Feb 2015

Life Outside the City Limits

Is Septic System Performance Impacted by Water Softener Use?
By Sharon Skipton, Nebraska Extension Water Quality Educator

Image of homeowner adding salt to a water softener.
Image of a homeowner adding salt to a water softener.

We do have hard water in many parts of Nebraska. Hard water is not a health issue, but it is a nuisance. Therefore, you may choose to manage it with an ion exchange water softener.

Like many other rural property owners, you may wonder if use of a water softener causes problems for your septic system. Considering how a septic system works, the question needs to be broken down into three parts.

The first deals with the beneficial bacteria that work in the septic tank. The bacteria in the tank partially decompose and treat the solids entering the tank. The question is "Will water softener brine kill off the beneficial bacteria?" Research from the NFS (formerly National Sanitation Foundation) found that water softener brine had no negative effects on the beneficial bacterial population living in the treatment tank.

The second part of the question deals with the amount of wastewater entering the tank. Reducing the volume of wastewater entering the system is important because less flow results in better treatment and less chance of failure. Smaller and slower flows into the tank are also important so that solids in the tank are not disturbed. The question is "Will additional water from water softener regeneration impact a septic system's performance?" Researchers found that the additional amount of water discharged to a septic tank during the regeneration process had no negative impact. Researchers also found that the wastewater flowed into the tank slowly enough so that it caused minimal disturbance of solids.

The third part of the question deals with the drainfield. The liquid portion in the tank flows through an outlet to the drainfield, where it seeps down into the soil. Final treatment of the wastewater occurs in the soil, and the wastewater is recycled into the environment. The question is "Will the concentrated salt brine used in regeneration decrease the drainfield's ability to absorb wastewater?" It is known that sodium causes some soil particles to swell, reducing the ability of the soil to accept water. A study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that the water softener regeneration brine did not reduce the soil's ability to accept wastewater in a septic system that had been operating normally. This conclusion was explained because the brine contains sodium, but it also includes significant amounts of calcium and magnesium. The research report stated that the calcium helped counteract any negative effects from the sodium.

Not all experts agree on the answers to these questions. Some authorities believe that additional research is needed. If you do use a water softener, choose one that has a backwash/regeneration cycle based on need - not one with a timer. Minimize water use, which will reduce the need for regeneration.

I wish to thank Jan Hygnstrom, former UNL Acreage Project Manager, for her contribution to a previous version of this article.



This winter Backyard Farmer "Lifestyle Gardening" is offering two winter programs.  

In the first Lifestyle Gardening program, UNL Extension Landscape Horticulture Specialist Kim Todd discusses:

  • selecting tomato cultivars and starting your own seeds
  • selecting bulbs
  • how to tell the difference between spruce, pine and fir
  • container design considerations - colors, shape and size
  • and fall prairie plants at Pioneers Park in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The second Lifestyle Gardening program Kim covers:

  • using prairie plants in the landscape
  • how to plant bulbs, including size, spacing and which tools to use
  • symptoms of winter damage and how to manage it
  • container plant combinations for the whole season
  • and great ornamental grasses for home landscapes. 

Creating Appeal in All Seasons on the Acreage
By John Fech, Nebraska Extension Horticulture Educator

Image of river birch
Attractive bark, as seen in this River Birch, adds additional interest to the winter landscape.
The acreage experience isn't all about the peace and quiet, the chance to see nature up close or starry nights.  For some, it's equally about the greenspace - the quality time spent in the outdoors seeing, touching and feeling the landscape.  Providing a variety of visual and tactile stimuli is a key to whether you and your family enjoys their beyond-the-city-limits living experience, which has a direct effect on the overall quality of life. 

The provision of an attractive landscape during one season is relatively easy; creating one that is appealing during all seasons is more difficult, but offers much more in the way of payback. 

Need a Plan
The old insurance agent line of "those who fail to plan, plan to fail" rings true for this application as well as for financial planning.  A half-baked random scheme of planting a few trees here and a few shrubs there is most certainly headed for failure; at best, such a routine is a waste of time and money.

With the theme of appeal in all seasons in mind, it's best to sit down with a landscape architect, landscape designer or horticulturist (or all 3 depending on the need) to put thoughts down on paper before any holes are dug.  The place to start with any of these professionals is the creation of program statements - simple but meaningful word sets, sentences or phrases that describe the intent of the collaboration.  A good example in this case is "incorporate color and other attractive plant features on the front drive" or "water conserving plants that are striking to look at".

With the program statement(s) in mind, a part-by-part examination can begin.  Each section of the acreage should be sketched out, first with a line drawing using black markers, then identifying existing trees, perennials and shrubs that offer color, texture, fruit, flowers, striking bark and interesting architecture with colored ink.  This step will not only document existing plant materials that need not be duplicated, it will identify gaps that need to be filled.

Avoid Temptation
Depending on which version of the Adam and Eve story you identify with, the temptation part is a good lesson for us.  Human nature instills in us a desire to cut to the chase, to name a bunch of plants that we're seen elsewhere and start working them into the design.  Choosing specific plant materials early in the process is counterproductive for several reasons.  First, it excludes other worthy choices.  Second, it locks size and shape into place before the design is complete.  Third, it forces the designer to use plants that accompany it before the growing conditions have been fully considered.

Instead of choosing species and cultivar, the next step should be to create a bubble diagram, drawing masses of plants, noting how they should provide appeal in a given season.  If multi-season appeal is needed from a plant mass, that should be noted as well.  For example, if holiday color and spring flowers are required near the front door of the main dwelling, this is the spot to make it known.

Once the needs are noted, the bubbles can be transformed to more specific masses and named by the types of plant material they are likely to contain.  In a typical setting, "tall screening shrubs", "spring flowering bulbs" and "fall color short trees" are reasonable monikers.    After the masses have become more specific, plants that are representative of the group can be noted, such as "crabapple/serviceberry/tree lilac", with the realization that this group name simply means just that, a name that is descriptive, not necessarily the ultimate choice.  If you've rented a car lately, the experience is helpful, in that Avis, Hertz, etc. use a certain automobile make and model to provide further illustration for each class of car.  A Chevrolet Yukon might be an example of the SUV group, while a Ford Focus equates to the compact classification.  Yet, the avoid temptation theme is still relevant in that the tree/flower/shrub is simply a representative plant, not an actual choice on a planting plan. 

Image of tree in fall foliage
Plants with multi-season interest, such as unique leaf shapes, attractive bark and fall color, provide interest throughout the year. 

Focus on High Visibility Sites
In order to make the most impact right away, it's wise to focus on key locations on the acreage.  The view from the road, passageways to outbuildings and back patios tend to be the sites where attention should be focused in terms of visibility.  Others may be important also, depending on site history and previous themes.

In addition to the immediacy of the aesthetic appeal, focusing on certain sites makes sense from a budgetary standpoint as well.  Instead of spreading resources thinly across the acreage, bunching them together bolsters the appeal and makes a greater landscaping statement.

Consider Meat, Then Spices
If resources are tight - and they usually are - consider installing small trees as a first step.  Small trees will supply benefits in many ways including:

  • Screening - visual separation and special enclosure
  • Windbreak - redirection of wind and snow to another location
  • Color mass - everyone demands color
  • Wildlife attractant - dense foliage and fruit offer food and cover
  • Soften harsh corners - vase or rounded small tree forms reduce the strength of vertical lines
  • Noise buffer - dense foliage helps to abate noise

Going back to the temptation theme for a bit, woody plants are the "meat", while flowers, bulbs and vines are the "spices".  It's important to get woodies in place so that they can become well established before planting smaller herbaceous material.  As well, it helps spread the cost out over time.

Small trees offer the benefit of replicating Mother Nature, what she would do if left to her own devices.  In the natural setting, plants don't grow by themselves on two dimensional planes.  Instead, layers of plants develop, with some overlapping in terms of vertical space and root growth.  Small trees fit in well in a layered landscape as the second layer.  In general, nature creates landscapes in the arrangement where shade trees are overhead of small trees, which are overhead of shade tolerant shrubs, overhead of perennials/forbs/groundcovers, all of which are separated from turf.

In parts of the landscape where shade or framing trees may not exist, they can serve to provide structure.  In these locations, there may not be room for a honeylocust, or red oak.  Yet, smaller trees such as paperbark maple, kousa dogwood or Japanese tree lilac offer the features that are necessary to address the goals of the 4 season landscape.  Especially important in climes where snow covers the ground for several months each year, bark characteristics, fruit retention, summer green color and fall red/yellow add tremendous appeal.  Nothing against a forsythia, but a plant that is grown mostly for bright yellow flowers, which are present for 1 of 52 weeks of the year, without offering much else....well, there are better choices. 

Local Resources
The resources closest to the acreage will provide specific guidance in moving from the representative plant stage and on to the specific choice stage.

In addition to the suggestions from the landscape architect or designer, local arboretums, botanic gardens and extension offices can provide excellent recommendations regarding native and well adapted plant material choices.  At each of these locations, extensive information is available, as well as staff horticulturists on hand to consult with about the performance of each species. 

Taking the time to see and touch the actual plant material is well worth the time.  Locations such as these take pride in providing an outstanding display in all seasons, helping acreage owners to replicate scenarios on their own courses.


Canned Foods Provide Needed Nutrients
By Lisa Franzen-Castle, Nebraska Extension Nutrition Specialist

Image of canned green beansCanned foods are convenient, portable, quick, and have a long shelf life. They also help provide needed nutrients to meet USDA Dietary Guidelines. During February, National Canned Food Month, experiment with different recipes and meal ideas using canned foods. There are several varieties of canned foods on grocery store shelves, offering an array of nutritious options. Check out the following tips on storing and using canned foods.

Tips for Storing & Using Canned Foods

  • Purchasing canned goods. Avoid rusted, dented, scratched, or bulging cans.  Always check freshness dates on foods. Below are different types of "dates" you may see on canned items.
    • Sell by - tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires to have enough time to use it at best quality.
    • Best if used by - is recommended for best flavor or quality. It's not a purchase or safety date.
    • Use by - is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality and has been determined by the manufacturer.
    • Closed or coded - are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer to rotate the stock as well as to locate products in the event of a recall.
  • Comparing food labels. Read the Nutrition Facts Label on products to find food with the most nutrition for your money. Using the Nutrition Facts Label helps you compare fat, calories, fiber, sodium and sugar found in different products. They also provide information on the serving size and how many servings are in an item. Look for lower sodium or no salt added versions of canned foods.
  • Storing canned foods in the cupboard/pantry. Store canned food in clean, cool, dark, and dry spaces. Don't put them above the stove, under the sink, in a damp garage or basement, or any place exposed to high or low temperature extremes. The optimal temperature range is 50-70ºF. Temperatures over 100ºF may cause canned food to deteriorate and lose quality. Freezing temperatures may cause changes in food textures, and lead to rust, bursting cans, and broken seals that may let in harmful bacteria.
  • First in, first out rule. To prevent foods from spoiling use the first in, first out rule as your rotation system. Using this rotation method will help you use older canned and dried food items before using recently purchased products. Write the date of purchase on food items to help maintain a rotation. Check canned items regularly for signs of spoilage. Do not use food from cracked, bulging or leaking cans, or those that spurt liquid when opened; discard cans immediately.
  • Fortifying with fruits and vegetables. Canned fruits and vegetables are always in season and packed at the peak of freshness. Keep canned tomatoes, beans, fruits and vegetables on hand to quickly create meals or boost the nutrition of recipes. Try adding canned black beans, chick peas, Mandarin oranges, beets or other colorful fruits and vegetables to your next salad. Canned soup, broth, pasta and chili can serve up meals with vegetables, grains and protein.

For more food safety tips and time saving recipes and meals check out Food.unl.edu.

Quick Recipe Ideas with Canned Foods!

Image of hummusHUMMUS

For an easy, low-fat and flavorful dip, make your own hummus. Drain, rinse and purée a can of chickpeas in a food processor with 3 tablespoons each of olive oil and freshly-squeezed lemon juice. Add crushed garlic to taste. Serve with fresh vegetables or bite-sized slices of pita bread. 



  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 (4 oz.) can green chilies, drained
  • 2 (15 oz.) cans great northern beans
  • 1 (14.5 oz.) can chicken broth
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1½ cups cooked chicken, cubed
  • 4 ounces low-fat Monterey jack cheese, shredded

Directions: In a large sauce pan, heat oil. Add onion and cook until tender. Add green chilies, beans (do not drain), chicken broth, garlic powder, pepper, ground cumin, and chicken. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until desired consistency. Serve hot, topped with cheese. Makes 6 servings.

Additional Resources & Links:

  • How to Interpret Can Sizes. Some favorite older recipes may call for can sizes such as a Number 2 or a Number 303 can. Here's a chart to help you determine how these correspond to current can measurements. 
  • Basic Foods to have on Hand.  This list of foods can be combined and recombined in a variety of new, delicious (and nutritious!) ways. They are offered as a starter list to help develop a list that works for you. 
  • Recipe Central. Enjoy healthy cooking from your own kitchen. Use recipes from our collections to get started! 
  • UNL Extension Calendar - National Food Days, Weeks, and Months for February. 


Regulations Regarding the Sale of Animal Meat Products
By Brett Kreifels, Nebraska Extension 4-H Assistant

Living on an acreage, you must have a small sense of sustainability. You may have the opportunity to produce your own meat and sell some excess for a profit but to do so requires you to follow a series of rules and regulations in order to sell your products to public entities like farmers markets, grocery stores and restaurants.

Nebraska has a series of laws and regulations regarding the sale of certain products such as red meats, poultry, eggs, game animals and other goods. For the purpose of this article, we'll outline just the requirements for products from animals.

Image of strip steak
Red meat, like this strip steak, must be processed by a USDA inspected facility. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia. 

Red Meat
Red meat includes products from beef (cattle), lamb (sheep), chevon (goats) and pork (pigs). All of these animals must be harvested, processed and packaged in United States Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) inspected plants. When deciding to harvest and process your livestock, you must find a locker or processing facility that's inspected by the USDA. A list of Nebraska's USDA-inspected facilities can be found by accessing this link:  USDA Meat, Poultry and Egg Product Inspection Directory. 

When searching for USDA-inspected facilities, you must look for those that offer animal harvesting and processing. These facilities have been given clearance to harvest animals humanely and are inspected and monitored on their harvesting and processing protocols.

Other requirements for selling red meat include:

  • The product must be labeled and packaged with a USDA Establishment number.
  • The product must also have the name and address of the producer, packer or distributor.
  • The weight of the product and the price per pound and the total price of the product. 
  • The product must be refrigerated.
  • The seller must have a permit to sell the product. This permit can be obtained by the Nebraska Dept. of Agriculture

Livestock can also be sold to a customer alive. This is common in certain instances where an individual may buy an animal from a producer and want the meat for personal use with no intention to sell the meat at farmers markets, restaurants or grocery stores. If this is the case, then having the animal harvested and processed in an approved USDA-inspected facility is not required.  The customer who purchased the animal pays for all harvesting and processing costs. If the customer decides to sell the meat to restaurants, grocery stores and farmers markets it would be a violation of state and federal laws. Selling the meat to friends and family or sharing the cost of processing is not a violation of state and federal laws and is legal.

Image of American bison.
The requirements for harvesting and processing game meat, like this bison, is the same as for red meat. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia. 

Game Animals (rabbits, elk, fish, buffalo, etc.):
The requirements for harvesting and processing of these animals is identical to the red meat production requirements with the exception that these animals may be processed in either a USDA or state inspected facility and do not need a USDA Establishment number.

Harvesting, processing and selling poultry is a little different than that for red meat or game animals. For starters, poultry do not need to be harvested in a USDA-inspected facility but they must be harvested in a state-inspected facility.  Unfortunately, not many places exist in Nebraska where you can have your birds processed for resale.

If a suitable location is found, a number of regulations exist that must be followed. The USDA offers exemptions to the regulations presented regarding the sale of processed poultry for human consumption.  These exemptions deal with the amount of poultry being processed and the eventual end result of these processed birds for human consumption. The exemptions for harvesting and processing poultry can be found on this website: Guidance for Determing Whether a Poultry Slaughter or Processing Operation is Exempt from Inspection Requirements for the Poultry Products Inspection Act

Image of heritage turkey.
Poultry do not need to be harvested in a USDA-inspected facility but they must be harvested in a state-inspected facility. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Additionally, the same requirements for red meat and game animal labeling also apply to poultry labeling with the exemption of the added USDA exemption number based on the number of birds harvested/processed and the eventual end result of the processed birds for human consumption.

Eggs may be sold in Nebraska but like the above-mentioned requirements, egg producers must also comply with state regulations contained within the Nebraska Graded Egg Act.

Essentially, eggs must be graded both for exterior and interior qualities to insure no cracks, foreign matter or abnormalities are present which could cause bacteria to infiltrate the eggs. To check for these impurities, producers must candle (shine a bright light through the egg) and grade the eggs with the designations of AA, A or B quality grades as well as Jumbo, Extra Large, Large, Medium, Small and Pee Wee weight grades. These laws and regulations only apply to eggs produced by domestic chickens. Duck, goose, quail, pheasant or other types of poultry eggs are exempt from these regulations.

Image of brown & white eggs.
Eggs may be sold in Nebraska but like the above-mentioned requirements, egg producers must also comply with state regulations contained within the Nebraska Graded Egg Act. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Finally, an egg handler's number is given to the producer from the state which must be present on the label of the carton. An egg handler's number is not needed for other poultry. Those poultry eggs are not regulated by the state and may be sold freely for human consumption within the state with no permit required. Other regulations from other states may apply if inter-state commerce is desired.

While this article pertained to the selling of meat products, the livestock producer does have the option of raising and selling animal products from their personal acreage, which can be a sustainable and profitable endeavor. Please make sure that rules and regulations are followed before embarking on such an endeavor. Consult the Nebraska Dept. of Agriculture, the USDA or your local extension office for additional information.


Family Communication Plan: An Element of Disaster Preparedness 
By Ashley Mueller, Nebraska Extension Educator & Disaster Education Coordinator

Image of family plan statementCommunicating during times of disaster is important. Between work, school, and travel, when disaster strikes, there's a good chance your family may not be together. Developing a family communications plan can help you reduce worry, maintain focus, and determine the safety of your family members.

A family communications plan is just that-a family plan. Be sure to involve all family members in the process of developing a plan that best fits your needs. Each family member provides a unique perspective, and considering all options will allow your plan to be inclusive and personal. Having all family members involved ensures all family members know the plan.

It's important that family members have each other's contact information. Ready and FEMA offer a free Family Communication Plan planning guide. Adults should create contact cards that can be kept in a wallet, purse or a child's backpack. Contact information should be kept up-to-date with your child's daycare provider or school. If you have listed an additional family member or friend as an emergency contact, make sure to tell them.

If your cell phone or smart phone provider offers an "ICE" (In Case of Emergency) function, take advantage of it and program your emergency contact in your phone. Be sure all family members know how to use text messaging, known as SMS or Short Messaging Service. When a network is disrupted and a call might not be able to get through, a text message is often able to get around the disruption. Subscribing to alert services will allow you to stay informed about local emergencies. Visit local government or Emergency Management office websites to learn about alert services pertinent to your family.

Determine a meeting place away from your home in the event relocation is necessary. The meeting place should be familiar to all family members, and it should be accessible to emergency services. 

So once you've made your family communications plan, are you done? No! Practice your plan. Revisit it at least twice a year or when a key element of the plan has changed; update it accordingly. Share your experience with others. A family communications plans is a feasible option to prepare for disasters of any kind.

Sources and to learn more about family communications plans:
Ready, Family Communications, www.ready.gov
What's Your Plan?, North Dakota State University