Sunday, October 18, 2020

Dancin'

The chickens are right at six months old now. We're getting just over a dozen eggs every day from our hens. Two or three of those are full-sized eggs, but the majority are smaller, and some are quite small. So they're exactly what we expect pullet eggs to be. 

We still have 23 hens and 5 cockerels. While the rooster roster hasn't changed, we've seen several developments in the social order. Barred Rock Hudson is certainly at the top of the pecking order, and King Louis is at the bottom. The three New Hampshire cockerels are harder to pin down. Rooster Cogburn was for a long time the largest of the roosters, and he seemed to be vying with Hudson for the top spot. But Cogburn has fallen at least one rung on the social ladder now. The other two New Hampshire cockerels, Little Jerry and Cosmo, are a mystery to me. Little Jerry is now the same size as Cogburn, slightly larger than the dominant male. Cosmo is slightly smaller.

Uncle Harvey contrasts "dancing roosters" with "rapist roosters." The former perform a chicken mating ritual, dancing around the hens to invite them to mate. The "rapist roosters" simply grab hens that catch their fancy and try to forcibly mate them.

Rooster  Cogburn was the worst of "rapist roosters," actually lying in wait around corners for a hen to pass, then grabbing her and mating with her while she shrieked and squawked indignantly. Cogburn was so bad, even my most tender-hearted daughter reluctantly agreed we needed to cull him. But two amazing things occurred to keep me from culling him, and I'm glad they did.

First, Barred Rock Hudson took control of his flock. Hudson spent at least a few weeks entirely devoted to rescuing hens from Cogburn. A hen would cry out, and Hudson would charge over and attack Cogburn. Cogburn would then typically run off, away from the flock, and wait for another chance. Strangely, both Little Jerry and Cosmo began to act as Hudson's deputies, chasing Cogburn off whenever a hen would cry out.

Second, Cogburn learned to dance. Cogburn was the first of our roosters to start dancing for the hens, who would generally ignore him. But one day, I noticed that there was a Barred Rock hen hanging around with Cogburn away from the rest of the flock. He started dancing for her, and she accepted his invitation without the slightest fuss. I started paying attention at that point, and saw the two of them go through this ritual at least four times over the next hour.

As Victorian as it sounds, Cogburn got a girlfriend, and she reformed the rake.




Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Chicken Salad

This spring I ordered 27 birds from Murray McMurray Hatchery. They added two to the order, and 29 were delivered near the end of April. We lost one on the fourth day, but the rest are doing well – 28 nine-week-old chickens living in our backyard.

back yard chicken coop

Our attempts at landscaping around the coop haven't been very successful yet. I'm seriously considering dumping foot-deep mulch all around the outsides.


There's one barred rock cockerel who seems to be growing up fast. At nine weeks old, he practices crowing every morning around 4:30. We call him Barred Rock Hudson. They're still very young, and barely adolescent, but Barred Rock Hudson appears to be the dominant male.

Barred Rock cockerel

The second-in-command is a New Hampshire cockerel who's significantly larger than Hudson, but seems to back down whenever they have a confrontation. I've taken to calling him Rooster Cogburn.

New Hampshire cockerel


Murray McMurray includes a "Bonus/Free Exotic Chick" in their orders, so we have a Polish cockerel as well. When he was only a couple days old, he looked like he a pre-revolutionary French courtier in a ridiculous wig, so we took to calling him King Louis. Now he honestly looks more like a punk rocker, so perhaps he's more "Louie" than "Louis". The poor guy has his head pecked mercilessly by the others, but we're afraid seperating him will do more harm than good, so we keep coating his head with balm.

Polish cockerel


All told, we have five cockerels, although it's possible another is lurking in there. But Hudson, Cogburn, and Louis seem to be the three at the top. There are two more smaller New Hampshire cockerels, but they seem to be pretty timid.  Louis is definitely lower on the pecking order than Hudson or Cogburn, but I've seen him stare down almost everyone else.

The plan is to let the chickens roam freely during the day, but so far I've been limiting their "free range" time to a couple hours in the evening. The cockerels are still quite small, and still don't seem to understand their role in the flock. There's a lot of predator pressure out here, and I'm not quite ready to delegate the care of the flock to them yet.

So I end up doing some of their free ranging for them: pretty much every weed I pull up I toss into their coop to see whether it interests them. They definitely won't eat thistles (which is a pity), but they love dandelion, milkweed, and clover. The jury's still out on sourgrass, and as much as they like hawkweed, I'm letting them find it themselves: it's too hard to pick.

I now spend a lot of time making salads for my chickens.

wheelbarrow full of weeds


They do seem to love their salads. And it's not too hard to figure out what they don't like – they leave that on the floor of the coop.







Sunday, May 3, 2020

+2

So we finally went back to the nursery where we bought that Green Gage plum last year. I couldn't find any more Green Gage trees, so I asked. No, they didn't have any Green Gages this year. So we thought we'd perhaps pick up something else.

While we were outside, the young woman who seems always to be there came up and told us she had found two Green Gage trees in their clearance area. And of course I knew exactly which trees they were...

Last fall we visited the nursery in mid-October, just two weeks before they closed for winter. They had three of the Green Gage trees I wanted, priced at $89 each. Since they were about to close, they had marked them down 25%. So I bought one, and kept wondering if I should have bought two. And all through the winter, I'd see the two trees I hadn't bought, standing tall and alone in the cold...

So this week, those same two trees had been marked down to $20 each. They were in full bloom, and had a lot of bees buzzing around them. They were bursting out of their pots, but they had made it through the winter.

So now they're in my back yard. They seem to be in decent shape, despite having been brutally root bound. They're at least ten feet tall, so I'm not fearing for them as far as the deer are concerned. And I got both of them for less than the discounted price I would have paid last fall.

Of course they're probably more stressed than they would have been had they been in the ground all winter, but they seem to be doing fine.

So that's a win.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Attrition

When I was growing up, my dad had something like 14 fruit trees in the back yard, not counting nuts. There was an Italian prune plum tree, a Green Gage plum tree, a couple cherry trees, and several apple trees. My two favorite apple trees were the Northern Spy and the Cox's Orange Pippin.

Now that we're living in the middle of nowhere and have a little more room, I've been working on planting a small orchard of my own. We've planted a couple Italian prune plum trees, a couple Cox's Orange Pippin trees, and even a Green Gage plum tree. It's been very exciting.

I would have saved time and energy if I'd just have taken a couple of those trees, chopped them into small pieces, and left them out for the deer. They ravaged the Cox's Pippin tree we planted, reducing it to a bald stick with a few pathetic, broken branches. They ate most of the branches off the MacIntosh tree, leaving it sadly unbalanced. The Italian prune trees seem to have survived the best, but even they ended up with just a small handful of leaves. They looked like spindly skeletons.

Interestingly, the deer seem to have done almost as much damage in the spring as in the winter. The trees looked much better in March than in July.

So last fall, we planted a couple more trees, which we protected with "fences" made of hog panels. Those have fared better (so far). The Green Gage was by far the most mature tree we've planted, and the deer appear to have left it alone entirely. We planted a second Cox's Pippin and a cherry, both in wire fences. Both have been left alone.

To be fair, we've had a mild winter (so the deer haven't been desperate), and we now have a dog. I think the dog has had a bigger impact on deer raiding our trees than I have realized.

So now I realize I'm in a war of attrition with the deer. I'm going to have to plant trees in great enough quantities that I can afford to lose one or two to the deer. Most of the varieties I've been planting require at least two trees for fruit, so I've been budgeting at least three trees per variety. That means I can lose one to deer and still get fruit. And when deer season rolls around in the fall, I'll try to recoup some of my losses in venison.

So yesterday we planted a couple Northern Spy trees, and I have a couple more cherries to plant over the next few days. That brings the tally up to eleven trees total, but I want to get at least one more Green Gage and another Cox's Pippin before it gets too warm. I'm hoping to get the total fruit tree count up to 15 by fall.

I haven't given up on the trees the deer ravaged: we fenced them in and fertilized them and mulched them. I'm hoping they recover, but I also realize we've lost at least a year or two of productivity on them.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Sawbuck

Now that we're living in the middle of nowhere, and heating with wood, our priorities have begun to shift a little. We're burning through wood faster than I expected; that's not the best news, but we have plenty of dead trees – seasoned firewood! The problem lies in getting them out of the back yard and into the wood pile.

Of course we don't want to burn unseasoned wood, but the wood that we know has been down for at least a year is eligible for immediate burning. Wood that's too old we can still burn in a firepit, but we don't want it in our stove. Wood that's still green is worth processing for next year, but it's a mistake to try and burn it too early.

We've processed wood with axe, bow saw, and chainsaw. The chainsaw is the fastest, the bow saw is the most exercise. I finally gave in and built a sawbuck to get the wood up off the ground so I can get a good angle with either saw.

I made the sawbuck from six eight-foot 2x6 boards. There's almost a complete board left over: I had planned to use half of it as a stringer, but there are already three stringers on it, and it's heavier than I wanted.

The construction is simple: the three uprights are made from two four-foot lengths joined with a carriage bolt. I drilled a 3/8" hole in the center of each board, 30" above the bottom. Then I ran a 3/8" carriage bolt through each pair. Each upright has the bottom inside corner cut off at 30° to make it more stable.

There are two pieces on each upright section cut with a 30° mitre at each end: they're 12" long on the bottom. Those are to fix the uprights at a permanent angle. They're fastened in with 3" long decking screws.

One is butted up to the front leg and screwed to the back, the other is butted up to the back and screwed to the front. They're screwed together in the middle. I thought of gluing them together, but I think the screws will hold just fine. The idea was to keep the legs at a fixed angle, and "fill in" the gaps to make it easier to assemble the sawbuck.

The stringers are just 48" 2x6 boards attached with decking screws to the legs. I cut four stringers, but only used three because of the weight.

I'm surprised how much better it is to cut on the sawbuck. And the 2x6 weight, while difficult to move around, makes the whole system stable, even when bucking logs with a chainsaw. Now I'm wondering why I waited so long to make it...

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Woodstove

This last summer we moved from the city into the country. We're no longer able to see and hear everything our neighbors are doing, which I consider a pretty major improvement.

One of the complications with our new situation is that we're now living in a bit of a snow-belt, and our poor house isn't really designed to handle that sort of weather. So one of our first orders of business was getting a reliable source of heat.

Just to give you an idea: it's October 1, and we've already had our first snowfall this year. It all melted within a few hours, but it was a liberal dusting of snow. The hilltops around us stayed snowy for a couple days. It's looking like a cold winter.

Being out in the middle of nowhere, a wood stove was definitely an option. And the more time we spent researching and mulling it over, the more we realized that was probably the right choice.

So we bought a wood stove:

We spent more time than I expected on finding the "right" stove, but it was installed surprisingly quickly once we made the choice. The stove is a Hearthstone Heritage TruHybrid.

I didn't like the look of the stove at first: I thought it looked like someone had glued stones to a squirrel to make a turtle. But I admit it's grown on me. It's built out of blocks of soapstone on a cast iron frame. So it's very heavy, and it takes a long time to warm up.

The "TruHybrid" system is actually a "catalytic combustor" system. There's a catalytic reactor in the "ceiling" of the stove that burns the smoke from the fire in order to make the fire hotter, reduce the smoke, reduce the emissions from the stove, and clean the burn. This isn't just injecting air into the top of the stove for a secondary burn – this stove does that as well – it's actually a tertiary burn.

I grew up with wood stoves. My chores included splitting wood, cutting kindling, and bringing armloads of split wood into the house to fill "the wood box." But the wood stoves of today aren't the glorified cast iron boxes of my youth: they're a great deal more complicated, and it took us a while to figure out how to use the new stove.

So here are some things I wish someone had told me about the Hearthstone Heritage IV before I got one:

  1. The soapstone really works. It does. It is frequently warm to the touch ten or twelve hours after the fire has gone out. This stove is almost more a wood-powered radiator than a wood stove.
  2. We have the optional blower installed on the stove. The blower is heat-activated, so it won't come on unless the stove is hot to the touch right near the blower. The blower will turn off when the stove cools down. The blower is a little loud, but we just turn it down during the day and turn it back up at night.
  3. The Hearthstone manual isn't terribly helpful when it comes to troubleshooting. It might even make things worse. The manual gives dire warnings about "over-burning" the stove, and how it voids all your warranties if you burn it too hot. The problem is... the stove won't start unless it's hot. More on that later.
  4. The glass door is a nice touch, but it smokes terribly when you open it: the side door isn't a gimmick, it's the only way to get the fire going without smoking out your house.
  5. The glass door gets messy, but the recommended cleaning technique in the manual actually works: wet a cloth, dip it in the ashes in the stove, and it'll wipe the creosote right off the glass.
  6. The stone on the stove takes forever to warm up. It can be cool to the touch while there's a blazing fire inside. This means the stove will smoke like a cold stove for a very long time. This is one smoky stove if you're not careful.

The biggest challenge with this stove is getting it lit. The stove is designed not to operate at low temperature, because they want it to run clean via the catalytic combustor; and the catalyst doesn't work unless it's hot. But because the stove is stone, and it takes so long to heat up, it's a real challenge to get the fire actually to light. As long as the stove is cold, it won't draw air, and your fire will die in billows of smoke.

The solution is to start with a much bigger fire than you think you need. You need to get a hot fire going as quickly as possible, so that the stove will stop smoking and draw in fresh air. Of course you're worried about shocking the stone and cracking it. And you're worried about over-burning your stove and voiding the warranties. But if you don't get the biggest fire you can in the stove as early as possible, it won't ever light – you'll end up with a smoking, cold stove.

So we use a lot of paper, and a lot of kindling. That gets a good blaze going very quickly. We're not even trying to light the wood at this point: we're trying to get the stove hot as quickly as possible. After it blazes up, we keep a door cracked open to get more air to the flames for at least twenty or thirty minutes. Once the stove warms enough to draw, we close the doors.

Now, it's taking almost an hour for the stove to warm to the point that the catalytic combustor can work. But once we get it to that point, we throw the lever and it really takes off. Now that we've figured out the key is a large blaze as soon as possible to get the stove actually to light, our next goal is to get the catalytic combustor working in less than 45 minutes. We'll see how that turns out.

I'm quite happy with this wood stove, but I honestly thought we'd gotten a lemon for several weeks. We just couldn't figure out how to get it to light cleanly. Now that we've cracked that nut, the stove is a dream.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Cartridge bag

I wanted to come up with a practical way to carry shotshells while out on adventure. There are plenty of solutions online: I looked at side-saddles that attach directly to the shotgun, chest rigs made from ballistic nylon, bandoliers that sling over the shoulder, and even buttstock covers with loops to hold cartridges. But at the end of the day, almost all those solutions were way more tactical than I wanted. When I head out, it's usually in a wool sweater and oiled leather boots.

The best all-around option seemed to be the leather cartridge bag. It will work equally well for plinking in the woods, shooting in the gravel pit, or hunting during pheasant season. Loaded with 100 one-ounce shells, it'll weigh in around six pounds.

I found this one on Etsy:

It seemed to be exactly what I was looking for.

My biggest concern with ordering this cartridge bag was the fact that it shipped from the UK. I was quite pleased with the entire process. The bag was listed for $51.36 (USD). The final cost (including taxes and shipping) was $63.80 (USD). That's not very expensive for a leather bag.

I ordered the bag on January 2, it shipped on January 3, and I received it January 14. So it was less than two weeks from placing the order to receiving it, and four days before the estimated delivery date.

The cartridge bag looks just like the pictures. The leather is a little thinner than I expected, and the buckles are a little smaller. But the bag is quite sturdy, and I have no doubt it'll last me for many years.

The only thing about the bag I don't like is the leather "drawstring" in the mouth of the bag. It's leather, but it's quite flimsy. I expect I'll end up pulling out that leather thong.

The listing says the bag holds over 100 cartridges. I emptied two boxes of shotshells (50 cartridges) into the bag, which filled the bag about half-way. So it seems like 100 cartridges is about right. I noticed the bag held more when I turned all the shotshells to lie in the same direction: when I just dumped the two boxes' worth of shells into the bag, they filled it more than half full.

The leather feels a little too stiff, but I think after some use and some leather treatment, it'll be great.

All in all, the bag is well worth the price. It was delivered on time, and I'm quite excited to take it out on an adventure.