Friday, April 20, 2007

I finished the brooder today, and the chicks will be moving out to it tomorrow afternoon.

I got a good start on the field house. I'm using this design. Cerra helped me put the 2x4 base together: I drilled and she fetched the screws and put them in the holes. Then I screwed them in. I think it actually took less time with her helping than it would have alone. I got a third of the conduit pieces cut, but it was an arduous task because I didn't have the right kind of hacksaw blade. I picked up some better ones at Lowes, so hopefully it will go faster next time. I estimate that this pen will be done by the end of next week, which should give me plenty of time to build a second one for the broilers before they need to go to pasture.

We tried taking Balto out to the land with us today, but it didn't work out too well. Paul thought that Balto could be trusted to roam around the pasture, even without a fence, but he quickly proved that to be wrong by running into the road. We put him in the fenced garden area, but he immediately made a nuisance of himself by standing in the planted spots (probably less than 100 square feet out of a third of an acre) and refusing to move. So he spent the rest of the time tied up in the corner. So much for trustworthiness.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The brooder/winter layer house/raised-bed garden/greenhouse is nearly complete. I used 1/2 inch pvc to make a hoophouse-type roof for it, which turned out to be trivially easy to build. I stapled poultry netting around most of the house, leaving room for a nest box and two doors. Putting the plastic over the top ended up being far easier than I expected. There was just enough of a breeze to lift the plastic up, but not enough to send it into orbit. I was able to attach it by myself with two clamps to help me.

Downhill from us, on the other side of the alley, is the neighborhood dump. Near us, it's mostly yard waste: leaves, grass clippings, branches, Christmas trees, etc. However, people have been known to dump garbage further down. At any rate, I raided the big leaf pile for the bottom layer of bedding in the brooder. Since the leaves are already partially composted, they'll give a nice jumpstart of microbes to the bedding. Also, there will be plenty of bugs and spiders (and centipedes!) for the chicks to gobble up. I followed the leaves with a layer of pine shavings. I really need to find a local source for bulk wood shavings, because paying pet store prices is going to get prohibitive.

All that's left to do on the brooder is to build two doors and attach them, cover the nest box hole with plywood, and attach a tarp or two to block cold winds until it warms up some more. The chicks should be able to move in by the end of the week. They'll spend only maybe a week there before going out to pasture, making room for the new batch of broilers.

Speaking of broilers, the last of my supplements arrived today so I was able to put my feed order in at the mill. Even with my customizations, buying in bulk will lower the feed cost from about $0.28/lb to $0.19/lb. This is for the broilers, who are too lethargic to forage much. Once the layers get out on pasture, they should be able to forage most of their own food, especially once the insect populations explode in the summer.

Monday, April 16, 2007

False Spring and Resurgent Winter

As the ground thawed several weeks ago, I began to get excited about my spring plantings. In a short period, I watched my soil temperature go from the mid-30s (19 Mar) to 50 degrees (24 Mar). The warm stretch held until 5 April, when the average daily soil temperature dropped from 52 to 43. Yikes! It hit a low of 39 on 8 April which suspended planting. The only thing in my planting set which can start in soil that cold is garlic, and I had already planted all of my garlic cloves. After several days of temperatures in the low 40s, I was finally able to plant some more lentils today.

So far I have:

- two blocks of garlic (planted 19 and 26 Mar, respectively). Both blocks came up quickly and are thriving nicely. The cloves were from a hardneck variety with a pinkish tinge to the outer paper. I received the bulbs from a neighbor last fall.

- two blocks of lentils (planted 26 Mar and 16 Apr, respectively). The first block (144 seeds) has sprouted and the seedlings are about an inch high. My seed stock is a bag of basic grocery store lentils.

Planted 27 Mar
- one block of lettuce (NK Lawn & Garden: Grand Rapids). Nothing yet. These were 2003 seeds I'm trying to use up.

- one block of arugula (Johnny Seeds: Sprint). Several seedlings have emerged. Majority have not yet come up.

- one block of radish (America's Choice: Sparkler). A good number have sprouted. Growth has been slow due to the cold snap.

- one block of mustard greens (Seeds of Change: Green Wave). Nothing yet.

Planted 29 Mar
- one block of shallots (Seeds of Change: Ed's Red). Nothing yet.

- one block of scallions (Burpee: Evergreen Long White Bunching). Nothing yet.

- one block of quinoa (Seeds of Change: Temuco). Nothing yet.

- one block of spinach (Seeds of Change: America). First seedlings seen today.

- one block of snow pea (Seeds of Change: Oregon Giant). Appears to be just about to break the soil.

- one block of flax (?). Nothing yet.

The weather is supposed to warm up considerably starting tomorrow.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Chicken Feed

Since Paul had to leave for his National Guard Drill weekend today, I wasn't able to go out to the land. So instead I developed the feed recipe I'll be giving to the mill. With around 100 chickens, I'll be using enough feed to be able to order in bulk. This is what I came up with, for 500 lbs (the minimum the mill can mix).

roasted soybeans160.0
crimped oats62.0
feed grade limestone25.0
Thorvin kelp2.5
Fastrack probiotic0.5

The kelp and the probiotic will probably raise some eyebrows at the mill. I had to order them myself, because no one around here uses them. The kelp is a mineral supplement, and probiotics are beneficial bacteria and yeast that help the digestive system.

I've also heard good things about Fertrell Nutri-balancer, but I was unable to find a source for it. The company's website has no indication that they accept direct orders, and none of the dealers are within a two hour drive of here. The only contact information on the website was an email address, so I sent an email asking if they do direct sales or not. This was several days ago, and I haven't heard back yet. At this point I'm just going to give up on Fertrell. I figure this will make a nice control, anyhow. If I ever manage to get some of it, I'll already have a baseline of performance on my regular feed.

I also ordered the broilers today. I should receive 75 Cornish cross chicks on May 10th. I had hoped to start them at the beginning of May, but this was the earliest date the hatchery had available. So I'll probably begin processing them in early or mid July.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

It rained a lot yesterday, so I wasn't able to go out to the land to work on the water system. Instead, I worked hard on the roof to the brooder, which is covered with greenhouse plastic to allow light and warmth in. I got it all done just before sunset during a lull in the rain, which promptly started up again harder than ever.

A few hours later I went out to bring Balto in for the night, and discovered that the roof wasn't sloped nearly as much as I had thought it was. Consequently, the rain had collected instead of running off, and one of the pieces of wood had broken under the weight. *sigh* Back to the drawing board.

I kicked around ideas for putting more of a slant in the roof, but none of them really seemed to work. I was still thinking about it this morning when I drove to St. Clairsville for more plumbing supplies. On the way, there is a nursery with several greenhouses. They look like they use the same kind of plastic, and they are built on a hoophouse model. That got me thinking about how I could implement a similar design for my brooder roof.

Several months ago I ran across a website that had instructions for making a hoop-style greenhouse out of pvc pipe. I figured the measurements for something like that today, and it looks like it will work. Luckily, I have enough of the greenhouse plastic left to cover a second roof. The first plastic, which is full of holes now from being screwed into the wood frame, will be used to cover the ends of the hoops.

At Lowes, I managed to navigate the plumbing department all on my own and figure out how to add in a valve between the tank and the start of the pipe. I had quickly realized, as I was setting the system up two days ago, that it would be very helpful to be able to turn off the water before it got to the pipes.

It sprinkled a bit while I was working, but the threatening clouds held off for a few hours. As soon as I installed the valve on the tank, I set up the pump to begin filling it. I knew that it would take quite a while to pump 300 gallons about ten feet above the creek, so I wanted it to fill while I worked.

While I was at Lowes, I picked up another 100' of pipe, which took the water line almost to the end of the field. I discovered that the best way to uncoil the pipe was to anchor one end to the fence and then stretch it straight on the ground. It took me very little time to set up two more tees and valves on the line. Since there is now a valve at the tank, I can easily add more tees or more pipe at any time.

It took about an hour and a half to completely fill the tank. The water is slightly murky from all of the rain, but it wasn't too bad. The 300 gallons add a good bit of pressure to the water so that it gushes out even at the end of the line. The Foxtail Farm water system is now live!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Paul unexpectedly had the day off today, so we went shopping at Lowes for farm stuff. I got most of the rest of what I needed for the water system and all of the supplies for a portable chicken pen. That's enough to keep me busy for a while.

After shopping, I worked on the water system until the sun went down. I'm using a 800-gph bilge pump and pvc pipe to move water from the creek to a 305-gallon storage tank. At the base of the tank there is flexible pipe to take the water down the field. Periodically, there are tees with spigots so that a garden hose can be attached.

I really don't have any experience with plumbing, so I wasn't completely convinced that all of this would work until I got it hooked up tonight. The only difficulty is that the bilge pump's wires are very short, so I had to have the battery perched at the very edge of the creek. I plan to get some alligator clips to act as an extension cord. In the meantime, I tried it with jumper cables and it worked fine. It was such a rush to hear the water start flowing into the tank when I hooked up the battery. I hadn't been sure that the pump would be powerful enough to move the water all the way up the bank and to the top of the tank. I thought I might have to get a second pump and send the water up in two trips, but that turned out to be unneccessary.

The water tank has a 2" outlet, but the pipe is 3/4". I spent about half an hour looking at the different fittings at Lowes, trying to figure out the right combination to make that reduction. Finally, I found a guy who worked in the plumbing department and he was able to find what I needed. I ended up with three different kinds of plastic, and three different kinds of connection (threaded, cement, and compression), but it all works.

The flexible polyethylene pipe is a pain to work with. It comes in 100' coils, and it does not like to uncoil. I finally gave it up for the night because I think that it will be more flexible if the temperature is warmer. I'll try again tomorrow.

The best part about this watering system that I've cobbled together is that it only cost around $600 to provide running water to two acres. Half of that was the cost of the storage tank. Six months ago I had no idea how we were going to get water for livestock short of drilling a well. There was all that water going by in the creek, but I couldn't figure out how to capture it without spending far more money than we have. Luckily, I stumbled across Joel Salatin's books this winter and they taught me about bilge pumps and gravity-powered water systems (among many other things).

This autumn, we want to dig out a pond near the road where there's already a seep. Once the pond is there, I'll move the storage tank and the pipe across the field so that I can pump out of there instead of the creek.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The weather was still pretty cold today, so I didn't do a whole lot out at the land. There is a spot where brambles and trees encroach on the pasture that I had to clear so that the fence can run through that spot. The hardest part was the locust tree that was leaning at 45 degree angle and blocking the way. The only tool I had to work with was a hand saw, but I managed to cut off a big chunk of the tree and haul it out of the way. Then I got to use my brand-new machete to hack down the raspberry and/or multiflora rose brambles in the area. That was fun. Now the area is clear enough to put the fence in.

Jefferson Landmark didn't have any leg bands, so if I want any I'll need to order them online, I guess. Several of the chicks are starting to grow out their tail feathers, and they're so cute with their little wedge-shaped tails. While I was out at the land, I collected a bucket full of fine gravel from the creek bank to give the chicks for grit. They seemed to like it.

The soil temperature has dropped low enough that all garden planting has been suspended for now.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


I received my first batch of 26 chicks last week. They are Rhode Island Red pullets for my laying flock. They all survived the mail system and settled in nicely. Since I can only fit 12 chickens in my winter house, I plan to sell the extras as started pullets.

It's interesting to see the different levels of growth in the chicks. They'll be a week old tomorrow, and most of them have grown wing feathers that already reach to their tails. However, there are at least two that hardly have any wing feathers at all. I plan to get some leg bands so I can keep a close watch on these slow growers. Perhaps they're cockerels that were mistaken for pullets.

Spring work and plans

We took advantage of the warm weather the last few weeks to get started on this year's projects. I am fencing out the rest of the cleared land for a pasture, and at this point most of the wood posts are in. Earlier in spring, I was able to plan out where to put a pond. The combination of melting snow, frozen ground, and dormant vegetation made it very easy to see where water likes to collect on our land. The pond site stretches far further into the trees than I had thought, so I had to change some of my fence lines to compensate. The pond will be completely fenced out from livestock, to protect the riparian habitat that will develop.

I've also nearly completed a combination brooder/cold frame/raised-bed garden/winter chicken house in our back yard. This will allow me to keep 12 laying hens through the winter, and brood up to 250 chicks at a time.

The livestock plans for this year include laying hens, broiler chickens, turkeys, and a beef steer. If everything goes well we might add a pig this year, but we aren't definitely planning on it until next year. We will be using a pasture-based forage model. All of the animals will have continual access to fresh grass in an intensive grazing system. My primary goal this year is to produce enough meat to never have to buy any from the grocery store again. The secondary goal is to begin finding customers for direct marketing of our produce, meat, and eggs.

Paul has most of his garden planned out, but I'll let him write about that.