Saturday, December 31, 2011

Looking Back and Moving Forward

Well 2011 is now behind us. It has been a rough year for us both balancing family and working off farm for me, but also trying to keep the farm running despite considerable difficulties. The business had nearly 100% mortality on 3 chicken batches (of 5) this year brought about by illness, predator pressure, and a hatchery mistake. Our position was furthered weakened by having higher than desired mortality in turkeys and very low weights at processing time. On the up side, we processed our first beef and found to be the best grass-fed beef we have had yet, and we have almost finished constructing a massive new asset, the poultry building. Needless to say these challenges and the expense of building a structure have left us in a very tight financial position.

Started putting on trim this weekend with the help of Mark from Madison

Interior Sheeting is going up with the help of Jim and Mark

In 2012, things will get better. Our new brooder set-up should help us get past chick mortality problems, the new layer house will be much harder for predators to access the birds or their eggs, and we are going back to building fence so we can get much better at keeping our cattle on our farm. I have also just been told that my job with the Natural Resource Conservation Service will be coming to a close because the money for part-time federal employees is still not forthcoming from the United States Department of Agriculture. Next week will be my last week. I was looking at leaving in April of 2012, this just accelerates the timeline quite a bit. The time off will let me stay a home with Hazel more and will allow me to focus on my 2012 goals.

Janice reading to Hazel from one of her Christmas Presents

The 2012 master task list by month

I think we look forward to the possibilities in 2012, despite being concerned about our financial position and short on operating capital. Most of the 2012 task list is smaller items or projects that have been started but not completed. Happy 2012 people and wish us luck.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Rough landing

I could not live with the bright blue chicken building. Mostly because it was so far from what I was aiming for. So I painted it with the last reasonably warm day we have had.  Whenever I get to the trim, it will be white.

Green Chicken Building

Two weeks ago, we had a mini skid steer with a trencher attachment on the farm and I trenched out the buried wires that go under our farm gates along with the main power supply line to the new building.  Janice and I put the underground line in conduit. It was a tight fit and threading over 125 feet of fairly tight conduit was not fun, but we got through it together. Last weekend, Michael Carter, my stepfather-in law came out and we finished wiring the building, then we crossed our fingers and threw the switch. Everything works as intended. 

Power supply line cut for high tensile fence

Our average turkey size was only 8.2 pounds this year. Where our typical average is between 11 and 13 pounds. With the number of turkeys we raised this year, every pound off average represents about $1000 in sales. So we did between three and five grand less in sales than we were projecting, so things are extremely tight right now. We are selling animals that have given us the slightest reason to sell. Our goal is to avoid selling our cattle breeding stock in the process of righting the ship.

Two of our original ewes that we sold

We have still been trying to put weight on some of our small turkeys. We still have 24 birds out there. This is an older photo of them when they were smaller. I am not sure where the birds will end up, but I hope to have them either sold off live or butchered within the next week.

Small turkeys that did not make the Thanksgiving cut

Well this is where we are at this point in December. I hope that we pull up and flatten out by the end of the month. Stay tuned and wish us luck.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Foamed Blue Chicken House

Well it certainly has been a long time since I have scraped together enough time to create a blog post. Our effort has been focused on getting the chicken building sealed up before winter so we can focus on the inside as it gets colder. 

Since the last post, we have put in the windows and doors, framed and roofed the tractor shed,  and wired most of the building. Today we took major striders forward by having the side of the building spray foamed and then I began to paint it.

11/12/11 Framed Tractor Shed with Jim's help

11/12/11 The Whole Building

11/12/11 Wired Bank of Switches 

Michael Carter really took to wiring the building and spent part of three successive weekends working on the building until it was ready to be spray foamed. 

11/19/11 Building Interior Prior to Foam Insulation

11/19/11 Let the Foam Spraying Begin

River Bluffs Spray Foam Insulators is run by Larry Smith out of New Sharon, IA. They are very professional, reasonably priced, and great to work with. I was really impressed with how clean they left the building when it was done. I would gladly work with them again. 

11/19/11 Short Video of Larry Spraying Foam

11/19/11 The Foam is Done

11/19/11 Chicken House now in Technicolor

I might have picked out paint in a hurry, with a child, under the glare of indoor home improvement warehouse lighting. I swear it was not that blue on the swatch. These is some debate as to whether or not we will repaint it. I think it will look better when the trim is up and painted white. It might not be quite so blue then.  We will see what it ends up looking like, but for the time being it is bright blue. It might even help folks find us, "if you pass a bright blue chicken house, you have gone too far." We will see and share with you here, until next time.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Heating Up as the World Cools Down

We are approaching the final turn in our production system. The last large group of the chickens are going to the locker this Thursday. Then turkeys will go in two groups over the following two weeks. I may shift the turkeys back a week if I think their weights are not going to hit the mark as they represent such a massive share of our business.

Turkey encampment just north of the house

Video of turkeys on pasture & Hazel talking

Work on the building is moving along. I am now back at work a few days a week so it will likely slow up a bit here. We have put almost al of the siding on the main building and still have a lot of framing on the tractor side to go. Since the picture below was taken, I have stared putting in the windows. The building is certainly not square. That becomes very apparent when putting in the windows. I am glad I am learning on a farm building and I am not working on a house.

Chicken Coop Coming Together

Since the last post, I have moved all of the hay we had still out in a rented pasture up the road. I also had a small Vermeer tracked skid loader on the farm. I do love those things. I did some earth shaping where our new circe drive will be, removed the old compost bin and square foot gardens that are in the wet area of the yard that needs work, and removed all of the poultry bedding from the garage as it was serving as our brooder. I did start a major task for next year with the skid loader.

I stated removing the ancient perimeter fence on the west side of the property. It was three stands of barbed wire over a short woven wire fence with alternating home grown cedar posts and old steel t-posts. It is largely broken down and buried in the dirt. I might have gotten about a 10th of the fence removed, but it will be much easier to put in new fence next year with a blank slate. I had to chase cattle out of the neighbors bean field twice this year. That means that next year it will be corn and they will be much harder to find and return to this property if that happens next year.

The calves are frolicking on top of the big hill north of the house

With all of the work that needs to get done each day, Hazel has been outside a lot. She has been on my back a bit, but is starting to do more outside on her own. She likes to watch the animals while I work with them and she likes to play in the chicken building while I do light work on it. I do the loud and dangerous things during nap time. The video baby monitor is an amazing thing.

Hazel riding in her Chicco carrier

Stay tuned as we hopefully start to slow down a bit moving forward. I know I can not keep this pace up for much longer.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

September Grind

This September has been the busiest I have ever had, period. I am still working around three days a week, taking care of Hazel on many of my days off, and trying to push the farm forward. The only way I able to sustain this effort is to know that by the end of October farm work will slow down a bit or at least change.

In the past month, we have finished framing the chicken building, put a roof on it, decided to make it bigger by adding a tractor lean to to the side of it, butchered chickens, moved all of our turkeys outside and all the rest of our chickens outside, we have been selling sheep, butchering lamb, having calves, all while  trying to ride out the last two months of our production season where we go through around $150 a week in poultry feed.

The chicken building has moved forward because we have had weekends off in September and because we have called on a number of friends for help, sometimes repeatedly (Jim and Adam especially). This weekend we are going to try to side much of the building. I am trying to get the poultry building sealed up before winter so we can work on the inside when it gets cold outside.

9/18/11 after a word day where the purlins went on and the framing got almost finished

9/25/11 after a work day where the steel roof went on and the house wrap stated to go up

Looking up at the new steel roof 

We did butcher chickens at the locker two weeks ago, but they came out very very small. A week before that we had a weasel hit kill 44 in the pasture pens in one night. Needless to say the chickens have not been treating me very well. The turkeys are doing much better. They are almost to the point where we will day range them, or give them a large area to run outside of their pens during the day.

Turkeys on 9/20/11, they are much larger now in just a week

The cattle have been grazing the native grass & legume planting we put in 3 years ago on the 12.5 acres that used to be crop ground. That stand is still developing in the sandiest parts of the field, but looks pretty good in others. The cattle have had very large paddocks designed to last them about a week. Since the stand is pretty dormant they are not doing much damage to it, besides we are trying to get them to knock down as much vegetation as possible so that it can decompose with contact to the soil and add to the soil carbon. 
Cattle down on the prairie planting

All four calves in one place

The sheep have been clearing out the forest floor

While the cattle have been on the prairie the sheep have been clearing brush and weeds in the timber. Where they go it is like scorched earth behind them

Hazel has been doing very well. She has started to make turkey gobbling noises and has shown a surprising amount of muscle coordination for a child of 17 months.  As always she is a joy to be around and is just a lot of fun. I do wish I could spend more time with her, but I appreciate all the more what time I do get. 

Hazel, the little engineer, lining up a screwdriver to the screws on the bottom on my chair

Hazel, Janice, and my pants on the clothesline

Friday, August 26, 2011

Calving Time

Last week we had our first calf and early this week we had our second. The two are both little bulls. They are very hard to find in the over grown pastures and since the mothers are held in by a single poly line, they can roam a bit. I have not seen the two calves together yet. In fact I can go days without seeing any of them. I would feel better if I could see them more easily.

One of two little bull calves

With the dry weather (we have not had a good rain for around 7-8 weeks and the forecast does not have much chance in it), the grass has stopped growing and now all that is growing are the weeds. We have a lot of  bull thistle, horseweed, western ragweed, and heath aster out in the pasture. Some of it can get up to 8 feet tall (I am a bit over 6 feet tall). I have been hammering the pasture with sheep to try and bring things under control. The sheep are doing a pretty good job, but the remaining skeletons of the weeds will likely have to be mowed off as I am finding it hard to move my chicken pens over them. Times like this, makes me regret selling my pasture mower, but I did sell it to buy more sheep.

South Pasture Before Sheep

South Pasture After Sheep

I am still trying to get the turkeys outside. They are just over 4 weeks old and ready to start outside living. They are bottled up in the brooder with some young chickens. Hazel loves the birds (not as much as the cows and the sheep) so now that she can motor across the yard, she wants to go up to the garage and see the brooder. 

Hazel and the baby chickens

Other then that, not too much to report. Janice has had me putting on a new screen door on the house as the old one was starting to fall apart. I rather like the new door. That is it for now. Here is hopping I can get my turkeys outside today. 

Removing the old door

New storm door

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Getting Our Groove On

Well we have made some progress around here in the last two weeks. Our chickens and turkeys continue to develop well.  I moved 175 Chickens moved out to pasture this last weekend and they are doing good. I lost one to a predator and then caught it the next night. It was an opossum. We are trapping every night because of the heavy predator pressure we have had all year. We have even had coon hunters walk our timber and clear out two of the four they came across.

The first batch of 2011 to make it this far, now this is more like it

The turkeys still rule the brooder with 165 of them still in the garage/brooder. They are very large for turkeys of there age and I am really liking the new brooder set-up. I just can't wait for it operating next year in the new building.

Turkeys hanging out in the garage at three weeks of age

Today, we get our last batch of chickens for the year. They will have to share some space with the turkeys so we will see how that goes. On the rest of the farm, Jim was out last weekend and we put the remaining rafters in place and began to frame the internal wall. We need to get the windows and doors framed and then get the boards in place that the roof steel will sit on. My hope is that for our annual customer work day on September 17th, that we will be putting up steel roofing that day. 

All the rafters for the chicken building are now in place

The mower is in the garage and if you can imagine what opening the garage door might be like with 160 turkeys in there, you can understand why I have nor mowed my yard for a month. That is why the sheep are doing it for me right now. I just need to follow them around with the weed wacker/eater and tidy things up a bit. It works ok, but you can't get every spot.

Sheep grazing the yard, mower takes the month off

Other then that, we have been just hanging in there as things accelerate around here. If you are big fans of my daughter Hazel, you should check out my wife's blog as she has some footage of Hazel making sheep noises around the sheep. When the sheep were right up by the house, Hazel could just stand there and watch them and make realistic noises back at them for twenty to thirty minutes easy. Other then that, I did manage to get one thing off my farm to-do list. I put the martin house back up. It has been lying round for over a year since it's pole rotted off in its old location and it fell to the earth. It is now towering over the young orchard and taller then ever. I did get some help from Michael in Ames to raise the thing up into position, so thank you for that. That martin house is just one of those things that I wanted to get done and Janice views as completely not important. She is probably right, but it is now done so I am happy.

The martin house goes back up after a year in the shed

Well that is all for now. I need to go get ready for little chickens that should be here in about an hour. Until next time.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

End of July Update

We are leaving a steamy July behind and beginning an steamy August. We have 175 broiler chickens and 165 turkeys in our brooder. Since the chicken building is not functional yet, we converted the garage into a brooder. The garage has been working well as a brooder. I wish the building had a window so I could vent it easier. The meat chickens should be ready to move outside tomorrow or Tuesday. The birds are a little young, but with evening temperatures around 70 degrees, I think things will be fine. The pens got moved today into positions and necessary maintenance needs to be performed to keep the old pens moving. The outside pens are on the list of things that should be replaced next year. 

New Chicken Brooder Set-up in the Garage

With the heat I have not been too active outside. One lamb died, but other than that we have been doing alright. I usually come in from choring saturated with sweat. I am going through one shirt in the morning and one to two shirts at night. When I come inside, Hazel tells me she wants to go outside by bringing me her shoes and then bringing me my shoes. It is cute, but the last thing I want to do is go back outside after doing chores. Hazel usually gets her way, at least for a few minutes. Hazel is also working on climbing up and down the stairs. She is very good at going up stairs and is alright at going down them. She has been climbing on top of the coolers and playing on top of them recently. It is quite cute until she starts to fuss to seek help getting down. That is our short July update. Things will be busy here in the coming weeks with birds back on pasture. We will have our chicken available in early September so stay in touch. 

Hazel Playing on a Cooler Lid

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Building a Farm

You know there are some things I would caution new farmers when considering buying a farm. Looking at the potential is the desire of any would be land owner, but a full assessment of your farm deficiencies and/or the amount of time and work to realize that farm's potential is needed. We were admittedly naive in approaching our farm, but we are slowly working through the deficiencies in terms of buildings, fencing, and water systems. We should have addressed more of our infrastructure needs up front before we had animals, but then you don't have any revenue. Instead we muck through life trying to have animals and build infrastructure all at the same time.

One of our unaddressed needs has been our subpar brooder set-up. I have lost over 400 small chickens this year to a combination of disease, smothering and predators. The major problem with our current building is that we can not separate our brooders from our mature laying hens. So there are instances when young birds are exposed to the droppings of mature birds. Access to dropping of mature birds is a  terrible disease and parasite source for the new chicks. Our new chicken building will have an internal wall to separate brooding from laying. The new building will also be tighter and easier to make sure predators can not enter it. The building is coming along. The rafters are about half up, the windows need to be framed, and the internal wall needs to be constructed, then the wrap and sheeting can go up. Many thanks to Jim form Pella for his ongoing help in constructing the building.

  Current status of the poultry building

The poultry building will not be ready in time for the arrival of our replacement broiler chicks or our turkeys so plan B is being implemented. Our garage is being converted into a larger brooder with two brooder cells and Janice's car is being moved outside. My step-father-in-law, Michael, helped assemble the first brooder hood yesterday. It is a 4'x4' brooder hood almost exact to its original on a 1942 design. It should work well for 180 broiler chicks. We will build a 6'x4' brooder for our turkeys in the next week.

Top view of the new brooder hood

Bottom view of the new brooder

Our sheep and cattle are working though the rental property to the north of us. We did get out neighbor to the south to cut hay for us off another piece of rented ground to the north. 

Nine bales stacked up for winter

I am still balancing work three days a week with the farm, Hazel and Janice. It can be very taxing at times. I am deeply concerned with how this juggling act will continue going into the fall when I will have two batches of chickens and turkeys to wrangle with at the same time as everything else I am doing now. 

Hazel is doing well. She has really left the baby stage and is working up to the toddler stage. He talks a lot, but only a few words are discernible. Mostly daddy, kitty, and ball. She is as fun as ever and is working on some new teeth. I can't image doing this with out Janice and Hazel. These past two years have been very challenging, but those two lady keep me moving forward day after day.

Reading to Hazel

Monday, June 13, 2011

Up Goes the Walls

We have made substantial progress on a couple of fronts and taken a few steps back as well.

We had a chicken coop raising party this weekend and got two of the walls (the long ones) up and framed. We will go back and do some cutting work to slip the windows in. I need to thank Super Jim from Pella, our regular helper who did much to guide the endeavor, and Janice's co workers Greg and Drew, and Greg's fiance Melanie. I learned a lot and I think a good time was had by all. Thanks you guys & gal for your help.

Attaching wall studs for the south wall (before raising the wall)

The finished product, two walls up in one afternoon

One of our goals for this year was to remove the Barbados ewes from our herd and process or sell all but one of the rams. As of yesterday, that has been done. We butchered 4 rams two weeks ago, sold off 5 ewes last week, and I sold and delivered 6 ewes and a ram yesterday. I did also sell my good young Katahdin Dorper cross ram that we were considering keeping. Other then that I butchered our steer this week. Needless to say, we have have moved a lot of animals this last week. The Sheep herd was at 48 animals and is now down to 31 counting our one ram. We are not getting out of sheep, we are getting rid of the bottom 30% of our herd and our extra rams. We also brought down our grazing pressure from around 15 AU to around 11 AU, so we should have more grass as we move into the leaner times this summer. 

Nice Katahdin Dorper Cross Ram I sold (I will kinda miss him)

Our Steer on the trailer (I will miss miss him)

Where we have been struggling is with our chickens. We have had very heavy predator pressure. From foxes to raccoons. We have been trapping, but it is very hard to get a handle on those issues, especially foxes. To make matters worse, we have had an illness or developmental problems with our second batch of broilers. The building we are using  and have been using is not very sanitary. It has adult birds and chicks in too close a proximity to each other. The new building will have a divided wall. The brooder side of the new building needs to be operational by mid-July so we can put our turkeys in it. The very slow development and high mortality has me deeply concerned about our July delivery dates and our cash flow moving into the late summer and early fall. Our beef and lamb is going to have to cover the spread, but our poultry building is also eating up our available funds. To make matters worse, the clutch is stuck on the tractor and I am going to need that thing soon to move new hay out of the field. As always, there are significant challenges that continue to dog us. I am hopeful though seeing some progress of the chicken building. We shall see what the back half of June has in store for us.