Busy girl

Usually turkeys lay a clutch of eggs, hatch them, raise them, and that’s it for the year. Well, the weather has been so hot and dry that Diane has gone into a second laying cycle.

With our own baby coming, we don’t want brooder birds, a newborn, and weather cooling off all the same time, so we’ve decided to have Diane hatch them out herself.

Unfortunately, she insists on laying in the nest boxes four feet up. That won’t be easy for the turklets to get out of, and they won’t be able to get back in. So I scavenged the only mini coop for a new box on the ground. Of course she won’t use it.

At this point I think we need to let her go broody in the upper box, and then move her and the eggs down one night while she’s sleepy.

Anyway, depending on how much time she’s spent around Tom, we should have a bunch of new turklets soon! That’ll give us a nice head start for thanksgiving next year!

Meanwhile, the big pasture test plot out back has worked beautifully, but it needs a rest from grazing for a while. I’ll be expanding that area soon. Hopefully I can have the bulk of the yard done before it starts getting cold. The birds sure did have fun mowing it down though!

Also, please enjoy this random picture of baby bunnies.

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Reducing feed costs through forage based pasture Pt 3

Yeah, I'm still going on about this pasture stuff! It's kinda my thing this summer. I wish it had been my thing this spring. It's hot out now!
The first test patch out front is doing really well. It's taken a little bit of foot traffic and even a couple of chicken escapees. The second patch is doing pretty well too. But the third patch is what gets me excited.
In terms of area, its larger than the other two combined. It had a substantial amount of useless weed grass and moss that the birds had already decided they didn't like, and poor drainage from years of neglect as a yard. Remember, this place was a rental for years before we bought it!the above shot is from the deck.
So naturally the first step was to get the old grass out. I don't know if I mentioned this but I don't have a lot of power equipment. I do have a mattock.
I quickly found out that while compacted, the soil quality wasn't actually that bad. It still took the better part of two afternoons to dig it all up. Probably about six hours of digging and mattock-ing all together.
Then pretty much the same procedure as before. Rake it all out and spread the forage blend.
Add mulch (this time I mixed the mulch from the front yard with some organic potting soil I got for next to nothing).
Add pasture grass seed, and cover it all up again.
Now we wait. But hey, I just reduced the birds' foraging area by nearly 1/5th! Luckily, patch number one is in need of a trim! Patch 2 not far behind. In carefully managed sessions, I'll be letting the birds in the first two areas to mow it down a bit, just on the weekends. That will, hopefully, keep them satisfied and not decimate my hard work. And in a couple of months, I can move the fence in the back yard to start a new patch, letting the birds into the first two.
Just one week and it's already started growing. Time allowing, I'll be doing another patch in the front that will be just a couple of weeks behind patch 3. With a little luck and a lot of sweat, by this time next year the entire yard will be lush, green, and reducing my feed costs! And as a totally unrelated benefit, it'll be a really pretty place to have a wedding.

Reducing feed costs through forage based pasture part 2: dearth of information!

While formulating my plan for turning the yard into pasture, I stumbled across an interesting problem. No one seems to have done it before. 

Now, to clarify, I mean no one seems to have done exactly what I was planning. Plenty of people have created pastures, or even seeded a pasture with just forage crops. Or grew a forage blend for their chickens. But not the way I was wanting. People created whole new pastures with grass, or an entire field with turnips, or grew forage greens in trays for confined birds to pick clean. 

I could not find any source for information on a mixed grass and forage pasture specifically designed for poultry and waterfowl. It was even difficult to find info on when new pasture could be grazed!

Piecemeal, I’ve been able to find a few things and I want to share them here for anyone considering a similar project. 

First, it can be done! Best time for it is in the spring while there is still some rain in the forecast but it’s starting to warm up. Most forage crops do need to be planted deeper than grass so I would suggest two separate sowings for that purpose. Keep them moist until germination and don’t let it dry out until it’s well established. 

What constitutes well established? Well, it depends on the plant! Now this was one of the toughest bits to find so I definitely want to share! From the university of Georgia’s college of agricultural and environmental sciences, for most forage based crops, you should wait for a specific height before a first grazing, and then only allow it grazed down to a specific height before a recovery period. 

Here is a screenshot of a chart provided at their page. Another super useful tip that wasn’t easy to find is the “pluck test.” 

Yeah. That’s it. “Pluck test.” No further description provided. Basically everyone talking about it assumes you already know about it. Like it’s some common knowledge farmy thing that everyone knows. Can I get a facepalm?

Ok, so enough vague references and one blurry zoomed too far out picture, I think I’ve figured it out. So you’ve got your tillered (grass with multiple blades coming from the plant or something like that) grass plant. Grab a blade of it and pull. If the plant starts to uproot, it’s not ready for grazing. If the leaf just comes right off without disturbing the roots, then it’s ready.  In my photo you can see that the blade of grass severed when I tried to pull. That particular plant is ready for grazing. 

Was that sooooo difficult to write, other bloggers and authors???

Others recommended 6-8 weeks of no grazing to establish, but of course that would vary based on soil quality, what kind of forage you planted, what you’re planning to graze, and how much water and sun they’ve received. I feel height plus pluck is the best route. 

If you do a quick Google or YouTube search for growing forage for poultry, you’ll mainly find city dwellers growing patches or trays of this stuff for their birds. They are allowed to eat it all the way to the roots and then it’s replanted. 

I want a stable pasture that will reduce my feed costs while giving the birds something to do. If you have any additional insights, you know where the comment button is!

Reducing feed costs through forage based pasture

Some time ago I sat down and did the math. If we don’t get any more birds and they stop growing (some of them are four inches tall), they will consume roughly 2,000 pounds of prepared chicken food in a 12 month period. That’s 40 50lb bags at roughly $13 each for a total of $650.

Honestly, that’s not terrible considering the number of eggs, chicks, and meat we get both for ourselves and (eggs and chicks only at this point. Talking to you, USDA!) others. But I’m convinced we can do better. 

Initially I thought the best way would simply be to grow our own in the form of wheat, buckwheat, barley, corn, sunflowers, and peas. And I am doing that, but there’s a substantial space requirement and length of time before any gains are made, so it’s not perfect. So far I’ve just got those tiny patches next to the rabbit run. 

While the grains grow, what can I do? If only there was a way to make the birds feed themselves… 

Oh wait, there is! While chickens lack the ability to digest grass, they do love the bugs that live in and around it. They do love tender young leaves. And the geese will gladly mow the grass,  as evidenced by the back yard (pictured above post geese). So I should plant a new lawn! Not just any lawn, but a mix that will meet most of their nutritional requirements!

Hmm. There are seed loving birds all over the lawn. Cross fencing it is!

To be clear, I am not doing this in the most ideal way. So if you are starting out, plan ahead and do everything I did, but before you got the birds and not in the summer heat!

Followers may recall that when we moved in here almost exactly one year ago, the entire front yard was rock hard, dry, dusty, and all around useless. Couple straggly bits of grass and a few dandelions. Other than that, it was tougher than some roads I’ve driven. If that’s your starting point, you’ve got to improve the soil. 

In Earn your keep, animals, I talked about using straw mulch in the chicken yard. Short recap. They scratch it up into tiny pieces, which adds moisture retaining organic matter, and poop all over it to add nitrogen. Well, after a few heavy rains and quite a few bales of straw, they did an admirable job. There is now a nearly one foot thick layer of rich topsoil. Plus a bunch of straw. 

Raking it back to expose the topsoil left me with quite a pile of straw/soil mix. Basically it was mostly soil but about 1/3 of it was very finely chopped straw.  Just gonna call it mulch from here on. I initially purchased two bags of seed. A forage blend and a pasture grass blend. 

I sprinkled the forage blend at probably 1/4 the recommended seeding rate and lightly covered with the mulch. That was followed by a generous sprinkling of the pasture seed followed by another layer of mulch. 

The layering put the first seeds at their recommended planting depth without having the grass seed too deep. It also protects it from birds. Songbirds. Chickens can still get it if you don’t keep them out. Ask me how I know. 

If you’re doing this at the right time of year, you won’t need to water it often. I’m doing it in the summer so I water it every day. Well planned, McFarmFace. But it only took a week for the forage blend to sprout!

Rye came up first, followed by vetch. Then the pasture grasses and the forage peas started in. But no clover. The bag said clover. What do clover seeds look like anyway? Hint. They’re the super tiny ones that fall to the bottom of the bag so you don’t get any if you grab from the top. 

Yeah, so added clover afterwards. And while I was at it, got a whole bag of a different kind of clover because biodiversity is awesome. Also cool, this company inoculates the seeds for you so  nitrogen fixing is taken care of!

I also fenced off a section of the back yard and basically did the same thing there, just working around the tufts of grass that hadn’t been eaten. In hindsight, probably should have pulled those if the birds didn’t like them. Ugh. Next time. 

It’s been a few weeks now and the front yard is starting to look almost like a yard! The back section has clover (I grabbed from the bottom of the bag that time) and rye coming in. 

While all this gets established enough to tolerate grazing, just gotta keep on buying commercial food. I also plan on setting up more temporary cross fencing and starting other sections. One piece at a time, I’ll transform this into pasture. I’ll keep you updated along the way!

Of note: with the exception of a few vitamins, we estimate that a combination of wheat, barley, peas, black oil sunflower seeds, and buckwheat will meet all the nutritional requirements for the poultry. We will be growing those for actual feed. The yard will contain ryegrain, Austrian winter peas, common vetch, buckwheat, Dutch white clover, medium red clover, pennlate orchardgrass, annual ryegrass, tall fescue, and perennial ryegrass. With any luck, this will mean a lot less prepared feed, and no lawnmower. I’ll post updates to this periodically. I was quite perplexed at how very little information there was on this topic online. 

I bring you photos of dirt!

That’s right, photos of dirt. Ok, so there’s a little more to it than that. 

Of our fenced in areas, we have a lot of cross fencing. We can isolate the dog from the front chicken yard. We can isolate the front from the side and back, the garden from the back, etc. It’s astoundingly useful. 

Anywho, the first area mentioned doesn’t get a lot of use now that Vasi is growing up. She spends every night roaming the entire front, side, and back yard. So I figured I should put it to good use. 

The geese have pretty much mowed the entire back yard. So for now they are in a temporary pen outside the yard where the grass, clover, and plantain have gotten tall. So, starting with the dog area, I’ve decided to plant a forage lawn. 

I got two bags of seed. The first is a pasture grass blend for our region and the second is a forage blend of field peas, clover, rye, buckwheat, etc. 

You may recall that the entire front yard was dry, dusty, rock hard and dead when we moved in. The chickens have done a marvelous job of rejuvenating it. It’s now rich, dark soil. 

So I raked up the straw mulch and loosened the topsoil. I spread the forage blend first, covered with the dirt/straw mix I’d raked up, then pasture grass, and more of the dirt/straw mix. 

Well, that was a week ago. And things have begun sprouting!!! With the dry, hot weather we’ve been having, it needs a lot of water. Not the ideal time to plant a lawn, but the geese are rapidly outgrowing what we’ve got. Got to plan ahead for their continued growth. I also cross fenced a section of the back yard and planted it. 

Also, my wheat is starting to form seed heads!

What a lovely skirt…

So, rats found out they could dig und r the coop. My bad. I had hardware cloth under it, but it seems that during the building process, it got into a position of poor contact and the little monsters can slip right past it. 

So, skirt it is. The first step is to dig a shallow trench that slopes away from the coop. Some will tell you to bury the wire one foot down. These people have no real experience with rodents. Rats are smart. They’ll just keep going down. But if the barrier goes down and out, it’s very confusing. To figure out that they need to move away from the barrier before digging requires abstract thinking that is ever so slightly past the average rat. 

So you dig your trench and set the hardware cloth in it. It should contact the wood of the coop enough for staples, but extend about a foot down and away. The more the better. 

Staple it into position and start to bury it. It’s ok if it’s not perfectly flush to the ground, but it should be flush to the coop. 

When you’re burying it, periodically give it a shake or step on it to ensure good soil contact, but also to make sure it doesn’t bend and create gaps where a rodent could slip through. Be sure to overlap at the corners!

When you’re all done, the wire should be barely visible, and just where it connects to the wood. 

I did this about a week and a half ago and there has been no indication that the rats have figured it out. In the meantime, we are setting traps to try to encourage them to vacate the premises. 

We tried a live trap and caught one, but since then they seem to have figured it out. Either that or most of them are too small to trip it. As such, I bought modern snap traps that are supposed to work well. Two sizes, one for rats and one for mice. I know where the little ones come out so I’ll set the small ones there and the big one near the coop. 

To avoid any bird or cat accidents, I got a few milk crates. Turned upside down, they’ll keep larger animals out but let the rodents in. I set the traps next to known burrow entrances with the crates covering the whole thing. 

Disclaimer. I like rodents. They’re smart and make wonderful pets. But when they’re under the house and in the coop, they gotta go. The Snap E Mouse Trap, under an upturned milk crate is incredibly effective. I set three traps about three hours ago. I’ve caught eight so far. 

I think the crate makes them feel more secure taking the bait. Anyway, it’s important to check the traps frequently, as they’ll learn to avoid them if they see their comrades dead in them. 

I don’t like killing, but these are fast, humane, and very effective. 

Another busy weekend

Whew! This weekend isn’t even over for me but I’ve gotten quite a bit done. 

First, I played with the goslings. It’s taxing work, but somebody’s got to do it. They need to not be afraid of us. 

Next, I got some more planting done. We had a packet of sunflower seeds for snacking as opposed to the black oil seeds I already planted, and a little packet of purely decorative ones. Got those in, along with some buckwheat. 

Then beans. And why yes, that is in the middle of the yard. I ran out of other places. But being by the deck means I’ve got a great place for a trellis!

Then there was a bunch of little projects and cleaning up. The rabbits have the nest boxes back, as we figure at least one is probably pregnant now. By the way, like my little rabbit barn? We figure it gives them more space out of rain, and that front board can help contain the very young babies. 

Speaking of babies, they’re getting big! We will probably only keep six of them for the freezer and sell the rest as pets or breeding stock. 

The rat bitten turklet is completely recovered and back outside, though we are triple checking it goes on the roost at night. In the meantime, I’ve installed an anti rodent skirt to the coop. I’ll do a post just on that soon. 

The geese are starting to get real feathers, and are spending every day outside. The pen keeps them confined until they’re big enough to not get through the fence. 

And finally, it’s been consistently warm and dry for long enough that I felt I should water everything. And with the soil darkened, I could see much more clearly that the salad garden is actually doing quite well! That spinach was nearly invisible before watering. 

Same with the lettuce! Several varieties of loose leaf and I’m even doing some butterhead lettuce this year. And the radishes. I wasn’t even planting more radishes, but I found old seeds and figured I’d give them a shot. 

More than just a fence 

I already showed you how the area between the rabbit pen and the driveway is being used for grain and seed crops, but there’s still a lot of fence line and still a lot of stuff we are wanting to grow. 

The corn is taking its time. So while the wheat and sunflowers are coming up nicely, let’s talk grapes. 

I have two varieties of grape. Gewurtztraminer for wine, and a green table grape. The gewurtztraminer is older and will take a bit more work to train. Grapes need support to grow properly, because as a woody vine if you don’t train them up and out, they just sprawl outwards and that means grapes on the ground. No one wants that. Except the bugs, perhaps. Enter the fence. 

By planting the grapes right next to the fence, in spots that get enough sun, we don’t need a dedicated grape trellis. Sure, the bunnies and any other animals inside the fence might take a few grapes, but I figure that’s just free animal food and they certainly won’t take all of them. If it gets bad, I can just attack hardware cloth to the inside of the fence to prevent grape theft. 

Right next to the gate, I used a shovel to cut a line into the grass and stuck peas in. So far they’re germinating nicely even through the turf, so hoping for a nice long line of them. 

We also grabbed two varieties of pear (for cross pollination), Bosc and Bartlett. Most of our fruits will be suitable for making our own baby food. After all, why pay a couple bucks for a half cup when we can pick them by the pound and just mash and can them ourselves for pennies on the dollar?

Aside from all that, the huckleberry flowers are starting to drop so berries soon!

Elderberries are in full bloom. 

Strawberries just starting to bloom. The top of the pocket pot is an everbearing variety, but the pockets are two varieties of native strawberry. They’re sending runners out and as soon as that area is established, we will move the pot and let them colonize another patch. 

The salal and black cap raspberries are also budding out. Getting into the tasty time of the year soon!

Busy Saturday!

Even though I didn’t get home from work until after 5 am and didn’t get a lot of sleep, I had a rather productive day! First, after more than a week of hardening off, I got the veggies transplanted to the garden!

That’s a lot of tomatoes and peppers! Also got the Brussels sprouts and broccoli out. To be honest, I think I started all of these a couple weeks too soon. Some of them were pretty leggy. They’d have gone out sooner but the weather has not been particularly cooperative and I’ve been pretty busy with the fence. 

Speaking of the fence, I got a bit done between the driveway and rabbit pen. The closest patch is black oil sunflower seed. These are the small black sunflower seeds you see in bird seed mixes. They’re also where we get sunflower oil. The soil was pretty bad. I think the gravel driveway used to be much wider. 

The next plot is wheat. Not sure what variety, we got it from the feed store. But a germination test was very promising! 

After working in some rabbit poop, I broadcast by hand and then covered with a light sprinkle of soil. 

Finally, corn! Specifically, calico popcorn. So pretty!

It’s a good corn for popping, but also a good one for mixing homemade chicken feed. On limited space, I just did six rows. Hopefully I’ll get good fertilization. Next year I’ll have larger plots for all of these. Next year I hope to not be tilling rocky soil by hand!

I covered it all with bird netting (held in place by the fence to keep it up off the soil) because previous attempts were essentially just exercises in feeding songbirds. 

When that was all done, my sister dropped by with a couple friends to socialize the rabbits. This involved basically snuggling and squealing at how cute they were. 

Tomorrow is an us day for me and the lady McFarmFace. But Monday I hope to get started on the rabbit barn. But other than that, I got everything on my list for the weekend done today!

DIY livestock gate! Or the fence thing part two. 

While I had the materials to build the gate last weekend, what I did not have was the time. So the yard sat almost ready for the dog for a week. Poor Vasi. If she knew what I was doing back there, she might have been less of a pill. 

Anywho, the ground between the two gate posts was not level because I didn’t think ahead enough so some minor earthwork was in order. Once I had a relatively level area between them, it was time to build the gate itself. 

So, measure between the two posts and accounts for the hinges. The latch will be on the outside so not a big deal. I wanted a different style latch, but it seems most gate latches assume either square posts or chain link. Oh well. 

The gate is constructed out of 2×4, which makes it pretty heavy. Over time, it will sag. To counter this, the diagonal brace takes the weight from the top of the gate opposite the hinge and distributes it to the bottom right next to a hinge. Also, I placed a brick below the gate that it can rest on. Let’s hope that’s enough!

Obviously, two triangles with a nine foot span won’t keep the dog in, so the woven wire fencing was stapled to it.

 It’s tied to itself on the sides much like with the wooden fence posts. All in all, I think it blends with the fence quite nicely!

It’s stapled once up top and twice on the bottom, which stretches the wire down, then up, then down again. So it’s pretty tight. 

Basic gate hinges. Held down by gravity. You do want to make sure they’re plumb to each other, and measure very carefully, as the pilot holes make it very difficult to adjust the huge placement!

A little tidying up and it was time to let the puppy lose! She definitely enjoys the space! But until I can be sure the garden is completely secured, she only gets supervised time outside. 

Upcoming: using the fenceline as support for peas and grapes, planting the areas just outside the fence with grain crops among other things, and using pumpkins as weed control!