Carpenter Bee Catcher Review


20170416_160512Carpenter bees are thumb-sized termites bent on destroying barns. My plan was simple. The best ones usually are, but God and bees laugh at the best laid plans of mice and men.

Impulse buys are interesting things. They are products you didn’t know life was possible without prior to walking past them. They are like pretty girls you catch a glimpse of in traffic. They grab the eye, cause the heart to flutter, and often result in a traffic accident.

Knowing my barn is being slowly shot thru by Carpenter bee tunnels, I’ve been on the search for a way to control the little beasties that won’t poison any of the other critters roaming the farm. The bees are smart enough not to get near the chickens, and offering the kids a dollar per bee carcass was a bust.

The current generation completely lacks entrepreneurial drive.

Investigating the price of hog chow at one of my local feed stores, I came across the insect trap pictured above. The girl at the counter assured me the device was designed specifically for Carpenter bees. The idea being the little hardwood chewers make their way through one of the holes and then can’t find their way out. I assumed the plastic jar was for easy bee body removal.

Exactly how and why the bees would wind up in the jar of death was a mystery, but I’m a trusting sort, who assumes everyone knows more about farming than I do. That’s generally a safe assumption.

Verdict: Don’t waste your money for this design.

That stupid little bee trapping box has been hanging in the feed closet of my barn for a month, and hasn’t trapped a single Carpenter bee. I’ve killed more of the boring little buggers with a feed scoop than that contraption has captured.

Since Carpenter bees like making their homes in hardwoods, I’m wondering if the pine the box is constructed out of just isn’t attractive to them. Or, maybe, the bees aren’t interested in going to the trouble to leave their current abodes.

I’m not sure what the problem or the solution is, but I know this Carpenter bee trap isn’t the way to go. It’s just another fifteen dollars wasted.

 

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.

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.

Tractors…For Rabbits


photo12Wire cages are the standard way to house rabbits, but a rabbit tractor is a simple homestead DIY project within the skills of most people. We typically use rabbit tractors both as grow-out pens and for when the kits begin to crowd their mom’s cage.

A secondary purpose, during spring and summer when the grass is lush, is as a mobile enclosure. Rather than break out the lawnmower, I let my little bundles of fur take on some of the yard maintenance responsibilities. The lushness of what’s growing, the size of the tractor, how many rabbits , and their ages will dictate how often the tractor needs to be moved. We average moving it every other day.

It was glorious. All last summer, the rabbits kept the backyard nibbled down sufficiently that only a few strips and patches in the corners had to be mowed.

An added benefit was reducing feed costs. Every dandelion, blade of grass, and bit of clover the rabbits munch from the turf is that much less feed I have to provide. It’s not much when they are young, but as butchering time nears, it gets to be quite a bit less alfalfa pellets and hay that I have to buy.

photo13I’m still not entirely sure about putting them on forage alone because I want to make sure their diet is nutritionally complete, so we give them a reduced daily ration of the all-purpose rabbit feed and some Timothy hay. We estimate the amounts, so there is just a touch of each left over each day. That rule of thumb may not be terribly scientific or as economically efficient as it could be, but we figure they are getting the nutrition they need that way.

Based on the way the rabbits go after the fresh forage growing from the ground, I suspect they wouldn’t put up much of a fuss, if we withdrew the hay and pellets entirely.

Where we do have a real concern is plants that may make the rabbits ill. While rabbit breeders may not have bred every bit of self-preservation instinct out the meat bricks we enjoy so much, a part of me suspects domestic rabbits don’t have enough sense not to eat something that will kill them.

Having said that, I have yet to see any of my rabbits eat something that kills them or makes them ill. I figure give it some time. I’ll kill one of them by accident sooner or later.

What concerned us more at the start was the possibility of pesticide or fertilizer residue that might present a problem. Perhaps, we were being overly cautious, but we waited an entire rainy season before letting the rabbits forage on the ground. Even then, as heartless as it sounds, we picked one to be the Crash Test Dummy for a week or ten days before letting the rest join in.

The perk to being the guinea pig was that he got to the grass first and had the entire enclosure to himself. Not a bad trade-off when you consider their purpose and ultimate fate.

photo8The rabbit tractor I put together isn’t anything revolutionary. A tractor isn’t just for rabbits. The same principle of a mobile confinement device works equally well for chickens or other small livestock.

It’s two square frames separated by upright supports and a cover. The whole project is far from rocket surgery, and I would feel like a turd explaining how to screw boards together. Rather than give a how-to on basic carpentry, I’m going to give some tips and lessons learned.

Size

The first rabbit tractor we constructed was 4×8 feet. We did that not realizing just how heavy it would be when finished. It can by moved by one person, but it’s a whole lot easier with a friend.

Another downside to the eight foot length is the long sides make placement a little more difficult. The earth underneath the bottom rail should be as level as possible. Otherwise, you wind up plugging the chinks with bricks, logs, rocks, scrap lumber…you get the idea.

The lid is also a little cumbersome to raise and lower. It really benefited from a lid stop. A piece of 1/4″ cable run through eye-bolts and secured to itself with crush locks keep the lid falling all the way open and tearing the hinges off. I couldn’t figure out a simple enough hinge arrangement to let the lid open more than ninety degrees.

Were I to build it again, I would have also hinged the other side of the lid because sometimes rabbits don’t feel like being caught and retreat under the side that does not open. You really lose the advantages of being human when down on all fours chasing a rabbit through what is essentially a two-foot-tall tunnel.

It’s enough to induce Vietnam flashbacks.

photo9On the up-side, you can divide it in half pretty easily and segregate your rabbits by sex or whatever criteria you like. That’s the only real advantage to the eight foot length. We scaled back on subsequent versions to 4×4 feet, and every problem associated with the eight foot length disappeared. I think I found the size I want to stick with.

Height

Separate the top and bottom frame by slightly more than two feet. We thought ahead and went with twenty-six inches. That way, a two-foot wide roll of chicken wire had an inch of leeway at the top and bottom. It gave us room to work pulling the wire tight as we unrolled it and didn’t leave any hanging over the edges to snag.

Top material

Use whatever you like for a top. We discovered a product called Tuftex panels. They are a corrugated poly-carbonate sheeting material that blocks UV rays. Think of corrugated tin on the roof of a barn or shed, but nowhere near as hot. We went with opaque, and it keeps everything beneath quite cool. I guess those UV rays are the ones that make the sunshine hot.

The Tuftex is a little pricey, but easy to work with and has held up well. I also used it for the top and sides of the rabbit condo. It will likely outlast the wooden frame and be re-purposed onto another rabbit tractor.

Lumber

I went with untreated lumber, suspecting the rabbits might chew it. Whatever turns treated lumber green probably isn’t good for them. I haven’t seen them chew very much in the year we have been using the tractors, so I don’t see the trouble I would have to go to in order to prevent a few chew marks as worth the effort. These rabbit tractors were intended to be quick and dirty projects without the expectation of them lasting forever. I have been thrilled to get this long out of them and expect another couple of years use, at least.

photoTo make the corners more stiff, I wanted something a little less flexible than a 2×4. Not having any 4x4s on hand and possessed of no desire to make a special trip to the Home Depot, I improvised and used what my wife affectionately calls a Portuguese 4×4. Just remember that a 2×4 is not two inches by four inches. Two put together are only 3 1/2 inches, so select your screws accordingly.

ToolsIMG_0482

Unless you’ve got the hands of a gorilla, any money you spend on a powered stapler will be money well spent. After stapling twenty-four feet of chicken wire for the first rabbit tractor with the old style, ka-thunk version we’ve had for years, my wife was more than willing to spend $30 on an electric stapler. Save yourself the nerve damage in your hand and just get one.

Fasteners

I don’t screw around with nails much anymore. Screws are my fasteners of choice. Just be sure to drill a pilot hole, so you don’t crack the end of the board. Especially, when you have to inevitably screw into the end grain of one them. Take this advice, if nothing else, to avoid a lot of wasted wood, aggravation, and embarrassment from shoddy joinery.

Allow me to pass on another tip I learned years ago that will result in the tightest joints you have ever seen. Measure the shank length of the screw and make sure it passes all the way through the first board. If the threads ride on both pieces of wood, they advance at the same rate and leave gaps in the joint. Alternately, drill a clearance hole. It will allow the screw to spin free in one board, while the threads bite into the other.

A picture explains this better than words.

clearance hole cheat

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s about all I know on what to avoid doing when you build your own tractor. Oh, and have a good helper. They are invaluable when you need a third hand. So, get out there on a sunny day and build one. Your rabbits will be happier, and so will you from the reduced feed bill.

 

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 content, behind the scenes access, and goodies not available on the main site.

Lost Arts of the Homestead


1How4Before homesteading was a lifestyle choice, it was everyday life. Subsistence farming and self-sufficiency were not undertaken by people who were sick of the rat race and in search of a simpler life. It was where people came from.

According to the United States Labor Department, the average age of farmers and ranchers in the US is fifty-eight, a figure that has been increasing for the last thirty years. And not too surprisingly, those old farmers have probably been at it for well over a decade. As it sits right now, about half of all farmers are old enough to draw Social Security.

The Industrial Revolution was largely defined by reduction of the labor necessary to operate a farm and the freed up labor that could move to urban areas where work was available. Depending on the specific industry and which historian you ask, the Industrial Revolution ended somewhere in the middle or toward the end of the nineteenth century.

I maintain the urban migration patterns set in motion by the Industrial Revolution are still occurring.

Both of my parents grew up farming, and they never talked fondly of it. My father joined the Navy in order to escape the small Nebraska town he grew up in. My mother flatly refused to live anything like a country life and regaled my brother and me with stories of the horrors of farm life. My favorite was her job at seven years old.

1How8It would seem the Industrial Revolution didn’t quite make it to 1950’s Azores, Portugal. Threshing grain on Grandpa’s little patch of dirt consisted on laying it on the ground while leading the milk cow around in a circle over top of it. My mom’s job was to follow behind the cow with an old coffee can to catch whatever might come out of the south end of a north-bound cow, so as to not foul the grain.

Use your imagination as to how enjoyable that was to a girl in the first grade. However, if I could get in a time machine to watch the spectacle, I’m certain I would have laughed my ass off.

If you had to be raised by my mother, you would enjoy the preemptive humbling, too.

I’ve written before about the homesteading skills my Grandfather passed to me before he died, and I wish I had started learning earlier, taken notes, and practiced more. By the time I started studying under the old man in earnest, he had probably forgotten more skills and tricks than I will ever know.

1How3Old Miguel wasn’t some wizard who held all husbandry skills in a Homesteading Necronomicon protected by a fire-breathing dragon surrounded by a moat full of mutant alligators.

He was the man to whom I had the easiest and most access, but any of my relatives from that generation were deep wells of knowledge about making a farm work. They embraced those skills and their proficiency in them, instead of rejecting them. My parents always seemed embarrassed by that knowledge. My grandparents were not only proud of what they could do, but eager to impart it to whomever would listen.

Had I paid closer attention, I would have far less to learn, now that I have my own farm. In my defense, I spent my youth with farming as the furthest thing from my mind. I did pay a bit of attention when I was a kid. Early adulthood demanded a passing understanding of some of those skills, especially when driven by lack of money to hire work done around the house.

Shocking yourself while changing out a light switch is the best way in the world to always remember to turn off the breaker.

Here’s a list of what I think are the ten most important skills for homesteaders. Your list might be different, and my selections might be different in a few months. Feel free to comment with additions, replacements, or generally tell me how stupid I am.

Build a fence

0102161547_resizedGrowing up, my parents made part of their living in real estate, flipping houses and renting out other properties. Not a single one of them had a fence that made it out alive, and as a result, I built enough fence to completely seal off the border with Mexico.

Except for the shift from wooden residential fencing to working with wire of various types, it seems my life hasn’t changed that much. Good fences not only make for good neighbors, but also, make for not having to chase your animals all over the Tennessee Valley. I’ve gotten to be pretty handy with a pair of lineman and fencing pliers.

Soil composition

Hay may be grass, but the grass I’m growing now is nothing like a lawn. A bag of Scott’s Turf Builder won’t do a thing for my field. It’s measured in tons. If it weren’t for my County Extension Agent, the local co-op, and knowledgeable neighbors, I’m sure I would burn my crop beyond edibility.

Since I don’t know loam from kitty litter, learning how to take a soil sample becomes vitally important. It’s under ten dollars to have a chemistry nerd in a no-kidding laboratory play with the dirt you send him, and have returned a report stating exactly what to add to your field to maximize your selected crop yield.

It’s absolute magic, but they keep the dirt. I’m not sure what they do with it, and part of me wants it back.

Grafting and propagating roots

My Great-Uncle John taught me a couple of simple grafting techniques when he performed absolute magic by getting our apple tree to throw three different types of apples. He did the same thing with an orange tree next to it. The skill isn’t difficult to learn, and for a subsistence farmer, greater variety from fewer plants sounds like a winning plan to me, especially since I’m one of the cheapest men currently living.

1How9Fully a third of the plants I’ve grown were acquired from someone else as a cutting. That older generation I keep praising is remarkably generous passing out cuttings along with knowledge.

And if you are planting a large space, knowing how to propagate multiple plants from one root ball can reduce your costs significantly. It takes planning to allow for the time necessary to get the roots to the point they will survive life outside, but I’ve never met a homesteader who didn’t like to save money.

Canning

1How10Now, that you’ve collected a bumper crop of whatever foodstuffs you grew, you might have a problem. Specifically, “What am I going to do with all this food? My family can’t possibly eat it all.” This is a good problem to have. There are starving, Yadzi slave girls in Syria who would love to have this sort of problem in life.

I probably should have called this section “food preservation” because it’s really about saving today’s excess for some time in the future when you might not have any. Canning, curing, drying, and storing in a cellar all answer the question of what to do with excess and preserve food far longer than with refrigeration. And don’t forget treats like fruit cocktail, jellies and jams, and even pickles are all forms of canning.

Be sure to spell it with a double “n” or it’s a whole different thing you may or may not be interested in.

Trapping

Some folks have qualms about trapping. Most of it stems from the uninformed perception that foothold traps are designed to either inflict pain on the caught animal or in disregard of the animal’s suffering. I blame Walt Disney for his anthropomorphizing animals in his movies.

I would argue that snares are the least humane of the various trapping methods, but compared to the myriad ways Mother Nature kills animals, strangling to death might be preferable to starvation, mange, or being struck by a car because mostly all of them end with being eaten alive by coyotes, ants, or a bear once too weak to stand.

Standing policy on the Cunha Homestead is “Whatever takes from me dies when I catch it.”

1How7Those who won’t trap to protect what’s theirs are free not to. There are plenty of ways to protect livestock, and I employ many of them, as well. I just find them less effective.

Once you get tired of picking up decapitated chicken corpses, repairing wildlife damage, and wondering what happened to your crop yield, I’ll happily teach you whatever I know. It’s part of being generous with knowledge.

And don’t forget that depending on your state’s regulations, the time of year, and the prevailing market, selling the pelts can put a little cash in your pocket.

Dispatching, dressing, and butchering

Unless you’re one of those vegetarian homesteaders (I guess there is such a thing somewhere), you will have to come to terms with the idea that you are a dealer of death. I don’t particularly revel in that status, but I take quiet pride in my skill at rapidly and humanely ending an animal’s life. We go to a lot of trouble to raise our animals fat, dumb, and happy, so I see no reason to inflict cruelty on them in the last moments of their life.

After months, and sometimes years, of feeding, caring for, and fussing over little creatures that often come perilously close to becoming pets, you then have to remove the inedible parts and reduce it individual servings of protein.

I have a buddy who has homesteaded far longer than I, but neither he nor his wife can bring themselves to butcher their animals. We call their place “the petting zoo.”

My wife hasn’t gotten to the point where she can dispatch our livestock, but she goes to town on the dressing and butchering. She also has zero qualms about hunting, so I think it really has to do with the caretaker role she fills with the animals.

Reload ammunition

Even though I’m a contender for title of World’s Cheapest Man, I probably won’t win, since I and the sponsors of the award are all too cheap to pay the expenses of attending the ceremony.

I wasn’t always the thousandaire you see before you today. Much of my adult life was spent prioritizing each bill that came in, and occasionally making the choice between electricity and diapers. A speeding ticket had the potential to bring on financial ruin until the next tax return season.

It’s only been a handful of years that I don’t lose my mind whenever food goes bad in the refrigerator…because we should have eaten the leftovers first.

My father taught me how to reload ammunition as soon as I was old enough to wander into the garage to annoy him. Come to think of it, I was reloading before I was shooting. It was time consuming, but it filled evenings and rainy weekends with activities better than sitting in front of the television.

1How6As an adult, I took the parsimony a step further and began casting my own bullets, which is the most expensive component, assuming you don’t have to replace the brass case. It turns out that discarded wheel weights, which up until recently were available at literally any tire shop, make perfectly good bullets once processed.

Chalk up another win for cheap-asses.

Carpentry

Along the same lines as fencing, homesteaders spend an inordinate amount of time building and repairing structures. If a house is a constant stream of repair projects, a barn and a couple of outbuildings becomes a flood. It’s a rare farmer who has the cash available and the time to wait for a real carpenter to come out.

Even if you don’t have fancy power tools, you’d be absolutely amazed how much can be repaired with hammer, saw, and pliers. Oh, and duct tape. Even astronauts rely on duct tape.

photo12For most jobs, short of erecting a building from the foundation up, it’s usually quicker and easier to grab a hand tool instead of going through the trouble of employing the powered version. A sharp, quality saw cuts through a board surprisingly fast with good technique. Besides, electricity isn’t always available.

Making soap

My wife is the soap maker in our family. I understand the process, but let it be her thing, while I act as cheerleader and helpmate. It’s a good use for all that milk and animal fat you won’t know what to do with once the homestead gets rolling.

At the risk of letting out too many secrets, homemade soap is one of those products non-homesteading women go gaga over. Drop in some herbs to scratch their skin up a little, tie a rustic-looking bow around the bar, and you will have a winning farm product.

Use words like “handmade,” “all natural,” and “free range,” and you’ll sell out at every farmer’s market.

Sharpening tools

Aside from a county official with a clipboard, there is little in life that is more dangerous than a dull tool. Whether a knife, an ax, or a chisel, any task you put that tool to will be completed fast, safer, and better than were it dull. Even a shovel should have somewhat of an edge, if it will be thrust into the ground.

1How5Shaping an edge with a file or honing it with a stone is probably one of the trickier skills to learn, but useful in life far beyond the farm. I’m frequently flabbergasted at the number of people I encounter performing tasks with dull tools. It’s one of those things that drives me nuts.

Keep it sharp and let the tool do the work.

Even if the only knives you own reside in the kitchen, the same need for a keen edge and the techniques to achieve it apply.

These skills are not just useful on the homestead. Most of them can find use wherever you call home, but I picked them more for their rarity.

I can understand urban dwellers, with their easy access WalMart and Kroger’s, not having a terribly strong knowledge of how to butcher an animal or put up food for long term storage against a shortage in the future. Then again, maybe they should, but that’s another article.

These are lost arts to a large degree. Or, at least, fading rapidly. Arts that deserve wider dissemination than they have. A generation or two ago, an adult without these skills was looked at sideways.

Luckily, there is a flow in the other direction. Interest in these skills is rekindling, and those for whom they have always been a normal part of life are in a position to make sure the practical application of these skills survive. Books and internet are great, but hands-on is the best. There is no teacher like demonstration, and there is no learning like doing.

Be generous with your knowledge.

 

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