Tag Archives: Buildings

Brooder/Broiler House

5 May

We decided it was well past time to get a handle on the Broiler side of our operation.  Our various brooder setups through the last few years have never been any good.

This year seemed like a splendid time to get away from the ad-hoc brooding and get our hoop house really set up properly.  I attended a good pastured poultry seminar in Northfield this past winter and that got me motivated to get all the numbers dialed in on our hoop house.

I decided that we need to get a standardized batch size and figure out all the numbers from there.  I figured that a batch of 300 or so chickens will fill up our stock trailer nicely, add a generous 10% for mortality and you’ve got 330.

330 chicks * 0.5 square feet per chick (1-6 weeks old) = 165 square feet.

That looks awfully close to 1/3rd of our hoop house, each third of which measures 12’x14′ or 168 square feet.

Conveniently, the other 2/3rds is pretty close to the 1.1 square foot/bird requirement for the second half of a broilers lifespan.

Fortunately the hoop house is pretty easy to divide up, the walls are, after all, a simple sheet of plastic.


The brooder part of the hoop house needs to be kept at a very warm, very stable temperature for the first few weeks of the chicks life, (80-90F).  For the temps we have to be prepared for in Minnesota, we have completely abandoned electric brooders.


We now use a propane brooder, which married to a 100# LP tank, can keep chicks toasty warm for a week before the tank needs a refill.  Two refills per batch of chicks, as the chicks won’t likely need supplemental heat after week two unless the weather gets really ugly.

In an effort to concentrate the heat a bit, we made a “tent” over the brooder with a bit of extra greenhouse film.


I know from experience that our hoop house has some really fun water infiltration issues when it rains. This is a serious problem when raising chicks as there’s nothing that will chill a chick faster than getting wet.  To ensure that the chicks will stay dry, we built a false floor under the brooder with a few spare sheets of OSB and 2×4’s.

We got some hemp bedding to use in the brooder, and I’m in love with the stuff.  It’s insanely absorbent and a lot more friable than pine shavings.  It also has a smaller, more consistent particle size that the chicks can more easily keep mixed up through their scratching.

According to the numbers, our 330 chicks need 4 of the 48″ feeders, and we’ve given them 20 nipples to drink from.


I discovered in the pastured poultry seminar that I’d been seriously overlooking the water situation for our chicks, so we have a dedicated 50 gallon reservoir for the brooder which makes it possible to get the chicks started on electrolytes as soon as they arrive.  We can also more easily dose them with Apple Cider Vinegar or probiotics as needed, apparently it’s a whole thing.

The last bit we did for the brooder side of things is to address the ventilation issue.


Sure, it needs to be buttoned up pretty tight to keep warm, but air circulation is still neccessary, so we added this lovely thermal vent stack to the end of the hoop house.  It doesn’t get much simpler than this, but it still has a pretty good draw through it 24/7.

Anyway, over on the other 2/3rds of the hoop house is the second (grower) stage.


Once the chicks have reached 4 weeks of age, AKA: old enough to withstand sub-freezing temperatures (kind of a big milestone here during a Minnesota spring), they’re moved out of the brooder and into the grower stage.  The grower stage is a lot less demanding (at least climate-control-wise) so it’s just a matter of hanging the appropriate number of feeders, providing a few places to roost, and getting plenty of water.

Again, water is fairly important, so plenty of water looks like a 275 gallon reservoir and 20 nipples.

I put a nice big door on the end.  During the day we’ll open it up and let the chickens go free-ranging around.  This part is very dependent on the breed.  If you did this with Cornish cross then don’t expect them to actually go free-ranging very much.  When we decided to switch over to the red ranger broilers we did so because they can really be relied upon to go out and hustle up the green portion of their diet all by themselves.

I’m not a big fan of carting around a bunch of couch-potato chickens every day in an effort to force them to eat their veggies.  The red rangers get it done of their own volition.

To finish the whole thing off, we got a tarp to cover the hoop house.  The greenhouse film made it entirely too warm in the hoop house when it was sunny, so we threw a big tarp over the whole works. Temps are reasonable, two layers are all insulation-y and it’s still typically 5-10F above ambient in there most days.


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.


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?


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?


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.

Little Hoop House on the Prairie

9 May


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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′.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


Winter Chicken Accommodations

23 Dec


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.


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


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.


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!

Chicken Coop Rehab: Part 4

10 Nov


Even though the weather has been abnormally warm, it’s still obvious that we’re heading towards colder weather.  That means that winter housing for all the critters is high up on the to-do list.

We’ve made lots of repairs to the chicken coop in the past year, but there were still a few big repairs that needed to be knocked out before the snow flies.  After fixing the sill plate of the side wall, it became painfully obvious that the entire back wall needed the same treatment.

151020-IMG_20151020_100725Last winter it was a major point of ingress & egress for trespassers of the rodent variety.  Not a good thing to have in your chicken coop.  So now with that all sealed up there was one other detail that needed to be addressed. 151103-IMG_20151103_135914838

Somehow, in the years since the chicken coop was first built, the foundation walls have pulled away from the floor slab by anywhere from 1/2″ to as much as 2″ in places.  Give rodents an inch or two and they’ll happily take a mile or more.  So we needed to mind the gap.


Mix up some pretty wet concrete and ladle it on in there.  No more gap.

More Power!

28 Oct


The garage needed a bit more power.  Luckily there were two empty spaces left in the breaker panel.


More power means bigger tools, like a welder that doesn’t require gas & oil.  Nothing against our welder/generator but it’s not exactly something you want to be using in an enclosed space.


So after  a bit of conduit and some hefty wire was run, we got this nice plug setup.  Two hundred twenty volts of electrical goodness.


And with all that out of the way it’s time to the new (very old) welder and see what kind of trouble we can get ourselves into.

Grain Bin Build

28 Sep


You may remember back a year or so ago (I just barely remember it) when we snagged ourselves a free grain bin.

We managed to get it all back to our farm in pieces, and then sometime this summer the real work began: putting the darned thing back together again.


The first problem is that the concrete pad that formerly hosted a grain bin was not quite the right size for our 18′ bin. Nothing a little forming and two dozen or so bags of concrete mix can’t fix.


Then begins assembly. We have a bin that’s 5 rings high, so being slightly ambitious (and having no idea what I was doing), I started with the 4th ring.
The process of building a grain bin is a bit odd. You assemble the top bits first, lift them all up into the air and then bolt the lower rings on one at a time.


Somewhere along the way we had to harvest our barley, which was meant to go in our yet-to-be-completed grain bin. Our neighbor was kind enough to rent us his bin for a while (until he harvests his soybeans) so we bought ourselves a little more time to build our bin.


The roof was the tricky part. All those little “slices” of roof are held up by the tension on the center ring. Getting all that lined up 12′ above the ground without the 25# center ring coming crashing down on your head was quite a feat.  It probably would have been a lot easier to start with the #5 ring so the roof wasn’t quite so high up off the ground for assembly. Oh well.


The local grain-bin supply place charges an arm and a leg to rent their bin jacks, $50/jack/day. We built our own redneck bin jacks for less than $50 each and we get them for as many days as we want. For those interested, the parts list for a bin jack goes something like this: Two 2x6x10′, one 2x6x12′, one 2x4x4′, one come-along, one 3/8″x4″ carriage bolt, one 3′ length of chain.


Now it really starts to look like something. Especially once the rusty roof is painted with some aluminum roof paint. Protip: get a cheap paint sprayer for the aluminum paint, it goes on really fast & even that way.


With all the bin jacks set up, it’s time to get them something to fasten to. The rental bin jacks came with a bit of 2-3″ angle iron that had a hole plasma-cut into it for the hooks. Being tragically devoid of a plasma cutter, I settled for welding a 1″ slice of pipe to a piece of angle iron.


Somewhere along the line my impact driver quit in protest of all those 1/2″ bolts. Still don’t have the darn thing back from the repair place. Waiting on a part they say…


Anyway, putting all the rest of the rings on goes pretty quickly. Jack the bin up, bolt the next ring on, rinse & repeat. When you finally get to the last ring on it’s time to bust out the big hammer drill and get whole mess bolted to the ground. Then comes the important (but not pictured) step of sealing the bottom of the bin to the concrete with a big bucket of roof cement.


Then comes the real fun, at least for us. Actually, scratch that part about fun. Assembling the drying floor was not fun. I really wish we’d have thoroughly marked the floor with several cans of spray paint before we disassembled it. That would have saved lots of head-scratching during reassembly.


After plenty of futzing and a bit of finagling, we ended up getting it all together.  A judicious application of power tools helps greatly.


Found this on the door. Looks like it has been a little while since this grain bin was in serious use.

End of Summer

1 Sep


Hard to beleive it, but summer is coming to a close already.

What have we been up to?  Well, it’s all been such a blur that I’m gonna have to check my phone(camera) and remind myself of what’s been going on.

First we acquired a whole passel of barn kittens.  They’re quite a hit.


For the record, their names are Emer Cat, Giddy Snacks, Smokey and Pokey.  Toddlers are the best name-generators ever.


After three years of befuddlement, we just found out that this pasture weed is wormwood. That’s right, the same kind of stuff in absinthe. I was *this* close to seasoning a turkey with the stuff a few years ago. Kinda glad I didn’t, it might have been an interesting Thanksgiving.


I took some 2×6’s and a few come-alongs and made what I’m affectionately referring to as “redneck bin-jacks.”


We’ve seen a lot of these dudes flying around this year. A good sign I hope.


I cleaned out a bit more of the barn and found this dire warning.


Bought entirely too many of these little guys.


Drove entirely too many of them in.


Entirely too many for the impact driver at least.


And we’ve got a few of these critters running around, or at least laying around.


And the big summer project is nearing completion.

Winnebeggo build – part 2

10 Jun

Winnebeggo build – part 2

When I last wrote, the Winnebeggo looked a bit like this:


With the sheathing and the roof on, it went fairly quickly from there, but there were a lot of little pieces left to do before the Winnebeggo was chicken-worthy.


Finishing up the roost bars under the roof.
The current roost bars are plenty for our current flock, but as we look to expand our egg-production next year it’s likely that we’ll be adding some more roost bars this winter when the chickens go back to the permanent coop.


There was the small matter of separating the nest boxes from the rest of the coop.
We’ve decided to give community nest boxes a go, which means that the nest boxes are a big 2’x4′ box that the many chickens can use at once. The theory goes that since the community nest box is kept pretty dark, there should be less egg-eating, something that we’ve had problems with from time-to-time.


In the interest of keeping things nice and dark, a half-dozen cans of matte black spray-paint were used to tone things in the nest boxes down a bit.


Now it was time to put the floor in, this is where things were about to get difficult.
We’d decided to go with a wire floor. This floor is plenty to support chickens, but it can’t be trusted to support a human.
Why wire you ask?
Because wire does not accumulate poop. Poop falls through wire, down to the ground where it lands as fertilizer. No shoveling or hauling necessary.

Now, stapling some wire down to a few boards isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. But stapling wire down to some boards without standing on much of anything gets pretty difficult.

We went with 2″x4″ wire for the floor, it’s a bit too big for the chickens to have good footing. But if you were to double it up just so, then it would theoretically leave you with 1″x2″ spacing, which is right on target. Sure, you could special-order a big roll of 1″x1″ mesh, but that would take a while to get in and would cost 2-3x more.


Right before the floor went in, it dawned on me that I needed to put in the water barrel. With the floor in place I have no idea how I would go about getting a 55-gallon barrel into the Winnebeggo.
The barrel got two hoses in the top, black and red. And a single red hose coming out of the bottom.
This way the barrel is inside the coop, but still sealed up where no chicken poop can get into the water.


The black hose going in the top of the barrel is the filler hose.
And a fancy sight-gauge to see how much water the chickens have left.


The little bit of red hose poking down behind the barrel is the overflow hose, if you go past “full” on the sight gauge, the excess water will come out of the overflow hose and onto the ground, keeping the coop dry.
The hose coming out of the bottom of the barrel goes to two tee fittings. One for the sight-gauge, and one for the two green hoses that carry water to two of our pastured chicken waterers.


One underneath the Winnebeggo, accessible from the outside.
And another inside, for those days when the chickens need to be cooped up longer.
The big hook under the nest boxes is to hang the usual 40# feeder.


The last five-foot section of the coop floor hinges down to act as a ramp to the world outside.
Again, it’s an all wire floor to promote quick and efficient gravity-assisted excreta removal.


When spring happened and we got busy, the work on the chicken coop controller fell by the wayside. For now we’re using this fancy high-tech rope and pulley.
And cleat; can’t forget the cleat.


After way too much crawling the length of the coop, trying not to destroy the wire floor, we decided that a door was in order for the other end of the Winnebeggo.


After fixing a couple of the the flat tires, it was finally time for the maiden voyage.
We decided that the only way to get it turned around was to take it down my driveway and turn it around in the road. It’s turning-radius is not exactly small.
It’s pretty awesome to see something that big roll by.
The final dimensions are 10′ wide, 20′ long (not counting the wagon tongue) and about 8′ tall.

Now for the scary part, real-world product testing.

Spring Cleaning

13 Mar


By this weekend our first sow should kick off our spring farrowing with her first litter.

We’re still not setup for farrowing out in the field in this (very wet, muddy) weather so they’ll be farrowing in the barn.


This, of course, requires cleaning out the barn.  All the old dirty bedding has got to go to make a nice clean dry spot for a whole passel of piglets to come into the world.  With all the old bedding hauled off, and the pen scraped down to bare concrete, I sprinkled a little DE all around and let it dry out for a few days.

Soon it’ll get some new clean straw and a very pregnant pig.