The Grovestead

Farm, Family, Fun.

Six weeks with the goats

Goats foraging just outside the barn

It’s been a little over six weeks since we brought goats to our farm.  All in all, it has been very smooth. I was expecting a lot of fence-breaking and otherwise mischievous tomfoolery, but that hasn’t been the case at all. It took a few weeks to establish routine, but since then it has been uneventful. Just the way I like it.

Goats eating down the weeds

The goats have lived up to their species’ reputation by making quick work of a weedy forest. Once they figured out there was no more hay in the trough, they really started mowing down the undergrowth in our woods. I ended up moving the fence to add an extra few hundred square feet and within 2 days I had to move the fence again. In the last 3 weeks the progress has been so effective that I no longer have to mow certain areas around the barn and cabin.

Farmer boy with the goats

Ivar has been a great farm-hand. I’ll find him hanging out with Darcy and Precious on many occasions. They’ve warmed up to their new owners and are quite friendly now, scaling the pen walls to get a pet on the neck (but what they really want is more corn).

Resourceful goats reaching high up

The electric fencing has been fantastic. After the first shock or two, they never test it again. And before you get overly concerned, the shock isn’t bad. Its about the same as rubbing your socks on carpet and touching something metal. More startling than painful. Pictured above I have two strands covering about an acre of woods. The goats are quite resourceful at finding interesting forage, but they never test the electric fence.

It’s been a good six weeks with the goats. Besides the brush control and friendly demeanor, they put on quite a show. It’s not uncommon to find a peanut gallery watching the local entertainment.

Peanut gallery

 


Little lambs

Hello, Lambs!

We didn’t originally plan to acquire sheep so soon. We felt that goats were going to be enough of an adventure. But we had the space, the pasture, and enough confirmations from friends that we decided to go ahead with it.

I makeshifted a livestock transporter out of a trailer (thanks Josh!) and drove to Red Wing to pick up our little lambs. Not so little, in fact. I originally planned to buy four but after moving the first two into the trailer I told the breeder I think we’ll start with three. These little lambs were only 5 months old but pushing 75-80 lbs. I thought we’d get stampeded trying to get them out of the pens.

Transporting the sheep

It seems like the most stressful experience with any animal is just getting them home. The lambs did great, but it was challenging getting them into trailer and back out into their pens. At one point Ivar climbed inside an upright coil of wire fencing to safely watch it all go down.

Good fences make good neighbors

The lambs have been here just one week and have acclimated well. They are neighbors with the goats, and mostly civil at that. Although Darcy (the mama goat) always climbs up the pen and peers over the top every time I feed the sheep their daily allowance of grain. Sorry Darcy, go back to the woods.

Lambs never far apart

The lambs’ wool is already starting to get thick, about 2 inches deep. Ivar pointed out right away that it feels like carpet. They are never far apart, often huddling together. A true “herd” mentality. So far they have been slow to start grazing pasture, having lived solely on grain and hay the first five months of their life. But they are gradually getting used to the idea.

Lambs grazing in the pasture

 


Building a Top Bar Hive

The Top Bar Beehive

We’re trying a new style of beehive this year called a top-bar hive. It’s new to us and most American beekeepers but is actually a very old style. It predates the common Langstroth box-and-frame hives by many centuries and is common in many parts of the world.

The main advantage is simplicity. There are only two components: the trough and flat pieces of wood (bars) that rest along the top of the trough. There is no wax foundation, bottom board, feeder frames, entrance reducers, etc, which makes storage and cleaning much simpler.  It is also makes much less expensive and easier to build. Whereas a starter setup for a Langstroth hive consisting of two deeps and a super can easily surpass $300 or take weeks to build from scratch, a top-bar hive can be built in a day for less than $50, and often less than that if you have scrap materials on hand.

The main reason I wanted to build a top-bar hive was that I didn’t like how invasive the Langstroth hives were to maintain. It’s easy to inspect the top box of a Langstroth hive, but if you need to go any deeper, which you often do to find the brood, that means ripping apart an intact colony. Other beekeepers may not mind it, but I’m not so sure about the bees. After two consecutive total losses each season using Langstroth, I wanted to try something different.

In a top-bar hive the box (or trough) is much longer, usually about 4 ft, and the bees build continuously in one horizontal run. Harvesting honey and inspecting brood can be done with minimal disruption. Check on the brood on one end of the hive, look for honey on the other. There are some drawbacks. Most harvesting equipment is designed for Langstroth frames so extracting honey at the end of the season will be more difficult. But at this point I just want healthy bees so I’m not so concerned about harvesting.

I based my design on the Kenyan Top Bar Hive. Expert beekeeper Michael Bush describes how to build one on his site. I highly recommend Bush’s website and books to anyone starting out beekeeping. His advice is rooted in practice and he has a lot of sage advice to share.

Materials

  • (2) 1×12 pine boards (cut to 4′ or desired length)
  • (1) 1×6 pine board cut to same length
  • (2) 1×12 cut to 15″ for the ends
  • (1) Any material for lid cut four inches longer and wider than the trough dimensions for a 2″ overhang (eg, 52″ x  19″)
  • (30+) bars cut 15″ by 1.5″ wide. Number of bars varies depending on how long your hive is. 48″ inside would require 32 bars.
    NOTE: Michael Bush suggests making both 1.25″ bars and 1.5″ bars, the former being better for brood and the latter being better suited to honey. In this case, you could cut 16 1.25″ bars and 18 1.5″ bars.
  • (30+) pieces of triangular corner moulding cut to 13″ to create a starting guide for the bees.

Steps

1. The first step is to decide how big of a hive you want to build. There is no required size, however most top-bar hives are around 4 feet.

Building a top bar beehive

2. Use a finishing nail gun (or finishing nails) to mount the 1×12 pine boards to the inside top of the 1×6 bottom board.

3. Next, pry the 1×12’s outward until the tops are about 15″ across.

Top bar hive angled sides

4. Nail the 1x12x15 end boards onto the ends of the 1×12 sides.

Top bar hive end

Top bar hive with ends

5. Next, make your bars. Decide how many of each bar you want to use (1.25″ or 1.5″) and cut. This was the only time-consuming part for me. Since I didn’t have a table saw, I had to re-measure each piece I cut, clamp on a guide and cut with my circular saw.

Bars across Kenyan Top Bar Hive

6. After you have your top bar pieces cut, it is highly recommended to add some triangular corner moulding (or you can make your own) so the bees have a guide on which to start their comb. The guide will also act as a stopper to keep the bar from sliding out of place. Center the guide on the bar and nail or glue in place.

Nailing guide to bar

 

Triangular guide for honey bees to build comb

7. (optional) Create a “Follower” board to keep the bees contained to one side. Generally, bees prefer the smallest space necessary to build their hives. Using a Follower board, you can gradually expand the space available as needed, instead of starting them out in a cavernous box.

Inside a top bar beehive showing feeder behind follower

Cut a triangular piece of plywood or pine or whatever scrap wood you have left. The piece will need to be about 11″ tall, ~13″ wide at the top and ~4.5″ at the bottom. It does not need to be air-tight. Nail the board to the bottom of spare bar.

My Follower board doubles as a food compartment. I drilled a 1″ hole near the bottom and keep a sugar water feeder just behind the Follower. This placement is ideal because its next to the brood chamber but inaccessible to robbers (other bees that come to steal honey and syrup). Also, since it is not a frame feeder, I don’t lose any bees to drowning.

8. (optional) I found it difficult to avoid smooshing bees every time I replaced the lid. As soon as bars are removed to inspect, bees crawl on top of the bars and its hard to get them all off before replacing the lid. I solved this problem by adding small strips of 3/8-inch wood on the underside corners of the lid. Now when I set the lid down there is only a small area where the bees might get crushed and its easy enough to keep clear.

9. The hive is now complete. Add 2×4 legs to desired hight, paint, add your lid and you’re ready to go!

Finished top bar hive

Top Bar Hive Entrances

A note on entrances. I followed Bush’s advice and did not drill any holes in the sides of my TPH. Instead, I leave a 3/8-inch gap before placing my first bar. I actually nailed a 3/8″ spacer in front of the first bar so I don’t inadvertently close the entrance when removing the lid. The big advantage of a top entrance rather than a bottom one is that it 1) keeps out rodents and other predators and 2) provides better ventilation, as warm air naturally rises.

Top entrance on a top bar beehive

When the lid is placed over the bars it rests 1″ above the entrance and leaves a perfect gap for the bees to come and go.


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