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Painted Christmas Sugar Cookies

Life and Adventures at Diamond W RanchBaking has always been a central part of my family’s traditions. I learned to bake from my Mom, and have been thankful for those skills ever since. I’d always loved looking at the beautiful cookies in popular magazines … you know, the kind that look too pretty to eat? How did they make that frosting so perfect? How fun to decorate those! I learned that the picture-perfect, beautiful magazine-cover cookies were frosted using something called Royal Icing. This type of frosting is made using meringue powder and it dries to a hard candy-like surface. It is very sweet, so I needed a cookie that would balance that out.

My mother-in-law has made and gifted wonderful sugar cookies for years. I always loved that when the shapes were cut out, the cookies kept their shape during baking, unlike the other cut-out recipes I had tried. She graciously gave me the recipe, and I had found my perfect cookie to decorate with Royal Icing!

The internet provided me with the rest of the necessary tools to learn how to make picture-perfect sugar cookies. There are all sorts of tutorial videos, blogs, and inspirational photos to learn every aspect of artful cookie decorating. Some of them are downright amazing.

This technique requires that the icing be different consistencies. First, the baked cookie is outlined with a stiffer form of the icing. Then, that outline is filled in with a more liquid consistency icing, so that it “flows.” More decoration can be done after the initial icing dries, using the stiffer consistency icing to pipe designs. Other decorations can be added as well, such as sugar crystals or various sprinkles.

I have made many cookies using the above techniques. This photo shows last year's cookie decorating project. Lots of colors, lots of time, hours of work.

Past cookie project with lots of colors

The results were very satisfying, beautiful, and ... time-consuming. Mixing the different consistency icings, in different colors, is quite a chore. So this year, I decided to try something different … I painted the cookies.

I made my sugar cookies as usual, then outlined and filled them all with just plain white icing.

Filling cookies with flow icing

Cookies all filled with white icing

This meant only two consistencies of icing, making the project much easier. After the icing had dried completely, I painted different designs on them using gel paste food coloring.

Finished painted cookies

The results, I think, were awesome!

Finished painted cookies

The food coloring was painted onto the cookies using a regular paintbrush (brand-new, of course). I had so much fun, it was much faster, and the details I could produce were much better. It is a great project for kids, and I plan to take this to our family Christmas get-together this year for all the cousins to do.

Anatolian Shepherd Puppies

Life and Adventures at Diamond W RanchWe have puppies! My Anatolian Shepherd dogs Brina and Silas are the proud parents of TEN beautiful, roly-poly balls of cute. They are, as of this writing, about 5-1/2 weeks old.

The puppies were whelped in a converted goat kidding stall in my old barn. There are two stalls side-by-side with a plywood partition between them that was in two pieces. I removed the top piece, leaving a section about 2 feet high that Brina could easily jump over. The puppies were on one side, and the other side was for Brina to be able to get away from them to eat and such. Just last week, they had gotten too big for that stall. So, I moved them across the barnyard to a fenced-in area with a small shed.

This fenced in area was previously used to house weanling goat kids. I have not had goats for some time now, and the pen had become overgrown with weeds.

Pen before clearing the weeds

The weeds were cleared by hand, by yours truly … I am still sore!

Pen after clearing the weeds

Since it is winter, and I live in Kansas where the weather can change in the blink of an eye, I plied the little shed with an entire bale of straw to make sure the puppies had a warm nest. More straw bales were placed along the sides of the shed to protect it from wind, and the windows were covered with plastic. After all that, the puppies prefer to bed down under the shed. Guess they know what is warmest.

Most of the puppies have already been spoken for and will go to their new homes in January. Anatolian Shepherds are in high demand as livestock guardians, and for good reason. They are very good at it. Mine are great with my poultry and sheep. Without them I wouldn’t be able to have poultry at all. Predators such as coyotes and owls have, in the past, wiped out any attempts at raising them.

These puppies are being raised with chickens, ducks, sheep, horses, other dogs and lots of socialization with people.

Learning to guard chickens

They will, I am certain, make fine guardians as well.

Protect Your Flock From Avian Influenza

Life and Adventures at Diamond W RanchAccording to the USDA, avian influenza was positively identified in a backyard flock in Leavenworth County, Kansas, on March 13, 2015. That’s a little too close to home for this country girl, so I have done a bit more research to educate myself on how to protect my own backyard flock from succumbing to this disease. 

Avian influenza is a respiratory disease of birds, including chickens, ducks, turkeys, quail, guinea fowl, geese and pheasants. Some strains are highly pathogenic and have very high (as much as 100 percent) mortality rates, and the USDA refers to them as HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) viruses. More troubling is that some strains of the virus have, in the past, been able to cross from birds to humans.

There have been two strains recently identified in poultry in the United States – H5N8 and H5N2. So far neither of these have caused any human illnesses, which is the good news. The bad news is that the currently circulating viruses are deadly to poultry. Even if some birds survive, they are often euthanized to prevent further spread of the disease.

The disease is easily transmissible on equipment, clothing, manure, vehicles, etc. Avian influenza can survive in a moderate temperature environment for a very long time and can survive indefinitely in freezing temperatures.

There are some biosecurity measures we backyard poultry producers can implement to help protect our flocks. This is a very brief look at some things to do.

  1. Isolate your birds so they do not have contact with outside birds or with visitors.

  2. Routinely clean tools, cages, equipment, feeders and waterers with a 1:10 Clorox bleach to water solution. Most cleaners will kill HPAI viruses, but Clorox is economical and easy to find. Clorox is recommended vs. “generic” brands of bleach because it has research to prove it consistently contains the level of bleach required to kill viruses. Other bleach brands have been shown to have inconsistent amounts and are not reliable for use in these situations. Use foot baths when entering and exiting poultry containment areas.

  3. If you visit another farm with poultry or birds, be sure to clean your vehicle, use a foot bath to clean your shoes, and clean any other items that may have had contact with other birds.

  4. Isolate new birds from your existing flock for a period of time before introducing them.

  5. Avoid sharing tools and equipment with friends and neighbors.

  6. Know how to spot sick birds and isolate birds with possible symptoms quickly to help prevent spread to the rest of the flock.

    1. Sudden increase in bird deaths in your flock

    2. Sneezing, gasping for air, coughing, and nasal discharge

    3. Watery and green diarrhea

    4. Lack of energy and poor appetite

    5. Drop in egg production or soft- or thin-shelled misshapen eggs

    6. Swelling around the eyes, neck, and head

    7. Purple discoloration of the wattles, combs, and legs

  7. Report sick birds or suspicious bird deaths to your local extension office, your veterinarian, or you can call the USDA’s toll free hotline at 866-536-7593. The USDA has a program that will compensate poultry producers for losses incurred as a result of an avian influenza outbreak in their flock.

More extensive information can be found at the USDA’s website here.

A current list of areas with poultry that have tested positive for avian influenza can be found here.

Please note that if you have more questions, you should contact your local extension agent, your veterinarian, or the USDA.

Quick, Easy and Cheap Cold Frame

Life and Adventures at Diamond W RanchWe have decided to try using a cold frame this year to get an early start on our vegetable gardening. My father-in-law had some old sliding glass doors sitting in his shed, so we retrieved those and brought them home. Then we scored a great deal on straw from a neighbor ($2 per bale). Using these materials, we were able to very quickly assemble a temporary cold frame to try our hand at early garden planting.

The site we are going to use is not level, but since the ground is still frozen we were unable to level it up just yet. We will let the cold frame warm the ground up and then will work on leveling the area out. The straw bales were arranged in a square, making sure they would accommodate the glass doors we had to place on top.

Doug measures the bales to ensure proper distance to place the glass on. 

Doug measures the bales to ensure proper distance to place the glass on.

The glass was pretty dirty, so those were washed with vinegar and water. I made an exception to my "I don't do windows" rule. Doug made sure there were photos to prove it.

I don't usually do windows, so Lizzie made sure I did it correctly. 

I don't usually do windows, so Lizzie made sure I did it correctly.

Even the chickens had to inspect the whole process.

This curious hen had to find out what was going on! 

This curious hen had to find out what was going on!

After we got it all put together, they all climbed on top of the straw bales and gleefully tossed straw all over the glass! We were busy cleaning the barn at the time, so I missed getting photographs!

We were able to put this whole thing together in about 30 minutes (including window-washing time!) and the only cost was $16 for eight straw bales. Not bad!

Finished cold frame. Still need to level it out. 

Finished cold frame. Still need to level it out.

The site really needs to be leveled out, as you can tell the glass panels are not level. An important aspect of a cold frame is to seal the cold out. We placed a thermometer inside the bales to watch the temperature. Our plan is to break the ground under the cold frame once the ground has been warmed a bit. Then we will add composted soil from our barn and plant seeds once everything is in place. More on that as it happens! Keep checking back to see how it is coming along!

Raising Exotic Sheep

Life and Adventures at Diamond W RanchThis story starts off with our realization that Silas, our Anatolian Shepherd (a.k.a. super-hero livestock guardian dog), is getting old. Granted, eight years doesn’t sound old, but in dog years, he’s getting pretty close to over-the-hill. So we decided it was time to get another LGD (livestock guardian dog) puppy that Silas could help us raise and train.

Brina cuddles with Doug during a truck ride. 

Meet Brina (her name means “Guardian" or "Defender” in the Celtic language), the newest member of our farm! She is full-blood Anatolian Shepherd and a sweetheart to boot! Her frame is large, so we expect her to be a big dog. She is doing well with the poultry and Silas will help teach her the ropes.

Well, OK, Brina isn’t actually the newest member of our farm. Since Silas has been guarding just ducks and chickens, we thought it would be a good idea to get something larger for Brina to learn and grow up with. I ended up stumbling across an ad for a pair of bottle baby lambs. I grew up raising and showing sheep in 4-H, so I pounced on the chance to have sheep again!

Stella relaxes in the background while Star inquires about more milk. 

So, meet Stella and Star! Stella (white with red patches) is a red Painted Desert sheep, and Star (chocolate brown with a white star) is a European Mouflon. I had never heard of European Mouflon sheep, so I did some research. Turns out this breed is an “exotic” breed, and is thought to be the breed most of our domestic sheep breeds descended from. She looks and acts more like a deer, with her big, dark eyes and gazelle-like movements. Both breeds are hair sheep, so they will not grow fleece that needs to be shorn.

Both breeds are partly raised for recreational hunting. The bucks grow large, beautiful, spiral horns that are prized by exotic game hunters. They are adaptable to many climates and are naturally resistant to pests and disease. They are great for pasture management, as they prefer to eat weeds, brush, and other normally less-desirable plants. Their carcass yields meat reminiscent of venison or goat. The meat is lower in fat and healthier than traditional red meat. Mothering instincts and milk production are excellent in both breeds. As far as I can see, these breeds seem perfect for our farm!

Kate has her hands full with both Star and Stella! 

Personally, I am fascinated by these non-traditional breeds of sheep. They are a unique niche market that we are considering for our own farm. For now, the bottle babies are coming along nicely. Our daughter, Kate, is getting great experience learning how to care for young livestock, and our puppy, Brina, is learning how to become a superstar LGD like Silas! 

Silas loves babies! He and Stella are already fast friends! 

The Beautiful Buckeye

Life and Adventures at Diamond W RanchWe recently decided to try our hand at chicken-rearing on our farm. Our duck experiment went so well (translation – they have survived) that we thought chickens were the next logical step. I started researching breeds, feeling that I would like a heritage breed. We wanted something dual-purpose, hardy and docile. Kansas has some pretty big mood swings when it comes to weather, so something that could stand stifling rainforest-like humidity and heat in the summer, along with polar arctic bitterly cold winters was a must. In addition, I was hoping to find something that could pretty much take care of itself in that it would be good at foraging free-range and saving on my feed bill.

Enter the Buckeye. This dual-purpose breed is the only one entirely developed in America by a woman, Nettie Metcalf. She developed the breed using a combination of Buff Cochin, Barred Plymouth Rock, and a black-breasted red game bird. The breed was admitted into the American Poultry Association Standard in 1905. Buckeyes are very tolerant of heat as well as cold. They have a pea comb, dark rich mahogany coloring, good maternal instincts, good carcass quality, and excellent egg production. On top of that, they are great foragers, and they like to hunt mice! Bonus!

The Buckeye rooster is truly beautiful. This is a young cockerel named Sam.

Kate holds one our our Buckeye roosters, Guacamole.The breed is generally docile and easy to handle. The hens are good mothers and don’t tend to be broody. The roosters are large and protective of their hens, but aren’t known to be overly aggressive. We did have one rooster who turned out to be a little too “cocky.” He came after me a few times, garnering some kickboxing action (I don’t recommend kicking a rooster while wearing sandals). And, he went after Kate a few times, reducing the poor kid to tears. The last straw came when he chased her from the barn clear up to the house … a distance of about 25 yards. Then, he tried to come after me. That was it. He became soup.

On a side note about that mean rooster … Kate (who will be 7 years old on Thanksgiving this year!) was telling one of her little friends about this mean rooster and how he would chase and jump on her. Her friend listened, eyes big, as Kate told about how I had to kill the rooster because he was so mean, and that she helped me make homemade chicken noodle soup. She then said he had to die because “he was evil.” And then a pause as they pondered that mean rooster. Then Kate said, “I ATE evil.” They stopped and stared at me because I was laughing so hard.

Silas protects his flock! Good boy, Silas!But, back to the Buckeye breed. So far, the breed has been relatively easy to raise. Ours are truly free-range, having full access to our property. They have a barn and barnyard, but the gate is always open. Our fearless Anatolian Shepherd, Silas, is their personal bodyguard.

Early in our chicken experiment, Silas became suspect No. 1 in a short series of disappearing or dead chickens. I caught him with a hen in his mouth and scolded him thoroughly for it. It seemed uncharacteristic of him to kill chickens, as he has always been a stalwart sentinel for our livestock, including our ducks. But the suspicion was there. Then one day, he was in the yard lying next to a very dead raccoon. Silas was exonerated. He apparently had the chicken in his mouth because he wanted to cuddle with it. Silly dog.

As layers they produce a medium- to large-sized light brown shelled egg. They will produce an average of 200 eggs per year. They are also good for meat production. The hens weigh about 6  1/2 pounds and roosters about 9 pounds. They eat less than most other commercial breeds. In addition, there is a bantam variety that is great for smaller homesteaders or those who prefer a smaller bird.

One of our beautiful Buckeye hens, doing what she does best! Foraging!

So, if you are looking at heritage breed chickens, I highly recommend the Buckeye. They are beautiful birds, and have been very enjoyable for us to raise. We hope to have some chicks of our own next spring!

Preparing Livestock for Emergencies

Life and Adventures at Diamond W RanchI have a black and white photo of a tornado sitting on a cabinet in my house. It always used to hang on the wall in my grandparent’s house, and now that they are gone, it reminds me of them. But the picture also reminds me of the awesome and terrible power of those tornadoes.


This photo of a tornado was taken by my grandparents many years ago. The tornado was not far from their farmhouse in rural Kansas.

This photo of a tornado was taken by my grandparents many years ago. The tornado was not far from their farmhouse in rural Kansas.

Our family farm had a tornado near-miss back in the early 1990s, many years before we moved out here. The tornado struck our neighbor’s farm, just across the road, and took their barn and house. I often think about what we would do if the unthinkable happened, and we were to be struck by a tornado or other disaster. My family would hopefully make it to the cellar, which must be accessed by going outside. But what would happen to the animals? What about other possible disasters? I’m sure others of you have had the same thoughts. And it is wise to plan ahead.

First, make a plan. Think about the possible disasters or emergencies that could (realistically) happen on your farm. Flash floods, tornadoes, fires, hurricanes and blizzards are all possibilities and can cause even more stress if you are not prepared. Write out your plan and make sure everyone knows what the plan is and where the written plan can be found. If your plan includes evacuating animals, be sure you have room on your trailer for them all, or arrange for someone to be on standby if the need for evacuation arises. Be sure to include contact information for yourself, contact info for your veterinarian, farrier, etc., and other alternative contact numbers such as friends, family and neighbors.

Our poultry and their guardian, Silas.

Our poultry and their guardian, Silas.

Next, make a farm disaster kit. This can be an overwhelming task, but if you make a list and work on it a bit at a time it is much easier. Include in your kit a list of the animals you own, copies of registration papers, vaccination records, a livestock first-aid kit, halters/ropes, buckets, tools for cleaning up poop/downed fencing/tree limbs, rags, flashlights, radio, extra batteries, and other such items. You may also want to include copies of insurance policies, especially if you happen to have any animals insured. Your kit will depend on what types of animals you have, how and if you plan to move them, and what type of disaster you are addressing.

It is important to make sure you can identify your animals after the disaster is over. Take photographs of all animals, especially any distinguishing markings or characteristics. Keep extra back up files of all records (including photographs) on an external drive that is someplace safe. If you don’t have your records stored electronically, keep extra hard copies someplace besides in your barn or home. Animal identifying neck or leg bands can also be helpful to keep on hand. Write your name and contact information on them ahead of time, and keep a permanent marker with them in case other information is needed.

Make sure your truck, tractor, utility vehicle, trailer, etc., are serviced and ready to move quickly. Have an extra can of gas around as well, and tools at the ready for changing tires.

Check your equipment regularly to be sure it is ready to go in an emergency. Communicate your plans with neighbors and friends if you may need their help.

Check your equipment regularly to be sure it is ready to go in an emergency. Communicate your plans with neighbors and friends if you may need their help.

Another thing to think about is what will happen when the disaster is over. If your farm is destroyed by a disaster, you may not immediately be able to bring your livestock back. Make arrangements with neighbors, family or friends on what to do in the aftermath of a disaster.

Be sure to schedule an annual review of your emergency plans, kits, and other disaster information. None of your hard work will be worth it if the information is out of date, your flashlight batteries don’t work, and you don’t even own half the animals on your list anymore. Check your supplies and update your plan regularly.

Be sure to plan for all types of livestock, large and small!

Be sure to plan for all types of livestock, large and small!

As a final thought, consider becoming a volunteer for your local Animal Response Team. These teams are made up of people who are trained to deal with animals in a disaster. However, many times these volunteers do not have experience handling livestock. Volunteers with livestock handling experience are usually very appreciated. Most states now have Animal Response Teams, and some groups are even more locally oriented by county or cities. There are training opportunities that will be beneficial for your own emergency preparedness.

People with livestock handling skills are needed to volunteer to help out during a disaster.

People with livestock handling skills are needed to volunteer to help out during a disaster.

So … get a kit. Make a plan. Be prepared!

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