The Ballad of Bert the Little Bull

He came from Oregon, a tiny bull in an enormous trailer,
but none knew, despite his stature, the size of his story.
With the rocket’s red glare he spooked from the farm,
on his first day with his new herd.
On the road he met with a state patrolman, who scared him into the woods,
while the farmer searched vainly for this abandoned bull.
Trying to find home he encountered a deputy who helped to keep him from harm.
But when the farmer appeared he was gone in the night, nowhere to be seen.
At dawn a horseman found him in his field,
the strangest looking horse in the paddock.
And the farmer was called, and his farmer friends too.
Bert led them on a merry chase, round paddock and lawn,
to be finally cornered between trailer and gate.
Roped up and dragged out and trailered, the weary farmer took him home.
And he returned to his new herd, and the warm sun,
and the shady trees, and ample hay of his new home.
And we hope that this will be the end of his story,
excepting for long days, and tall grass, and heifers.

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Why everything is always a prototype

20160629_105723This is the raised apiary I built this year. For what I designed it for, it works brilliantly. The problem is I designed it for the wrong reasons. I didn’t realize this until it was time to start working very large busy hives full of bees. It’s been a good lesson in design for me, because I’ve learned in the process, to spend much more time thinking about the reasons why I build things.

When I designed this I took a similar approach to most other things I’ve built on the farm. Maximizing the density on the most minimal footprint. Now, in most of my other designs the functional aspects were worked out as part of the build, and later improved. In this design I thought I had properly accounted for the functional aspects, but I did not.

It is easiest to work beehives from the side or the rear. In these instances you do not interrupt the path of the foragers who are coming and going from the hive. By having four hives in a row I have forced myself to need to work the inner two hives from the front. This really disrupts the bees. It’s also more difficult to lift full honey supers out because I can only grab on the narrow sides.

I also thought that having the posts extend up so that I could eventually add a roof was a good idea. Having a roof will help protect the bees over winter. The problem is that the posts directly interfere with working with the end hives.

Now the height is great, I can drive right up with my truck, I have all my tools at hand, and can immediately place pulled supers on to bottom boards in order to take them away from the hives.

So, now that this prototype has been tested and I have learned, it’s time to design the next generation of Apiary.

This is why I consider everything to be a working prototype. I learn so much with each revision. Apiary 2.0 will take into account what I’ve learned this year.

 

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Crossing the tracks

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Our farm has a number of topographical challenges. The most well known is the river and flooding that occurs during the winter. The lesser known challenge is the railroad. Our deed to the farm notes that the railroad was given a right of way across the farm in the early 1900’s. Over the subsequent years the river’s route has changed. Many years ago it was possible to drive to the back side of the property without the use of the private crossing. Today, there is no means of access to the back 50 acres of our farm without a functional railroad crossing.

The existing crossing was taken out before we purchased the property. We’ve never found out the exact reasons for it’s removal. It’s likely there was a problem with the mortgage holder not continuing to pay for the necessary insurance for the crossing. When we fast forward to 2013, after we purchased the property, we started the process of obtaining a crossing so that we can access the back 50 acres. At that time, having just bought the farm we were low on funds. When the process went through the agency that represents the railroad we were quoted a significant sum to put the crossing in. It was an amount of money we simply didn’t have access to.

So we decided to focus on the front 10 acres of the farm. At that time, having the crossing access simply wasn’t critical. We spent the time from 2013 to the winter of 2015 cleaning up and restoring the visible part of the farm. We’re still in the process of restoring this area, but we knew that we had to start working on the back parcel as we needed it for grazing. Over the winter we walked everything across the tracks to clear the old roads and begin fencing pastures.

In the spring of 2016 we had finally managed to squirrel away the necessary amount of money. We got the ball rolling with the private crossing request at the end of March.  Over the ensuing months I became more and more frustrated with the process. A friend was due to be married in a field across the tracks in June. By the time of her wedding we had the farm ready, but still no private crossing. This meant that everything for the wedding had to be carried across the tracks by hand, set up for the wedding, and then taken down the next day.

With minimal fuss we managed it, until the day after the wedding. One of the vendors decided that he had no interest in carrying his equipment back across the tracks. Despite me yelling at him, he opted to drive his pickup truck across the tracks. Having made it halfway across his pickup promptly died and would not restart. Realizing the scale of the problem in front of me I ran across the farm and fired up the backhoe. Today I am so grateful for that piece of machinery. With the bucket of the backhoe I was able to lift the truck and push it off of the tracks, however it was on the wrong side.

Having thought this was the worst thing that could happen, a potentially worse thing occurred. The BNSF Railway police showed up. At the end of the whole shebang the situation turned out to be a blessing in disguise! The officer got me in touch with the private crossing manager for Seattle. He in turn helped me light a fire under the crossing process. Once that group was adequately motivated they then discovered that there were two applications for a crossing on my property: one from me and one from Bonneville Power.

BPA has a tower along the river on that back portion of my farm. For years they haven’t been able to drive out and inspect it. When I first bought the property I explained to BPA that I couldn’t afford the crossing. Well, they eventually decided that they would pay to have it put back in!

So, not only are we to get our crossing replaced, but we also won’t have to pay for it! Additionally, I believe that I’ll be able to have BPA also fix one of the roads on the back side of the farm (they’ll have to in order to drive their trucks).

As I finish writing this Tiffany is in town overnighting the contracts back to the railroad. This long saga appears that not only is it ending, but ending in a fashion I could never have guessed!

 

 

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You been goofing with the bees?

Every time I work my beehives I get Harry Nilsson’s _The Point_ in my head. There’s one specific line in the album. “You’ve been goofing with the bees?” Yesterday I was definitely goofing with the bees.

It’s nectar season here. The blackberries are finishing out their bloom and the bees are building wax and making honey as fast as they possibly can. Some of my hives are ready for their first harvest. In the preceding days I had inserted escape boards on four of my hives. These escape boards allow bees to exit a specific part of the hive, but is too complicated to allow them re-entry. We beekeepers use these to get out bees out of honey supers that we need to harvest. Once all the bees exit the honey super it’s a relatively easy process of lifting the boxes off the hive, collecting the honey, and returning them.

Or at least, that’s the theory….

Tiffany was still exhausted from the end of the school year, I was too anxious to harvest my honey. We started with the eight hives we had in the middle of the main field on the farm. Once thing I’d learned from working my hives from the back of my truck is that I need a driver. I keep my hives on a raised apiary to protect them from water and varmints. I designed the whole system so that I could stand on my tailgate and work the hives. The preceding days had taught me that I couldn’t both work the hives and drive at the same time. Angry bees won’t allow me to reenter my truck and drive away.

We worked the first hive. as I was tearing it apart I realized that the hive was so strong that there was simply not enough room in the existing hive to allow the bees to exit their honey supers. In order to get them to exit I had to give them somewhere to go. This means inserting a empty honey super below the escape board. After getting suited up to work the hives, I went ahead and started working. Though I was suited, I couldn’t find all of my tools, particularly my hive tool. On the first hives this wasn’t much of an issue. I managed to take the cover off, lift off the full supers, which are very heavy, insert the empty super and get everything reassembled without much fuss.

The only exception to the simplicity of the process was Tiffany. As she backed up a second time she managed to hit the apiary with the tailgate of the truck. Thankfully it didn’t get knocked over, but it now has a bit of a list to it. I fully admit that this was my fault. I asked my wife to do something that she’s not particularly good at and I got her best effort. At this point, fearing for the future of my hives, I was very angry. Anger and bees don’t mix. Anger and marriages don’t mix either. I managed to get the second hive worked, and it was time to head to the second apiary at the front of the farm.

As we drove to the front of the farm I was irrationally angry at my poor wife, I was short critical tools for my beekeeping activities, and I was overall distracted from my task. At this point I should have had the common sense to stop what I was doing, but I so badly wanted to harvest my hives so that we would have more than eggs to sell down at the farm. So I made Tiffany sit in the passenger seat while I lined up the truck to work the front hives. My alignment was poor and the working site was not correct for what I needed. Regardless I pushed on, wanting the honey from the hives.

I lifted the cover off the first hive. All I had to do was lift off the two full honey supers, remove the escape board, insert a fresh super, and replace the supers and escape board. This hive was stronger than the first two I had worked. They had completely glued the two supers and escape board into place. Lacking the correct tools I used the closest thing I could find, a hammer. As much as I tried I could not get the two supers apart. I could, however, get the mated supers and the escape board to move. At this point the bees were obviously agitated, but I went ahead with what I was doing.

I tried lifting the paired supers off the hive. Supers when full of honey weigh about 65 pounds, a pair of them, with an escape board is easily over 120 pounds. Needless to say, I dropped the paired supers due to their weight. The best part is that I dropped them directly on top of the hive full of agitated bees. Seconds later I was literally covered with angry bees, all trying their best to sting me for stealing their honey. Very rapidly I learned that denim jeans and a bee jacket are not sufficient protection from a horde of angry bees.

Covered with stinging bees I fled the hive and ran from the apiary up to the front of the farm. Cars driving by got to watch the spectacle of me trying to get the bees off of me. I ran there because the wind wash from the cars helped to pull the bees away from me. In my anger and pain I flagged down Tiffany and jumped into the back of the truck. I managed to get her to understand that we needed to get home. At this point my tragedy turns to comedy. Here I am, in my bee suit, covered in angry stinging bees, standing in the bed of my truck clinging to the ladder rack as my poor wife drives 50 mph towards Sultan. as I flailed around knocking bees off of me they were swallowed up by the wind. By the time we turned off of the highway I was bee free and able to jump into the truck. I must have been quite a sight to the other drivers on highway 2.

When I got into the truck and calmed myself a hair I realized that we had to go back to the farm and fix the hive. It didn’t matter what condition I left it in, I had to get the bee boxes sorted out. At this point my poor wife was ready to cry. I was mad and she was my target. We then proceeded to drive back down to the farm. With the truck windows closed we drove up to look at the angry hive. They were still buzzing about the hive, but I was able to see what needed to be done. I had to rescue the cover, realign the supers, and put the last super on the hive. I had Tiffany drive to the entrance to the farm. I knew my work would require a rapid exit.

Even at the entrance to the farm I found myself attacked by angry bees. It was a process of running about while pulling on my bee gloves to stay clear. Bee stings, in general, do not bother me too much, but if I get them on my hands or forearms I swell like a balloon. With my kit on, I ran down the driveway and grabbed the super I had managed to remove and run away with before. I deposited it by the hive and was immediately attacked. In the process of realigning the empty super, escape board and full super I caused the entire hive to go into attack mode. Swarmed worse than the first time I got them aligned, but wasn’t able to get the last super back on the hive nor the cover. I ran. I ran and dove into the bed of the truck signaling Tiffany to drive.

As Tiffany took off towards sultan I was again clinging to the ladder rack on the truck flailing around knocking bees off of me. Ironically, all I could think about is what the people in the truck behind us must be thinking. A grown man, in a bee suit, in the bed of a truck, flailing around like a maniac at 50 mph. It must have been a hysterical sight. Needless to say, we are still providing entertainment to those who drive past our farm.

At home I stripped of my bee suit and clothes, still partially covered in angry bees. Swallowing down some benadryl we did a sting count. It was at least 30 stings all over my legs and arms. The worst was the sting on my backside. Every time I tried to sit down it flared up. We opted, at this point, to let the bees calm down. Just before sunset I went back down to the farm to claim the abandoned honey super and put the cover back on the hive. This time I only had a few angry bees and was able to get rid of them.

Just another day of chaos on the farm.

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Fowl Dynamics

First, I’ll start with breaking rule number one of going to the farm: Never forget to change into your farm clothes before going. I made the mistake of wearing brand new jeans, we’ll get to that later.

So we had put our gifted geese/ducks in with the turkeys as our existing ducks seemed to get along with them ok. Now, while I’ve never been there to see anything untoward, it has been appearing that the geese and the turkeys just aren’t getting along. It’s not a matter of one group going after another group so much as a mutual dislike and distrust.

I drove out to put the turkeys/ducks/geese to bed this evening only to find the geese outside as they’d knocked down their ramp and are too fat to hop the 1′ to get into the coop. So it goes. I put the ramp back and then started the long process of trying to get them to waddle up into the coop.

Some nights I win, some nights the geese win. Tonight the geese were winning. It was at this point that I noticed with a start that there were no turkeys to be seen anywhere! Not in the coop, not under the coop, not in the fencing at all. Zero turkeys!

At this point I’m running through all the possible things that could have happened to those idiots, and I’m trying to figure out where they’ve gotten themselves to. When left to their own devices they make very poor decisions, so never ask a turkey for advice.

As I tried to squat down one last time to look under the coop again I lost my balance and my knee when right into a fresh pile of goose poop. Geese make poops about the same size as Rhode Island. So my new jeans are all goose-poopy now and I am decidedly annoyed.

It’s too dark to try to do any sort of serious search, so I gave up and headed over to the chicken coop. Right in front of the coop on the wrong side of the fence is one of the hen turkeys! So, yay, I found at least one! I opened up the moveable fencing and shooed her in to the chicken area. Then I walked up to the coop and looked in, staring back at me were the two toms. Turns out the turkeys abandoned their coop and decided to shack back up with the chickens. I proceeded to gather up the days eggs and close up the coop.

Only problem is that the one hen hadn’t come into the coop yet. She was roosting on the ground inside the fence. Not wanting to leave her out there on her own I figured I should catch her. This is where I should mention that turkeys are much stronger than they look.

I got her sort of where I wanted and made a grab for her. She reacted like the devil himself was after her and caused me to lose balance. We both tumbled, got tangled in the portable fencing and went rolling across the field. When all was said and done the turkey was nowhere to be seen and I’d just rolled through wet grass, dirt and a lot of chicken poop.

eesh.

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New Mobile Chicken coop built.

In the year since we built our first mobile coop we learned a number of my original design ideas that were not what I would call efficient. We recently obtained a new trailer to convert to being a coop, and with what I’d learned we set about designing a new coop.

The primary goals of the new coop were a happy place for chickens to live, and one where we could keep things tidy as possible in the least effort required.

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The first aspect we took into account was the roosts. After studying a number of other coop designs I opted for a flat ladder based roost layout instead of a vertical one. This vastly expands the amount of area available for roosting.

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Because this ladder system spans the coop, we needed to ensure that we could easily clean out the floor beneath the roosts. We employ a deep litter system, so we don’t clean it super frequently, but when we do there’s a lot of shoveling to be done.

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Using these framing connectors we were able to easily create all the spans in a removable fashion. Each one of these connectors was bent inward slightly to create a compression fit against the 2″x4″ spans. With this we are able to remove almost all of the roosting spans in order to get easy access to the manure underneath to shovel it out.

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These were our great expense on this project. As much as I liked the nesting box set-up in the previous coop that employed buckets, we still ended up with a fair amount of soiled eggs. Soiled eggs = a lot of washing = a lot of time spent. From that perspective it was terribly inefficient.

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Here you can see the roll away part of the nesting boxes. When the hens lay in these the egg gently rolls away and are held in this easily accessible tray at the front of the unit. This should vastly reduce our time spent cleaning eggs as well as the possibility of hens eating eggs as they roll away immediately after the hen is done laying.

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We mix and store our feed in these large containers. This minimizes the number of trips to the “barn” in order to obtain oyster shell or feed.

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The feeders are suspended from the ceiling. We’ve used baling twine to hang them with an inexpensive carabiner on the actual feeder. This allows them to be easily removed for refilling. As the deep litter builds up we simply shorten the height of the twine to keep the feeders up off the floor.

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With all of the roosting at the front end of the trailer, we’ve managed to concentrate the working part of the coop to the rear. This means that all of the area where we need to work daily is within an 8′ square area. I can easily feed, water and collect eggs with a minimum of fuss and muss.

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Yeah, it still looks like a tatty old trailer on the outside. It’s simply too cold and wet to paint this time of year in the Pacific Northwest. When we warm up in the summer the goal is to paint the mobile coops red and white to make them resemble old barns.

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Field Restoration

There’s likely been a number of folks driving past the farm and asking themselves, “what on earth is he doing now?”

It’s spring break this week. This means the wife and kids are all out of school. So we’ve been trying to get one of our bigger spring projects tackled. Restoring the field on the Monroe side of the farm so that it’ll properly house and support our cattle and llamas for the summer.

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Now, from the road the field doesn’t look bad at all once it’s been mowed.

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On closer inspection it still appears ok, but you’ll note the high percentage of brown vs. green in this picture.

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When we start stripping away the excess thatch (which can be 8″ thick in some spots) we see the true state of the field health, which is very poor. Many years of no management means that the field has built up an extreme thatch issue. From a health perspective it’s basically an enormous carbon diaper laying across the field cutting off growth and robbing nitrogen from the growing field grasses. If we want this field to support the cattle and llamas all summer it’s going to need a lot of work to make it healthy again.

The carbon content (browns) in a good compost pile is 40:1. That will effectively break down into soils. On a field, however, the ratio has to be significantly lower because most of the available nitrogen needs to go to feeding the growing grasses. I estimate the current carbon to available nitrogen load on this field is in the neighborhood of 300 or 400:1. This is completely unhealthy and unsustainable.

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Now the good thing is that we have this odd, but handy ditch that was cut into the field at one point. It’s quite deep and should be able to hold most of the material that we are removing from the field. It’s important that we do not lose this sequestered carbon, so we do want to have it break down into soils again, but just not in situ on the field.

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The ditch, as best as I can determine, was originally dug to create the bulwark on the edge of the field to help keep back flood waters from when the Skykomish river exceeds it’s banks. To be honest, it’s not terribly effective, and there’s been significant soil erosion that has occurred because of it. So storing all the brown grasses in the ditch and then covering them with high nitrogen content manure will be a good thing for the long term health of the field.

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We did field tests with old hay rakes to see just how much we could reasonably remove from the field. The pile in the center of the photo represents about a 50% reduction in carbon load on the field. A vast improvement, but we’ll need much better if we’re to rapidly boost the field health.

20150408_124458For comparison purposes, here’s the field we cleared last August. Here we have used a longer term solution of grazing with supplemental hay. It made for a mucky mess over the winter, but you can see it starting to green up nicely, and most of the canary grass has been replaced with more native grasses.

Since we don’t have the luxury of last year’s method for this field, we’re going to need to supercharge the process. There are a couple different options, but from a sustainable perspective, one clear winner. We could go out and buy massive amounts of nitrogen heavy fertilizers and broadcast them on the field. Effective, but terribly expensive and highly prone to runoff, which would be bad for the river. Spread manure on the fields. This would also be effective, but it would take months before the field could be usable by the livestock, which would negate out main purpose to use it this year. The last option is a intensive field clearing of the dead grasses, followed by a section by section intensive “grazing” by the chicken flock, followed by a quick rest and reseeding. This last method will allow us to naturally strengthen the field while simultaneously allowing graze of our cattle, llamas and chickens!

The way we’ll do this is to first mow the field, then clear by either hand rake or tractor rake, as much of the brown material as humanly possible. Then, using moveable poultry netting we will place the coop & chickens within a 50′ square where they can intensively feed, work, and fertilize for a short period of time. The reason for chicken is the volume of extremely hot (i.e. high nitrogen) manure they will put down, their scratching will aerate the top level of the field, and they will also help glean unwanted seed (canary grass) from the field. Once the chickens are done on a given section we’ll give it a couple days rest, and then it’ll be seeded with a rye, clover, vetch grass mixture. The ryegrass is primarily for the livestock to eat. The clover and vetch will serve both as fodder as well as nitrogen fixers within the field. The goal is to have restored the proper nitrogen balance to the field by winter time. At that point we can seed a Daikon radish crop which will also help to bust up the field clays as well as provide long term fertilization to the field. If done correctly we will be able to have the livestock graze the field all winter long and need minimal hay as an addition to their feed.

 

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I had no idea….

I was out this evening, standing in the dark, quietly tossing a bunch of bread to the duck flock. Generally, after dark, the only animals moving down on the farm are the ducks and the cattle. I enjoy this time to myself to reflect on the farm, and the animals, and all that we have going on. Tonight I happened to have a lot of bread because someone gave me a hundred or so loaves of past date bread.

As I was there quietly tossing bread I was suddenly bum rushed by a dozen goats who had been bedded down only moments before. The next thing I knew they had me pinned to the gate and were holding me at horn-point demanding that I give them ALL THE BREAD, RIGHT NOW!

They may seem mild mannered, but had this boy been made of bread they would have eaten him without remorse!

They may seem mild mannered, but had this boy been made of bread they would have eaten him without remorse!

I couldn’t get the bags open fast enough. I had no idea that just the smell of bread turns normally peaceful animals into a biker gang dead set on avenging one of their fallen. It was like those nature films you see on TV where the cow falls in the river and is eaten by piranhas in less then a minute.

They were so excited over the bread I literally had to wade through them to get out of the paddock gate, even when the bread was completely gone, simply because they could hear the bags rustle.

I shall never dare eat a sandwich outside of the safety of my truck ever again.

Everyone's cute and cuddly, until bread appears. Then these charming little goats turn into stark raving mad feral monsters!

Everyone’s cute and cuddly, until bread appears. Then these charming little goats turn into stark raving mad feral monsters!

 

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You got Hügel in my kultur!

 

Despite the fact that the rest of the country is buried in snow and/or frozen right now, the Pacific Northwest is downright balmy. The early warmth and dry is turning the land green again. It’s even warm enough that the cherry trees have started blooming. With the great weather we, and everyone else, have been out and about more. In this time we’ve started working on our main project for this year, our Hügelkultur field.

Hügelkultur is an ancient German farming technique. A small trench would be dug, filled with woody waste materials and then covered back over with the soil that had been dug out. It’s more recently been rediscovered in permaculture circles because of it’s water efficiency, long term composting, and usefulness in forming swales.

We are going to use it to restore a section of our field that’s in rather sorry shape.

 

 

 

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The foundation of the project is large logs, stumps and other heavy woody debris. These materials compost the most slowly. They will serve as a means to store massive volumes of water in close proximity to the surface.

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Some construction fill we received is a mix of stumps, top soil and rock. We’ll pull the large roots and stumps and place them at the bottom of the pit with the logs. We’ll process the rest of the material through a compost/soil trommel that will need to be built this spring.

A trommel is a rotating barrel sifter. We’ll build a powered one because we have tons of material to sift. This will allow us to separate usable compost/topsoil from rocks, woody bits and garbage. With these separated we can deal with all of them appropriately. The top soil will dress the fields, the rocks we’ll find some use for, and the garbage will all be properly removed from the farm.

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Once the large diameter wood is added to the pit we’ll place smaller branches/sticks over top of them. These break down into compost/soils far more quickly than the large bits of wood.

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Wood chips serve to fill in all the gaps. It also provides massive amounts of surface area for soil bacteria and fungi to proliferate on. This will break down extremely quickly and be loam in short order.

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Sawdust is laid across the top. It breaks down extremely quickly.

20150221_111441Our secret weapon to supercharge the Hügelkultur is coffee grounds. Thankfully people drink a LOT of coffee around here. It’s high nitrogen content will offset the high carbon content of the woody matter.

Other enrichments that we’ll be adding to the pile before recovering: the straw and manure from the goat sheds from the winter, the deep litter in the chicken coop, and hopefully we’ll find a number of local sources of free manure.

 

 

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The Chicken who would be a Goat

The Chicken who would be a Goat

It’s nighttime on the farm and I’m doing my standard walk through to make sure everyone’s ok. I always have to laugh when I stop to check on the goats, because one of my “goats” is actually a chicken. We’ve dubbed her Henny Penny, and it doesn’t matter how many times I take her and put her back in the chicken coop, the next night here she is hanging out with the goats.

So, we’ve given up at this point. She eats with the goats int he morning, and then follows them around the fields. She seems pretty happy about it, and we’ve even seen her riding on Bertha’s back, so I suppose the goats don’t mind.

The more time I spend with our livestock the more their peculiar personalities amuse me.

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