Wrong Direction Farm

Freezer Park

Harry is the king of malapropisms around here, and the words and phrases he coins are usually superior to any of the correct ones extant in the English language, so we have adopted some Harry-isms into our vocabulary.  Here’s the story on his latest:  freezer park.

This Saturday I finished installation on our second walk-in freezer.  I built it in the abandoned side of our house (see this post last year about stabilizing the structure).  We all dreamed of converting that room into a kitchen and eventually rebuilding the house starting with that kitchen, but the realities of our situation indicate that we can either try to build a farm or we can fix the house, but we can’t do both.  So we’re laying everything on the line for the farm.

Harry was feeling particularly glum about the prospect of living his life without a single insulated, comfortable room in the house.  He told me that if I had my way, I’d turn the whole house into a freezer park.  And I can see how he is right on with that portmanteau of freezer and trailer park.  It captures the idea of the equipment itself and the mismatched, dingy, and densely packed geography of a trailer park.  We have a lot of refrigeration equipment:  a walk-in freezer in the shed behind the house, the new one in the house, the walk in cooler between the house and the garage, the three freezers and commercial fridge in the woodshed, the five chest freezers in the delivery van, and the 28′ refrigerated tractor trailer body awaiting conversion into a cooler.

So yes, I guess we live in a freezer park.

Better Late Than Never

After months of flooded fields and delays due to my recuperation from leg and back injuries, the pigs are finally out on pasture.  We usually can get the pigs out of their winter yard by early May once the grass starts growing, but this spring has been atypical.

The pigs all were happy to be on grass.  I trucked them out back this evening and they went right to work digging their new digs.  Their first order of business was to establish a mud wallow.

Wallow

After they swamped around, they moved back into the shade of the hedgerow and started digging there.  I’ve noticed that pigs always dig to some degree, but at the beginning of the season they are especially fond of excavating.  Later they’ll get better at grazing plants as they re-learn which ones taste better, but for now they can’t get enough of dirt.

Made in the Shade

Let the Feeder Feed the Chickens

I guess I can say I’m a veteran chicken feeder builder.  I’ve learned that there are innumerable ways to build a container from which chickens eat, but very few of the feeders I’ve built (or the ones I’ve seen elsewhere, or the store bought ones for that matter) are efficient.  And of all the livestock classes, pastured chickens have the most challenging economics, so inefficient feeding is the quickest way to financial ruin.  Right now we are in the peak of chicken season with 450 laying hens and 700 meat chickens on the farm.  Getting that $2,100 feed bill every few weeks does a good job of focusing my attention.  I need better feeders.

But more insidious than losses of wasted feed and wasted expenses are the losses of wasted time.  Trying to raise pigs, cattle, and chickens, trying to build fences, fix the brakes, gather the hay, trying to build the new walk-in freezer, update the website, post on the blog, trying to pack the orders, make the delivery rounds, truck pigs to the butcher, trying to keep the other full-time job going so that we can continue to pay for the farm, trying to be a dad to the kids and a friend to Rachel, somehow I’ve got to get a lot more efficient at grunt work tasks like hauling feed to the chickens.  I am all for spending time observing the chickens every day and I don’t propose to stop doing that.  But there is no reason to be filling feeders daily if it can be done weekly or every few weeks.  Let the feeder feed the chickens!

My main gripe with almost all chicken feeders is that they are too small.  This applies to everything from the simple v-shaped wooden troughs to the 300 pound range feeders, from the crude to the elaborate to the cute.  Not all my feeders are this big yet, but my goal is to get all my feeders up to at least a one-ton capacity.  This size is appropriate for my flocks, but it may be too big or too small for someone else’s’ situation.  Five hundred or one thousand pound feeders need to be filled up too often.  A two or three ton feeder could be convenient, but portability becomes more challenging, especially if the fields are wet.  So I’ve settled on a one-ton target.

Layer Feeder

My latest design uses three sheets of 1/2 plywood, one sheet of 3/4 for the ends, and a few 2×4 and 2×6 braces, along with roofing tin.  The feeder is eight feet long and is mounted on a trailer frame.  Fully loaded, it holds 2500 lbs of grain and is easily towed between pastures.  It is built in the belt and suspenders carpentry mode, with threaded rod to keep the center from spreading and construction adhesive on the high stress connections.  Most of the plywood, tin, and hardware is recycled from other projects, and the trailer came with the walk-in cooler we use for eggs, so the out of pocket cost was minimal.

The feeder has only been in service for two weeks, so hanging a “Mission Accomplished” banner is premature.  I’ve learned that the pasture environment is tough on equipment; rain, wind, snow, and roaming cattle can destroy things in unexpected ways.  I’ll need a year of field experience before I can definitively say whether I’ve met my goals.  But I’m hopeful.  The pullets are doing well and it looks like I’ll be able to go three weeks between refills.

Filling Bulk Feeder

Fill it up!

Note, I haven’t figured out how to get the broiler feeders up to that size yet.  The broiler feeders are inside the portable hoophouse and they are suspended from the purlins.  My current system has two feeders, each of which hold about 400 pounds.   I need to be careful not to overload the hoops, so that constrains my designs.  Still thinking about a better system there…

In another post I’ll detail a few technical lessons I’ve learned on reducing feed wastage.  Here’s a hint:  grille the chickens.

Cows in the Yard

We have a steep, weedy patch just behind the house.  When we moved here it had a small mowed path through the middle, but the rest was dense overgrown sumac and wild grape tangled under a poplar canopy.  After running the pigs through and then following up with untold hours of chainsawing, we managed to open the understory and get a pretty good stand of orchardgrass and clover to grow there.  There are still some patches of heavy burdock in places where we’ve fed pigs, but that’s a decent forage in its own right so we don’t mind too much.

Today we ran the cattle through the back yard.  They did a great job of mowing things down.  As I’ve said before, I hate cutting the grass and I’d much rather employ an eager herd of cattle to do that job for me.

Cows in the Yard 2

The view out the second floor window.  A few hours later they had things tamed back nicely, with just a few thistles poking up.

Just for Pretty: Kittens

Mama didn’t raise no fool.  The kittens are getting taught by their mother to hang out right at the front door, since there’s always a chance that one of us will bring them something to eat.  Not that there are aren’t a zillion mice around in the fields and voles in the gardens, but the cats are opportunists and they’ll gladly accept handouts.  Having cats underfoot is an annoyance, but they are undeniably cute, so we don’t begrudge them their habit of obstructing the doorway.

Cornish Cross Chickens

Someone recently asked me what we thought of Cornish Cross broiler chickens.  The answer is complicated (the kids would point out that all my answers are over-complicated) and I won’t try to replicate the exchange or the subsequent conversations we’ve had at home on the topic.  I will agree that as a whole Cornish Crosses are less hardy than other chickens and that they can be more disaster prone, but I still stick up for them.  Like all agriculture, whether you are growing garlic or Gala apples or Cornish Cross chickens, you have to realize that these are all organisms that are the results of centuries of human selection for traits that are useful to us and that these selections often go against the pressures of natural selection.  These traits make the plant or animal dependent on us.  Garlic has given up its ability to reproduce on its own.  Apples are notoriously tricky to breed true and require trimming and blossom pinching to ensure annual crops.  Cornish Cross need lots of attention.

So sure, you can profile Cornish Cross as lazy, shiftless, and prone to sudden death.  But that’s only the case when they aren’t understood and accommodated.  Our Cornish Cross chickens are vibrant and zippy.  They chase bugs, eat grass, and generally do a good job being chickens.

Broilers at Feeder

Over the years we’ve learned (and of course all lessons are hard won by trial and error) that there are a few important management decisions requisite for healthy broiler chickens.

  1. Nutrition matters.  Since the chickens are growing rapidly, we need to pay careful attention to minerals.  We like Fertrell and Crystal Creek poultry minerals better than other brands we’ve tried.  Changing feed suppliers can make a huge difference in the health of the flock.
  2. Fresh air is critical.  Attention to air quality in the brooder helps the chickens throughout the rest of their lives as most health issues seem to start with respiratory problems while they are young.  And once they are older, pasture housing is better with any design that maximizes air flow.
  3. Watch for cold temperatures.  Cornish Cross chickens can handle the hottest of our Upstate NY hot weather (arguably not very hot, since it has never been above 95 in any of the last seven summers we’ve been here) if they can get out of the direct sun, but they don’t do well with cold.  With that in mind, we have found that we shouldn’t start chicks in the brooder before mid-April and we shouldn’t keep them out on pasture after late October.  Other regions will have other patterns.

Andouille!

Our selection of pork sausages gets an addition we haven’t had in stock for many years:  a Cajun fresh style Andouille.  All the spices are certified organic and of course all the ingredients are pronounceable and unrefined.

Andouille Label

The kind of ingredient list we like (well, except for the onin typo).

This is a mildly spicy sausage, less spicy than the Mexican Chorizo.  It has enough pepper to notice it, but not enough to leave anyone (except the most tender-tongued) feeling overspiced.  It cooks easily and quickly in a pan, but we especially enjoy it grilled until the outside has a little crackly crust.  Like a lot of the Louisiana culinary repertoire, the flavors are universal and can cross over into all sorts of other food traditions.  So while of course you would do well to use this sausage with your favorite gumbo recipe, it will be perfectly at home in all kinds of unlikely meals, for instance substituting for chicken in a chicken tikka masala recipe.

Apple Blossoms

We’ve had some close shaves with frosts and even a little snow this week, but it looks like the apples are going to pull through without any damage to the blossoms.  Apples are blooming everywhere!

Blasted

Five years ago I built a portable shade hut for the pigs when we had them in an open pasture.  We stopped using that field for pigs, and the hut has been left sitting out in the field ever since.  But after years of neglect, my plan for this Saturday afternoon was to strip off​ the metal roofing and reuse it for our chicken bulk feeders.
Rachel sent me this picture today.  Thunderstorms lifted the hut clear from the mud, tossing and tumbling it three hundred feet.

So my project for this weekend looks like it will be different than I planned.    It isn’t surprising that my plans didn’t work out, but I am always surprised by the multitude of ways my plans can unravel.

New Brooder, New Chicks

The chicken season officially began today with the arrival of 350 chicks from the good folks at NEPPA Hatchery.  Most farms need to have chicks shipped to them, but we are fortunate to live one town away from a hatchery.  Not only does this save us shipping costs, it also saves the chicks from the stress of being bumped and jostled and transported through all kinds of temperature transitions.

AJ with 2017 chicks

AJ, the Chickeneer of Wrong Direction Farm.  He’s got his work cut out for him this year as he’ll be raising twice as many chickens as last year for us, plus raising a few hundred extra for other farmers.

For the previous six years of brooding chickens, we’ve used all kinds of cobbled together brooders.  This year as we transition to bigger groups of chickens we knew we needed to get our brooding act together.

Step Carefully

Harry demonstrating the ponderous art of the “brooder walk”.  Chicks are constantly darting back and forth so each step needs to be carefully planned and executed.

Now we have a dedicated chicken brooder.  It isn’t fancy, but it should be just what the chicks need:  warm, dry, well-ventilated — yet not drafty, with room for a large heated hover, automatic nipple waterers, and plenty of feeder space.  There is easy access for us and a secure perimeter to keep out predators.  I built in a storage anteroom just big enough for a pallet of feed and extra bales of wood shavings.  The total cost came in around $3200, $2800 of that for the container (yes, container prices are high right now).

 

I bought a twenty foot shipping container for this project.  In retrospect I should have gone with the forty foot container because they are about the same price, but I wasn’t sure I could move the large container with the tractor.  It turns out that the tractor can easily drag the container all over the place and the bucket can lift the ends without straining, so the larger one wouldn’t have been a problem.  Duly noted for the next time I need a prefab box…