December 1, 2021

Don't Forget the Gift of Books (& A Giveaway)

Here it is. My annual self-promotion post, hopefully in time for folks looking for economical ways to check family and friends off their gift-giving list. Given the way things are these days, the book I'd like to feature this year is one that's relevant in days of potential economic uncertainty. That book is 

Why do I think it's relevant? Here's an excerpt from the introduction.

"This book is for those who are looking for long-term preparedness that goes beyond simply stocking up on canned foods, dry goods, and other necessities. Gardening adds fresh vegetables and fruits to the diet, but keeping farm animals will enable you to have fresh eggs, milk, butter, cheese, and meat."

To this you might say, "but I live in an apartment, or in town, where the city or homeowners' association forbids keeping farm animals". But consider this - folks keep rabbits and quail in garages, basements, and spare rooms, and miniature breeds in backyards.  

That still might not convince you, but if you—or someone you know—is concerned about inflation, supply chains, and being able to feed their families, then please consider giving this book a read. Here's a little more from the introduction.

"Those of us who didn’t grow up farming are often puzzled about how to begin. We lack the skills and knowledge needed to make a start. Dan and I had to rely on research plus trial and error, but always with the question “what if?” on our minds. What if we could no longer buy layer pellets at the feed store? What if we could no longer buy filters for straining milk, or cultures and rennet for making cheese? What if the grid goes down—how will we store our eggs, milk, and meat? Some of what we tried worked, but some of it didn’t. This book is a compilation of everything we have learned about preparedness with livestock and how we put it into practice. Its aim is to give you the advantage of our research and experience, so that hopefully you can avoid some of the problems we have had."

"Prepper’s Livestock Handbook will give you the information you need to make workable choices for your own homestead. My goal is to give you a foundation upon which to build that you can adjust according to your personal goals and circumstances.

Maybe rather than me telling you why you should get the book, I'll just share some excerpts, along with a sampling of some of the charts in the book. It contains ten chapters, an extensive resource list, and is about 230 pages long.

Chapter 1, "First Things First"

"People keep livestock for many reasons: eggs, dairy, meat, vegetation control, manure for compost, to sell, as pets, for showing, for breed conservation, because they like a particular animal, or any combination of these. Your reasons for keeping farm animals will determine your livestock philosophy and methods, as will your location and terrain."

"Probably the most common questions are “How much land do I need?” and “How many animals can I keep on my property?” Called “stocking rates,” the answers to those questions are often unsatisfying, because they depend not only on the amount of land but on the quality of forage, as well as the kinds of animals you want to keep. I will give you a better idea on that in the next chapter, Best Breeds for Self-Reliance."

Chapter 2, "Best Breeds for Self-Reliance" 

"Most of the livestock breeds that people are familiar with are commercial breeds. These are the animals we see on farms in the movies and in children’s picture books. They are the most common breeds because industrialized agriculture is the most extensive form of farming practiced in the modern world. Commercial producers are looking for cost effectiveness: maximum output (profit) on the most economical inputs (expenses) possible. The breeds they use have been developed to increase production and weight gain on scientifically formulated feeds with the ability to tolerate overcrowding in confined spaces. Breeding and mothering instincts are considered nonessential and often bred out. Some commercial breeds of chickens and turkeys, for example, don’t know how to mate and don’t know how to hatch their eggs. Artificial insemination is used instead. For the homesteader, there are other options."

Sample of one of the charts in chapter 2. Click to biggify.

Chapter 3, "Barns, Shelters, and Fencing" 

"When Dan and I started preparing for livestock, we wondered if one of our two small outbuildings would be adequate shelter for chickens and goats. We made several modifications on what became our first “barn.” We learned a lot from that setup and from the animals too. We made a number of changes over the years, and when we finally built a chicken coop and a goat barn, we were able to build structures that met both their needs and ours."

"In the following pages, I’ll discuss basic livestock housing along with a few ideas to help you design shelter to meet your goals and needs. I’ll share fencing options with you, including the things we wish we’d known before we started on ours."

Chapter 4, "Forage and Feed" 

"Livestock feeding has become extremely modernized over the years. On the one hand, this is convenient. We can simply load our pickup trucks with 50-pound bags of nutritionally complete packaged feed (called concentrates) and an occasional sack of minerals—what could be easier? From a preparedness perspective, however, this approach means I must purchase and store as much hay and feed as my preparedness plan prescribes. Or I can learn how to grow my own. But how do I take the feed bag ingredient list of roughage products, plant protein products, and grain by-products, and use that to formulate my own feeds? In this chapter, we’ll take a look at feeding livestock from a self-reliance perspective."

Sample chart and tidbit from Chapter 4. Click to enlarge.

And another one.

Chapter 5, "Breeding and Pregnancy"

"Maintaining on ongoing supply of eggs, milk, and meat requires decision-making and planning. Chickens will lay eggs without a rooster, but milk and a yearly meat supply will require a male of your chosen species. This chapter will discuss the pros and cons of keeping males, how to know the best times for breeding, how to tell when your ladies are in season, how to detect pregnancy, and basic care during pregnancy."

Another sample chart. Click to enlarge

Chapter 6, "Blessed Events: Birthing and Hatching"

"The big day is approaching! How do you need to prepare? What can you expect? This chapter will help you get ready for birthing and hatching, know what to expect, plus help you identify some common

Sample chart from chapter 6. Click to enlarge.

Chapter 7, "Eggs, Milk, and Meat"

"If you ask folks why they keep livestock, I’m guessing that near the top of almost every list is for food. More and more people want to eat healthy, naturally raised, minimally processed eggs, milk, and meat from humanely treated animals fed healthy, natural diets. Having a self-sustaining food supply is also important to many folks, including most preppers.

As with fruits and vegetables, the production of eggs, milk, and meat is seasonal. There is an ebb and flow to our homegrown food supply, but we must eat every day. Vegetables, fruits, eggs, milk, dairy products, and meat are perishable, so we must learn how to either extend their production or preserve them. This chapter will cover the basics of producing animal foods, how to aim for year-round production, and ways to preserve them."

One of the many how-tos. Click to biggify.

Chapter 8, "Keeping Them Healthy"

"Healthy animals are happy animals. They are alert, bright-eyed, and interested in their surroundings. They have shiny coats or feathers, good appetites, and are in good condition (neither too thin nor overweight). Animals that are properly fed and cared for have the best chance of living long, productive lives."

"Much of what we’ve discussed in this book is the foundation for good livestock health:

  • Start with healthy, disease-free stock (Chapter 2).
  • Provide good shelter with adequate space (Chapter 3).
  • Feed the right diet with proper nutrition (Chapter 4).
  • Provide proper care during breeding and pregnancy (Chapter 5).
  • Provide good care during labor and delivery (Chapter 6).
  • Take good care of newborns (Chapter 6).
  • Keep them safe (coming in Chapter 9).

In this chapter, I will discuss routine care, prevention of problems, how to identify when something is wrong, and when you might need a veterinarian’s help."

Chapter 9, "Keeping Them Safe"

"One of the hard realities of keeping livestock is loss from predation. Sometimes you will find remains, or sometimes animals will completely disappear. Predation may be a recurring problem or it may be seasonal.

When you have missing animals or find remains, you want to know what caused it. This chapter will give you an idea of what predators are common, what they prey on, and how to identify them by what they leave behind. I’ll give you information on predator control and deterrents, plus other ways to protect your livestock."

A snippet from the 4+ page chart in the chapter. Click to enlarge

Chapter 10, "Keeping Things Manageable"

"Homestead burnout: It’s not something you think about when you first get started, but it does happen. Things start well but soon become overwhelming: too many projects, too little time, too many things going wrong. The workload gets heavier, the to-do list gets longer, and there are never-ending demands on your time and energy. Things aren’t working out the way you expected and the dream has become a nightmare. Changing lifestyles is a huge undertaking. In this chapter I’ll share the lessons Dan and I have learned about how to keep things manageable."


You can see the complete list of charts at the book's website, here. You will also see a partial list of where to buy it. It's available in both paperback (list price $15.95) and eBook (list price $11.99. Better prices for both are currently at Amazon.)

The Giveaway

So what about the giveaway? I'm hoping for some help to promote this book and am offering a chance to win a paperback copy of Prepper's Livestock Handbook for that help. Just grab this blog post's URL and use it to post a shout-out on your own blog or favorite social media. To enter the giveaway, leave a comment here with a link to your post. You can get additional entries by helping me on different venues. 

If you've already read it, you can earn entries by leaving a review at your favorite book site (think gift copy). Then come back and leave a link in the comments to that review. I'll announce the winner next Wednesday, Dec. 10.

Even though this is a shameless plug for myself, I'm confident that all the time and energy I put into researching and writing this book will make it a worthwhile resource for you or a friend.

November 27, 2021

Cooking Our First Sweet Potato Squash

I promised to let you all know about the sweet potato winter squash I grew this year (see the comments of "Not Pumpkins"). Our first taste test was a pie for Thanksgiving. Pumpkin pie is supposed to be the tradition, but I prefer sweet potato or winter squash pie, so that's what I make instead.

I chose the largest of the small squashes for my pie. 

This small one weighed in at 4 lbs., 5 oz.

The outside color wasn't impressive, but the color inside the squash was nice.

It contained a good amount of flesh. I saved some of the seeds and then chopped and fed the pulp to the goats and chickens. 

Next came cooking. I've tried both the oven baking method and the steaming method for cooking pumpkin and winter squash. Since I usually manage to make a mess in the oven from seeping juices, I prefer the steaming method.

The bonus with steaming is that the water in the bottom pot collects some of the juices and color. So I always use it for something, even if it's just watering plants after it cools. This time, I used it to make a pot of split pea soup.

I let it cool after it was cooked. It scooped out easily and made a smooth puree with the help of my Foley food mill. I needed two cups for my recipe, which is exactly what I got.

I might as well include the recipe! It's an adaptation of the Betty Crocker cookbook "old-fashioned pumpkin pie." Mainly, I omit the evaporated milk or cream, because I find that fresh homemade pumpkin or squash puree is more liquidy than commercial canned pumpkin. 

Not Pumpkin Pie

  • 2 cups winter squash puree
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup unbleached sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1/4 tsp cloves

Mix well and pour into a prepared, unbaked pie crust (my recipe is here).

Bake at 425°F (220°C) for 15 minutes, then 350°F (177°C) for 45 more minutes or until an inserted knife comes out clean. Cool and serve with whipped cream or ice cream (traditionally, we like cinnamon ice cream).

How was it? I have to say it was the best winter squash pie we've ever eaten! Better than pumpkin, better than cushaw, better than North Georgia candy roaster (which is awfully good). 

Now, I'm looking forward to trying it in pancakes and cake. I will definitely plant it again.

November 23, 2021

A Few Fall Photos

November has been the month of frost and falling leaves. Most of the trees on our place are oaks and pecans, which don't produce very spectacular autumn color. But I can still find bits of it here and there, so the goats and I took a trek. The girls hunted for acorns and I hunted for color. 

Here's what we found.

We have a nice seasonal view from the front porch, too.

A few other fall photos.

The last of my sweet potatoes are harvested.
There are from the African keyhole garden.

Sunday morning French toast. I love cooking on my wood cookstove.

Classic Sam

I have so much to be thankful for.

A Few Fall Photos © November 2021

November 19, 2021

Learning How to Make Biochar

First, a bit of irony from something I wrote a year and a half ago.

"There are many good ideas for homesteaders out there, but they often require significant time and energy to maintain. Brewing compost tea or making biochar are two things I considered. They are excellent ideas, but would I be able to balance the time they required with everything else? Would I be able to provide all the components myself or must I continually buy something to maintain them? The answers to projects like this are subjective because there are many individualized factors to consider. We chose other soil building methods because they worked better for our homestead goals and routine."
"Re-evaluating Our Priorities," 5 Acres & A Dream The Sequel, pg 27.

The advice remains sound, but now I have to move biochar as an example into the never-say-never category! It was Dan, actually, who decided to undertake the project. We have a lot of waste wood, and the question is always what to do with it. How do we put it to good use?" The answer is to make biochar.

What is biochar and why would we want to learn to make it? Good questions!

What it is. Biochar (biocarbon) looks like natural charcoal (as opposed to commercially made briquettes), but it isn't. Charcoal contains wood resins, which make it combustible and give smoked food its flavor. Biochar is a step beyond charcoal. The resins have been baked out, leaving a stable, porous, carbon char. Its most common use is for soil building, where the pores become habitats for beneficial soil microorganisms and store water and nutrients.  

What it's used for. It has lots of uses.

  • In the garden (needs to be inoculated first - see below)
    • sequesters carbon
    • provides a habitat for beneficial soil microbes
    • retains soil moisture and nutrients (reducing runoff and erosion)
    • decreases soil acidity
    • removes soil contaminants such as hydrocarbons and heavy metals
    • increases microbial life
    • binds soil nutrients
    • improves physical structure of soil
    • provides long-term soil productivity
  • Water purification
    • rainwater tanks
    • greywater systems
    • aquaculture
  • In barns, kennels, cat litter, and composting toilets
    • odor control (absorbs ammonia)
    • absorbs moisture
    • reduces pH
  • Feed additive 
    • absorbs toxins in the digestive tract
    • improves digestion
    • improves feed efficiency 
    • reduces nutrient losses
    • reduces methane production
    • improves animals' overall health
  • Poultice additive to draw toxins out of a wound

How is it made? Biochar is made by heating biomass without oxygen. This is called pyrolysis and can be achieved in a number of ways. Some people make it by simply putting corncobs or woodchips in a lidded dutch oven on the stove and baking it. Others burn it in pits or in retort kilns. To make ours, Dan built a top-lit updraft kiln, also called a TLUD (tee-lud).

The TLUD is a type of gasifier and works just as the name says; it's lit at the top and draws air up from air holes in the bottom. It's not as complicated as it sounds! It's actually very simple. There are numerous variations on this, but this is how Dan made ours with two barrels with lids and some old ductwork.

Outer 55-gallon steel drum (burn barrel) with air holes
(primary air intake is at the bottom and secondary at the top.) 

Inner 30-gallon steel drum holds the biomass. Fire burns in the outer ring.  
(Note: This was our first try, and we've learned that smaller pieces work better.)

The wood inside the inner barrel will become our biochar. It is filled with "feedstock" (the biomass to be baked into biochar) and the lid put on the small barrel. Fuel wood is packed under and around the inner barrel, with kindling on top. The kindling is lit, and the chimney is placed on the top. 

A hole cut in the barrel lid accommodates the chimney.

The process goes through several stages.

Initially, smoke is emitted as the fire
burns out residual moisture in the wood.

The red glow indicates that the temp is
hot enough to begin burning wood gases.

Once the gases are burning well, there is no smoke.

The kiln is allowed to burn itself out, and once cool, the chimney is removed.

This is the biochar which is basically char with the wood resins burned away.

How do we know we've made biochar? 
  • Crushes easily
  • Has a fragile, almost tinkling sound
  • Has no smell or taste (it's sterile, so it's safe to eat)
  • When crushed with bare hands, the black residue washes off easily. With charcoal, residue is difficult to wash off because of the wood resins.

What other materials can be used to make biochar? 

  • corncobs
  • corn stalks
  • woodchips
  • twigs
  • bamboo
  • basically, any dried biomass; small pieces work best

How long does the process take? Once the TLUD is going, it needs no tending and will burn itself out in several hours. So the only time involved is in loading the barrels, starting the fire, and later unloading the biochar.

How do I inoculate it for the garden? Making biochar burns away all life and nutrients. So when first removed from the kiln, biochar is sterile and void. If added to garden soil at this stage, it will begin to absorb soil nutrients. Unfortunately, during this time it is competing with plants for those nutrients. Once charged with absorbed nutrients, it will begin feeding the soil, but the process takes at least 3 to 6 months. 

The best and quickest results are seen when biochar is inoculated (charged) first. There are a number of ways to do this:

  • Soak in liquid fertilizer. Fastest way, takes about a day.
    • compost tea
    • comfrey tea
    • nettle tea
    • manure tea
    • compost worm casting tea
  • Urine - place it in a bucket with drain holes and cover with pee. Takes 2-3 weeks
  • Mix 4 parts biochar, 1 part rock powder, 1 part worm castings, and ½ part flour or molasses. Cover. Takes at least 2 weeks.
  • Mix it into the compost pile (10-50%). Takes 2-3 weeks.
  • Deep litter. Mix it into the chicken litter in the coop, where it helps deodorize. It will be inoculated by the next time the coop is ready to be cleaned out.
  • Mix with equal parts fresh grass clippings. Cover and let sit until clippings are decomposed. Takes about 2 months.
  • Worm castings - equal parts with biochar. Sprinkle with flour, corn meal, or molasses. Cover. Takes about 2 weeks.

When I first looked at biochar years ago, I found only the complicated ways to inoculate it. As with all new endeavors on our homestead, it must be asked whether the benefit outweighs the time and expense. (See my post on "The Time to Benefit Ratio.") There are only so many hours in a day! Finding simpler ways to inoculate biochar changed that ratio. For us, simply adding it to the compost pile and deep litter significantly increased the benefit factor.

How do I apply it in the garden? Since ours is mixed in with the compost, I'll apply it as I do compost. I'll use it to cover seeds and top dressing. For new beds or transplants, I'll mix it into the soil. Some no-till people prefer to make slits in the soil with a shovel and sprinkle it in. It can also be tilled in or worked in by hand. Mixed with compost, it makes good potting soil.

Caveat. Various biochars are not equal, so results may vary. From what I've read, some benefit can be seen the first year of application, with continued improvement over the years.

Okay. That's all my notes about biochar! It isn't all there is to know, of course, and it's another fascinating subject to study. But it's a start and a good homestead solution for our woods and garden "waste."