Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mason bees

Mason bees are one of the 40,000+ native species of bees in North America.  Their specialty is early spring pollination, especially of fruit trees, which gives them their other name- Orchard bee.  They are small, blue-black in color and rarely sting.  Mason bees are "solitary bees," so while they nest near one another, they do not form colonies and therefor have little to defend.

These and other native bees will gladly nest in tree cavities, but they are also attracted by mason bee houses that consist of deep holes 5/16th inches in diameter.  Katherine and I lined the holes with parchment paper so that the bee cocoons can be removed and stored in the refrigerator over the winter.  

I suppose a patient person would just put out the houses and wait for the bees to find them, but that is not one of my traits.  I ordered 20 cocoons from Oregon, some of which broke dormancy during shipping, and put the rest in the crisper drawer until today!

Katherine showed no fear with our new neighbors.

I mounted the two bee houses in the shelter of the chicken house roof near the orchard.

Here is the first bee to emerge from the box of cocoons!  We have warm weather, flowering trees, and shelter so the rest is up to them. Good luck guys!

Last year's calves

Abby (front) and Asher, growing up.

Butter trials

This winter I visited the new natural foods store in Lawrence and found Super-Natural grass-fed dairy cream.  Katherine and I put it to the test by making butter (on right) and comparing it to butter made from standard store cream (circle on left) and a pat of store butter (square).  For color and flavor, the grass-fed cream made a far better product.  The yellow color corresponds to the amount of beta carotene (vitamin A).

In late February, after my first calf arrived, I milked out a half-gallon of our own Bluestem milk to see how it compared to the store-bought grass-fed cream.  The Super-Natural cream made the butter on the right, and the small bowl on the left contains Bluestem butter.  Ours was a little more yellow-orange than pasteurized cream, but the difference was not nearly so stark as between the grass-fed and standard store cream butters. 

So, if you don't have a cow of your own, I'd suggest the grass-fed cream/milk/butter.  It may just be worth the money!


I'm not always good about sharing my mistakes, but this one was pretty public in my neighborhood so here you have it! 

In February, I was so excited from talking to a woman at a grazing conference about patch burning, I thought, "I know it's been a little dry (deep drought) but I'll just try this one little match..."

 30 acres and a visit from my friendly neighborhood fire department later...

... and no more grass.

It probably serves me right since I've been getting cocky about my spring burning.  In the end, with the diligent intervention of our (free) township fire department, nothing burned but grass.  It could have been much, much worse with several neighborhood houses and barns in the path.  Thanks guys!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Scott's secret woodshed project

Scott has been wanting a woodshed.  I thought the project could wait, so he built it in the shop one day while I was distracted by baby pigs.  It was a great use of the last bits and bobs of scrap metal now that all our serious projects are done.  Much of the structural steel had to be spliced from two- and three foot pieces, but it is certainly adequate for the job of keeping our wood dry without storing it underfoot in the metal shop. 
At 11 and a half feet wide the trick was to get it out of a 12 foot door.  Not to fear- grasshopper to the rescue!  Scott rigged the building to the frame of the grasshopper like a turtle and inched it out the door,
through the yard, up the hill, and
into place.  He poured concrete around the footings and loaded in our wood before nightfall and the next day it rained.  Way to go Scott!

An other reason to eat grass-fed

Drought-weakened corn crops in our neighborhood are turning out to also be infected with aflatoxins this year.  This group of chemicals are a product of fungal infections on the drying ears.  

The problem is wide-spread enough that our local elevator is testing every load.  If the aflotoxin levels are too high, the infected corn is blended with less-infected corn to meet the FDA standard.  At $25 per test, a single 5 kernel sample is used to determine the fate of a whole semi-truck load of grain, meaning that the results could easily over- or under represent the real threat. 

The FDA limits aflatoxin contamination to 0.5 parts per million (ppm) in milk and 20 ppm in human food and animal feed.  Feedlot cattle, on the other hand, can be fed corn with up to 300 ppm as a sole ration with the idea that they will be hamburger before the cancer takes them down.  

What will become of all the infected corn?  The federal regulations won't allow it in the food supply for either people or livestock, but the ethanol plants won't take it either since their byproducts are marketed as animal feed. 

The saga of Trudy's second Bluestem litter

Trudy delivered 9 lovely babies on a chilly Tuesday, November 22.  The smallest was only interested in keeping warm and never tried for a teat so we didn't expect him to make it.  Another pig (#8) had some trouble breathing at first, but pepped up after an hour.  In all I was hoping to see her raise 7 or 8 nice pigs like the last bunch!
But with the Thanksgiving holiday and an over abundance of trust in the process, I did not spend my usual obsessive amount of time with the new family and after a few days things were not progressing as they should have.  Somehow by Friday one pig (a gilt we named "Bertha") was gaining steadily on a productive teat, and the other remaining pigs were still scrabbling over a few minimally productive teats at the milk bar.  They did not seem to have grown much and Trudy seemed to only have substantial milk in a single teat!  I don't know if the babies somehow didn't learn to suck well and the milk dried up, or if the milk dried up first and it hampered their learning to suck... All I can say is that I should have been there.  By the first night each pig should have established ownership over a teat.  Trudy did seem reluctant to stay on her side long enough for even Bertha to drink her fill, so it's possible that her mothering abilities were not kicking in this time, but she seemed in all other ways to be attentive to her brood. 
My folks were visiting for the holiday, so Mom helped with the first few days of, what we hoped would be, supplemental feedings of pig milk replacer.  Our goal was to keep the piglets' strength up while they figured things out with their mom.  Several of the litter had been crushed by Trudy as she laid with them.  The is common with hogs, but not supposed to be a problem with Guinea hogs.  I think they little ones were too weak from not eating enough to get out of the way.  We hoped to save the remaining 5 by giving them their own heated sleeping area away from Trudy.
But as the situation did not improve, we went to plan "raise the pigs in the bathtub."  This was Scott's idea, but he assures me that he was completely joking!  Still when you have to get up every three hours to feed, proximity is key!  Two of the pigs were adept at the bottle from the start, but three were still unproductive after few days.  After reading tips online, I switched everyone over to drinking milk from a dish and that did the trick.  The littlest two had trouble with scours (diarrhea) and needed two rounds of antibiotics to clear them up, but all five are healthy and living in the barn now!  Of the biggest three, Bertha will likely stay here as a breeder, and Wilbur or Nigel will be traveling to a new home in Gardener, KS to grow up to be a herd boar.
Here is Nigel at his first day of preschool at age 2 weeks and 2 days.  He and Wilbur were a hit and "hammed" it up for the crowd.  For photo credit, Katherine took this picture.

At present the 5 piglets: Bertha, Wilbur, Nigel, Annie, and Pip are 3 weeks and 5 days old, spending their days in a protected area outside, and sleeping under their heater in the barn at night.  They've been reunited with their mother and have been getting to know their older siblings.