Ramping up for Spring

On March 13, 2015 by Shawn

I love this time of year. Our makeshift greenhouse (it’s actually our pumphouse equipped with a heater, lights, and a fan) is full of little sprouting seedlings, our goats are shedding their winter coats, and our pasture is a rich shade of mud. OK, I’m not crazy about the jud part, but I do realize that it means some big growth this Spring and Summer, so I’m OK with that.

 

Last weekend’s time change is also exciting for me because Sarah and I usually spend more time farming after the kids go to bed (8:30 p.m.) than in the middle of the day. Pretty soon we won’t need flashlights anymore, and that’s always exciting.

 

The warmer weather also motivated me to go out and clean up my neglected workshop, and I got back into making some things from reclaimed wood. Most of the wood I use in my woodworking projects is from our own old barn as I replace boards, but I also bought a whole truck-load from a neighbor who tore down his barn after the tornadoes came through in 2011. I feel like there’s a real connection with giving life to that old wood, so it’s important to me. Here are a few of my recent projects:

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An American flag I made out of old local barnwood and pallets. It’s pretty huge, and I made it for Sarah for Christmas.

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A mail and keyholder I made from old cedar fence boards.

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I’m learning to weld! This means even more possibilities for projects in metal, too.

 

Other than that, everything else is going great. Our chickens never stopped laying this winter, which is SUCH a blessing. Last year they stopped for almost four months, and this year we just kept feeding them so they never lost that momentum. Winter is usually such a bad time for finances because we’re buying more feed and hay than ever before, while production of eggs goes way down, but even with 75% production rates, it helped tremendously.

 

And now, as I glance over my winter to-do list and try to figure out what takes priority before next month’s big garden planting time, I really look forward to what 2015 will bring.

We’re still alive!

On January 19, 2015 by Shawn

Hey you. It’s been a while. As I look back at the last time I posted (May, 2013), flush with embarrassment, I can only use the excuse that farming is busy work. But we’ve had quite a bit going on in the last 20 (!!) months.

 

If you take a look over at our “Meet the Animals” page, you’ll notice that we have some new additions to the farm. We’ve scaled back on goats and pigs, ramped up the chickens, added turkeys and cows, and are much happier. A homestead farm is an ever-evolving being, but that’s just how I like it. I couldn’t imagine growing 2,000 acres of soybeans for a living. Blergh!

 

Speaking of “for a living,” a lot has changed in that realm over the last two years, as well. I lost my job just about a year ago and we decided to take the leap and do farming as more than just an expensive hobby, which is what it was when we first moved here.

 

But we’ve been doing this whole farming thing as a part of survival now, which is scary and amazing. While we may not have a new car, or a dishwasher, or heck, even an ice maker, we’re able to go out into our backyard and have fresh eggs, chicken, turkey, vegetables, fruits, etc. whenever we want. Food is certainly something we’ll never lack any time soon, and for that, I’m happy. This is what I’ve always envisioned as how I’d live one day. While we’re not fully self-sufficient, I think we’re darn close and we’re getting closer.

 

So while I look back at the last 3+ years of this little farm experiment, I’m happy to say that it’s the only hard work that I’ve ever loved doing. My friends all think we’re nuts, but we’re having fun and living a truly rewarding lifestyle. Can’t get much better than that.

 

 

Spring has sprung

On May 13, 2013 by Shawn

Did you know that raising two children under the age of two is quite a chore? Who’da thunk it?! Yeah, we’ve been busy bees, but it’s all been more fun than I can describe. The kids are doing great and the farm is just now starting to get into the swing of things for the year. With our crazy weather (freezing temps into late April, rainfall totaling about 2 feet higher than average for our area), we didn’t get to plant as much and lost some crops that we did plant. But we’re optimistic that we’ll be able to recover and flourish for this year’s market.

 

Speaking of market (see what I did there?), we’re now selling at the Main St Market in Chattanoooga. This is particularly exciting for us because we love the revival that’s happening with Chattanooga’s south side and being a part of that was a goal we set last year. So if you’re looking for something to do on Wednesdays from 4pm to 6pm, come on down to the Main St Market at 325 E. Main and say hi! I wouldn’t be opposed to you buying some of our eggs, too. Although you need to be quick! Last week we sold all 15 dozen chicken eggs and our 7 goose eggs in 20 minutes!

 

Speaking of eggs (OK, I’ll stop), we currently have 40 more incubating away in our closet. Hey, it’s a dark place with relatively controlled humidity and temperature, so it works! I’m hoping to do this every few months during the summer, and eventually start hatching more turkeys when they begin laying eggs around September or so. We bought 15 Bourbon Red turkeys on April 1st and they’re growing into striking youngsters in their brooder. I admit to liking our feathered friends more than any other animal on the farm, and I’m really excited about seeing these turkeys grow up.

 

And that’s about it for now. As we get more plants into the ground, I’ll be sure to update this blog while I’m soaking my knees. Hey, I turn 38 this year! *Grumble*

Sweet Baby James

On February 21, 2013 by Shawn

I probably won’t do too much in the realm of personal posts here, but I wanted to throw out a quick note to welcome our newest child to the world. Little James was born last Saturday and he and mother are doing great. This makes my fourth child and only son, so I’m excited to get him working in the field as soon as he can. Two years should be enough time, right?

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Project Incubation: successful!

On February 4, 2013 by Shawn

I bought my very first chickens at a rural side-of-the-road market in Soddy Daisy, TN from a guy selling a variety of farm animals. I talked to a co-worker at the time and he recommended that it was the best place to get a few baby chicks locally. I only wanted two or three, and I really had no idea where else I’d buy them.

This was about seven years ago, and those were some of the best chickens I ever owned. They were Buff Orpingtons and they were gentle, hearty, and great egg producers. That was enough to give me the bug and I soon discovered that I could get many more through mail order. Yes, I could actually order chickens through the mail! I researched the best hatcheries and settled on McMurray Hatchery, which has provided the last four flocks of my chickens with no problems.

Well, the thing with me is that I really like to do things myself if I can. Ordering these chicks from McMurray was easy and effective, but quite expensive once you factor in shipping. So last year I decided that I was going to try to hatch some of my own chicken eggs. Again, I hit the internet and found that popular opinion among the greatest of experts (i.e. chicken forums) pointed towards the Hovabator Genesis. I ordered one — and the highly suggested automatic egg turner attachment — and started saving eggs. The Genesis holds 41 eggs at a time (with the turner, but more without), which is really all we’d need for one hatching anyway. This being my first time, I wasn’t even expecting that many, and wanted to give it a shot to see how everything went.

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I started collecting eggs for a few days since my flock lays about a dozen a day. I read that you can store the eggs in 50-degree temps for up to a week before incubating them, but I didn’t want to push that. I saved up 21 eggs in three days and fired the incubator up.

One important tip I’ve read is not to rely at all on the onboard thermometer or barometer. So I picked up another cheap thermometer and stuck it in there to test it out. I left the incubator on for 24 hours without eggs to test the difference in temp readings, and they were off by about 2-3 degrees, which I’ve heard is quite significant. I decided to go by what the new thermometer read.

I placed the eggs in the incubator with a space between each one, evenly distributed throughout the egg turner tray. With everything plugged in and the temp already set, all that was left to do was to sit back and wait 21 days for baby chicks to come out. Right?

Well, kinda. I had read that after five days you’re supposed to take the eggs out and candle them. This basically means that you hold a bright light on one side so you can see “through” the egg, checking for a red line in the yolk. If there’s a red spot or line, that means your egg is fertilized and you’re set. The thing is, I also read that you never ever let the eggs deviate more than 5 degrees for even a few minutes, or the eggs will be ruined. So which was it? With household temperatures in the 50s (we only have space heaters in our house, and they’re rarely on), I decided to just not candle the eggs and let it ride. The only danger, I’ve heard, is that unfertilized eggs can explode in the incubator. Not a lovely thought, but I risked it anyway.

I set the temperature at 102, which made it 100 according to the new thermometer. They say to keep the incubator out of direct sunlight and in a room with a constant temperature, so we put it in our closet. Even though it’s FREEZING in our closet, we figured this would work best because direct sunlight can actually be the biggest enemy and fry those eggs in no time.

After about two weeks, I had this nagging feeling that this new thermometer I bought just wasn’t doing the trick. So I went back to the store and grabbed a slightly more expensive one that included a wired probe and a built-in barometer. Now this is what I wish I had from the start. The readings were much more accurate, recording the highs and lows for each day, and I could easily read the face of the unit since only a small probe was inside the incubator itself.

With my new secret weapon, I was getting more and more excited for the end of the 21-day period.

On the morning of day 20, I began to hear a slight peep as I was getting up out of bed for the day. Sure enough, a baby chick had pecked its way around the top of the egg and was pushing out ever-so gently. I watched it struggle for a bit and then plop right out. Soaking wet and completely exhausted, the chick laid on the turner rack, and I was afraid that it might wiggle its way down and get caught underneath. So, despite the wisdom of the internet, I picked it up and placed it in a new brooder that I set up minutes earlier. I made sure that there were fresh paper towels down and that the heat lamp had a chance to heat the brooder up to 100 degrees (hey that first thermometer came in handy after all!) before bringing the chick in.

IMG_1364I was quite worried at first, because it was almost motionless and I didn’t know if my jog from the bedroom closet to the laundry room brooder was too cold and breezy for the little thing. But after a few minutes basking in the red glow of the heat lamp, the baby chick was up and stumbling around. I’d only ever seen chicks at the age of two or three days old, and never fresh out of the egg before, so this part was new. And exciting!

IMG_1367I headed back to the incubator to check on the others. Sure enough, five more eggs had small convex cracks from the chicks inside. Throughout the next two days, we ended up pulling 17 baby chicks out of the incubator. I honestly only expected to see three or maybe four tops for my first try, but, to paraphrase Meatloaf,  17 out of 21 ain’t bad.

In the end, one of the 17 died in the brooder (the last one to come out), one died while trying to break out of the shell, and I later discovered that one more died before being fully developed in the egg. Only two eggs were unfertilized out of 21, and none of them exploded in the incubator.

IMG_1368I see this as a wild success, and it gives me hope for doing more hatchings soon. In fact, I think I’m a little bit addicted to this after my first time. Sure, it may have been beginner’s luck, but I learned quite a bit from doing this myself, and the rewards of having yet another type of animal that was completely produced on my own farm is beyond amazing.

So I think I’ll let the incubator rest for a bit before I try more. Next time, I’m going to try for a full 40 eggs and I’d like to see if I can eventually sell some chicks around Easter time. We also have some baby turkey poults coming in April, so I’ll need to make sure the brooder is vacant then.

And then I can start breeding turkeys!

Preparing for growing season

On January 15, 2013 by Shawn

The funny thing about winter time is the fact that I always make the mistake of thinking it’s when I’ll be able to catch up on farm projects. I say to myself, I say, “Self! With the cooler weather and no plants in the ground to tend, it’ll be easy to get that barn roof repaired or that new chicken tractor built!” Well, my short-term memory deceives me once again because I’m now rediscovering the entirely unique set of challenges that pop up in the “off months.”

One big thing is the rain. Here in northeastern Alabama, we’ll go three or four months without a drop of rain in the summer and two weeks with straight downpours during the winter. It’s a good thing it hardly ever dips below freezing or we’d be living in an igloo.

chickennapigThe rain here has been so treacherous that our animals are having a really hard time. The goats are spending most of their day hiding in the barn (avoiding leaky drips from the unfixed roof), the dogs are drenched and covered in mud because they don’t really get the whole “stay under cover” thing. The chickens don’t seem too affected by it, nor do the donkeys, both of which just stand out in the rain doing their thing. But the hog… oh the hog. This hog has caused so many problems this winter it has really exhausted us. I know, I know, that’s why you slaughter the hog BEFORE the weather gets this bad, but we hit some roadbumps in that department. Not having family or friends here is really a challenge sometimes.

chickenswetSo the pig discovered that she can easily smoosh right under the fences that have kept her in for almost a year because the clay mud is slick and easy to push through. She broke through her main fence to go play with the donkeys. This wasn’t such a big deal, but she has rooted about 2 acres of perfectly good pasture land, and that will take a bit to heal.

Then, last Saturday, the pig decided it has had enough of the donkeys and pushed on through to our backyard. It pushed through two sets of fences to get there, and we didn’t find out until we pulled into the driveway after a feed-store run. Luckily, we had some hog meal in the truck and were able to easily lure the pig back in to her fence. We reinforced the welded wire with some good old fashioned pallets and claimed our victory — a little too soon.

Since then, our 13-month-old Great Pyrenees, Smokey, figured he’d try that neat pig trick and he jumped one fence, wiggled under another, and climbed a farm gate to taste the freedom of our back yard. Of course, little Tundra saw him do this and simply squeezed through a tiny fence hole that she never noticed until that moment.

So now we have a pig and two dogs spending every waking bit of energy trying to escape while I spend every waking moment trying to get them back in. That’s especially fun in 40-degree pouring rain. The pig is scheduled to be slaughtered as soon as the rain finally stops (which looks like it might be Monday). I’ve actually accepted the fact that Smokey will never be contained ever again, but he happily sits in our yard, guarding against the neighbor’s army of dogs that (used to) use our trees and car tires as urinals. I guess that’s one good thing. Tundra, on the other hand, I’m afraid to say is too small to stay in our fenceless yard — mainly because the cars that race down our street have already hit two of our dogs since we moved here last year. Keeping her fenced in is a work in progress, but a priority.

incubatorBut on the happier side of things, we ordered a new incubator and currently have 21 eggs doing their thing inside. I followed the directions to the letter, but I didn’t candle the eggs, so I’m not anticipating a full hatch. We have three roosters for our 35-ish hens, so I imagine there’s a good possibility that most of them are fertilized. Plus, any good chicken farmer knows that roosters don’t really think of much else other than crowing and making sure every hen is… taken care of. So there’s that.

We also made our spring/early summer seed purchase, and I’m really excited to get those in and start them off in our new faux greenhouse. I ordered from Johnny’s Seeds this year because they’re firmly against GMO seeds, and they have a nice array of organic seeds as well. The selection isn’t nearly as large as Gurney’s (whom we used last year), but Gurney’s isn’t GMO-free. I may use High Mowing Seeds or Baker Creek to get the remaining seeds that weren’t found at Johnny’s. I planned the garden out with a fantastic program called Grow Veg. I have looked around at several of these planning programs, including AgSquared and just drawing it out myself on a pad of paper (like I did last year), but Grow Veg is really exactly what I was looking for. It lets you set up your rows exactly how you want by dragging and dropping the layout, and then dragging the crops over those beds. It automatically fills in the dragged area with the exact number of plants needed, based on a database of seed information (like seed spacing and row spacing) taken directly from popular organic seed catalogs. So all I did was select that my seeds were coming from Johnny’s, select the exact type of each seed, then arrange the field layout how I wanted. From there, it calculates how many seeds you’ll need and you can even click right on the vegetable name to be taken to the exact catalog page to order each set of seeds. It also lets you overlap planting for companion planting, which is exactly what I’m doing this year. There really are so many other amazing features, and the best part is that it’s free to try for 30 days and is less than half the annual cost of AgSquared’s service if you decide to go with it.

I also ordered the JP-1 clean seeder, which is a beast of a machine. I invite you to watch some YouTube videos on it if you’re curious about specifics, but it really is a fine piece of Korean engineering. I’ll probably give my impressions in more depth once I start to use it in the field. I know one thing, it just has to be better than the work I put into digging and hand-laying every seed in last year’s garden.

The only thing left to do now (so far!) is to order the irrigation supplies from Dripworks.com and I’ll be completely broke! But it’ll be a good feeling to do things on a much more professional scale than last year.

 

Pallet shelf projects

On December 26, 2012 by Shawn

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of fun making stuff out of shipping pallets. I made our hog house out of pallets, I’ve repaired some pieces of our old barn with pallet wood, and now I’ve been dabbling in making small shelves out of pallet wood.

The greatest thing about wood from pallets is the fact that it’s free. Now, not all shipping pallets are free, as some businesses get pretty upset when you take pallets from behind their buildings, and some even try to sell them! Most of the time, though, they’re discarded as trash. But you should always ask before loading your truck up.

shelfMy first pallet shelf project was a small shelf for our bathroom. I’m really big into the rusty and worn wood look, so I wanted to make this shelf look like something that had been lying around for a long time. My wife saw something on Pinterest for a makeup shelf with a metal backing that could be used with magnets to hold up small makeup cases. So I grabbed the side panel of an old computer case I had lying around and painted it to look rusty. The fan vent holes are perfect for hanging earrings and the rest is great for holding small toiletries.

So I framed up the shelf itself with pallet wood that was literally laying in my pasture from the previous owners and painted the screw holes with a bit of black acrylic paint to make it look like nails do when they leech into old, weathered wood.

As I said, this was a bit of an experiment at first, but I really like the way it turned out, so I began gathering more pallets and more pieces of old rusty metal, or at least pieces I could paint to look rusty.

Next on the agenda was a spice rack for my wife’s Christmas present. I gathered up a few really old pallets, began taking measurements of her common spice bottle sizes, and went to work. I tend to work from plans in my head instead of anything precise and blueprinted (which often gets me into trouble), and I knew that I wanted this one to look like a few old wooden crates stacked loosely on top of each other. I knew that I wanted the pallet wood’s nail holes to be a prominent feature and the more broken, the better.

The first step was to get that old wood taken apart from the main pallet frame. I used my trusty reciprocating saw (aka Sawzall) and cut the boards directly off, nail heads and all. I think keeping the nail heads in there really adds character.

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Next, I laid the boards out and scrubbed them down with water and a stiff brush. The aim here isn’t to clean these completely, but to get the chunks of debris and other nasties off. As you can see from the picture, even when “cleaned,” they still look pretty dingy. That’s a good thing in my book.

boardsI knew that I had to make a box 5 1/2 inches high, one 8 inches high and two 2 1/2 inches high. I didn’t worry too much about the length of the boxes at first, but I knew that the total width of the spice rack couldn’t exceed 24 inches. I decided to go for 24″ x 24″ overall. I cut the pieces I needed for each box and laid them all out on the floor before driving one nail. This helped me determine the layout, look, and if I’d need to cut any more pieces.

I was originally going to go with a rusty metal backing in each box, but then decided that a plank backing would look much better. So I cut some pieces to show off the old rusty nails and put them in the back, leaving a few boards out to add to the old broken look. The frame is tacked together with 1/2″ brad nails and each box is screwed to one another for stability. On the bottom, I screwed in some old hooks so my wife could hang her apron and oven mitts.

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To attach the shelf to the wall, I’m using 3/4″ cabinet screws. The screws are originally flat black, but I dusted them with a rust-colored spray paint to add character. I hope to attach it to the wall soon (it’s on the workshop floor in the photo below) and will post a picture once it’s up and filled with spice bottles.

Overall, I’m very happy with how this turned out. All wood and hardware was free from salvaged pallets or what I already had lying around my workshop. I plan to make many more of these in various forms (some with metal, some with more rusty hardware, etc) to add around our house.

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Introducing: Tundra

On December 13, 2012 by Shawn

I love our Great Pyrenees. Smokey is one of the best dogs I’ve ever owned, and he practically raised himself out in our barn, as the breed is meant to do. He protects our goats, chickens, and geese better than anything else I can imagine.

So we decided a few weeks ago that we were going to try to breed Smokey with another Great Pyrenees at some point. I see the breed in the paper and on Craigslist sometimes, but they’re always adults, and I know that although this breed is amazing, they’re not as useful unless they’re raised as puppies directly around the animals (or people, if you choose the pet route) that they’re to protect.

So earlier this week I finally found a local ad for Great Pyrenees puppies in our area. The guy had one female left so we headed out there that night and fell in love with our newest farm addition. We named her Tundra (thanks to a friend’s suggestion) and so far she’s been great. Smokey has been wonderful with her and they lay together to stay warm already. He also lets her eat out of his food bowl, which is a kindness he’s only ever extended to one other animal: our Border Collie mix, Shelby. God forbid a goat or chicken even walks within 10 feet of that bowl, though. He has a loud and convincing bark.

We’re hoping that Tundra can be a permanent fixture at the farm, eventually providing us with puppies to sell or keep if our farm expands.

Building a better hog house

On December 13, 2012 by Shawn

For the last ten months or so, our two Yorkshire hogs had been living on an acre pasture, after they ceremoniously defeated our neglected garden earlier in the year. Since then, we’ve butchered one and the other got lonely so she escaped under some field fence to go play with the donkeys.

We originally put them in a quarter of the acre plot, held in with only 4 strands of barbed wire and some electric fencing that I could never get to work because we have sandy soil and the grounding never worked. We knew it was a gamble, but it was our first year with hogs so we were experimenting. They told us not to just used barbed wire and electric wire. They told us that hogs will bust through just about anything. We didn’t listen, but that’s a re-occurring theme with me, as I’m sure you’ll see.

So yesterday, I gathered up some pallets I collected from a friend (and scavenged) to build a real hog pen that would be cheap, sturdy, and functional.

This sketch shows my initial plan. I measured the length of each pallet and figured out how I was going to fit each one together to make the closest thing to a 10×20 pen. See, all pallets aren’t created equal, and when they’re free, you have to take what you can get. I used the pallets I used last year for my small hog house and made that the one end, while I knew I’d still have to create three more walls and a gate. The entire pen would be created with only pallets and 5 and 6 foot t-posts to hold each pallet in place. I also used a post pounder and a t-post puller, mainly to remove the posts I had set up from the old pen, but also to pull out posts when I put them in the wrong spot.

I started by placing the first pallet exactly where I wanted it, marking where the t-posts will go with small pieces of cement block I had within reach. Then I’d move the pallet out of the way and pound the t-posts in with a post pounder. The pallets easily slide over the top of the t-posts, making each piece of the wall very secure. Last year the hogs would put all of their weight against these walls to scratch themselves and they never came close to falling over.

I repeated this all the way around and connected the whole thing on the opposite corner. As you can see from my sketch, the measurements aren’t exact because of the differing pallet sizes, but I got it as close as I could with what I had, so one wall is 11 inches shorter than the other; not really a huge deal to me.

On the left side, the gate is nothing more than a 38×36 lightweight pallet that can be lifted off the shorter t-posts for entrance or exit. In fact, any of the smaller pallets can be lifted to make a gate. I plan to utilize that fact when I expand by making another pen coming off of this one. It’s a completely modular design that is easily changed or even moved with multiple possibilities for gates. Plus, I can easily add barbed wire to the top of the shorter pallets with t-post clips. Hopefully the hogs will never jump over 36 inches, though.

If you have any questions about the design or the process, let me know in the comments or our contact form. I’d be happy to go over anything in more detail.

Now to move that hog into her new home…

Welcome!

On December 1, 2012 by Shawn

Welcome to the farm blog! I’ve decided to create a blog here on our farm’s website to document some of the farm-related projects and experiences we have each day. I originally started a blog called Decityfied to document our transition from city slickers to farm folk, but since we’ve been here for over a year, I’m going to dedicate more of our farm-related posts to this site. I will still maintain the old blog, but it will be for personal topics.

 

Feel free to comment away on anything we post here and let us know what you think!