Dreaming of Warmth and Beauty

Splendid, Silent Sun

Give me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-dazzling;
Give me juicy autumnal fruit, ripe and red from the orchard;
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows;
Give me an arbor, give me the trellis’d grape;
Give me fresh corn and wheat–give me serene-moving animals, teaching content;
Give me nights perfectly quiet, as on high plateaus west of the Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars;
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers, where I can walk undisturb’d;”

~From Give Me the Splendid, Silent Sun by Walt Whitman

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Something New

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This week we got to try out something new: putting in our own insulation.

Because of the lack of insulation in the chicken barn rafters, we’ve gone through a whole lot more propane this winter than we had hoped. Thus about a month ago (when the deep winter cold hit and that propane meter started spinning wildly at both barns) Mark looked into getting some proper insulation above the ceiling (originally passed on due to finances during construction).

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He settled on this blown in sort called “greenfiber” that looks like mouse nesting material packed into 19 lb blocks. These blocks get ground up on site and then blown into the space intended via a long hose.

We had to wait several weeks for the arrival of the shipping truck, which finally came yesterday (Saturday): 7980 lbs of insulation ready to go. Happily they unloaded it for us with funky three-wheeled forklift contraption.

Sunday we got busy figuring things out. In the morning we rolled out of bed, grabbed a bit of apple-walnut bread and milk on the go, and crunched across the beautifully crystalized field well bundled in winter attire.

Mark and Jacinto (a friend hired to help out this winter) fed the hose up into the rafters from the outside, then Mark and a kiddo (they took turns being the attic helper) climbed up the 12 feet of ladder inside the barn to get started. With the go ahead given, I flipped the silver switch and me and the kids began breaking off and feeding in the big clumps of insulation for the machine to chew up and spit out as intended.We spent about an hour with the initial set up and testing it all out; everyone took a turn with feeding the growly barrel machine, then Miriam and Matthias went home for a break while I fed the machine and Mariel and Miles took turns either cutting open blocks for me or helping Mark up in the rafters.

Soon the coats were cast aside, our gloves looked like furry lint collectors, and we were dusted head to toe with gray fluff. After a little over two hours keeping a steady stream of fluff flowing up the tube the kids traded places again and we continued without  a pause (except when the hose blew off for a moment and painted a swath of grass gray). By a little after noon Mark had successfully, filled about 1/3 of the barn attic floor with about 6 inches of pulpy insulation.

We moved the machine and the continued on a new stack of bags as the older kids got started. We used the lull for me to have a few minutes in the rafters with Mark so I could see the filling in action, and try my hand at it at the same time. It’s pretty cool watching a shower of gray tufts piling up between the joists and cross pieces.Three of us then left Mark and the older kids to continue while we went home to relax and drink something hot and comforting, and teach the eager Miles how to fry eggs for lunch.

It was simple, relatively dull work, but I still lifted 1539 lbs over 4 hours and didn’t get to enjoy my first cup of coffee until 12:30. (Which basically is my definition of torture. ;)) On my second cup now and enjoying it immensely.

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Matthias and Miriam, in their two hours of steady loading lifted 1425 lbs between them! All four kids did great, as usual. Jacinto, who had been measuring eave spacing for boarding up the edges, then took their place.

Stalwart Mark voluntarily continued in blowing in more insulation for the rest of the afternoon, both face mask and determination fixed firmly in place. He spent a solid 9.5 hours up there with no breakfast, no lunch, and no breaks. He came home ashen-hued and covered in gray fluff and took us all out to Wendy’s as soon as he’d showered. ❤

This job will probably consume most of the next few days, but we’re looking forward to lower propane bills and cozier chickens.

There is always something new to learn on a farm!

A New Canine Era

A day of puppies.

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And so begins a new canine era for us on the farm with the addition of two of these Anatolian/Great Pyrenees mix puppies.

Meet little Aragorn and Legolas (held by Matthias and Miriam).

Why puppies now?

Because they are intended to be livestock guard dogs who live with their herd (be that goats, sheep, CHICKENS, cows…) and protect them day and night from prowling predators while remaining loyally gentle to the associated creature family with which they are raised.

Anatolians are an ancient Turkish breed (quite interesting) and will grow to be 90-150 lbs. They are supposed to be sweet and independent working dogs who will live out in their pastures and defend their flocks. And we certainly have varmints for them to ward off!

The kids don’t care so much about their purpose: they are just so excited to have puppies and a chance at good farm dogs. 🙂

Note: only TWO of these adorable balls of fur are going to call our pastures home. The other two are being held for a friend who also has livestock. 🙂

 

My Life with Chickens

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Every little girl dreams of the day when she will grow up and meet her fabled farmer on his trusty, rusty tractor, and ride off into the sunset with him to the land of chickens, eggs, and feathered dreams come true.

Wait, that’s not how it goes?

You’re right, it wasn’t like that for me either.

Nevertheless it’s the Happily Ever After I am living. And I’m glad it is…but it wasn’t always so.

As mentioned before, I grew up all over the country and traveled a lot in between. But my love of animals, nature, solitude, and stubbornly independent ways altered little from age two.

me-with-ducksAs a little girl in southern California I loved being taken to the agriculture section of the local college, because I could see all the animals the students were working with and help out wherever they let me. As a preschooler I spent a lot of time in my tropical backyard with a bucket, grubbing snails to bring over to our neighbor’s white duck, Webster. Yes, these suburbanites had a duck in their backyard, a rabbit living in their tub, a pet rat in their attic, and a wall of reptiles in their teenager’s bedroom: they were a family after our own heart. Said Webster adored snails and would gobble them gratefully, while the neighbors themselves would always chat with me and my cousin and once even let us eat one of their duck eggs. It was my very first taste of fresh eggs.

img_20170220_224451650We quickly outgrew our west coast suburban era and moved across the country to 20 acres in New Hampshire, where I fell in love with all things wild and wonderful. Sometimes we visited a nearby farm where a sweet turkey named Emma resided. She was a calm bird and patiently suffered my kindergarten affection. We hadn’t yet had any of our own farmyard birds (My short-lived little parakeet that ended in the paws of a kitty didn’t really count).

But one autumn as I rambled I heard the strangest sound echoing down the country road. The only thing I could think of was that it sounded as if a lone rooster were crowing somewhere, even though we knew our neighbor’s didn’t have chickens. No one believed me until later that evening, when a handsome young cockerel came striding up the long driveway with all the purpose of a bird intending to stay. He did, and we named him Clementine. He was beautiful, with reddish-gold plumage and a glorious white tail.

He was our pet until he decided he was cock of the walk and began to make our lives miserable, both for me (age 6.5) and for my little sister (age 3.5). We had to play everywhere with a solid stick in hand, lest the feathered beast attack while we were out romping. This was a big downside to our first chicken, and for a while there we lived in terror of his beady eyes and sharp beak. One afternoon he set upon me on the long grassy lawn, and I took off as fast as I could to escape him. In the flight I lost a shoe. When I was out of range and catching my breath, I came to my senses. No dumb bird should have the power to scare me like that and make me lose my shoe! I turned right around and went after that bird with a rage and a will and probably gave that wicked rooster the fright of his life. His reign of terror ended then and there; he never chased me again.

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Furthermore, we were friends. I wasn’t afraid of him anymore, and I could scoop him up whenever I wanted and stroke his sleek feathers and generally trundle him about on my wanderings. I was able to save even some adults from his attacks in the future, including rescuing one comical young marine who was positively terrified of our feathery guard fowl. We let Clementine in the house sometimes and I remember him fondly. I even saved enough money from cleaning his chicken shed to buy my first pocket knife, which earned him a permanent place in my heart. I was sad when he had to go to live on another farm. Even more so when a friend let slip that that farm placement probably included a one way trip to someone’s oven. Gulp.

When I was 7 we also experienced the fun of having a small flock of Musgovy ducks on our pond, and we were graced with periodic sojourns by Canadian geese and blue herons. Whenever we visited my Chesapeake Bay grandparents I spent a lot of time on the docks, communing with the white ducks that waddled by the water. I loved pretty much any creature I came across.

When I was 8 we moved to Florida, and there was a lull in my barnyard fowl experiences. We caught lots of wild birds and tried to save fallen nestlings, but that’s not quite the same thing. When I was 10 we went on up to North Carolina, where life was more about rabbits, horses, and goats than birds. But when I was 12 we bought a 350 acre farm up in western West Virginia and my country dreams really began to come true.

img_20170221_221803886One of the many experiences of this new farm life was having our own chickens and raising our own meat birds for the freezer. My Dad built a clever raised chicken run, and a little chicken house with a door that opened behind the nests for easy egg collecting. At first I really enjoyed collecting the eggs and naturally we gave all of our chickens names. Our handsome rooster was called Rhett Butler, a pretty Rhode Island Red was Scarlett, a plump black and white Barred Rock hen was Mammy, and so on and so forth according to whatever story or movie theme we thought of at the time. I soon found that cleaning the houseful of messy birds was kind of an icky chore, but I liked the novelty of having our very own laying chickens.

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Then came the mail ordered chicks. They came in a box of fluffy, downy cuteness and we snuggled and petted and named as many as we could. They started yellow but soon turned white, and grew so fast they struggled to walk properly. One named Skittles was injured by our rooster, and we separated it for recovery. Resting in the knowledge that Skittles was safe and unharmed, my sister and I sat down to dinner that night only to be hit with the shock that our chicken dinner was in fact our sweet Skittles. It was more than a little hard to swallow, even though we knew that was the end of our meat bird all along. I never felt the same about eating chicken after that, especially after seeing the butchering process from afar. But it was very enlightening and we were glad we were having the old fashioned experiences, even if some of them were sad. Only my brave cousin dared to be involved in the actual dispatching, which earned him a hilarious story in the annals of our family but gave him an experience he didn’t really want to repeat for a good while.

On our next farm we kept our hens but took a break from butchering meat chickens, and instead added ducklings to the menagerie. Not our first, but certainly great fun to keep around our pond, in company with the big gray goose we called “Hissy.” The goose had adopted us voluntarily, though she remained aloof as a pet and prone to pecking.

We had fun entering our prized fowl in the county fair, and racked up ribbons of all sorts with our barnyard menagerie. But in all the muck and feathers and mess and day to day slogging between farm chores and birds, my joy in chickens began to wane markedly. By the time we moved to the suburbs after 10th grade, I decided that I was done with poultry altogether, and the nastiness of chickens in particular. They were just too disgusting to mess with. Never again, said I, never again.

Never say never in life, folks.

Then I met this boy. A boy who loved the country and was as smart as they come. A boy who noticed me, miraculous as that seemed. A boy with more than a pocketful of innovative dreams of his own. And he swept me off my feet and on into a lifetime of adventure.

After college and six brief moves later we landed in Illinois with a one year old, a two week old, and a one acre house of dreams nestled between a small farm to the south, a country neighborhood to the west and north, and a cornfield stretching off to the east. It was the perfect haven to start our life of raising littles, a family which soon grew to four darling rascals under 4 with about a million diapers in between. We explored, gardened, fixed up our nearly 90 year old farm house (this guy of mine is incredibly handy), let the munchkins climb trees and come home wild and happy with purple hands and feet from munching mulberries straight out of the shrubbery.

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Finally, we branched out into mini-homesteading; a dream near and dear to our hearts since day one. We got a milk cow and rabbits and a pony; made butter and ice cream and cheese. And in all that country fun I realized that really, we had room for chickens. Even if I didn’t like them. Even if the thought of them was still pretty gross. I know I said never again, but…it was a new era. And there was all that room for birds to roam…all that wonderful foraging. There was that little shed just right for small animals. And the thought of fresh eggs. What a neat experience it would be for the kids to have chicks of their own. I could face chickens again, right? So I broached the subject, and Mark readily agreed.

First came sweet little chicks peeping in our palms. Then came chickens peeking in our doors and perching on our deck and trying to share our outdoor breakfasts. (Not to mention the pony that climbed the steps to eat our bagels and the cow that came to drink out of our little pool.) Next came scraggly adolescent roosters gargling their attempts at crowing that sounded more like strangled goats and woke us way too early. And then came eggs. Dozens and dozens of farm fresh beauties that the kiddos helped to wash and with which we could make so many fun things.

chick-hatchingMark soon had designed his own incubator from a plastic tote bin and a humidifier, and we were hatching our own little balls of fluff with our preschoolers and kindergarteners in wide-eyed and joyful participation. It was messy, but so much fun to introduce the homesteading life to our kids.

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The next year we bought lots of ducklings and fully enjoyed their splashing antics and cute ways before they, too, ended up in our freezer. It was truly an experience. And we realized, this one acre bit of land just wasn’t enough for all we wanted to do.

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So we moved to Oklahoma and settled into a little green house on 54 acres with a gorgeous creek running along the side of the property. And set about exploring our new world and making it home. Of course, within 4 days of arrival we bought a nanny goat and her darling kid. We just couldn’t help ourselves. One month later we bought 15 calves to raise. A month after that we bought 4 piglets. 6 months after that we added some ducks and chickens. And then a phalanx of gobbling, gorgeous (and yes, troublesome) turkeys.

Yeah, we rarely do anything in half measures. That is both a blessing and a curse, believe me!

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We worked on raising our pigs into our own pork on the one hand, and mama pigs for the future of the farm on the other hand. The same with our heifers and the steers. We finally made it to the point of having enough critters to start selling pork and beef locally, a huge step forward. And we spent a few months helping out with friends’ houseful of new laying hens, spending our mornings surrounded by birds and eggs. It was a really neat and informative experience.

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And the idea was planted. We could so this too, couldn’t we? And so we started the ball rolling, spending the better part of 2016 making it a reality: adding 10,000 pastured laying hens to the property with the goal of Mark being able to farm full time rather than just part time. Thus began an intense year of making things ready for those birds to have a home and fenced land on which to forage.

miles-with-chickenMe, who 16 years ago never wanted to own chickens again, who used to even think of them with a shudder. I never in my wildest dreams imagined we would own two barns full of clucking, fluttering birds, and walk through them every day, helping to collect 9,500 eggs, spending our days surrounded by feathers and wings and beady eyes! But life changes, and sometimes your priorities change, too. You see things differently and with a lot more clarity than you did as a kid. And understand more fully the purpose behind the choices that you make. So it has been for me. (God certainly has a sense of humor!)

These chickens are really rather amazing and interesting creatures (despite their inherently flighty, dirty, brainless ways), and we’re really enjoying learning how to enlarge our plans from small flock husbandry to large flock husbandry. They are a beautiful bunch of birds and I must admit to having had dozens of pleasant one-way chats with them, their bright beady eyes fixed on me, heads cocked, clucking in curiosity. Their silly ways amuse us often and they even flutter onto us when we are working with the feeding and watering equipment. I think I’ve come around full circle.

Most importantly, they have been a wonderful means to an end. Mark is now well and truly a full time farmer. Harried and busy and tired, perhaps, but doing what he’s been wanting to do for a long time. Best of all, it’s something we all get to do as a family: continuing to grow our farm and include our children in this future together.

With chickens.

Lots and lots of chickens.

If that’s not happily ever after I don’t know what is.

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Fence Engineering At Work

Mark has been putting together a pretty cool device this winter to make rolling out fence wire a whole lot easier. It utilizes the tractor a lot better and eliminates much of the awkward hefting and rolling of the 270 lb rolls by us. (We’re fans of that.)

He cut and welded all the pieces from existing metal and piping on the property, and only had to purchase a winch and weld it to the back of the tractor. Before purchasing the winch, he had a total of $7 in the project. A fence unrolling device at Tractor Supply is $400, and you still have to heave the roll up yourself.

We’re pretty pleased with how it works, and naturally, I think it’s pretty ingenious. And with 10,000 feet of fencing left to accomplish with this chicken project, we’ll take all the engineering applications we can get!

Grading on the Curve

After a little bit of delay, we have now added our latest numbers for the birds.  We are now completing week 25, so we put the data as the week 26 measurement.  As can be seen, we are pretty much perfectly in line now with the Hyline recommended body weight for their age.  It took about a 4 week period to get them up to where they needed to be, which was accomplished by giving them full feed.  At week 20 or so, they were backed off to 6 feedings a day.  4 of the feedings are in the morning as they wake up.  This helps them to synchronize to begin laying.   The last two feedings are in the afternoon.  Currently, about 90% of our eggs are coming before 10:00, with the last 10% coming before noon.

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Bird Weights in House 1

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Bird Weights in House 2

Because it took 4 weeks to get them to the recommended weights, they did not begin to lay as early as was possible.  As of last week, they were in the 80% range, and in the past two days, they have reached 90% lay.  This is in line with an age of 22 weeks, and confirms some of our assumptions about body development and the relationship it has with egg laying.   Although we had been recommended to push them with light stimulation to get them to peak faster, we decided to delay it due to the immaturity of the birds.  We believe this will pay dividends throughout the cycle by maintaining peak longer with less stress to the birds, and less drop off in production and egg quality later.  Furthermore, in looking at the literature, Hyline only has the birds at 14 1/2 hours of light at 25 weeks, but expects 95% production.  Clearly 17 hours of light is not necessary to get them to peak!  Maybe they peak faster with more light stimulation, but it seems right now that the key to peak production and longevity of the birds is proper bird physiological development.  This of course is logical and obvious, but it is nice to see the numbers bearing it out.

The next thing to watch is with the colder weather, they will be eating more.  So, we want to feed enough to maintain their body heat and egg production, continue their development, but not cause them to gain too much fat and excess weight.  Until now, the birds have been able to easily keep a good 60-70 degree temperature in the houses.  However, with it dropping to 13 the past two nights, the houses are getting cooler, down to about 50-55.  Hopefully our two propane tanks on order with the gas company will make it here soon.  Then we will be able to manage their comfort so that their feed consumption can be utilized solely in body development and egg production and not heat generation as well.

Times are A-Changin’

So, after being busy with concrete pouring, fencing, cooler room building, electrical work, bin scale setup, and general busyness, I am getting to my next installment of bird weights.  In the link below, I have updated the data from all three collection dates, 10/13, 10/21, and 10/31, and summarized it.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B2yjgWg0dDmvYjVYa0tKd1VCMjg

In the short version:

1.  Our bird weights are coming closer to Hyline targets
2. We checked our bird uniformity to Hyline specs in 2 different ways
3. Our lightest birds are now about on target for light stimulation
4. We will begin adjusting our light schedule to start stimulating egg production

In the long version:

Summary of Our Data

Below is the chart of our bird weights vs Hyline targets.  As can be seen, our birds are gaining weight quickly and are, on average, approaching the Hyline target for their age.  (Calculating this required creating a table for the Hyline targets, and interpolating the data to obtain the target for the days that we measured the birds, but that’s another story)  This has been one of our main objectives to ensure that the birds have developed properly before subjecting them to the stress of laying.  We want them to maintain good body condition throughout the duration of the laying cycle, for both their good and ours. (Healthy birds are productive birds)

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As can be seen, our average weight reached the light stimulation target last week.  However, at that time about 50% of our birds were below the target weight.  If we had begun stimulation at that time, then half the population would have been too small.   This begins to get into the idea of uniformity, which I will talk about here.

Uniformity

Just because the average bird is doing well, it does not mean that we are necessarily doing a good job.  You see, one of the objectives of animal husbandry is to manage your livestock in such a way that even animals that may be weaker can thrive and be productive.  Instead of forcing animals to compete for food, allowing bullies to grow and the weak to fall behind, you feed spread out so that all and have access.  You vaccinate so that you ensure that all can overcome diseases.  You provide enough space so that animals aren’t stressed and pick on others.  Or, in this case, you wait until lighter birds are fully developed before pushing them into production. In these ways, you minimize waste, maximize productivity, and ultimately, have healthier animals.

If you have a group of animals, you will have some lighter, and some smaller in the population.  This is called a distribution.  If you are measuring weigh in a group of animals, a normal distribution is one where most of the animals are near the average weight, and fewer are really heavy and really light.  This is shown below.

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The more that the population is peaked in the middle, the more uniform the population.  This is desirable, as it means the animals will respond consistently as a group.  So, how do you measure uniformity?  Hyline describes two methods below:

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Its a lot of math and calculation, but I have attached are the tables I used for calculating my uniformity using both methods.
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As can be seen, according to the +/- 10% of the average, my bird percentiles fall within this range.  However, in calculating CV%, I am between 60-70% variation, which is worse than a target of 90%.  However, both measures have improved over time, demonstrating that the variation that exists is largely due to the lack of uniformity from when the birds arrived.

Further analysis
So, how are our birds doing for light stimulation? The minimum target weight is about 49 oz.  According to my data,.more 90% of my birds are now heavier than this minimum..  This is good news!  Even my weakest birds should now be able to begin laying.

Bottom Line
Thus far, my birds have been on 12 hours of light.  It is time to begin increasing the light that our birds are exposed to.  Starting this evening, we added 15 minutes in the evening, and we will add 15 more in the morning.  Then in a couple of days, we will push it again in the same way.  This will get us to 13 hours of light.  We will continue this process until they reach full stimulation (16 hours) by 30 weeks of age.  Eggs have already begun to be laid.  With the added light stimulation, this should increase rapidly.  We are now egg farmers!  Times are a-changin’!

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Initial thoughts on minimum ventilation

So, here is a story problem:
If farmer Mark has 10,000 chickens, how often do the fans need to run in his chicken house at night? Assumptions: 17 week old birds, divided into 2 houses. You have 6 available 54 inch fans. Temperature outdoors is 45 degrees.

Answer:
The purpose of running the fans at low outdoor temperatures is not to cool the birds. We are operating in what is known as “Minimum Ventilation Mode.” The purpose is to remove the moisture that the birds put into the litter and maintain air quality. High moisture produces ammonia, which is what gives chicken litter its characteristic smell. This is bad for the birds, and is bad for me, as it represents a loss of nitrogen nutrition which I will recycle later when using the litter as fertilizer.

So, how much moisture am I producing? Looking at our handy dandy chicken specification tables (which come with our birds) you can see that our 17 week old birds should consume between 125 – 164ml, or 3-4 gallons/100. So, my birds will consume about 150 -200 gallons per house per day. See the attached table or go to:http://www.hyline.com/aspx/products/productinformation.aspx

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So, now how do I remove that moisture? The folks at the University of Georgia are pretty much the premier researchers into poultry, and have set up a useful site called, memorably, poultryventilation.com. It can get pretty complicated, as you need to determine the volume of air moving into the house, and determining how much water that air can hold. This depends on air temperature and humidity. But, in this article, they break it down into a useful rule of thumb shown in the table below.https://www.poultryventilation.com/…/files/tips/2011/vol23n…

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Here’s the rub. I dont have 36″ fans, I have 54 inch fans. So how do I compare? Well, you find out the performance of your fans based on independent lab testing. Researchers at the University of Illinois test agricultural fans and publish the results. Here is the website:
http://bess.illinois.edu/.

 

My fans are Bess # 77-0175. Their performance is found here:
http://bess.illinois.edu/pdf/15336.pdf

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(On a side note, I selected my fans based on these performance values compared to cost and future costs for electricity and purchase cost)
Since my barn will be fairly shut up when its cold, the static pressure will be about 0.1 inches of water. So my fans will move 26500 cubic feet per minute, or roughly 3 times as much as one of their assumed 36″ fans that move 9000 cfm.

So, at 60F, my rate needs to be 20*2/3*1.5=20 seconds out of a 5 minute cycle.

This is a rough estimate. I need to finalize setting up my sensors to get a better reading on my static pressure, temperatures, and humidity in the house. More data will help optimize my houses for best bird and human comfort and performance.

 

Many Feathered Ventures

A year ago we had the opportunity to see a pastured egg business go into production from nearly the ground up, via friends in the area. It was a fascinating process to watch, but we were doubly interested because we liked the idea of expanding our farm with chickens. Up until now our efforts have mostly involved hogs, cows, and turkeys. We are continuing to broaden and deepen our ability to raise the fist two, but we have also been on the lookout for ways to both put more of our land to good use and to work toward bringing our little homestead closer to our dream of full fledged farming. Needless to say, we followed their saga avidly.

In the fall, we had the privilege of getting to help out with their first few months of hen checking and egg collecting. It was amazing to see, and such a neat experience for all of us to have. (Our kids now have some mad egg stacking skills, let me tell you.) We began to take the idea really seriously, and by December were intentionally pursuing the option to expand our farm business from just pork and steak to include eggs…lots and lots of eggs.

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It took a little longer that we had hoped to get all the legalities settled, but now that ball is well and truly rolling.

Come September 27, 2016, we should have 10,000 pullets delivered to our farm. And boy, we have to be ready! It’s exciting, and scary, and pretty neat, too.

We have our loans squared away and signed, and a contract with Vital Farms to get two chicken barns built and operating and work on fencing about 26 acres into rotating grazing pens for the little hens to roam.

We will care for and manage the flocks of chickens and collect the pastured eggs for the company to come and collect, and of course, get paid by the dozen. It’s going to be a very busy 6 months as we build, plan, and put in new fencing. This will be followed by collecting eggs several times a day as we train the young hens to use their nests and then tuck them them in at night lest they become midnight snacks for the wildlife. (Okay, it’s going to be insane for awhile.) We envision a lot of our school time involving hanging out in egg rooms this year.

IMG_20160605_105436205The dirt work began at the beginning of the summer and with it the feeling that this crazy venture was really underway. The kids were delighted to see mountains of earthwork rise from the fields, and immediately set to digging tunnels and making stake fences.

The new driveway, turnaround circle, and building pads are finished. We have a brand new well dug across the field in what will be our chicken world, with 10-15 gallons of water per minute.

We’re now seeing the posts in for the two barns, 2 attached egg rooms (egg collection areas), and a separate egg storage building, with form boards set for concrete and header boards up as well. A work order has been submitted to get electrical lines hooked up to the area. It’s really happening.

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Mark is rarely indoors anymore, as he is out and about collecting supplies and setting up tasks for each succeeding phase of construction. In between he is working on the buildings themselves or running equipment. He’s out just after sunrise and well beyond sunset most days. Our crew is small but their foreman is a friend, and that is working out so well.

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The kids and I mostly just have to hold down the fort, but we get to help with small tasks and are usually out for several hours in the evening (often very late evenings), helping with making and marking measurements and other little things, or simply keeping Mark company while the kids run wild with the fireflies. We spent the Fourth of July out there with sparklers while Mark was busy with the buildings, and it was lovely.

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In short, we are on our way to being chicken farmers and very much looking forward to our feathery future.

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Four Pigs and a Plan

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Our first spring here in Oklahoma was beautiful, magical, and inspiring. It was our first time owning an entire farm, and the possibilities tingled in our veins.

We moved in as the world began to thaw, so grateful to be in a more southern clime. After unloading our moving truck together we left all of our boxes in the carport for a time and chose to live simply out of our suitcases for a few months. During this time we got busy setting up our country home. We painted and painted and set up shelving all around the walls–because let’s face it, we own too much stuff and about a thousand books too many.

But in the midst of unpacking, on a bit of land criss-crossed by dilapidated fences, isn’t the best time to begin adding to your farmyard hopes and dreams. We thought we would wait a tad before acquiring animals, recover from moving, get really set up and all of that. Take it slow, right? Very sensible.

Umm…yeah…that resolution lasted about 24 hours.

Exactly four days after we moved in, the lure of livestock won out and Mark brought home our first family goat on Valentine’s Day, 2014. (Naturally, we named her Valentine.)

And so it began.

With boxes still littering our world we added two feeder calves, then 13 more, tried to keep our half-grown golden retrievers from demolishing our shoes and our storage, and settled our stressed out Illinois bunnies in our old barn.

Then came the piglets.

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We set out to look for Large Black Hogs, which we had actually been on the lookout for over the last couple of years.  We were thrilled to find a farmer only a few miles away who not only had them to sell, but was a wealth of information. Even more heartening, he soon became a good friend.

We bought 3 weaned cuties whom we hoped would become the basis of our future hog cohort: 2 little gilts and a young boar. They squalled unhappily upon being captured and loaded, of course, but soon settled in to trotting around our yard as free range piglets. They were joined soon after by a 4th little pig, a modern cross that we planned to simply raise as our own personal butcher hog (the price was right at the sale barn).

Our children were delighted with the four darlings, and each claimed one as their own to name. The little gilts were dubbed Buttercup and Lillian, the small boar was named Blackie Hog Jr. Snort (namesake of our Illinois pig), and the little modern cross was called Friendly. They soon became attached to one another and roamed together as a herd, loving especially to congregate under our front porch. Some days you could feel the whole porch vibrate with their happy scuffling and snuffling below.

At first they didn’t know us and would stop stock-still, snouts wiggling suspiciously, whenever we tried to approach them, then scattering at the last moment with high pitched squeals. But with grain feeding and a whole lot of attention from our fascinated kiddos, they quickly warmed up to us. Soon they were rolling over appreciatively to have their bellies scratched, and joining us for picnic lunches. They even tried to flop on our blanket for naps while we did outdoor school, closing their eyes sweetly and contentedly as they rested beside us. They had it pretty good, those pigs.

10312712_10152608748512065_8807667521964378464_nWhen they got so big and brave that they felt wandering up the dirt road to root up the yards of unsuspecting neighbors was delightfully diverting, we decided it was time to pen them properly before they got themselves into anymore trouble.

There the real action began. We tried electric, which worked great until a storm placed branches across the wires (frequent, as our storms are big here), or when a startled pig ran through the wire before even registering the shock, allowing the others to leap through the gap in its wake. We placed goat fencing beyond the electric, but when the electric failed, those stout snouts came into play and they rooted and wriggled their way under the wire fairly often.

There were peaceful weeks, of course, but whenever they broke free, now in the hundred pound range, they wreaked piggy havoc on our grain storage, caused carport chaos, obliterated trash bags, and even partially clambered onto the deck to steal scraps from the cats.

They were very fond of our white van, too, rubbing along its sides enthusiastically and leaving a regular swath of muddy smears behind them. That poor car was inducted into the farm vehicle world in short order.

But we loved our troublemakers anyway, even when I had to chase them with a broom. Eventually we got it all battened down pretty well, and as they fattened they could squeeze out of random places less easily.

They grew and grew, as piggies do, and they stayed sociable and sweet, even as they methodically rooted and grazed down their paddock, and guzzled a mountain load of grain.

10649870_10152664117612065_2361363336834729093_nThe kids were sad to see Friendly (the modern cross) reach butcher weight, but they had known his fate all along and accepted it with admirable equanimity. When the meat was placed in the freezer, they soon forgot their original loyalties and deigned to eat their pork and sausage. (He was as delicious as pork as he was affable as a farm pet.) But they remembered him fondly ever after.

The motto of my childhood farm days was that we would give our critters as much love in their short lives as two farm girls could give, thus making their time on our farm as happy as possible before they had to hit the freezer. It is much the same now with our children, and they handle the reality well.

Shortly after Friendly was sent to the butcher that winter (hence the muddy photo), we found out that just as we had hoped, our little gilts were on their way to becoming sows and Blackie Hog Jr. Snort was to be a proud father in the spring!

We were so excited to see the pig plan coming together for real. Come April, 2015, our Large Black Hog venture would begin to truly multiply.