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"These silkworms are working out so well, we
might have to increase our colony tenfold next time!" Mark
exclaimed after I told him how much our chicks relished the test
caterpillars I'd tossed their way.
Although they're not
large enough to provide many leaves for our miniature livestock
this year, we actually have five mulberry varieties on the farm at
the moment, so I decided to test them all. The silkworms had
already reached their fifth instar, at which point they're able to eat tougher leaves,
so I tried to select nearly-mature leaves from all the trees at
roughly the same toughness level. (Younger leaves are always
preferred by the silkworms, but some of the trees didn't have any
young leaves available and I didn't want to mess up the experiment
by using young leaves from some trees and old leaves from others.)
I had guessed Oscar's
Mulberry (Morus alba) would be the tastiest of the selection
since the leaf felt less rough and more tender than other
varieties' leaves of the same age. And the silkworms did
enjoy this offering, but I'd say they rated it more of a B+ than
Silk Hope (Morus
alba x M. rubra) also seemed to be a B+ offering, which is actually better
than I thought the variety would do from what I've recently learned about its history.
Moving on to the
A-grade mulberries, the Illionis Everbearing (Morus
alba x M. rubra) tree I've been feeding to the silkworms since the beginning
of their lives was well received. Notice how the silkworms
have eaten over half of the leaf in the twenty minutes alloted to
And now for the
surprise grand-prize winner --- a random rootstock mulberry!
Two of the Illinois Everbearing Mulberries we put in a few years
ago died back to the ground due to neglect, and what popped back
up was clearly not the named variety. Our mulberry source reports this is Morus alba variety Tatarica, and I'm now considering letting these trees grow for the silkworms rather than grafting a more tasty variety on top.
Our chicken waterer takes the filthy and drudgery out of care of your backyard flock.
Our starplate chicken
coop is currently about a third to halfway completed, so I thought
I'd sum up my thoughts on this first phase of the construction
process. As you'll recall, I was looking for several
functional features in our newest chicken coop, and Mark
really wanted to build something that would look
aesthetically-pleasing in the landscape. Is the starplate
system the best solution?
Having taught myself to build using conventional methods the hard
way (the internet combined with lots of trial and error), I have
to admit that the starplate system is easier to figure out...if
you've never built anything before. However, if you already
know a bit about building (as we now do), the starplate system is
annoying because you have to learn a new method, which is just as
un-intuitive as the more mainstream way was at first. If you
don't know how to build in either manner, though, I suspect the
starplate system would be easier to pick up. Plus, we
discovered you can build a starplate coop flat on a sloped
hillside without leveling the ground first, a method that would be
extremely difficult with a stick-built coop. So this one is
a tossup, leaning toward the starplate as a winner.
Cost. The starplate
system definitely costs more. Sure, the structural integrity
of the triangles means you use less framing lumber, but I'm pretty
sure you use more of just about everything else, and you have to
cut it all at an angle too. Plus, you end up adding extra
framing pieces back into the middle of the triangles to match up
the cut ends when filling in every other wall (unless you take out
one piece and overlap the rest, as is shown in the photo
above). Total cost for the framing lumber and the wall
in-fill materials has been $534.43, the kit cost $117.99, and
we've yet to figure out the roof.
Aesthetics. Here, the
starplate system is a definite winner. At each stage of the
building process, our new coop has looked so pretty, I'd peer out
the window just to take it in. I can hardly wait to see it
in all its finished glory.
Stay tuned to our homesteading blog for day-to-day updates,
and I'll post another sum-up here when we've made some more
We're planning a rain-barrel-filled chicken waterer for this coop so the flock will be extremely low maintenance.
I learned a lot about
management during weeks 1.5 to 2.5 of our first batch's
life. In fact, the information is enough for two or three
posts, but my mother helped me see that not everyone thinks
caterpillars are as adorable and fascinating as I do, so I won't
turn this into the silkworm blog.
The big news is that
I accidentally killed off two-thirds of my colony through
mismanagement. I'm not quite sure what did it, but the
No matter what the
cause, the silkworms stopped eating and even started running away
from the mulberry leaves in search of better digs. Here's
where the sawdust
on the bottom of the bin became problematic --- it was
awfully tough to pick tiny caterpillars off the sawdust, and the
sawdust tended to cling to their bodies even after I put them back
on the leaves. Probably sawdust isn't the greatest idea for
the bottom of a silkworm bin. (In retrospect, I don't think
any sort of bedding is necessary.)
caterpillar news, I ran a taste test to see whether our silkworms
prefer our Illinois everbearing mulberry leaves or some paper
mulberry leaves my mom brought over when she came to
visit. I alternated each type of leaf, then came back a
couple of hours later to see which ones the caterpillars had moved
onto. It was a nearly unanimous vote for the Illinois
everbearing, although, again, the reason is a bit uncertain.
Even though I picked the youngest, least-wilted leaves from Mom's
supply, the paper mulberries had been off the tree for hours while
the Illinois everbearing were fresh-picked. Plus, I think
it's possible silkworms could learn a certain variety of mulberry
and want to stick with it --- aren't all youngsters picky eaters
who want what's familiar? I'll run another taste test with
homegrown paper-mulberry leaves at some point, but for now will
stick to our Illinois everbearing mulberry.
In a way, it was a
blessing in disguise that we lost so many of our silkworms during
the great dieoff because our one mulberry tree was running itself
ragged trying to keep up with the caterpillars' appetites. A
week later, even the smaller population of silkworms was starting
to eat us out of house and home. So I decided it was time to
prepare for the
chicken taste test suggested by one of our readers by
freezing a dozen silkworms every couple of days. Next week
at this time, I might have results to share with you, so stay
Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional, filthy waterers.
Each one of our
flocks has a different personality, despite being made up of the
same breeds. I've started to realize it all depends on the
lead chicken --- if he or she is a homebody (like our current
rooster), everyone sticks close to the coop. On the other
hand, whoever is in charge of our youngest set of broilers is a
flyer, thus the
chickens in the trees and the current failure of our usual temporary
Our little broilers
made short work of the pasture we installed them in after they
lost their free-range privileges, so after a week and a half, we
moved them to a temporary pasture in the forest garden. My
goal was to let them graze in grassy spots throughout our core
homestead --- I figured I had at least four or five areas where
they wouldn't cause any trouble.
For two days, the
six-week-olds were quite happy to chow down on lush grass and
weeds. But then they started thinking how nice the mulched
trees on the other side of the fence looked. Soon, most of
the flock was outside the fence, rather than inside.
So we moved on to
Plan B, pulling the brooder outside the fence that encircles our
core homestead and letting them run free in the woods. Peace
One of our readers
their wings, which would definitely work. But since
these guys are only going to be around a few more weeks, it seems
easier to just give their flyer-leader somewhere that he can live
as he pleases. I'm just glad this isn't the batch of
broilers who are going to give us our layers for next year or we'd
be in for eighteen more months of flighty chickens. (Is that
like breaking a mirror and getting seven years of bad luck?)
Our chicken waterer provides clean water for our naughty broilers.
I'll start this post
by jumping right to the punch line and telling you how I ---
nature girl, friend of all things that creep, crawl, and slither
--- threw my shoe at a perfectly harmless black rat snake.
It was a cute snake too, didn't startle me in the least, but my
intent was to cause harm...or at least to get that reptile out of
I knew at once that
this snake had been the murderer of chick number eight, and I was
bound and determined not to let it happen again on my watch.
I couldn't actually walk toward the snake because it was on the
other side of the hen, and I was afraid that if I made any sudden
moves, the hen would figure the snake was the least of her worries
and lead her chicks into harm's way. So off came my shoe.
One of our premade waterers keeps our hen and her seven remaining chicks happy for several days with no effort on my part.
What a nice surprise ---
Bocking 4 comfrey has beautiful purple flowers! Now I'm wondering
if my unnamed
(family hand-me-down) comfrey with whitish flowers is
comfrey after all,
or if it might be Common comfrey. It will be interesting to compare and contrast the
two species, both in the garden and in our chickens' bellies.
The chickens tell me
they're waiting with baited breath for the additions to their diet.
A chicken waterer at the far end of this large pasture helps spread out our flocks' grazing over the entire area.
Silkworms grow so much during their
short lifetimes that they have to pop out of their skins four times
before even considering turning into moths. You can tell your
caterpillars are about to molt when they stop eating for about a day
and sit with their heads in the air. That's your warning that by
tomorrow you'll need a lot more leaves.
The silkworms pictured
above have just molted for the second time. At eight days old,
they seem to be eating twice as quickly as they were just two days
earlier (pictured below), when the insects were mere second-instar
(instead of third-instar) caterpillars.
The table below sums up
what's to come in the days ahead:
If I think my 8-day-old silkworms are hungry, what am I going to do with caterpillars five times as big? Easy --- I will have given at least some of our miniature herd to the chickens by then, so there won't be as many mouths to feed.
Our chicken waterer lets your flock wash down their dinner with clean water.
One of our cuckoo marans turned into quite a
troublemaker when we moved the flock from the woods to the pasture this
spring. She kept flying over the fence and showing up in the
garden, even after we clipped
her wings. I
knew she wanted to go broody, but after I discovered her spot in the
straw and made it more conducive to laying (adding a chicken waterer and a dish of food so she
wouldn't have to leave), she figured that spot was tainted and left
it. So when the hen stopped showing up entirely a week or so
later, I wasn't sure whether she'd gone into some predator's belly due
to wandering the woods without her rooster, or whether she'd finally
found a spot to sit on a clutch of eggs.
"Peep, peep, peep!"
greeted me when I entered the barn on May 23. The sound helped me
track down our broody hen in a terrible location on slanted, bare soil
up against a hole in the barn wall. Despite the less-than-perfect
conditions, our cuckoo marans had managed to hatch eight perfect chicks
out of nine eggs. The dud had rolled away at some point and
gotten too cold to survive.
Rather than trying to
catch her right away, I moved the dish of food and the waterer to the
hen's corner. Unlike our cochin hen, the marans did moan at me
when I got close the first time, but she quickly realized I was a help,
not a hindrance, and let me approach without attacking.
marans' lower aggressive instinct worked against one of the
chicks. As I was weeding a few days later, I heard squawking from
the barn and ran in to discover we were down to seven chicks. I
guess it's necessary to move chicks to a secure location even if they
have a mother hen to watch out for them.
I quickly learned that
silkworms will migrate to fresh leaves within minutes if you simply
place the old leaves on top of the new ones. As the silkworms get
older, we may have to start removing old leaves, but there currently
doesn't seem to be any issue leaving them to dry up below the fresher
Although none of the
instructions I read mentioned this, I'm glad I left the eggs in the
bottom of the bowl for the first couple of days because silkworms, like
chickens, don't seem to hatch all at once. I estimated we had
about 100 sikworms by the end of day one, but then another big batch
hatched out and we ended up with perhaps 300 or more. It's easy
to tell at a glance whether the majority of your eggs have hatched
since empty eggs are white instead of blue-gray.
As meal-time began to
encompass four or five leaves instead of one or two, I figured it was
time to move our silkworms to larger quarters. We're trying them
out in a rubbermaid bin with sawdust on the bottom, just like they were
chicks. I'll report in a later post whether that works out or if
we have to change gears.
Clean water from an Avian Aqua Miser is a perfect accompaniment to silkworm treats.
Surrounded as they were by a
vast field of rye, our second batch of chicks still managed to
get into trouble by the time they reached five weeks old. Despite
the fact that we've raised several other sets of chicks in this
same spot over the last two years with all of them staying
earth-bound, our current flock thought it would be a good idea to fly
up into a young peach tree and run along the limbs.
So we loaded them up...
...and rolled them out.
Our miniature flock is
now fenced into chicken
pasture 1, which
hasn't yet been grazed this year and is a chickweed
paradise. I suspect the chicks will run through the
delicacies in about a week, at which point, we'll have to put on our
thinking caps again. For now, we're leaving the brooder on the
yellow wagon for easy movement.
A chicken waterer close to home and one further afield tempts our youngsters to explore their whole pasture quickly.
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