Archive | May, 2012

Weaning Chickens

28 May

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Just weaned a few chicks today.
Yeah, I know, chickens don’t usually have to be weaned. But we had a few hatch out under one of my Dark Cornish hens, and boy was she one fierce momma!
Under normal circumstances the Dark Cornish hens are one of the most docile and friendly breeds that I’ve worked with. But get a few chicks under them and it’s like Jekyll and Hyde, they’ll attack something much bigger (like me) with no hesitation if one of their chicks are threatened.

So we got the chicks away from momma and put them in the broiler pen with all the other “DIY Cornish Cross” chicks.

I just finished up the first prototype broiler pen today. It’s 10′ x 12′ and about 6′ high in the center.

Here are a few of my adoring fans admiring my handiwork.

Eric and Big Cathy admiring the Broiler Pen

It’s built on a base of 2 2×6 runners with 2x4s cross-members. There are 3 cattle panels that make up the sides/roof, and it’s all covered with a combination of chicken wire and some old tarp that we saved from a “Round Top” Storage building.

After a particularly windy day during the early construction, I made sure to brace the cattle panels with a few strands of wire that tie the 2×6 runners to the highest point of the arch of the cattle panels.  This keeps the bowing, swaying and other unnerving movement to a minimum without adding a bunch of weight.

Broiler Pen

I’m trying out a gravity-fed waterer made from a 5 gallon bucket that feeds 10 or so poultry nipple drinkers. These work pretty great when the chickens finally figure out how to use them. Unlike the big red bowls, or little red cups there is absolutely no way that a chicken can figure how to poop in one of the little drinker nipples. So less work for us, happier chickens. I’d call that a win-win.

Unfortunately the chicks haven’t yet figured out how good they now have it. They were raising quite a ruckus, trying to figure out where momma was and how they could get out of these nice new digs. It sounds like the chicken version of weaning calves.

NASCAR chickens Vs. Heritage breeds – the first days

26 May

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As this is the first year that we’re breeding our own meat chickens, I opted to get a few commercial “cornish cross” meat chickens to raise alongside them in order to see the difference in growth rate, activity level, carcass characteristics, etc.

I just got my shipment of commercial meat birds yesterday. 25 cornish cross, and 4 turkey poults.  Already, the differences are pretty huge.  I put them in the same brooder setup that I used with the 28 or so “homegrown” cornish cross chicks that I hatched out a few months back.  It’s amazing to see the little commercial “NASCAR” chickens eat (and drink) 2-3 times more than their “heritage” cornish-cross counterparts.

Cornish Cross Chicks and Turkey Poults

They actually drank so much as to cause a problem.  Turns out that what goes in one end, well, it comes out the other.  And they’re putting down so much water that their now watery poop soaked through the newspaper that was in the bottom of the brooder overnight.

I woke up this morning to find one particularly runty chick nearly dead.  It had been trampled to the ground by it’s bigger brethren and the now-soaked newspaper got the little bird thoroughly wet and ice-cold.

Runty Chick in Incubator It was still alive, so I fired up the incubator and got it warmed back up.  After downing a bit of sugar water it’s still alive, and while better, it’s still not quite right.

If it doesn’t start drinking and eating on it’s own by tomorrow I’m afraid it’s toast.

Farm Marketing: Engaging Tech

25 May

Technology.  It’s a word that you usually either love or hate. I love the internet. I hate smartphones with a passion, especially the way they turn normal people into dead-eyed, thumb-tapping, phone-obsessed zombies. But technology is rapidly changing our world, and on whole, I believe that some of these technologies are changing our world for the better.  Social media, Web 2.0 and mini-computers (like smartphones) are opening up possibilities to small farmers that haven’t been around since….well…ever.

These new technologies are helping to make little-ol’ us competitive with the big-hulking mega-food-conglomerates.  If you don’t belive me, just ask yourself when was the last time that thousands of regular folk pooled $35,000 to fund a butcher shop for Smithfield foods?  Smithfield can’t make social media work for them, but Walter Jefferies knows how to make it work for his farm.

It is said that people do business with entities that they know, like and trust.  Here is where social media gives us the huge advantage.  We are far easier to know, our practices are more likeable, and we are more easily trusted than any of the big food companies.  All we have to do is put ourselves out there and interact with people.

Essentially, the more information that people gather about the big food companies, the less likely they are to know, like or trust them.  If we’re doing our jobs right, then the opposite should be true.  The more our customers find out about us, the more they will know, like and trust us.

I’m no fan of social media for myself personally, but as a business, it’s too good to pass up.  Social media is like someone giving you the keys to the marketing kingdom, or the enchanted sword Andúril of business, or whatever other goofy metaphor you’d like to use.

To quote Scott Stratten: “to be successful, you have to:

– Answer questions about our product or service

– Educate consumers

– Offer post purchase follow up

– Market research

– Discuss industry best practices

Read those five things out to a social media naysayer and ask if they agree about them being smart for businesses. Because that’s a checklist for what social media is used for.

Another big trend that I see (that farmers aren’t using) is the QR code.  QR codes are those little square pixelated-looking barcode thingies that are showing up on real estate signs, business cards, direct mail postcards, coupons and a bevy of other creative places.  But what, you may ask, exactly is a QR code?

A QR code is really pretty simple.  It’s a hyperlink for stuff that’s not on the internet.  In real life, someone would scan a QR code with a smartphone and instantly be taken to a website.  For small farmers competing in the cold, distant asiles of supermarkets, this could be leveraged into a HUGE advantage, but I’ve yet to see any small farmers do anything with it.

We shouldn’t be putting too much information on our packaging or signage, but throw in a QR code, and you’ve just linked a massive amount of information to your product without overloading the package and your customer.  There’s a lot more that QR codes have to offer, and a lot of caveats for their use, but that’s a subject for another time.

The final area that I would like to see farmers doing better is simply getting their farms online. I know a great many farmers, and a minority of them actually have their own website.  Of those that are online, a mere handful actually update their website or put content online on a semi-annual basis.

I can understand the reluctance to get a website going. If you’re web-challenged (like me) then it can be a hassle, but it’s getting easier all the time.  That’s a good thing too, because with every day that goes by, there is a greater need to have a web presence.

I am from the first generation to have really grown up with the internet. I had telnet and Alta-vista and an excite email account in middle school, and I have only grown more accustomed to the internet as I’ve grown older.  For people my age and younger, the internet isn’t a tool, it’s their default method of investigating and interacting with the world.  If you’re not on the internet, you’re missing out on their current and future business.

And remember, in the grand sweep of history, we are still in the beginning of the internet age. With all the advances in the past 5 years, who can tell what the next 50 years will look like?  We are just beginning to see the ways that farming can be improved with technology.  Take the Holstein Cow for instance.

So anyway, long story short, internet good. Just use it responsibly, and as with everything else, in moderation.

Swallow Houses!

16 May

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So we already built plenty of Bluebird houses, good work!
But as we discussed earlier, bluebirds mainly eat bugs that are at ground level. So while that may work great for your garden, fields or high-tunnels, it doesn’t do much to keep all those flies off of your livestock.
To get those flies under control we need a different kind of bird.
We need swallows.

Swallows, at least where I’m from, come in two varieties. There are Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows.  They both eat a heap of flying insects, and they both feed right where we need them to, from 1-12 feet off the ground.

Now if you’ve ever been around a farm much, you’ve probably seen plenty of barn swallows.  They’re the little guys who build mud nests under the eaves of barns, houses, or any other building that suits them.  Short of building more barns, we’re going to have a tough time making more habitat for them, but I’ve got a few ideas that I want to try…later.

As for Tree Swallows, they are another cavity-nester.  This means that they just need a box with a hole in it to feel right at home. So lets make them feel welcome, shall we?

First, download the plans here.

Swallow House Plans

Materials:

One 3′ x 1″ x 6″ Pressure Treated board (around $2 if you buy it 12′ at a time)

One 3′ x 1″ x 8″ Pressure Treated board (around $2.50 if you buy it 12′ at a time)

Thirteen 1.75″ Triple-coated Deck screws ( around $0.80)

So materials-wise, each house will set you back $5.30, not bad for all the flies you’ll be getting rid of!

Once you’ve got all the pieces cut out, let’s start putting them together!

First we attach the sides to the back board, leaving a gap up top for ventilation.

Attach sides to back

Next, attach the bottom, with three screws, one from each side, and one from the back.

Attach bottom

Now we attach the front, with the scratched-up side facing in.  Secure it with two screws, at the top, so that it hinges out for hanging, cleaning and maintenance.  Make sure to pre-drill and/or countersink these two holes so that you don’t split the wood.

Some birdhouse designs use a “keeper nail” to keep the front shut, but I just make sure the screws are tightened up real good.  If I have trouble prying it open, then It’s tight enough that no gust of wind or predator is going to get it open.

Attach front

And last but not least, put the roof on, and make sure it’s flush with the back edge of the house.  It should overlap each of the sides by about 1/8th of an inch.

Attach top

Now go hang up all those birdhouses!  Tree Swallows are apparently fairly territorial (with other tree swallows) so keep the boxes 100 feet apart, and 6-7 feet off the ground.  Remember, that you probably want to put these boxes out in your pasture, so they’re out there eating all those flies that were bugging your livestock.  Keep them away from the house to minimize problems with house sparrows!

What’s all this then?

13 May

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Hmm, something looks a bit different here.

trench

It might have something to do with this big tire in the middle of the field. It’s nearly 3′ deep, half-buried in the ground, and holding water quite nicely.

Tire tank

Farm Marketing: The Pitch

9 May

So we’ve already covered the basics of farm marketing. We’ve come up with our farm’s identity, and we’ve put that identity (brand) to use.  Now comes the part where we actually come up with our “pitch” so to speak.  Now our pitch is pretty straightforward when we’re at a farmers market.  We engage the customer in conversation, extoll the virtues of our product, and answer any questions that they might have.  Again, this is our strong suit as small farmers.  We know our product better than anyone, and we are passionate about it, which usually makes for a pretty good pitch.

Where we get into the weeds so-to-speak is when we extend our marketing beyond our conversations with customers.  I know, because I too am guilty of this.  I noticed that I was framing my own farming with a lot of negative statements.  I was so caught up in explaining what Green Machine Farm isn’t that I had neglected to explain what it is about.

I have a theory about why so many farmers fall into this trap, and it’s all about that one customer

We’ve all had the customer who comes to our booth and leads off with a simple question. “Is it (organic/local/hormone-free, etc.)?” And while the single question, and subsequent curt dismissal of anything not meeting the standard is memorable, it shouldn’t inform the rest of our marketing efforts.

We wouldn’t want to base our marketing on these folks would we?

As many of you can attest, the fine folks at “Portlandia” seem to have hit on something here.  We typically have a very small number of customers who are adamant about getting the “right” food.  This may be a well-informed or ill-informed idea of what constitutes “right” food, but their insistence is challenging, and we end up defining ourselves based on those few customers.

It would seem that as farmers, we could devote great tomes and epic poems to defining what we are NOT. Our meat is hormone-free, antibiotic-free, free-range, pastured and fed no soy.  Our veggies are pesticide-free, GMO-free, heirloom, no-spray and no-till.  We are very good at describing what we are not, by-in-large, our prospective customers don’t know what that means or how that benefits them. We need to improve our ability to define what our products are as opposed to defining what they are not.

I was reading a copy of Inc. magazine today out of complete boredom, when I happened upon an article that was quite apropos.  In particular, Elizabeth Nientimp’s three tips for designing food packaging were particularly enlightening.

Three things. First, make it simple.  Resist the urge to tell consumers everything about your brand on the front of the package.  Second, make it special. Understand what makes your brand unique and own it. Finally, make it personal. Know what motivates them; let them see themselves in your brand.

There’s a lot there in those three little points.  Take them to heart, because they are the best advise you’re likely to hear.

The first two are pretty simple, but it’s that pesky third point that’s often hard for us farmer-types.  It’s often difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of our customers and to understand their motivations for buying our products.  Fortunately, a marketing blogger-fella has a pretty good run-down as far as that goes.

This is where knowing your audience becomes so critical. There are too many psychological movers to name. These “movers” are emotions and desires that move people to buy. Some movers are negative and some are positive. All of them are based on emotion. Here’s a few small examples…

Frustration, Fear, Stress, Anxiety, Insecurity, Complacent, Bored, Desperate, Confused, Self-conscious, Disgust, Laziness, Helpless, Overwhelmed, and Disappointed.

Love, Freedom, Respect, Wealthy, Amused, Security, Accomplished, Essential, Dependable, Stability, Spontaneous, Joy, Fulfillment, Pride, Supportive, Admiration and Confidence.

As I said, there are more movers than I can list here.

Remember that stuff I said in the last installment?  You know, “consistency is key” and all that?  Yup, applies here too.

Your top 3 should become an underlying theme to your marketing and your content. You always want to be leading your prospects to action. Smart marketing isn’t blasting your “please buy my stuff” message to the masses. It’s showing your target audience you have a solution to their problems.

So there we have it.  Easy as 1, 2, 3.  Well, easier said than done anyway.  These little tidbits from the big marketing gurus are pretty handy, but as with branding, it’s not something you can just do once and forget about.  Marketing, like farming is not about magic bullets, it’s a long slow slog, but the result will be worth it.

Stay tuned for the next installment, were we discuss the last piece of the trifecta: Embracing Technology.  Also, you’ll get to see me (an near luddite) try to backpedal on my aversion to social media and smartphones. Hooray!

Bluebird Houses!

7 May

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Ever since visiting Greg Judy’s farm I’ve been looking for a good set of birdhouse plans. And while the internet is filthy with birdhouse plans, I couldn’t find anything that I was in love with.

My criteria are pretty strict, and the bird enthusiasts out on them internets sure don’t seem to share the same criteria. For farm use, a birdhouse needs to be tough enough for a cow to scratch on it, quick and easy to build, and relatively cheap.  Preferably, the birdhouse should be unfriendly to Sparrows.

 

First, lets cover why we want bluebirds on our farm, and why we should build houses for them.

Bluebirds are a native cavity-nesting songbird. For farmers who grow crops for market, bluebirds can be a big help because their diet is mainly bugs.  More specifically, they eat bugs that crawl around close to the ground, like those on your plants.

As a cavity-nesting bird, they evolved to nest in hollow-cavities in trees.  Since we humans have a pretty universal habit of cutting down diseased and dying trees (ones likely to have cavities) we unintentionally eliminate a lot of bluebird habitat.  It’s only right that we should restore some of that habitat, however artificially.

We have to be careful though, birdhouses aren’t a set-it-and-forget-it proposition.  They need to be monitored in the spring and cleaned out every Fall.  Monitoring is especially important due to a ubiquitous and unpleasant invasive species: the European House Sparrow.  Sparrows will claim bluebird nest boxes and even kill bluebirds in order to take over a nest.  But the real big problem comes when you realize that Sparrows primarily eat grain and seeds.  So if left unchecked, you’re good insect-eating birds will be replaced by birds that will chow down on your livestock feed.

So with all that out of the way, lets build some birdhouses!

First, download the plans here.
Bluebird House Plans

Second, acquire the materials.  You’ll need:

  • One 4′ length of 1″x6″ pressure treated lumber.
  • One 1.375″ shoulder hook.
  • Thirteen 1.25″ triple-coated deck screws

Next we’ll measure out the cuts (twice!) and make the cuts (once!)

Birdhouse bits

Now to start on assembly.
First we’ll attach the sides to the back. Leave a little gap up top for ventilation.

Assembling sides and back

Next we’ll attach the floor, leaving gaps on either end to let water drain out.

Attach birdhouse floor

Then we’ll attach the roof, making sure it’s flush with the back of the birdhouse

Attach the birdhouse roof

Now for the tricky part, marking the holes to hold the front panel on. The holes should be 3/8″ from the bottom, and 3/8″ from the front. Countersink and/or pre-drill the holes to make sure the wood won’t split.

pre-drill the hole

Now it’s time to attach the front. Only use two screws on the bottom edge, so it swings down for inspection and maintenance.

Attach the front of the birdhouse

Now attach the perch to the front panel with two screws

Attach the perch

And install the shoulder hook. The shoulder hook is this little “L” shaped fella here. When pointed down, it keeps the door shut, but turn it around and the door should open right up.

Shoulder hook in action

Before you know it you’ll have a bevy of bluebird houses, and they won’t break the bank either!  The materials should cost you a bit less than $3 per birdhouse.

Birdhouses

Now just find a nice garden fencepost to hang them on (around 5′ off the ground) and keep them 300′ apart, as bluebirds are pretty territorial little critters.

With all your hard work finished, just sit back and watch those bugs disappear!