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.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ridiculous Household Hacks

Mr. Chanclas is the king of ridiculous household hacks. He once repaired a speaker in his car with a twig and two twist ties. Today I present Chanclas' Improvised Door Latch:

Last week the latch broke on the storm door that leads from our semi-enclosed workshop to the carport. This meant that the door would either hang open, inviting chickens inside to lay eggs amongst the workshop tools or poop on the rubber floor mats, or it would jam closed, preventing us from entering. This was a problem. So while we look for a replacement latch Mr. Chanclas rigged  this ridiculous, yet entirely functional, assembly. Knowing us, I wouldn't be too surprised if it is still in use six months from now.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Scavenged Wonders Never Cease

Is there no limit to what one can scavenge from the trash?

This is the question I am asking myself this week. It was bulky trash pickup in southwest Austin this week and I am astonished at what good stuff I found. Check this out:

I found a WORKING, gas-powered weed eater (Echo brand) and a WORKING, gas-powered Ryobi leaf-blower with several attachments.They even had gas in them. My first thought when I saw them on the curb was, "They must be broken." But there was something about the way they were carefully laid out that made me think maybe they weren't. So into the van they went and I brought them home. Mr. Chanclas rolled his eyes when I unloaded them but then I pulled the ripcord on the leaf blower and proceeded to blow all the leaves off of our enormous patio while he watched in wonder. It takes me over an hour to sweep that patio and now I can blow it off in five minutes. We didn't own a weed eater, either, which is maybe odd because we have a LOT of yard. Both items are things we needed but I didn't want to have to buy. So I waited. And waited. And they came to me. As things nearly always do. I just have to be patient.

I also picked up the two wood-and-iron patio chairs that you see in the above photo, as well as that white round thing. The white round thing is a Roomba, which is a robotic floor cleaner. The Roomba also came with a box full of all of its accessories (docking station, power cord, etc). I will probably sell the Roomba but it appears to work.

The Ryobi leaf blower with attachments.
Another interesting thing I found on the curb was this old wooden filing cabinet. I have been waiting patiently for a four-drawer filing cabinet to replace the two little metal ones I currently have. (And which I find to be unbearably ugly.) And who knew that wooden file cabinets even existed? I didn't.

The message printed on the back of the wooden filing cabinet

Side view of the cabinet.
I also picked up this basic Ikea bookcase. It matches some of the Ikea furniture in our house and goodness knows we are always needing more bookcases around here. Somebody painted the back panel bright red but I will either repaint it or tear it off.

Ikea bookcase and the back of the wooden filing cabinet
These were my main scores from this round of bulky trash pickup. The following morning I also scavenged some fence pickets, several metal T-posts, some pretty red brick pavers, a pair of concrete blocks, a full set of Rubbermaid car mats, and a large panel of new sheet rock (which I needed for some sheet rock repairs).

Scavenge on, my friends!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Old School Joe: Percolator Coffee

I love coffee. It's really my only vice. (Unless you count poultry and goat ownership as a vice, which I sometimes do.)

I also really love old things. Which explains why my house and belongings look the way they do. Mr. Chanclas also loves old things. This is his favorite old thing (not counting his wife):

Mr. Chanclas and his 1968 Volkswagen Squareback
I just love to imagine the back story of all of my old things. Old stuff has a story to tell and it's often well-made. (If it weren't it wouldn't still be around, would it?) I just inherited this wonderful Corning Ware electric coffee percolator. Isn't it pretty? I'm drinking my first cup of coffee from it and I have to admit that it's a little bit burnt but it would be perfect for camping. It does require electricity but most camping spaces have an electrical outlet and I'm not against using it.

Coffee percolators were invented in the early 1800's and were very popular until the early 1970's when automatic drip coffee makers came out. The nice thing about a percolator is that it doesn't require a paper filter. Some, like this electric one, have their own heat source, but others are for stovetop use.

Does anybody else have a sweet spot for percolated coffee? I'm going to keep using mine and see if I can perfect my method.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Summer Update at Making Shift

We've had a full summer thus far. Much of my homesteading activities have been conducted on autopilot lately since I've had all three kids at home for summer break. The bees, chickens, ducks, geese, and goats are all thriving, but I have not expanded any operations or started any major new projects. (I have some major fencing and garden projects in mind for the coming year, but it's too hot to start on anything yet.)

I'm behind on updates so I'm going to tell the story of this summer in photos. Here are some of the things we've been up to.

1. Reading
We always read a lot but I've really allowed myself to read lots of fun fiction this summer. Unlike most women (or so the librarians tell me), I read mostly nonfiction. At any given moment I might have on my bedside table: one book about drywall application, two about electrical wiring, forty-two about permaculture, and a few cookbooks.

The library book shelving overfloweth.

 2. Cooking and Food Preparation
My sister lives on a tiny lot in the suburbs of a large city but she sent me home from her house with grocery sacks full of mint and sage from her yard. Brother took it upon himself to pick all the mint leaves off the stems, where we let them dry and then stored them away for making tea. Big Sister learned how to make chocolate chip cookies all by herself and they were the best cookies I had eaten in years. She is ten years old so it's really past time for me to get her cooking more.

3. The Animals
The geese and ducks are nearly full grown and doing great. They free range in the yard all day and I close them up in one of the poultry tractors at night. I can't wait to get some eggs from them. So far the geese haven't attacked anyone and are really quite calm.

A goose walking down the front steps
 I made a new dog bed for Zeus because his old one was too thin and flimsy. I had a piece of thick, quality foam left from our old dog's bed and I covered it with an old bedsheet. My neighbor had given us a hand-me-down set of fancy-brand queen sheets. They were very nice and all except they felt like tarpaulins. Industrial grade. Perfect for a dog bed!

Newly covered dog bed
 4. The World Cup
We were totally immersed in the World Cup. We don't have a TV but we were able to see all of the games live by streaming them online! We moved our couch in front of the computer for the whole month of June and even did brackets with our extended family. As you can see, we were a house divided for the final game:

4. Family
We've had a lot of good family time. Big Sister taught Brother how to play chess. We went to Mexico and spent a wonderful week with our family. My two older kids are still there, having adventures with their grandparents.

I hope your summer has been as full and fun as ours! I'll be back soon with new projects and updates.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Homegrown Honeycomb

It's time for a bee update! Those bees have been extremely busy. While it is still too early for us to actually harvest honey from them, we have gotten to eat several pieces of comb that were being built along the sides of the hive (instead of hanging from the top bars as they should). I had never eaten honeycomb before, which is the actual comb (made of wax) filled with honey. You chew it up, slurping down the honey, and then spit out a tiny ball of wax. It is delicious. And it is ours!

I have some interesting photos of the hive that I took about two weeks ago when Mr. Chanclas was checking on their progress. I should  note that these photos were taken just one month after our bees arrived. They have done so much work!

Bees arriving at the entrance to the hive
Mr. Chanclas removing the roof to the hive
Replacing the jar of sugar water that helps feed the colony
Removing one of the top bars to look at the comb
A small piece of comb being built on the side of the hive. Chanclas removed it with a knife and we ate it.
One of the larger combs. Notice the golden brown in the center. That's the honey!
A closeup of the comb. Honey glistens in the center. The upper cells are capped with white.
The largest comb we have at the moment
The smallest, outermost comb. The bees started building comb at one end of the hive and are working their way down, building comb on the successive bars. Eventually they may fill or almost fill the box.
Lantana blooming near the beehive. This is one of many plants blooming at this time of year and providing the bees with nectar and pollen.

I find the beehive to be such a wonder. We do almost nothing for them. Mr. Chanclas makes sure they have some water nearby and he still gives them some sugar water to supplement their food. The combs themselves are gorgeous, made of perfectly formed, precisely sized cells. The beauty of a top bar hive, as opposed to the traditional bee box hives, is that the bees decide what size cells to build. There is no template that they are forced to build on. They build what is best for their colony.

I've also been surprised at how docile the bees are. Mr. Chanclas bought a smoker but has yet to use it. We move slowly and carefully around the hive and the bees tolerate our presence. I have found bees to be very different from all of the other animals we keep. Namely because we don't "keep" the bees at all. They could leave any time they wanted. We just provided a nice home and they decided to stay. We don't manage them or interfere with them much at all. They just go about their business and we will be lucky to reap some honey rewards at some point.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

DIY Dryer Vent (aka I'm Winging It)

Two weeks ago I decided I couldn't stand looking at our dryer duct work for one second longer.

When we bought this house there was all of this weird, convoluted, and decidedly dangerous tubing that was used to vent the dryer through one of the turbines in the roof. Not one single piece of this system was anything less than a code violation. I am pretty sure the previous owner did all of his home improvement projects while drunk. (I have ample evidence.) Even though I was worried about this dryer venting situation from day one, I was in no place to do anything about it. When we moved here we still had two children in diapers and one was still a nursing baby. I didn't even get all of the boxes unpacked for at least six months.

This was the terrible, code-defying scene in the attic
Two weeks ago I looked at that ridiculous snaky hose that was cut through two sides of a wall and a ceiling and decided I couldn't take it any longer. So I ripped out all of the ducting and proceeded to start over. Our utility room is located in the center of the house so I was either going to have to vent the dryer through the attic to the roof or through the attic to a soffit vent. I was nervous about cutting a hole in the roof so I ordered a soffit vent. Then I realized there was already a perfectly good roof vent (with cap and everything) directly above the dryer (accessible via the attic). Which makes me wonder why the previous owner did not use it. (Enter drunkenness theory.)

I was unable to route the new dryer duct through the utility room wall because there were too many electrical lines, plumbing lines, and even the electrical subpanel present on that wall. So I routed the duct through the ceiling, through the attic, and straight up to the roof vent. I installed a quick-connect piece at the ceiling so that I can easily disconnect the duct for cleaning.

New, rigid dryer duct in the utility room
New dryer duct passes through the ceiling via a quick-connect

I'm thrilled with the results and I can hear the dryer running as I type these words. In addition to eliminating a fire hazard I also made my dryer much more efficient. I can now dry a large load of clothes in 50 minutes instead of 70. That means I'm using almost 30% less energy to dry our clothes. I still prefer to dry most of our clothes outside on the clothesline but on rainy days like today I really appreciate the dryer.

Like almost all home repair projects, this project spawned at least three others, which is why I have been insanely busy these last two weeks. In order to install the new vent I had to tear out the old cabinets above the dryer. These cabinets served as our pantry and kitchen storage area, so they are crucial to the proper functioning of our kitchen. It took me two hours with a hammer and a cat's paw tool to pry the ancient cabinet off the wall. There was a lot of sweating and swearing involved and I bruised and scraped every finger on my left hand. But I emerged victorious.

The ugly, offending cabinet
After I had dragged the one-ton cabinet out to the driveway I had to start on drywall repair. The cabinet had left some deep gouges in the wall, not to mention the two enormous holes left by the old dryer duct (which had run from the utility room to an adjoining hallway). Drywall repair led to repainting the whole room. Repainting the walls led to repainting the ceiling, doors, and trim (because they all desperately needed it).

Tearing out the old cabinet led to a need for new shelving. I scoured my lumber collection for some good shelving boards. I came up with a total of twelve good shelves, including three which had been used as walkway across the joists in the attic. They all got a good priming and double painting and I scared up some brackets from a box in the carport. I didn't have to buy a single thing for the shelving.

Then Mr. Chanclas asked me why I was leaving a gaping hole in the other wall when I was making the rest of the room look so nice. Good question. So I decided to fix the other gaping hole, which involved removing two four-plex electrical boxes (installed while drunk, most definitely) and replacing them with a single duplex outlet. This, of course, involved more drywall repair.

My (still unfinished) drywall repair of the gaping electrical disaster that was installed here by previous owner
You get the point. One thing led to another to another to another...... I think it never ends. But I am nearly finished. I haven't installed the shelving yet and I'm still working on the electrical outlet, but the end is in sight. And the end is a whole lot prettier than the beginning. And before anyone starts thinking that I'm "handy" I'm here to say that that adjective probably doesn't apply. I didn't know how to do any of this except for the painting but I did some online research and checked out a couple of books about house-wiring and I was ready to go. All it takes is time, a willingness to get dirty, and some research.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Honeybees at the Making Shift Homestead

I am now married to a beekeeper.

That's right- Mr. Chanclas is the proud owner of a couple thousand honeybees! I'm thrilled to have this newest addition to our homestead. This project belongs to Mr. Chanclas so I am just a casual observer to the process. I haven't read any beekeeping books or obsessed over beekeeping websites and YouTube videos. I've just quietly and happily watched as Mr. Chanclas built his own top bar beehive out of scrap lumber and then installed his first colony.

Mr. Chanclas working on his top bar hive. Little Sister made her own project nearby.

Cutting strips of wood to create the top bars.

The main trough portion of the hive

The top bar hive with top bars in place

Air holes with screen covering in the bottom of the hive
Then, a little over a week ago, he came home from BeeWeaver with his first colony of bees. He shook them out of the travel box into his top bar hive, gave them a jar of sugar water to get them started, and then walked away. In ten days they have made a substantial amount of comb on at least 6 of the 31 bars! I'm already dreaming of the honey. I don't cook or bake with regular sugar anymore so I use a fair amount of honey and maple syrup.

A piece of "starter comb" added to show the bees where to get started
The box of bees purchased from BeeWeaver

It was a LOT of bees!
Putting the new bees into their new hive

Showing the kids the little box containing the queen bee. Several other bees are clinging to the wire because they can smell her inside. They have to eat through a candy plug in the box to release her. This happens of the course of a couple of days, giving the colony a chance to get used to her smell (pheromones, actually).

We have modest goals for this first hive. Mainly, that they don't decide to leave. And hopefully, that we get a little bit of honey for eating and a little bit of beeswax for candle making. I will report back with updates!