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?
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!
Bugga! It kind of stands out don’t it?
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.
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.
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!
Another dream come true! This piece of level, well drained land behind the house is becoming a garden!
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!
Below is the finished project! We are quite pleased.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
At our previous farm in Connecticut we built an appealing quintessential, old fashioned, New England post and beam barn in a Pennsylvania bank barn style (yes, our hearts were always in Pennsylvania I guess), which was authentic to the point of having no electricity and therefore no lighting. No doubt this was very quaint and “New Englandy”, but it was also somewhat restrictive functionally, and when we needed power, we used over a hundred yards of heavy gauge extension cords or started up the generator. But this time we mean business in all senses of the word, and so we decided that we needed light and power available in the barn.
As you observed in a previous blog, we had the power company and an electrician bring power down to the new structure underground from the transformer near the house. And this past week we were graced by a visit from our very dear friends, Deacon Phil and Linda Hayes from Connecticut. Deacon Hayes has an extensive history with electricity, so we tapped into his vast knowledge base and skills and worked with him to wire up the barn with lights and with power outlets. Our children are homeschooled, and a large project like this is used as a “hands-on” shop course to supplement traditional schoolwork. And as Deacon Phil “schooled” us in the barn, Linda took the opportunity to help out with more of the other schooling that she had assisted us (and numerous other families) with while in Connecticut. It was just like being back there again!
Below you can see seven of the eight banks of three 4 foot long LED tube lights that illuminate the entire 60×40 foot structure. We used LEDs partly because they use very little power, but especially since they have an active lifespan longer than ours, and the rafters are 12 feet in the air. Not having to think about replacing them was worth the extra cost! Additionally they are plastic vs. the glass of a fluorescent tube. Breaking one of those on the gravel floor of the barn would be a disaster!
Outside, above each garage door, we placed a set of motion sensing flood lights, so we can light up the entrances. This will be especially useful during lambing season when we are moving ewes in and out before and after lambing, and walking to and from the barn during “the wee hours” to check on the ewes and their lambs. These lights at the front were one of our son’s “solo” runs as electrician apprentice, since Deacon Phil and Roy were temporarilly distracted up at the house, and he used this time to wire in and mount the lights by himself! We think he has earned an “A” for his shop “course”!
The lights at the rear were our first attempt at wiring and mounting flood lights. We figured that any mistakes out back would be learning opportunities that would be viewed by less people! These lights were quite expensive and it surprised us that they had no electrical mounting box included, so we had to go and buy one from the local store which, incidentally, was not a good fit for the other hardware, but was eactly what they suggested in the instructions. Imperfections were made watertight with gobs of silicone caulking!
This side view shows the lights mounted closer to the door, since there was no gable to enable them to be placed higher like on the front and back.
Here is the “nerve center” of the operation containing the breaker box and the spaghetti mix of wires coming into it.
In all we have 5 high end (read expensive) dual type circuit interruptor breakers (arc fault and ground fault) for the power recepticles. We will be using these outlets to, among other things, power water heaters, and our experience has been that they can draw a lot of power. We therefore used 20 amp breakers and 12 gauge wire and limited the outlets to one or two per breaker for those circuits.
The light circuits were less concerning as they draw much less power, and we used the more standard 15 amp breakers for those. However, the challenge with the lights was that we wanted to have each bank of lights on a three way switch that operated from each end of the barn. This created the necessity for running two long cables to join the switches for each set of lights. This was a pain and expensive to say the least. Also, working out the logistics of wiring in the three way switches so that they worked as they should, kept us entertained for about two full days!
Here is another perspective on this job:
There are over 10 wire cables (each containing a power wire, return wire, ground wire and an accessory wire for the three way switches) running the full 60 foot length of the barn, not to mention a multitude of wires running back and forth to switches and lights etc. We used over 1100 feet of wire cable (with 4 wires each) meaning amost 4/5 of a mile of wire to complete this project. Note that this is all “Romex” cable which is PVC covered wire (2 or three insulated wires as well as a ground wire) in order to meet or exceed the code requiring extra covering for the wires.
Below is a view of the “people door” and adjacent breaker box beside the staging used to access the ceiling rafters in relative comfort – compared with being balanced on a step ladder that is! A HUGE note of thanks to a most awesome neighbor who graciously allowed us to use this staging for the week. Thank you, Bob! Note also that the staging marks the approximate position of the small 10×10 foot insulated room we will build as a place for a space heater, a small refrigerator for vaccines and medicines, a desk and filing system and a warm refuge for the more fragile lambs and humans! I foresee a cot set up in here some nights!
So, now we have a barn with lighting and power (water will have to wait and will be another story)!
We will next change tack and begin building a moveable hen house for our layers. Below is the lumber and some hardware we will use for this project.
Differing from what we did in Connecticut, we intend to build a light moveable coop so that we can change location every few days and provide the girls a predator-protected home. This will benefit the hens by giving them safe access to fresh pasture regularly, and us by putting the manure directly on the pasture as fertlizer, saving us the labor of cleaning out manure from a stationary coop and composting it and spreading it. More on this in a future blog.
And so as we bid farewell to our friends and mentors Deacon Phil and Linda Hayes from our well-lit barn, we look forward to seeing them again soon in the spring or summer.
Some people find that endings are sad. Think about the words we use. “It’s done! Finished! No more!”
For some, these words give the feeling of a loss of something which will leave a gap; but the space left by an ending is usually filled with the excitement of a new beginning.
As we round out the year here, we have gone through many endings, such as the sale of our farm in Connecticut and Roy leaving his career that started before we were married. The loss of our old life in Connecticut has made way for the wonder and thrill of beginning a new life in Pennsylvania. And of course as Christians, we mark the end of the year with Christmas, celebrating the birth of the Christ, the ultimate new beginning!
Farming is filled with many opportunities to see this cycle of endings and beginnings. The photograph below shows our wonderful neighbor Steve mowing our hilly pasture so that the grass can begin to grow again in the spring with fresh new growth. Mowing the pasture produces decaying mulch that eventually adds new topsoil, and the rootlets dying back under the soil leave capillary spaces that will soak up the water in spring like a sponge, encouraging new growth to burst forth.
Soon we hope to be able to produce these results with sheep slowly grazing the pasture, rather than having to burn all that diesel to make way for the spring. This cycle of endings making way for new beginnings, the loss of the old supporting a new beginning, is the way of nature, the way that God designed it. And it IS good!
And speaking of new, we showed you the start of the new barn in the previous blog. Things have advanced significantly in a very short time, assisted by new ways of doing things. Below you can see the placement of preformed rafters creating a roof structure in about 3 hours! With the crane mounted on the front of the trailer, this process takes a fraction of the time it used to take.
And here, the first pieces of siding are placed on the wall. Bear in mind that it is currently about 16 degrees with a 15 mph wind, so we are in awe of the builders who are braving these inclement conditions to contiue erecting our barn. It was tough enough to go outside and take these pictures, let alone spend a day working out there. Their laconic understatement was only, “Things would probably go a bit quicker if it was a bit warmer!”
One thing that doesn’t change around here is the beauty of God’s creation. The starkness of the winter landscape we know now will give way to the freshness of the burgeoning spring, and a magnificent sunset like this will lead to a wonderful new day.
The old adage “God is in His Heaven and it is good” is certainly true and is worthwhile meditating upon in this season where things look cold and stark and dead, because we know what is really happening. And it really is good.
We at Morning Star Meadows Farm hope that you had a wonderful Christmas and wish you a happy and exciting New Year!
What is a farm without a barn? It is a place with a very cluttered basement and garage, with machinery rusting in fields. In addition to general storage, barns also provide for storage of fodder and temporary shelter for livestock in difficult conditions or when lambing/calving etc. So although farmers generally try to minimize capital outlay, the purse strings will usually be loosened somewhat in order to put up a barn. Since this property was not used as a farm in recent history, there is no barn (also no fences or other infrastructure either, but we’ve dealt with that in a previous blog or two), a situation that we are remedying.
Below is the eastward view from the bottom of the driveway, with the corner of the fence visible at the edge.
We engaged the services of Justin Matson, a very experienced contractor in the local area who is also a successful farmer and understands agricultural needs. He recently put up a similar sized shed/barn on his own property as part of his construction business, which we went to see, which convinced us that he should do the same for us! Justin doesn’t have a website, as he relies on word of mouth for his business. So if anyone needs something built in southwestern Pennsylvania, from houses to sheds and barns, let us put you in contact with him!
He brought a bulldozer and track-steer the day before starting work, and we were wondering how he was going to negotiate the tight driveway turns. But such considerations are never an issue for an experienced bulldozer operator. He simply drove straight through a barrier of dense trees and briars without any impediment!
Here again is the eastward view after the attention of that bulldozer for a couple of hours. Although the site for the barn is fairly flat, there is a substantial amount of earth that still needs to be moved to ensure it is all level, and appropriate drainage is in place, etc..
This is a view looking north from the top of the driveway near the house, a good 100 yards from the barn site. This will be a path well trodden by us during lambing season as we go to and from the barn day and night!
It is always surprising how much land needs to be cleared when building something like this!
And finally, after the ground is cleared of topsoil, a firm, flat covering of shale is used to help form the foundation of the “apron” of the barn leading into one of the three garage doors (and one standard door) which will be used for access and egress. A similar foundation is to be used for the barn flooring, and we understand that over 6 large dump trucks of the material will be needed in all.
As I type, a load of lumber is being delivered at the bottom of our driveway! Building will commence soon! God bless these guys for persevering today in 15 degree weather. I don’t even want to think what the wind chill is!
Stay tuned for further photographic updates as we proceed with erection of what will become a major feature of Morning Star Meadows Farm in the future!
Towards the end of summer I was out with our little ride-on mower, mowing the perimeter of our property. I also was taking it down a couple of hills, trying to cut some cross paths here and there for fun. As I came across a hill, I was nearing our perimeter, and there was one of our neighbors on his much more powerful and solid, double rear wheeled tractor with a large pull-behind mower. I smiled and we both shut down our vastly different mowers so that we could have a conversation.
He introduced himself and said that he felt badly that I was struggling to mow, and so he had started up his tractor to help us out and had already started mowing the perimeter to assist me while I was out there with my piddly mower that would have gotten stuck in the dense pasture if I had ventured out too far into it!
Steve had mowed our property for years before we arrived, so it was all familiar territory to him – with its dips and steep hills. We talked for at least 30 minutes about everything from hunting to getting back to a time when our lives weren’t so connected and controlled by cell phones and social media…a time when neighbors were outside like we were right then – bumping into each other as they worked or recreated on their properties. We knew we had a lot in common from that point of view.
That day he generously offered to mow the property any time we needed some help. We had intended (and still do) to get a more substantial and safer walk-behind mower, but for the time being, mowing the pasture didn’t seem like a big priority, so I thanked him profusely and said that if he still wanted to help that day, I would greatly appreciate his mowing a couple of paths across the back of our property for the time being. He graciously complied, and we followed up with an evening delivery of homemade cookies to his door later that day!
After our visit with the Dougherty’s in Ohio, we came to the conclusion that mowing the property might not be such a bad idea after all. Allowing the pasture to go fallow for too long without animals would allow for some less desirable plants to try to take over. We knew it would be a while before we would have enough livestock to graze all of this land. Mowing would somewhat mimic the presence of animals to the best extent could at this stage – cutting the seed heads, putting down green manure, pressing the seeds into the soil by the weight of the tractor wheels. PLUS it had the added benefit of allowing us to see what lay beneath that lush growth – the lay of the land, the steepness of some of the hills (!), and the location of springs and seeps that we hope to develop as we build up the farm. We walked a bowl of homemade stew over to Steve one evening and told him we’d like to hire him, and he was over getting started before long!
Steve has been working hard, and Roy and I were excited to go out and explore the other day.
We found a great spring on the side of the hill below the house that can be developed to supply animals on the upper half of the back of the property, and another incredible spring near the grotto at the lower part of the property. We’ve pretty much identified springs and seeps in all 4 corners of the lot.
Soon the property will all be mowed, and we will anxiously await the greening up of the pastures next spring. And as an added plus, the kids are happy that they have almost endless hills for sledding this winter!
They say good neighbors are hard to come by, but we have been blessed by some true gems!
Just heard that the township has issued a permit for our barn construction! Digging will commence as soon as the utility companies do their checking for underground wires! So excited to be making this place our farm! What an awesome Christmas present!
Before Thanksgiving we were blessed to be able to visit the Dougherty’s, a farming and homesteading family in southeastern Ohio, with whom we became acquainted when they spoke at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania. Beth and Shawn are wonderful, knowledgable, and generous folk, of whom we have spoken before in this blog, and luckily for the world of farming have produced a wonderful book The Independent Farmstead. Having enthusiastically devoured this excellent tome, we were wondering if we could make a visit, since they live only about 2 1/2 hours drive away from us. We were especially interested in how they handle springs and seeps, since we have been made aware that we will depend on these for the water supply on our farm (see previous blog).
The visit surpassed our expectations, both on how welcoming they were, and in how brilliantly they have adapted multiple strategies to harvest that resource so critical to all our lives.
Below was the first thing we saw on our tour. A small spring exits the hillside and is captured in a large pipe. What Shawn and Beth have done is to drop a 55 gallon drum cut in half just below it and plumb in a spigot that feeds a hose, which supplies a lot of the water for their garden and animals close to the house.
The next fascinating invention was where the water from a seep on their hillside is collected by buried curtain drain pipe that is simply dug into the hill where there was a damp spot. It is angled into a collecting pipe and drips into a reservoir from which another buried pipe fills this small cistern from the bottom. Water is available for use from the pipe in the center, which allows sediment to collect at the bottom, resulting in pristine pure and delicious water for ducks, pigs and sheep! Brilliant!
Below are the ubiquitous storage vessels where the wondrous liquid is stored after harvesting from the earth. These are called “IBCs” (Intermediate Bulk Containers) and are used by any industry needing to transport large volumes of liquid. They are everywhere on the Dougherty’s farm and will soon be a common site on ours!
An added bonus to our visit was the interesting layer-hen “tractor” constructed of electrical metal conduit and 1×6 beams covered with plastic. This is very cheap and light so it will be easy to move around the fields giving continual access to fresh green grass, herbs and weeds and protection from predators. We are sure that some version of this will soon grace our own fields.
Finally, we helped Beth and Shawn move some cattle onto fresh pasture. this is accomplished quickly and easily using push-in posts and some electric twine.
So, pumped up with new information and enthusiasm, we came back to our farm ready to employ some of these techniques to access water for livestock and vegetables. We are very grateful to the Dougherty’s for allowing us to visit them, to spend so much time with us, and even to provide lunch harvested from their farm, complete with homemade cheese! They are real, down to earth (ever wonder where that phrase originates – obviously from describing farmers!) farmers who learned these things over many years and have developed tried and tested means to harvest both food and water from difficult terrain. We recommend their book to anyone who farms and if you are able to visit, you will find them to be gracious, generous, delightful people who will share their knowledge and time selflessly. We have gained a lot of knowledge, and we hope, some lifelong friends in the process.