Archive | March, 2012

DIY Incubator…Take 2.

31 Mar

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Had a lovely evening working on the incubator.  My new digital thermostat finally arrived and boy, is it ever a step up from the wafer-style thermostat.  It wires up just about like the wafer-style thermostat, but it requires one additional wire to give the digital “brain” some juice.  My only (small) complaint is that it mounts to the outside of the cabinet, which isn’t too bad, but you do have to find a spot for it.
Incubator finished up...again.

 

All that was left to do after wiring it all up was to re-install the egg-turner linkage and verify that it still works.
Egg turner

 

It fired right up, and started turning.  So far, so good.

Next up is to cut 2 ventilation holes in the top sides, but what to cover them with?

Mason jar lids anyone?
Mason Jar Lids

 

Once the incubator had run for a few hours to make sure it kept up a steady 99.5 degrees, it’s time to take out the trays and start loading them up with eggs.

The trays I made don’t really fit the eggs all that well, it requires some trial-and-error to get them to fit just right.  Next time I’ll make trays that the bottom half of an egg carton will just drop right into.
Loading eggs

 

51 eggs in the top tray, 42 eggs in the middle tray.  Put them all back in, attach the egg-turner linkage, and shut the door. In one week I’ll take the eggs out and candle them and pull all of the “clears” (eggs that are not fertile).
Ready to Incubate

 

I have a good feeling about this batch.  I think all the major kinks have been ironed out of the incubator design. With a little luck we’ll have a bunch of chicks in 21 days.

And now for something completely different.

30 Mar

Yes, this is a blog about farming.  But on occasion something comes to my attention that fits in with enough of the disparate themes of this blog to merit inclusion, even if it’s not directly about farming.

So please bear with me as we delve into…Beer.

Since this is the internet and you likely don’t know me, I might need to mention that in addition to being a farming enthusiast, I am also a beer-brewing enthusiast.

Like all homebrewers I have had my momentary flirtations with the idea of starting a brewery.  Like 99% of homebrewers, I promptly abandoned those flirtations in the face of the most burdensome and labyrinthine of regulations known to small business.

In many ways, small breweries face many of the predicaments that small farms do.  They compete against mega-conglomerates that can out-price them into oblivion.  Yet they can pay more attention to their product and their customers, and wind up creating a vastly superior product.

 

So knowing all of this, it became so very hard to read the last 3 paragraphs of this article.

You see, the mega-conglomerate breweries have been losing ground at an alarming rate to the small start-up breweries.  But instead of improving their products, they instead are focusing on leveraging their regulatory (political) muscle to push the little guys out of business.

Most states have laws that mandate that breweries cannot directly sell their products to consumers.  They are required by law to go through middlemen called distributors.  The distributor’s job is to buy from breweries and sell to liquor stores, bars, and the like.  The big breweries love this arrangement.  They fight to keep it going every chance they get. This is because the big breweries have the muscle to force distributors to do what they want.  Essentially, they say “Do what we want or we won’t let you sell our beer.”  This is a big deal to the distributors, even if the big breweries market share is slipping, they still make up 50% of the distributors sales.  Add to that the fact that the little breweries would rather not have distributors at all, and you quickly realize who’s side the distributors are usually on.

The whole rotten system is held up by the facade that the big breweries and the distributors are two very separate entities with very different interests, neither of which holds sway over the other.  This whole facade is blown to smithereens in the closing paragraphs of the WSJ article.

The company warned that wholesalers who aren’t tightly “aligned” with Anheuser might be prevented from acquiring other wholesalers through equity agreements.”

InBev, the biggest of big breweries, is telling their distributors in no uncertain terms, that they better start towing the InBev line by shutting out smaller breweries.  InBev is essentially making a public admission of anti-competitive practices.

Mr. Edmond isn’t making any apologies, saying wholesalers will have to decide which brewer they want to partner with most closely.

Clearly the big breweries aren’t embarrassed in the least to show us all that they are willing and ready to throw their weight around to shut out their competition, even if it means that you, the consumer, will suffer in the end.

Incubator Overhaul

27 Mar

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First the good news.

There are two peppy little meat-breed chicks bopping around the brooder these days.

 

No, that big guy isn’t one of our own.  He’s a Cornish Cross that we got to compare growth rates to.

Now that little black fella, that’s one of ours.

 

And the bad news?  Dang, I was hoping you’d forgotten about that.

Unfortunately, only two chicks hatched on my incubators maiden voyage. Two out of around 50 eggs.  Not good.  That kind of abysmal hatch rate is indicative of a big incubator problem.

So I recently got the incubator back to my house where I could tear it all apart and overhaul the thing.

 

Here’s a photo of incubator v1.0.

Here’s what you’re looking at:

  • The heat source(s) are two 90watt rough service light bulbs that screw into the ceramic sockets there at the top.
  • The fan is a 4.5″ 12v fan that’s supposedly good for 73cfm of air movement.
  • The metal bar hanging down at the right is the arm for the egg turner.
  • That mess of wires just barely visible at the top is where the thermostat is.  The thermostat was a mechanical wafer-style job, much like this one.

The Postmortem:

  • The lightbulbs can actually put out enough heat to keep this cabinet at the right temp, they just have a pretty high duty cycle.  Putting them in the top of the cabinet was a mistake, the temperature is always stratified (up to 15 degrees colder at the bottom)
  • The fan is technically adequate, but the mounting is totally inadequate.  Airflow is a turbulent mess and results in heat stratification.
  • The egg turner works great, just don’t drop the motor on the concrete floor and still expect it to function.  I think mine is alright, the cover popped loose and several of the reduction gears slipped out of place, but I got them all back in their places (I hope!)
  • The mechanical wafer thermostat is TERRIBLE! Wild temperature swings, inconsistent cut-in and cut-out.  I’m not one to throw useable parts away, but I’m thinking about it with this thermostat.

 

So here’s what I was up to in my garage this evening.

I present to you: Incubator v1.1


Yep, there are wires everywhere, and no thermostat yet.  The new thermostat should be in Wednesday, but everything else is ready to go.

  • The lights got moved to the bottom, and they got a nifty sheet-metal heat-shield to keep them from cooking the eggs directly above them.
  • The fan was replaced with a 4″ 120v fan (no more 12v transformer) that sucks air out of the top and blows it down into the bottom through a 4″ vent hose. The new fan moves a little less air (65cfm) but it should be fine.
  • I added a single socket at the top that currently holds a 7.5w red bulb to see by when the heat bulbs cycle off.  I can also put a larger bulb into the top socket to keep the duty cycle lower for the main bulbs.

I fired it up tonight sans-thermostat and it went right up to 108 degrees and held steady there, with no noticeable heat stratification.  In fact, there is a noticeable amount of airflow throughout the entire cabinet now.

New Fence = Happy Cows

26 Mar

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It looks like I got plenty of sun today.  I think it’s a sign that something has gone terribly wrong when one can get a sunburn in March.

I went out to Fayette to my parents farm today to visit and help out with some chores. My dad and I went out in the back and built 300-400 yards of fence around a narrow strip of land that skirts the 40 acre field that just recently went into CRP.

The strip is only around 35 yards wide at it’s widest point. In some places it’s only 12 feet wide. Still, the strip was grown up with a lot of nice red clover and fescue, and it leads to some good pastures in in the back.

It didn’t take long to get the single-wire fence up (Hooray for High-Tensile wire!) and pretty soon we drove up by the house and called the cattle to follow us.

 

 

 

The cows wasted no time in laying waste to the clover.
The lead cow stepped about 1 foot into the new paddock before putting her nose to the ground and getting down to business.

 

Here is the paddock (and not a particularly lush part) before the cows.

 

 

And after cows.

 

 

The narrow strip really kept the cows close to eachother, and kept them competing for grass. So often they will spread out and not really utilize all the grass all that well. Keeping them bunched up really does appear to make a difference.

 

 

 

On our way back to the house, this cow got pressured by one of the dogs to run past me, and you might be able to make out the nearly foot-long clump of red-clover sticking out of her mouth as she ran past.

 

 

 

They stayed on their new strip paddock nearly all afternoon. You can just make them out from across the CRP field.

 

 

 

As the sun was setting they’d all eaten their fill and decided to come back toward the house and jump in the pond. It was hot out today, even by cow standards.

 

Getting to the bottom of Greenhouse Gasses: Part 1

23 Mar

The Beef industry has a big problem.

No, I’m not talking about runoff, or animal cruelty, or even E.Coli contamination.

I’m talking about cow burps.

Yep, our cattle burp, and it’s a bit of a problem.

You see, cattle are ruminants, which means that they have 4 stomachs instead of just one like a pig or a human.  In their largest stomach, the rumen, they break down grass into a more easily digestible form.  This is all well and good, but a few of the bajillions of bacteria in that live in their rumen have a bad habit of emitting methane, which the cow burps up, and breathes out into the air.

This process is called enteric fermentation, and it is a big part of why the beef industry is a big contributor to climate change.

So what’s the big deal with greenhouse gas emissions from cattle?

Well, lets just get the whole climate change thing out of the way first.

Yes, it’s really happening. And no, it’s not good.

And, yes, we owe it to future generations to:

1.) Quit making the problem worse by leveling off our greenhouse gas emissions.

2.) Start making it better by reducing our emissions and sequestering as much carbon as we can.

So lets try to first understand the scope of the problem.

Beef production emits 3 kinds of gasses that contribute to global warming. The first and most obvious is Carbon Dioxide (CO2).  CO2 is emitted by cattle (or any animal for that matter) every time they breathe.  Thankfully, that’s not a big contributor to global warming.  Emissions from trucks, tractors, farm equipment and fertilizer production is another matter.

Methane (CH4) is the second kind of gas, and quite a big offender as greenhouse gasses go.  If carbon dioxide traps 1 unit of heat in the atmosphere, methane traps 20 units of heat. So Methane is 20 times worse than CO2.  The good news is that enteric fermentation (cow burps) are the only significant source of Methane from cattle.  The bad news is that so far it’s kinda hard to get rid of enteric fermentation.

Nitrous Oxide (N2O) is the third kind of gas produced by cattle.  Nitrous Oxide is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas.  It’s at least 200 times worse than plain-ol’ CO2. Fortunately, Nitrous Oxide is mainly produced by the decay (oxidation) of cow manure.  For cows out on pasture, this isn’t a big deal.  Their cow pies fall right to the ground, and over half of the nitrogen goes into the ground to grow more plants.  The big N2O problems arise when animal poop is held in giant retention ponds where it can’t get back to the ground so more of it oxidizes and goes into the air.

Now the UN came out with a big report about all of this a few years back. The report is called “Livestock’s Long Shadow” and it has some sobering things to say about livestock and our environment.  Namely, that livestock are:

one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems” and that “urgent action is required to remedy the situation.

 

Now don’t go swearing off meat just yet.  There is actually good news in that UN report, and we’ll get to that (and so much more!) in Part 2.

Radio Rant

20 Mar

On yesterdays Intersection program on KBIA, our local public radio station, there was an interesting discussion of farm and food controversies.  The program centered around Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” ad that has been all over every food and farm blog in existence.

Now, when I say it was an “interesting” discussion, I mean that in the way that cable news programs, parasitic wasps and liver disease are interesting: Nauseating.

Four panelists.  One family-farmer who’s quite a fan of modern production methods, One big-ag oriented radio talker, and one vegan animal-rights activist.  Oh, and that other guy, who didn’t really talk or contribute much. (at least on the radio edit that I heard)

*I have since listened to parts of the online version that I linked to above, and Wes Jamison’s contribution is excellent and provides the sorely-needed middle of an otherwise un-listenable argument among the extremes. *

Add in a heaping spoonful of false-choices, straw-men and other logical fallacies, and you’ve got yourself some infuriating radio.

 

On one hand you’ve got Chinn and Adams arguing that keeping pigs in gestation crates is neccessary to keep them comfortable, out of the extreme weather, and safe from “wolves.”  I kid you not on that last one,  Adams actually raised the menacing specter of wolves. (If the absurdity of this needs explaining, wolves do not exist in the wild in Missouri)

On the other hand, you’ve got Freidreich arguing that the only way that animals can have a nice peaceful life is if we don’t eat them after they are dead.

So here’s the thing that was missing from the conversation: there is a middle road between the two extremes.  It is entirely possible that we can raise animals with an absolute minimum of suffering and still eat them when they die.  This practice involves carefully examining our agricultural methods, and skillfully applying changes.  We have to have the ability to realize when we are treating the problem, or treating the symptom.

Our modern agricultural practices are one of the worlds greatest exercises in investing untold resources into treating symptoms, and ignoring the actual problem.

Need to produce more cows?  Simple, buy some more cows, and buy some grain to feed them.  Then buy some wormer, antibiotics and hormones to treat the symptoms that come up when you take them off the grass diet that they have evolved to eat.  Go ahead and buy a nice big tractor to scoop out all that manure, and a spreader to spread it over your fields.  Better yet, go get a loan to build a liquid manure retention pond, and a center-pivot irrigation system to spray it on your field. It’s a lot less work that way.  All the sudden you’ve got oodles of well-meaning farmers up to their eyeballs in debt, who are using tons of money, fuel and equipment to “solve” the symptoms that cattle have taken care of naturally by themselves for tens of thousands of years before we were around to care for them.

I start off being angry with the folks like Chinn and Adams, but I end up just sorta feeling sorry for them.  They’re naturally defensive about the practices that their industries have told them are right and neccessary.  Rightfully so, but that doesn’t change the fact that without embracing the criticism from folks like Freidreich we’d risk losing our compassion for our animals altogether.

Incubator Intrigue

19 Mar

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So today is time for the second round of chicks to hatch.  So far, it’s not looking that great.

There were a few problems this time, but we’ve yet to see what they’ll mean for the number of chicks that will (or won’t) hatch.  The temperature was a bit too low, 93 vs 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit.  The humidity seems better this week, just check out the fogged-up incubator window.

Yep, that’s right! My lovely young wife insisted on the purchase of a snazzy new camera this week, so expect this blog to get all sorts of photos from here on out.

There was a single egg that was “pipping” which means there was a chick trying to get out.  I acted on the assumption that he might have been in there a while, and need help getting out.  We’ll soon see if my assisted hatching did anything to save the little guy.  Since the temp was low in the incubator for the last several days, I’m pessimistic that we’ll see many of the eggs hatch.  We’re going to wait until the end of the day tomorrow (Monday) and see.  If there aren’t any more chicks trying to hatch, we’ll call it a loss and throw out all the eggs.  After that, the incubator and the third round of hatching eggs are moving to my house so I can keep a watchful eye on them.

 

Pride goes before a fall

12 Mar

Drat.

I was so proud of my homemade incubator. I built it over the course of 2 weeks and saved a bundle over the cost of buying a comparably-sized incubator.  Unfortunately, what my DIY incubator did not come with was an operators manual.  If it had maybe I would have figured out the humidity was too low for hatching.

The top rack of 53 eggs were due to hatch yesterday.  Only one chick made it out alive. Two others started to pip out, but later died. We tried to add a few wet towels in a last-ditch effort to raise the humidity, but it was too late.

Damn.

Only 23 of the 53 eggs were fertilized, so there is definitely work to be done on the breeding end of things.
Maybe things will turn around next week.  The second rack of eggs is due to hatch on Sunday, and they only had 9 of the 52 that were unfertilized.  Wet towels ought to keep them in sauna-like levels of humidity for their last few days.

We also started saving eggs again, so we can put more of them in next week.  I’m also told that my insurance plan is paying dividends.  Last year I bought a few silkies as an incubator backup, and this week they’re acting like they want to be mommas.  Mechanical incubators, even homemade ones, can’t top a broody hen for hatching eggs.

Pigs: How much suffering is neccessary?

11 Mar

So I’ve started doing a bit of pig research.

Please note that I have absolutely no experience raising pigs, in fact, I’ve only been around real live pigs a few times in my life.

I’m not about to let a little thing like that stand between me and some good home-grown bacon. Mmmmmm….Bacon!

But I digress.

It seems that of all the domesticated livestock, pigs have it the worst. In “conventional” CAFO-style pig raising, the sows (the mamas) are locked up in tiny crates for their entire lives. Clearly this is tantamount to torture for any animal, much less an animal as intelligent as a pig.

Before a sow gives birth, she is moved to a gestation crate, and these are common even in small-scale “sustainable” and “humane” farms.  Gestation crates are a small crate that allows the sow to lay down, but not enough room for her to move around too much and crush her newborn piglets. While I laud the noble goals of gestation crates (keeping piglets from being killed) I can’t help but think they are the result of we humans not letting pigs act-out their innate behaviors.

It is in the sows best interest (genetically speaking) to have all of her piglets survive.  She doesn’t want to lay down on any of them, as that eliminates her own genetic material from the gene pool.  So as with many of these questions, I ask myself: “What would the pig do without us?”

It would appear that without us, pigs prefer a bit more space to give birth, and they apparently like to nest. Enter the farrowing hut.  Farrowing huts are small structures that are out in the field, in which the pigs give birth.  Farrowing huts are commonly filled with hay, so that the sow can get in there and make a comfortable nest for her piglets.
Farrowing huts are definately the method I will be trying for my first sow.  If I consistently have problems losing piglets, then we’ll think about taking more extreme measures.

Once the piglets are a few days old they are typically vaccinated, castrated and have their needle teeth clipped.

Vaccination is no big deal, a little needle-prick is nothing to sweat.  If I can to do it, the pigs can do it.

Castration, well, there might be no way around that one. Boars allegedly don’t taste good, and you only need so many to do the breeding. Perhaps if they can be turned into bacon before they hit sexual maturity, then the whole concern over “boar taint” would be rendered moot.  Time, and more research, will tell.

Needle teeth. Now here’s where I have no idea what I’m talking about. But it’s time for some good-ol’ wild speculation.  Needle teeth are clipped to prevent the piglets from causing injury to the sow’s teats.  So, “What would the pig do without us?”

Well, it’s not in the piglets best interest to injure their mother, to “bite the (teat) that feeds.” So I wonder if teat injuries are prevalent enough in a more natural, low-stress environment to worry about going through that extra step, and subjecting the piglets to one more intervention and it’s attendant chances for complications.

 

Well, it looks like I’m in for a wild ride here in a year or two when I can finally start raising pigs.  I’m going to shoot for using the fewest interventions possible.  If things start going horribly wrong, we’ll start incorporating interventions as neccessary.

Let them eat poop.

7 Mar

What part of this sounds like a good idea?  Answer: none.

But here it is, from my Alma-mater the University of Missouri-Columbia: How to feed your cows chicken poop for fun and profit.  

Some would say that I shouldn’t expect much from the same university that is home to “Monsanto Auditorium.”  Or the university that renamed Reactor field “Monsanto Place.”

They tried to sneak in my favorite part there at the end: “Keep in mind that feeding poultry litter to beef cattle, while a sound nutritional management option, carries with it certain stigmas that may cause beef consumers to become alarmed.”

Gosh, so you think that we might be alarmed that people are feeding one herbivores excrement to another herbivore? That’s probably because we are just not smart enough to understand the complexities of modern beef production.  Why, to our untrained ears, it sounds almost unnatural.

It’s almost as if animal husbandry has become a game to these people.  “What can we get them to eat next?” They’ll ask.  Play-doh?  Obsolete computer circuit boards? The homeless?

I’ve got an idea for you:  Grass.

It’s cheap, readily available, and cattle love to eat it.  Sure it takes a bit more management, and it doesn’t grow during the winter, but it sure beats the heck out of eating poop.

After all, we are what we eat.
And if the same holds true for cows, we’re all in deep….well, you know.