This is what I know, but I am no expert. This is what I do and I am sometimes successful….most times half successful. I know about preparing for emergencies and learning to homestead. I live a small homesteading life with my husband of almost 27 years while working a full-time medical job and caring for my sister who is wheelchair-bound and completely dependent. We raise turkeys for meat as well as meat and laying chickens.
I was inspired back in the 1970s by the television show The Waltons. Living a simpler, self-sufficient life seemed the best. Surrounded by a large family seemed like the only life to live. Sadly, it was only my sister and I. And later, it turned out that my husband and I couldn’t have children. But I always wanted to be independent and self-sufficient and this has been the underlying motivation to my life. Later, I read books by a Virginia farmer that inspired, motivated, instructed, and opened doors to my mind. This allowed me to move forward and choose a different life than just as a suburban wife and employee.
We started with a garden out west before we moved to a rural eastern location. Gardening out west is fraught with serious challenges of water and hail. While it was fulfilling to a certain extent, having a garden in a suburban tract is only a tease and considering water costs, extremely expensive. You don’t have enough space to grow enough food for a year. Nor can you raise livestock-neighbors don’t want to hear animals doing their thing.
After we moved to our rural eastern location, we started a large garden and were very successful. And then we chose to start with chickens and then later turkeys. We chose heritage breed turkeys, Bourbon Reds and would buy day-old poults from a mid-west Hatchery. They are a very good company, and have excellent customer service. But we could not, for the life of us….get more than 2 or 3 turkeys out of 25 to survive to the butchering stage. Most died early on for unknown reasons. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a veterinarian who is willing to do forensics on meat birds? And they don’t do it for free of course, not that I would expect them to, but I could not keep running the dead birds down to the vet to hear them say, “gee I’m not a hundred percent sure I know what killed it.”
Three years ago, we managed to get a few hens and toms to adult egg-laying stage and purchased a Brinsea incubator. It was the second one we’ve owned. They’ve since corrected the one minor problem with their round bubble incubators, now chicks don’t get their head stuck in the water well and die. It was interesting, with only two hens this time, and six toms, how would I accumulate enough eggs to run a batch? Turns out those hens were prolific and you can store eggs, in the right condition, for up to two weeks or more and they will still be viable for hatching, even if not placed in an incubator immediately. We put 17 in the incubator and hatched 12.
Repeated Beak-Dunking Required
Regarding their deaths-or our inability to sustain them…what we figured out is the poults never properly learned how to eat or drink because they were shipped right after hatching, and the initial “dunk” in both food and water on arrival from the hatchery, which is what we were told, according to the educational sources, was incorrect. It is correct for most new chickens, but it was not enough for new turkey poults. So, we now plan for hourly reminders that first week, to eat and drink. And they need fortification in their water. We set an alarm and we go down and dunk each of their little heads in the fortified water and then in the dry mash. This is certainly doable, but it’s best not to make any plans for that first week. You got to get up and put your head on straight and attend to your business. The brooder heat source is also important, as well as container size. They grow fast, so you want a big brooder, but don’t spend all the money to heat the whole thing right off the bat. Use cardboard to make a little carrel. And as they get bigger, increase the size by moving the carrel until you are ready to put them on pasture or in their coop.
We use an oval galvanized water stock tank as a brooder. In the past we have used a plastic kiddy pool. We created a screen top to both keep them from jumping out and allow the light/heat lamp to keep them warm. We line the bottom with the paper feed bags and put pine shavings on top. Makes cleaning it out so much easier. We do reuse the water tank come butchering time. We sanitize the tank, then let it sit in the bright sun for several days to further UV sanitize. And we repeat the process before and after butchering. Good tip-Be sure to clip one side of their flight wings when you transfer them to the next stage and every 4 weeks or so or you will be spending a lot of evenings rounding up turkeys from the brush, the pickers, and even the trees, if you pasture them. It is best to put them in for the night in a secure housing unit. And don’t skimp on time and effort. Dig and bury fencing to prevent the intrusion of predators.
Don’t put apple cider vinegar (ACV) in metal drinking containers. While ACV is great for their health, it eats holes in metal water containers. Use plastic if you’re going to add ACV.
Learning Via Trial And Error
All this we learned through trial and error. It is our great sadness that sometimes our inexperience caused the death of so many living things, before their purpose was fulfilled. We have dispatched a fair number of predators as well. And now have a multilayer protection system in place to prevent determined and hungry wild animals. Although we couldn’t stop the bear no matter what. He/she was hungry. We use solar power, motion-sensored lights, welded wire fence, and an electric fence.
 We are happy to say that this year we raised eight turkeys (6 toms and 2 hens) to adulthood and from those two hens hatched out 12 poults of which 10 survived and are currently thriving. This past weekend we butchered those turkeys and we managed to get a 21-pound bird. Not bad for pastured heritage birds. We usually pasture 50 or more chickens for meat and have built a Whizbang Chicken Plucker and have a whole setup. (See photos.)
Now, let me tell you why I titled this to include “Middle-Aged Woman”. We started this 13 years ago when we moved to rural area from suburbia. My husband had no real interest in any of this homesteading stuff. But he is a good soul and supports me. Maybe not with a great deal of alacrity. But nonetheless, I do hear him quietly boasting to family and friends of our accomplishments when he thinks I can’t hear. I feel called to live this life. I wish I didn’t have to work off the property for someone else. I thoroughly wish I had followed my inner voice many years before. But you can’t know what you don’t know and I surely didn’t know how to start this life. Until I read those books by that Virginia farmer.
Being a middle-aged woman has highlighted some drawbacks. I often don’t know how to accomplish what I plan. I don’t know welding, carpentry, tractor operation, electric fences, and solar power. As independent as I am, (I don’t like asking for help) it pains me not to be able to attach the cultivator or tiller by myself. Nor do I have the stamina to dig raised beds in a 70′ x 70′ garden. Between my husband and myself, we work a lot of hours so we often have to look for an outside contractor to complete or aid in projects. Getting them to commit and show up is a lesson in perseverance, patience, and grit. It. is. so. incredibly. frustrating. And every passing year shows me that I really can’t do it all.
Life Under Lockdown
Being prepared helps a great deal. Not only for your projects, but for life and life’s emergencies. These past 15 months only meant having to wear a mask with every encounter. Our lives changed very little. We missed our celebratory cruise for our 25th anniversary. We missed our annual family reunion. We didn’t go to the lake, but that was more to do with weather and work than any other events of the 15 months. We didn’t miss much. We were perplexed at everyone’s reaction both to the health threat and to the supply shortage. That’s what being prepared does for you.
I also find myself being “right” more times than not. I don’t say to the few acquaintances, “I told ya so” because that serves no one. But I wonder why folks don’t prepare more for emergencies. Seems like a commonsense action to take. Between growing up in a military family, joining the military myself, and marrying a military man, we have preparedness ingrained in our lives. If we have a plan…be it recreation, home project, travel or whatever…I guarantee we have at least one contingency plan. Folks are astonished to discover that I carry a chainsaw in my vehicle. I can’t tell you how many times that came in useful.
Another example of my preparedness is having a portable battery for jump-starting cars. I recently helped this youngish fella…maybe late 20s or early 30s. He was sitting parked outside the vet’s office (because you can’t go in with your pet!) he had drained his car battery and couldn’t figure out why it would not start. I could hear his starter try to turn, but not enough juice. So, out comes my trusty little jump pack battery. Oddly, he had no idea how to attach the cables. How does someone reach adulthood without having any idea on how to jump-start a car? I could go on about his upbringing etc., but I’d be preaching to the choir.
Doing things the hard way is how I describe homesteading. My life could be so much easier if I didn’t bother with growing our own food, preserving it, heating our own house, et cetera. But doing the things that are hard is what it is all about. Dan Crenshaw said it best: “A life unchallenged by hardship is a missed opportunity…therefore seek to do something hard.” When the power goes out, we switch gears. When the tire blows…we make a plan. When a product we need to finish or start a project isn’t available, we improvise, revise or delay. One of the best courses I took in the military was the Leadership Reaction Course . Everyone should experience that as a teenager/young adult.
We live by the motto, “Two is one and one is none.” Not to mention, “hope for the best, but plan for the worst.” And if we are tired and dirty at the end of the day, it was a very good day. Another motto or two is “ABC…always be charging” and “get the reference book out”.
We like to do things the hard way. It is the most rewarding.