Saturday, January 31, 2009

January Egg Tally

This is an estimate, since I wasn't keeping track of egg production for the first half of the month. I'm guessing that we got about a dozen eggs in the first half. So the total is 23 eggs out of five hens (four Rhode Island Reds from 2007 and one Silver Laced Wyandotte from 2008).

Friday, January 30, 2009

#5 Build Hay Feeder For Goats

This is something I've been meaning to build since two autumns ago. Last winter, since I hadn't built a feeder yet, I protected the hay with a cattle panel. It worked, but several of the goats would get their horns caught in it and have to be removed every day, so I decided not to use that plan this year. This year, we've just been putting the day's hay in a pile in the pen, but anyone who's ever had goats would know how well that works. They think that their dinner makes a wonderful bed, and a lot of the hay gets soiled and wasted that way.

So, I got to work planning out the feeder. I already had plenty of lumber lying around, from the time I attempted to build a Salatin-style poultry pen. The only things I needed to buy were two 10' lengths of electrical conduit, conduit straps to attach them to the wood, and a 6'X8' tarp. I wanted it to be big enough to put a full bale in at a time, although for the number of goats we have right now, half a bale is all that's necessary. The feeder itself is four feet long, two feet wide, and three feet tall. The roof adds another three feet or so to the height, so that hay can be easily added. I spent about five hours yesterday on it, and about another hour or two today to finish it up.

Once it has been transported out to the farm, I will be adding 2x4 runners to make it easier to move and also to help prevent the goats from tipping it over. I also intend to bolt their mineral feeder onto one of the short sides, to make it a complete mobile feeding station.

98 things to go.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ice is Heavy

It rained and then snowed most of yesterday, and all that ice and snow was heavy enough to collapse the goat house. It was a hoop structure, with a wooden base and two cattle panels making the hoops. It might have been ok, except that last winter the goats managed to get on top of it and bent up the panels so that the top is a bit flatter than it should be. One of the goats was trapped under the house, but we got her out and she doesn't seem to be injured. Even once we scraped all the ice and snow off of the roof, it still didn't want to go back to something even resembling the right shape. Fortunately, there was a pile of fence posts out there that we hadn't done anything with yet, and we used those to brace one side so that it's mostly upright.

Given that the panels are so bent up, and the wooden base needs to be repaired as well, I plan to retire this house after this winter is over. The panels can go towards making a corral and the lumber will go into other projects.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sunday, January 25, 2009

At Last, An Egg

The hens have been on laying strike with all the cold weather we've been having. The last two eggs were from January 14, and I've actually had to buy a dozen eggs from the store. Today, though, there was one egg in the nest box. Hopefully, with the days getting longer, they'll continue to produce. I'm sure looking forward to when the Australorps start laying, which should be about mid-March.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Food-Caused Illness

No, I'm not talking about food poisoning. For most of my adult life, I've been on a gradual trajectory away from processed foods and towards whole, living foods. This wasn't a result of any healthy-eating goal, at least at first, but rather it was caused by formerly favorite foods making me feel sick. When I was in college, I ate a lot of McDonalds, because it was relatively cheap, fast, available, and I could pay for it with saved money on my student ID. However, things that used to taste delicious started becoming nauseating, to the point that eventually I couldn't eat anything on the menu other than the fries. The same sort of gradual disgust has crept in for most fast food.

About two years ago, I read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, part of which talks about how the majority of the calories consumed by Americans come from just two sources: corn (mostly corn syrup, but also oil) and soy. I resolved to read labels more closely, and sure enough, it's incredibly difficult to avoid those two plants. We decided to completely ban high-fructose corn syrup from our house, and to cut back as much as possible on soy oil, focusing mainly on hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oil. If we can't find an alternative product, we either do without or make it ourselves. I think that the only thing in the house that still contains corn syrup is ketchup, and we've decreased our usage enough to be able to afford the organic ketchup that contains cane sugar instead.

Cutting down on corn and soy means that very few convenience foods even enter our house, and therefore anything we want to eat has to be prepared from basic ingredients. This has had the effect of expanding the number of species of plants and animals that we get our nutrition from. Now, this has all been so gradual that I can't honestly say that I can tell a real difference in health from when I used to eat more processed food. I don't seem to get sick as often, and I seem to gain and lose weight in seasonal cycles rather than just gaining the way many people experience, so I believe that I am healthier now. And I definitely have observed the way my body reacts negatively to large quantities of processed food, now that I don't eat much of it any more.

Earlier this week, Paul brought home a big bag of potato chips for us to snack on while we watched the season premiere of one of our favorite shows. I ate a lot of potato chips and onion dip, because it was three hours of tv and they tasted so good. Now, my digestive system did not complain at all, but when I went to bed that night my throat felt scratchy, like I was getting a cold. For the next two days, my throat was scratchy, I was congested, and I had no energy or motivation to do much of anything. I thought I was getting a cold, but today I woke up early with hardly any symptoms and a lot more energy. I don't know if it was the oil, the salt, or the large quantity of simple starch that affected me so badly, or if it was some combination of the three, but it was definitely a dramatic demonstration of how what we eat affects our health and behavior.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Evolution of Design

Several weeks ago, I sketched out my first ideas for the part of our land that we call the Pond Pasture. It doesn't actually have a pond yet, just a low area that is a seep. We're working on directing most of the drainage from that half of the farm into it, and plan to dig out a pond to catch it. Here is a rough map of the area. The pond and the hedge (the hatched part near the top) don't exist yet, the drainage stream and the fence and gate do. Click for a larger, easier to read version.

We want to put the pond, hedge, and fruit trees in this area. It would also be the recreational part of the farm, with picnic tables, a fishing spot, and other enjoyable activities available. In that same vein, I wanted to put in a labyrinth for meditation. I made one out of large rocks in Arizona and really enjoyed using it.

However, even using a small design, I figure that I need a 30' diameter circle for a labyrinth, and the Pond Pasture just isn't large enough to justify using that much space for something mostly decorative. My first design did include a labyrinth, though. Even with a cherry tree in the middle and the outer edge surrounded by blueberries, it was an inefficient use of space.

After creating this first design, I read the book Forest Gardening, by Robert Hart. I realized that I could fit many more plants into the space by using the principles in the book. I also thought deeply about my desire for a labyrinth, and I began to see that a winding path through a forest would offer a similar meditative setting. So I decided that in my next design I would attempt to incorporate the elements of the labyrinth in the entire area, rather than concentrating them into a small part.

To help me organize my thoughts and what I had learned, I made lists of the crops and uses I wanted for each environment on the farm.

  • fish (food and recreation, duck feed)
  • aquatic plants (food, fish and duck feed)
  • water storage
  • ice production?
Pond Edge/Marsh
  • willow coppice (baskets and other crafts)
  • rushes/reeds (thatching)
  • cattails (edible parts and basket-making)
  • blueberries, cranberries, etc (food)
Open Land (in Pond Pasture)
  • fruit trees (apple, pear, plum, peach, cherry, etc)
  • nut trees
  • bramble bushes (raspberry, blackberry, etc)
  • other fruit shrubs (gooseberry, currant, etc)
  • herbs
  • roots
  • vines (grapes, beans, squash and gourds?)
Current Forest
  • fine timber (black walnut and maple, already established, intermediate crops of nuts and syrup)
  • fruit and nut trees in more open areas
  • shade-loving plants and fungus under maples
  • construction coppice (osage orange, black locust, cedar?)
  • Bouché-Thomas* pippins** (apple tree hedge, apples for cider and livestock feed)
  • willows? (allowed to grow larger than in marsh)
Taking all of that into consideration, here is my most recent sketch. About the only thing it has in common with the first one is that the foot-bridge over the drainage ditch is in the same place. That's because we normally cross in that spot when walking across the field.

The double line of willows at the south end of the pond are to collect winter snow drifts so that they can melt into the pond in spring. The Rs and Cs in the pond are reeds and cattails, and the boundary between pasture and orchard is made with bricks. There is a whole pile of yellow bricks in the forest that I could salvage for that. I think everything else is labeled. I don't expect this to be the final design, as things will change as we actually start to implement them, but I think it is much closer than my first one.

*Bouché-Thomas is a method of growing apples where the trees are planted slanted so that the branches interlace and form a hedge. It was mentioned and briefly described in Forest Gardening, but I can find very little additional information on the web.

**This is probably just a British usage, but Hart defined a pippin as an apple grown from seed (or pips). I'll need to differentiate between the seedling-apples and grafted apples, and pippin is not a commonly used word in American English, so I have adopted his definition.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sauerkraut a'Bubblin'

My dad got me the book Wild Fermentation for Christmas, and ever since I've been wanting to try one of the recipes. Sauerkraut is pretty basic, and green cabbages were on sale for $.19/lb, so I bought three of those and one red cabbage. Yesterday, I finally got a chance to shred them up and pack them into the crock. It turns out that four cabbages is exactly right to fill it.

All of this liquid is cabbage juice; I didn't have to add any brine to it.

A closer look at the shredded cabbage.

It was already starting to taste a little bit sour when I took it out today to check on it and wash the weight. We should be able to start eating it within a couple of days, and the flavor should change and mature as it continues to ferment.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Cautionary Tale

I've been doing further research on geodesic chicken coops, and ran across this story.

First, they painstakingly built a dome out of 2x2 lumber and pvc pipe. Then they devised a clever covering out of tarps. And then a big windstorm came through and blew it away, smashing it into pieces in the process. I felt a little bit sick, reading that last post. So much work, destroyed so quickly, and they didn't even get to use it.

I don't think I would ever have tried to build a dome out of wood. I don't much like working with wood, and I thought of geodesic domes when I was trying to figure out how to build a structure out of electrical conduit. I don't know if the plans that they bought specifically called for those 2x2s, but if it did the plan's creators should be ashamed of themselves. I've worked with pine 2x2s before, and they are very flimsy. There is a huge difference between buying 2x2s and ripping a 2x4 down to the proper size, I've found. I will always do the latter if I need that size for anything that needs to be sturdy.

I know I didn't mention it in the previous post, but I certainly intend to stake my dome down, if I build it. Being made of metal, it would probably be heavier than the wooden version above, but I wouldn't take any chances. Since it will be a permanent installation, there are several options. I could pound 3 or 4 foot lengths of rebar into the ground, and secure the dome to them. I could set posts, like for a pole barn, and attach it, or I could pour concrete footers and attach the dome to those. I'll probably go with the first choice, because it would be the least difficult to undo if I need to move the dome to a new location.

Although, even if it had been staked down, I don't know if the wooden dome would have survived that windstorm. It's kind of hard to tell from just the photos, but the connection points don't look like they would flex much, and they would probably have split apart from the force.

Geodesic Chicken House

I've been pondering different building methods for the eventual permanent poultry house. Joel Salatin uses hoop houses, which come in kits and are relatively inexpensive for the amount of space you get. They're still a bit pricey for the amount of chickens and space we have, though. You can build hoop houses out of pvc (which is how I built the roof to the brooder house), but I don't think I can make that strong enough for snow loads and occasional high winds.

So I started thinking about geodesic domes. In Arizona, the woman that we bought our goats from lived in a dome house, and several of her animal shelters were built the same way. I know that these types of structures are very strong and resist being overturned, and don't require a lot of materials. Googling for "geodesic chicken house" brought up this blog, which showed something very similar to what I was imagining. My poultry wouldn't be confined to such a house; it would simply be a place for them to roost and get out of the weather.

One annoyance I see with domes is that there isn't any way to increase floor space without increasing height. Once it's more than about six feet tall, any further height increases are just wasted space. I suppose you can get some extra use by building a storage loft, or you could build multiple smaller domes. Actually, I guess that several domes built next to each other and then connected with a ridge post would be pretty similar to a hoop house.

Because the domes are constructed out of triangles, they can be built with lightweight materials and still be very strong. Many of the domes I've run across on the web have been built with EMT electrical conduit. This is what I used for the roof supports on the current chicken house. I could build a 17-foot diameter dome with 35 lengths of 3/4" EMT, which would cost around $168. 1/2" EMT would cost about half as much, but I don't know if it would be strong enough. Obviously, there are additional costs, such as nuts, bolts, washers, chicken wire, and plastic or tarps for the top. For that cost you get about 225 sq ft of floor space, which is only enough for 45 chickens if that is their only space, but if they have access to an outside yard then it is enough for 150 chickens. That's not bad, for about $250 worth of materials. I could probably house all the poultry that will fit on our land in two or three such domes, although I would only be building one to start. That should be plenty of space for a few years of growth.

I haven't definitely decided to build one of these, but it's something that bears further research.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ben's Health and Harvest Market

This continues to amaze me, but there is an actual health foods store as close as Steubenville. I fully expected that I'd have to go all the way to Pittsburgh to find wheat berries and other whole foods, but then my friend Nikki told me about Ben's. He's only been in business for about a year and a half, and his inventory is pretty basic, but I'm just thankful for a real organic market. I picked up some wheat and rye berries, and some raw sunflower seeds. There were also several other raw nuts, quinoa, amaranth, golden flax, and various organic dry cereals. I'll be doing what I can to keep him in business, because it's great to have that kind of store around.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Morning Sounds

Snow below, clouds above, and the pre-dawn light wavers between them. Only the occasional passing car breaks the stillness.

The Wyandotte roosters are the first animals to notice my approach. First one, and then all of them challenge me with their strident crowing. Then a new voice joins in with a deeper and hoarser crow than the others. That must be Jack, the big, white rooster-of-uncertain-lineage. I have never heard him crow before. Although he is the youngest rooster, he bears himself with a quiet confidence, unlike the strutting, flashy, vocal Wyandottes. Nobody messes with Jack, king of the chicken yard.

Before long the crowing wakes the ducks, and their sleepy quacks echo across the hollow. A few goats bleat greetings, but otherwise prefer to stay bedded down in their warm hay. Balto is silent, because he knows the sound of my car and recognizes my step. He meets me at the goat fence and escorts me to the poultry pen. The ducks panic and run laps around the chicken house, perturbed by the change in their routine. They're not used to seeing people until feeding time in the afternoon.

The nest box opened, and the goat trough cleared of ice, and it's time to go home. Banshee follows me back to my car, trotting at my side like a dog. As soon as I'm safely inside, she heads back to the warm haystack and her kittens, and I head for my warm home.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tree Thoughts

I already have plans to plant Osage orange seedlings next spring to form a hedge around the perimeter of the property. I think I also might plant a few along the existing fence to form a privacy guard, to hide less sightly things like compost piles. These would be allowed to grow taller than the ones in the hedge, of course, since they won't need to keep livestock contained. While thinking along these lines, I started to wonder if Osage orange would take well to coppicing. Based on what I know of its growth habits, I think it would probably do well with that kind of management. Coppicing might help the tree form straighter wood than normal, which would be very useful as fence posts and other building materials.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Chickens; and Ice Removal

Last night was the first night the hens spent without access to their nest box. I didn't have to get up as early as on a weekday, since Paul doesn't work on the weekends. Balto was so deeply asleep when I got there that he didn't even hear me walk right past him to the chicken pen. Morning is off-shift time for him, so I didn't bother him. The hens didn't seem particularly agitated, and there weren't any eggs on the ground, so I guess I got there before any of them needed to lay an egg.

I also broke up the ice in the goat trough and scooped it out. After grabbing a couple of pieces with bare hands, I figured there had to be a better way. The garden rake worked pretty well, although longer tines would have been nice. We'll probably get one of these to remove rocks from the garden; I expect that it would also work very well for removing chunks of ice from troughs. This rake also looks very useful. I could spend a lot of money at Lee Valley Hardware, if I had the opportunity.

Friday, January 09, 2009

#40 Become Certified to Compost Dead Livestock

Today I took the course to become certified to compost dead livestock in Ohio. Most of the material in the lecture was familiar to me from my own studies of composting, but it was good to have a refresher. I also got a manual that I plan to study in more depth. My official certificate will be coming by mail, but we also received unofficial ones at the class. With as few animals as we have, there aren't many mortalities, but it will be nice to be able to legally compost them on our farm.

One item down, 100 to go.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Nest Box Woes

I was willing to wait until spring to deal with the three Rhode Island Red hens that like to roost in the nest box. We plan to camp at the farm when the weather is nice, and that would make it easy to remove the nest box each night. However, now some of the Australorps are following their lead, and last night I had to kick seven chickens out of a 25-gallon Rubbermaid container. It was like a clown car in there. So, much as I hate getting up early in the morning, from now on I have to get up at 5am and drive out to the farm to set up the nest box before Paul leaves for work in the morning. He'll remove it every afternoon/evening when he gathers the eggs. Chickens are creatures of habit, so I may be able to start leaving the nest box in at night after they establish a new place to sleep.

More Goat Containment

I've written before about goat #6, not-so-affectionately named Liver Neck by Paul. Last fall, she learned how to flip the bottom wire of electric netting up and scoot under the fence without getting shocked. Goats never forget a way to escape, and she's been a real problem this winter now that they are on hay. She doesn't care about the hay they get fed every day, no, she wants to go stick her head in the hay stack and munch on hay unsullied by human hands. Her friend, goat #3, also gets out, but I haven't determined yet whether she goes over or under the fence. Last night I staked down the bottom wire of the entire fence line, so hopefully Liver Neck will get a thorough shock next time she tries to get out. Being a goat, I know she'll never stop trying what worked in the past, even if it doesn't work now, so she and #3 are on the cull list. Now that Advent and Christmas are over, I should have a chance to slaughter them some time in the next month. They're both pretty goats, but being older does they wouldn't sell for a high enough price to justify hauling them to auction. According to the auction report, the highest a doe sold for last weekend was $65.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Work Day

Since Paul has taken over the daily farm chores, I only get out there every few weeks or so to work on occasional projects. Today the plan was to move the goat fences so that their pen no longer surrounds the chicken pen. However, some of the screws on the goat house have come loose and I can't move it anymore. It will have to stay where it is until next spring or summer, when I can repair it. So the only options were to leave things as they were or move all the poultry to a new spot. There are over 50 chickens and around 10 ducks, so it really was not going to be feasible to move them. We would have spent hours rounding up the strays, and they really don't like changes to their routine, anyhow. So I just tidied up and tensioned the goat fences to keep them better contained. We worked with Balto a little bit today by tossing one of the Australorps out into the goat pen and growling at him any time he made a move towards it. It didn't take long for him to start turning his back on the loose chicken any time it ran near him, so he was a good boy. I want to try to get out there tomorrow, as well, to reinforce the training. I want it firmly established in his mind that the birds belong to the humans, and are not to be messed with.

I also worked on the chicken house. It has a tarp for a roof, necessary to keep the weight down on a movable building. It worked really well until I got the bantams, which are light enough to fly up and perch on the roof to roost. They taught the Wyandottes to do the same, and probably the Australorps will also join in when they get bigger*. All of those claws don't take long to rip through a tarp, even a heavy duty one. I had just put a brand new tarp on a few weeks ago, since the cold weather and precipitation really made it necessary to have a roof on the house. The ducks and the chicks sleep in there, even if the other chickens don't. Anyhow, several big windstorms came through soon after I put the tarp on, and broke the string holding it to the roof. Those were just supposed to be temporary, until I can put zip ties on to really hold it down. So I tied down the tarp again today, and then I went looking in the woods for a long piece of wood to attach to the apex of the house for the birds to perch on, to protect the tarp. It needed to be about 13 feet long, mostly straight, and not too heavy to lift up. At first I had little luck finding anything like that, but then I remembered that last summer I had cut down a dead walnut sapling, and that turned out to be perfect. It was a little bit on the heavy side, but with Paul's help it was no difficulty to lift it up and attach it. It is just tied on right now, but I'll probably get some long, skinny bolts to attach it more securely.

*The Rhode Island Reds never learned how to perch. One sleeps in the house, the other three insist on sleeping in the nest box. It's not feasible at this point to get out there early every morning to open up the nest box for them, so we just change the bedding in there anytime it starts to get too soiled. One night I was out there, and kicked them out of the nest box and then turned it so that the opening faced the opposite way. Chickens aren't very good at problem-solving, especially after dark, so three very confused hens just stood there looking at where the door used to be. It was pretty funny, and I wish I had thought to take my camera with me that night.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Bad Dog

Paul caught Balto in the act of chasing and catching a chicken this afternoon. It was one of the young Australorp pullets, which are still small enough to fit through the fence. It's electrified, but feathers are pretty good insulation and it only takes a moment to get through. Anyhow, Paul tackled Balto and he dropped the chicken, and it didn't appear to be harmed. It couldn't be checked thoroughly because it ran back into the rest of the flock, and all 44 of them look about the same. Hopefully, Balto found the experience startling and unpleasant, and will leave the chickens alone in the future. Tomorrow we will be reconfiguring the pens to make it less likely that a chicken will wander into the goat pen with him. It would be nice to have a livestock guard dog that was trustworthy with all of our animals, but since we got him as a two-year-old we didn't have any control over his puppyhood. It makes me want even more to someday raise and breed quality LGDs, that have the wonderful temperament and sense of responsibility that Phantom had without the massive health problems.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Hay Storage Revisited

As I wrote in the previous post, the cats have convinced me not to store the hay loose anymore. I took a look at my thoughts on the matter from last spring (Hay Storage), and I think that I will probably want to try bagging the hay. We have hundreds of feed sacks lying around, but I was a little bit concerned about breathability, since they are woven plastic. However, I think if, after filling them with hay, I left them open and standing on end for a few days or weeks, that would allow any excess moisture to evaporate out the top. Then they could be tied up for storage. By weighing the bags before and after, I could get a better idea of the moisture content of the hay, and hopefully get better at estimating that when the hay is on the ground.

A downside to any sort of tying or bagging system is that it is more labor intensive than simply putting the hay on a pile. That could be alleviated by building some sort of a hopper system to direct the hay down into the bag. On the other hand, moving large amounts of loose hay is difficult, and bagging can be done at the spot on the field where it was dried. The bags would be easier to pile in a wagon and move around than loose hay. I will give it a try, anyhow. Hopefully next year's hay season will be less rainy than this past one.