Coop Improvements, part 2

Last week’s weather helped me get started on coop improvements for my chickens and ducks. We erected a new shed in the fall and the time has come to convert it to a coop. I learned quite a bit from the first two I did so this one felt pretty easy!

First I needed to build a door. I removed the central panel from the wall that faces the run, then installed 2x4s to use as posts. A piece of scrap made a great lintel, and I used a second piece of scrap to cover the gap between the flooring and the ground – any potential entries for mice need to be blocked. 2×2 boards make perfect doors – I used the hinges I had and a piece of scrap hardware cloth to create an airway in the middle. I had some itty-bitty leftover screws from the shed installation, and they worked wonderfully to hold the hardware cloth in place. This door seemed to come together easily…but then again I’ve built quite a few in the last year!

Next up: cutting a window for air flow. The way this coop is situated made this a bit tricky, and I’m slightly worried that the coop will be unbearably hot this summer. I cut a single window in the wall opposite the door I built, covering it with hardware cloth and bolted it in place. I just need to cover the sharp edges with duct tape – I used all my non-gray and want to look for a roll that will add a touch of color. I had scrap guttering that is just the teeniest bit longer than the shed; it will work just fine for the addition of a water barrel (I got 3 of these small barrels from my friend Robin). I found the downspout in a pile around the farm (there’s more where that came from!) – the barrel has an opening in the top that’s about the same size. I need to install a faucet tap so we can fill buckets easily. We can use this to water the blueberries and blackberries – they are just yards from this coop – or supplement pond water in the summer.

Speaking of the pond – here’s its new home. It’s along the back fence line, centered, in the new run space. Placement was vital: I want pond run-off to go down the hill into the field instead of mucking up the run. I want easy, safe access for the pump so cleaning isn’t a pain – an exterior door is just to the right of the pond. The ground has a fairly steep slope but I still dug a substantial hole to nestle the pond into the ground.

I’m planning some landscaping to prevent any birds from getting stuck between the pond and the fence. My roommate is working the upper field so we can have a wildflower field – which means I get free grass plugs (aka sod!) for the run. After laying the grass I use the loose soil left in the wheelbarrow to fill in behind the pond. Once the fence is installed I’ll set up the stump barrier/edging and continuing building up the soil. Transplanted daylilies will provide excellent screening – and the hens don’t eat them!

Oh yes, the fencing. Another thing I’ve become rather adept at in the past 6 months is post-setting. Tree roots proved challenging in this section so the posts aren’t equidistant (I actively choose not to let this bother me). All told we’re adding about 100 square feet of space to the run. I’m reusing the chicken wire that previously surrounded the goat run (it was replaced by stronger fencing) so out of pocket cost for this expansion has been fairly minimal. There will be horizontal boards across the top for ceiling support and 3 feet up the posts for siding support. Large stumps from the trees that were removed will serve as exterior border, blocking predators and helping keep the fence in place.

Planting season is upon me and I’d like to get this project done soon, but the weather took a dive so work has slowed a bit. I’d like to have the fencing and ceiling completed within a week, so I can give the grass a little time to root before letting the birds into the space. Luck is on my side this weekend – the forecast looks like warmer weather plus I’ll have the advantage of Daylight Savings Time!

Coop Improvements, part 1

Last week’s glorious weather had me outside working on coop improvements each day. I’ve got three shed/coops that need some work before the Chicken Haven is done (for this year anyway!). Here’s a glimpse at last week’s work on the pink coop – affectionally known as “Water World” last year as the ducks lived in it.

I rushed to convert this shed to a coop last year – the ducklings grew MUCH faster than anticipated and I needed them out of the house quite badly. In my hurry I half-did a few things, praying they’d safely get through the first year and I could do some improvements. Thankfully that’s how things happened. This shed is really old (it has a Montgomery Ward label and they’ve been out of business for years), and the rust damage made the space feel dingy. The scrap paint I collected from clearing out a business basement came in handy for this – no $ spent for the improvement! I used the small amount of dark green I had on the wall panels and door interiors. I didn’t have quite enough so a small section is a blend of green and the tan-ish color I used on the ceiling. The tunnel section could use a good cleaning and maybe a fresh coat of paint. I also need to replace the flooring in the tunnel itself. I still need to redo the nesting box and roosting bars – the hens didn’t like the hodge podge box at all and the roosting bars were cutesy and non-functional.

The fenced run space also needs help. I removed the pool – its moving to a new space – and the ground is a hot mess. I moved around a bit of the soil, used a turning fork to break up the peat moss layers, but I’m struggling with how to handle the layer of gravel. I’ve tightened up the netting on top and installed horizontal boards between the front fence posts. The chicken wire fencing felt a bit loose and I wanted it to be more supportive if I decide to grow flowers that vine again this year. The exterior will be a fresh coat of paint – we got a great deal on bright red on the “oops” rack at Lowe’s – and after that’s done I’ll spread grass seed.

I have a few weeks until I need this coop ready. It will now be used as the Nursery – transitional housing for chicks before they are integrated into the main flock. The tunnel was one of the driving forces behind the change – most sources recommend a period of time where the older hens can take a look at the youngsters before they are all mixed together. They’ll move out when they are about 8 weeks old, so near the end of April.

New Merch

New Six Chicks Urban Farm merch is here! I learned a few things last year – my t-shirt needed improvement but the hoodie is wonderful – and I’m putting ideas into practice for this spring. Teespring makes production easy – and its a simple way for you to help support my small business.

Last year’s t-shirt featured my business name in large font on the front, which the image of a chicken on the back. I much prefer the look of the hoodie so the 2018 design mirrors it. I really like the look of the back – it still features a chicken image, but I added my business motto: “Naturally Raised Food at a Reasonable Price”. In an effort to save some cash last year I opted for the economy t-shirt – and I’m not a fan. The shirt shrunk fairly quickly and just isn’t that comfortable. This year’s choice is higher quality and you have the option of navy, red, or purple. I also created a sweatshirt option that comes in green and blue.

I had several clients ask about last year’s mug, so it’s also back with the improved design. I like to carry a mug to my local coffee shop and use it instead of taking a paper carry away cup – maybe you do that too?  Still in my signature green, the mug is a great way to start your morning and an easy way to spread the word about my local farm!

My Teespring store is up and running now – it remains open until early morning on March 4, 2018. T-shirts are $15, Sweatshirts are $25, and mugs are $10. Those living in the KC-Metro area have the option to avoid shipping and meet up with me for delivery. Teespring does set a minimum in order for things to be printed, so if you are interested in items be sure to order early!

Chicks, round 1

With 5 Rent-A-Chicken clients, 3 additional regular clients, and a waiting list 10+ people deep I knew I needed to double my flock this year to meet demand for fresh eggs. It was a daunting thought – going from 4 to 20 last year was scary, but going from 24 to 50 is even scarier!

I’ve spent winter putting together my action plan. It included installing a new shed (to become a coop), reworking the duckling coop, strengthening the existing run and planning its expansion. As for the flock expansion – I want to add colored eggs to my orders, but also add chicks in such a way that I don’t have to supplement orders with duck eggs during the lean winter months. My plan is to add chicks in two batches – each with high annual brown egg layers and a few colored egg layers.

I picked up my first round of chicks this weekend! This is my third season purchasing chicks from Alan at Heartland Hatchery – he’s friendly, sociable, and I’ve always gotten healthy friendly birds. His hatchery is based in southern Missouri and he takes batches of chicks to feed stores around Missouri and Kansas. Saturday was a glorious bright day for mid-February, and there was already a lengthy line when I arrived at Valley Feed in Bonner Springs, Kansas.

I really like that Alan gives the option to call in advance to place an order. It’s easy to get distracted by all the cuteness and see my plan (and budget!) go flying out the window. I knew I wanted another dozen Gold Comets – I highly recommend this friendly, consistent layer. They are also a sex-linked bird, meaning you can tell by feather color whether male or female when they are chicks – perfect for city dwellers not allowed to have roosters. I also ordered 4 Ameracaunas – these are blue egg layers but not sex-linked so I needed to minimize possible roosters.

This is one of my new Gold Comets. I adore this breed and can’t speak highly enough of them. They are incredibly sociable and easy going – very few pecking order squabbles and definitely no attacking of one another. If anything they can be too friendly – my legs looked like constellations last summer from all their little love pecks as they asked for a cuddle! If you are researching your options for having backyard chickens I definitely recommend these gals. They are small but great layers – I collected eggs throughout the winter from them.

Here’s a close-up of one of the Ameracaunas. The four I received have a blend of brown, black, and yellow feathers. I really like the look of this one’s face – isn’t it striking? Her (I sincerely hope it’s a her!) eyes are wide and bright, and the dark streak behind her eyes reminds me of dramatic eye make-up. My first thought was of Diana, from the 1980’s miniseries “V”. Sure the series is pretty campy by today’s standard sci-fi, but I loved it then and likely still would! Diana ruled the Visitors – and I’m pretty sure this gal will, too! Now that I get chicks in large batches they don’t all get names…but this one will likely stick.

With this batch I added 17 chicks (he gave me a bonus chick) to my flock of 23 – giving me 40 hens. I’m planning to add another 10 in late April/early May – about the time these are large enough to live outdoors. First year birds tend to lay through the winter, and my thought is that adding a few later will help avoid any large lulls in production in December/January. At this point I’m leaning toward a few Gold-Laced Wyandottes (high producers), Welsummers (terra cotta colored eggs), Olive Eggers (green eggs), and Lakenvelders (white eggs). It will all depend on what’s in stock…and my budget of course!

To Stud or Not to Stud

Yesterday’s holiday was perfect inspiration for today’s topic: animal babies! Animals play a large role on my farm – chickens and ducks provide eggs, goats provide milk, cats keep the rodent population down, and dogs run security. Responsible farming holds high priority in my business plan – which means each baby added is my responsibility for their lifetime.

We’ve been actively working to have our Nigerian Dwarf goats bred since last fall. We stopped milking back in September thinking they’s meet up with their buck in just a few days. The gentleman we purchased our girls from last year lives just down the road in Tonganoxie – he was great to work with and when we asked about using one of his bucks as a stud he was willing. The trouble was getting schedules to work out – his job had him out of town during the week, then inclement weather and/or the girls not being in heat caused delays.

Last weekend we were able to meet up and bring one of his Angora bucks to our farm to breed our girls – I decided to call him Solomon (tee hee). An Angora is a great fit for many reasons. They are a comparable size to Dwarf Nigerian and are kept for their fiber. The kids will therefore be milk/fiber goats – a great fit for our farm since our primary goals with animals are feeding ourselves and sustainable income (not meat). We’ll keep the female goats and he’ll take the boys by way of payment – another win-win as we won’t need to find homes for any boys that are born. Goats typically have twins but can also have triplets – I alternate between thrilled and terrified at the possibility of 6 adorable goat babies this fall!

So far Padme simply adores him – she’s been bred multiple times and was a great mama. Leia is a bit skittish – last year was her first as a mama and she’s not too sure about things. Yoda is having a great time with Solomon – he has someone to pal around with and even gets to sleep in the barn instead of his outdoor shelter!

As for the “not to stud”…

Darryl is a stray cat that started coming around last summer. He is fat, lazy, and has the sweetest meow ever. He disappeared for quite a while this fall but has spent most of the winter with us. He spends the majority of his time lounging on the front porch, asking for food, or sunbathing just off the steps. A week and a half ago I found him just after he’d had a tussle with something – most likely the other male cat that hangs out on our farm (Carl). Darryl was missing about 3″ of fur behind his right ear and had a deep puncture wound. He let me wash off the blood and smear the wound with bacitracin (think Neosporin for animals).

We’d talked about taking him to the KCK Spay Neuter facility for his sterilization surgery if he hung around, and this tussle just confirmed it was time. He’s clearly claimed us as home – he came straight to me after injury! – and good cat management means Darryl doesn’t need to be father. The surgery should also mean less fights. I found it pretty hilarious that his surgery date fell on Valentine’s Day! He’s a super sweet cat and this is definitely the right decision for him. If Carl continues to hang around this will likely be in his future also.

So if spring fever has you thinking about adding an animal baby to your household, just stop and consider that choice for a bit. Consider the average lifespan of the animal, its care needs, and whether your budget can handle the expense. After all – my roommate will lose her mind if I beg her to keep anymore strays or castoffs!

Chick Prep

I pick up my new chicks this Saturday! This will be my third season with chicks and I’ve learned a few things on the way. The most important, perhaps, is finishing all the prep work early. Doing so allows me to reveal in the joy of new little lives when I bring them home – and blow up my Instagram feed with new levels of cuteness!

I plan to add 20 chicks to my brood this year – 14 Gold Comets (such great layers and incredibly friendly birds), then a variety of others. I’d like to add some blue egg layers so I can surprise my egg clients with them. The trouble is that those types of birds are sex links (Def: Sex Link means you can tell male from female by the color of chick feathers) so I will likely end up with some roosters. Roosters are beautiful but very tough on the gals, so I’m working on how I’ll handle them if (when!) I have them. Anyway. At this point I’m sure I want to add Ameracaunas, but Welsummers and Salmon Faverolles have also caught my eye. I don’t have to decide until I put in my order on Thursday – but at this point I’m leaning toward a pair of each.

I store my brooder boxes in the barn, so the first task was moving them to the laundry room for cleaning and inventory. Last year I attempted to create a tunnel between two large Sterilite containers – it was a total fail! – so I knew I’d be patching those holes.

The patching was pretty straightforward. I cut the plastic that I’d cut out of the lids into small square to fill the hole. I used Gorilla Glue (this stuff is amazing) to attach the patches to the inside of the bin, using bricks to press the two together until the glue set. I used silicone caulk to fill the gaps between the patch and the container (the containers are concave) – inside and outside. All in all the patch is really strong and I’m confident it will hold up to curious chicks and the heat lamp. Just to be certain, though, the patched end will be furthest from the lamp – fingers crossed for no escapee chicks this year!

Once both boxes were cleaned and repaired I inventoried supplies. I have a bag of chick feed in my truck (excellent storage location) but forgot to get a bag of chick grit. They won’t need that for a few weeks. Next I set up one box on my dining table. A table from my bedroom is the perfect height to set the heat lamp to start – it will raise a few inches each week as the babies lose their down and grow feathers. I’ve already filled the box with fresh pine shavings and their feed/water dishes. I’ll turn on the lamp before I go pick up the chicks so their home is nice and warm when they arrive.

I have enough supplies to run a second box if needed – though that’s not my goal. My plan is to move the girls to the portable puppy playpen when they are about 4 weeks old so they can grow just a bit bigger before moving outdoors at 8 weeks. Its nice to have the second box ready, though, in case it turns out we need to separate out some chicks…or come home with an impulse buy of a few chicks!

Finally, I have my pickup box ready. This will be my third year to get chicks from Heartland Hatchery – his birds are wonderful and extremely healthy. I have an old cardboard box filled with pine savings, a small bottle of hand sanitizer (always clean hands after handling chickens!), and a bowl for sugar water. The rocks in the bowl are to prevent drownings in case they trip over one another. The sugar water is to get some electrolytes into their little bodies before they arrive home and get their first feed.

I’m so excited for new chicks! Sure, it’s daunting to think of caring for 60+ birds, but I love providing fresh eggs from healthy, happy birds to my clients. I’ll let you know what my Rent-A-Chicken clients decide to name their girls!

Garden Helpers

After one season on the farm I found a few of my garden ideas just didn’t work well. The plant markers I made were great on paper but impractical in real life – I broke my little toe when I kicked one hidden in the grass! I like my plant measuring board, but found the wood/marker difficult to read next to brown soil. So I took a few days of these chilly days and made improvements.

First up: the plant stakes. I liked heft of shims, but the fragile points couldn’t handle hardened soil. They were great in spring, but hard summer soil made them deadly for bare toes. They snapped (as shims are designed to do!) when pressure was applied in the form of my little toe. Serious ouch. With a half box of shims on the shelf I wanted to come up with a better plan.

I decided to glue them together and form a solid rectangle (invert one against another). Once the glue was set I painted both sides and all edges this a dark red. Side note: always check the “oops” aisle at the hardware stores. I’m always finding high quality paints for a fraction of sticker price. Much better base coat for outdoor projects than simple craft paints. But I digress.

Once the red had cured – important with dark colors to ensure no bleeding onto a second color – I started lettering. I was going to create my own stencils, as I have with my farm signage, but the size of the letters made that problematic. I opted to go freehand and choose not to let it bother me that the letters are not uniform in size, shape, etc. The plan is to install these by hanging them from the teepee tops and other structures around my garden. They should be much easier for guests to see – and will save my toes, too!

The plant board took a little more thought. I saw the initial version on an episode of Growing a Greener World (check PBS for listings) and loved it. Field size – not backyard size – beds meant I needed a heftier version. First I pulled a piece of scrap wood from the pile. I just needed one long side to be flat – it will make smoothing soil and creating furrows simple – so this piece with a large crack was perfect. No way could this piece be used for coop fencing! I dusted it off and coated it with some leftover yellow paint – a sponge brush was perfect to get inside all the crevices. I wanted a background color that would stand out against brown/black soil.

Once the paint was dry I got out my measuring tape and started marking. Last year I found that most of my seeds are to be planted at 3″, 4″ or 12″ intervals. I made small lines with the numerical notations in pencil, then took a look at my craft paints. I wanted to make things as simple as possible when in the field, so I decided to make 3″ intervals one black, 4″ intervals in red, and 12″ intervals in white. I knew these colors would pop against the yellow and make work in the field much simpler this spring. As I go through my planting I’ll note on the seed packs whether they are red, black or white so next year will be even easier.

Painting it yellow also means the chances of it getting left in the field overnight are pretty slim…it almost glows when light hits it!

Growing Starter Plants Indoors

February may have the fewest days, but it feels like the longest month to me. I’m ready to get back to soil tending, weed pulling, setting up new teepees and all the other joys of fieldwork. In reality, it’s a month with frequent snows, cold days, bitter winds – and the ground is still frozen! I started growing plants from seeds a few years ago, and I find that these tasks really help me beat the midwinter blues.

You may think it too early to start growing plants, and if your garden primarily consists of summer fruiting plants like tomatoes and peppers that is true. There are many plants to thrive in cool spring weather – greens especially – and last year was my first attempt with cabbages and cauliflower. I had moderate success – enough to know I could do better this year with a bit of work.

I normally use plastic trays to start plants, but I had a few paper egg cartons that were too damaged to use for egg sales and thought I’d try using them. There are an abundance of articles claiming they work great, and so far so good. I was most concerned that the paper would wick water from the soil but that has not been the case. I’ll be able to transplant the seedlings in their paper egg cups – the cup with disintegrate and feed the soil/plant.

In just 5 days under the plastic greenhouse cover, my growing tray was filled with seedlings. I have two types of cabbage, two types of cauliflower, spinach, sage, and celery going well thus far. The lavender has yet to sprout – the same thing happened last year – and I need to do more research to find some tips.

I also started a tray of grass. I feed kitchen scraps to my chickens and ducks, and they’ve been enjoying spinach, kale, and cabbage this winter. Fresh grass will be a flavorful addition to their diet, the dirt will provide grit so they can grind their food well, and it will be fun to play with also. This first bed is going well so I’ll likely start others. I need to get grass down in the reworked coop, and it may be easier to start grass and transplant it than it would be to set down seed and remember to water.

I plan to plant staggered successions of crops this year, so I’ll start a second round of these seed types next week. Planting successively means I’ll be harvesting these plants throughout the season instead of all in one fell swoop. This in turn means I’ll be able to supply clients with them for a longer period of time – and to eat them myself of course!

Field Clearing 2018

When I consider the amount of field I had available, I’m astounded by the amount of vegetables I produced in 2017. The field – approximately an acre and a half – was/is filled with saplings, weeds, fallen limbs, etc. I cleared some land when I first moved out in the fall of 2016 – enough that I was able to feed myself and my roommate and had tomatoes and onions for egg clients. I also sold pints of salsa and tomatoes – and have enough verbal interest from potential clients that Field Clearing was moved to the top of my winter project list.

It is my preference to do fieldwork without gas powered machinery. This choice is largely based on budget – I don’t have funds for the large equipment that would make quick work of the project. My primary reason for growing my own food, however, is knowing how it is grown – I don’t want to risk gas or oil leaks into the soil if (when!) equipment breaks down in the field. I don’t want to breathe in fumes from a combustion engine, or expose my livestock, barn cats, pets, and wildlife to them either.

This may seem seem like an overly zealous choice, but it turned out to be a practical one. Check out this “before” shot. The field on this property is significantly sloped, littered with rocks and other debris, filled with tree stumps, and lined with trenches from water run-off. Any power equipment would likely be damaged or become dangerous if I attempted to use it!

Besides – I love the physicality of field work. There is nothing so satisfying as looking back to see clearly what was once blocked by trees, to dig out stubborn trees stumps and roots, to pull out weeds and wild grasses as I dream of fresh greens and tomatoes. I love being exhausted at the end of the day, sleeping the deep sleep of hard work. I love seeing the difference a few hours of hard labor can make – and knowing my work will make a positive difference to my health and those I serve.

So far I’ve cleared about 5x the field space I was able to use last year – getting me to about 1/2 the total space cleared. I lost a bit of space to the goat expansion, but it was a pretty shady space and only kale grew well there, so it wasn’t a bad loss. I’ve relaid four previous beds, added a couple teepees, and laid out two new large beds. I have room to add a second row of teepees and at least one more large bed – and that’s before I finish burning out the largest stumps and digging out the smaller. Planting season begins in about a month (cabbages, greens, and root veg), so I’ll be down in the field as the weather allows over the next few weeks. When its too inclement, I’ll be working on my sketches, planning where to put what, and making sure I rotate crops to avoid the pests that plagued my tomatoes (hornworms) and squash (squash beetles) last year.

Goat Run Improvements

Last fall I put together a plan to improve the outdoor living space for our goats. Several fence posts were rotting, and erosion caused most of the front line to have a dangerous incline. The gates were unuseable, and the goats were able to escape fairly easily – even with chicken wire between the fence boards. Most importantly, we experienced an incident where a stray dog made it into the run and killed a baby goat in March. The fence needed to be higher – and sturdier – before our female goats had their babies.

The first step was squaring off the back fence line. I installed four fence posts, sinking them 12″ into the ground and filling with concrete. The posts were set 8′ apart and boards placed at ground level and two more staggered in the middle. Salvaged fencing from my brother’s home and our field completed the addition. I built a new gate (5′ x 7′) to the field – which may sound excessive. I wanted it to be large enough for the goats and my wheelbarrow to move through comfortably, but also accommodate larger animals or equipment if needed in the future. I also built a gate on the barn side – I plan to fence around the back of the barn to the far side, giving us space to keep baby goats and/or male goats separate from the females if necessary.  The project added about 100 square feet to the run, with the added benefit of the entire water tank being accessible from all sides now. The goats are loving the additional space!

We were blessed with nice weather through mid-December, so I moved on to improving the front fence line also. It was a good thing that was in my plan, since we had the opportunity to take on a new goat about that time! He’s a Boer/Kiko mix and a wether (ie. ‘fixed’) so we thought he’d make a good friend for our girls. He’s a runt and actually smaller than our Nigerian Dwarfs – he should be like 3x their size. He’s been rechristened Yoda (goats get names from the Star Wars canon) and is a sweet, friendly, loveable little dude. Yoda is as much of a parkour master as the Nigerian Dwarf kids were – so a higher front fence on the goat run was definitely needed. He lived in the new chicken coop shed for a few days while I finished the project.

First up – setting new posts. The erosion line was pretty bad, so I set the posts between 12 and 18 inches up slope. Ten posts were set 12″ deep, surrounded by concrete and connected by boards. The posts and boards were new wood, but I was able to salvage a roll of fencing from our neighbor’s (roommate’s sister) yard and began taking down the field fencing for the rest. We’re talking nearly 90 feet of thick wire fencing, times 2, so it was a significant savings. Zip ties are a wonderful connector tool – and strong enough to hold in goats. There’s about 18″ yet to cover with fencing on the top line, but the new fencing is already higher than the old – and there hasn’t been a single breakout. After some discussion I decided not to build a gate on the front fence. The goats are already used to coming in and out through the barn, and its just not worth battling erosion again in the future.

The new fencing adds up to 5′ of height (depending on the slope) and should prove a strong deterrent to any predators once our babies arrive. It added another 100 square feet (approximately) to the run. We knocked down the previous fence and I used the boards to lay out a small flower bed along the front fence line, another along the back line, and outline more vegetable beds in the field.

The irony of the project? Our goats have yet to be bred! We’ve been working to connect with our contact for three months, but his work schedule has made things a challenge. My roommate and I discuss our options daily, but there are no easy solutions. I do know that I’m thankful the project is complete and we are ready to keep kids safe, whenever they arrive on our farm.