Sunday, May 26, 2013

Spring on the Backyard Farm

 Our city farming chores began this spring with re-queening our beehive.  The colony successfully survived it's second winter, which makes us happy, and content with our version of beekeeping that is a little more hands-off than many beekeepers.  However, after the swarming and subsequent self-re-queening that occurred last summer, we ended up with a pretty  grouchy colony in the fall.  Our first attempts to check in on them this spring reconfirmed their general anti-social genepool so we made the decision to re-queen.

We ordered our new queen and tried to keep her alive long enough for it to stop raining so we could do the ol' switcheroo.  What we needed to do was systematically go through the hive to find the old queen, dispatch her, leave the hive queen-less for two days until they were getting nervous about not having a queen around, then introduce the new queen causing a wave of relief amid the bees to increase their likelihood of "accepting" her. 

We don't use marked queens, so in our three seasons of beekeeping, we've only seen our queen one other time, so we knew it was going to be difficult to find her.  Adding to that the grouchy (read: sting-happy) colony, and poor spring weather we knew we were in for quite the needle in a haystack hunt.  But we suited up, ultimately prevailed, and I was the only one that ended up getting stung.  (On my big belly of course, because I couldn't button up my bee shirt over the baby!)  But, the colony is now busily buzzing away for the season.

 The chickens all weathered the winter fine and began laying again mid-February.  But mid-March we went on vacation for spring break.  We were only going to be gone a few days so we simply filled up the chickens' water and food and left.  We came back to a big pile of 14 eggs in the laying box, and thought it had all gone off smoothly.

 Until we realized that the two bantams (our 3rd-year mini-hens) wouldn't leave the nesting box, and had stopped laying their little miniature eggs.  That big pile of eggs in the nesting box made their mothering instincts kick into gear, so all they could think about was raising baby chicks.  So they stopped laying eggs, and would sit all day in the nesting box trying to hatch the (unfertilized) eggs the other hens were laying.

Florence finally broke out of this broody nonsense about 4-5 weeks after we got back, but Gertrude, here, is still going strong in her broodiness.  We may have to take some drastic measures (more drastic than me going out a couple of times a day and just tossing her out into the run off the laying box) to get her to knock it off.

Since we don't know how long we'll be here we didn't get any laying hen chicks this year--but it's really hard to resist those baby chicks at the farm store.   Jeremy decided he really wanted to raise a few meat birds instead.  So we just picked up the one breed our store carried--the Cornish Cross.

We were already a bit morally opposed to the breed (they're the ones that have been bred to grow so quickly that they often die of heart attacks before reaching their 7-week accelerated maturation date because their hearts just can't keep up), but after raising them we are even more certain that we would never buy that breed again.  The crazy thing is, they not only grow too fast for their heart, but I think they grow too fast for their brains too!  They were so stupid--for lack of a better word--but when you thought about it, it made sense because they were really just baby chicks still, but had the bodies of full-grown chickens.

They just seemed a little more sickly as well.  We never put them around the other chickens--there's a risk of the chicks having disease from their hatchery, so since they weren't going to be permanent members of the flock, we didn't risk putting them together.  They had really watery droppings.  But once they got big enough that we let them start wandering the yard a little bit (so they were eating grass and things) their droppings solidified.  That just reconfirmed the validity of some of our chicken-raising practices as well. 

Sadly, (icky real-life stuff ahead warning) we came home from church last week to find the chickens had been attacked.  Our best guess is it was a yappy- neighborhood dog, because it attacked all four of them, they were all wounded on their back-sides (like they were running away from something), but it wasn't actually able to kill any of them--it left that job for Jeremy and me.  So, we processed the birds, cutting the meat away from their nipped backsides, freezing the rest, and making stock from the carcasses. 

One of the saddest things about this is that one of the reasons we raise our own birds, is to give them a less traumatic existence and death than the commercial alternative.  We want them to live happily and die peacefully.  So, unfortunately this was not a calm, humane death for our chickens, we don't know how long they were out there wounded after being attacked.  But, these are the realities of keeping animals, and on a country farm it would just be foxes and hawks we'd be dealing with instead.  This simply is the reality of animal husbandry.

But these experiences do make us feel like we've earned the right to call ourselves backyard "farmers". 

And since we have no immediate plans to leave we added summer crops to our vegetable garden.   The peas, broccoli, cabbage, onions, and kale were already doing well, so we added tomatoes, peppers, basil, and some runner beans.  We will still be adding more, but this spring was really crazy.  We got snow 10 days after our "last annual frost date" this year!  So everything is a bit behind.

And who knows with the baby coming (this week, maybe? please!) this may be all the planting we get to this summer.  But, there's always fall crops!

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