Wednesday, November 24, 2010

An egg!

I went out to feed the chickens this afternoon and what did I find?  My first little Black Star pullet egg!  (How's that for fast turn around?)

Soon enough I'll be coming back from the hen house with 2 dozen or more eggs a day.  A little overwhelming when I think of it, but surely I'll be able to find enough customers.  Since the big factory egg recall, most folks have gained a new appreciation for farm-fresh eggs laid by happy, pastured hens.

Storage is not a problem.  My mother-in-law got a new fridge recently and gave me her old one.  I've got it set up in the basement and have been using the extra space to rest processed chickens before packaging to freeze and to hold extra produce that I can't squeeze into my upstairs fridge.

I've been tracking my egg production on a simple spreadsheet for almost a year now.  I've found it helps me spot problems early (like egg-eating).  It also gives me some numbers I'll be able to play with later on. 

I also want to factor in my feed costs, which I am recording with a handy little program called Chicken Trackin' that I came across over on BYC.  Although I got my copy free as a promo, after using it for nearly a year now I feel that the $14.95 for a licensed copy is well worth it.  If you sell your eggs, you need something like this to help you determine if you are pricing them right.  I will be punching some numbers before I put up my Eggs for Sale sign again.

I've made a few mistakes in the management of my flocks over the last three years I have been keeping chickens.  (Putting up with mean roosters longer than necessary has been one of them.)  I got these Black Stars late in the season because I didn't plan well enough and I wanted to wait until I had money in the checkbook for them, rather than putting them on the credit card.  I was afraid that since they were hitting 20 weeks of age during the winter there would be a chance that they would not lay until spring.  That would have ruined me!  I can't believe how often I am filling up the feeder.

I am currently pondering ways that I can reduce my feed costs.  I will definitely be looking for another feed dealer where I can get my feed in bulk, like 1000 pounds at a time.  Thirty-one chickens eat a lot more than you'd think.  I am also planning several additions to my garden that will supplement their feed next summer.

I have a few ideas for articles to write on managing your small flock poultry.  That will be coming up after Christmas when things slow down a little here on my one sunny acre.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Get it in Gear

Finally, I am starting to accumulate some eggs.  My Easter Eggers have gone back to work and are putting out their beautiful blue-green eggs just as regularly as they did before they went into moult.

The Black Stars are getting sleek and fluffy.  They are right at 20 weeks old.  Their combs are filling out and turning a striking shade of red.  This is a good sign!  I should be up to my ears in eggs this time next month.  I sure hope so, because they are eating me out of house and home!

Unfortunately, I must report that Little Boy Blue met his demise today.  He came after Ava again while she was playing, so I immediately stopped what I was was doing (putting up spinach for the freezer), caught him by the legs and brought him to my husband to be promptly dispatched.

In the words of Ruby Thewes, "I despise a flogging rooster".  I LOVE that movie (Cold Mountain).  Quite possibly my favorite movie ever.

So now, all is quiet in the hen house tonight.  I could hear him crowing all day and all night long, even in the deepest, darkest hours before morning.  Perhaps that rooster simply had too much testosterone. 

I suspect now that they have some peace and quiet, the girls will get busy and start laying any day now.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Easy Low Tunnels Extend Your Season

Salad, as fresh as it gets!
Here in USDA Zone 6a today, November 22, I am enjoying a fresh salad from my own garden.  A month from now, closer to Christmas, I will still be picking fresh greens from my garden and saving about $6.00 a week by not purchasing bagged salad greens from the grocery store.  All thanks to a very simple and easy method known as low tunnels, quick hoops or floating row covers.

I built a cold frame one year to grow lettuce throughout the winter.  It worked well, but it took a lot of effort to build, including digging the pit to heat the soil bed passively with manure.  It required a lot of attention to monitor the daytime temperatures and prop open the lid on very hot days and also a great deal of mental fortitude to remember to go back out and close it before bedtime.  A particularly strong wind grabbed my plexiglass lid one day and slammed it up and broke it.  I duct-taped it back together and went on.  Really though, the main issue I had with the cold frame was that it did not give me much room to grow enough things to make it worth my while.

Then I read about low tunnels.  This is the second year I have used them and I am very happy with this set up.  It is mid-November and I am enjoying the tasiest salad greens and radishes; vegetables that are typically grown within a very narrow season.  The spinach I've been able to grow with this method is the sweetest, crunchiest spinach I have ever tasted - so good I can't help but eat it straight from the garden, plain.

Spinach thriving under the protection of a low tunnel.
Given how very easy low tunnels are to construct and how cheaply you can obtain the necessary materials, I don't know why more gardeners aren't using them.

Any of your cold hardy plants can be overwintered in them, such as:
  • spinach
  • lettuce
  • kale
  • swiss chard
  • radishes
  • beets
  • carrots
  • bok choy
  • turnips
  • some herbs

Sweet, crispy radishes harvested in late November.
They can also be used to protect an everbearing strawberry bed so you can squeeze a little more fall harvest time out out of them.  You can start most transplants sooner for a jump on the season, such as tomatoes, peppers, squash and melons.  You can start sooner or extend later a crop of broccoli, cabbage or cauliflower while simulaneously protecting them organically from cabbage loopers (by blocking out the moths so they can't lay their eggs.)  Seeds for peas, carrots, beets and also onion sets can be sown in late fall and covered with a low tunnel to urge them to germinate and grow faster and earlier than they are traditionally planted in the spring, giving you a 1-2 month headstart.  There are some subtle variations in the growing methods for all of these, but the basic set up is the same.

Last year was more or less an experiment for me and all that I grew was lettuce.  I planted my lettuce in a regular bed in October and allowed it to germinate and begin growing while the daytime temperatures were still rather warm.  Once the time came to anticipate my first frost, I set up the low tunnel.  My simple low tunnel kept my lettuce safe throughout the entire snowy winter, one of the coldest winters my area had seen in years.

Once spring arrived, I took the cover off and was enjoying fresh lettuce long before any of my regularly planted rows of spring lettuce were large enough to harvest.  Growth enhancement is the biggest benefit of using a low tunnel.

Lettuce growing outside of the low tunnel is puny compared to the lettuce growing within.
The lettuce will only grow when the temperature inside the cover is warmed up enough by the sun.  In the deepest part of winter it is held in stasis, but resumes growing just as soon as the days become more mild.

This year I put more thought into it.  In October, I tilled a long row on the perimeter of my garden and sowed spinach, two varieties of loose leaf lettuce, radishes and turnips.  They germinated in the last 70+ degree days of Indian summer, then I implemented my low tunnels.

I use 5' sections of 3/4" PVC pipe to create the hoops.  I take 18" sections of rebar (narrow enough that the PVC can fit over) and drive them a foot into the ground opposite each other on either side of a narrow row about 3' apart.  I set the rebar in this manner at 5' intervals all along the row.

Then you push one end of the PVC pipe over the stub of rebar and arch it across to the corresponding rebar on the other side and push it down over that rebar stub as well.  Repeat the process all the way down the row. 

Be sure not to forget about your rebar when you go to till next spring.  Remove them all for the sake of your tiller's tines.

Another method of setting the arches is to use 10' sections of PVC pipe and use a spud bar to drive holes into the soil about a foot deep, then push the ends securely into the pre-set holes.

Some people will use 10' sections of 1/2" EMT (galvanized metal electrical conduit) which is also very cheaply obtained from your local hardware store.  It requires a jig and some bending to form the arches, but since it is more rigid, it is easily pushed down into the soil without any need for rebar anchors.  Here is a video demonstrating that method:

I used the 3/4" PVC because I already had a lot of it on hand.  Any of these will work well and all can be salvaged and reused year after year.

This series of arches is then simply covered with 4 or 6 mil clear plastic sheeting and weighted down with rocks along the sides of the tunnel and closing the ends.  A 10' x 25' roll of plastic sheeting will run you about $20.  The plastic will also hold up to several seasons of use.

Rocks weigh down the plastic and keep it in place even through strong winter winds.
Depending on what you are growing and how hot you expect it may get inside of the tunnels, you may need to take a razor knife and cut a series of short vertical slits along the length of the plastic for air circulation.  You don't want the temperature inside the tunnel to exceed 90 degrees.  For a tunnel that is used to overwinter, you would want to leave the plastic intact and just open the ends on unseasonally hot days.  If you were only using your tunnels to protect your brassicas from cabbage loopers, then a fine mesh, lightweight fabric (sold by specialty garden suppliers) would be the way to go.  The fabric will protect from frost, but not hard winter freezes.

One side of the cover can be lifted up to harvest your veggies.  On very cold days, it's best to do this no later than early afternoon.  Pick a mild day to harvest if you can.  You don't want to give away any heat gained from the sun before it goes down for the night.

Lettuce ready for harvesting.
Black plastic can be used for mulching and will also help warm the soil.  That would be especially useful when starting warm weather crops early.

Today I thinned out my spinach and lettuce, leaving about 6" between those that remained so they can get full and leafy.  I also found some chickweed and young dandelion greens to add to my salad.  I had to work quickly and get the cover back on - the chickens think this spinach rocks too!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Little Boy Blue

...has been coming up on my back porch every day to blow his horn. 

He has come by every afternoon lately with his small band of rebel pullets (the few who won't stay inside the chicken-protecting fence.)  He has paraded himself up and down the banister, crowing victoriously, declaring the back porch to be part of his kingdom. 

They stay for about half an hour, peeking at me through the sliding glass door.  I think they are expecting treats, but I can't reward such bad behavior.

To tell the truth, Little Boy Blue very quickly outgrew his name.  He has become a very large, very masculine cockerel at only four and a half months old.

Little Boy Blue is currently on probation.  He tried to flog my 3-year-old daughter a couple weeks ago.  So far he doesn't challenge me.  I've been using these rooster training techniques by Backyard Chickens member "gritsar" and they seem to be working on him.  He is definitely intimidated in my presence.

I have not had good luck with roosters.  They have all been sent to "freezer camp" in the past.  (If you are not overly fond of chicken and dumplings, you might not want to continue reading past this point.)

First there was The Colonel.  Brahmas are supposed to be a very docile breed.  Not Colonel.  I took him to church to meet my summer Creation Club kids and that may have had something to do with his downfall.

The Colonel was also part of my very first batch of chicks.  At the time there were six other cockerels for him to deal with.  I'm sure that didn't help.

I am also embarrassed to admit that I was very afraid of this five pound bird.  He knew he had me whipped from the start.

We sent him and five of the other six cockerels to the pot and I kept the most docile and handsome fella.  His name was Slick.

Last one to the compost pile is a rotten egg!
Slick behaved himself for a very long time.  He made it all the way around to the following spring and I don't know if it was because of seasonal hormones or what, but Slick eventually turned on me too.  Now Slick had spurs by this time, so he had to go in the pot because I couldn't have him hurting my toddler.  He was a Golden Laced Wyandotte and turned out to be very meaty.

The next batch of chicks brought along another Free Mystery Rooster.  He was a Silver Spangled Hamburg and was a very flashy specimen.  I named him Speck.  All I have of Speck is a chick pic.  He didn't make it very far.

Speck was high-strung and nervous right out of the box.  (And by this time, I was clearly resolute that I would not put up with any more mean roosters.)

I've raised meaties before, dispatched spare roosters and culled old layers.  I suppose one of these days I'll have to pony up and be a real farm girl.  I think I could "do the deed", but I don't want to.  As long as my Bright and Shining Farmer is available, I leave that part to him.  Plucking, cleaning, packaging and cooking...those are all part of my job.

So now, Little Boy Blue, I am really hoping we can get you on the right track.  You're a good-looking rooster and I'm gonna give you a chance, just like I did for all the others...

I know roosters have their benefits.  I'd like to have a rooster I can live with so that I can take advantage of those pros. 
  • They are really nice to look at.
  • I love to hear them crow.
  • They look after the ladies' safety and well-being.
  • Their interactions are amusing to watch; how they strut and search out tasty nibbles for the girls, etc.
  • They keep law and order in the coop.
  • Without roosters, there would be no chicks (hatched here on the farm.)
I am going to keep these Black Stars for two years, then I am going to get either straight-run Buckeyes or Black Copper Marans and try my hand at raising my own birds with the ultimate goal of having a sustainable homestead flock.  That will require keeping a couple of roosters around and being able to live in peace with them!

My little girl loves her chickens.  She loves to pick them up and cuddle them.  She loves to gather the eggs and toss them their winter scratch.  Ultimately, I want to be sure that she can enjoy her chickens.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Moving Over to Blogger

I've been kinda dissatisfied with Wordpress for awhile now.  The user interface is nicer, but there have been several things I have wanted to do with my blog that they don't allow (and notably, people who ask about these things in their forum get a curt answer and their thread promptly closed.)

I've also felt for a long time that the readability of my Wordpress blog's theme was very hard on the eyes.  I'd dabbled with a few other themes but still didn't find anything that suited me.  I also wanted my theme to be more personalized, to reflect more of me (without having to pay for an upgrade to use custom CSS, which I don't currently know or have time to learn.)  Not every option was available with all themes and that was annoying me too.

But the final straw was that they do not accommodate Google Follower and many other widely used social widgets are unavailable or limited on Wordpress.

It's going to take me a little while to learn my way around on Blogger, but I am hoping to improve One Sunny Acre's atmosphere and make it look a bit more professional.  Hopefully this will end up being worth the hassle of switching everything over.  Please bear with me!

If you see any broken links or missing pictures, just let me know.  The formatting in a few of my exported posts didn't carry over well.  I've been trying to straighten those out.

Also, if you want to drop me a comment and let me know what you think of the new look, I'd sure appreciate it!  The background is actually a photo taken in my backyard that I digitally stylized in Adobe Photoshop Elements.

So far so good.  I am feeling at home here and have gotten most of my content carried over.  I think it was worth the effort. 

***Update***I've routed my RSS feed through Feedburner which has simplified things and made One Sunny Acre's feed more accessible.  Thanks Joan, for the suggestion!

If you are currently subscribed at the old Wordpress site, be sure to update your feed using the "Subscribe in a Reader" option in the sidebar on the right.

You can also subscribe via email now and that option is also found in the sidebar.

If you've got a link for One Sunny Acre on your blog or website (thank you!!) you'll also need to update that link to reflect the new address --  I'll be keeping the old site up for a few months with a link to redirect.

Free is Good

A couple of projects to work on now that things are slowing down for winter.

I sent my husband on a mission to find a used office desk that he could scrap-pass at work.  His company has a scrap yard/warehouse where employees can get things for free that the company no longer has a use for.  Tools, building supplies, scrap metal, old office chairs, who knows what all is in there (I wish they'd let me in so I could look for myself!)  All you have to do is sign it out.

He hit the jackpot with a bunch of old office equipment they were actively looking to rehome so as to free up a little space.  As with the manure situation, I told him I'll take what I can get.  He brought me 2 metal work tables, 2 big metal desks and a 4 drawer file cabinet--all in great condition, just a few scratches and tiny dings.  I don't believe you could destroy industrial office furniture if you tried.

One of the metal work tables has gone to the basement to serve as a laundry table/place for my husband to lay his hunting stuff/place for my husband take his laptop and hide when he has to do the bills.  The other work table and the larger of the two metal desks will go to the garage for extra workspace and storage.  The file cabinet will also go in the garage for tool storage.

This desk is going to replace the crappy, assemble-it-yourself, wannabe-wood eyesore I bought at Ollie's that I am currently using for a computer desk.  I am going to paint this one a nice forest green to match my kitchen border.  It has lots of drawers, which is the part I am most excited about, to squirrel away all my junk.  I can't abide clutter.  It makes me crazy.

And then there's this thing...

Do you see what I am seeing?

Kitchen storage space!!

I have a decent amount of cabinet space already, but I could really use more.  Right now I have to stack all my pots and pans strategically to get them all to fit (and so I can find them again when I need them.)

I got this antique armoire from my mother-in-law when she was cleaning out her barn.  She brought me a lot of things to put in my yard sale this summer and this was one of them.  She gave $50 for it somewhere.  I put $30 on it and was really surprised it didn't sell.  It's in really good condition structurally.  The veneer on the doors needs a little work where it had pulled up here and there.  I am going to add a couple more shelves to the right-hand side, paint it burgundy, distress it a little and rub a black stain into the sanded areas.  I might do a little decorative painting or stencilling on it to make it cute.  I haven't decided for sure.

I'm going to use it to store all my dry goods in the kitchen (thus freeing up more space for my pots and small appliances) and make a cute little country-prim arrangement on top.  My kitchen needs a more deliberate attempt at decorating and I think this little armoire could be the start of some creative inspiration for me.

I'll post back later with the end results!