Archive | 2013

Winter Chickens

31 Dec

Of all the animals on the farm, the chickens experience the biggest change during the winter.  Chickens are naturally photo-sensitive, responding to the shorter days of winter by laying fewer eggs.  By the time we get into the deep dark December-January period, only 25% of the chickens are laying an egg on a given day.  Compare that to the spring & summer when as many as 75% of them are laying an egg each day.

Couple this with the fact that our chickens HATE to get their feet cold, and you’ve got a bunch of chickens who hang out in their coop all day.
We open the doors to let them out in the winter, just like we do the rest of the year. But in the winter the chickens won’t go far afield, especially if there’s snow on the ground.

A few of the younger hens will venture on down the hill to the barn to hang out with the pigs. But again, they HATE the snow, to they go to great lengths to avoid walking in it. Current procedure involves flying from the chicken coop to the top rail of the gate, then from the gate to the entrance of the barn. Chickens aren’t very strong fliers, so they have to put forth some real effort to fly the 100 yards down to the barn to see their piggy friends.

Back in the coop, some interesting ice-sculptures have started to form.

The Mega-Waterer is holding up fine, although the recent overnight lows of -9°F have made the nipples freeze up. A quick blast from the heat gun (a hair-dryer on steroids) thaws them out, and they stay thawed until the next time it gets that cold.

If This Then Awesome

10 Dec

If you spend as much time browsing Craigslist as I do, then you might just love a little tip I picked up from Jake at the Homestead Laboratory.

Turns out that some smart geeky folk made themselves a web service called IFTT, or If This, Then That.

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If you already recognize the if/then from any forays into programming, then you will find IFTTT plenty useful.

Even if the term “programming” leaves you rocking, curled up in the fetal position from past encounters with a surly VCR, you will be pleasantly surprised to find that IFTTT is very easy to use.

It took me a matter of a few seconds to setup a “recipe” (IFTTT’s disarming name for a program) that will email me when a new listing for “Feed Bin” or “Steel Barrel” shows up on my local Craigslist.

These two items don’t show up terribly often on my local Craigslist, and are usually sold pretty quickly.  By getting automatic notifications, I don’t have to spend as much time browsing Craigslist, but I’ll still know the moment the stuff I’m interested in is posted.

So far I just have a few “recipes” going on IFTTT, but it’s only a matter of time before I think up a few new useful things to do with it. With the kind of third-party support that IFTTT is getting, like Pushover and LIFTTT, it looks like the possibilities will only continue to grow.

Chicken Coop Rehab: Part 3

8 Dec

We’ve just finished up the work on the chicken coop for the year.

With winter looming we knew that there were a few items in the coop that needed to be addressed.

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First up, replace the overhead electrical line with a newer safer line that actually has some insulation left on it. With a little more conduit and wire run inside the barn, we got electrical service restored to the coop.

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Inside the coop, new conduit and wire was run. We now have 3 lights and 3 GFCI outlets in the main part of the coop, with another light and GFCI outlet in the feed room. That gives us plenty of room to plug in heat lamps for the chickens and the de-icers that we use to keep the Mega-waterer thawed out all winter.
This spring, when the ground thaws, we’ll drive a few new ground rods and move the electric fence energizer into the feed room of the chicken coop where it will get a real legitimate setup (ground, lightning diverter, choke, surge protector and all.)

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During these, the shortest days of the year, the lights sure make it easier to go collect eggs at the end of the day.
It’s the little things like this that make for happy farmers. And happy farmers make for happy chickens.

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Earlier in the summer we’d covered the windows in chicken wire. That’s great for keeping predators out and chickens in, but it doesn’t do much to cut down on the cold winter breezes. We fabricated these windows out of 2×4’s and some polycarbonate roofing panels. They’re hinged at the top, so we can prop them open next summer to let the breeze through again.
So far they’re working great. They let in the sunshine (they face South) and block the wind, making it much more comfortable in the coop, even when the temperatures turn negative.

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Back behind the coop, there were plenty of buckthorn trees that were growing up along the foundation. Cutting them out with a chainsaw wasn’t really an option, as most of them had grown up through some old rolls of wire fencing. In the interest of keeping our saw blades sharp, we elected to pull the trees out with the tractor.

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Of course, after the trees were pulled, the true extent of the damage to the coop became visible. The years of accumulation of dirt, leaves and tree roots had rotted away the sill plate and almost all of the studs along the bottom of the wall. It looks an awful lot like the other wall of the coop that we fixed up earlier this summer. Unfortunately, with the weather turning colder, there wasn’t much time to fix it this year.

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Instead, we dug out a lot of excess dirt, exposing the concrete foundation, and covered the rotted siding with a plastic sheet and plenty of straw to keep it in place for the winter.
At least the drainage is fixed now, so that all we have to do in the spring is replace the sill plate and studs that rotted away.

 

Now with all that work done we might just catch a breather before the pigs start farrowing in January…

The Turkeys: 2013

7 Dec

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The turkeys were the one unequivocal flop on the farm this year.  Not everything can be a rousing success the first go-round, and the turkeys certainly proved it.

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They nearly all met an untimely end, which only left us with 4 turkeys out of the 50 poults (baby turkeys) that we started with. Some quick back-of-the-napkin math told me that we ate a $250 turkey for thanksgiving (and that’s not counting any of our labor.)

Anyway, as bad as it was losing all the turkeys just before butcher day, the turkeys were losing money even before they all became dog food. We raised the turkeys in the same pasture pens that our broilers are raised in. The pasture pens make it easy to keep the turkeys safe from predators and keep them on fresh grass. But as the turkeys got bigger, problems arose. Namely, the turkeys get a lot bigger and heavier (and more active) than a chicken, so they were a lot harder on the pasture pens and other equipment than the chickens are.

I had to spend way too much time this year repairing feeders, waterers and pasture pens because the turkeys were constantly finding ways to break them all.

In addition to the increased equipment and maintenance cost to the turkeys, we have to factor in the opportunity cost of raising turkeys in the pasture pens.
If a pen has 20 turkeys in it for 6 months, then we stand to gross about $1425.00 per pen. If we were to kick the turkeys out of the pen and raise 2 batches of 75 chickens in 5 months then we would stand to gross $2010.00, just about $600 more income and one month of vacation. (Just kidding, farmers don’t get vacations!)

The last thing that we had trouble with in raising this years turkeys was mortality, and not the big obvious dog-massacre mortality. There were several occasions throughout the year when we lost 2-4 turkeys at a time to various causes. All told there were 32 turkeys that made it to butcher-weight, with 18 dying before they got big enough. You can always figure that you’re going to lose up to 10% of the birds when they’re young. We try to keep it down to 5% or less, but you can generally figure that if they make it past the chick stage (if they fledge-out to their adult plumage) then they’re very likely to survive to make butcher-weight.

Not so with the turkeys.
We only lost a couple turkeys as little poults; most of our mortality occurred as adults. A few died in a freak July cold-snap, a few died in when the wind blew their pen over on them, and the single biggest cause of adult mortality was the cattle’s water tank out in the pasture. I had to fish wayyy to many dead turkeys out of the water tank this year. The turkeys seemed to have some sort of magnetic attraction to that particular water tank, crossing as many as 3 fences to get out to it, and then promptly drowning themselves.  It was more than a bit frustrating.

For next year, we’ll probably raise a few turkeys, just not in any significant quantity.
Turkeys sure seem like a no-brainer. The quality of a pasture-raised turkey is absolutely night-and-day compared to a supermarket turkey. Couple that with the fact that most people are willing to spend a bit more on their big holiday meal and one would think that there’s quite an opportunity to sell some turkeys.  Heck, a farm near us (Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls) raises and sells thousands of turkeys every year, so there’s got to be something to this whole turkey business.
We just have to find a way to raise a few turkeys that will cost us less time & labor and be a little less risky.
I think that a free-range system (with shutting the turkeys up at night) could be a much less labor-intensive way of raising them, but we’ll have to figure out how to “train” the turkeys to go back home at night. Whichever method we end up using to raise them, we don’t want to run any experiments with thousands of dollars of turkey, so we’ll be raising small numbers (a dozen or so) until we get a better system figured out.

Interesting Spray Foam

2 Dec

So the weather is about to take a several-month long turn into the below-freezing realm.  In preparation, I’ve been working on buttoning up the house for winter.  Given what I’ve learned since our energy audit last year, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for a good way to insulate the rim-joists around our crawlspaces.

I really don’t like the sound of the “recommended” DIY method, known as cut-and-cobble. It seems like it would work, but that’s an awful lot of work when you have to cut out each chunk of foamboard then crawl in and place it.  Worse yet, it doesn’t actually seal out air, you have to use more expanding-foam insulation around the edges to get the air sealed out.

It’d be cheap, probably $150 for the whole job, but it would be lots of absolutely miserable work.

That’s why I was pretty excited to see a new spray-foam product in my local home-improvement store.

This stuff looks like pro-grade two-part closed cell spray foam, just in “prosumer” sized tanks.  The same rim-joist job would cost $275 (on sale!) which is quite a bit more, but you could get it all done at once, seal and insulate.  Plus, it’s got a higher R-value than regular pink foam-board (R7 vs. R5 @ 1″) Sounds like it’s just what I need.

One problem, and that’s the application temperature.  It has to be applied above 75°F, which means that it’ll have to be a summertime job.

Pigs in the Cornstalks

2 Dec

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We’ve completed the last big fencing project of the year.  We quickly put up some temporary electric fence around all of the cornfields which have just been harvested.  While the combine harvests the vast majority of the corn, there is still a little that gets left behind in the field.

The cows remember how this game is played: Go forth, into the fields and lo ye shall discover corn!

The pigs were unaware of the cash & prizes just sitting around out there in the stalks.  They preferred to spend their days lounging around near the barn, pestering any nearby humans to feed them.

On Saturday we coaxed them to follow us to the closest cornfield.

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Within a few hours the pigs had established the following facts:

  1. Corn is delicious.  Like, possibly the best tasting stuff that ever happened.
  2. There is an all-you-can-eat corn buffet going on just a short walk from our barn.

We haven’t fed the pigs in a few days.  We probably won’t feed them for another week or so, until they’ve cleaned up all the cornstalks.  After that, it’s back to the barn to eat feed and hay until spring.

Thanks for the Turkey

28 Nov

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The water in the scalder was heating up.  The water was on, the plucker was ready, the knives, bags and scale were laid out on the table.  I woke up early to eat breakfast and feed the pigs before we started butchering the Turkeys on Thursday before all our customers started coming over to pick them up at Noon.

I headed to the barn with a bucket of feed for the pregnant pigs, and that’s when I noticed something odd.

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We had locked up all of the turkeys in the barn for their last night, and right around the turkeys’ area there were lots of turkey feathers on the ground.
Too many turkey feathers on the ground.

A quick peek in confirmed my suspicions.
Dead turkeys.
And two dogs that were pretty sure they were going to be in trouble.

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In spite of their innocent faces, they were right, they were in trouble.

I went through all the turkeys, and though not all of them were dead, they’d all been chewed on to a significant extent. We put the still-living ones out of their misery and buried them all out in the field.

Customers were all called and notified that they would need to procure their Thanksgiving dinner elsewhere, and we’d be sending their deposits back in the mail.

My sisters’ dogs each received a new restriction on their license.

Endorsements: Cows, Chickens, Pigs, Cats.
Restrictions: Turkeys.

 

We then praised the decision to butcher a few turkeys Wednesday afternoon to get all the kinks worked out of our butchering setup.

At least we have something to go in the oven on Thanksgiving day!

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We have turkey, and we are thankful.

Turkey Fight!

23 Nov

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I’ll say one thing for the Turkeys, they are occasionally entertaining.

Like this little fight that broke out the other day.  Five minutes of Toms grabbing each other by the wattle and neck-wrestling.

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They don’t actually fight much these days, they got most of the fighting out of their system in October when we transitioned them from pasture pens to free-range.  All the toms had to establish their pecking-order amongst all the unfamiliar turkeys that they were now hanging around with.

Thanksgiving is drawing near, and soon the turkey fights will end.

The Pigs: 2013

19 Nov

The Pigs: 2013

All the way back in January, it seemed to strain credulity to believe that we could sell 3 entire pigs.

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How quickly that all changed.

We spent the vast majority of the year explaining to potential customers that we were sold out of pork.  We weren’t helped out by our hunt for a good butcher, which took an early wrong turn, leaving us with 2 pigs we were unable to sell at retail.  It’s a good problem to have, but it’s still frustrating to be short of pork for so much of the time.

For our first year having pigs on the farm, we’ve so far sold 7 pigs, with an additional 5 more finishers that will be ready to go this winter.

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As a pig-raising novice, I had to rely a lot on buying feeder pigs this year.  A feeder pig is a young pig, weaned from it’s mother, that is bought for the purpose of feeding or “fattening up” to it’s market weight.  If you have no time or money for breeding stock (like me at the beginning of the year) then you buy feeder pigs.  Feeder pigs are a lot easier to manage, but they put you at the mercy of other producers who may not be farming up to our standards.  Around here, you can safely assume that all feeder pigs are from confinement hog farms unless you’re presented with evidence to the contrary.   I don’t like the idea of supporting confinement farms, so using feeder pigs had to be a temporary measure.  We’re very glad to be moving away from feeder pigs going into next year.

2013 saw the beginnings of the breeding swineherd here at Green Machine Farm. We now have 4 breeding gilts and one boar. I knew I wanted to raise some rare pig breeds, but not knowing exactly which one, I decided a scatter-shot approach would be best.  We have two Large Black Hogs, one Gloucestershire Old Spots and one Tamworth.  The 5th breeding pig was a particularly good-looking feeder pig (a spotted poland china) that was too good of a pig to butcher.

Before we got our little boar pig, we borrowed a boar from a friend.  The piglets from that pairing will be coming along at the end of January, providing much of the pork that we’ll sell next summer.  It’ll be a while yet, but I’m pretty anxious to try our first heritage-breed pork.

Overall, I love having pigs around.  They’ve been a lot of fun to interact with, much smarter and more sociable than a cow, but all those smarts can lead to some interesting problems.  For example, just a few weeks ago the pigs figured out that the turkey feeders were nothing more than large metal corn-filled pinatas.  Fortunately, a single electric wire can cure pigs of most of their bad habits, rendering the turkey feeders untouchable.

The pigs were a huge help this year in clearing out all the weeds and brush around the farmstead. In it’s near decade of abandonment, the land around and between the farm buildings had grown up in a nearly inpenetrable array of Burdock, Thistle and Buckthorn.  All invasive weeds (or trees) and all quite a pain in the butt to remove.

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A pain in the butt to remove unless you have a nose that is more like a plow.  Then it’s apparently no problem at all.

The pigs ate the burdock first, with gusto.  Then they attacked the thistle, once it had been knocked over by a hoe-wielding farmer.  The pigs helped to clear out many of the young buckthorn trees. The young buckthorn trees aren’t very strongly rooted, and as such, are no match for a pigs nose.

Looking ahead to 2014:

I’m heading into next year with enough pigs (potentially 56) that I feel pretty nervous about how I’ll get all of them sold.  I would love to sell more pigs by the half and whole hog next year.  Selling halves and wholes is a lot easier for us, a lot cheaper for our customers, and more sustainable all around. This year, I put exactly zero effort into selling halves and wholes, and selling 2 pigs that way and turning away many other potential customers.
Next year, our pigs will go towards maintaining a steady supply of pork for our retail customers (farmers markets), growing our half and whole-hog customers, and selling any surplus pigs as feeder pigs.  In the worst case scenario we’re only 1.5 miles from one of the biggest salebarns in this part of the country, so we could sell extras at the feeder pig or market hog auctions.

Wrong Tool for the Job

12 Nov

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The cold weather seems to have sounded the death knell for our cordless power tools here on the farm.  I’ve had my trusty Milwaukee cordless drill for at least 6 years now (it’s kinda hard to think back that far) and it’s still going strong.

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Well, everything but the batteries are still going strong.  My dad has a very similar Milwaukee drill, the hammer-drill model, so we have quite a few 14.4v Ni-Cad batteries between us.  Now all but one of those batteries are dying.  This means that all the little projects around the farm are taking longer and longer as we have to wait for batteries to charge.

In my recent gutter-installing exploits (gotta get it done before winter) I’ve been hitting the wall with batteries.  The Milwaukee will drive the big 7″ gutter-screws when it’s charged up, with enough power to strip the heads out if you’re not careful. Up on a ladder it’s hard to be careful, so I try not to use it.

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The Hitachi impact driver does a better job, but with only one battery, there’s a lot of waiting around for it to charge as well. So what’s a cold, impatient farmer to do?

Call in the big guns!

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Electric 1/2″ impact wrench, 1/2″ to 3/8″ reducer, 3/8″ to 1/4″ reducer, 1/4″ deep well socket, 1/4″ square drive bit.
There were two scenarios for how this was going to play out:
Scenario 1: Everything works out perfectly.
Scenario 2: Everything breaks in the most expensive way possible.

I’m happy to report that Scenario 1 was the order of the day.
The gutters are finished! At least some of them anyway…

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Redneck tool misappropriation FTW!