Link: Online Bird Guide

Online Bird GuideAh, the joys of country living.  Spending time with the animals, discovering that overgrown cucumber in the garden, listening to the birds….

Kansas is blessed with a gorgeous array of bird species—songbirds, hawks and owls, herons and egrets, and even a surprising number of sandpipers, seagulls, and other birds we tend to associate with coastal areas.  (Would you be surprised to see a flock of pelicans soaring above your head in the Great Plains?)  Besides being conveniently located in the middle of the country, the Sunflower State offers a wide variety of habitats for our feathered friends to take advantage of, ranging from woods to wetlands to open prairie.

At some point, you may start to wonder, What is that new bird that dropped in this spring?  Or, if you already have a basic knowledge of bird identification, you may run across some of those strikingly similar species that give birdwatchers fits.  A good field guide is a must-have when solving questions like these, but here’s an online resource that can help with quite a few bird-related quandaries: the ultimate Internet bird guide from Cornell’s All About Birds site.

There are a number of ways to use this online bird guide.  You can search for your bird by name, shape, or taxonomy, or you can just enjoy some of America’s favorite birds.  Included for each bird is information on its appearance, range, and habits.  To make identification easier, you’ll also find great recordings of the bird’s various calls and songs, as well as photos and tips to help you distinguish it from similar species.

Whether you’re keeping a life list of every species you’ve ever seen or just curious about the birds in your backyard, you’ll find this online bird guide extremely helpful.  Before you know it, you’ll be identifying birds with ease.

Osage Cuestas

Osage CuestasThe Osage Cuestas (pronounced Kwestas), encompassing nearly all of eastern Kansas south of the Kansas River, are a region of hills and ridges, steep on one side and gently sloping on the other. Because the Osage Cuestas cover so much area, there is plenty of variation in the terrain, though not as much topographical relief as in the Flint Hills.



Moist, silty clay prevails throughout most of the region.



The eastern edge of the Osage Cuestas is a transition between hardwood forest and tallgrass prairie. Cropland and grassland cover most of the region, although trees persist along streams.



Osage Cuestas

Water is abundant all throughout the region. Numerous reservoirs contain most of the water supply for this part of Kansas.



Temperatures in the Osage Cuestas are much like those in the rest of Kansas—variable, though the swings are a little more moderate than in the western half of the state. Lows can drop below 20°F in January, while highs climb above 90° in July.

The annual precipitation averages from over 40 inches near Fort Scott to about 35 inches near Emporia. The majority of the rain usually falls during the growing season, right when it is most needed.

Osage Cuestas
© 2013 Homestead on the Range


The Osage Cuestas are primarily used for pasture due to the hilly terrain, but there is still plenty of room for cropland. Various feed grains make up most of the harvest.


Also of Interest

Cuesta means “hill” or “cliff” in Spanish.


Helpful Resource

Cuesta Aerial View
This aerial view gives a general idea of the regional terrain.


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The Old-Fashioned Windmill

The Old-Fashioned Windmill

Harnessing the power of wind is by no means a novel concept. Those little old farm windmills, dwarfed by modern wind turbines, have their roots in the Middle East, where they were used as far back as the 800s. From there the idea spread to both Asia and Europe, and then traveled to American shores with the early settlers. The pioneers who journeyed to early California constructed something of the kind to draw water from their hand-dug wells.

But these windmill prototypes had one serious drawback. They could not turn to adjust to a change in wind direction, which limited their usefulness in the American West.

Continue reading The Old-Fashioned Windmill

Diatomaceous Earth and Parasite Control

Diatomaceous Earth and Parasite ControlBoth internal and external parasites can be the bane of a livestock owner’s existence. They make your animals’ lives miserable, increase the risk of disease, reduce performance, and just look nasty.

Unfortunately, drugs are proving to be increasingly ineffective as parasites adapt to modern chemicals. Isn’t there some natural remedy out there that will consistently work to eliminate parasites?

There is! This natural marvel is called diatomaceous earth. It is simply the fossilized remains of diatoms, algae that encase themselves in protective silica shells. Diatomaceous earth (DE) works on both external and internal parasites, and is not a poison. Instead, it is an abrasive substance that lacerates the vulnerable parts of the parasites and kills by dehydrating. Not something that is easy to adapt to!


A Few Words of Warning

Yes, diatomaceous earth is a very safe pesticide…if it is food-grade. Please be aware that pool-grade DE is chemically treated and therefore poisonous to both animals and humans. Only food-grade DE is safe to use for parasite control.

The other caution is to avoid inhaling diatomaceous earth. The fine particles that kill parasites can also damage your lungs.

With this in mind, how do we use diatomaceous earth?


External Parasites

A dusting of diatomaceous earth over the coats of your livestock and pets can kill any ticks and other nasty bugs that may be plaguing them. There’s no need to measure diatomaceous earth used externally. Just sprinkle it onto the animal in question and rub it into the coat.

One thing you should be aware of when applying DE to livestock is that excessive use can dry out and damage the coat. Limit the applications to once a month except in extreme cases. (These cases likely need some extra care to boost their immune systems.)

Chickens suffering from external parasites can be allowed to dust-bathe in DE. If the nesting boxes are harboring unwanted insects, sprinkle some diatomaceous earth there, too.


Internal Parasites

To use diatomaceous earth to kill worms and other internal parasites, sprinkle the appropriate amount over the animal’s food. Various sources (and some personal experience) suggest the following dosages:

  • Cattle: 1 ounce daily.
  • Horses: 5 ounces daily.
  • Hogs: 2% of feed ration.
  • Goats and sheep: 1 teaspoon per 150 pounds of body weight.
  • Llamas and alpacas: 1 teaspoon per 150 pounds of body weight.
  • Chickens: 5% of feed ration.
  • Dogs: 1 teaspoon per 20 pounds of body weight.
  • Cats: 1/2 teaspoon daily for kittens, 1 teaspoon daily for adult cats.

However, it is always a good idea to check the bag before using DE. If the manufacturer offers specific recommended doses, use those.

Many animals will also eat diatomaceous earth free-choice if it is protected from wind and rain.

As you can see, diatomaceous earth is extremely easy to use, and it is both safe and effective. Give it a try!


Helpful Resource

Diatomaceous Earth
A microscope image of diatomaceous earth, just in case you were wondering what it looks like up close.

Free eBook: Home Vegetable Gardening

Home Vegetable GardeningDon’t you just love old books that are still relevant today?

Here’s one for the gardener of the family: Home Vegetable Gardening: A Complete and Practical Guide to the Planting and Care of All Vegetables, Fruits and Berries Worth Growing For Home Use by F. F. Rockwell. This book is about a hundred years old, but is still useful to anyone who wants to try their hand at raising their own produce. Quite a few of Rockwell’s favorite plant varieties are even in existence after all these years!

Rockwell takes the prospective gardener through the whole growing season from start to finish, covering key topics such as choosing an ideal location, selecting the proper tools, starting the seedlings, and storing the harvest. Along the way he shares his experience with the particular needs of a variety of different garden crops, both common and uncommon. Advice is also included on various pests and diseases.

Even more delightful is Rockwell’s enthusiasm for gardening:

It is the cheapest, healthiest, keenest pleasure there is. Give me a sunny garden patch in the golden springtime, when the trees are picking out their new gowns, in all the various self-colored delicate grays and greens—strange how beautiful they are, in the same old unchanging styles, isn’t it?—give me seeds to watch as they find the light, plants to tend as they take hold in the fine, loose, rich soil, and you may have the other sports.

With a mentor like this, who could resist the urge to get out there and plant something? And all along the way, gardeners will be guided by Rockwell’s valuable years of experience.

Home Vegetable Gardening is available for free download.

High Plains

High PlainsAcross the western third of the state stretches a vast expanse of high tablelands, rolling hills, sand plains, and sometimes bare ground—the awesome High Plains of Kansas, the largest and highest region in the state. Do not be fooled into thinking that the High Plains are flat. Although the terrain is not as rugged as that of the rest of the state, the ground still gently rolls as far as the eye can see. Flatness is only an optical illusion created by spacious skies and wide-open prairies.



Much of the soil in the High Plains is fertile loess. Sand, however, is scattered throughout the region, mainly south of the Arkansas River. Erosion can be a problem thanks to the strong winds.



High Plains
Buffalo grass

Trees are scarce, while cacti and yuccas are common. Most of the vegetation consists of drought-hardy shortgrass prairie. The little bluestem, buffalo grass, and grama grasses covering the plains are ideally suited for the area’s semi-arid climate and long hot spells between rainfalls. In return for underground minerals, the complex root systems of these grasses help hold the soil firmly in place.



The famous, high-quality Ogallala Aquifer is the lifeline of the High Plains. Abundant as the groundwater is, however, the future of irrigation is debatable. Water is currently being pumped out of the aquifer faster than it is being replaced.



The High Plains receive only 15 to 25 inches of precipitation each year, making this the driest region in the state. Strong sunshine, small amounts of rainfall, and sweeping winds, unrestricted by any natural barrier, leave little moisture in the air or on the ground for long. Therefore, this region can be classified as semi-arid. Severe droughts are periodically broken by floods, however, and temperatures can swing from one extreme to the other in short order.

High Plains
© 2013 Homestead on the Range


Although much of the area is home to expansive ranches, farming has become the major feature of the region. High Plains farmers primarily raise wheat, sorghum, and corn. Yes, corn. Drought-resistant strains have been developed in recent years, and the High Plains are growing more corn than ever before, often for local feedlots. Without irrigation, however, most of the High Plains could only support a corn crop one year in five.


Also of Interest

Agriculture is the mainstay of the sparsely populated High Plains. The remainder of the region’s economy revolves around energy production in the forms of wind, oil, and natural gas.


Helpful Resource

Kansas Crops
A satellite image of the High Plains. The green circles are areas of center pivot irrigation.


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Knowledge-Based Farming

Knowledge-Based Farming

Have you ever thought about all of the different skill areas and branches of knowledge that are related to agriculture? Biology is an obvious one, but dig a little deeper. There is far more involved in farming than just plants and animals.

A Sampling of Skills

A farm can sharpen the math skills of the bookkeeper, provide an outlet for the carpenter, and inspire the artist or author of the family. A simple adjustment of soil pH brings one into contact with many different areas of science. Hunting for solutions to problems can lead to an investigation of history.

But this is still not all. Consider this brief and extremely incomplete sampling of knowledge and skills that can come in handy on a farm:

  • Meteorology.
  • Marketing.
  • Photography.
  • Geology.
  • Economics.
  • Geography.
  • Automotive repairs.

There are a staggering number of opportunities that a farm can provide to someone who has a way with people, animals, plants, or machines. Obviously, then, any skills or knowledge that you can bring to the table will be amply repaid.

So by all means build your knowledge base, knowing that you will reap the rewards. And while you are searching for information, be sure to seek it from a variety of sources.

Knowledge-Based Farming

Sources of Knowledge

There is no excuse for being poorly informed in today’s world. Besides the usual array of farm books and magazines, the Internet has made a wealth of free information available to everyone. Probably every viewpoint on agriculture is represented out there somewhere. The USDA, extension centers, sustainable agriculture organizations, and innumerable private blogs and websites offer their services. A simple search will take you to exactly what you need.

Furthermore, there is a seemingly endless supply of digitized free or public domain books available for download. Most of these were written in the 1800s and early 1900s and are being released as their copyrights expire, placing invaluable old-fashioned wisdom at our fingertips. Some organizations, however, give away cutting-edge works in sustainable agriculture as part of their services.

We all should make use of this wealth of knowledge and experience. But probably the best source of knowledge that we can tap into is our own experience, simply because it is already tailored to our unique circumstances. The best way to learn what the land is trying to tell us is to keep good records. What form these records will take will vary from person to person, of course. But the point is to note for future reference things we have learned, solutions we have discovered, problems we need to solve, and things we want to remember for later on. Our records don’t have to be elaborate. Sometimes just a few lines in a composition notebook will suffice. This type of research is irreplaceable.

Finally, we should also make it a point to consider what is probably the most neglected authority on agriculture—the Scriptures. Research has consistently borne out the accuracy and value of the principles found in the pages of the Bible. For example, some of the Old Testament marriage restrictions in Leviticus 20:17–21, if applied to livestock, would prevent inbreeding disasters. Some sustainable agriculture experts are also advocating field and pasture rests similar to the seventh-year fallow spell outlined in Leviticus 25:1–7. We probably would have a better understanding of how farming works if we would seek to discover the broader principles contained in the Word.

Always More to Learn

Farming becomes an especially fascinating adventure if we allow it to sharpen and interact with all our skills and interests. We’ll never run out of things we can learn. There will always be a new challenge to tackle every day.

Helpful Resources

The Homestead Bookshelf
Our own collection of books and downloads to keep you thinking. We add new titles frequently, so check back often or subscribe to On the Range, our free monthly newsletter, to receive notice of the latest additions.

Top 10 Books for Beginning Farmers
Looking for a starting point in your reading? Try these 10 essential titles.

The Family Garden Journal

The Family Garden Journal
This Homestead on the Range book will help you learn from your own gardening experience! Includes a 366-page journal and reference pages for keeping notes on plant varieties, insect pests, beneficial insects, and plant diseases. Learn more.

What is Endophyte-Free Fescue?

What is Endophyte-Free Fescue?
Close-up view of endophytes in tall fescue

Reading up on pasture forages tends to give one the distinct impression that having a field full of endophyte-infected fescue is not a good thing…but what is an endophyte? Why is it bad?

Endophyte-Infected Fescue

Simply put, an endophyte is a fungus that lives inside tall fescue. The fescue itself is in no way harmed by having a fungus between its cells. Quite the contrary. As far as the fescue and the endophyte are concerned, the arrangement is mutually beneficial. The endophyte could not survive in nature outside of a proper grass plant, so the fescue is a much-needed ally, providing the fungus with shelter and seed storage. In return for these services, the fescue receives chemical compounds called alkaloids, which provide the plant with resistance to insects, disease, and drought.

So far so good. Why, then, all the negative press about endophytes?

Another service that the endophyte provides the fescue with is protection from grazing animals. Not only are the alkaloids produced by endophytes something of a deterrent to mammals, they can also be harmful—even lethal—to livestock, most notably cattle and horses. Endophyte alkaloids constrict the blood vessels and reduce the circulation of animals that have ingested them, leading to serious complications. Affected cattle often show rough coats, intolerance to heat, poor weight gains, and reduced pregnancy rates. In winter, they may develop gangrene of the hooves, ears, and tail. Mares can experience life-threatening foaling difficulties, and any foals that do survive after being born may have weakened immune systems.

Endophyte-Free Fescue

Once the effects of fescue on grazing animals were understood, scientists and plant breeders set to work removing the endophyte from the fescue. A number of methods are used to achieve this, including heat, humidity, and various chemicals. Because endophytes are transmitted through seed, a fescue plant that has had its endophytes killed in this manner can be used to produce subsequent generations of endophyte-free fescue. Over the years, different varieties of endophyte-free fescue have found their place in the offerings of companies selling pasture seed. Studies have proven that animals do indeed perform better on endophyte-free fescue pastures.

Unfortunately, removing the endophyte from the fescue has not been without consequences. By removing the fungus, plant breeders have also removed the fescue’s defense against insects and drought. It can be difficult to establish and maintain a good stand of endophyte-free fescue. However, careful pasture management and avoidance of overgrazing can prolong the stand’s lifespan to about nine years.

Novel-Endophyte Fescue

But since many ranchers do not want to deal with the establishment, maintenance, and reseeding of endophyte-free fescue pastures, scientists have since produced several strains of fescue containing only “novel” endophytes, fungi which increase the hardiness of fescue without producing toxic alkaloids. These new fescue strains are produced by inserting novel endophytes into endophyte-free fescue seedlings.

Research on the pros and cons of these varieties is still in the early stages. At this point, it appears that novel-endophyte fescue persists nearly as well as normal fescue while offering the improved animal performance of endophyte-free fescue. However, particular care may be required when storing seeds, as the novel endophyte can easily be killed by heat and humidity prior to planting.

Free eBook: Building a Sustainable Business

Building a Sustainable BusinessAre you considering making the jump and turning that farming hobby of yours into a real business?  Do you already have a farm business and are considering expansion, new options in your operations, or maybe passing the enterprise along to the next generation?  If so, you might want to map out your ideas in a written business plan so that you have a clear picture of what you want to accomplish and how you want to accomplish it.

And before you write that business plan, you might want to consult Building a Sustainable Business: A Guide to Developing a Business Plan for Farms and Rural Businesses.

This outstanding resource was originally created by the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, but they quickly realized that their guide was valuable all across the country and made it available to everyone.  Here it is—a business-planning resource unlike any other.

Building a Sustainable Business breaks the planning process into five steps, or tasks:

  1. Identify values.  What’s important to you?
  2. Assess your farm history and current situation.  What have you got?
  3. Develop a vision, a mission statement, and goals.  Where do you want to go?
  4. Create and evaluate a strategic plan.  What routes can you take to get to where you want to go?
  5. Present, implement, and monitor your business plan.  Which route will you take and how will you check your progress along the way?

The more involved planning tasks are further broken into easy-to-manage steps involving marketing, operations, human resources, and finances.

Does it sound complicated?  Maybe not as much as you think.  To help you collect all of the information you need to write a sound business plan, each task is accompanied by handy worksheets ranging from the standard balance sheet to questions about your vision for your business.

Furthermore, Building a Sustainable Business is extremely flexible.  It starts by asking you why you are writing a business plan so that you can focus on the areas of primary importance to your unique situation and create a plan that is actually useful to you.

Building a Sustainable Business is highly recommended for anyone starting or modifying a farm or other rural business.  Even if you don’t need a business plan to obtain funding for your enterprise, you can still benefit from walking through the thought process explained in this book.

Best of all, it’s available for free download as a PDF!


Glaciated Region

Glaciated RegionThe Glaciated Region occupies the northeastern corner of Kansas and is roughly bordered by the Kansas River on the south and the Big Blue on the west. Geologists named the area based on a theory that two glaciers once covered the landscape and shaped the terrain. Rocky hills and wide valleys with accompanying floodplains provide a great deal of variation throughout the region.



A fine silt called loess is characteristic of this region. Soils in the Glaciated Region are some of the richest in the state.



A strip of hardwood forest runs along the very eastern edge of the region. Oak and hickory, however, quickly blend into a transition zone of both forest and prairie. Dense stands of tallgrasses, mostly bluestems, dominate in the western part of the region.



Glaciated Region
Loess bluff near Troy in Doniphan County

Some farmers play it safe and irrigate their crops from the abundant streams running across the Glaciated Region, but the area receives enough annual precipitation that many rely solely on rainfall.

Groundwater tends to be concentrated in pockets throughout the region, which means that some wells may have little flow and some quite a bit. The areas of higher flow are primarily located along the Kansas River.



The Glaciated Region usually receives 30 to 35 inches of rainfall annually. Summers can be quite hot and dry, however, and winters can be bitingly cold. The Glaciated Region is not as windy as the rest of the state, but be prepared for some gusty days in spring. This region boasts the longest growing season in Kansas—200 days on average.

Glaciated Region
© 2013 Homestead on the Range


The agriculture of the Glaciated Region is more diverse than that of any other part of Kansas. Both beef and dairy cattle graze the areas of rough terrain. Corn, soybeans, wheat, sorghum, barley, and alfalfa thrive on loess soil wherever the ground is level.


Also of Interest

Many Kansas country families make this area their home; the metropolis of Kansas City in the southeast corner of the region provides access both to day jobs and to potential buyers of home-raised food.


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