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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

 

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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

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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

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Wheat

Wheat is often demonized in our current culture because it contains gluten. This protein interacts in numerous ways and causes some people some serious illness. Some people think they are allergic but not really and some think that removing it helps you to loose weight. Current culture is built upon the need for grain. We use it such things has beer, bread, flour, cereal, chemicals, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals the list goes on and on and on.  We have it as a part of our national anthem. What did you think amber waves of grain referred to?  This post will be about none of that. Okay maybe a bit about the waving grain. This is about growing and processing wheat. We have grown winter wheat 2 seasons now. The first was a lot of work and a lot of fun. The second is ongoing and is looking fine. We will see when it starts to grow in the spring.

So what is winter wheat? Simply put it is wheat that is planted in the fall allowed to grow (establish roots) then is dies back in the winter. There is a window of planting and if your winter is too cold it will be winter killed. If it is too dry it will die and if there are too many birds you will not get any thing out. To combat this last one many farmers use what is called a seed drill to plant their wheat. We broadcast  seed it by hand. Cause it is fun and drills are expensive and well we are a bit frugal at Sifs Harvest. Did I mention it is fun?

Now the winter wheat is planted. You wait. you can irrigate of course but why worry about it. It is a grass and unless it is really dry ( we have averaged about .25 to.5 inches of rain per week and the ground is thawing now and is significantly water logged no need to worry about lack of moisture. If all goes well you get something like this below.

In the spring right before it turns brown and ripe you can imagine how that would appeal to someone writing about the greatness of our country right? I mean corn and beans are chumps when it comes to waving in the wind. Yea take that corn and beans.

ANYWAY….. Where was I? Right, WHEAT! It is kind of mesmerizing. The above is not even close to how gorgeous it will become. Sort of like that person you meet is kind of attractive but the more you get to know them they get more and more attractive. That is wheat.

So your wheat is turning straw colored and you have checked for dryness and have decided that it is time to harvest it.You have options oh yes you do. You can DIY a hedge trimmer and cut your stalks and bundle them. You can get a Scythe and cut your stalks and bundle them. You can pull them out by hand and bundle them. You can even use machines to do all the work but on small scale it might not be worth it. I use a Scythe. I will be putting another blog together on the scythe in the future so stay tuned.

So you have the wheat cut and shocks made (bundles of cut wheat are called shocks). What now? well you have options again. You could take the shocks and smack them on the inside of a clean bucket. You could also put them in a pillow case and smack them on the ground. You can cut off the berries and use a DIY thresher.

DIY Thresher Video

If you have small enough scale and if you have time you can do the DIY thresher and it will work pretty good. Just remember to winnow it well. (blow chaff away from seed). You can also use food processors and the like. However if you have more wheat then time and you can cut it and store it relatively easy. You can keep it whole and use a small scale threshing machine. Remember to save your wheat stalks for straw. We use ours for fire starting and for mulching the garlic. Which will be coming as well.

Back to land store Wheat thresher

Tube video of it in action

This makes threshing so much easier. You can order similar from over seas but with import tax and with shipping and timing you will spend about the same and this is foot powered. It can be modified if you have the know how to run with a motor but for what we paid I can honestly say this cut the work significantly.

So  now you have threshed wheat berries. You simply pass them through an air current a fan of wind outside. The chaff and debris is lighter then the seed and they blow away the seed drops down and you have purified your mix. You may need to do it a couple of time.

What now? well you can use that wheat to make your own wheat sprouts. You can grind them in flour. You can even use them whole in soups and what not. We grind ours into flour using the kitchen aide. If we were doing any larger amounts I would get a grain mill.

Now you have flour and you can rule the world! At the very least make tasty bread. Winter wheat has a higher gluten content you can grow spring wheat varieties and then mill it finely for a more pastry flour type.

Now something cute that happened in our wheat field last year. It really is amazing on the uses for wheat. I never suspected that it was a resource for birds to nest in. Just as a reminder food is food and if you can eat it so can they or make their home in your food.20170625_135534

Doug