The Grovestead

Farm, Family, Fun.

Getting started with Maple Sugaring

Getting started with Maple Sugaring

This is our third year tapping trees to make maple syrup, and each year when the sap begins to flow I am thrilled and amazed. To collect gallons of sap from trees growing in your own yard and turn it into delicious, pure syrup, it’s truly an amazing experience, another everyday miracle on the farm. We’ve had so much fun over the years we even threw a tree-tapping party last year.

We’ve also had a lot of people interested in starting this hobby for themselves. I wrote this post to answer a lot of the questions we get asked about how to get started.

What you need and where to get it

As with everything, there are many ways to get the job done. This is just what I prefer, having found it to work reliably over the years:

  • Battery-powered drill (or a really long extension cord)
  • 7/16-inch drill bit – $8 at Menards
  • 7/16″ Hookless Aluminum Spout – $3ea at Leader Evaporator
  • Sap Sak Holder – $7ea at Leader Evaporator
    (I have also seen these at Mills Fleet Farm for 1/2-price after the season is over)
  • Sap Sak – $0.55ea at Leader Evaporator
  • Hammer

Drill bit and spout used for tapping trees

The bummer is that about the time you are interested in tapping maple trees, so is everyone else and many suppliers will be sold out for the season. So be sure to order your supplies well ahead of Maple Sugaring season (which usually means before March).

How to identify maple trees

Maple leaves are perhaps the most recognizable leaf in the world. It’s the only leaf that has it’s own national flag. But that won’t help you much in the middle of winter when there are no leaves. You’ll have to look at other things like bark and branches to get a clue.

There are four common types of maple trees for syrup production, and each one has it’s own identifying characteristics:

  • Sugar Maple
  • Silver Maple
  • Red Maple
  • Boxelder (yes, it’s a maple tree)

On our property, we have only Silver Maples. They are characterized by early buds on the tips of branches and wide, flat, silvery bark.

Identifying maple trees

Silver Maple on the left has tiny buds compared with other trees

Silver maple buds

Identifying bark of silver maples

Silver Maple bark is wide and thin

Each tree produces a different amount of sugar content, with “Sugar” Maple being the highest. Higher sugar content is desirable because it means less water needs to be evaporated to produce syrup. Our Silver Maples are almost as good as Sugar Maples, on average producing 1 gallon of syrup for 30 gallons of sap (3-4% sugar content).

When to tap trees and for how long

Sap begins to flow during late Winter when temperatures rise above freezing. For us, this means sometime in March. I’ve found the best setup for sap runs is freezing temperatures overnight and above freezing temperatures during the day, for several days in a row. If you see that setup in the forecast, it’s a good time to get out and tap your trees.

The actual season can last anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months, again depending on the weather. You basically have until the tree starts budding. Once that happens, the flavor of the syrup will be tainted and won’t taste good (known as “buddy sap”). If the weather turns cold after the sap beings to flow, this will inhibit leaves from forming and prolong the season.

There’s a chapter in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, entitled “Sugar Snow”. A thick snow falls late into Spring and Laura is excited because means the season will be prolonged and there will be more sugar that year.

Sugar Snow - Little House in the Big Woods

A tip for selecting trees

Here’s something I was surprised to learn: not all the maple trees you tap will produce sap. In any given year, only about half my trees ever produce sap. I still don’t understand why. They appear to be healthy and clearly sap is getting to the leaves. I keep trying different tap placements, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Some trees just won’t produce well. On the other hand, you’ll find some trees to be abundant producers. I’ve got two trees that produce more sap than 10 other trees combined.

This year I tried something different. Since my spouts are limited, I drilled holes in all my trees but didn’t hammer in the spouts until after they began to drip.

Sap leaking from drilled hole

That way I’m not wasting spouts on trees that will never produce.

What to do with the sap

Every day I check the bags. I empty anything over 1/2 full into a 5-gallon bucket then store it in a cool place until I have enough to evaporate. Once I have 20 or so gallons collected, I’ll fire up the evaporator and spend a couple hours boiling it down.

It’s important not to let the sap sit for too long or it can begin to spoil. A few days is fine, but anything more than that should be evaporated or stored in a refrigerator.

Does it hurt the tree?

No. As long as the tree is large enough to support tapping, the holes you drill will fill in after you remove the spouts.

Last year's hole has filled in

Just make sure not to drill in the same place each year.

Any trees that are at least 12 inches in diameter can be safely tapped. Larger trees over 20 inches can support 2 taps, and 27 inches or larger can support 3 taps.

And just to prove that collecting sap is not harmful, take a look at these pictures from a maple tree we tapped this afternoon.

Sap is leaking from a maple tree

If you don’t tap a tree, it will likely leak sap anyway. This tree was quite literally bursting at the seams. The tip of every branch was dripping with sap. I was literally getting rained on while standing under this tree.

Ivar touching sap

Boy tasting fresh sap

When we tapped the tree to add spouts, it immediately started gushing sap. I wouldn’t be surprised to find full bags in the morning.

Sap straw

That covers the basics and I hope answers most of the questions about tree tapping and maple sugaring. In my next post I’ll show the step-by-step process of actually tapping the tree and collecting sap.

 


Baby chicks growing fast

Cocoa and Clove close-up

Our baby chicks, Cocoa and Clove, were born 2 weeks ago and are growing fast! In fact they are quickly outgrowing their brooder and we’re now looking for a bigger box.

Baby chicks in their new brooder

We try to give them time each day outside the box to stretch their legs and flap their tiny wings.

Boy watches baby chicks

Ivar holding baby chicks

It will probably be another month indoors. The other chickens will be properly introduced after the snow melts and there’s plenty of space for everyone.

Elsie feeds the chickens outside

Spring is coming, though! Temps reached about 50 degrees today and everyone was outdoors to enjoy it.

 


Baby chicks hatching! (video)

Two baby chicks hatched in our homemade incubator

It’s been an exciting few days here at the Grovestead! Our flock has grown with the healthy hatches of two new baby chicks. If you haven’t been following along, be sure to read part 1 (egg incubator) and part 2 (candling eggs) to catch up.

After building a homemade egg incubator, we set four eggs laid by our own chickens. A week later we were able to see growth inside two of the eggs, meaning they were fertile. So we kept these in the incubator for another two weeks and watched them very closely! The eggs had to be turned three times a day, the temperature had to be just right, I had to increase the humidity the last three days using wet sponges…  I’m pretty sure I stressed out more over these chickens hatching than I did either of our children being born. Don’t tell Becca I said that.

But the day FINALLY came. After being 24 hours overdue, I noticed slight movement in one of the eggs. I set up a camera on a tripod to catch all the action. This animation comprises several hours leading up to the first hatch:

Egg started to move just before hatching

The last frame was about 5:30AM. And let me tell you I was totally disheartened that my birds weren’t hatching. I came back at 7:00AM and saw this:

First egg broke open, chick begins to emerge

New baby chicks first few steps

The first baby chick emerges and takes his first few steps.

The reason baby chicks can go days without food or water is because they literally suck the egg’s yoke into their abdomen in the final hours before hatching. This is why its so important not to disrupt the process or intervene. Everything that happens in the final hours is essential to the chick’s ability to survive outside the shell.

It took an entire 24 hours before the second chick began to hatch (again inspiring much anxiety). Its sibling stayed close by the whole time:

Chick stays close to other egg

The first piercing of the outer shell is known as a “pip”. It occurs on the same end of the egg as the air sac that forms during incubation. Once the shell is pipped, the chicken can start breathing air and working its way out of the egg.

Second egg pips (chick breaks open outer shell)

The baby chick doesn’t just peck a hole and try to crawl out. It pierces in a complete circle (known as “zipping”) so the whole end of the egg falls off. Then the chick simply pushes the shell off and rolls out. The whole process took about 30 minutes.

Sibling watches the hatching closely

Loyal from birth, the sibling stayed close by and watched, even assisting during the hatch as you’ll see in the video.

 

 


Candling eggs

Candling eggs showing unfertilized egg

We are now two weeks into our little egg-hatching experiment. It’s mostly uneventful, other than turning the eggs three times a day and occasionally checking the temperature in the middle of the night. Becca tells me I am a good mother hen.

People have asked me, where did we get our eggs? We keep chickens of course, and a rooster.

Our rooster

So we are using eggs from our own flock. But that doesn’t mean all the eggs will hatch. In fact, it’s impossible to know which eggs are fertilized until after they have been incubated for several days.

There are three possible outcomes:

  1. The egg is unfertilized.
  2. The egg is fertilized but stopped growing.
  3. The egg is fertilized and the embryo is growing!

After incubating the eggs for about 1 week, you can “candle” them to distinguish between the various stages. Candling simply involves shining a flashlight through the egg to see what’s inside. Apparently this was done by candlelight back in the day, hence the name. Being the nerd that I am, I built a little contraption to hold the flashlight and egg in place so I could take pictures.

The box I used to hold the flashlight and egg

Initially, I was quite disappointed that the first two eggs I candled did not appear to have anything growing in them. But the next two did have growing embryos, and it was thrilling to see them moving around inside! I couldn’t believe that two new chickens were actually growing inside this rinky-dink contraption I threw together.

Here are more pictures from candling:

Another unfertilized egg

This is second unfertilized egg from the first batch.

Unfertilized egg, showing yolk

This is an unfertilized egg from a batch I started a few days later. Notice the egg yolk (dark spot) towards the top of the egg, and otherwise transparent color all the way through.

Now compare the above unfertilized eggs with these:

Candling egg showing developing embryo with blood vessels

The sure sign of a developing chick is blood vessels spreading out from the embryo. The opaque part towards the top of the egg is the actual chick.

Air sack is formed at the bottom of a developing egg

Same egg, turned upside down. Here you are seeing the air sac that forms on one end of the egg, also an initial sign of healthy embryos. The air sac contains the oxygen the baby chicks will need while they’re hatching.

Different egg developing, air sack is visible

This is the other developing egg. You can see all the components: blood vessels, embryo (dark spot), and air sac.

It’s exciting, but I haven’t named them yet. The hardest part is yet to come. A lot can go wrong in the final few days of incubation. If the temperature or humidity is off by just a few degrees, the chicks won’t be able to hatch. We’ll just have to wait and see.

 


The $3, 30-Minute Egg Incubator

Three Dollar, 30-Minute Egg Incubator

I decided this was the year I wanted to try hatching our own chickens. After all, we wake up to a crowing rooster most mornings. Might as well get a few new chickens out of the deal. When I asked a breeder about hatching our own chicks she had one piece of advice: don’t use a styrofoam box. Rather, she recommended a certain brand of incubators and even gave me a coupon code to try online.

Then I found out the name-brand incubators were going to set me back nearly $200! I’m not an astute investor, but back-of-the-napkin calculations told me this wasn’t a good investment. I could buy 100 chicks for less than that. So I dismissed the idea altogether and went on to the next harebrained farm project.

But in the back of my mind, I still really wanted to hatch chickens. Then one day it hit me (probably while lying awake at 5am, listening to our rooster): Why not just try a styrofoam box? I mean, how bad could it be when the alternative is sitting under a chicken’s butt for three weeks?

DIY incubator plans online were all levels of complexity and I couldn’t find anything really simple. So I set about gathering the supplies to make the CHEAPEST and SIMPLEST egg incubator possible. I think I succeeded.

Caveat, I already had some supplies on hand such as lightbulbs, thermometer and scrap wood. But other than that, my total out of pocket was $3. This included the styrofoam bait box ($2) and a lightbulb socket ($1). I also set a goal of making it in under 30 minutes, which if you don’t count the time taking photos for this blog post, I easily pulled off.

Supplies for the egg incubator

Supplies you will need:

  • Styrofoam box
  • Light bulb socket that plugs into standard extension cord
  • Incandescent light bulb (wattage depends on size of box)
  • Scrap wood to make a frame
  • Screen, hardware cloth, or fabric to wrap over the frame
  • Thermometer with humidity gauge (hygrometer)
  • Shallow cup for holding water (the sour cream container in your recycling bin works great)

 

Building frame for the egg incubator

Step 1: Build a frame to fit the inner dimensions of your styrofoam box. Mine was 12″ x 10″.

Cut out screen to fit the frame

Step 2: Fit screen/hardware cloth/cloth over the frame and staple in place.

Attaching screen to the frame

Finished frame for the egg incubator

Installing socket into the styrofoam box

Step 3: Cut or drill a hole into the side of the box and install the lightbulb socket.

Lightbulb in the egg incubator

Your lightbulb wattage depends on the size of the box. Generally, 10-40 watts should be sufficient. Appliance lightbulbs are perfect because of their compact size.

Drilling vents for airflow

Step 4: Drill some holes into the side and lid for venting. I put 2 holes on each side and 4 holes in the lid.

Final assembly of the egg incubator

Step 5: Final assembly. Put the water cup in first, followed by the frame. Then install the lightbulb and place a thermometer inside. I set down several eggs to test out the weight.

An optional step is to add a viewing window. I used the glass from an ugly 5×7 frame:

Picture frame glass

Cut out a slightly smaller hatch in the lid, then tape down the edges for a slick viewing window:

Finished egg incubator with fertile eggs

Incubating the eggs

After we had the incubator, the hardest part was fine-tuning the temperature. Hatching chicks requires a very fine tolerance, 99 to 102 degrees F. And you need to hold that temperature for 21 days. You also need to maintain the humidity around 40% for the first 18 days, then 60-70% the last 3 days. With cheap supplies, this can be a challenge, but not impossible. Basically, you have three options:

The Free Way

The simplest, but crudest way to manage temperature is to cut small holes in the lid until you find the right temperature (you can always tape over them if you overdo it).

The Easy Way

A very easy way to manage temperature is to buy a dimmer switch for plug-in lamps. These cost about $5 at the hardware store and make it extremely easy to find the right temperature.

The Foolproof Way

Even with a dimmer switch, you don’t know for sure if the temperature will hold for long periods. If it is increasing at 0.5 degrees per hour, you might wake up with hardboiled eggs in the morning (I lost a few nights’ sleep this way). The only surefire way to keep your eggs from overheating is to purchase a water heater thermostat and wire it into the power source. This will automatically turn off the lightbulb when it gets too hot, and turn it back on again when within the desired range.

Other stuff

Humidity

It has been difficult to keep the humidity high enough during the dry Winter months. I’ve found a wetted sponge does the trick.

Turning Eggs

It’s also important to turn the eggs a few times each day. This keeps the developing embryo from sticking to shell wall and deforming. I turn my eggs 3 times each day, so it is always a different side overnight.

 

I’ll get to some of the other topics later, such as candling eggs to check for fertility, so check back for updates on the progress of this batch. Even in the best of conditions, success rates vary widely. I don’t know what will come of this latest experiment, but I’ve learned so much already.

 


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