January 31, 2013

Garden Think: Revamping The Beds

When we first planned out our garden, we based it on the 60 by 80 foot "Eat 'N Store" garden in Dick Raymond's Joy of Gardening. Even though we're only a family of two, Dan figured it was a good starting place. He tilled the ground and to make the beds initially, we simply divided the garden in half, with a main walkway down the middle. I ended up with beds about 23 feet long. I honestly didn't think much about them after that, except occasionally to wish they weren't so long to walk around.

When we put up the cattle panel for our fall peas, I began to think about how I could use cattle panels as trellises in the future. Cattle panels are 16 feet  long, and after some quick recalculations, I realized we could make three 16 foot beds per row, to replace the two 23 foot beds.

So we're going from this...

...to this...

It gives me more beds, but they will be easier to work with I think. The bottom of the garden is solid green, because currently we have winter wheat planted there. I'm not sure if I'll make beds there later, or continue to use it for growing small patches of things like wheat, amaranth, or sunflowers.

In addition to shorter beds, the two main pathways will be wider as well. I measured where they would go a few weeks ago, and outlined the new paths with rocks.

Garden before, with proposed pathway marked.

The other day Dan tilled the empty beds, and I started to make the new paths. The soil is soft and moist, so I easily shoveled out the new paths and used the soil to fill in where the old middle path used to be.

New pathway.

It will take awhile to do all the beds this way. I decided to change the beds and pathways after I planted the fall garden, so we'll have to wait on that and on a few things I'm waiting to go to seed. The cattle panel trellis at the bottom still has peas growing on it, and I'm hoping to run this new path between the t-posts once the peas are done and the panel is down.

I have to say that the 16 foot beds look so much more manageable. And the path being wider really helps with the wheelbarrow. And working outside is making me excited about this year's garden. With the kitchen remodel out of the way, it's gonna be gung-ho gardening.

January 28, 2013

Rendering Goat Fat

If pig fat is called lard and cow fat called tallow, then what is goat fat called? Well, I don't know either, but when we had our goats processed, I received a huge, 10+ pound bag of fat. Considering how much my concept of eating fats has changed since reading Nourishing Traditions and Ray Peat, I was delighted. The bag has been sitting in my freezer until a couple of days ago. Last Friday we had freezing rain all day, so a project that kept me near the wood cookstove was highly in order.

Rendering is the process of melting animal fat in order to pour it off and leave behind any bits of meat. It's a simple process, really. It requires cutting chunks of fat into smaller pieces, and then melting them in a heavy bottomed kettle, such as a cast iron dutch oven. The bottom of the pot is covered with water, to keep the fat from browning before it begins to melt. As it melts, the water evaporates. The melted fat is then strained into jars for storage, and there you have it.

Cubed goat fat in my biggest Dutch oven & on the wood cookstove

My problem was that my biggest Dutch oven is a campfire model, i.e. with legs. I used to have a huge flat bottom one, but we got rid of it during our apartment dwelling days. You know, I hadn't used it in over a year so out it went. What a mistake.


Because of the legs I had to keep the fire burning quite hot to keep it simmering and melting. That was okay because it was cold out and I also used the heat to bake biscuits to go with scrambled eggs for lunch. This first batch took me all day.

The next day I decided to do another batch. This time, I opted to use my 16" cast iron campfire skillet. I probably couldn't have used it with an electric or gas range, but with a wood cookstove, the entire stovetop is a heating surface, rather than only the burners. I did place an iron trivet under the pan, just to make sure I didn't burn it.

2nd batch was in my large cast iron skillet.

This pan worked much better and only took half a day.

My yield for two days was 3 and a half quarts, and I still have one more batch to go.

Quart jar of rendered goat fat.

In addition, I have two pansful of cracklings.


Cracklings are all the bits that browned instead of melting. You can see my recipe for Cracklin' Cornbread here.

[UPDATE: Feb. 12, 2012 - yesterday I finished rendering all the goat fat. From 10.66 pounds of goat fat from the butcher, the yield was a gallon plus of rendered fat, and about 3 quarts of cracklings.]

For more information:
Rendering Lard: A First Timers Guide - Lehman's Country Life
Rendering Lard - Pioneer Living Survival
Crock Pot Method - A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa
Oven Method - The New Homemaker
How To Render & Store Traditional Animal Fats - Nourished Magazine
Uses For Cracklings and Lard - The Simple Green Frugal Co-op

Rendering Goat Fat © January 2013 

January 25, 2013

Personal Chicken

I appear to have my own personal chicken. Not that I want a personal chicken. Nor that I think of chickens as pets, I don't. That doesn't mean I don't like chickens, I love chickens. Given our lifestyle, it just doesn't make sense to become emotionally attached to our animals.

This chicken however, seems to have attached herself to me. In fact about the middle of the afternoon, she usually comes looking for me. I'll look outside the kitchen window and there she is, at the bottom of the porch steps, looking up at the house and waiting for me to come out.

If I'm already outside, she'll come running right up to me. She'll stand at my feet, cocking her head to look at me with one eye. Then she'll cluck as if to say, "I found you." After that she'll follow me around. In the event that she doesn't find me, she busies herself by scratching up anything I've mulched.

Technically, she's not even supposed to be on this side of the fence. She's a fence hopper though and has defied every wing clip I've given her: one sided, both sided, even, uneven, lopsided, you name it. She still makes it over the fence.

The other day she saw me raking leaves, hopped the fence, and came running. She happily scratched down all the leaves I was trying to rake up. I don't deny that this is a tad annoying, but as friendly as she is, she won't let me catch her.

This hen is one of my original 19 hand raised baby chicks. She is an Ameracauna, and was my only green egg layer. I say was, because she hasn't laid an egg in forever. She doesn't even have a name because we don't name our chickens. But I don't reckon that matters one iota to her. Nor to me for that matter.

Personal Chicken © January 2013 

January 22, 2013

Trimming The Bathroom Window

My original color scheme for the bathroom was quite different than what I'm ending up with. Originally, I planned a medium wall color, and white trim. Because the room is so small, however (7'3" by 5'4"), I decided to go with light walls instead. The ceiling, tub interior, sink, and toilet are all white, but I wasn't sure if I wanted the window trim and vanity in white as well. We decided to stain them.

I think the darker color really sets off the stained glass window, don't you? We'll probably stain the mirror frame too. That and the vanity are a few steps down the road however. The floor is next. Click here for that.

Trimming The Bathroom Window © January 2013 

January 19, 2013

Trailblazing The Property Line

One of this year's goals is fencing part of the woods for the goats.

Detail from our 2012 Master Plan

The red line is where new fencing must go to enclose the area. It will tie into existing fences. Out of our several fencing projects to choose from, this one is important because of invading kudzu. It's important now, because in summer it is thick with not only kudzu, but also brambles, bushes, saw briars, and honeysuckle.

Kudzu invasion
Kudzu on the property line during summer

I had to wait until everything died back for the winter before I could begin to find the survey pins. Along the property line, there is an old fallen down barbed wire fence. I'm following that to find my way from one pin to the next.

Same spot now. The orange bits along the ground
are where I flagged the old barbed wire fence.

It's slow going because even without leaves, the vines and bushes are thick. As I find remnants of the old fence, I mark it with orange flagging tape. It fell down every whichaway, but keeps me going in the right direction. Once I clear a path to the next survey pin, we'll have a line of sight to mark for that stretch of fence along the property line.

Welded wire fence for the project. We purchased it
last October, when it was on sale at Tractor Supply Co.

Then the real fun begins. Or should I say, the real work. The worst part of putting up fence in a wooded area is trying to dig holes for corner and brace posts amongst all the roots. And it's no picnic trying to stretch the fence in a thick area like that.

The clearing part though, that's me. It's something I love to do. I love being outside, love being in the woods, and love seeing our homestead take shape. It's one more step in making our dream come true. :)

Trailblazing The Property Line © January 2013 

January 16, 2013

December kWh Report

Our electric bill for December arrived the other day. I have to admit I wasn't too sure what to expect when I pulled it out of the mailbox. While it wasn't quite as good as last month, it was incredibly better than December 2011.

Our daily average for last month, December 2012, was 17.35 kWh. That's a little more than November's 15 kWh per day average, but compared to last year, it is an amazing difference. Last December, we averaged 47 kWh per day. That's a 63% decrease one year later.

We continue to do all the electricity saving measures I mentioned in my November kWh report. A space heater likely accounts for the increase from November. For the most part December was fairly mild, until the temperatures took a nosedive the weekend after Christmas. It was rainy too, which meant I used the electric dryer more than I like.

I credit the decrease from 2011 primarily to our wood heat stove and wood cookstove (for both cooking and heating.) In addition to not having to use the electric range and heat pump much, we also no longer have to use the electric heater in the kitchen bathroom, because the cookstove heats the back of the house so beautifully.

Cooking potato pancakes & applesauce on the wood cookstove.

Last year I tried to figure out a way to balance using the heat pump and the wood heater, but our electric bills were still way too high. This winter, we have been using wood for heating and cooking, and you can see the difference.

Our electric heat pump is our biggest energy gobbler. In 2011 for example, we used the heat pump during both summer and winter. During the spring and fall of that year, when it wasn't used, we averaged about 18 kWh per day. That was before we installed the wood cookstove, so usage of my electric stove is included in that average. In summer, with the air conditioning and thermostat set at 82° F, average usage jumped to about 30 kWh per day. In winter, with the heat pump on and thermostat set in the low 60s, we averaged about 50 kWh per day. And that's with an energy star qualified unit! And as if to rub salt on the wound, we were still cold!

Riley sprawled in front of the wood heat stove, warming his belly.

I do not do all my cooking on the cookstove. "Big" baking is done with the electric oven. Friday night pizza for example, because my pizza stone does not fit in my cookstove's small oven. Also baking projects where I have two baking sheets in the oven at the same time.

I admit I don't expect January's average usage to be so good. This will mostly be due to keeping a space heater in the hall bathroom while we work with things like wall paint, stain, ceiling tile adhesives, thinset, floor tile mortar, etc. All these materials require a minimum temperature that the room cannot achieve without a heat source. Still, this is an example of choosing to use electricity as a tool, not as a necessary dependency. Because of that I'll feel like it was money usefully spent. I'll also be please with whatever savings we can manage.

December kWh Report © January 2013 

January 13, 2013

New Bathroom Ceiling in Pictures

Here's what we did with the ceiling.

Original  tongue & groove ceiling, height 8' 9".
That's an  old fashioned light fixture in the middle.

Dan dropped the ceiling 9 in. to put in an exhaust fan. New ceiling is 8 ft.

Plywood, to be covered with...

Styrofoam ceiling tiles. They're
lightweight, cheap, and simply glued up.

First tile was centered over the fan duct.

We worked out from there.

Seams are caulked, then the tiles are primed and painted. 

Crown moulding was next

Ceiling done.

On the plus side, the ceiling tiles were inexpensive (less than $4 apiece) and required no special tools to install. The job could easily be done by one person. It adds insulation to the ceiling and can make an ugly, stained ceiling look really good.

On the negative side, styrofoam (polystyrene) is a petroleum product. It is especially frowned upon in one time disposable products, such as restaurant take-out containers because, like all petroleum products, it is not biodegradable.

For the ceiling though, it was a good option. And because the tongue and groove ceilings in both bedrooms are in pretty bad shape, this may be the best solution for them as well. One problem with T&G is that over time, the individual boards shrink and are not air tight. I can't help but wonder if dust and the blown-in insulation from the attic doesn't sift down through them. Those rooms are still down the road and for now, I'm happy with how the bathroom is coming along.

January 10, 2013

Breeding Plans - Awry Again

Why again? Because this isn't the first time things haven't gone according to plan. The first time was when we had zero success trying to breed Kinders. Now we have five goats, two bucks and three does: a Kiko buck for my two Nubian does, and a Pygmy buck for my Nigerian. Eventually we'd like to have only one kind of goat, a dual purpose Kiko-Nubian crossbreed that I'm calling "Kikobians." We really like Gruffy however, our Pygmy buck, so we keep him as companion to Elvis. Since Ziggy, my Nigerian Dwarf, is our only source of milk right now, for the time being we have four breeds of goats. And if we're going to have them, we might as well breed them.

Kiko buck in the foreground, Pygmy buck in back.
Elvis (foreground) & Gruffy (in the back). Wondering where the girls are.

Hopefully breeding is working according to plan. Both of my Nubian girls have had dates with Elvis, our Kiko. Ziggy has gone into heat several times, and each time I've put her in with Gruffy. Unfortunately, she doesn't care for Gruffy; she has a definite preference for Elvis. Considering their size difference however, I worry that a cross between these two would result in kids too large for little Ziggy to deliver without difficulty. Hence she cannot have the man she wants.

Ziggy went into heat again the other day. Again, I dragged put her in with Gruffy. Of course Elvis was watching and had much to say about it. To keep distractions to a minimum and everybody's mind focused on business, I separated these three by putting Gruffy and Ziggy in the woods, and Elvis in the front pasture. That's two fences and the buck pasture separating them. Satisfied with that arrangement, I went back into the house to paint the bathroom ceiling.

The Girls are more interested in something else.
Ziggy and Lily on the left, Surprise on the right.

Fast forward. I go out to check on things. I see Gruffy in the woods, but he's not hounding Ziggy as per usual. I wonder what he's staring at. A few more steps and I see what it is. It's Elvis in the woods! With Ziggy! Elvis had easily cleared two, 4-foot fences to get to her and was now busy keeping Gruffy away.  I can only guess as to what else has been going on.

Well, I went to fetch Ziggy who had had enough of the whole thing and was ready for her grain. Now I'm left to ponder the condition of all three of my does. Last year I blogged about a much anticipated kidding season, only to be disappointed when neither of my does was pregnant. It's impossible to verify without a blood test or ultrasound, and the fact that Surprise has become very thick around the middle may only be a very full rumen. Or fat. Her anticipated due date would be mid-March, assuming she settled. She hasn't gone into heat again, but I'm not counting on anything this year. Goats do have minds of their own.

Breeding Plans - Awry Again © January 2013 

January 7, 2013

Rainwater Catchment (At Last)

Rainwater catchment is a project we've been wanting to implement ever since we bought the place. Two years ago we developed a water conservation plan for both rain and greywater, based on observing drainage patterns around the place. About a year and a half ago, Dan found 275 gallon food grade tanks for a fair price and bought four, with a view toward rainwater collection. This project made it to our 2013 homestead goal list, and while I was painting the bathroom, Dan took two of the tanks and hooked them up to one of our downspouts.

Our 1st rainwater catchment set-up.  More to come.

These tanks stack well, so this set-up gives us the potential to catch and store 500 gallons of rainwater. Placement of the tanks was tough, because we didn't want to block the window, and putting them at the corner of the house would block the path to the garden between the house and carport.

The horizontal pipe from the downspout to the tank has a slight downward slope, to allow water to gravity feed into the top tank.

Dan cut a hole in the tank cap for for the corrugated hose.

The upper tank drains into the lower tank.

Tanks are connected

This not only doubles our storage capacity, but will help with water pressure when the tanks are full.

[UPDATE: April 15 - We had a leak at the connection but have solved the problem. Details on that and  how much water we're collecting are here, Rainwater Catchment Update.]

The tanks already had shut-off valves, so Dan added a hose bib onto the bottom tank so we can hook up an ordinary garden hose.

Bottom tank is fitted with a hose bib to enable
irrigating the garden with a regular hose & sprinkler

To prevent leaves and dirt from entering the tanks, he added a clean-out plug.

Clean-out plug.

Initial rainfall washes debris off the roof and into the tube. Once the tube is full, water flows into the tanks. Theoretically, only clean rainwater should enter the tanks. The end cap can be unscrewed to empty the drain pipe. I admit I was wondering about this, since it is so high off the ground. It does require a ladder, which is not really a problem, but I pictured water going everywhere as I tried to catch it in a bucket. The end cap is not a tight fit however, so that all the water had slowly dripped out by the time I went to empty it. All that was left in the clean out was a few leaves.

The roof surface area here is roughly 100 square feet. Our curiosity was obliged that very night, with a third of an inch of rain. This gave us two inches in the bottom tank. About a day later we got another 2/3 of an inch. That one inch total brought the water level up to the 50 gallon mark.

We're considering this experimental for the time being. We've learned that many of our projects need adjustments and tweaking as we go along. We have the option of connecting the other downspout to these tanks if we wish, but we'll wait to see how much rainfall it takes the one downspout to fill the tanks and how long that lasts. One thing I will likely have to do, is to paint the tanks because summer sun will encourage algae growth, which we'll want to avoid. Dan also wants to add an overflow of some sort. Other than that we've had a little leakage around the valves, but nothing that couldn't be easily taken care of.

This is the first project completed from our 2013 goal list!  I have to admit, that alone feels pretty good.

Click to join in or read more
Homestead Barn Hop posts

Rainwater Catchment (At Last) © January 2013 

January 4, 2013

Bathroom Remodel: Walls

Dan had a week's vacation over the holidays, and we put the time to good use by working on the bathroom. Once he finished the plumbing and electrical work, it was time to do the walls. Because of the window, we had decided to panel the walls, and initially liked the idea of T1-11. After a bit of research I found an interior grade (i.e. not made with formaldehyde) T1-11 look panel. These cost about $27 per panel. We also considered barn board look panels from the same manufacturer. These sell for around $19 per panel. We needed 7, 4x8 foot panels, so going with the barn board look meant a $56 savings to do the entire bathroom. We really liked the T1-11 look, but not $56 more, so we went with the less expensive panels.

Wall panels installed & ready to be painted.

These panels are not primed, so I primed them first and then painted.

Walls painted. The space heater is for the next step.

It's hard to tell the true color in the above photo. I just wanted an off-white neutral, but there are millions of them. I found myself missing the days when our choices were white, soft white, and antique white. After awhile, they all started to look alike, so I just picked one. It looked fine on the color chip but when I started painting, it had a peachy pink cast that alarmed me. I got about halfway done and had to walk away from it for awhile, because the color didn't look right. Fortunately it dried okay.

The next step is the ceiling. We would have done that the next day, but the recommendations for the ceiling tile adhesive are a minimum room and surface temperature of 64° F for 48 hours. Since that room stays about 55 to 57° F, we plugged in a space heater set at a low temperature. Once we get the ceiling done (that post here), we can get started on the floor.

Bathroom Remodel: Walls © January 2013 

January 1, 2013

Homestead Goals For 2013

I think I say this every year, but every year it's no less true - I prefer goals to resolutions. Resolutions seem too set in stone, and to not keep them is seen as a failure. Goals on the other hand, are flexible and adaptable. They can be evaluated and changed if need be. They allow for the unexpected, and for changing one's mind.

Our goals for 2013 seemed easier to write than in years past. Initially there was so much to do here that we needed them for direction. Now things seem clearer as to what's next. They are still a good reference however, and it's especially helpful to make such a list in the first place.

Here is what we hope to be working on in 2013:

House: House projects pretty much have a work flow at this point. As we complete one, we will move on the the next and will continue down the list. How much we'll accomplish in 2013 remains to be seen and depends on how many unexpected problems we run into! Here are the next steps:
  • Finish the hall bathroom. This is the current project.
  • Move on to the middle bedroom. This room is actually the second step in creating a master suite; the bathroom is the first step. The suite will include both of these, as well as a study for Dan, which we'll make from part of the 5 foot wide hallway. (Original floor plan here, proposed floor plan here.)
  • Ideally we'll finish all that this winter (ha!). This summer, we'd like to start on the front porch before it falls down. It will have to be completely rebuilt due to foundation and structural problems. This must be done before we can continue replacing the old siding for the house (a project first started October of 2011).

Fencing: This is next on the list. It will be ongoing it seems, until the entire property is fenced! Like the house, we will keep working on it until we finish, whether this year or beyond. For sure this year:
  • Fence the browse area in the woods for the does. We plan to work on this after we finish the bathroom.
  • After that we have a couple of choices:
    • Privacy fence on the rental house side. Renters come and go and we feel this is a necessity because the goats are too attractive to their dogs and children. Our experience has not been good with either one.
    • Finish fencing the yard around the house. At first this was just a privacy fence which doubles as a place to store firewood. However, roaming dogs are motivating us to fence in the entire yard. We seem to be a dog magnet! I can't tell you how many times stray dogs have come and upset the chickens and the goats. 

Rain Catchment: we want to at least get a start on this. We have all the materials for one corner of the house, and just need to set aside some time to put it together. That will probably be after we finish the bathroom.

  • No specific goal here except to make it a primary focus again. Last year the garden was put somewhat on the back burner because of the kitchen remodel. There were many days I had to press on with kitchen projects and neglect the garden. Now that the kitchen is done, I can get back to full time gardening.
  • I did however, decide to challenge myself, in what is probably the closest I'll come to a resolution. Based on Carla Emery's concept of 365 days of independent eating, I decided to resurrect my garden journal to try to record at least something everyday toward that concept. Details on "Day 1" of my garden journal. 

Pasture Improvement: This year we'll focus on the buck pasture. I'll have the soil tested soon and start getting soil amendments. The plan is to plant it in corn and cowpeas this summer, and pasture in the fall.

Animal Shelters: Eventually we'd like to have a rain, sun, & wind shelter in each fenced area. At the start, we're considering temporary hoop shelters made from cattle panels and tarps. That will make them inexpensive to make and easy to move. We'll need two this summer.
  • One for the bucks, because of the soil improvement project. They will have to spend the summer in the front pasture and will need rain shelter.
  • The other for pigs, which we plan only to have over the summer. They will live in last year's grain field.  

Outbuildings: a real barn would be too expensive to build, so we're going to make do with what we already have, insofar as they are structurally sound. It took awhile to come to that decision, and was based in part by being able to visualize our outbuildings and barnyard as a whole. We have a general plan in mind now, so this year, the goal will be:
  • Build a new chicken coop. The exsisting shed can then be used just for goats.
  • Guinea house - in the buck browse because that's where all the ticks are
  • Turkey house - we only plan to keep a few turkeys. Perhaps a portable house for them? According to Joel Salatin, turkeys are excellent at weeding corn (once it gets too tall for them to eat).

I know the list seems long but fortunately, it's not a checklist where we start at the top and work our way to the bottom. We like to have both indoor and outdoor projects because of the weather. Some of these projects that will take only a few days to complete, or at most a week or two: the rain catchment project, pasture improvement, and the shelters. Others are larger projects and will take weeks to months to complete, such as the master suite, fencing, and possibly the chicken coop. And as I mentioned, some are just the next step, whether this year or next.

It seems that when I share my goal lists every January 1st, many folks comment how ambitious our lists are. At the end of the year, comments for my "year in review" posts focus on how much we've accomplished. As an encouragement to others, I'd like to say that the key to success is to not look at the list in its entirety and think, "that's impossibly long!" Rather, we just take it a day at a time, a project at a time. Some days we work on indoor projects, some days outdoor projects. "By the inch it's a cinch, by the yard it's hard" as the saying goes. Before you know it, all those inches add up to a project complete. :)

Homestead Goals For 2013  © January 2013