Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy New Year's!

Happy 2012! 
Our biggest news around here is the addition of a new-to-us truck! 
1999(.5) F250 7.3l diesel 6 speed Lariat 4x4
I've been wanting a truck like this for a very long time, and as luck would have it we found one for a very reasonable price over Christmas. The mileage was low and the truck in good condition so we made the decision to bring it home. I am super excited about it, and pleased it averaged over 19 mpg on the trip back even with 75 concrete building blocks in the back that we got free, more raised beds! (That's why the back looks a little low).
Here is my other exciting news. The other day, on a pretty warm afternoon I took a chance and peeked in the bee hives to see if the bees were making use of the I sugar I gave them (Post: mid-december part 2 emergency feeding). The larger colony was active but did not seem to be using the sugar. That made we wonder if they were snubbing my attempts to help them. I have read that if the conditions are not right, the bees will take the sugar out of the hive and dump it in a house cleaning effort. Then I opened the smaller colony.

Pictured is the smaller colony, eating the sugar. This made we very happy because it showed they are making use of the sugar and are very active. I am convinced without this help they would be starving now. I am hoping  that the larger colony is still using their honey stores and will use the sugar when they need it.
Also, I signed up for a beekeeping course at the Life Long Learning Center in Missoula this January, so I'm looking forward to that. This is my first attempt at any organized beekeeping education, so I'll keep you posted on the good stuff I pick up.  
That's all my news. Hope everybody has a great New Years and the coming year is even better than the last!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mid December - Part 2: Emergency feeding

As promised, here is my mid December update on the honey bees.
Like I mentioned in the last post: Mid December part 1, I was looking into my options for feeding the bees to keep them from starving. Both of our colonies came from swarms this summer ( Blog post: A Bee Adventure ) one being vacuumed out of the ceiling and the other captured from a neighbor's fence post. Which meant we had very little time for them to build up their honey stores for this winter. Since then I have fed them sugar syrup to help them get this far, but now that it's winter the time for syrup has passed. I  learned about two emergency feeding options: sugar cakes and dry sugar. I was leaning towards the dry sugar option because it sounded easier and I liked the notion that the sugar would help absorb the condensation in the hive. So armed with my 25# bag of sugar, some newspaper and hive tools I headed out today to check the hives.    
What I found was that both hives are alive but in need of help. This (above) is the stronger of the two colonies, what you are looking at is the top of the ball of bees that makes up the colony in the frames of comb. The weather on this day was cloudy, about 30 degrees F. and calm. The bees were active but not flying.
Honey bees can't survive long when exposed to the direct cold so I tried to work quickly. I removed the old syrup feeders since they aren't able to make use of them any more (the bees can't move far enough away from the colony to get at it).  I also took off the upper deep boxes and replaced them with medium boxes. It would have been even better to use shallow boxes, but I don't have any.  Then I placed newspaper over the frames and piled on the sugar.

This is what it looked like after I piled on as much sugar as I could without it dumping over the edges. Like I mentioned, the moisture in the hive will get absorbed by the sugar creating a large cake that the bees can eat for months. The idea is that the sugar is close enough to the colony that the bees can get at it without getting too cold.
That's my hope anyway, because opening the hive is stressful on the bees so I don't plan on opening them again for quite a while. While I was scooping the sugar in, one bee took the opportunity for a "cleansing flight". She flew up in the air to pee/poop and returned to the hive. I was reminded of the amazing ability of the honey bee to hold their waste for months at a time.    
This is what our hives look like now. The bees are living totally in the bottom brood boxes, the medium boxes on top are there only to make room for the sugar (we painted the boxes with left over paint from the chicken coop, but I kind of like the color scheme). The entrance reducers have been on in the middle position for a while now. I may have reduced them to the smallest opening today, but the reducers were swelled by moisture and frozen firmly in place. The only other winter prep I have been considering is a wind break, but haven't gotten to it. Luckily we've had a mild winter and no big wind storms so far.

I read in one of my bee books that the first step to successful beekeeping is keeping the bees. So with that in mind, I am doing my best to not be a bee looser. I just hope my best is enough.
I'll leave you with a view of the lower Clark Fork Valley and Plains, that I took today while hiking with our dogs. This was after I accidentally spooked a herd of Bighorn Sheep. Some days I am in awe of the beauty surrounding us.
Merry Christmas and Happy new Year!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Mid December- Part 1: An Egg update

So what's going on around here the week before Christmas?
After adjusting to the newness of snow, the chickens are doing really well and enjoy getting out in the yard every chance they get. One of us goes out every morning around sun-up to check the girls and open the coop, and by that time they are very ready to be up and about. The cold doesn't seem to bother them a bit, only the really windy days keep them cooped up. We've opened up the chicken run to the garden and they really like pecking and scratching around and in the garden beds.
The coop is a much calmer place since we removed the two other roosters, these days it's downright pleasant. The hens are laying about a dozen eggs a day thanks to the heat lamp which keeps them warm and lighted despite the cold short days. Some people say that the hens need a break in the winter, but we've yet to read a good reason for that and ours seem to be doing fine. We did notice that there were very few hens using the upper boxes, so we added a perch to give them a place to climb in. That seems to have fixed the problem for the most part.
We collect eggs once or twice a day, often reaching under the hens to get them. The hens are generally agreeable to this, although at times one will let you know she's not happy with a sharp peck.
Selling the eggs is going very well too.  Thank you very much to everybody that has bought eggs from us! Lately we've been able to buy chicken feed and scratch using the egg money which was a goal of ours. 
 As near as I can tell, the honey bees are wintering well also. I check them every few days by putting my ear to the box and giving it a quick tap. The bees buzz in response and then go back to their business. What is their business? Keeping the queen warm! The colony forms a tight ball and everybody works together to make heat. The ball moves gradually as the bees consume honey for energy and cycle from the inside to the outside of the ball. Both colonies have access to sugar syrup, but the consumption has gone way down since the fall. Since it's hard for the bees to move far this time of year, I need to switch from the syrup to sugar cakes or dry sugar feeding for the winter. I need to check on them, but hesitate to open the hives because exposure to the cold can kill them. In a well established hive there is enough honey that you don't need to feed, but mine are not that well prepared since we got a late start. 
 Feeding sugar cakes involves making hard sugar rich patties and placing them in the hive, while feeding dry sugar can be done by placing newspaper on the frames and pouring a few pounds of sugar on newspaper. The humidity in the hive will cause the sugar to harden and form a cake.
 I found a very good beekeeping blog with lots of pictures and how to's at These guys keep a very neat blog devoted to beekeeping in St. John's, Newfoundland. I am encouraged by reading about their success in a climate worse than mine. Last year they made and fed sugar cakes and I may need to do the same.
Also, has a good (lengthy) USDA text explanation of winter feeding at

I'll keep you posted on my bee's progress and what I decide to do about feeding.
Until then, Happy Holidays to everybody, Merry Christmas, keep warm and stay safe. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thanksgiving and early December

This year for Thanksgiving we traveled to California to visit my family at my childhood home, the GHJ Tree Farm . It was wonderful seeing everybody and spending time together. 

The weather was fantastic and we had a blast playing outside.

While we were there, it was fun to help sell trees with my Dad. His is a choose and cut operation where families come and pick a tree to cut and take home. For many of the costomers this is a long standing tradition they love. I grew up on the tree farm and that experience is  probably where my interest in Forestry stems from. These trees are planted and cared for for years all with the purpose of someday being chosen to light up someone's holiday.  

Back here in Plains we have a few traditions of our own. We're lucky enough to live in a place where you can choose and cut a Christmas tree off of public land with a permit. Removing trees of this size from areas that are actively regenerating improves the conditions for the rest of the trees in the stand. This year's tree is a beauty!

Whitney really enjoys sewing and quilting in the winter and recently completed this baby blanket.

She made this for some friends of ours who are expecting their first baby soon. 

What would December be with out football? This year the UM Grizzlies are again in the FCS playoffs and doing very well. Maybe it's a championship year? Whit made this sign and did manage to get on ESPN, but only for an instant. 
Hope everybody out there is having a good December. Until next time, Kyle and Whitney.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Filling the Freezer

Whitney and I don't take butchering lightly. It is an important part of the fall, securing the meat that we'll use for the next year, and beyond. Very little gets given away and only to people who appreciate what goes into preparing it.
Why do we Hunt? the plain and simple reason is for meat. Yes, there are many other reasons too, like: recreation, commrodery, exploring new areas and excercise, but you can do all that with out killing animals. Likewise, you can eat meat your whole life and never kill anything personally(this is a subject for a whole different conversation). To me, a true hunter places just as much importance on the meat as he does the trophy. That said, I enjoy a large rack as much as the next guy, but never at the expense of the meat.
For that reason, we clean our meat to a point some people find ridiculous. Many guys I know claim to be able to process 5 or more deer in a day. It takes us a full day to process one animal. However, many people I know also claim venison is gamey, tough and a struggle to eat. In comparison many people we have served venison had no idea it wasn't store bought beef until they were told. We also aim to get every ounce of meat we can from the animals we kill, honoring the animal's sacrafice as much as possible.
Clean meat starts with a clean shot. It continues through dressing and caring for the animal in the field and proper handling at home. We always strive to kill on the first shot, although at times it takes more. In her four animals to date, Whitney has yet to shoot any more than once, always hitting a vital spot. I can't claim this impressive achievement myself, but most of mine fall to one shot, and I have yet to loose a wounded animal. I don't write this as a boast, simply to point out that good stalking before the shot, and followup after are a part of hunting that should never be down-played. A long range or unsure shot that wounds an animal is far less impressive than a long sneek ending in a good shot and clean kill.
All of our game gets hung for seven to ten days, allowing the meat to pass completely through rigor mortis and begin to age slightly. I have skinned animals "hot" before aging and "cold" after the aging. The only real difference I have found is that skinning hot is much easier. It does dry more meat than cold skinning, but use of a game bag to cover the carcass can help keep in the moisture.
The pictures below are from a recent weekend of butchering. We had our good friends Mac and Alyssa over, the Montana State Bobcat Vs. University of Montana Griz rivalry game on the tube, and two bucks to keep us busy. The following is our style of butchering. It is not the only way and I can't say it is the best way, just our way.

Mule deer hind quarter
    The first thing I did was go out to the barn and separate the front quarters from the hanging carcass. We start with the fronts, then the backstraps (loins), neck and ribs and end with the hind quarters. The pieces were brought in and cleaned completely of hair. Next the dark dried out meat was trimmed off and the muscle groups separated from the bone. Venison fat is not enjoyable to eat, it taints the flavor of the meat and ruins the cut. All fat, tendon and sinew gets trimmed completely.
cutting trimmed meat into usable pieces
 Once the muscle is totally cleaned, it gets cut and sorted into various products. We aren't big on roasts, so we don't wrap any. We have found that it is much more enjoyable to pull packages from the freezer that are 100% ready to go, so nothing gets wrapped until it's totally ready. As our friend Alyssa pointed out, we tend to do the work upfront, while some people put off the final trimming until it's time to cook. That's just a personal preference.
the sort top to bottom: meat to grind, jerky strips, steaks.
One product we really enjoy eating is venison jerky. This year I applied for and filled an extra tag, just so that we'd have extra meat to devote to things like jerky and sausage. Otherwise we would have been using steak or stew meat for jerky. In this photo you can see how we sort the meat: bits to grind all the way down to good steaks (stew chunks aren't pictured). In the middle are strips that we'll dry into jerky. These are cut with the grain of the meat as opposed to steaks and stew chunks that are cut across the grain.

Once the meat is cut and sorted, it's time to wrap. This usually falls to Whit, while I keep cutting. First the meat is arranged on plastic wrap, in groups of like cuts one to two pounds at a time. The plastic is wrapped up and all the air is pushed out.  

Then, the package is placed on freezer paper and wrapped again. This double wrapping has never failed us, even with meat staying in the freezer for more that two years at time. However, you should aim to use the meat within a year.

 Finally, the date and cut is written on the package. We also name our deer and write it on the package. This sounds odd at first maybe, but it is a simple way to remember what deer it was and recall the hunt.
At the end of the day, the packages were loaded into the freezer and the jerky strips were loaded into the dehydrator. The meat for grinding was stockpiled in tubs and frozen, waiting for a day this winter when we'll make burger and sausages (future blog post?).
The Griz beat the Cats soundly, making it a good day all around. Thanks very much to Mac for help with the cutting and taking these great pictures.