Winter on the Homestead

"I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

Philippians 4:12-13 


It's been a while since I've posted a homestead update...and that's mostly intentional. After the exhausting harvesting season, for me, winter is a time to rest. This is part of what I love about homesteading: It's so much more connected to nature than modern life tends to be. After all, the plants and animals are busy all fall...and then everything takes a nice long winter break. It's healing. It's spiritual. And it's especially needed the older I get!

Yet despite trying to rest, the truth is, our homestead is in upheaval. There are hammers pounding, saws cutting, and building debris everywhere. (If you've wondered why I haven't done any YouTube videos lately, this is why. There's just too much noise over here!) I'll admit all this chaos is stressful, but it's for a good cause. You see, when we purchased this land seven years ago, the house was not only unfinished but it was just...weird. For example, you had to walk through a little closet to get into the bathroom. And the kitchen? Well, it was about the size of an RV kitchen, minus the cabinetry. It was difficult from a homesteading point of view. (Imagine preserving food and cooking two or three meals a day when you only have about three feet of counter space and no place to store your pots and pans!) It was also uncomfortable just from a standard living point of view.

So even though our timing is lousy (just last week, the roofer told me material costs had gone up 9%), we decided it was now or never. Already, my kitchen is looking a million times better. (Seriously, I don't think any of you who haven't been in my kitchen in real life can really appreciate the dramatic change and how happy I am about it!) And you won't have to walk through a weird little closet to get to the toilet.

Winter cauliflower! (Variety: Baby.)

The new garden has done splendidly this winter. I've been harvesting Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, turnips, and beets all winter, and everywhere I laid down cardboard and mulch is mostly weed free; the few weeds that did pop up pull out very easily. I did neglect to get the entire garden area covered with cardboard and mulch (I was just too worn out with other homesteading activities last fall), so soon, my husband will mow down the weeds that over winter and we will cover them with cardboard and mulch. We're also planning on pushing out the western fence line of the garden, for some added growing space. I'm hoping to plant Egyptian Walking Onions this fall, and I want to grow more winter squash this summer. (See why I think winter squash is such a boon on the homestead by clicking here.)

Planting peas.

Already, I've planted out pea seeds, to grow up the cattle panel trellis. I've begun my winter sowing, too. So far, I've started several tomato seeds (San Marzano, Legend, Galahad, and Darkstar), Amazing cauliflower, Delta yellow summer squash, Winter Luxury pumpkin, Discuss buttercup squash, Hunter butternut squash, kohlrabi, and Purple Top turnips.

My winter sown seeds stay in the greenhouse ONLY so they don't blow away during high winds. A greenhouse is absolutely not needed to be successful with winter sowing!

On the livestock front, our hens are laying plenty of eggs. (I've been astonished to see people jump so readily into the belief that feed manufacturers are purposefully mixing feed incorrectly so that hens don't lay eggs. Let me just say this: I use the main chicken feed that people cite in this conspiracy and my hens are laying just fine. If you want to know the real reason your hens aren't laying, see this post.) Our hens are in their third year, so we hope to replace our flock this spring. Unfortunately, right now we don't have a place in our house to safely brood chicks! So we shall see.

The quail are their usual crazy selves. They eat the same thing as the chickens and they are laying fine, also.

Now that the days are lengthening, we are getting more eggs.

We've had some heartbreak among the rabbits, though. It began with a rat infestation. Sadly, if you homestead in the woods, rodents are something you have to address. Our problem is that when nature is providing plenty of food for wild critters, it's really difficult to trap or bait rodents. So this winter, we've been working very hard to get the population down.

Our "barn cats" do an impressive job. They are fat - and not off cat food. (Our dear, ancient cat, Loki, left us a dead rat just before he died last month.) But there's only so much the cats can do when the rat population is this high. To top it off, we not only have non-native rats (the Norway rat that come to mind when most people think of rats), but we have native bushy-tailed tree rats (a.k.a. packrats, Neotoma cinerea).

We miss Loki.


Tigger, tracking rodents in the greenhouse.

I've never seen rodents this bad and I blame several extremely mild winters for their booming population. My first indication that they were out of control was finding a rat living in a nest inside the small wood house we put in the cages of all our pet rabbits. (The rabbit living with this rat showed absolutely no signs of being upset by his roommate...He is our friendliest rabbit and likes to hang out with all animals, including the dog.) Next, I kept encountering a rat I couldn't see, but who would scream every time I came into the rabbitry. Then I found a rat nesting in the manure tray of an empty cage. Worst of all, one morning when it was still dim out, I put my hand inside one rabbit's J-feeder (to feel how much feed was left in it) and instead of touching pellets, I touched something soft and furry. I yanked my hand out, and a little gray face peeked out from the top of the feeder. I screamed...a couple of times. (I can't help myself. I'm a prissy girl when it comes to rats and mice.) And then I slammed the lid shut on the feeder and texted my husband to come take care of the rodent. (Seriously, this rat had a cozy little house in there! He slept on the feed pellets and apparently shut the door of the feeder down after himself for warmth!)

So, now we have bait stations with poison in them all around the rabbitry. (The feeding stations keep the cats and other critters away from the poison, and the rats go into their burrows to die, preventing wildlife from eating the poisoned rats.)

But I was still finding rat droppings, so we knew we still had some rodents around. This especially bothered me because rats are known to eat the extremities off rabbit kits. We've never had that problem in the past, but I've been very concerned it might become a problem. Well, this morning, it finally happened...

You see, I'd been trying to breed two beautiful sisters, Chocolate and Vanilla. They are young, so I wasn't surprised when they did not lift for either of my bucks. (Lifting her rear end is a sign the doe is ready to mate.) In addition, when I attempted these matings, the bucks never "fell off." (For those of you who've never seen rabbits mate, when the buck ejaculates, he literally falls off the doe.) 

Vanilla and Chocolate.

And yet, this morning when I went to Chocolate and Vanilla's cage, I found a large litter of dead kits strewn across the floor. Worse, rats had been at them. (Ugh!!! I do believe, however, the kits were dead before the rats got there.) Apparently, a doe can fail to lift and a buck can fail to fall off and the mating can still be successful. I learned a lesson...the hard way.
Chocolate and Vanilla are bonded, so they live in the same cage - so I'm not positive which one was the mother. Whichever doe had the babies never pulled fur for them, though, so they would not have survived even if I had provided a nest for the kits. I take solace in that...and understand that it's not unusual for first-time rabbit mothers to lose their litters. 
So, I cleaned up, pampered my girls, put a nesting box in their cage (just in case one of them is pregnant), and we will try again. Sigh.

Fiona and Fido.


But the most heartbreaking moment this winter was the death of my beautiful, sweet Fiona. Fido and Fiona were our starting pair of homestead rabbits, given to us when a neighbor brought them home (a "couple of hippies gave them to me," he said) and his wife was not receptive to keeping them. My kids had had pet rabbits for several years, so we weren't unfamiliar with rabbit-raising, but F & F were our first venture into meat rabbits.

Fido and Fiona, however, are/were as much pets as livestock. We all loved Fiona for her beauty, the gorgeous, multi-colored kits she gave us, her gentleness, and her absolute sweetness. But the last time she gave birth, she struggled. Her labor was prolonged, and all but two kits were born dead. (I've kept those two kits; they are Chocolate and Vanilla.) She never really recovered from that birth, despite the fact that I pampered her with lots of grass time, special treats, and so on. This winter, she seemed bright eyed, perky, and excited to see me, but one morning I went into the rabbitry and she was dead. I cried lots of tears that day.
Losing animals is the really hard part of homesteading and I share these stories with you because I want to be as transparent and honest as possible about what homesteading is like. It ain't all funny goat kids and beautiful, clean chicken eggs, friends.

And failure? It's a given in homesteading. Even  when you've been gardening and raising animals for many years. To be successful in life, you really have to know, deep down, that only through failure can you really learn and succeed. Homesteading certainly drives that truth home

Despite some setbacks, I'm feeling positive about the coming busy months on our homestead. This is the first year our entire orchard has been pruned. (My husband is out of work right now, so he actually had time to get this enormous task done.) The garden should be as good or better as last year. And I think the animals will thrive after a rough start in 2023.

I'm looking forward to growing and raising lots of healthy food for my family and friends - and I hope I can inspire you to do the same!

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