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Signs of Spring on the Homestead

March 29, 2011

It has been feeling more like early December than late March around here, but the season is showing its true colors, thermometer be damned. We have the usual early spring suspects popping up here and there and everywhere; crocuses and snowdrops have bloomed in the woods and around the yards and the daffodils are a good six-inches-tall and sport swelling buds in answer to the burgundy buds decorating the tops of red maples. There have been reports of river herring in the local run, though I remain a bit skeptical at this moment. (Are you sure those weren’t shadows you’re seeing, or hopeful dreams?) I held off on the traditional St. Patrick’s Day planting of snow peas, having watched many early plantings fall victim to freezing-cold weather interrupted only by torrential downpours. The first week of April is a safer bet, if you don’t want to be replanting peas amidst the rotten sludge of the primary effort.

The garden is still freezing at night, though the garlic shoots surge skyward, and pond fishing for Spring trout hasn’t been very comfortable, but there are some indications that spring has, in fact, arrived. I collected the first duck eggs of the season yesterday. The ducks went on strike in November and didn’t lay a single egg during the long, cold winter. The chickens were more reliable employees – at their least productive the 15 hens laid somewhere around three or four eggs a day. As soon as the weather warmed to 40-degrees for a few days, they were up to ten eggs a day, more or less. The ducks aren’t a great disappointment, as I didn’t bring them to the farm for eggs. I started with a small group – five at the time of this writing – as a way of learning what it is like to care for ducks, before ordering a couple dozen for meat. Who knows, if one of the hens gets broody and hatches us some ducklings, I may be able to take the experiment to the next level and learn about the differences between butchering ducks and chickens.

Spring also means goat babies, and our does are “bagging up”, which means their udders are filling in expectation of lactation. I had thought for a time our Toggenburg was not pregnant, but remembered from last year that she carried low and underneath, while the Saanen/Nubian doe tends to carry higher, like she’s ingested a whole watermelon that is lodged perpendicular to her spine. My concern about the Tog was quickly assuaged; in the past week her udder has filled and her sides are beginning to bulge.

Luna, the Saanen/Nubian spends most of her day sitting beside this tree. Her mother, Ridgeback, exhibited the same behavior when pregnant with this doe. She would almost wedge herself between the goat house and a maple tree; I wondered if she was leaning on the tree to take some of the pressure off her sides, or maybe leaning on it for strength and comfort. It’s little moments like these – watching a unique behavior being passed down from mother to daughter – that remind me I may one day tire of the karmic burden of knowing my food and become a vegetarian or someone who only eats what they hunt. At this point, a hunt-only diet of meat would, despite the substantial fire-power in my homestead, find me basically a clammatarian, with copious amounts of fish, crustaceans and other sea-creatures in the summer, but without any pork, poultry or red meat. While we’ve not eaten any dairy goats, the does were bred to a meat goat buck this year, so we will be entering a new world with our kids this year. Milk and cheese will be in abundance, if all goes according to plan, and we may be able to provide some good goat meat to someone who enjoys it. I’m preferring not to think about that eventuality as I wait expectantly for cute, cuddly kids.

When weather allows, early spring demands tending of the honeybee hives. I’ve started feeding the bees, a traditional late-winter practice for beekeepers. The bees may have worked through the honey they stored last summer, and supplementing with sugar syrup can save a hive that is close to starvation. I was sad to see that one of our three hives expired sometime in the last month. The small colony revealed its cause of death upon examination. All those little bee behinds sticking out of the cells in the honeycomb are evidence of a colony trying desperately to find any last drop of honey in the hive. Those bees who aren’t abdomen-deep in the cells seem almost alive or frozen in time, but they are all dearly departed.

This was the last of the two nucleus colonies we purchased last spring from Merrimack Valley Apiaries. A nucleus colony is usually three to five frames of bees with the queen installed and accepted. Many beekeepers use package bees, which consists of a box of bees and a queen with several worker bees in a cage, and they usually come from somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. The bees must be installed in the hive and the queen is placed in the hive in her cage. A small block of candy impedes her entry to the hive, and she and her workers eat their way out. This gives the bees the opportunity to get to know her scent before she mingles with them. Without this courtship, they might kill her.

I started out with Frank Lagrants’ nucleus hives featuring Northern-bred queens in 2002, and hadn’t had to buy more bees until last spring. I wasn’t in the mood to drive to western Mass to load my car with bees, so I picked up the Merrimack Valley nucs. One dwindled and crashed a month after I bought it, and I thought there might have been something amiss with the queen. We captured two swarms during the summer, insulating three colonies for winter. I’m now feeding two hives, one very populous and one slightly weaker, but both hived swarms and both stronger than either nuc. I’m relatively certain these bees swarmed from a neighbor’s attic, where there has been an active colony for decades. Who knows, maybe we have our own little homegrown crop of Cape Cod bees, featuring Northern-bred, Cape Cod queens.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Lillian Kuo permalink
    March 29, 2011 6:04 pm

    I am wondering if you have any idea about what to do with a hen that seemed to have
    broken one leg. She is our favorite hen,and now sits in a box and unable to move.
    Otherwise eats and drink well….does broken leg heal itself?

    • March 29, 2011 6:50 pm

      Lillian – I’m sorry to hear that. In principle, I would think it is possible that the leg could heal, but it would probably depend on the type of fracture and a whole host of other variables (age, weight, health of bird, other injuries, etc.) I kept a hen in our garage all winter, after she suffered an injury. I think it was a cracked keel. I had to put her out of her misery after months of care revealed she could never rejoin the flock without the other birds pecking her all the time. (Nice friends.) I’ve had other injuries, but the birds that have gone on to live with the others have all regained mobility. If you get to the point where her condition has deteriorated or you can no longer care for an invalid bird, you are welcome to bring her over for a swift end to her suffering.

      • Lillian Kuo permalink
        March 30, 2011 5:15 am

        Thanks! I will keep observing her. We just feel sorry that she was the most
        adventurous of all and now has to sit in a box all day. Great to hear about
        ducks. We were so tempted to get a few after reading Carol Deppe’s book
        “the resilient gardener”. Did you construct a pond for them?

  2. March 30, 2011 7:18 pm

    The ducks have been wonderful pets. They are entertaining to observe. I am using a kiddie pool at the moment, with a drain plug in the bottom. The ducks pull the plug out constantly. When I have the time I will build a pool out of wood with a threaded metal pipe extending from a side, close to the ground, and they won’t be able to remove the drain stopper, because it will be screwed on to the “outside” end of the pipe. (Design recommended by a friend with poultry experience.)

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