Archive | 2015

Winter Outerwear

30 Dec

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At long last winter is upon us.

151215-IMG_20151215_095939We’ve endured an extra month or two of very warm (above freezing) weather to kick off winter this year. I, for one, am thrilled to have below-freezing temperatures here to stay. Frozen ground is lots easier to deal with than nonstop mud. I’ve got three years of farming in Minnesota winters under my belt so I thought I’d take the opportunity to bloviate about winter clothes to those of you who care to listen, or read as the case may be. Winter clothes have been on my mind lately because I just had to replace my entire getup because I wore all of it out at the end of last winter. 151218-IMG_20151218_122020874

This jacket has seen some stuff.

So, jackets…
My old run-of-the-mill Carhartt jacket was pretty awesome for a number of years before it ended up looking that bad. The rip-stop Carhartt jacket only made it one year. I’m now trying out a new (much more heavily insulated) Polar King jacket that’s working out dandy so far. As best I can tell the Carhartt stuff is all the same duck (canvas) shell with different linings that make for the different price-points. The Carhartt “active jackets”, which are reasonably priced, are not exactly very warm. I just took to wearing a heavy fleece jacket under it when the weather dropped to the freezing point. Sure, they make jackets that are warmer, but they run 50% or so more.

My first winter here in Minnesota I happened upon some insulated bibs in a farm co-op the next town over. They were Polar King bibs and I LOVED them. They lasted two years until the main zipper blew out. That’s not all-together disappointing given how hard I can be on clothes. I promptly replaced them with the exact same thing. If it ain’t broke…

The other big peice of winter gear is insulated boots. I started off with a pair of Kamik boots, which were fantastic for a while. Unfortunately they didn’t stay fantastic for very long. They’re insulated with a thick felt liner which inexplicably breaks down or wears thin fairly quickly. They also have the annoying habit of accumulating any stray bit of hay or straw in the felt lining which can only be removed with a ritual sacrifice or two.

Oh, and one last bit of *almost* winter gear. When it’s not quite freezing you may encounter a condition that I like to refer to as “snice” some may use the more widely-accepted term “sleet”. Either way, it’s somewhere between snow and rain and it’s terrible. Wearing the typical winter getup in snice will only result in overheating wile being soaked to the bone.

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Rain gear is therefore essential for these few weeks (or months in the case of this year). The best rain gear I’ve ever found has been a German military surplus “flecktarn” camouflage gore-tex suit. The hood is epic, hands-down the best ever. The only problem is that the chickens are scared of it for some reason.

 

Oh, one last tidbit.  I’ve been buying most of my stuff through the Working Person’s store but I’m pretty ticked off at their pricing.  I noticed that every time I add something to my online shopping cart the price goes up.  See a jacket for $64.18, click “buy” and suddenly it’s $79.99.  Not cool guys.

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Winter Chicken Accommodations

23 Dec

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With winter coming on (though very slow to arrive this year) we’ve moved the chickens into their winter abode, the chicken coop.  Since we’re getting close to the maximum capacity of this sized coop this winter at about 400 hens, we’ve been paying special attention to the care and feeding of said hens to (hopefully) keep them in prime condition over the winter.

Eggs have always been in high demand so expanding our egg production has been of keen interest.  This is the first year that we’re going into the winter with a chicken coop that’s pretty well sorted out.  We recently did the last of the major work on the coop, as well as overhauling the chicken’s feeders and waterer.

We’re finishing up the last of the chicken’s list now, adding new roosting bars and nest boxes.

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As well as adding the last 12″ of steel roofing that someone neglected to put up years (if not decades) ago.

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We’re adding a few extra feeders this year, one each for a few extra supplements to keep the chickens healthy and happy.  One feeder holds grit, basically small rocks, that the chickens need to help grind up their food.  One holds oyster shell, a major source of calcium – think egg shells.  And the third holds barley.

We raised a lot of barley this year and it ought to work out well as a supplementary feed for the chickens over winter.  Chickens need a bit more energy during the cold months, and barley fits the bill as well as anything.  It’s even supposed to cut down on feather-pecking and cannibalism which would be an excellent side effect.

We’re still using deep litter bedding for the chickens, but with 400 of them the litter is building up much faster than before.  It’s already about time to clean out the coop and I anticipate a few cleanings will be necessary throughout the winter.

Everything’s going pretty smoothly so far, between the deep litter and the increased number of birds the coop stays pretty toasty inside even though it is not heated.  The temperature has been fairly consistently at least 10°F higher inside the coop than outside. Most of the time it’s been 15-20°F higher inside, meaning that it’s never been below freezing inside the coop so far this winter.

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Comfy chickens lay more eggs, at least that’s the theory.  And right on queue our young hens who we got as chicks in July have just started laying their first pullet eggs.  Don’t worry egg customers, eggs are coming!

Portable Roost Bars

18 Dec

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With a few hundred more chickens than we had last winter we’ve run out of roost space in our chicken coop.

The ceiling-mounted roost bars are great, but the outlets, light fixtures and chicken feeders all mounted to the ceiling get in the way of adding more.

So I got a small pile of lumber and turned it into portable roost bars.

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The materials list is two 2″x4″x10′ and five 2″x4″x8′ Chop the 10′ boards in half and bolt them together 3.5″ from the top, now you’ve got the support legs.

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Then get ready to practice ripping 2×4’s in half, turning them into a pile of 2″x2″x8′ boards which are your roost bars.
Much ripping, very wow.

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Then get measuring and marking. The support legs get a mark 5″ from the top and four more marks every 10″. The roost bars get a mark 2′ from each end.

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Line up the marks and sink some screws. Once your done with one side, flip it over and do the other side making sure not to screw into the same support leg.

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Now just introduce your new creation to some chickens. Assuming you didn’t screw two sides to the same support leg it should unfold thusly, giving those chickens plenty of places to get up off the ground for a snooze.

Mega-Waterer v2.0

14 Dec

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After two (or is it three now?) years of experience with the Mega-Waterer under my belt, there were a few improvements I’ve been mulling over.

131224-IMG_20131224_125842The main problem continues to be excess water dripping from the nipples down onto the floor and all the bedding.  The water heater pan from version 1.3 hasn’t really helped in the winter.  We just get these lovely ice-stalagmites. Sure this is only a problem during the winter now that we have the Winebeggo, but the inevitable wet bedding is a nasty, smelly mess and we’d like to avoid it this winter. Add to that the fact that we’re up to over 400 hens, and we needed something with a bit more capacity. 151102-IMG_20151102_165755666

Enter the Mega-Waterer 2.0
It all starts off with this 9′ long mess of 1″ PVC pipe (with nipples, of course) and a 10′ section of vinyl gutter.
Now this all may look an awful lot like our Pastured Chicken Waterers, but there are a few important differences that make this worthy of a Minnesota winter. First, a return leg and second, the gutter. The return leg allows us to circulate water through the pipe, keeping us from having to use an energy-sucking heat tape to keep the pipe from turning into one big ice cube. The gutter is going to catch all the drips and give the chickens a second chance to drink up all the water they spill. Since the return leg (which is full of above freezing water) is down in the gutter, it should prevent any water in the gutter from freezing.

151112-IMG_20151112_141255426Now in order to make this work we’ll need a water pump. Nothing fancy, this little $9 water pump from Harbor Freight is more than up to the task. Attached to a bit of 1/2″ID 3/4″OD tubing and it’s ready to go, that size tubing fits nicely into the back of a 3/4″ Barb/MPT fitting. 151112-IMG_20151112_154807045

My first idea was to use an empty 325 gallon IBC tote as the reservoir for this particular waterer. More is better, is it not? But then I ran into two rather unforgiving dimensional challenges. An IBC tote is too big to fit through the chicken coop door. To make matters worse, the hole in the top of the tote is too small to accommodate a stock tank de-icer.

151121-IMG_20151121_123455711_HDROh well, I just had to settle with a measly 55-gallon reservoir. Drill one hole for water going out, another for return and drop the pump and de-icer in. A few weeks in service and there is absolutely NO water on the floor and all bajillion hens are drinking happily from the same waterer with no squabbles over space at the trough. 151123-IMG_20151123_112024243

As expected, the chickens drink any water that accumulates in the gutter first.  Let nothing go to waste.

Feed Mixes – Sow & Layer

6 Dec

I get asked all the time what we feed our chickens/pigs/cows. People want to know, and rightfully so. So here it is. This is the feed mix I came up with that I’m about to order for the chickens (the vast majority of which are pullets who are just starting to lay).

Green Machine Layer Feed
Corn – 750#
Barley  –  500#
Roasted Soybeans – 300#
Linseed Meal  –  200#
Alfalfa Meal – 100#
Oyster Shell – 100#
Premix  –  50#

CP – 15.5%

Openness and transparency and all that.

But mainly I’m just an internet-dependent fellow who knows that if I put my feed recipes up on on the internet then I will always be able to find them.

Green Machine Gestating Sow Feed
Oats – 1750#
Linseed Meal – 100#
Alfalfa Meal – 100#
Premix – 50#

CP – 12%

I’ve been messing around with feed rations for a while now, trying to work as much of the corn & soy out of the mix as I can. The most frequent request from customers and prospective customers is that the feeds be GMO free. As I can’t buy any non-GMO corn or soybeans around here, that leaves me to experiment with the non-GMO feed ingredients I can get locally. The list is pretty short, though it’s a lot better than it was a year or two ago.

Oats – 11% CP
Barley 11.5% CP (farm-grown)
Alfalfa Meal – 18% CP
Linseed Meal – 34% CP

Chicken Feeders

4 Dec

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We keep getting more chickens, which means that we keep outgrowing the chicken equipment that we already have.
No sooner than I found a newer better brand of 30lb. chicken feeder did we move on to 40lb. feeders, and lots of them.

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If you find yourself in the market for a 30lb. chicken feeder you can’t really do better than the Harris Farms free range feeder.  They’re mostly identical to the standard Miller/Little Giant 30lb. feeder but they do have one much-needed improvement.

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The Harris Farms feeders have a little spring integrated into the hooks on the pan.  The springs may not look like much, but they keep the pan attached to the tube when empty.  My biggest complaint about the Millers is the constant need to reattach the pan to the tube.

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That being said, we’ve recently moved on to the 40lb. Miller/Little Giant feeders which are quite a lot better than their smaller brethren.  For some reason they don’t have the same problem with pan-tube detachment even though they lack springs.  They also have a slightly wider and deeper pan, which makes it harder for the chickens to waste feed.

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I’ve got my method of hanging chicken feeders pretty nailed-down by now.  I use a hook in the ceiling of the coop, a bit of small chain and a double snap hook to hang the feeder.  Cut a long enough piece of chain that your smallest feeder will just touch the floor, that’s as much chain as you should ever need. The feeders can be slowly raised over the course of the winter as the bedding builds up.

’15 Turkeys

30 Nov

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After the great turkey massacre of 2013 we were unenthusiastic about delving back into turkeys.  We were busy enough with other projects that we didn’t bother to try to raise any turkeys in 2014.

This year we decided to jump back in the saddle, if only because we didn’t want to go out and buy a Thanksgiving bird again this year.

We ended up buying a very small number of Bourbon Red turkeys to try out.  The last two years that we’d grown turkeys we raised the broad-breasted bronze variety, all of which ended up being entirely too big (35-38lbs. dressed weight) by Thanksgiving.    So if Independence day to Thanksgiving is too long to have a broad-breasted turkey around then it ought to be just about right for a heritage turkey right?

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Wrong.

The Bourbon Reds were nowhere near the right size by Thanksgiving.  We ended up with 5.5-8lb. turkeys.  Oh well, that’s why we only got a few this year.  We’ll get a few more turkeys next year and get them a good bit earlier.

Brooding turkeys is the biggest challenge for us. Turkeys need to be kept very warm (90-100°F) for the first few months of their lives.  Next year I’d like to start the turkeys in early to mid-May, which will entail a bigger investment in fuel for the brooder.  This is Minnesota, after all, and cold-snaps during the month of May are not out of the question (if not expected).

I kept a tom turkey and two hens (alive) as experimental breeding-stock for next year.  If they actually manage to hatch out and brood a clutch of eggs then that would be ideal.  I’d gladly let the adult turkeys do all the work of caring for young turkey poults, we’ll just have to wait and see if they feel the same way.

Pasture Doghouse

26 Nov

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With the little Pyrenees puppies getting bigger by the day it was only a matter of time before they needed a bigger dog house.  I’ve done plenty of reading about livestock guard dogs over the years and most sources agree that they need a good dog house, though they may seldom actually use it.  Apparently it’s extended periods of rain that they don’t like and if you give them a cozy place to wait out the rain then they’re unlikely to abandon their post.

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Since we have two soon-to-be enormous dogs I figured that an enormous dog house was in order. It ended up measuring 42″x48″ and it’s on skids so it can be moved around with the Winnebeggo when the time comes.

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Both puppies fit in the Dogloo right now with room to spare. They should continue to fit in the big house with room to spare.
The house was completed just in time for three consecutive days of cold, rainy weather.

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The pups seemed to appreciate their new accommodations.

There is a full-width door on the back of the dog house to facilitate clean-out.  Next spring when the dogs move out on pasture with the Winnebeggo I’ll mount the dog feeder on the back door and it should be ready to go.

From Tracker to Trucklet

18 Nov

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While there is plenty to love about our little Geo Tracker, there were a few things that needed some immediate attention.

Like this ignition key situation.

151109-IMG_20151109_111859479The tumblers on these particular ignition switches are prone to freezing up. The intrepid previous owner just popped the switch off the back of the ignition assembly and left it dangling below the dash. You can start it with any key or similarly flat object. Not having a real key isn’t a huge problem for us, but futzing around under the dash every time you want to start and stop the Trucklet is a pain in the neck. 151109-IMG_20151109_155900531

I took a few minutes to yank the tumbler assembly out, remove all the pins and put it all back together so it looks stock. It still starts with anything remotely key-like (in our case a stubby flat-head screwdriver) but it’s all in the right place.

151112-IMG_20151112_133424706Next up we tackled the four bald tires. My internet sleuthing told me that the biggest tire that I could expect to fit without a lift was 235/75r15, so I went on down to the tire store and asked for the most aggressive tire they had in that size. I was pleasantly surprised that they didn’t rub or otherwise require any fender cutting or rolling. 151108-IMG_20151108_215755897

The biggest change we instituted was to make a little truck bed in the back of the Tracker. Trackers come with a little fold-able rear seat in the back. This is a rear seat in the same sense that a Honda CRX has a rear seat: only for children or double-amputees.
The seat, carpet, seat-belts and canvas top all were stripped off the rear of the vehicle.

151114-IMG_20151114_163046485With a sheet of plywood and a lot of careful measuring and cutting we ended up with this bit to separate the front seats from our new truck bed. 151114-IMG_20151114_163110675

It was a pretty good fit, but we secured it in place with a dozen or so of these little “L” brackets just to be safe.

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Add a sheet of lexan for a rear window, a few tubes of caulk and a few cans of truck-bed liner paint and you’ve got yourself a trucklet.

The only thing it really needs now is a receiver hitch, but that’s a welding project for another day.

Meet the Trucklet

12 Nov

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There’s a new machine rumbling around the farm these days.

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Meet the Trucklet, our 1995 (ish?) Geo Tracker.   We’ve had an ATV on the farm for a while, which was quite handy when you needed to get across the farm in a hurry.  It just wasn’t as handy if you needed to take any stuff with you.  A small diversified livestock farm entails hauling lots of 5-gallon buckets, 55-gallon drums and 150-gallon water tanks to and fro.

Don’t get me wrong, it is possible to haul those things on an ATV but it is probably not safe and definitely not comfortable.

We decided to look into something a little bigger and a little more capable.  A side-by-side UTV would be ideal, I suspect there’s a reason why nearly every farmer around here has one, but holy cow they’re expensive!  We ended up with a Geo/Chevy Tracker (nee Suzuki Sidekick) for the princely sum of $1000.

Awesome things about Trackers & Sidekicks:

They’re cheap – manufactured from 1989-2007 (in the US) there are a ton of them for sale and that means they’re cheap. I’ve seen them for as little as $500.  Compare that to $6000-8000 for a Japanese Mini-Truck or $10,000-15,000 for a UTV.

Parts are cheap – With so many of them on the road, you can find any part you’ll ever need at just about any auto-parts store or junkyard.  Compare that to an ATV or UTV where you’ll have to buy parts online or from the dealership and the sticker-shock on those parts might just detach your retinas.

It’s small – Tracker/Sidekicks are only 60″ wide, that’s the same width as a UTV.  They’re just about the same length too. That means they’ll go places where most other trucks just won’t fit.

It’s a truck – they’re built like trucks anyway.  Body-on-frame, hi-lo transfer case, manual transmission, all that good stuff. Plus you get all the creature comforts of a high-end UTV: lights, roof, doors, heat and a radio.

 

So what’s the downside to this awesome beast?  Well, the main thing is that it’s a motor-vehicle, so if you want to drive it on a public road it needs to be licensed and insured and all that jazz.  Not too big of a deal for us since we plan on it being a strictly on-farm vehicle.

The other drawbacks are primarily related to our Tracker being a cheap used car.  The power steering pump leaks, the brakes are soft, the tires are bald and the ignition switch is messed up.   Those are my kind of downsides.  The easily fixed kind.