Tender Hearts Homestead

Fresh, Homemade Butter

 Kristi Cook

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Homemade butter is a simple pleasure that you can easily create in a short period of time.

Once you tackle the self-reliant lifestyle, you quickly discover there aren’t many things you can’t make yourself — and make better. For our family, this means better produce, better eggs, better meat, and much better dairy products. Among our favorites are homemade butter, sour cream, and farmer’s cheese. And you don’t even have to own a cow.

Select a milk. Raw milk, or milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized, produces the best tasting products. Goat, cow, sheep, even llama milk may be used, with each lending its own distinctive flavor and texture to the final product. This variety is what makes raw milk products so appealing.

However, if you’re unable to obtain raw milk, or just not comfortable with the whole idea, you can still make great tasting dairy products with pasteurized milk or cream. Just make sure the milk says "pasteurized" rather than "ultra-pasteurized," as ultra-pasteurized milk often will not work.

Two types of butter. Cultured butter is the butter your great-grandparents likely enjoyed and is produced with cream that has fermented, or "soured." It’s flavor is rather distinct, ranging from slightly tangy to profoundly soured. The intensity depends on how ripe the cream is and does require a bit of familiarity with your specific cream’s characteristics since various creams ferment at different rates. When obtaining cream for cultured butter, use only raw cream because pasteurized cream has lost the ability to ferment and must have cultures added in order to ripen safely (which is not covered here).

Sweet butter, on the other hand, has a more modern flavor and can be produced with both raw cream and pasteurized heavy whipping cream. (Again, be sure to avoid ultra pasteurized cream.) Raw cream tends to produce a richer, more vibrant yellow butter than pasteurized and has a much sweeter taste. However, pasteurized works just fine, usually resulting in a milder flavor much like the store bought varieties of sweet butter.

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A mason jar works perfectly for making small batches of butter.

Butter making in a nutshell. Or in a mason jar. Yes, you can still buy butter churns, but they really aren’t necessary unless you plan to make a lot of butter at one time. I find that simpler is better and opt for a single, quart-sized mason jar. The only other items needed are cheesecloth or a jelly strainer bag, a bowl, and a spoon.

For cultured butter, allow raw cream to sour naturally in the refrigerator (this may take a week or longer), or pour cream into a loosely covered mason jar — no more than three-quarters full — and leave in a warm location until it smells slightly soured. As a general rule, the more soured the cream is, the more soured, or tangy, the finished butter will be. Once you finish your first batch, you may wish to adjust the amount of time you allow the cream to ripen in order to obtain just the right flavor.

If you want sweet butter instead, place the raw or pasteurized cream in a lightly covered jar on a countertop and allow cream to come close to room temperature. Keep in mind that if the cream is left out past the "almost warm" stage, it will begin to sour if the cream is raw or go rancid if using pasteurized cream.

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You’ll know the butter is ready for washing when you see a large mass of butter curds in the jar.

Once cream has soured (for cultured butter) or warmed (for sweet butter), place lid and band onto jar. Briskly shake, "slamming" cream against the walls. You’ll notice a change in the cream’s movement as it thickens within 5-15 minutes. A little longer, and clumps of butter will form and the mixture will start to leave the walls of the jar. At this point, reduce shaking to a moderate level and continue until jar walls are clear.

When it appears all the butter curds have formed, pour contents into cheesecloth or towel to drain, catching the buttermilk in a glass container for later use. You’ll need to wash the butter next to keep the butter from souring during storage. To do this, use a spoon to move the curds around, pressing out as much buttermilk as possible. Gently rinse several times with cool water until water remains clear. Place washed butter in a bowl and add salt/seasonings, if desired. Store covered in the refrigerator or freeze for later use.

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Don’t throw out the remaining liquid. It’s a delicious buttermilk perfect for biscuits and pancakes — smothered in butter, of course!

Once you’ve enjoyed fresh, homemade butter, you’ll find commercially prepared butter much less appealing. The difference in flavor is enough to make almost anyone wish for a dairy animal of their own. The same holds true for virtually all homemade dairy products, so stay tuned for the next post I send along, as I will share how to make homemade sour cream and farmer’s cheese.

Render Your Own Tallow

Kristi Cook

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So you’ve decided to try your hand at creating old-fashioned tallow candles. Or maybe you’ve decided to make the switch from conventional shortening and vegetable oils to the more healthful and time honored practice of cooking with tallow. Whatever the case, rendering your own tallow from grassfed beef fat is both easy and satisfying. All it takes is a crockpot or large stock pot, a supply of beef fat, and time.

To get started, obtain the best quality beef fat possible, preferably from grassfed animals. It doesn’t really matter which part of the animal the fat comes from as it all makes fine cooking and crafting tallow. However, the fat located around the kidneys, also known as leaf fat, is the mildest tasting, cleanest, and hardest fat, making it the fat of choice when it’s available.

Once you have your fat in hand, you’ll need to trim off as much muscle tissue, skin, gristle, and other nonfat particles as you can. I have found this process is much easier if the fat is nearly frozen but not quite hard yet. If the kidney was left in the leaf fat, carefully trim the fat from the organ as cleanly as possible. It’s ok if you cut into the kidney, however, as any nonfat tissue will be rendered out in the end. Also, leaf fat tends to have a covering of clearish tissue surrounding it; just slice or pull as much of it away as possible. Again, any remaining pieces will be cooked out during the rendering process.

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After you’ve removed as much of the impurities as possible, cut the fat into small pieces to make the rendering process go faster. You can do this with a sharp knife or even kitchen shears; however, I prefer to grind all the trimmed pieces in a food processor until it resembles ground meat. To keep the fat from sticking to the blades, I usually toss any warm fat back into the frig for a couple of hours before grinding, but it’s not totally necessary.

For the rendering process, you can choose either the wet or dry method. Wet rendering is the practice of adding about 1/4 to 1/2 cup water to the pan to avoid burning the fat as it slowly melts. This added water also allows for a slightly reduced amount of stirring in the beginning. The main concern with wet rendering is that any water left in the final product will cause premature rancidity. However, as long as you render the fat completely the water will evaporate and won’t pose any issues.

Dry rendering is the same as the wet process, except no water is utilized. Rather, it involves slowly heating the fat in a crockpot, skillet, or pot with careful and frequent stirring used in the beginning to avoid scorching. The plus side is no concern over water remaining in the finished product. The downside is it can scorch easily if you heat it too quickly.

Regardless of which method you choose, slowly melt the fat over medium low heat (or the low setting on a crockpot) and stir frequently. You’ll notice changes as the fat begins to VERY slowly melt. Don’t be tempted to speed up the process though, as this increases the likelihood of burning. This is where patience becomes a virtue. The melting process itself may take half an hour to several hours depending on the size of your batch.

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While the melting process takes time, the rendering part always seems to go faster. After the fat has mostly liquefied, watch and listen for the fat to start hissing and spitting. This is the fat releasing it’s impurities, water, etc. You’ll see small pieces — sometimes called cracklings — float to the top. Take a large slotted spoon and remove these impurities as they appear to avoid smoking up your kitchen.

You’ll know the rendering is complete once you see clear liquid in the bottom and few remaining floaters and other debris throughout (provided you skimmed these off). At this point, remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool enough to be handled. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth and store in clean jars or pour into a pan and allow to cool. Personally, I prefer to store my tallow in the refrigerator and freezer, but the traditional practice was to keep a can of tallow on the stove so the cook could remove scoops as needed while making dinner. It’s your choice, just be watchful of rancidity regardless of your storage method.

Rendering your own tallow is a simple affair of gathering one ingredient and a single pot. Add to that a bit of time, and you’re well on your way to the best homemade cooking and handcrafted gifts. Once you’ve made your first batch, you’ll likely never go back to store bought imposters again.

Old-Fashioned Tallow Candles

Kristi Cook 

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Of all the self-reliant skills I’ve learned over the years, one of my favorites is turning ordinary animal fats into emergency lighting. I’m talking plain, old-fashioned candles using whatever animal fat is on hand just as our ancestors did. This often free and readily available material makes creating candles in a pinch an easy task to accomplish, with the added bonus of requiring only basic equipment commonly found in the kitchen, a few items from the tool shed, and purchased or handmade wicking material.

While paraffin and beeswax candle bases have been around for many years, animal fat remains the most reliable material in times of need. Free to the livestock owner and hunter, any animal fat — sheep, elk, caribou, bear — may be used with mostly minor differences. For instance, lard made from pig fat tends to be softer and faster burning than tallow from beef or venison, thus making it difficult to create pillars or dipped candles. However, this softer fat is well suited for container candles that have the added benefit of being tidy and drip free. Tallow, on the other hand, makes excellent pillars and dipped candles perfect for situations when drips and melting tallow can be contained.

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Molds and containers may also be made from readily available materials. Potato chip containers, waxed drink boxes, even sturdy, old paper towel rolls will work. These will, of course, be one use molds as they will need to be pulled off the candle prior to lighting. Other options include PVC pipe sliced down the middle to make a two piece mold. Just duct tape the two pieces together with a piece of cardboard taped to the bottom. Once the wax hardens and cools, cut the tape away and pull the candle out. For container candles, almost any nonflammable container will do. Old jelly jars, mason jars, soup cans, and even sturdy, heat proof pottery works nicely. Be creative, and you’ll find molds and containers just about anywhere.

Wicking is, perhaps, the most difficult aspect of candle making to master. The problem lies in the fact that each base (paraffin, soy, beeswax, etc.) and candle size requires a different type of wicking to produce the best burn. And while manufacturers have suggestions for which styles work best with each particular base, most do not list animal fats as an option. As a result, my general rule when using tallow and lard is to choose wicking made for softer waxes such as soy or vegan, yet this does not always work. So its best to experiment with a few small batches to determine which wicking works best for your situation.

If, however, you’re unable to access pre-made wicking, just find sources of cotton material such as old cotton clothing, bedsheets, or even cotton yarn. While the burn will not be as efficient as with pre-made wicking, handmade wicks work just fine when the need for emergency lighting becomes real. Simply cut thin strips of material and braid or twist together tightly. Soak wicking for several minutes in your candle base, remove, and hang or lay flat to allow to harden. For longer lengths, roll into a loose ball for easy storage and cut as needed. Again, experimentation is key.

Once you have everything in place, determine if you want to make pillars, containers, tapers, or votives. Each has its own set of benefits and downsides, so it’s wise to have a variety whenever possible. For low light that doesn’t travel far, small votives placed in a mostly covered container work quite well. For the brightest lighting, tapers and pillars seem to work best in a glass "lantern" style holder with reflectors. And yet, I like tin can or container candles best when little ones or pets are running underfoot.

Old-fashioned candle making is both a fun and useful skill to have using materials you may already have at home. When burning your own creation, you’ll discover a sense of comfort knowing you can fill the need for lighting in a pinch no matter the situation.

Candle Making Process

Using a double boiler, place rendered tallow, lard, etc. into a large pot. Heat over medium heat until fully melted. A thermometer is not really necessary for emergency candles since you’re not concerned about blemishes.

While fats are melting, cover workspace with paper to catch any drips, and set out/prepare molds and containers.

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Cut wicking several inches longer than needed. Tie a hex nut or other small, but heavy item to the end of the wick to keep the wick from floating in the container or curling when dipped. The hex nut will be removed from the hardened taper or recycled after the candle burns out. Alternatively, purchase wick tabs and glue dots to fasten wicking to the bottom of the container. Use pencils, bamboo skewers, or other items to keep the wick centered until the wax hardens.

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Once the base melts, add beeswax or stearic acid, if using, and gently stir until fully melted. Slowly pour wax into mold or container or begin making dipped tapers.

If making dipped tapers, dip quickly and hang wicking from a rack until hardened. Repeat dipping multiple times until taper is of the desired width. Once completed and fully hardened, cut the nut from the end of the taper and enjoy.

Perennial Onions

Kristi Cook

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Of all the pantry staples we grow on our homestead, producing a year-long supply of onions evaded me for many years. Not only do I tend to forget where I plant those spring onion sets as the garden grows, but I inevitably set out too few. Then a few will rot, others will be given away, and still others simply disappear (onion eating moles?). Finally, I had a eureka moment as I observed my perennial planting of asparagus and decided to try my hand at perennial onions. And I am so glad I did. These little gems produce onions throughout most of the winter and into early spring, perfectly filling the gaps left by my spring plantings of common onions. As an added bonus, they reproduce every year and stay in one place — much like my asparagus.

Common vs. Perennial

Most onions grown in home gardens are biennials, often referred to as the common onion. These are the little bunches of baby onions (or onion sets) usually found in wooden crates at the big box stores in early spring. Holes are dug; sets are plopped in. Within a couple of weeks, onion greens pop up signaling that it’s time to enjoy green onions. However, the patient gardener who foregoes this early spring treat is rewarded within a couple of months with varying sizes of onion bulbs ready for eating or winter storage. This cycle repeats itself every year with newly purchased bundles of onion sets.

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Fresh from the garden onion greens gracing the Christmas table are just one of the many benefits of perennial onions.

Not so with perennial onions. Usually planted in fall — or even early winter — onion greens are harvested throughout the cold winter months as individual greens are clipped from the growing plants (and occasionally in summer, depending on the variety) while bulbs are typically left in the ground to multiply into still more onions during the first year. Once established, bulbs may be dug up and enjoyed with dinner or stored for winter meals. To keep the perennial aspect of these onions intact, several bulbs are then set aside to create an ample supply for replanting the following year. Even better, depending on where you garden, most varieties may be left in the ground year round allowing for impromptu harvesting as the need arises, and divided once every few years.

Egyptian walking onion 

 The most interesting of the perennial onions, this unusual allium not only grows tasty shallot sized bulbs and greens, but it also produces a delicious cluster of bulblets at the top of its stem known as topsets. Once the topset becomes heavy enough, it causes the stem to bend to the ground allowing the bulblets to take root and grow into even more plants. Each of the new plants then carries on this cycle of growing topsets and planting themselves, thus creating the appearance of onions walking across the garden in a rather haphazard fashion. Alternatively, clusters may be removed and bulblets eaten or planted in a preferred location.

Potato onions

Often called multiplier onions, potato onions are planted as a single bulb in fall and produce greens throughout much of winter. Once spring arrives, the single bulb divides into two or more bulbs and is then ready for harvesting by division. Both large and small bulbs may be planted in the spring or fall with fall plantings typically producing the highest yields. However, you can leave the bulbs in the ground year round, only lifting bulbs to gather your family’s needs and dividing clumps of bulbs every couple of years.

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Blanch leeks by piling dirt or mulch around the stems as they grow. This produces the tasty white stems that leeks are best known for.

Perennial leeks

 While not technically an onion, but rather a cousin, perennial leeks may be grown year round and harvested throughout winter to be used in place of traditional onions or pulled at younger stages to be enjoyed like green onions. Smaller in size than their annual counterparts, perennial leeks produce bulbils around the bulbs that may be removed and replanted in spring. The key to great tasting leeks is blanching the stems, or blocking sunlight to prevent photosynthesis from turning the stem green. Blanch by piling dirt around the stem as it grows or place seedlings into deep holes if growth is present.

Egyptian walking onions, potato onions, and perennial leeks are not the only perennial options available, and each year I try to add at least one new variety to my perennial beds. Over time, I’m discovering my onion woes have been greatly diminished with the added bonus of each new variety adding even more flavor to our family dishes. And because we homestead and grow much of our own food, I relish the sustainability and time-saving qualities of planting each onion one time with little followup care needed. Now that’s a crop worth keeping.

Livestock Disposal Plans

Kristi Cook

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Have you ever tried to bury a horse with a shovel? Or a chicken in frozen ground? To avoid such difficulties and to prevent the spread of disease, groundwater contamination, foul odors, and pests, it’s wise to create a solid, actionable livestock disposal plan ahead of time. Landfills, rendering, and incineration are options available in many regions as well as the more traditional burial and composting, making a customized plan easier than ever.

Landfills

Utilizing your local landfill is a good option, particularly if you lack the space, equipment, or facilities for other methods. The most significant benefit is the immediate elimination of the risk for disease transmission and groundwater contamination once the carcass is removed. Other benefits include the lack of maintenance tasks common with traditional gravesites and composting systems.

However, this option can be pricey and often requires livestock owners to have the ability to transport carcasses to the landfill. Regulations may also require disposal permits or a cause of death certificate from a veterinarian stating the animal was disease free and not chemically euthanized. Landfills also tend to regulate which species of livestock they will accept.

Incineration and rendering

While there are only a few of these facilities in the U.S., these two options are worth consideration when available. Boasting the same benefits as landfills, professional incineration — not to be confused with open air burning, which is illegal in many states — leaves behind nothing but ashes, which may then be carried home for burial or scattered in a field or garden. Rendering, on the other hand, basically "cooks" a carcass at high temperatures, producing bone meal and other feedstuffs that may be used as fertilizer or in animal feeds.

Potential drawbacks include overall expense, transportation capabilities, and a loss of end products. Some facilities do not allow clients to reclaim ashes or rendered products, so be sure to ask ahead of time to avoid being disappointed.

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Most livestock disposal methods include a need for various types of heavy equipment, making preplanning even more important.

Burial

While burial is the most common disposal method, it is also the most misunderstood. Too often, improperly designed and poorly sited graves become banquet halls to rodents and other scavengers even as disgusting odors waft through the air, disturbing the neighbors, visitors and passersby. Even worse, as creatures dig up and carry off pieces of decomposing carcasses, the spread of disease to existing livestock and wildlife becomes a great concern. Sites located too close to groundwater further the potential for disease transmission to both animals and humans.

Yet, burial sites that keep not only the environment safe but also pleasant and pest free are easy to create and maintain. To assist in this task, most states and many localities regulate burials with guidelines that consider the region’s specific soil types, proper site selection, hole depths, and mounding height. Some extension offices will even send an agent to your location to help you predetermine the best site possible and guide you in the process to ensure safety precautions are maintained.

The benefits of onsite burial are many. You don’t have to move carcasses across town, and there’s usually no need for a cause of death certificate or permits. If the deceased is an endeared pet, gravesite visits are easily accessible. Overall costs, especially if you own the necessary equipment, are minimal compared to the other options.

There are, of course, a few negatives, depending on your outlook. If you do not have the necessary equipment, you’ll have to rent or borrow it. You do have to spend a decent amount of time digging a large hole or hire it out. Also, moving large animals into the grave can be less than graceful and may be disturbing to some family members, so care should be taken if sensitivities are present. And finally, graves tend to settle over time and may require re-mounding, which, again, may be a problem if you don’t own your own equipment.

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Poorly maintained graves like this one allow for grave collapse, stagnated and contaminated water, exposed carcasses, and disease transmission.

Composting

Did you know you can compost a cow? Livestock composting is nothing more than an aboveground grave with the carcass placed on top of a bed of a litter and completely covered with several more feet of the same material. The processes that decompose the carcass below ground are basically the same during aboveground composting.

As for benefits, there are several. Properly composting livestock emits no foul odors and will not attract animals — all while looking like nothing more than a giant heap of dirt sitting in your pasture. Disease transmission and water contamination risks are no higher than that of properly sited and maintained in-ground burials. Should you have the need to add another animal to the composting pile at a later date, it’s a fairly simple matter of resizing the pile and adding more material. Another major benefit is that composting is an option year round, even when the ground is covered in ice or snow. After a few months of waiting, you’ll be rewarded with an excellent end product devoid of recognizable animal material (with the exception of a few small, but very brittle and crushable bones) that may then be applied to gardens and fields as a pathogen-free fertilizer.

Like all good things, there are a few things to consider. Composting is also regulated, not only to avoid disease transmission and water contamination, but also to ensure neighbors, visitors, and passersby aren’t adversely affected. Permits and/or cause of death certificates may be required, while regulations may determine which materials may be used for the bedding and covering. Sufficient quantities of composting material must also be readily available and easily moved to the desired location. And just as in burials, you will need to have access to heavy equipment not only during setup, but also periodically to add material to the pile as it diminishes in size.

Planning ahead for livestock disposal makes the dreaded day run more smoothly, all while ensuring disease transmission and water contamination risks are not overlooked. So make your plans now, while your livestock are young and healthy.

Manage Your Flock's Feather Loss

Kristi Cook 

Autumn signals a time for change. Smoldering air turns crisp and cool. Green trees burn orange and gold. And chickens go commando. Well, some chickens do. While most are so discreet in their changing of feathers that the act goes unnoticed, rebels bare all for the world to see. However, when there’s a rapid loss of feathers among your flock, don’t assume your naked ladies and gents are simply replacing worn out plumage. Do a thorough flock check to rule out other causes and manage the situation as needed.

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This nearly naked hen is the victim of feather picking.

Causes of Feather Loss

Molt
The most common cause of feather loss is the annual molt. Fall’s reduced daylight hours and lower-intensity sunlight triggers the loss of old feathers and growth of new ones. Beginning at the head and working its way down, natural molting often makes chickens look as though they had a run-in with a blind barber while others merely experience minor balding. If you gently pull the feathers back, you will find a patch of pinfeathers pushing to the surface with complete replacement taking six to 16 weeks.

However, stress from disease, lack of water/feed, getting chilled, or a sudden removal of coop lighting can cause abnormal molting. This stress-induced feather loss may not follow the head to toe sequence of annual molting and often results in a slower or nonexistent development of new feathers. This type of molting leaves chickens especially prone to injury or death as the mercury drops, making immediate removal of these stressors necessary.

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Pinfeathers should be present in bare spots during an annual molt.

Cannibalism
Many flock owners misdiagnose naked or patchy chickens as being in molt. However, close inspection of the flock’s daily activities often reveals a mild, but not harmless, form of cannibalism known as feather picking. Victims usually have bare patches, which at times may be severe, out of sequence with molting with little to no pinfeathers present. Should pinfeathers begin to push through, you will find they quickly disappear. Given enough time, chickens can lose so many feathers they are virtually ready for the oven.

Feather picking is usually caused by bored, confined, or crowded chickens — and the occasional bully — that discover the hidden joys in plucking another’s feathers. Others find themselves drawn to a flock mate’s feathers (or their own) in an effort to obtain much needed protein when the daily protein ration is insufficient. Even mice and rats are attracted to protein-rich feathers, nibbling the ends or entire feathers while chickens roost at night. These causes of feather loss require vigilant rodent removal, adequate space, a well-balanced, protein-rich diet, plenty of foraging opportunities, and/or bully removal.

Love Bites
While technically not a form of cannibalism, let’s not forget the love embraces of a "lively" rooster. While most roos cause no harm to their harem during mating, some become over zealous and pluck or pull large quantities of a hen’s feathers. Should the unlucky lady be his favorite, she will likely not only be wounded, but bald in the head, neck, or shoulder regions and will need to be removed or saddled until feathers are replaced.

Parasites
Mite and lice infestations also result in feather picking as chickens seek relief from irritation and itchiness. While mites are often difficult to see, close inspection will reveal dark red, black, or tan specks crawling around the vent area and/or along the body, particularly around feather shafts. Some mites prefer to hide in the coop during the day, so a nighttime visit with a flashlight in hand to inspect the birds may be necessary. If you can’t make a coop visit at night, you may be able to see small specks of blood-filled mites crawling along the roost or hiding in nesting boxes during the day. Lice, on the other hand, spend their entire lives on hosts and can be readily discovered by gently brushing feathers back and looking for tan or white lice crawling along the body. You will also see lice eggs, or nits, attached to the base of feathers.

Left untreated, infestations lead not only to significant feather loss but also to weakened, sickly, and even dead birds. Approved treatments regularly change and depend on whether chickens are show birds, meat birds, or layers, so a trip to your local veterinarian is your best option when selecting insecticides. Alternatively, adding diatomaceous earth or wood ashes to the flock’s dusting areas and along coop flooring also works for many flocks — including my own — however, there is considerable debate among chicken keepers regarding their use and safety (as there is with chemical alternatives), so do a little research before you decide.

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Suspect cannibalism or parasites when pinfeathers disappear or seem to never emerge.

Promote Feather Growth

Feathers consist of approximately 85 percent protein, so feather growth creates a protein deficiency when molting chickens (or any chicken actively growing feathers) are fed the typical 16 percent protein ration. Most birds compensate for the higher protein demands by either reducing or completely halting egg production until plumage is completely replaced. However, you can help your flock along by switching to an 18 percent protein feed for both hens and roosters over the age of 16 weeks. For many hens, this small increase is all that is needed to speed along feather growth while allowing better egg production throughout the process. You can return to layer feed once the flock is feathered out.

In addition to switching to higher protein feed, don’t overlook allowing chickens to supplement their own diet, when possible, by foraging for worms, grubs, and other protein-rich snacks. Offering mealworms, non-poultry meat scraps, night crawlers, or small amounts of non-poultry, meat-based cat food also works well.

Determining the exact cause of feather loss, regardless of the season, is the deciding factor when managing your flock during this stressful time. Hopefully your guys and gals are simply molting and will come along just fine. However, should other causes be the culprit, quick identification and immediate action will get your flock back to normal in no time.

Extra Sweet Winter Carrots

Kristi CookBesides eating the fruits of my labor, one of my greatest joys with homesteading is found in continuous experimentation. Every year I make it a point to grow a new variety, a new species, or try some new and interesting method. Without fail, this curiosity leads to lessons learned both for the good and for the not so good. When I began experimenting with fall and winter gardening, I decided to give carrots a try, and am so glad I did. Not only did carrots prove to be easy, but they also taste far superior to their summer counterparts.

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Growing winter carrots is easy, and roots can be harvested throughout the winter

months anytime the ground isn’t frozen solid.

Site location.

While summer carrots happily grow in loose, friable soil in both in-ground beds and raised ones, winter carrots tend to prefer raised beds placed in full sun. Because the roots will be dormant by winter, little excess moisture will be removed making the raised bed’s increased drainage key to keeping carrots from rotting in the cold, wet soil.

Prepare the soil.

Soil preparation for winter crops requires the same attention as spring and summer gardens. Apply 1 to 2 inches of quality compost and mix into the top several inches of soil. Remove weeds as they appear, as carrot roots will become forked and disfigured if forced to grow around and through the weeds.

Calculate for best planting time.

With winter crops, slightly immature vegetables fare cold weather better than fully mature ones, so you want your carrots to reach only partial maturity by the time heavy frosts appear. Once you have your first fall planting date, subtract two to three weeks off that total time and begin planting seeds for winter at the new estimated date. Follow up every week with another planting of seeds until about two weeks before your first expected frost date. Label each planting and record in a gardening journal to keep track of progress.

Once your seedlings begin growing, thin to 2 inches apart. About two weeks before your first frost date, dig a little in the dirt or pull up a root or two to monitor progress. You’re looking for what many refer to as baby carrots, about 3 to 4 inches long and about as big around as your thumb. Make notes again in your journal regarding each planting date’s size to remind you the following year which dates produced the best-sized carrots.

Store in the ground.

One of the great benefits of winter carrots is that you don’t have to find extra storage space for them. Just leave these little guys in the ground throughout winter and harvest whenever the ground isn’t frozen. In areas with mild winters, a layer of mulch placed atop the carrot bed will often suffice to keep the ground from freezing. However, where temps turn bitterly cold and the ground freezes solid for much of the winter, you may wish to keep carrots covered with a low tunnel or cold frame. This will often allow you to continue harvesting your winter stash no matter what the weather is doing.

While carrots any time of year are a good staple to have around, there’s something special about pulling an extra sweet carrot out of the ground for Christmas dinner. And with only a tiny bit of care, growing winter carrots is the perfect way to start a winter garden.