Sunday, August 31, 2008

Independence Day on the Homestead

It is Independence Day on the Homestead. Today marks exactly one year ago that Bernie quit his job and we moved out to our homestead. I have to tell you, it was a very scary time for me. We had planned to pay off all debt before making that move, and the day we moved here we were not very close to meeting that goal. In the end, concern for our health and sanity sped our decision and, although it has been a little tight for us financially, we are both extremely happy we went ahead and did it.

You may have noticed I typically sign my post with "Bee Free". Certainly the "Bee" part of that comes from our venture into raising honey bees, something we began before ever moving to the homestead permanently. Although we ended up losing all six of our hives, getting those bees marked the beginning of homesteading to me. It was our first small step towards gaining a little self sufficiency. I miss those little bees something fierce and I am really looking forward to starting again with them in the spring.

The "Free" part of my sign off means exactly what you probably think it means. I suppose none of us is truly free. We all have laws or rules that govern our lives to one extent or another. But being free is really much more than that to me. To my way of thinking, being free has more to do with the freedom gained in self sufficiency and self reliance. Bernie and I have not achieved that type of freedom yet, but we are working towards it on a daily basis, one small step at a time. And, if you've been keeping up with current events, you know that depending on others to provide safe food, or anything else of that nature, isn't a very good bet right now.

To celebrate our Independence Day, we went out early this morning and began chipping wood with the wood chipper. Do we know how to celebrate on the homestead or what? We spent about four hours doing that and then I cleaned in the chicken coop and added a fresh layer of pine chips.

By the way, Duke really seems to have learned a little lesson from being forcibly carried around last week after his little temper tantrum. I was scraping poop off of roosts and hen boxes with a putty knife when he got so wound up last week. Today while I was scraping with the putty knife, Duke stood in the yard instead of at my feet clucking wildly like he did last week. And he didn't make a peep. Bernie was watching and said Duke danced around a little and was obviously annoyed at the sound and at me being in the coop making it, but Duke never entered the coop and he never uttered a sound. I finished up and strutted out like the true QUEEN OF THE COOP that I am.

After we finished up our chores for the day, we got cleaned up and opened a bottle of very nice wine a friend gave me a little while ago. We toasted our Independence Day and sipped our wine while nibbling cheese, salami, crackers, and slices of apples we picked from the apple tree at the edge of the back yard. What a nice way to celebrate the anniversary of our independence!

In closing, allow me to share with you the latest in Duke's evolving crow. I think it sounds like he's crowing the beginning to the music of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly:

Is that not just adorable?

I thought I was going to capture Bobby Lee's crow yesterday morning. He and Duke were both crowing up a storm around 10AM, so I grabbed the video camera and Bernie and I took off to catch it. But when we got out to the chicken run, we realized they were carrying on because a Black Spanish had escaped and was frantically trying to get back inside the run. Everyone was pretty worked up over the whole thing. I caught the Spanish and put her back in the coop and it seemed to calm everyone down - so much so that Bobby Lee didn't make a peep the rest of the day.

As we celebrate the anniversary of one year on the homestead, I would like to thank each of you for sharing this adventure with us. We are thankful for the friends we've made through this blog, the long lost friends that have found us through it, and the emails we've received because of it. We are truly blessed.

Bee Free,

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Raising Meal Worms 101

I am no expert on raising meal worms, but I've gotten enough personal emails asking about it that I thought I'd post about the method I have chosen - and include pictures.

NOTE: I suppose I should post a warning right about now, so here it goes ..... If you are not interested in learning about raising meal worms OR you are squeamish about looking at pictures of worms or bugs, this is NOT the post for you! Slowly back away from your computer monitor, close this page, and no one will get hurt.

I decided to raise meal worms to feed to my chickens for two reasons:

1) Chickens love meal worms and when I feed my chickens meal worms, they love me - or at least they pretend to love me, and that's good enough for me.
2) Meal worms are a nutritious snack for chickens and when they eat nice, nutritious snacks, it cuts back a little on the amount of feed I must provide.

Chickens are also a hoot to watch as they scramble, scream, and fight over meal worms, but that's kind of covered in #1 above.

A simple search of the internet will reveal countless pages on the subject of raising meal worms, and I've looked at most of them. In the end, I chose a method that I felt would be least expensive and cause the least amount of work.

If you are fortunate, you will find someone locally that sells meal worms (such as a bait shop or a shop that sells live critters to feed snakes, birds, etc.), or perhaps you may be able to sprinkle some corn meal on wet concrete and the meal worm beetles will come to you. If you're like me, you'll need to order them. You can do an internet search and find a dealer fairly easily, with one small note of importance - at the time of this posting, there appears to be a world wide shortage of meal worms. I am not making this up. I have noticed a few dealers seem to be getting more meal worms in their inventory, so maybe things are looking up for the meal worm industry.

I bought my meal worms from the Worm Guy. Yes, there really is a guy that sells worms - lots and lots of just about every kind of worm a person could desire. I have no affiliation with the Worm Guy, other than visiting his website and making a purchase from him, but I will provide this link to his website for those of you who are interested. I also recommend reading his page on breeding meal worms. Lots of good info there.

So now that you've got a line on getting your meal worms, let me tell you how I got set up for mine.

I had an old, very large, plastic bin with a lid laying around that I decided to use. I don't know what you call these things. The label on the side says it's a tote, but I've never called those plastic bins a tote. At any rate, I took this plastic bin/tote and cleaned it up with some warm, soapy water. Then I drilled holes in the lid of it so that I could place the lid on it and keep the cats out without suffocating all those little worms. I used a 1 inch fly bit to drill the holes. The whole thing looks like this:


It's sitting in the tub of our spare bathroom, so you can't see the bottom of it in that picture, but you get the idea.

Then I filled the bottom of the plastic bin with about six inches of chicken feed. The chicken feed is the medium that is used for bedding, and for food. I ordered 1000 meal worms and at the rate they reproduce, I figured I'd need a fairly large container and a fair amount of bedding.

Next, I put a couple of potatoes (quartered) and a few wedges of cabbage on TOP of the feed. These will be the source of water for the worms and beetles:


You may notice there are already worms and beetles in the above picture, and that the potatoes look a little old. I didn't take a picture before I added the worms, so it's the best I can do right now. Just pretend there aren't any worms or beetles in that picture and that the potatoes are fresh. And, by the way, you don't need to use both potato and cabbage. One or the other will suffice. I just happened to have both in the kitchen when it came time to throwing a water source in the bin. It may be worth mentioning, though, that my meal worms seem to prefer the cabbage.

Then, I dumped 1000 meal worms on the top of it all, covered them with newspaper, placed the lid on, set the whole rig in the DRY tub, turned off the light, and went about checking my email and surfing the internet:


Meal worms do best when the temperature is between 75 and 80 degrees. They also do not like light. So keep them in a place where the temperature agrees with them and keep newspaper layered on top of them, and they should be happy. The newspaper also works well for collecting the worms to feed to your chickens. The worms like to crawl up between the newspaper layers, so you can just carefully pick up the newspaper and funnel it into a container when you're ready to feed the chickens.

That really is all there is to it. You'll need to check the potato or cabbage every week or so and make sure it hasn't dried out too much, or gotten moldy. And over time you may need to add a little more chicken feed, but other than that, you are now raising meal worms!

One of the most common questions I've received is "How do you keep the beetles that emerge from flying out of the bin?". Well, it's really very simple. You just clip their little wings. OK - I'm just kidding. The truth is, the beetles don't fly. And they can't climb up the slick sides of the plastic bin, so your little beetles will be stay-at-home beetles and focus only on the job of procreation.

If you are still with me at this point, you may be interested in looking at the following pictures of the life cycle of the meal worm. The first step in the life cycle is the egg, of course, but I don't have any pictures of the eggs yet because I haven't taken the time to dig around and find them, but other than that minor detail, I do have the following to offer:

When you first get your meal worms, they will most likely be in the larvae stage and look like little...well....worms. These are the meal worms. They crawl around at this stage and stay busy doing worm things like wiggling and sucking moisture from a potato. They also shed their skin and you'll start noticing the shed skin laying around in the bin.

After a short while, you'll start seeing little white/tan looking blobs laying around. Congratulations! You now have pupae. Pupae don't do much and aren't very much fun, but they are interesting to look at and watch as they change. Here's a picture of a meal worm laying next to a pupae:


The meal worm is the darker worm in the bottom of the picture, and the pupae is the white/tan blog just above the meal worm. This particular pupae is a little older, as you can tell by noticing the wings are already beginning to develop.

The little white pupae will continue to mutate and one day you'll look in your bin and notice little beetles crawling around. When they first emerge, they are solid white. Very shortly, they begin turning a light brown. Eventually, your beetles will be black.

This picture has a younger beetle (light brown), an older beetle (black) a meal worm (brown worm), a pupae (white/tan blob), and a bunch of shed skin:


So, to recap, it starts with an egg, goes to a meal worm, turns into a pupae, and ends up a beetle.

As I understand it, a single female beetle can lay up to 500 eggs in her very short life. That's a LOT of eggs! So if you start with 1000 meal worms and let them go through their life cycle, be prepared to feed your chickens lots of delicious meal worms on a regular basis.

As I said, I'm no expert on raising meal worms, but it really doesn't take one to do this successfully. Get a bin, throw in some chicken feed, add a few potatoes, and toss in some worms. Keep them in a place between 75 - 80 degrees, make sure they have moist potatoes and/or cabbage at all times, scoop out a few meal worms daily to feed to your chickens, and then stand back and bask in the love your chickens will bestow upon you - or pretend to bestow upon you.

Bee Free,

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rain, Roosters, and Getting Sideways

The entire Shenandoah County can thank Bernie for the recent lack of rain. He ensured a drought by building his rain barrel a few months ago. But it seems Mother Nature has forgiven him, or started feeling bad for punishing the entire county for Bernie's actions, and as I write this, we are getting rain. Lots and lots of rain. The rain barrel is now more than half way full, taking it to just over 150 gallons of water. Woo hoo! If this keeps up much longer, we may have a completely full rain barrel - and that will come in handy when Bernie does something else to irritate Mother Nature.

Bernie's been busy taking care of things around here. Since we've taken a couple of vacations in the past couple of months, discretionary funds are a little low right now, so he hasn't started any new projects. Instead he's welding fencing on the driveway gates, using the backhoe to remove ugly stumps in the back yard, working on keeping the cabin roof from leaking, and any number of things on his never ending list of stuff to do.

We were greeted Monday morning with several little crows from Bobby Lee. They were the cutest little crows - very raspy and strained sounding. He's currently pausing on each syllable and it makes me laugh every time. It kind of sounds like "ER....ER....ER....EEEEERRRRRRR". For some reason, he will only crow in the morning while sitting on the roost. Once he comes outside into the chicken yard, no amount of begging or coaxing will convince him to crow. I want to get a video of it, but it's so dark in the coop when I let them out that it doesn't video very well. I'm not giving up though. I may just have to video the outside of the coop and hope you can hear him crowing inside of it. You will definitely hear Duke crowing inside of it. That boy has turned into a crowing machine. He crows all day, every day. And Bernie can get Duke to crow by asking him if he's a turkey. Duke really seems to take exception to that.

Speaking of Duke, we had our first little "rumble" last weekend. I was cleaning out the coop and raking the coop yard and Duke did not appreciate it at all. He was following me around and clucking up a storm and nothing I said would calm him. I turned in his direction to do something, and he fluffed up and came at me side ways. Well, I saw red! I snatched him up before he even knew what was happening. I tucked him under my arm and continued cleaning and working. He struggled and fussed for a while, but finally settled down. After about five minutes or so, I stopped and petted his chest and told him in no uncertain terms that while I appreciated him watching over the girls and taking his duties so seriously, I am in charge in the chicken yard and aggression toward me will not be tolerated. I also took the opportunity to remind him that there's not much we enjoy better than a pot of chicken noodle soup. When I finally put him down, he was quite calm and much nicer. I finished cleaning up the coop and run with no more interference from the boy. When it comes to getting sideways with someone, Duke will learn he's met his match with me.

Bernie took a picture of the chickens outside playing in the rain:


I've always heard the saying "madder than a wet hen", but I can tell you my hens love playing outside in the rain and getting wet. It makes them happy. The huge lump on the stairs to the left is Duke. Duke likes to get a lot of rest. The chicken running towards the camera in front of Duke is Bobby Lee. Bobby Lee likes to run and we seldom see him standing still.

My meal worms are multiplying like crazy. I've been waiting to make sure we had a little life cycle going before feeding the chickens many of the worms. With plenty of beetles, pupa, and larvae in the container, I think it's about time the worms can become a daily treat for the chickens. Meal worms are their favorite snack - and they are so easy to raise.

Things are going well on the homestead. Bernie and I are staying busy and wondering how it got to be the end of August already. Soon we'll be eating fresh eggs the chickens lay for us. Now THAT will be something to crow about!

Bee Free,

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

It's the Little Things in Life.....

It's easy to feel overwhelmed with life sometimes and to become completely preoccupied by things beyond your control or influence. When that happens to me, I tend to turn inward and draw up around myself, as if forming a cocoon that can shield me from pain and hurt. And then something so comforting will happen that I actually snap out of it, if only for a few wonderful moments. Elvis or Priscilla will crawl up in my lap, I'll notice my flowers blooming, the sound of the wind in the trees, tomatoes turning red, beans ready to pick, hens clucking and calling to me, or Duke the Roo serenading me.

Because it brings me so much joy, I decided to video Duke's crow again today. I am certain this will bring a smile to your face, too. Just listen to the progress that boy has made!

That's a long shot from his first crow - and even his second crow. That boy is a constant source of joy to me. How can anyone listen to that and not smile?

It's the little things in life that bring joy. Something small that just brings a smile to your face can lift your spirits when you are certain they are grounded for the foreseeable future.

Live each day to the fullest. Search for joy in everything you do. And don't forget to smile when you hear crowing - even if it comes from some jerk you work with ;-)

Bee Free,

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Just a Little of This and a Little of That

As a couple of you have seen fit to remind me in emails, I haven't been very good at updating the blog lately. We've been busy as ever on the homestead, but it seems the past few weeks have been filled with not much more than simply the day-to-day business of keeping on top of things around here. That doesn't make for very interesting blog fodder. But that has never stopped me before, so I decided to go ahead and post a blog entry anyway.

Since our return from a week in the Great Plains, Bernie has stayed occupied welding fencing on the gates, chipping pine for the chicken coop, mowing, and taking vehicles to the shop for recall repairs and things of that nature. My in-laws sent us home with a bunch of zucchini from their garden, and I've been busy shredding it and making Zucchini Bread, Zucchini Cake, Zucchini Soup, and anything else Zucchini I can think of. We managed to put up 5 quarts and 7 pints of dill pickles from our cucumbers and have been eating tomatoes and peppers at every meal. I got a late start putting beans in this year, but they'll be ready to pick and can in the coming week or so.

Big news - at least for me...... my mother is now on-line! She got a fancy schmancy computer and hooked it up with high speed internet. The reason this is important to me is that it means I am no longer the sole blogger on the planet whose own mother doesn't read her breath taking, riveting drivel. It also means I now have to watch what I say about her.

My mealy worms are becoming pupals! I'm pretty sure that excites me more than it excites you. It means that soon I will have little beetles that will breed and lay eggs that will become larva and start the whole process over again - providing my chickens with tasty little snacks and making them love me, or at least pretend to love me so that I'll bring them more snacks. And yes, it really is this easy to make me happy.

The chickens will be five months old in October. That's roughly the magic number for expecting eggs. It's also roughly the magic number for some romantic tendencies on the part of chickens. I do have some concerns about this milestone. Duke is clearly twice the size of the hens. If you've ever seen chickens mate, you may understand my concern. If you haven't, well let's just say that roosters tend to be very aggressive during the process and it's not uncommon for hens to get a little battered. I'm hoping Duke's gentle side comes through with his romantic tendencies.

I've been a little surprised at the number of people who have written to tell me they think I am a little crazy for loving my chickens as pets. Seriously. So, in an effort to make myself appear less crazy by comparison, I offer you this set of videos on YouTube. It's called "The Natural History of the Chicken" and was originally a PBS film, but someone (posting as Ghostmonters) was kind enough to upload it to YouTube in six parts. I actually found it to be very interesting and fun. And after watching some of the people featured in it, I feel certain you will rethink your position on my craziness - at least with regard to my chickens.

We're all fine on the homestead and staying busy. We've got a few projects planned for the following weeks, and I'll be sure to keep you updated on them. I've been remiss in boring you with chicken pictures and videos as promised, so I'll get on top of that too - along with the updates to the website. I hope that will make you love me, or at least pretend to love me. We've established how happy that makes me.

Bee Free,

Monday, August 04, 2008

Go West, Young Man - and Raise Some Mealy Worms

We're back from visiting Bernie's parents out in the Great Plains. I have to tell you, I am honestly one blessed individual. I have the best in-laws a person could possibly wish for. Not only are they kind, sweet, and wonderful, they are honestly some of the most fun people I have ever met. We had a great time and it was really hard to leave them, knowing that they are so far away. We don't get to see them near as often as we'd like.

The week away was no where near as difficult as I had feared. We had such a great time visiting Bernie's parents I really didn't have a lot of time to dwell on missing our homestead - although I must admit, it creeped into my mind and heart on occasion. We got to see his sisters and a couple of nieces and nephews, and we also did a fair amount of sight seeing. The Great Plains is such a contrast to the area where we live. Both are beautiful in very different ways. We have very hilly terrain, and lots and lots of trees. In certain areas of the Plains, it really seems that you can see as far as the end of the earth - and at night the skies are filled with more stars than I ever knew existed. Every where we went, I spent the entire time with my nose pressed to the car windows, just staring at the beautiful landscape, and admiring the homesteads in a part of our great country that was founded by homesteaders with more grit than I probably possess. Awesome. Absolutely awesome.

I took a lot of pictures, and it was very difficult to choose only a few to post in this blog because they are all so pretty. Below, is a picture that proves the earth is indeed flat:


Isn't that just an awesome place? You can also see the end of the earth in this picture, and a glimpse of the Missouri River:


With such a wet spring and early summer in that part of the country, the wildflowers were spectacular. This looks like a sea of flowers to me:


And the Black Eyed Susans were everywhere:


We got to take a little road trip to Le Mars, Iowa. It's the Ice Cream Capitol of the World and home to Blue Bunny ice cream, which just so happens to be my absolutely very most favorite wonderfully delicious ice cream on the entire planet. It may have been the highlight of the trip for me. That would be a tough call though....

Pictures could never do justice to the beauty of the Great Plains. And words could never adequately explain how awesome my in-laws are.

As wonderful as our visit was, it was also wonderful to get home at the end of the trip. I am very proud to report that Bernie's fence did the trick. The chickens were safe and so was the garden.

The chickens grew in the week we were gone - a lot! And Duke is perfecting his crow. He's also practicing it a lot more often and has been crowing just about every time he sees us outside. Our rain barrel has over 50 gallons in it now, and the garden is providing a fair amount of fresh vegetables. The cats weren't very happy with us the first day after we returned, but they've finally decided to forgive us and allow us to pet and love on them.

Before we left on our trip, I ordered 1,000 Mealy Worms so I can raise them for the chickens to eat. They arrived the day we returned. I'm going to take the word of the invoice and trust there were 1,000 worms in the box when it arrived as I really have no interest in counting them.

I did vermi-composting with Red Wigglers for a few years with great success, so when I read about raising Mealy Worms for the chickens I decided to go for it. It really seems relatively simple and inexpensive. Some people choose corn meal, wheat bran, or other mediums, but I decided to use chicken feed because it's easy for me to find and only cost about $15 for 50 pounds of it, which should last quite a while. I simply filled the bottom of a very large plastic tub with about six inches of chicken feed, placed a few cut up potatoes and cabbage on top, dumped the worms in with it all, and then covered it with newspaper. I also put the plastic tub lid on to keep the cats out of it. Apparently the best temperature for the worms to breed well is between 70 - 80 degrees, so I put the whole rig in the tub in the spare bath room. And then I closed the shower curtain so unsuspecting visitors to the powder room won't be as likely to leave it running and shrieking. So far, so good.

The past week has been a lot of fun. It was great to see Bernie's family, and great to get back home. Not surprisingly, the long to-do list I left was here when I got back. There's always something to do here on the homestead - but I wouldn't have it any other way. And I might actually accomplish something if I didn't have to stop and play with the chickens, listen to Duke crow, pet Elvis, hold Priscilla, and listen to the wind blowing through the trees. I'm telling you, it's hard work around here.

Bee Free,