Sunday, May 4, 2014

Seeds, heritage vs. hybrid, seed companies and GMOs

I spend a fair amount of time on social media, most of it on Facebook and it always seems like there is a lot of discussion and I think confusion when it comes to choices about good eating and seed selection. I raise heirloom vegetables mainly because I want to give customers that are looking for the best taste their moneys worth. Being able to save seeds to replant is another plus for heirloom vegetables but the way I look at it any catastrophe big enough to wipe out the seed supply is probably going to put a serious dent into farming anyway.

A lot of people think that going to a farmers market to buy their produce is the best way to get healthy food and for the most part it is grown locally so it shouldn't be treated with chemicals so it can be shipped across the country anyway so it should be. In reality though, with a few exceptions your probably buying the same hybrid vegetables that are grown to look good after a day sitting out in the air and sunshine at the farmers market instead of to be healthy and taste good like heirloom vegetables are.

So what is a person to do? It's always better to seek out the roadside farm stand where you should be able to talk to the guy that actually grows the crops he's selling or if there just aren't that many choices in your area then the farmers market is an ok alternative. There is one other option if you have some space and that is to grow your own. But now you have to decide on seed, I'll be perfectly honest with you, my seed selection is based mostly on whether or not I can get the seeds that I want off of a store shelf and how many seeds there are in a pack. This is another place where you are usually better off to buy heirloom, hybrid seeds usually only have between 25 and 50 seeds in a pack compaired to as many as 150 in a pack of heirloom. So how do you know that what your buying is heirloom? Most hybrids will be marked that they are,it doesn't hurt to do a little research either but there really are only so many varieties of heirloom seeds available and a lot of companies have the same ones, the differences are in some of the odd shaped and colored varieties and I really don't know much about them because most people that are buying vegetables from me want it to look like they picture that it should.

So now you decided to try planting your own vegetables and you know what seeds you want so where do you find them? I'm fortunate enough to have a store a few miles down the road where I can buy some seeds in bulk and I usually can find  better quality peas, beans,potatoes, onions and even things like strawberries, asparagus and a few others much cheaper than the box stores. They also have bulk packs of seed with as much as a quarter pound of seed in them for about the price of a small pack in the box stores. I'm not against shopping at Walmart, Kmart or TSC for my other seeds though, I do also order a few things that I can't get at the box stores but most of my peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, broccoli, cabbage and such come right off of the store shelves.

So aren't I concerned about GMOs in those seeds? There are no genetically modified vegetable seeds unless you consider hybids genetically modified and they are actually crossbred not modified but I don't grow them anyway. There are a lot of companies selling seeds and there are a lot of outlandish insinuations if not outright lies told when they are trying to sell you seeds, now hopefully this will help clear up some of the confusion and help you to make the choices that you need to eat better or better yet, grow your own.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Where am I going to keep these chickens?

Ok so you decided to get a few chickens and now they are a couple weeks old and you need to decide on some permanent housing. Chickens can be raised indoors if you have space in an outbuilding but if you really want to keep them healthy and cut down your feed bill free ranging is the best way to go. I realize that for one reason or another that most people need to decide on something in the middle but there are 2 important considerations here, chickens will destroy the vegetation in a run in short order and a healthy chicken will produce about 30lbs of waste in a years time, now to some people that really isn't waste but more about that later. Ok back to housing, if your chickens can't free range or you want to control their free ranging, the best way to do that, at least in my mind is with a chicken tractor. A chicken tractor is nothing more than a movable pen, the idea is that you move it every day or so so the droppings are distributed in a controlled manner or you can use fencing to fence off larger areas and that way the tractor doesn't need to be moved as often and it keeps the chickens close enough so they can get back to it if need be.I'm not going to get into chicken tractors here any more than that, there are other articles on my blog about my chicken tractors.

If the idea of a tractor doesn't fit your situation then a pen and coop is the next best thing. Everybody has ideas about a coop but most people want one thing, something cheap because in the end it just doesn't make a lot of sense to build something expensive to house a few chickens. I've included a simple drawing of what I consider the minimum idea of a coop, you can change the dimensions around for whatever suits you but this, in my thinking will make chicken keeping pretty easy. The first thing in my minimum requirements is the coop, the fewer chickens you have the smaller the coop can be, just be aware that it needs to have decent ventilation because bad air is harder on chickens than just about anything else. A 4'x4' coop will easily house 3-4 chickens but with the addition of a run you can put 10-12 in it if all they are doing is sleeping in it. The coop should have either a large access door on the side or a flip open top because your going to need to get into it to clean it every few days at least. Wire floors are nice and cut down the amout of coop cleaning but in northern climates are too drafty for winter. You should also plan to include a couple of windows or vents that can be opened and closed as needed for ventilation. Nestboxes and roosts are about the only other thing that the coop really needs, I like to hang the nestboxes off of the rear or one side so that they are about at waste level to make egg collection easier. As far as a roost goes, a chickens natural instincts are to get as high up as they can to sleep so it makes it harder for predators to get to them. In a 4' wide coop a narrow 4' board or 2x4 on edge will easily leave 8 hens roost on it, if you can angle it and make it 5'then it would hold 10.

Next is the run and here again size is up to you but the more birds your housing the bigger it should be but two things are for sure, it needs to be high enough to get in and out of comfortably and the floor needs to be something easy to clean. If you have a cement pad it will work and the nice thing about cement is that you can wash it off with a hose, the downside is that chickens like to scratch and they can't scratch on concrete. There are plenty of options for bedding material for a run, in my mind hay and straw are the worst, they get wet and smelly fast. Leaves are a decent option and if you have a few large trees around you may be able to collect enough for a years supply of dry leaves in the fall and when they start getting nasty just change them out, now you see why I say to make your run 6'high. There is another option for bedding and I think it's probably the best one and that is sand. Sand is cheap, it drys out fast and it's pretty easy to keep clean with one of those rakes they use for cat litter boxes or if you want to change it once a year or so you could just rake it around and bury the waste for a while but you are going to have to change some out every now and then.

So now you have chickens, you have housing, now your going to have waste, lets not call it waste, I prefer compost because that is really what it is and did I mention each one of your chickens will give you 30lbs of nitrogen rich compost free every year. So what do you do with that? Well you could bag it and put it in the trash or dig a hole in the yard and bury it and let mother nature deal with it. Or you could put it on a garden, flower gardens will work but you bought chickens to give you eggs and they're giving you free fertilizer why not grow something more edible? There is a lot of discussion about the best way to use it and really to start with people need to get over their fear if it. I know that's not always easy so I won't push it but you really can put more on a garden plot than mosy people realize,2-3 tons/acre isn't to much and that's not counting any extra bedding that gets thrown in also. You can put it right on your garden but I don't advise doing that while you have plants growing, there are a few safety concerns about about chicken manure coming in contact with your lettuce and tomatoes but really I think most are overblown as long as the vegetables are washed and handled properly before eating but you can make that determination for yourself. So while the plants are in the garden start a mulch pile, put your grass clippings, the neighbors leaves that blow into your yard and any other yard waste that you have on it, except doggy or cat poop, along with what the chickens make and next year you'll have vegetables to brag about. After you get the plants off then you can go right back to distributing the manure right back on the garden or composting it, whichever you feel comfortable with. One other thing that can be done with the chicken manure is to put it in s bucket along with some woodshavings, leaves or whatever other bedding material you have, fill it about 1/3 full of solid then the rest of the way with water and let that steep for a couple days, stirring occasionally then run the liquid through a cloth to strain out the solids and you'll have some high nitrogen liquid fertilizer, your sweet corn would love that right about the time it starts to make ears, just put it in a sprinkling can and go along the base of the plants with it!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Time to get some farming done

Well it looks like after an extra long extra cold winter and another week or so of snow melt and mud drying maybe spring is finally here. I had a pretty good week last week, broke some ground, planted peas, potatoes, onions and the first round of lettuce, radishes and carrots, I also put in a bed of strawberries. It's raining today so I got a chance to finish ordering a few seeds and starting some more peppers and tomatoes. The garlic that I planted last fall is growing good but I can see that I've got to get after the weeds in the next day or so. I hate years where you have to hit the ground running but so far the weather has been warmer than last year anyway,it would be nice to get a somewhat normal growing season after the last couple.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Healthy eggs

Healthy eggs don't just happen by accident, they have to start with healthy chickens. My idea of confinement starts with what is know as a chicken tractor. There are a lot of different ideas for the perfect chicken tractor and there is probably a good argument for reasons why, I'm not even sure such a thing exists. When I started down the chicken road I looked at a lot of different ideas and then came up with something that I figured would work for me. Now I truck farm so I wanted something that wasn't much wider than my beds so that if I have to confine my chickens for a few months over the summer so they wouldn't wreak havoc with my plants I could keep them on the beds that I want extra fertilizer on. The pictures included are of my first design but I have a second design started that I think will be a big improvement. My tractors are 4ft x8ft with a second level that is cantilevered over the frame in the rear to make the front end lighter to lift to put the wheels on and take them back off when I want to move it. It also has nest boxes that extend further out the back with a separate lid to collect eggs from. The roof is hinged so the whole thing flips up to make it easier to clean. It's a total of 48sq ft, 32 of it to open ground and 16sq ft inside not counting the nest boxes. For the bigest part of the year all it is is a place for them to be in overnight and a few hours in the morning until they are done laying eggs. I mentioned my second design and it's going to be pretty similar except with a wire floor inside and a droppings board underneath that will emtpy into a tray under the nestbox to make it easy to get the waste from there to the compost pile. I'm also going to put a pitched roof on it that extends over the yard a couple feet to give them more shade in summer, the roof will still open from one side for cleaning.Hopefully the new model will be a bit lighter, I'm building it out of lighter materials and I'm also going to put sliding windows on the sides and on the ends of the roof so I can open and close them as the wind changes direction and the windows will leave in more light. I think as confinement goes these do ok, they're small enough inside that the chickens can stay pretty warm even on the coldest winter nights but even in the summer when they are cooped up in them they have 4-5sq ft of space per bird. The biggest drawback so far is keeping water open on the coldest days of winter, I usually check water every couple of hours on days when the temps are below freezing. I started this off by talking about healthy eggs and it's easy to keep your chickens healthy with a place to stay dry and good feed and the other ingredient I have for healthy eggs is to clean out the nestboxes and rebed them first thing in the morning if needed so the eggs are always clean when I collect them and that leaves me confident that I can sell the freshest healthiest eggs possible.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Some ideas on sustainable farming

For the past few years I've been planting a 2 acre market garden that so far I have been able do without any chemicals or commercial fertilizer and aside from some weather issues and not being able to make enough compost to suit me, it's gone ok. To me, any kind of sustainable venture needs to include growing vegetables, any vegetables that you grow will save money at the market plus you know how your food is grown and, if all goes well it should give you some cash besides, it really is about the same as growing money. Back in my Grandfathers time it was called truck farming,I'm guessing because the vegetables were put on a truck and hauled to market and I like that name. There is a lot of thought that needs to go into something like this and if you get it started, you will probably be constantly tweaking to come up with a combination that works for you and that is the most important part, making it work for you. Education is your best weapon here and I'll be including links here or you can go to one of my Facebook pages and find links to articles that I've used in the past but the bottom line is that you really need to figure out what will work for you and then start working at putting that plan in motion. One of the biggest problems with truck farming is that most of the work happens over a couple months in the summer so if your going to make this a venture that you can live off of then you need to spread it out to as close to year round as possible. Most of the months from April to October will be covered but adding crops like garlic which around here is planted in the fall or mushrooms like oyster or shiitake that will grow with little input  from you once they are started will help spread out the labor some and in the case with mushrooms, give you a crop to harvest in the spring. I've mentioned chickens before and if you can build a market for eggs and meat chickens, they can add some extra late fall/early winter income or extra spring income that can get you through the winter and give you the added benefit of eggs,meat and fertilizer. Now those chickens will have to be fed all winter even if production is down but by starting hens laying at different times in the year you should be able to keep some laying over winter plus if you can free range them in the garden through the fall plus grow a late season garden of mostly greens that will usually get you into winter at least and a fodder growing system that will keep feed costs down for the laying hens in the winter months it is workable. Looking for new ideas and figuring how to make them work in your favor is your best bet for coming out on top of any business venture and sustainable farming is no different.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A man, a small tractor, a couple acres and chickens

I've done a good bit of research in the past year on sustainable farming and permaculture and I really believe that it has, not only the benefit of being good for the earth but can also provide a good income or at least a very good second income to anyone with a couple acres and some ambition. A few years ago I would have been satisfied with $5000-6000/acre of off a market garden but I really think now that there is a lot more potential. If your not familiar with permaculture it involves putting all of the waste back into improving the soil for the future. One of the setbacks that I've experienced in the past couple years has been to have enough compost to make a difference in the soil for a 2 acre market garden. I use everything that I can compost around here and get some extra from a nrighbor with a landscape business but so far it's been a pretty small amount. About a year and a half ago I added a few chickens and recently increased the flock to 20. In my opinion, chickens are the ultimate composting machine along with providing eggs to eat. Now 20 chickens are still only going to add about 600lbs of fertilizer/year but I really think 2 acres can support a much bigger and still healthy flock of chickens especially if it includes broiler chickens a couple times/year. And that is what permaculture is all about, having a plan to use the land in the most efficient and sustainable way. Stay tuned for more thoughts on this and see where this project is headed.

Here's the results of my fodder growing experiment

As fodder growers go I'd call myself a rookie but I had some questions that I wanted to try to find answers for so I set up this little experiment a few days ago. Now I'm growing wheat sprouts/fodder for laying hens so if your growing fodder for other animals what I have done here probably won't mean much to you but on the other hand I did get a feed that may also work pretty good for rabbits, goats or horses out of it. I usually only grow my fodder to about day 5-6,that is when the protein for wheat is suppose to peak at somewhere around 16% which is very similar to most commercial layer feeds. What I was noticing was that there seemed to be a lot of unsprouted grain in my feed at that point,if you look at the pictures you can see the difference, both pictures are wheat at 5 days growth. Here's what I did different, originally I would soak the wheat seed for 12 hrs in water with a little bleach in it to clean the seed, then I would transfer the seed from that bucket to another bucket that I drilled holes in the bottom, the seed spends 48 hrs in that bucket getting watered/rinsed every 12 hrs. From there I transfer the seed into a 1020 seed starting flat for 72 more hours and feed it at the end of 72 hours. I did 2 things different with the wheat that came out grassier, I didn't put the seed in the buckets for 48 hrs to drain/rinse. Instead I put the seed right into the tray from the soak bucket. The tray that I used was a stainless steel tray from a buffett cart that had a flat bottom instead of the ridged bottom that the 1020 trays have. I did end up with a grassy mat that had a real nice root mat but as far as extra weight it only increased by about a half of a pound. I fed it this morning and the chickens ate it ok but what I did notice was that they scratched and tore it apart and scattered it around some which they don't do when I feed it as mostly sprouts. I'm not sure what caused there to be as much difference in the growth and I'm trying to determine that right now with a couple more trays, I'll let you know what I find. For now I'm kind of undecided what I'm going to do, the grass is good for egg quality but I don't think there's much benefit as far as production goes and the grassy stuff didn't give me a tremendous weight gain, I think I'm going to try hitting a medium by putting the seed in a bucket to rinse /water for 24 hours then into a tray and see what that does. And maybe I'll just grow 1tray a week or so of really grassy fodder until I can get some more greens from the market garden into their diet. The bottom line is, anyway you look at it this is a very cost effective and healthy way to feed chickens, especially in winter when they can't find any other greens to eat and the best part is it only costs about a penny per chicken per day with very little extra work or added expense. They still need some oyster shell, egg shell or commercial feed for the minerals that aren't in the fodder but it can still make a big difference in the feed bill.