Wrong Direction Farm

Chickens Grooming Pigs

I noticed a strange behavior in the pigs’ hoophouse today. I was adding bales of bedding hay when I became aware that pigs were coming in from their yard after taking a drink from the milk trough, and then just standing in the doorway. They’d wait there patiently despite all the other milling, snuffling pigs, as if they were expecting something. And moments later a hen would run over and start pecking all the drops of milk from the pig’s chin. Once cleaned, the pig would continue on its way to do pig things, and the chicken would attend to the next customer.

I’ve never seen pigs and chickens adapt to each other this way. I am accustomed to starlings and cowbirds using the cows as fly magnets during the summer. And of course there are all sorts of animal partnerships in the wild, such as shrimp cleaning teeth for fish and birds performing dental hygiene on crocodiles. But a chicken-pig alliance is a new one.

Pig Grooming 3

For all the years we’ve mixed hens and pigs, this is the first I’ve seen anything like it. If we were keeping young pullets with the pigs, I’d bet any chicken putting its head up to a pig’s mouth would find itself inside the pig. But these are all old, wily hens. We keep a small flock of retired laying hens in with the pigs during the winter, and we let them wander where they will during the summer to suppress the deer tick population around the house. We don’t feed these wild chickens; they do just fine foraging. And at least one hen has gone beyond foraging to create her own services economy. Maybe I should take a page from Adam Smith and be the first to posit the existence of an Invisible Wing in Chickenomics. I’m going to keep watching to see if the idea catches on with the other hens in the group.

Pig Grooming 4

The picture quality isn’t great, but notice the chicken working on the pig in the yellow circle, while the pig in the red circle stands waiting.

Bedding Management

This winter I’ve changed up my bedding management for the laying hens.  They are free to walk out of their hoophouse, but with everything consistently snowbound this winter there hasn’t been much for them to find out in the fields and so they prefer to stay closer to home.  All those hens dropping turds all day and night makes for messy bedding.

Chickens Inspecting Bedding

Making the first pass

Instead of adding new bedding, I’ve been running the rototiller through the building once every week or two.  Chicken manure tends to form a cap on the bedding, and this is especially the case in below-freezing weather.  The rototiller quickly turns and blends in the manure, so I get a lot more use out of the wood chip bedding.  I estimate I’m saving about $200 per month in bedding compared to our costs last year.  The time to run the tiller is about the same as the time required to add new bedding material, so that’s a wash.  There’s fuel use for the tiller, but at $2 per month we don’t need to fret too much about that.  I don’t know if I could justify owning a tiller solely for bedding one chicken hoophouse, but this old workhorse is also our gardening tiller and it has already paid its way long ago.

Spreading Hay

We periodically spread a few armloads of chopped hay, trying to avoid piles so the chickens aren’t tempted to start laying eggs on the ground.  We like to give them some good quality hay since last year’s grass is buried under snow and a thick layer of ice.

I can’t predict if this method will work indefinitely.  Sometimes this hoophouse takes on wetness on the uphill side during the spring thaw, so I might need to add more bedding to keep things from getting soupy (and stinky) once the weather climbs above freezing.  Even if the bedding remains dry, there may be a point where the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is too imbalanced and the bedding can’t handle the manure load.  Judging by the clean tracks and fluffy texture I’m getting, this isn’t close to that point yet.  I’ll monitor and adjust as I go.

Snug Pigs

The pigs are snug in their hay.  This is just about right, with plenty of loft in the bedding so they can tuck themselves under if desired.  The pigs are sleeping together for warmth, but there’s no piling.  If I see pigs stacked up, then they are probably too cold and smaller pigs will be in danger of being smothered.

I’ve tried using the tiller several times for the pigs, but their bedding is covered in a thick layer of long-fibered hay, so the machine has trouble getting through the hay.  The L-shaped tiller blades are ideal for friable dirt and wood chips, but wet hay either tangles up or compacts down.  Perhaps a PTO-attached tiller would be able to muscle through despite the design inadequacies, but getting one of those hitched and unhitched would be a hassle and trying to maneuver it in our small hoophouses would be frustrating.  For now, our pig bedding is just a deep base layer of wood chips followed by deep hay, occasionally touched up with new wood chips as the season progresses.  If we had a larger operation, a purpose-made bedding conditioner (and a skidsteer to run it!) would be useful, but that’s a whole lot more iron than is appropriate at our scale.

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.