Saturday, December 24, 2011

It's a Very Merry Christmas at Our Tiny Farm!

This is a very special Christmas at our home this year.  Glen has been suffering with a very painful hip for several years.  It has often made it impossible for him to work in the garden, care for the animals, or tend to the property. But now he's taken care of it.  On Monday, he had hip replacement surgery.  And as you can see from the photo, today (Saturday) he is already outside checking on the animals (actually, he was feeding the donkey holiday mints!).  Having this surgery behind him, and knowing that every day he is going to feel better, is the best Christmas present of all.

To all our family, friends, customers, and blog readers, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  We look forward to seeing you in 2012.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Winterizing the Chicken Tractor

Chicken coop, barn, and portable fencing (for rotational grazing). 
Note the shade cloth on the chicken coop run.

Many people started raising a few chickens in chicken tractors (portable coops) this year.  We had quite a few of them stop by and take pictures of our portable coop and use those as a basis for coming up with their own designs (that were hopefully much lighter than the one we built!).  Now we are getting questions about how to get chickens through the winter without them freezing. Chickens are pretty hardy, especially most of the heritage breeds that people are choosing to raise this way, but there are things you can to to help ensure that your birds remain safe, healthy, and comfortable this winter.
  1. They should have a draft-free coop.  Not air-tight, because they need ventilation, but not drafty.  Our coop has louvered doors next to the nests and two vents, one at the top and one at the bottom of the coop.  When the weather gets below about 25 degrees F, we have cardboard inserts that we install to cover the louvres and an aluminum sliding door that we slide in to cover the upper vent.  The birds huddle together and stay quite toasty.  The coop actually feels warm when I open it in the morning and the birds appeared quite comfortable even when outside temperatures got down into the single digits.
  2. Make sure the coop is dry.  Be diligent about checking nests and bedding to make sure they are dry.  We line our nests with hay and I clean the nests daily to make sure they aren't damp.
  3. Make sure they have free flowing water.  This is a real problem for some people and I hear stories of taking fresh water to their birds several times a day or building all kinds of insulated water holders.  We bring the plastic waterer in every night and refill it and replace it each morning.  But because of our "greenhouse run", the water does not freeze during the day.  Never has.
  4. What is a "greenhouse run"?  See the pictures below.  We have a standard A-frame run, but we cover ours with greenhouse grade plastic and it has "wings" on both sides that can be raised or lowered for protection from wind and rain and for ventilation.  During the summer we usually keep one side down and have a piece of shade cloth on that side to provide shade (see picture at top of post).  When it is brutally hot and humid, we raise both sides.  In the winter we usually keep both sides down all the time.  Solar heating keeps the run comfortably warm and dry and protects the birds from the wind.  Throughout most of the winter, the end door is open to the annex (see the photos) so they can get fresh air and sunshine.  When it is REALLY nasty out, we keep the end door shut.
  5. Make sure they have plenty of high energy feed.  Our birds are on fresh ground everyday because we move the coop every morning.  They get scraps from our kitchen and garden and have access to commercial crumble, too.  But when it is really, really cold and nasty out, we also give them a dish of scratch and a morning bowl of hot oatmeal.  Oh, they love the oatmeal.  I know.  That is really spoiling them and they probably don't need it, but they sure do love it! 
And that's how we get our hens through the winter. They appear comfortable and it requires minimal effort on our part.  Below are pictures I took right after we put fresh plastic on the run last weekend.  We used a four year, polyethylene greenhouse film which should give us many years of service.  Note the aluminum flashing on the peak.  We've learned that is a wear point for our system; the first place the plastic starts breaking down, so we covered it with the flashing this time. When we "raise the wings" the hinge is that horizontal wood strip you see running across the center of the side. It folds up and is held in place with a short bungee cord.

Build Your Own Drag Chain Harrow (Manure Rake for Your Pasture)

We have small pastures on Our Tiny Farm, so good manure management is very important.  For several years, we managed manure by regularly walking the pastures with a wheelbarrow and fork and transporting it all to our compost pile, just like we do with the manure from the barn and paddock.  The manure based compost is one of the keys to our productive gardens, and collecting manure is good exercise (I tell myself as I do it), but it is a time-consuming process and hubby has a bad back which is not cut out for this kind of activity anymore.  During the growing season in particular, there just aren't enough hours in the day, so we began looking for other ways to manage the horse and donkey manure in our pastures.

I learned that if you break up the manure piles and spread them thinly across the field, the manure dries and breaks down quickly, fertilizing the pasture and killing most of the parasites.  Then I looked up "drag chain harrows" and found a great selection available to pull behind a tractor, ATV, or riding lawn mower.  But the prices were $200 and up.  There was no way I could justify that kind of expense.  So, I showed pictures of those drag chains to my son and hubby and they created one for us that didn't cost us a penny.  I love it!  It might not be pretty, but it works great.

We use the drag chain from early spring through late fall.  Once the temperatures are cold enough that the grasses and clovers aren't growing anymore, we resort back to collecting the manure in a wheelbarrow and hauling it out to the compost pile.  This is much easier and faster to do in the winter, however, because the grass is short, the ground is hard, and the manure piles (which are often frozen) are easy to scoop up.

Here are some pictures of the drag chain my we built and us using it for the last time this season.