Poultry Project 5: Duck Eggs… Yum!

duck_egg

Easter’s downy ducklings are now grown, and have begun producing eggs. Beginning three days ago we were finding one or two chicken-sized eggs in the coop when letting the ‘kids’ out in the morning from their secured night quarters. In fact, we amassed a total of 5 eggs over the weekend, began to wonder if maybe both ducks were female. There are several unscientific ways to try and figure out the sex of Pekin ducks, but none of them are very reliable. Worse, Pekin ducks are notorious for laying eggs wherever they happen to be when the mood strikes, and promptly forgetting it ever happened – described in the literature as “no maternal instinct to speak of.”

We’ve not found any out and about the yard yet, so perhaps our ducks will prove to be the exception and lay in their coop at night instead of littering the yard. Though since one of them is laying two during the night, I expect we’ll find some Easter presents here and there over time.

duck_eggThis morning when I opened the coop there was one chicken-sized duck egg, and one that was at least twice that size – a real monster of an egg that won’t fit into the egg crate! Given that ducks come in all sizes like people do, we will now have to re-name our presumed male, who is much heavier than the other and isn’t a male at all. We had scrambled duck eggs for Sunday brunch and they were delicious, but my family simply doesn’t eat enough eggs to keep up with production at this rate. Luckily grandson’s girlfriend has a co-worker who is eager to buy any and all fresh duck eggs we want to sell, and will pay 75¢ apiece for them. Though I’m going to charge a dollar for the Super-Size.

Doing my homework, I have found that duck eggs are higher in protein than chicken eggs, and the yolks are higher in fat. Overall significantly higher in nutritional value than chicken eggs but take a little getting used to. They taste fine, but if you used them in baking – like a cake – you need to cut back on the shortening (butter or Crisco) or it’ll turn out too rich. For omelets you’ll want to add a bit of water to thin them out some, but far as I can tell they can be prepared in all the same ways chicken eggs can be cooked – hard boiled, fried, scrambled, etc. Whipping whites takes a little more effort to get them started, but they hold their foam and shape even better than chicken eggs.

I’ll put all the money I make from selling the eggs in an “Egg Money” jar atop the ‘fridge, and that should pretty much offset the cost of bedding and feed. The eggs are said to keep up to 2 weeks without refrigeration, a month if they’re kept cold. Which is good, so there will be half a dozen at least for the customer, though I might sell the big ones one at a time.

Still haven’t managed to install the duck pond, though we have started digging. So the kids are still stuck with one of those cheap plastic kiddie pools, which I move around the yard every couple of days so it doesn’t kill the grass. They’ve got their sliding form down pat on the porch ramp, make us laugh regularly by how much they enjoy it. Figure we’ll next have to teach them to skateboard, and if we can manage to get Gladys to say “Aflac” WHILE skateboarding, we can make a fortune!

All in all, the ducks have proven to be wonderfully funny pets, love hanging out with people and other critters, and have even turned out to be excellent snake alarms. They keep the yard and garden picked fairly clean of slugs and bugs, don’t manage to snag butterflies very often. Their favorite thing is to take walks with us whenever we go to the top of the drive to get a cell phone signal, and chase the cats around the yard with their necks down and wings half outstretched as if that were the funniest thing ever. The cats don’t agree, but the dogs think it’s highly humorous.

Last but not least, we’ve figured out where the term “Lame Duck” comes from. Our fat used-to-be male duck can’t see his feet when he’s waddling around on the hillside, has taken several tumbles that have us considering some kind of barrier that would prevent the ducks from getting that far up the hill. Sprained his ankles so badly I was afraid they were broken, so I had to sit out with him all day for a week to make sure he didn’t wander uphill and learned to lie down when not actually trying to get somewhere. Poor thing was so lame he… er, she, didn’t know which leg to limp on. Googled to see what was to be done and discovered that these big ducks sprain their ankles quite regularly. I could wrap them, but that’s a difficult feat that would only last as long as it took for the duck to go swimming, so I didn’t bother. 50 mg. ibuprophen – I got the 100 mg. children’s chewables and half them – worked great as an anti-inflammatory and she’s much better now. More careful as well, which is fine with me.

Autumn project is to tear out the entire back deck so it can be re-planked, the old wood is rotten and beginning to give way. That will allow us to lay a concrete pad underneath, onto which we can put the coop – we’ll have it on lawn mower sized wheels to roll out for cleaning. Can go ahead and put in a concrete half-pipe drain next to the basement wall at the same time, which should finally cure the flooding issue every time it rains hard. Which around here, is every day all summer.

Ah, Homesteading! Always a Work In Progress…

Previous Posts to this series:

The Poultry Project: 1… Peeps!
The Poultry Project 2: Quills!
The Poultry Project 3: First Feathers
Poultry Project 4: The Great Outdoors

“Protect America’s Pollinators Act”

H.R. 2692; 2013

Honey bees: About those neonics
Honey bees: About those neonics
The extermination of our priceless honeybees is proceeding apace, with devastating ramifications. Back when CCD – [Colony Collapse Disorder] first hit the news in 2006/7, it was reported that we were losing a third of our honey bee colonies every year [33%]. Today that figure it up to 45.1%, nearly half.

Many causes have been proposed over the years, and scientists with the USDA have been looking into four general categories to try and discern the most prevalent cause. Those are listed as:

1. Pathogens – Scientists are looking at Nosema (a pathogenic gut fungi) and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, amog other likely culprits. So far it does not appear that there is any one pathogen responsible for the majority of losses, although there does seem to be a higher viral and bacterial load in affected colonies.

2. Parasites – Varroa mites are often found in honey bee colonies affected by CCD. It is not known if the mites are directly involved or if the viruses that Varroa mites transmit are a significant factor in causing CCD.

3. Management Stressors – Among the management stressors that may contribute to CCD are poor nutrition due to apiary overcrowding and increased migratory stress brought on through transporting the colonies to multiple locations during the pollination season.

4. Environmental Stressors – These include the impact of pollen/nector scarcity, lack of diversity in nector/pollen, availability of only pollen/nectar with low nutritional value, and accidental or intentional exposure to pesticides at lethal or sub-lethal levels.

USDA colony surveys have revealed no consistent pattern in pesticide levels between healthy and CCD-affected colonies, and the most common pesticide found was coumaphos, which is used to treat Varroa mites.

A very good article by Tom Philpott for Mother Jones last month explains what, exactly, the scientists are looking at, and why they feel it’s a combination of environmental and bacterial, viral and fungal infections as well as the pesticides used to control them that are at fault in the CCD disaster.

Unwilling to wait for the government scientists to come up with definitive causes for CCD before acting to protect the bees, the U.S. House of Representatives is now considering an action bill, H.R. 2692: Protect America’s Pollenators Act of 2013. The bill is sponsored by Democratic congressman John Conyers of Michigan, and boasts 17 co-sponsors. It directs the administrator of the EPA (not the USDA) to take certain actions related to pesticides. Including neonicotinoid insecticides, a relatively new class of pesticides powerful enough to kill a songbird with just the amount coating a single kernel of corn.

Earlier in the year the European Food Safety Authority determined that the most widely used “neonic” pesticides pose unacceptable hazards to bees, so the European Union has suspected their use entirely on open-grown agricultural crops. But as hinted above in the ability to kill birds, neonics present clear and present dangers to other pollinating insects and beneficial insects like ladybugs and praying mantises. I have been unable to find information on neonic toxicity to hummingbirds and various species of butterfly, but if they can kill songbirds and ladybugs, neonicotinoids certainly seem like a strong suspect.

CCD should concern us all as homesteaders, happy rural dwellers, and as regular citizens. A full third of our food supply relies upon bees for pollination. Please call or write to your Congresscritter today and let him/her know that this is important to you and all your neighbors, urge them to vote for the bill.

Cider, Salsa and Peach Pie

Cider_SalsaThe photo on the left is of my 3-year old volunteer peach tree, taken just this afternoon. You can see that it’s growing right next to my recently-moved compost bin, from which it volunteered. I have no idea exactly what kind of peach it is, but it was one we ate three years ago and composted that pit. It’s really taken off, when the limbs are upright it’s nearly 20 feet tall. It tried to grow fruit last year, but they all fell off before ripening. As you can see, this year it’s making up for lost time.

The limb in the foreground isn’t broken, it’s just weighted down by its load of quickly ripening fruit. Thanks to the soggy monsoon season this year, there’s a literal ton of it. None of the limbs have actually broken off yet – like one each from my apple trees did – so I’m letting it lay in the pumpkin patch for awhile to finish ripening – the peaches are still a bit crisp and hard, not very sweet. I’m hoping it’ll do okay where it is, give me some time to finish up with the apples – which are now fully ripe and coming in by the bushel.

I gave up drying the lot of ‘em, since my solar dryer is only as big as the window I made it out of, and there’s far too many poms. So grandson and I decided to make cider instead, and then to see if we can get it to harden! Or, in lieu of good ol’ hard cider, maybe it’ll do what my grape juice usually does – turn to vinegar.

Of course, getting either hard cider or vinegar out of the bounty is going to presuppose that we’re not drinking the cider as fast as we’re making it, and so far that hasn’t proven to be the case. Do have a half-gallon un-drunk so far in a growler bottle, half another growler, and enough bottles for two more full gallons. So we might end up ahead of ourselves.

What I’ve discovered is that if you don’t have a cider press (and I don’t), making cider takes quite a bit of muscle-power. Still, we’re averaging 3 pints per gallon of apples, so that’s not a bad return. Here’s how you do it the hard way…

1. Gather and wash the apples. Quarter them, tossing out any serious bruises or bugs. Put them into gallon size freezer zip-lock bags, and toss them into the freezer for a couple of days or so.

2. Remove from freezer and thaw. This gives you some pretty darned squishy apple chunks. Once thawed, empty the bag (I do this with half a bag at a time given the size of my cookware pot) into a heavy stock pot and crush the apple chunks good with a potato masher.

3. Once the softened apple chunks are good and squished, load them into a mesh food bag. Squeeze and smash the bag of chunks as much as possible with your hands. I then put the bag into a footed colander sitting in the pot. Squish juice out of the bag with fists, then I use a small pot to squish it further. The more juice you can squish out, the more cider you’ve got.

4. Pour accumulated cider into a pitcher, and from there through a strainer into your jug or jar. Compost the leavings and start the next batch.

To reliably get hard cider most sources recommend adding some sugar or honey and some brewer’s yeast. We haven’t gotten that far yet, but we’re hoping to before the refrigerator gets too full of cider. Or, it can go hard on its own, so look out for exploding bottles – don’t seal tightly until it’s done out-gassing. Will let you know how it works out for us, if we don’t drink it all first.

In between cider batches, I’m dealing with the tomato crop. Which is also coming in great guns due to the wet season, and my dryer isn’t keeping up. Have two full quarts so far of sun dried in olive oil, another quart of dry-dry that I’ll use to make tomato powder. But we’re also going to need salsa now that the salsa peppers are coming in by the dozen too, so it’s salsa time!

For this I go ahead and blanche/skin the ‘maters, de-seed and drain them. Sprinkling them with salt after they’ve been chopped and are sitting in the colander helps to make them a bit less juicy. For canning purposes you’ll want 8 cups of chopped and drained tomatoes.

My jalapenos aren’t producing yet, so I’m using the long “salsa peppers” we bought as seedlings from our local greenhouse, and some of the bells coming in. The salsa peppers are smaller than anaheims and a lot hotter, not as hot as jalapenos. They don’t have to be roasted and peeled first, just seeded and chopped finely, 2-3 cups. 4-5 cups of finely chopped onions (I’m using sweet Vidalias), two cups of vinegar or 1.5 cups of lemon juice. Salt, maybe some chili powder or hot red pepper flakes.

Put all this into a heavy sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer for about 5 minutes. Ladle into canning jars, cap and process in a water bath for 25 to 30 minutes (30 is better). I’ll be doing this out on the gas grill so as not to heat the kitchen more than it already is hot. And now that it’s August, it’s hot.

Now… about those peaches. If the limbs look to be getting so stressed they’re in real danger of breaking, I’ll have to pick them all now. Peaches will continue to ripen for awhile after picking, so hopefully they’ll finish up by the time I get around to them.

Peaches take to freezing quite well, but since our electricity isn’t all that reliable I figure I’d best can them. Quarts should be plenty to make a peach cobbler or pie with, or even just to serve as dessert with a scoop of ice cream during the fall and winter. For this I’m going to want a light syrup, which is a 1:3 ratio of one cup of sugar to three cups of water. Heated just enough to thoroughly dissolve the sugar, then kept on ‘low’ while I prep the fruit.

Given the timing of ripening, these are freestone peaches. Which are much easier to process than non-freestone (‘cling’) peaches because the pits are much easier to remove. They should be blanched like tomatoes for 30 to 45 seconds in boiling water, then cooled in ice water. The skins then slip right off. At that point they should be halved and the pit removed. From there they can be sliced or quartered. Put straight into sterile jars, fill with syrup to a half-inch from the top, then clean the edges with a paper towel and cap. Process in a water bath for 25-30 minutes.

So Happy August to all you homesteaders out there, I hope your fruit crops are coming in as abundantly as mine, but with less damage to the trees!

Useful Links:

Salsa Garden – Canning Salsas
Pick Your Own: Homemade Apple Cider
Clemson Extension: Preserving Peaches