December 23, 2019

Winter is here

Let the days be no shorter.

Winter is here

I much prefer winter here in the rural Ottawa Valley to in Toronto. Temperatures are generally much colder (-20C or lower is not unusual), but the drier cold is less bone chilling. It’s less slushy and grey, and often quite beautiful. I love the silver and blue palette of these low light days, even if I find the lack of sunlight ever more immobilizing. It’s always a relief to make it past the solstice.

(Hours of rain before the temperature plummeted subzero means all the trees are frosted with layer of ice covered by snow. Gorgeous, but also a little dangerous.)

On the other hand, day to day chores are now affected by the freezing temperatures and snow cover in ways both small and pain-in-the-ass big. Harriet, who loves the snow, needs to be dressed like a toddler everytime she goes out in the severe cold because she lives indoors with us and and hasn’t had a chance to adapt gradually to the increasing cold the way the other animals have. When it goes below -10C the snow forms painful rocklike clumps of ice in between her paw pads unless I put the booties on.

(It took a lot of practice to get these on securely enough to stay on through all her gallops.)

In the barn, the major headache is maintaining a supply of unfrozen water to the animals. At this point, everyone has a heated bowl or bucket. George, elderly but as much his own cat as ever, prefers to drink from anywhere except his own bowl, and will meow at me fiercely until I make that possible for him. All of the chickens—excepting Howard Zinn, the most chatty of my silverlaced Wyandotte roosters—are not happy about the arrangement.

A new routine is checking the outdoor chicken run with a flashlight for stragglers before I lock up the door to the coop for the night. RIP Barney Fife, Easter Egger rooster, your sacrifice was a lesson that not *every* chicken automatically returns to the roost at nightfall. Rather than defrost him, I consigned him to the woods at the back of the property as a gift to the wolves.

Another unanticipated challenge was the degree to which all the animals get bored. The pasture is suddenly quite a bit less interesting to the goats, and the chickens are increasingly reluctant to go outside (which means more social stress from hanging out together in the coop). Unfortunately, a bored goat is a goat that repeatedly tests your fence. Lucy, as the largest and most athletic of the three, has actually demonstrated to me how much parkour owes to goats, by vaulting over the fence in a manner I could not have imagined if I didn’t see it with my own eyes (I will try to film it if she does it again).

(Every time Lucy climbs this fence I end up adding another temporary layer. Clearly I’m going to have to put in a taller and more solid fence come springtime.)

To my great good fortune, it turns out the people in Almonte are *really* into Halloween displays involving pumpkins. Thanks to a local Buy Nothing Facebook group—on which people gift each other stuff they no longer want hanging around their house—the chickens and the goats have been relieving the tedium of winter with a bounty of pumpkins I collected from the townspeople in November. They’ve stayed frozen for the most part, so I have been able to dole them out slowly.

(This is only half of the haul.)

The carved pumpkins were the most perishable, so those went immediately to the chickens. They also get some of the smaller pumpkins, cut in half so they can peck away at them at their leisure.

The goats, on the other hand, will tear down a full frozen pumpkin over the course of a day with a gusto that still surprises me. It is commonly believed that raw pumpkin seeds have a de-worming effect. I’m not aware of any hard evidence for that, but I would be very happy if that were the case. What is clear is that what would otherwise be headed for the garbage or at best, the compost pile, has brought much enjoyment to my animals.

More recently, a spruce bough had them running across the field for this treat. Perhaps I will be collecting some discarded Xmas trees in the coming weeks.

In the severe cold at night, the goats and the chickens keep warm in two ways. Eating more food is vital to staying warm. For the goats, that means forage that they can ferment to generate heat (longstemmed grass, leaves, bark) but for the chickens it means calorie-rich, digestible foods. Right now, that means the traditional grains and seeds from the feed store. I’ve started fermenting and sprouting the latter in order to get a little more nutritional value from them.

But collective body heat is also important. Recent losses, plus my desire to start culling some of those surplus roosters, meant it was time to augment numbers in the coop with a few new additions.

(Emma Goldman trying to get in on the new girls’ special meal.)

Three as yet unnamed bantam Cochin ladies—one white, one “blue” and one black—have joined the flock. The new hens lay adorable small white eggs, but as the new kids, are at the bottom of the pecking order and don’t get to the food until it is almost gone. I have resorted to handfeeding this group a little each day, both to accustom them to me and make sure their nutritional needs are met.

The pumpkin project was part of a larger effort to re-purpose waste as a resource. The latter is a major article of faith for permaculture enthusiasts. Permaculture is a particular subset of the regenerative and agro-ecological approaches to food production have been familiarizing myself with these days.

There is a lot I like about its basic tenets. Stepping back from the notion of blindly imposing human will on the land like it is a blank slate and instead working toward co-existence what it already is there seems like a good operational principle. It’s certainly something I will be experimenting with and writing about here.

Alas, for all its genuinely radical re-imaginings of our relationship to the natural world, permaculture also has some highly dubious ideological underpinnings (not so suprising when you consider the deep Nazi roots of biodynamic farming). Like Crossfit is to the world of fitness, it’s a mixture of some really creative ideas and some pretty terrible ideas, as well as the occasional whiff of offputting cultishness among its some of its adherents.

Nonetheless, reducing waste *and* external inputs (i.e., animal feed I have to buy) is a major goal for the coming year. All of our animals have proven to be great consumers of food waste. Most of them will eat vegetables we consider spoiled or inedible. The goat milk that is too old to be tasty to me is a great nutritional supplement to the dog, the cat, and the chickens. The hens eagerly gobble up spent egg shells as a source of calcium for generating the tasty eggs they give us everyday.

(These eggs all taste the same but I do love the variety of colours and shapes.)

I have plans to take this closed loop further by increasing the sophistication of my composting systems. It is a truth universally acknowledged among some permaculture circles that chickens can be fed entirely without grain on compost alone, but since all these claims seem to lead back to a *single* source (Karl Hammer), I’m more than a little dubious that this is viable on a small scale or indoors.

(I really find Justin Rhodes objectionable, but that shouldn't stop you from watching this.)

Big piles of raw compost are stinky and swarming with flies, and that is not something I want inside my barn in the winter. Right now the deep litter system I have going in the chicken’s coop is difficult enough to keep on track: the combination of chicken and goat poop plus plenty of carbon-rich material like dried leaves, grass, straw, and wood ash composting in there provides heat and gives the chickens something to scratch. But as I’m learning through trial and error, it can easily become too high in ammonia—a disaster for chickens with their delicate respiratory systems—if the balance isn’t carefully maintained. Hester Prynne and Bernie Sanders are in quarantine right now because I dropped the ball on this.

Nonetheless, I do have plans to significantly augment the amount of food waste the birds get by introducing additional processes to convert it into edible materials. I’m currently working on a bokashi bucket for fermenting “uncompostable” food waste like dairy and meat scraps, or food contaminated paper. The product of the latter will feed into the next project: setting up a vermicomposting system to turn food waste and shredded paper into both plant fertilizer and extra protein for the chickens in the form of surplus worms.

I guess this means that a 1000 red wigglers will be among the animals that come live with us. I can only hope they will be as photogenic as the others. In the meantime, I am getting re-acquainted with my cross-cut paper shredder, a worm farmer’s best friend.