Looking for Something?

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Waste Not Want Not

One of the great things about having a backyard farm is that it allows you to waste much less than you would otherwise. In our house, our food scraps, vegetable cuttings, and uneaten leftovers are all used. We feed the vegetables to our Rabbit who then makes that food into good garden fertilizer. We give most of the other food, (including vegetables that the rabbit doesn't eat) to our chickens. Did you know that chickens will almost eat anything? Well they do, and all of that food energy goes into making eggs or more fertilizer. Everything that our chickens don't eat goes into our compost bin with the chicken waste and rabbit poop so we can add rich organic material to our garden. We also shred our newspapers and junk mail and add them to our compost bin instead of recycling all of our paper.

Here is how we made a simple compost bin for less than $20. We bought a sturdy plastic garbage can at our local store.

For the organic material to break down it needs oxygen. We drilled holes in the can at regular intervals.

You will want to add what are called green and brown materials to your bin to get a good ratio of carbon rich and nitrogen rich matter in the compost. Brown materials are high in carbon and they include ash or wood material, shredded cardboard boxes and newspaper, leaves, pine needles, and fruit waste. Green materials are high in nitrogen and include grass clippings, coffee grounds, vegetable scraps, manure, most food waste, seaweed, hay, and other green leaves from plants. It is suggested that you layer these materials. The smaller the material is the better as well. On a daily basis we have more green waste than brown so we throw everything in the compost bin and then add our browns periodically by shredding paper and scooping up some hay from the chicken coop.

Once you have a good mix of greens and browns you want to mix them together. In this picture we are rolling the compost bin to mix the compost. We have found that adding a bungee cord from handle to handle over the lid helps to keep the lid on as we roll it. You also want to keep your compost relatively moist so you might need to sprinkle it with water periodically.

It normally takes 1 to 2 months for your compost to form. For this reason it might be a good idea to have a few separate bins. If you don't want to make a bin like this or you are on a larger property, you can just pile your compost in an area of your property that is preferably far away from your home as it tends to stink. You can also just form a fenced in compost area with fencing, bricks, or cinderblocks if you want to keep it more contained.

I find a lot of satisfaction in taking what most consider garbage and making it into something that helps my garden grow.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Backyard Chickens 101: Part One

Since it's spring time and many of us will be getting new chickens we felt like it was time for a chicken 101.

First off, let's talk about chickens. Even though the idea of getting fresh eggs from your backyard every morning sounds great, you may have a few concerns about keeping them. I have wanted to have a farm for as long as I can remember but when it hit me that I might be able to keep them in my own postage stamp lot I had a lot of questions. I'm going to address them below:

First off, are they noisy?

I imagined keeping chickens would be something akin to the geese at the park and that there was no way my neighbors wouldn't complain. I was surprised to find that with the exception of the roosters(male chickens) these birds are pretty quiet. Definitely quieter than my neighbor's dogs! My hens will sometimes cluck around and squawk at one another but it's such a small sound I doubt that their noise would ever carry over my fence and disturb anyone. Now, I never had more than 6 hens at once so I can't comment on large flocks!

What about the smell?

I was surprised to find that my hens smell very little. The smell really relates to the size of the coop and the number of birds you are keeping. Their waste is not even close to as stinky as other animals and will quickly work it's way back into the earth - unless you are requiring them to stay in a small confined space. Even doing that, as long as it isn't smaller than each each bird requires, you will only need to "clean" their coop every few weeks. At our house that meant raking or shoveling out some of the bedding and adding it to the compost pile and then replacing it with fresh pine/straw.

What about disease?

Chickens are hardy animals. They take care of themselves as long as they are given the freedom to do so. Large factories where thousands of birds are housed together in confined spaces are disease spreaders - not backyards. If one of my chickens were acting funny I'd notice it immediately and take action. Chickens are clean animals and if they were starting to get really dirty that would be a sign that something is wrong - which a backyard chicken owner would notice when a factory worker might not. They aren't complicated animals and they don't come into contact with other chickens so they are pretty safe and healthy. Also, when I first got chickens I was worried about the bird flu until I read an article on whether or not backyard chicken owners should worry about bird flu. The article pointed out that Americans don't tend to drink the blood of obviously sick chickens or eat chickens that have died from disease. I think we fail to realize that other cultures might not take the same precautions ordinary Americans would and therefore put themselves more at risk. In the end, you really don't need to worry.

Are they expensive?

They sure don't have to be! Just like other family pets you can go and spend over a thousand dollars on a mansion of a chicken coop or you can build your own or even pull it together from things you've already got. And their feed is pretty cheap - and it can be even cheaper if you feed them kitchen scraps. Plus, a chicken's favorite meal is found right in your own backyard. Letting them roam around your backyard grass and find bugs will not only make them happy but the grass will add some omega 3's to your eggs not to mention decrease the amount on bugs out there!

Where do you get chickens?

There are a few places to look but the easiest place is your local feed store or IFA. You can also look on local classifieds like craigslist. You can also order them online and get live chicks shipped directly to your door! Sometimes these hatcheries require a certain number of chicks per order so you'll need to consider that. The price of chicks should range from $1.00 on up a piece. Some breeds are rare and sought after and can cost more. Also, it is important if you are planning on keeping these in your suburban backyard that you are getting females only! Female baby chickens are called pullets and it's something you need to ask so that you don't keep waiting for eggs from a male chicken!

What breed should I get?

I started by just buying what looked cutest to me at the feed store and while that isn't terrible it might not give you some of the characteristics you desire. If you didn't know it, not all hens lay the same number of eggs. Some hens lay extra large eggs every day and others only lay small eggs once a week. The best place to look is on mypetchicken.com at their breed list - they even have a questionnaire that you can fill out with what you are looking for and they will recommend the best breeds for you. That site is also great for lots of basic questions and even buying coops online.

When do they start laying eggs?

Waiting for your first egg can take an eternity! Hens will generally start laying around 20 weeks and will keep laying well until they reach about three years of age. Their production will sometimes go down in winter but there are things you can do to keep it going such as giving them a heat source as well as artificial light.

When do eggs have babies in them?

This has got to be my favorite question - and I've heard some crazy answers for how you get a fertilized egg! Some people say that all eggs have chicks in them or other say a rooster has to sit on the egg after it's hatched but acutally folks, chickens do it the old fashioned way. I haven't owned a rooster yet so I haven't witnessed much chicken sex but I do know without it you don't have any fertilized eggs! So if you don't have a rooster you don't have any chicks on the way! Also, you can still eat fertilized eggs. If the eggs aren't immediately handled correctly a chick will never form so just put your eggs right in the fridge and they'll be just like the others.

Where do I get their feed?

You can get chicken feed at the local feed store or IFA. And though you might not realize it, you might have one closer than you imagined. I was living in a suburb of a very large city and realized I had one right down the road that I had been passing for years! They can also be a good resource for questions you might have or for the other supplies you'll need.

Will I like my chickens, are they like pets?

I have a friend who is terrified of chickens and she cannot imagine that they could be lovable. So while you might not imagine it, chickens are very rewarding animals and many regard them as pets! I too, came to love my hens, even feeling that I'd keep them with or without eggs. I wrote a post about that a while back and you can read more about my chicken love there.

Now that we've gone over a few of the basics we need to get down to the nitty gritty details like housing, feeding, and daily care. Marisa will be going over all of that in Part Two of this post.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Website Review: Forums

Ever gone into your local garden or feed store with a question only to be met with a blank stare? Do you ever find you've got a very specific problem and no one has any idea what your talking about? If you are a backyard farmer chances are that you experience this ALL THE TIME!

A really great resource for people like us is forums. There are forums on every subject and topic of interest. I am a frequent visitor to a forum all about chickens and they have been able to answer several questions about my hens' behavior and breeds. With most forums questions are answered within an hour and by someone who has experienced the same thing as you. I also like that I don't have to drive anywhere but can ask the question and go back to my regular routine. Something that unfortunately garden centers can compete with. I also find that sometimes I am able to help others with their questions.

Some of our favorite forums around here are:

Backyard Chickens Forum
Gardenweb Forums
Helpful Gardener Garden Forum

Let us know if there is a forum on backyard farming that you find useful!

Friday, February 20, 2009

On The Farm Front

I have mentioned in previous articles that I grew up on a farm in Idaho. My father, grandfather, and uncle farmed mainly potatoes and wheat. We also raised pigs for our own use. In the news clipping above you can see me as a 7 year old boy with my grandfather Maurice Johnson in the tie and my uncle Dale in the middle who is also a contributor to this website. We won the biggest spud contest for that year. This picture is very poignant to me and brings back many good memories of what I remember to be a simpler life.

I have grown up and become a city boy but I believe if you grow up on a farm that a piece of it never leaves you. I still love the smell of fresh turned earth. I love being in the country and seeing all of the stars that aren’t visible in the city. I love animals and the place they have in our lives. I have a special feeling in the fall knowing that a summer of hard work produces it’s bounty.

I want my children to learn many of the things I learned growing up on the farm. I learned that honest, hard work can be satisfying and rewarding. I learned that a lot of the time we have to have faith that the work we are doing now will pay off in the future. I learned about the sacred relationship we have with nature and animals. I learned that you don’t need a lot of things to be happy, you just need food, shelter, and a loving family.

Right now we don’t live on a farm but I can still help my children learn many of the same values. My oldest son Reece is responsible for our chickens. He feeds them and makes sure that they are warm and comfortable every day. We give our children a plot in the garden and let them be responsible for weeding and watering it. Our children have pets that help them learn about the importance of our relationship with nature. Although it’s not a complete substitute to living on a farm I believe that many of these things will help keep my children linked to the farming heritage that I have.

What are some of the values that you have learned from your backyard farming experiences?


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Website Review: Eat the Seasons

If you didn't know it, one of the best things you can do for your health and your taste buds is eat the food that is in season. Sometimes though, it's hard to remember what exactly IS in season. Here's a simple, straightforward website that helps you know just what you should be on the lookout for! Click Here to visit www.eattheseasons.com

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Backyard Farming Disaster - Broiler Apocalypse

This is the first in a series of backyard farming disasters that I will share with you over the next few weeks so that you can learn from our mistakes. The second year on our small farm we decided to get into pastured broiler production. We would raise 100 chickens, put 25 in our freezer, and sell the rest to neighbors and friends. In late March we ordered the chicks and brooded them in our garage. In the meantime we built three pasture pens. They were 8’x8’x2’ half covered with plywood and half covered in chicken wire. They each had a 5 gallon bucket attached to a waterer and a bin for supplemental feeding. When the chicks were old enough, we put them in the pens. Each morning the kids moved the pens to fresh pasture, replenished the feed bins and filled the water buckets. The chickens grew fast and in early June they were up to market weight. A couple of days before slaughter, I was working at my office in the afternoon. A coworker came in from outside with sweat on his forehead. “Wow! It got hot all of the sudden out there!” he commented. I didn’t think much about it. A while later my phone rang and when I picked it up, a sobbing voice cried, “DAD! THE CHICKENS ARE DEAD! THEY’RE ALL DEAD!” I jumped in my car and raced home. Under the shade trees on the lawn, my kids were trying to revive some of the heat stroked chickens by forcing water down them with eye droppers. I went out to the pens to survey the extent of the disaster. Broilers are dumber than _ _ _ _ and when it got hot they panicked and started piling up and smothering each other at the back of the pens where the temperature was the hottest. The death toll – about 70 dead and 30 survivors. My oldest son and I formed a burial detail. It takes a big hole to bury 70 full grown chickens. When we were down about 2 feet and both in the hole, we started hitting each other accidentally with our elbows and shovels. Finally I turned to Allen and said, “Allen, there are two kinds of people in the world, those who dig holes and those who fetch dead chickens. I will dig while you fetch.” For you youngsters, this is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s lines to Eli Wallach in the cemetery at the end of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. Allen brought down wheel barrow loads overflowing with the dead chickens. He offered his own comic relief from Monty Python’s Holy Grail, “Bring out yer dead! Bring out yer dead!” I was hoping one chicken would perk up and say “But I’m not dead yet!” The whole experience was painful. We felt so bad for the chickens and the kids lost $1,120 for their 2 months of hard work (70 broilers x 8 lbs. avg. dressed weight x $2/lb.) We learned our lesson and since then we have raised several flocks without incident.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Fresh Pasta

3 freshly laid eggs from "the ladies" and 2 cups of flour.

Make a well with your flour and crack the eggs into the well. The first time I made the pasta, I mixed it with my hands and made an enormous mess. This time I used a fork and slowly worked all the flour into the eggs. Then, once the eggs and flour were pretty well mixed, I used my hands. Hand knead for about 10 minutes. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 20 minutes. Set up your pasta roller, cut the dough into 4ths so it is easier to work with. Be sure to cover the remaining dough, it will dry out quickly.
Find a good strong helper to turn that handle for you.

Toss those noodles into a pot of boiling water. For al dente pasta, you will only need to cook for 2-4 minutes.

Add your favorite pasta sauce. While the pasta is hanging out in the refrigerator, be sure to roast some garlic, spread it with butter on some homemade french bread, cover with Parmesans cheese and broil until golden brown. This was only my second time making pasta (the first time you can't eat it, you are just cleaning out the grease and grime from your pasta machine). This meal spoiled me, I don't think I can ever buy another box of pasta! For me and my family, it is homemade from now on.

Here is the link to amazon.com where I purchased this pasta roller:
(copy and paste into browser)


Sunday, February 8, 2009

Backyard Farming

I have written several articles for this blog (mostly about poultry which I love) and I would like to tell you my story which I hope will encourage many of you in your pursuit of backyard farming. I was raised in Idaho where I farmed with my dear father and brother (Marisa’s father-in-law). It was a wonderful experience but the economics didn’t work out and we had to go our separate ways. I ended up as a farm management specialist for the University of Maryland. This sounds great but it wasn’t. I had a modest salary and a small home on a tiny lot in College Park, MD that wasn’t big enough (or so I thought) for a backyard farm. My wife, LeAnn, (whose biggest interest is horses) and I scrimped and saved and prayed for years so that we could move to the country. My salary increased little by little and then the University gave me the opportunity to transfer my office to a University research farm. We jumped at the chance! We found a small farm that we could afford on the Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, MD and we have been living the dream ever since. We have had most species of animals and love gardening. We renovated the house, fenced the property and built a barn. It has been a great place to raise our children. I continue as a farm management specialist teaching at the University and consulting commercial farmers and hobby farmers alike. My experience with backyard farmers has taught me the following:

1. Growing your own food is incredibly fun and fulfilling.

2. I could have done a lot more with that tiny lot in College Park. No backyard farm is too small.

3. People with no agriculture experience often make the best farmers. Eagerness to learn is most important.

4. Dream’s can come true. If you want a little bigger farm, it may be possible. But even if it isn’t, you can be happy on your backyard farm.

I wish you all well in your dreams and look forward to reading your articles and comments on this great website.

Dale M. Johnson, backyard farmer

Friday, February 6, 2009

Backyard Chickens are all the rage...

Here's an article from USA Today that talks about the new movement to keep urban chickens. Obviously we're all for it around here - it's fun to see the interest growing!

Click here to go to the article.