Building a duck house for a Michigan winter

We hadn’t planned to build a duck house this year since we had a serviceable shed that they were doing OK in. However, later in the fall a freak wind storm blew in and demolished the shed. Miraculously, the ducks and geese had come out into their yard in the storm and so were not killed when the shed collapsed.

Not everyone was so lucky; while waiting in line at Lowe’s to purchase the lumber to build the new duck house, the person in line behind my husband asked him, “What are you building?”

“A duck house,” he said.

“Me too!” the person said. Sadly, some of their ducks had been killed when their house had collapsed in the storm.

I thought I would share a bit about how Phil built this house for those folks who google “how to build a duck house” and end up here.

First, he cemented in 6 fence posts to make the support structure. The house is 10 feet long and 4 feet wide:

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The front of the house is about a foot taller than the back of the house so that the roof slopes back, allowing snow to slide off.

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While their new house was being built, the weather turned rather cold and windy, so I built a temporary rough shelter out of straw bales so at least they had a place to get out of the wind and lay their eggs:

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For a while it was still warm enough to fill up their little pools in the duck yard but it has since turned too cold for that. We still have the bubblers on in the pond which keeps a small hole about 10 feet across open in the ice so they can come out and get a daily bath if they want to.

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The house is about 18 to 20 inches off the ground, so they like to go underneath it and even sleep under there. I put some straw bales around it to provide some windbreak for them:

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A long ramp with a gentle incline was built up to the house, and the pop door opens down onto it.

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In order to give them some traction on the wood, my husband laid some of the leftover roofing shingles on it, and then he had the brilliant idea of gluing down wooden paint stirrers to provide even better footing for them.:

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As you can see, their wet, messy droppings freeze on it and make it slippery, so we keep a paint scraper wedged into a bit of trim that we can use to scrape the frozen droppings off when they build up too thickly:

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In order to give it a truly redneck flavor, Phil hung some colored Christmas lights on it.

He built access doors on both sides for cleaning out  soiled straw bedding and for gathering eggs.

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The top of the door fits into a little groove and on each side there is a slide bolt to hold it in place. Two metal handles make it easy to lift it out and in.

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Inside one of the access doors, we put a heated water bucket inside a low plastic bin in order to contain any water the ducks splash out of the bucket; this keeps their bedding relatively dry. Ducks are notoriously messy with their water!  The floor and about 6 inches up the wall are covered in cheap vinyl flooring to keep the wood from getting too wet inside and to make clean out easier.

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The view from the duck house, looking toward the red rabbit hutch and our house.

 

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A second heated water bucket out in the duck yard in front of the rabbit hutch.

 One of the most important things for a duck house is adequate ventilation. Ducks are very messy creatures who like to play in their drinking water and make lots of wet poo.  To provide the most ventilation, we left the rafters open so that fresh dry air would flow in and wet humid air would flow out, all up above where the ducks are nesting so they are out of the draft. Because their house is enclosed in a fenced run, we didn’t have to put anything over the opening to the rafters, but if your duck house is not fenced in, you will want to affix some hardware cloth to keep predators out.

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Open rafters provide good ventilation

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The finished duck house, just in time for winter!

The objective is to build a house that keeps wind, rain,  and snow off the ducks and geese.  It’s not important for the house to be “warm” and I strongly advise against using supplemental heat. Ducks and geese are VERY cold-hardy birds – they’re wearing down jackets, after all! My ducks are out and swimming in the coldest weather; the pictures below were taken on a day when the high temperature wasn’t even 20°F.

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If anyone reading has any specific questions about how the house was constructed, feel free to ask in the comments and we will do our best to answer.  I hope this was helpful!

Lessons learned from my first season of turkey-raising

 

Most of the blogs I read are homesteading or microfarming sites and for the past month have all had scant posts mainly consisting of “Haaaalp, there are not enough hours in the day!”  Which I can relate to.  I simply cannot get it all done between dawn and dark, no matter how hard I work. On the bright side, my chronic insomnia is at an all time low due to overwhelming exhaustion by the time I collapse into bed.

 

It’s just been one problem after another. Something ate all the blueberries; gotta net the plants.  Something is eating all the blackberries, gotta make a tree-limb-n-twine-lashing fence around them. Something died out in the woods and the dogs keep dragging home greasy bones, a pelvis here, a femur there; gotta find whatever it is and bury it.  Why are the huckleberries dying?  Not enough nitrogen says the internet; time to pee in a bucket, mix in a gallon of pond water, and use it to fertilize them (studies reliably show that human urine, which contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, is an excellent replacement for chemical fertilizers, and provided you aren’t sick, it’s pretty much sterile, though you might not want to use it when the plant is actively giving fruit that you are harvesting).

And on and on.  So much work, so little yield yet.  Do you realize those wild-eyed preppers are right, we’ll all die if the electric grid goes down because none of us knows how to produce our own food successfully?  I never really believed it until this summer when I’ve worked so damn hard just to keep everything from out-and-out dying, let alone yielding anything edible.

 

But let’s talk about those turkeys.

 

We started out at the end of April with two adorable Broad-Breasted Whites and two Broad-Breasted Bronzes.  We thought we’d process them at five months, right around the beginning of October, but they just grew so incredibly fast.  Earlier this month one of the bronzes went lame…

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so we took it to Munsell’s Poultry Processing; he dressed out at just shy of 15 pounds and into the freezer he went.  Bronzes have dark spots on their flesh and don’t look as lovely when roasted whole…

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Note the dark spots on his flesh

…so I was really looking forward to seeing how the Whites turned out.

 

Several days ago I loaded up the three remaining mondo-ginormous turkeys and hauled them to Munsell’s…

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…but when I went to pick them up, the girl told me that the USDA inspector had condemned two of my birds after they were opened up due to septicemia.  One white was deemed acceptable:

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I was so shocked I could hardly speak. I keep a very clean coop if I do say so myself, frequently cleaning feeders and waterers with disinfectant and letting the birds out to free range all day.  How could my birds not be healthy?  They’d looked and acted just fine.

 

The ladies who slaughtered them came out to chat with me and said it just happens sometimes. One of them told me she raises turkeys herself and sometimes the inspector condemns them.  They told me they process around 500 head of fowl per day and on average the inspector condemns about 20 birds.

 

Still, I fretted about it all evening and tried to find information online about how to prevent this from happening again, but I could not find much information aimed at the small-time backyard turkey producer. What I found was publications generated by the poultry industry, which I started to read with interest.  Last year, around 1% of turkeys were condemned after slaughter, which is significantly better than my 50% condemned rate, though it’s not really comparable since I had only four birds. But guess who has much higher rates of condemned birds?  Antibiotic-free producers!   Ahhh, that makes a lot of sense…my birds had septicemia, which is usually caused by E.Coli infection, and guess what we never, ever give any of our poultry?  Antibiotics.

 

So I’ve learned some things for next time.  To summarize:

 

  • Broad-Breasted turkeys, which are the industry standard, are specifically bred for extremely rapid growth with an excellent feed-to-meat conversion ratio.  This rapid growth stresses the birds, however, which means…

 

  • They are prone to infection.  If they are given antibiotics regularly, losses will be lessened, but…

 

  • If you are committed to raising them antibiotic-free, expect to lose significantly more birds, either due to mortality or due to being condemned at the time of slaughter.  Make sure to buy twice as many poults as you want finished turkeys.

 

So next year, maybe we’ll try a slower-growing heritage breed of turkey.  They take longer to reach a decent dressing-out weight and the feed conversion is a lot less efficient (which I don’t care about, since we only raise a few birds and we free-range them for part of their feed). We are leaning toward raising either Midget Whites, which are reported to taste very good and be easy to raise…

…or Bourbon Reds, which dress out rather larger:

In case you are planning to raise turkeys, here are the sources of information I found helpful regarding septicemia (be aware that these publications are produced by the poultry industry and have a pro-antibiotic slant to them):

Specialists explore new options for managing flock health while defending judicious antibiotic use

Antibiotic-free poultry production: Is it sustainable?

Even though we only ended up with two out of the four turkeys in the freezer, it was a good learning experience for our first attempt.  I’ll leave you with a few other tips I learned:

  1. Turkeys are friendly toward humans but somewhat aggressive toward each other and other varieties of birds.  Use Blue Kote to deal with pecking injuries. Given them half a head of cabbage suspended on a rope in the brooder so they have something to peck at while they’re little so they don’t get in the habit of pecking one another.
  2. Turkeys and chickens cannot be raised together due to the risk of the turkeys contracting Histomonas meleagridis from the chickens, which causes Blackhead disease.
  3. You MUST feed the turkeys separately if you are raising them in the same area as other poultry such as ducks and geese.  Turkeys are total pigs and will eat all their own food and then go eat the other birds’ food.  The Broad-Breasteds (BBs) will overeat if given free access to all the feed they want; we allowed ours to overeat and gain weight too quickly.  Here is a feeding chart (assuming free ranging in between feeding times):

4.Turkeys are excellent free-rangers and want to be out and about all day from an early age.  Plan for this.

5. It can be hard to find feed for turkeys. You need to start them out on 26-28% protein; we found a game bird feed that worked for this.  You can lower the protein to 20-24% later and then finish them out on 16% to get a nice layer of fat on them before slaughter.  Withhold food for at least 15 hours before slaughter so that the crop and intestines will be mostly empty.

6. They need a much larger coop than you think if you are raising BBs.  Our coop quickly grew too crowded.

7. Unbelievably, they seem to like to get in water.  Maybe ours were just imitating the ducks and geese, but they would actually get in the pond to cool off on hot days.  One saw my husband on the other side of the pond and swam all the way across to him! I wish we’d gotten a picture of that absurd sight.  Anyway, if you don’t have a pond, your jakes and jennies (but NOT poults) might appreciate access to a kiddie pool full of fresh water when it’s hot out.

Dealing with an injured goose bill

We like to let the geese free range around the fruit trees because they eat bugs and graze on weeds, but our gander, Uncle Waldo, just loves to eat the bark off our orchard saplings.   Since this kills the trees, we put some chicken wire around the saplings. This turned out to be a mistake which we have since rectified; however, we didn’t fix it before Uncle Waldo stuffed his big bill through the chickenwire in an attempt to get at that tempting bark, freaked out when he got stuck, and yanked his head up and back:

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Geese’s bills are actually rather soft and the chickenwire sliced right to the bone:

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Off to Dexter Animal Clinic we went, with Uncle Waldo in a dog crate honking dejectedly for his mate, Abigail, who was running about the yard in a tizzy, calling for Waldo, while the quacking ducks ran along behind her.

Protip: a wire dog crate is NOT the ideal way to transport a goose, as they spray poo out of their vent like a fire hose when they are scared.  Luckily we had put a plastic tarp around him.

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We weren’t sure if the vets would be familiar with treating geese, but Dr. Anna, a charming young British veterinarian, put us at ease right away with the knowledgeable way she handled Uncle Waldo.  This clearly wasn’t her first goose rodeo.

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She had Phil hold him in a towel to prevent poo spraying:

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And then proceeded to clean his bill thoroughly with a cotton ball and iodine, soothing our worried nerves by distracting us with commentary about the kind of “gayce” they have in England:

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She used a cotton swab to clean inside the sliced portion of his beak while chatting with him softly in her charming English accent, “Alright then, old man, here we go…”

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She showed us that the slice had gone down to the bone but wasn’t as bad as other damaged bills she’s seen.  She trimmed away the dead tissue with a little scalpel and then used surgical glue to fix him up:

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Uncle Waldo is about nine weeks old and weights 9.1 pounds:image

An injection of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and pain reliever was next; good old Uncle Waldo was such a trooper!

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Dr. Anna said the bill will not regrow but that granulation tissue will form and fill in pretty well around the injury.  Until then, Uncle Waldo must remain quarantined in the duck yard, which means the whole flock must remain there as they won’t willingly leave Uncle Waldo.

We had hoped to enter Uncle Waldo and Abigail in the Chelsea Community Fair; we thought they were a shoo-in for a ribbon given how rare Pilgrim geese are (the Livestock Conservancy lists them as critically endangered).  Alas, his days as a show goose are over before they began:

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However, he’ll still make excellent breeding stock.  We plan to breed and sell Pilgrim geese so as to do our part in saving the breed from extinction.

Uncle Waldo has a ten-day course of oral antibiotics now.  Dr. Anna explained to us how to crush the pill, dissolve it in warm water, and inject the antibiotic solution down his throat with a syringe; a goose’s windpipe is right at the back of their tongue in the center, so to give an oral medication, you must open their bill and insert the syringe down the side of their mouth a few inches into the esophagus.  I haven’t been able to get any pictures of us doing this yet, but I will try to and will add them when I can.

After we got home and Uncle Waldo had reunited with the frantic Abigail and resumed his place as Head of the Flock, I treated everyone to a big bowl of blueberries and cantaloupe, which I dumped into their little swimming pool for them to enjoy rooting out:

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It was a harrowing day but all in all Uncle Waldo is one lucky gander!

Autumn Olive: the herpes of the permaculture world.

Permaculturists, stop this!  Stop recommending that people actually plant Autumn Olive on land where this evil, invasive, non-native, destructive, allelopathic plant has not yet taken hold!

I don’t know why, but environmentalists always seem to want to import plants and insects from Asia to solve some problem here “naturally.”  Now, I’m all about doing things naturally and avoiding chemicals, but have you ever noticed that the plants and insects that are imported from Asia always end up wreaking havoc? From the aggressive, biting Asian Lady Beetle (imported by environmentalists to kill aphids without the use of chemicals) that ended up killing all our own cute, non-aggressive lady bugs, to the Tree of Heaven that sprouts like foul-smelling weeds in every untended suburban or urban area, to the vile Autumn Olive planted by the Forest Service to control erosion – these plants and insects are adapted to the ecosystems in Asia, not North America.

Here they destroy everything in their path, reducing diversity to nil.  Perhaps environmentalists do not care about eco-diversity, but one of the tenets of permaculture is supposed to be about encouraging ecological diversity!

Anyway, this is why I am a gardener and small-hold homesteader who uses permaculture practices but am not actually a permaculturist.  When your attachment to dogma overrides good common sense, you might want to stop and reevaluate your goals and the reasons you are putting your hands to the soil in the first place.

I believe the people who are encouraging young, naive gardeners to just give Autumn Olive a try once, what can it hurt to try it once, go on, kid, all the cool permies plant it…fall into two camps.

  1. the ones who may or may not have planted it but don’t yet realize how evil the plant is.  These are analogous to freshman girls on campus who are just learning about feminism but haven’t yet experienced all the glorious empowerment of following in Lena Dunham’s slutty footsteps and
  2. the ones who’ve already planted it and secretly know how evil the plant is.  These folks are analagous to sex-positive feminists who have already contracted an STD like herpes and want every other girl to catch one too so they don’t feel so bad about their awful, life-long, incurable, diseased state.

Let’s say you, the permaculture virgin, have just decided to avail yourself of Autumn Olive-positive planting.  You’ve done the deed, you’ve planted one, harmless little bush.

Next year, it’s grown.  A lot.

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But it has berries on it in the late summer/early fall, nice red berries that actually don’t taste very good.  You decide to let the birds and wild creatures have the berries.  They eat them with gusto and poop out the seeds all over your land.

Next summer you notice it’s getting difficult to walk through your forested areas because of all the thorny Autumn Olive shoots popping up EVERYWHERE.

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A pasture you’d let lie fallow has shoots coming up too.

Well, you think, I’ll use them as chop-and-drop for soil improvement.

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Hmmm, that’s an awful lot of chop-n-drop…

You try to chop and drop, but it’s hard to get near the shrubs now that they’ve quickly grown to ten feet tall, with multiple, thorny branches tangled together and arching over, making it difficult to get at the thick shoots, which by now can only be cut with a saw.

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You get stabbed in the arm with one of the thorns…

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…which is when you learn that many people have a strong reaction to Autumn Olive scratches.  The scratch swells and is hot like fire for several weeks after that.

You run the branches through your mulcher and spread the wood chips around some new saplings you planted to take the place of the Autumn Olive. All the saplings die. That is when you learn a new word: allelopathic.

Oh man, I’m done with this stuff, you think.  I’m cutting it all down come spring and burning it.  And you feel satisfied with this eradication plan.

You manage to get it mostly all cut down, but it sends up suckers faster and faster the more you cut on it. Horrified, you sneak to Lowe’s wearing big sunglasses and a hat to conceal your identity before engaging in this most shameful act…you are going to buy some…some…oh you hate to confess it but you are going to buy some Round Up to spray all over the Autumn Olives. You cannot believe you have been reduced to spraying chemicals all over your organic land. You feel great shame but also great relief.

You spray and spray and it all dies.

Victory?

Ha.

Ha ha ha!

When the next spring comes, you cannot believe your eyes. From the dead Autumn Olives are springing…new shoots!  This plant…it is literally an unkillable zombie eating everything in its path!

And at that moment the realization suddenly dawns on you…just like the herpes your hairy-legged, sex-positive feminist college roommate has for life, just like the zombies from an apocalypse…

Bitch, you are never, ever getting rid of it.

 

 

The permaculture principle of “stacking functions” (plus a tree farm recommendation)

This past weekend we cut down a bunch of enormous invasive shrubs on part of our property.  I decided I wanted to plant some sugar maples in their place, with dreams of homemade maple syrup dancing in my head (despite last year’s sad attempt at making syrup after tapping one lonely tree).  I looked on Stark Brothers and on the sites of several other large nurseries I’ve ordered from, and 3-4′ trees run around $18 a piece.  I decided I could afford four of them.

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Women can be hard-working and innovative in their proper sphere.

I read a comment from a man recently on a blog that asserted, possibly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that the goal of most women is to never work a day in their lives.  All joking aside, while it is no doubt possible to find real life examples of such women, I would assert this is not generally true.

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The chance to be human: homesteading while working full time.

Phil and I realized as soon as we moved here last year that whenever we weren’t at work, at church, or at a family function, we would be working hard around here to create the kind of small homestead we envisioned.  Still, I’ve sort of had a hard time conceptualizing exactly what we are doing; we’re sort of feeling our way along as we go.  But total self-sufficiency isn’t likely and we don’t intend to be actual farmers, and we both work full-time (though luckily I have summers off), so what’s the end goal?

Recently in The Christian-Agrarian Work Ethic, Herrick Kimball (The Deliberate Agrarian) quoted Willis D. Nutting‘s essay The Better Life, which is part of a book of essays entitled The Rural Solution: Modern Catholic Voices on Going “Back to the Land”:

“The opportunity for real, soul-satisfying work, so rare in our day, is found abundantly in rural living. Here a man can make long-range plans and can carry them out without exploiting his fellow man; for the things that he uses are things that exist to be used: soil, plants, animals, building materials, etc. he can live a whole life of work without once using another man as a mere means for carrying out his plans. And neither does he become a tool of someone else. With the materials at hand he can employ the splendid coordination of mind and hand to create something of value for his family. He can fulfill his real nature in real work. And this work is much more joyful than any mere recreation. As a matter of fact this work carries with it its own recreation, so that the man who works does not have to worry about how he is going to have his good times. The work itself is a good time even though it be hard […]

Around me live several men who are “homesteaders.” They work in town or in school and live in the country. They spend long hours in the evenings working on their land. Their companions on the job or at school go to the movies or play poker in the evenings, but these men work at home. Their companions spend money; they save it. And when you talk with these men you come to realize that their interest, their real life, is in what they do at home. On the job they carry out someone else’s plans. That is drudgery. But at home they are their own masters. They are exercising their autonomy which is necessary to human dignity. These few hours of autonomy constitute for them their real life. Their rural homes give them their one chance to be human.”

Mr. Kimball explains (highlighting mine):

Willis Nutting’s essay does not imply that everyone should be a farmer, or that one need be a farmer to experience the human fulfillment found in agrarian work. He himself was an educator and, according to his biography, lived an agrarian lifestyle. His essay speaks of men working their industrial-world jobs for the necessary income and then, instead of pursuing industrial-world amusements, recreations or leisure in their spare time, they pursue productive, creative work on their homesteads.

Perfect. Without being able to put it into word, this is what Phil and I have both felt.  We work for money in the outside world, and though we like our respective occupations well enough, our real joy is in the countless hours of hard manual labor we put in around here sinking fence posts, building raised garden beds, weeding, mulching, learning about forestry, felling trees, learning to hunt and fish and then clean and cook what we hunt, refinishing or building things we need or want, building the chicken yard and coop (stay tuned for The Thirys and Their Poultry, Part II next spring, when we will hopefully have better success than last year’s attempt), and on and on.

Will we ever be self-sufficient here?  Doubtful.  We’ll certainly try to raise as much of our own food as possible.  And we’d like to add a word burning stove in addition to the fireplace so we can use some of the dead trees on our land as a source of heating fuel.  But what we’re really doing here, as Mr. Nutting put it so well, is seizing our chance to be human as God made us to be.

If that kind of thing interests you, too, then I can point you in the direction of others who are like me (us), who work in the outside world but then retreat to our homesteads where the the work is hard but deeply satisfying.  Here are just a few:

Feel free to mention other blogs if you know of any similar ones.

Also, I just learned about Steward Culture Magazine, a free online magazine which…

“seeks to promote Bible-based stewardship agriculture. This simply means we advocate for creation-friendly thinking that emphasizes the fact that we don’t own the Earth or even some small piece of it. Creation is simply a gift given to humans who are commanded to be its stewards as God’s representatives.”)