Raking and Baling

Dad raked the hay late Wednesday morning while I was working.  He began by raking every other row then turning the rig around and raking the ones he missed into the already raked one.  Two, two, two windrows in one. (Let me know in comments if anybody got that reference…)

Then, late in the afternoon, after your tireless but tired author got off work, it was time to bale the hay.  Until then I had never run the baler.  I am the stacker.  But there was no limit to my sneezing that day so dad took over at the halfway point and my kids filmed and narrated.

My 8 year old has lots to tell you.  I think it’s hilarious.  He made 40 minutes of video and never stopped talking.

I hope I’m as young as my dad is when I’m his age.  Anyway, it went OK.  There is a lot to keep track of driving the tractor.  Stuff I had never thought of before.  You have to drive close to the windrow turning left and far when turning right…but not too close or too far.

Running the baler was important to me.  As we read Jim Minick’s The Blueberry Years, we took note of several times he pointed out having helped with a job but never been in charge of a job.  As a consequence, he didn’t really know how to do the job.  I need to know how to do the job (whatever the job is) from start to finish.  It was important that I run the baler this time.

Our alfalfa field looks denuded in the video but in the week since we baled it has rained and the field has greened up considerably.  Hurricane Isaac should bring us rain this weekend too.

The alfalfa hay took us about an hour to bale.  Then I worked on the garden with some of the kids while dad and other children greased and cleaned the baler to prepare it for winter storage.  The hay conditioner, rake and baler have all been cleaned up and put away.  Another season down.  Over the weekend we unloaded the wagons and stacked the bales neatly in the barn.  There is still more work to do but at least that job is behind us.

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Composting 101: How to do it

I was in Worm’s Way last spring and overheard a customer asking about making compost.  I thought the employee was skirting the issue and since I can’t keep my mouth shut I offered a summary: “If it stinks, add carbon.  If it isn’t hot add nitrogen.”  That may be an oversimplification so I’ll try to lay it out in more detail.

We have composted for years.  Initially I took it very seriously.  I sunk posts and made a perfectly square pair of 3x3x3 bins for composting.  I turned my piles regularly and religiously.

Now I am much more relaxed about it.  Stuff rots.  It just happens.  I don’t even have to be involved, let alone break my back stirring it, unless I need to speed things along.  That said, I think there is a happy medium between rapid, intensive compost management and slow, smelly, neglected piles.

Just a few things to keep in mind as you conceptualize your compost pile.

1. You can’t screw this up.
2. The hot, working compost pile is a living organism, or rather, a community of trillions of individuals but should bee seen as one.
3. Living things don’t smell rotten.  Compost should not smell rotten.  Add carbon.
4. The compost monster likes to be moist, not wet.  Add carbon.
5. The compost monster shouldn’t be compressed.  It needs to be able to breathe.  Add carbon.
6. If your pile is moist and has plenty of air space but is not hot, add some nitrogen.
7. This is not a science…or a competition.

Most people tell you about ratios required for making compost.  “You need C/N ratio of 30:1.”  Really?  What does that mean?  Usually I just have a bucket of carrot peelings and newspaper.  Ratios?  I have to do math?  …AND CHEMISTRY!  Really?!?!  As Tyler Durden said, “…stop being perfect…let the chips fall where they may”.  He’s right.  Again, if your compost pile is wet or stinky, add some carbon (straw, sawdust, shredded newspaper, fallen tree leaves).  The added brown material will also help the pile breathe.  If it’s not hot and cooking, add nitrogen (grass clippings, fresh horse manure, urine).  I also find it is helpful to keep a thick layer of straw, grass or other course brown material on top of the pile to retain moisture and filter odors.  Whatever you do, stop worrying about your compost.  There is room for error here.  Stop making excuses and just get started.

Where to start?  Make a pile.  Any pile.  Put four pallets together in a square or get a length of fence and put it in a ring.  Done.  That said, I can’t seem to make a compost pile large enough.  As I said above, I began above with 3x3x3.  That is almost enough mass to keep it hot and working in the winter in zone 5 and is a good size for someone with a small yard in town.  I, however, no longer live in town so I made a 4x4x4.  That wasn’t big enough so I had to double it.  Here is our two-year old pile, composted, compressed, and ready to use:

Last year we increased our pile to 5x5x4 when we began composting humanure and about 1,000 pounds of chicken guts hoping it would be big enough.

It wasn’t.

Now I’m using pallets to make a 6x6x4 compost pile that could easily become 9x6x4 or even 12x6x4.  I just have to add more pallets.

But I’m on a different timeline than many gardeners.  I make so much compost and have so much space that I don’t mind if it takes 2 years to make compost.  But you may need the fertility immediatly.  If so, there are options.

One option is a composter.  Though not my style, I like the look of the Lifetime 80-gallon composter.

Click the image for more detail including a video.  That composter appears to be a way to compost without ticking off your suburban neighbors.  It also creates the compost fairly quickly.  John Kohler suggests you keep two of these, one you add to regularly, one that is finishing up.  Please notice how hard John has to work in his video.

If you’re doing a larger amount and your back is strong you can make two piles and just switch between them every day for two weeks to end with finished compost.  That sounds good…until about day 4.

What about compost activator?  What about wood ashes?  What about lime?  Meh.  John Kohler above says to add rock powder.  Again, meh.  If you need lime in your garden add it directly to your garden.  Same with ashes and rock powder.  I think compost activator is something they sell to suckers.  The organisms that break down scraps already live in your yard.  They’ll start working quickly.  That said, I usually add a bit of finished compost to a new compost pile.

Now, if you don’t want to bother with a compost pile I have good news.  You can just do sheet mulching.  Just make several layers of compostable materials over your garden bed and bury your compost in the mulch.  The worms are already there, the nutrients will be used in place.  You can’t screw this up.  Though I don’t entirely agree with this, here’s what Bill Mollison has to say about it in Introduction to Permaculture:

So what have you done by composting? You have worked hard to decrease the nutrients badly. Most of them go into the air. Composting consumes them. We want to get right out of composting. We want to get back into sheet mulching. In composting, you are taking a lot of material, putting it into a small place, and letting the whole of the decomposition activity happen under hot conditions which can be appropriate for some things. When you mulch, you are spreading those materials and letting the process occur much more slowly on the surface of the soil. Any leach loss goes into the soil, and the general level of activity spreads across the whole of it. By the time the mulch has reduced to compost, most of the action has finished. If you want to get maximum value out of what you have, sheet mulch it. If you want to increase your nutrient base, do it efficiently.

In this picture, I have a 4″ layer of manure and hay covered by a 4-6″ layer of composted wood chips.  This is covered by a thin layer of bedding out of the chicken house (manure and sawdust).

This is my attempt at a Back to Eden garden.  I’ll leave these layers as they are until spring when I’ll plant directly into them.  As Bill suggests above, I could scratch a hole deep into the layers and deposit compost here.  We produce an enormous volume of compost, much of which is meat scrap.  I have enough trouble with animals digging in my garden already.  We work to efficiently compost meat scrap and manures in a heap though, yes, I have to haul it there then haul it out.  I honestly don’t know how to measure the nutrient loss Bill describes.  I assume my compost pile is not 100% efficient but that’s part of the reason I’m always building it in different places.  But, hey, wear what you dig.

Any way you do it, it’s well within your ability to compost.  Build a pile, use a turning machine or bury it in the garden.  Your choice.  Just do your best to minimize the waste coming out of your house.  Do your best to maximize the nutrients returning to your garden.

For additional reading I highly recommend the Humanure Handbook.  Even if you are not interested in humanure, the book is an excellent reference on composting.

For your final exam, choose a method of composting to begin using then report in the comments on its progress and your experience.

Composting 100: Why bother?

Why bother composting?  I can’t believe you asked that question!

To abuse Renault’s line, “I’m shocked.  Shocked! to find that composting is not going on here!”

I have to admit composting is not the easiest thing in the world to do.  Don’t get me wrong, everything rots in time but if you want quality compost, in a reasonable amount of time without creating a buffet for varments and without an odor, you have to work at it.  It’s not simply a matter of throwing banana peels and grass clippings in a pile by the garden and 2 weeks later…voila…compost.

Further, you have to gather the stuff in your kitchen and/or yard.  That can be unpleasant.  That what’s-it that went bad in the jar in the fridge?  You know, that stuff that has grown hair since you forgot about it at least a month ago?  That’s compost.  That sour milk?  Compost.  Paper plates from the birthday party?  Compost.  But instead of dropping all those things in the trash, tying the top of the bag and setting it out for the trash man, taking precautions to keep masked bandits out of it you are going to drop all those things in a bucket, put a lid on and dump it in your compost pile, taking precautions to keep masked bandits out of it.

What happens when you do this?  You remove 40-50% of the waste, possibly more if you normally set out yard waste.  You’re putting out half the trash you normally do (less if you recycle diligently).  Your trash doesn’t stink or attract animals.  The trash company either stops by less frequently or hauls less weight.  Either way, you are cutting fuel usage.  All that stuff you keep gives you nicer flowers, healthier grass and happier worms.  This is the heart of stewardship.  Not sorting compost is the same as putting a $5 bill in every bag of trash.  Compost has value.  If you send it to the landfill you have wasted a valuable resource…not to mention the money we, as a nation, literally flush down the toilet.

As a real world example, our family now produces two large trash bags each month.  We produce about one bag worth of recycling.  We produce at least three bags worth of compost and we burn a fair portion of our paper goods and use the ashes on the garden.

So, class, your assignment is to start paying attention to your waste.  What are you throwing away that would rot?  Begin paying attention.  Kleenex?  Coffee Grounds?  Banana peels?  Lawn clippings?  Keep your eyes open.  Next time we’ll get into the mechanics.

Cheesy Potato Soup

Cheesy Potato Soup is one of our family’s favorites.  With our plethora of potatoes right now we have this soup at least once a week.

Start with homemade chicken broth made from Chism Heritage Farm Chicken backs and necks.

While the broth is finishing up fry a pound of ground pork.

Next add about a 1/4 cup of sausage seasoning.  (You could just use a pound of breakfast sausage.)

Filter about 8 cups of the chicken broth.

Use the broth to cook 8 large diced potatoes.

While the potatoes are cooking, saute 1 onion and 1 pressed garlic clove.

When the potatoes are tender (usually takes about 20 minutes), mash the potatoes.

Add your spices.  This time I used about a handful of herbs I pulled from our garden.  I chopped up the basil, oregano, and thyme and added it to the soup.

Next, add about 2 cups shredded mozzarella.

and 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese.

Pour in about 2 1/2 cups of milk.

Stir soup consistently till cheese is melted.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

This makes a large batch of soup.  It fed my family of 6 last night, today for lunch and there is enough to send in Farm Steward’s lunch tomorrow.

My great, great uncle

This is my great, great uncle Dick (in 1896 or 1897).

This is the house that my great, great uncle Dick built in 1912.

These are the children who lay in the house my great, great uncle Dick built in 1912.

This is the field that surrounds
the children who lay in the house that my great, great uncle Dick built in 1912.

You see where I’m going with this?

Thanks Great, Great Uncle Dick.  Happy 100th birthday, house.

(Forgive me for using such dated pictures.  I hate to tell you how long ago I wrote this post…)

Mowing Hay in Pictures

We made our final cutting of alfalfa on Sunday.  My eldest son and I took a few pictures as dad was cutting the hay.  It was neat to see the swallows swooping in and grabbing bugs behind the mower.  There were also quite a few dragonflies out.  Most of the dragonflies and swallows are already on their way out.  Dad noticed the barn swallows started leaving about 10 days earlier than normal this year.

Watch for the swallows catching bugs in this video:

Farm Bank Deposits

Northern people have always been savers.  Those that didn’t save didn’t make the winter.  Those that saved may have made the winter.  Farmers are savers.  We are savers.  Unfortunately, we don’t have any money.  We save sunshine.  This is the main branch of the First Chism Heritage Farmers Bank, established in 18??.  We keep our sunshine here.

Isn’t it majestic? (don’t mind the paint job or the leaky roof)  Several times each year we walk up to the teller’s window to make a deposit.

Then, to keep banking fees to a minimum, we head into the vault to help arrange, sort and stack the deposits.  Here’s a small portion of this year’s deposits.

In the foreground you can see a low stack of sunshine in the form of alfalfa bales from the third cutting.  Further back, among the posts, is more sunshine in the form of grass hay we cut earlier in the year.  To the left (and out of the camera) is an absolute mountain of alfalfa hay.  There are also a few fair piles of straw tucked away here and there.  Tons and tons of sunshine.  Think of the different kinds of hay as different kinds of currency and I’ll keep my lame bank analogy running.  When withdrawals are needed we head into the vault, determine which kind of currency is in demand that day and grab a whole bale of it.

Since this is a farm economy (and something of a closed loop) any withdrawls from the loft vault are soon to become deposits somewhere else.

Then deposits somewhere else.

Then deposits somewhere else.

Then out to the alfalfa field.  Just add sunlight and a dash of rain and we’re ready to fill the barn vault again.

The Last Broilers of 2012

Well, it’s time.  We recieved our last batch of broilers for the year.  We were on the fence about ordering more birds but the weather cooled off a bit, it finally rained and we are nearly sold out of boneless breast meat.  At the last minute we decided to order 125 chicks.

I called our normal hatchery, Schlecht Hatchery, to see if she could fit me in the 8/15 shipment.  Etta said she had gone to hatching every other week and wouldn’t be able to fill my order until September 5th.  Well, a Sep. 5th ship date means a Nov. 1. butcher date.  I don’t want to butcher chickens in November again…too cold.  I called another supplier, Sun Ray Hatchery (also in Iowa).  They acted like they were waiting for me to call.  No problem at all with my order.

I had very good luck with turkeys from Sun Ray last summer and I have high hopes for their chicks.  At any rate, these are all destined to be cut-up birds, available either Oct. 13th or 20th depending on weather.  Between now and then we have a good supply of whole frozen birds and backs but very few boneless breasts, leg quarters or wings available.  If you are in the market for a whole bird or one hundred whole birds, give us a call.  That means it’s a good time to learn how to cook and use the whole bird.  Look for a new series on cooking the whole bird soon and check back for updates as these little birdies grow.  They will be on pasture in early September.

Before the chicks arrived we went through the normal routine.  We put a layer of well-composted (and quite warm) wood chips down in an even layer.  Then we turned on the heat lamps.  We thought we only needed two lamps but it turned out later we needed three.  No big deal.  We filled the water bucket with 5 gallons of water and 1/4th cup of sugar.  The sugar tip came from Andy Lee in Chicken Tractor.  He actually says 3 Tlbs sugar or honey per quart of water for the first 2 days.  I also filled two feed trays and two bucket lids with feed and nestled them into the bedding so they were level with the ground.  That gives the chicks a place to eat at ground level.  It’s important that they don’t have to reach up to eat and, I think, important they don’t have to jump hurdles as they run around and play.  Tomorrow they will get creek sand on top of their feed but today I just want them to drink, warm up and rest.

The post office called early in the morning but we finished our chores before driving to town.  Everybody looked great.  Julie counted 80 chicks from her crate, I lost count of mine.  There were supposed to be 125.  We’ll count them again as we unload the brooder.

Two by two we loaded them into the brooder.  I don’t know how they know but chicks know how to be chicks.  They went right to work.  Scratching, pecking, running, chasing, even drinking from the watering nipples.  Amazing.

Even more amazing was the packaging label.  Caution!  Step Back!  Dangerous Chickens!  OMG!!!  BIRD FLU!!!!!

New Nest boxes

Now, forgive me if this looks crude.  The picture you are about to see represents 15 minutes worth of thought and actual work.  I needed a quick solution to hanging the nest boxes so I could continue moving the chicken tractor.  Three and a half 2x4s later…

The boxes are hanging from screws in the upper 2×4.  There are tarp straps holding the bases together so they don’t swing in the wind.  Everything seems to work fine but it’s suddenly quite a heavy chicken tractor.

I put part of an old tarp between the two nest boxes hoping to offer the hens a little privacy without adding much weight.

So, there you go.  There’s still room for feed and water in the shelter and there’s plenty of airflow.  I just need to make it a bit lighter.  Let me know if you have any ideas.

One Misty Moisty Morning

One Misty Moisty Morning
When cloudy was the weather
The pullets got nestboxes
We all rejoiced together!

I ordered new nest boxes…real nest boxes.  Not the wooden jalopy I normally make but galvanized metal.

I’ll build some sort of framework to hold it after work today but for now I’m just glad I don’t have to hunt for eggs every day.

While we’re taking pictures of the chickens, the younger pullets are coming along nicely.

…and we’re just about ready to harvest our Thanksgiving dinner.  I need to order a couple of turkey-sized bags for the freezer.