The little things

This whole farm life thing has a lot of big things. Fences to build, irrigation considerations, gardens, crop planting density, creating new pasture on poor ground, and so on. But it's a lot of little things too.
The daily chores aren't huge but there are a lot of them. I know this. I knew this. But as we prepare for the arrival of our little girl, I'm slowly trying to take over or at least practice on the weekends. It adds up! And small mistakes can have huge consequences.
We had some chicken losses because I forgot to tell the house sitter to check a specific spot for some birds that stubbornly refuse to enter the coop each night and the dog wanted to play with them.
No ones fault but mine. But it reinforced that I need to spend more time acclimating the dog to the birds so she doesn't see them as playmates.
Primarily this means she goes on a very short leash and I try to keep her sitting as the birds come and investigate. The turkeys and geese are the only ones not afraid. And Christmas Goose is downright brazen!

I actually had to separate them because Vasi was only going to tolerate being bitten and body slammed for so long. She did nip half heartedly at him once and had to be told no but all in all she did really well. Eventually I had to bring her in because she got too excited.
While all this is going down, we've got a new litter of bunnies just opening their eyes!
I've got some ideas for reducing the feeding and watering chores, but so little time to build the stuff. I already know that next year I need to have some sort of irrigation system and better soil amendments.
The black oil sunflowers have started blooming but they're a bit short, probably a nitrogen issue. Still pretty though!
Anyway, just a short post to show I'm still here and get some pretty pictures out there. This heat is unbearable. We need rain!

Advertisements

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. 

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!

Basics of woven wire fences part 1

Well, it’s been in the works for several consecutive weekends now, but I have a fence! Normally I keep this blog pretty lighthearted and joking, and today won’t be any different! Except maybe more useful. Tutorial time!

I used redbrand 47″ field fence. It’s highly rated and probably overkill, but it’s actually an incredibly economical way to fence in a large space. 

For corners, rough terrain, gates, and (if the area is large enough) every 50 feet, I used 8 foot long 4″ pressure treated wooden posts set in concrete. 

The corners are braced. Unless you’re exceptionally concerned about strength, I wouldn’t bother cementing in the brace posts, but I did notch the vertical post to make sure it was very firmly seated. I set the base of the brace posts about a foot down against a brick. I put gravel around them for drainage before covering with soil. 

At roughly ten foot intervals (if the length of the run is 53 feet, I went roughly 10 foot 2 inches. Sue me.) the T posts went in. A post pounding cap makes this a helluva lot easier. Notice the string?

Don’t eyeball it. Use a line and level to keep those posts going in exactly where and how you want them. The T posts went on the outside of the fence, with the wooden posts on the inside. I just felt it would give the greatest strength if pushed from either side. 

To start the fence, it’s easier to unroll the fence along the line first. However, the terrain made that impractical where I was starting. All I really want to say about that experience is that there was a lot of panting, grunting, and swearing. And not even in a sexy way. Also, have someone help you if you can! Anyway, you remove the vertical wire from the edge of the fence, giving you a nice row of wires poking out. You’ll essentially tie the fence around the first pole, to itself. Don’t start your fence 1/4″ from a shed. Just saying. 

Once you’re unrolled and on the right side of the posts (easier after unrolling!) you can start pulling it into place. 

Now here’s where it gets tricky. You really ought to have a fence stretcher. I do not. But I do have random bits of lumber. So I stuck one in the fence (weave it through over one and under the next, all the way from top to bottom) and tied a rope to it. Attach that to a come along (hand cranked winch) to get the fence tight. 

Now, you don’t need it to be taut. I’d wager that’s actually probably a bad idea. But tight is good. Word of caution. As you crank it down, periodically go make sure it’s not caught on anything and the bottom wire is where you want it. The bottom wore had ridden up on my corner post and I had to uncrank the come along to get it down. I just didn’t feel like my fence should start four inches off the ground. 

If you find it’s caught a T post and that post is now being pulled towards you, do as I say and not as I do. Release tension on the come along before attempting to unhook the post. I was not injured. If I wasn’t paying attention, I could have been. 

Anywho, fence is standing up all nice and straight like, it’s where and how you want it. Awesome. You can either leave the come along there forever or you can finish the fence. Le sigh. I used some pretty heavy duty staples because overkill is better than a weak fence. Also, the barbs are sharp. Ask me how I know. Most of them are bowed out like the one pictured on the left. Use pliers to straighten them like the one on the right. They go in way easier. Giggity. 

Now, I’m no expert, but I do know that the vertical wires can slip along the horizontal, so a staple across either of those may not hold it forever. But a staple across the point where they are tied together? I’ll need a chainsaw to get that out. I’d say use a minimum of three per post. Top, bottom, and middle. 

Now the T posts I’ve done before, I just bent my own wire to tie them together. But this is a much heavier duty fence so I got clips. I highly recommend the clips. The clips are awesome. Also, you might stare at it for a minute thinking “now how is this supposed to work?”

Start by hooking the shorter end onto the wire and slipping the clip around the post. You want the wire over that bump on the post, but if it’s stubborn like this one was, you can finagle it after you’ve got the clip almost in place. You’ll see what I mean. 

But wait! That long end doesn’t quite slip onto the fence wire! But the wire is over the notch now, you’ll notice! 

But the long end is a very convenient size and shape to grab with pliers! Needle nose actually work really well here because you can grip the clip and then twist using the fence wire as a pivot point. This pulls the clip nice and tight. 

A few more twists on both ends and boom. Clip on. Please note that the ground makes this more annoying a task for the bottom wire. 

I got all the fencing for the yard done, but the last bit required supplemental lighting. I’m afraid that’s it for this weekend. Next weekend I’ll dog proof the perimeter, tidy up anything I don’t want her chewing, and build the gate. Until then, the bunnies are enjoying their new space! Pics of that when I’ve got time!

Asparagus and onions! Eventually. 

Things have been quite busy here at Huckleberry Hills! I’d been meaning to get asparagus crowns for weeks now, but wanted a better deal than I was finding. $1.60 per plant might not seem like a bad deal, but when you’re getting fifty, it adds up quick!

Amazon to the rescue! I was able to get both a green and a purple variety, 25 crowns each, and spend a total of thirty bucks and some change on them! They arrived during the week and I got them planted Saturday. 

Now, we didn’t really have an ideal spot already prepared so I had to make my own. I knew we wanted them near the house, but with the entire plot being sloped, and the front yard being poultry territory, I really didn’t have any options better than under the kitchen and pantry window. Of course, the soil isn’t fantastic there because there’s a steep slope right below it. 

Enter the bunny. Rabbit poop is one of the best fertilizers because it doesn’t need any aging or composting before applying to the garden. So I shoveled out as much as I could, and mixed it in with some garden soil I’d purchased to make my own seedling mix. 

I weeded the spot under the windows and started digging trenches for them. It’s a little more crowded than I’d prefer, but they should be fine. 

Despite some spotty reviews (largely from people who didn’t seem to have a firm grasp of gardening), they were almost all perfect crowns. Some had even broken dormancy and had tiny spears starting! 

Fifty plants, even if some are female, ought to be enough asparagus for the two (three soon!!!) of us, though we won’t get to harvest any until next year. 

After that, I got the red onions in the ground. Between red and yellow, probably a hundred total. Haven’t even gotten the leeks and scallions outside yet. A few are about ready though!

Also got the tomatoes repotted, for the most part. I don’t have nearly enough space for seedling trays, so I got some of them repotted and then just spaced the rest out in their original trays a bit. I’ve definitely determined that I need a better dedicated seedling area, with shelves and more lights. 

The incubator is set up and ready for eggs, just waiting on that silly turkey. The cuckoo maran pullets are spending the days outside and will be moving to the coop by next weekend most likely. 

As much as there is to do lately, it’s super important to not forget to take time for yourself and your loved ones. Saturday we had a family gathering at my mom’s house, and Sunday after planting, the girlfriend and I went to a local park. We really do live in a beautiful place, and I can’t wait to show it to my baby when he or she gets here!