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Panthers Hollow

Hitting My Stride with the Geese

Jennifer Quinn

Geese grazing

I’ve written before about the hardships of keeping my three geese confined 24-7 now that the breeding season has begun ("The Challenges of Geese in Confinement"). I’ve vacillated between letting them go — which at first resulted in their disappearing for days at a time — and reconfining them lest one should make a nest somewhere down by the creek and be lost to me, at least for the breeding season. Not only was I concerned for their safety, but I wanted to collect their eggs after the trouble and expense I’ve put into housing and feeding them!

For a while I was concerned because I wasn’t finding any eggs even a couple of weeks after seeing the first mating activity. I thought maybe the confinement was too stressful for them, so I started letting them out again during the day. Then one evening after a long absence, I found them back on my property, lounging in and around an open shed.

As it happened there was some straw on the ground in the shed, and I noticed one of the females setting on a mound of straw. After a while she got up and left, and sure enough, in a depression in the straw, there was an egg. Then I discovered another nest in the straw with another egg!

Still, I didn’t think an open shed was the safest location for nesting, so I placed large cardboard cartons in their shelter that I hoped would make acceptable nest boxes, filled them with straw, and placed the eggs in them. Later I found the eggs rolled out or buried under the straw. But new eggs were laid, not in the nest boxes but in mounds of straw like the ones they had made earlier.

I started keeping them confined again, hoping once they got in the habit of laying in the shelter they’d be inclined to stick around. It seems to have worked. Every now and then I’d let them out for a day if I wouldn’t be around to bring them fresh water and greens. They always came back in the evening. Finally, I started letting them out every morning, and most days they haven’t even left the property. Now that they’re in a routine with their egg laying, they seem to prefer staying close to home, the gander included. And I’m getting a nice, big, goose egg almost every day!

Not So Fast, Jennifer

Jennifer Quinn

First eggs

Earlier I wrote about having the opportunity to raise some pullets for a customer (“My First Chicken Customer”). This would be my first experience using an incubator, but after thoroughly studying the instructions and setting it up in a suitable spot, I didn’t think much could go wrong. My Little Giant Still-Air Incubator® holds about 40 eggs, and I was only setting ten, so I arranged them in a single row around the heating element. After candling the eggs a couple of times (something I’m not very good at yet), I concluded that four of them were infertile. Well — I got three of them right, but when I broke the fourth one, unfortunately it did seem to have an embryo, though perhaps it had died. All the others did definitely seem viable, except for one that I wasn’t sure about.

All seemed to go well for a couple of weeks; then one day I noticed that the temperature sensor, which is supposed to rest on top of the eggs, had slipped off. I didn’t know how long it had been like that, since I hadn’t opened the incubator all day; resting it on a single row of eggs was a little tricky, so it could have been gradually dislodged by the motion of the automatic egg turner. Anyway, I replaced it on the eggs, and to my horror the temperature reading began to climb until it reached over 105 degrees! The correct temperature is 99.5, which is what the incubator was set for. Apparently it gets a lower reading where there aren’t any eggs.

So I removed the cover and let it cool as quickly as possible. Now, you would think it might have occurred to me to arrange some eggs in a square, where the temperature sensor would more likely stay put. But I guess I didn’t have my thinking cap on. Would you believe the same thing happened again a few days later? And this time I hadn’t thought to add water for a day or two, and I think the incubator may also have dried out.

After 22 days no eggs were hatching, so I unplugged the incubator and took the six remaining eggs out to the compost, breaking each one to see what was in it. One did have a nearly-developed chick that had died. But, surprisingly, five of them seemed to have nothing but a yolk. Now, I had retained these in the incubator because, when candling, I saw a large dark area in them, though I couldn’t make out the embryo or network of blood vessels that you’re supposed to see, whereas the ones that I got rid of allowed the light to pass through evenly.

At first I assumed that the five eggs had been infertile, which would make eight infertile out of ten(!) I wondered if the age of the parents was to blame — eight to nine months at the time the eggs were collected. I had read that very young birds can have low fertility, but I’m not sure how young is “very young.” Then I realized I had forgotten you’re supposed to tilt the eggs first one way then the other when you’re storing them, so that the embryos don’t become stuck. Apparently they need to be able to rotate freely in the egg while incubating. So maybe they were fertile after all, but just never developed.

The one (very) experienced chicken breeder I’ve consulted replied that he never tilted eggs until recently, but hadn’t had a problem. Then again, he’s never collected eggs from birds that young, but hatches them early enough so they’re 10 or 11 months old by start of the breeding season. I'll have to research this a bit, but I guess I'll need a more mature flock before I try this again. (And maybe more practice with the incubator!)

Pruning, Tying, and Spreading

Jennifer QuinnWith the early onset of spring, the first thing I’ve had to think about is care of my fruit trees and shrubs. I knew I’d need to prune the elderberries and blackberries, so I had that on my schedule for March. Ideally, that would have been done while the shrubs were still dormant, but with the unseasonably warm weather everything took me by surprise and started leafing out early! Still, I managed to get to them while the leaves were tiny, so I figured better late than never.

I read that elderberries should be hard-pruned in the third year. That’s something I had overlooked until now, with the bushes in their fourth year and not yet pruned. I’m not sure exactly what hard pruning means, but I figured I should be fairly ruthless. There was a lot of dead wood to be trimmed off, and I knew I should get rid of those tall, straight stems in the middle that didn’t have any side branches on them. Then there were all the little branches that were crossed or too close together. I’m amazed what a time-consuming chore this can be — scrutinizing the shrub from all sides and deciding what to keep and what to cut.

I had to spread the work out over two days but finally had all five elderberries done, and I must say they look a whole lot better. Here’s the biggest one after pruning:

Pruned elderberry

Then there were the blackberries. These, I understood, should be thinned by removing the weaker canes, and the remaining ones should be cut back to no more than seven feet. Having done that, I needed to tie them to the ropes and wires since they were falling all over and lying on top of each other. Here’s the result:

Blackberries tied

As for the old apple trees I inherited when I moved here, I gave them a really serious pruning last year so none this year. Instead I’ve been busy spreading cardboard, rugs, and tarps all around them in an effort to kill the weeds because I plan to seed the area with mammoth red clover later on. I learned that the corky spots on the apples are probably caused by a calcium deficiency, and the clover is supposed to mine calcium from deeper in the soil, besides fixing nitrogen which should help them, too.

Last spring I did something that might seem foolish — I bought a yellow delicious apple tree that I saw outside the supermarket. I know you’re supposed to get your trees from reputable nurseries, but I couldn’t afford that and really wanted a new apple tree. I thought: for just fifteen dollars, what do I have to lose? But then I spent about another ten dollars for a planting mix, not having heard the new theory that it’s better not to improve the soil around a tree lest the roots just grow around in a circle and not spread out.

Anyway, the soil seemed rather poor in the only spot I could find for the tree, so maybe it needed all the help it could get. After planting the tree I seeded the area around it with crimson clover, which has grown nicely. And in the fall I planted garlic there, too, having heard that it’s good for apple trees. I’m not sure why — maybe it deters apple maggots and other such pests?

Of course, the tree looked like a fork when I got it, so I set about making spreaders to separate the branches. This I did by lashing two forked sticks together. In some cases I had to hang a jug of water from the spreader to weight it down, since they have a way of creeping up and falling out. It’s especially difficult here in the "holler" because things tend to grow taller than normal. It seems they’re reaching up to try to get more sunlight.

The tree has grown noticeably since I planted it and had some weak growth that needed to be pruned off. I saw where it needed a few more spreaders, too, so I added a couple of those. I think I need one more, but I have to put a ladder in there to get up and reach it. Here it is, though, all nicely spread out:

Apple tree with spreaders

My strawberries are already emerging, so the other day I got the bed all weeded out and planted about 40 onions in there. Looks like I’m pretty well set with my fruit crops for this year!

The Challenges of Geese in Confinement

Jennifer Quinn

Geese confined

Recently I wrote about the need to confine my three geese now that the breeding season has begun, lest the females start nesting someplace outside and become prey to the abundant wildlife here ("The Geese Discover their Freedom"). I was apprehensive about confining them since they’ve recently had the run of several mostly-vacant properties, including a small hayfield and an expansive lawn adjoining a big creek. Only a couple of weeks ago, I spotted them swimming up the creek quite a way from here. And the only place I can confine them is in the roughly 7-by-12-foot shelter where they’ve been spending nights since they came here.

As it turns out, they haven’t taken well to confinement, nor have I. Reluctantly, I’ve been trudging up the hill to their shelter two or three times a day with buckets of water and piles of fresh greens, only to be pecked at by the gander, who seems to resent my intrusion. I’ve been told if he’s becoming aggressive that’s good, because it means the girls are getting ready to start laying and he's defending them.

Well after almost two weeks of confinement they hadn’t laid a single egg, though I’d witnessed a couple of matings (or attempted matings, at least — it’s hard to be sure). And every time I went up there they were pawing at the gate like prisoners trying to escape. It was hard to blame them — I wouldn’t like being confined in there, either, though it’s a nice enough shelter if you’ve never known freedom.

One day I went up there in the early afternoon, and as far as I could tell they hadn’t even touched the greens I brought in the morning or the mix of grain and layer ration I had given them. One of the geese had slipped out earlier when I wasn’t quick enough to shut the gate and was having a grand old time nibbling on grass and dabbling in mud puddles. It seemed to me that when your prisoners go on a hunger strike, it’s time to sit up and take notice. It was a beautiful day, if a little windy, so I gave in and let them out, trusting they’d be back in the evening. You should have seen them run shrieking down the hill with their wings flapping. Boy, were they thrilled to have their freedom!

Evening came, and no geese. After dark, I thought I heard them making their low, chuckling sounds in the woods behind the chicken coop, then there was silence. Next morning when I headed into town, they weren’t to be seen anywhere. I was beginning to fear the worst, but at the end of a long day I was coming back over the swinging bridge when I spotted them on my neighbor’s lawn, near the water’s edge. When I called to them and clapped, they shrieked and honked a bit and started moving toward me, then seemed to think better of it.

The neighbor only uses his property as a weekend getaway, and I haven’t seen him all winter. But I was beginning to think he was in for a surprise — he might just have acquired a trio of geese! Later in the evening, though, I looked out just in time to see three geese strolling sedately up the road toward my driveway. At first they flirted with returning to their shelter but declined to go in, even after I poured out a fresh supply of feed for them. Finally, just before dusk, they capitulated, digging into the bowl of grain with some gusto while I quickly exited and shut the gate behind them.

I’m going to have another go at confinement, hoping this time someone will start laying soon. If one of the girls would make a nest in there and go broody, that should keep them close to home, I would think, since the gander would stay around to defend her. I hope so, because I sure can’t see keeping this up for the entire summer!

My First Chicken Customer

Jennifer Quinn

Greyscale on fence with hen

Recently, I posted about an extra rooster I didn’t know what to do with (“What to Do About a Shy Rooster?”), since I was in the beginning stages of building my Icelandic breeding flock and had only a few hens and pullets. Finally, it came to me that the thing to do was to post him on Craigslist, hoping someone would be shopping for a rooster and be willing to try an unusual breed. So I posted him for 15 dollars, which is cheap for an Icelandic rooster, but not for one that I probably should have culled in the first place.

Sure enough, that same evening I got a call from a guy who lives only a few miles from me and had seen the ad. He wanted to know if I had any hens to go with the rooster. He had gotten interested in Icelandic chickens after seeing a picture and admiring their plumages. Well, with only one mature hen and three pullets I was reluctant to part with any, but I finally decided I could offer him my least productive pullet along with the rooster (an 8-month-old cockerel, actually) for 25 dollars. I had a sale!

Then it occurred to me that if I collected eight or ten eggs from my remaining hens/pullets (one of which is an amazing egg-layer) and popped them in the incubator, I could probably hatch out a few more pullets for him by summer. They’d be mostly siblings or half-siblings, but since he’s not planning to breed them I figured it wouldn’t matter. And if I cull all the cockerels, I’ll have an abundance of chicken meat later. I suggested that to my new customer, and he said he’d like to have the pullets. So now I have my incubator purring away with ten very nice eggs, all of which look viable so far.

When I began keeping Icelandic chickens I was thinking I might be able to sell some, since the breed is rare and no one else seemed to be selling them in my area. At the time, there was a self-editing list of breeders on the Icelandic Chicken Facebook page, and I thought — once I had a little flock established — I could add myself. Then, the association began limiting the list to approved breeders, with a requirement of 25 birds minimum, including at least 3 roosters.

Fair enough, I thought, but if I can raise 20 new birds each season from outside sources and need to cull at least 60 percent of the pullets (the standard for effective breeding), it will take me about five years to get to the requisite 22 hens. Now it occurs to me that each year I might hatch some pullets from my own stock and offer them for sale, along with a perfectly good extra cockerel from outside. If I don’t need more than two or three roosters at a time, I’ll probably always have extra cockerels that are too good to cull. And since they won’t be related to the pullets from my own flock, they could form a little nucleus flock that someone could build on. And that could really help me cover costs while I’m building my breeding flock. How’s that for a business plan?

The Geese Discover their Freedom

Jennifer Quinn

Geese with forsythia

Late last summer I acquired a trio of geese, thinking they’d help me keep the grass and weeds under control since I was finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the mowing. At first I was concerned about whether they’d make use of the small stream on my property for bathing, since I don’t have a pond. I even went so far as to make a bathtub for them with logs and black plastic!

I needn’t have worried. Soon they were splashing around in the stream to their heart’s content and floating on the small area that was deep enough to hold them up. Later I saw them visiting another part of the stream farther down. Then one day, I walked down the private road and spotted them swimming on a neighbor’s pond, which worried me a bit because I know there are big snapping turtles in there. The neighbor wouldn’t mind, because he’s rarely there and only uses the property for hunting, and he’s assured me he wouldn’t shoot one of my birds by mistake. That’s good, because often I’ve seen my birds foraging over there — not only the geese, but the chickens and guineas. Here they are after a swim on the pond:

Geese flapping at Tignorsreduced

With the onset of spring weather, they’ve been wandering farther and farther afield. One day recently I was surprised to see them all the way down by the big creek — a few hundred feet from my property. They started disappearing for entire afternoons, returning only at dinnertime. Then one day, I walked down the road to the creek and couldn’t see them anywhere, though they weren’t at my place either.

I got in my car to drive into town, and about a quarter of a mile up the road I looked over toward the creek, and there were my geese, making their way upstream! Of course, they were back at the house at dinnertime, announcing their presence with loud squawks and shrieks. “Here we are — ready for dinner!”

So what good are these geese to me now? Instead of grazing the lawn, they just go where they can find the best forage — definitely not my yard. I guess now I have to settle for getting eggs and maybe some goslings that I can sell. They’ve already begun mating, so I should start seeing eggs any day. But I just realized I have to keep them confined throughout the breeding season so the females don’t go off and make a nest who-knows-where. Not only would I not get the eggs, but by setting on a nest day and night the geese would be at high risk of getting killed with all the predators around.

Now I have to haul a bucket of water up to the shelter twice a day, along with heaps of grass and weeds that I’ve cut for them. And still all they want is to be let out. They’re slow to eat the food I bring them, and as of Day Two neither of the girls has laid an egg. Plus the gander makes threatening advances at me when I come in to feed them. But at least they’re not hanging out by the back gate pooping there all day. It’s kind of nice not to have to clear away poopy straw every time I go out my back door!

A Little Adventure Beats the Winter "Blahs"

Jennifer Quinn

House in winter

Homesteading sometimes involves a lot of tedium, especially in the winter and especially if you live alone. So recently, on a balmy morning, I decided to do something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I moved here: climb the ravine behind my house to the property line at the top of the ridge. I had planned to do some work outside in the morning, but figured I could do this first and still have some time left. I had always wanted to see what the view was like from up there, and my curiosity finally got the better of me. So I put on my hiking boots, grabbed my sturdiest walking stick, and headed out.

The climb turned out to be a bit longer and more strenuous than I had imagined; I remembered why I had started out a couple of times before and had given up before getting very far. Since the little stream that runs down the ravine was at a minimum, I could walk in the stream bed most of the way without getting my feet wet. But there were places where the rocks were either slippery or too steep to climb, and I had to detour up the slope on one side or the other. That was more challenging since there was very little to hold onto, and I couldn’t go fully upright without sliding.

Still, I finally made it to the top and got to enjoy a few peaceful moments of solitude and reflection on a carpet of dry leaves, under a canopy of bare trees and blue sky. By now it was almost midday, and all was quiet except for the occasional sound of a car or a farm machine in the distance. An orange-brown butterfly flitted through the branches — the first I had seen this season. In the picture below you can see the ravine I just climbed on your left. Not far behind me is a tree with a piece of orange tape that marks my property line.

Top of ravine--sml file

I had been curious to see what was on the other side, but all I could see was another spine extending away from the ravine since all the slopes were completely wooded. Still, I had a nice view of the tops of the other ridges against the blue sky. I couldn’t help thinking what a nice spot it would be for a campsite, until I realized what it would be like lugging a tent up there, along with water and all! Soon, I thought I’d better head back down. Here’s what the descent looks like:

Looking into ravine--sml file

Going back down was faster but more challenging — part of the way I was just sliding by the seat of my pants! What a relief it was when I saw my chicken coop come into view, then my house. As for the morning work plan, though — forget about it. I spent most of the day recuperating.