I have lived in Southwest Florida for my entire life. My dad is a Florida-raised, University of Florida graduate. My mother spent half her childhood in Indiana and the other half in Naples, Florida.
Before my siblings and I were born, my parents started a semi-successful beekeeping business that has been going strong for thirty years. Now, I say “semi-successful” because when you’re running a beekeeping business you rely mostly on nature; and nature is something that is depleting with every passing year. However, they built this business well enough that they were able to homeschool and raise seven children off the profits. Their three oldest sons have even come to profit from their own beekeeping businesses.
I will go a little further into the beekeeping aspect of our life later into the article, but for now let’s start with farming. The four younger children (including myself) stick with cows, poultry, and gardening. We primarily raise is cattle. This includes beef cows, dairy cows, and beef/dairy crosses. We have had many of our animals fall ill, but none like the cows.
Sometimes after recently giving birth, the dairy cows got milk fever. Milk fever is caused by a blood calcium deficiency in which the cow will be unable to stand up. She may also have diarrhea, become dehydrated, and can even die. This is something that happened to us once). For this, we gave electrolytes and calcium supplements. We even found that Tums heartburn tablets would work, in an emergency situation.
To get the cows off the ground, we’d push a heavy linen sheet or a tarp underneath them and then get as many people as possible to lift them up. More often than not, the sheet or tarp would rip.
Scours was when one calf would get severe diarrhea; and then the rest of the herd would get it. In fact, just earlier this year a young calf got it. We ended up giving it electrolytes and barley water. This is fairly easy to make and works wonders. Of course, the only way to get it into the calf was feeding it with a large, needleless syringe.
Since local farmers would give us truckloads of vegetables, bloat was a problem as well. When a cow got severely bloated we’d have to “stick them” to release the gas. To stick a cow you need a two-inch-long, 14 gauge needle. You want to stick it in the left hand side of the cow, one hand width (long ways) down from the spine and one hand width away from the last rib. In less dire situations we’d just walk the cow around a lot until the bloat was relieved.
Some symptoms of bloat were restlessness in the cow, frequent but small bowel movements, and a severely swollen stomach. We even had some of our more distended cows vomit clear, watery-looking substances.
Getting the free vegetable waste from the farmers helped out financially, but the cows would get diarrhea if they ate too much of one kind of vegetable. We even lost two cows because they choked on unripened tomatoes.
One day we had our dairy cows and a few donkeys locked in a small pasture. What we didn’t know was there was an Africanized beehive in that same pasture. The bees started to attack the animals. My brothers and father had to get the livestock out of that pasture immediately. In the process they got stung up pretty badly. The herd suffered from this attack as well. We ended up losing one donkey. The dairy cattle were mostly fine except their milk production dropped drastically for a while.
We also had a young steer die unexpectedly, but found out later it was liver flukes.
A difficult birth is another thing that we’ve lost a dairy cow to. This is something we have come to watch for.
We have also learned to check our pastures for poisonous plants. Rosary Pea and Lantana are two big ones here in Florida. Usually our cows would leave these alone; but they’ll eat it if they’re hungry enough and that can lead to problems.
Throughout the years we haven’t just raised cattle. We had mule-footed pigs for a while, but with the recent spike in prices, we sold them. There was one pig that died of a heart attack. We also ended up having to butcher a breeding boar because it got so big that its hoof started to split.
Some Poultry Problems
The poultry brought some diseases like coryza; but there were mainly only mild inconveniences. For instance, my mother would buy meat birds to raise every year. To my readers, may I suggest that if you live in Southwest Florida, do not purchase Cornish hens to raise in the summer. It’s too hot and they can’t take the heat. They will literally die from it. Cornish chickens also have a habit of sitting on the edge of their food and water bowls, which can cause the bowl to flip on top of themselves and they’ll die from that as well. So if you, for some reason, decide you want to raise meat birds, then be sure they have constant water and shade available, and weight down their bowls. Sure, they’re butchering size in as little as six weeks if you feed them enough, but that six weeks is not fun.
You also learn a lot of remedies growing up on a farm. For instance vinegar reduces bruising, swelling, soothes a sunburn, and helps with insect stings and bite. Ground cayenne pepper applied to a wound will slow bleeding. Honey reduces inflammation, heals chapped lips, and eases rashes. Some doctors even suggest putting honey on infected wounds. A raw sliced potato will draw out infection and soothe poison ivy. Crushed garlic taped on a plantar wart will kill it; however, the trick is that it has to burn and blister the wart and the skin around it.
Let’s come back to the reason we have donkeys: they will attack predators. This is why we try to keep donkeys with our cattle at all times. We still have predators, but you can almost always guarantee that if there is a threat, a donkey will at least attempt to overcome it. We’ve had donkeys kill foxes; they’ve even gone after an alligator that was in one of the pasture ponds.
As for the bees, I don’t know nearly as much as my father and brothers on the subject, but I do know a little.
There are many different forms of beekeeping. Some beekeepers specialize in pollination, which is where farmers will pay beekeepers to house their beehives on their crop-growing land to allow the bees to collect pollen and nectar from the vegetable or fruit blooms; this is to ensure a successful crop.
Another variation of beekeeping is grafting queens. Grafting is when a beekeeper moves larva from one hive to another so that the worker bees can raise a new queen. The beekeeper will harvest these queen cells and then sell them to other beekeepers who need queens in order to split their hives.
“Splitting” a hive is when you take half of the bees out of the original hive and put them into an empty one. Since there is only one queen per hive, the new hive won’t have a queen but will need one to reproduce worker bees (the ones that make the honey, regulate temperature, feed the queen, protect the hive, etc). That’s where those grafted queen cells come in.
The kind of beekeeping my father did was primarily for honey production. In order for his bees to produce honey, they had to have an abundance of nectar-producing flowers and blooms.
The main floral sources for our honey were: Orange trees, Palmettos, wildflowers, and the Mangrove trees in the Everglades. A few times we did harvest Florida Sunflower honey.
Locally, different types of honey are harvested during different times of the year. The Orange Blossom and Palmetto honey was harvested in the spring; wildflower honey was in fall and winter; and the Mangrove honey crop was in the summer.
If you are in Florida and want to plant blooming foliage that the bees will benefit from, then here are a few:
• Spanish Needle
• Frog Fruit
• And any type of blooming vegetable.
I don’t know many tips and tricks about beekeeping, but I did grow up around beekeepers and grafted queens for my brother one summer. I found it to be a valuable learning experience.
One trick I remember is if you get stung by a bee, don’t pinch the stinger to pull it out; this will release more venom into your body. Instead scrape the stinger off with a sharp edge, like your fingernail, knife, or credit card.
Another thing is when a bee is buzzing around you, it most-likely won’t sting you; it’s just curious. It might, but probably not. They mainly try to sting if they feel threatened, or if there are a lot of them (a swarm). Just remember, do not swat at bees. That tends to provoke them to stinging.
Just like anything there are predators for bees, too. Bears will destroy hives. However, unlike Pooh Bear, bears actually are trying to eat the bee brood (larva) rather than the honey. Surprisingly, dragonflies will eat bees too. This happens mainly when the bees are flying.
A Gardening Tip
Finally, I have just one thing that one of my brothers suggested I work into this article; a very useful gardening tip. He says: “It is very rare that your soil is low on calcium. But if it is, then that means the soil is actually lacking water.”
So, as you can tell, there have been many late nights dealing with unexpected disasters, sick animals, and so much more than I could ever fit into one article.
My siblings and I have learned more than we ever could at any school about raising animals, taking care of them when they’re sick, and animal psychology. The latter is something so complex and confusing that you could never learn by just reading about it.
This knowledge and firsthand experience is something we are thankful for. Even though we could’ve gone to public school and possibly gotten a scholarship, gone to college, and then decide not to use the degree we spent four years of our life on, and instead became a full-time waitress/waiter with a lot of regret and even more student debt under our belt.
At least we were taught something that was worth learning, things we can use for the rest of our lives.