3 Forgotten Ways The Pioneers Built Fires Without Wood

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3 Forgotten Ways The Pioneers Made Fires Without Wood

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I’m fortunate to call the windswept prairie of the Great Plains my home. If you get out of farm country, it’s just grass as far as you can see. In fact, there are still places nearly unchanged since pioneers first tried settling this area more than 100 years ago.

Although quiet and expansive, there are real challenges to living in the plains. This rings especially true for a person who pursues knowledge in woodcraft. One of the biggest barriers to settling the plains was the lack of timber. Historically, people all around the world have overwhelmingly depended on wood as a natural construction material. The lack of trees on the prairie was one of the biggest obstacles pioneers faced when they looked into the Great American Desert. Wood was, and is, such a central part of our life, especially when forging a living from the land. Lack of timber seemed to make settlement nearly impossible.

While most Americans during the mid-19th century looked at the prairie as an inhospitable land, there were already people living happily in this treeless expanse. An array of Native American societies were established, each developing strategies for living a life that depend on wood as little as possible. Adventurous mountain men and explorers had also learned these lessons the hard way. They, too, knew how to survive in a land devoid of such a pivotal resource. One thing everyone on the plains had to know was how to build a fire without using wood as a fire fuel.

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Even today, we can take a page from their book and remember there are other excellent fire fuels besides wood. Here are three examples of resources you can burn when heavy timber may be in short supply:

1. Buffalo chips/cattle manure

Buffalo chips is a reference to the dried manure of buffalo that once dotted our grasslands. Once dubbed as “Plains oak”, buffalo chips were widely used as fire fuel for generations on the plains. When cattle were brought north, their manure also was collected for the same purpose. Both sources were a very common source of fuel, and actually offered several advantages to wood fires. For starters, in such a dry environment, buffalo chips don’t throw sparks like wood fires tend to do. Manure fuels smolder more than they actually burn. The smoldering actually helps control the fire, rather than constantly setting the prairie ablaze.

3 Forgotten Ways The Pioneers Made Fires Without Wood

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This smoldering characteristic also made buffalo chips ideal for burning in tipis and other natural shelters. Another advantage of using a fuel “cut by the cows” was the saved labor. Rather than spending hours cutting and splitting wood, people living on the plains simply gathered and stacked the chips. In a region so difficult to make a living, this saved labor would have been nice.

2. Woody shrubs

Although there is a lack of trees on the Great Plains, there are locations with an abundance of woody shrubs. Most prolific in my area are sagebrush and yucca. At times, these sources of fuel came in especially handy. One mountain man, Osborne Russell, kept a journal of his experience depending on sagebrush for fire.

Russell and a few companion’s horses had been run off, and the group was on foot. Back in those days, being afoot on the prairie was akin to a death sentence. They headed for an army fort they that lay across a sagebrush sea more than a week’s march. While making their way across the barren land, they carried little more than their rifles and basic gear. No blankets, no food, and none of the small comforts their rough lives knew. As they traveled, they shot buffalo when they came upon them and used the hides to sleep on. While caught in his sagebrush sea, a mix of rain and snow moved in upon the group. Russell’s account of the incident leaves no debate that the trip was miserable. After many, many cold and wet miles, the group finally safely walked into an army fort and survived the ordeal.

Along the way, though, the group needed to build a fire each day. With no wood in sight, they turned to a nearly endless source of fuel in the sagebrush. Russell noted that at times these fires consisted of no fuel larger than thumb size. Needless to say, it kept them alive in poor conditions.

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Sage and other woody shrubs should not be overlooked for their potential as a fuel source. As with buffalo chips, small shrubs offer the advantage of keeping a fire small. Again, in a place that is so dry and windy, keeping your fire small is important. An old mountain man adage was “the bigger the fire, the bigger the fool.” By keeping the fire small, they not only limited the chance of spreading fire, but they saved labor and decreased their chances of being seen by those who meant to do them harm.

3. Animal fat

A final alternative fire fuel people utilized is animal fat. In the past, animals like bear provided not only meat for the larder, but fire fuel, such as for burning lamps. If the pioneers or Native Americans happened to be in an area devoid of animal manure or shrubs, fat would have been a viable option.

In my own experience, I’ve used raccoon fat as a fuel source while building a campfire. I can testify to its ability to put out some heat. A word of caution, though: Unlike the previously mentioned fuels, fat burns extremely hot and very fast. Just toss a bit of raccoon fat on the fire and step back. It is best used in small amounts; otherwise your fire could easily get out of control. Have a bucket of dirt on hand. (With a grease fire, water only would heighten the problem.)

Do you have any fire-starting advice? Share your tips in the section below:

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Here’s How Smart Homesteaders Avoid Cleaning Out Manure

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Here’s How Smart Homesteaders Avoid Cleaning Out Manure

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Winter is coming, and for those of us who live in snowy climates the task of cleaning our barns and chicken coops is about to get more complicated. One solution is simply to stop cleaning out over the winter and try the deep-litter bedding approach.

You’re probably already covering the floor of your stalls and coops with some kind of high-carbon material like sawdust, shavings, wood chips, leaves, pine needles, hay or straw. Instead of cleaning the bedding out once it’s been covered with manure, just leave everything in place and keep adding a clean layer on top.

The Advantages

Deep litter has several advantages.

First, there’s the convenience. You don’t have to chop through the snow banks between your barn or coop and your compost pile; you don’t have to struggle to pry up frozen-down bedding and break it into manageable shovelfuls or forkfuls.

Then there’s the warmth. As the pile grows deeper, the well-insulated manure and bedding below will begin to compost, creating heat which your animals may welcome on cold nights.

This composting process gives you a head start; in spring you’ll have partially decomposed material instead of raw bedding that has been frozen all winter long.

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Chickens love to scratch, and deep litter will give them more scope to amuse themselves. The composting litter provides a breeding ground for bugs and worms, which can be a valuable protein supplement. Harvey Ussery, backyard chicken raiser and author of many articles which you can find online, says that deep litter also breeds immune-boosting microorganisms.

The Disadvantages

Here’s How Smart Homesteaders Avoid Cleaning Out Manure

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Deep litter has drawbacks, of course, although most can be avoided with careful management. There’s the mammoth task of cleaning up in spring, when you have a deep, dense, compacted layer of litter to remove. There’s the issue of air quality. Properly managed deep litter will compost fairly cleanly, but if you have too much nitrogen for your carbon-producing materials to absorb you may end up with excess ammonia. This is more likely to be an issue with chicken droppings, which are highly nitrogenous, than with ruminant droppings. Ventilation is also a factor; a tightly sealed building is much more susceptible to air quality problems than an open or very well-ventilated one. There’s also a need for vertical space. My goats may be on deep litter from November through March, and by then their stall floors are two-feet deep in compacted bedding.  Remember to think about door height as well as overall stall height.

You’ll need to consider all of these factors in deciding whether deep litter works for some or all of your animals. Here’s how that’s works on my farm in upstate NY, where the winters tend to be cold, snowy, windy and long:

How to Make it Work

I leave my two goats on deep-litter bedding through the winter. They’re in roomy open stalls in a shed that’s open to the outdoors on all but the coldest and windiest nights. I’m able to add enough hay to absorb the nitrogen from their manure and urine so the whole mix composts well. I have noticed the increased warmth of the deep-litter floor. I haven’t had trouble with smells and the goats haven’t had respiratory problems.

My chickens are another story. In summer they have a moving yard and also a fixed compost pile to scratch in. In winter they’re closed into a fairly tight winter coop with a lot of south-facing glass. The coop can get fairly warm on sunny days, and there’s not a lot of air circulating. I don’t use deep bedding for our hens in winter. But some folks do manage well with deep litter for chickens, including Ussery, who lives further down the coast where the winters are milder. He uses Joel Salatin’s recommendation of allowing at least five square feet of floor space per bird. Ussery adds that it’s helpful to bed with coarse materials very high in carbon, like leaves or wood chips; he says the coarseness makes the material easier to scratch up while the high carbon ratio allows the material to absorb more nitrogen. Some farmers report that wet straw in chicken coops is easily colonized by toxic molds; others use straw and say they have no problems.

Pay attention to what works and doesn’t work on your farm. Reading about other people’s experiences can be a helpful starting point, but you can learn most from your own experience. Check the bedding daily; cover over areas that are extremely wet or soiled, and monitor if there’s visible mold. If you notice a mild ammonia smell, add more dry high-carbon bedding. If you have a major or persistent ammonia smell or mold, you may need to muck out after all. Watch whether your animals seem comfortable and healthy. Then tell your friends and neighbors, and perhaps also your fellow readers here, what you’ve learned.

What advice would you add on using the deep litter method? Share your tips in the section below:

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