Our chickens shelter, but not in place. The idea of putting large numbers of animals in the same place for long periods of time is what drove agriculture into its dependency on pharmaceuticals. So our chickens move, and we need to make sure their shelter can move with them. The need for shelter changes for chickens as they grow. Just after hatching we keep them in insulated, heated brooders because they can’t regulate their own body temperature yet. After that early phase, once they begin to feather out, they require less heat but still need some protection from the elements, and they especially need protection from hawks, eagles, owls, coyotes, foxes, rats, racoons, opossums, neighborhood dogs, feral cats, and bobcats. On our farm the raptors are the most predatory. So to give them access to fresh grass while protecting them from hungry beaks and teeth our chickens live in portable open air shelters.
I just finished building the third chicken shelter. I built it from greenhouse hoops we bought from a neighbor and I’ve got to say, this is our best yet. This shelter is taller, better ventilated, more accessible, and includes a few crafty design features to speed up our daily chores.
I need to build one more of these this year, but I’ll wait a little while before getting into it. These shelter-building projects consume a lot of time so I’ve got to take care of a few other things that have been neglected while working on this.
This spring one of my farm efficiency projects has been the standardization of all trailer hitches on field equipment. We have five little utility trailers we constantly move on pasture for water and feed buggies for the poultry, plus another trailer frame that holds the turkey shelter. Four of them used four different types of 2″ ball couplers, one used a 2-5/16″ ball coupler, and another one used an ag-style pin connector. All of the ball couplers were getting worn out, with several requiring hammers or screwdrivers to engage and disengage the worn out lock mechanisms.
So I’ve had enough of that mess. No more ball hitches. Henceforth they are banned. I chopped all the couplers off and replaced everything with lunette rings. The tractor’s three point hitch now uses one pintle hook for everything. It is amazing how a trivial little project like this makes each day so much better when I’m not fighting with my equipment (well, I’m still fighting with other broken equipment, just not this equipment any more).
Today we brought this group of little chickens out of the brooder and set them up in the field. Between the strong cold wind and the nightly freezes, we had to give them some help.
To block the wind we tarped the end wall. Our chickens get exposure to American consumer culture, with a Blade Runner movie billboard for a roof and a McDonald’s billboard as a windbreak.
We also rigged a propane brooder hover heater in the shelter. It isn’t cost effective to run it full time, but I think for future shelters I’ll incorporate heaters in each one. That should go a long way in improving chicken comfort in early spring and late fall.
We bought an old greenhouse from a farm in town. Over the last week we’ve taken it all apart and brought all the hoops back here. Having the project site close by was convenient, allowing us to peck away at the job as we found time in breaks in the weather and between other tasks.
The greenhouse was built in 1989, and although it has been uncovered for more than ten years most of the galvanizing is in decent condition. Greenhouse frames that I’ve found from the 1980s tended to be built from stouter steel pipes. Most newer ones are engineered right to the limit with thin walled pipes. I’m sure the newer ones are fine, but I like the confidence I get from things being a little overbuilt. Belt and suspenders always.
We disassembled all the hoops and things look pretty good. A few of the purlin pipes are bent but all of the hoops are properly curved with no kinks or twists. Aside from some obstinate rusty bolts the process was straightforward. The only real challenge was dealing with all the saplings and wild grapevines that had grown up inside the old framework.
Now that we have the hoops here, we’re waiting on some highway guardrail material to be delivered later this week, and then we’ll begin building some new portable shelters for chickens.
April is such a strange month. The weather simply reaches blindly into the grab bag and pulls out whatever comes to hand. Lately the selections have favored snow, rain, and howling winds. We and the rest of the farm are tensed up, ready for the explosion of activity that characterizes May through November. But in April we remain crouched and twitching, waiting.
The number of chickens on the farm continues to increase. We have three batches of chickens at various stages of development, from one week old to five weeks old, all in all about two thousand chickens. Every year for the past seven years we’ve doubled the number of chickens we raise. Talk about the effects of exponential growth… We’re getting better at it, but the work and the expenses sure pile up with alarming rapidity.
The grass under the snow is green, but it hasn’t started growing yet. The cattle are eager to trade in their winter hay bales for fresh grass. We’d like to turn the chickens out to pasture, but things are too snowy and sloppy. For now, the oldest chickens are sheltered in an airy hoophouse with sawdust and loose hay underfoot. The younger chickens are still in the heated brooders as they are still too tiny to be out in the chilly, wet world.
Tomorrow the sun should come out again and the snow will melt. I think we’ve got at least another two weeks before meaningful grazing can begin. In the meantime we’ll do our best to keep the critters out of the mud and just keep watching for that magic moment when the grass begins to grow.
The year officially begins at Wrong Direction Farm with the first hatching. And so this week we were excited to hear from our hatchery that they had an order cancellation, and they wanted to know if we were interested. Of course we were. We had to scramble to get the brooder running, schedule a last minute delivery of three tons of organic chicken feed, and call for a propane tank refill for the heaters, but everything came together just in time and we were ready when the chicks arrived. And so our farming new year begins.
All six hundred chicks have been doing well. This batch appears to be in great health, with zero mortalities thus far. They are zippy and bright eyed, except of course during nap time.
Meanwhile, we’ve got plenty of activity going on setting up new brooders. This morning several neighbors came over and helped get the last trailer down the steep hill and into position on the terrace. Then we pulled the reefer units off and now I can begin refitting the trailers as new brooders.
The last few weeks have been crazy ones on the farm, so I need to let you all know how things stand on inventory and ordering.
But before that, I want to thank you all for your orders. It is good to know that so many people turn to us to put food on their family table. In times of quarantine, food is probably the third most important priority for folks, at least according to my informal surveying. Apparently the new Maslovian hierarchy for people stuck in their houses looks something like:
- Toilet paper
If we can’t be number one, at least we’re in the top three.
Order volumes have been running about five times higher than they were this time last month. We’re doing everything we can to keep up with the pace of orders, and we’ve been putting plans together to ensure that we can keep you supplied.
The rush to get orders out the door has exposed some weaknesses in my setup. Some of the weaknesses are just due to the cramped packing space that prevents me from being efficient. But most of the weaknesses are the ones I bring. Too much of the system depends on me being sharp while focusing on too many details. If my customer service responses haven’t been spectacular, or if I’ve made stupid errors in packing orders, I apologize. The past days have given me some good ideas for ways to do things more efficiently and more effectively, and I expect that the lessons learned will continue to help improve the order packing and delivery system.
Here are a few notes on inventory:
- Beef inventory is the strongest. Pork is also in pretty good shape. Different cuts may go in and out of stock temporarily. We sometimes have more in our second freezer, but we don’t always have the time to pack orders while also ensuring that all the shelves in the packing freezer stay fully stocked.
- Chicken may run out this week. We have more in cold storage, but we haven’t yet been able to schedule a time to retrieve it. At the current sales pace, even after we restock, we will eventually run out of chicken before the 2020 batches are available. We raise chickens on pasture for their health, and in order for them to get the benefit of green grass, we can’t raise chickens year round in our climate. We are planning on ramping up the number of chickens this spring.
- Ground turkey supplies are strong. We hope to have some turkey breasts listed online within the next week (just as soon as we get them back here in our freezer), so even if we are out of chicken breasts there will be some turkey breasts as an alternative.
Thanks. Be well.
I live on two different planets simultaneously. It is reassuring to look outside at the spring returning. The ice is all gone from the pond, and little bass are swimming in shallows. Buds are swelling. Yesterday, I watched a Cooper’s hawk circle the pasture, dive, and reascend with a vole in it talons. The complex biological system of our area is beginning to reinvigorate.
And of course I’m surrounded by many layers of panics. Order volumes are higher than ever so packing orders and restocking freezers is a nonstop project. We’re working on backup plans to ensure packaging materials and supplies stay in stock. Chickens begin hatching in a few weeks. We’re trying to keep the kids on track with school work from home. We aren’t getting enough sleep, and we sure aren’t getting enough done.
I’d like to be the sort of guy who could talk honestly about finding peace in hard times. But I don’t possess the level of equipoise to which I aspire. The following poem by Wendell Berry speaks from the perspective of a person I’d wish to be. But somehow I never manage to “go and lie down”. The closest I come is stopping for a minute to look.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things: And Other Poems
I think the core of the challenge is in finding what to do with my admiration for “wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” I wonder if it is possible to truly live as a human in this chaotic world without forethought of grief. Forethought of grief is probably the most quintessentially human cognitive process. Maybe a little forethought of grief would have saved the vole from being eaten by the hawk. We do well to contemplate wild things and to find instruction in the instantaneity of their lives, but as with any moral axiom, this is only one piece of the balancing act of conflicting ideas and ideals we must simultaneously hold in our heads.
Somehow we need to consider the lilies of the field while also considering the chickens in the pasture, the orders on the farm website, and the broken starter solenoid on the tractor.
All the best to each of you as you keep walking the impossible path between prudence and panic.
Our old milkhouse stands close to the road in a state of decay. Of course current zoning rules make it impossible for anyone to build a structure a mere six feet from the edge of our road like this shed. But this was erected a long, long time ago. Back when it was built farmers would carry their milk cans from the barn up to a milkhouse, usually built with a well or spring-fed water circulation to keep the milk cool. The farmer or a neighborhood delivery wagon driver would collect the cans and bring them to the local creamery. The road was a dirt road (actually, our road remained a dirt road long after the era of milk cans and wagons had past), so things like maintaining clear highway shoulders didn’t matter much.
The shed is decaying back into the ground, the roof rotting and the sills decomposing. In one way of looking at it, the shed is just an obsolete, zoning non-compliant eyesore. From another vantage, it’s a gracefully decaying antique, all the more precious because we know it has degraded to the point where it can’t remain standing much longer, so we appreciate it for its ephemerality.
The “Cheeky Plowman” sounds like a character from Chaucer, maybe the ribald opposite number of Canterbury’s pious plowman. Here’s how I became the cheeky plowman.
This fall I spent some time under the welding helmet improvising improvements for the snow plow. I bought our farm truck from a school district auction and one of the perks is that it came with a snow plow. I’m glad to have it, but straight plows aren’t nearly as efficient as newer designs due to all the spillover wingdrowing.
I originally was going to build containment wings similar to the factory models, but after starting down that path I realized that the plow, which is already nine feet wide, would become obnoxiously stretched with wings. They would push the tips out all the way to about 10′-4″. Even with detachable wings, I know that in a snowstorm I’m not going to spend time messing with iced over hitch pins and frozen attachments, so I had to plan for something else.
Looking around for inspiration in my scrap pile, I happened upon a 24″ circular 1/4″ steel plate that was buried under angle iron cutoffs. It didn’t quite match the radius of the back of the plow, but it came close. I saw that I had the solution for a set of plow cheeks to contain the snow.
I built the cheeks with about 6″ extension from the front of the plow. I wasn’t sure how aggressive I should be. After using them all season, I think I could add another few inches. I might weld a 3/8″ extension to the leading edge to give it another 4″ or so. The wear edge is made from scraps of an old quarry loader tire from another project. There are other rubber blends that are more durable than tire scraps, but these were free.
Each cheek is fastened in place with two pins in the outside rib and one pin through the moldboard. I used a stack of washers on each attachment to take up the slack. This seems to work well, since I can’t hear any rattling from the plow with these installed.
I’ve been pleased with the ability to contain snow in front of the truck. In early December we had a two foot snowfall and I needed to remove the cheeks for that one. The loads were just too great and I needed to be able to dump the excess snow off the edges. But other than that one big snow we’ve been dealing with light snows all less than six inches, and the plow cheeks are working well to reduce the number of cleanup passes I make.
I also fabricated a guard to use when the ground is soft while plowing gravel driveways. This was made from a 2″ schedule 40 pipe slotted out and strapped onto the bottom of the blade. It prevents the plow from being able to scrape off as much gravel and grass as it otherwise would. This comes at the cost of leaving a compacted skim across the surface. The factory solution is to use plow shoes but I’ve found that shoes tend to break or to create their own gouges when they aren’t perfectly aligned.
I’m not thoroughly pleased with the gravel guard. It is a hassle to attach and it needs to come off when transitioning to paved surfaces. The pipe is already showing wear. I might be able to fix the wear issues by having a welder hardface the bottom of the pipe. I’ve noticed that while the guard achieves it purpose in preventing the plow from knifing into gravel and peeling it up, it doesn’t prevent the plow from shearing off high spots (probably no plow design can avoid this, but it would be nice). So for this attachment I’m not as thoroughly pleased as I am with the cheeks. It has its place. Ideally that place would be on someone else’s truck…