Monday, November 17, 2014

Dairy Goats: A One-Year Update

Clementine being curious

It has been one whole year since I bought two Nigerian Dwarf doelings to be our milk goats. They were just six weeks old when I brought them home. They've spent the last year eating and growing and making us laugh with their silly goat antics and ridiculous noises. Today they are nearly full-grown and weigh about 40 pounds each.

The goats today, at one year old and 40 lbs
In early October I decided it was time to breed them so we could have goat kids (and milk) in the spring. I put a personals ad in the Craigslist Farm & Garden section and waited for the stud offers to come rolling in. None came. So then I trolled the Craigslist listings for goats for sale and found one ad that mentioned that the doeling on offer could be bred before sale. A buck on the premises! I contacted the woman and she turned out to be an experienced farmer and goat breeder with two Nigerian Dwarf bucks. Best yet, she was just a few miles down the highway from me!

We worked out the details and a few days later I dropped off my does at her farm for a two-week stay with their new boyfriend, Amos. Amos was young (only 6 months old- a younger man!) but seemed to know his business. He is the white and black goat in the photos below. He also has blue eyes, which is a highly desirable trait in goats because people will pay more money for blue-eyed babies. I'm keeping my goats for milking and have no plans to expand the herd so I will be selling their babies once weaned.

I love all the stuff going on in this photo. That white duck in the middle is a Muscovy.
After the two-week honeymoon I retrieved my ladies (transported by minivan) and now they are home and, hopefully, pregnant. I really won't know until near the end of their 5-month gestation. (I wish there was a goat pregnancy stick they could pee on. That would be nice. Can someone invent that?)

Chillin' on the igloo
Kiki, the herd queen
So now I have less than five months left to build my milking stand and a little goat shed! Plenty of winter work awaits me. But if all goes well we will have at least two kids born in late February. And after that....MILK.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Importance of Dirt

There is no soil where I live.

There is a little bit of dirt but nothing that could actually be called "soil".

We live on the western edge of Austin, which happens to the the eastern edge of Texas Hill Country. "Hill Country" might sound like lush, green, rolling hills but in Texas it means limestone jutting from the ground, jagged little hills, cactus plants, scrubby live oaks and ash juniper, and almost no soil. It is beautiful, to be sure, and I love it here. But we are not blessed with soil.

I lived and gardened in Wisconsin for three years and that place has gorgeous, amazing soil. Several FEET of topsoil, which means you can double-dig your garden beds and your plants grow like gangbusters even if you don't water them. I get weak in my gardening knees just remembering those soils.

Here on our 1.3 Texas acres we have between 0 and 2 inches (INCHES!) of topsoil. In fact, right after we moved into this house one of the pond goldfish died and the kids wanted to bury it. I grabbed a shovel and we went to dig a hole in the yard. I jammed the shovel into the earth and-CLANG- hit limestone. I moved over a few yards. CLANG. Over again. CLANG. CLANG. Finally we gave up and threw the goldfish in the garbage can. We couldn't find enough soil to dig a hole for a dead goldfish.

Last year our sweet old dog Penny died. Our vet, who is an old-time visiting vet, came out to the house and put her to sleep right here in our living room with all five of us around her. It was a really peaceful death and we wanted to bury her out back. It would have seemed weird to take her body away after she had lived and died here with us. So Mr. Chanclas grabbed the pick axe and headed out back. After a couple of inches of soil he hit rock. BIG rock. It took him over three hours but he finally had a hole big enough for a 50-pound dog. ("This isn't a grave. It's a crypt," he said when I came out to examine the rock-walled hole.)

When we got our current dog, Zeus, we were talking about how long he might live (ten years or more) and Mr. Chanclas looked at Zeus' rangy 80-pound body and said, "I better start digging his grave now. I could just work on it a little bit every weekend for the next ten years."

Because of our dire soil situation any vegetable gardening I do has to be in raised beds with soil trucked in from outside. I have been slow to develop new gardening spots on my property because of all of the work and expense associated with moving soil. I have a new gardening site in mind and have resolved to build some raised beds out there this winter. Then, the other night, I spotted an ad on the Craiglist "free" section: "10-15 cubic yards of dirt with free delivery in SW Austin". Ten to fifteen cubic yards of dirt is a LOT. About three dump trailers worth, to be exact. I was worried this was dirt from a pool dig, which would mean it was gross subsoil not suitable for growing plants. But it turned out to be the first 12 inches of topsoil in somebody's backyard (somebody who preferred a concrete pad over a lawn, apparently). So the guy came out the very next day and dumped the first load exactly where I wanted it. I plan to make a berry bed along the edge of the yard here.

Then he came out again this morning and dumped a second load. Vegetable garden! He's bringing another 1-2 loads out this afternoon, as well as some very large limestone chunks I will use as barriers or borders somewhere. (No plan for those yet, but they are useful materials.)

Did I mention that all this soil is free? This guy needed to get rid of it and I needed to obtain it, so it suited us both. It's not the rich, compost-laden garden soil that you would get at the gardening center (for $46.95/yd). But it is decent, dark topsoil and I will be able to amend it with my own mulch, compost, waste hay, chicken and goat manure, and cardboard. Bulk topsoil goes for about $20-30/yd around here and I am getting about 15-18 cubic yards, which means I'll be getting $300-$540 worth of soil. It's a good starting place!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

I've Got the Sweet Stuff: Honey Harvest

We had an accidental honey harvest.

Mr. Chanclas went out to check the bees last week and found that they had built up honeycomb on the sides of the top bar box, which caused the combs (that hang down from the bars in a vertical fashion) to stick to the sides. When he tried to remove one of the top bars to examine the comb on it the whole comb pulled loose and fell into the bottom of the hive.

Uh-oh. This is probably when the bees started stinging him. He was wearing his bee veil, pants, and long-sleeves, so he was mostly protected. His wimpy gardening gloves (with the wrists cut off) were not up to the job, though. Upon later reflection, he decided that he should have walked away at that point, beefed up his bee protection, and come back a few minutes later to deal with the problem. But in the moment he was so worried about the hive that he just gritted his teeth and took his time removing the fallen comb from the hive.

I didn't know anything was up until he appeared at the house in a vile mood with a plate full of broken, honey-oozing comb (complete with bees buzzing around the top). Of course he didn't mention that he had just been stung a dozen times. That information came out later as his hands and wrists doubled in size. (Eye-rolling here.)

The upside of this whole event is that we got an unexpected honey harvest. We were not going to harvest for some time yet but the two combs that broke off provided us with three pints of new honey! And it is a beautiful, golden, delicious honey at that.

Chanclas was worried about his queen bee (genus Apis, not Homo sapiens) but he spotted her in the hive a few days later, undamaged and continuing with her work. Whew.

Extracting the honey from the comb in our kitchen was messy work. The kids were in charge of squashing live bees that fell on the kitchen floor. (Poor little buggers but it was all we could do.) Chanclas pushed the waxy honeycomb through a fine-mesh strainer to extract the honey into a bowl.

Then we took the remaining waxy comb blob and put it in a wide-mouth canning jar with only the metal ring screwed on top (without the metal seal). Then I took a second wide-mouth jar and used the metal ring to screw on a square of heavy-duty mesh fabric (intended for window screens and saved by me years ago for some then-unimagined project), which I then duct-taped to the first jar. Then I inverted the whole business and put it in the closet with the hot water heater, which is the warmest spot in the house. A few days later I went to pull out a mop and discovered another pint of golden goodness.

What a simple and effective solution! And free. I like free.

And, in case you are wondering, Mr. Chanclas' hands and wrists were back to normal size four days later. And he's wearing proper bee gloves now.