Thursday, May 29, 2008

Chicken Ark

It's our first year raising large numbers of chickens for meat and eggs, and we are using a portable chicken pen for pasturing our birds. Most pastured chicken pens look something like this:

That's Joel Salatin moving one of his mobile pens on his farm in Virginia (photo by T.L. Gettings). Salatin is the best known proponent of pastured poultry and he has recently been featured in Michael Pollan's best selling book The Omnivore's Dilemma.

We are farming in a very different climate. We are in a river valley in a desert. We can go months at a time without rain so we irrigate with river water, using a traditional system of ditches called acequias. So once every two weeks our pastures are under several inches of water for about half a day. This is not compatible with chickens on the ground. Also, we are in a very hot climate. The short, flat design of the Salatin pen would quickly bake our birds. So Chris designed a chicken pen that deals with these problems. He calls it the Chicken Ark. Here it is under construction:

The Ark is built as an A-frame, which allows hot air to escape through the ventilated top and sides as it rises. The vertical component of the Ark also provides for ample room for my nearly 6 foot tall frame to step inside. And there is a loft built in where the birds can sit when the field is under water. The birds have a choice between shade or sun and they are moved every day to fresh pasture where they get their fill of bugs, grass, and alfalfa. This makes for happier birds and much healthier meat, and the pasture gets nutrients without the use of chemical fertilizers. This in turn feeds our sheep and cows with healthy pasture.

Chris has also designed some nice waterers that use a common float valve hooked up to a hose that flows out of a 5 gallon bucket. Fifty birds can drink ten gallons of water per day in our hot and dry climate so it's nice that we only have to fill it up twice a day.

The Ark is heavy but that is also a good thing in this insanely windy place. Two people can move it pretty easily with two hand trucks, and one person can move it if they try really hard. I know this from experience.

Now he just needs to build two or three more of these and we'll be all set!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Busy as bees

The same week we got our pigs we also got our bees! We strongly believe in barter as means of trade so we made a deal with a friend to board two of his ewes over the winter so they could be bred by our ram, and in exchange he gave us two of his beehives! These are top-bar hives, which are cheaper than the conventional Langstroth hives. They are a bit easier to work for the novice beekeeper like ourselves, but they yield less honey and more wax.

My local farm friend keeps top bar hives so last week I went over to her place to get a crash course on how to take care of my new hives. Here we are with a makeshift smoker because hers was on loan to her dad.

She showed me what to look for in each hive to be sure it is healthy and growing. She showed me how to maintain the combs to be sure they are growing straight. I learned how to identify workers, drones, eggs, larvae, capped honey, capped brood, and the queen. The next day I got into our hives and found that they are doing well!

The most fun part is seeing the little honeybees out and about on the farm. Last night I was planting beans and there were bees foraging in the clover nearby. I can see why people get so excited about beekeeping! It's really fun.

Pigs do fly!

A week ago Saturday we finally got our piglets! We purchased two American Guinea Hog piglets from a farm in New York and had them shipped to us via air cargo. They are so little that two of them fit into a medium sized dog crate. It was pretty fun to go pick up piglets at the airport!

We chose the Guinea Hog for many reasons. First, they are a rare, heritage breed with a very small number of individuals remaining in the country. They are a breed that originated here in the US and were at one time a very popular homestead pig. Like many heritage breeds, they fell out of favor with the advent of factory farming. They are a lard breed, which is also rare, but desirable to a sustainable farmer because the lard is useful for so many things in the kitchen and on the homestead. They are much smaller than a factory hog, with adults reaching 250-350 pounds. They also have much smaller litters, which is great for us because we have limited freezer capabilities being off the grid so fewer, smaller hogs to butcher means we freeze less meat at a time. They are known for their gentle disposition, easy farrowing, and tasty meat. Best of all they are excellent on pasture. They will graze the grass and don't root as much as other breeds, especially if they are rotated from one spot to another regularly. Still, they can be used to till up a garden if you leave them on it.

We have two females (gilts) to start with because a local friend already has a Guinea Hog boar we can use to breed them. Later we might get our own boar from a different genetic line.

Here they are just minutes out of the crate in a portable pen that we set up for them in our winter wheat paddock. They were chewing on grass before they even came all the way out of their crate!

The best kind of help

Over the big graduation/Mother's day weekend the four of us here all came down with a terrible stomach flu. It meant that the kids and I couldn't attend my sister's graduation ceremony and it also set us back considerably during our busiest farm month. Fortunately for us, my dad, stepmom, and both sisters were in town for all the festivities and after the weekend was over they all came down, with my mom, to help us get caught up. Dad and Ann finished mulching and weeding my fledgling medicinal herb garden while Ali got some watering done. Later Mom and Mik helped to entertain the kids. It was so great to have you all here giving your time and love to the farm. Thank you!!!

More celebrating

My little sister graduated from college this month and we had a fun party for her but for some reason I didn't get a whole lot of photos. My brother's band played for the party:

And of course I did get a photo of my little nephew enjoying his mother's graduation cake. Congratulations Mik!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Mom's paint by numbers

Chris' mom celebrated her birthday and Mother's Day with a fun party. She is having her solar panels painted (on the backs of course) because she can see them from her back porch and would like to look at something other than a big white rectangle. So she came up with a fun idea! She had an artist draw a mural on the back and set it up to be painted by the party goers. Eliza was one of the most enthusiastic painters. Scotty offered to be the photographer and he got several nice shots!

Here they are mixing the paint.

Some of Scotty's photos.

Here's what it will look like when it's done.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Strawberry-rhubarb pie

It was my first attempt, and it was pretty good too! The rhubarb and about half the strawberries are from our garden. I made the crust with coconut oil and Chris said it was one of my best yet.

Managed grazing

Finally, finally we have the majority of our fencing in place so we can really begin to manage our animals on the pasture. Early this season we were able to graze a small paddock of winter wheat, which has now already come back to over a foot tall.

Later we turned the animals into one of our irrigation channels. This is nice in many ways--the channel is not wasted in terms of pasture production, and it does not need to be mowed or weeded. Our neighbors either spray, weed-whack, or burn their irrigation ditches. Why not make it work for the humans and animals on the farm? Of course it takes the right animals and the right fencing to do this. We are lucky now that our cows and sheep are mild-tempered enough to stay put and herd easily. It's easy to keep them busy eating when there is lush grass and clover available.

Sheep last month

We had another late lamb born and we really thought that this guy wasn't going to make it. He was so droopy-eared and seemed weak and the mom is a first time mom and she was not terribly attentive. That was also during the period that every living thing on the farm here (including the humans) were really struggling with the hot, dry, and windy days and below freezing nights. But against all odds he pulled through and he's growing like a weed now!

We also purchased a car port to use as a portable shelter for the animals. They haven't had much occasion to use it to shelter from rain, but the shade that it provides has been quite welcomed.

We also had them sheared at the end of last month.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


I tried a recipe for pickled radish greens that I didn't care for. Anyone have any good idea for radish greens?

Who needs a pool?

Well, if you don't mind freezing water that is. Last month the kids just couldn't resist a dip in our large fish culture tank, which has been full now for a couple of months. We will be growing several hundred pounds of fish in here this year, using natural cycling of nutrients, phytoplankton, zooplankton, and small feeder fish as food. So in a sense this will be "grass fed" or at least plant fed fish, as opposed to most tank farmed fish which is fed a grain based pellet, usually heavy on the soy.

But for now it's just a fun place to swim! Keep in mind that at the time these photos were taken we were still freezing every night so that water must have been in the 50's. That didn't stop Sorscha and my two from having a blast.

I love the shot with the cow in the background.

Sorscha stayed in for around 45 minutes, but mine got cold a bit sooner than that. Eli was pretty chilly when she got out (yes I put a swimsuit on her for the photos).


Our soil is very heavy clay so it is difficult to grow potatoes and other root crops here without major modifications. This year we are trying something new in order to be able to plant more potatoes. Under about 18 inches of clay there is a layer of nice sand, so Chris dug the clay layer off with the tractor and then tilled up the sand, to which we added a bunch of compost. Because the row is dug in, we will be able to fill it in a bit as the plants grow. Friends Sue and Crystal both came down to help plant--we got about 60 pounds of seed potatoes into this row. We still have another 20 pounds to plant but haven't had the time to dig another bed.

Babies everywhere

We got our first batch of this year's chicks about 5 weeks ago. They are four breeds of layers: Ameraucanas, Blue Andalusians, Rhode Island Reds, and Cuckoo Marans. We started the 75 chicks inside Chris' shop on pine shavings and moved them outside to movable pens at about two weeks of age, which was just in time for our batch of 100 broilers. We are also raising turkeys this year, so we have a dozen turkey poults as well. The kids have really been enjoying them but due to some unanticipated setbacks we have really been scrambling to get the pens built faster than they outgrow them!

Here are Chris and a couple of friends working on one of the small pens which is designed for young chicks on pasture. We'll use it to isolate roosters or breeding pairs later. We used half inch hardware cloth to protect the chicks from raccoons, which can reach through regular chicken wire.

Eliza's helping

Eli has been helping out a lot on the farm lately. Here she is watering some root stock that we had just potted.