Evolution of a chicken feeder

30 Aug

We’ve been searching for a good chicken feeder solution while the chickens are out on pasture.  Sure, we’ve been using the regular 30 or 40 pound tube feeders, but they need a roof over them and that makes them impractical for pasture use.  We tried a big homemade hopper feeder on the Chuck Wagon earlier this year, but that was a dismal failure.  What we needed was a feeder that was weather proof, had lots of linear inches of feeder space and was easily moved to a new pasture.  Bonus points were awarded for keeping the chicken feed inaccessible to cows or pigs, since pasture co-habitation is an occasional reality (intentional or not).

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Chicken Cafeteria v0.1 (proof of concept)

Version Notes: lots of linear inches of feeder space, easily moved.

 

 

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Chicken Cafeteria v0.2

Changelog: added hinged roof

Version Notes: quite weather resistant, chickens prefer to perch on the gutters while they eat.

 

 

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Chicken Cafeteria v0.5

Changelog:

fixed floppy-gutter, switched from vinyl to aluminum gutter

improved foot-rail usage by implementing a flat rail

added anti-perch roller

added tow points

Version Notes: foot-rail usage much improved, anti-perch roller ineffective, potential runner wear issues.

 

 

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Chicken Cafeteria v1.0

Changelog:

improved foot-rail & gutter height to reduce feed waste

modified runners to improve towing performance/wear

lowered roof height to reduce non-poultry feed access

added anti-scratch/anti-perch screen

Version Notes: This is it! Detailed DIY instructions coming soon…

All About Eggs; Part 1: What Kind of Chicken Lay Those Eggs?

26 Aug

We get so many questions about eggs, I decided it was time to do a series of posts on them.

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Let’s start with the chickens. There are three basic types of chickens, meat birds, dual purpose, and layers. Although meat bird breeds lay eggs, the birds are not long lived and the number of eggs they produce are not conducive for using them for egg production. Dual purpose breeds can be used for egg production or can be butchered for meat. They will not lay as many eggs as breeds in the layer category, and won’t be as heavy as a meat bird, but serve backyard farmers well. Laying breeds tend to be smaller bodied birds that require less feed, but because of their smaller size are not desirable for meat production. We keep mostly dual purpose chickens, with a few layer types acquired for other qualities we desired which I will explain later.

When considering what breeds we want as layers, there are several factors to consider. Since we use pasture based system, we want chickens that are good foragers. Because we live in Minnesota, we also need to think about how they fare in a cold climate. Do they lay well during the winter? Do they have large combs, which may lead to frostbitten parts? Are they gentle? Also, because we are in the egg “business” their tendency to broodiness is important. When a hen is broody, she is trying to hatch eggs. She doesn’t lay for many weeks, neglects her own health, and takes up space in the nest boxes so other chickens can’t lay. Egg size and number is also breed determinate.

We currently have 3 breeds of chickens that seem to work well for us. Our main breed is a Rhode Island Red. They are a gentle, dual purpose, hardy, brown egg layer, that does well on a pastured system.

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We also have Ameraucanas. These chickens lay the blue or green eggs you see when you get a dozen of our eggs. They don’t lay as well, but forage well, endure our winters and are gentle. We put up with fewer eggs and their tendency to broodiness because we really like having diverse colors of eggs.

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(Note: All three of these chickens in the foreground are Ameraucanas. They have extremely diverse coloring.)

Our third breed is the dark Leghorn, which lays white eggs. White Leghorns are typically used for industrial egg production. We chose the dark Leghorns so their coloration wouldn’t make them as much a target for predators while out on pasture, but also because Leghorns are very nervous birds and we hoped they might act as an alarm system for the rest of our flock.

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We are adding a fourth breed to the line up for next year’s eggs. It is the Cuckoo Maran, a breed that lays a dark chocolate colored egg. This will expand our color variations even more. Think of how cool this would be for natural Easter eggs.

Our Cuckoo Maran are not laying yet. On average, it takes about 6 months for a chicken to start laying.  Chocolate colored eggs beginning this winter, folks.

Did you ever wonder why sometimes all the egg vendors have a lot of eggs and not many at other times?  There are several reasons for this.

Most hens lay efficiently for two laying cycles. However, after two years, there is likely to be a decline in productivity. Once they start, good layers will keep laying for about 60 weeks in their first cycle and then perhaps 50 weeks in the second cycle. Between those cycles they will molt (lose their feathers and grow new ones), during which time laying ceases or drastically reduces. The molting cycle can last anywhere from 4 – 12 weeks.

During winter, once daylight drops below 12 hours, production can decrease and may stop altogether. To prevent this, some farms install lights in sheds to maintain light for 12 – 14 hours a day and trick the birds into thinking its still daytime (so they keep eating). That’s not a farming practice that we think is appropriate. Daylight in Minnesota starts increasing early in the spring (March) and decreasing early in the fall (September). So natural egg production stinks between the months of September and March.

Stay tuned for Part 2; What Makes Our Eggs Different?

 

 

 

Broilers: Scaling, Efficiency and Other Excuses

1 Aug

I wanted to believe that Joel Salatin’s chicken-raising method would work for us.  We started out with some pens we slapped together from recycled material and dutifully used them for a few years.  After that, the pens flaws were showing.  I redesigned the pens earlier this year, hoping that I could mitigate the problems, but it’s now clear to me that Joel’s system is not going to work for us.

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Here’s the thing, I don’t think it’s a bad system.  Joel’s system works really well for raising Cornish-Cross broilers in a environment were:

A: you don’t experience very windy conditions during the growing season.

and

B: all other livestock will be excluded from the chicken’s pasture.

The problem is that we always have windy weather in the summer and fall, we have other livestock that need to move through the chicken’s pasture occasionally and we won’t be raising Cornish-Cross chickens.

Joel Salatin’s system is really in it’s element when you can build cheap light-weight pens that can be easily pulled around the pasture by hand.  You can only keep around 50 chickens per pen, so you’ll need lots of them to make the eventual trip to the poultry processor worthwhile.

In order to sell chicken at a farmers market we need to have our chickens butchered at a USDA-inspected poultry processor.  Such processors are quite rare, and we count ourselves as lucky to be only a 90-minute drive from our poultry processor. Even so, to make the trip worthwhile we need to have a full trailer.  This means that we’d like to have batches of at least 300 chickens.

Our first pens were really efficient, their light weight meant we spent less time and energy moving pens around the pasture.  Unfortunately, realities of weather and other livestock meant that the lightweight pens did not last very long.  Late summer and fall are a reliably windy time on our farm, leading to scenes reminiscent of a poultry-based Wizard of Oz.  Poultry pens would be blown around and inevitably end up smooshing chickens like a Kansas farmhouse, if Dorothy’s house was then flattened by a herd of cows eager to scratch their necks on the Auntie Em’s clapboard siding.

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Our solution to this little problem was to design a much sturdier chicken pen, but while the new pens solved a few problems, they created a few more.  The new pens are much sturdier, showing nary a single sign of wear, but all that sturdiness manifests itself as extra weight.  Extra weight makes the new pens much harder to move, even with a Salatin-style dolley to add wheels to the process.  To make matters worse, we found out that the new pens still get blown around on gusty days.

One of the biggest expenses in raising broilers on pasture is labor and when your chicken pens require even more labor than usual, the economics begin to work against you real fast.  So while our new pens cut out a lot of work rebuilding and refitting pens at the beginning of every season, they cause us a lot more work in their day-to-day operation.

To top it all off, last year we decided that we didn’t much like raising the standard Cornish-Cross breed of broiler chicken and we opted to only raise the slower-growing Red Ranger breed.  It turns out that we’re not the only ones deciding to make the switch, as Starbucks and Whole Foods just announced that they’d soon switch to similar breeds of chickens.

One thing we really like about the Red Rangers is that they exhibit ranging behaviors that are much more like a laying-breed than the Cornish-Cross.  Where Cornish-Cross are the couch potatoes of the poultry world, Red Rangers are jocks by comparison.  Red Rangers, shockingly enough, range very well.  While they still grow a lot faster than a layer, they retain the athleticism that’s necessary to get out and hustle up some grub on pasture.  As such, they don’t really require the same pasture force-feeding regimen that Salatin’s open-bottom pens are designed for.  Red Rangers are more than happy to go out and get some of that pastured goodness for themselves, thank you very much.

So this year, we raised our first batch of broilers using the new pens, but we let the chickens day range.  This means that we penned the chickens up at night, but opened the doors to let them free-range during the day.  Our day-range experiment worked out swimmingly and we’re planning to move to a day-range system for all of next years broilers.  Day-ranging, even with our less than ideal new pens, saved a good deal of labor.  Because the chickens were only penned up overnight, the pens could be left in place for 2-3 days before one needed to go through the maddeningly difficult task of moving them to a new patch of grass.

In short, it all worked out OK, but we’re giving up on the second batch of broilers this year.  I’ve got an idea for a new system for raising broilers, but it’s going to have to wait until next year.

 

Big Cathy’s Barbacoa

19 Jul

First of all, I need to explain the name although I’m unsure of the whole story. I acquired the nickname Big Cathy when my two oldest kids were in high school. Supposedly the name was a term of endearment earned from their friends, although I’m not sure whether to believe it. Those of you who know me or have met me at market know the name doesn’t quite fit my stature.

If you are a lazy cook these days, but like good food, this recipe is for you. Long days of farm work don’t leave much time for me to spend in the kitchen, so slow cooker recipes let me have the best of both worlds. My latest discovery is slow cooker barbacoa.

Most of you recognize barbacoa from the Chipotle menu. This is very similar. It’s not authentic barbacoa, but an Americanized version.

In the U.S., barbacoa is often prepared with parts from the heads of cattle, such as the cheeks. In northern Mexico, it is also sometimes made from beef head, but more often it is prepared from goat meat (cabrito).

Uh, no thanks. I prefer a grass fed beef roast.

Barbacoa

Ingredients:

• 2-3lbs Beef Arm Roast
• 6 Tbsp Water
• 3 Tbsp Apple Cider Vinegar
• 1 1/2 Tbsp Lime Juice
• 2 Chipotle chiles in Adobo
• 2 Cloves Garlic, minced
• 2 tsp Cumin
• 1 tsp Oregano
• 1/2 tsp Salt, Pepper

Directions:

Add all ingredients to slow cooker, cover and cook on low for 6 hours.

 

Serve on tortillas or in a bowl with beans, rice, lettuce, salsa, cheese, sour cream, tomato, avocado…..you get the gist.

Keep in mind your tolerance for heat from the peppers. The heat level in this recipe is fairly mild. If you prefer more heat, increase your chipotle peppers, but be careful of getting is so hot you lose the beef flavor.

This works well when you need food for a crowd. Or you can even portion out leftovers and store in your freezer to use at a later date.

 

I Figured out the Barn!

10 Jun

I’m a very happy fellow these days.

You see, I’ve just solved a three-year old dilemma that’s been aggravating me every time I move cows or pigs around the barn.

And all it took was accidentally setting up this panel just so.

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This makes absolutely no sense, I know, but bear with me as I explain in excruciating detail.

Our barn is an old (built in 1890) dairy barn.  This is a problem because, being a dairy barn, it is built for dairy cows.  Other farmers may understand my dilemma by now, but for those of you not so well versed in the nuances of livestock, I offer this by way of explanation.

Dairy cows are (generally) very docile. Historically, small dairies would fit their cows with halters or collars (where cowbells hang) that would allow the cows to be lead into their stall in the barn by the farmer.  Dairy cows must be milked several times per day, and it takes a pretty gentle animal to stand still and be milked by it’s primary predator.

If your cows are so docile that you can lead them exactly where you want them, then you don’t need much in the way of handling facilities (gates, chutes, alleys) to get them were you want them.

But the problem is that we don’t have any dairy cows.

Instead we have beef cattle and pigs.  These critters, bred for their meat, are decidedly less docile.  Technically speaking, they have much larger flight zones.  Whereas a dairy cow would let you approach and put on a halter, a beef cow will (at best) let you barely touch it’s nose before it turns and flees.  Some beef cattle, like those raised out west with little human contact, have flight zones that are best measured in football fields.

So, to make a long story short, with beef cattle and pigs one needs to have handling facilities that are up to the task of moving, sorting and confining small herds of skittish livestock.  These facilities should be more than a collection of gates, chutes and alleys too.  Any decent handling facility needs to “flow.”  That is to say, the livestock need to move through the handling facilities without a lot of yelling, crowding or other goofy intervention by the farmer.  Good flow leads to lower stress on the animals (and by extension lower stress on the farmer) which leads to better meat.

As I’ve noted before, there are tons of resources available about how to design handling facilities that are perfectly suited for moving livestock of all types.  Lots of these plans, especially the ones that Temple Grandin has come up with, should flow livestock through with minimal stress.

Unfortunately (as I’ve also noted before) the nice little diagrams and layouts they give bear little resemblance to centuries-old dairy barns.  So those of us who are rehabbing old barns are left out in the cold.  It’s easy to see what the best facilities should look like, but impossible to see how those facilities will fit in any preexisting structure.

Thus the three year conundrum: How to fit usable handling facilities in our existing barn?

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Here’s what I was thinking about for the past three years.  Please excuse the fact that my hand-drawn barn layout isn’t quite to scale.  Either way we can see that following the traditional chutes & alleys approach is a complete train-wreck.  The biggest problem (#1) being that the straightest path to the holding/sorting pen is through a door that is smack-dab in the middle of a wall.  For humans this is not a big deal.  We know what a door is and how to approach one.  Livestock, on the other hand, are not big fans of doors and will go to great lengths to avoid them unless they’re placed in a corner.

Sure, you can more easily herd cattle through the second door back in the corner but there you will run into problem area #2, the big fat middle of everything that is too short, too wide and just too in-the-way to put a chute.  Even if you did manage to shoehorn a chute in the middle of all this mess you’d only create a bigger mess at point #3 where four of your hypothetical chutes collide into one epic mess.   Even if you did manage to build facilities like this it would ruin the everyday usefulness of the barn because you’d never be able to move through the barn without opening and closing a couple dozen gates.  That’s not something I’m interested in trying with a full bucket of feed in each hand.

And this all brings us back to the accidentally placed gate.

That one gate (placed diagonally across a “chute”) got me thinking about things a little bit differently.
What if there were no chutes?  What if we thought about funnels instead?

funnels

This layout solves nearly all the problems inherent in the barn’s original design.  First (#1) we can funnel the livestock into the far door where they will go into the barn of their own volition (with just a little bit of pressure from me).   Inside the barn we get to the first proper funnel (#2) that leads into the holding/sorting pen.  The beauty of this setup is that it works on the same principles as the vaunted Bud-Box.  The basic idea is that cattle like to turn around and go back out the way they came in.

Better yet, when they leave the holding/sorting pen, the way out is also a funnel (#3) which leads to an almost immediate release of the pressure that cattle experience from being in close confines.  Area #3 also doubles as a smaller sorting pen for the pigs.  Pigs, being smaller than cattle and having smaller flight zones, need a smaller sorting area.

As with anything on the farm, it may look good on paper, but the proof is in the pudding.  As such, I’m happy to report that I’ve now sorted cows and pigs through the barn with the new “funnels” setup and it works SO MUCH better than anything else I’ve ever tried.  Setting it all up is many times faster and easier than the old way, which is a lot easier on me.  The funnel approach is also much less stressful on the cattle.  There is hardly any balking at going in the barn, and even the most skittish cows will walk out of the barn instead of running (a sure sign of low stress).

Happy accident, happy cows, happy pigs, happy farmer.

Chuck Wagon

29 May

We recently refitted the Winnebeggo to include a lot of new roost bars that were needed to accommodate all the new hens that will be calling the Winnebeggo home this summer.

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All the new roost bars made it necessary to remove the 55 gallon barrel that was the heart of the winnebeggo’s watering system.  Couple this with the fact that accessing the 30 pound hanging feeders under the sides of the Winnebeggo was becoming a pain in the neck, and we began to dream up a different solution to keeping the chickens fed and watered out on pasture.

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And so the Chuck Wagon was born.  We acquired an extra running gear last year for a good price, so we promptly added a few 4×4’s to form a solid base and strapped on the single biggest water container that we have.

The chickens now enjoy a massive 325 gallon water reservoir in the form of a big IBC tote that we intended to use this past winter for the Mega-Waterer 2.0

As with anything that’s going to be bumping around the pasture, keeping things in their place is always a concern.  We (probably) addressed this well enough with a big handful of conduit clamps.

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The water distribution is pretty simple given the relatively compact layout of the chuck wagon.  The IBC tote feeds two waterers, each housing 10 nipples each.

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There is also a hose with it’s own valve.  The hose has the Plasson quick-connect fitting that allows us to fill the tote with water from any of our pasture water fittings.  This also allows us a hose to fill up the dog’s water bowl, or give something a quick rinsing-off out in the pasture.

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And that brings us to the other half of the chuck wagon equation, the feed.  Bedecking the chuck wagon in a dozen or so hanging feeders didn’t sound like a great idea, so we had to come up with another kind of feeder.

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We ended up with a pair of big hoppers made out of 1/2″ pressure-treated plywood.  The hoppers are 4′ wide, 21″ across the top and 3″ wide at the bottom.

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Oh, and each hopper has a bottom that’s made out of a 1″x10″ on the bottom and 1″x6″ sides.   To keep it all upright during it’s pasture travels, both hoppers are braced together and to the 4×4 beams.

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After adding a few bits of roof to the feeders, it was nearly time to fill them up with feed to see how much they’d hold.

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The answer we got was 21 buckets, or about 650# of feed in each feeder, for a total of 1300 pounds.  Between the 1300# of feed and the 325 gallons of water, we’ve cut down our labor in feeding and watering chickens significantly.

The Chuck Wagon was not without it’s shortcomings. The first few days of use saw several intense rainstorms, which pointed to a need for more protection for the bottom of  the feeders.

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We quickly sorted it all out with a few extra scraps of metal roofing.

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The chickens approve.

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All 450 of them have been out on pasture for nearly a week now and they appear to be quite happy.

Spring Grazing 2016

18 May

At this time last year our cows had been out on pasture for a little over a week.

This year, due to a mild winter, they’ve been out on pasture since April 27th.  They even had 17 acres of winter rye stubble to nibble on before the real grazing kicked off.

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And while the weather did open up the opportunity for earlier grazing, it was the three-years of infrastructure that we’ve built (fences, improved pastures, water lines) that have allowed us to capitalize on the early grazing season.

We had our first cow sent to the butcher on April 8th, which seemed a bit optimistic.  Finishing a cow after a Minnesota winter without grain or lush grass seems like a completely impossible task.

Much to my surprise I picked up these ribeyes from the butcher.

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I have no idea how we pulled that off, but those suckers are more marbled than they have any right to be.

Piglet Brooder

15 May

Since we got the new brooder all setup with a propane brooder, we’ve not had need of our old Hover Brooder for the chicks.  But this being Minnesota in the spring, we did have a few cold snaps that left us in need of supplemental heat for our piglets.

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All but one of our sows have farrowed (given birth) so far this spring.  The piglets and their mother spend the first three days inside the barn in a farrowing pen.  On or about day three, when the time of greatest danger to the piglets has passed, they’re processed and turned out into group housing with their mothers.

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This year we’re using our three-sided pole-barn for community housing for all of our lactating sows. The pole-barn doesn’t have electricity, but it’s close enough (one extension-cord length) to the chicken coop that an electric hover brooder is an option.

The hover brooder for chickens is a pretty good starting place for a piglet brooder, but there are a few important modifications, because pigs.

First up, piglets don’t need to be as warm as chickens.  Chickens need brooder temps of at least 100°F, pigs can get by with 80°F

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Since we needed less heat we pulled out two of the five sockets in the chick brooder, leaving us with three sockets in a straight line.  With three bulbs we can go up to 750 watts, but we used smaller bulbs to end up with 375 watts of heat.  That turned out to be plenty to keep the piglets cozy.

The next problem we needed to address was the porcine propensity to play around with absolutely anything they can lay their snouts on.  In a situation where a heat lamp is in proximity to said porcines, the heat lamp bulb will presently meet an untimely end.

Which is to say that piglets will break every heat lamp bulb.
Every. Dang. Time.

Usually snapping the bulb off at the base, leaving it to your friendly neighborhood farmer to painstakingly extract with a pair of needle-nose pliers.

Not cool pigs.

So you see my problem.  Fortunately, I figured that simply covering the bulbs with a bit of 2×4 fence wire would be enough to keep the pesky piglets at bay.

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As it turns out I had an even better bit of fence-type-stuff to make a bulb-guard out of.  Once upon a time we had a baby crib that was broken by an overly rambunctious toddler.  This toddlers father, being a connoisseur and collector of choice junk did endeavor to save the wire frame that held up the crib mattress because it looked an awful lot like a heavy-duty bit of 2×4 fencing.  Waste not, want not and all…

And don’t forget the usability considerations, the wire guard needs to swing out of the way for easy bulb changes (heat lamp bulbs have the life expectancy of a mayfly, so there will be lots of bulb changes).  We used three eye screws and three hooks to keep the thing in place.

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Obligatory piglet pile photo.

And Margo, because sometimes a momma just wants in on a piglet pile too.

 

Little Hoop House on the Prairie

9 May

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Look!  We built that.

It’s really not so big of an accomplishment, having now built one I can assert that hoop houses are quite easy to build (relatively speaking).

So without further ado, here is the whole process.

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We decided that we’d love to have a semi-mobile hoop house and that required building said hoop house on skids.  Here we’ve got a trio of 4″x6″x14′ timbers (pressure treated, of course) that make up one skid.

The hoop house is a 14′ wide, 36′ long contrapion that we bought from FarmTek.

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The FarmTek kit is supposed to be anchored by pounding these big pipes into the ground.  Having chosen skids, this was obviously going to have to change.

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We chose to drill some big holes (1.75″ holes to be exact) into, but not all the way through, the skids to accept the pipe.  There was just the small matter of cutting off most of the pipe to get rid of the bit that was supposed to go underground.

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To make sure it all doesn’t come apart in a stiff breeze, the pipe is “pinned” to the skid with a nice big lag bolt.   The rest of it goes together pretty much according to the instructions.

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After looking at the High Tunnel Hoop House Construction Guide [PDF] from University of Illinois Extension, I’m convinced that I could do another hoop house for cheaper, but the FarmTek kit was a pretty nice place to start for a beginner.

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The Hoop House Construction Guide got me all adventurous and made me try out a roll-up side.  That ended up being a fantastic decision.

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The FarmTek kit pretty much leaves you to finish the ends of the hoop house as you will.  One end of ours got a big window, about 2’x6′.

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The other end got the old screen door that used to grace the side of the farmhouse.

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After a few days of waiting for the weather to cooperate (winds gusting to 40mph aren’t ideal conditions) we managed to get the greenhouse film stretched over the frame.

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The film, which is really a fancy name for 6mil UV-stabilized plastic is held in place by this nifty stuff called “wiggle wire.”  Ripping down 1″ lumber for battens is certainly cheaper than using the aluminum channel and wiggle wire, but the wire gives you the ability to go back and fix any mistakes without ruining the greenhouse film, a hefty advantage to us hoop house n00bs.

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No building would be complete without a little sharpie art by the flamboyantly-dressed artist-in-residence.

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After skinning the ends with greenhouse film there wasn’t much to do but wait for the first order of chicks to come in.  Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait for long, having had only finished the hoop house a scant 24 hours before the chicks were due to arrive.

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The next day, when the chicks arrived we got a crash course in solar radiation, thermo-regulation and the promise of a much less fossil-fuel-intensive manner of brooding chickens.

I quickly found out that the hoop house (with the window, door and roll-up side closed) is capable of reaching internal temperatures in excess of 120°F in the sun.  While chicks need some pretty stifilingly-warm temperatures to be comfortable, 120°F is too darn warm.  Thankfully the roll-up side makes a quick work of ventilating such a space.

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The rest of the chick-comfort problem was solved by the addition of some additional shade via an old tarp hung in the big fat middle of everything. The big metal disc under the tarp is our propane brooder that keeps the chicks warm at night.  In it’s former location inside the barn, the propane brooder had to run all day as well. This year, thanks to all the free solar heat in the hoop house, the brooder never kicks on during the day.

All told the hoop house is working out well for a brooder, it just demands a fair bit of vigilance in getting the ventilation setup every morning when the sun comes out.  This already has us kicking around ideas about building a dedicated brooder-house sometime in the future, something with a little more thermal mass and insulation.  The hoop house (and a warm spring) have allowed us to start chicks over a month earlier than last year.  We’re always looking for ways to brood chicks earlier, because that means we can have chicken to sell earlier in the market season.

 

Chicks are here!

4 May

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We’ve been working hard to get our new brooder house setup because today was the deadline.  Today is chick day.

I’m happy to report that everything went off without a hitch.

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The chicks seem pretty happy with their new setup, and we’re happy because it’s one more thing to scratch off the to-do list.

Stay tuned for all the gory details about the hoop house we built for the little critters.