Hey — Hay!

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Ever thought about what you can do with old moldy hay smelling of cat urine and and laced with raccoon poop,  apart from condemming it to a compost pile or bonfire, that is?  If so, then read on.  If not, read on anyway.  The information may come in handy some time in the future!  The story unfolds oddly and interestingly, as stories from real life often do, which is why fake stories from Hollywood or books have to revert to shallow and fetid tales of imorality to hold viewers attention.

Our cousins from New Jersey recently bought the abandoned farm across the road.  On the property is a large barn built in the mid 1800s.  Part of the detritus of 150 years of living scattered throughout the structure includes a few hundred bales of very old hay–at least 8 years old, as that is the last anyone lived there.  But it is likely that it is much older than that, although it must have been collected since automated, machine baling started using sissal twine to hold the bales together.

We were pondering the very significant effort needed to control weed growth at the same time as we were lamenting the clay content of the soil here and how hard the soil compacts when it is walked on.  Somehow weeds can grow in this soil, but weeding implements have a really hard time penetrating the baked pottery passing for soil in much of the garden.  We had additionally decided that we needed to significantly increase the organic matter in the soil.  Previously, we had used the composted manure and hay from our winter sheep feeding, as well as broiler chicken offal and anything else that acumulates on a farm.  But since we are just beginning here, we don’t have anything accumulated for such a purpose.

We had used some of this hay to cover the grass seed we spread after the earth moving had denuded a large area around the new barn.  Robin made the creative leap to using this hay to mulch the garden, and at the same time helping to clear out the old barn for our cousins.  So we piled up 10 bales in the back of the UTV and trucked it across the road to our farm.  Now to properly mulch, you have to use a very thick layer of hay, and we had no idea how much we would need until we started.  Some 40 bales later we were done — exhausted, but done.  Now, in addition to helping with weed control, a thick cover of organic material will importantly promote retention of moisture, while slowly composting into the soil.  We are using water accumulated from our roof in a large plastic cistern (see previous blog entry) for the garden and it is both time intensive and physically demanding to apply it to the large garden, so reducing the amount of time and effort spent watering is another great advantage of mulching.

Below you can see the piles around the blueberry plants.

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Below is the view of about half the garden giving an impression of the thick coating of old hay with the plants peeping up from their cozy beds.  The strawberry plants are in the foreground.

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This is the view facing the other direction from the center.  In the foreground you can see the buternut squash, then cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes (adjacent to the cattle panels), and potatoes with white flowers on top in the background, maybe 75 feet back.

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A close up of the butternut squash ensconced snugly in about 3-4 inches of compacted hay (we layed down the hay in  flakes from each bale that you can almost visualize in this photo.)  Any weeds poking up from this probably deserve to live!

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So with all this old and apparently worthless hay, we have:  increased our organic matter in the garden, as this composting hay will be tilled in next year; conserved moisture and thereby our precious water resource, as well as our backs; and finally, hopefully reduced our weeding to almost zero (of course that’s not saying a hay seed or two might resurrect after all these years and sprout, but then we’ll just cover it with more hay!)  Isn’t nature (by which I mean God!) wonderful when you decide to work with it rather than try to beat it!

Spring has sprung!

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Things are really moving along here at the farm!  After many, many days of rain – 50% more than average for our area – spring is bursting out all over – as are “springs” throughout the pasture and along most of the back roads here!  Pollen is flying and people are sneezing, but we aren’t complaining!  We’ve waited so long to get things going here!

The rain catching system that we mentioned in a previous blog is finally in place.  Yes, it would have been nice to have had it set up during the recent spate of torrential downpours we’ve had, but be that as it may, it is up and ready now – just in time to water our garden as it gets going!

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Above you can see an IBC that we resurrected from the farm.  The previous owners had used it to store extra water for themselves.  When it was empty, it blew around the place quite a bit and has some dents and holes.  We are really anxious to see if the repairs Roy did with Fiberfix Rigid Patch hold!

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In back you can see above where Roy has drilled the downspout to attach the fitting to divert water into the IBC.

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And here (above) you can see how Roy rigged up a PVC pipe attachment to the bottom hole of the tank.  We didn’t have the original fitting for this old IBC, so it took some time and modification to make something fit!  A faucet has also been attached to allow us to run a hose to the garden.

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And as for the garden, it is planted!  Much smaller than our previous garden, it will be packed with food soon!  Our tomatoes will be growing along the cattle panel you see running between t posts.  The nice thing is that that same cattle panel will be used in the winter/spring to make jugs for lambing in the barn!  Horseradish and rhubarb acquired from a local farm’s excess are getting established nicely too!

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We really miss our amazing firepit from CT.  On a bit of a whim I had the boys and Roy dig this one and line it with shale and brownstone from the property just before Mother’s Day.  I think they finished the whole thing in half a day!  It’s functional, but the stones aren’t permanently fixed, so Finnley likes to go in and steal one of the smaller ones and bring it into the yard from time to time!

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The concord grapes that were here from before needed a serious cutback over the winter.  I am so pleased that they are coming back strong!  I think Finnley likes to knock new shoots off of this, though, so hopefully it will take off soon so he doesn’t destroy it!  Having that Lab around is seriously like having a toddler roaming around again!

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Here you can see Roy finishing up a LONG stretch of fencing around the perimeter of the first part of pasture we plan to graze.  YES!  Our sheep have been born at their home farm in NY, and we have deposited to purchase 10 ewes, a ram, and a wether (castrated ram) as a companion to our ram when he’s not “working.”  We have a bit more fencing to do before we start subdividing that area into strips for mob grazing.

And speaking of pasture…we have been watching ours GROW with all of this rain!  We purchased a second hand stand on zero turn mower for keeping up with things until we have enough sheep to graze.  As we were contemplating our hay source for the winter, I kept looking at hay growing all around us.  Seemed a pity to just mow it all.  So yesterday I put out a feeler on Facebook to the locals to see if anyone was interested in harvesting our hay in exchange for supplying our winter needs since we don’t have hay harvesting equipment.  Seemed so silly to buy someone else’s hay and mow all of this down.  Hate to waste food, after all!  A very kind young farmer responded positively to our offer, and I can report that both parties of this agreement are quite pleased!

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Farm fresh eggs again (and a lesson in Aussie chook-speak!)

What a nice surprise to see on the Facebook page for Freehling Farms last night that they had a flock of 6 month old Australorp pullets looking for a home!

We were all ready for our hens to arrive next week.  We had ordered red sex linked 4 month old pullets a month or so ago from the farm that were to be ready in May.  Sex links are what we have always had.  They are reliable egg machines – a cross between 2 egg laying breeds that results in all female chicks being either solid red or black, depending on the cross.  These hens would have been hatched and raised elsewhere and would have had their beaks trimmed.  This wasn’t our first choice, as we want these hens to free range, and having a stubby beak doesn’t help them with foraging (but does minimize pecking damage to other chickens when hens get bored.).

What were these Australorps?  I did a quick search and found something that immediately sparked my interest – they were developed in Australia, making them bona fide “chooks” – the Aussie slang for chicken!  It just seemed logical that we have Aussie birds!  But would they be as friendly and reliable as what we were used to having?

After some quick reading and comparing, I was happy to see that yes – they are friendly, excellent layers (averaging 5 eggs per week, same as the sex links.)  They do well in winter and are great foragers!  And though they were a bit more money, they are 2 months older (they’ve consumed a lot of chicken feed in those 2 months, which accounts for some of the cost difference) and therefore are already laying!  They also breed true should we ever want to introduce them to Mr. Australorp some day!  The Livestock Conservancy classifies this heritage breed as “recovering.”

The girls were a bit nervous when they entered the chicken tractor.  They crowded in the corner.

Have you ever watched chickens?  They are so much like a group of ladies at a social event.  And if you add in that these are “Australian ladies (AKA “chook sheilas),” I imagine that some of the conversations would be like this – accent and all!

Strewth girls, waddya think about these new digs?  

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Dunno, Madge, just can’t get me ‘ead around this green stuff!

Oh ya silly sheila, that’s grass!  I ‘eard the new owners sayin they’d like us to eat it and some things called grubs and worms in it!

Eh, what’s that Gladys?  Did you say eat – I’ll try just about anything once anyway!

Oy everyone, dja notice that Bev dropped an egg in the corner?  

Bev, watya doin?  

Oops, sorry all, just couldn’t ‘elp meself with all the excitement and such going on.  

Maybe if we all sidle away they won’t notice!

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Bugga!  It kind of stands out don’t it?  

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If anyone else feels the urge, why don’t we jump up and use those brown boxes up there?  At least it will be a bit more discreet!

Bev – no more social faux pas’ like that.  And Madge – stop ya bloody scratching OK?

Well I nivva!  Who made you the bloody queen of the hill, Gladys?!

And so the conversation keeps going!  I’m sure we’ll be able to eaves-drop on a few more conversations in the future.  We’ll report on that soon.

Celebrating Earth Day!

Our EarthMinded™ package, ordered appropriately on Earth Day, arrived today!  We will be harvesting rain from the roof of the house and collecting it into a cistern to use to water our new garden (more about that garden and the fencing project to follow!), thereby conserving precious ground/well water for our home use.

IMG_7449 If all goes well with this project, we will be doing the same down at the barn for water useage there!

As for the garden, this morning I went outside to find 3 guilty looking deer just over the hill from said garden.  Glancing over at the garden, I had my suspicion as to what had taken place early this morning.  One of the posts was bent, and much of the netting had been pulled down. There wasn’t a single hoofprint in the garden, so we are thinking the deer tested the fence, making a mess of it, but didn’t make it into the  garden, thankfully!  Roy has mended the fence, and hopefully the deer have learned their lesson, but I won’t be holding my breath!

 

Deer-proof Fence for the Garden

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Now that this garden is getting going it’s time to protect its precious contents!

We are putting up the same sort of fencing we had at our previous farm, hopefully with some improvements to make it more durable.

We first purchased 10 ft sections of 3/4 inch and 1 inch electrical metal tubing.  The 1 inch conduit is cut into 2 ft lengths with an angle grinder with a thin cutting wheel.  The wood shown above will be used for construction of the gate.

Below you can see a useful tool we purchased for installation of some of the posts for our sheep fencing.  It has helped make this garden fence project much easier compared to our last attempt in CT!  It works like a T post driver, but instead creates a hole.  Beside it is the 1 inch diameter piece that will serve as a sleeve to accept and hold the 10 ft 3/4 inch post.

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Here We have the posts and sleeves in their approximate position along the back of the garden, waiting to be installed.  The large post in the grass will be part of the sheep fencing – no space wasted!  High tensile wire will be brought to that post from the system in the background at the far end of the garden where you can see the gate.  We need the deer fencing to supplement this electric fence, as the deer would still be able to jump over the electric fencing from the sheep side.

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Here Roy is ready to start digging the hole to accept the 1 inch diameter sleeve.

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The sleeve will accumulate a core of dirt inside.  Use a piece of wood so that your hammer doesn’t damage the top of the sleeve when you pound.  You will then have to pull the sleeve back out and remove the dirt core.  This may need to be done a couple of times before you can finally position the sleeve.

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Below shows the dirt core that must be removed to create the hole.

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The sleeve is pounded down into place, and the 10 ft post is easily slid into the sleeve.

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An improvement this time around is that corners will have 2 adjacent posts for added strength when the fence is connected to the posts.

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Here it is!  One side is complete!  A gate will be installed close to the center of this side.  We will also have a place where we can easily open up the fence large enough for the tractor to get back in for rototilling next year.

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Lastly will come the actual deer netting.  We will install 7 ft deer netting with cable ties on these posts.  Just a note – there are different qualities of this netting.  Buy the cheap stuff, and you’ll be replacing it more frequently.  We have found that bunnies still find their way through the deer netting, so we will probably put chicken wire on the outside of that at the base for added protection.  The blueberries will be within this fencing, but I somehow think it will NOT be enough protection should the local bears discover them some day!  But that will be another story!

A rake and a hoe and a piece of fertile ground…

Another dream come true!  This piece of level, well drained land behind the house is becoming a garden!

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I put a word out on the local facebook page to see if anyone knew of a person who might come and help us break ground for our new garden, since we had left our tractor and rototiller behind in CT.

Very quickly I received a private message from someone kindly directing me to the help we needed, and we were quickly in touch with a very nice “neighbor” (he lives over 5 miles away!) who told us he would be happy to help!  We’ve been waiting a couple of months since that time for the weather to cooperate, and finally we got things dry enough around here for him to come and break ground!

When he started down his first pass, I looked at Roy and smiled.  “Hear that?” as I cupped my ear.  “What?” he said.  “That’s just it!  No sound of rocks clunking in the tiller!”  We and our neighbor were pleasantly surprised by the lack of rocks.  We knew it would be far different that North STONington, but this was beyond our expectations!

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Below is the finished project!  We are quite pleased.

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It’s not as large as our previous garden, but we will downsize a bit (though I’m not sure how, because I’m the kind of person who wants to plant every last seed in the pouch.)

We did have him till a separate area for winter squash.  It will be nice to have that all contained to it’s own area this time.

As for the soil quality, we have not had it tested, but it definitely has a higher clay content than our soil in CT.  That will be rectified over the years as we continue to add organic material to it.  In the winter we will bring the chicken tractor up from the lower field in front and let them scratch their way across, fertilizing as they go, adding nitrogen as they clean up bugs, weeds, and dormant larvae.

Another neighbor (this time one within a 1/2 mile!) needed a plot of asparagus removed from her garden, and we happily complied and brought it here!  It is now transplated at the far left part of the garden.  With the asparagus were some strawberry plants that we divided out and put in the next section of the garden along with some strawberry plants that we bought.

And below, in the foreground, you can see a bunch of blueberry bushes that we were able to plant yesterday.

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We will have to wait patiently for a year to harvest from these plantings to give the berries and asparagus a year to get more established, but we know good things come to those who wait!

We then prepped another area for rhubarb transplants, another gift from an avid local gardener.  We added some composted cow manure to prep this soil.

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Here’s our future rhubarb patch, planted!  It’s now been mulched over and for the next couple of days we sit back and let God water everything in – and maybe snow a bit on it all, too!

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Rest we will for the next few days, as the soil warms to be ready to receive lots of seeds!  In the meantime we will get out and purchase what we need to build our 7 foot deer fence for the garden.  Next up for planting will be peas, potatoes, chard, kale and lettuce!  In the wake of yet another recall of lettuce at the supermarket, we just can’t wait to have our own safe and healthy food.

All Cooped Up!

Now that we have light in the barn, there is no excuse for not working on getting our chicken coop built!  Particularly now that the temperature has slowly increased…. notwithstanding a recent storm yielding measureable snow a couple of days ago.  But that’s the winter/spring dance that we reluctantly participate in every year in the northeast!

As we told you a while ago, we visited a farming family, the Dougherty’s, in southeastern Ohio who were wonderful about sharing their best practices and have written an awesome book which is “must reading” for any small farmer/homesteader.  During our visit, the Dougherty’s showed us their version of a laying hen “chicken tractor”.  So using their basic design which makes this very cheap, light and easy to build, we fashioned a slightly larger version designed for 10-15 laying hens.

The idea, by the way, of a chicken “tractor” is a moveable coop with no bottom to it.  So by moving it every one to two days we fertilize the pasture and regularly provide the hens with brand new forage filled with whatever delicious bugs and worms reside in that particular plot, all the while protecting them from any predators.

Below you can see the basic design features (a la Dougherty) consisting of 1×6 inch planks separated by 2×4 inch x 2 foot long risers to make a pen which is about 9×8 feet.  The roofing is simply 10 foot long 3/4 inch electrical metal conduit (EMC) bent to about a 90 degree angle, slotted into 3 foot long 1 inch diameter EMC posts attached to the 1x6s and bent to leave about 1 foot as the recepticle for the roofing EMC.

With such a light design the trick was working out how to carry along the feed container with 30 pounds of layer pellets, and the water container weighing up to 40 pounds or so!  Seen in the photo below, our solution for the feed was to place a small platform diagonally in the corner, with the added benefit of bracing that corner.  This was ideal because the adjacent side was less rigid due to the necessity of incoporating a door space.  The attachment to the roof is not bearing weight and is simply to hold the container in place on the platform.

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Platform for feed container

For security, the vertical sides have 2 foot wide 1/2 inch hardware cloth attached via pneumatic stapler as you see below.  This is very quick to install securely as long as you have sufficient staples!

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Our solution for the water was a little innovative.  We have found that the best waterer, with least opportunity for mess and consequent cleaning, is a 5 gallon bucket with 3-4 nipples underneath, similar to this.  But the roofing structure held together with cable ties did not seem to be robust enough to support this weight.  So after a lot of thinking, we decided to experiment with using a 10 foot long pole of 1 inch diameter black plumbing pipe through holes in 2×4 inch posts braced at each end of the coop.  It is also tied into the much lighter roofing joists to further supplement the rigidity of the entire roof.  The water bucket is attached via a robust metal chain as you see below.  Time will tell if this is strong enough for the pupose!

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Access to the coop is via a primitive door lined with hardware cloth that provides both predator security as well as bracing/rigidity.  The door has a spring loaded hinge at the top so that it stays closed while we work changing feed/water etc. without having to latch and unlatch every time.

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Previous stationary coops we have built contain nesting boxes built in place.  These are really heavy, difficult to clean, and not suited to the portability of this coop.  So we splurged on these two nesting boxes sold by Premier 1, a great company for all sorts of chicken and livestock fencing and supplies.  They are plastic and really light and strong; mounted on a frame of 2x4s.  With the optional attachment, they have the added benefit of supposedly rolling out the eggs into that covered plastic container underneath so they don’t get dirty.  We are skeptical about whether this will really work and will report back on the efficacy of this innovation.

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Premier 1 supplies nesting boxes

The next step is to secure the roof area against escape and predators.  Hardware cloth is expensive and hard to work with so for this portion we (like the Dougherty’s) opted for good old chicken wire, attached via staples to the wood, and via cable ties to itself and to piping.  Interestingly we calculated pretty well on the amount to purchase (50 feet long x 3 feet wide) as we had about a 1 foot square piece left over at the end!

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Finally, we are going to cover the majority of the coop with Tyvek house wrap.  This is durable material that is really cheap and therefore easy to replace if torn or worn out.  It is waterproof, but breathable, which might help in the summer during high humidity heat.  This is an experiment, which we will also let you know how it turns out.

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Last step

The last step is to find some long tree branches to attach as night roosts, as chickens prefer to sleep while roosting.

Robin is finalizing some attachments to the chicken wire in the photograph below.

A wicked thought…. If the door “accidently” locked itself, perhaps we could experiment with the concept of “free-ranged” wives?  While this may be consistent with what the rest of the world thinks of social arrangments in rural America, it is probably not worthwhile testing this idea.  Instead of the “chicken house”, I would probably end up in the “dog house, and I’m not sure I would be given free range privileges!

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