Friday, January 31, 2014

Farming for the Future

Next Thursday I'm carpooling to State College PA with some other Pittsburgh farmer-types to hole up at Penn State's hotel/conference center for PASA's annual conference.  PASA - Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.  Folks that grow food and raise animals in all the best ways descend on Penn State for the weekend to attend workshops, catch up with friends, and share ideas.  The real highlight is the cheese-tasting though.  Yum, yum yum!! I always buy a block of some sort of stinky deliciousness.  Can't wait.  More information can be found here: PASA 23rd Annual Conference

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Unseasonable Cold

I suppose we are paying for our mild winter last year, but gosh am I glad I didn't experiment with any fall fruit tree planting at our homestead this past November.  This winter is cold!  Very cold for our area!  So what is going on when temps are dipping down to 10 below zero at nights?  Is anything growing?  Is anything alive at all?

Here is a late January, below zero status update for Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery:

Under row cover kale, lettuce and arugula are killed back to the stalk or growing tip, but the plants are still alive and should regrow in spring.  Kale was holding up well until I stripped all leaves for the chickens.

Mache is growing fine without any protection at all.  Mache is a hardy salad green that grows in rosettes.  It is mild and I think tastes a little like spinach.  The chickens prefer kale, those little prisses.

All 4 beehives are alive, though 2 hives have bee clusters at the top of the hive.  I am feeding them bee candy (hard sugar candy I make) in case it is too cold for them to move a few inches to the left or right, where I see they still have honey but may not be able to access it.  I am keeping the tops of the hives slightly propped up and the bottom board screens open for ventilation.  Last year I had some mold grow over winter, as the bee yard location is fairly shaded in the winter.  The bees cleaned it up immediately as soon as I increased ventilation. 

Winter ventilation:  The hole is a notch in the inner cover.  The outer cover is propped up so air and moisture can flow up and out through the hole.  Otherwise, moisture could condense inside the hive and rain back down on the bees, chilling them.
The chickens look miserable when nights are below zero and days stay in the single digits but they have no cold damage on their feet or combs as of yet and they are still enthusiastic about anything green I have for them to eat.  The formula for really cold nights is:  1) Throw down cracked corn around 4 pm so they run around and scratch for it, filling up with carbs for the night and getting a little exercise.  Part of their run is enclosed in plastic sheeting as a wind break as they love to be out there, even when it is in the teens like it was today. 2) If their waterer needs a fill-up I use warm water.  3) I leave ventilation open (pop door and roof vent) with no drafts blowing directly on them while they sleep 4) I don't use heat.  Some folks do and some don't, but I'm trying to no-heat approach.  If you regularly heat your coop as soon as the temperatures drop, your chickens don't feather out as fully with a winter coat of feathers.  Then, what if your power goes out or the bulb burns out on your heat lamp during an extremely cold night?  The birds will be unready to handle the cold.  Also, extended use of heat lamps in a wooden coop over bedding seems like a fire hazard.  I'm still learning, so I'll report back how all the birds do.  I didn't make those winter chicken tips up on my own, I learned them all from old-time chicken raisers.

Chicken foraging

Hmmm.  Feral cats seem to be patrolling the garden.  I can tell by their snowy paw print trails.  There are lots of nooks for them to sleep in, and although they are a nuisance sometimes, there isn't a rodent to speak of around to try to move in on the chicken feed.  The feed bags in the storage shed are another issue.  Those have to be in trash bins as no cats can get in the shed but mice can!

As for the homestead, we don't have anything planted yet beside berries and no critters yet, so nothing is growing under snow cover.  If we can get through the negative 6 tonight with no pipes freezing, I'll be happy.  Our bathtub faucet will be left on a trickle.  Don't ask me how I know we should do that when it dips below zero.  Stay warm, all.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What I've Learned in The Year of The Chicken

Hens cruising the beds at Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery
Wilkinsburg, PA
Well I've kept chickens at my place of employ for almost a year.  I've learned a bunch, and there's much more to know.  It might be time to sit down and make a list of what I've found so far from our flock of 10 layer hens...

  1. There is an endless list of different ways to raise chickens.  You have to figure out what works best for you and your birds.
  2. Does something look off with a bird?  Don't worry straight off.  Pay the most attention to how the bird is acting, do your research (not on the internet, from a book you trust!) and check back in with her soon.  It may likely be something perfectly normal.
  3. Beat the heat.  They can take the cold, but not the heat, especially the sturdy dual-purpose breeds.  Give 'em shade and lots and lots of cool water (ice water if its really bad) when the temperatures are in the 90s.  They will pant and hold their wings away from their body to cool down.  When temperatures are really high, check on them often.
  4. Ventilation is KEY.  Seriously.  Summer and winter.  Even on our -8 degree F night I left their pop door open so fresh air could move through the coop and roof vent.  Ventilation ensures that moist air doesn't build up in the coop from the birds' breathing, creating conditions for disease in summer and frostbite in winter.  The importance of ventilation applies to honeybees too and I find it very interesting.  
  5. Bugs and greens are preferred foods.  They are pissed that they don't have many of them in winter. Hopefully by next winter we will have a better supply of winter greens and bugs.
  6. If you don't handle them much as chicks, they won't want to be handled as hens.  At least this bunch, which I don't mind, but its inconvenient when I need to give them once overs and health checks.  Next time around, I'll be holding the little ones more.
  7. Got mites?  Use neem oil and diatomaceous earth.  In the heat of the summer, the whole flock picked up poultry mites from wild birds.  It took some elbow grease, but I got rid of them with these 2 things.  I'll do a step-by-step post on that whole process.
  8. Keep feed fresh.  Don't buy more than you will use in a few weeks if you can help it.  If powdered bits gather at the bottom of the feeder, mix with water and they'll likely clean it up.
  9. Give them places to roost and to dust bathe.  It lets them do what chickens do as well as stay free of skin parasites.  Plus they obviously enjoy both activities.
  10. Think about what will happen when they stop laying eggs.  If you plan to keep them as pets, go ahead and name 'em.  If you plan to put them in the freezer, take great care of them, but keep some emotional distance.  
  11. If you are raising chicks, get more than you want to end up with.  A few will likely not make it.  Prepare yourself for this reality and be prepared to end the life of any of your chickens if they are suffering or putting the rest of your flock at risk of infectious disease, or have some one lined up who can do it for you.
  12. Chicken language is fascinating.  I don't know exactly what they are saying but I can understand their tones of "I'm happy", "Holy crap there's a hawk in the tree", & "I'm gonna lay an egg!"
  13. Keep them safe.  Know what predators are in your area.  Don't forget dogs.  Chicken wire keeps chickens in, not predators out.  Build their coop and run so nothing can get in and eat or kill them.   No losses to predators yet for these gals, thank goodness.
  14. Think long and hard about your waterers, because they are going to try and poop in them, no matter what you do.  I have had success with a homemade bucket waterer with poultry nipples in the summer (that gets its own post too) and a waterer with a heated base in the winter that only pops on when temps go below freezing.  
  15. Litter is a pain in the butt.  I've used pine shavings on the wooden floor of their coop and I ain't lovin' it.  Lots of poop and the labor of moving it to the compost pile.  I'll be trying new things this year...sand, deep litter, droppings boards...who knows?
  16. Don't let their run turn into a barren wasteland.  Have a composting run (that has worked for us) or 2 paddocks you alternate turning them onto so the vegetation can recover and the poop and disease organisms don't build up.
There's more, so much more, but that is a good start.  Bottom line, I enjoy them.  They are entertaining as heck to watch going about their business and their eggs taste just plain yum.  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Fence Day

 Back in November we put up a fence with the help of friends.  We needed something economical that would keep our dog in and safe.  It certainly won't keep out determined deer, racoons, or groundhogs, but we'll work on that.  So, here is how we put up our fence on 3 sides of a 1/4 acre property (house and chain link run along the 4th side)

Chris and Jason setting posts in November.  A chill was in the air this day!

Behind the chicken wire deer guard to the left are 8 new blueberry plants: Duke and Surecrop, perfect for our acidic soil.

There's my dad, tamp, tamp, tamping away.    When my folks came to visit he helped us re-tamp a few loose posts.
Bob, Chris and Jason pulling the wire tight.  

And tighter.
Working on the gate.

The gate.

And, it's a fairly tight fence, installed on a budget.  Ida is one the wrong side, silly dog.


Split black locust posts ($1 each found on craigslist)
Welded Wire Farm Fencing 4' tall (Tractor Supply)
Galvanized Fence Staples (Tractor Supply)
Gravel (we had on hand)
Metal tamper and 2 x 4s for packing posts in
Gas Powered 2 Man Auger ($70 for 1 day rental from Home Depot)
Scrap wood for gate, leftover wire fencing, galvanized hinges, bolts, and latch

So, the auger was a beast and I think we gave several friends back pain from operating it, but it did speed up the work since we had a lot of post holes to dig.   You could use a manual post hole digger as an alternative.   The trick seemed to be getting two tall, (equalish height) and strong people to operate that sucker.  We used gravel we had on hand and clay soil dug from the holes to backfill around the posts, tamping in with 2 x 4s.  Fill a little, tamp a little, repeat seemed to work best.  The posts are set at 8 feet apart.  With several friends to help, we completed the fence in a day.  For awhile, we had a raggedy piece of white plastic mesh for the "gate" but we finally put together a decent gate with scrap materials.  We are fenced!

Friday, January 17, 2014

The New Homestead

Well, I see July 19 was my last post.  Back in the saddle!  This summer Jason and I bought ourselves a little piece of heaven on a hill above the Edgar Thompson steel mill in Braddock.  A little 1/4 acre plot plus house that we like to call the homestead.  My plans for the next few years include feeding that clay clay soil with compost and cultivating a big garden and small fruit trees, amongst other things.  So, without further she is:

Home and lot from the street with shed (aka Jason's studio and wood shop)

Lot from the street.  As you can see it has a decent bit of slope.  The trees in the left corner are due south.

First order of business was to build some compost bins of course.  I'll give our step by step in another post.

The backyard

The friendly brush pile.

Setting fence posts along the back property line.

More fence posts.

More fence posts.  We went with black locust posts and welded wire farm fencing, but more on that later.

So, I'm tickled with our little spot and look forward to getting our garden on there.  The soil is clay and our soil test revealed some deficiency in phosphorus and potassium but no lead contamination.  For that, I am pleased.  Til next time! - Hannah