Wrong Direction Farm

Lunchmeat Style Salami

We have been enjoying the latest addition to our salami lineup, a sliced lunchmeat style fennel salami.  The Italian name for this salami is finocchiona, but since its name just means that it is made with fennel, we opted for the less intimidating descriptive title.  For the flavor profile, think of generic Genoa salami, then amp up the taste of the meat and the fat (because we’re using legit pasture raised pork), then shift the experience ever so subtly with the bright, sweet taste of fennel seeds.

The salami is lacto-fermented, using a lactic acid bacteria culture and some turbinado sugar to feed the bacteria.  After consuming the sugar as fuel, the bacteria naturally sour the sausage with lactic acid, giving the salami its distinctive pungency.  After initial fermentation, this sausage takes about four months to dry to the correct moisture level before it is sliced and packaged.  The ingredients are (as with all our meats) straightforward:  pork, salt, celery extract, turbinado sugar, black pepper, fennel, oregano extract, minced garlic, and lactic acid starter culture.

Fennel Salami Package

I love those big pieces of black peppercorns scattered through the slices!

We’ve been eating it on sandwiches, rolled up with cheese, shredded on pasta, and in any other occasion for which we can invent a justification for opening a new package.  Enjoy!

Another Year, Another Truck

With today’s welcome swing into the 30s I was able to take advantage of the comfortable weather to start tearing into our new old delivery van.  This one is a 17 foot Uhaul truck, a 2006 Ford with 130k miles.  Mechanically it is OK, neither great nor terrible.  It obviously spent a some of its life in warmer climates, so the rust isn’t as advanced as I would have expected.  The truck is about two feet shorter than the bus it replaces, but I think the boxier layout will yield a small increase in usable space.  If I can arrange things so our delivery freezers are easily removed, it will also be a good general-purpose farm vehicle, with nearly 3 tons of payload capacity.

E450 Cargo

The cargo area is dry and well-proportioned. I’m glad there are no wheel wells protruding into the box.

I changed the oil and transmission fluid, replaced a windshield wiper arm and sprayer (with parts from the old van), repaired the cargo door, replaced the battery (again stealing from the old van), replaced the coolant, lubed the zerks, and sprayed down a bunch of vulnerable electrical and mechanical spots with Fluid Film.  The front brakes look surprisingly good despite sitting for a few years.  I haven’t yet looked at the rear brakes.

Things I need to watch or to complete:

  1. The oil cap has some coolant residue in it.  The previous truck had a similar gasket problem.  I added a bottle of the copper Barr’s Leak and I’ll monitor the coolant level and the oil cap to see if I’ve bought myself a reprieve.  I’d rather not pull the intake and/or the head to fix it.
  2. The starter wouldn’t engage the first morning after I drove it home.  A few hammer blows set it right, and it has behaved well subsequently.  I’m going to chalk that up to a starter that was out of the habit of starting, but I’m carrying a hammer with me just in case.
  3. One of the front tires has a severe bald patch on the outside.  When I take the truck to get inspected, I’ll hire the garage to adjust the toe alignment on this wheel.  Hopefully they’ll let me swap this tire with one of the duals on the back and they won’t make a big deal about it.  I have a set of nearly new tires on the old delivery van, but I’d like to get the last 20k miles out of is set before swapping them out for the new ones.
  4. While I’ve still got momentum on this project, I probably should replace the rear differential fluid too.  The rear diff is one of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind items.
  5. I think the fuel pump’s check valve is worn, because it takes longer to crank than it should.  My 1995 Ford has had the same problem for the last 100,000 miles so I might just leave it well enough alone.

Once all the known mechanical items are resolved, it will be time to kit out the truck box for all our freezers and delivery paraphernalia.  I’ve got to keep my nose to the grindstone, because spring is coming and March and April will be exceedingly busy times as we race to prepare for the arrival of a thousand new chickens.

When the kids saw me scrounging parts from one truck to install in the other, they said I was the “One Piece at a Time” guy about whom Johnny Cash sang.  I’ve always felt that song is a metaphor for a lot of what we do to run this farm, so I’ll leave you with that classic.

Toward a Better Logo

We’ve had the drawing of a sitting pig for a while. It wasn’t really intended to be the official farm logo. I drew it for an early advertisement we printed, and with one thing leading to another it “stuck”. The art was ripped off from this (public domain) postcard dated 1908. Germans sure love their good-luck pigs, but that’s a topic for another day…

Because the logo selection wasn’t intentional, I’ve never been happy with the way it pigeonholes us as a pig farm. Yes, pigs are my favorite animal. Yes, I like the look of the drawing. But we raise cattle and lots of chickens too. And the farm is more than just the animals; it is the land and the people and the water and the mosquitos and on and on. How do we convey the totality of the farm in one evocative image?

One approach for a new logo is simply to add more critters. There are many diversified farms that have taken a similar tack, drawing each farm animal in profile, either lined up, nested, or stacked up in an ascending tower. I like that, but it is a pretty common formula.

Rachel and I were brainstorming and it occurred to us that very few farms use chin-forward profile shots for the animals, and even fewer have the foreshortened effect that you often get when photographing an animal that is interested in sniffing, pecking, or eating the camera. Rachel sketched up line drawings based on the three beasties below, with the goal of having all three sharing the logo.

I like the whimsy in these pictures and I think they reflect well on the fact that Wrong Direction Farm is not a pretentious institution. They show the trust the animals have for us, and they are distorted enough to indicate that none of us takes ourselves too seriously. But the problem is, where does inclusion stop? We are working on plans to raise turkeys this year. Should we add turkeys now even if we don’t have them? What about ducks? What if we stop raising one group of livestock? What if we start selling our garlic and pumpkins? What needs to be in the logo and what should be left out?

Thus our thoughts turned to what the farm is really about. Above all else, this is a pasture farm. Perennial pastures are central to everything we do. Our work is all dependent on taking care of the plants that take care of the soil that takes care of everything else. So that led us to think about grass and dandelions and clovers and burdock and all the other wonderful plants and weeds that make our pastures great. But what about the unseen side of things? What about the roots? What if we show them too; what if they dominate the image?

New Roots for Agriculture

Our latest ideas are somewhere along the lines of the cover of this book by Wes Jackson. I am not enthusiastic with this illustration, but I like the idea that the unseen roots are much deeper than the aboveground growth. And that encapsulates much of our aspiration for the farm. We want to show that the behind-the-scenes world is complex and messy and essential.

We’d prefer to stick with a stark black and white drawing. A successful image will convey the diversity and connectedness of pasture plants, while avoiding getting literally down in the weeds and rendering the drawing pedantic.

We aren’t done sketching it out, and we’ll probably need some professional help to get a good vector drawing before we have anything to reveal to our customers. But until then, feel free to drop us a line to let us know any thoughts you have. If you are our customer, what image encapsulates your ideas about our farm when you are scrambling an egg or grilling a ribeye?

Building Better Chicken Feeders

I’ve received several requests for details on my chicken feeders, so since I’m getting ready to build a few more I took the time to make some measurements.

Please don’t consider anything I write here to be an absolute requirement.  These are just my observations.  There are a lot of ways to build a good chicken feeder.  And there are even more ways to build a terrible feeder.

Below I diagram the cross-section of the business end of my layer hen feeder.

Chicken Feeder Schematic

None of these dimensions are critical, but all of them work well together.  My experience after building (and buying) several frustrating feeders indicates that:

  1. Steep slopes are better.  If you are using pelleted feeds or shell corn you might be able to get away with 45 degree angles, but I think that 60 degrees is about the minimum slope.
  2. Keep a pretty big gap at the bottom of the slope.  Inevitably some feed will get clumpy, so I want to minimize bridging and plugging.
  3. Terminate the hopper at least 1 inch below the bottom of the tray’s lip.  If the hopper is close to bottoming out in the tray, it will clog.  If it is flush with the lip, it will probably spill feed too easily.
  4. Provide some sort of lip on the tray.  Chickens will pull feed out as they withdraw their heads.  I used to use plain wood or PVC trays and the feed waste was obscene until I arrived at this solution.  On my broiler feeders I use rain gutters as the bottom tray, since the K-gutter has a nice integral lip.  In this case I’m using the L-shaped bend on prefab wire shelving, which provides a dual purpose (see #5 below).
  5. Grille the chicken!  The wire shelving material has been cut to allow 2″ spaces in the feeder.  Because the chickens can stick their heads through the grille they can easily access the feed, but they can’t side-swipe it out or reach in with their claws to rake it out.
  6. Place the feeder above the ground on a platform, suspended by chains, or on a trailer.  Provide room for the chickens to scoot underneath to clean up any spilled feed.  All feeders are subject to the depredations of rats and mice, but ground level feeders are terrible.  I have found that even with frequent moves, my old skidded feeders would always show signs of rodent tunneling whenever I moved them.
Layer Feeder Grille

The hen feeder uses the wire shelving as both a feed lip and an access grille.  I’ve tried using 2×4 welded wire fencing, but the constant rubbing wears it out and breaks the welds.  Shelving seems to have the right combination of durability and affordability.

Broiler Feeder Grille

Picture from last summer.  Here is a similar arrangement we use for the broilers.  In this case the bottom tray is a K-style gutter, so it has a built-in feed lip.

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.