Friday, September 26, 2008

A Downside to Free Range Chickens

Finding eggs in the haystack.

I've changed the way the chickens are handled. I had been using electric netting to contain them in a section of the pasture, and then moving the pen once or twice a week to a fresh spot. This involved getting all the chickens into the movable house, locking them in, tearing down the fence, moving them to a new spot, setting up the fence, and herding the ducks into the new location. It was just getting to be too much with all the other chores I have out there.

So now I'm going with a modified free range/Balfour method. The Balfour method is basically a pen with a deep layer of straw or other dry vegetable matter. The chickens scratch it up and turn it into compost, and find lots of bugs under it. They spend the night and at least half the day in the pen, in order to confine the eggs to a small area, and then they are let out to free range over the full pasture until evening.

This has been working well, and the birds have learned the routine and are eager to come back to the pen at night. In fact, one day I had choir practice until after dark, and when I came back to the farm to put the birds away, they had all already put themselves to bed. All I had to do was shut the gate.

Now, the bantams can fly over the fence, so that's why I find clutches of eggs in weird spots around the pasture. I don't mind, though. They were free and their eggs are too small to sell, so it's just a happy bonus to find a batch of eggs from them.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Steam Thresher Reunion Festival

Several weekends ago, we went to the Stumptown Steam Thresher Reunion in New Athens, Ohio. It was fascinating to see the steam powered machinery, including a complete sawmill. I took a bunch of pictures and some video.

Even though it wasn't steam powered, the display I found the most interesting belonged to a washing machine collector. He had a bunch of old gas or hand powered washing machines set up. The most gorgeous one was this hand powered one. The gear action was incredible. Inside the barrel was a wooden arm with spokes that spun and moved the clothes through the water.

The owner said that all of the metal parts on this washing machine were cast, not machined. The craftsman is completely unknown.

Some of the "newer" washing machines came with butter churn or meat grinder attachments, so that the motor could be used for multiple tasks. Most also had a place to attach a belt, so that anything with a drive shaft could be run off of the same motor.

I also took video of the sawmill operating, but uncompressed it is around 200 MB so I'll need to compress it a bit before uploading.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Foraging for Wild Foods... the Sears parking lot.

We found an apple tree planted alongside Sears while walking back to pick up my car after its oil change. It had been pruned in such a way that all of the apples were within the leaves, but I recognized it by the windfalls on the ground. The tree had died some years ago, but four trunks had grown up from the rootstock. We grabbed several apples for dessert, and gathered all of the windfalls for the pig.

Beyond the immediate value of the apples, I was very interested to find this tree because it demonstrates the result of coppicing in apple trees. Coppicing is the practice of cutting a tree down and allowing shoots to grow back from the stump. It is a traditional woodland management tool that has been used for centuries. Trees are harvested every twelve years, and the stumps can produce for hundreds of years.

I had recently read an article about own-root apple tree coppicing, where alternating rows of apple trees are cut down each year to provide additional sun to the remaining trees.

"Coppice-ability is also the basis of our "Coppice Orchard". This consists of OR trees planted in rows running north-south. When the canopy of the orchard closes, a north - south row will be coppiced and the land in the row used for light demanding crops, e.g. vegetables on a no-dig system, while the trees regrow. The trees either side of the glade will have higher light levels on their sides and produce more fruit buds. The next year another north - south row is cut but not the immediate neighbours as these will have the extra buds, so the next row for coppicing will be next-door-but-one. In other words this will be Alternate Row Coppicing. This process is repeated every year, creating a series of parallel , sheltered glades. Eventually the rows of trees forming the avenues between the glades will also be coppiced in turn, but by then the ‘glade’ trees will have regrown to form the avenues. As the trees regrow there will be glades at all stages of regrowth until the cycle repeats itself, and niches for plants suited to full light, semi-shade or heavy shade, creating opportunities for different types of land use."

I'm very interested in the genetic diversity of growing apples from seed, so this was a fascinating concept to me. The tree at Sears gave me a good idea of what to expect from coppicing apple trees.

Now, we don't really have the space to establish the sort of full-sized orchard that is mentioned in the article, but I was thinking of planting apples along some or all of the fence rows. I've been collecting seeds from as many diverse sources as I can, in order to have the greatest genetic diversity amongst my trees. Most of the fruit probably won't be that great for eating, but it will be fine for cider and for feeding to the pig. I understand that apple finished pork is extremely delicious.

Disaster Narrowly Averted

At about midnight I went out to check on the chicks before going to bed. Before I had even gotten out of the garage door, I could tell that something was wrong. There was no orange glow of the heat lamp through the greenhouse plastic roof. I guess the bulb burned out. I don't know how long the heat had been off, but all of the chicks were still alive, huddled against one edge of the draft guard. They're now safe in a cardboard box in the house, with a grow lamp for warmth. If I had been thinking more clearly, I could have put the grow lamp bulb in the brooder, but they're all settled now. The adrenaline is fading, but I'm still a little bit on edge.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New Chicks

We're trying out a new system this year. Instead of buying replacement layer chicks in early spring, we've decided to try buying them in late summer. Older birds can forage for much of their feed needs during the growing seasons, but regardless of forage, the chicks need a good growing diet to reach their full potential. So it makes sense to me to have the heavy feeding occur during the fall and winter, when the birds would need to get most of their food provided anyway.

Mid-September is a bit later than I'd like, though. Next year, I will try for early August instead. For this batch of chicks, I decided to try out the Black Australorp, since they are supposed to lay well during hot weather. We had a significant drop in production during the hot months this summer, so they should help even out our production.

I had originally ordered them to ship September 8, but since I ordered 50 of them it was pushed back to September 15. Boy, I'm sure glad they were, since last weekend there was a really bad windstorm that collapsed the roof of the brooder. Hopefully the weather will remain nice at least until they get some feathers on them.