August 24, 2010

Earlier this summer we bought some snake videos for Moira, our resident herpetologist. I bought a set of four DVDs about reptiles, but she is really only interested in the two about snakes. One day we were watching the video that features Jules Sylvester. In this video he visits various places around the world, wrangling and rescuing snakes. The kids decided we should go outside and hunt up some snakes, so we went out to the garden. Aidan was getting a bit frustrated because he couldn’t find any. As I was explaining to him that you can’t just decide to hunt snakes and then magically find them, he magically found some. They were under a big piece of cardboard that was out in the garden area.

One snake was a good sized garter snake. I wasn’t sure what the other two were, but they were not any of the four venomous species found in Illinois. So the kids “played” with them. They carried them around, took them up to their dad and showed him, and had a great time. Until Aidan decided to see if one of the snakes had fangs and put his fingers in the snake’s mouth. The snake bit him, naturally. He was pissed and crying and bleeding a tiny bit and telling me we should cut the snake’s head off. I could hear Moira crying in the distance and I thought for sure that Aidan had done something to the snake and she was upset because she loves snakes so much. Much to my surprise, Moira was also in favor of cutting off the snake’s head (it’s times like this when I know they actually do love each other!). We did not cut off the snake’s head and I explained that I didn’t think a snake deserved to have its head cut off for biting a finger that was jammed into its mouith. The snakes were released and that was that.

Fast forward to yesterday. Aidan is mowing and he excitedly hops off the mower to tell us he found a snake. Before I can say anything or get over to him, he is picking up the snake. I told him to hold it properly by its neck so it couldn’t bite. At first glance it was not anything venomous. We shouldn’t have cottonmouths this far north. We probably shouldn’t have copperheads, either, but I think we might. Anyway, it was not a copperhead and I am 98% sure I could identify a copperhead if I saw one because they are very distinctive looking. I still wasn’t sure what it was, so we put it in a big, blue plastic tub and looked it up online. This is what it looked like:

A young snake

Picture of a snake we found in our yard

A snake we found in our yard

So I have no idea what kind of snake this is. I’m pretty sure it’s not venomous because it doesn’t have a “button” at the end of its tail. I know some snakes that it is NOT, but not what it is. We took these pictures and then released it down by the creek. So, any ideas? I’ve looked at pictures of snakes that live in Illinois and I can’t figure this one out. The problem is that snakes don’t all look the same, just like people. So one picture of a snake is not enough. I really need to find a naturalist or someone nearby to help us identify snakes.

UPDATED: My best guess at this point is that this is a bull snake.

*And just in case you are wondering, yes, we have talked about safety with snakes. But sometimes kids need to learn on their own. Aidan learned that snakes do have teeth and they will bite you, especially if you put your finger in a snake’s mouth.

Pig Sex

August 20, 2010

Updated to add that Deborah at Antiquity Oaks added a post about how her goats breed the old-fashioned way. You can read her post, We do everything the old-fashioned way, at her blog. Also, be sure to read the comment left by Cody. I hope others will continue to comment!

The other day the kids put on an episode of Dirty Jobs called “Pig Farmer.” In this episode, Mike Rowe visits a pig farm. You can see a clip here, but it doesn’t show any of the parts I am about to mention, except for the pigs in cages. I missed the part where it said how many pigs the farm had, but it was a lot. He had to help get tons of pig manure out of the building with the cages with the young pigs. TONS of manure. He had to clip the teeth of the piglets, clip their tails, and give them two injections. An antibiotic was needed because of the tail and teeth clipping to prevent infection. I’m sure that all of that is standard practice. And as much as I was sitting there feeling a bit horrified by all this, I was even more horrified by the breeding part.

The breeding part of the show was so weird. Now, to be fair, perhaps there are things I do not know or realize about animal breeding. I do know that most breeders don’t let their animals breed willy nilly. They breed for certain qualities, such as higher milk production, certain patterns of wool, fat/muscle ratio, etc. I do realize that. What I don’t know is how they go about ensuring that happens. When my farmer tells me that our heifers are probably pregnant because they are running with cows that belong to someone else, I get the idea that there is a bull that has some good qualities and they just let him run with the cows when it’s breeding time. They aren’t sure which heifers got pregnant and which didn’t, at least not for a while. That makes sense to me.

I realize that animal breeders don’t just let any male breed with any female. But how they ensure that seems to vary. In the Dirty Jobs episode, the breeding was so far removed from sex it was almost laughable. It was not “natural” in any way. The boar was allowed to walk near the pigs in heat. Then they took him back to this contraption. It was a big, heavy, long metal thing (from my web searching, I think it is called a “dummy”) that the boar could “mount” so he could do his humping thing. Then the farmer and Mike collected the semen in a plastic bag so they could inseminate the female pigs (They are called gilts if they’ve never been pregnant, sows if they have). In this case, the female pig had teats and looked like she had nursed her young before. I’m only guessing, but I will call her a sow based on this guess.

Then Mike Rowe takes a really long plastic tube with a bulb at the end. The semen is in the bulb. First, they let the boar walk by the sow so she will be ready for breeding. Then Mike inserts the tube in the sow, pointing it up towards her spine, otherwise it can end up in her bladder (and really, who wants semen in their bladder?). Then he has to sit on top of her so that she feels like the boar is on her and, well, somehow that gets her ready.

Anyway, it looked nothing like sex (or reproduction if you prefer a word that is a little less loaded with cultural meaning). I can kind of understand why it’s done that way. If the boar shot his one load in that sow, it would be more sperm than needed to breed and is a waste. And when you have a factory farm or breeding animals is your job, that is important. Plus, many breeders make money selling semen. So I get it. And yet I don’t. It just seems wrong somehow.

I realize that animal sex is not the same as human sex. I doubt most animals get much enjoyment out of it. I’m pretty sure the hens don’t enjoy it, for example. It doesn’t look like it would be fun to be a hen. They do get other things in exchange, though, such as protection and warning of predators or the roosters telling them where the good food is. Even though it doesn’t look like animal sex is fun, it still seems that the animals should get to do it the way nature intended. Doesn’t it? I mean, human beings controlling which animals breed with which seems fine to me and has been done for a long time. But the pig sex in this episode was completely modern, industrialized, unnatural. I guess it was better than this (image from University of Illinois Extension, The Optimal Time for Breeding Swine):

Picture of assembly line swine breeding

What I’d like to know more about is how smaller scale farmers and breeders do this. How do you ensure your breeding stock is good and is the way you want it without resorting to industrialized, modern breeding that basically removes the animal from the equation? I think the way my farmer breeds his cows, which is by letting a bull loose with the heifers and letting them do it themselves, is almost the opposite extreme from this espisode or the picture of assembly line breeding. So what I’d like to know is about the in between, the middle ground. Where technology is useful, but is not the only way to do it. Because this type of reproduction just seems weird to me.

Note: While I see that a comparison could be made to modern reproductive technologies for human beings, I think that is completely different for many reasons.

Gluten and Dairy free chicken fried steak

April 23, 2010

This post is part of Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade. Check out the other links for recipes, news, and thoughts on real food, slow food, organic and/or local food!

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Can you say YUM? These were really, really yummy. Of course, I did some research and found some recipes* that inspired me and then tweaked them to make them gluten and dairy free. I made my own gluten-free flour blend, as well. First, the recipe I based mine on is Gluten Free Chicken Fried Steak from Mom Cooks Gluten Free. I barely had to tweak this because it was already gluten-free. The major changes I made were that I used arrowroot powder instead of cornstarch (making it corn free). Also, I used Spectrum Organic vegetable shortening. If I had some lard from pastured pork, I would probably have used that. I also used Earth Balance Natural Buttery Spread – Soy Free. I doubled this recipe (there are 3 adults and 2 kids to feed in our house) and we had leftovers for breakfast/lunch the next day. This is the recipe from the website, with my changes in bold after each ingredient. Honestly, it’s a really good recipe, so I hardly changed a thing. I just used what I had on hand and also made it dairy-free. You could quite easily stick to the original recipe and it would be delicious.


  • 4 cube steaks (4 to 6 oz each) I used grass-fed cubed steak and tenderized it.
  • 1 1/2 cups gluten free flour blend (I used the Authentic Foods Gluten Free Multi-Grain, but you can use any flour blend. See note below.) I made my own blend, see link below.
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt I used sea salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder I had dehydrated onion slices, so ground them into a powder
  • 1/2 cup of shortening I used Spectrum Organic Vegetable shortening
  • 4 Tbsp butter I used Earth Balance Soy Free
  • 1 1/2 cup of milk (cow, rice or soy…I used cow) I used goat’s milk
  • 2-3 tsp corn starch or potato starch I used arrowroot starch and I think it took a little bit more, but my gravy was lumpy as I am inexperienced at making gravy!
  • Additional salt and pepper to taste


  1. Pound the steaks with a mallet to tenderize them (not too thin).
  2. Whisk eggs and place in a bowl big enough to dip the steaks in.
  3. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, salt, pepper and paprika. Divide the flour mixture between two large plastic bags. I just poured the stuff in the ziploc bags and shook them up good!
  4. Mix the steaks in the first flour mixture, one by one.
  5. Then dip them in the eggs.
  6. Then shake in the second flour mixture until fully coated. (repeat if necessary)
  7. In a large skillet (cast iron or non-stick because you want the drippings/brown bits for gravy), heat the 1/2 cup of shortening over medium heat (350 deg F). I added more as I went along and seemed to need more.
  8. Brown the steaks on both sides for approximately 2-4 minutes each side until steaks are cooked through.
  9. Set steaks aside and cover/tent to keep warm.
  10. In the same pan, pour off the shortening and add 4 Tbsp of butter and melt over medium heat. (you want to use the browned bits from the steaks to help flavor the gravy) I didn’t pour off the shortening as there wasn’t much left at this point.
  11. Slowly add the corn starch, stirring while doing so. Again, I used arrowroot starch.
  12. Add the 1 1/2 cup of milk slowly, continuing to stir. Heat through and stir to eliminate any lumps.
  13. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  14. Serve with mashed potatoes. I served with green beans and corn because we didn’t have potatoes.

As far as the gluten-free flour blend goes, I used this blend, which is a blend of brown rice f lour, tapioca starch, and bean flour or sorghum. I used sorghum and sifted them together thoroughly.

*It’s so important to give credit to recipes. Simply cutting and pasting someone else’s recipe is not OK. Always, always give credit, a trackback, or whatever. I try to do this, no matter how much, or how little, I might change the original recipe.

Allergen free Easy Bake Oven recipes

April 15, 2010

This post is part of Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade. Check it out for lots of information, recipes, and ideas about real food. Food Renegade Banner

I find that being frugal and caring about the environment go hand in hand, at least for me. I hate spending a lot of money on things. Although, I will willingly spend good money on a good product, such as grass-fed beef or a good pair of sneakers or toilet paper. I am willing to spend a lot of money on food. In fact, I insist on buying high quality items as much as possible. Some things are worth the money. One thing that is often NOT worth the money is toys for the kids. Buying new is expensive (not that each little toy is expensive, but it adds up over time). It uses resources, such as oil for the plastics and gas to get toys here. Even if they are wood toys and made in the United States, there is still a cost, though it is definitely better for the economy and the environment. We try to buy used toys as much as possible, from Ebay, the thrift store, etc.

So what do I do when we are at the thrift store and there is an Easy Bake Oven and Aidan wants it? I mean the packets that come with it or that you buy at the store are awful. How is it even possible to make a cake where you just add water? The good thing is that I am not the only person who thinks like this. And the other good thing is the Internet. Oh how I love you, Internet! Where else can you find recipes for Easy Bake Oven sized desserts? I found a few good recipes on this site. We used the brownie recipe, but I admit I tweaked it to make it gluten-free*.

Also, I made my own chocolate sauce from scratch to avoid the high fructose corn syrup and other artificial stuff (see a list of the ingredients in Hershey’s chocolate syrup here). So anyway, I found a recipe for homemade chocolate syrup. I, of course, modified it as well. It seems I am constantly modifying recipes. In fact, Tim calls me Ida after some lady who made some substitutions to his mom’s recipes and then said it didn’t quite taste the same. I like to think that I am a better cook than Ida, though. Obviously I know what I am doing and she didn’t! 🙂

So, now that I have given credit to the recipes that inspired me, here is what I ended up doing.

Allergen Friendly Easy Bake Brownie Recipe (Gluten, dairy, egg and yeast free and easily corn free):

2 T succanat (though honey, maple syrup, or agave nectar would work)
1 t sunflower oil (a light olive oil would work in a pinch, as well as any other light vegetable oil)
1/8 t vanilla extract (NOT imitation vanilla!)
4 t homemade chocolate syrup
1 1/2 T buckwheat flour
1 T brown rice flour
1/8 t baking powder (if you have a corn allergy, it’s easy to make your own or you can buy Hain Featherweight brand)

  1. Mix the wet ingredients together first, including your sugar if you are using syrup or agave. If you are using some granular sugar, I’d add it with the dry ingredients.
  2. Add in the dry ingredients and stir until mixed.
  3. Grease Easy Bake pan lightly and pour batter into pan (mine was thick and didn’t really pour, but I patted it in there nicely).
  4. Bake 15 minutes.

Aidan said it was good. I asked him if it cooked all the way and he said yes. I asked him if it tasted good and he said it did, but could have more chocolate in it.

Now, for the chocolate sauce recipe:

Chocolate Sauce

2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 c succanat
1/4 cup agave syrup**
1 1/4 cups water
1 t vanilla extract

  1. Mix sugar(s), cocoa powder, and water in a small saucepan.
  2. Stir together and heat until boiling. Boil for about 1 minute.
  3. Remove from heat and add vanilla. (I let it cool a bit before adding the vanilla, but I’m not sure it matters).

Next time I make this, I am going to try to use stevia, maybe mixed with a bit of maple syrup.

*At the moment I’m not supposed to be eating gluten or sugar or dairy or a whole big, long list of things. The kids can eat those things, but I figured nobody needs that much gluten anyway and the buckwheat flour is tasty and more nutritious than wheat flour.

**I’ve been using agave syrup/nectar, but I keep reading bad stuff about it so I probably will not be using it anymore. It’s a shame because it’s one of the few sweeteners my doctor said was OK. I think perhaps she doesn’t know the bad stuff about it. If you are curious, read Agave Nectar: Good or Bad? at Food Renegade.


April 1, 2010


ca·coph·o·ny   [kuh-kof-uh-nee]
1. harsh discordance of sound; dissonance: a cacophony of hoots, cackles, and wails.
2. a discordant and meaningless mixture of sounds: the cacophony produced by city traffic at midday.
3. Music. frequent use of discords of a harshness and relationship difficult to understand.

I’d like to add another definition:

4. The sound a flock of chickens make early in the morning when they sense a predator, whether real or perceived.

Spring has arrived

March 30, 2010

Spring has arrived. There are birds and other animals that return or that you start seeing again. There are the sound of frogs. There are lots of baby animals, like calves and piglets and kittens. The grass starts getting green and it’s warm out. Those are pretty obvious. I know it’s spring here when I see someone mowing, though. It seems early for mowing, but I saw someone in town mowing a small side yard (next to a business, I think). Soon the Farmer’s Market will start again.

A New Hampshire rooster and an Orpington hen free ranging

Free range birds

I don’t know if it is because it’s spring time, but we have a few hens who think that roosting outside on our big pile of branches is a good idea. I think these hens are the ones that the roosters gang up on, as evidenced by the lack of feathers on their backs and behind their combs. I can understand why they don’t really want to go into the coop. But the roosters are definitely better than whatever else might come around in the middle of the night. Tim is pretty good at getting them in because he will just pick them up. I’m not willing to do that, so I try to convince them. I touch them, pet them, shake the sticks they are stepping on, and basically annoy them until they decide to go in.

A flock of chickens in my backyard

Happy chickens

Moira is also growing. She seems to be going through a pretty good growth spurt. She is hungry, tired, moody, and clumsy. It’s not really a list that I can make and say for sure she is having a growth spurt. There are days that I feel that way or Aidan does and it doesn’t mean a thing. But I just have this intuition that she is going through something big, some big brain growth and physical growth, most likely. Either that or she’s been eating way too much Easter candy and sugar and that is making her moody. But that wouldn’t necessarily explain the clumsiness, would it?

Moira's bare feet

Moira is a barefoot country girl

I have worked on the garden, but just barely. But when I look at last year’s gardening journal, I see that I hadn’t done much by this time last year, so I guess I’m doing OK. I need to start some seeds soon, maybe order some heirloom seeds. I did weed a gardening bed that has carrots growing, but that’s really all I’ve done. I’ll do more soon and I’ll blog about it, of course.

Confessions of a Chicken Keeper

January 20, 2010

I have learned a lot about chickens. There is no doubt about that. However, I have much to learn, as I’m sure many beginner chicken keepers do. So here are some confessions (and yes, it’s another list because this is on my mind but I really don’t have the time or energy at the moment to flesh it out more).

  • Our chicken coop is not sufficient for Illinois winters.
  • Or, at least it isn’t sufficient for roosters.
  • My roosters have frostbitten combs and wattles.
  • We had a bunch of eggs freeze because only the kids could get to the nesting box (Tim fixed that so that we can now get eggs, too)
  • I had a sick hen and I don’t know what was wrong with her.
  • She got over it, whatever it was, despite a lack of intervention on my part.
  • I can’t really tell the hens apart, except for:
    1. Miss Ducky, an orpington with oranger legs than the others
    2. Lula Mae, the only New Hampshire hen we have left
    3. Chicken Joe, our New Hampshire rooster
  • I have too many roosters.
  • My 3 Orpington roosters are all named Chuck Norris, even though I could probably tell them apart by now if I tried harder.
  • They really don’t have enough roost space.
  • They are roosting on the roosts Tim made, but those roosts are hooked up to a ladder and they roost on the ladder, which means they also poop on each other.
  • We actually forgot to close them in one night. Tim and I went out to close them in but they weren’t in. So it was actually a miscommunication and neither of us took care of it.
  • I didn’t realize we forgot to shut them in until the next morning when the roosters were crowing right near the house quite early in the morning.
  • They are all unharmed, amazingly enough.
  • They are eating feed from the farm supply store instead of the more natural, healthier feed Scott the Farmer was bringing me.
  • I want him to bring me that feed, but he thought I didn’t because I kept buying the feed from the store because I kept running out.
  • I haven’t talked to him about this yet, despite the fact that it’s been a month or longer that I’ve been using the feed from the store.
  • I am totally getting more chicks next spring so that we have eggs in the winter again.
  • Yes, I realize we are totally lucky to have eggs in January.
  • Lula Mae is finally moulting.
  • She doesn’t look very pretty.
  • She’s still my favorite, but please don’t tell the other hens.

Winter Highlights

January 19, 2010

This seems to be the time of year where everyone is thinking of spring, of the warmth, the sunshine, the new growth. I am pining away for that just as everyone else is. But I thought it might be nice to write something about the best parts of winter. Some of these are not specifically winter-time activities, but are things we are doing lately. It can be hard to find ways to pass the time, especially for Aidan, who is very much an outdoor kid! So here is a list of what I am enjoying about winter:

  • Freshly fallen snow
  • Ice on tree limbs
  • Deer trails
  • Chicken tracks in snow
  • Chickens standing on one leg
  • Sledding
  • Snuggling under blankets
  • Playing board games and card games with the kids
  • Dressing up barbies
  • Sitting by the fireplace, getting warm
  • Kitty prints everywhere
  • Hot tea
  • Chili and cornbread, soups, and other cold weather foods we barely made in Phoenix
  • Vacuuming to warm up
  • Baking
  • Making hot cocoa for the kids
  • Having cats all over me, keeping me warm

What are your favorite things about winter? Or are you wishing spring would just show up already? 🙂

Like boxes of poop in your house? Get a cat!

January 11, 2010

Yesterday there were 12 cats living in our garage where they were safe and warm. Now they will be sleeping in the shed, hopefully, so they will stay somewhat warm. The garage was OK but they pooped everywhere. And I mean everywhere! They pooped on top of Tim’s tools, under the mower, in any box that was halfway open, on any cloth or container that looked interesting. Tim is finally sick of it since they are his tools, and he does live right above the garage. So he threw them out today and cleaned up a bunch of poop. Anyway, here are the cats that are currently outdoor only cats:

  • Mama Cat*
  • Scotchy and Little Gray* from Mama Cat’s first litter
  • Stinky* from Mama Cat’s second litter
  • Toby, Butch, Hannah Montana*, and Big Eyes* from Mama Cat’s third litter
  • Swirly Junior from Little Gray’s first litter
  • Goose, Oscar, and Gunny* from Little Gray’s second litter

The following cats are indoor/outdoor cats. They are mostly indoors at the moment because it is so cold.

  • Vicious from Mama Cat’s second litter (obviously he’s turned out to be a sweetie or he would not be in the house!)
  • Tubby Boat* and Captain Gray from Little Gray’s first litter
  • A picture of a cat named Miss Tubby Boat

    Miss Tubby Boat

The following cats are indoor only cats, including the two we brought with us from Phoenix.

  • Riley
  • Cleo*
  • Booter from Little Gray’s second litter

The asterisks indicate the female cats. Only Cleo is fixed. It is possible that Goose and/or Oscar are female, but I can’t remember as the last time I checked they were tiny and I wasn’t really sure if they were female or not. We should get some fixed, I know. I’d like to get Mama Cat fixed as she’s already had 3 litters (that we know of) and she is not the nicest cat. She can be sweet to us, but she is a bitch to the other cats. She is a pretty good mama cat, at least until her kittens reach a certain age and then she is mean to them. Her kittens are not the friendliest either. Some of them are OK and some of them are mean like she is. Little Gray’s kittens have been really nice so far, but her second litter hasn’t been around us much so I have a feeling they will not be quite as friendly. So I think if I had to choose, I would get Mama Cat and all of her female kittens fixed. I might leave Little Gray and Tubby Boat unfixed as they are both pretty sweet cats. And then, if we need more cats someday I will just take all the cats offered on Freecycle. 🙂

Still here

January 9, 2010

I know it’s been a while since I posted. I don’t even want to know how long! Anyway we are still here. It’s cold and we have lots of snow, but that’s the nature of winter in Illinois. It’s time to start planning the garden, so I might write a post on that. It helps to figure out what to plant more of, what to not plant at all, etc. I have lots of cardboard in the garage just waiting to kill the newly sprouting grass that will be here in the spring. I have a few seed catalogs and they are fun to look at.

It feels like the middle of winter even though it isn’t. The days are getting longer, though, and that is nice. I like the sunshine (who doesn’t??). I keep thinking about how nice it will be to have the windows open, to hear the million frogs croaking and squeaking, and to see the chickens out doing their chicken things. They are all doing well. I don’t remember if I mentioned that Holly died, but she did. So that means that we’ve lost 3 chickens to predators and 1 to some unknown cause. I have no idea what happened to her. We got home one day and she was bleeding and that was that. There was no visible wound and no other chickens were hurt, so we have no idea. I suppose it could have been something internal as she often laid double yolkers.

OK well that’s all for now. I will try to post more often, but there really isn’t much going on. I do have a few posts I could finish up, like why I’m not a vegetarian anymore, posting pictures of Version 2.0 of our lego house, and a post I started about roosters. I have a lot of things in the works, but just haven’t finished them. I might find some time soon, or I might not. 🙂