Manic March

march beehives

The novelty of winter snow has worn off as the difficulties posed by months of cold and snow have mounted, and I have dubbed this Manic March in light of recent events here on the farm. Winter is always hard─especially in a place like Maine. It’s cold, there’s lots of snow, wind, and ice. Things break, animals get sick, and heating your home is a constant worry. Somehow, knowing that spring will eventually come, gives me strength to go another day.

runamuk apiary
The apiary at Runamuk was completely buried by snow; all you can make out is the brick that sits on top of the hive!

Old Man Winter can GO

I won’t lie…things have been a little rough here at Runamuk lately. Old Man Winter is a guest that has overstayed his welcome, and now it is time for him to pack up his bag of tricks and GO.

My body has taken the brunt of snow removal duties this winter; my elbow and shoulder joints have begun to protest the shoveling fairly loudly, and I’ve strained that same muscle in my upper right arm that I’ve torn twice in past winters doing the same kind of work.

If it weren’t for my kindly neighbors, I would be in much worse shape however─and I would probably be parking on the road. Mike has come across the road with his snowblower a few times this winter (whenever I get in a little over my head) to clear my driveway for me. What takes me hours to shovel, he is able to move with his snowblower in 20 minutes. It’s sick.

I will have my a working snowblower before next winter, I can promise you that!

Sick Sheep

Winter is hard on livestock, too. Miracle, the sheep, has been suffering from a cold for a couple of months, which is not unusual for sheep (apparently they’re prone to respiratory illnesses), but her breathing became more and more labored and ragged, and though she was eating fine I could see that something was not right, so I reached out to the Blauvelts, my friends from 4H who gave me the sheep. Emily instructed me to take Miracle’s temperature; she said normal temperature for sheep is between 100.9 and 103.8.

………..do you know how to check a sheep’s temperature?

Rectally.

I had never taken a sheep’s temperature before, so I went and bought a thermometer that I could designate specifically for the sheep, and I labeled it as such (lest there be any unfortunate confusion later on). Then I watched this video on YouTube to educate myself:

In order to be able to perform this task on my own, without help, I pounded a fence staple into the back wall of the sheep-shed, put a halter on Miracle, and tied her there. I was able to use my body to pin her against the wall, effectively holding her in place without hurting her, so that I could take her temperature. rectally. (have you thanked a farmer today?)

Miracle’s temperature was 104.7, which is not super high for a sheep, but she definitely wasn’t feeling well. I reached back out to the Blauvelts, and they came later that day to the farm to see Miracle and to help me figure out what was going on with her. Gordon pointed out how much weight Miracle had lost, and Emily told me how you can check their under eyelids for clues to the sheep’s health─they should be pink; a white inner eyelid is an indication that the animal is suffering from some kind of internal parasite. Miracle’s under eyelids were white, and as soon as Gordon pointed out her loss of weight, I saw for myself what I had been unable to put my finger on.

I felt awful; I still feel awful─that I missed such a key indicator of that animal’s health and well-being! Going into it though, I knew there would be new lessons in animal husbandry. Though I’d had sheep previously, it was a very brief experience; I knew I would need time to grow accustomed to caring for sheep before trying to breed them and raise any lambs. I stand by my decision to wait til November 2019 to attempt any kind of sheep-reproduction-shenanigans.

Gordon told me that either the weight loss is related to some kind of internal parasite, or it could be something more serious (like cancer) that we will not be able to cure; she is a 7 year old ewe, afterall. A round of penicillin (available at your local Tractor Supply) and an equine dewormer (SafeGuard) were prescribed, and I learned how to give medicine via injection, and then I practiced that skill for 9 consecutive mornings.

miracle the sheep
Send love for Miracle; she’s feeling under the weather lately!

Unfortunately, there has not been much improvement in my girl, Miracle; her breathing is still labored and sometimes ragged. At this point, there’s not much I can do for her. Gordon says if it’s intestinal worms the dewormer should have had an effect by now, but if it’s lung worm, that could take longer to work it’s way through. He’s advised me to give Miracle a second round of dewormer precisely 14 days after the first. He said, if she were suffering from pneumonia, the penicillin should have had an effect by now, and warned me about Ovine Progressive Pnuemonia, saying that they’d never seen it on their farm, but that it is incurable.

It was in the midst of my sheep-trials that I received an unexpected package in the mail from my old farm-mentor, Linda Whitmore-Smithers over at Medicine Hill Farm in Starks, where I served a season as apprentice. I was touched that Linda would give me such a valuable book from her collection, and emailed right away to thank her and to let her know how timely her gift of “The Veterinary Book for Sheep Farmers” really was.

Meanwhile, Miracle continues to eat with gusto, and she still wants her graham cracker when I come for my afternoon visit. My friend, Kamala, raises Finn sheep, advised me to give the sheep alfalfa cubes along with their hay, and some extra grain, to help Miracle put weight back on. Alfalfa cubes are 1.5 to 2 inch cubes of coarsely chopped and compressed alfalfa, rich in nutrients, and can be bought in a 50 pound bag at your local feed store.

The girls absolutely love them!

We have a warm spell coming up this week, Kamala says with the turn in the weather, Miracle may surprise us and pull through. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Apiaries Swallowed Up By Snow

march beehives
Beehives at Runamuk were swallowed up by snow at the end of February.

Upon my last inspection in early February, 31 of 32 hives were going strong. At the moment, it’s difficult to say how the bees are faring. Old Man Winter’s last storm came with wicked winds that whipped the snow across the land, packing it densely wherever drifts mounted, making snow-removal extremely laborious, and─in some cases─impossible. The apiary here on the farm was swallowed up by snow, and at Hyl-Tun Farm over in Starks, the Runamuk apiary was buried under a 5 foot snow drift. It was a week before I discovered it and was able to dig the hives out enough to expose hive entrances.

I won’t have a final tally on Runamuk’s winter hive losses until I can get into them again, and at the moment, a third of my of hives are inaccessible due to snow.

Capital Investments

Recently, I was on the phone with a customer at Johnny’s, discussing financing of farm-related investments─this customer was trying to figure out how to pay for an expensive seeder for his new farm. I suggested he use his tax refund to make the investment, and was a little surprised that the thought hadn’t crossed his mind before that. I suppose most people use that money to buy a new couch, big screen TV, or a new washer/dryer. Personally, I have always used my tax refund (or at least a significant portion of it) to make farm-purchases for the up-coming season; that annual injection of money has been the biggest key to bootstrapping Runamuk into farm-ownership.

In fact, I received my tax refund back a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve just finished making my 2019 Capital Investments. I paid some bills and bought some heating fuel, too, but the greater portion of my tax refund went to Runamuk. My refund paid for my tree order with Fedco. It bought me another $700 worth of fencing supplies from Premier 1: we got 2 more lengths of electric-net poultry fencing, and a third solar charger. I also bought Runamuk a tow hitch, and had it mounted to the Subaru with the intention of investing in a utility cart for hauling things like manure, and beehives.

Runamuk stocked up on packaging supplies, and bought our first-ever─and long-overdue business checks─my bank will be so happy! We invested in irrigation supplies, and I put $500 on a Home Depot gift certificate so that when I need lumber for projects later this spring, I’ll have the funds available. And I ordered new chicks from McMurray’s Hatchery: 50 dual-purpose heritage breed brown-egg layers, due to arrive any day now─and 50 freedom rangers that will arrive later in July (pastured meat-birds will be a new endeavor for Runamuk in 2019). If you follow Runamuk on Instagram, be prepared to be inundated with a myriad of cute baby-chicken pictures!

Dare to Believe

The last couple of days have been beautifully sunny and mild, with some serious melting action going on, and I almost dare to believe that Spring might truly be on her way. The weather forecast predicts temperatures in the upper 40’s by the end of this week, and next week we will observe the Vernal Equinox, which marks the first official day of Spring.

My heart rejoices and I am filled with glee, for I know that soon the snow will be gone, and the trees will begin to unfurl new leaves. A spring-green blush will spread across the hills and mountains that I call home, and soon the world will be green once more. Soon I will have my hands in the dirt, and this farmer will be crazy-busy with all of the chores and projects that come with the growing season. I’ll be overwhelmed and overworked, but it’s work I feel called to do, and for a cause that I believe in. I think it’s going to be a really great season too, so check back soon for more farm updates!

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Fermenting Chicken Feed in Winter

fermenting chicken feed in winter

It’s going on 3 years now, that I’ve been fermenting chicken feed in winter. Each morning I take a bucket of “porridge” to the coop for the Runamuk laying flock. The ladies absolutely love the sloppy feed, and I like knowing that they’re getting the best diet I can give them─producing superior eggs for my customers.

Why Bother With Fermenting Chicken Feed in Winter?

Fermented foods provide our bodies with additional probiotics─good bacteria that aids in digestion, strengthens our immune systems, and supplies us with vitamins we otherwise might not get in our diets.

Chickens receive the same benefits from fermented feed: increased immunity to illness, improved health through a more efficent and effective digestive system, and there are some who claim that fermented feed can also result in an increased egg-weight and improved shell-resistance. And there’s most definitely a reduction in the feed bill.

Seeds and grains have developed inhibitors that protect the seed’s vital proteins, minerals and fats in an effort to make it to germination. Those mechanisms can actually block our body’s ability to absorb the nutrition we’ve given ourselves. Soaking the seeds and grains softens their hard exterior, and makes their nutrients more readily available; it enables the body to process them much more easily─more effectively. With fermented chicken feed you’ll actually be feeding your birds less─partly because the seeds and grains swell up significantly during the soaking and fermentation process, but also because their bodies are able to make the most of the food you’re giving them.

How Do I Do It?

fermenting chicken feed in winterI don’t have a particular recipe, but I’ve found that filling a 5gal bucket half full with grain (if you don’t have 65 birds to feed, I’m sure you could use a smaller bucket), and then adding warm water til the grain is just-covered, seems to work well. It’s important to keep the bucket in a warmish location for the fermentation to happen. Also, you may need to add more water (the grains will absorb a LOT of water!) or more grain to get the right consistency. It should look like slightly soupy porridge. Stir it at least once a day.

The mix will smell sweet and slightly sour when the fermentation process kicks in─like beer or a sour-dough starter. Once you get the bucket going, you can take some “porridge” out every morning. Then, just add more grain and water as needed to keep your fermentation bucket going continuously.

What Goes Into the Bucket?

whole grains via maine grainsI’m using whole grains in my fermentation bucket. I buy “bi-product” grains from Maine Grains in Skowhegan: $8.50/40lbs. They use only certified organic grains sourced from Maine farmers in their milling, so the bi-product is organic, but not certified. What I get depends on what they’ve been processing recently; sometimes I get oats or wheat berries, sometimes they have spelt available─other times it’s a mixture.

Note: If you have a grist-mill within an hour’s drive, find out what they do with their milling waste; it’s worth it to make the trek once a month to stock up on grains for your livestock.

You can do the same thing however, with any whole grain: corn, wheat, etc. so even if you go to Tractor Supply and buy a bag of cracked corn, you’ll be able to provide your flock with beneficial probiotics.

Q: Can I do it with commercial pellets?
You could ferment the commercial pellets, but I feel like there’s way more nutritional benefit with the whole grains. Also, I wouldn’t necessarily advise you to completely do away with your commercial feed in favor of the fermented feed. The commercial feeds are designed to include all of the vitamins and minerals that a chicken needs; without it, you’ll end up having to buy supplemental minerals to offer your flock in order to ensure their health. I’ve priced those through Fedco and they were too expensive for my budget, so I’ve opted to feed my flock the fermented grains, in addition to a certified-organic pellet or crumble.

 Happy, Healthy Hens

Some folks feed their flocks fermented grains all year long and there’s nothing wrong with that. Personally I only do it in the winter months, when the Runamuk layers can’t be on pasture and are restricted to the coop. That’s the time of year when this farmer sees the highest feed bills; it’s also the time of year when pathogens are most prevalent, so it makes sense to feed this food that is super-charged with vitamins and nutrients. By fermenting chicken feed in winter I can keep happy, healthy hens through the season til springtime, when the grasses and insects are once again available to supplement their diets.

It’s very satisfying to this farmer to maintain top-notch birds, and to be able to provide them with a really great quality of life, and that’s something that is hugely important to me when it comes to my livestock. But you don’t have to take my word for it! Try fermenting your own chicken feed this winter and see for yourself!

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fermenting chicken feed

Kitten

abandoned kittenMy finger is sore, tender and slightly inflammed from the bite I received from a terrified kitten in fear for it’s life. But it’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.

It happened as I was leaving work at Johnny’s Selected Seeds last night…. I was glad to be done with the phones and happy to be free of the cubicle for the day, laden with my canvas mail-sack filled with my books and notes, and carrying  a 6-pack of tomato plants and another of pepper plants (the company gifts each of it’s employees plants every year). Walking across the broad parking lot I thought nothing of it as a Jeep Cherokee drove past.

The vehicle pulled up at the far side of the lot alongside the shrubby undergrowth of the forest that borders one side of the Huhtamaki parking lot that Johnny’s shares. At that time of day the parking lot was largely empty, so it was an odd place for someone to park. Lost in thought I wasn’t really paying attention to the blonde woman who got out of the Jeep and went around the vehicle to the woods. Maybe she really needed to pee?

But just a quickly as she’d gotten out of the vehicle she was jumping back into it with a glance in my direction. I had a sinking suspicion, and as the Jeep sped back past me toward the exit I could hear the pitiful cries of a kitten and my guess was confirmed.

Horrified I raced across the parking lot─my bag and plants flopping─and I carelessly dumped them on the ground at the spot where I’d seen the woman in the Jeep. I could hear the kitten crying and moving the plant growth aside I found her crouched in fear upon the cold damp earthen floor of the forest. I reached down and picked up the kitten, but shock and fear propelled the creature and she chomped down on my finger with those sharp baby teeth and twisted out of my grasp.

In fear for it’s life the kitten scurried away deeper into the forest, seeking cover under the fallen brush and branches. I went after it knowing that if I turned and left, the kitten would surely suffer a worse fate. The brambles tore at me and the uneven ground wrenched my bad ankle, the kitten cried and I was bleeding like a stuck pig from my finger, but eventually I managed to catch the terrified animal, and this time─though she scratched at me and wailed loudly as I made my way back out of the forest to the place where I’d left my things─I did not let go.

Outraged that anyone could so callously abandon a baby that way I sat in my car, using my shirt to stem the blood from my finger, and made my way to Skowhegan and Tractor Supply to get kitten formula before they closed for the day. Because I drive a standard, and because the kitten was terrified and would not sit quietly in my lap, I could not hold the kitten as I drove, and she hid under the passenger seat and cried the whole way. From outside the store I called my baby sister Marie for advice on what to do next. Marie has worked closely with the Franklin County Animal Shelter to foster animals for year and is an advocate for animal welfare. Even now Marie is fostering a young kitten, getting up in the night and even leaving work on her breaks to run home to bottle feed her charge.

I was not sure how old the kitten was, and because she was under the seat I could not send a picture to my sister. But Marie told me I can use goat’s milk to feed the baby, which I happened to have at home thanks to my friends from Hide and Go Peep Farm. So then I just needed something to feed it with.

It turned out Tractor Supply had just sold out of their kitten bottles, and Walmart had none either, so Marie suggested a medicine dropper, which I managed to find for $4.

Once I finally got the kitten home to Runamuk and was able to take a photo of it to relay to Marie, we were able to determine that she is about 5-6 weeks old. Thankfully I will not need to bottle feed the kitten after all, and instead Marie suggested I feed her canned cat food mixed with the goat’s milk and train her to the litter box.

new kittenThis morning the kitten has eaten her breakfast and is exploring Jim’s big old farmhouse while Murphy watches over her protectively, and I have given the feisty unfortunate critter the name of Sheeta─which is the name of the heroine in the Hayao Miyazaki film “Castle in the Sky”─a favorite of mine. And while my finger is still sore, I know I’ve done the right thing in taking in this woeful kitten. Hopefully she will be a good mouser and a valuable addition to this farm.