Pig tilling

The future pasture has been cleared of brush for a while now, but work remains before it can really be planted with the pasture blend. But today I was looking at how much the pigs have rooted up their new pen already and wondering if they’d undo the work we do for the wedding. I figured we might have to keep them out of the wedding area entirely as it grows and until the wedding was done.

But then I looked at the planted part of the yard and got to thinking about how fast that grass grows and realized that there’s enough time before the wedding that we can simply use the pigs to finish prepping for planting. As long as they’re out of the wedding area so we can plant it at least a month out, then they will have actually saved us work instead of made more.

So today I moved their pen. I basically just moved one post at a time so the fence stayed mostly intact. They didn’t even really try to get out. Good pigs.

They tore up the grass in their new area so quickly that I feel confident that I can move them every weekend until they’ve taken care of the whole area for us. Then it’s back to just past where they were originally. I’ll follow behind each move raking and planting.

Other than a couple blackberry canes and scotchbroom stems, they tilled the entire area. A bit of raking was all it needed.

Once it was raked out, I went ahead and spread the seed for the pasture blend. And in a couple of weeks, we will have more grass. The free ranging birds should help keep it from getting too out of control until the perimeter fence is up and the pigs and geese can have it.

Their next move will encompass the actual wedding ceremony area. I may leave them there a little longer to be sure it’s nicely tilled since that’s not just grass, it’s also corn being planted. They should be ready to move out of their just about the time the corn needs to be planted.

In the meantime, I also got a couple fruit trees in the ground. We’ve got some lofty food goals for next year so I’m glad to have that done. I will probably need to go hunting this fall and have a greenhouse up before winter in order to meet those goals, but the fruit trees will help. Bonus, any fruit we don’t get to is free pig food!

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A couple hours of someone else’s hard work

Pictures do not do this justice. A smartphone camera just doesn’t capture the depth and scale here.

Fellow homesteader Matthew was here yesterday for just a couple of hours. That is one heavy duty brush hog he has. This first picture is from roughly where the wedding will be, facing west towards the road. What you can’t see is the path he cut behind the tall cedars just out of the frame that will be our perimeter fence.

Turning around to face east, the path to the area we always envisioned as pasture but will also be great overflow parking for the wedding has been cleared and widened.

At the north end of that plot, looking south, you can see that we will be able to fit quite a few cars for that occasion, and a few grazers the rest of the time.

What is really cool about the way the cleared land is laid out is that it actually gives us access to more huckleberry bushes than before, despite having removed so many of them. We have more than quadrupled our useable space. And once it’s fenced in, the dog will enjoy the extra space to roam!

I caught a good sale a couple weeks ago and I’ve got all the wooden posts for the perimeter, and enough T posts and fencing to enclose a plot for the pigs that will include some open grassy area plus lots of shrubbery and trees for shade. We will also be planting a few fruit trees, which the pigs will enjoy in the fall.

I’ll have more pictures as this progresses and I get it planted and prepped, and the fence installed, but for now this was a very pleasant afternoon!

Rebellious Poultry and other goings on

Some birds just like to watch the world burn. Or the humans hunt for eggs. For the last several days we’ve seen Diane come strolling back towards the yard, not even having known she was out of it. And always the same direction. I figured that meant she had started laying eggs off in the brush somewhere.

Today I retraced her path and found her nest. It was too far from the house and not well hidden enough to allow her to go broody there so I decided to move the eggs into the coop.

There were more than I expected! Seems she’s been at it for almost two weeks. Guess she didn’t approve of the nest box I’d made just for her. Too bad. That’s where they are now. Might have to show her the eggs a few more times for her to remember.

The goose has started laying, too. Very sporadically. One every couple days. Still trying to get her to use a nesting area I prepared. Really, almost anywhere would be better than where I found this one.

But I think she gets it. Just took her a few days.

One of our experienced chicken mamas has been AWOL for a few weeks. I expect she will be showing up with babies soon. Saw her briefly for a meal last week so I’m pretty sure that’s what she’s up to.

Spring is on the way and flowers are starting to bloom, which is always welcome! Sometimes it’s some little purple wild flower, sometimes it’s the daffodils you didn’t know the previous owner planted.

The rabbits have produced a new litter.

The pigs are coming along nicely. They figured out the automatic waterer so now their bowl can be used for things like cottage cheese.

And, just as importantly, if not as adorable, the garden has been started! With the last frost date not yet here, only peas and radishes have been planted so far. Carrots starting in the next few days. I really need to get peppers and tomatoes started indoors soon. This year, the chickens and turkeys are pretty much free ranging so the garden beds are on total lockdown. Welded wire fence surrounding, with bird netting over the top.

One thing is for sure. Springtime is busy time. And I love every second of it. Though I wish that baby would hurry up and get her teeth in. We would really like some more sleep!

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!

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!