Thursday, November 7, 2013

High Tunnel

Since I missed posting anything about this project in September, I thought I better get some pictures up on it soon.

We found out in May that we had been approved for a grant through the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) to help us put up a high tunnel on the farm.  The objective of the program we were joining was to help farmers extend their growing season as sustainably as possible by giving them a structure to grow in.  Once we actually complete the high tunnel, it will allow us to grow plants earlier in the spring and later in the fall than what we could in our fields.

So after a busy market season, at the end of August I finally got around to researching tunnel options and ordering a tunnel from a company in Missouri called Hummert.  Two weeks later a large truck arrived carrying a 16-foot, 4000 lb crate.

Then it became a matter of putting together a large jigsaw puzzle.  Robert began by hauling the bow pieces over to the barn to put them together on the only flat surface we have around here.

Then the thirty foot wide bows needed to be hauled back to the tunnel site.

Once the bows were completed, it was time to put the posts in the ground that were going to hold these bows in the air.  We had been told by several farmers that this was going to be the most difficult part of the process.  After much deliberation, we decided the best way for us to put these in the ground was going to be to augur out holes part of the depth and then pound the posts in the rest of the way.  Because we only pounded them in part of the way, we also decided to reinforce each of them with a little concrete.  We were fortunate when doing this that Robert's job requires him to use survey equipment and that he has access to all of that equipment.  He was able to use GPS and aerial photography to lay out the tunnel on the computer ahead of time and then stick pin flags in the exact spot we needed to put each post.  Then after auguring out part of the holes we were able to stick the survey rod down into each of the hollow posts and know we were putting each post exactly where it needed to be.  Twenty-six posts later we were ready to figure out how to put the bows up.

The tunnel we chose from Hummert measured 30x72 and is almost thirteen feet tall at the peak.  Part of the reason we went with this tunnel rather than the one they offer that is two feet taller was that we weren't sure how we were going to lift the bows thirteen feet let alone up to fifteen feet.  Like most farm projects, this one just took a little bit of scrap lumber and some engineering.

And it actually worked.

The first night we managed to get up four of the bows before running out of daylight and the other nine went up rather quickly the next day.

Progress continues in the next post...

Saturday, September 14, 2013

New Peeps

Because we have a tendency to put a lot on our plates at one time, things around here tend not to get done until they absolutely need to be done.  Every little thing seems to get prioritized and placed either on the list of things that absolutely must be crammed into today or the list of things that can be put off until tomorrow.  The mobile chicken coop was no different.  Work on it slowly plugged along throughout the summer until we made a decision on the first of August to order a new batch of chicks that would be shipped the last week of August.  And then we had a deadline.  Despite working on it throughout the month Robert was still hard at work finishing it up the day the big chickens needed to move out of the big coop in it to make room for the peeps that were coming in the mail.

We decided to do the move in a two night process.  Our biggest concern was how hard it was going to be for our very conditioned chickens to figure out how to roost somewhere other than the coop they had spent their entire lives roosting in.  Watching them through this process Robert decided it was slightly akin to a smoker quitting cold turkey.  They struggled.  But only for a few nights.

Because this coop was not designed with enough space to keep the chickens penned up in it during the day we decided to move only twenty hens into it the first night.  We picked the birds that seemed to be the escape artists from the chicken yard.  While I have never seen a big yellow Buff Orpington bird outside of the chicken fence, we have a group of colored Aracaunas that have routinely made their way up into the barn to lay their eggs and drive me a little insane on a daily basis.  These are the birds we figured we'd have the most trouble keeping in the new chicken yard so we moved them first.

Waiting until dark meant it was relatively easy to pick these birds off of their roosting ladders, clip their wings and load them into bird boxes to be hauled to the new coop.  Having stayed in there one evening, Milan got his first chance to pick up eggs out of the new laying boxes which he was pretty pumped about.

Moving on night two took a little longer when one our horses decided to have a bellyache in the middle of the process requiring a late night trip to the vet to pick up some medicine leaving Robert to catch birds and clip wings without any help.  Despite being past our bedtime it got done.  

Milan and I spent the next morning cleaning out the big chicken coop and preparing feeders, waterers and lights for the incoming peeps.  No phone call came from the post office that day, but our phone rang bright and early the next morning to "come get these peeping chicks!"  So I did.

75 new peeps.  25 Plymouth Barred Rocks (a new breed for us) and 50 Aracauna chicks made their way from Cackle Hatchery in Missouri.  Well, 73 anyway, two just didn't make it through the mail.  

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Mobile Chicken Coop

This project really deserves some long overdue love on this blog.

We have dabbled with the idea of a mobile chicken coop for several years.  The idea of it made sense in so many ways.  Being able to rotate our chickens around our pastures and gardens would not only help with the fertilization of our ground but would also keep our birds healthier by reducing their parasite load and might even cut some of our feed bill down by giving them access to fresh greens every time we move them.  The two main issues that kept us from moving forward with this project were the initial cost of building a mobile chicken coop, the electrified netting and charger and more importantly to me, not being sure that this set-up would keep our flock as safe as our current chicken coop (which is the Fort Knox of chicken coops as long as we remember to shut the door in the evening).

Enter last summer.  No rain for over four months.  The majority of Arkansas was in as severe a drought as we'd seen in a long time.  Our yards and pastures dried up.  The little bit of green that managed to survive was literally mowed down by army worms in mid-August.  We had no grass anywhere and the acre yard that the chickens live on turned to dirt for the first time in 8 years.  I remember posting pictures of us cutting buckets of kale out of the (irrigated) garden to feed to the chickens to get them something, anything green. Despite the fact that we finally began getting rain at the end of October, those pastures and the grass in them didn't recover until this spring.  In the meantime, our two fallow fields that had been sown with rye grass and crimson clover started to grow and by mid-December were thick with grass and clover.  Every day I wished we had a way to get our chicken flock to those two fields so that they had more fresh food to eat.  I was more convinced than ever that we needed a mobile coop.  At the time though Robert was busy building our walk-in cooler closely followed by a new greenhouse.  Discussion of this project was tabled for a while.

Late this spring it came around again.  This time though Robert had a little more motivation because he'd worked up designs for a new tractor shed that involved using the materials from the old tractor shed...which the old chicken coop is attached to.  Time to make a mobile coop.  I think we all had a little fun with this project.

When I first mentioned this idea to Bruce a few years ago he told me he had an old trailer that would work for the project.  The first step then was getting this trailer to the farm.  Bruce pulled it over on three wheels, although only one of them held any air, and parked it at the end of our strawberry beds which is where it sat for a few months.  Then Robert started knocking the rotten floor boards off of it and cutting out the rusted bolts.  I don't have a picture of the trailer from the start, but I do have one with the floor out and the first of the vertical boards attached to it.

One of the more difficult aspects of building a mobile structure for laying hens is that not only do you have to give them shelter from weather and keep them safe from critters, but you have to provide them with adequate laying boxes.  Robert did a really great job of taking into account all of the elements I wanted incorporated into this coop and fitting them on this trailer.  Once the initial structure was framed up, he built eight sets of laying boxes that each have three compartments in them for a total of twenty-four laying boxes.  The summer interns, Milan and I spent a morning painting them with primer and then Robert took back over and added a little color.

Eventually a roof and a door went on.

Chicken wire was added to critter-proof the sides...

A cattle panel and hardware cloth made for a mesh floor to allow chicken poop to fall to the ground.  And we ran ten horizontal 2x4's for the birds to roost on in the evening.  Milan's main contribution was filling the laying boxes with pine shavings.

And then we were ready for the big move...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Friday Flowers

Since I missed posting flower pictures just about every Friday in June and July, here's a few of my favorite pictures from the summer of our flowers heading to market.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Our Chicken Coop

Because eggs, chickens and chicken coops have been such a hot topic at our market booth recently and because I'm about to roll out a few blog posts on our new mobile coop, I thought I better write a little bit about the chicken coop that has served us well for the last seven years or so.

I got my first batch of chicks, a motley crew of eleven banties, game birds and guineas eight years ago shortly after Robert and I got married.  I had decided I wanted chickens and all of the locals said I needed to go to the Beebe flea market to get them.  The sight we took in early one Saturday morning as we walked into the flea market was not an experience soon forgotten.  The quiet town of Beebe is transformed on Saturday mornings as all manner of country shows up to peddle everything from vegetables to thrift store type stuff to any critter that can be caged or leashed.  Naively I walked away with eleven birds that were not anywhere close to the laying hens I was looking for.

Regardless of what they were, these birds needed a place to sleep.  As chicks they started in a rabbit hutch and grew into a very rigged together chicken coop.  A funny thing I've found about having chickens is that random people want to give you their chickens.  As my motley crew grew over the course of the summer it was clear we were going to need a bigger chicken coop.  Later that fall we decided to put up a new building to house tractors and a variety of other things and Robert decided to add a "chicken palace" to one end of it.  Just in time because by then I'd learned about mail order chicks and had seventy-five pullets soon to show up via USPS.

So the chicken palace has served us well over the last seven years.  All of it has a roof but only half of it has walls.  We wanted a place for the birds to get out of the wind and rain yet still have as much ventilation and access to the outside as possible.

While it would sleep many more than the seventy-five or so birds we've had a different points in it, it is still too small of a space for that many birds to stay cooped up in it.  So at about 6:00 every morning I open the door and the birds come boiling out.  

At about 8:30 at night they are all safely perched on their ladders and sleeping so we shut the door to keep out the coons and possums that would love to get in.  

We used to keep laying boxes inside of the chicken coop.  It didn't take long for us to realize though that there are always a few hens at the bottom of the pecking order and that these hens preferred to sleep perched on the laying boxes rather than make a spot for themselves among the birds on the ladders.  The problem with this is that birds still poop while they sleep and that birds sleeping in laying boxes meant birds pooping in laying boxes.  I've always been proud of how clean we've kept our laying boxes.  Clean boxes means clean eggs.  Soon enough we moved the laying boxes back into other parts of the building so the birds couldn't sleep in them.  

Over the years our laying boxes have evolved to random containers the birds choose to lay in.  The most popular of these right now include a cut-off 50-gallon drum, a couple of milk crates and a tall concrete flower planter.  

Our birds used to have the run of our entire yard but as the garden grew, keeping them out of it became a problem.  We also had trouble with two members of our dog family not understanding that chickens were part of the pack.  A few years ago we fenced in about an acre of ground around the chicken palace to help keep our sanity and help keep them safer.  In this field and on the edge of our woods is where they spend most of their mornings and late afternoons.

As I took these pictures though in the heat of the day, I found most of them lounging under a large fallen tree we lost in a storm earlier this summer.

So that pretty much sums up the daily life of a laying hen on our farm right now.  All of this is soon to change as we finish up our mobile chicken coop.  Pictures of that project and the impending chicken move soon to come.   

Friday, July 26, 2013

Back to this Blog

So after 2 months away, I finally get back to this blog.

When I started this blog I swore I was never going to make excuses for not blogging but I might have a more legitimate one this time.  Or maybe not.  Basically, life happened.  Work gets busy and plates get full and sometimes something has to give and in this case it was this blog.  We've also been sitting on a little bit of a secret that had my head a little foggy and my stomach more than a little queasy for the better part of six weeks and all of the month of June.

Come January we're expecting one more little helper around the farm.  While we are a little surprised, we are very much excited!  

So there is my biggest piece of news but definitely not my only news.  Now that I've managed to get this post written I'll work on getting caught up on some exciting things that have happened and are happening around the farm right now.  More to come.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Little Dahlia Love

My pictures are so not doing these flowers justice.  I will never not plant these flowers again.

Now, the big I cut them and take them to market or keep them all to myself?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cloning Tomatoes

I spent Sunday morning a week ago attempting to salvage something from my cold damaged tomatoes.  After going through the entire patch of them I felt better that only about twenty percent keeled over.  I made two attempts to mitigate this loss...I cloned the dying portions of the plant and babied the heck out of the living suckers that were below where the stems split on the main plant.  Both efforts proved worthwhile.

One of Robert's co-workers taught us to clone tomatoes last summer.  It was a fun trick we played around with at the end of the year.  This year it has become a tool that saved me at least six weeks of growing time compared to starting new plants from seed.  I simply took the damaged tomato plants and cut the main stem to a length of about six inches.

Stripped all but the top two leaves...

And placed each of them in a 4 inch pot of wet soil.

I then put these pots on trays of water to help make sure the soil didn't dry out and put them in the shade under the tables in my greenhouse.

They looked great for about 2 days, wilted for about 2 days as the shock hit them and then came on strong.  

As soon as they have enough root system to hold the plug together we need to find a place for these pretty seedlings.