Posts Tagged ‘chickens’

A Farmer’s New Year

IMG_6156January has come and gone. Ok, so has February. It is past time to be thinking about what I learned last year and what I’m going to be doing this year. We are well into the season of seed catalogs and getting into the season for starting those seeds. Farming is a highly seasonal occupation, so it’s also time to order bees, chicks, and poults for the coming summer. Unfortunately, I have only just been given permission to put a little weight on my broken ankle and I don’t have an ETA for being functional.

One of the things I learned, after losing my flock to predators, is that I can acquire chickens who are between a few days and a few years old pretty much any time over the summer. However, the older they are, the more habits they’ve established. My current flock is made up of older hens that came from a stationary coop and run that had been scratched down to dirt and younger hens who had been raised in a strictly indoor coop for four months. This has left both groups far less likely to do things like attack the pumpkins I chuck in to them as treats or do serious scratching for bugs. They were getting better at it before it snowed, but they weren’t up to the level of the girls I raised myself and chucked out on grass the minute I could. I also learned that I need to move their mobile coop very regularly to keep the ground clean. That will need to start as soon as it’s warm enough to be planting in the garden where they are currently living. Two strong legs really help with moving the coop.

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Maybe ducklings again? They are adorable.

The latest I can order chicks through the Paris Farmer’s Union is early May. My preferred place to start the chicks, however, is the bathroom upstairs. I should be doing stairs again by the pickup in June, I think. Of course, I also thought I’d be going back to work a month ago. At my bee meeting on Saturday I sat beside a fellow small farmer and we commiserated over broken legs. She broke hers in a February and wasn’t in physical therapy until that August. I was promptly sorry I’d asked about the healing time. There’s not much point in getting chicks in August, since they probably won’t be fully feathered by the first snow. They certainly won’t be big enough to stick up for themselves in the winter coop that is a bit undersized.

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Dead hive in the fall. I think I did the powdered sugar treatment too late. They got damp and caught a chill, most likely.

The real sticky situation is the bees. I have a line on a full 20-frame local hive, but I have to pick it up and do so no later than early May. Because of where my apiary is located, the hive has to be hand carried, and we can’t really break an active hive into smaller pieces to make it lighter. I think my brother will help me with the actual lifting, but it has to be something he can carry, since there’s no way I’ll be able to walk across uneven ground carrying 70# or more of hive and colony by May. The bees are even more time-sensitive than the chickens. If I don’t get them this spring, I won’t stand even half a chance of splitting over the summer to maybe, hopefully, have multiple colonies going into the fall. The other option is to order a box or two of bees. They’re much lighter to handle, but they also won’t have as strong a start and I’ll need to be installing them in mid-April. Of course, they’ll be going into hives with drawn comb, unlike the last batch, so that will help. On the other hand, I’m still going to be on at least one crutch, I’m sure, so checking the queens and feeding them will be extra challenging. Either way, I need to make my decision this week.

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This is last year, this year these are wintering over in the garden.

I had hoped to start a patch of nettles in the yard. I’m not going to be able to get to the boggy parts until it’s too late to plant the seeds. I haven’t even thought about any plants I might want to start for the garden, in no small part because I can’t get down the stairs to our nursery in the cellar. I’ve been struggling with the sprouts I’d like to be feeding my hens before there’s grass available because there is a limited amount of space that I can get to at the moment where there’s both a sink for water and warmth.

Spring is well on its way, the farming year is about to hit its stride, and I am trying to figure out when I’ll be walking again. Happy new year.

On Raccoons and Reality

IMG_6927As you know, I have chickens. I have them for eggs, meat, entertainment, learning, and just a little dependence taken away from The Man. This spring I got more layers, turkeys, and some meat birds to expand my flock. For the layers, I got ones that lay cool egg colors. The meat birds were to see if I could butcher them myself.

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Then the verb for my chicken keeping became had.

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Here’s the thing — I could blame the raccoons. I could get angry or weepy and then go out and trap and shoot every last one of ’em. Technically that’s not legal until October, but I doubt any of the neighbors would complain. Then I could go out and trap and shoot all of their relatives that wander onto our property. Then I could trap and shoot all of their relatives that expand into my territory. It’s mine, after all (more or less), so I get to decide what’s allowed!

Or — I could look at it through the lens of reality. Despite their reputations and super-villain masks, raccoons are not evil. In fact, I suspect that they are thoroughly amoral like the rest of the natural world. They didn’t go after my birds because they wanted to hurt me or push my healing back or so they could cackle with malicious glee when I came out to see the death and destruction. They killed my birds because I left delicious, easy food that couldn’t fight back in non-raccoon-proof containers. Er, coops. That’s all. That’s reality.

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I’ve been wrestling with an idea for a while and this situation helped me to define it. See, there’s the reality we’re sold and then there’s real reality. They aren’t the same.

Sold reality: Getting chickens is great for your health, encouraging exercise, fresh air, and laughter (have you ever seen a chicken run?). I’m taking business away from those awful factory farms and I’m doing my part to bring food knowledge back to The People. Maybe I can even start my own business with it. It’s happy and shiny and so Martha Stewarty!

Real reality: I accepted responsibility for animals that would find it difficult at best to survive in Maine without human intervention for a lot of reasons. Food and shelter from the elements were handled well. The massive amount of wildlife was ignored despite several warning shots. Also, egg businesses? They rarely so much as break even.

Now, I had a lot of excuses for not taking the threats more seriously. I may even have one or two legitimate reasons.

Raccoons and reality really don’t care.

This also extends far beyond fresh eggs and masked murdering bandits. This extends into every aspect of our lives, every decision we make.

My butt is dragging so hard on the way to work and I forgot to bring my mug to put coffee in. One plastic to-go cup won’t actually do any harm, right?

Raccoons, reality, and the Pacific Gyre don’t care.

I have to have a job to pay my debts and maybe, eventually, I’ll even get to pay rent again. The only jobs I can do are a 40-mile car ride each way. I gotta pay my bills.

Raccoons, reality, and atmospheric CO2 levels don’t care.

I need clothes. Not only are natural fibers out of my budget range, they’re such a pain to take care of. A few cheap, polyester outfits isn’t the end of the world.

Raccoons, reality, and the plastic we’re drinking don’t care.

I am not going to end this post with how we all need to go vegan and minimalist and if we hold hands and sing Kumbaya loud enough it’ll all work out in the end. I don’t know how to fix this. What I do know is that if we don’t become aware of the clash between the realities and do something to bring them back in alignment, real reality will win. It will win with extreme prejudice. That’s how reality works.

I also know that the first time a raccoon tries to get through the fencing with my new electric charger attached, I’ll be thrilled to report what to do with BBQ coon.

A Good Winter’s Day

I had intended to write a post about some books I’ve been listening to, but then life intervened. It’s been wicked cold the last few days and I got to handle the fallout from a decision I hadn’t thought through sufficiently earlier in the year. When you live in a place where winter is the dominant season but you fail to take that into account when choosing your chicks, frostbite is a probable result. Particularly when the night before the temperature was around -10 degrees F.

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The white tips on her comb and the black skin is frostbite. The white spot in the middle I’m less sure of, but the comb does usually flop to that side. I brought her in the kitchen to thaw out the flesh before she spent the night in the garage which doesn’t dip below freezing.

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The rest of the girls seem to be doing fine in their winter quarters. It’s a partition in our garden shed that doesn’t have a roof, aside from the metal shed roof, so I don’t have to worry about condensation, but I’m also really not holding much body heat. The feed and water are tucked under the ramp up to the exit window so I don’t lose too much ground space that way. The waterer has a heated base that gives off some heat, but the girls seem to prefer getting cozy on the roosts when it’s very cold.

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My chicks are even so classy they have curtains! That bright light out through the window? That’d be snow. The curtains are so I can have the window open but maybe cut down on any breezes coming into the coop. Lucky for me, the only appropriately-sized curtains at the Salvation Army also let in light.

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The next morning it’s confirmed that her comb isn’t going to get better. I slathered on a little coconut oil to help protect the rest of it before I took her back out again. I waited until the afternoon when the temperature was a solid +10 degrees F. A chicken can survive with frostbite, but it’s a painful condition and in this case could have been avoided with just a little thought on my part. At this point, I’ll be keeping the two Leghorns through this winter and next summer, since they are very good layers, but I think they’ll go to the butcher next fall.

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I was also working on another project for my girls at the same time. Making suet cakes. Like a good Millennial aspiring farmer, I found instructions online. The connective tissue between the layers of fat is kind of weird, but the more you can pull out ahead of time, the better the melting process is supposed to go.

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For a long, slow melting, what better way to do it than on the woodstove that we’re using to heat part of the house? It’s not a cook stove, so the top is warm enough to keep the tea water hot, but not so warm that it’ll burn my tallow.

All-in-all it was a pretty satisfying day. I did make a newbie mistake with my birds, but I’m handling it and I’m working on fixing it for next year. I am having a hard time finding cold-hardy breeds that lay white eggs, though. Do you know any? I’m also working on a new skill since rendering fat can be useful as the basis for all sorts of practical things including soap, fried food, and a warming supplement for the chickens for the next wicked cold snap.

Happy Holidays, and stay warm!

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Chicken Update!

It’s been a while since I’ve updated you on my adorable little fluffballs. They are now somewhat less adorable, but still pretty entertaining, featherheads. This is a bit before I put them in their outside coop- two turkey poults and three chicks in that group.

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I did not lose any birds in the early, fluffy days when it’s pretty easy to get them too hot, too cold, too crowded- too anything, really. I had read about this heating plan where instead of lights, you make a “hen” from a seedling heating pad, some sort of arch to hold it up, and towels so they don’t interact with it directly. It gives them a warm cave to retreat into, just like Mama’s wings would be, but without light that can mess up their clock. It worked for me!

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Clearly, they also thought it was a good foot-warmer. I didn’t lose anybody until I put them in their coop outside. It was kind of early, but I was flat out of room in these containers and the little buggers were starting fly out when I opened it up to do anything. I shifted the seedling heaters into the nest boxes for a couple of weeks to give them a little extra heat, and it doesn’t appear to have caused any bad habits. No one died of chill or illness. However, the ducklings didn’t like the ramp so they chose to sleep outside. They were big enough to stay warm, but not too big to be pulled through a gap between the bottom of the fencing and the ground. It happened a couple of nights apart, and I only ended up finding one of the carcasses. The predator, still not sure what it was, had the same idea I did. I bet the ducks tasted good.

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According to my notes, I picked everyone up on May 5. This is one of the two that didn’t match each other. I ordered Araucanas, but apparently you only get real, honest to goodness Araucanas or Amaraucanas from breeders. What you get from a big hatchery is a mutt that should have a blue-egg gene, but isn’t pure anything. So she’s one of my two Easter Eggers. You never know quite what you’re going to get. On August 28 I found three eggs- white, from a Leghorn, and they were expected to be the first ones to start.

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The first eggs are always small- but check out that healthy orange yolk! The Leghorns have been fairly steady- and did somewhat redeem themselves when I found the 17 eggs one of them laid out in the yard. At least she was laying, even if she wasn’t sharing.

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My first thought on seeing this was, “This is why I need a pig. I don’t need to know the egg age to give to a pig!” The next layer started on September 1- one of the Golden Comets with brown eggs. At first I was wondering if the two of them were tag-teaming perfectly since I was getting a brown egg every single day. Nope. The second one started laying on the 18th and they have both been absolute machines. I can pretty much always count on my two brown eggs. The two white layers are fairly consistent, but not like the browns. I didn’t get anything from an Easter Egger until October 8, but they are bigger than the other two and probably took longer to mature. Tragically, it’s a nice, medium, pinkish-beige. I’m still holding out hope that my last hen might decide to lay a green egg, but I’m not holding my breath at this point.

From my first egg until October 20, I have gotten an average of 3.17 eggs per day. However, if I count from when hen #5 started until the 20th, my average is 4.5 eggs per day or 5.25 eggs per hen, per week. Not bad, since one of them is a free-loader!

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My third kind of poultry, of course, were the poults. Didn’t they grow up into a handsome couple! And a very large couple. After quickly outgrowing the chicken coop, as expected, I cobbled together their own cage with parts of the winter garden skeleton. They really outgrew that, too, but Mom was keeping them very well supplied with weeds and garden leftovers, so they were doing ok.

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So ok, in fact, that the little one, Hen, weighed in at 22#. That’s her being “vacuum packed” before freezing. We had to scramble for something to pack them in since I did find someone to butcher them, but he didn’t have any bags that were big enough!

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Tom, however, was so big that he broke the rope the butcher was using to hold him up for plucking. At a healthy 32#, we determined he’d never fit in the grill to live up to his other name- Thanksgiving. Dad dismembered him for me so he should thaw faster when it’s time to get him out of the freezer. Imagine how big they’d be if I figured out a month earlier that I was underfeeding them on protein . . .

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At this point in the poultry experiment, I’ve gotten 180 eggs, 54# of meat/bones, and have had to deal with unintentional loss. I’m about to build coop number two for the winter, since the original chicken coop really isn’t big enough for six hens in a Maine winter. It will be cobbled together temporarily in the garden shed, so coops number three and four will be built next spring/summer. I’m glad I sent the turkeys out this year, but learning how to butcher them myself is still the plan. I also plan to expand the egg operation next year to sell some and I’m considering meat turkeys and/or chickens for the house and possibly for sale. I need to run the numbers. I might also start breeding on farm. Everyone who can really should help to keep heritage breeds around until the rest of America figures out that having one breed of cow, one breed of chicken, and one breed of pig is a poor idea. So far, this experiment is enough of a success to continue it for another year- provided I do a little more planning on the housing first!

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I Have Chicks!

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There is a post in the works that has thing like words and coherent thoughts, but, in the meantime, I have chicks! The leghorns were the first to come out of their corner.

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Do you believe that’s a baby Thanksgiving dinner? Also known as a poult.

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This is a Golden Comet (I think, I don’t have the paper in front of me). They were chosen because aside from being good layers, they’re also supposed to be calm and friendly. So far, they’re the first out to eat in the morning.

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This is an Aracouna- they lay blue and green eggs.

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Or this one is. I’m not sure why they’re a mis-matched set. But they’re both healthy, so we’ll see what we get when they grow up.

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The ducklings are the biggest, heaviest, and most opinionated of the lot. They’re also the messiest, since they think water is for playing in, not leaving in the waterer.

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They look like they all fit in this picture, but when they’re out and about, not so much. I’ll have to split them in half pretty soon, here so I can keep them under shelter long enough to feather out.

The Season of Water Has Begun

In many places, winter is the season of water. It’s monsoon season, or snow season. Out West, summer is our season of water. Why? Because that’s when we need it and we may not have it. California is at the top of the list at the moment when it comes to lack of water, but they aren’t the only ones that are concerned. All of the states that have lower rainfall than the East Coast are aware that California’s fate may well be ours in the not-too-distant-future.

Fire season has already started here in Colorado. I have a fire about 90 miles south of me that just decided it didn’t want to be contained anymore. While that one isn’t a direct threat to me, it is absolutely something to keep my eye on. My community garden just opened itself back up to us for spring watering, and I did not mulch my garlic bed well enough so the soil is dry as a bone. That’s perfectly normal for poorly covered or bare ground in Colorado. It’s also really bad for the garlic and all of the critters that needed moisture for over-wintering. Despite the silly Kentucky Blue Grass lawns around here, lack of water is simply a fact of life.

Jon Stewart, as usual, brings his wit and sarcasm to the issue of climate change. As he points out, our two most phallic states have totally opposite, yet equally serious, water issues. This is the challenge of climate change, after all. It’s not just that it will increase heat and melt the ice caps, it’s that everything will become more unpredictable. Wet places will get wetter and dry places will get dryer. The fact that we are doing everything in our power to suck water out of the air and water and send it through the sewers really isn’t helping to balance that back out.

One thing that he didn’t bring up was that apparently frackers in California aren’t being subject to any of the restrictions that the citizens are subject to. It is absurd to think that not drinking water in a restaurant will do a thing when the farmers aren’t being told to restrict their water use. I don’t want to make farming any harder than it is, but when the state is out of water, everyone is affected and has to pitch in. What is more absurd is to not restrict the people that take massive amounts of potable water, turn it into poison, and pump it past the groundwater reservoirs to pull out oil. They swear the arsenic and other fun chemicals can’t possibly leak into the groundwater, but I’m not sure how much I can trust that.

After 450 words of bad news, what do we do about it? I think the biggest thing we can do is to buy local, pasture-raised meat. I know, meat’s evil and all that, but what the simplistic headlines don’t bother to do is differentiate between meat sources. Urine and manure from CAFO feedlots are corralled in lagoons as toxic waste. As they should be. They should not be returned to the land. Then there’s all the water that’s used to grow the grains that keep the animals not-dead and very fat up until slaughter time. Meat raised like that is an affront to nature.

When you raise, say, a cow on pasture, you get the opposite result. Grazing animals produce no more methane than the grass would have when it rotted on the ground. More to the point, in a properly managed pasture, the urine and manure they produce soaks directly into the soil, returning both moisture and nutrients to the soil in amounts that the microorganisms can handle. Proper management also encourages the grass to grow to its best advantage, sending carbon-sequestering roots deep into the soil. Between the roots making spaces and the small amounts of moisture added to the surface, a good pasture will help the rain to soak into the ground and back into our groundwater reserves instead of running off the top and right to the ocean.

That’s right. Meat could save us. Alan Savory has dabbled in this a bit.

One really shouldn’t eat meat without vegetables, though. The next biggest step is to grow your own vegetables. If you don’t have a yard, or a patio with decent sunlight, then buy them from small, local, organic farmers that use all of the sensible water-saving techniques that are difficult to impossible to implement on huge, mono-crop farms. If you ask nicely, the farmer will probably be happy to let you come out to see how their land looks and their crops are grown. Just bear in mind that if the sun’s up, you are taking time out of their work day. The best farming, just like the best beef, should actually help refill the groundwater reserves. But good farming will still slow the use of unnecessary water, and shouldn’t be discouraged.

Don’t get me wrong, things like shorter showers and high-efficiency appliances are good. But if we want to do more than just slow the loss of potable water across the world, we need to be proactive about helping the water to go back where it belongs. In the ground, not in the sewers. Preferably without arsenic.

Where Have I Been?

I am so sorry I haven’t been on here in an age- and many thanks to the people that are showing up to read old posts anyway! Life has been throwing me curve balls and I haven’t been dodging quite as well as I would hope to. However, I do believe I am back for the time being.

One of the challenges that I’m coming up against is that I can either work on farms and learn how to farm, or I can hope to afford my own one of these days. I want to do the former. There’s no better way to learn than to do. Particularly for something that requires the sort of knowledge that only comes with experience. One really can’t know if they are able to work outside doing labor for sometimes crazy hours until they have actually done it for a season. It’s how I learned that I can only handle so much weeding, but dodging angry geese every day is fun. Unfortunately, I got started on the learning curve a little late, so I have to go with the latter. Maybe it’s my nesting tendencies finally getting around to having an opinion, but I’m at this point that I’d rather screw up on my own property than learn how to do everything right on someone else’s. The problem, here, is that I have to make that choice.

I am slowly working on putting together a business plan. I do need to have a “normal” job for several more years to make this work, but the sooner I can get my hands on land, the sooner I can start making those mistakes that need to be made as part of the learning process. My main focus right now is laying hens. I think they are something that can have income pretty quickly but can also be handled around a 40+ hour work week. I need some feedback from you folks, though.

  • What is your pie-in-the-sky perfect egg?
    • Feed concerns?
    • Housing concerns?
    • Ethical treatment definition?
    • Heritage or modern breeds?
    • Egg color?
  • Do the above concerns extend to meat birds?
    • What are your thoughts on stew birds?
    • What weights and prices seem reasonable to you?
  • Would you be interested in duck, quail, or other meat and eggs if they were raised similarly to the chickens above?
  • What are the other food/farm items that you would buy locally if you could find them?
    • Honey?
    • Herbs?
    • Feathers?
    • Flowers?
    • Homespun thistle yarn?
  • Delivery options?
    • Would you take a drive in the country to pick up your eggs, or would they need to make it into town?
    • Would you sign up to purchase X dozen every week, or do you prefer to pick them up as needed?
  • What questions and concerns have I missed that you would like to have me (or your other farmers) address?

I know what I want in my eggs, meat, and other food, but if I’m setting up a business, I need to know what you want, too. You don’t have to be local to answer this- but if you are local, let me know how many eggs you’ll buy every month!

I look forward to the feedback to help me get this dream off the ground. Thank you!

Urban Homestead Tour: The Redux

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So . . . my covering of the tour got a little wordy. Sorry about that. For those of you that got glassy-eyed at around word 600, I wanted to pull out the main points that I got from the tour. It’ll help me sort through it all, too.

What did I learn on the Urban Homestead Tour? In no particular order:

  • Anyone can do it. Even if you don’t have access to so much as a porch for container gardening, you can still can, freeze, or sew. Heck, knitting takes up practically no space at all.
  • It’s ok to start small. Most of them seemed to start with gardening, but you could even start smaller by buying produce at farmers markets to can or freeze.
  • Chickens are the gateway drug. Some people stop there, but for others it just opens up a whole new world.
  • Eggs, honey, and veggies can be sold by anyone as they are whole foods. (Milk is not.) You just aren’t allowed to put up a sign advertising that you sell them.
  • Be prepared to meet your neighbors. You may also need to bribe them.
  • An urban homestead shouldn’t stink. If it does, you’re doing something wrong.
  • Get used to that non-city smell.
  • Be creative. Raising meat rabbits? You can sell rabbits, pelts, and manure, not just meat. (Also not a whole food, so look at the rules governing selling meat.)
  • It’s not about going back in time, it’s about bringing that knowledge forward.
  • It’s about being resilient. You’re reducing the impact a disaster will have on yourself and your loved ones.
  • Be very, very, very wary of buying second-hand housing for your stock, whether it’s chickens, rabbits, bees, or goats. Disease can get imbedded in the wood and wipe out your new stock.
  • Think outside the box. What do you have that can be repurposed? What can you find for cheap or free to make into what you need?
  • Also know when you really do need to pay for quality. Buying any old thing for breeding stock isn’t usually a good idea.
  • Craigslist is your friend. So is Freecycle.
  • Make horse friends. Why buy manure when you’ll get thanked for hauling it away for free?
  • Read, learn, and take classes, but don’t procrastinate through your research. Sometimes you just need to make mistakes.
  • Learn from your mistakes.
  • Learn the local building codes, rules for selling food and other items, and rules for keeping animals.
  • Learn which rules are enforced and the penalties for any rules you choose to flout.
  • Learn to talk to your local leaders to change the rules you don’t agree with.
  • Meet locals that are doing what you want to do. They may already know most of the above.
  • One you’ve acquired a skill set- how can you pass it on to others?

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.

Urban Homestead Tour: Day 2: Part 1

I love their yard! Particularly the ornamental stream for dealing with runoff.

I love their yard! Particularly the ornamental stream for dealing with runoff.

Day two started with beekeeping. Just FYI, apparently bees will sting you if you wear black near them. Dang it- there goes half my wardrobe. The homestead of Christine Faith and Ben Gleason (ooh- a blog I need to read) had the usual gardens and chickens, but also had ducks, aquaponics, and, of course, their bees.

It looks like they use koi for their aquaponics, but a lot of people use tilapia since they can be eaten.

It looks like they use koi for their aquaponics, but a lot of people use tilapia since they can be eaten.

Just in case you didn’t know- honey bees are not native to America. They were imported to aid in pollination for agriculture. They do seem to have taken to living here pretty well, though. Well, they were doing well until recently. About 40% of the colonies were lost last year. That was something like 30 million bees. Sadly, even if you are an excellent beekeeper, your colony is still at risk because the drones (male bees) flit from hive to hive sharing both genetics and diseases.

Their land borders an open space, but that's not required since bees usually fly three to five miles from the hive for pollen and nectar.

Their land borders an open space, but that’s not required since bees usually fly three to five miles from the hive for pollen and nectar.

There are practices that can make you a better bee-keeper. Don’t use HFCS as a supplemental food source. Seriously, that stuff isn’t good for humans who use it as a part of their diet. Think about how much worse it would be if you had to live off of it after you run out of honey for the winter but before the first spring flowers have bloomed? (If you’re going to lose a colony to starvation, that’s when it happens.) Buy only new “deeps” and “supers” or make your own. There are diseases, like foul brood, that can’t be cured and can’t be cleaned from the boxes. If you happen to contract that disease, burn everything and start over. If things are going well, you still want to burn and replace your frames every three to four years and your boxes about every 10 so that any diseases and such that have built up can be cleaned out. Make sure that you have two deeps so that your bees can store enough honey to keep them through our long winters. You get any honey that goes in the “supers” on top of the deeps.

Two deeps, two supers, and their sugar water for supplemental feed.

Two deeps, two supers, and their sugar water for supplemental feed.

To get started, their setup was about $1,000. Half of that was the bear fence, a very sturdy metal fence electrified by a solar panel. She said that if you live downtown where you don’t (usually) see bears, you may not need it. However, the bear fence not only keeps out bears, it also keeps out skunks, raccoons, curious children, and anything else that might disrupt your hive. When they bought the bees, they chose a pretty calm breed that is also fairly sturdy when it comes to cold winters. However, that queen bred with a local breed. The resulting offspring ended up potentially hardier, but they’re more wild than the original set. When you do buy your first set of bees, make sure that you don’t release the queen when you release her caretakers. If they don’t have time to meet with a cage between them, they will eat her. If you lose the queen you lose the hive, since she’s the brains of the operation. She’s also the uterus of the operation, so hope for a promiscuous queen. The more often she breeds on her mating flight, the more eggs she will have, and the longer she will live. They also mentioned that bee queens were much like the queens in Tudor England. When it’s time for a new one, the worker bees will nurture several without the current queen’s knowledge. The first to hatch will then sting each of the other queens so that she’s unchallenged.

Most of the rest of the necessary gear.

Most of the rest of the necessary gear.

After the first year, which gives them time to settle in, you can start harvesting your honey. If you keep it cool (106 degrees will kill the enzymes- you can reach that by leaving it in the sun), then you will have raw honey. Raw honey is antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial, and good for outdoor allergies if it’s local. Also, it’s delicious.

The second stop was vegetable gardening with Allison Buckley of Buckley Homestead Supply. I really need to check that place out. It sounds awesome. Her talk was also very practical and applicable.

If you’re starting a new garden plot- dig it over today. The freezing and thawing over the winter will help to break it up in preparation for planting. You can also use cover crops like buckwheat, rye, or clover. Their roots start to break things up and they can be turned under to add organic material to your garden area. (I was talking to someone recently who mentioned that oats have absurdly long roots for loosening/holding soil.)

To the right- lasagne. To the left, a berry patch that doesn't do so well with lasagne. The berries were weeded more times than the rest of the garden.

To the right- lasagne. To the left, a berry patch that doesn’t do so well with lasagne. The berries were weeded more times than the rest of the garden.

For help with the weeds, she did try laying down black plastic. However, that doesn’t just kill the weeds. That also kills all of the soil microbes that we need for healthy soil and healthy plants. What she’s moved to is the lasagne technique. This layers cardboard or newspapers, straw, and compost. To plant, dig a hole through the layers to the dirt. As the layers decompose, they create organic material for the microbes, but until they decompose, they are an effective block for the weeds.

Don't be intimidated by compost. You're just helping things rot. Keep it moist enough, and keep it aerated so it won't smell.

Don’t be intimidated by compost. You’re just helping things rot. Keep it moist enough, and keep it aerated so it won’t smell.

Water is always an issue here. Usually it’s because we don’t have enough, so irrigation is important. I’ve been reluctant to set up an irrigation system because I assumed it was difficult. According to Allison, if you have played with legos, then you’re qualified to build an irrigation system. She offered some tips to make it easier. They’re easier to build if they’re warm, so leave them in the sun for a while, first. Once they’re built, hide them under straw to keep the sun from damaging them, but don’t bury them, since you’ll need to watch for leaks. Use a section of hose before you move to the black sections, since the connector tends to leak a touch. May as well have that leak somewhere useful. Have a section of solid flexible hose before you add the microdrip section. This will give you more flexibility for planting from year to year. Speaking of water- learn the water laws! Water barrels are illegal in town, even if you have them on a drip hose. They may or may not be legal if you live out in the county and are on a well- check first.

These girls only get let in the garden after everything is harvested, but they love to be fed the weeds from the garden.

These girls only get let in the garden after everything is harvested, but they love to be fed the weeds from the garden.

The last part was pest management. For that- shift your thinking. You want to have the least impact possible. Sometimes, that means accepting that you might have to share some with the local creatures. It might mean working a little harder by hand-picking bugs or high-pressure washing trees to remove things without harming the environment. She also suggests rotating your crops and using mini-hoop gardens because the sunshades can be a physical barrier to pests. If you do end up spraying, spray the smallest area possible, even if it’s organic. If what you’re spraying will kill one thing, it will kill other things, too, so be careful.

How awesome is this?! More on this technique in the next post.

How awesome is this?! More on this technique in the next post.

Speaking of hoop houses- she explained what went wrong with my peppers this year! Peppers don’t like cool evenings. A hoop house with even a light covering will help hold the warmth a little later in the day. This winter I will be researching and building hoops so that next year I should have a better pepper crop. The tomatoes should enjoy it, too.