Walk with me as I take care of the winter morning barn chores…

Looking outside the ice covered window, I can see the glorious sun peaking up through the trees.  Looks like a beautiful morning!  A quick glance at the weather shows its a cold one.

Better head to the barn and check on the animals.

Time to suit up.  First the bibs, coat, balaclava, boots, and mittens.  Yes, mittens today, for sure.  Five minutes later, I am finally heading out the door.  The door knob turns a bit harder than usual.  A flood of fog simultaneously rushes into and out of the doorway as I open the door.

Our barn water line froze up somewhere in the ground between our house and the barn earlier this winter, so I head on over to the house spigot with two 5 gallon buckets.  Hey, it beats getting water from the bathroom tub like we had to do last winter!  Two buckets will be enough to top off the waters, as the animals should not have gone through too much water since yesterday’s evening chores.  The spigot turns hard.  Very hard.  Careful not to break it, I apply a bit more pressure.  Earlier this week, I had to use the hot air gun once to thaw it out, even though it is a frost-free spigot.  It begins to rotate!  Steaming hot ground water pours out, a good 40 degrees warm.  Both buckets get their turn under the spigot, making plenty of cracking sounds as they disagree with the extreme and sudden change of temperature.  While I wait for them to fill, the sun gleams through the smoke coming from our chimney.  Our house exterior covered in snow and ice.  Winter beauty?

The buckets are full and I head off to the barn.  The ground moans and complains under my boots.  Absolute stillness in the air makes every crunching step sound that much louder.  You know it is cold when you breath in and your nose starts to freeze shut.  The warm moist air from your breath rises from your mouth and condensates on your eyelashes, making the involuntary action of blinking voluntary, a fight to prevent your upper and lower lashes from freezing together.

I check on the chickens and rabbits in the barn. Chickens are good.  Rabbits get their food topped off.  Their waters are frozen solid, no surprise there.  A few whacks against the floor breaks all of the ice free from the crock so I can refill them with fresh liquid water.  All good on the water and feed front now!

The goats are enjoying some hay in the comfort of the barn, non to eager to step foot outside.  That barn window I installed this fall gives them plenty of light to soak in.  The compost on the floor is starting to amass.  This is a good thing for the goats (not so much for me this coming Spring).  As it sits on the floor and decays, it generates heat to keep the goats a little warmer through the winter.  We also apply generous amounts of straw, it almost looks cozy, if only they didn’t have that bad habit of always soiling their bed!

Only the cattle and ducks left to tend to.  I’m still warm.  Hope you are hanging in there.  There is sure to be some coffee, tea, or hot cocoa in the house once the chores are complete.

Looks like their water is frozen to0 🙁

Lets fix that with the ice chisel and top it off for them…  Here comes Yavanna the yak for some treats.  She looks like a natural in this cold, she’s even sporting a frosty white beard (I probably am by now too).

“I’m ready for my treats!”  Who could say no to those big eyes!

I toss a bale in their feeder and give them each some grain.

Last but not least, we better check on the ducks before heading in.

Like the yak, the cold doesn’t seem to phase them.  After all, is it ever to cold outside for a duck bath??

If I have extra water, here is where I like to run to the sledding hill and toss the extra out.  Would be a shame to let that water go to waste.  Worse still would be letting it sit in the bucket and allow it to freeze solid, leading to another cracked and useless bucket.

Time to run those buckets back to the house so they are ready for later, now it’s time to warm up!  Just watching those ducks in the water is making me cold!

-Jeremy

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(Almost) Homemade Root Beer (and the inevitable tangents of a Homesteader)

Remember the 90s?  Those days when everyone consumed sugary, caffeinated pop (I think they call it “soda” outside of my mid-west bubble).  That was the era of my childhood.  Probably, for the best of everyone’s good health, consumption of pop is down for the twelfth straight year (in case you didn’t know).

Our family homestead rarely has pop on-site.  But, there is that occasional moment where I do get the desire to consume a good, cold old-fashioned root beer.  Being the homesteader that I am, I set out to make my own.  How hard could it be?  On a tangent, I once had a licorice craving and attempted to make some chocolate licorice at home.  The result was not all bad, it actually turned out with the same taste and texture as a Tootsie Roll.  Not the biggest fan, but hey, it could have been worse.

Back to my quest of making homemade root beer….  Quickly, I discovered that I did not have any of the plants needed to produce root beer on-site.  What a surprise!  I also learned that our climate in northern Minnesota was also a bit too cold to support those plants 🙁  Time to quit?  Ha, not for the average homesteader!!  So I discovered a little thing called root beer extract.  Not exactly homemade, but it’ll do…

The first time I followed the instructions on the bottle.  Gag!  Hmm, time for some rework.  As it goes with many homesteading activities, time to open up Libreoffice Calc and put together a spreadsheet.  So I started to make some notes with each batch I made over the next few months:

By batch 4, the root beer had a pretty decent flavor that satisfied that root beer craving!

Above are the ingredients, here are my quick and dirty instructions:

* Dissolve yeast in warm water for 3 minutes.

* Add sugar and stir until dissolved.

* Add extract and spices.

* Fill bottles (about 8-16oz bottles)

* Let sit in warm place for 3-7 days to build carbonation.  Make sure you keep an eye on the bottles.  They can exploded (mine never have).

(Links to the Funnels and Bottles, also great for kombucha)

Enjoy!

But, wait…….

That is not how it works on the homestead!!  Come on.  Kids, farm animals, winter…

Somewhere in there, we added some free chickens to the farm..

Some friends were slimming up their flock for winter and passed a few birds our way (they are still a bit shy).

Chickens aside..  When I started filling bottles, well, due to our short winter days, I overfilled the first two.  With the dark brown bottles and no sunlight, it was hard to estimate when the bottle was nearly full.

Time for a project before I fill the rest of the bottles!  I plan to build new kitchen cabinets next summer, but for this winter, we are living with what we have.  Earlier this year, I purchased under counter lighting for our future cabinets.  Well, why not install those lights quick now to help make getting through the dark winter that much easier?  That is just what I did!

(Link to the lights and remote)

That’s better!!

(here is a link to our stainless steel kid-proof cups (small size) (larger size))

Besides handling chickens and kitchen, Stephen and I also planted the garlic and a few hundred white oak acorns.

Now, to wait until next weekend to enjoy some homemade root beer!

-Jeremy

 

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Roofing Progress, Gardens, and Automatic Barn Water

Roofing progress has been slowly progressing forward.  Slowly.  Due to various summer activities (county fair, work, CCP recertification, family events, and other commitments) and weather, the roof is still a work in progress.  The good news?  What little I have completed, has stood the test of the elements. We have been hit by several thunderstorms over the past few weeks.  No leaks in the new roofing!

The dormer roofing and chimney roofing took a while to figure out as this is my first non-barn roof that I have installed.  So far it is looking about how we had planned.  For reference, my partially completed 3D model in Sketchup (thanks to my cousin Brad for the software suggestion!).

Looks like another storm’s a brewin..

While my nerves were on edge as our roof was undergoing moisture testing, the ducks were thoroughly enjoying themselves as parts of our yard became over-saturated..

The rain and the hot sunny summer days have started to bring our gardens to life!  Flowers that we started indoors from seed are just starting to bloom.  The hard work and planning of spring is just starting to pay off!

This flower bed did not exist a mere 2 months ago!

Nor did this one!

Not only are the flowers in bloom, but the garden harvest has switched from strawberries, to everything else…  Over the last week or two, I would guess that nearly 80% of the food we have consumed has originated from our property.  Venison, pork, rabbit, potatoes, beans, zucchini, beets, carrots, strawberries, raspberries, peppers, herbs, and even a few early apples!

Another quick sneak peak at the latest house progress.

This side of the house has reminded me a lot of the barn.  The roof sagged about 2-3 inches in the middle.  This required a bit of work to remove and will result in a hopefully mostly squared up looking roof.

It has been a while since I have posted an update on here, so, I am going to cover all the bases!

We have laid down the rest of the cardboard we had stored up for the garden as part of our permiculture sheet-mulching technique.  As the rabbits produce more “fertilizer”, we will lay it over the cardboard, along with waste straw from the barn hayloft.  This method seems to so far be fairly effective at keeping the weeds at bay, while at the same time helping the ground retain moisture and receive nutrients.

Had enough yet?  There’s more…

I finally had some time this weekend to install the automatic water valves for the yak, goats, and cows.  At least through the summer months, this will save us lots of time as it eliminates the chore of filling up their waters!

Water aside, it sort of feels like spring again around the farm, in July.  We not only have a new litter of fluffy kittens, but also…

baby bunnies..

I think that about brings you up to date with the happenings on our little farm.

I’ll end the the same way I end every evening here.  This is our naughty hen that refuses to roost with the rest of the chickens.  Instead, she chooses to roost on the rabbit cages.  Maybe she thinks she is a bunny?  Maybe she dislikes our two juvenile roosters that are the cause of chaos before all the hens go in to roost every evening?  Either way, for the last few weeks, every night, I have to sneak up on her, grab her, and toss her back into the coop. Every night!  Without fail!  I hope someday she will learn!

-Jeremy

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More Dormer/Roof Progress and a Strawberry Bandit

It goes with little need to say, vacations come and go way too quickly! After spending most of my vacation week working on the house, I definitely did not reach the point I had hoped to reach.  But, then again, these are the first dormers I have ever built, and the roof took a bit longer to reinforce than I had planned.  That is me, trying not to beat myself up.  Before starting back up at work, I was able to get the side dormer framed up and most of the metal on the dormer roof.

After starting my first day back at work coming off vacation, my dad offered to stop out that evening and help seal up the roof a bit more to prepare for some storms that were predicted to come through Tuesday night (and they did).  I won’t turn down help!  So together, we finished the roofing on one dormer and started the roof on the other.

Fortunately, the roof endured the storm, with the help of only a few strategically placed buckets in the attic.  I think once I get the roofing done around the dormers and chimney, the rest should go pretty quickly.  Then and only then, will I once again enjoy the rain.

Last week was warm (by Minnesota standards) and this week looks like more of the same.  Until I purchase and install our next batch of house windows, our chickens have to do without any windows in their coop.  No windows, no natural light or cooling breeze.  So, taking a quick break from the roof last week, Stephen and I quickly assembled a screen door for the chicken coop, similar to the one we built for the duck coop.  We re-used the spring from the old door to retain the auto-close feature, a nice thing to have when children frequent the coop.

On a completely unrelated note, our children had entered the garden last night to pick a few strawberries to eat. How awesome is it to have fresh and healthy food growing at the reach of your children’s fingertips!

To their surprise, they were greeted by a furry strawberry bandit.  They went running out of the garden hollering that there was a raccoon in the strawberry patch “staring” at them.  The coon seemed unphased by the commotion, content to be located in strawberry heaven.  I ran out there, gun in hand, and took the rascal down.  Little did I know, his buddy was still hiding deeper in the patch, biding his time while we dealt with his comrade.

I was heading back to work on the roof to further prepare for the coming storm while Shelly grabbed a shovel to deal with the dead raccoon, when all of a sudden I heard a scream from the garden.  Shelly came running out of the strawberry patch, just as the kids had done moments earlier.  I again ran to the garden and dealt with the second coon.  This time I looked a little deeper to make sure there wasn’t a third.  All clear!

-Jeremy

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Converting a [Free] IBC into a Goat Feeder and Dealing with a Chicken Thief

You can do a quick search online for hay feeders and you will get a plethora of ideas and options.  Some are quick and easy to put together with various items you can find laying around or after a quick trip to the lumberyard.  Others are available for purchase and can get rather expensive, some options even ranging in the $1000-5000 range.

I had a few quick project specs that the system had to follow.  The feeder has to hold several square bales (aka idiot cubes).  We bale with our neighbors and neither of us are currently afforded the luxury of a larger tractor that can move round bales, nor the baler itself.  Square bales are easy enough to handle and work fine for the scale we are farming at.

(Good neighbors are priceless)

The feeder needs to protect the bales from rain and snow.  The feeder also needs to hold the bales in a way that would prevent too much waste.  It also needed to be cheap (or in this case, free).

One solution that kept coming up in my search results was the use of an IBC as a feeder.  Great!  Last summer, a bear trapping friend of mine had an IBC that he was given in which was previously used to hold molasses.  He had used up the remaining molasses and I gladly took the IBC, knowing that at some point, it would come in handy.  I originally thought I would use it in a hydroponics or aquaponics system, but until I figure out how to economically keep a system like that from freezing in the winter, that will have to wait.

I grabbed a drill and drilled out a hole on both of the “longer” sides of the IBC.  I then took my reciprocating saw and cut out both sides, using the hole I drilled as the starting point for the saw blade.  Once cutting was done, we pulled the IBC, now a hay feeder, into the pasture and loaded it up with bales.  As you can see, the goats instantly loved the new feeder!

So, over the last two weeks, we have had several chickens go missing (in particular, two stubborn hens that did not want to roost in the coop at night).  Much to my surprise, when stepping out to do evening chores, I was greeted by one of the probable suspects, sitting right there on our patio!  He (or she) turned tail and prepared to dispatch the dreaded spray.  I turned tail and ran into the house, quickly closing the door and running for my .22  Once I had the .22 in my hands, I ran for the door and quickly took a shot at the skunk.  Hitting it in the chest, it returned the favor by using the last of it’s strength to crawl under our deck and die (someday that deck will be converted to a patio!!).  Nice!  With no way to get it out, let alone seeing it in the dark, and with heavy rain on the way, I had no choice but to leave it there until the following day.  Even with the rain coming down hard, the smell wafted into our bedroom all night long.  Oh joy!

When we pulled it out from under the deck, take a guess at what else came out with it.  Chicken feathers!

Onto bigger animals.  Our yak has settled in nicely.

We were a little worried after she seemed to be taking the initial adjustment pretty hard.  Yavanna (the yak) and Blacky (our steer) seem to have become friendly.  Daisy (our Holstein heifer) and Yavanna on the other hand, well, let’s just say, my fence is getting stress tested!  I need to get some additional electric put in, but until then, I am hoping the head butting between her and Daisy subsides (which it seems to be).  It was definitely a good idea to slowly introduce her to the cows, with a physical barrier separating them.  Our fall beef may have gone through some unwanted tenderizing.

 

So what else has been going on at our farm?  Strawberries!  Lots of them! About 1-2 heaping flats a day.  Happy strawberry picking season!

-Jeremy

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The Automated Chicken Coop (Phase 1)

We have a lot of projects going on right now, but I guess I like a full plate and am about to throw another one on.  As many of you know, my full-time job involves industrial automation.  Over the next few years, I plan to automate as many farm chores as I can along with adding a hydroponics or aquaponics system and document them on this blog.

Why

Why automate?  First off, it will let us do more with the finite amount of time we are given.  Not only will this make mine and Shelly’s lives easier, but it will also be a learning experience for our children.   I plan to involve them in the steps of system design, assembly, and programming.  This is real-life hands-on homeschooling.

We start in the chicken and duck coops…

Identifying the Problems

The chicken coop is the low hanging fruit of farm automation.  There are many off-the-shelf solutions out there already, however, most homesteaders are a do-it-yourself type crowd, that includes myself.  So I am going to pass over the pre-built solutions and build my own.

One of the advantages to building my own, is that I can integrate it into other future systems that we will implement in the future.

The tasks involved are pretty simple and the solutions, direct.  Before engineering a solution or system for the chicken coop, lets identify a few of the problems or regular tasks that take place in the coop.

  • Low egg production in the winter
  • Opening and closing coop door for night-time predator protection
  • Proper ventilation and ammonia buildup
  • Maintain Water Supply
  • Maintain Supplimental Food Supply
  • Maintain Grit Supply
  • Egg Collection
  • Floor Cleaning

That list added up quickly!  If I missed something, please add to the comments section below.

Most of the items listed above are pretty trivial tasks or problems that take only a little time to deal with. But, our goal here is to waste less time on trivial tasks and allow us to have more time for other things.  The fact that many of these items are trivial makes them great candidates for automation.  I actually compiled this list in order from easiest to automate down to the hardest.

I have chosen to start with the first two, the low hanging fruit.  If I can tackle these, this system will be the foundation that others can be built upon and added to.

Proposed Solutions

As many of you know, chickens egg production is related in large part to the length of time during the day they are exposed to light.  As winter sets in, egg production starts to slow down.  To assist in getting these levels back up, other sources of light can be used (other than the sun).  The downside to adding another source of light in the coop is that it will add stress to the birds, thus adding to a shorter and less healthy life.  I have opted to strike a balance and add a few hours to the morning and evenings in the winter, basically making the winter days in the coop as long as the summer days.  As I am fairly power conscious, I opt for LED lighting whenever I can.  In this initial phase, a simple timer based control will do.  In phase 2, I would like to add a light detector so that if there is adequate daylight already present, the LED lighting would remain off.  Once it is dark and the timer is active, the LED lighting will turn on.

Onto the next item, the chicken coop door.  The chicken coop door is used to keep predators out at night.  It also doubles to keep the chickens in to ensure they lay their eggs in the coop and don’t force you to waste time hunting for eggs in the wild.  For this, I have landed on a 120VAC reversible motor, attached to a vertically sliding door by a used bike chain (finally, I have a use for those old bike chains!).  I will attach a counter weight to the opposite end of the chain as the door.  In the morning, the door will be driven up until a set of magnetic switches are closed.  In the evening, the motor will reverse and lower the door until another set of switches close, indicating the door is fully down.

So with this general idea in mind, I laid out a simple CAD drawing of the proposed system, keeping in mind that I will need space to allow other tasks on this list to be automated in the future.  Here is a quick concept sketch:

Locating the Parts

Thankfully, I have most of the parts on hand to start assembly, with the exception of the motor and switches.  I found a motor on ebay that fits the bill for about $55 and switches on Amazon for about $6-7 each.  I have some sample control hardware I will use for the brains and can probably locate a used electrical enclosure for free from my regular job.  The only other bit I will need to purchase will be some conduit to run the wiring in to protect if from any curious chickens or pesky mice.  The somewhat-local home improvement store should have what I need there.

The Project Begins

The switches have arrived and I have a controller sitting on the shelf.  Check back in a couple weeks for an update as parts arrive and we begin to assemble and program the system!

-Jeremy

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Spring has arrived! So have more projects :P

Last week, we were on a mission to complete our bedroom (sans windows).  How did that go?  Well, the weather sabotaged our plans, but I won’t complain!

April arrived and Spring weather has set in!   This weekend was amazing with highs in the low to mid 50’s.  The natural cabin fever cure has arrived and over the weekend and we tried to enjoy every bit of it we could.  Back to the bedroom, we did manage to stay indoors long enough to get the door frame built and installed.  We also hung the door after sanding it down outside.  Shelly put that last clear coat on the bedroom tin ceiling.  We took advantage of the dark evenings to move our furniture over to our new room.  While we have trim and a closet door to deal with, we are happy to be moved in!!

One doorway, almost complete…  Still missing the door jambs 🙁  The door also needs some poly.

As you can see, or rather cannot see, the crown has not been installed by our in-house carpenter yet..  What you can see is the space we gained, about 1.5 ft after moving a wall.

Then we were off to the great outdoors.

We have been taking advantage of the early Spring, insect free evenings and weekends to get a head start on some outdoor projects.  If you yourself have a homestead or farm, it goes without saying that Spring may just be the busiest times of the year (or is it fall?,  hmm, the verdict may still be out).

I started by attempting to drive in the posts for the new goat pasture.  Let’s just say that didn’t go very well.  Each post made it about 1-2 inches in before hitting the frost line.  Okay, I’ll wait a week and try later.

We expanded out our garden by about 820 sq ft this year, this will bring our garden to over 3,000 sq ft.  Oh, what fun it is breaking new ground (without a tractor) for a garden.  Okay, it was kind of fun in a strange and punishing sort of way.  Thankfully, our garden gets lots of sun, so the frost was not an issue here.  The goats enjoyed it even more than I did as I threw all of the weeds and grass over the fence to them as I cleared the ground before breaking.   We will need to adjust some fencing to include the new ground to keep the chickens and deer out of the garden, but at least it is ready for plants once Summer get a bit closer.

The plants seem to be doing really well in our little indoor grow room.  We put in the last of the seed (besides the direct-sow varieties) in our planters this weekend, which is already coming up!  The peppers, herbs, and flower we put in a couple weeks back are doing great.

Some other side projects included a new duck/chicken coop door, more firewood cutting, mulching around the fruit trees, and lots of trash pickup (I am pretty sure the last property owners just tossed out the trash to the wind).

I’ll leave you with a shot of our “baby” ducks and chickens.  They are already getting so big; thankfully, little chicks will be hatching this weekend and we will get to experience some more farm babies!

-Jeremy

 

 

 

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House Progress Update

It has been a few weeks since I have posted any updates on our house progress.  Things are still moving forward, but you still cannot tell from the outside.

Before we started on the house, last weekend we cut and stacked wood.   Our property came with an old corn crib, perfect for seasoning firewood.  Keeps it dry while at the same time letting the breeze through.  We are sitting at about a years worth of cut wood.  With all the fallen trees in the woods, we have a long way to go.

This weekend we started nailing down flooring in our bedroom, only a few more boards to go.  As a reminder, this was the hayloft wood floor that came out of a neighbors barn that was getting demolished.  Here is a picture from last summer (and a video of us restoring the floor last fall).

Hard to believe it is the same wood!  We still have to sand it in place and put on another coat or two of poly, but it is fun to finally see some nearly finished product!!  Our goal is to move back into our bedroom in two weeks.  That might be wishful thinking, but not if we can help it.

I was able to install the header and frame in our dining room wall to accommodate a french-style patio door set.  This will eventually look out into a four-season porch we will be adding next summer.  We plan to install the doors in April or May, along with a few new windows.  Oh what a joy it will be to have natural lighting in our living and dining rooms!!

We also managed to finish sealing up the bathroom and install our antique medicine cabinet.

This wall hides some open space inside to allow me to run ductwork to the future living space in the attic.  I was able to prepare that and then get this wall sealed up too!

The bathroom is now officially cleaner than it was when we moved in.  Between the ceiling light (which the old bathroom lacked) and foiled walls (which will be ‘rocked soon enough) it is also much brighter.  For reference….

Besides work on the main floor, we also got our temporary grow room in place.  We started our peppers, several flowers, and some herbs.  More will go in the dirt in the next few weeks as spring approaches.  For now, we are running 2 of our 4 LED grow lights on a timer.

Nearly everything planted is starting to come up!

Not everything always goes to plan, however, at least this weekend there were no stitches involved (although I did get to remove three of the five).  And here are parts for several of the projects I planned to work on but never got around to completing yet…  By the way, I do have a few of these Lutron Occupany sensors installed in a few other rooms.  They are amazing and highly recommended!

Ending on a light note, Shelly accidentally captured this moment with Mr Rooster and one of the hens over the weekend and I couldn’t resist sharing.  You cannot tell me you didn’t wonder…

-Jeremy

 

 

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Farm Babies

It is that time of the year again, spring is in the air, okay, not really.  It is actually snowing out right now, yeah, but it will be here soon, right?!

We are starting to see some signs of spring in the form of farm babies.  Here is a quick rundown of the new life on our farm so far, with more to come!

Our momma rabbit had her first litter of kits for the year!  They are about three weeks old and are getting a nice thick coat of white fluffy fur.

Our cat Maggie just had a litter of four healthy kittens (two of them look like their father!).  These little kittens will be available for adoption later this spring.

Bella the goat is getting closer, but still no babies 🙁  Crossing our fingers it will be soon!

Next batch of baby chicks are in the incubator….

Our ducklings have been introduced to our first batch of chicks in the barn and seem to be thriving!

The chicks and ducks seem to have adjusted quickly together, as you can see!

-Jeremy

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