Tuesday, May 15, 2018

May harvesting in Upper Michigan

One of my favorite homesteading books has a section in which it tells, month by month, what wild foods are available to foragers. I've been doing a little harvesting this month, and I thought I would share a little about what's available. I live in the southern part of upper Michigan., in Menominee County. We have rather cold winters here, but my grandmother always said that compared to Marquette Michigan, we were in the banana belt. 

Stinging nettle 

One of the nice things about having a permaculture, eat-the-weeds attitude about life is that the moment of the snow melts there are things the harvest. One of the main things around my farm is stinging nettle. I planted it from seed in an herb garden, but now it is spread all over the place, often in places I don't want it, like the stinging nettle pictured above,  which is right in the gateway, so I get stung when I try to tie the gate shut.

I could have harvested my first stinging nettle a few days after our last snow storm, but I waited a few weeks to give it time to grow to more convenient size for harvest. I wore gloves of course. I picked about a bucket full of small stinging nettle, about 3 to 4 inches. That about filled up most of my dehydrator trays. Dried stinging nettle makes a good tea, broth, or an addition to soups or stews.

I also plan to pick a lot more stinging nettles, Cook them and freeze them. They make a good substitute for cooked spinach. I use the recipe for low carb creamed spinach, and substitute stinging nettle. I then use the creamed nettle to make eggs Florentine. As it is spring, I also have a lot of eggs.

I have also transplanted some stinging nettle to my forest garden. This will give me another edible perennial plant there.


When I first moved out to the farm, I purchased 12 comfrey roots. It grew well, and though the original plot was eradicated, I had transplanted some here and there, and currently have a plot that grows in the shade of a Boxelder tree.

The comfrey is also coming up now, and yesterday I harvested some tender leaves for a cooked vegetable. Like stinging nettle, it is a good substitute for spinach.


I also found a lot of dandelion flowers in my lawn. I picked quite a few, and into the dehydrator they went. They make a good tea, and they can be added to French toast and pancake batters. There is an article to that effect in the latest Backwoodsman magazine. Dandelion roots can also be harvested, and both roots and flowers are medicinal.


If you look closely at the picture, you may be able to see the young asparagus shoots. I currently have two asparagus patches. One is the purple passion asparagus that I planted myself. The other is a bed of asparagus that I only discovered in recent years. It has survived in spite of being totally neglected for the past 30 years or so. I'm trying to clear the weeds from both patches this year so that I can have a better harvest next year. I also have a very tiny bit of asparagus growing in my forest garden. It is of the purple passion variety, but I plan to move that bit of the of asparagus back to the patch near the house, and grow an heirloom variety in the forest garden.

And that is what I have been harvesting lately. Is anything ready for harvesting in your area? Let me know.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Doc: Replacing the Irreplaceable Ram

This winter we lost our favorite (and only) ram, Doc. He wasn't perfect--- as you can see, his horns were too close together--- wider spacing is preferable. He was 1/2 Katahdin and 1/2 Shetland. He sired a whole bunch of lambs for me across several years to the point that my current ewe flock consists almost entirely of his daughters. Yes, he became a bit of a genetic bottleneck and urgently needed replacement!

This is Doc's sire, Igor. He was a nearly fullblood Katahdin. I had been experimenting with crossbreeding my Shetlands with hair sheep to spare myself the chore of collecting the wool I had no market for. At first I tried White Dorpers, but those rams are expensive and not locally available. So I thought of Katahdins. I looked on Craigslist and a lady who lived near Iron Mountain was giving her old Katahdin ram away. So I picked him up, changed his original name of Eeyore to Igor, and used him on my flock. In addition to Doc, he sired a number of daughters whose bloodline lives on in our flock.

Doc's mom was Romana, a purebred and registered Shetland ewe. This is not a picture of Romana. Romana had no horns. This was Romana's mother, Piroschka, a wonderful ewe who lived many years and who is probably the reason so many of Doc's daughters have horns. Shetland blood adds friendliness and hardiness to the mix.

This is a picture of Doc as a lamb, along with his year-mate and uncle, Bela, a son of Piroschka, who made no mark on the flock at all due to dying young.

The question is, how to replace him? He combined the two breeds I wanted for my crossbred flock, Shetland and Katahdin. The only way is to replace him with two new rams--- one a Katahdin and one a Shetland.

This isn't going to be easy. The Katahdin would ideally be a color other than white. For the Shetland, I'd want a moorit (brown), ideally, since I have no moorits left. The Shetland would have to be horned, and, best case, be the son of a horned ewe. If not, I'd want to get a horned ewe lamb to revive my pure Shetland line.

Some of Doc's horned ewe daughters

Monday, April 23, 2018

How to Grow Stinging Nettle for Food

Last week we had a blizzard, today we have our first veggies of spring coming up. By next Sunday we should have some ready to harvest. The vegetable in question is stinging nettle, which is cooked like spinach but is more nutritious.

This is how I got started with stinging nettle: I bought seeds for it from Richters Herb catalog.  I planted it in the perennials section of my then-garden and it came up very well. In the next few years the plant spread--- like a weed, which is what some people think it is. And it is a good thing that it spread. When I got Pilgrim geese, they pretty much chewed the original nettle bed down to the dirt.

Stinging nettle stings when you touch it with your bare hand. So most people use gloves when they handle it. Except my Serbian friends who pluck a leaf with their bare hands and eat it raw to show how tough they are. I've eaten a few leaves that way myself, but it's better when you either cook it as a green veggie or dry it for a tea.

As a tea I felt it tasted more like a broth, so I think it would be great in soups. As a cooked veggie it can be used in any recipe for spinach. Both cooking and drying take away the sting of nettle.

It's also great as livestock feed. Full of vitamins. Just cut some and let it dry. Great for goats and sheep. And when I am trying to eradicate stinging nettle from the places I DON'T want it, I throw a plant of nettle, roots and all, into the nearest chicken pen. They eat it like candy.

I've always felt like a failure as a gardener, so this year I decided to turn one of the nettle patches I have anyway into a semi-cultivated veggie patch. Of course my best patch is located in an alleyway between my sheep pens, but I decided it wasn't too inconvenient.

This is what the bed looked like when I got started. You can see the dried stalks of the nettle plants, as well as one of the cats walking through the picture. I removed the old dried stalks and raked the bed to remove all the trash and dried grass from the new nettle bed.

Next step is to find other nettle patches that still have the seed heads dried on the top and gather them. There are some bare patches in the nettle bed, and I plan to cultivate the soil bare-spots and scatter a little of the nettle seed.

I'm also preparing a new nettle patch in my 'forest garden.'  I've raked up an area and plan to transplant one nettle plant. I am also going to scatter a little nettle seed around the transplanted nettle. I'm not digging up the soil or anything. The stinging nettle seems able to compete with other plants quite well.

When the harvest begins, I am going to dry a supply for tea and for adding to soups, and I'm going to freeze some for use as a spinach-substitute. Now, I never ate cooked spinach or any other kind of cooked green growing up. I just never learned to like cooked greens. But I found some good recipes for cooked spinach that add other ingredients other than just spinach and cooking water, and I'm going to test them with nettles.

Harvesting: The best nettle is the young plants a few inches high in early spring. But you can also harvest the tender leaves from the top later in the year. Or any leaves. One cup of cooked nettle has 6.6 grams of carbs, so don't eat superlarge portions if you are on a ketogenic/low-carb diet. Nutrition facts on stinging nettle. 

Nettle growing links:
Stinging nettle growing guide
Stinging Nettle: Harvesting, Processing and Recipes 
Permaculture Plants: Stinging Nettle

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Sprouting Wheat for winter chicken feed

Winter can be hard on chickens and other poultry, especially if they are used to grazing in portable pens during most of the year. Wheat sprouts are a kind of green food supplement you can make at home to give your chickens and other poultry extra nutrition.

I use the same Victorio brand sprouters, pictured above, that I use for sprouting alfalfa and mixed seeds for myself during the winter and at other times. I have about 3 sets of the sprouters, which seems to be enough for now.

For the chickens my goal is to have 2 trays of the sprouts getting mature each day. I use recleaned wheat, bought at the feed mill, as my sprouting seed. I have used this wheat for years, both for poultry feed and for myself. Recleaned wheat sprouts very well, right from the bag.

I soak about 1/4 cup of dry seed for each tray I want to sprout. I use 1/2 pint canning jars for the soaking. I put the lids on when soaking so that if the cats knock a jar over it won't ruin the soaking seeds. I have a small plastic shelving unit in my kitchen for my sprouting operation. The top two shelves of the 4-ft. tall unit are left undisturbed by my house cats. Usually.

Wheat seed needs to soak for about 8 hours but can go as long as 12 or 14 hours. But if you forget about the soaking seed for a couple of days, it will ferment and won't sprout. But all is not lost. Fermented feed is also a healthy thing for your poultry.

Wheat is sprouted about 4 days for human use, as in sprouted wheat bread. It goes as long as 10 days for wheatgrass (which is normally sprouted in a tray of soil.) For poultry feed use, it can start being used at 4 days, but I think 5 or 6 days is better.

When feeding day comes, each Victorio tray will produce a disk of sprouts and wheat grains held together by the roots. If you put the whole disk before your chickens, one chicken will grab it and run off to eat it by herself. The rest of the flock will chase her. As entertaining as that is, to get a bit of sprouts into as many birds as possible, pull off small bits, about 1 tablespoon in size, and place them into a feeder. Chickens will still grab them and run, but more will get a chance at it.

Suburban poultry keepers with a flock of 3-5 laying hens or ducks can share out a sprout disk with their tiny flock and really give them a good green dose. If your flock is around 15-20 birds, you may want to sprout in greater quantity.

What about sprouting in 1/2 gallon canning jars with a plastic sprouting lid? It's possible and I may try it when my flock gets more accustomed to their daily green feed, because increasing the number of Victorio trays too much would just get to be too much work. I do like the Victorio trays better when sprout quantity is not an issue.

What makes wheat sprouts better than plain wheat? Sprouting a grain or seed makes it more vitamin and mineral rich, and makes it easier to digest. The water content of sprouts is also helpful, especially in winter when confined birds might be getting less water due to waterers freezing.

I currently have only chickens and one turkey in my flock, but plan to expand to ducks and Pilgrim geese this year--- I already have them ordered. They should benefit from sprouts as well. Since geese supposedly can live on grass alone, without grain, they would probably do very well overwintering with sprouts in their diet.

I keep records on my current sprouting experiments in a farm diary, where I write down interesting facts such as animals' hatchings, births and deaths, and things like how much hay my sheep are using and how many of them there are currently. I will be blogging any information gained, and any success with sprouting other seeds.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Doc, a Katahdin/Shetland cross ram

This is Doc, a ram we've been using on our crossbreds for a few years. His dad was a Katahdin, and his mom was part Shetland and part White Dorper.

The special thing about Doc is that a lot of his daughters turned out to be horned ewes. I do have some horned Shetland ewes, but Doc's mom was not one of them. But his daughters certainly have the trait, and many of his offspring have his black/white coloring.

Here is another picture of him. I might mention that his horns are kind of close-set. In my purebred Shetlands I usually prefer wider-set horns.

Another picture of Doc. I'm going to have to be selling him soon. Most of his daughters will also be going. I'm planning to downsize my sheep herd bigtime this year. I hope I will be able to sell most of the for-sale sheep before the snow flies.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

You need to identify your chickens: Wing Bands and Leg Bands

Keeping chickens? If you have several members of your flock that are the same breed, sex, and color variety, you have the problem of telling them apart. Maybe one of your identical chickens has lost a toe, or another is friendlier than the rest. But that's not enough. You need to be able to tell your chickens apart as individuals. For that, you need wing bands.

I have been using wing bands for some years now. For a while I had 3 purebred Buff Brahma roosters and 2 or 3 crossbred roos I was keeping for various reasons. Then I had some roos die.

The spring after I noticed one of my 3 purebred Brahma roos was beating up the others. I checked wing bands and I found out the mean rooster wasn't one of my purebreds after all, but a half-Brahma crossbred. He must have inherited his feisty nature from the other half of the cross--- pure Brahmas are very gentle, and often can't be raised in the same brooder as other, more aggressive breeds.

Wing bands are a permanent identification solution. For years I used metal tags--- I think the brand was 'Hasco' which were sent to me by the government as official government ear tags. But they gave my sheep and goats ear infections and most had to be removed. But they worked fine for chicken and duck wing bands.

Since I'm all but out of those I purchased some Jiffy bands, which come in several colors. They are lighter in weight and I don't suppose are as good for tagging adult animals newly acquired. But they can be used to tag chicks once they reach about a month old or so.

I originally kept my list of chickens and their wing band numbers on scraps of paper kept in the plastic tool box where I kept the boxes of bands and their applicator.  But now that I'm more serious about breeding rare breed chickens, I have a binder with pages and different breed groups are listed on different pages.

Wing bands are grand, but you can't see the wing bands unless you catch the bird. I use spiral leg bands also. My current system: purebred birds of the breeds I am breeding have color of wing band based on their breed. For Chanteclers, that is brown. Birds also have a second band on that leg to indicate their year of hatch.

I use the same system of year colors that I use for my sheep/goat ear tags, based on the Australian system. Here are the colors for the next few years:

White: 2017
Orange: 2018
Green: 2019
Purple: 2020
Yellow: 2021
Red: 2022
Blue: 2023
Black: 2024

And then you start over with white. The advantage of this is when birds get older you can identify which group to round up to make the management decision on which breeder birds get sold, which get made into chicken soup, and which get to stay and breed on your farm for another year.

Another reason it's good to be able to identify your hens individually--- hens go broody. That's a good thing because they can brood chicks, but you don't want them broody too often. If they are banded, when you see a broody hen on the nest, just check her number. In her official records, write the word 'broody' and the date. I raise breeds that are known for having broodies. If a hen goes broody too often, I wouldn't want to use her as a breeder because I don't want to breed too much broodiness into the line. But I do want birds that go broody sometimes. It's nice to keep accurate records, so you can make informed decisions about things like that!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

My Latest and Greatest Eartagging System

Thank goodness for Premier 1 supplies! That firm has a good number of styles, colors and shapes of eartags for sheep and other critters. Which enables me to come up with new eartagging systems every few years.

Currently I use 2 eartags in each lamb's ears, in case of tag loss. About 2 years ago I decided that the tag in the RIGHT ear should be in the system used in Australia--- they have 8 different colors of ear tags that indicate the year. https://www.agric.wa.gov.au/livestock-biosecurity/nlis-and-identification-sheep

This year is WHITE in the system. Next year will be ORANGE. In Australia where the government forces you to use the system you can tell the age of a sheep by the ear tag. For the number, I use a letter plus numbers. This year's letter is G, and all or nearly all of lambs that get names will begin with G. I've been naming sheep alphabetically since I started and have gone through the alphabet once. Well, I quit at Y and started again with E or something like that. Not sure why I skipped some letters. It's fun every year to go through name books and dictionaries to make the official list of names with the right letter.

The LEFT ear tag indicates breed--- whether purebred Shetland or crossbred with hair sheep (Dorper or Katahdin).

white = single
yellow= twin
salmon =  triplet or better

spearmint = single
lime green = twin
green = triplet or better

In the Premier 1 catalog they say that they also use tags to indicate male or female. They put the 'main' tag in the right ear for males and left ear for females. I tried that, several tagging systems ago. It doesn't work for me. I always get a few males or females tagged wrong.

What I'm thinking of doing is this: I have a supply of tag pens. I thought I could make a mark with the tag pen on the male lamb's RIGHT ear tag--- the one that indicates the year. Tag pen marks don't last that long, but by the time the male sheep is old enough that the mark will have faded, you can tell he's a boy just by looking. I might also write the lamb's name on the inside of the tag, where the writing will be sheltered from sunlight.

I've also thought about adding a seventh color to the LEFT ear tag system--- gray to indicate male lambs which have been wethered and are going for meat.

As for the official government scrapie tags, when I started this new system I was not going to use them until the sheep was sold. That's what they do at Premier, according to their catalog. But at Premier they have a lot of help, and they have a sheep handling system. I don't have the help, and my 'sheep handling system' is a shed. I chase small groups into the shed to catch them in a small stall where I can grab them. So my LEFT ear tags are going to be official government Mark-of-the-Beast scrapie tags.

In my latest order of ear tags, I bought Q-flex 1.2 tags for the RIGHT ear tag and Q-flex 1.5 for the LEFT ear tag. So that even if I put the tags in the wrong ears I can tell which tag is which at a distance. Because most of my sheep don't like to come near enough for me to read the number on the tag.