Thursday, December 27, 2012

Made in America Christmas

We did not set out to have a totally Made in America Christmas, so it's not surprising we did not achieve it 100%, but we did come pretty darn close.
A smattering of Made in USA gifts
The picture above is some of the gifts from under our tree, all Made in America. Some of the items we bought for each other but many were given to us by family and friends.  Some are homemade, some were found at a craft fair, and some were bought at major retailers. Some were chosen because they were locally made and some were bought without any thought given to where they came from. To be honest, I didn't know how much was actually Made in America until I had the idea for this blog post and we started checking. Once we were looking we were totally surprised by the variety of goods there were.  Gift cards to local restaurants and stores, books, CD's and magazines. Soap, hand lotion, nail polish, jewelry and wool socks. Even a Tee shirt and Zumba set all Made in America. That's not counting the way cool Montana Wild Designs sign our friends made for Whitney, and the homemade goodies my sister sent.  Oh, and the baby shoes? No, we're not expecting, Whitney just couldn't resist the handmade in Montana, Honey Bee baby booties when she saw them "for our someday kids".
The point is without trying very hard we had a near completely Made in America Christmas, and in the process proved to ourselves it can be done and it's easier than you'd think. Thanks very much to our friends and family who made or purchased Made in America gifts for us this year and thanks to you all out there if you did for your family. Maybe 100% next year?

Friday, December 21, 2012

All I Want For Christmas

I don’t like to talk about politics. So instead, I’ll just tell you what I want for Christmas.

All I want for Christmas is for people to get along and work together to make our nation and world a better place. I want to see a resolution to the current financial debate in which everybody takes part and pulls their weight. I want to see the American public wake up and stop buying Made in China (Taiwan, Pakistan…) because it’s cheaper. I want to see development of domestic goods so we have good Made in America options. I want to see our country produce what we consume so that we can stop fighting wars over foreign oil interests, and get out of debt to foreign countries. I want it to be easier and cheaper to buy produce from across town than across the globe.

I want an end to political bickering and to see our country’s leaders get along, like you would expect school kids to do. I want to know that despite our ideological or religious differences we can all work together for the common good. I want to see people take responsibility for their actions and quit blaming each other, or the government for their problems. I want to see people admit when they are wrong, and get recognized when they are right.

I want a country where I am free to own the guns of my choice without threat of persecution, but where people who have no business having weapons cannot get them. I want to see people get help when it’s needed so that no person feels forced to violence as a last resort. I want to stop hearing about shootings and stabbings every day. I want to see people set aside their pride and prejudices and recognize when they or a loved one really does need help. I want to see able bodied people working and contributing to society, and meaningful and effective help for the ones that need it.

I want to see honesty and truth prevail. I want to see justice and decency. I want an end to hypocrisy. I want to see cooperation among people, no matter their walk of life. I want people to see that we are in this together. I want us all to be the change we want to see.

Am I asking for too much? Maybe, but its Christmas after all and it never hurt to ask.

Winter in the Thompson River State Forest

Monday, December 17, 2012

Make mine a real tree

When it comes to Christmas trees, for me it's got to be the real thing. It may be because I was raised on a Christmas tree farm, in a family of tree farmers. It may be because I'm a Forester and have devoted my education and career to the growing, maintaining and harvesting of trees. Maybe it's because I've never had anything else. I'm not sure, but I do know that somehow it just wouldn't be right without a real tree in our house at Christmas time.

Searching for the right tree.
It all starts with my favorite part, Christmas tree hunting. For me this is a great day in the woods with Whitney and the dogs, and by now it's a family tradition. With hot cocoa in thermoses, we head out to one spot after another that we've thought would have good prospects, we spot trees, we shake snow from their branches, we compare their qualities and finally sooner or later the perfect tree jumps out at us. Or at least that's what is supposed to happen but like hunting most things, usually that's not exactly the way it goes.
In years past, we've chosen trees by headlights and flashlights because it got dark before we found the right tree. One time several years ago, we wound up having two trees because we picked one for Whit's house in Missoula and one for my place in Plains and then kept them both when we celebrated the holiday together. One year we helped Whitney's parents pick a tree that traveled clear back to Oregon with them. A couple times we've even gotten trees where it wasn't exactly legal (don't tell). And this year our tree was enjoyed by two different Christmas parties before coming home to our house. The point is choosing the right tree is often as much fun as having the tree in the first place, and no two years are exactly alike just as no two trees are exactly alike.

After the tree is chosen, it's time to cut and trim the tree, load and haul the tree and finally get it into the house and set up in the stand. All this even before it gets decorated! I guess from that perspective it's no wonder some people choose imitation trees. But if you're like me, and you're into the tradition of choosing a tree to bring into your home to be decorated and celebrated during the Christmas season, the time involved in the process is all part of the joy of the season. Yes, I really do turn on Christmas music and pour a glass of eggnog while decorating the tree (I'm that kind of dork)!
Our 2012 Christmas Tree
Yes, a tree must die in order to come into the house and become a Christmas tree. But in it's place there will grow a new tree because that is perphaps the tree's best and most important quality. They regenerate! Everyday, year in and year out trees are seeding, sprouting, and growing. That is one trick a fake tree will never be able to do.
So if your reading this and you have a fake tree in your home, then by all means enjoy it. But for the rest of you go out and get a real tree. Support tree farmers or your public lands by purchasing a permit to harvest a tree. And this year, while you're celebrating Christmas, celebrate also our greatest renewable national resource. Our trees.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Long winter nights

This time of year in NW Montana, the night lasts longer than the day. A depressing thought at first when you consider all that darkness: a lot of non Montanans ask me "What do you do in the winter"? I usually don't know how to answer that question because the amazing thing to me is how wonderful winter nights are. Don't get me wrong, the seemingly endless days of summer are absolutely wonderful, but there is something special about winter nights. After the hustle of spring, the break neck pace of summer, and the countless To Do's of fall, the down time of winter is a welcome respite. To me there are few things more comforting after a day out in the cold and weather, than coming home to a fire in the stove, enjoying a hot dinner and relaxing with a book or a movie under a blanket on the couch.
But there is something more to it than simply relaxing by the fire. There is a sense of rightness about hunkering down in the winter. Outside in the hills, the bears are hibernating in their dens, the rodents are snug with their food stores in their holes, and the birds have flown south seeking warmer weather. The mountains are very quiet and still this time of year, blanketed by a protective layer of snow. In the yard, the garden is long done (save for the carrots that continue to grow under a thick layer of mulch). The honey bees are snug in their clusters, eating honey and keeping the queen warm. The hens are roosted close on the perch, fluffing their down and tucking in their feet to keep warm. It seems only natural that as things slow down outside, we ought to slow down too.
Winter is a time to look back, take stock and plan for next year. A time to reflect on what went well and what could have gone better.  It's a time to enjoy the fruits of your labors, breaking out whatever jams and preserves you've put up in the summer and fall, and being thankful for the all the effort you put into cutting and splitting firewood. It's a time for reading and learning from others, sharing stories and catching up on little things put off when the days were too nice to be inside.
Maybe one of the best things about winter is planning all the things you'll do when it's nice out, but knowing you don't have to do any of them right now.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Keeping the Bees Warm and Dry

This fall I had been reading about Moisture Quilts on and liked the idea but wanted to make a few changes. The idea is to provide insulation and ventilation to the bees and also absorb the moisture that is produced by the bee cluster. I think one of my colonies died last year due to lack of ventilation, as the moisture condensed and dripped down on the cluster.  Also, in addition to providing ventilation, insulation and moisture control, I wanted to build in a space for feeding the bees, not included in the original moisture quilt. Usually the top covers of the hive fit down close to the top of the honeycomb frames, leaving only enough room for a bee to walk across the top of the frames. This is about 3/8 of an inch and is referred to as "bee space". In the summer, if there is anymore than bee space between anything in the hive, the bees fill it with comb. So as a result there is no room to feed unless you add an empty box for that purpose. Lastly, I wanted to use wire screen to hold the wood shavings insulation, rather than burlap like they used originally.
So, one day this fall I set out to build some boxes that would meet these needs, this is what I came up with.

Construction Phase 1
First off, I cut some pine 1x6's to length and drilled 3/4" holes in two sides for vents. Next I glued and nailed the boards together to make three boxes. Then I cut 1/4" wire screen to fit inside the boxes and stapled it in place. I positioned the screen in each box so that it was about three inches down from the top, and also made sure the folded edges of the screen covered the holes just to make sure no unwanted hive guests moved in. Finally I painted the boxes and left them to dry.
Construction Phase 2

The next day, I placed the boxes on the hives. Things were looking good. The portion of the box above the screen would hold pine shavings for insulation and moisture control, the portion below the screen would be for feeding, and the holes would provide the venting. I started to load up the first box with pine shavings, but soon saw that fine pieces of the shavings were going to filter down onto the bees. I guess 1/4" screen was a little too coarse. I didn't like that, so I cut a couple old T shirts in to sheets and placed the cotton sheets on top of the wire. This should allow the moisture to travel up to the top of the hive and condense and then drip down on to the shavings, and not the bees.

Modified Moisture Quilt in place.
Here is the modified moisture quilt in place. When I last checked the bees, all three colonies were looking good. They had plenty of honey to eat and were clustered nicely. As we head into December, I'll check them again and see if I need to feed to help them through the hard times. As spring approaches, I'll feed protein to help the colony get a jump on the brood rearing and building up the population for the bloom.   Speaking of honey, how is your honey store? We still have a few jars left of our Johnson's Garden Honey available. They make great gifts for anyone interested in local, homegrown goods and health foods. Shoot me a note at or comment on this post if your interested. Remember, honey is non-perishable and easily shipped!
That's all for now, thanks for reading.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hunting Meat

Every now and again as a hunter you have to ask yourself: What am I really hunting for?
For me that question entered my mind one evening this week when a young, fork horned white-tailed buck stepped out in front of me and paused. I was sitting on a rise, watching a stand of dense brush and timber that bordered a grassy meadow. The meadow was crisscrossed with deer trails and the ground littered with deer droppings. I had already seen two does, and as the whitetail are coming into rut now, I knew chances were good there would be a buck in the neighborhood.
It was almost my last opportunity to hunt for the season and as I sat there wondering if I was going to fill my tag, my mind was replaying scenes from earlier in the hunting season: I kept seeing the bucks I'd let go.
There was the 4 point mule deer buck that I saw on the first morning of the season. "Beautiful buck" I had thought, "but too early to tag out now". Then there was the nice pair of white-tails we saw while retrieving Whitney's buck. I had stood there in the rain with my cross hairs on the larger of the pair. "No, one buck is enough to deal with today" I had thought to myself. Next there was another nice muley that I saw on a ridge after riding my mare seven miles behind a gate. The muley was a nice tall fork or maybe three point, but "not big enough for this far back" I had thought. And lastly there was  the big white-tail I had seen, the one that I really wanted. I had gotten up extra early that day and driven an hour and a half to get to the gate I wanted to hunt behind. I hiked for two hours to get to the spot I wanted to hunt even though it was 15 degrees when I left the truck. I spent all morning working slowly through the bowl with no luck, and finally stopped for lunch. It was still only about 20 degrees out with a stiff wind and it didn't take long for me to get cold sitting down. I decided to hike up the ridge to warm up and see if there was anything up there. I took about a dozen slow stiff steps and then looked up. The buck rose out of his bed like a bird flushing out of the grass. As he lept I had time to watch him turn broadside before landing and taking one more leap. That was all I saw, but it was enough. He had a wide, tall rack: a big 4 point at least maybe 5. A big body, mature white-tail buck, one that any hunter would be proud of. I had only seen him for about a half a second, but I spent the next two full days searching for him. At the end of that second day I had hiked over ten miles and still only had the one glimpse of the buck. I decided to try a new place, but that buck still haunted me.
So now here I was, on my last hunting day with evening drawing near watching the does graze. The question entered my mind: Are you hunting for meat or a nice rack? This time I was hunting meat. Having eaten nearly all the venison in our freezer it was time for me to fill my tag. And as I sat there looking back on another great hunting season, the young white-tail stepped out of the timber and paused. I raised my rifle, steadied the cross hairs behind the shoulder, exhaled and squeezed the trigger.
To my dismay, the buck did not lay down in his tracks as is always my goal. My shot must have gone wide because instead, this one spun and ran back into the brush. I stood there watching sadly while night came on dark and fast. After marking the last spot I saw him with my orange hat, I walked back to the truck to get another flashlight and call for back up. I felt terrible, I've never lost a wounded deer yet, and I sure didn't want to now. Whitney came out and we spent the next two hours of the pitch black night searching in the thick brush with flashlights and head lamps. We finally, and thankfully located the dead buck, but not without some real doubts. After I thanked the buck for his sacrifice, I dressed and cleaned him, and as I dragged him back to the truck I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. I had filled my tag and we had recovered the buck and that's what really mattered. It didn't matter that this buck was only a fork, because after all you can't eat the antlers and I know the big bucks are still out there. Somewhere.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Images of hunting season

One night last weekend I was driving home after an exhausting day hunting with no game to show for my efforts when a thought came to me. Isn't it strange that the only images of hunting that we share and celebrate are ones that show a happy hunter posing with a harvested animal? While this is of course a pinnacle moment, it tells nothing of the work and dedication it took to get to that point, or the work that remains to be done after the shot. This is only one moment in a wide range of images that actually make a hunting season, and could be part of why non-hunters don't understand why we hunters feel so strongly about hunting.
If you were to actually show images of my typical hunting season, there would be many many pictures with no game at all. Pictures of cold dark mornings, long silent walks, trees bending in whistling winds and red numb fingers. Photos showing entire days with no words spoken, where no animals are seen and long drives home with nothing to show for the effort.

Whitney preps garden produce and venison for hunting camp stew.
But there would be more than that. There would be pictures of friends around a campfire, corn bread from a dutch oven, and smoke curling from the chimney above a wall tent. There would be pictures of golden larch needles, white snow flakes, and red huckleberry leaves. There would be pictures of vistas and mountains, streams and rivers. Elk tracks in the snow, fresh droppings and a recent bedding spot. Wolf tracks the size of desert plates, and lion tracks on top of your own tracks made only hours before.
But there has to be more than pictures, you have to convey the sensations too. Not only of the frozen fingers and tired legs, but of the sudden spike in the heart rate when you catch a glimpse of something. The disappointment that comes after a long silent walk when out of nowhere a doe stands up and just like that, effectively warns the entire mountain side of your coming. Of your heart pounding in your ears when a buck spots you and gives you that one second stare before bounding away. The wet sheep smell of your wool pants after hiking all day. The sensation of being soaked in sweat from dragging an animal out even when it's so cold the water in your backpack has frozen. And of finally, finally having made it back to the truck well after dark with the narrow beam of your headlamp guiding the way after trying not to think about all the hungry carnivores that have been watching and smelling you go by.
I guess the thing is that there is way too much about a hunting season to try and share all of it, so we just boil down to the one moment of success. The one moment that proves it was all worthwhile. But success without effort is fleeting. For me the hunts that were the hardest are the stories best recalled, and somehow the meat tastes a little better when there is a good story to go with it.
So for any non-hunters that may be reading this, and especially ones that don't appreciate seeing pictures of dead animals and grinning hunters, just remember your only seeing part of the picture.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Cider Pressing

As I mentioned in my last post, this fall Whitney and I got to take part in my Dad's Apple Cider Pressing Party at the GHJ Tree Farm. It was a beautiful day with friends, family and lots and lots of apples!

Rome Beauty apple

Apple cider has a long history in America and in Europe before that. Often clean water was hard to come by, so apple cider was the common drink. Before beer, hard apple cider was the main alcohol for the common people. In fact according to at least one book that comes to mind (The Botany of Desire) eating apples like the phrase "eat it like an apple" is a fairly new concept, as before that apples were nearly entirely grown for cider. The truth is that Johnny Apple seed was not a health nut apple eater, but much more interested in hard cider! Of course nowadays we know apples are a healthy food and often cider takes a backseat, but the making of cider is still a tradition across the country. Pressing cider is one of the family traditions my Grandfather passed down along with growing Christmas trees and bee keeping. Here is a look at how it's done where I come from.
First off, the apples must be picked. Sometimes you have to get a little creative especially when picking the taller trees! This year on the GHJ Tree Farm, my Dad estimated he picked around 1000 pounds of apples to sell, donate and crush into cider.
After the picking, the apples are sorted (saleable apples are not crushed) and washed. Since all the apples are completely chemical free, the washing is just to get the dust off. Then comes the cutting.  

Each apple is quartered and any bad spots removed, before being ground into pulp. The pulp is loaded into the press, and compressed.

Pressing apples in my Grandfather's press.
The juice is filtered, and then poured into jars for the helpers to enjoy and take home.

Fresh Apple Cider
Since the emphasis is place on enjoying the whole process, most of the cider is consumed during the course of the day and we have no good idea how much is made. But one thing I know is everybody got at least a taste and most got to take a few jars home. I think we were guessing we crushed 16, 40lb boxes of apples, so there was plenty of cider to go around. Thanks to everybody that came out and helped make it such a fun event!   So that in a nut shell is cider pressing, if you get a chance sometime give it a try. The taste of fresh cider is beyond delicious.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Our first honey tasting

This Columbus Day weekend Whitney and I had the pleasure of taking part in the 13th Annual, Apple Cider Making Party at the GHJ Tree Farm! It was a beautiful day on the farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California where I grew up, and a wonderful time to catch up with family and old friends. It was Whitney's first Cider Making Party, and my first in many years, so it was a truly special day. Look for a blog post all about Cider Pressing coming soon.

While there we had our first (unofficial) honey tasting. One of the reasons I have always been pro honey bee is my good memories of having bee hives and honey when I was young. Years ago my Dad used to sell comb honey at his road side stand along with apples in the fall and Christmas trees in the winter. In more recent times, the bees were maintained for pollination, but not honey. Eventually with the onset of Colony Collapse Disorder and other pests and diseases, the bee hives went away.

Around the same time that Whitney and I became interested in bee keeping, my Dad also decided to return to bee keeping and purchased a package of bees. His first attempt didn't survive, but since then he has been successful, and this year for the first time in many years he harvested honey!

Our honey on the right and my Dad's GHJ Tree Farm honey on the left.
One amazing thing about honey is the variation that can occur between hives. Color, taste and aroma (as well as length of time to crystallize) all depend directly on what plants the bees were feeding on when they filled the comb. Honey truly is a local crop, meaning that what is in the jar is a true representation of what is available within 3 miles of the hive (and often closer when flowers are plentiful). Like ours, my Dad's honey supers were pulled off the hive in the Autumn, so it is a summer honey, as opposed to a spring honey some people extract. Due to our location, our honey is likely a mix of wildflowers, flower gardens and vegetable gardens. It has a full rich flavor, that may come as a surprise at first but is very enjoyable. The GHJ tree farm honey, I suspect has much more wildflowers (weeds) and tree pollens in it due to the remote location. To me this dark amber honey had a light crisp flavor that instantly reminded my of Dad's honey of my youth. To mix things up further, we added a craft third honey, from Snyders Honey in La Honda, CA.

The two Johnson honeys on the right and Snyders Honey on the left.

Again, the light color had no impact on the flavor, which to me was mild and very pleasant, but taste is subjective so one person's sweet is another's mild.
What I do find interesting is that Americans seem to prefer lighter colored honey, so when the big honey houses bottle their batches, they mix it all together and shoot for a nice light to extra light amber like the Snyders Honey above, which is why that's what we are accustomed to seeing in the stores.
Honey colors are expressed in terms of mm according to the Pfund scale, so an Amber like ours has a range of 86 - 114mm, while a Dark Amber like my Dad's is >114mm and an Extra Light Amber like the one of the left is 30 - 50mm. In order to grade honeycolor , one uses a specially tinted piece of glass that has the scale printed on it from light to dark. Source: Does this matter to the honey taster? Nope not a bit, I just find it interesting.
In any case, our first Honey Tasting was a lot of fun, made even more so since we could visit with family while enjoying! Take care everybody, and thanks for reading. KJ

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Welcoming Fall

I heard on the radio one morning this week, it was the first day of Fall. How could that be? It's still 85 degrees! There are still wildfires burning, we haven't seen any rain in months and there aren't even any clouds in the sky! How could it be fall? I was shocked, and yet I started to notice a few things. First off: it was 39 degrees and barely light when I went to work. In the woods I saw leaves turning red, orange, and yellow. Geese are flying south and the elk are bugling. It really and truly is fall in the northwest.
All of a sudden it seems the garden is done and wilted, and the lawn grass is crisp and dead. And, even though I still need more firewood, it's time to start getting ready for hunting season.  Hunting season is a special time for us. Not just because of the meat in the freezer and the chance to pursue game, but more because it is a season, a mindset and a feeling. Now is the time for studying the maps and choosing hunting spots. Should I try a new place or return to an old favorite? It's a time for trying out new equipment bought over the off season and breaking out the stuff I haven't seen in a year (new for this year: an internal frame for the wall tent... SO exciting!). And it's also time to break out the sweaters and slippers. Funny as it sounds, there is great comfort in reuniting with an old flannel after months apart. Best of all, it's time for crock pot dinners and hot toddy's. There is nothing on earth like coming how to a house full of the aroma of a good venison stew cooked all day in the crock pot. Couple that with a fresh baked loaf of bread from the bread machine and you've got a perfect fall evening made to order. Perfect save for one thing. After the stew and bread have been enjoyed to the max, now is time for a hot toddy.
Google it and you're bound to find countless recipes, but for me the perfect Hot Toddy needs only four things. Warm water, Honey, Lemon Juice and Whiskey. Here's how I do it: First off, fill the kettle and place it on the stove. Next, take a good deep mug and pour in a shot (or two) of blended whiskey. Return to the kettle and top off the mug with hot water (not boiling). Add a cap full of lemon juice, and finally a healthy tablespoon of honey. That's it! So nice and relaxing and it's healthy too! A tablespoon of honey every day has many health benefits from soothing sore throats to helping with seasonal allergies. The whiskey may or may not be healthy, but as long as you don't over indulge I doubt it's doing any harm.
With that I'll sign out and wish you all a happy Fall. As a clever guy once told me: "Fall is one of my four favorite seasons".

Friday, September 21, 2012

The First Honey

 If you remember A bee adventure, then you'll know this day was a long time coming. Over a year ago we decided to give beekeeping a try, after honey bees colonized our porch eaves. In the months since I've posted about the ups and down of learning the trade. Now for the first time, I would dare to call myself a Beekeeper. Last weekend Whitney and I extracted honey for the first time, I guess you can tell I was pretty excited!
A frame of capped honey comb
Honey bees are unique in that they will keep packing away food stores far beyond what they need for survival. A smart beekeeper always makes certain that the bees have enough for themselves, then harvests the extra. Above you see a frame of capped honey ready for extracting. Bees cap the stored honey in the fall and then when it's needed, they chew the capping wax off for the colony to eat.  
Cutting off the capping wax
Before you can spin the honey out of the comb, you must cut off the capping wax to free up the honey in the comb. This wax will get melted and cleaned and Whit plans to try her hand at making lip balm this winter. Stay tuned for that!

frames ready to spin
 The uncapped frames are loaded into the extractor and spun. The spinning forces the honey out of the comb and onto the sides of the exctractor. The honey runs down the inside and pools in the bottom of the extractor.
the very first drop of honey
Eventually the honey pools enough and drops into the filter cloth. This was an exciting moment! Many long  months of reading, researching, hoping and planning, all came down to this. The very very first drop of honey. (que clinking glasses!)

Success at last!
After being filtered, the pure raw honey is poured into jars and capped. There is no heating so the honey remains totally pure and natual and will store indefinately as long as it's kept clean. This first jar was a huge acheivement, I can't even describe how proud I was and still am. Since pure raw honey is actually alive (non-pasturized) it's health atributes are unmatched, but should never be fed to young kids. The color of the honey can vary greatly and is attributed to what flowers the bees were visiting. Since we don't know where every bees went, we'll call ours "garden honey".
After the first jar, the honey kept flowing and we were able to store plenty for ourselves and will have some to sell and give as gifts. All in all this was a huge day for me. All the work and preperation finally paid off. Not unlike my first successful deer hunt, and that first taste of fresh tenderloin. Pure joy and achievement.
Now already I am planning and researching how to over winter my bees so that next spring they are even more healthy, happy and productive!
Thanks for stopping by. KJ

Monday, September 10, 2012

Chicken Integration

If you recall from earlier posts like The halfway house aka chicken tractor and chick love, Whitney and I raised 5 more chickens this year. These Silver Laced Wyandottes came to us as day old chicks and we brooded them in the house until they were old enough to go outside. They lived in the chicken tractor for several weeks while becoming accustomed to the outside world. After they became comfortable, we began opening the door in the afternoons so that the pullets could roam the yard like the hens do. But even though they were all out together, the two groups would not mix. They were two groups tolerant of each other but not interested in meeting. Eventually the pullets became too big for the chicken tractor, so it was time to move them into the coop.
The Five Pullets
I guess I thought Whitney would just chicken whisper them right into the hen house, but it didn't exactly work that way. It turned out more like a game of Chase the Chicken every night for a week. The books all say that it is as simple as placing the pullets in the coop at night, and the next morning they will wake up knowing that's home. I'll tell you how it went for us: One night Whitney and I moved the pullets one at a time into the coop and placed them on the roost. The next morning, when I opened the door to the chicken yard, the pullets tumbled out and hid in the corner. The hens scratched and pecked like normal, but the pullets continued to huddle off on the side. That afternoon we opened the door to the big yard and the pullets ran back to the chicken tractor! We rounded them up and got them back in the coop, but they were clearly not happy about it. For about a week every time we opened the door, the pullets ran out to return to the their old home. It was sad, and we even worried that they might not be eating but after several rounds of chicken wrangling they did start returning to the coop at night. It's taken a while but I'm happy to say that the flock is now fully integrated. Sure the hens have a pecking order and the youngsters are not yet on the top roost, but they aren't a separate flock either.

The Integrated Flock
To top the news, this week Whitney found a couple mini eggs in the nesting boxes, suggesting our little Wyandottes have started laying! So, it's official we've got 19 layers and 1 rooster (although one of the Wyandottes is showing some rooster-like tendencies, more on that later).
Sometime soon we will try honey extracting for the first time, so stay tuned for that.
Until next time, as always, thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Blue Ribbons!

Around here, the Sanders County Fair is a pretty big deal. Not only is it the biggest thing that happens in our town, it's the biggest thing in the county! 
Whit's award winning Yukon Gold Potatoes
Here, fair is more than just a carnival and fry bread. From the kids with 4H animals, to the Ranch Horse competitions, to the Demolition Derby, the fair is a place to showcase what you take pride in, take part in friendly competition, and possibly take home (or more likely, spend) some prize money.
This year, for the first time Whitney entered  garden produce and crafts, and came away with several Blue Ribbons! In fact, her Yukon Gold potatoes were runners up for Best In Show.
Now before you start thinking this was like shooting fish in a barrel, check out this line up of spuds (bottom row, below). The good people of Sanders County take their gardening seriously! Between late frosts, summer droughts, pests and parasites, growing good looking garden veggies is no accident.
The carrots were also a success in a crowded field.

Whitney did have several items that got second and third place, but in all the eggs, carrots, Yukon Golds, and Sage all got First Place!  

Across the way, in the Arts and Crafts barn, things get even more intense. The quilters, canners, photographers and artists seem to all come out in spades for the fair. So when we saw that a pair of Whit's Peacock feather earrings were awarded a blue ribbon in the jewelry class, we were pretty floored.  
Next year I hope to enter honey and possibly beeswax goods. Until then I'll just have to brag about Whitney's success.  :-)
Take care, and if you get a chance, go to the fair!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Happy Harvesting!

A nice mid-week evening's pick

A bunch of cuc's ready for the sandwich shop. We get lunch deals in return.

Just a quick post to wish you all Happy Harvesting!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Harvesting Larch Cones, with a bang!

I'll be the first to admit my blogging lately has been lacking. In the summer we try and cram as much as possible into every day and finally fall exhausted into bed late every night. I will though, try and get back into it, since I do enjoy sharing with you and hearing your feedback on our experiences and posts. Soon, I'll get back to news about the bees, the garden crops, and I'll tell you all about our adventure of introducing the young hens into the big flock, but tonight I wanted to tell you about one day harvesting larch cones with rifles!

Western Larch (Larrix occidentalis) is one of our native trees here in Western MT and is one of my favorite all around trees for several reasons. Chiefly, it is beautiful. With a growth form similar to conifers (pines, firs and such) the larch is special because it shows off every fall by turning from green to yellow and finally golden before loosing it's needles for the winter. Secondly, the larch is a wonderful timber tree and produces tight grained, high quality wood that has been sought after by builders for generations. It is an important wildlife tree, and finally the dead dry larch is some of the best firewood available in the Rocky Mountain region.   
One aspect of Whitney's job with the Forest Service, is reforestation, which includes collecting cones for seed, that will be sown and grown at the nursery in Coeur 'de Alene, ID. The seeds from Whit's trees wind up getting planted all over the region reforesting areas that were burned, logged or deforested by beetles. In most cases cone collection is done by tree climbers who ascend the tree via rope. But the larch is different. Since the branches are too brittle to support a person's weight, the tree mush be felled to access the cones. But you have to be sure the cones are good before you fell the tree. So, how do you do that when the cones are 70 - 100' up? With firepower!

Whit takes aim at a larch branch with her 6.5x55 Swede
One Saturday this summer, Whit needed to go out and check the cone crop in a stand of larch to see if there were enough seeds in the cones to make cone collection viable. Since it was a Saturday and I wasn't busy, I went along for the fun.  Often the job of shooting down branches is left to the Law Enforcement Ranger, but in this case we got the okay to do it ourselves.

She got this beauty with two shots!
We headed up the mountain and arrived at the stand just as the afternoon winds kicked up (I had forgotten there was a Red-Flag warning for high winds that day!). Undaunted, Whit got out her trusty Swedish Mauser and with just 2 shots dropped a branch loaded with cones!
On the next branch, she nearly dropped it with 2 shots again, but let me hit it a few times since I was starting to feel left out. ;-)

cutting the cones to look for seeds.
Once we had a good sample of cones to work with, Whit cut them open to inspect the seeds. In this case the seeds were too few and of too poor quality to warrant dropping any trees. Larch like all fruit bearing trees have good years and lean years, it just turns out this was a lean year for the trees in that stand. So in the end, no trees were dropped to find out the seeds were poor, and we had a heck of a good time getting the job done!
Until next time, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Even Loggers Care

Today at work, when I arrived to check in with my current logging crew I was impressed to find a pink fuel truck parked on the landing.

Just goes to show: Even loggers care about breast cancer.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Halfway House aka Chicken Tractor

This spring, Whitney and I built this simple Chicken Tractor from plans we found in Hobby Farms Magazine
We wanted somthing to act as a step between the brooder box and the coop. The reason being that introducing pullets to the coop too quickly can result in dead pullets if they are too young. The older hens will assert dominance and if the pullets can't take the punishment, the hens can kill them. So we checked around and found this one that seemed to fit the bill, especially since I didn't have to buy any extra materials. This mini coop will act as a Halfway House for this summer until the pullets are ready for life in the coop.
 It is a super simple design, although I changed it a little to use materials I had on hand. They used 2x2's for the frame, I used 2x4's. Their overall length was 10' mine is 8'. Also they didn't mention any roofing, I used tar paper and shingles I had on hand.

The pullets have half the area boxed in and half the area fenced in. This way they can regulate how much sun they get and have a place to hide when spooked. There is a fenced floor which allows for foraging, but keeps them safe from preditors.  

I didn't insulate or install anything perminant inside because for us it will only be a temporary pullet residence. Also, since the idea is to keep it light enough to move around, everything inside gets removed when it's time for a move.  
So here is the finished "tractor". The term comes from the use of chickens to cultivate and fertilize the ground below. That's not exactly our intent, but it is nice to let the chicks mow the grass. Since we've been using it, it seems a move once a week is about right to keep the grass green and the girls happy. It's not super easy to move, but do-able with the wheels on the left above.

At about two months, our pullets are fully feathered and seem to be very happy about being outside. They took to foraging with no trouble and are now enjoying a diet of pullet developer crumble plus plenty of grass and bugs.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

one weekend, two swarms

This weekend, two of our hives swarmed. I walked out of the house on saturday morning and instantly heard them. Walking over by the hives there were bees everywere. Hives swarm for several reasons, but it usually comes down to either the bees are healthy and reproducing, or they are leaving to find a new location. The good news for us is that these swarms belong to the first group. I know that because while the swarms were forming, the parent hive continued on with business.  In the picture below, you can see the two swarms: one in front of me and one on the far left (below the farthest hive). Beekeepers try to reduce swarming because it means a loss of population and a reduction in potential pollination and honey. But on the other hand, if your hives are healthy enough to swarm, then you are doing something right and the bees are doing what they naturally want to do: Reproduce! So I take it as a good sign. In the book Natual Beekeeping, the author Ross Conrad refers to swarming as "the miracle of life" since it really is bee reproduction.  
 So, now what to do about this rampant reproduction. My first idea was to simply place hive boxes near the swarms and allow them to hive themselves. This is a technique that some swear by, so I thought I'd give it a try. But after leaving them there for several hours, the bees had yet to move into the boxes so I decided to catch them manually.
Here is a good look at one of the swarms. The bees leave the colony and ball around the queen. While they are in the ball, scouts are out searching for a new home. The scouts could return at any time and communicate to the swarm it was time to leave, so I decided to hive them before they had a chance to leave. I have read that bees will remain balled for as little as fifteen minutes, and these had already been here for several hours.
When you are hiving a swarm, you physically take the swarm and place them into the hive. The sensation of picking up the bees is pretty amazing, they feel like a warm spongy mass of about a couple of pounds. The most important thing is to make sure you get the queen. Here (above) on my finger tips you can see the queen of one of the swarms. Once the queen is secure in the new hive, all the workers follow her right in, guided by her pheromones.

Here is a swarm placed into the new hive. This is the deep box that I had prepared in case I got a chance to catch a swarm this summer. The other swarm got placed into a super ( or medium box) because I don't have any other deep boxes on hand. This will work just fine, but will require more equipment because I'll have to give them two supers to equal one deep box.
So here we are this evening. I successfully captured both swarms, upping our count to five colonies! I'm glad that I didn't lose any of my bees, but I need to get better at anticipating and preventing swarming. In the mean time I need to get to work building frames so that all these bees have somewhere to store their honey! More on that later.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Celebrating the wild side of chickens

Our rooster Colonel Sanders is starting to show his heritage. More and more these days he is acting like a rooster, crowing and strutting constantly, "servicing" the hens every few minutes and at times pecking and flapping at our legs. His antics have cost him some friends, one of our neighbors even blogged about her bad encounter with the Colonel (when they visited our chicken coop while we were out of town). Whitney generally talks softly to him when he's like this and picks him up to calm him. Together they walk around the yard, while she talks softly and pretty soon his eyes are shut and she grins at me with the napping bird in her arms. My own reaction to his chicken dance is a little less compassionate: generally I tell him to buzz off and keep going about my business.
However, I recently read a really neat article in Smithsonian Magazine: How The Chicken Conquered the World which has me rethinking my attitude towards our Colonel. The chicken's lineage it turns out stretches back an estimated 10,000  years to the  Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) of Southeast Asia.

Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus).
In the wild, the rooster acts like many other male critters, defending his harem, fighting other males and declaring himself the baddest of the bad to all that can hear. One interesting point about the chicken is that the hormone that causes most creatures to only mate at a certain time of year seems to be suppressed. This means the hens can reproduce (lay eggs) year round as opposed to say turkey and geese which only mate in the spring. This also means that the lucky rooster has to mate his hens year round to keep them fertilized and thus build the flock. This is probably a key to why the chicken was domesticated long before other fowl, since their eggs were available all year long. The eggs it seems were utilized long before their meat, which didn't become popular until relatively recently.
Another item I found fascinating is that long ago Roman armies would travel with a rooster, or cock as they are historically known. The cock was observed before a battle, and only if he had a good appetite did the army go into battle believing a victory was likely.
The rooster's courage was so revered in fact, that where it is still practiced cock fighting is the oldest form of sport. While in the US it is considered inhumane and cruel, in many places cock fighting is a traditional sport, and the victorious rooster is celebrated.
Like I said, it's a neat article and worth the time to read, but enough about the ancient chicken. Today the chicken is prized for it's mild meat and it's ability to lay eggs consistantly. Also the chicken produces more meat per pound of feed than almost any other domestic livestock, save only the rabbit. We have adapted the chicken to our needs so entirely that even in "free range" chicken houses often the birds don't range at all, choosing instead to remain by the feeder waiting for the next timer controlled ration.
So, after all that when I go outside and see our hens foraging about the yard, clucking with joy at the discovery of a worm or seed, and watching the rooster mount the compost pile to crow for the umpteenth time in a row, I am filled with pride. For these chickens, after all these centuries of domestication and human manipulation still know what it means to be a chicken. Could they survive in the wild? Probably not, but at least now when the Colonel puffs his neck and dances at my legs I have to stop and smile because, after all, he is doing exactly what he should be doing. Acting like a rooster.
The Dude: Colonel Sanders with his hens.