Solar Pump Station

There is a curious ineluctability that simple solutions are difficult to achieve. After four years of tinkering, I am finally satisfied that I have a working solar water pumping station.

Most of the farm is downhill from our pond, so we can siphon our water to the cattle and the poultry without using any power. But there are a few fields at the same elevation as the pond, and for those we need to pump water.

Over the years I’ve gone through five different pumps, four charge controllers, and two sets of panels. One of the charge controllers caught on fire, one was defective out of the box. Some of the early pumps were undersized for the flow required, and when I found larger pumps capable of supporting higher flow, I had to upgrade the solar array and the battery bank from 12 volts to 24 volts.

Not all has been wasted in the progress toward building the pumping station. Several of the old 12 volt components are in use elsewhere on the farm. I’ve learned a few technical details about solar systems, so there is some imputed worth there.  But perhaps the most valuable and least quantifiable benefit is the appreciation I have for having water flowing when and where I need it. There’s always an underpinning of true and simple good, quite apart from complex moral philosophy, in completing a project satisfactorily. It is the good of making a meal, or building a bookshelf, or fixing the brakes. We find certitude in tasks that stand for themselves.

Wildlife Sightings

Sharing two new wildlife sightings. Actually there was a third, a striking godwit out by the pond, but the photos were too fuzzy. Yogi Berra was right, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

Walking stick insects mating in the back woods. They were at it for hours.
We now have at least two grouse living in the low lying pasture near the chicken shelters.

The Fencing Project Pallet

One of the persistent challenges for our type of farming is maintaining some organization in the chaos of tools and supplies.  Everyone who knows me knows that I’ve never been good at keeping things tidy.  My workshop is a disaster.  But I’ve made a baby step of improvement, and just that incremental difference makes me feel like there’s hope for future improvements.

About a month ago I tackled the fencing supplies.  This includes a half dozen spools of wire, spinning jennys, insulators, staples, tensioners, and an assortment of both common and specialized tools.  This collection took up a large shelf plus several overflowing totes on the floor, roughly about a 4×6 footprint in the garage.  Not only was the collection unwieldy, but it required a lot of time and effort to carry everything into the back of the truck whenever I was doing fencing work.  And it seemed that whenever I was out doing a fence installation or repair job, I’d discover I was missing a tool.

I realized the solution to my storage, organization, and accessibility problems could be found by building a small shed capable of storing my entire fencing collection and all the basic tools.  It is mounted on a pallet so I can move the entire unit with the tractor out to whatever location I’m working.  If I need to leave a job halfway done, all the supplies can remain in the field without fear of rain or snow.  And I can reclaim that little corner of the garage shop space.

Everything fits!  Actually, I was able to further organize the top shelf so there’s a little extra room in there now.

I’ve been amazed at the improvements made by such a small change.  I don’t dread doing fencing repairs anymore.  It is making me wonder what other sorts of modular project pallets I should build next.   A pallet for masonry supplies and another for forestry seem like good candidates.  Whatever I end up doing, I’ve been encouraged by taking a small action against what felt like intractable project clutter.  There is hope!

Hitched up and ready to go.

Guard Geese

We raised some Brown Chinese geese this year because we heard that they can be effective guards for other birds.  I’m not sure that was a great idea.

Last year we had some predation losses among our young turkeys due to a persistent owl.  Eventually the turkeys outgrew the owl, but for a few weeks the owl would kill one turkey any night I didn’t sit out there.  Needless to say, it was a terrible experience for the turkeys and for me, but I suppose a great year for the owl.

The problem is that we also added a trained Maremma livestock guardian dog to the farm this year.  And this leads to guardian conflicts, where the geese and the dog both try to do their guard activities to the detriment of the other.  The geese repel predators by being endlessly meddling and loud.  The dog prefers to be orderly and to reserve her aggression for real threats.  Hence the geese manage to protect the turkeys while also pestering them, which causes the dog to chase them away.  And since geese never take a hint, they just circle right back moments later causing the dog to perpetually chase the geese.

Here comes the goose patrol.

Despite the chaos caused by the combination of geese and dog, we have only lost one turkey to predators this year (and that was the night that neither the dog nor the geese were stationed out by the turkeys).  So they are doing their job.  But I think next year I’ll just stick with the dog unless I can figure out a way to assign the geese in some other guard duty on another part of the farm.

Goose up close.

Tall Grass Carbon Capture

In recent years I’ve come to appreciate the value of grazing chickens and turkeys on taller grass.  My old thinking was that shorter grass would be more digestible and more accessible to the birds.  But now I prefer more mature pastures.

With our chicken shelters, we find that the rubber conveyor belt flaps on the leading edge are sufficient to knock down tall grass and to lay it out as a nice mat underfoot for the chickens as we move the shelters.  All that lignified, high-carbon grass acts as great bedding for the chickens, and they still spend plenty of time eating the tender leaf tips that are now right at ground level.  Interestingly, these taller pastures recover more quickly than shorter pastures.

The turkeys grow big enough that they bulldoze their way through the pastures, matting things down naturally.  Since turkeys are better grazers than chickens, they carefully select leaves from all parts of the plants in their pasture.  They appear to especially enjoy the mix of red clover, milkweed, and burdock that thrive in these pastures.

This grass was over three feet tall, but once knocked down it provides a soft, cozy bedding for these young chickens just brought out onto pasture.
This grass was over three feet tall, but once knocked down it provides a soft, cozy bedding for these young chickens just brought out onto pasture.

For the United States this way of raising chickens and turkeys is unusual and rare, but we’re really tapping into something that is as old as the world’s grasslands, where small animals and bigger, heavier herbivores (cattle in our case) periodically eat and trample their way across carbon-rich tall grasses, leaving a mat of flattened grass and manure.  Because of the foot traffic pressing the grass into contact with the dirt and helped by the biological inoculation of the manure, this mat is quickly incorporated into the topsoil, increasing the soil organic matter (carbon sequestration) and providing an ever-deepening layer of topsoil capable of growing more greenery.

The turkeys have no problem moving through knee high pastures.  It does slow us down as we set up the temporary fences, but the birds just crash their way through the grass.
The turkeys have no problem moving through knee high pastures. It does slow us down as we set up the temporary fences, but the birds just crash their way through the grass.

Riding Herd

This week we moved the cattle from the front of the farm to the back end, about a half mile.  Rachel does most of the summer day-to-day cowgirl work and I help with the big moves and roundups.

Moving the cattle doesn’t involve much of the TV tropes of whip-cracking and shouting.  Not even a “yippie-kay-yay.”  We’ve learned that moving cattle can be done without much drama, either on foot or gently motoring behind them on the ATV.  The most important parts are (unsurprisingly) thorough planning beforehand and calm, purposefulness during the move.  Cattle have a deep instinct to migrate in herds and recognizing this helps us consider the flow dynamics of the group.  Some gateway shapes cause them to slow down, some changes in direction cause them to spread out.  Over the years we’ve learned how cattle react, and I suppose we’ve learned how we react, so most of the time the cattle go where we want them to go.  Most of the time…

After turning into a wider part of the lane the cattle slowed down and a few turned around to start munching grass. Rachel hopped off the ATV to hold them back while I closed off a temporary gateway behind us.

Movement is one of the key things that makes Wrong Direction Farm unique. Our farm is always on the move. Nothing stays in the same place because in nature nothing is static. We’re always looking for ways to keep our animals on the best grass.

And the herd is off down the last straight away before turning into their new pasture.

Midsummer Farm Photos

Moving turkeys and Gret to new pasture
Busy days in the garden
Napping
There’s always something to repair
Little surprises in the pasture

Shelter

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.

Three weeks ago we were just getting started. The trees weren’t leafed out fully then.
About 75% of the way done.
Out to pasture with its companions.

No More Balls

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).

Rusty collar-type lock off and lunette ring on.
Wedge coupler removed and replaced with lunette.

Heaters on Pasture

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.