Holding Pattern

I feel like the last week has been marked by waiting: waiting for the incubator to arrive, waiting for it to warm up enough to actually work outside, waiting for the hens to start laying more regularly.  I’m not really sure what’s up with them lately, but I think our crazy, unpredictable weather, in combination with the great flock separation, has upset their laying patterns a bit.  We’re fluctuating between 2 and 6 eggs between eight layers right now.  I’m trying to be patient.

This spring has been a test in patience.  The snow melted uncannily early, but ever since our days fluctuate between the high fifties and high twenties (some of those days being much nicer than others).  And though the roof is done and we managed to re-paint our foundation and rotate our tractor equipment from winter (plow) to summer (finish mower and attachments), I’m eagerly awaiting time when I can start placing things in pots.

The weather hasn’t stopped Abby and I from training for our 5K.  Today, we celebrated week eight with a two mile run!  I can’t wait until we’re heading out in shorts and a tank top instead of two layers of long underwear, ski mittens and a hat.  There’s just something about ski mittens that don’t seem quite as conducive to speed.

The ranunculus bulbs arrived a few weeks ago, and I’m hoping to get them out next weekend, where they will still face nights cold enough to get them going, but hopefully not too many of those cold nights.  In addition to this, we’re also hoping to get some ground tilled under to facilitate early plantings (peas, lettuce and spinach).

Luckily, school has created plenty of distractions in the form of grading and class prep.  I also started a sour dough starter last week that I’m slowly babying along, and we did manage to mow the field where we’ll be married in just over two months, using the finish mower to chop down last year’s previously mowed hay in preparation for soft summer grass!

Separation in Preparation for Incubation

Today, I attempted to separate the flock for the second time this spring.  We attempted this earlier, but weather prevented it (the outdoor water was freezing and my hours are too erratic at work to be able to provide fresh water regularly enough to keep it liquid).  But since everyone has been outside in the Ussery Modified Tractor for more than a week without any water problems, and I finally ordered our incubator, it was time.

So how are we doing things?  I have divided the flock into two subgroups.  I moved Elliot, Little Broody and Henrietta into our old A-Frame.  This group will not be reproducing in our 2012 hatch.  We’re not breeding Little Broody because she is by far the smallest of our hens, and though she is a reliable layer, we’re going to use the majority of these chickens for meat.  We’re also not breeding Henrietta because of her earlier crop issues.  I’m hoping that this is only a temporary problem and not a hereditary issue, and I think it’s best to watch her for a full year before letting her produce offspring.  Elliot will be our sire next year; he’s a great rooster, but we are only using one rooster this year, so we can trace lineage through the roosters (and I haven’t figured out how to keep track of the chicks once they begin to hatch in the brooder).  The side benefit of separating the flock like this is that Henrietta and Little Broody can keep Elliot company and with only one rooster in the main flock, hopefully we’ll see a decrease in rooster tracks on the girls.

In terms of our brooder, we decided to go with the Hovabator 1588 because none of the girls are showing any signs of broodiness and our summer is so short (and weather so unreliable) that it’s much less stressful to just do a controlled hatch in an incubator.  We’ll likely use broody hens in the future, and may even slip nearly pipped eggs under a hen if she goes broody in the next few weeks, but for now, an incubator will provide us with the most reliable way to hatch between 15 – 25 chicks this spring, while still planning a wedding.

We chose the Hovabator 1588 because of the remarkably positive reviews.  It is safe, included an egg turner (in the package we purchased), and apparently has fewer problems with extreme temperature spikes.  It also has a window on the top, so I can keep an eye on progress without having to open the incubator.

Now, we’re just waiting fourteen days to start collecting eggs, so we can know for sure who sired what.

Wrapping up April Break

I feel like I should apologize for the lack of posts this week.  Between two trips downstate (one for my car and the other for a funeral) and all of the home improvements we were trying to squeeze in before the rain started, life has been a bit more hectic than we’re used to.  So what have we accomplished in the last week?

The roofers finished our new roof on Tuesday, while I was downstate, and on Monday and Wednesday, I finished painting all of the trim.

I also repainted our initial chicken coop, in preparation for operation chicken separation (which I thought had happened successfully earlier this year until the temperature dropped so drastically that we had to move everyone back in together again).

We transplanted all of our tomatoes, as they had finally outgrown their small pots.  All in all, the veggies are doing great!

I painted the cupcake tree for the wedding, using an interior white paint we got for free at the local hardware store during a give-away promotion.

On Friday, Jason and a friend installed the new kitchen doors that we purchased almost a month ago, when the weather was warm enough for us to finally take the plunge.  Again, it got cold literally the next day.

And while they were doing that, I stained our back porch in preparation for installing window boxes.

That was my week… what did you do?

Chicken Chores & Whitewash

Over the weekend, we accomplished a pile of chicken chores.  I finished our Ussery Shelter, adding a front door, wire reinforcement and a bunch of latches and accessories to make it more functional and, I dare-say, attractive.  I’m going to wait on that post because there are a few more details I’d like to add that I’m hoping to acquire within the next few days (after a much needed trip south to civilization).

We also relocated our compost pile from the side of the chicken coop to the back field, where the winter’s droppings can compost down to something we can use in the garden this fall.  I was astounded by just how much decomposition had taken place in the chicken coop over the winter!  As soon as we finished cleaning out the coop, we left the floors to dry overnight because this afternoon, I’ll be doing a full whitewash of all surfaces.

Interested in whitewash?  It’s a process farmers have used for years to coat the inside of structures where animals are kept or, more often, milked.  It has mild antibacterial and I’ve noticed that it brightens up our otherwise dark chicken coop, particularly in the winter.

To prepare the coop for whitewashing, we cleared everything out of it, scraped and swept the floors, nest boxes and perches.

Preparing the Space

To make whitewash, you mix the following in a bucket:

Ingredients

12 c. Hydrated Lime
1 lb. of Table Salt (I used un-iodized)
1 or 2 Gallons of Warm Water (roughly – just mix until it forms a thick paint-like consistency)

I always work with a mask and heavy gloves when I’m dealing with hydrated lime, as it is caustic in its powdered form.  When mixing, work with a long piece of scrap wood to avoid any splatter.

Whitewash!

Using a brush, apply a thick coat of whitewash, then let dry.  One thing I didn’t realize when we did this last year was just how long it can take to set.  And old farming book suggests as many as two or three days to harden, so please give yourself plenty of time before you have to return your birds to their home!  Note that it will spread with a greyish tint, but once it dries it turns a brilliant white.

Wet Whitewash

Dry & Truly White Whitewash

Happy whitewashing!

Wedding Antiques

Yesterday, while out at a local yard sale, I was able to secure two really neat finds for the wedding.  The first is something I’ve always secretly wanted (even though it doesn’t… and may never work).

1914 Remington 10 Typewriter

I’ve started some basic cleanup, using mild dish soap and warm water to wrest the dust and grime out of the mechanical workings and off of the keys.  I also used a paintbrush and small hand pumped air compressor (of the type you use to clean cameras) to gently push the larger chunks of dust and old paper (!) out of the inner mechanical workings.  A friend suggested using motor oil as a lubricant and general cleaner to bring out the machine’s shine without repainting or totally refurbishing (neither of which I really want to do… I’m perfectly happy with its antique qualities), but I’m waiting back to get more details from him before I progress any further.  Ideally, I would like to leave a little note typed in the typewriter, next to our guestbook, welcoming guests and inviting them to hand-sign the guestbook.

Cleaned Up a Bit

Close-Up of the Keys After Polishing

I also found an old soda box.  Thinking of the Coca-Cola Cooler, I picked that up, as well, without really taking a close look at the contents…

Squeeze Beverage Box

I can’t really express how thrilled I was to get home and discover how cute the included bottles were…

Squeeze Bottles... Discovered after the Purchase

I mean, seriously, folks, how perfect are these for a wedding?

Squeeze Bottle Close-Up

And now for a day of coop cleaning and tractor building…

Check in tomorrow for the final Ussery Update and later this week for a post on cleaning out and preparing chicken coops for summer!

 

Plans…

It’s just after five a.m., and outside I can hear one of the roosters crowing throatily at the still-dark horizon.  Oscar is competing, at least in volume, with a deep silky purr from somewhere in the vicinity of my laundry basket, and Abby… Abby my fearless runner… is so entirely fast asleep in the bedroom that short of snapping on her leash, nothing will wake her until the sun comes up.

Today is the first day of April Break, the last gasp of quiet before graduation and summer and the wedding.  It’s the last day of week five of 5K training, timed eights looming in the future, though they seem so much easier this year than they did last year.  The program is more reasonable, the dog is happier, and it’s nice to have company when I’m out running on these rural country roads.

I have a lot that I need to do over break.  I need to finish painting the cupcake tower from Jason’s father, plant some seeds that haven’t gone in yet (kale!), get to work on a new sewing project and – hopefully! – start re-dividing the chickens after our early division of the flock took a turn for the worst when the weather became unbearably cold and everyone had to go back inside together. That’s all beyond the spring cleaning that the house so desperately needs and the yard work that is still a bit premature.

But today… today I’m going yard-sale-ing with some good friends and taking time to get my hair cut… because after a solid month of work… a little time away from everything is just what I need!

Have a great weekend!

The Weekend in Review

It’s been a crazy few weeks up north.  Between work, a new roof and 5K training with Abby (Week 5!), it’s been just about all I can do to get a meal on the table and collapse into bed every evening.  But there are a few notable things that have been going on.  On Friday night, Jason’s parents dropped off the cupcake tower that his dad made for the wedding (a more complete set of instructions will follow next week); it still needs to be painted but it’s even more fantastic than I had imagined.  Oscar immediately tried it out and convinced us of just how far he needs to be from the wedding and the cupcakes.

Oscar, auditioning for the role of cake topper.

I was able to finish up the quilt I’ve been working on for Jason’s mom since February and was really thrilled to be able to gift it to her on Easter.

Hallie's finished quilt!

Speaking of Easter, I arrived home today to find a really fantastic surprise from my Mom: the bistro table I’ve been daydreaming about for the last year and a half… now if only the snow would melt, so I can plant my flowers and start enjoying an early morning coffee on the back porch…

Bistro Table, Waiting for Spring! Imagine window boxes lining the porch rail and a riot of color... and less snow.

And in the world of the garden, the seedlings are making great progress, though the lettuce seeds from last year failed to sprout.  We currently have a profusion of basil, tomatoes, peppers and spinach!

Seedlings, April 10.

Tomato Close-Up

Peppers (Foreground) & Basil (Background)

I hope you’re all having a great week!  I’m looking forward to sharing Part III of our Ussery Update on Sunday morning.

Updating Ussery’s Pasture Shelter: Part II, Building the Box

Today, I’m going to discuss framing the box at the top of our modified Ussery shelter. We started by completely framing in the floor and nesting boxes, which you can see in yesterday’s post.

Two Roosting Box Ends (Front Triangle with Notch in Foreground)

In order to close in the box and protect the girls at night, we designed two triangular panels to fit on either side of the floor (the roof being already secure in Ussery’s initial design).  These ends screw flush against the back frame and the frame of the fifth rafter forward (when slid into place).  I started by measuring the hypotenuse of the  triangle at the very bottom of our support board, ensuring that I added the width that the rafters to this measurement.  We then measured the height from the bottom of the support board to the apex of the roof at the midpoint.  Finally, we used these measurements (plus an additional inch on either side of the top apex measurement since the ridgepole has a width of two inches) to trace a triangle onto our plywood.   We cut out one, measured it against the frame (Victory!) and then traced a second.  It’s important to remember when you trace your second to cut out a notch where it will have to slide up around the ridgepole (since what will become the front piece is inside the shelter, rather than attached flush against the front of the building.

Jason then made a template  for the two doors (roughly 12” L x 18”W) that we planned to cut into each triangle – one for eggs on the back (which sits  two inches above the bottom to ensure nothing rolls out when I open it) and one for cleaning in the front (which he put in the same place before cutting the door all the way to the bottom, to allow for sweeping out any unwanted chicken droppings (so there wouldn’t be a threshold in the way).  He installed both doors with utility hinges before we screwed them onto the shelter.

Rear-View with Raised Entry Hatch

Front-View with Flush Entry Hatch

Meanwhile, I added  a few 2”x2” boards cut to size in what would become the nest box to provide some privacy and a sense of delineation between the roosting box and the nesting area. 

The final step to completing the roosting box was to add in two roosts.  We did this because we have a few girls who stubbornly insist on being as high as possible at night (through we can’t really blame them).  We added two braces about a foot from the apex of the roof, their edges cut at 45 degree angles.  In order to keep the ends from cracking, we drilled pilot holes before securing them in place.

Roosts

Jason then added a final coat of white paint on exposed areas, while I began to attach a layer of hardware cloth to the back of the shelter.  We chose to cover the ENTIRE structure in hardware cloth, as it provides superior poultry protection.

Hardware Cloth

Finally, we installed the roofing.  We were careful in placing an extra row of screws that drilled directly into the base to ensure that pests would be kept out, though I will likely still run two extra stringers along the bottom to close a few small gaps that remain.

Shelter with Completed Roosting/Nesting Box

Check back next weekend for finishing touches and the girls’ first time in their new home!

Updating Ussery’s Pasture Shelter – Part I

Last weekend, we built 90% of Ussery’s pasture shelter in about a day and a half.  Given that we don’t have the resources (or desire, for that matter) to traffic in electric fencing for our girls, we re-engineered several key parts of the shelter to make it safer and less predator-friendly. I’m going to cover the changes we made last weekend here, but if you want to build your own Ussery shelter, please seek out his marvelous book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.

The one step we did take that saved us TONS of time was to go to Jason’s father’s house a week before we built the shelter and cut all of our wood with his table saw.  Given his father’s expertise and ability, we were able to assemble the basic structure of Ussery’s design with far less difficulty.  In addition to Ussery’s supplies, we also puchased 4 2”x2”x8′ boards for additional framing and a sheet of 1/2” plywood, from which we cut the two triangular panels to build a roosting box in the top of our shelter.  We also needed two extra pairs of hinges because I wanted a second entry into the roosting box and a drawbridge that we could pull up at night to keep out creatures with sharp claws and teeth.  Finally, we increased the quantity of hardware cloth to a 25′ roll of 1/2”  cloth that was 36” wide.  This was crucial to maintaining the safety of our girls without vastly increasing the weight of the design.  We painted our structure with white exterior paint to brighten it up and prevent the wood from rotting.

Now, let me walk you through our process.  We started by building Ussery’s basic framework and placing it on the wheels he specified.  We drilled 1/2” holes 10” from each end of the shelter 1” down from the top edge of the frame.  This left us with just over an inch of clearance from the ground when the wheels were installed (an ideal spot for an animal to start digging from, especially in the spring before our grass starts to grow.  To combat this, I stapled 2” of hardware cloth around all four edges, extending down almost to ground level, with the spiky edge pointed down.

Wire-Reinforced Tractor Base

Next, we placed what would become the base braces of our roost/nesting box.  This base is part of Ussery’s initial design but serves as a set of roosts, rather than a secure space for the chickens at night.  To do this, we cut a 45 degree angle into a 2”x2” board, measured 57” and cut another 45 degree angle, so at its widest point, the board was 57” long (we did this with four boards).  This will give almost two full feet of clearance for the birds underneath the box.

Base of Nesting Box/Roosting Box
Cut Four

Moving from the BACK of the structure, we drilled pilot holes then secured the first three braces in place (the first is in the back triangle of the structure).  We then skipped one set of rafters (to allow for the drawbridge to swing up at night and attached the fifth).

View of box supports from back corner looking toward the front of the tractor. Note that there are no braces on the front two rafters.

Once the supports were in place, we cut a square of plywood to form the base of our floor (and the support for the drawbridge).  Ours measured 37” x 30”, and 4 inches from the end that would attach to the rafter (a 30” end), we cut a second 12” W x 24” rectangle to provide a hatch for our chickens to access the box when the drawbridge (14” W by 40” L) is lowered.  We set this directly in the middle of the front braces (the pair with the space in between) and measured the distance from each side (roughly 11”).  At this point, we did have to remove sections of Ussery’s diagonal cross ties because they would inhibit our ability to place a box in the upper section of the structure.  We removed them with a hand saw.

Placement of Flooring

Using a marker, I noted where the center piece needed to go and then removed it, so I could begin to construct the hardware cloth floor.  I measured the distance from the triangular eave to the line on each side, adding about an inch of overlap that would fit up under the middle flooring (and give our floor a bit more stability) four of the 1 1/2” x 3/4” stringer boards and cut them to measure from our front box brace to our back box brace (five rafter lengths).  At this time, I also measured out two pieces of hardware cloth and cut them to 12” by 74”.  I placed the hardware cloth into the frame on either side, returning the middle wood to hold it down, then I used the stringer boards to hold each slice of hardware cloth firmly in place, sandwiching the wire between the box supports and the stringer boards and ensuring a tight fit by stapling at every six to eight inches into the stringer boards which fit flush against the bottom of the rafter and the middle flooring.

Framed Wire Floor Panel

After placing about fifteen staples in each stringer board and ensuring the wire would stay put, I slid out each piece of wiring (now attached to the boards) and stapled at every half inch connection, ensuring a tight and solid fit for the floor (without having to be upside down under the structure for forty five minutes.

While I worked on the flooring, Jason attached the drawbridge to the main flooring with a pair of 1/2” utility hinges.  We designed our drawbridge to extend well over our opening (so it would touch the ground and also enable us to place a rope tie at the end).  He added an eyehook to the base of the drawbridge and several chunks of wood to form steps for the girls.  he then added three eye hooks to the top of the shelter (running along the underside of the ridgepole, so we could thread a rope up and through and ensure proper closure.  Finally, he drilled a 1/2” hole through our rear box triangle (included in part II).

Eyehooks for Drawbridge

Meanwhile, I replaced the two frames of hardware cloth and after double-checking that the mid piece still fit (and refitting it again) I drilled pilot holes from the stringers into the box supports an then screwed them in place.  I next secured the hardware cloth to the box supports for added strength, then covered them with small chunks of wood that I screwed in place (almost like building a frame around each piece of hardware cloth).

We then removed the mid piece for the final time and secured a piece of hardware cloth from the back box brace to the third brace in (30” x 38”), where we would construct the nesting box and the end of the roosting box.  I simply stapled this piece in place on each of the three braces, then covered the first two with chunks of wood, which I screwed into place.  The third brace was reinforced when we (finally!) screwed the middle piece of plywood (and its drawbridge) in place.  We then ran the drawbridge rope up through the hardware cloth floor and threaded it through each eye hook (testing to ensure it worked).

To ensure the safety of our girls, we had to add a chunk of 2” x 4” x 12” on either side of the drawbridge (underneath) to eliminate a gap caused by a spot where the drawbridge hit one of the box braces.

Drawbridge... Lifting!

Secure!

In tomorrow’s post… building the nest box and framing in the roosting box!

Preparing for our Backyard Wedding

What no one tells you when you start planning for a backyard wedding is to be prepared to see your home/yard and surroundings in an entirely new and uncomfortable way.  I remember when Jason and I first started dating, my response to the snow melting and those first spears of grass thrusting up was: wow, this place would be awesome for a wedding!  The rolling hills, the huge expanses of verdant field, it all reminded me of a Martha Stewart magazine photo from 2007 (the year my mother remarried), featuring a wedding in the middle of a freshly mowed field (if anyone could link me to that image again, I’d be deeply grateful, though I fear it is lost to the internet forever).

Well, now that that snow is melting, we’ve started on a few pretty major projects in earnest, the largest of which will commence today, our new roof!  Living in an A-Frame, the roof is such a focal point to our home that when we decided to hold our nuptials here, we realized that it was also a good time to replace our roof and its 3-Tab shingles that are just past their 30th birthday.  Today, our contractor is coming to begin placement of a new set of 30 year shingles in the architectural style.  To say we’re excited is such an understatement!

On top of that, we’ve built a new chicken coop, and as soon as its warm enough, we’ll begin painting trim and staining porches and the old shed where we house the tractor and winter coop. There are also a ton of wedding and gardening projects in my future, but I find that small steps makes it all seem more manageable.

My only advice to brides is to plan your dress fittings around these stressful events because nothing cheers me up more than getting a chance to slip into that gown that so embodies the day we are both waiting for, even if I have given up the occasional second beer and chocolate binge to ensure that it fits as beautifully as possible.