Monday, December 28, 2009

Lazy Chickens?

That flock I got back in the summer (see earlier posts) as chicks have reached maturity, and should be laying... but they're not, at least not yet.

Don't know if the colder weather and overcast skies have been discouraging them, or if they're just lazy bums eating all my feed and giving me nothing in return.

Egg-laying is triggered by light, I've learned. So again, maybe it's the gray days we've had through much of December. But the combs have grown full and there's leg coloration (the legs turn yellow on many breeds when they're ready to start laying), both indicators that they're ready to start earning their keep around here...

On other fronts--- been spending time doing some basic pruning of domestic plants and clearing. You can never do enough clearing, when it comes to fire readiness. And no, we're not in any fire danger right now, but it's easier to do some clearing when it's cool out; less sweat, less heat exhaustion, and no canyon flies. Canyon flies are incredibly annoying miniature flies that zero in on moisture; so they're always diving at your eyes and trying to get in your ears. They're dormant in cold weather, which is very nice.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More About Wells

We had the temperature drop below freezing for several nights in a row a few weeks ago, and it brought to mind another issue about wells--- or at least my well.

Our well pumps water into a small pressure tank prior to pumping it up the hill to our house. Which means there are several feet of exposed pipe. And, when it freezes... well, so does the water in the pipe, which means no water gets pumped.

To combat that I use heat tape. Couldn't find any in the hardware stores around here (too urban) to I ordered some online. It works great--- it's just an electrical line encased in a plastic/rubber insulation which radiates heat. Not a lot, but enough to warm the pipe when you affix it with a loop of wire.

My understanding is that heat tape uses a lot of electricity, but I haven't noticed too big a jump in the bill, and it's not like we have a choice. One time when I forgot to plug it in and we got hit by a surprise freeze, my wife had to go down to the well and aim a blow dryer at the pipes so she could take a shower.

Needless to say, I never forgot the heat tape again.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Water, Water... Everywhere But Where it Oughta Be

If you're seriously thinking about giving suburban ranching a try, chances are you'll be sacrificing a few things, some of the niceties that most folks take for granted.

Like water, for instance.

My ranch is only two miles away from a city with a population of 123,000, and yet we get no city water here. We rely on a well. Which may not seem like a big deal to people who live somewhere other than a desert--- but let's face it, that's what most of Southern California is.

The water issue becomes exacerbated greatly during long periods of drought. We're at about the 7-year mark in our latest drought, and my well is sucking at water like a little kid slurping up the last drop of a milk shake. There's just not much there.

So, we rely on a back-up tank situated on a hill behind our house. The water is gravity fed, and is primarily for fire control. However, when necessary I can hook a hose up to a bib on the hydrant and run it to a hose bib on the house, thus feeding the house with water when the well is not able to pump sufficient water. We have to use a pump truck to fill the tank; there's no other way to get the water up the hill.

Saturday I discovered that one of the "L" joints in the 2" pvc pipe from the tank had cracked, leaking about $275 worth of water from the tank onto the hill. Meaning, we had no water in the well, and no water in the tank. Bummer.

I fixed the pipe on Saturday, replacing it with (expensive) UV-Resistant pvc because it's exposed (most of the piping on the hill is UV-Resistant; the joint that cracked was not). It was a rather dry weekend for us; couldn't run laundry, had to take abbreviated showers, run one load of dishes...

The water truck came Monday and pumped 4000 gallons up the hill. Another $275. I checked my repairs, and everything held, so we're back in business.

I say all this because things like well problems can often be overlooked when you're thinking about how cool it would be to have your own ranch. But let me tell you, when your well runs dry you'll be wondering if it was really worth it, and if you wouldn't have been happier being able to take a shower and water your plants any time you want.

When you look into getting a suburban ranch, be sure the SYSTEMS of the house are in good order. Those are the things that you tend to take for granted in a neighborhood or apartment building, but can create nightmares for you--- and be a financial headache as well. Water; septic; electrical supply; heating and air... get a level of confidence in the working condition of all of them before you make the move.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Chickens Just Drop Dead Sometimes

I've lost chickens to predators, sure, and I've lost 'em to Marek's (a sudden paralysis that they're typically vaccinated for as chicks). But this morning is the first time I've opened up the chicken barn to let everyone out for the day, and found a seemingly healthy 4-month-old bird dead on the floor.

Its head had a big, bloody wound on it, but I'm 90% sure that was post-mortem, as the rest of the chickens woke up. If one pecked and drew a spot of blood, the rest of them wouldn't be able to resist the incongruous red dot, and they'd all peck away. Chickens aren't known for their brains.

Anyway, as I say I saw no sign of disease, there are no poisons of any sort anywhere around, and it's too chilly for rattlesnakes. I don't know what the heck happened, but I'll need to keep an eye on the others.

Last weekend I installed new lay boxes in a seperate shed for them, as I expect the older birds will start laying in December. The "replacements" I got when the coons took 3 chicks a month or so ago won't lay until March or so.

This weekend I'm gonna take a nearby friend up on his offer for a free rooster. I want to have one around; next spring I'd like to incubate a fresh batch of chicks. Given the churn rate with chickens, you've gotta keep new ones coming!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tractor Newbee Lesson Learned

I took the tractor into a ravine yesterday to dig out a big rock that I thought would look great in my cactus garden, and got the dang thing stuck. Dug a huge hole with my rear wheel, and couldn't get back out of the ravine no matter how many rocks I put under the wheel for traction. I finally got fed up and just left it there overnight.

Woke up in the morning thinking, "Hey, I'll bet I didn't have the 4-wheel drive engaged." Checked the manual, and yep, that's what was wrong. I stuck a couple planks in front of the wheels, put it in 4-wheel drive, and motored right out of the ravine, no problem.

Almost embarassed to admit to that one...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Got a "Buzz Worm"

That's what my neighbor likes to call rattlers. We've got a lot of them here in the chapparal, and this morning I moved a small bucket in an area I was doing some rock work--- and there was a sleeping little baby buzz worm.

The weather was chilly, so the little fella (or gal?) just sat there, flicking its tongue. It wasn't being defensive, and it was too young to rattle. Here's what it looked like when I uncovered it:
I got my snake-stick (the kind the fire department uses; basically a really long version of those "reach extenders" that have a trigger at one end, and a kind of pincer-device at the other) and put it into a bucket.

I took the bucket up the hill a little ways, and let it go into a sage thicket. It wasn't moving too fast, but it managed to get itself under cover, so it'll be fine. Which is good; the more snakes we've got around, the less rats, mice, ground squirrels and gophers.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Coons Had a Chicken Dinner

Those triplet raccoons living under our deck just wore out their welcome. They actually pried open a sliding "chicken door," a small hatch-type door that slides down between two wooden flanges. They pulled hard enough to bust one of the flanges, and treated themselves to one 3-month-old chick each.

Naturally one of the victims was the prettiest one, the Brahma. Coons have discerning taste, evidently.

Anyway, I reinforced everything so that can't happen again, but I'm down to seven chicks. I like to keep 10-12 layers at a time, so I'll go get some more this weekend. I'll keep them separate, since they're younger, and that way I'll have staggered laying, as their molt should hit at a different time than the current flock.

When chickens molt--- which they do about once a year--- they pretty much shut down, laying-wise. Takes a couple weeks before they're back to work, and usually each molt slows their production a bit. By their third molt, they're usually played out from a production standpoint.

By the way, I think I'm gonna live-trap the coons and relocate them. I'll post some pix if I decide to do that.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What's That Funny Lookin' Bird?

One of the drawbacks of having property in the Santa Monica foothills is the extreme fire danger, and the resulting difficulty in finding affordable home/fire insurance. CalFair is required to offer insurance to all who are otherwise refused; but I decided a little over 10 years ago to take a different tack.

I became a "farm," eligible for farm insurance (and much lower rates with better coverage) by fencing some pasture area and running emus. Originally I was going to "board" another guy's breeder birds, but he flaked on me after I fenced in an acre-and-a-half or so. So, I ordered some emu babies from Kansas (it was much cheaper to buy the and fly them here than to buy them in CA, go figure).

Now the survivors (two were lost to coyotoes when small) have paired up and wander around the property, trading feed for insurance discounts.

They're not much good for grazing--- I was hoping they'd help with weed abatement, but no such luck. On the other hand, they're very easy residents. Once fully grown they require no shelter, no special attention, just food and water. They eat "Ratite Maintenence" pellets from Star Milling, and they love a treat of grapes now and then.

Emus pair up, so my two male/female pairs each stick together, occasionally chasing each other if they feel they're being encroached upon. The male sets the eggs; at their peak they lay about 30 big, emerald green eggs per season (Nov-Mar). Once the male feels he's got a clutch of eggs he'll set them for about 60 days, with very little movement, no food, no water to speak of. He just goes kind of comatose, rising once in a while to turn the eggs.

I don't raise chicks; I remove the eggs and give them to friends, donate them to museums and schools, keep a few for conversation pieces, etc. Four emus is all I want, and there's not much of a market for selling chicks right now.

Here's a quick video where I talk a little about "Blue," my most tame emu. They're all very docile, but he's downright friendly--- and lazy as hell, as you can see...

Thanks to Sean Arenas for the videocam work. You can see Sean's other work here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Composting with Worms: Vermiposting

Here in the volcanic foothills of the Santa Monica mountains in Southern California, the "soil" is mostly rock. In order to have any kind of respectable vegetable garden (or grow much of anything that isn't a native chaparral plant, for that matter) you have to create soil.

I do that by scavenging around for dirt (sometimes I pick up fill dirt from Craigslist) and composting practically everything. Kitchen waste, leaves, horse manure from neighbors, chicken manure and shavings from my chickens, grass trimmings from a neighbor, you name it. There's no such thing as food waste here; if leftovers don't get fed to the chickens, they get fed to the worms, or to one of the big compost bins.

As you can see from this video, I use a small vermiposting (the technical term for worm composting) "station" for table scraps and other random food. I also have a large outdoor bin for bigger loads.

The cool thing about one of these little stations is that you can use them indoors. They don't smell, they're easy to manage--- perfect even if you live in an apartment, and you want to practice composting while you're saving up for your suburban ranch. I got this one (and an initial load of red wrigglers) from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm.

I especially love the worm compost for my tomatoes. Mixing that stuff into the soil is like giving my tomatoes crack, they just go crazy. Very high nitrogen content, I'd guess.

If you want to learn more about vermiposting, I recommend the "bible" on the subject, "Worms Eat My Garbage." Here's a link to the book at Amazon.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Reconsidered Opinion on Gapeworm

Wow, you wouldn't think it would be so hard to find Ivermec, but I was unable to locate any in local feed stores.

So, I decided to try and confirm the diagnosis before hunting the stuff down. I held the chick and opened its mouth while my wife looked down its throat to see if she could spot the gapeworms. Gapeworms are hooked together in a "V", in permanent conjugal bliss... at least, I guess it's bliss.
Here's a romantic picture of a bunch cuddling up in a chicken's trachea

Anyway, my wife couldn't find anything in our chick's throat. So now I'm back to wondering what the heck the sneezing is. Maybe something I need to treat, maybe not. I'll watch and see if any of the other birds start sneezing too.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Chick with Gapeworm

One of my chicks was sneezing (or coughing, hard to tell which with a chicken) and was opening her mouth in a yawning motion. The latter tells me she's probably got gapeworm, a little booger that nestles in the trachea (usually paired male-female, for double the fun).

I had her isolated in the brooder box (I've moved the others to the chicken barn) because I thought she might have a respiratory infection, but the "yawning" is a pretty good sign of gapeworm, so I put her back with the flock and tomorrow I'll get some Ivermectin and treat all of them. I'll mix it 2 ml to a gallon of water, and let 'em finish the water.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

War on Yellow-Jackets

I hate 'em. They're aggressive, pesky, and occasionally they'll gang up and go after one of the beehives. So, I set a lot of those standard yellow traps, but I don't use that high-priced smelly "pheremone" fluid they sell with the traps (and separately, once you use that first dose)

Instead, I soak some cooked chicken meat in water in the fridge for awhile. Then I tear off a chunk and put that in the "well" of the trap. I open a can of the cheapest cat food I can find, take a fingerful of that, and smear it on the chicken.

Yellow jackets are carniverous, and in my experience they just can't resist this concoction. I hang a trap near my trash cans, a few near my beeyard, and another one near my frog pond--- all places the little boogers like to hang out.

Usually I've got one or two buzzing around inside the trap within a minute or two, and others soon follow. I empty the trap and change the bait once a week or so.

TIP- If I'm ready to change the trap but there are still a few yellow jackets buzzing around inside, I just stick the trap in the freezer for a half-hour. No more buzzing.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tractor Repair is Expensive!

A month or so ago I bought a VERY used Ford 1900 tractor on Craigslist. I paid only four grand, so while it runs great, there were some minor repairs I wanted to make right away. First and foremost, I wanted to replace some worn hydraulic hoses. I started with two that run the bucket. You can see they were pretty trashed:

I pulled them off, took 'em to Hose-Man out in Oxnard, and they made up a couple new ones for me faster than the guy could write up an invoice. And just that fast, I was out $125!

Clearly, I'll have to parse out the hose replacement project over a period of time!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Jaws of Death- Lizard vs. Snake

Over the years we've seen some amazing things on our ranch. I've seen a pair of rattlesnakes rear up, weave back and forth, and then entwine with each other and roll around on the ground (never did find out if they were fighting or mating). I've come across two bobcats so intent on staring each other down they literally wouldn't move out of the road. I've had an enormous sycamore crash down just in front of me--- and an angry mob of hornets emerge from that tree and sting the hell out of me. My wife has awakened with a big ol' tarantula next to her on the headboard.

This one was much less dramatic, but kinda cool. Evidently a California Whipsnake had tried to make lunch of an Alligator Lizard, and the lizard turned the tables. I found them locked in stock-still combat in my driveway. The snake was starting to fade out, and the lizard was hanging on like a pit bull.

For the record, I rescued the snake. And although it was pretty chewed up in that one spot, it eventually revived enough to slither under a woodpile. The lizard did its best to threaten me with mouth agape, but eventually he wiggled away too.

Here's the picture I shot before I broke up the death match.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Ranch-Style Dumpster Diving

We've got a family of four raccoons living under our deck, and every night they raid our trash. Well, while I was doing the morning chores this morning I heard a lot of ruckus going on in one of the trash cans. I knew what happened, so I got my camera and snapped this:

After getting the shot I tipped the trash can enough so the little fella (gal?) could climb out, and he/she made his exhausted way back to our deck--- with one final glance back at us...

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Brooder Shed for Chicks

I recently had a coyote burrow his (or her) way into the chicken pen and kill all ten of my chickens. I actually saw him/her jump the 5'+ fence with a full grown Black Australorp in its mouth!

So, while I do some reinforcing work on the pen, I hit the feed store for some new chicks. Some Australorps, Auracanas, a California White (I think), some good ol' Rhode Island Reds, and a Brahma (a heavier bird, similar to a Buff Orpington).

As chicks, they just look like fuzzy tennis balls.

My chick brooder shed has insulated walls, a 100w bulb in one of those metal clamp-on utility lamps for warmth, a hatch leading to a fenced-in area under the shed, and sliding panels over screened windows for ventilation during the day.

Monday, July 27, 2009

How to Catch a Swarm of Bees

One of the things I do out here on my suburban ranch is keep bees and harvest their honey. Sometimes I buy bees to start my hives, sometimes I'm able to get 'em free. Recently I extracted one hive from someone's garage wall, and in the video below I captured a swarm. If you're interested in beekeeping on your ranch, see my blog at