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Unprepared Farm: May 2023
Gardens good, chickens not so much.
It’s been forever since I’ve updated you on what’s going on with our small farm. Let’s take a look at it in this unusually chilly May in Tennessee.
Let’s start off with what’s going well. We have six raised beds and my goal this year is to actually use them the entire season. So far, that’s a success. In five of those beds I’m growing:
The sixth bed is a bit of a problem. It’s a four-inch-tall bed that I had filled with compost that has since vanished into the ether. Unfortunately, the soil underneath is still rock-hard. So I’ve sown it with daikon radish in the hopes that they’ll break up the soil.
If you’ve never grown daikon radishes, they can grow up to a foot deep, even through hard, rocky soil. They’re essential for kimchi, but it’s also a good utility seed to keep around.
I’m going to try to grow daikons in that bed, and if that doesn’t loosen things up, I’m going to dump composted wood chips into the bed in the fall and coat them with a heavy amount of blood meal. Blood meal—which is just dried and powdered animal blood—is a rich natural source of nitrogen, which is not only good for green plant growth but also for fueling the microorganisms that eat carbon.
Two rules of gardening are: always be growing and always think one season ahead. To that point, my humble plastic greenhouse is full of over 30 tomato plants, a few hot pepper plants, plus heat-tolerant broccoli and lettuce along with basil, cilantro, and parsley. I started those a bit late this year, but it’s been an unusually cold spring so I’m optimistic that I wasn’t too late.
Very important last point: you have to actually harvest what you grow. I have a bad habit of leaving cold-weather crops in the ground until they bolt in the heat and become inedible. So I’m making salads. Eat your food before nature does.
I have heat-tolerant lettuce growing in the greenhouse, and if I time it right, I can promptly swap them out to keep the salads coming.
I’ve had to replace a couple of my breeding rabbits. I decided to put Grandpa—a very old buck—in the crock pot (he was delicious) and we replaced him with Gandalf, an enormous buck we purchased from our friends at Groundwell Fluffery.
Tillie, a two-year-old doe, had developed some kind of wasting disease. Economically, it was cheaper to replace her than take her to the vet, so that’s what I did, again with a new doe from Groundwell. The kids named her Luna.
So the breeding lineup right now is:
Jane (older doe)
Millie (older doe, sister of Tillie)
Luna (new doe)
Ted and Jane are probably on their way out. Poor Ted keeps getting ear mites, and I’m trying to treat them with ear drops, but honestly, Gandalf is doing so well that I’m not sure I want to feed the extra mouth. Jane isn’t fond of “putting out” and she’s a lousy mother who has lost more than one litter to neglect. Gandalf bred her, but she only produced two kits, so once they’re weaned I think she’s headed for the pot.
If that seems harsh, keep in mind that rabbit food isn’t cheap. Every unproductive rabbit is taking money from my kids.
However, Millie and Luna are doing great. They have each produced litters of eight with Gandalf. So right now I have eight bunnies in the grow-out cage, eight more with Luna, and two with Jane.
Unfortunately, three of my younger rabbits are showing signs of the “snuffles,” a cute name for a potentially deadly bacterial infection. Two have goopy eyes and another is sneezing. I’ve separated them from the rest of the rabbits and I’m waiting to get them to a vet so I can get antibiotics for the entire colony.
Normally, I’d just cull them, but if snuffles is spreading through my rabbits, it puts the entire colony at risk.
Good news: my chicken feed bills have gone down considerably. Bad news: that’s because a family of raccoons picked off my flock from 18 to 4. Good news: I’m getting more eggs than I was when I had 18.
The truth is, the chickens are a bit of a disaster. I had a great system with the chicken tractors. Yeah, the birds were tightly confined, but I moved them to fresh grass regularly and they were safe from predators.
Then I decided to give them more room to breathe. I invested hundreds in an electric net fence. Unfortunately, those incredibly popular fences are not very hardy. Over time, the solar charger clouded up, the net is easily damaged, and it’s also easily rendered useless by grass.
So I ended up being lazy, and just letting the fence sit around as a psychological barrier for the chickens, which worked great for a long time until the raccoons came in.
More on the raccoons and how I defeated them in a future post.
The other problem is a lack of time. I hatched several birds last spring with the intention of killing the roosters for meat. But processing chickens is a big job and I never got around to it. So I had too many roosters, which meant the poor hens were getting abused constantly and thus not putting out eggs.
The Lord had mercy on his slothful servant and sent the raccoons to alleviate the problem, and ironically enough I now get many more eggs with three hens than I did with ten.
So the plan is to kill my one lone rooster, raise up more hens, and then put them in a tractor. But I’m not in a hurry.
Here’s another mess. I planted several trees on top of my hill, but I just don’t have time to make the trek up there. I planted one solo dwarf apple behind my building, and it’s slowly coming along. However, the grapes I planted along my barbed-wire fence are doing well. At least, the cheap ones I bought from Tractor Supply are, even if they desperately need to be weeded.
Raspberries (again from Tractor Supply) continue to sprout in my yard, and I hope to have a bountiful harvest once it warms up. Much of the comfrey I planted has vanished, but I still have enough around for medicinal purposes. Again, more to say in a future post.
Time Is of the Essence
The key limiting factor in my farm operations isn’t money or effort, but time. I just don’t have enough hours in the week to maintain things like I should or build new things. I have a half-finished water collection system in the back of my building, along with other lingering projects. I need to take down the electric net and rethink my chicken housing, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day. I’m also pushing 40 and despite my best efforts at staying healthy, I’m very much starting to feel it.
Other than being gentler with myself, I’ve decided to outsource some things. I now pay a couple to mow my yard. The family loves how neat the outside is now and I can focus on more pressing matters. It’s well worth the $70 per month.
Long term, I’m hoping to streamline all the various gigs I have into something more cohesive so I’m not pulled in a dozen different directions.