Sunday, February 22, 2009

Chickens + 1

Despite some of the advice from readers of this blog, I procured a rooster today. I selected a breed known for docility and good personalities: Buff Cochin. Odie, as my rooster is named (he came with the name), is a good-natured fellow. Huge, beautiful, a little slow. If my hens are velociraptors, Odie is a brontosaurus (dating myself here, they never existed). Ok, he's a lot slow.

I picked him out because he was healthy, of course, but also because I held him for 20 minutes while chatting with his owner and he never fussed or attempted to flog my face or anything. He's a lap chicken. The owner's five year old son held him. I felt safe that this particular rooster wasn't about to spur me in the back.

Cochins don't make particularly good layers, so he's definitely not for breeding the next generation of sustainable farm chicks. His purpose is to protect the hens while they free range until my Wyandotte roosters (yet to even be born) come online in the fall. Of course, his docility might limit his usefulness as a "watch rooster", but oh well. He's a good starter rooster.

And no, he doesn't crow. In fact, he's not doing much of anything like a rooster. My pullets are literally throwing themselves at his feet, the hussies, and he's parked at the feeder. (In some ways, he reminds me of Brego). After all the build up, I'm a bit disappointed.

But the poor guy came from a home where he was undoubtedly the bottom of a long pecking order, the 15th or so rooster in the bunch. So he may not even realize he is the Big Cheese, the Top Dog, the One and Only. I hope he wises up and starts doing, you know, rooster type things. If not, I'm out $10 and I will just wait until my Wyandottes come in. At nearly 9 pounds, I am sure I can find a use for him if needed.

I also have recently taken on a chicken with some use: a 7 month old Crevecoeur pullet. She lays a medium white egg and is a heritage breed. I have a soft spot for the old breeds. I am glad I could provide a good home for her, but I am definitely not into the breed. She's flighty, nervous and distracting. With her crazy head feathers, she reminds me of a manic muppet. Hard to describe...

Anyway, so that brings me up to 12 chickens. I will try to get more pictures of them soon.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Greenhouse Saturday

Work progressed on the greenhouse today. We roughed out the front and back frames of the greenhouse. Work was slowed because both sets of immediate neighbors dropped by to pet chickens, talk horses, and admire tractors.

My new tractor is the, um, least big on the street, but I won't let that stop me from digging more holes in my yard as soon as the snow melts. :)

Rear frame. A single door is left of center. Ventilation fan is will be installed right of center.

Anyway, the next steps on the greenhouse are to frame in the doors and the ventilation boxes. Then I need to put two coats of latex paint on the frames. I am still awaiting shipment on the exhaust fan and thermostat.

Front frame being built on garage floor.

Front frame completed. Double doors on center. Two exhausts will be installed on either side of the doors.

We're expecting 6 more inches of snow tomorrow so I might not install the greenhouse on site for another couple of weeks. I can still start seeds inside though, so there's no rush.

Greenhouse Theories

I've been having some good conversations offline about my farming aspirations. I've also been reading about two/three books a week, trying to stuff my brain with knowledge. So I thought I would put some of those ideas "on paper" and send it out for "peer review".

When I decided to grow produce in New Hampshire, I knew I would need a greenhouse. You know, to start seeds in the spring, or something. I didn't know that a greenhouse can actually help you to grow year round.

Most of my greenhouse inspiration comes from Eliot Coleman's Four Season Harvest. The author lives in Maine and makes the bold claim that he eats fresh greens from his garden every day of the year. WOW!

I don't want to steal the thunder from his book. I really recommend everyone buy it, if for no other reason than the man believes in sustainable food and all the good things that I tout on this blog. But his ideas go something like this: We live at a certain latitude (43 degrees) and Southern France is at the same latitude (so same amount of daylight in winter) and they have outdoor gardens year round.

In America, gardening is culturally a summer activity, but it doesn't have to be. You can plant hot-loving plants in the summer and cold-loving plants in the winter. Kales, cabbages, tubers, spinach, and winter greens thrive in the cold. They can tolerate almost a complete freeze and bounce back.

Now of course, it's colder here than Southern France, daylight or not. So you have to protect the plants with a structure, be it greenhouse or cold frame. Notice I said "protect", not "warm". Using electricity or other fuels to warm a greenhouse defeats the purpose of sustainability. Coleman maintains that each layer of "protection", be it the skin of a greenhouse or the glass of a cold frame brings the soil down by 1.5 USDA zones. So if we're in zone 8, inside the greenhouse is zone 6B and if I put cold frames *inside* in the greenhouse, the soil would be zone 5. Zone 5!! Think of the greenhouse as a windbreaker and the inside cold frames as a sweater.

So the plan this year for my greenhouse is to first, build it. I got the 12' x 24x model. I will put pavers down in the first 4' so 4' x 12' will be benched work area. Then the back 4' x 12' will be a brooder for my new layers in April (there is a back door as well). The middle 16' (or 20' when the chickens are grown out) will be for planting in the ground. I will raise hot-loving crops like peppers in the summer, which may not do as well outdoors, and I will raise cold-loving crops in the winter.

Actually, the cold-loving crops grow from Sept to Nov, I will just harvest them all year. They go dormant, but stay fresh, so I don't need to worry about cold storage. They will sit in the ground, protected by two layers of film (greenhouse skin and cold frame "tarp"), until I choose to eat them.

That's the theory.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Freeloader #1

Every farm has got them: freeloaders. Well I have more than one. I have four dogs who do nothing. And two horses, but at least the horses pay for their meals by carting my ass around. And of course the chickens provide food. I can't remember the last time one of my dogs, aka freeloaders, laid an egg.

There is one dog who reins supreme. My Pharaoh Hound. She is the most spoiled, the most entitled, the least thrifty of the four dogs. She's a princess. Period. She belongs on the human bed. It's hers, not yours. And if you make the incorrect decision to attempt to sleep in it when she, Her Royal Highness, is resting, she will give you the most withering stare you have ever seen.

She really is too good for the rest of us. She emotes condescension. And yet, she's my favorite.

Most people don't know about Pharaoh Hounds, so here's some fun facts: They are sight hounds bred to hunt rabbits. They are the national dog of Malta (of all places). They are considered rare in the US (only 150 are registered with the AKC every year). They are known for having their nose and eyes match their coat color. And they blush.

When my dog is warm, happy, and relaxed, her entire face will flush bright red. Her ears, eyes, nose and lips will stand out. It's pretty striking.

My dog's lifetime achievements include a 60 second down-stay after months of clicker training. She's a smart dog, but easily distracted, and everything is on her terms. It's all about her.

I love the dog, but she has some issues. The breed is known for skin allergies and she's got them. They were terrible in Texas and noticeably improved here. She also has the most sensitive stomach and by nature of her lack of coat, the least tolerant of cold. Of my four dogs, two are purebreds and two are "mutts". The two mutts are the healthiest by far. The two purebreds are nothing but problems. They all live in the same environment, all eat the same food (except now the Pharaoh Hound gets her meals cooked), all have the same vaccination and heart worm schedule.

My Pharaoh Hound keeps me humble.

Happy Tractor Friday!!

Happy Tractor Friday, everyone. My exciting new tractor arrived on my little farm today. I immediately set to work on the snow.

Here I am exclaiming how awesome my tractor is.

Our first full bucket of snow.

Next I went to work consolidating our manure pile. I had to "plow" a road around to the back of the barn. Fun, but I accidently dug a few craters in the lawn. Oops. Then I got to the pile and started moving it from one spot to another, better spot, about 10 feet away. Very important work. That was a lot of fun until I found a really big rock that absolutely, positively had to pulled out of the ground immediately. Luckily, I had my tractor.

Zeroing in on the nasty rock that must be removed. Now.

The terrible rock in question. Notice how strong and awesome my tractor's bucket loader is. And spacious!

So far, after 1.5 hours of use, I am most pleased with my Big Strong Tractor. The worst part about it is that there's no more work for me to do with it. *sigh*

P.S. Calling my new tractor "small" is like saying Brego looks good in his "pink" blanket.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Long Year

It's been a long year since I left Texas. Wow, a whole year already. I don't miss it a bit.

Ok, maybe I miss two friends a bit, but I talk to one on the phone every couple of days. And I miss good Mexican food, the kind that will clog your arteries without the slightest remorse.

But other than that, I am in love with my new world. Of course, as I look out the window on this dark February night, I see it's snowing. Again.

Oh, good farm news. The rest of my seeds will come next week. The rest until I order more, of course, because I now know twice as much as I did when I ordered the first batch (which is to say, I still don't know very much).

And tomorrow is TRACTOR FRIDAY!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Greenhouse Monday

Today was supposed to be Tractor Monday. Unfortunately, the tractor still needs to have the loader put on by the dealer so it won't be ready until the end of the week. I am so ridiculously excited about the tractor.

But I am also pretty excited about the greenhouse so instead of practicing my mad skillz on the manure pile today with my new 'tor, I worked on greenhouse assembly.

I ordered the greenhouse from a little place in New Hampshire (local is good) and went and picked up the kit on Saturday. I had to take a minor detour into Vermont to visit my favorite brewery (local AND environmentally conscious) but that's only part of what made the day so great. We also stopped at a Cabot Creamery (local and delicious) outlet and bought a pound of Vermont cheese. But wait! There's even more!

(Just a small aside: I drove through Woodstock, Vermont, and was completely blown away by its beauty. When I win the lottery, I am so moving to Woodstock, Vermont. It is quite possibly the most perfect little town in the whole country. *sigh* I love Vermont.)

Finally, back in New Hampshire, we arrived to pick up the greenhouse and I was very impressed with the display model. I went with an econo model and I was worried that the materials would be shoddy. Oh no, the greenhouses are top notch. What makes them so affordable is that I provide the labor! The kit comes with the ribs and film and detailed plans and then I provide the foundation, the framing for the end walls, and the labor to cut and assemble the pieces.

So today was Greenhouse Monday, aka Cutting day. It took me four hours of work, in sunny mid-thirties weather, to measure and cut about 150 individual pieces of wood to the specified dimensions. I used a table saw for ripping, a miter saw for nice 90 degree cuts to length, and a jig saw for the curved bits.

An hour's work, with pieces marked for easy assembly later.

On a sunny day, a driveway works better than a shop.

Frame assembly begins on Wednesday with paint following soon after. I need the tractor to clear the snow from the final site as well as light grading, so that will likely wait until next weekend.

I cannot recommend this greenhouse manufacturer more. The owners were super helpful and accommodating. The plans are easy to follow. If you have the tools already and a modicum of ability not to cut your fingers off, you can't beat the price for the quality of the finished product.

Showdown at the Homestead

It's been awhile since our rafter of wild turkeys came through. Since we before we got the chickens at least. I've seen their tracks out in the woods, but since November, they've left the horses, the pasture, and the copious manure alone.

So when the horses went rigid with alert and looked off into the woods, I reached for two things: a big stick and my camera. From the safety of my house, I watched one of the strangest displays of animal interaction.

Once the horses realized the turkeys were back, they resumed munching on their lunch hay at the top of the ridge. The chickens, my ten little pullets, were congregating in the pasture near the water trough, picking through the morning's manure. I watched as the 12 or so turkeys slowly made their way down the hill, past the horses, getting closer and closer to my chickens.

Now, if you've never met a chicken, you might be surprised to know that they are omnivores, meaning they eat everything. Even another chicken if it's sick or dying. They are ferocious little velociraptors which lay delicious eggs. But pity anything small that crosses their path: mice, snakes, smaller birds, etc. They will kill and eat anything they can swallow.

I had always assumed turkeys are the same way. So it was a firm grip on my big stick that I watched the turkeys, ready to sprint out and save my hens if they happened to look like a turkey snack.

As the horses looked on, a turkey hen and one of my big Rhode Island Reds finally squared off. They stared at each other, immobile. Everything was on high alert. The horses paused with mouths full of hay. My ten pullets stood perfectly immobile. The turkeys paused, assessing the "newcomers" on their land.

After about 30 seconds, the birds (chickens and turkeys) started moving again, warily circling each other. My lone dominant hen was being circled by turkeys as the other 9 pullets crowded together in a tight ball. It seems they would not attack on sight, but there was still some maneuvering going on. Bored, Brego went back to eating his hay.

But the strangest thing happened. Hobby, the old TB mare, came down the hill and started circling around to get between the turkeys and the chickens. Then she slowly moved the turkeys back up the hill and out of the pasture. Now, I don't think Hobby even likes the chickens, but perhaps she likes the turkeys less. Regardless, the chickens brooded under Hobby as she moved the turkeys off, until they were out of sight, and then resumed their little chicken activities.

Hobby went back to the hay and peace settled across the land.

The turkeys came through twice more that day, but they stayed out of the pasture, walking right along the fence line. Hobby had won the day.

Pictures (terrible quality, but interesting)

Lone dominant pullet (center), surrounded by turkeys. The other pullets are clustered on the right behind the tree.

Turkeys circling.

Beginning of encounter, the pullets have not grouped together yet.

Monday, February 9, 2009

You Can Fill A Book, A Lot of Books, With Things I Don't Know

First, the good things. I got eight eggs from my lovely hens today. That's a big deal because it means that one of my young Australorp pullets is laying. The Australorps, all three of them, were younger than the Rhode Island Reds by a month. So if one of them is coming online, it means the other two are not far behind and then all ten of the hens will be in production. And not a moment too soon.

I have started phasing some of my more sensitive dogs off of store-bought poultry. My Pharaoh Hound was just not the same after the possible bleach incident. So now she gets cooked eggs, rice, egg shells and vitamins. And the Dachshund who just had surgery and is on antibiotics is also on cooked eggs right now. Remind me sometime to rant about how vets don't understand the role of diets in overall health.

But anyway, I need all the eggs I can get so I am happy that the younger hens are finally maturing.

Also, the tractor was reserved today. I am refinancing the farm on Friday (yay for low low rates!), so I am loathe to put money down, but they are holding it for me on their word (I love small towns). Which means that President's Day is also going to be.... TRACTOR MONDAY!!!!

Finally, I've been reading all the gardening books I ordered and, it turns out, there's lots of good information in them. Good information that I wish I knew before I ordered seeds. Like there's cold weather and warm weather strains of veggies and you can have a succession harvest if you plant the right one at the appropriate time. D'uh, it seems so obvious, except if you're a complete neophyte such as myself.

But no matter, I can order more seeds. I am particularly interested in the information in Eliot Coleman's Four Season Harvest. Mr. Coleman lives in Maine which just might be colder than where I am, and he has fresh greens for salad every day of the year. There is a man to emulate. So I am much inspired.

I am also pouring over this great chicken website Funder provided. It has some fascinating information about growing your own chicken feed, which fits in well with the sustainable theme I am working on here. It also has information about breeding your sustainable flock. So I think I am adding "chicken food harvest" to my five year goals sometime in phase 3.

Things are picking up. In four short weeks I will have a tractor, a green house erected, and seeds started. I will be finalizing my garden plan and rotation log and when that is done, I will post it for all the smart people who read my blog to critique and enhance. I am counting on the collective here to get me through this year!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Winter's Farmer Market

It's been a crazy week. Heavy work, a dog needing surgery (she's fine now), and lots of research for the farm. But I took some time out to head to the Winter's Farmer Market in Exeter, NH. Exeter is a gorgeous New England town and the perfect backdrop to purchase yummy sustainable meats, about 20 lbs of potatoes (for eating and seed). We also scored some fresh seeded bread and a tub of pork lard. Yes. Lard. I am so excited.

As I got through Coop Extension Fact Sheets, I am discovering the painful truth of how much I don't know. Gardening it technical and hard to communicate through the static pages of a book. There are so many different ideas and opinions about methodologies (not unlike riding). So I have come to the obvious conclusion that my first year garden will most likely be more of an experiment than a food source. That's the way it is, of course, but I tend to be the kind of person who does it 100% or not at all.

So I have to reconcile the learning curve and so I have a couple idea of phases:

Year 1:
Raise layers and meat birds (heritage birds) shipped to me as chicks. Process the birds myself.
Get soil tested and come up with plan for improvement.
Plant all the varieties of seeds I am interested in, as best as I can manage, and observe and learn.
Chart eating habits.
Study up on diseases, rotation, and New Hampshire specific climate.

Year 2:
Raise replacement chickens from my heritage bird flock, striving for a self-sustaining population.
Get soil tested and track improvement, if any.
Plant the varieties of vegetables that worked well, replace the ones that didn't.
Based upon previous year's eating habits, make sure to plant enough of the food we want to eat.
Experiment with intensive gardening.

Year 3:
Refine heritage bird flock for free-range hardiness, laying ability, and meat. Possibly look into two distinct sustainable flocks.
Get soil tested and track improvement, trending towards high organic content.
So on and so on.

Raising/growing/bartering or 70% of our perishable food is a five year goal and I think it will take all five years to get there. But that sort of education is priceless, so I have to accept the losses and inefficiency of learning. Every step forward is progress, the key is not to be overwhelmed by my ignorance.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Farm Planning Scene

You can tell a lot about people by the stuff they leave around.

You can tell almost everything there is to know about me by this picture, but I will fill in some details.

After a brief fantasy of considering Brego fit for plow work, I decided to get a tractor. My neighbor has a New Holland and I am going to get one similar to his so I can mooch off his implements. Ahhh, sweet mooching...

Also, we got the first of our seeds in the mail today from a little place over in Vermont. The greenhouse has been selected and ordered. We're going for a cheapo model ($500) that will probably only last a few seasons but we will now much more about what we need and we can upgrade. We are getting the 12' x 20' model. And I can do the grading for the greenhouse with my new tractor!!!

Anyway, I've been getting some really good advice on gardening from some special readers, you know who you are, and I have been investigating as much of the NH Coop Extension as I can stand. Everything is coming together!

(Nerd alert: Yes, that's my MacBook Pro. And yes, that's some java code. And yes, that is LOTR playing on my comp while I code while I surf I am person of uncompromising depth.)