Archive | January, 2015

Decisions, Decisions…

31 Jan


Ever since we got rid of one of our Large Black sows, I’ve been keeping tabs on a few young ladies from our last litters as a potential replacement.


In the early running I was leaning toward a daughter of our Gloucester Old Spots sow Annette. Annette was, far and away, my best farrower of the bunch. Since farrowing (giving birth) successfully is a huge part of a sow’s job, she earned high marks. The problem came after farrowing. Annette is the only sow who never really liked getting a bellyrub. That may not seem like a big deal, but it seems that a bellyrub is a pretty good indicator of how a sow will nurse her litter of piglets. Our other sows will flop over at the first scratch, with Margo even “asking” for a bellyrub by flopping down at your feet before you’ve even touched her.
But not Annette. Annette has yet to roll over for a bellyrub. It seems like little coincidence then that Annette was frequently followed around by a gaggle of very noisy piglets all squealing to be nursed. While the other sows would quickly lay down to nurse their piglets, Annette would take a good 5 minutes to nurse her litter, sometimes walking a good distance before being convinced to lay down.

As a result, Annette’s piglets have been the slowest growers of the bunch. In the photo above, the smallest red pig is one of Annette’s, the other spotted/red pigs are Dottie’s (a week older), and the black pigs are from the Large Black sisters Margo and Trixie (a month older).
All the piglets were sired by our Tamworth boar, Harry.

There are a lot of variables going on in there, but all-in-all I’m happiest with Dottie’s litter. Still, I get the feeling that I can do better. Maybe a Tamworth sow is in our future?

Testing Forage Moisture

27 Jan


The last time we bought hay I bought one lot of winter rye baleage on a whim.  Turns out that the cows (and pigs) really like the stuff.


Harry, the sows and cows all make short work of the flake or two of baleage I throw them every morning, in spite of the entire bale of good grass/alfalfa hay they have available to them. Baleage is supposed to be better, nutritionally speaking, than hay so I’ve been interested in adding baleage now that we have feeder calves.

I was interested in backwards-engineering this baleage so I can get some idea of how it’s put up. With any forage, moisture content is pretty important, so why not start by testing it?


Having located the forage I wanted to sample, I pulled a fistful of winter rye out of the middle of a flake.


Then go ahead and “borrow” your wife’s best kitchen shears, her food scale and a couple other doohickeys.


Chop up precisely 100 grams of the forage in question, depositing it all on a paper plate. Make sure you tare-out the paper plate. Those things weigh about 7 grams, and that would throw off the accuracy.


Throw that 100g of goodness in the microwave (or science oven) and make sure to put your little cup of water in there to keep things from getting all ignite-y.
Also, it gives the whole kitchen that nice steamed-silage smell that your wife will love you for.


Go ahead and nuke your hay for a little bit. How long depends on the moisture you expect it’ll contain.
80% = 8 minutes
60% = 6 minutes
40% = 4 minutes

If in doubt, it’s better to go a little shorter on the time, you can always zap it a bit more later.
After it’s done with the first round, take the forage out, mix it up, weigh it and put it back in.

Continue mirowaving the sample for 1 minute intervals, mixing and weighing between.

Record your weights, you’re done nuking when the weight doesn’t change more than 1 gram.

Your final weight will be the % Dry Matter of the forage. If your 100 gram sample is now 60 grams, then the missing 40% is water.


Chicken Coop Controller: Part 1

18 Jan


So here it is, the depths of winter, time to get working on a long-neglected farm 2.0 project: the chicken coop controller.

The thing about having free-range chickens is that they need to be let out every morning and shut-in every evening.  That’s a minor inconvenience when your chicken coop is a few hundred feet from your front door, but if you’re contemplating an eggmobile it becomes a much bigger hassle.

Luckily this is the 21st century, and we have the technology to automate this particular task.  Sure, you can go out and buy an off-the shelf chicken coop door opener/closer, but where’s the fun in that?  Plus, it doesn’t really stick to our criteria: cheap, open source, adaptable, green, and labor-saving.

So here we go.

Off to build our own chicken coop controller.


I’ve started with the gold standard of open-source DIY programmable controllers, the Arduino.  The Arduino is basically a tiny $30 computer with a bunch of different inputs and outputs.  It’s a blank silicon slate that, with a little programming, can be made to do just about anything.  Programming anything other than a TI-85 calculator is new to me, so I keep my copy of Simon Monk’s Programming Arduino: getting started with sketches close by.

To do some specific tasks the Arduino needs a bit of help. Most of the time you just need a few simple electronic bits like sensors, resistors, switches and the like, but occasionally you need a bit more help.

I’m planning on opening a chicken coop door with an electric motor which the Arduino can’t handle on it’s own (and I’m not smart enough to figure out how to control a motor with a lone transistor) so I chose the Seeed studio relay shield to help the Arduino out.

After an afternoon of re-learning all the Arduino programming I forgot in the past year or two, I managed to cobble together a little bit of code to get the chicken coop controller off the ground.

With (so far) only a single photocell, the controller can cycle one of it’s relays when it gets dark out.  In it’s current state the relay is activated about 30 minutes after sunset, with a 30-second rolling average to keep transient shadows, dark clouds, etc. from triggering the “door” to close.

Phase two will involve actually adding a motor, high & low limit switches, and an indicator light (or two) and all the associated programming.  Maybe by that point I’ll be able to do more than a couple hours of tinkering with the Arduino before my head hurts…


And for anyone who’s interested, here’s the code so far:

#include <movingAvg.h>                   //
#define PHOTOCELL_PIN A0                 //connect photocell from A0 pin to ground
 movingAvg photoCell;                     //declare the moving average object
 int pc;                                  //a single photocell reading
 int avg;                                 //the moving average
 const byte Relay1 = 7;                   //define digital pin 7 as operating relay
 const byte Relay2 = 6;                   //define digital pin 6 as operating relay
 const byte Relay3 = 5;                   //define digital pin 6 as operating relay
 const byte Relay4 = 4;                   //define digital pin 4 as operating relay
void setup(void)
 digitalWrite(PHOTOCELL_PIN, HIGH);    //turn on pullup resistor
 Serial.begin(9600);                   //begin serial output
pinMode(Relay1, OUTPUT);              //set relay pins as output
 pinMode(Relay2, OUTPUT);
 pinMode(Relay3, OUTPUT);
 pinMode(Relay4, OUTPUT);
void loop(void)
 pc = analogRead(PHOTOCELL_PIN);       //read the photocell
 avg = photoCell.reading(pc);          //calculate the moving average
 Serial.print(pc, DEC);                //print the individual reading
 Serial.print(' ');
 Serial.println(avg, DEC);             //print the moving average
if (avg > 825)                        // moving average of 825 = approx. 30 min after sunset.
 // higher # in moving average = darker
 digitalWrite(Relay4, HIGH);           // turn relay #4 on & off
 digitalWrite(Relay4, LOW);
delay(5000);                          //delay 5 seconds


More Deep Litter Chicken Bedding

13 Jan


Since the last time I mentioned our deep litter chicken bedding we’ve expanded our layer flock a little bit.  We went from 50 hens to somewhere around 200 for this winter.  This change of scale poses some interesting problems for our attempts at deep litter bedding.

Last winter we discovered that it takes a lot more bedding to deep-litter a growing flock of chickens.  We didn’t manage to add enough bedding through last years brutal winter, and the bedding was not much fun to clean out in the spring.

We’ve made a few changes to the process this year.


The first change is more bedding.  We managed to get ahead of the game and lay in a supply of straw this summer, which is just the ticket to keeping chickens happy. It takes quite a bit of straw to keep a coop of 200 chickens from making an absolute mess of things.  I’m currently putting about 4 small square bales of straw in the coop every 2 weeks or so.  I have to put more on when it’s above freezing as liquids melt and need more straw to be absorbed.  Wetter conditions could also call for more absorbent (but more expensive) wood chips.

It’s already much better than last year.  No ammonia odor so far, and in the areas where the litter is thick, it’s quite spongy to stand on.


I am planning ahead a bit this year and broadcasting a fair bit of corn throughout the coop when I add new straw to the bedding pack.  The chickens eat some of the corn as they scratch around in the new straw, but they miss some which will become incentive for the pigs to turn all the composted litter for me in the spring.


Current plans are to construct an egg-mobile in the spring, move the chickens into said egg-mobile, and let the pigs into the chicken coop for a week or so to get the cleanup started.

Hay Stockpile

7 Jan


It’s January and we’ve finished building our hay stockpile.


We were a little reluctant to finish our annual hay-shopping until we got our cowherd settled in after the big switch from cow-calf to feeder calves.

With the calves all here, we figure we’ll be feeding about the same amount of hay as we did last year, around 100 bales. We managed to get about 1/3 of our hay from cuttings of our own fields, and it’s some pretty good stuff: 2nd crop Alfalfa, Oat hay (baled at dough stage), etc.

The balance of our hay is purchased at our friendly neighborhood hay auction. Last Saturday the auction prices were in the tank, so I bought all the rest of the hay we’ll need.
I couldn’t resist the urge to buy one lot of “weird” hay, big square bales of winter-rye baleage.

Verdict? The cows love it.

Let There Be Light!

6 Jan


Little by little we’re making our barn into a better place to work. We’ve put up enough gates and doors to make it possible to work cattle and pigs inside, but there was one lingering problem.

A problem that becomes quite evident every year in the dark days of winter.  There just isn’t enough light! As it turns out, a 50′ x 50′ structure needs more than four 60-watt light bulbs.

More light helps the critters see where they’re going, which means they’ll be calmer when they’re being moved around the barn.  We pretty firmly believe that calm animals taste better, so better light equals better beef!


In that spirit we installed three big fluorescent fixtures in the “alleyways” of the barn where we frequently move animals through.  And they’re T8 fixtures to boot, so more light with less energy!


Out in the “lean-to” on the side of the barn the light situation was pretty dire.  One 100w bulb for the entire space.  That usually means that the cows balk at the mere mention of going in the barn.  Being prey animals, cows have a pretty strong desire to stay out of crowded spaces where they can’t see well.  Heck, if my Auroch ancestors had been hunted for eons, I’m pretty sure I’d prefer wide-open well-lit places too.


A couple of light fixtures and 45w CFL bulbs later and there’s a serviceable level of light in the barn. Not to mention the few bits of really terrible wiring that were redone to get the lights in…