Monday, December 3, 2012

Wheat Grass Success and a Plague of Flies

After mixed results with my first attempt to grow wheat grass for my poultry, I decided to follow the experts' recommendations to the letter. The result has been amazing. If you have enough space for several trays at once, you can easily grow enough wheat grass to form the core of your poultry's diet. But I'm getting ahead of myself just a bit. Here's how I did it.

  • Something with good drainage to plant the wheat grass in. I bought a set of nursery flats like these to use, plus some additional flats without drain holes to nest them in (keeping the water from spilling all over my counter). You'll need two sets of the flats with holes because you'll use one as a cover when your grass is getting started. 
  • Potting soil or vermiculite. I keep vermiculite on hand, so that's what I used. 
  • Liquid kelp or other organic liquid fertilizer. This is optional, but useful, especially if you are going to get multiple cuttings of your wheat grass.
  • Sprouting seeds. I experimented using both hard white wheat from my food storage as well as a mix Sprout People sells called "Kat Grass"
  • A spray bottle 

Step One: Soak the wheat

Soaking the wheat

Measure out enough wheat to densely cover the bottom of your sprouting tray. Then place the wheat in a jar of cool water, stir, and allow to soak for 8-12 hours.

Step Two: Pre-sprout

See the tiny roots? This wheat is ready to plant. 

Drain and thoroughly rinse the soaked wheat. Then, put the wheat back in the jar you soaked it in or in a sprouter. I used my handy, dandy Victorio 4-Tray Kitchen Seed Sprouter. Keep the wheat in a cool location out of direct light. Rinse and drain the wheat every 8-12 hours until you see tiny roots on your wheat. It only took 12 hours before I was ready to proceed to the next step.

Step Three: Plant

Wheat seed planted

I poured in enough vermiculite to create an 1" layer in the bottom of the nursery flat. Then I added water, stirred, and added more water until the vermiculite was uniformly damp. I also added a little organic liquid kelp fertilizer to this initial watering. Next, I spread the sprouted wheat evenly across the top and spritzed the seeds with water from the spray bottle.

Important detail: After you spray the seeds, take the extra nursery flat and place it upside down to form a tent over the top of the tray. You want the wheat to grow tall quickly and the darkness is the way to do it. The drain holes in the bottom of the the nursery flat also provide ventilation to avoid mold problems.

Step Four: Water twice daily and watch in amazement

It won't take long before the seeds shoot up. And, unlike my previous attempt, there was absolutely no boozy smell associated with it. All I did was spray the tray evenly with water twice a day.

Day  One

Day Two

Day Three

I kept the tray inverted over the wheat grass until day four when the grass was about two inches tall. Now it is time to give the wheat grass a sunny place to grow. I also began watering from the bottom, pouring enough water into the bottom holding tray to last a full 24 hours.

Day Four

Day Five: Greening and growing!

Day Seven: First harvest

After seven days' worth of growth, I cut the wheat grass back to about 1". I could have just given the entire tray to my birds and let them have at it, but I wanted to see if I could coax additional growth out of the same planting. I was indeed able to get two more cuttings before I threw the remaining mass of roots and vermiculite (and fruit flies, but more about that in a bit) out into our garden.

And what was the verdict on wheat grass from the feathered community?  

Chickens love wheat grass

So do ducks
They adored it. Both the ducks and chickens chomped it down with gusto.

There's just one problem I encountered during this little experiment: a massive infestation of fruit flies! I'm talking giant, biblical plague-proportion of fruit flies. Every time I would open the lid to spritz the grass, a cloud of flies launched into my face. By the end of the first week, I had generations of flies living in the wheat grass. Even covering my kitchen counters with multiple tried and true apple cider vinegar traps only put a slight dent in the population. It's been a week since I removed the wheat grass trays (as well as all fruit and other food sources) from my kitchen and I'm just now noticing a sharp decline in the numbers of fruit flies.

I've promised my incredibly patient (albeit slightly frustrated) Hubby Dear that I'll wait a bit before I try sprouting wheat again, but you can bet that I'll do it. Growing wheat grass is only slightly more complicated than alfalfa sprouts, but you get so much bang for your buck. I'm really looking forward to having a continual supply of fresh greens for my birds.... if I can keep those darn fruit flies away, that is.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Easy-Peasy Turkey Bone Broth

When we butchered our two tom turkeys last month, I couldn't wait until Thanksgiving so I cooked one up that same week.

A Bourbon Red heritage turkey

I brined the bird with this recipe and then used these instructions to cook it. It was heavenly. All of the work that went into raising and butchering those birds was so worth it! We butchered or sold all of our (admittedly pesky and sometimes violent) turkeys, but I think they will reappear on our homestead at some point in the future. The turkey tasted that good.

As a sign of respect for the turkey and the sustenance it gave us, I was determined that nothing would go to waste. We ate roast turkey, turkey tetrazzini, the best turkey soup ever, and even grilled turkey and cheese sandwiches. After five days of nothing but turkey, we were pretty much over it, but I knew the turkey still had more to give.

I made a broth from the picked over bones of the bird. It's easy! You should definitely try this with your Thanksgiving fowl if you've never done it before.

I put all the bones from the turkey into a 6 qt. crock pot. I added a couple of splashes of apple cider vinegar, some black peppercorns, and some bits of carrots, onion, and celery that I had hanging around in the produce bin. The vinegar is to help leech out all the wonderful minerals that are in the bones, which is one of the things that makes bone broth so incredibly nutritious. I covered the bones about 3/4 of the way with water and set the crock pot on low.

It cooked for 48 hours straight and my house smelled like luscious roast turkey the entire time. Of course we were pretty sick of turkey at that point so it wasn't a particularly enticing odor. I added a bit more water a couple of times, but otherwise the broth attended to itself.

After 48 hours, the bones were partially dissolved and my broth was a rich brown color. I strained the broth and measured it into pint freezer containers.  

And that was it! I now have some high-quality turkey broth that will add richness to any dish I add it to. I also have the satisfaction that we honored the turkey by truly using every last bit of it.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fall Orchard Update

We are entering our second year of planting and maintaining our survival orchard. (Here's my original post on the subject. I've made a few additions and changes to our plan since I first posted it.)

Apple trees, comfrey, and newly planted almond. Blueberries on the back right. 

The comfrey we planted thrived. Hopefully I can divide them sometime next year and get more plants to spread the happiness throughout the orchard.

Speaking of spreading something, I have been dumping duck poo and litter in the areas in between the trees. Duck poo is wonderful stuff for plants and will help improve the soil, which is something our hard-packed clay desperately needs. I am careful not to get it too close to the trees lest it "burn" the them, but that seems to be less of an issue with duck manure than chicken manure.

All the trees and bushes we planted over the past year survived despite the drought that continues unabated. If we do not get a lot of rain and snow this winter, the powers-that-be are going to add more water restrictions which are going to make it hard to keep things alive.

"Bluecrop" blueberry

Our blueberries will technically be old enough next year to give us a crop. They still seem pretty small to me, so I'll be interested in seeing what actually happens. Look how pretty blueberries get in the fall! Blueberries don't only produce delicious fruit; they also are beautiful landscaping plants. All you suburbanites with hoity-toity neighbors should take note! ;)

A sloooooow growing pecan tree

Last weekend we did two important fall orchard tasks. First, we put tree guards around the trunks of our trees. The tree guards will help keep voles, mice,and rabbits from eating the bark off the trees. Since the guards are white, they will also help reflect light on sunny winter days and prevent southwest injury. We will take the tree guards down in the spring because, according to The Holistic Orchard, they hold too much moisture against the trunk and provide cover for borers.

The fun (albeit exhausting) task was to plant our new trees: two pears and an almond.

Our new All-in-One Almond tree

I think nut trees are an essential part of any survival orchard. Last year we planted pecans, this year we planted an almond, and we will be adding walnuts in the future. You might be surprised to learn that folks as far north as Zone 5 can grow almonds. There are two varieties that will grow here, Hall's Hardy Almond and the All-in-One Almond. It seems that more people like the taste and texture of the All-in-One Almond and so that is the variety we went with. Either variety will make lovely ornamental trees in addition to producing lots of nuts.

One of our new pear trees. 

We planted two varieties of pears, Maxine (also known as Starking Delicious) and Seckel. These two varieties will cross-pollinate each other and have different strengths. Maxine is your typical Bartlett-type pear. It is great for eating fresh or canning and supposedly will last in cold storage for a while. Seckel pears are a smaller pear that are great for fresh eating but also dry well. We planting standard-sized pear trees so they will grow between 18-20 feet tall and 12-13 feet wide.

A drawing of the orchard layout, mostly to scale
The dots with circles around them are current plantings; plain dots are future plantings

We're making slow but steady progress. I look forward to the day when all this hard work will pay off!

Monday, November 5, 2012

How to Grow Garlic

Garlic is a staple at our house. Luckily for us, garlic is one of the most simple and rewarding garden plants we've ever grown. If you like garlic and have a few square feet of garden space, you should give it a shot.

Here's the most important bit of information you need to know: it must be planted in the fall. We wait until after the first freeze of the fall and then get it in the ground.

Last year we bought 1 lb of organically grown 'Music' seed garlic from Peaceful Valley. That worked out well for us and I'd definitely recommend finding organic seed garlic if you can. Many of the nurseries are sold out by now, however, but don't worry. You can even plant garlic straight from the supermarket, though there are no guarantees as to how it was produced or what variety it is. Read here to see how Kendra at New Life on a Homestead grew supermarket garlic.   

The seed garlic we saved from this year's crop

When we harvested the 2012 garlic crop, we selected our biggest, best-looking heads to save as seed for the 2013 crop. We stored them loosely in a mesh bag and hung it in our cool, dry basement storage room until planting time.

A square foot bed ready for planting

We prepared the garden box by stirring in a bit more compost.

Separated cloves

Then we separated the cloves from each head of garlic, discarding any that might have gone bad. 

Four cloves per square foot

We garden primarily by the square foot method. (Read more about that here.) You can plant four cloves of garlic per square foot. Plant each clove 2 inches deep with the pointy part facing up. Cover with soil.

Mulch with straw

The last step is to put the garlic down for a long winter's rest. Cover the bed with a nice layer of straw. Though you won't be able to see it, the garlic will be busy during the fall and winter months. It will put out roots and when spring comes, it will pop through the mulch.

Mid-March 2012

We had such a mild winter last year that the garlic was well out of the ground by mid-March.

You can see the garlic standing tall in the back. 'Music' grows to about 3' tall

By mid-May, the garlic was truly gigantic. All we did was keep it watered and fertilize occasionally with foliar applications of kelp. Pests ignored it completely. 


We harvested the garlic in early June and hung it up to dry it for several weeks. That's it!

See? Growing garlic is easy! If you've never grown garlic before, why don't you give it a try this fall? 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Lessons from WWII Britain: Hayboxes

I absolutely adore the historical reality shows filmed by the BBC. There's nothing tawdry about these reality shows; two archaeologists and an historian show what it was really like to live during several important eras in British history. "Tales from the Green Valley", "Victorian Farm", and "Edwardian Farm" are among my favorite television shows ever. It was in "Wartime Farm", however, that I recently spotted something that could be extremely useful for all of us: the haybox.

A haybox is simply an insulated container that allows you to continue cooking your food while conserving precious fuel.  Ruth Goodman explains it better than I do, so watch the following video. The haybox is introduced near 27:00 and the end result is shown at about 36:00.

(These videos keep appearing and disappearing off YouTube. If the video isn't functioning, search for Wartime Farm, episode 2.)

Simple but effective, right? If you don't have a lot of hay hanging around your house, you might prefer to make the city-slicker cousin to the haybox, a "wonder box oven".

The gals at Food Storage Made Easy also put together a pdf that shows how to make your own Wonder Box.

Have any of you tried using a haybox and/or wonder box oven? What did you think of the technique?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Misadventures in Sprouting Wheat Grass

When I decided to embrace my inner hippy and get into sprouting, my main motivation was to give my poultry fresh greens all year round. The fact that sprouting seeds are a fabulous addition to our food storage was secondary. Pretty much everything is secondary to my chickens and ducks these days!  Sorry family. ;) 

Once I proved that the Victorio 4-Tray Seed Sprouter made sprouting ridiculously easy, I wanted to try and grow massive quantities of greens for my birds the lazy way. Here's a bit of a recap and the end result of that experiment.

Soaking the wheat 

The first step is to soak the wheat for about eight hours. I used a cup of the same hard white wheat that I regularly bake with. 

Day 1 

I spread the wheat seed evenly among the four trays of the sprouter and watered it three times a day.  

Day 2 

It was about day two when I started to notice a rather distinct odor wafting through my house. Since I have four children, weird odors are par for the course, but this was something different. It was sour, almost cheesy. My wheat was beginning to ferment! I tried to rinse and drain the trays thoroughly and more often, but it didn't seem to help much.

Day 3

On day three it became obvious that the wheat wasn't going to grow into the neat little green carpet of my dreams. The alfalfa and vegetable seeds I had sprouted formed a neat little mat of roots that held everything in place by day three. In contrast, the wheat dislodged itself with every watering and smelled a bit like sweaty gym socks. I proceeded on.   

Day 4 - More of the same

Day 5

Five days was as long as I could stand the stinky goat cheese smell in my kitchen. The sprouts were between 1-2 inches long. I rinsed them really well and gave them to the birds. They gulped them down with gusto. 

Obviously, this method will sprout wheat, but is unsuitable for producing a true wheat grass that you can get several cuttings from. I guess the experts were right, the know-it-alls!  

I'm going to buy a few cheap pieces of hardware and then give it another shot and report back. If you can't stand the suspense, watch this video from Sprout People to see how wheat grass is really supposed to be grown. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

How to and How NOT to Butcher a Turkey

Warning: The following post discusses the slaughter of turkeys and has some graphic photos. Those with weak stomachs and rabid animal rights activists should probably find something else to read. 

The cute little poults I bought back in May

The newly-purchased poults

didn't take long to morph into giant, testosterone-driven eating machines.

The two bullies on patrol

Well, at least the two toms became testosterone-driven. The two hens pretty much mind their own business, though one of them drives me batty every evening when I have to retrieve her from the chicken coop roof.

Heritage birds like our Blue Slate and Bourbon Reds take longer to mature than industrial turkeys. We intended to let them grow for at least another month or two before we dispatched them to freezer camp. I was enjoying looking at them enough that I considered keeping the Bourbon Red tom on for good.

Then the stuff  hit the fan (literally). I looked outside one morning to find the two toms and our rooster fighting ferociously. I ran outside and tried to break up the fight, but none of them would back down. The toms were intent on beating the rooster to death.

Here's the rooster the day after the big fight. 

I scooped up the very bloody rooster, doctored his wounds, and placed him in a cage for his own protection. The time to butcher the turkeys had come.

The equipment:

Hubby Dear and I did a lot of reading in preparation for the big day. Here are some of the resources we used -

1) Storey's Guide to Raising Turkeys
2) This blog post with very helpful pictures and narration
3) And best of all, this YouTube video.

Our list of supplies

One of the things we did right was to make a list of supplies and have everything ready in advance. As you will find out, things went very wrong during our first attempt, but at least we weren't scrambling around for tools and materials.

The killing cone

There are several ways you can dispatch a turkey, but we felt most comfortable using a killing cone. It seemed to be the easiest method as well as relatively peaceful for the turkey. Although we raised these birds for meat, it was important to Hubby Dear and I that we do the deed as humanely as possible. You insert the bird's head and neck through the bottom of the cone and slit its throat while it hangs upside down.

Our scalder set-up

Once you kill the turkey, you have to remove the feathers. Plucking is the most difficult and time-consuming part of the job. You can dry pluck the feathers, but it is often easier if you briefly scald the bird. I bought a cheap turkey fryer set-up similar to this from Wal-Mart. It was just big enough to scald our small (12.5 and 15 lb processed weight) turkeys. It would be the perfect size for scalding chickens. If you are butchering a turkey that is over 18 lb, you will definitely need a much larger pot to scald it.

Essential to the job are a set of very sharp knives. I also found a pinning knife like this one to be very helpful.

I often say that a person can bring themselves to do almost any gross task as long as they are wearing a pair of rubber gloves. We went through several pairs of gloves a piece to help maintain cleanliness during the process.

And of course, you need a turkey or two.

Our toms. So fun to look at, but even better to eat! 

The process:  

One thing we did as butchering newbies was to write out all the steps and have it close at hand. It was really helpful to have it right there for reference.

Steps to butcher a turkey

We decided to butcher our Blue Slate tom first since he was the meanest of the two. Hubby Dear and I said a prayer and then brought him over to the killing cone. He wasn't too keen to put his neck into the cone, but with a little fiddling, we pulled him through. Hubby Dear made two swift cuts to the turkey's jugular veins on either side of the windpipe. He immediately began to bleed profusely.

Slitting the turkey's throat. The blood is being captured in a bucket for later disposal. 

Don't you love Hubby Dear's fashionable poncho? We realized that it would be a smart idea to cover our clothing but found that the only thing we had on hand was large yard waste trash bags. We had no idea just how useful those make-shift aprons were about to be.

The aftermath

At the very moment Hubby Dear finished slitting the turkey's throat, his cell phone started ringing. He walked a few yards away to answer an important call from work. I stood beside Mr. Turkey, supervising the proceedings. 

All of a sudden, the turkey flopped UP and OUT of the killing cone. He lay in a silent, bloody heap on the ground. I didn't know that stunt was even physically possible, much less by a turkey losing blood at a rapid rate. (I should mention that the turkey didn't move until that moment. The turkey remained silent throughout the entire process.) Hubby Dear was still on the phone and gestured for me to take care of the problem. 

Alrighty. I grabbed the turkey's legs and guided him back into the cone. I held onto the turkey's legs while he dangled and dripped. 

The next thing I know, the entire killing cone is falling off the plywood. It wasn't the turkey's doing this time, but the nails that Hubby Dear had used to affix the cone to the plywood had come out. Here's a tip for you: use screws, not nails on your killing cone! 

By that time, Hubby Dear was done with his phone call and he came to my rescue. He picked up the tom by the legs and held him for the remainder of the time that it took him to die. Since he was not confined by the cone, the turkey flapped quite a bit at the end, making us very thankful that our clothes were mostly covered by the redneck ponchos. 

So much for a quiet, dignified death. I am happy to report that neither of us was overly traumatized by the first day's proceeding and that we butchered turkey #2 on the very next day. It was a much different story - quiet, peaceful, and, importantly, the killing cone stayed in one place! 

Scalding the bird

The next step once we were sure the turkey was dead, was to scald it. The temperature of the water and length of scalding is a matter of debate. We ended up using water that was about 145 degrees and scalded it for 30 seconds, moving it up and down in the water occasionally. Then we moved the bird over to a flat surface and quickly began removing the feathers, starting with the wings and tail first. Those are the toughest feathers to pluck, so you want to do those before the bird cools down.

FYI: When we butchered turkey number two, we scalded it for 45 seconds and we found that it was much easier to pluck.

Turkey #2 post-plucking The parts you still see feathers on were to be disposed of, so why pluck them?

We learned a lot from butchering the first turkey and ended up buying a couple of extra tools that made the job easier for our second try.

Torching the filoplumes

After you remove the large feathers, the hair-like filoplumes remain. You can leave them alone and trust that they will be unnoticeable after cooking, or you can lightly torch them with a flame. They disappear in a puff of smoke, but you do have to be careful you don't remain in any one spot for too long or you'll prematurely cook your bird.

Loppers are great for the neck and last wing section.

We also bought a pair of loppers to help remove the neck and wing bones. You can carefully use a boning knife to cut between the joints on those locations, but loppers make the job much quicker and easier.

After you've plucked the bird and removed the extra bits like the head, neck, and legs, it's time to gut it. Unfortunately, my hands were so busy that I didn't take any photos of this process. It really isn't as intimidating as it sounds. The only tricky part is getting the crop out of the chest cavity in one piece. Then, you make a 2-3 inch cut over the vent, scoop out the organs, and remove. We cut out the actual vent last. Everything comes out in one package and it is easy to dispose of. We chose not to mess with the giblets (neck, heart, liver, gizzard) since our family generally doesn't eat those.

After we finished gutting the turkey, we rinsed it very well and put it into a cooler full of ice water for several hours. You need to make sure the bird cools down completely or it can grow harmful bacteria.

Cooling the bird

After a few hours, we let it drain and placed it in a pan in the refrigerator. You can store the bird for up to five days before you cook it, and it is best to age it a bit before you cook or freeze it for the most tender results.


The first bird took us 3 and 1/2 hours from start to finish. Yikes. We learned quickly, though, and bird number two only took 1 and 1/2 hours. I'm sure we'll get it under an hour with practice. We probably won't do turkeys next year, but we certainly will use the skills we learned when we butcher our old laying hens.

Don't be scared about doing your own butchering! Hubby Dear and I did not grow up on farms and have no experience in this area. It really isn't so tough once you try it. I know we gave our birds a great life and now we have delicious, healthy meat to show for our efforts. Just make sure you secure the killing cone properly and try not to answer your cell phone during the process! ;)