Urban Homestead Tour: Day 2: Part 2

How pretty is this coop? Starting with something simple is good- but this is something to aspire to.

How pretty is this coop? Starting with something simple is good- but this is something to aspire to.

Sorry for the delay. Jury duty, you know. It’s a rather fascinating process, actually, but I think I’m glad I wasn’t picked for that particular case.

Stop three on day two was cob building with Niko and Brandi Woolf (ooh- another blog!). Sadly, I missed a fair amount of this lecture because their backyard is set up to maximize its use rather than to fit the maximum number of people. It was a very popular lecture. Quite possibly because it was how to build weather-tight buildings and ovens using cheap to free materials.

The word “cob” comes from the Old English word for lump. To make the material, you mix one part clay with one part manure (he uses horse for his buildings), and after it has sat for a week or so and the enzymes have worked, you pull cobs, or lumps out of the water. That is then mixed with one part sand. The finer the sand that you use, the finer the finish on the wall. Your insulation is generally perlite or straw.

That's one happy chicken. You know, if we would close the coop and leave her in peace.

That’s one happy chicken. You know, if we would close the coop and leave her in peace.

The first building we saw was the chicken coop. The thick walls keep it cooler in the summer. The large overhang helps with that, and it helps with protecting the walls from the rain. In the winter, it works the opposite way. He closes off some of the ventilation to stop drafts and the hens are perfectly comfortable without any extra heat. They did buy a couple of 2x4s for the basic structure, but other than that, it was all free and reclaimed materials.

Feed me!

Feed me!

The second was the oven. I think one of my favorite parts about cob building is that it fits an imagination much better than your standard building materials.

When you are building, you want to try and build daily. It takes a while, but you don’t want your cob to get too dry before you apply the next layer. You also don’t want it to dry too quickly, as that can result in cracks. A couple tips he provided were to keep the work in progress covered and to leave holes in the top of today’s work, so that tomorrow’s work can fit into it like a puzzle.

The eastern side of the greenhouse.

The eastern side of the greenhouse.

Speaking of taking a while, his greenhouse took about two years. It’s an earthship with the open end facing due south. That means that it takes full advantage of the winter sun, but as the sun moves higher for the summer, it’s somewhat protected. Unlike the coop and the stove, this one could potentially run into building code violations. As an unheated, nonresidential building, if it’s short enough and has a small enough floor-space, it shouldn’t need a permit- but check your codes! You don’t want to spend two years building something just to have an annoyed neighbor rat you out. (It seems like any trouble from homesteading tends to come from a cranky neighbor. Consider bribing them with veggies, eggs, milk, or honey. It will also help you meet your neighbors.)

You can even plaster with  colors.

You can even plaster with colors.

The very outer layer should start about 18″ off the ground, and should be protected under a sturdy roof. However, it is the sacrificial layer, so it should get replaced every one to three years depending on the wear. The upside to this is that you get to re-explore your artistic side each time.

The very last one was talking about building chicken coops with Lindsey and Herbert Aparicio- The Goat Cheese Lady and her husband. We also met their guard dog- an Anatolian cross. Apparently they are fantastic guards from predators. Unless the predators are humans. Then they just want to be petted.

I think he would have climbed in someone's lap given half a chance. Such a sweetie.

I think he would have climbed in someone’s lap given half a chance. Such a sweetie.

Speaking of dogs- of all the predators we have around here, dogs are the worst. We did hear on the tour one story of someone who had a chicken-eating dog that stopped when the older dog, the bad influence, passed away. However, in most cases, once a dog realizes chickens are mobile food, you probably can’t let them mingle. The other side of the coin is that if you can convince your dog that your chickens and other critters are, in fact, part of the family, they can be the biggest part of your protection for your farm animals. This is usually done by raising the dog from a puppy with the animals. However, whether your dog can mingle with the critters or needs to be on the outside of the fence, it can be very helpful. Cats are also a problem while the chickens are smaller than cat-sized. Again, they are useful for rodent control, but keep an eye on them.

Make it dual-purpose whenever possible- a way to deal with mud and a way to rebuff predators.

Make it dual-purpose whenever possible- a way to deal with mud and a way to rebuff predators.

As far as inanimate protection goes- remember that your fence is only as good as your gate. Don’t forget to close them. A rule of thumb for visiting big farms is to leave the gate as you found it, whether it’s open or closed. I expect the same applies to little urban farms. (Although if I run into an open gate, I do usually ask if it’s supposed to be that way, just to be on the safe side.) Lots of predators will try and dig under your fencing, but if they run into barriers right at the fence line, they generally won’t think to move out a few feet and dig a longer tunnel. To achieve that, you can place concrete slab or very large rocks on the surface at the base of the fence. You can also dig your chain-link into the ground. If you go straight down, you need to go down about two feet. If you flair it out, you don’t need to dig it in as deep.

Clearly reclaimed materials- and a very cool result.

Clearly reclaimed materials- and a very cool result.

When it comes to your runs and chicken housing, beauty needs to come second to function. We saw some gorgeous coops on the tour, but none of them sacrificed the necessary bits for the pretty bits. Whether you’re building a mobile coop or a stationary one, also bear in mind that heavier really is better. If you can pick it up easily, so can a curious dog, or child, or a gust of the wind we have around here. He prefers to build with 3/4″ plywood whenever possible for that extra weight and sturdiness. Think about your materials, too. Plastic and PVC can be chewed through. good, old-fashioned metal chicken wire and chain link is pretty impervious to that. You will also want to consider building your coop a couple of feet off the ground. This will give the chickens shelter from sun or unexpected rain without requiring them to go back in the coop itself.

I love the edging on the raised beds. They have pipes under them for hot air in the winter to be able to grow more crops out of season.

I love the edging on the raised beds. They have pipes under them for hot air in the winter to be able to grow more crops out of season.

Using chicken wire, 3/4″ plywood, and concrete slabs doesn’t mean you have to buy them new, though. He is also all for salvaging materials for building. He also did a fair amount of building using the rough outer edges of trees from a local sawmill. It gave everything a more artistically rustic look and I have no doubt it was cheap to free, since those pieces couldn’t be cut into “standard-sized” boards. They also use their neighbor’s leaves for bedding through the winter. It seems to be a popular use for something that really shouldn’t be going to the landfill.

Hello, Ma'am.

Hello, Ma’am.

For your chickens- you can’t go wrong with Rhode Island Reds. They’re sturdy and pretty steady producers. Another good one is the White Leghorn. Apparently Leghorns in general are smaller, so they eat less, but they’re steady producers. The White Leghorn might not be pretty, but it’s very sturdy. A couple of others that might be suited to Colorado are the Star chickens and the Wyandotte. When your hens get old, bear in mind that you need to be more careful when you stick them in the crock pot, but if you do it right, the meal you end up with is often much more flavorful than the youngsters raised specifically for the pot. If you feel like keeping the elderly hens, though, he had one that at the age of 12 would still pop out an egg every so often.

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