Archive | January, 2013

It’s Official

31 Jan

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Hooray! We legally exist!

Deep Litter Chicken Bedding

29 Jan

It’s now been three and a half months since we got our first batch of chickens for the new farm.  They’ve been indoor chickens for the whole time, not because we intend to confine them indoors, but because it’s just too darn cold outside for young chickens to handle.

The NASCAR broiler chickens can handle freezing temperatures at only 4 weeks old.  But the slower growing egg-laying breeds just don’t have the supercharged metabolism to handle freezing temperatures at that age.  Heck, anything less than a fully-mature layer will have trouble handling a sub-zero Minnesota winter without some serious shelter from the elements, or even heat lamps when it gets seriously cold.

In the winter, our chickens live indoors.  Right now they’re in the barn, but the goal is to get them moved to the chicken coop later this year, hopefully in the spring when we’ll need to start brooding the first batch of broilers for the year.

Keeping chickens indoors is not without it’s problems though.  The main problem is poop. Chickens don’t just hold it until they’re let outside, so lots of poop builds up in the coop.  To deal with the poop, you’ve traditionally got two options:  clean it out regularly, or let it build up.

Cleaning it out regularly is a lot of work.

Letting it build up is a smelly mess.

Enter the third option: Deep Litter.

Deep litter is the practice of building up layer-upon-layer of litter and manure.  It’s not as smelly as just letting manure alone build up because you’re adding in an absorbent carbon layer (litter) on a regular basis, which absorbs moisture and eliminates most if not all odors.  Most of the time you’re only adding litter on top of the existing soiled litter, so it’s easier than shoveling the whole mess out every time.

Deep litter works a lot like compost when it’s done properly.  You’re shooting for a nice carbon-nitrogen mix that will cook down to a lovely-looking dark humus when it’s done.

I’ve been building up the current deep-litter since I got the chickens in mid-October.  I add a new layer of bedding material (either straw or woodchips) whenever I begin to notice that distinctive ammonia odor that built-up manure gets.  It looks like an amalgamated mess of woodchips, poop and feathers.

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About 4″ of litter has built up in the 3 months that the chickens have been in the barn.  It’s hard to believe that 5 bales of straw and 7 bales of wood shavings can pack down into such a small area.

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Every once in a while, when it gets this densely packed, it’s good to mix it all up, to add some air to help the aerobic bacteria break down the litter. No getting around this part, it’s work. Just grab your trusty pitchfork and get scooping.

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Once the litter is all mixed and fluffed-up, it adds quite a bit of volume. At least 50% more volume, so that 4″ deep litter just turned into 6″ of litter. To keep it from being all dragged out the door I put a 6″x6″ board in front of the door to keep it in.

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After it’s all mixed up, add on a new layer of fresh bedding. Wood chips are by far my favorite bedding, as they are very absorbent and sold at most every farm store and co-op. I will occasionally use straw if I have some laying around. Straw is cheaper but it isn’t nearly as absorbent, so it’s prone to matting.

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Once the new bedding is down, the chickens attack. They love scratching around in the new litter. I’d like to get them used to eating some scratch grains, so I can just throw some scratch grains into the litter the next time I want it mixed up. Layers will scratch up litter like their life depends on it if there’s a tasty treat involved.

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With the old bedding fluffed-up and covered by a fresh layer of wood shavings there is no trace of a chicken manure odor. It actually smells pleasantly like pine (from the wood shavings) and will stay pleasant (or at least neutral) smelling for at least another two weeks. At that point, just add a new layer of bedding and you’re good to go for another few weeks.

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Hen says thanks!

Chilly Critters

22 Jan

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The mercury has plummeted in the past 24 hours here on the farm.  We woke up to a -6 degree temperature this morning and it only got 11 degrees warmer during the day.

I prepared for the cold snap yesterday, but I still didn’t know how the critters would take it.  On my morning rounds, the pigs were not terribly interested in getting out of bed.

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But after some cajoling, they decided that a bucket of corn & oats was worth braving the cold, but just until the yummy stuff was gone.

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The chickens were all feeling fine as well, although they have two 500w heat lamps to take the chill off.

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I’m not having the best of luck so far with my first (and hopefully last) batch of winter-raised chickens.  I’ve lost 3 pullets and 2 cockerels so far, with a further 4 pullets that’ll need to be culled due to leg problems.

Most of the deaths so far I’ve attributed to their tendency to pile up in a corner at night when it gets cold.  They’re fully feathered-out at this point, so they shouldn’t need to huddle together to stay warm, but I haven’t had any luck getting them to believe it.

I think that this pile-up may be where I’m getting the leg problems as well.  Three of the four pullets with leg problems have presented with lameness literally overnight.  It could be that they’re getting caught at the bottom of the pile-up and making it out alive, but with a lame leg (or legs) instead.

On the off-chance that it’s a calcium deficency in their diet, I’m going to be switching them to a layer ration a few weeks ahead of schedule.  They have been eating chick-starter so far, which is has 18% protein to help their growth but only about 1% calcium.  The layer ration is about 16% protein, because layers are adults and thus not prone to much growing, but have around 4% calcium to help the hens form all the egg shells they’ll be laying.

Gardener’s Supply Boot Trays

18 Jan

As you may know, it’s winter.

That means lots of snow, ice, mud, water, dirt and whatnot get tracked in the house on various shoes and boots.  Add to that the addition of one more new Minnesotan, my father, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a big mess by the front door.

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We needed something to contain the mess a little bit. My Mother has owned a nice boot tray for several years, so after figuring out where she got it, I ordered two of them for our house.

They’re the large boot tray set from Gardener’s Supply. They’re $31 each, and much bigger than the other boot trays I looked at online.  They measure almost 4′ long by 14″ wide.  Plenty of room to hold the massive collection of footwear that we’ve developed.

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Better yet, they’ve got these rubber grids in the bottom to let all the snow, mud and water drain off.

I made a little shelf that will hold both trays with enough room to get the tallest mud-boots in on the bottom. That ought to help.

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15 pairs of boots and shoes off the floor, only 3 pairs are mine, so I think we know who the real culprits are…

 

Oh, and nobody gave me nothin’ for posting about this. I just think they’re awesome, so I figured I’d let all you know.

Update – $200 Pig Challenge

17 Jan

I’m spending money like a madman I tell ya.  It’s been fairly cold here (in the teens most days) so acting on the advice of my Dad, I started feeding the pigs more grain to make sure they were getting enough calories to stay warm. This was going to be pretty expensive when they’re eating 2-3 times as much pelleted feed at $16.49 per bag. So it was time to go buy a cheaper source of calories.

50# bag of oats – $12.40

Previous total – $170.42

New total – $186.01

In the past few days as I’ve been fighting through all the paperwork that comes with starting up a farm, I did notice that agricultural equipment and feed is tax exempt in Minnesota.  I paid sales taxes on all my feed purchases thus far, so I can file paperwork at the end of the year to get that credited back to me on the years tax bill.

Factor in the $2.44 that I’ll be getting back in sales taxes and…

New total – $183.57

Remaining – $16.43

(enough for a bushel of cob corn and another bag of oats if it comes to that…)

So how are the pigs eating on the shoestring budget I’ve given them?

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Quite well, thank you very much!

Remember back in October when I gleaned all that corn out of the fields after it had been harvested?

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I had enough to fill a 35 gallon trashcan, and after getting pigs, I wasn’t going to go wasting much of it on the squirrels.  I tossed a few in with the pigs normal feed, but they seemed to prefer the normal feed, lazily chewing on the corn cobs once all the hog grower was gone.

Also, feeding straight corn isn’t really ideal.  Pigs are supposed to get 14-17% protein in their diet.  Corn is only around 9% protein.  Plus, if it’s not ground up it is not as digestible.

Enter my father, who used to raise hogs back in the day (before I was old enough to remember anything about it).  He recommended soaking the corn in water for a few days.  He even said that the hogs seemed to like taste of the corn more after it had been soaked.

Sure enough, they seem to love some soaked corn. It even cuts down substantially on the amount of water they drink.

Add in some higher protein whole oats (13% protein) and the pigs have a reasonably well balanced diet.  They also get a bit of the bagged hog grower/finisher pellets and alfalfa mix hay.  Variety, after all, covers a host of sins.

Start out with 2 pints shelled corn, and 2 pints whole oats, add water till it’s covered by an inch of extra H2O.

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Then wait a day or two (or three), add water as necessary to keep the grain covered.

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After a few days, drain the excess water, and serve.

Nom, nom, nom.

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The pigs approve.

Farm Paperwork

15 Jan

It’s been a joyous day here at the farm. It’s the new year, we’re starting a new farm, farmers markets are taking vendor applications, and we’ve got piles of paperwork that need to be done.

First up: Mark all the Farmers Market dates on the big calendar, along with first and last average frost dates, and dates for a few webinars I’d like to attend.

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Then we get into the fun stuff.

Start things off with a bit of light reading, say the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Developments delightful little tome “A Guide To Starting a Business in Minnesota.”  It’s 358 pages of fun, let me tell ya.

We will be doing business as an LLC, which means that we have to fill out and file our Articles of Organization with the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office with our $135 filing fee.  After, of course, doing a quick search online to make sure that nobody else in the state has taken “Green Machine Farm, LLC” which would be a real shame at this point…

Then we have to file with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) to get a certificate exempting us from the Corporate Farm Law because we are a family-owned LLC.

Next on the list is registering with the MDA as an on-farm exempt producer for poultry and eggs.  This will allow us to sell our eggs to retail customers, restaurants and grocery stores.  As far as poultry, we will be able to process and sell up to 1000 birds per year from our on-farm store without any further paperwork or inspections.  If we want to sell a farm-processed bird at the farmers market or sell more than 1000 birds per year anywhere, then we will need to have our facility inspected by the MDA.  Our plan is to sell a few birds at farmers markets, so for now those birds will have to go to a USDA or State-inspected facility for processing.

We are exempt from having a Minnesota Retail Food Handlers License because we will only be selling products that came from our farm, of which the meats will be processed in a USDA-inspected facility.  Our breads and any canned goods aren’t potentially-hazardous foods and are specifically exempted, so we’re good there.

Minnesota puts out a handy PDF called the “Operational Guidelines for Farmers’ Market Vendors” which seems to cover all the legalities of this stuff.  Due to the somewhat byzantine nature of Minnesota’s laws, I’m still feel like there’s some license or inspection we will end up needing that will materialize out of nowhere. Time will tell, I suppose.

We are also exempt from collecting sales taxes (and getting a tax ID number) because Minnesota does not levy sales tax on Food except candy and soda.  As we do not yet have any soda trees or candy bushes, we ought to be OK for a while.

With all that out of the way (at least for now), we move on to Vendor Applications for the various farmers markets we might want to attend next year.  Red Wing has a nifty single-page application, while Northfield seems to want our entire life history on their 5 page application (not counting the 8 copies of licenses they want you to attach). But at least those two have applications available online.  I’m still waiting to get my hands on applications from Rochester and Eagan.  I gotta call those guys back tomorrow and harangue them about it a little.

The only application deadline that’s coming up fast is for the Red Wing farmers market.  I have to make it to Red Wing tomorrow before their annual winter meeting to get in our application.

So that’s been my day.  Try not to get too jealous of all the fun I’m having.

January Tech Roundup

11 Jan

As an avid newshound and techie, I’ve been following this week’s 2013 CES (Consumer Electronics Show) coverage.  It would seem that the “internet of things” is really taking off.

One of the most talked about new products from CES is the Smart Fork.  Seriously.  Mostly it’s being made fun of, but again, the “internet of things” is taking off when forks are getting in on the act.  The fork isn’t alone in the kitchen either, the ovens and refrigerators are getting wise too.

And it’s not just smart objects that are having a good year. Open source software is coming out in a big way.  By “In a big way” I mean that Ford Motor Company is getting on the open source bandwagon by introducing an open-source platform to all of their vehicles.  It’s even an Arduino & Android based system!

But the thing that I’m most excited about this month isn’t even at the CES show.  It’s not even for sale yet.

It’s a little Arduino compatible board called Pinoccio that incorporates a lot of cool features into a tiny package.  It’s basically a souped-up Arduino with an Xbee radio, rechargeable battery and temp sensor already installed.  Plus it’s made to use a little Wi-Fi shield for internet connectivity and SD card for use as a tiny web-server.

I could see a Pinoccio board being very useful for my upcoming Farm 2.0 projects, particularly pastured broiler pens.  They’re really quite a bargain (if they get to production at their current price) since they combine: an Arduino ($35) Xbee ($23) WiFi Shield ($55) Battery ($10) and Temp Sensor ($5) for $99.  It’d be $128 and a lot of assembly if you bought it all separately.

Anyway, if the Pinoccio is the kind of thing that you’d be interested in go on over to their Indiegogo page and throw a few bucks their way to get them started.  They’ve got until Valentines day to raise their goal of $60k to cover the costs of FCC licensing and the first production run.

Antibiotics: good in small doses

8 Jan

Earlier this week I bought the first three pigs for our new farm.  They weren’t exactly the heritage breed hogs that I’d like to end up with, but they’re a cheap entry-point to the pork business, like a set of swine-raising training wheels.

Unfortunately, when buying feeder pigs, you’re at the mercy of the local feeder-pig producers.  In my case I got three pigs from a guy who raised pigs fairly conventionally.  These pigs came from a farm where they were raised in a barn, not a huge heated confinement barn, but indoors nonetheless.

On the ride home we noticed that the pigs all had very raspy-sounding breathing and they stunk like they had been cooped up indoors with a lot of other pigs.  Figuring that they’d been raised indoors breathing a lot of stale ammonia-leaden air, we figured they’d improve with all the fresh air that they would now be living in.

All three pigs were a bit lethargic on their first day on our farm. I figured that it was to be expected from the stress of being moved to a new place.

By the second day, two of the pigs were active and eating, but the third ways still lethargic, not interested in food and most worrying: shivering.  In an adult animal, being sick is not something that usually requires much intervention.  Adults tend to have robust fully-developed immune systems to fight off most illnesses.  It’s the young ones that you have to watch out for.  I know firsthand that young calves and chicks can keel over dead within hours of showing signs of being sick.  Much like human babies, they have undeveloped immune systems that can be rapidly overwhelmed by an infection.

Knowing how fragile young animals can be when dealing with an infection, it was time to act.  The sick pig got an injection of 2.5cc’s LA-200 (oxytetracycline)

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While I have written before about the dangers of routine antibiotic use, antibiotics definitely have their place. Antibiotics should be used, much like in people, in targeted applications to treat sick animals that would otherwise die or be permanently harmed. When used sparingly (and according to the directions) antibiotics will be long gone from the animals system by the time they become food. Most antibiotics are excreted from the body in the urine within 24 hours application.

(As an interesting and disgusting side-note: the first patients to receive penicillin were given multiple doses by “recycling” the penicillin that they excreted in their urine.)

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An hour later the sick piggie was still shivering a little bit, but he was standing in the feed pan scarfing down food.  By the next morning he was looking like a million bucks.  Antibiotics sure can be miracle drugs when they’re needed.

Just to make our marketing a bit easier, we will be the ones eating the pig that got the injection.  The antibiotics will be out of it’s system in a few days.  In 5 months when it’s time for the pig to be slaughtered the antibiotics will be long gone and forgotten, but we still couldn’t honestly claim that it was raised without antibiotics. It’s a shame that the big animal confinement operations have so sullied the name of antibiotics.  They’re darn useful and safe when handled responsibly (not in every animals feed their entire life.) But it’d honestly take more time to explain it to our customers than it’s worth, so this piggie is not going to be for sale.  Since we were going to keep one pig for ourselves anyway, we’ll be keeping this particular pig for our own freezer.

I think I’ll name him Bacon.

The $200 Pig Challenge

5 Jan

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention.  I’m beginning to believe it.

After looking around at other farms and browsing craigslist for the heritage breed pigs that I’d like to have as breeding stock, I ended up buying 3 feeder pigs that are more closely related to the typical commercial pig.

Why?  Well, you might say that I had a little run-in with necessity.  I’m hoping to have some pork to sell early this summer when we’re first making the rounds at the local farmers markets.  If I were to spend the $500-600 on a heritage breed sow, it would be almost 4 months before she would have piglets, and a further 5-8 months before the piglets were ready to eat.  That’s 9 months to a year before there’s any pork to sell.  And all that time I’ve got to pay for the pig feed that she and her piglets will be eating.  That’s quite an up-front investment.

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Instead I decided to start out with a few feeder pigs.  Feeder pigs are already about 5-8 weeks old and around 50lbs. They’ll grow up to butcher weight in 4-5 months.  That ought to give us some tasty bacon, pork chops and ham to sell right around the start of the local farmers markets. Plus, if being a pig-raising novice leads to any unfortunate mortality, then I’m out the cost of a feeder pig ($45) versus the cost of a heritage breeding animal.

Just before we left Missouri I sold an old car for scrap and netted a cool $200.  So with that as my pig-raising seed money, I’m off to see how far I can get raising a few pigs on only $200.  I’m not likely to get them all to butcher weight for that price, but we’ll see how it goes. By my back-of-the-napkin calculations the $200 should last through late March or early April.  That’s if I feed them about 1.5lb/hunderedweight/day of pig feed and free choice hay all the time.  The $200 figure isn’t exactly a hard and fast limit, as we will only be selling 2 of the 3 pigs, but it’s something to aspire to.

I’ve been able to arrange the pigs housing for exactly $0.  It helps to be living on an old farm with plenty of old fencing, feed pans, water troughs, and alfalfa-mix hay just laying around waiting to be used.  They seem pretty happy in their new digs, even after chewing on the hotwire.

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So far, expenses are as follows:

3 feeder pigs:   $135.00

100# Pig Feed:  $35.42

Total:                 $170.42

Remaining:        $29.58

After witnessing some very enthusiastic pigs eating a few days worth of kitchen scraps I’m keen on seeing if any local grocery stores are willing to let me dispose of their produce-department scraps. That might help keep costs down.

Plus, if I bring them more scraps, this little guy is going to be my BFF.

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For real.

He already loves me for the overripe bananas that I gave him.

Pigs!

3 Jan

Penny & Cinco greet the new arrivals.

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It seemed like a long car ride back from Owatonna (about 40 miles away) with the new pigs, they don’t exactly smell good enough to make great car-ride companions. The pigs settled in for the ride after 10 minutes or so by just laying down and side by side.

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They found their way into the newly minted hog barn and made themselves comfortable in the straw as the sun was setting.

It’s looking more and more like a real farm around here.