Sunday, December 11, 2011

Chicken Powered Roto Tillers

The utility of chickens on a farm never ceases to amaze. Not only do they provide eggs to eat and sell (egg sales is our most profitable farm income), feathers (the online sales of which more than pay for the supplemental winter feed costs), and rich manure to spread on the garden, but I've also come to learn that they are willing to serve as literal shallow surface roto tillers as well!

We collect horse manure from our fields every day, and we end up using every single bit of it, mostly as a medium to control erosion but also as a fertilizer to nourish organic garden beds. We have recently expanded one of our beds and are now undergoing the process of turning heavily clay based soil into rich black loam. The introduction of organic material (leaves and manure), and the miraculous stuff that the worms do below the soil will result in a wonderful growing medium within 2 years. We use to accomplish this by turning over the candidate soil, dumping manure and leaves on the new plot, and then roto-till the mixture in the spring before planting. I've found that if I allow the chickens to process the manure before hand over the winter, the roto-tilling process goes much more quickly because the chickens will have turned the large lumps of horse droppings into a finely spread blanket of organic material that is much easier for the worms to digest.

And the great thing is, they really do work for 'chicken scratch'!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Better Chicken Coop

Based on the success of our root cellar project, Bernard and I decided to use the 'earth bag' system to design and build a better hen house. As our hen population kept increasing, we continued to build coops based on a very efficient design I purchased on-line. Although the coops were ideal in many ways, the goats (who share woods space with the free-range chickens) were compromising the the coops to the point where they were becoming harder and harder to properly maintain. The goats would jump on the roofs and butt the walls off their foundations to shake grain from the interior feeders so that it would fall through the screen flooring. I had to screw shut some of the access doors provided to allow me to reach in for cleaning and maintenance. (The goats had figured out how to open the latches and they would stick their heads inside to wreak more havoc!) Some goats were even crawling under the coops and ripping holes in the floor so that they could squeeze their heads through and raid the feeders directly! We needed to design and construct a goat proof hen house!
Since we need to come up with a new design, we decided to incorporate improvements based on all the things we have learned from observing chicken behavior into the new model. Our list included....a roof higher than the goats jumping range; walls stronger than a goat's 'butting force'; feeders that were totally enclosed in the structure (our coops had feeders that were loaded from the outside and thus more vulnerable to the wiles of the ruminants); a ceiling and doorway that would enable us to actually walk in to the coop for easier cleaning and maintenance; nesting boxes that were higher and devoid of entry perches (we noticed that in the original coops, because the hens tended to roost on the perches outside the nesting boxes, they would pollute the boxes with droppings

during the night); and finally, ample roosting perches so that we could house up to 100 chickens in the new hen house. We were able to cannibalize hinges and other hardware from the original coops and we had a great heavy duty door left over from a replacement job we had done earlier at a local church. Bernard's moonlighting as a construction worker provided new skills which he utilized to design the interior trusses, which were a great improvement over the lean-to roof I had envisioned.
As you can see from the photos, we are still putting the finishing stucco coating on the outside. Bernard designed retractable perch pyramids that provide maximum roosting area but fold up easily so that we can clean the house and easily fill the feeder located on the back wall.

We even wired the house for electricity so that we can run a timer light to ensure that the hens have a full 14 hour light window which triggers them to lay eggs all year.

To our delight, the structure works better than expected. Within a week of completion, the hens abandoned the other 3 coops entirely for egg-laying. I burned down the old coops and have noticed that the ladies are all vying for 'pecking order' preferences on the new roosts.

Nice dry and clean eggs can now be picked up from either the inside or from the fold-down doors on the outside of the nesting boxes.

Our next 'earth bag' project will be a small hermit hut. We'll keep y'all posted!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Root Cellar Completed!

After nearly nine months, our Earth Bag Root Cellar is completed! The big delay of course was the temperature. Once spring weather returned and we could count on 55 degree plus weather, we were able to complete the outer surface. We still leave the door open during the day to continue to dry out all of the residual moisture that collected during the winter and stored in the bags. We are confident that even in our very warm summer days, the interior will maintain a cool temp around 55 degrees, which will be perfect for curing the cheddar cheeses Kety is making from goat milk.

Next project - the goat proof chicken coop which will advance our understanding of earth bag construction. We desperately need to complete the new coop soon as a majestic owl is slowly decimating our hens who choose to roost in the trees at night. Our goal is to start hatching again on a regular basis and training all the new birds to roost in the new coop.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Root Cellar Update

We had to abandon the finish work on the Dirt Bag Root Cellar until the temperature returned to cement curing range (above 55 degrees Fahrenheit). Actual stucco is extremely difficult to find these days so we opted to use Sand Topping Quikcrete which is available in large quantities at Lowe's. This is basically your typical add-water mix used in DIY cement jobs but lacking the gravel. Since we were applying such a thin layer, it seemed like a good substitute.

I took us some experimentation to determine the correct 'texture' that would stick to the gravity defying contours. A slightly dry mix seemed to work best. As the pictures indicate, Bernard is working from the top down, I'm working from the bottom up. We will meet in the middle. (Not a good way to construct a wall, but for this job it should work!).

The bags accumulated a lot of moisture over the winter so we are trying to dry it out by leaving the door open during the day. As we lay concrete over the outside, the curing process seems to be sucking the moisture out as well. Even with the door open, the temperature inside is usually 10-15 degrees cooler, so I'm confident once it is completely covered and dried out, it will maintain a good temperature/humidity balance for curing cheese.

More pics to follow!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dirt Cheap Housing - Update

As you can see, we have made quite a bit of progress on the root cellar. Laying two strands of barbed wire between layers is what enables the weight to distribute in such a way that the sloped walls do not shift and/or collapse. We learned a few things that we will definitely incorporate into our next project. Next time, instead of installing the door frame AND door, we will only place the door frame and reinforce it with horizontal supports to resist the incredible pressure that is exerted by the supporting bags on each side of the frame. As we began laying bags over the top of the door frame, the pressure from just the 2 layers above began to compress the frame so that it knocked out the plumb. We had to do some backtracking, removing the two layers, and then built a support header to handle the weight. Realizing the potential of rain damage to the door and frame we also decided to put in a overhang to keep things dry. Next step will be to apply stucco to the outside.

Although we have a few cosmetic 'defects' in some of the sloping, overall we consider this very first project a success as well as a great learning lesson. Our next project will be a 'goat proof' chicken house. With what we learn from building that more conventional structure we hope to then advance to constructing a cozy guest cottage.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dirt Cheap Housing - Progress

My son Bernard and I have successfully laid six of an estimated 24 courses of bags for our root cellar. This is definitely a two-man job at a minimum, but I can imagine that with a case of beer and some well-defined duty stations, one of these things could probably be put up in a weekend. We are definitely getting into a groove and becoming more efficient.

The courses are now starting their gradual slope inward which makes the ultimate cone shape possible. We decided it was probably important to place the door before we got too much farther as we noticed the pressure from the supporting bags was so great as to start bowing the door frame. Our intention is to keep plumbing the door frame with each successive course and then driving nails into the supporting bags to hold it in place. It's amazing how tight the pressure of the bags keeps the frame without any additional fastening!

We also decided to integrate some shelving into the structure. To save money, we recycled some boards salvaged from concrete forms left over from a previous project. The builder was going to throw them away. By ripping them and constructing the shelving using nails recovered from a disassembly I performed years ago, we were able to save quite a bit of money. We intend to place three more shelves as the building gets higher.

We are very impressed with the stability of the structure and the simplicity of the engineering. I am convinced that with some imagination and careful planning, a very efficient, comfortable and attractive family dwelling could be made for very little outlay other than the sweat equity. A small price to pay for no mortgage and a super green house!

More to come....

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Dirt Cheap Buildings

If you are like me, those parts of the gospel that emphasize our need to be concerned for the poor are sometimes haunting. Sure, I give generously when a dire local or international need arises and I sponsor elderly and growing children through World Vision and Angels of the Poor. But my insistent prayer now for several years is to be able to do something beyond just sending a check. Something hands on. And while we can't all be Mother Teresa, there really should be something we can do in the providence of our daily lives to engage in making a difference for those less blessed by material wealth.

My wife Kety has recently begun making cheese from our abundant goat milk. The Chevres and Mozzarellas are quickly made (and eaten) so she wants to venture into the harder types that requiring aging in a root cellar. After doing some initial research, I came across an old/new concept of building structures from available local dirt using 'earth bags'. Earth bags are essentially used or discarded feed bags filled with dirt and stacked to build incredibly strong and energy efficient buildings. Similar to the rammed earth houses that have served people from time immemorial and somewhat reminiscent of the familiar igloo shape of our neighbors to the far North.

With the help of my son Bernard, we are tackling a 10 foot diameter structure that we hope will maintain a constant temperature of around 55 degrees - perfect for aging cheese. If it works - we will then attempt an actual living quarters, perhaps a hermitage or a small guest house. If we become proficient at this, our goal is to introduce the concept to others with the intention of helping people of limited means to build their own simple dwellings. Sort of a super green Habitat for Humanity.

Keep us in your prayers, and we will keep you posted on our progress!