Well, tomorrow is the last day of 2019 and I'm sitting here reflecting on all that has happened here on Windmill Hill Farm. This was a big year for us as I launch the website, started this blog, and grew our customer base to outside of just family and friends. It feels like we officially became a "farm" this year but I can't help but still feel a bit like a farm imposter. My sister was recently at the local farm market store and was chatting with the owner. The owner asked her where she got her turkey this year to which my sister replied: "Oh, Windmill Hill Farm". The owner then replied "oh yeah, I've heard of them from some other people saying good things about them". HA! I couldn't believe it, maybe we are a real farm. We raised over 120 birds, had our first litter of angora rabbits, fenced in a pasture, and added a new extra-large poultry tractor to our set up. Big things happened here so why do I feel like there's so much more to be done? Well, because there is.
Farming never stops. You never reach a point where you've optimized everything and can just sit back and follow the procedure from then on. We've been at this for a few years now and I still feel like we make "rookie" mistakes, except they aren't rookie mistakes they only seem like they are. By that I mean we've made mistakes that after the fact were obvious and made us feel stupid. But that's part of the process of becoming a farmer. Maybe I'll never feel official and that's okay but I want to make sure that every year I reflect on what we did right, what we did wrong, and what I want to accomplish next year. So here is our 2019 year in review.
We had A LOT more birds on the farm this year. Last year we raised 50 Freedom rangers and 16 Cornish X's. In 2019 we raised 65 Freedom Rangers, 50 Cornish X's, and 16 turkeys. We also brought in a new batch of 10 chicks to replace our laying hen flock. We sold somewhere around 40 birds which was huge for us. We foolishly bought an additional batch of chicks that were supposed to be Jersey Giants to raise alongside our final batch of Freedom Rangers. This resulted in a catastrophe and our last batch of rangers were not sold out to customers due to their small size and reduced numbers. The temperament of the Jersey Giants did not mesh well with our meat birds and we suspect they brought in some sort of virus that made that batch of chickens not as healthy as we typically see (side note, we had a bird tested by Ohio State's Veterinary division as a precaution and no serious illness was found so we are confident going forward all of our birds will be healthy).
Things to do different
I'm always looking for ways to reduce our overall operating costs without compromising our principles on animal welfare and overall quality. One thing I saw as needing improvement was our electric bill when we had chicks in brooders. Having several heat lamps running is not only dangerous it's also costly. I pride myself on being a 100% LED and energy-efficient household so when I see the electric bill spike I'm automatically trying to track down the culprit. Going into 2020, we are going to invest in brooder heating plates. These are adjustable height heating plates that the chicks snuggle under for warmth. This more closely mimics their natural behavior of snuggling under a momma hen and also uses considerably less energy at just 42 watts vs a 250-watt heating lamp.
We raised our 50 Cornish X's in an outdoor pen with a makeshift roof. For 2020, I plan on doing just about everything different from the Cornish. I plan to raise only 30 Cornish next year as our customers seemed to be more interested in the Rangers. We had an issue with two much size variation with the 50 birds. Some were over 4lbs while others were barely 2lbs. We think this is because too many birds were competing for food and water. To correct this issue we plan to do two batches of only 15 Cornish at two different times. I'm also going to raise them for 1-2 weeks longer to see if we can get a bit more size out of them without compromising their health. I'm also going to build a low cost, most likely PVC, tractor for them. I've seen videos and read a few books about people raising Cornish X's on pasture so we are going to give it a go vs raising them in our pen again.
For our Freedom Rangers, I was pretty happy with our process this past year so I think the only I may play around with is the specific Ranger breed. The hatchery we usually purchase from has developed another Ranger breed that is supposed to have some white feathers mixed in with the red, presumably this will make them a bit cleaner looking when plucked. They also claim to grow a tiny bit faster which means we may be able to shave a week of time off of their growth schedule. Overall I've been very happy with the Freedom Ranger so if this new breed isn't all it's cracked up to be I won't be upset.
Last but not least is the turkeys. We did enjoy raising our first batch of turkeys and several family and friends enjoyed our birds for their Thanksgiving feasts. We raised mainly Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys with a few heritage Narragansetts. I've concluded that we will not raise heritage turkeys again. They simply take too long to grow and are impossible to keep on your property unless you have them in a fully enclosed pen all the time which to me defeats the purpose of having them. Our Bronze turkeys were able to free-range in our fenced pasture, were easy to corral up into the poultry tractor at night, and matured to big 20+lb turkeys in about 3-1/2 months. Everything about them was easy so we will be doing 6 Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys and 6 Giant White turkeys next year. We will also raise them later in the year to get their processing time closer to the holidays.
The garden wasn't a total loss this year but it was far from what I had planned on. I harvested a lot of tomatoes, some nice beans, some okay sweet corn, some small but tasty carrots, but that's about it. My biggest problem was our very wet and cold spring that seemed to last until July. I started almost all of my plants in my basement under grow lights which worked great. However, when spring didn't come in early June as planned I found myself with growing nursery plants that had nowhere to go. By the time I planted my garden my zucchini, onions, pumpkins, squash, and all of my herbs had outgrown their containers and were dying. I hoped and prayed that they'd rebound once planted in the ground but no dice.
Things to do different
I'm still going to start my plants in the basement but I'm going to be prepared to upgrade them to larger containers as soon as June hits if it's not warm out. I'm also going to switch up the locations of the plants within my garden. I think my pumpkins and squash largely failed to grow due to the number of roots in the soil where they were. We recently rototilled that section for the first time and it seems the pumpkins and squash couldn't take root. I plan to plant other crops with shorter root systems there next year to see if they can take hold.
I'm going to grow WAY fewer tomatoes next year. I have no idea what I was thinking. I put in 70+ tomato plants, 20 of which were for sauce. I don't even really like tomatoes but I was convinced we'd want a lot of tomatoes for some reason.
My sweet corn grew well but I waited too long to pick it and the flavor and texture weren't great. I'm going to try a different variety and harvest it sooner next year.
Overall I got some nice beans from my garden but I'm only going to grow bush beans in 2020. Again, I'm not sure what I was thinking growing a whole bunch of pole beans with nowhere for them to climb. They ended up climbing all over the garden fence, pulling it down, and all over my corn stalks.
As for my onions, I'm going to start them in larger seed starter cells as a fellow farmer pointed out the ones I was using were far too small which likely hindered their growth. I've been trying for years to grow onions from seed. Every year I learn something and get a little closer to getting it right.
My overall goal is to have a variety of vegetables stored either in the freezer or canned for winter 2020.
This year was a big year for our rabbitry. We added two resident rabbits to our lineup, our star of the barn "Hershey" and his soon to be girlfriend "Honey". These rabbits are both pedigreed and with Hershey being a chocolate and Honey being a chocolate agouti, I feel confident that we will be able to produce some beautiful chocolate babies in 2020.
We also had an addition of 8 little bunnies, courtesy of Hershey and Mable (my black tort female). Mable was a fantastic first-time mom and while I've heard plenty of horror stories of rabbit births gone wrong, her birth was uneventful and all 8 babies were healthy and went on to their new homes in mid-summer.
Things to do different
I'm still formulating my overall plan for the rabbits but I think I'm going to need to breakdown and build them their own "barn". Right now I have 4 resident adult rabbits in our general barn/garage/woodshop. It's not an ideal place for rabbits but we've been making it work. I'd love to have a small building where they are away from any noise or excess dust. I'd also like them to have a window in which I can install a small AC unit to keep them cool in the summer. Right now I have to fiddle with a bunch of fans and frozen ceramic tiles to keep them cool on hot days.
As for planned breedings, Mable is currently pregnant (or so I assume) and is due in mid-January. This will be my first winter litter so I'm both nervous and excited. After this litter I don't plan to breed Mable anymore as I'd like to stick to pedigreed litters, specifically focusing on developing Chocolate Giants. This is where Honey comes in. Honey was born in May of 2019 so she is still a bit too young to breed. I plan to breed her in February which hopefully means the coldest weather will be behind us when she gives birth in March. I'm seriously considering keeping a nice male out of that litter as I often think about how ruined my plans would be if Hershey passed away suddenly. The breeder who produced Honey will have the pick of the litter so I will have to see what her plans our before making that decision anyway but taking on an additional resident male rabbit is definitely in my plans at some point.
I'm planning on adding 2 Southdown Baby Doll sheep to our farm in the spring of 2020. I have a personal goal to develop my fiber spinning skills and would love to blend some nice wool of my own with the angora wool from the rabbits. We will perhaps pursue breeding these sheep in future years but that's down the line.
I'm going to venture into the front pasture for raising our chickens. Right now we've been rotating our poultry tractors around the back pasture and it's worked well but we have a whole additional acre in front of our house that is unused. I've been doing a lot of research into regenerative agriculture and would love to document the transformation on this land. My plan is to do a soil test as soon as the ground thaws and then test again in 2021.
Principally, my goal for 2020 is to further establish Windmill Hill Farm as a real farm. I want to grow our customer base and become a staple in the community for good, honest, local food. I'd also like to get to the point where we are making a bit of profit from our efforts but I'm fairly realistic that may not happen until further in the future.
We are thrilled with the progress we've made and can't wait to see what the future has in store for us!
I absolutely love living on a farm and wouldn't change it for anything, however, there are some, shall we say, struggles that come with living somewhere that seems to manufacture mud, flies, and, dare I say, poop. All of the above will end up in your home at one point or another so it's best to try to prepare yourself for these challenges. Here are some common problems you will need to deal with when trying to keep your farmhouse clean (or at least resembling something like "clean").
Here in Northeast Ohio, we have two "mud" seasons, spring and fall. Where we are specifically gets a lot of snow compared to the surrounding areas so in both the spring and fall we have to deal with "would-be snow" that turns to rain as the weather transitions between above and below freezing. We also have to battle with large amounts of snow that can melt in as little as a day when we get an unexpected warm spell. All of this adds up to one thing, mud, and a lot of it. We have 3 entrances into our home, the front door off of the front porch which leads you into a small runner area rug and basically right into the living room, the back door which leads you right into the small laundry room, and a walkout basement door that leads you into an unfinished, and also quite unorganized, basement. None of these options are ideal when you are covered in cold mud and trying to get back inside. Oh, what I would give to have a nice big mudroom.
If you are lucky enough to have a mudroom, good for you, your life will be a bit easier. If you are in a predicament like I am listen up. Come up with a "rule" for you and anyone else who will be tromping through the mud. Designate a door that you must use when entering and exiting the house and get yourself a nice indoor/outdoor floor mat. The bigger the better. If you have the room, have a spot in that same area for muddy boots and try to only use one pair of footwear during the muddiest of times. I was guilty for far too long of using multiple doors and walking across our living room with muddy boots to get to the boot tray on the opposite side of the house.
Yep, if you have any animals there will be a good chance that some sort of fecal matter will end up in your house. This is both unsanitary and extra "icky". See my above suggestions for keeping the mess contained but I also like to keep poopy boots outside if possible. We have a covered front porch that doesn't 100% protect from the elements but in general, my boots will stay dry out there. If I do something like clean the chicken coop, I'm almost certain I have some poop on my boots so I will elect to keep them on the porch until I have time to clean them. If you are finding that you are getting poop on your boots regularly, try to design some sort of covered boot area outside one of your doors so that the poop never enters your home.
You may be thinking "why not just clean the poop off every time". While that seems like a no-brainer I guarantee you will lose motivation to clean your boots after every use. It's also just part of living on a farm. Things get dirty and that's okay. The important thing is to keep yourself healthy and if that means poop covered boots are a staple of your front porch décor then so be it.
I hate flies. Right now we only raise poultry and rabbits which are not real big "fly attractants". However, I'm always baffled by how many flies end up in my house during the summer. I swear I won't see a single fly outside all day but when I come inside to make dinner there are flies everywhere. You won't prevent all flies from coming in but step one in fighting fly infestation is making sure all of your windows have screens and all of those screens are in good shape. Also, don't make a habit of leaving any doors open longer than necessary.
As I said, you won't prevent all of the flies from coming in but trying to prevent their entry as much as possible will keep the numbers down. From there I like to use an electric fly swatter. It's a great way to kill flies without smashing them on your windows and walls. It's also pretty satisfying. I bought mine on Amazon for about $10. It takes two AA batteries and works like a charm. You can also resolve to use other fly killing/catching methods such as fly tape or salt guns. I personally haven't used the salt gun because I don't like the idea of table salt being flung all over my house in an effort to kill flies. But I guess whatever floats your boat.
All of the mentioned methods will also work well for any other bugs that get into your house. Regarding mosquitos and moths, try to not leave any porch lights on unnecessarily. Out in the country, the nights are pretty dark and any light that is left on will no doubt attract a plethora of nighttime insects. I once left my bedroom window open, not realizing it didn't have a screen in it. I was sitting up in bed reading with my table lamp on in the pitch black of night. My bedroom was completely filled with bugs in a matter of minutes. It was both disgusting and insanely annoying.
I like my house to be clean but I don't lose sleep over it being a bit dirty. Heck, right now my sink is full of dishes and I'm sitting here writing this blog instead of handling that (don't worry I'll get to it). My point is, having a farm will mean that you will be battling cleanliness in your home all the time. I often find myself thinking "how did pine shavings from the chicken coop get on the couch" and "why is there timothy hay in the shower drain". These things will happen no matter how hard you try to avoid it. It comes with the territory of being a farmer/homesteader and while I do often think "oh gross" as I'm cleaning up some sort of mystery mess, I also reassure myself that everything can be cleaned and can be made like new again with a rag and some soapy water.
The key to keeping a clean farmhouse is to keep the mess manageable. I spoke on some key ways to contain the mess or prevent it from entering your house altogether so now let's talk a bit about actual cleaning.
Keeping it clean, kinda
I really want to be one of those women who have a cleaning schedule. You know, one of those women who cleans windows on Mondays, the bathrooms on Tuesdays, and the floors on Wednesdays. I want to be able to come home from work to a spectacularly clean kitchen and bright white baseboard. Unfortunately, I've found that I am simply not that kind of woman, actually, I'm not even close. I find it way too easy to ignore the mess. I hate cleaning for "no reason". I'm sure some people just read that and think "you don't clean for no reason, you clean because it's your home and you want it to look nice". That's a fair statement but for me it's just not realistic.
I find that I really only clean if there's company coming over, or if the spare bedroom has become so full of junk you can't walk in it. It doesn't help that my other half feels the same way about cleaning and is all too happy to also ignore the mess. I'd love to not be this way and perhaps someday I will change but to be honest, so far, my attitude towards cleaning has worked out for me.
Farm living is messy and there is no doubt that your house will not look like the cover of Better Homes and Gardens magazine most of the time. My point is, that's okay. Keeping your house clean enough to be sanitary should be your #1 goal and keeping it spotless should be an accepted, unattainable goal.
Please also keep this in mind when remodeling or even just redecorating. We remodeled our home top to bottom and for the most part, I'm happy with the "clean-ability" of everything we did. We bought cheap but still cute area rugs that if ruined I will not be heartbroken about. They are also short fiber rugs so I can easily drag them outside, sling them over top of the fence and hose them off if needed. Our living room furniture is fake leather which was both inexpensive and easy to clean. We don't have any drapes or window shades to catch dust. I understand this isn't possible for everyone but we are a fair distance off of the road so privacy isn't a huge issue for us. We did install a removable "fog" film on the bedroom windows to give a bit of added privacy. The floors are laminate and while they aren't waterproof (which makes me nervous) they have so far held up well. The color I selected has a lot of variation which works wonders in hiding general dirt and tumbleweeds of dog hair. Side note, invest in a good vacuum cleaner as ours has been a lifesaver.
As for things I may have done differently, I have white kitchen cabinets. They are beautiful and really give my kitchen a farmhouse feel but they get filthy. Not only do I find that every crevice of the cabinets gets dust and dirt-covered, but splashes from the sink during dishwashing end up anywhere and everywhere. Perhaps a wood grain or just a darker painted color would have been better for kitchen cabinets. Also along with white kitchen cabinets, we have white grout in our spare bathroom. I know, white grout, who wants to clean that? Apparently, I do because that's what I do before we have guests over. In retrospect, a light gray grout probably would have looked just as nice and wouldn't be such a pain. Again I went for the magazine farmhouse look when selecting white grout. Don't do that, your house isn't in a magazine and unless you have a live in maid you're only punishing yourself. Lastly, I may have gone a different direction with our baseboards if I could go back. As you may have guessed, I also did the baseboards in white. They are beautiful but they get ridiculously dirty and getting down on my hands and knees, crawling around the whole house, isn't my style.
In conclusion, you may be able to prevent some of the mess from entering your house but at the end of the day farm living is dirty work and you will be bringing some of it home with you. Make your life as easy as possible by having a house that is easy to clean or better yet can camouflage some of the dirt so you don't lose your mind trying to keep up with it. At the end of the day, a clean house isn't what you will remember and cherish about farm living so be sure to focus on what's really important when making your homesteading memories.
If you are new to keeping livestock you may have overlooked the absolute need for a good farm vet. Most people who own domestic pets like cats and dogs are used to taking their furry friends to the vet from time to time. If you've been lucky, your furry friend hasn't needed any extensive vet care and you've basically just had to come in once a year for updating vaccines and the occasional minor issue. If this is the case, congrats, you haven't had to deal with any significant health issues with your pet and therefore you probably don't have much of a relationship with your vet. When it comes to livestock, this situation is a bit different.
First of all, find a vet to see your dog or cat is quite easy, finding a vet who treats sheep, chickens, and pigs is another story. Depending on your location, finding a farm vet could be a challenge. You could consult the phone book or Google but my suggestion would be to find a local farm that has the same types of critters as you do and ask them who is their vet. Also, don't be afraid to ask this farmer a lot of questions. Things like "how available", "how much experience do they have" and "how is their pricing", are all great topics to cover from an unbiased current customer.
Understanding Each Other
This is a big one for me. We are lucky enough to have a vet that not only sees our dogs but can also treat our livestock. However, we had to come to an understanding of investment dollars and how I feel about my dogs vs my livestock. Basically, I'd do anything for my dogs if it meant improving their quality of life. Right now I have 3 senior dogs, 2 of which are on $100+ worth of medications every month to keep them going. I feed them expensive foods, take them in for regular blood tests, and pay an ungodly amount of money for medications that seem to be keeping father time at bay. My vet originally became familiar with me through treating my dogs so when we moved into farm animals I had to make myself clear, I love these guys, but they aren't pets.
I want nothing more than to have all of my animals healthy but the lengths I'm willing to go to for a chicken aren't far. For our poultry in general, everything is either going to be eaten or is producing eggs that we will eat. Therefore, I don't want to pump anyone full of medication as this will render the chicken useless to me and if a chicken is now useless why am I paying a vet to treat its medical needs.
This is not to say that if you have chickens for meat or eggs there is no need for a vet. We had a bad batch of meat birds last Fall that seemed to grow slowly and a few died right before butchering. We butchered the healthy-looking birds and everything, to the naked eye, looked fine internally with them. We decided not to sell them to customers. I spoke with my vet and he recommended we pursue some testing. So I took one sickly looking bird, culled it, froze it, and sent it to a testing facility. After several weeks they call my vet with the results. My birds had contracted some sort of minor virus that was likely brought on by stress (a little backstory, we had terrible predator issues earlier in the season with this batch of birds and the stress of being under constant attack likely caused them to be more susceptible to sickness, much like people). While I was sad to hear my birds had caught something I was relieved that it was something serious like Marek's or Avian Flu. Those birds are now clear for us to eat and we can go into next spring with fresh meat chickens knowing they should be healthy. The testing and shipping of the dead bird set me back about $50 which is what my vet and I agreed was the maximum that would make sense to spend.
My vet also gave me his opinion that while the virus likely came from the hatchery I got the chicks from, he would advise that I'm okay to try to buy another batch from them as the transmission of some minor viruses with any large group of animals is almost unavoidable. We've had terrific results from this hatchery in the past so getting the green light from my vet to try them again put my mind at ease to continue with them.
How Much Money is Too Much
This is an important conversation to have with your vet. For us, anything that is producing meat or eggs is not something we want to treat but from there, things get fuzzy. I have a small rabbitry of Giant Angora Rabbits. These are the 2nd rarest breed of rabbit in the US and are my prized possession on the farm. I sell the wool and breed my rabbits a few times a year which makes them the most profitable animals we own. I've had two rabbits die since I began the rabbitry and both times I spent WAY too much money at the vet trying to save them. Both rabbits that died were young female rabbits that I planned to be my star breeders. These rabbits aren't easy to come by and are also not cheap, so when one gets sick I'm automatically thinking I can justify any amounts of money spent to save her because she's worth so much in the long run.
This is a slippery slope, my friends, as that logic only makes sense if the rabbit lives, mine didn't. One rabbit, who had gotten out of her enclosure and eaten something she shouldn't, was too far gone by the time I got to the vet so I had them euthanize her. That turned out to be more money than I thought and I got an earful when I came home. We cull all farm animals ourselves typically so my boyfriend didn't understand why I felt the need to waste money by having her euthanized at a vet. For me it was more for the peace of mind of knowing for sure there was nothing that could be done to save her.
My 2nd sick rabbit was still savable when I brought her into the vet. They took x-rays and could see that her stomach was full of wool from grooming herself, this is known as "wool block". She was quite alert and active so they advised me that she was a reasonable candidate for surgery. I agreed, signed the paperwork, and left for work. A few hours later I got a call that the surgery went well and she was recovering. However, about an hour after that, I got a call that she suddenly passed away. This is quite common with rabbits as they don't handle stress well. I won't lie, the bill for this procedure was huge! Although arguably, this rabbit was probably worth a couple of thousand dollars throughout her expected lifespan, she was still dead and worth $0 in the end.
My point of telling these two stories is that my vet understood my decision making on all accounts and didn't pressure me one way or another. It's hard to determine, in the heat of a crisis, how much money is reasonable to spend on an animal. Having a level headed vet who will give you an honest opinion means the world to me. I've had vets in the past pressure me to do additional testing, medications, and diet changes for my dogs. I usually did it and looking back sometimes I wish I hadn't. I'm very thankful for the vet-client relationship I'm in now and feel confident that I'll be able to properly care for my animals no matter what.
You will need to decide for yourself what level of vet care you want for your animals. Whatever you decide, be sure to communicate this clearly with your vet and gauge their reaction. Some vets are the "do anything to save the animal" type and this may not line up with your farm goals or budget.
If you're like me and live in a part of the country that has freezing temperatures in winter, you'll need to be prepared for the added challenges that will bring to your homestead. I'm in lovely northeast Ohio, more specifically, in the heart of the Lake Erie Snowbelt. This means that along with the frigid winds that blow across the lake straight towards me, I also have to deal with large amounts of snow being dropped more often than surrounding areas. For example, today is November 14th and my homestead received a little over 10 inches of snow in the past two days, while my parents, who live 20 minutes west of me, received barely an inch. Perhaps you live somewhere that is even more intense than that, perhaps not, regardless, if you experience freezing temperatures regularly during winter you will need to be prepared.
Cleaning Up Before The Snow Flies
I failed this year. Spring through Fall is pretty crazy for us as we raise 100+ meat chickens and 12+ turkeys that we run through the same acre pasture behind our house (I have another blog post detailing how to run so many birds through such a small area if you're interested). My point is, when you are raising so many animals in a "rapid-fire" type fashion, you end up with things like feeders, waters, wheelbarrows, temporary pens, etc all out in odd spots in the grass. I told myself repeatedly that I needed to collect everything up and store it for winter….but I didn't. Typically we may get our first snow in late November but it's usually just a dusting that melts off fast as the ground is still too warm for the snow to "stick". Not this year, over 10 inches of snow dropped in less than 24 hours on November 12th. Now, all of those things I was going to pick up and store are buried in snow, not to be seen again until we get some warm weather to melt it off (P.S. I checked the forecast and all I see is more snow coming). Don't be like me, clean up well before the snow hits!
Depending on what type of farm you have this may not be possible but since we raise some animals for meat, and it applies to us, I thought I should mention it. Winter is a hard time to be an animal. A lot of their energy goes towards keeping themselves warm which means their food consumption vs output will be weak. "Output" could mean many things but in general I'm talking about chicken laying eggs and anything you are raising for meat purposes will not gain much weight in the winter months. Side note, the changes in daylight hours also greatly impact the chickens' abilities to lay eggs but I'm certain the cold isn't helping.
If you can, consider scaling back on your quantity of animals before winter hits. If you are raising anything for meat purposes, and it's struggling to gain weight in the summer, it will only get worse in the winter. Sell that animal off or butcher it to prevent it from suffering in the frigid temps. We specifically planned to be done raising all of our meat chickens in the fall and will be processing our retiring hens in the next week (see how I also didn't do this task early enough). We have 2 heritage turkeys that truly need another 3-4 months of growing to be of peak size but we are going to process them next week. These were our first heritage turkeys and we grossly underestimated the time needed for them to gain weight and highly doubt they will be able to pack on the pounds over the next several cold months.
Have the right gear
This may seem like a no brainer but I struggled with this originally. I'm a bargain shopper and often feel guilty about spending a lot of money on my clothes. My first big "splurge" regarding shopping was seven years ago I bought a full length, -20 degree rated, L.L. Bean Winter Coat. It was beautiful and I wore it for 5 years before it had finally needed to retire to the trash. So the first year we were officially living on the homestead I asked my other half for a new L.L. Bean Winter Coat. I was thrilled Christmas morning to open that gift and a few hours later I suited up and headed out to do barn chores. My boyfriend almost lost his mind, "You can't wear that nice coat out there! You'll get dirt and dust and poop all over it!". He was right, I hadn't even considered that my beautiful, and quite expensive, coat had no place anywhere near my animals. So, the following day, I headed down to the local Walmart and bought a $20 winter coat. I now had a "homestead coat" and "a nice coat", who would've thought? I've now applied this thinking to my boots, hat, and gloves as well. I'd also like to point out that your homestead gear may actually be more expensive than your "nice" gear depending on your needs. If your homestead chores are going to require that you be outside for hours upon hours every day, better buy the extra warm stuff. Also, always fully "suit up" before going out to do chores. I've foolishly headed out with just a coat and boots to "just feed everyone real quick" only to find some sort of issue out there that requires an hour + of my time in a snowstorm. If it's cold out, put everything on, even if you think you'll only be out there a minute. (also this is a good policy in case god forbid you lock yourself out of the house).
Protecting Against Frostbite
The last section was about keeping you warm, now let's talk about keeping your critters toasty. In the winter months, I have two types of animals to take care of, chickens and rabbits. My rabbits are, more specifically, Giant Angora Rabbits so they actually do quite well in the cold months. Angora is 8 times warmer than sheep's wool so my rabbits are quite happy in their barn. However, I do need to keep on schedule with when they need sheared which will happen at least one time over the winter months. When I shear a rabbit I immediately put a little coat on it. I buy the super cheap dog sweaters online or at Walmart and they wear those for about 2 weeks before they have enough coat regrowth to keep themselves warm.
The chickens are a bit more of a challenge. Our coop is not insulated which I go back and forth about whether that is really an issue for us. Our coop does have a window so they get quite a bit of sunlight that of course helps keep the coop warm. In the summer months, I typically use 1 single bag of pine shavings on the coop floor for bedding but in the winter I will usually do 2 bags of pine shavings and some straw. Our coop is slightly elevated off the ground so while it's nice that they are not sitting on the cold ground, there is also an abundance of cold air right below the floor so I lean towards heavy bedding to make sure they stay warm. It's also important to note that chickens themselves can handle quite cold temperatures as their feathers keep them toasty. In my opinion, as long as you keep the floor heavily bedded and make sure there are no drafts, your birds should be pretty comfortable. However, I have had a few issues with combs getting frostbite. Some chicken breeds have bigger combs than others and I've found that the ones with big combs tend to get frostbite. You can try applying a small amount of Vaseline to your hens' combs to try to prevent this from happening. The biggest problem with comb frostbite is that it may cause the comb to bleed which then may result in your other hens pecking at it. If this happens you need to remove the frostbit hen ASAP and set her up by herself in a warmer location until it heals. Overall, I've had a few issues with comb frostbite and they've always healed up nicely. All and all, animals are pretty tough but make sure you research your animal's capabilities to avoid health issues caused by the cold.
Ahh yes, the infamous frozen waterer, the ultimate pain in every homesteader's butt. So, we are all familiar with the concept that water freezes when it's cold but you'd be surprised how fast it freezes. This is a huge problem because as soon as that water freezes your animals can't drink. If you are like most homesteaders and have a "day job" this can be very problematic. There are two ways to combat the frozen water dilemma, 1)change the water so often that it doesn't get a chance to freeze. This is easier said than done but it is possible if you are home at your homestead all day every day, 2) find a way to heat the water. There is essentially a heated water solution for any animal waterer however the common denominator is electricity. In previous years, we've fashioned an outdoor electrical cord from our barn to our chicken coop for a heat lamp that was pointed at the waterer. This generally worked but due to an issue we had last year with a fallen heat lamp nearly catching the coop on fire, we've steered away from that idea. There are a lot of seemly safe water heater options for chicken waterers but since I'm now working from home the majority of the time I'm going to try to just check and change the waterers multiple times per day. I'm also pursuing this method with my rabbits. The rabbit waterers are quite challenging because often the water in the actual rabbit water bottles will be liquid, but the nozzle, where the rabbit actually drinks, will freeze very quickly. My plan this winter is to buy a second set of all water bottles and just have them rotating in and out of the house.
So, you think you want to give homesteading or some variation of it a go? Your next step is to find the right location for your goals.
Where your homestead is will make or break your dreams so you need to be sure to choose wisely. A good indication of where would be a good location for your homestead is examining where you are now and what you do and do not like about it. I came from the suburbs and hated having to deal with neighbors so close. I wanted solitude and you just can't get that when you walk out to your ¼ of an acre backyard to relax and see your 80-year-old neighbor 30 feet away from you sunbathing with his shirt off. Because of this, I knew I wanted space and privacy. However, I was also less than a 5-minute drive from literally everything I could want or need including grocery stores, countless restaurants, a movie theater, you name it I could basically walk to it. I recognized the convenience of being close to a town so grocery trips weren't a weekend excursion. Think about what you like and what you hate about your current living situation and what things you're truly indifferent too.
As with most things, size does matter. There are plenty of blogs and books out there detailing how to homestead on crazy small pieces of land and perhaps this is the route you want to take but let me caution you a bit. When it comes to homesteading everything is an investment. If you do a ton of research and build the ultimate dream chicken coop, you might not be able to pack it up and take it with you when you outgrow your land. The same goes for your garden and especially for any fruit trees or berry bushes you plant. A homestead should be a forever project and choosing a tiny piece of land because it is cheap or you feel it's less intimidating may very well come back to haunt you. Some of you may be leaning in the other direction, "how big can I go"? I was a victim of this as well. When I set out 5+ years ago to find my little slice of heaven I told my realtor I wanted no less than 5 acres, the house could be a dump as long as it was livable, and I didn't really care how far "out in the country" I was. Well, you can find some relatively cheap pieces of land 1-2 hours away from where you want to be but is it worth it? To me, it ended up not being a good idea. Luckily, my relator had a good head on his shoulders and talked to me extensively about location and resale value, also to consider the hours I would be wasting daily on my commute that I could use working on my land. I opted for a limitation of staying in a certain county. Agreeing to stay in the county also meant compromising on my 5-acre minimum. There was just no way to buy 5 acres of land with a house that was livable that I could afford. I ultimately opted for 2 acres and looking back it was a great decision. Not that I wouldn't love 5 acres but the other proprieties I looked at were mainly wooded. I understand now that I would have had little use for 4+ acres of woods joined to essentially a big yard. My 2 acres is completely open and has 3 mature fruit trees and a mature blueberry bush. The take away of this point is to consider what exactly you want the land for. If you are really looking for space and privacy maybe having several wooded acres is exactly what you're after.
Cost of Living
Now let's get into the nitty-gritty of homestead selection, how costly is it to live in that particular house. You will find that most affordable homestead contenders come with houses that are less than ideal. This was certainly the case with mine. The house I bought was livable but barely. Since I was only 26 and didn't have much money or a ton of credit, I had to buy something that would pass the standard appraisal/inspections by the bank or I couldn't get a loan. Quickly after closing on my house, I realized that my initial plan of working on my homestead was going to take a back seat to remodeling the house. There was simply no point in putting "band-aid" type fixes all over the house when I truly needed to gut it down to the studs and start over, and that's just what we did. Even if you are okay with living in a dump of a house while you build gardens and coops, it's not a smart move. If god forbid, you fall on hard times and need to sell your homestead, other buyers will be most concerned with your home's condition and all that hard work and money you put into the land will be for nothing. We've now finished our remodel and while I would be heartbroken if we had to leave, we are in a great financial position with the home value and would make a nice profit if we had to sell. This would allow up to restart our lives somewhere else if necessary. Along with the house's quality, you need to consider how much it will cost you to live there. Water is insanely important and depending on where you are located it can be quite the roadblock to homesteading. We were lucky that we have a good well with good quality water. Our water is quite hard but we hope to invest in a water softener at some point to help with that. Don't be afraid to do some research regarding water quality and availability in your area. If neighbors have issues with their well's running dry it's best to not get yourself involved with that heartache. Next up is heating. I'm in northeast Ohio and we typically have below freezing temperatures November through April meaning how we heat our home is important. When I purchased my home I was told it was an "oil" heated home but there was an option to connect to natural gas. I had no idea what a life-saver that would be. As the bank was completing the closing paperwork I spoke to the home sellers and was shocked when they dropped the bomb on me that it costs anywhere from $300-$500 a month to heat the house and that's on the all-year budget plan! My heart sank, how would I ever afford that. Thankfully, I was able to convert the house to natural gas via the gas line that was run to the house and never used, live-saver is an understatement. It now costs anywhere from $70-$150 during the coldest months to heat the house. We also have an option to put in a wood stove which we hope to do in the next year that could help a bit. Out in the country, some homes have access to natural gas but I wouldn't say it's the norm. Most homes are heated by electric baseboards, propane, broilers, or woodstoves (side note, a friend of mine heats her home with propane and her heating bills top $700 in the cold month to heat a 1,200 sq ft ranch). PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do extensive research on how much these options cost. I know people who have had to leave their dream homes because they can't afford to heat them. Last but certainly not least is the septic system. I hate this subject because I know this will be a huge pain for us to deal with at some point. Septic systems are rather simple for the most part. Don't flush anything you're not supposed to and get it pumped out regularly. That part is easy, the hard part is the replacement. A new septic can go for $20k+ and installing it can destroy a lard part of your land depending on where it is placed. Our septic is behind the house meaning large equipment will need to cross my front acre horizontally and then drive around our house to access it. Right now everything is fine but our septic system is nearing 50 years old so it's only a matter of time. If you are considering a home with a septic system do not buy it unless it is inspected. If it fails inspection you need to negotiate the seller covering some or all of the costs to replace it. Trust me, no one else will buy the home without asking the same from the seller.
I saved the most important point for last. I set out to do this on my own but didn't want to. Several years ago, I was in a less than ideal relationship with a man who sold me on the homesteading idea. On our first date he took me out on a hike of his 70-acre property (turns out he didn't own dick and it belonged to someone else but that's a story for another time). Anyway, as the relationship progressed and eventually died, I realized that one way or another I wanted this self-sufficient lifestyle. At 23, I embarked on my journey to pay off student loan debt so I could buy some land. A few months before my 25th birthday I met a great guy and we started a relationship. He had a lot of similar interests to mine, but we took it very slowly, being careful not to make any long term plans together to quickly. I don't know why but it never occurred to me after my past relationship that I'd find anyone else who'd want the same things. Little by little, we incorporated our lives together and I found that he hated the term "homesteading" but that's exactly what he wanted to do. Cut to nearly 6 years later and we are building our homestead together. I'd like to think I could have done this on my own but it would not have been nearly as successful and I probably would have doubted my choices about 1,000 times. Had I embarked on my homesteading journey with my past companion it would have ended in disaster. We wouldn't have accomplished anything close to what I have now and ultimately, I would have had to walk away and leave all of it behind. My point is, don't get too far down the rabbit hole in your homesteader's dream unless you are certain you are game to do it alone or know that your partner wants it as much as you do. Homesteading is tiring, expensive, and just plain hard at times. This can't be a situation in which you both live there but you do all of the chores because it's your hobby. At some point you will be sick or need to leave town for a few days and you need that reliable person who can handle things. Also, half the fun of accomplishing something on a homestead is having that other smiling face looking back at you, enjoying the success as much as you are. Make sure to have a frank conversation with your partner about what you want and make sure to listen carefully to how they respond. If they are unsure there are several homesteader-type conventions you can bring your partner to if you feel they need some more insight into your dream. But be aware, ultimately if they say there's no way they'd want to live that lifestyle you need to hear that
When entering into homesteading most people are intrigued by the idea of growing your own food. Raising and butchering animals can seem intimidating at first so most new homesteaders usually look to start small, i.e raising meat chickens. Raising meat chickens is a great way to add protein to your homestead diet without getting over your head in costs that may be associated with larger animals like cows and pigs.
Here's a list of the essentials you will need to raise your first batch of chickens, remember most of these things can be used for multiple years so did get sticker shock from the initial investment
So, what does this really mean regarding value-added to your homestead?
Let me tell you what's working for us. We raise two types of chickens, Rangers and Cornish X's. Rangers are a selectively bred meat bird that is closer to the older style chickens your grandparents were accustomed to eating. They take 9-12 weeks to mature and have a nice ratio of light to dark meat. They also grow proportionally meaning that if you wanted to raise them up to breed more rangers for your homestead you could. We currently have two ranger hens as part of our egg-laying flock. Cornish X's, on the other hand, are quite different from the Rangers. The Cornish grow very quickly and are primarily a white meat bird. They take 6-8 weeks to mature and need to be butchered around that time as their body will quickly deteriorate if given the option to just keep growing. These birds more closely resemble the type of birds that are mass-produced for grocery stores.
Now that we've gone over the types of chickens we raise, let's get into the numbers.
Rangers Cost for 25 Chickens: $263.03
Chicks: $35.00 (we get a super discounted rate by partnering with another farm and ordering in large batches)
Pine Shavings (when in brooder): $10
Deaths: 1 chicken
Shrink Bags + Labels: $16.80
We sold our Rangers for $2.75lb and the average weight per bird was 6.66lbs. We raised these birds a bit longer than usual taking them to 13 weeks but we think the extra meat (about 1lb higher per bird) was worth it.
The total value of our Rangers was $439.73 but when we subtracted out our costs we profited $176.70.
Cornish X Cost for 50 Chickens was $235.43
Pine Shaving/Straw: $34
Shrink Bags+ Labels: $34.30
We also sold our CornishX's for 2.75lb but the average weight per bird was quite low at 3.14lbs as we decided to butcher than right at 6 weeks.
The total value of our CornishX's was $397.43 but when we subtracted out our costs we profited $162.01.
Okay, there's a lot to go over here.
First of all, we aren't selling all of these birds because we obviously want some for ourselves so that "profit" may or may not exist depending on how many we keep. Also, the "value" figure is a little low because we priced our birds $0.25 below the market value for our area to attract some new customers. We also utilized a poultry tractor we had built in the spring but did not figure in its costs into these numbers as we plan to use it for many years. So all and all we did make some money but it took 13 weeks of hard work, and two brutal days of chicken butchering (in the rain might I add) to profit less than $200. Also, I should bring up that we butchered these birds ourselves and there is always the option to take your birds to a processing facility and paying them to do it.
So why do we do it?
Well, to put it simply, we like knowing where our food comes from. We only have 2 acres of land so when it came to producing our own meat we are limited to just poultry for now. Chickens also allow you to invest a short period of time in order to fill your freezer for the rest of the year. This example was just one of our batches as we usually raise a total of about 100 chickens per summer. For a couple, like us, we could probably get away with raising 40-50 birds if we weren't selling any but the point of selling some chickens was to help cover costs, which it did. Apart from hunting, there aren't many options to fill your freezers with "free" meat that only cost you.
This is a subject that may not cross the mind of every aspiring homesteader so let's bring it to the forefront of attention, it's hard to vacation when you're a homesteader. A more accurate statement might be, it's close to impossible to take a vacation when you're a homesteader and that's why many elect to forgo vacations all together. I'm here to tell you it can be done but you may need to alter your lifestyle if weekend getaways are a frequent event in your life (good for you by the way if they are). Here are a few reasons why most homesteaders skip vacations.
You are responsible for a lot, probably more than you realize daily
Most homesteaders know they work hard every day, whether it's weeding the garden, feeding turkeys, or cleaning coops, you're busy. The thing is when you're busy all the time it seems normal. The problem is that your normal and other people's normal are not the same. I took a weekend trip a year ago with my boyfriend. We thought it would be fine, just 2 nights away camping with some friends. At the time we didn't have to worry about someone watching our dogs so that was one less thing to worry about (lucky for us, our parents are both very attached to our dogs so it's no issue for them to go stay with "grandma and grandpa" from time to time). We had 12 laying hens, 2 rabbits, and 23 meat chickens at the time. To us, the daily chores were nothing. We had to feed and water everyone in the morning. In the evenings, we had to move the meat chicken tractor and top off everyone's food and water. Sounds pretty easy right?
I asked my sister to handle the morning shifts and my brother to handle Saturday evening (we planned to leave Friday night so I figured we could handle the animals then, and return Sunday night so no need for anyone to come by then either). I felt completely confident in this arrangement until I began typing out instructions. Neither my brother or sister knew anything about caring for my animals and I found myself wondering "is it common knowledge how to dump and refill a chicken waterer?" or "they'd know the difference between rabbit food and chicken food, right?". I ended up typing up a 4 page (yes 4 page) instructional manual with pictures of everything. I found myself writing things like "turn the white part of the chicken waterer counter-clockwise to release it from the base". I thought "when the hell did this get so complicated?". It wasn't complicated to me but I bet it was to them so I proceeded with finishing my manual. (Side note, before I adopted the farm life I used to pet sit as a side hustle. I often found myself searching for things like the dog's food or it's collar before resorting to calling the homeowner and finding out it's "obviously" under the sink or whatnot. So, I appreciate when people are crystal clear about where things are or how they work when you're taking care of their animals.)
We set off Friday night for our trip and I felt pretty good about leaving our animals. My sister called me after she visited our animals on Saturday morning to report everything went well. She had also been smart enough to stop by a few days before we left to go over everything in person, unlike my brother. He didn't have time to stop by and assured me he could handle it, no problem. Sure enough, I got a call from my brother around 7:30 pm Saturday night and he was obviously frustrated. He didn't read any of the directions I had left him and was basically in a cluster-F of a situation. The first line of my "manual" read, "whatever you do, don't let the hens out of the coop because you won't be able to get them back in there before dark". The first thing he did was walk over to the coop and open the door. He left it open while he removed their waterer and feeder and just let them all pour out. We typically let our hens out every morning so the fact that no one let them out until Saturday evening probably made them feel like they were escaping Alcatraz. My brother went on to complain that when he attempted to move our meat chicken tractor he accidentally ran over one of the chickens. He thought it was fine but he said he was frustrated that they didn't know to move with him as he yanked it across the grass. I mean…they're chickens, no one said they were bright. All and all he completed everything that needed to be done, in the most time consuming and difficult way possible.
Our trip was cut short due to a sudden drop in the temperature and onset of heavy cold rain. We got back to the homestead after 10 pm on Saturday night (being gone just over 24 hours) and I immediately went out to check on our animals. Everyone was okay except the laying hens at no water…zero, which didn't even seem possible to me. Upon further inspection, I realized that my brother had somehow hung the waterer on an angle and all the water poured onto the floor of the coop. Since it had only been a few hours since he was there, I thought "ok no big deal". However, the more I thought about it, had we not come home early, those birds would have been without water for over 24 hours and depending on the temperature I could have come home to dead hens.
Why do I tell you this long-winded story? Because we were only gone 1 day, with trusted family members taking care of our animals, armed with a complete "farm animals for dummies manual" including pictures, and I still barely dodged coming home to dead animals. Entrusting someone else with your farm is a huge leap of faith and it why it's so hard to vacation. I'm also not saying my brother intentionally mishandled anything on my homestead, it was just simply way more work than he was expecting.
Does this mean I can never go anywhere again? Not necessarily
Farmers can and do sometimes travel but it's not as easy as dropping your dog off at a kennel and heading to the airport. Here are some things to consider.
I've found the ideal person to watch my homestead, now what?
So, you've found and vetted the perfect homestead-watcher? That's great! Be sure to treat them well and pay them handsomely. Also, be sure to go over the below checklist before handing them your keys to ensure a smooth transition as you skip off to your vacation.
Vacationing while homesteading is possible, it's just not easy. The trade-off is that you will probably enjoy homesteading so much you won't crave a getaway like you did in the past. I sometimes think about how nice it would be to take a weeklong beach vacation, and perhaps someday we will, but for the most part, there is always something exciting happening right here on the homestead that I couldn't imagine missing. To me, homesteading has allowed me to create a life I don't need a vacation from and with any luck it will do that for you as well.