So despite soap making plans, today was a day of butchering. We had been planning for some time to get rid of excess male presence and energy in the flock (both amongst the chickens and the muscovite ducks). Today we finally went ahead and did it. We also slaughtered one hen that was showing signs of illness … we had been monitoring her for a few days and she wasn’t getting any better … so to we culled her (as food for the dogs). Then we went ahead and butchered one of our two roosters … I thought he would be harder to catch (he was very aggressive) but it turned out he is more bark then bite. Then we went on to slaughter two of the male Muscovites. I did the killing and Andreea did the cleaning and hacking.
The ducks were much harder to handle then the chickens. They are really strong and strike out with their short feet like crazy. They also took much longer then the chickens to die. The first one managed to get free from Andreea’s grip … splashing the bowl of blood mostly on Andreea and a bit on me. Andreea looked like a character out of a Rambo movie. We got a much better hold of the second one (Andreea his body and I his head) and managed to create a much calmer experience for everyone. The duck feathers were also much more difficult to remove … at one point Andreea gave up and skinned them … removing skin and feather leftovers together.
We cooked a chicken soup for the dogs with the hen-parts. We cooked an amazing chicken soup for ourselves. Despite my vegetarianism I make it a point to taste from the meat of every animal I participate in butchering. However the Muscovite meat that we baked in the oven was a rare treat and I had a decent helping of meat … my first in a long time (at least 12 years).
It was interesting to feel killing in my gut … not as an emotional or physical sensation … I was completely at peace doing the killing. It was an experience of energy … of taking a life.
All of the water heating and cooking took place on the outside twin-rocket stove we re-assembled this morning. Summer is here. It was great fun being outside almost all day and feeding the rocket stove as work was coming along.
In the early afternoon hours two tractors appeared and finally laid the 2nd layer of gravel (on top of the first layer of larger stones that we put in last year) on the last 200m+ of road that lead to our property.
Sabine and Ina have been with us for the past few days … in the background of the day Ina baked a fantastic bread. So we just came in from a late night snack of fresh bread and jams while watching a fantastic thunderstorm (my first one … so up close and personal).
Poultry in general and chickens in particular are an almost obvious part of peasant life in Romania. We got started with chicken from day one – I think they were settled in before we were. I wasn’t too excited about having to take care of a flock from day one since we could barely take care of ourselves … however Andreea and her aunt had a different opinion on the matter 🙂 In retrospect I’m still not sure I would have started out the way we did however it did give us an opportunity (still ongoing) to learn about them, their needs and behaviors and to make better decisions about how we want to integrate them into our lives.
I have witnessed two typical approaches to poultry-keeping here in Romania. One is to keep them in crowded and dirty enclosures with very basic, unsanitary and unpleasant improvised coops. In this configuration they are completely dependent on people for food (mostly corn) and water. The other is free ranging in a fixed and limited range. The same space is used year after year with little opportunity to regenerate … so again the chickens depend on people for food and water. Completely free ranging is an option I have witnessed but rarely because there are (at least in our area) predators who are a threat to a free-ranging flock.
Neither of the common approaches were particularly appealing to us so we went off to find better answers. However to find better answers we first had to find better questions. Ours is becoming a recurring template question that goes something like “How can we provide the chickens with the freedom to move towards a lifestyle that is best suited for their needs with as little inputs of labor, time, attention and resources required of us?“.
We did a lot of reading and came across lots of information. The main motive that shimmered for us was to think beyond “taking care of chickens” and be open to “letting the chickens take care of us”. That second part has some obvious and some not so ovious aspects. The obvious is that chickens provide food in the form of eggs and meat. However the not so obvious has so much more to offer: chicken manure enriches soil nutriets, chickens are part of a food chain that provides natural pest control, chicken scratching can be a natural way to till soil, chickens can accelerate composting and produce substantial amounts of fertilizer … and there’s more.
Finally we came across a beautiful man named Harvey Ussery:
Current View: Free ranging chickens on parcels of land to cut down weed growth and till soil in preparation for new plantings (for diverse needs including pasture, forest gardens, raised beds).
Future View: Free ranging chickens on a suitable pasture that will provide everything the chickens need for most of the year (spring – fall).
We have 9 hectares of land that need to be rejuvenated. Some of it has been resting for the last few years but all of it has been somewhat abused for many years. It’s a huge task and we have a far-reaching view for it. One of the tools we want to try is working with chickens to clear patches of land and prepare them for replanting. We chose to do this using a combination of a mobile shelter and electric netting. We built a mobile shelter as outlined (though a bit smaller then) in Harvey’s book.
These are a few photos during the construction of the mobile shelter:
… and these are a few photos of the completed shelter ready to go to work:
The book has very elaborate details about how to build such a shelter so I don’t really feel I need to get into it. We did decide to add a hardware-cloth floor because there are also underground/digging predators in the area.
The next stage was to setup electric netting … which is a kind of electric fence that is fabricated as a net especially for poultry. What makes it particularly suitable for poultry is (1) more densely spaced lower wires in the net to keep small chicks in and (2) a bit extra height to keep jumping chickens in … though a jumper will get out if she really wants to. It was quite a project figuring out what we needed to get (maybe I’ll do a separate post on that?) and then to find what we needed here in Romania – we found two German manufacturers represented here in Romania Patura & Ako and another Finnish company Olli.
A few days ago we got everything setup. We moved the mobile shelter to an area near the house we’d like the chickens to scratch up for us, installed the electric netting around it and baited most of the chickens in:
We forgot the electric fence tester in the shop (they sent it to us by mail) but we got clear confirmation that it is working. First a couple of chickens made contact with it and jumped back agitated. Then our two dogs touched it and both yelped very loud and ran off offended not be seen for a few hours. The chickens no longer test the fence. The dogs go nowhere near it. We have one hen who jumps the fence when she wants to lay an egg … insisting to move back into the nearby and familiar barn space where they lived until recently. Except for her, the other hens have found the nestbox inside the mobile shelter and have laid their eggs in it.
The enclosed space is currently disproportionate to the number of chickens we have … but the flock is about to grow.
In the future we plan to resurrect some of our pasture and to prepare it for permanent residence of the chickens. We intend to build the chickens an earthship (mostly underground) style shelter that is set into the slope of the hill designated to become their shelter. Harvey’s book has loads of valuale information on how to design and build such a more permanent coop (though it is our idea to move it underground). From it we plan to have a few electric-netted pasture areas through which we can rotate the flock.
The chickens themselves will help us this year ,with the current configuration to begin work on their future pasture-home. This will probably take a few years to achieve. This will include diverse plants and mini ecosystems that will hopefully lead to a mostly autonomous system where we have less and less reason to interfere.
A Few More Details
As we launched this experiment our first chicks hatched.
Our hatching ratio has been very lousy. We don’t know the cause however we believe it was due to the cock-to-hen ration in our flock. We had 2 cocks and 7 hens. The cocks would constantly get in each others way when either one attempted to mate with any of the hens. Though one seems to be dominant … mating is always violent and messy … and we now believe mostly not happening. We have exchanged some of our eggs with a neighbor … they will eat our eggs and a broody hen will sit on their, hopefully more fertile, eggs.
We also have 7 Muscovite ducks – 4 males and 3 females … again disproportionate. The thing is that the male cocks also mounted the female ducks. Two of the three femals are broody … we’ll see what comes of their eggs in about 2 weeks.
The ducks are currently ranging free outside the electric netting. The brooding hens are still in the barn and those with hatched chicks are also free ranging. Once the chicks grow a bit (2 or 3 weeks) we inted to introduce them with their mothers into the guarded area. When the ducks get past bruising and we cull the extra males (cock and ducks) we will probably try to move the ducks into the guarded area too.
We’ve got six chicks already hatched from the first batch … though the hen is still sitting on a few more eggs … we’ll see if more hatch tomorrow. Two more chickens still sitting, a fourth brooder (also from neighbors) was added today and two mother ducks are still cooking their eggs 🙂
And … just in time … we’ve got the electric netting up and running. As I write these words, most of the chickens are spending the night in the new mobile shelter that is protected within electric netting. They are agitated with the change … but we hope will settle into it quickly. We don’t have the net tester (it was left behind at the store and is making its way to us by mail) however we know for certain that it works because: (a) there are clicking sounds where there is contact between the conducting wire and some weeds; (b) the chickens have tried to find a way out and jumped away agitated from the fence; (c) the dogs both tried to find a way in and cried out in desperation and then disappeared for quite some time … terribly offended and well … shocked (dogs and other predators feel it more then the chickens because the chickens are apparently thick skinned – especiall their feet which touch the ground and close the electric circuit). More on chicken systems in upcoming posts 🙂 For now … this approach feels like another right piece in the overall puzzle we are trying to put together here at Bhudeva 🙂
The sun came out today and we happily joined it. We spent the first part of the day completing (I think) transplating plants into the raised beds. The raised beds are now packes full of lush life. The transplants looked sad today but hopefully will recuperate in the coming days. Winds and thunder are back … so hopefully fresh rains will arrive to. Next year we plan to do much less trasplanting and go with much more direct seeding.
Also we were excited to discover phenomenal (I don’t use that word often or lightly) improvement of soil on the raised beds … more on that in a separate post 🙂
The day before yesterday we finally went and purchased the equipment for the electric netting which will enable us to let the chickens free range but in a limited area. The combination of netting and a mobile shelter will enable us to move the chickens to different locations. So today I built an improvised mobile box to shelter the netting energizer from winds and rain. It is all hooked up and ready to go. We moved the shelter to our first test location and if weather permits tomorrow we will put up the net for the first time and let the chickens get on with a new more purpose filled life 🙂
We let the brooding chickens out today and found that one of the eggs was cracked and a tiny chick is chirping from inside. We couldn’t tell yet if it hatched because … well … there’s a chicken sitting on it again 🙂 And … is seems that another chicken has gone broody. We’ve placed her on temporary eggs and if we find her still broody tomorrow we’ll place under her a fresh batch of eggs. That would make 4 chickens and 2 ducks. So much new life 🙂
Also … over recent days the information system for Cutia Taranului has gone into fully operational mode … though new features are added almost every day. We’ve recently added more vegetable boxes from Cluj and some really special boxes of bread and other baked goods for Cluj … with a similar box soon to be available in Bucharest too. It is slow-going, very demanding … but growing beautifully … kind of like new plants … slowly at first as they divert most of the energy into their roots … then some green appears to further support the roots … then they just take off … we are so looking forward to seeing both our plants and Cutia Taranului take off 🙂
Last year we prayed for continuous sunshine and warmth as we were racing to make our house livable and to complete preparations for winter. It was a droughty year … demanding for all the locals. This year we prayed for rains to saturate our newly built raised beds … and so we’ve been having a streak of rainy days. Its wonderful mild rain gently covering the landscape and watering all new newly planted plants. It has been going on for I think at least 3 weeks and more is expected throughout this week and the next with only occassional appearances by the sun (no doubt this would have been a challenging period for living off the electrical grid).
Last year everyone complained about lack of water. This year many people are showing signs of worry due to too much water. Some peasants have already lost some crops (some of which have already been replanted) to flooded areas.
We are now realizing another wonderful feature of raised beds. Our plants are all planted on raised beds and are in absolutely no danger of flooding (unless it comes in the form of a hollywood-end-of-the-world kind of disaster) since excess water that is not absorbed into the bed itself will run off. It will have another opportunity to get absorbed in the earth in the mulched space between the raised beds … and if there is still any runoff it will most likely find its way to the small lake we dug.
We have not yet harvested a single crop from our raised beds yet I cannot imagine raising plants in any other way (except of course where the terrain calles for Sepp Holzer style terraces). Planting in a field seems out of the question.
A year ago we were still in the theoretical phase of working land. We already met Bhudeva though we were not yet the owners and we were bewildered by the vastness of permaculture and could not imagine how to begin reviving 9 hectares of land. Then we found Sepp Holzer’s raised beds and something told me we’d found a good beginning.
Raised beds is a common gardening term and usually refers to small and manageable areas of garden that are slightly elevated from ground level and neatly arranged to accommodate plants. This IS NOT what we are talking about. When we say raised beds we are referring to Sepp Holzer Hugelkultur … very large raised beds that:
Are made up of fallen wood or other residue organic matter that has substantial mass.
Provide a fertile growing area for many years without the need to bring in extra fertilization.
Soak up a lot of water and as a result can survive droughty months without any need for irrigation.
Make harvesting easier by reducing the need to bend down to ground level.
Drastically increase the surface growing area where available land may be limited.
Paul Wheaton posted an excellent article on such raised beds so I don’t need to. I urge you to read his article to gain a basic understanding of what hugelkultur raised beds are and then, if you’re still interested, continue reading about our efforts to create them.
If you have a small garden this is probably a lesser-issue. However, we have 9 hectares of land and this was quite an issue. We have an evolving vision of the entire property but there are still many things that can and are being shuffeled around in that vision. Here is what we knew:
We wanted to build a few raised beds … how many would depend on how much wood we would have (which was still an unknown when we decided to get started).
We wanted the raised beds to be our primary gardening area for annuals.
Therefore we wanted the raised beds close to our future (and current) house.
But we didn’t want them taking up space that would be set aside for one of our forest gardens which we also want close to our future house.
So we decided to start building the beds just south of the intended location of our future house. The house is intended to be mostly underground so a forest garden cannot be placed to the south where it would block out the sun. The only inhibiting factor for this location was timing. Eventually the area of the house and its surroundings will become a construction site (though a relatively delicate one) and we do not want the raised beds to be in the way or to get trampled. Fortunately there is enough space for both 🙂
The raised beds started with a symbolic gesture. I simply placed a small pile of medium sized pieces of wood that were lying around from an old and ailing tree we pruned heavily (it seems to be reviving wonderfully). Most of the materials then came from a maor thinning we did of a dense and overgrown prune orchard behind the existing house (the one we currently live in).
We currently know of only two kinds of trees that are not suitable for raised beds. Hardwoods such as Acacia (which is a strong native here) contain chemicals which deter the microbiological fungi that are responsible for rotting wood (which make them extremely durable and rot resistant). Then there are walnut trees (also abundantly available here) beneath which nothing ever grows due to another chemical that is present in the tree (though we don’t know if its just in the leaves or in the bark itself) … so we don’t want that in the raised beds either. So our raised beds are mostly of prune trees with a few more mixed in.
Building the raised beds was a lot of work for one person. I am confident that a few people working together could have done it much faster … however it is possible to do on your own. Converting a branched tree into pieces that can be piled together can be quite a meditation. I eventually found a work-process that I could follow fairly regularly (dragging trees from where they were lying around, spreading them near the raised beds, chainsaw cutting and then piling).
How you go about it ultimately depends on what kind of wood you have available to you. I had lots of relatively thin pieces (even the tree trunk) and only occassional massive pieces. In some cases I used the heavy trunk pieces to quickly create a base … very rewarding as it feels like rapid progress 🙂 However I ultimately found that is it better to use the thinner pieces to create the base and then to lay on top of them the heavier pieces to weigh them down. Some of threes were tall, straight and fairly thin (most branches pointed up and alongside the trunk) and I just placed them as is on the ground … a pile of such trees formed a formidable base with relatively little work.
The good thing is that it isn’t rocket science and eventually it is all buried by dirt. My main objective was to make sure I got fairly large beds (at least 1 meter high just the wood) and as much wood mass as I could into the beds. Because I was using fairly thin branches, whenever I could I tried to insert pieces into spaces that formed inside the bed. There was still much space for dirt to settle inside.
Another good things is that we now have 3 different “densities” of raised beds to observe and experiment with over the years. We have one very dense bed, two mixed bed and two low-density (and smaller) beds.
We built 5 raised beds. They are located on a slight-slope that faces south. The land also slopes slightly from east-west. The raised beds are oriented roughly west-to-east and they are interlaced so that water can flow between them:
Again this isn’t rocket science and only time will tell if our choices will work well for us. We tried to leave enough space between the beds so that after burial, which widens the beds, there would still be enough space to walk comfortably between them with a wheel-barrow for carrying stuff in and out (tools, harvest, etc.).
The blue space you see in the diagram is where we got the dirt. We dug a small lake … however that is a topic on to itself … and it is too early of an experiment so I am nowhere near confident enouh to write about it. .. stay tuned though 🙂
To bury the raised beds we hired Florin our wonderful tractor guy for a day (we had him to lots of other things that needed doing that day).We decided to dig a test lake and to use the dug up earth to bury the beds. The lake is placed in the lowest corner of this part of the land … so hopefully it will collect water without us having to penetrate the aquipher for water (as seems to be the norm around here).
The beds were spaced in such a way that a tractor good just get through and dump earth onto the beds. This is important to plan for if you intend to use a tractor. It would have been easier to do this one row at a time (or two rows at first) so that there would have been unhindered access for the tractor but just having the tractor arrive at our property is costly so we decided to maximize using it.
It took a lot of earth to bury the raised beds. It would have been an unimaginably difficult task (a few strong people over a few days) to get this done without heavy machinery.
Because of the limited access to the central bed the tractor had to dump a few loads when its not aligned parallel to the bed itself. This resulted in a “wide-dump” causing dirt to fall to far to the sides of the bed creating a wider bed then we had hoped for.
It is better (for the shape of bed that we were aiming for) that the tractor come up parallel to the bed and dump the earth right on top.
We then had the tractor haul over a pile of hay that we would use for mulch.
We also had the tractor haul over a pile of cow-manure that was sitting next to our barn (last years our neighbors housed their cows there for some time ) and had composted there. We didn’t know if the amount would be sufficient for the 5 beds so we preferred to leave it in a pile we could use as we see fit. In retrospect that was a mistake. Spreading it manually will not create more of it. It was hard work to spread the manure over the beds and I definitely regretted not having the tractor dump it directly onto the beds (with supervision to make the best of what is available).
Then came the mulch … and planting the beds … both of which I will get too in separate future posts 🙂
While we were building our raised beds our neighbors were all busy doing the same traditional, expensive, labor intensive, fertility destroying activities they (and most Romanian peasants) have been doing for eternity:
People who passed by were curious about what we were doing with the piles of wood on our land … or to be specific … why we weren’t cutting it up into firewood … or to be even more specific … why were we burying precious firewood with dirt. We give a brief and passionate explanation to those who ask and get on with our work. The beautiful thing about these raised beds is that when you hear the reasoning it makes sense even if you’ve had no gardening or farming experience … it makes TONS of sense if you have had any experience … yet it it still mostly met with doubt.
If all goes well, then this time next year we will be free to relax or do new things while our neighbors will all be doing the same work again. Maybe in a few years when we’ve shown that we can get better results with less work and less expenses some of them will come around to inquiring about what is going on.
Beware: Sitting & Digging Dogs
Our dogs love sitting on on raised piles … usually of hay … though raised beds work great for them too. They demonstrated their affections from the start:
At first it was cute … heck it was an achievement that they just sat there instead of trying to bark the tractor into submission … but now we are constantly demanding they get off. It isn’t pleasant to see them walking over or sitting (or digging into) the raised beds now that they are planted … and to the dogs the plants make no difference. So our recommendations: (a) get them off from the very beginning and (b) get used to it 🙂
Yesterday we finally took the last step in welcoming our bees to Bhudeva. I was working (making great progress) on the mobile chicken shelter when Andreea noticed that outside the first hive we had already transferred to a top-bar-hive there was heightened activity. We can’t be sure but it looked like the bees may have been preparing to swarm (a natural instinct where a bee family splits into two resulting in many bees leaving with the active queen). We weren’t really prepared for it but we decided to place another (third) hive next to it with waxed top-bars and inviting scents and hope that if the bees do decide to swarm they may choose it as a new home. However it turned out into a much longer work session 🙂
Fortunately for us Levente was available and joined us – both out of curiosity and to help. We put the new hive in place and then opened up the living hive. For the most part things were looking good.
The hive looked thriving, there was lots of activity. The standard “chop and crop” frames were all filled with bees (we took the opportunity to gently, using a hand saw, cut off the ends of their frames so that they would not interfere with the hive’s lid). The bees did an excellent job cleaning up after the somewhat brutal chop-and-crop.
Some of the new top bars were also coming along. This one had quite a comb built up.
It was fantastic to see inside the hives (sorry … no image) chains-of-bees linked together, supposedly using their body lengths as a measuring tool in building new comb. However there were no eggs to be found … which means we may have lost/injured the queen when we made the initial transition. We did find quite a few young queens … which is when things got interesting.
We decided to do a split. So now instead of hoping that the bees move to the new hive (which wasn’t very likely) we moved into it three frames with one of the new queens. We added to it a few empty top-bars and a failed chop-and-crop bar from the original transition, with honey in it, that was left over from the initial transition. So now we had two hives populated and we managed to capture and set aside four additional young queens.
Then came the third hive – the one that was setup as a transitional hive. As we were warned in the forums the bees showed no signs of moving into the lower top-bar-hive. They were very active in the standard hive sitting on top of the top-bar-hive … but showed no interest in moving down. Our decision was to shake them into the top-bar-hive and remove the standard hive completely. Andreea & Levente took care of this task.
Had we been there on our own we would have a serious mistake that Levente wisely avoided. We would have taken the standard hive down – and that would have probably aggrevated the bees greatly. Instead, Levente opened the hive, inspected the frames one by one and then shook the bees directly into the standard hive – which of course was still sitting on the top-bar-hive … and this time the bees, with no choice left, moved down. They were very frustrated and there were a few stings … however, with the help of much smoke, Andreea & Levente managed to get all the frames out, examined, shook .. and the bees to move into their new home. We also put in the modified follower-boards to prevent bee-leaks.
Because there were three of us and the event was less traumatic we realized that we could easily chop-and-crop a few frames of brood and honey. I had a table and tools setup nearbye and indeed we got 4 frames chopped-and-cropped and reinserted into the top-bar-hive. This time, as I was chopping the frames I also cut the remaining top-bar down to size. Most of the bees found their way into the hive though there was a small bundle under the hive (attached to the netting).
Andreea completed the day by manually squeezing honey from the crops left over from the standard frames. She aso found and left in the honey plenty of pollen.
This all happened yesterday. Today the two primary hives are very active and the third, split hive, less so. We’ll see how it goes.
We are relieved and happy. We are looking forward to the bees settling in their new homes. We still want to phase out the remaining converted top-bars … but other then that it looks like the transition has been completed. We are expecting our acacia trees to bloom in the coming weeks … and that should result in plenty of honey-stores for the bees … maybe even some for us 🙂
This transition had a wonderful and unexpected side-effect. Levente was very much opposed to our decision to abort the standard hives in favor of top-bar-hives. He is already used to us doing things differently and he usually watches us from the sidelines with curiosity. With the bees he was outright against what we were doing. However yesterday he saw that the bees were actually doing very well. He was impressed. We gifted him with the remaining 6 frames and the 4 queens. We then drove over to their place where we sat with Valentin, his brother-in-law, who is a professional beekeeper (standard hives). This time it was Levente telling Valentin about the top-bar-hives and showing off our queens … and Valentin also seemed curios and impressed. So the bees did an excellent job of making a case for top-bar hives … and so it goes 🙂