Homestead Rules to Live By


Creating your own homestead is a great way to free yourself of other people’s rules, but in one of life’s ironies, often you end up establishing your own set. The good news is they are yours. The bad news is you have to enforce them, sooner or later. Here’s my list of non-negotiable rules. You might have similar ones.

Behave or be eaten

My kids are all old enough to know this rule can’t really be applied to them, but understand the sentiment. I doubt they believed it when they were young, either.  A seven-year-old girl walking around the chicken coop, pointing out pullets, and saying, “This one’s a jerk. She dies first,” tells me the lesson has been assimilated.

1389d74399e7d94e12031c4ee0ee0b75ad0ca2dce77429e3bepimgpsh_fullsize_distrIt’s my policy to maintain an understudy rooster in the all too likely event that Number One decides he wants to expand his dominion over more than the other chickens. The current Cock of the Walk at The Five Cent Farm is named “Turkey,” an unfortunate moniker he earned as a gangly cockerel, which was especially confusing once we added actual Meleagris gallopavo to the menagerie.

Turkey earned his promotion when I pulled into the driveway one afternoon to find Mrs. Cunha chasing Billy, the then-top-rooster, around the chicken run with a table leg, shouting, “I’m gonna kill that sonofabitch!” As it turns out, he had attacked both our daughters and Mrs. Cunha, leaving scratches from his spurs down the length of both forearms. That earned him a trip to Freezer Camp and created a job vacancy in the chicken coop.

Go be wildlife somewhere else

If you read my terrorist threat to the fox who ate my ducks, my position on wildlife predators should already be clear; there is no free lunch on the Cunha homestead. That meal will cost you dearly, if I have anything to say about it.

photo4Any venom I harbor for particular sorts of animals stems from experience and proximity. Any wildlife that makes the life-extending decision to not damage my property are regarded with indifference. With the exception of spotting a deer during fall, while having room in the freezer, I take a live-and-live approach.

I don’t have time to go traipsing all over the farm to eradicate every critter that might possibly take what is mine. Maintain a quick trot along the fence line and keep your eyes forward. You’ll be fine. We even overlook the occasional egg lost to Black King Snakes, since they eat rattlesnakes; #BlackSnakesMatter.

If you’re not producing, you’re waiting your turn on the menu

Several of the animals on my farm labor under the delusion they are somehow special; the sheep and pigs, in particular. Neither the sheep nor the pigs have ever looked around and thought, “Hey, what happened to Joe? I haven’t seen him for a few days.”

photo 2The dirty secret is they are breeding stock. We will be eating their babies, soon enough. And if my boar Hamilton doesn’t start siring me some piglets in pretty quick order, we’re going to have ourselves a little luau and find the gilts a new boyfriend, who doesn’t have the sex drive of a panda.

I suppose this rule confounds and terrifies the chickens, since we eat what they produce and sometimes eat one of them for dinner. Along with the occasional coup d’état necessitated to enforce Rule #1, it must strike the chickens as tyranny at its most schizophrenic, but such is life when your social structure is that of an all-girls middle school.

This isn’t a safe space (it’s not a safe place, either)

Homesteading isn’t just dangerous in terms of the ultimate fate of most of the animal residents. Safety sleeves on PTO drives and roll-bars make tractors safer, but you can still be hurt with sufficient disregard for common sense. On the plus side, these safety devices will only leave you maimed, so you can live to farm thoughtlessly another day.

KudzuMud and ice leave you on your ass wondering if you shouldn’t find a job in town. Waiting for your wife to hook up the next bale of hay, thoughts of whether it’s preferable to fall out of the barn loft or get a finger caught in the pulley flit through your mind. Animals don’t care about your feelings, your cold, or the weather. I suspect they conspire to launch coordinated attacks of mischief at the absolute worst times in order to make me look as foolish and inept as possible.

Make no mistake. Farms are harsh, unforgiving environments. It hardens a person. I realized “the birds and the bees” talk was unnecessary when my daughters began bringing me daily heat reports from the barn and cheering at successful mountings. They are well versed in anatomy, and I pity the nervous young men who come courting when my girls are older.

Well, not really. I find horrified millennials hilarious.

 

3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works and consider becoming a supporter. Patronage will get you additional content, behind the scenes access, goodies not available on the main site, and unique Thank You gifts for support.

L'homme Theroux CoverIf you’d prefer something more tangible in return for supporting my work, please preview my novel L’homme Theroux and consider purchasing it, if you enjoy the sample chapter.

Fox in Socks


FoxRule #2 on the Cunha farm: Go be wildlife somewhere else because otherwise, I will hunt you down and kill you. I found your little den in the bushes, Mr. Fox. The trap is now set, and if need be, I will stakeout your dirt condo every night until you make the mistake of showing your furry little ass around my homestead again.

I’ve watched you trot back and forth along the fence line, through the bushes, and across the road for the better part of two years. You have been ignored the entire time because you have not taken from me. You were given benefit of the doubt when the first bird disappeared. However, I have strong evidence you have killed and eaten one (possibly, two) of my turkeys, and two of my ducks. That goofy little crested duck was the last straw. He was my favorite. I kept him around for no better reason than he entertained me.

Here are your options, Mr. Fox. One, leave immediately on your own accord and never return. Two, sign your own death warrant by entering my sight. Those are the only choices.

I am tactically patient, tenacious, and possessor of the hardest heart you have ever encountered. I will fashion you into a hat as a warning to others of your ilk that I will not tolerate killing of my livestock and theft of food from my family’s mouth.

This is your only warning and my singular promise under God, Grandpa Miguel, and all the Pygmies in Africa.

Sincerely,

Your Angel of Death Carlos

 

3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works and consider becoming a supporter. Patronage will get you additional content, behind the scenes access, goodies not available on the main site, and unique Thank You gifts for support.

L'homme Theroux CoverIf you’d prefer something more tangible in return for supporting my work, please preview my novel L’homme Theroux and consider purchasing it, if you enjoy the sample chapter.

The Roof, The Roof, The Roof is on Fire


img_20161102_144452712Fires on farms are catastrophic events. When the farm in question is your homestead, it has the potential to be catastrophic, since both work and home are in danger of being reduced to ash and charred bits of metal.

“Yah bahn’s on fiyha,” my neighbor’s New England accent emanated from the cell phone, muffled by wind and road noise on both ends of the call. I needed him to repeat what he said, while the meaning sank in.

There are some pieces of news that catch you flat-footed; a parent’s death, being laid off from a job, a positive pregnancy test, a Cunha graduating high school. The possibility was always understood, but never really expected.

Grandma fondly recalled the eighth grade as, “My senior year.”

Having grown up in California, I’m well acquainted with wildfires. However, contrary to the widespread rumor, none of them had anything to do with turkey frying mishaps.

img_20161102_144138867_hdrThe upshot of having a significant portion of your farm burnt is you get to meet all your neighbors. People I’ve only seen in passing, and several I didn’t know existed, came from all points of the compass to gawk and shake their heads. I briefly considered charging admission.

The embers smoldered for several days, giving off an ethereal show at night that is likely the closest I will ever get to seeing the Northern Lights in person.

Tallying up the damage was sobering. Half of the hay field was burned, along with burning the undergrowth and saplings in virtually all of the white oak stand at the back of the property. A bunch of fence was destroyed, both by the fire and the firefighting efforts. What really hurt was the loss of my hay barn packed with most of this year’s hay crop.

As it turns out, “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing. Hay is both.

img_20161102_143910623_hdrI pride myself on being a gallows humorist, but make no mistake, there is little to find funny in the ashes. The insurance adjuster must have an appreciation for dark humor, as well, since he didn’t make any notes when I mentioned the barn also contained an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, the Ark of the Covenant, and several lost Picasso paintings.

With a nod to the sense of humor and understanding of my insurance adjuster, here are my best attempts.

  • Wasn’t there a scene in Bambi like this?
  • We won’t have to worry about deer freeloading from the field for a while.
  • I bet this is what Hell will look like.
  • Mrs. Cunha was disappointed the firefighters bore no resemblance to her calendar.
  • My daughter wanted to know why they didn’t bring a Dalmatian with them.
  • It was a barn-burner of an afternoon.
  • Feel the Bern!

If you ever find yourself on the wrong end of a fire (and I’m pretty sure there is not really a “right” end of a fire to be on), here are five things to keep in mind as you sift through the ashes.

Fire is hot

“No kidding, Fire Marshall Carlos,” you might be telling yourself. What I mean is things that get caught in a fire stay hot for a surprisingly long time. The heat was still noticeable through the soles of my boots when I walked around surveying the damage the next day, and there were still pockets of what I suspect were large roots that were still smoldering just below the surface.

Check buildings and equipment because the heat from a fire radiates a surprising distance. Turn on faucets to ensure the water flows and test underground power lines with a voltmeter. Plastic pipes, wire insulation, and even panes of glass will begin to melt and deform well before combustible items around them show evidence of heat and flame.

Gear up

The natural reaction to this type of catastrophe is to assess the damage. Mrs. Cunha and I were inspecting the losses while trees were still on fire and fence posts were still smoldering. It’s a natural reaction, and for most of us who are not part of the volunteer fire department, gives the property owner something to do besides standing around worrying. I won’t begrudge anyone taking what action they are able, just don’t get yourself in trouble. Take a battle-buddy, take some communication, and leave the damn dog at the house.

Wear your heavy boots, long pants, and gloves. If you’re a Safety Sally, I won’t fault you for taking a hardhat, eye protection, and long sleeves. Wear what you think is appropriate. Taking along a tool like a hoe or a metal rake is a good idea, since you will likely want to pick up or dig out something that I guarantee will be too hot to touch.

Inspect often

You’re first tour through the debris will be overwhelming. Not in the sense that it gives you PTSD (or it might, depending on what you’ve done in life), but fire changes the look of the landscape in such a significant way that the woods I was hunting a few days prior were near unrecognizable. The sights and smells and feel of everything will be alien. It takes a second to process what was a fourteen-foot tall barn when I walked by yesterday is now eight inches high.

The first month, I averaged walking the woods or the field every other day. After that, I poked around the trees a couple times a week for the next month. Each time, I found something new that made my heart sink; another break in the fence, another bulldozer gouge in the hillside, a marketable-size tree charred past use as lumber and now firewood, if I’m lucky. You’ll find something new each sortie for quite a while, so take all the pain now.

No touchy, touchy

Whatever you do while poking around the ruins, keep in mind that you are traipsing around in a crime scene. Well, not really, but kind of. It’s better to err on the side of caution than to do something that jams you up later. Let me explain.

Several different people were inspecting the damage in the course of this whole thing. There was a report from the fire department that included input from the forestry service, three visits by insurance adjusters, contractors for building estimates, and a survey by a certified forester. Starting the clean-up process too soon might very well have affected an accurate calculation of the loss sustained. Do yourself and your pocketbook a favor by suppressing the urge get everything back to normal until everyone who needs to take a look has done so.

Not all is lost

At some point in this process, you will have a solid grasp of the losses. We were lucky. There was no loss of life, people or animals. We lost a structure, some agricultural products, and a bit of future profit. Losing livestock would have been terrible, but losing humans would have been devastating. I have nothing to offer that will help fill the void left by loss of a loved one, but short of that, everything is replaceable. We will amend the field and crops will grow again. Burning out the undergrowth will likely help the trees in the long run.

img_20161225_170713399Heck, seven weeks after the fire, the grass had begun to poke through the charred earth enough to lure a couple of does into the open. I filled my freezer with one of them Christmas afternoon, so maybe there is something good to pluck from this entire mess.

In a spurt of optimism in my prowess as an apex predator and putting aside her pique at me for delaying Christmas dinner for butchering a deer, Mrs. Cunha purchase a stand-up freezer for all the wild game she expected to be dragged back to the house. We didn’t see another deer the rest of the season.

That’s about how life goes.

3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you additional content, behind the scenes access, goodies not available on the main site, and unique Thank You gifts for support.

L'homme Theroux CoverIf you’d prefer something more tangible in return for supporting my work, please preview my novel L’homme Theroux and consider purchasing it, if you enjoy the sample chapters.

Young Pigs in Love


img_20161220_155021037-1Generations of homesteaders and farmers have relied on hogs for food, field preparation, waste disposal, and occasionally, companionship. The little buggers have personalities better than most people you will meet. Who knew a Christmas present would turn into a love affair?

A few days after Christmas, the entire tribe climbed into the War Wagon for a two-hour drive to buy a replacement rabbit for my youngest daughter. Unlike the unfortunate incident with Jennifer a couple years ago, the impetus for this trek was neither my fault nor the result of friendly fire.

Death is a frequent enough visitor to the Cunha farm that I finally broke down and put up a sign reserving him a parking space next to the barn. I figure the faster he is in and out on his business, the less time he has to notice job opportunities while skulking around.

I’m giving serious thought to diversifying into a discount pet cemetery. Nothing fancy. Just a hole and a marker for the budget conscious parents of pet-owning children.

We had acquired Winter at our local co-op. She was on consignment from someone who had a connection with the manager. I should have known better.

Most days you’d have an easier time asking permission to date one of my daughters than convincing me to hand over a proven breeder, but reproduction wasn’t a factor. This rabbit was to be a pet, something cute and fluffy that wasn’t destined for the dinner plate.

This is how a farm turns into a petting zoo; one sacred bunny at a time.

Putting aside my misgivings about the rabbit’s lineage, living conditions, and lack of liveliness, I relented to the pleas of the women in my life. The rabbit came with a cage and paraphernalia, so I’d break even, if it died prematurely.

It was dead inside a month from a nasty eye infection we couldn’t get under control. Mrs. Cunha has a pretty good track record of doctoring animals, but even the best lose one every now and then.

It’s just my luck that it was an eleven-year-old’s pet…and Christmas.

61c55ee6adc9f00717d5e37f06081d250ea6164726bb1b0e5apimgpsh_fullsize_distr-1I still don’t understand the vagaries of rabbit math any better than Chicken Math, but we ended up a hundred-some-odd miles away from the farm, at a stranger’s house, answering a Craigslist ad offering Lion Head rabbits for sale. Mrs. Cunha always finds something unsettling and mildly creepy about answering the Craigslist ad of a complete stranger. I revel in the Libertarian rush of two independent, like-minded people coming together for an exchange without Big Brother being any the wiser.

While Mrs. Cunha and the girls cradled bunnies and gossiped about people none of them mutually knew, the husband of the pair took me on a tour of the menagerie. Before me was an organized, well-maintained suburban homestead that offered neighbors and the Home Owners Association no substantive reason to be upset…but, of course, they were.

If availability of food ever becomes an issue, neighbors who complain about others keeping chickens will be last in line and charged three times the going rate for having been twats.

Milling about the yard amongst the chickens and beneath the elevated cages of quail and pheasant was a bristly black package of pork protein. Something about the way I watched the little boar must have clued the husband into my mild interest because the next thing I knew, I was handed a wiggling, grunting, four-month-old American Guinea Hog.

Mrs. Cunha appeared beside me without my knowing. We’ve been married long enough that she knows her presence is probably necessary when there is that much commotion and squealing going on. Even if her skills are not needed, Mrs. Cunha appreciates slapstick.

Just once in my life, I’d like to have the farm prepared for a new animal addition.

She was falling in love as quickly as I was. The feeling was second only to looking into the eyes of a newborn child. We were sure he would be delicious.

img_20161221_092635780_burst001-1I try not to hold it against people when they tilt their heads and shoot me a quizzical look at my choices in livestock. It’s not their fault the animals we husband are a tad unusual, but it does take me down a peg when someone says, “Never heard of it.”

American Guinea hogs are pigs and not available at any pet store I can think of. Your local Petco carries Guinea Pigs, which are actually rodents, but I’ve had to explain the difference several times already. English can be confusing, but this distinction eludes many people. Most folks hear “Guinea Pig” as soon as I say “Guinea” and assume we are some sort of quixotic rodent-wrangling ranchers.

Marketability is second to producing what meets the needs and desires of my family.

It’s always dangerous to draw conclusions about an entire breed based on one example. Any scientist, pollster, and jackass in a bar who says, “The rest of the world calls it football” will be quick to point out how small sample size skews and can often invalidate conclusions. Anecdotes are not data, but I’m optimistic, bad at math, and like to gamble. That’s why I play lotto, too.

Over the next couple of weeks interacting with Hamilton (named for the first three letters of the word, and not the crappy, Leftist play), his personality convinced Mrs. Cunha and me to modify his job description from “Dinner” to “Bacon Maker.”

That’s how we found ourselves on a two-and-a-half hour sortie the opposite direction to find Hamilton a couple of girlfriends.  Despite the reputation of my area of the country, we desired some depth to our gene pool.

Why is it every animal I want can only be found somewhere between Timbuktu and frickin’ Narnia?

img_20161221_092100811Muddy and mildly bruised from the extended fumble recovery drill of chasing down two gilts my wife and daughters selected from the dozen or so available, I sat in the front seat watching the landscape roll by and daydreaming of the little black, wiggling piglets in my future. The new additions to the farm grunted back and forth between themselves, nestled in a bed of hay in a wire dog carrier in the far rear of the passenger compartment.

“I’m hungry,” came a call from the middle row of seats.

“Holy crap. The pigs can talk,” I said, turning my head toward my wife. Mrs. Cunha shot me the stink eye. It dawned on me that I was playing with fire.

The reason there aren’t very many comediennes is because, as a general rule, the female of our species largely lacks a sense of humor.

Hamilton’s new girlfriends, already christened Petunia and Baby Girl by my daughters, must have smelled the delicious aroma of fast food as we pulled into the drive-thru. I could hear my porky piglet producers rouse themselves inside their pen. Their chattering increased the closer we crept to the order board.

I was busy with the continual internal debate of whether my fat ass would survive skipping Going Big or Super Sizing or whatever this place called their sneaky attempt to pry an additional dollar from my clenched fist in exchange for ten cents more worth of compressed potato flakes and sugar water when the squawk-box fired auditory shrapnel through the driver’s window.

Despite having visited a drive-thru literally thousands of times in my life, the voice burst is always jarring. Maybe it’s the screechy tone. Maybe it’s the sudden blast of noise from a direction devoid of human beings. Maybe I’m just wound too tight.

Apparently, Baby Girl and Petunia are both wound a little too tightly, too.

The phrase “Squeal like a pig” has basis in reality, let me tell you.

My spastic lurch wasn’t finished before both those pigs were on their feet, banging the sides of the carrier as they ran in circles, grunting, snorting, and oinking. My daughters covered their ears with their hands against the piercing racket, as I shouted our order back at the disembodied voice.

Order placed and pulling forward to the first window please, I hoped the hay the gilts were kicking out of the cage wasn’t contaminated by anything foul-smelling enough to remind everyone of this adventure the next time we climbed in.

As the car drew up to the window, I glanced over at Mrs. Cunha, who had a look on her face that was a cross between horror and mortification. I turned my head the opposite direction, not know what I would encounter, but half expecting to find a circumstance that would require zombie apocalypse skills.

Freddy Mercury sang that fat bottomed girls make the rockin’ world go ’round.

Now, I’m between 6’4″ and 6’6″ depending on the angle of the video surveillance camera and clock-in at three hundred-none-of-your-damn-business pounds, so I realize my commenting on a woman’s size is akin to Stalin chastising Hitler on his human rights record.

Having said that, I’m going to throw a couple of stones from my glass house.

img_20161230_123607555The young woman collecting money at the window within earshot of the pair of squealing, oinking gilts in the back of my car wasn’t ugly at all. For a hefty girl, she was reasonably attractive and probably has no problem finding a ride home long before last call. She was far from a Tess Holliday, but a carb holiday wouldn’t have killed her.

Women, especially the younger ones, are self-conscious, so she probably knows this about herself.

The look of hatred coming from the chubby cashier confirmed my suspicion that she had heard my little piggies squealing all the way home. I was afraid to hand over my debit card for fear of how many customers behind me I was going to “accidentally” be buying lunch for. At minimum, each burger would be spat on before wrapping.

As I handed over my card, I saw her eyes dart behind me, looking into the back of the car. Her eyes sparkled as they widened, and her mouth untwisted from its scowl into a smile.

“What kinda pigs y’all got there?” the young lady said.

“American Guinea Hogs,” I said, my chest puffing up just a bit.

“Never heard of them,” she said.

 

3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you additional content, behind the scenes access, goodies not available on the main site, and unique Thank You gifts for support.

L'homme Theroux CoverIf you’d prefer something more tangible in return for supporting my work, please preview my novel L’homme Theroux and consider purchasing it, if you enjoy the sample chapters.

Hello, World!


44a6a4ead1c67a92cfbfae8cfa23d1ebb529f0239b02f885b3pimgpsh_fullsize_distrLife on the farm entails a lot of death, but for once, new life visited the Cunha homestead this week. Even if my family were to go the vegetarian route and only keep animals for what they produce, they will eventually die. I’m still young enough that I will outlive all the animals I own, and as their steward, one of my responsibilities is to minimize suffering at the end of life.

Having said that, we are ruthless in application of Rule #3: Those that don’t produce have no place. My farm is neither a petting zoo nor an animal retirement community. References to livestock riding the bullet train to freezer camp are gallows humor because I don’t take pleasure in killing. It’s necessary to eating animal flesh, controlling costs, and ending suffering.

Even the times I’ve screwed up dispatching an animal were far less gruesome and prolonged than the average take-down of prey by a predator in nature.

Mrs. Cunha and I have been kicking around the idea of purchasing an incubator for about a year, and spent most of the summer on the verge of taking the plunge. The option of producing a batch of chicks whenever it was convenient for us was attractive, as was having control over the pace and timing of reproduction. Depending on how fancy we wanted to get, the cost wasn’t terrible, but the prospect of adding one more chore to the list kept us holding out for a hen to go broody.

539a00524f9ee110005cf75710f4a781f896eb630a60411a0cpimgpsh_fullsize_distrTime always seems to be the resource of which we have the least. The chickens look to have a lot of time on their hands. Their job is pretty low stress and low skilled. Maybe that’s why they don’t qualify for minimum wage.

I don’t know how industrious your chickens are, but mine make Department of Motor Vehicle employees look like tornadoes of ambition. The dumb clucks in my flock don’t even have hobbies. They just sort of mill about like teenagers at a school dance; moody, self-absorbed, and convinced nobody likes them.

Well, they’re right. The teenagers, I mean. They might be more likable, if they crapped out eggs, but then they’d want a trophy for it.

Fully understanding that a broody hen stops laying, the trade off a dozen or so eggs during a gestation cycle of approximately twenty-one days sounded like a fair trade, both in terms of unrealized ova and, especially, unexpended effort on our part.

Any time the animals do their thing without human intervention is a bonus in my book, since it’s less work for us.

My first rooster, John Wayne, was a cock apostle. Prior to him, I wasn’t keen on having one around, but lack of a cock-of-the-walk caused my chicken coop to have the same dynamics as a women’s prison. There was incessant gossipy chatter, squabbling as cliques emerged and dissolved, and a big bull-dyke hen named Henrietta strutting around with a chain hanging off her wallet pressuring the other hens into lesbian relations.

I’m not kidding. I saw her mounting the other hens. She is also suspected of radicalizing the flock into mounting the Chicken Uprising of 2015.

1389d74399e7d94e12031c4ee0ee0b75ad0ca2dce77429e3bepimgpsh_fullsize_distrAll that silliness ended when John Wayne stepped out of the carrier he was delivered in. By sundown the same day, peace and order were established in the flock. When I went to close up the coop that night, I found tranquility, instead of the usual bedlam.

John Wayne sat in the middle of a perch, Henrietta nuzzled up submissively at his side, surrounded by all the other girls for warmth and protection. The only head that raised when I walked in for the nightly headcount was his, and I swear he winked at me.

I’ve been a fan of roosters ever since. Feel free to insert your dirty joke here. I know how chicken people are.

I go so far as to always have an understudy rooster, since you never know when a coup in the coop might become necessary.

The loss of John Wayne was a blow to the flock, but we were in luck, as his previous owner, a classmate of my oldest daughter, had an incubator full of eggs fertilized by his brother. It wasn’t exactly genetic cloning, but it was the best shot we had at a replacement that might be close. Of course, there were no guarantees, but considering the emphasis on bloodline that each animal breed association has, we figured our odds were decent.

This young lady, who is the most responsible and reliable teenage I’ve ever met, was beside herself when she lost the entire batch by forgetting to plug the incubator back in after some maintenance. Another blow came when informed that John Wayne’s brother was, also, no longer among the clucking and the last in his line.

16be5ebcb8e5d6364be5ea3a8d05aca64a18ab9a05e6accd4cpimgpsh_fullsize_distrMy current rooster lacks a name. He’s a big, gangly thing, and, for quite some time, I suspected he might have been a turkey. He’s nowhere near as handsome as either of the predecessors, but hasn’t displayed any of the behavior that earned Clint his coup d’état. This goofy looking rooster has done something neither of the other two managed to pull off.

We have new chickens on the farm.

This isn’t the first bringing forth of life on the Cunha homestead, but it’s the first of the feathered variety. I’m excited. My assumption is all five will reach maturity. At which point, we will have to determine how many of each sex we have and begin the decision making process of who stays, who goes, and who gets replaced.

It’s a never-ending cycle of deciding how to maximize available resources to reach goals, and a big part of the homesteading mindset.

But for the moment, I’m basking in the joy of new life and little, feathered puffballs.

 

3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you additional content, behind the scenes access, goodies not available on the main site, and unique Thank You gifts for support.

L'homme Theroux CoverIf you’d prefer something more tangible in return for supporting my work, please preview my novel L’homme Theroux and consider purchasing it, if you enjoy the sample chapters.

 

It’s a Snake Eat Snake World


snake3For every animal farmers and homesteaders bring onto their land, there is at least one other uninvited critter that comes along for the free ride. Most livestock are installed on the homestead because they taste delicious, with a little preparation, or because they produce something else that is just as tasty.

As an example, chickens fill both roles. Who doesn’t like chicken or eggs? Especially, the sort from my farm. Except for the occasional miscreant who meets an untimely end, my chickens have a fairly plush gig. It includes a run with more square footage than the first house I lived in, a muscular lab who hasn’t figured out that hens are made entirely of chicken meat to pull security detail, and regular access to a hay field, where they can scratch the soil and eat bugs until their hearts are content.

If you don’t have a specific purpose on the farm, don’t be surprised when you are what’s for dinner.

In my youth, I had a pet ball python that, despite all reasonable efforts to keep him contained, would escape every now and again to make off for warm, secluded areas of the house.

There is something hardwired into the human mind to avoid slithery sorts of animals because, even for the owner of a snake, opening a closet door to find Monty the Python draped over and curled around a closet rod will give you a start.

I knew I owned a snake. I knew he wasn’t in his glass house when I looked five minutes ago. It’s not unreasonable to think the snake may be hiding somewhere in the house, but I still nearly wet my pants every time.

It’s like those posts on Facebook of a young Victorian lady that suddenly screams and transforms into a ghoul.

One of the horse stalls in my barn is converted into a feed storage closet. Somebody goes in and out of there at least twice a day, so habits develop and expectations emerge because nothing bad has ever happened entering it. For example, I expect to waltz into the feed locker at night and NOT NEARLY STEP ON A FREAKING SNAKE!

Luckily for me, the little fella (or little lady. I didn’t check) had managed to entangle himself in the flap end of a roll of bird netting we had leaned in the corner.

After Mrs. Cunha came running at my shrieking like a little girl, I felt confident enough in my snake wrangling skills to move the whole circus outside. Roll of bird netting in one hand, the safe end of the snake in the other, and about four feet of well-muscled, writhing garden hose in between, I waddled out of the barn with Mrs. Cunha following close behind with a flashlight and a hatchet.

The tree farm on the other side of the road that borders my place seemed like an excellent location to let this snake go be a snake. I wasn’t sure how to free him from the net, but figured, if I couldn’t shake him lose, I’d leave the netting there and let him sort it out.

I’ve seen videos of people bitten by critters while trying to release them from a trap, so I assume trapped animals are ingrates.

Zeus, sensing excitement, came hauling dog-butt from around the corner of the barn, where I assume he was sniffin’ and peein’, to join in. He would have made an excellent member of La Costa Nostra because despite extensive questioning after the fact, Zeus remained mum as to whether his intent was to protect his territory or play tag.

Either way, I now had the added difficulty and stress of trying to keep the dog and this snake apart from each other. For her part, Mrs. Cunha did an excellent job of keeping the flashlight beam trained on the business end of this serpent, so I could keep some degree of control on the situation. I was praying the whole way that the snake didn’t work its head free and take a chunk out of me.

I don’t recall saying, Honey, watch this! but that’s about how things turned out. The snake freed his head and, being that I was holding on to its tail, swung towards me and the dog. That’s the moment things got real, as the kids say.

My regular readers should know by now what Rule #2 is on the Cunha Homestead.

In the heat of a moment, whether it’s a gunfight or pushing Helen Keller out of the path of a runaway horseless carriage, dealing decisively with the threat takes precedence over everything else. Sorry, Mr. Snake. I don’t enjoy killing. Under different circumstances, like passing through on your way somewhere else, I would have been largely indifferent to your existence.

Curious at to the exact form the Devil had taken to invade my garden, I turned to my good friend Google. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a snake nerd. Such a person is called a herpetologist and their field of study is called herpetology. They are quite informative people.

snake1Turns out the snake we had just evicted from the barn was an eastern black kingsnake; which have the rather interesting propensity to eat rattlesnakes. Who knew? But like any self-respecting reptile of the same proportions, eastern black kingsnakes eat mice and chicken eggs, too. I suspect they would also eat a chick, if given the chance.

This is an interesting conundrum that never crossed my mind prior to owning a farm. To my mind, animals are in either the “good” or “bad” category. This “mixed bag” status forces me to think, and I’m not such a big fan of having to think. Mostly, because I’m American.

If I wanted to deal in nuance, I’d be a Liberal.

After considering the duality of the situation, I began to wonder what the sacrifice of eggs would be versus the benefit of reduced rattlesnakes. They eat eggs, too. Is it really a wash in terms of lost eggs, and the deciding factor has more to do with avoiding inadvertent viper bites? With a fairly young child and her big, goofy lab running around the joint, the thought of someone receiving a dose of snake venom frightens me.

It wouldn’t likely be a fatal event, but the desire to protect my children, particularly the ones of the girl persuasion, increases as the child’s age decreases.

Call me a hetro-normative dinosaur who clings to misogynistic values of the patriarchy, if you like, but girls rate more protecting from life’s traumas. The boys would consider being snake bitten as a badge of honor and show off the scars to anyone willing to see them. I’d probably do the same. Boy and girls are just different from each other.

Considering their relative sizes and how often most snakes eat, how many rattlesnakes can an eastern black kingsnake eat, anyway? For all I know, rattlesnakes leave the area because they are terrified of the eastern black kingsnake’s reputation; like in Jim Croce’s warning to stay clear of the south side of Chicago because of Leroy Brown.

So, yet again, I find myself short of answers and turning to my readers for advice. What are your experiences of kingsnakes and the general trade-offs of beneficial outside wildlife that come with a cost to farm output?

 

 

 

3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you additional content, behind the scenes access, goodies not available on the main site, and unique Thank You gifts for support.

L'homme Theroux CoverIf you’d prefer something more tangible in return for supporting my work, please preview my novel L’homme Theroux and consider purchasing it, if you enjoy the sample chapters.

Protect Your Hay Investment


7ccc760f6b117192a424a4b7f45b4ed69bfa1b21b8555f0233pimgpsh_fullsize_distrWhether you grow your own or purchase, proper hay storage is a critical homestead skill to possess. The longer your winters, the more important hay storage becomes to the survival of your animals and the homestead itself.

This past week, we put up fourteen hundred bales of fescue at my place. Combined with the eight hundred bales from the first cut earlier this summer, my math calculates the yield at 2.1 tons per acre. Talking with my County Extension Agent, this is at the low end of the “normal” range in my area, but not a complete disaster, given that it has been a bad year for hay with everyone down about thirty percent.

Considering I haven’t done anything to the field, aside from admire it and daydream a bit, I’m reasonably happy for a first harvest.

From talking to neighbors and the previous owner, it’s been some time since the field had any TLC, so I’ve kept my expectations modest.

Mrs. Cunha and I bought the farm without benefit of owning a tractor or haying equipment. Since we didn’t have money for both, and a rented house with a yard full of idle farm machinery didn’t make a lot of sense, we figured the absolute worst case scenario would be that the field was left fallow for a couple of years, while we saved our pennies.

As it turned out, the solution was something of a middle ground that would not have been possible without the help of my neighbors. Through a combination of work ethic, industriousness, and shares of the harvest, we managed two cuttings. The understandable downside is my field is mowed last. As a result, the second cut had begun to sour in the field and there likely won’t be enough growing time for a third cut this season.

Considering we expected the field to be a total loss this year, we’re thrilled.

0610161332Even after parceling out shares and Mrs. Cunha selling some of the hay with her brilliant idea to give a discount to buyers who pick theirs up out of the field, I am still up to my ass in hay. Each nook and cranny of every available structure is stacked to the rafters and then some. In a way, I’m glad there probably won’t be a third cut because the only option left for storage is to pull the cars out of the garage and stack bales in there, too.

Let my worst problem in life be that I have more resources than I know what to do with.

Besides the obvious solution that I need more and bigger animals to chew their way through my problem of awaiting the near certain winter hay shortage, maintaining the quality of the fodder becomes the issue.

Hay, and any other crop, begins to degrade the moment it is separated from the ground. From there, the race to the consumer begins. For products with a longer timeline to consumption, the battle for preservation involves more preparation than it does rushing down the road to the farmer’s market.

For hay, the goal is to maintain as much nutritional quality for as long as possible. We square bale for several reasons; lack of and access to equipment, availability for suitable storage space, our farm needs, and local market demands. Round bales don’t work for our needs and goals, but if you find them effective, don’t change what works for you.

How ever you get you hay, both bale types have the same storage requirements to maintain them at the highest nutritional level possible. To that end, there are basic steps to preserving hay and minimizing waste:

Get it inside

Gigantic rolls of hay sitting in a field are a common sight during the summer in my area, but with all the summer rain we get, they tend to form a hard, protective crust around the outside. Kind of like the shell of an M&M, but proportionally thicker. That shell is also wasted hay of between four and twenty percent, according to the Mississippi State Extension.

2deb267d8d5a921ce67b315d36bae2a3f11c98412303b6c8fbpimgpsh_fullsize_distrIf you’re set on round bales, I recommend you read their Minimizing Losses in Hay Storage and Feeding. It’s the best sixteen pages of knowledge I’ve read recently. It’s also free, so that’s a bonus.

Whether you’re in the square or round camp, all hay benefits from being taken in out of the elements. Hay needs air circulation, but exposure to wind, moisture, and sunlight diminishes nutritional quality rapidly. The bale spoils from the outside toward the center and eventually reduces to an inedible block. Even round bales will degrade to the point where livestock will refuse all but the very center.

UV rays, moisture, and wind will eventually erode the pyramids of Egypt to nothing. Hay is far less durable than limestone.

Keep it dry

Rainfall is not the only source of moisture. Runoff, leaky barn roofs, water dripping from trees, and even condensation forming inside a structure can be sources of moisture that can either prevent hay from drying in the first place or promote mold and rot.

Even if you don’t have a traditional barn or some sort of structure in which to store your hay, anything is usually better than nothing.

At a minimum, rig up a tarp to keep at least most of the sunlight and moisture off it. If you’re absolutely broke or completely out of options, stack the bales tight with some sort of tall post in the center and drape one of those cheap blue tarps over it like a circus tent.

I can’t guarantee how well it will work, but it beats doing nothing and watching money turn into grey, inedible scabs. And for Pete’s sake, don’t let sit in water.

Let it breathe

Even though hay dries in the field before baling, there is still some drying that occurs after. It generally takes about one to three weeks for the moisture content to stabilize. For that to happen, air needs to circulate around, and to a lesser extent, through the bale.

Hay bales should be kept off the ground. Until we ran out of them, we laid down old tires left in the woods to keep our hay bales off the ground. We then switched to wooden pallets we scored from the co-op, Tractor Supply, and anywhere else we could mooch a few free ones.

5006289f62d46f695ce350b6c6e3117bc93f7d32f6515cb80bpimgpsh_fullsize_distrOnce we drank those wells dry, we had to come up with something else. The brilliant Mrs. Cunha jury rigged pallets from my stash of 2x4s in the garage. Beautiful, creative, and ingenious; I married way above my pay grade.

This is where things get interesting. And by “interesting,” I mean “dangerous.” And by “dangerous,” I mean “you accidentally burn down your barn.”

The tendency is to pack as much hay into the barn as possible because space is always in short supply. I’m as guilty as anyone, but there is risk involved. During the one to three week curing period, hay bales give off heat. Packed together in a big enough mass, they sometimes give off enough heat to set the hay on fire.

I can’t quantify the risk. Although, I imagine my insurance agent can and has. Old Timers talk about hay catching fire like it happens every week during summer, but I don’t see nearly enough burned down hay barns to make me think it’s any more likely than an accidental pregnancy.

Then again, I have six kids. Your mileage may vary.

Watch for mold, rot, and critters

Of the three, critters are probably the most fun to deal with. Mrs. Cunha isn’t the sort of woman to jump at the sight of vermin, but she and I have been known to mount an afternoon pellet rifle safari. Otherwise, we let the barn cat prowl around and leave us the occasional gift on the door mat. She must think we’re terrible hunters and wants to make sure we eat. Either that, or it’s tribute.

Definitely, get a couple of barn cats.

a090dd9125771308d722c0fbd05d9be87d29f7777471ba9962pimgpsh_fullsize_distrMold and rot aren’t as exciting to chase down. They just kind of lurk, but can be more damaging. Both can set in from the outside, which makes it easier to find, but mold, in particular, will grow and spread on the interior of a hay stack.

Keeps your eyes open, inspect your hay, and dig into the hard-to-reach parts every once in a while. Quite, unfrequented areas of your storage space are likely locations for birds, coons, and possums to take up residence. Spot checks won’t magically guarantee wildlife squatters won’t show up, but will help in catching them early, so you can evict them or take measures to discourage them from returning.

That’s Rule #2 on the Cunha farm. Go be wildlife somewhere else, because if you take from me, I will most assuredly take from you.

There is loads more to hay and farming that I don’t know. I freely admit that, but there are resources available. These are a few I have found helpful and informative. The best part is they are delivered straight to you, in your pajamas, no less, through the magic of the internet:

Storage of Small Square Bales by John Worley, Associate Professor, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension

Square Bales Need TLC by Angus Beef Bulletin

Tips on Hay Storage by Dwain Meyer, PhD, North Dakota State University and Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota

Selecting and Storing Horse Hay by Krishona Martinson, PhD and Paul Peterson, PhD, University of Minnesota Extension

Sizing and Siting Hay Barns by University of Missouri Extension

Minimizing Losses in Hay Storage and Feeding by Mississippi State University Extension

Making the Best of a Bad Situation – Storing Large Round Hay Bales Outside by University of Florida IFAS Extension

 

 

 

3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you additional content, behind the scenes access, goodies not available on the main site, and unique Thank You gifts for support.

L'homme Theroux CoverIf you’d prefer something more tangible in return for supporting my work, please preview my novel L’homme Theroux and consider purchasing it, if you enjoy the sample chapters.