Sunday, March 1, 2015

March Beehives

Peeked in the hives yesterday and added a bit more sugar candy to the hives that need it, or repositioned the candy closer to the bees.  As you can see, they munch a hole up through the middle of the candy and it helps to then slowly slide the candy closer to them.  

Close up of bees with sugar candy
Peeking in top of the hive  
The cluster of bees in the picture above is covering 6 of the 10 frames in the box.  You can't see them all, but they are underneath the sugar candy.  I can tell how many frames they are covering by looking in (quickly!) from the top.  I wouldn't open the hive just to do this, but I opened it briefly to check on their candy level, so I also checked how many frames the cluster was covering.  This cluster should be big enough to stay warm til the weather breaks if all goes well.

When nectar starts flowing and the temperatures warm, I will remove the remnants of candy and the wooden spacer so that the bees don't build comb in the space.  (I usually do this a little too late and they get started building a little comb here, but I'll try to be ahead of them this year!)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Birds in Trees

A roosting chicken is a happy chicken.  We are talking laying hens here.  Wild chickens sleep in trees, away from prowling predators.  Chickens were domesticated from the Jungle Fowl of areas of Thailand about 8000 years ago, and they have retained that love of sleeping up high.  Jungle Fowl are beautiful, lean birds, and many folks raise them still (hopefully where they have plenty of free range) as they are very hardy and self sufficient birds, and good mothers, so I have read.  Though modern chicken breeding has aimed to breed out many traits of a natural chicken, such as the urge to sit on a clutch of eggs and hatch them out (going broody), they have retained many of the traits of their ancestors, such as the urge to scratch for bugs, the desire to live in a flock of companions, and the wish roost up high at night out of (perceived) harms way.

The pictures in this post are less than sharp, as it was dusk in the coop and light was low.  
Chicken Feet
As with all things chicken, there are a million theories on the way roosts should be set up.  Old school coops had roosts elevated over droppings boards, which would need to be cleaned of manure often, as chickens do a lot of pooping at night.  There are theories that flat wide roosts are best as the chicken can cover all toes with her belly feathers if she is flat footed at night and therefore prevent any cold damage to the toes.  Their are theories that tree branches are best since they are more natural.  In trying some different types of roosting set ups, these are some things that I have read from trusted sources and find work for me.  

Sometimes they face opposite ways on the roost

1)  Wood is the best material.  Metal should not be used as it gets too cold and is slippery, same for plastic.  

2) The best shape is neither round nor a hard-edge square, but a softly rounded square shape for the bird's foot to grab onto but not be uncomfortable on (a 2'" x 3" with the 2" side face up seems to work well but there are many other options).

3) The roosts should be high enough that the birds can get to them easily.  I think I have my roosts a bit too high for my heavy birds, as they make quite a thud flying off them.  At least they are landing in soft deep litter.  2' off the ground would probably be a bit better than they are now, at waist high.  

4) Plan for poop.  Manure gets dropped over night.  I just add deep litter to cover every other day.  Some people use sand under and scoop the poop like a cat box and put it on the compost pile.  You could use a droppings board but you would need to empty it onto your compost pile everyday, especially in summer, so as not to attract flies.  

5) Give the right amount of space on the roosts:  8" - 12" per bird depending on how big your birds are.  I made the mistake of giving 2 roosts with quite a bit of space, thinking more space was better.  What happened was 12 of the 13 chickens squeezed onto one roost, leaving the chicken at the bottom of the pecking order cold and alone on her own roost.  So, I shortened the roosts so they are forced to split up into two groups and keep each other warm that way.  

6) Ladder roosts means there will be a game of King of the Mountain every night.  By this I mean, the highest perches are most desirable and fighting will ensue to secure the top positions.  So, I opted for all roosts at an even height, even though it takes up more room.  

7) Bedtime is a nervous time for chickens.  They spend time getting into the right spot, moving around on the roosts, quibbling a little.  This is the time predators start to prowl, and they can sense that I think.  Then they settle down and conk out. 

As shown in the picture below, even with the 2" side of the 2" x 3" facing up, the bird is still able to cover most of her toes with her belly feathers.

Goodbye toes

Thursday, February 12, 2015

PASA Farming Conference 2015

Every year in February, I head to State College PA with a couple other folks from Pittsburgh to take part in Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's Farming For the Future Conference.  Now that is a mouthful for ya!  It's always great, but this year it was especially great.  The theme was "Nature as Mentor", just my cup of tea.  

Silver Fox aloe, purchased at the conference
I usually buy one or two books I've been wanting while I'm there.  This year I bought four.  Oops. The tool vendors are the really dangerous booths to visit, since they all carry really nice, well-crafted tools.  It's hard not to walk out of there looking like your ready to set up a garden for an entire army. I escaped after paring down my purchases to a pair of nice, inexpensive $16 Bahco bypass pruners, an axe,  and a serrated greens harvesting knife.

Books and seeds
Francis Moore Lappe was the keynote on day one.  She gave a powerful talk about the reality of hunger in a world that is producing plenty of food.  She showed slides from across the globe, stories of hope, of folks taking their destiny into their own hands and finding ways to create secure, local food systems against great odds.   I look forward to learning more about the work of Lappe and her daughter's project,  The Small Planet Institute.

The speaker the second day was a Ray Archuleta, a Conservation Agronomist from NRCS who had made a conversion from conventional agriculture to more sustainable ag 9 years ago.  Pictured below was part of his presentation showing the differences in the ability of non-tilled and tilled soils to hold together and allow water to pass through.  The no-till soil was able to do both, while the tilled soil was able to do neither.  On my small scale, it is easy not to till.  I never have.  But what about farmers that have already invested in the infrastructure, that have tractors and have everything set up with tillage as a way things are done?  Not as easy for them to just drop everything and make the switch.

I attended many great workshops, one on honeybee queens with one of my favorite beekeeper/teachers, Ross Conrad.  Another by Susan Beal on poultry health.  Jean-Martin Fortier discussed his version of intensive market gardening, and the Xerces Society gave an info packed talk on land stewardship for pollinator conservation, among many other topics.

Now, back at home, I am getting back to the business of getting ready to grow, both at work, and here on the homestead.  In our basement, I potted up my first seedlings of the season, the slow growing Alpine Strawberries I have been nursing along.  I await Spring with all the excitement of a kid!

Alpine Strawberries

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Secret Nest & Maggie's Farm Rum

I thought the chickens were taking a winter break from laying until I moved some things around in their coop and found a pile of 17 eggs.  They had been squeezing behind the straw bales that I store in there until needed as bedding, and laying eggs in a secret hidden spot.  Fine by me; now I know to look there!

Secret Nest
On another note, a group of friends and I visited Maggie's Farm Rum, Pittsburgh's very own rum distillery.  After a tasting, owner Tim Russell gave us a tour and explained the process.  Distilling alcohol is an area where my knowledge base is down near zero, so I just sat back and admired the lovely copper pot still and (kind of) absorbed how it all works.  This I gathered: rum is made from sugar, methanol is bad alcohol and ethanol is good alcohol as far as drinking, and different things come from the distillation process called "heads", "hearts" and "tails".  Maggie's farm re-uses the "tails" and redistills them to get "the heads of the tails" which they use in their signature Queen's Share rums, inspired by rum distillers of days gone by.  Interesting stuff, and good rum!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


We have gotten about 6" of snow and it's beautiful.  The chicken run is holding, despite my doubts on it's stability.  Morning and eve, I brush the snow accumulation off, and it has agreed to stay standing until we can reinforce it.

Wonky run is holding

Jason has starting bringing home veggie scraps from the kitchen at the restaurant where he works.  Kitchen scraps definitely keep the chickens entertained for awhile, as they toss up each kale stem in the air and bite of the bits of leaf, or play keep-away with favorite bits of squash.

Kitchen scraps are endless fun

Monday, January 26, 2015

Birds & Bees

Where I have my beehive positioned it gets great sun, which is good in winter (and needs to be shaded next summer) but it also gets blasted by wind.  About a month ago, I put up some straw bales on the sides of the hive that get hit the hardest by wind.  I didn't stack them right up against the hive, I left some space in between.

Windbreak of straw bales around the beehive (prevailing winds sides)
Note how the outer cover of the hive is jauntily askew.  That is on purpose.  Offsetting the lid like this uncovers the hole towards the front of the inner cover, and allows better ventilation of moist air from the bees' respiration.  This airflow prevents condensation from forming inside the cover and dripping on the cluster of bees.  There should also be "dead airspace" under the hive, but open area for fresh air to enter below the hive and be drawn out the top.  I do this by wrapping the pallet I have the hive placed on with tarp to block wind from blowing up into the hive through the screened bottom board from below.  However, I don't wrap it tightly and leave areas for air to enter.  

The chickens winter set up is still functioning well.  I plan to clean out all the litter in the spring for further composting, or the garden, where appropriate.

Deep litter seems to still be working
Back row: L to R New Hampshire Red, Silver Laced Wyandotte, Front Row: Dominique, Delaware
Feeder, Nest Boxes, Dust Box and straw bales as hangout spots until needed for deep litter
Clockwise from bottom left: Dominique, Easter Egger, Silver Laced Wyandotte, Delaware

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Half Ass Chicken Run

I've been wanting to build a covered space for the chickens to hang out in for awhile.  The problem is, I am an impatient builder.  I like to cut corners and do things "quickly" rather than "properly".  Got a job that should take several people several days to complete?  Great, I can do it by myself this afternoon! No problem!  I see this as a shortcoming and a positive trait.  Often I can get something done "good enough", though it may look a little, shall we say, unsightly.  

Wonky, wavy, welded wire
I want to improve my building skills.  What good skills to have, right?  But in the meantime, that doesn't stop me from doing a half ass job in the mean time.  So, this afternoon I built this jankety chicken run, sliding around in mud and chicken poop and having a grand old time.  This is not a run for your pinterest board folks.  This is a chicken run badly in need of support arches before the first snow load hits.  Granted, I drove out to Tractor Supply and tried to buy cattle panel for the arch supports, but they were about 1/4" shy of fitting in my truck bed because of the liner.  "I know!"  I thought, "I'll just use the leftover welded wire fencing roll we have for the arches and prop it up with all manner of supports including branches, a ladder, and hoops of aluminum conduit.  That'll work great!"

Don't have proper supports,? Just use a ladder!
"Bawk!  This run rules!"
Mud and Chicken Poop Slip 'n Slide
Tonight it gets cold and the ground should freeze solid and stay that way until Thursday, when it should be warm enough for a 2 person overhaul of the supports, hopefully adding some arched supports that will give the run an aesthetically pleasing appearance of a tube, instead of a lumpy plastic monster type shape.  

Despite its many shortcomings, the chickens seem to love it.

At least I did this right.  To attach plastic sheeting to a board, use 1" x 2"s and screws
"Hmmm, how does this work?"
Attached sheeting
Lumpy Run