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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Many Hands Make Light(s) Work!

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!

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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”!

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Front view

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!

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Rear view

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.

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Side view

Here is the “nerve center” of the operation containing the breaker box and the spaghetti mix of wires coming into it.

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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:

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Lots of wire!

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!

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Staging in the area of the future room

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.

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Next 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.

Build it and they will come!

The title, as some of you might recognize, is a misquote from the famous 1989 Movie Field of Dreams where the lead charater, played by Kevin Costner, hears a voice say, as he stares off into his cornfield, “If you build it, he will come.”  In our case, we are gazing into our meadows and referring to our future flock of sheep, not any ghosts from the past!

Barn building, as you see, is proceeding rapidly, despite sub-zero temperatures, snow, and now, as the ground warms up, a bountious and incredibly tacky layer of mud and boot-clinging clay.  Much kudos is due to our tireless builders who persevere despite all of the above that Old Man Winter has been hurling at them.  I am NOT a cold weather person, having been brought up in the tropics of Australia, and am in awe of those who shrug off frozen extremities and potential frostbite without complaining!

Below you can see our intrepid building team installing the metal roof.  We hope to harvest rainwater from this in the future to supply the barn with water. According to data from the internet, we can collect many tens of thousands of gallons from a roof of this size should we have sufficient storage capacity.

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As well as three large doors for vehicle and stock use, we also have a smaller “people door” installed so that we can access or egress easily.  Behind this door we will build a heatable office/sleeping quarters/storage room/sheep NICU!

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Well, roof installed, large doors in and now they are making a platform for the cupola that the builder has fabricated, that will transform this large shed into a bona fide barn!  Apart from aesthetics, a cupola actually has a function, working as a large roof vent, keeping the barn well ventilated.  This will be important when we have a lot of animals inside, such as during lambing season, though this may require supplemental fans at some point.  Note also the tranlucent sheets spaced evenly across the roof to allow natural light into the barn and decrease the need for electric illumination.

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Something that we did not have in our previous barn was electric power.  We dealt with this in a variety of ways, using gas generators and bringing power by heavy extension cords from almost 200 yards away.  But this time we promised ourselves that we would have power installed, as you see below.

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Running conduit to the junction box

And although we will have the power company and local electrician install the major facets of the system in the barn, we are intending to have a very good friend and retired electrician (also a Deacon, ex-submarine commander, builder, and overall nice guy!) help us to plan the majority of lighting and electrical outlet placement within the structure.

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Electrical conduit ready for wiring

This inside view gives a nice impression of how well the roof and window lighting works.  There is lots of space now, but I imagine this will fill up rapidly!

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Lots of room…for now!

Here is a time-lapse of the installation of the cupola today!

Cupola installed!  As you can see, it gives a nice agrarian feel to the structure.  Zooming in, the second picture shows the weathervane adorned with a ewe and her lamb!

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And until our flock of sheep arrives, our adopted herd of deer (viewed indistinctly below from our front door) continue to enjoy the pastures, even under quite a few inches of snow.  In fact this model of ruminants grazing pastures in the snow will be a model to emulate as we attempt to continue to pasture sheep on the fields for as much of the winter as we can.

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Our first pastured herd!

And finally, I leave you with a distant view of the house at the top of our hill in the midst of our pastures, taken from an adjacent property on an even higher hill!  We thought that we had a good view of the adjacent Laurel Ridge and Ligonier Valley, but this view really “takes the cake”!

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Year-End Activities Preface the New Year’s Beginnings!

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!

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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!

Breaking ground!

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.

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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!

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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..

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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!

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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.

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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!

Good neighbors

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!

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Steve has been working hard, and Roy and I were excited to go out and explore the other day.

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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.

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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!

From the news room…

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!