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The Beginning of a food forest

What would you do if I told you that you could have a production system that is low maintenance high productivity and sustainable? Go on think about your garden and your inputs (fertilizer, seed, gas) then how much you get out and how much work you have to put in to make it happen. What is a food forest?

Seems pretty daunting! When I was young I was told “Everything worth having is worth working for”. Excluding the poor English it is a good idea. Think about it. You want your education you have to put in the effort. You want a good relationship once more work for it. You want a nice house and a nice job them with luck and hard work you can have it but I would argue that you can probably achieve it with hard work and making your own luck (by being sensitive to your limits including budget and time etc etc). That all being said you have to work for what you want.

Every project has a start but in order for you to know where you need to start you need to know where you want to finish. In this case we decided we wanted to do a wood chip food forest that would contain fruit trees, perennial veggies and berries. We do not anticipate that this will have any annuals in it. So the first thing is to source some wood chips. Luckily I saw a tree trimmer working on some power lines and asked him if they would be willing to dump their chipped branches on our property. They agreed.

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Depending on your space you may be able to get multiple drops. We expect to have a need for all of the chips so we asked them to just dump when they were in the area on our land. They have agreed but only dropped one load so far. Total cost was $0. They were appreciative of a local and convenient drop space.

I was mentioning that if you want something you have to work for it in order for it to have value. The first step is getting the sourcing because that will dictate what you can do. Second step is to decide what you want to grow. The next step is decide if you have enough space (the answer is yes but you may need to scale your dream appropriately). Then look at local rules and laws. Thankfully we are in a rural agricultural area so there are no issues. Then finally you can get started on putting your wood chips down. We will be fencing the area off so the deer and the antelope (okay not really) and bunnies will not come through and cause issues for our young plants and trees.

We are planning on having multiple fruit trees. Pink Lady apples are a favorite for me. We found a supplier that says they will work in zone 5B. We also have to be concerned with chill hours. Which are the number hours that the tree will be exposed to temperatures between 45 and 32 degrees. chill_hours_map

We are in an area with between 1200 and 1400 hours. This could be difficult for some species. However the larger concern is the hardiness zone.

We will also have granny smith apples as a pollinator for the pink lady, Two or three cherry trees, a fig (Chicago fig should do okay here), Plum and peach. In the under-story will expect to grow straw berries, asparagus, Grapes, and other berries.

The work will not be so much in weeding since the wood chips act as a mulch. The work comes in maintenance, pruning, harvesting, fencing, adding wood chips as the previous ones break down.

There is a good amount of work that this will require but fresh perennial fruits for many years to come is just to much of a good deal to pass up.

 

We will keep you posted as this happens. We also will have bees to help our local indigenous pollinators.

KEEP checking back. Also comment if you have questions or suggestions.

 

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Aquaponics

I have been wanting to do a blog about this  topic since Natalie and I decided we needed to blog. You see in a previous life I worked as a fish facility manager. Once a week there was a farmers market downstairs and outside of our building. I never connected those dots.

When we moved to Iowa I came across a group Coalition to support Iowa Farmers. This group was actively providing educational resources and support for aquaculture in Iowa. They even hosted a conference in 2016 and another in 2017 on the topic. The conference was very informative and the networking was pretty good as well.

I also started paying attention to Practical Farmers of Iowa and looking at the regulatory picture for farms in general, livestock farms, vegetable farms, and organic farms. In a previous blog I mentioned going to events sponsored by these organizations. However there is no organization in Iowa that combines aquaculture and vegetable production. There are a couple of farms that do it.

So why combine them? As I see it you have the ability to produce ( with appropriate planning) enough high quality, organic, nutrient dense and healthy food on a smaller scale and with less environmental impact then traditional row farming. How?

The excrement from the fish becomes the fertilizer for the plants. The plants provide filtration and nutrient removal for the fish.  The end result is a cyclical relationship that poses unique challenges but also uses less resources then growing conventionally.

What do I mean when I say less resources? There are tanks and fish food and water and space. When compared to conventional farming aquaponics uses 85 to 90% less water than growing in ground. The reason is filtration and re circulation. The water from the fish is used to hydrate and to convey nutrients to plants which use very little water when you consider how much water is lost in conventional irrigation. Drip irrigation is more water efficient then overhead or flooding but still less efficient than aquaponics.  You do not need fertilizer as fish waste is converted to fertilizer by microbial action (fish waste is high in ammonia), which is converted to nitrites and then nitrates which are taken up by plants. The ammonia and nitrites are not fish safe so removing them is essential to growing fish. It is an example of one groups waste being another groups raw materials.

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The nature of aquaponics allows you to grow things closer as nutrient competition is removed from the equation and if designed appropriately light and ventilation is adequately addressed. You can grow more plants in a square foot of space than you can in the ground conventionally. Tanks are a cost but are more of a fixed expense than a recurring one. If they become recurring you need to really think about why your fish tanks are being abused so much. Water is an issue as it has to be of appropriate composition and temperature for both fish and plants.

Now that you have plants growing and you have your fish. As you harvest plants you can also cycle your fish and have a more healthy protein source. Tilapia is common but any fish can work as long as it is fresh water and it will grow at a temp appropriate for the plants you want to grow. I have heard people growing colder weather plants with cooler water fish successfully.

We will be constructing a small pilot aquaponics system in the future so stay tuned for that. This blog post is really just a primer for that post.

 

Doug

 

Think globally act locally

Many years ago I was in my first year in college.  There was an organization on campus that called it’s self “Web of Life”. They were our local eco group. I found it interesting to attend a meeting or two and see what they were all about. I had little or no experience with environmental activism or even environmental issues. This was the fall of 95 and while I was an environmental science student I really had no background in environmental issues. I was very interested in understanding how the environment worked. I am still learning but I can see how interconnected things really are.  I knew that we had some serious issues in this country but I did not know what they really were and what could be done to solve them. I loved nature and it really bothered me when people littered and dumped waste.

Fast forward to 2005 and I was sitting in a interview for a research lab at Washington University in St. Louis. That lab had posters on the wall about recycling tip boxes and cardboard.  I was brought back to the newness of my first semester in college and how I was so excited to learn and do great things. Turns out I got the job and for the next 8 years at Washington University we did great things. The more important lesson I learned was that a group of small dedicated individuals can in fact change the world. I learned how far environmental concerns had come and how industry and academics were coming together to find solutions.

Yesterday I went to a field day hosted by Iowa organic association. The topic was chicken meat processing on the farm. Murray McMurray hatchery then hosted a demonstration on processing meat birds. The presentation and discussion were excellent. The networking was amazing and the organization was well represented. What does this have to do with anything?

Well since we have begun this journey we have realized how difficult it is to do these things without support. Whether it be regulatory assistance, education, networking, or numerous other aspects of agriculture that I never even considered. I have found that every state does have resources available, and people that are extremely willing and wanting to help.  One of the first places that I have found to help in so many aspects of a country transition is your local county extension, since we are in Iowa, Iowa State Extension. They even have other aspects like small acreage, local foods, soil testing, water testing etc etc. If they do not know the regulations they can help put you in contact with those that help.

If you are interested in livestock in Iowa you should get in touch with Coalition to support farmers. If your interested in organics then Iowa organic association is a great resource and if your interested in a pretty amazing farmer community and resource Practical Farmers which have provided field days, networking, education, farminars, webinars, and many others. I will be writing more about the coalition and practical farmers in the future.

Doug

 

Chicken part 2

So we have built the brooder and we have built our tractor. We need some chickens. Well guess what came 3/15/17? yep 26 birds from the hatchery. 1 is a bonus heritage breed so we will have to see what we got when it gets older. You can see that one in the mass of chickens it appears as a open spot in all the chicken yellow. In reality it is just a dark colored chick.

We got them all set up and a few notes that I feel I need to share. They were super thirsty. I was suprised at all the water they were drinking they really really really seemed like they needed it. So the whole pushing the beak in the water when I unboxed them seemed to really get them in the mood to drink.

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I also used some paper with some food on it as was suggested so they can find it easier. Seemed to really excite them as well. Right after the picture was taken they swarmed all over the paper after the food.

We will be removing the food every night before bed and replacing it in the morning. The insert made this suggestion for the first several weeks in the brooder as they grow so quickly that it really does cause a significant amount of stress on their bodies.

It is exciting to see these guys settleing in. They have found the warm plate (I had to push a couple under for them to figure it out for after that they took a nap and warmed up a bit. Now they come out get a drink get some food and head back under. I guess it does more closely resemble a Hen tending to the brood in that regard.

We will keep you posted as things continue to develop.

 

Doug

 

Chicken Brooder

Brooder is a fun word. I have become more enamored with words. There are specific meanings to specific word and while many words are similar each word has a meaning. Affect and Effect, Their, There, They’re you get the point.

A chicken brooder is a house for chicks. Usually having either a Hen or heat source, bedding, food and water. They can literally be anything. Some people use metal watering troughs, sheds, wagons, boxes etc etc.

When considering chick brooders there are a couple of things we kept in mind. 1 being cost. We are not sure if chicks are a long term project for us so we did not want to get to extravagant. Not that any of the images above are extravagant.

2. Space. We have 5 acres outside and a three car garage plus two barns. All of those spaces only the garage is climate controlled in the winter and close enough to the house to check on the birds regularly. This puts the space that the brooder takes up at a premium. So we wanted something we can tuck away when not in use.

3. Functionality. Cheap and Compact are great things but it has to actually do the job. We want the chicks to be safe (should a predator get in the garage). We want them to be warm and comfy we we went to a variation on the “Panel” brooder.

We started with a sheet of 3/4 inch plywood. Cut into 4 equal sized panels.

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Then we cut two 3/4 inch sections half way down each panel using a 3/4 inch chisel to remove the cut out section.

This leaves you with 4 panels with two sections cut out half way down the panels that can be interlocked to create a box.

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Now we have the basic brooder. You can simply put some wood shavings/bedding in the box or you can add some other items. We made a lid to go on it and with wholes and 1/2 inch hardware cloth covering the openings

We elected to go with Premier 1 supply chick heater plate. There are a couple of reasons for this choice. The obvious concern is heat source on wood shavings. A heat lamp tends to dry out the wood shavings making combustion easier. A heat plate applies heat downward onto the chicks more efficiently thus using less electricity as a lamps heat is a by product of the light. Resulting in less energy per unit of heat then a lamp. There is also the space that is being heated. The heat plate applies it more directly to the chicks then a heat lamp but also the plate is sized to the brood size we expect to have so the plate only heats the chicks under it while they are in contact with the plate. Setting the plate low enough will help prevent the chicks from piling on one another.

I did add a lamp for some light as per suggestion from Murray McMurray Hatchery. So the chicks will not pile up on one another and suffocate their brood-mates. Which would run contrary to what we wish to achieve.

 

Doug

Chicken Tractor Build

Previously, I posted that we were building a chicken tractor. After a discussion with my mother I realized that some people do not know what this is conceptually. So I am going to help explain what a tractor is? why you use one and some of the other reasons we decided to go with it.

In the easiest terms a chicken tractor is a moveable chicken coop. It provides the farmer with the ability to protect the birds while providing them a pasture to graze on. The chickens with scratch, pick at bugs and grass, and fertilize a section of a field with min work by you. If you leave them in a space to long they can and will take it to bare ground. We plan on moving it daily. This will allow fertilization but also some level of pest management. We have a grasshopper problem and chickens enjoy grubs.

 

They can take on many different shapes and sizes.  They have some general commonalities. They all have open bottoms allowing chickens access to the ground.  They also provide some level of protection from predators. They generally house water and grit and additional food. They also provide some level of weather protection ours will have a tarp.

We elected to go with a tractor of this design for a couple of reasons. 1 being lower costs, 2 it is easily transportable, 3 provides forage for the chickens, 4 allows for reduced costs of raising and housing chickens. There are many many many more. Lets just say that if you are starting out with meat chickens (like we are) you prolly want to keep the investment down as low as possible.

The tractor build was pretty straight forward. First we built a frame. We then built a mirrored frame. 20180304_092545

Plus two end frames Then used all four frames to create a box. Then added some bracing.

 

Now you have a basic open floored box with the sides and tops pretty well braced. Next we stained it and added a lid.  We also built two PVC grain silos to feed the chickens.

 

Then we covered the whole tractor in 1/4 inch hardware cloth. Why not chicken wire? Well this is galvanized stainless steel and is more durable plus has the benefit of a smaller mesh size which we hope will provide additional protection for the chickens.

 

We added a pull rope. The finished internal dimensions are 10 ft x4 ft by 30 inches high. We have the ability to add a roost bar should we wish to do that we also have two shelves for grit and water in the front. It pulls relatively easily across grass. All in all we expect chickens to do well in it.

 

Doug