Archive | 2012

Horse barn redux

30 Dec

So I’ve been thinking pretty hard about getting some pigs.  The problem is don’t exactly have a place to put them right now.  There’s a small area of the barn that would hold pigs, but it doesn’t exactly have a great outdoor access, it opens to the big concrete slab that stretches back to the pole barn. If the idea is to let the pigs graze a bit, then they’ll have to have some grass.

That’s when I revisited the horse barn (or woodshed, whatever).


The lower side is open to pasture, with a nice overhang to keep the rain and snow out of the building. That ought to keep the bedding drier, which I hear is pretty important to keeping pigs comfortable.


The lower level is divided into two rooms, each with their own man-sized door and smaller animal door. Looks about like a pig-sized door to me.

Curious if anything was underneath the mounds of horse poop under the lean-to, I grabbed a shovel and started digging.


Sure enough, I hit concrete about a foot down. That’s going to make some awesome garden fertilizer once I get it all shoveled out of there.

One of the two rooms is pretty much open to the driveway on account of a large missing door.


We’re currently storing all our fencing supplies in there.


Add to that all the old lumber piled on the floor, and the hopefully unoccupied hole, it looks like this room is out of the running for the moment.


Oh well, I only need one room right now for a couple of feeder pigs.  I’ll have some time before I get a sow and boar, which will make a second room neccessary.


There’s a door that opens to the other room, which is nice. I did notice that the door is not square to the wall on the hinge side. I had noticed much earlier that the lower wall is leaning out by several degrees, which could be a big problem if it indicates that the building is unstable. But with the door having been trimmed out to cover the gap, it looks like the wall has been leaning for many years at the same angle. Stable, I like that. It’s not square, but as long as it’s not going anywhere, I can work with it.

Anyhow, there are three good walls and a (now clean) concrete floor in the second room.


So that’s a good start, but the fourth wall is going to take a little bit of work.


There are two “windows” cut into the wall above the concrete foundation and what used to be a door to the next lot at the back of the barn. The door is in a terrible place now that the barn has a lean-to addition that routes all the rainwater runoff and accompanying eroded soil right into the doorway.


With all the holes, it won’t hold pigs right now. It sure won’t hold a dog.

So there’s a little work to do, but it should work out.  Hopefully it won’t take to long either, craigslist is tempting…

Baby Monitor Mod

29 Dec

Most days I’m at home alone with the baby while Callina’s at work.  This is all works out pretty well because I really kinda like the baby for some reason.  Every day at 10 and 2 I put the muchkin down for a nap and go on out to do my farm chores and projects. The days when the baby sleeps for 2-3 hours at a stretch I can actually start to get some stuff done around the farm.

Still, I’m running into a problem that keeps me from being able to do some projects: The baby monitor.


I take the baby monitor outside with me so I know when the kid wakes up.  The problem is that the monitor, despite having excellent reviews on Amazon pertaining to it’s range, is pretty limiting.  I can get it about 75 feet from the front door before it gives me the “out of range” beep.

That limits me to the garage, the upper part of the woodshed, and maybe inside the barn if I crank the volume on the monitor all the way up.  75 feet outdoors might cut it in the city, where that’s likely to be your property line, but out here on the farm 75 feet isn’t going to cut it.

So, I cracked open the case on the transmitter to see what improvements could be made.


Right away I noticed that the antenna was rather puny, just as I had suspected. As with most any radio, there are two ways to boost your range, either increase the power, or increase efficiency of the antenna.  Power is usually pretty complex to deal with, not to mention regulated by the FCC.  Antennas are completely fair game, and pretty simple to construct.

These monitors operate at 900mhz, which means that a full-wavelength antenna would be 13.125″ long, or 33.3cm (if that’s your thing).  The antenna on the transmitter is a 1/4 wavelength.  The smaller the antenna, the less gain it has (less gain = less range) up to one full wavelength.

I could probably get a decent improvement in range simply by replacing the 1/4 wave antenna with a longer full-wave one.  If I wanted even more range, I could make a high-gain directional antenna, but an omni-directional signal is pretty important here because I’m using the monitor all around the house.

All it takes is a 13.125″ length of wire with one end stripped. Unsolder the stock 1/4 wave antenna, and solder the 13″ wire in it’s place.


I had to poke a hole in the rubbery-thing to get the longer antenna wire out, but other than that it all went back together the same way it came apart.


Wash, rinse, and repeat with the Receiver part of the monitor.

Now I have a solid 100 feet of range in all directions outside the house, with an even greater range (about 200 feet) where I have a direct line of sight to the baby’s room.  Basically, I can work on or in any building on the farm without being out of range.

Hopefully, with this little modification done, I can start getting more stuff done around the farm.

At least as long as the baby stays asleep…


Oh, and one more thing: since this obviously pertains to something that’ll be around a baby, be careful.  Keep it out of your tykes reach so they won’t wrap the wire around their neck or anything.  Proceed with caution, at your own risk, bla bla bla.

I Miss Fescue

27 Dec

I didn’t even know it, but as I was driving down the gravel-road to my parents farm in Missouri for Christmas, I realized that I miss fescue.


It snowed a few inches in Missouri right before Christmas, and I was bowled over by how much green was showing through the snow as it melted.  The main forage species in Minnesota don’t hold up well to winter weather, they’ve died back to a beige/brown color.

Fescue is a fantastic winter forage, as it stays green all winter, and the cows actually like it more when the weather dips below freezing.  Apparently there’s not nearly as much of it in Minnesota as I’m used to having in Missouri, where it’s the dominant forage species.  What I’ve read so far suggests that tall-fescue is difficult to establish in Minnesota because the young plants can’t handle extremely cold winters.

We have a bit of spare fescue seed left over from seeding a CRP field, so we’ll have to try it here in Southern Minnesota.  I hope we can establish some, maybe try to plant it in the spring to give it time to establish, because fescue is the only game in town when it comes to winter grazing.

Farm Walk: Green Acres Farm

26 Dec

Last Sunday I headed up to Pine City, Minnesota to visit Wayne Bontjes of Green Acres Farm.  Pine City is 2 hours North of us.  We’re an hour south of the Twin Cities, they’re an hour North, half way between the Twin Cities and Duluth.


Wayne has a spread that I’d guesstimate between 20-40 acres, it was a bit hard to tell with all the snow on the ground.  It’s really quite flat there, that’s probably the case for most of the state.  I consider us lucky in that reguard, the Southeast part of the state has more rolling topography, moving toward bluff-country as you approach the Mississippi river.

The biggest outbuilding is this former dairy-barn (not a terribly old one) that Wayne has converted for use in his pig operation.  I found Wayne on craigslist when I was looking for Large Black hogs.  He wasn’t selling any, but he was raising and selling Tamworth, Berkshire and Large Black pigs as market hogs.


I was pretty interested to see the farm since they have the same type of hog operation that I envision having on our farm someday. I’ve been curious about how to keep pigs warm in the Minnesota winters, and as luck would have it, it’s winter now, and with Green Acres Farm being  2 hours North, it’s even colder there than in Zumbrota.  Whatever Wayne does to keep his pigs comfortable in the winter will probably work for me.  As it turns out, I didn’t have much to worry about.


There were three different pig pens in the barn, each with their own outdoor run.  It looked to me like this part of the barn used to be dairy cow stalls, and that they just took down a partition between two (or three) stalls to make one pig pen. The little pigs had plenty of dry hay on the floor to lay down in and that seemed to be enough to keep them happy.  When they figured out we weren’t going to feed them they just piled up in a corner on the hay and hung out.


Getting the water situation right for the winter is apparently the hardest part.  Wayne was sold on the combination of these $150 plastic tanks and a sinking tank de-icer.  Waynes boar has been hard on the floating de-icers, he’ll apparently get bored and rip them out by the cord, leaving the tank to freeze.

Speaking of which, he big dude here is Wayne’s Tamworth boar.

I really liked that Wayne had two different breeds that I was interested in, Tamworth and Large Black.  Both are said to be excellent grazers, but they look totally different from each other.  The Tamworths were a bit smaller, but very well muscled.  The LBH (large black hog) sow was quite skinny.  Initially I was a bit alarmed by her shape, but Wayne explained that she had just weaned a litter of her own, along with most of a litter from his Berkshire sow, who was apparently not a great mother.  The LBH had taken up the slack, nursing every piglet who wanted to eat, even though it took quite a toll on her physically.

That extra nutrition showed up in her offspring too.  In the picture below, the black pigs are all LBH x Tamworth, and the small red pigs are Berkshire x Tamworth.  They are all the same age, except for the bigger red pigs, which are pure Tamworth, and a full month older.  The LBH piglets are about to catch up to the older Tams, and leaving the small Berks in the dust.


I’ve been interested in the LBH and similar “grazing” breeds of hog because the single biggest expense in raising pigs is the cost of feed.  Wayne’s feeding regimen was very good to hear about.  He feeds about 1lb of grain per day per hundredweight of animal.  This goes for feeders as well as well as breeding stock.  His hogs also get a few flakes of high-quality alfalfa hay per day, only as much as they’ll eat, they get cheaper grass hay to bed down in.  In the summer, the pigs all live on fresh pasture, harvesting their own alfalfa.
Wayne said he gets his feeder pigs up to market weight in 8 months, which is 2-3 months slower than a free-choice fed pig, but drastically cheaper.

Thanks to Wayne for showing me around and answering all my questions. I learned a lot in the few hours I was there, and I’m now eagerly trolling craigslist looking for leads on some Large Blacks to start our pig herd with in the spring.

Fence Scavenging

19 Dec

A week or so ago we got 6″ of snow.  Then after a few days of 40+ degree weather the bulk of it melted away.  So now that most of the tall grass and weeds have been knocked down, it was time to get out in the field and gather up some of the electric fencing stuff that’s been out in the field for quite a while.

Here’s the haul from a few hours work:


Most of the fence posts are the steel temporary posts, but there are a few newer fiberglass and plastic step-in posts. I got most of them out earlier, but I’m still finding a few in some out of the way places.

The real kicker was the wire.  There is a real hodge-podge of electric fence wire on this place.  The vast majority is single strand 14ga galvanized or even rusty un-galvanized wire (also about 14ga).  There is a bit of 12.5ga hi-tensile wire in places, but I wasn’t really expecting to find this much 12ga aluminum wire.

I knew that aluminum wire was expensive, so I unhooked it from either end and pulled it all out.  Most of the electric wire is along old beaten-down fencelines and most is on the ground, often under a lot of grass and weeds. It’s a bit of a pain to pull it all out, but for the aluminum wire, it might be worth it, the darn stuff is $50 for 1/4 mile.  Aluminum is quite a bit more conductive than steel wire, but it does break easy.

I was thinking of using it in a training pen, where it’s not really neccessary to keep animals in, and will make sure they really get a good solid shock to train them to respect the electric fence.  It may work out if I have enough of it, but I’m worried about an amped-up critter breaking it.  High-tensile wire is really difficult for an animal to break, but this aluminum stuff broke once just from me pulling it all off of the ground.  Maybe I should just use it around the chicken coop to keep predators away.  I think chickens are probably too small to do much damage to the wire.

Has anybody used aluminum fence wire before?  How did you like it?

Organizing the Workshop

14 Dec

Any farm needs some sort of workshop area.  Farms usually have some sort of mechanical equipment, and that equipment will inevitably need to be worked on. In addition, there’s usually a bit of woodwork that needs to be done on a fairly regular basis, be it birdhouses, poultry pens or whatever.

We’ve got this big Pole-building garage that’s been tacked on to the front of the barn.  It’s 2.5 to 3 times deeper than it needs to be to park a car, so that’s a lot of room to work with inside.


I’ve designated the first bay for mechanical stuff. Maintenance on cars, trucks, snowblowers and any other mechanical or electrical bits that need working on. This is the only bay that has electrical outlets, and the one with the majority of the light fixtures.  A few 4′ shop lights would be a welcome addition.


The 2″x 12″ rafters overhead can be used to hoist an engine in a pinch, in fact, there is a chain hanging from between two closely spaced rafters that looks to have been used for that very purpose.


And I found an old paper towel holder in the basement that will do just fine as a shop towel holder for the workshop. There’s nothing worse than fumbling around with two greasy hands trying to get at the shop towels.


And then there’s this sweet old bench vise that was out in the woodshed. I can see this coming in quite handy.  The woodshed sure dosen’t need it anymore, all I’m keeping in there is firewood, garden tools and the chainsaw.


The other bay, the one with the big RV-sized door will be for woodworking stuff. I should be able to put together some fairly big stuff (like broiler pens) without worrying about getting it out of the garage.


Over on the left side of the bay (at least in the above photo) I’m thinking of putting in a lumber storage rack like this one:

One of the things I knew I wanted to have was a full-sized miter saw table. I’ve had this particular 10″ miter saw for years, but using a miter saw without adequate supports on either end lends itself to some stupid maneuvers to get longer boards cut. Now I’ve got a 8′ table to support lumber as it’s being cut, with clearance for 12′ boards on the back end of the saw. No more puttng hands or feet close to the blade just to get a straight cut.


If you’ve used a miter saw before, then you probably noticed that they tend to accumulate a ton of sawdust around them.  The bag catches some of it, but you’d need a vacuum hooked up to the saw to catch all of it.  One of these neat Rockler automatic vacuum switches is definitely on my wish list.  First I’ll have to wire up a few outlets over on this end, as I’m currently powering the saw with an extension cord from the other bay.

I have to have some sort of system for organizing and storing all my tools.  Previously I’d just fasten a sheet of plywood to the wall and hammer in finish nails to hold all my tools up.  To make sure I put them back in the right place I’d draw an outline around the tool in permanent marker.
This posed one big problem: what do you do when you get a new tool?  You pretty much have to find an empty spot and stick it there, weather or not it belongs.  Or you can pull out all the nails, paint over the outlines and start from scratch.  Not pretty either way.

After a little bit of poking around online I found the answer: the french cleat storage system. You can build it yourself from whatever dimensional lumber you’ve got laying around, it’ll hold a lot of weight, and you can reposition any part of it whenever the mood strikes.  The kitchen cabinets in our old house used to be mounted with french cleats made of metal.  I thought they were pretty genius, but it never occurred to me to make them out of wood…


I put together a few of these little guys with bicycle hooks in the bottom. They will hold all sorts of power tools, and since I can put them together for a little over the cost of a bicycle hook ($0.78) they’re cheap as can be.  And did I mention re-positionable?  I feel like I need a few more tools now.


 So the shop area is all coming together, albeit slowly.  I’ve still got to incorporate a space for lumber storage between the bays, do a bit of wiring, etc.

Do you have any great ideas that I should incorporate into the shop?

DIY Insulating Access Door Covers

12 Dec

So after our energy audit, I realized that I’ve got a few access doors or hatches that need to be sealed off.  I’ve got an attic access door, and the little access door to the crawlspace underneath the living room.  We’ve also got one of those old-school through-the-wall ventilation fans in the upstairs bathroom, that needs some sort of cover too.

I’ve got a method that I like for making these sorts of insulating covers. I’ve made a few in the past, mainly as attic-fan covers.  You can buy attic-fan covers in home-improvement stores, but by-in-large they are chintzy pieces of junk.  You can make one yourself for fairly cheap that seals up better and packs a lot more “R” value to it.

First up, you’ll need some foam-board insulation.  I much prefer the extruded pink stuff (it can be blue or green too, but it’s all about R-5 per inch).  Much less appealing is the white foam board, it’s less insulating, falls apart easily and is generally a pain to work with.  I used a bit of white foam board because I found a few full sheets of it laying around the garage.  If it’s free I might as well use it, right?


Anyway, measure all your openings and cut out your pieces. If you’ve got several to cut, mark the dimensions on each piece so you won’t forget what size they are later. You can cut extruded foamboard with a utility knife.  You don’t have to cut all the way through. Just cut halfway through and snap it over the edge of a table or something.

If you’re unfortunate enough to be working with the white foamboard, then don’t try to cut it with a knife unless you want those little foam pellets stuck to everything you own.  Instead, you’ll need a thin, rigid piece of metal such as a hacksaw blade (I used an absurdly long sawzall blade).  Heat up your “blade” with a torch, holding it with pliers or vice-grips so’s you don’t burn yourself.  When it’s hot enough it’ll cut through the white foamboard like butter.  It’s a pain in the butt, and it smells terrible, so cut it outside or just stick to the pink foamboard if at all possible.


Glue up a few pieces to get the profile you need to fit the particular access door you’re working on. For most attic fans and such you’ll only need one slab of foam cut a few inches bigger than the frame of the fan. Other access doors like the one to my crawlspace will need two pieces of foamboard. Glue them with either liquid nails or hot glue.

After it’s glued up, test fit it to the access door to make sure it all fits.  If it doesn’t fit, trim the offending bits with a utility knife until it does.


Next up, add some weatherstripping.  Don’t get all crazy with some high priced weatherstripping, just get the cheap foam weatherstripping.  Foam weatherstripping is nearly useless for windows & doors, but it’s perfect for this kind of thing.


After applying the weatherstripping do another test fitting to make sure the weatherstrip is actually compressed a little bit when the cover is fitted.


So, if your spiffy new cover fits tightly enough that it’ll stay where it belongs, then congratulations!  You’re done!

If you’ve got a ventilation fan, attic fan, or something that protrudes from the wall or ceiling, then you’ll need some magnets to hold the new cover on.  I like these little 3/4″ and 1″ ceramic disc magnets that I get from the hardware store.  Hot glue those babies on the back of your foamboard and you’re good to go. Don’t cheap out on the magnets.  They’re not that expensive, so put quite a few on there to hold everything. There’s nothing more annoying than a cover popping off every time there’s a gust of wind outside.


I had the little cover on the bathroom ventilation fan during our home energy audit.  The blower door test supposedly simulated a 15mph wind against all sides of the house.  I’m happy to report that the vent-fan cover stayed put through all of it without a trace of air leaking through.


To finish it all off and make it look presentable you can paint it to match the room.  The pink foamboard takes paint quite well.  White foamboard? Not so much.  And if you really want to get fancy you can bevel the edge with a utility knife, just make sure it’s a new blade so you won’t gnarl the foam up too much.

Happy insulating!

Energy Audit 2012

11 Dec

We were pretty nervous about moving into this big old farmhouse, particularly heating it through our first Minnesota winter.

Lucky us, our electricity company subsidizes the cost of performing an energy audit. It took me all of two seconds to sign up for one.  On Friday, the energy auditor showed up with his blower door and got to work.


It’s not great, but I was bracing myself for worse results. There were some big surprises in the energy auditors report too. For example, the part of the house with the biggest air/energy leaks was not the old (relatively uninsulated) lath-and-plaster original part of the house, but the circa 1970’s addition.
The primary culprit is the uninsulated crawlspace beneath the addition. With the blower door going, there was quite a gust coming from the crawlspace access in the basement stairwell.


While the walls are well insulated, the sill plate and foundation walls in the crawlspace are without a stitch of insulation.  There’s also the matter of the 6″x6″ hole that opens to the great outdoors (now blocked off with foam board).


So I’m supposed to crawl back in there sometime, roll out plastic on the ground, glue rigid foam-board to the wall (enough to get R-10) and generally caulk and insulate the heck out of the sill plate. What fun.
It’s a cheap fix, but it’ll mean working in crawlspace for hours on end.

An easier task on the list is to put those little foam gaskets on every outlet and light-switch in an outside wall. It’s supposed to be good for a 100cfm reduction in air infiltration. Consider it done.


While the windows were generally in good shape, being new as of 1997, and dual-pane at that. But a few of them had a little leakage at the lower sill, add a new weatherstrip and they’re much better.


The energy auditor was very specific that any weatherstripping should be the V-shaped stuff.  The 3M stuff is apparently the bees knees, but being unable to find any, I went with whatever brand they had.


 Now I’ve got to fabricate a few insulated, gasketed covers for things like the attic access, the crawlspace access, and the bathroom vent fan.  More on that later.

Sure, this house isn’t my uber-efficient off-grid dream home, but it’s not as bad as I thought. With a little work this place can be brought down to below-average energy consumption, maybe even go carbon neutral someday.  Plus there’s just something to be said for a cool old house like this one.  It reminds me of the house I grew up in, which is not surprising given that it was also an old 1890’s farmhouse.

I think I’ll have to have the energy auditor come back out in a few years to see what kind of improvement we can make.

Let it Snow

9 Dec

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We got an inch or so of snow yesterday.  Just enough to make it look like winter. The dogs are not discerning, they enjoy any new snow to romp around in.



Today, we got another 4-5 inches.


I’m happy to report that the new snow-shovel works just fine, as does the new (old) snowblower.

The forecast shows some flurries tomorrow, with a high of 10 degrees.

I’m preparing by sitting by the fire, sipping on an “El Chupanibre” Barleywine.  Bring it on.

Sorting, Banding & Culling Chickens

6 Dec

I went out this morning to sort and band the chickens when I nearly stepped on this little pullet.  It was pretty obvious from the blood where her tail-feathers used to be that she wasn’t in great shape, and more worrisome was the fact that she didn’t move when I approached.


I was worried for a moment that some kind of predator had gotten in the chickens room, but quickly noticed that the little pullet wasn’t moving for a good reason.


She was a bit tied up, a feed bag string had wrapped around her leg and then got caught on a post.
I was immediately pretty ticked off at myself for carelessly leaving the string from a feed bag laying on the ground where one of the chickens could get into it.  I think that the tail feathers were picked out by the other chickens while she was immobilized (likely the big white rock cockerels). I took her to the house and cut off the string, and her feathers should grow back in time, so no permanent harm done.

It was only after I put her back in with the rest of the chickens that I noticed the problem that makes her the first cull chicken of the group: she has one spraddle leg.

Spraddle leg has a few causes: abnormal incubation (too hot, too humid, >21 day incubation), Slippery flooring during the first few days of life (newspaper or cardboard bedding), or just plain old bad genetics. It can look a bit like Mareks disease, but Mareks causes paralysis of a limb, and the pullet is moving the limb just fine, it’s just twisted at a strange angle beneath her.

Seeing as how these chickens are the breeding stock that will go on to form the genetic foundation for our farms chickens (broilers and layers) for the next 6 years or so, I can’t risk a pullet with a spraddle leg.  The roosters are even more important, since they will contribute an even greater percentage of their genetic material.  That’s why I have twice as many roosters as I need.  Only the best looking 2-3 roosters will make the cut.

To make things easier on myself in the coming years, I’m putting leg bands on all the chickens.  2012 Pullets get a blue band on their right leg, 2012 Roosters get a red band.  3 years from now, when it’s time to replace the breeding stock, I’ll have a sure-fire way to quickly distinguish between the new stock to keep, and the old stock to cull.


So far, I’m liking the looks of the chickens.  Most of the Delaware pullets look good, except for ol’ spraddle leg. I appear to have one Delaware rooster.  Sexing day-old chicks isn’t foolproof, so one or two is bound to get through.  The Delaware pullets are averaging 1lb 10oz right now, with the one rooster tipping the scales at 2lb 2oz.  These are most assuredly a heavy breed.

The Rhode Island Red roosters are all looking fine, they’re slower to feather than the rest, so they still look a little ugly. True to type, they are all pretty feisty little dudes. The RIR cockerels are weighing in the same as the Delaware pullets: 1lb 10oz.

The White Rock Roosters are pretty impressive thus far, they’re just about to make it to the 2lb mark (1lb 15oz) at 7 weeks.  Not bad.  The Rock x Delaware is looking like it might actually work.  Although, for reference, a “NASCAR” Cornish x Rock broiler would be butchered at 6-7 weeks at a live weight of 5-6lbs.