Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Snake Hunter

The snake hunter came yesterday and laughed when she got out of her car. She shook her head and said, "where do I start?" We're completely surrounded by the perfect habitat for every venomous snake in Florida. Well, duh. I know that. BUT, after almost 2 and a half hours of hunting she only found an empty hole and the skin to a rat snake. I didn't know if that should comfort me or disappoint me. This morning though, a neighbor said they saw a coral snake go from our front yard into the woods across the street. The end decision: we just have to be careful. It seems they are out very early in the morning (which means my schedule of not going out until a little later in the morning works well). We have "nesting spots" everywhere... the goal is to clean them up as best we can, but just act with caution around them. Its more likely it was a pymgy rattlesnake that killed our goats... the lesson learned is to make sure that the goats are keeping up with the grass and we don't allow it to get too tall. I check the yard before the kids come out with me and I watch them like a hawk that they don't get too close to brush or venture into un-checked territory. Its a bit of bother, but the alternative is to move to a condo. And that would SOOO not work for me. I'm learning its just an unfortunate part of working and enjoying the outdoors. Rather than thinking of every possible way to be snake free (and get overconfident and careless), its better to just know they're out there and be vigilent. Its a bit sad for the kids though. Yesterday late afternoon while I was preparing dinner, farmer boy #1 went tottering outside to play in the backyard- which I can clearly watch from the kitchen window. It used to be normal. It used to be a pleasure to allow them some late day romp time before dinner and bed. But I went hustling out to bring him back in for fear of something sneaking around in the grass. I'm sure this new lifestyle will become habit just as the old did and I won't have to carry an active boy back inside crying for his slide. But until then, its caution, vigilence and trust in our Good God to keep us safe.

And maybe praying for the hawk population to increase.

Garden Update

Its finished... a week ahead of "schedule" even. The "smother garden" expansion is complete with a lot of sweat from my husband. We went out to our horse-loving friends and got our 4th and final load of compost to finish off the last remaining beds today. We throw a weekly paper route which supplies our source of newspaper for the grass smothering. A woodworking neighbor supplies the sawdust which I've found to greatly improve seed germination (when mixed with compost) as well as post-transplant seedling survival. I'm happy to have it complete as homesteading baby #3 is due in 3 weeks and I'm hoping to have more seedlings in the ground before he comes and I'm moderately incapacitated. So far we have watermelon coming in strong (4 small fruit that I've spotted so far and tons more blossoms), bell peppers growing well, tomatoes doing well, cucumbers struggling, but 2 planted later fairing much better, beans also struggling somewhat from unknown causes, and collard greens, broccoli, and bok choy doing their best with the drier conditions and being very newly transplanted. I lost half my broccoli and all my swiss chard after transplanting (with no sawdust in the beds)... I watered in the morning and expected it to rain in the afternoon. It didn't and I didn't water again. They were dead by morning. Live and learn.
Another neighbor owns a honey store and processing plant. She's begun saving these large tubs that they get bee pollen in for us. The first came just in time for our first round of compost tea (what we hope to use as our weekly fertilizer). So the little farmer girl and I sewed up a bag from some fabric scraps we had on hand, ran bailing twine through for a drawstring and filled the bag with compost. We then set the bag in the tub and filled it with water. A couple days from now we should have wonderful compost tea for all our young plants.

And here's our summer garden that I've begun to almost completely neglect. Its an absolute jungle of sweet potato and loofah vines. The sweet potatoes climb the fence on one side and are shading out my pineapples. The loofah climbs out the other side and keeps curling its grippers on my seedlings, herb cuttings and potted plants. I've left a few okra on the one bearing plant for seed. The others have lost all their leaves and are looking rather sad. If I feel ambitious with nothing to do between now and child birth, I'll rip out the okra and cover that section with plastic to bake out any nematodes. The cowpeas are frustrating me because it seems everything is coming in with worms now and I've only been drying and storing them lately. I don't know what to do with the loofah. I think its supposed to dry on the vine so I'm planning on just letting it go until I can't stand it anymore. The sweet potatoes we'll begin harvesting in October, but not pull up the last until December. Until then its just going to have to be a jungle. The grapes are doing well considering the harsh pruning we had to give them this spring. The harvest has been modest but very tastey. When they start going dormant it will help diminish the jungle effect considerably as well.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Goat Swap

While trying to minimize the morning chore list in preparation for my "maternity leave", I posted our sweet matriarchal goat, Annabelle, on Craig's List hoping to trade her for an intact male where we could begin the breeding cycle again. I had already begun drying her off- not much to it as she was only giving about 5 ounces a day. I quickly (much more quickly than I expected!) got a great response. Yesterday we bid farewell to Annabelle (little sad, but with both her babies gone, she had nothing left to keep her here) and welcomed "Copper". Annabelle will be given a great retirement. She'll probably have a few more rounds of kids, but without the expectation to produce milk for human consumption as well. She'll just get to be a sweet old goat mama. Copper, meanwhile, is a wonderfully tame, 3 year old male. He's got beautiful coloring and blue eyes (meaning we'll probably have some more blue-eyed babies which sell for a higher price). He's registered even. The lady who traded him clearly got the short end of the deal, but she said things just aren't selling like they used to and she's tired of fixing the fencing between Copper and her other breeding bucks. We win. So now he's here and putting the moves on Noel. They have one paddock to themselves while Noel's mother and daughter are sharing the other paddock. The front enclosure is still down due to the snake issue. We hope to stagger the pregnancies and thus the lactations so we don't have down times with no milk at all, but if the dividing fence doesn't hold, we may just have all 3 kidding at once again.

A Lesson on Snakes

I made about a hundred phone calls and God graciously led me to a wonderful snake-hunting lady who does this for free... for fun. Her only request is that we visit her in the hospital if she gets bit. If you're in Central Florida and are contending with a venomous snake, e-mail me (floridahomestead(at)mail(dot)com) and I'll give you her contact info. She's coming over Thursday morning for some hunting, but has given me a wealth of info over the phone recently too. Here it is:

1) Mid-August to mid-September is snake breeding season. They are particularly active so be vigilant. Watch where you step. Keep your grass short. Inspect areas before kids run out to play. Hot afternoons are a bit safer as they are hiding from the heat so if it doesn't matter when you go out, go out then.

2) Black snakes do NOT keep away venomous snakes. In fact NOTHING does. People make lots of money selling spray-on snake repellents that do absolutely nothing but give you some unwarranted peace of mind. The best thing to do is keep the areas you use free from their hiding places be watchful.

3) King snakes (the coral snake look-alike) are extremely rare around here. If you see a red,yellow and black banded snake, you can count on it being a coral snake. The good news is they are incredibly tame. A little girl was recently bit by a coral snake... after several minutes of playing with it. Don't take chances, but know they're not hunting you down.

4) Snakes can't see worth beans. They attack by the movement you make. If you spot a snake, slowly back away and they won't be able to "see" you.

5) If you have a snake-haven you'd like to dispose of (like our massive piles of pine scrub in the pasture), do so in cooler weather when they're not so active. And still be careful.

6) If a bite occurs, tie a band tightly around the appendage that was bit, just up from the bite. This keeps the blood from flowing so quickly to the brain. Keep it low to again prevent rapid blood flow. Make a criss-cross cut in the skin over the bite. Suck out blood, venom and fluid and spit it out. Do so until an ambulance arrives. If you have an open wound in your mouth, you'll be putting yourself in GREAT danger so weigh that when you're making the decision on who should do the sucking.

Hope this helps everyone to be safe outside in these later summer months.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Potential Answers

Cocoa, who had seemed to be doing so much better after the apparent lightening jolt, died suddenly Wednesday afternoon. Tuesday I was right there to witness what appeared to be a seizure. Today, while mowing the lawn where their fencing was, I noticed a strange hole in the ditch... where we have standing water for a few hours after a decent rain. I started to wonder about snake bites. After doing a bit of research I discovered that the black snake my husband saw a few weeks ago could actually have been a water moccasin, that they will live in dry areas such as pine forests (what surround us), and that their bites produce these symptoms (aside from what would be visible except on a furry little goat):

blurred vision
excessive sweating
increased thirst
loss of muscle coordination
nausea and vomiting
numbness and tingling, especially in the mouth
rapid pulse
altered mental state
breathing difficulties

All these, aside from maybe the breathing difficulties, complete paralysis, nausea and vomiting, Cocoa was displaying. I'm now wondering if, with all the rain, a snake came out of the woods to swim in the newly flooded ditch and was disturbed by the goats... which would explain why they weren't under any shelter. They were probably bit well after the rain had ended.

Now... how do I find and eliminate this threat and make the yard once again safe for my kids?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Summer Garden Lessons Learned

Every season we learn something we "shoulda" done. This season is no different.

1) Cowpeas apparently poop out after a good flush. I didn't do any successive plantings because I assumed they would just keep on producing till the weather cooled down. Not so. The last I planted are bearing strong now meaning a couple weeks from now I'll have none and yet still be weeks away from any fall harvesting. Gotta plant a final round in mid July looks like.

2) Same for okra. The seed description says it bears well until frost (Burmese okra), but I have 2 plants that seem to have decided to just quit. I'm wondering if in every other place in the world they can make it all the way to winter, but here... well these guys were in the ground in April... most places don't have 7 months of HOT weather to keep okra going with. Again, I think I'll do a second planting in early June next year.

3) Plant less basil... this is insane. I ripped out half of it and still have more than I can process. Gotta make pesto this afternoon and stock the freezer with it. At least the stuff slows down in the cooler weather and we'll get a chance to eat the stores before I'm making it fresh again. Though I bet I get another good bunch before any sign of winter rolls in.

Goat Update

Well, Cocoa is improving. She's far from normal but I think she's going to be fine. She no longer wants to drink milk, but is all over the stemmy alfalfa hay that the mamas won't eat... go figure. The hubby fixed the partition fence in the pasture this weekend (continually broken by the big Boer goat who is now occupying the freezer) so we'll put the kids on one side and the mamas on the other. It seems Cocoa is anxious to be with other goats again. Wednesday has been sneaking through the fence to munch on her goodies anyway so I think they'll be fine together.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Hardest Part

The hardest part of animal farming... untimely death.

Last night we had a severe thunderstorm. As usual, I unplugged the electric fencing so that stray voltage isn't giving our baby goats a constant stream of mild shock through wet ground. I thought no more of it. We left for the evening, only giving one pen of chickens any more consideration and that was because they were in a puddling zone of the yard. All was well. It was just another Florida thunderstorm.

This morning, my husband walked out the door, noticed the baby goats were still unplugged (they don't often test the fence anymore) and plugged them in, but could only find 1 of the 3. Upon closer inspection he noticed the other 2 were inside the fence, but down. He came back in and said he thought we had some dead goats. We ran out to find the strangest sight.

The bigger of the 3 ("Wednesday"-a single birth) was fine. The 2 little ones (twins-"Cocoa and Carob") were laying limp on the ground. The smaller of the 2 (Carob) was dead or severely comatose. The bigger (Cocoa) was somewhat responsive. Wednesday was dry... the other 2 were damp. Cocoa was slightly under their rain shelter. Carob was just outside of it. Carob had no rigor mortise meaning she was very freshly dead or in a coma. I took Cocoa inside, rubbed her dry and put her in front of a space heater despite that last night maybe got down to 75. I put the last of our goat milk on hand in a bottle which she drank readily. At first she wasn't able to stand, then she got to standing, now she's walking feebly though only wants to stand with her head in a corner. My husband tried to bring Carob around to showing some signs of life, but eventually ended her life (if there was any left to end) and dealt with the carcass before leaving for work... rather late.

I called Hoeggar's goat supply's help line and got some very good advice... unfortunately none of which I could implement immediately for lack of supplies available even at a feed store. But I packed up the kids and Carob and headed out to see what I could find. The owner of our favorite feed store sent me to his mom. I was unsure what had caused this sudden downfall. She suspected it was shock/fear from the storm and possibly some nearby lightening.

But why wouldn't she have been under cover? There was plenty of space! Was she just not smart enough? Did she get rained on all night? This was a normal storm... nothing they haven't been through before. Do I have to take extra precautions every time rain hits now? What should I have done? I understand animals die. I have no problem with slaughtering an animal destined for meat, but when one so young suffers... well, I've cried a lot this morning. I feel responsible. Carob was my sweetie, the one I bottle fed because her mother rejected her at 4 days old. She was tiny... still even much smaller than her twin sister. We doubted we would be able to safely breed her and considered several times to sell her... but I was attached. I kept arguing that maybe she would start growing more, that we would just have to wait a little longer to breed her. My husband always conceded to my sentimentality. Now I just wish she were alive.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Chuck's Chillin'

We slaughtered our boer meat goat, Chuck, on Saturday. I say we, but I did very little. I occasionally held a water bottle to my husband's lips while his hands were bloody. He did everything of any substance. This goat has gotten hard to handle so we slaughtered him at about 10 months rather than waiting till the year we were planning. The process was quick, a couple well-aimed gun shots to the head while he was partaking of his last meal, skinning his hide for tanning, and cutting the meat into large chunks but still small enough to fit into the cooler of ice.

The hide tanning process comes from a Mother Earth News article titled "How to Tan Rabbit Hides" (available free online)... we just use more solution to cover a big goat hide. Some salt and battery acid in water is all that's required... besides some work.

Last night we took most of the chunks of meat out of the ice, cleaned them up from stray hairs as best we could, cut them into roast sized chunks, cut some off for grinding, bagged and labeled them, and put them back in the fridge. We are unsure how long it should age. This was a young goat, castrated at about 6-7 months, very lean. Goat means its gamey and needs to be aged, castrated means its doesn't need to be aged much, castrated after the common 5 week time frame (I would think) means it should be aged longer, while being lean means it shouldn't be aged at all. So... what do you think?

So nothing has been frozen yet. We found a recipe for barbecued goat ribs on and will have a rack of ribs tonight. If its really gamey, we'll keep aging the rest. If its good, we'll put it all in the freezer.

This is only the second goat we've slaughtered. The first was a very young, very small goat put down in a mercy killing. Before we plan to slaughter another meat animal, we'll put in a hanging post. Something where the animal can hang during the skinning and cutting process and not be sitting on a table where its awkward to move and gets covered in hair. Shouldn't be difficult to build yet a very handy tool to have around.

Yesterday morning while milking, everything seemed so peaceful. Chuck has been bullying the smaller dairy goats and trying to climb out of the pasture while the others are being milked (and thus being fed). Then with the meat birds and a particularly noisy rooster not squawking for grain either... so serene. Its what a quiet country life should be.