Hen Hints

I’m dumping my accumulated store of wood ashes onto the dust-bathing sites preferred by the hens. This is supposed to be helpful in controlling mites, which always give me trouble in the warm parts of the year.

One of the problems I have with the pan-style waterers I use with the hens (Little Giant Pet Waterers)is that the hens don’t hesitate to poop in the waterer. I’m trying those conical wire tomato-cage thingies as a guard. We’ll see what happens.

The earlier and oftener you collect the eggs, the cleaner they’ll be. There will be more of them, too. The hens can’t break an egg or smear dirt on it if you’ve already collected it.

I’ve been having trouble with aerial predators picking off hens that insist on roosting on the roofs of the hen houses. I’m thinking about putting barrier wires around the roof, sticking up a foot or two above the roof line, and at a slant to keep the hens from roosting on them. Sorta like Rommel’s “asparagus” in Normandy. If anyone tries this before I get around to it, let me know.

If you use electric fence to protect your chickens, keep mowing the grass! Lush spring grass shorts out electric fences, no matter how powerful your fence charger. It’s hard to keep the voltage up to standard this time of year.

And in spite of high feed prices, don’t let your birds run out of feed. This is especially true of baby chicks. Never let them run out of feed, never let them run out of water, and (for chicks) never let them get cold. I like automatic waterers and large-capacity feeders. But you have to check both all the time, or you won’t notice when things go wrong. I find that I have to do a chore every day or I stop doing it entirely.

Water Conservation With a Vengeance

Since I live in the country, my water comes from a well. Let me tell you about my well. It’s 140 feet deep and delivers a quart of water per minute. That’s right — one quart. The rule of thumb is that a well isn’t adequate for a home unless it can deliver five gallons a minute, or twenty times more than what we have.

Here in Oregon’s Coast Range, we have the irony that it rains like crazy half the year (60-90 inches in my neighborhood), but the aquifers are very poor. The dry summers and the lack of water mean that agriculture is difficult — we only get one cutting of hay a year, for example. It’s not uncommon to have no rain at all in July and August.

Not only that, the water quality is poor. Iron and sulfur, plus the inevitable iron and sulfur bacteria. These bacteria are harmless, but they clog filters and make it impossible to filter out the yucky taste.

Oddly, our sharply limited water supply encourages us to ignore normal water-conservation methods. We have an antique high-flow toilet and an immense antique bathtub. Low water pressure has induced me to disable the low-flow features on our sinks. True, we have a front-load washer, but the fact is that the real savings come from not watering the lawn, and none of that other stuff matters at all. The only things that ever ran us out of water were leaks, watering, and running the big ice machine we use as part of the broiler-butchering business. If you have limited water, you learn what’s important and what isn’t. Nickel-and-dime stuff like faucet restrictors don’t mean anything.

Today’s project is to get the Chemilizer chemical injector going . This is a chemical metering solution that puts a measured amount of the chemical of your choice into the water as it flows by. The chemical of choice is chlorine. It worked great for one bucketful of bleach solution and has mysteriously stopped doing anything.

Like everything else that actually works, chlorine comes in for a lot of flak, but I expect it to do the job. It not only kills off the slimy bacteria and will thus make it possible to use filters again, but it gets rid of the iron and sulfur, perhaps making the filters unnecessary.

If I can get the thing to work at all…

[Later] Well, that didn’t work. I guess the unit is busted. I’ll get it replaced and try again.

[Even Later] Okay, it works now. Someone at Chemilizer saw the post and we exchanged emails. My problem was self-inflicted — when the instructions say, “Lubricate lightly with Silicone lubricant,” using Vaseline instead because you’ve lost your can of silicone lube doesn’t work. D’oh!

Keeping Cool at the Farmer’s Market

I had a brainstorm a couple of years ago about the problem of keeping fresh eggs and frozen broilers cool at the farmers’ market: salt-water ice. A saturated solution of salt water freezes (or melts) at zero degrees Fahrenheit. Not only is this cold enough to keep frozen broilers frozen, but it’s cold enough that water condenses as frost, not water, on the sides of salt-water ice containers, and frost doesn’t drip onto the egg cartons.

(One the ice inside the container melts, the ice on the outside will melt, too, but it works like a charm until then.)

This works so well that I’m surprised everyone hasn’t always used it. Blue Ice, for example, claims to be “colder than ice,” but it doesn’t seem to be. (Condensation drips off Blue Ice, rather than forming a layer of frost or ice.)

Used plastic soda bottles make good salt-water ice containers. To make a saturate salt solution, add one four-pound box of pickling salt to 1.5 gallons of hot water and stir until as much of it has dissolved as is going to. Pour into used plastic soda bottles and freeze in a freezer that’s below zero F. When you need to keep something cool, toss these bottles into the cooler, then back into the freezer when you get home. Simple.

Welcome to the Blogosphere

After neglecting my email newsletter for some time, I’ve decided to throw in the towel and go to a blog format. This frees me from all the distribution headaches of maintaining a mailing list with thousands of names on it, and makes it easier to get material up on the Web where it belongs.

All the back issues of the newsletter are still available. Thanks to everyone for your interest in it over the years, and I’m hoping that this less-grueling format will allow me to provide you with plenty of interesting material.

The Joy of Tractors

I like mowing. My parents built and ran a campground in the Redwoods when I was a kid, and mowing was my favorite chore. These days I mostly mow my pastures using a real tractor. You have to keep the grass short for the free-range chickens.

My tractor is a 1957 Ford 640. I’ve had it for over ten years, but it wasn’t until last year that I was really getting my money’s worth out of it. It was very hard to start. Changing it over from 6V to 12V and adding electronic ignition helped, but what really made the difference was having the tractor repair guy take it away and fix every single thing that was wrong with it. (John’s Mobile Tractor Repair of Lebanon, Oregon — highly recommended.)

As it turned out, the main culprit all these years was the non-working fuel shut-off valve, which resulted in water and varnish, sludge and rust in the carburetor. By shutting off the fuel line after use, I suddenly had a tractor that started instantly whenever I wanted it to, and my productivity went way up.

I think a lot of things are like that. You let little problems pile up without fixing them, and after a while the machinery doesn’t work right and you start yearning for a fancy new machine you can’t afford. Far better to fix what ails your existing stuff.

(See my other tractor pages.)

I live in a part of the country where grass growth is slow except April through June, where it’s insanely fast. There’s no way to put it all to use except by making hay with it, which I don’t do (haymaking machinery scares me; too many people get injured by it). So I mow.

Back in the early days of poultry science, free-range was still practiced, and at least one Experiment Station did experiments to see how high the grass should be for best results. The answer was “two inches.” Tall grass prevents the chickens from traveling freely, and short grass didn’t provide enough supplemental nutrition. (Sorry, this is from memory. I don’t have a reference.) I see the bad effects of tall grass now, which is why I’m trying to spend an hour a day mowing. It takes me about four hours to mow my chicken pasture the first time. This involves some time spend gathering up the equipment that got scattered during the non-mowing season (October-March) and at least one stop to repair a broken water hose. If I cut up only one hose with the mower, that’s victory.

A mistake newbies sometimes make is to buy a fake tractors. Lawn tractors and garden tractors are just riding mowers — they aren’t tractors. Real tractors are water-cooled and weigh more than a ton. If you want to do anything on ground that isn’t a lawn, get a real tractor.

I mow with a bush hog — a rotary mower. This is a very rugged implement that can deal with brush, briars, and saplings as well as grass. It’s essential. The other implement I find essential is a rear scraper blade. A front blade would be even better.

If I were to do it over again, I might have spent the extra money for a tractor with four-wheel drive, power steering, and a bucket on the front. Those three features are something of a package deal, I’m told — you want the power steering and 4WD so you can handle heavy loads in the bucket.People who have such tractors use the buckets for everything, including carrying injured sheep or driving steel fenceposts.

But now I hear the pasture calling. Time to mow! …