractor and rototiller came the same day and worked up the ground.  The clay soil needed some amendment, so my husband hauled a layer of composted manure that we found 'out back' and spread it, filling in a few low spots while he was at it.  A few weeks later, just before we wanted to plant, the tractor and rototiller returned for a final prep.  The soil looked great, moist and fine.

The garden plot is about 30 feet x 60 feet and we planted the whole thing.  Most of the area was covered with potatoes which in our experience were fast growing and would provide good competition for weeds.  The rest of the garden we planted into rather easy-to-care-for crops, as we were going to have a busy summer and I didn't want to be fussing with too many time-consuming crops.  These included peas, carrots, beans, radishes, onions, a few cucumbers and tomatoes.  Lettuce, spinach, and zucchini were planted in a smaller kitchen garden closer to the house.  Once the seeds were in the ground, we looked up and waited for the rain.  And waited.  A few quick showers came and the veggies started to come up, poking brave heads through the lawn of quackgrass and bromegrass that were staking their claim again.

Things were starting to look pretty good by the end of June when our farm name came back to us again.  A killing frost the morning of June 27th took out the potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers and beans.  The zucchini was in a more sheltered area and wasn't even touched.  About 6 bean plants survived, a very strange incidence with plants on either side of them withered.  The rains came in July, and the carrots finally started coming up.  New flushes of peas and beans came up as well, and the potatoes and tomatoes let out again.  The weeds noticed that there wasn't much competition from the stunted potatoes and came out in force.  Another frost on August 15th knocked back the tomatoes, potatoes, and zucchini again, fortunately the beans were surrounded by some protective weeds and only the tops were touched.  There were 45 days between the two frosts, and another 45 days until the next frosts of fall.
Harvest was bleak.  The lettuce was full of slugs.  The peas were so late that they were being severly affected by powdery mildew by the time they were in full production.  The potatoes were very small and covered in scab, some varieties were so covered that I couldn't tell what color the skin was supposed to be.  I got a few handfuls of beans for and harvested the mature pods from the plants that had survived the first frost in case there is a frost resistant gene present!  I got a few flats of misshapen cracked tomatoes.  The one crop that turned out exceptionally well was the Sweet Spanish onions, gorgeous big onions that I dried off and braided.   They are keeping very well hanging in our basement. 

Lessons we learned in 2009:
  1. It's much drier here than I'm accustomed to and the garden will have to be watered to establish, not just the transplants.
  2. Slugs are evil.  
  3. Choose scab resistant potatoes and PM resistant peas.
  4. Try a climbing bean variety and plant them against the house where they will get lots of heat and protection from frost.
  5. We need a greenhouse, preferably 30x60? :-)