Wrong Direction Farm

Chilling and Truck Shopping

Looks like the weather has repented of its dalliance with springtime and returned to proper winteriness.  The contrast between 60 degrees and -8 degrees is pretty stark.   Yesterday’s warm rain froze solid, creating beautiful ice sculptures, but making many simple tasks challenging.  Doors on the walk in cooler and the pig’s milk greenhouse were frozen shut.  Fence reels were locked up.  And so on.  But I guess if I could choose winter weather, I prefer solidly frozen winters to mushy, muddy ones.

Ice on Bushes

In the meantime, we’re still weighing out several options for a replacement delivery van.  The options run from $10,000 for a 10-12 year old box truck (basically keeping the same system we use now with chest freezers in the back of the truck) to $55,000 for a new Ford Transit van with built in refrigeration.  The new vehicle would be much more fuel efficient and space efficient, since the entire cargo area would be refrigerated and we wouldn’t need to fit packages into all those freezers, so we could palletize our items and use the space better.  Interestingly, used refrigerated vans are priced ridiculously high compared to new ones, so there is no sense in buying one with 100,000 miles for 75% of the price of new.

Since the farm is still dependent on my other job to keep the cash flowing, I don’t want to get into too deep a hole, especially with my current employer implementing round after round of layoffs.  So it looks like the clunker route is more prudent.  That isn’t a terrible solution and I’m sure a box truck will come in handy for all sorts of hauling, but the prospect of adding another well-worn vehicle to the farm’s fleet is, well, daunting.

I’ll keep my repair toolbox handy.

A Mess and a Thanks

I saw the gauges going crazy, but I was on the road in a whiteout of blowing snow before sunrise at zero degrees, so I wasn’t about to pull over onto the partially-cleared shoulder to investigate.  Instead I kept driving on as the oil pressure gauge flipped between normal and zero.  I have had other Fords with faulty oil sensors, so I was hoping for the same here.  But rattle, rattle, boom, boom, and then the van was losing speed just as I was approaching a Thruway siding.  The engine bearings were being worn to bits.  Then the engine quit in a surprisingly bright flash that lit the road around me and things became quiet.  I was able to coast into the rest area, running out of momentum short of the parking lot but in a safe spot.

Rachel and the kids came to pick me up, and we found the nearest rental place that had a truck ready.  Then we zoomed back to the rest area, backed the vans up, and transferred what we could.  I didn’t have the right tools or the time to get all our freezers moved into the rental truck, but the weather was cold enough that we didn’t have to worry about the meat thawing.  Between the towing and rental, we spent $2000 extra on this delivery (not including the normal fuel and tolls).

Van Loaded Up

Everything packed in, helter skelter.

Apart from the ruined truck, this weekend battered our family with a sequence of disasters, petty annoyances, and griefs:  postponed deliveries due to snow, frozen pipes in our house, several freeze-up problems for the cattle’s water and pigs’ milk, sickness, and the not-unexpected death of someone we all loved.

We have many people to thank for helping us pull through.  My parents and sister took over some Saturday deliveries at the last minute.  Customers in Montclair, Red Bank, and Westfield were courteous and accommodating as I changed schedules on them.  Several people volunteered to help with checking orders and following up with other customers.  Folks in Queens didn’t complain about the hastily prepared directions for the delivery location change after our normal parking lot was closed.  When things go badly, it is great to have good people on our side.  Thanks to all of you.


Frost Free Chicken Water

I’ve tried all kinds of schemes for providing water for chickens during the winter.  This year, I think I’m finally close to a satisfactory design.

This design owes a lot of credit to a similar system described at Green Machine Farm.  I’m using a very similar setup with an aquarium pump, a tank heater, an insulated tank, and a recirculating loop.  Besides the fact that I’m using a bigger tank and more insulation, my design differs in that I’m using horizontal nipples instead of vertical nipples.  The horizontal nipples spill more water, but they have a tremendous cold-weather advantage:  they don’t store any water inside the body of the fitting so they are unlikely to plug.

Winter Drinker

I’m not sure how cold it has been during this recent cold snap. I know it has been below -10F but I haven’t been watching the thermometer too closely.  The nipples form a little ice overnight but if I bring a gallon of hot water from the house and quickly wipe off each nipple, the water is flowing again immediately.

Insulated Tank

The tank is insulated with foam, but wrapped in foil (mainly to prevent the hens from pecking the foam to bits).

This system seems like it should work well, but there are a few vulnerabilities.  First, if the power goes out or a cord is unplugged, the system will freeze up.  Second, if the pump or heater were to fail, the system would freeze up.  Third, if the system were to run dry the pump would burn out or the heater might melt the tank.  The third situation is preventable by frequent monitoring, but it seems foolish to think that I’ll be able to avoid either of the first two situations indefinitely.  At -10 or -20, it wouldn’t take long to freeze solid.  I know that whatever I build, I eventually repair.  So when I repair this system, I’ll add a loop of heat trace under the insulation along the pipeline.  That will allow me to thaw the pipes when the inevitable freeze up occurs, potentially saving lots of downtime.

Chickens Eating Snow

Chickens don’t venture outside much in this weather.  But when the do, they spend most of their time eating snow.  I’m not sure why they eat snow when they have water to drink.

Now if only I could figure out a system to take the chill off my nest boxes, I’d be all set.  Unless we collect eggs hourly, we end up with lots of frozen eggs.

Frozen Eggs

Cat on Catwalk

Just a dumb play on words, but here’s a cat proudly using the catwalk in our milk greenhouse.  The temperature in the building was a balmy 33 degrees while it was zero outside, so I found several cats sprawled out sunning themselves in here.

Cat on a Catwalk

Most people try to keep their milk cool so it doesn’t curdle and begin to transform itself into cheese.  The dairy we feed the pigs is already curdled, but our challenge this time of year is keeping the pigs’ milk and whey warm enough to avoid freezing, so we’re glad for the heat that the greenhouse garners.  This greenhouse is dug into the hillside; the left wall in the picture is resting at ground level and the right wall is about six feet above the ground on a ponywall, hence the need for the catwalk to inspect the milk levels in the tanks.  The plastic on this greenhouse is five years old, so it is starting to tatter, but I can’t complain since it was only rated for four years.

When I built the greenhouse, I thought I could make it multipurpose: using it as a brooder building for poultry in the late winter and starting plants in it during the spring.  Multipurpose structures are one of those ideas that sound great and make sense in theory, but in practice they are difficult to achieve.  Trying to make a structure serve multiple uses, when timing doesn’t always work out and where the different temperature needs conflict, just creates a lot of frustration.  So while I still appreciate the ideal and look for multipurpose opportunities, I try not to overdo it.  If an implement or a structure can one thing well, then I’m happy.  If it can do two things well, then that’s a bonus.  This greenhouse just does one thing, but it serves my needs admirably.

The cats (and the occasional chickens that sneak in) might note that it serves them well as a sunroom, so perhaps the multipurpose ideal has been achieved after all.

Bale Grazing, Finally

Blog posts have been infrequent recently, but not for lack of material.  I’m just far behind on many projects, so bear with me.  I’ll post some catchup farm photos in blog posts over the next few days.

Snow Drift Bales

This year I was especially late getting the bales set for this winter’s bale grazing.  I managed to finish on Christmas as the snow was whipping, carving and drifting around each bale.  It wasn’t especially cold early this week, but with the freezing rain and then the snow, the twine was frozen onto each bale so the work was finicky.

Snow Drift Bales 2

Check that job off the list.  The cattle are happily eating their way through a couple bales each day, now we just need to maintain the fences and keep the water running, and the cattle will take care of the rest.

Brain Food

I’ve been adding a few chicken heads to our soup recently, but I wanted to see what would happen if I made a batch of broth using heads alone.  So I placed thirty heads in a pot and cooked them down overnight.  After straining and cooling the broth, here are the results:

Gelatin Zoom

This is as gelled as I’ve seen chicken broth, but the flavor isn’t well-rounded.  Adding salt helps, but there is still a general blandness that doesn’t satisfy me.

I think I’ll continue to add a head or two to every gallon of soup, but straight head soup won’t be on the menu again.  Chicken backs, necks, and feet add to the depth, aroma, and flavor.

On the waste-not, want-not side, I stirred heaping scoops of gelatin into my beef stew today and it blended in nicely.  And then I fed the cooked heads to the cats.


Right Place, Right Time

I found one persistent dandelion blooming this morning.  The farm was covered in a heavy freezing fog, the rocks and plants were white with wispy frost, and the soil was crunchy underfoot.  But in one clump of trees the frost was light.  And this dandelion was almost entirely frost free, probably owing to the shelter of the piece of limestone above it.

Microclimates are curious things.  Creating microclimates is a staple of permaculture discussions, but I’ve never found them to behave consistently.  The means are varied:  creating wind breaks, building solar sinks, or controlling water flow.  Any of these can influence the temperature in a small protected area.  The problem is that if the wind were to shift directions or the afternoon became cloudy, these methods wouldn’t help.

Sometimes success is all about being in the right place at the right time.  Whatever combinations of factors led to this bloom surviving, it was fun to see this tough little flower growing against all odds.

Get Along Piggies

This fall we stretched the pigs’ grazing season longer than usual. Some years we’ve had to curtail it by late October, though normally we bring them in just before deer hunting begins in mid-November. This year their rotation pattern brought them farther from the woods so they weren’t interfering with hunters.  But with the fields turning mushy as the season progressed, it was time.

Even large groups of cattle can be herded effectively by one person driving the rear, but pigs don’t move as cohesively as cattle.  The groups are more prone to break ups, with more internal churning and frequent losses of momentum. Moving pigs is easier with the carrot and stick approach. In this case the carrots were treats (flakes of apple pomace from Pavlus Orchards’ cider making) Rachel and Harry placed ahead and I was the stick, bringing up the rear by pacing back and forth to keep the slow pokes moving.

With the portable catch pen and the stock trailer in place, the job went well for us.  And for the pigs too.  They seem to like their new place. When I went out this morning’s chores they were snoring in the pile of wood chips in their hoophouse.

Squeaking By

Last night we moved the chickens into their winter hoophouse, just as the snow started falling.  We seem to have a knack for squeaking by when we have deadlines to face.  Each year the autumn weather patterns are a bit different, so we don’t have hard calendar deadlines.  Rather there is a complex coefficient of management hassle that tells us when to bring the chickens in.  This is hard science folks:

coefhassle = rain + 2(snow + mud) + cold

Chickens don’t need protection from a little bit of snow, but with the nights in the teens and twenties and the days above freezing, the soil becomes gooey and the chickens turn the area around their pasture coop into a muddy slurry.  Added to that is is the problem of moving their coop.  We move their coop periodically to keep them on fresh grass, but in this weather the coop begins to sink into the mud.  Last night I was barely able to get the coop towed out of the pasture, leaving big ruts as the tractor clawed its way along in four wheel drive.  So we knew the time was right to move them to their winter home.

Hens in Winter Housing

Picture from early this morning, so the lighting is a bit dim.

The chickens have a fenced yard out behind the hoophouse, but for the first two days we’ll keep them enclosed to latch their brains onto the idea that this is their home.  After their homing instinct connects with this shelter, we’ll be able to let them out during the day without having to herd them back at night.

Boar Tusks

Last December our big boar died and I buried him in a pile of hay bales to compost.  Over the summer the pile broke down, so with a little sifting I was able to unearth the cleaned skeleton.  I removed the tusks since they are so anatomically interesting.

Tusks (or tushes in some parts of the country) are the canine teeth of pigs.  They are found on both the upper and lower jaw, with lower set tending to be larger and sharper along the outside edges.  The upper tusks angle against the lower set to continuously sharpen them.  All pigs have them, but males exhibit faster growth.  The tusks of sows stop growing after a few years, but boars’ tusks continue to lengthen throughout their lives.  The tooth on the right was broken off, probably 6-12 months before the boar died.  In the wild, pigs periodically break off their teeth fighting with competitors and upstarts, so the ability to regrow tusks is important.  This boar didn’t get into any fights (to my knowledge), but he could have broken the end off while digging up rocks and stumps.

Boar Tusks

The cleaner half of the tusks are embedded in the jaw, so the root is as long or longer than the exposed portion.  Impressive dentition!

Boar Tusk Stains

There is some nice patterning, almost like woodgrain, visible in the stained side of the tooth.  The inside edge gets less wear, hence it is more stained than the outer cutting edge.

Boar Tusk Underside

The underside of the tusk is flat.  Note the hollow root end.  The staining near my index finger indicates the point where the tooth emerged from the jaw.

I’m curious to see if I can cross-cut these tusks on my dad’s bandsaw or better yet on the tabletop scrollsaw for a fine kerf cut.  With a little cleaning and polishing, these could make nice ivory disks for jewelry.  Think of the marketing slogan “Boartooth ivory, the sustainable choice”.  OK, so this is probably not ready for mass markets yet, but I’ve got to try it and see what happens.  I am always drawn to objects crafted from materials native to a place and time.  Stay tuned.