Miniature fuzzballs of cherp!!!

The chick season for our local retailer has come to an end, but not before getting in a shipment of Ameraucana chicks! Little backstory, ameraucana are similar to Araucana, but without a genetic problem the letter is prone to. Easter Eggers is a generic term for any chicken that has the blue eggshell gene. While today that means probably some ameraucana or araucana parentage, both those breeds actually came from Easter Eggers. 

Anyway, with the bielefelders approaching laying age and the Easter Eggers not too far behind, we were still at less than 1/3 the number of hens we want so we picked up five of these little girls. In the spring we will get some marans and more bielefelders if we can find them. Also geese, which will be raised much like the turkeys. Breeding adults, sell the babies. 

Once these babies are out of the brooder and into the coop, hopefully we will have the rabbits already and be prepping the pasture for goats. 

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Cooped up part deux 

Well, had to make some changes to the design because having the door on one side just wasn’t going to be stable enough. The roof kept pushing the walls outward. Call it a lesson learned. But two new sheets of plywood and some creative use of a saw later, the coop is structurally finished!

The door is actually two parts that can be opened and closed separately. Why? Why not. The girlfriend assisted me with installing the roosts and getting the roofing felt attached. Of course the roll of felt was a couple inches narrower than the roof panels, so we cut one piece into strips and that handled the peak and whatnot. 

Now what’s really funny is how much work it was to get the chickens to accept this as their new home! I closed the old coop to try to force them to use the new one. They just milled around the old one. I actually had to pick each one up and place it in the new one. And even that didn’t work until it started getting dark out. 

The roosts are 2×4’s running parallel to the right and back walls about 2.5 feet up. The floor is covered with wire mesh, then plywood, then wood shavings. Overall it’s quite soft and springy to walk on. We will be using the deep litter method to manufacture compost for the garden. 

While I’m working this week, the girlfriend has volunteered to paint the exterior for me. We are going with red, and the neighbors have some white trim they’re giving us so it’s going to look pretty nice! Just have to track down some shingles now, and the electronics for the automatic door if I can find any time soon. But for now, the growing birds will have more space, better roosts, and much better ventilation. 

Don’t keep it all cooped up!

Or do, in the case of chickens at night. Folks, I need a new coop. The old one was perfectly sufficient for 10 young birds just barely out of the brooder, but they just grow up so fast! 

The coop they’ve been in is a simple A frame box. It’s a bit small for the birds at their current size and definitely too small as we expand the flock. Still, not bad for a single afternoon!

It’s time to go big. The new design is an 8 foot by 8 foot gambrel roofed box. The walls will be 4 feet tall with the gambrel taking it to nearly 8 feet tall in the center. Where the roof panels join will provide a great space for ventilation, and it’ll be large enough to walk in. 

The first step of course is design. I basically sketched the whole thing out on scrap paper and did some math (that I told my high school teacher I’d NEVER need to know) for the roof. 

The roof is four feet in the center. To calculate the lengths of the joists, I basically started with the roof as two right triangles with four foot legs. Cut the 90 degree angle in half and you’ve got 4 45 degree angled triangles. Extend the line out to 4 feet and you’ve got four perfectly equal triangles forming the gambrel roof. From there it’s just basic math to figure out the remaining angles (67.5) and lengths for the roof panels. 

Design finished, time for site selection. We definitely want to keep it in the front yard for now. Dangerous statement, as this will be very difficult to move later on. Ultimately, we picked a spot that was not that far from the old coop, but against the fence rather than the house. I think it’ll provide a nice visual boundary between front yard and side yard. 

Next was digging it out. The entire thing kind of depends on being level, so had to take care of that. Since I’m doing a wire mesh floor and deep litter, I was mainly concerned with the perimeter being level for structural stability. 

The walls were tricky. To avoid drafts at the corners, I framed the back wall normally, and left a gap at each end of the framing for the side walls so that it would all fit snugly together. 

Then came the gambrel. For all that fancy highfalutin math I did, I couldn’t find my speed square. So I basically got the trusses to the proper length, laid them down, took a few measurements, then drew cut lines where they met. First gambrel was not the cleanest, but that one is being attached to a wall so it’s good enough. This thing is tall!

I made joint braces with marks showing where to cut the next set of trusses so the remaining gambrels are much neater. Also threw in some horizontal braces to be absolutely sure it was strong. Bonus: extra roosts if needed. 

Getting the trusses in place was tricky, but my girlfriend and my friend Susan lent a hand. The plywood sheathing was attached 2 inches below the actual joint in the gambrel, allowing for a hardware cloth vent to run the entire length. 2 inches times 96 (8 feet in inches) times 2 gives us 384 square inches, or 32 square feet of ventilation, which exceeds the recommended square foot per bird even once we’ve got the flock up to full size. The top sheets of plywood just overhang that to keep rain out. Something is a little  off square so the vent is wider at one end. I’ll fix it with the shingles because I’m lazy. 

Eventually I will make an automatic door opener so we don’t have to get up just before dawn to let the birds out every day, but after painting, I need a break! 

Shingles are expensive so that will probably be a couple of weeks. But for now, some wood trim we got from our neighbors will spruce it up and make it look nice. 

Pro tip: make abso-frickin-lutely sure your base is level. We had some tweaking of the angles due to not being quite level. It required some changes to the final design, and actually delayed finishing. So next weekend, I’ll remove the front and completely redo it, get the door on, the wood painted, the trim and hopefully the shingles up. Still, not bad for just a couple afternoons of work!

Tastes like chicken 

Warning: pictures. 

People say it all the time. To hear some people talk, you’d think anything except beef and broccoli tastes like chicken! Well here’s the secret. Most people don’t know what chicken tastes like.

As I talked about in Keeping animals for food, commercial chicken operations are somewhat horrifying. The life an animal lived does have an impact on taste. 

As our first group of chickens grows, it’s time to start thinning the number of roosters. Now, the Bielefelders get along pretty well, but we simply don’t want six roosters. I had, up until this point, never intentionally killed an animal except fish, bugs, etc. But it’s an important part of farm life so I made myself do it. 

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t fun. Neither was the plucking, though I’ve got a plan for that. But that’s another post. 

So, plucked rooster. He was still a little on the small side, about three pounds dressed. I did the actual killing, and helped with the plucking, but the girlfriend definitely did more than I did. She also cooked the bird. 

Despite being small, he was incredibly tasty. She brined him for 24 hours, patted dry, and let him sit for another day. The roasting was done with celery for flavor, but when that started to fall apart she stuffed the pan with kale for the last bit in the oven. 

Not a lot of breast meat, but what there was was so tender I swear you could chew it with your tongue. And it was more flavorful than most dark meat I’ve had. No joke, this was the best tasting chicken I’ve ever had. 

In addition to the incredible taste, I know it had a good life and a quick death, so despite how difficult it was for me to do, I’m very pleased with this guilt free meal. So the next time someone says “tastes like chicken,” ask them if they’re sure!

Land improvement update!

It’s been less than two months since putting the chickens out in the front yard with some straw. As a reminder, this is what the soil looked like before. 

It’s dry, dusty, and almost hard as a rock less than 1/4 inch down. Good layer of straw, about a dozen birds, two months, and a couple good rains later…

It’s not that impressive looking at top. The straw is dirty, it’s ugly, and there’s chicken poop all over the place. Yet somehow, this is still more attractive as a yard than that old dry dust was. But what gets really exciting is what happens when you scrape the top layer of straw off!

Voilà! The line between straw and dirt is blurred. It’s moist despite no rain for the last week, and it smells more like good quality soil than like dust and chicken poop. We plan to lay down some more straw and wait through the winter. After a couple more months, some good rain, and a lot of chickens, we will be ready to plant an actual lawn before springtime!

Keeping animals for food 

There is a huge disconnect between the living breathing animals on farms across the country and the items we eat in America. Commercially raised animals are often kept in horrifying conditions simply to make them grow as big as possible and quickly as possible. The side effects of this are gut wrenching. 

Yet, most people don’t seem to want to know where those chicken nuggets or steaks came from. They’re quite content believing that the meat from the supermarket lived on the farm where Charlotte spun her web. This bothers me. Cows packed into feedlots stand knee deep in their own waste, which then runs across the soil into our rivers. Chickens never see natural light and grow so big that their legs break when they try to walk. And every time we buy meat based solely on price, we encourage this. 

It has been said that the most rebellious thing a person can do is grow their own food. Our food system is so tied up in money and politics that it can be difficult to break free from it. But by raising your own food, whether a garden or livestock, you are able to control what you put into your body, and how it lived. 

There is a cost to this, though. I don’t just mean money. On Labor Day, I slaughtered my first chicken. More than that, it was the first time I’ve ever intentionally killed an animal (not counting bugs and the like) except fish. It was really hard to do, and I felt a bit shaky afterwards. I’m told that gets better over time. But even though I had to actually take that life, I feel comforted knowing that this chicken lived a full and comfortable life. It had sunshine and rain, and a big yard to scratch and peck, chasing bugs and plucking huckleberries. 

My girlfriend has done this before and helped me, also handling most of the dressing of the bird. One thing that struck her was that we did not find a single parasite. No fleas, no mites, nothing. This was a healthy and happy bird.  

So by raising our own food we have not only begun the process of eliminating herbicides and unneeded antibiotics from our bodies, we have stopped funding the factory farm system that is so cruel to animals. The initial investment is tough, but in the long run we save a lot of money and become healthier. Then there’s the undeniable fact that it tastes better this way! 

Clean and fresh

Just like us, chickens like a refreshing drink of water. Just like when we are teenagers, chickens are messy. There are tons of chicken water delivery devices out there, most of which involve an upside down container in a tray of some sort.

These are among the messiest. The only way to get dirtier water is to just set a bowl on the ground. Some people will just go with a smaller container so it’s empty about the time it needs to be cleaned. Lame.

One of the other options are the amusingly (for the juvenile minded such as myself) named chicken nipples. I have no experience with these, but many report great success.

What I’ll be talking about is a device called a chicken cup. 5pcs Bird Coop Feed Automatic Poultry Chicken Water Drinking
It works in a very similar manner to the nipples. There is a reservoir of water and a small device that when bumped releases a small amount of water. Think hamster water bottle.

Basically you drill a hole in either a pvc pipe or a bucket, fill it with water, and wait for the chickens to figure out that’s where the water is. I replaced their traditional waterer last night and so far the results are not bad. 

I did have to show them that this was water by jiggling the yellow thing until the cups filled, but once they started drinking, their beaks triggered the trickle just fine. Except the turkeys, who seem incredibly suspicious of this newfangled contraption. 

Finding time

The biggest challenge so far in my homesteading adventure hasn’t been money or materials, but time. I have dozens of projects that I want to work on right freaking now. But I’m also working three times as many hours as I’m sleeping, five days a week, for the last three weeks. 

As such, the weekends are about the only time I have available to do much of anything. But I also have a relationship to maintain, family gatherings, appointments, etc. As such, things have stalled somewhat. But Labor Day weekend, I have been granted a reprieve. My boss decided I should take Monday off. Not because I asked, but because he has seen how hard I’ve been working and how tired I’ve been. 

So! Time to borrow a truck and get wood for the coop, stone blocks for the retaining wall, and possibly turfstone for the driveway, if funds hold out! The abundance of roosters will begin to thin as I learn to slaughter and dress poultry. Have some plants to get in the ground, too. Plus I really need to get over to pick n pull for their sale. A car antenna motor will power an automatic chicken coop door. 

Hmm. I should probably catch up on sleep, too!

Water, water, everywhere…

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have a bit of a reputation for rain. Truth is, we’ve had fairly severe droughts the last few summers. Not California severe, but bad enough. For me to dive into traditional modern agriculture would be irresponsible, water wise. But I still want to grow lots of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. What’s a McFarmFace to do?

Why, hugelkultur and rain barrels, of course! Rain barrels are fairly self explanatory, and I’ll obviously do a post when I get that set up, but for now let’s talk about hugels. 

Hugelkultur is a German word and I won’t go into too much detail right now as the almighty Google can tell you far more than I can. But remember that post about using what you’ve got? Well, I’ve got poor topsoil (unless I want to dig up the wetlands, which I don’t) and a lot of wood debris from clearing trees. Since hugelmounds are essentially buried wood that creates higher quality soil as it breaks down, I figure I’m all set. It’s been estimated that after a couple of years of decomposition, no supplemental irrigation is needed to grow trees and perennials on a hugel. 

At this point, it’s really a question of where to put them and what to plant on them. I will also be using a technique called Swales and berms on the slopes part of my back yard. Basically it involves digging a perfectly level ditch on a slope (it will curve to follow the contour of the land) and piling the excavated soil on the downhill side to facilitate water retention and create a good place for growing trees without needing to water much. 

Down below that, across the driveway, is a big open space with blackberries, elderberries, foxglove, and tansy ragwort. But it’s relatively flat and would be a good place for hugels and veggies. Obviously I need to clear it out first. Blackberries aren’t a problem since I am getting goats next year (hopefully!) but the ragwort and foxglove are poisonous so they’ll need to be removed by hand and burned. I sense a weekend project with a nephew for manual labor…

Long term goals

Going from an apartment in the city to running a mini farm is not what I’d call a quick process. It’ll probably be three years before I have all the livestock I’m hoping to, and even longer before all the fruit and nut trees I plan on putting in this winter are providing a surplus. But there’s something else I’m hoping to have going on around the same time. 

I want to quit my job. Don’t worry, I’m not delusional. I don’t expect small scale farming to replace the steady income I’m used to. But it doesn’t have to. It just needs to reduce my monthly living expenses so that a smaller amount of income can pick up the slack. 

That income will hopefully be ornamental trees. I’m currently growing about a dozen Japanese maples and two Mexican fan palms. This is the result of planting about 75 maple seeds and a half dozen palm seeds. First year was really about learning to care for them. This fall is when I get serious. 

My plan is to put no fewer than 300 maple and 50 palm seeds in the ground, and at least double that every year until I have sufficient inventory. It may take 3-5 years before anything is worth selling, but figure it costs nearly nothing to get them there. A little water, pots I already have, and soil. With hugelmounds, eventually I won’t need to buy soil. With rain barrels, water will be cheaper. And I’ve got a source for free pots as well. 

Three years sounds like a really long time when all you want to do is farm and work at home, but slow and steady wins the race.