September 14, 2014

Tearing Into The Front Porch

Once we decided that the front porch was the next project to tackle, Dan wasted no time getting started. Since we will have to tear out the entire thing, he wanted to take the opportunity to address foundation issues in the front of the house.

Our house was built on a slight slope, so that the front porch is only one stairstep up, while the back porch is six steps. Obviously the crawl space at the front is impossible to maneuver around in! He's been waiting for this project to accomplish some much needed work. He started by taking out just enough of the porch floor to get to the foundation.

This is the left side of the porch, where the front bedroom is. Part of the
project will be replacing the drafty old windows and installing new siding.

The problem here is that part of the brick foundation had been knocked out to install ductwork when the heater and air conditioner were installed. Dan started with two short 4x4 posts, because nothing had been done to compensate for the removed bricks. The next step will be to seal off the crawlspace. There are gaps under the porch so that there is nothing to prevent all matter of critters from entering and taking up residence under the house, and they have.

The center of the porch, with that front door that started it all. 

Do you see where the floor is separated and sagging in front of the front door?


This is not something that happened when Dan took out the floor boards there. This is something that we've been living with for years. When we first saw the house the porch floor was flat across. It happened after we moved in and began using the porch. What was happening?

Well, when the porch was built, the builder ran the floor joists parallel to the house, i.e lengthwise, instead of widthwise. Apparently, some of them weren't quite long enough to meet the beam.


The builder, in all his wisdom, decided to simply spike them. All that's been holding those joists to the beam has been a very long nail. 


We use the porch to store winter firewood so that the floor takes a lot of traffic and weight. The nails responded by bending, resulting in that sag. The beam is in good shape so it doesn't have to be replaced. Dan hopes he can reuse the joists too. The first step here was to add floor support with a cement block and house jack.


On the other side of the porch -

The right side with a teeny glimpse of the living room windows, also to be
replaced. Dan loves bay windows and would love to put one here. We priced
them but they are way out of budget! He's considering building one himself.

The crawl space is completely open here. You can see a brick support column behind the shovel, and the duct work going to my studio our storage room. Probably cement board will be used to seal off the crawl space.  Dan talks about doing something with the ductwork, but I'm not sure what. We actually don't use our heat and A/C often. 

So that's the beginning. Going will probably be slow because of Dan's job. He has less time off than he has in the past. That's nicer on the pocket book but really puts a crimp on the project accomplishment list. 


September 12, 2014

Let's Make Hay!

I've been looking for one of these for a long time.

Walk behind sickle mower

Not necessarily this make or model (Troy Bilt Trail Blazer Sickle Bar Mower), but a walk-behind sickle mower that we could use for cutting hay. Dan uses his scythe, but I was wanting a piece of equipment that could help get the job done in less time.

I've been keeping an eye on craiglist, but walk-behind sickle mowers don't come up very often. The ones I have seen have been in the $900 to $1100 range. When the Troy Bilt presented itself for $400, I had to go see. It had been taken care of and ran well. I bought it.

Dan checked it over and tested it out, then it was my turn. I mowed about a quarter of our one acre front pasture, the part where the best grass is growing.

My first cutting of hay. 

It's heavy and does not maneuver particularly well. Neither does it have a reverse. It is self-propelled, with a wheel drive and a blade drive, operated separately with hand levers. I like that because I could "walk" it to the area I wanted to cut, or over areas I didn't want cut, such as a patch of deadly nightshade.

When we initially discussed getting a sickle mower, Dan pointed out that could get a sickle bar attachment for his walk-behind tractor. That would, of course, entail being able to find one, which I've never seen for sale around here. The other consideration is that the tractor is bigger, heavier, and more machine than I care to wrestle with. The sickle mower still requires muscling, but it is smaller and more manageable.

Caleb checking it out.

We actually got it a little late in the season for the best quality hay. Ours is starting to go to seed, but something is better than nothing and I can't let it go to waste. At least it's leafy and not stemmy. Dan scythed a first cutting here earlier this year and it was mostly stems. For a previous blog post about the cuts and quality of hay, click here.


September 10, 2014

Hypocalcemia & Pregnancy Toxemia in Goats

I promised this post awhile back. Then the rest of spring and summer happened, which means busy times on the homestead. I've picked it up again because I'm working on my next book, Critter Tales. Like 5 Acres & A Dream The Book, I not only want to tell an interesting story, but I want to weave in useful information as well. Surprise's near death experience and what I learned from it is something I want to include. Here it is as a blog post, preliminary to being included in the book. 
Last spring I had a frightening experience with Surprise, one of my pregnant Nubian does. It started with her being picky with her feed and losing interest. She soon became weak and disoriented. She went down and I could not get her up. With the help of the internet I figured out some things and managed to save both her and her twins. At the time I had to sift through a lot of information, which I had difficulty sorting out in my emergency state of mind. It's taken some study to clarify and understand what happened. This post is my attempt to write out and restate what I've learned.

Pregnancy toxemia (also called ketosis or twin lamb disease) and hypocalcemia (milk fever), are life threatening conditions which must be addressed immediately or the doe (or ewe) will die. Neither are diseases, but rather metabolic conditions which are primarily feed related.

The symptoms are nearly identical:
  • loss of appetite
  • lethargy
  • weakness
  • disorientation
  • goes down and can't get up

The cause and treatment are different. The response to treatment determines diagnosis, but since hypocalcemia can lead to ketosis, treating for both is a good idea anyway.

Pregnancy toxemia occurs when the body's demand for energy (carbohydrates in the form of glucose) exceed what the diet provides. It usually happens late in pregnancy, when the kid or kids are rapidly growing. If the dam isn't consuming enough carbohydrates to meet the need, her body begins to metabolize fat for energy. Ketones are the byproduct of fat metabolism. As they accumulate, the system becomes increasingly acidic to the point where it is fatal. (This can happen to people too, when they do not have sufficient insulin to metabolize their intake of carbohydrates. This is referred to as diabetic ketosis.)

Treatment requires immediately supplying energy until she begins eating on her own:
  • 1 part molasses / 2 parts corn syrup - 20 cc orally every couple of hours 
  • or Nutridrench (or Goatdrench) - 1 ounce (30 cc) per 100 lbs body weight by mouth every 8 hours
  • or Propylene Glycol - 2 - 3 ounces, 2 - 3 times a day

If you're like me, then you have negative feelings about utilizing Propylene Glycol. It's the "anitfreeze" used in most commercial ice creams. Ordinarily I would avoid it, but in an emergency it's better than losing the doe and her kids. It's used because it is easily assimilated by the body, immediately providing much needed energy. It is also the primary ingredient of Nutridrench, which also contains molasses, calcium, vitamins A, D, and E plus selenium.

Also important:
  • B vitamin injections to stimulate appetite
  • Probiotics, yogurt, or kefir to reestablish digestive flora in the rumen 
  • Water, drench if necessary. She needs water to begin flushing the ketones out of her system

Initially this is what I thought was Surprise's problem. But I also noted that Molly at Fias Co Farm said that she found treating as for milk fever helped. Because of that, I also gave Calcium Gluconate injections. In an attempt to find anything for her to eat, I offered dried comfrey leaves. Comfrey is rich in calcium and because it was the only thing she was interested in (devoured it, in fact) this is the clue that helped me later figure out Surprise's actual problem. 

Hypocalcemia occurs when the doe's diet contains an improper calcium/phosphorous ratio. Grain is usually the culprit here, because it is high in phosphorous but low in calcium. The pregnant doe needs at least twice the calcium in her diet, i.e. 2 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorous, especially during the end of her pregnancy, when the kids are needing calcium for bone development, or immediately after kidding when her body begins to produce milk. If she can't supply calcium through her diet, her body will begin to deplete her own resources. Besides bones and teeth, calcium is also necessary for proper muscle function (skeletal, heart, digestive, uterine). With a calcium shortage, muscles become weak so that the doe becomes weak: she can no longer stand, digestion slows, uterine contractions will be weak, and eventually her heart will give out if the problem isn't corrected immediately.

Treatment: 
  • 40 - 50 cc Calcium Gluconate injections subcutaneously. Because of the volume this must be divided into 4, 10 cc doses and injected slowly in 4 different spots.
  • Repeat in one hour
  • Repeat in one hour
  • Continue treatment several times a day for several more days. She'll fight like crazy but she needs it. Watch her closely after that and give more if needed.
  • Also, treat for ketosis. Since she's stopped eating, this will be a secondary problem anyway, so treat for it. 

Sue Reith recommends a CMPK (calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium) supplement, either injectable or oral. She gives a homemade recipe here.

Prevention: It's all about diet. Some commercial feeds and mineral supplements already have the correct calcium:phosphorous ratio. If a doe is getting grain instead of commercial feed, however, she needs twice that in a source of calcium. Usually alfalfa is used, but this is where we got into problems. I learned that my alfalfa source had started using GMO'd alfalfa. I freaked out and stopped buying it. This was my near fatal mistake, because I did not have a sufficient calcium replacement.

Pat Colby (Natural Goat Care) gives dolomite instead of alfalfa. Also comfrey is rich in calcium, although I confess our hot, dry spells cause my comfrey to do poorly. Another possibility is Chaffhaye, for those for whom it is locally available (or can afford to it shipped). Alternatively, don't feed grain. This is more difficult with the high yield dairy breeds like Nubians, but hardier breeds like Kinders can do well and maintain good weight on a forage and hay diet.

I am fortunate that things worked out well. Losing animals is always difficult, making victories all the sweeter. Needless to say, Calcium Gluconate and Nutridrench are now standard items in my birthing kit.

What is interesting is that my other does were the same diet but not have the same problem. I don't have an answer for that, other than goats are individuals, and respond differently to different things. Not that I would risk a repeat, but I'm thankful they did better than Surprise.

For more information and further reading: 

Dairy Goat Care & Management: Ketosis - What Is It?
Dairy Goat Care & Management, Hypocalcemia, Ca & Ph in the Diet
Dairy Goat Care & Management, Hypocalcemia Feed for Prevention
Fias Co Farm, Ketosis and Pregnancy Toxemia
Fias Co Farm, Milk Fever (Hypocalcemia)
Goatworld, More Feedback on Hypocalcemia in Goats
Goatworld, Pregnancy Toxemia and Ketosis, Part 1
Goatworld, Pregnancy Toxemia and Ketosis, Part 2
Merck's Online Veterinary Manual: Nutritional Diseases
Natural Goat Care by Pat Coleby
Alfalfa For Goats: Looking For Alternatives

September 8, 2014

On Hold: Building the New Goat Barn

Inside view of our front door.
It started with the front door. I leave it open in the early morning and evening to catch the cooler breezes that blow through. During the heat of the day, it's shut. One night at bedtime, Dan went to close up and the front door wouldn't shut. The door had somehow shifted and was catching on the moulding. Dan finally got it shut with a hammer and screwdriver, and then we talked.

The new goat barn was slated as the very next big homestead project. I am so ready for it. But the front door made us revisit a project that was further down on the priority list, one I hadn't deemed as important, the front porch.

The front of the house when we first moved in (2009). I loved that it was
screened, but we never use it. Summer evenings would be the time,
but it catches the blazing late afternoon sun making it too hot to enjoy.

Why not simply replace the front door? We actually have a new door, purchased our first year here. Unfortunately it's more complicated than simply removing the old door and putting in the new.

Exterior shot of the front door. It's small - 34" x 79"

It starts with the doors being different sizes, the new one is a larger standard, 36" x 80". The living room walls are cement board, so making a larger opening isn't as simple as it is with drywall. Then there's problems with the threshold, and that's where the front porch comes in. Because of structural problems, the existing front porch really needs to be torn out, foundation issues addressed, and then rebuilt. That includes the porch ceiling, which looks like it wants to come down by itself anyway. Then comes installing the new door, and while we're there we might as well address replacing the old windows and siding as well. It's a huge project and one we haven't looked forward to.

The siding is in better shape here than the rest of the
house. Still, we'll put up new and paint. Photos of what
we've already done here (back), and here (side).

On the plus side, an energy efficient front door and windows, plus being able to add insulation to the walls, will make a huge difference in the energy efficiency of the house and its comfort level. The old single glazed windows and ill-fitting front door make those rooms like an energy sieve; difficult to warm in winter and difficult to keep cool in summer.

Most folks probably would have re-done the front of the house immediately. It looks pretty bad by urban and suburbanite standards. If we belonged to a HOA, we would have been fined long ago. But our goals are different than most folks which means our priorities are different too. We're less about aesthetics and wanting to fit in, and more about accomplishing what will help us be more self-sufficient, more self-reliant. This project does fit into those goals, we just wanted to get other things done first.

September 5, 2014

Composting With Chickens

Once upon a time I used to try to keep the chickens out of the compost. Not that I minded them finding bugs and things to eat in it, but they tend to scratch it down and spread it out, which means quite a bit of work to keep it piled properly. Then, thanks to a suggestion by rabidlittlehippy, I signed up at Australian permaculturist Geoff Lawton's website and found a video, Feed Chickens Without Grain (you may have to sign up to view the video).

The video was an interview with someone who feeds his chickens entirely from huge compost piles made from barn cleanings and restaurant scraps. The result was prolific eggs and superb compost. Geoff did a follow-up video to show his adaptation of the system to a farm garden (Chicken Tractor on Steroids). I knew I couldn't do it exactly the same way, but I really liked the idea of recruiting the chickens to help. I decided to experiment.

I started by making a long pile in the chicken yard after cleaning out one of the goat stalls. I mixed it up with some kitchen scraps.

1st Tuesday - straw & manure pile assembled from goat barn cleaning

The chickens liked the idea immediately, although I knew I would have to rake the pile back together again every evening. For an experiment, I was willing.

2nd Tuesday - after a week of nightly raking the pile back together

One week later I decided to make some changes. Raking was a bit of a bother because the pile was underneath a cedar tree, the branches of which kept bumping me in the head. Also the pile couldn't generate and retain heat for the decomposition process if it's all spread out. Plus it was drying out too much. It can't decompose without moisture either. I scrounged around for materials and came up with a compost bin of sorts.

3rd Tuesday. The old pile was mixed with another batch of manure & straw.

The goat shed/old chicken coop became the back wall, cinder blocks became the sides, and one of the boards from our coal barn demolition makes a removable front. I transferred the original pile to it and mucked out the other goat stall and added that. The bin arrangement keeps the pile from being scratched out all over the chicken yard and saves work on my end. It still requires some turning and additional water. I just dump in water from the buckets when changing them. I add kitchen and garden scraps as I have them.

By the 4th Tuesday of my experiment, I decided to tweak a little more.

4th Tuesday, I now have a working pile & an add-to pile

Dan bought me more cinder blocks and two sheets of cement board. I was able to make two piles - a working pile and an add-to pile. The cement board is to protect the wood siding on the building from the moisture.

3 week old compost on the left, new on the right. 

In just three weeks the working pile looks pretty good, don't you think? It would probably be further along if I was consistent with turning and watering, but for a work-smarter-not-harder system, this is great. The chickens scratch around in both piles, but according to the video, they will eventually lose interest in the oldest pile.

The videos emphasize grainless, as in the chickens eat entirely from the piles with no additional chicken feed. The key seems to be lots and lots of garden and kitchen scraps, including from local restaurants. That won't work for me, so my chickens still have their feed and scratch. My garden, kitchen, and canning scraps are pretty slim since there are just the two of us. Plus they are shared with the goats and pigs. While I could likely get restaurant scraps, the additional chore of driving and fetching them would add to my work load rather than make it easier. As with all good ideas, the benefit must be evaluated in light of everything that needs to be done on the homestead. Work in all areas must balance. The result may not be a series of perfect solutions, but rather, a synergy of good, work-together solutions.

I would eventually like to expand on this idea. Eventually the old shed will come down (assuming we ever get the new goat barn built), but the location for the piles is still a good one. I'd like to add a few more bins as well. I'm very happy that this experiment is a success.