Junuary fail

HOTThe propensity of Cascadians to complain about the weather is the stuff of legends. We generally stay right smack in the middle of the weather spectrum compared to the rest of the country, but when conditions get too far out of bounds, you’re gonna hear about it. Cliff Mass shared this 1855 ‘weather report’ from Honest John Tompkins of Steilacoom:

“Well, March went out, April came in, and with it, cold, wet, disagreeable weather, and a universal spirit of discontent, and a disposition to “growl””

“Throughout the entire month, and even up to this, the last day of May, it has been precisely the same, and some amongst us profess to be so thoroughly disgusted with the weather …. that they threaten to leave the Territory altogether.”

For most of my nearly 5 decades in the Pacific Northwest Junuary has been a part of the natural weather cycle. January often brings abnormally warm temperatures, including records highs in 2015. Bonus! you might think, but a run of 60 degree weather in late winter can really mess up farm and garden plants that are just starting to get ready for the growing season. They can leaf out or blossom too soon, and be damaged by dropping temps. Early bloom also throws off the pollination calendar, which is catastrophic for food production. Not only do trees and berries fail to set fruit, the birds, bees and other pollinators lose out on critical nectar supplies.

The flip side of the Junuary coin comes in June, when we typically have a long dank stretch of chilly, rainy, grey weather. Really annoying when tomato and other warm weather veggie starts are ready to be planted out, or when you’ve had to put off tilling in the first place due to wet soil. Salad greens do well in this weather, but so do slugs. Still, we’ve come to accept it, and even count on it for garden planning.

But this year Junuary failed to follow through on the June part of the deal. Not only have we had record maximum average temperatures for the May 1 to June 30 period, we’ve only gotten .81″ of rain in that time. This is the driest since record-keeping started at Sea-Tac in 1945, the previous being 1.26″ in 1992. The local weather office says:

To put this record warm June in perspective…the current average
maximum temperature of 78.6 degrees would be the 12th warmest July on
record and the 9th warmest August on record.

Which means Seven Trees Farm is experiencing a ‘water emergency’. All the research we’ve done over the years on sustainable water use is coming in handy now that the rains have failed, but it’s a non-stop scramble to keep up with crops that were planted with rainy summers in mind. Bucket-Kits

We’ll post more as we get up to speed with our raised rows and bucket/barrel drip watering systems. Hopefully once we aren’t performing emergency hydration to 4000 square feet of growing areas, we’ll have more time to share what is working and what isn’t. This will be our 10th year (11th summer) at STF, and all the trial and error should finally start to pay off. Though I could easily use another 10 years to continue experimenting, it looks like Mother Nature is stepping up her game.

You can check out our sustainability brainstorming pinboard here – https://www.pinterest.com/hallberaox/seven-trees-sustainability/ and our gloom & doom fire/weather/news twitter feed aggregator here – http://stormcrow.seventreesfarm.com

Midsommar kommer – Swedish-style

Seven Trees:

Summers are changing in the PNW…longer and hotter, and much busier, but we still make time to celebrate the longest day/shortest night of the year, though not as exuberantly as they do in Sweden :D

Originally posted on Seven Trees Farm:

Midnight sun in Swedish forest

One of the humans of Seven Trees is a quarter Swedish, by way of a grandmother named Hilma Siri Perrson. The other human of Seven Trees has Swedish ancestors a bit further up the family tree. And now that the summer solstice approaches, we’re preparing to celebrate the longest day of the year in grand ancestral fashion.

Many of the northern European agricultural groups don’t have a pause for the mid-point of summer. They tend to acknowledge early spring planting (Beltane) and first fruits of harvest (Lammas), but mid-summer bonfires and celebrations come down to us from a pre-farming way of life, when fertility was more about the rising energy of lengthening days than what seeds were in the ground.

Scandinavian peoples were the last in northern Europe to fall to Christianity, and the midsommar Maypole festival robustly represents the pre-conquest vitality. The Pacific…

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Respect your elders

Elderberries that is…

It’s been a few years since we started planting edible hedgerows and thickets here & there on the property, and now many of those itty bitty “twigs” are productive trees and shrubs. One thriving plant is a domestic elderberry (the tag has long since been lost, so no idea which particular variety it is) that goes as far as setting fruit, but never seems to finish the job. Elder_flowersSo instead of fighting nature, this season we’re planning to work together, cordially. All those fluffy, creamy, aromatic flower umbrels are going to be picked and bathed in a vat (well, quart jar anyway) of Costco vodka and a little sugar. In a couple of weeks we’ll have elderflower liqueur to augment our arsenal of herbal, fruity goodness, and remind us of summer’s bounty all through the dark & dank rainy season ahead.

Elderflowers also have a long history of use in traditional medicine, as summarized in this article. Can’t hurt to try :)

Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook has a great post/recipe here that we plan to use.

Instant flock for sale!

We had a surprise peep show yesterday, when a hen came out of the tall pasture grass, trailing 10 little chicks. Luckily they were all rounded up safely and are tucked into Fergus’ old dog house in a pen. Unfortunately, the hen isn’t one we had intended for our breeding program. Peeps1 Peeps2

So, if anyone would like mom (an olive-egger) and her 10 peeps (1/2 oliver 1/2 Ameraucana) let us know. We also have another olive-egger hen for sale, so 2 hens and 10 chicks total for $40, or just mom & peeps for $30.

Hen2 Hen1

Hot & cold chicks

After a few tries at hatching chicks year round, we learned that it’s just too much of a pain in the budget to make it worthwhile. The electricity bill gets up there with all the heat lamps running, and we have to keep them on much longer than usual if it’s too cold for youngsters in the grow-out pens.

So this year we started our first round of chicks in April, timed to catch the warming temperatures of spring. They went into the brooder coop, with its single heat lamp, and at one month old, into the first grow-out pen to make room for hatch #2. That’s when our plans went off the rails. We got an uncharacteristically hot spell, and the week-old peepers struggled with overheating. The heat lamp was raised, ventilation hatch opened, and we even dropped the bulb wattage from 250 to 175 to 75 watts. Luckily someone was home most of the time to monitor and adjust.

The month-old chicks loved the warm sunny weather, and were just getting the hang of spending time outside when temperatures reversed course yet again. Chilly, dank rain returned and now the big chicks were chilled and we had to trot out extra heat lamps to help them cope. The tiny peepers got their big heater back, and now we had to monitor them for signs of chilling.

Naturally we turned to the internet for ideas. How to make sure chicks at all stages of growth have enough heat to stay healthy and not so much to cause them distress, no matter what the weather is outside their insulated brooder coop. After first considering a thermostatic control for our existing heat lamps, we recalled an interesting invention touted by experienced flocksters – heat panels.

These devices sit on adjustable legs, a few inches over the brooder floor. The surface gets warm and chicks follow their instincts to get underneath, much like they do with a mother hen. When they are in contact with the panel, they can soak up safe heat, but the air in the rest of the brooder stays cooler. This should help our chickies stay just right, even when temps fluctuate throughout the day. Once they are rested and warm, they will venture out for snacks and exercise, just like hen-raised chicks.

Here are some pictures of how it works, taken from a very informative 68-page thread about the pros & cons of Brinsea’s EcoGlow panel heater vs. Premier1’s version.  premier1  We ordered the dome covers, because there is already enough poop going on elsewhere. Some folks use saran wrap instead of a cover, replacing it periodically when it get too funky. premier2Peepers getting warm. This is in an inside brooder made from a wire dog crate, with towels on the floor. premier3This brooder uses pine shavings, like we do at STF. Chickies are comfortably piled under the heater. premier4When they are warm & cozy, laying down for a nap takes them out of contact with the panel, and they can regulate their comfort level.

Premier sells a large heater that measures 16″ x 24″ and should be suitable for up to 50 peepers. Our brooder coop is fairly small though, so we bought two of the 12″ x 12″ heaters instead. This way as the chicks outgrow the need for constant heat, we can raise the panels, eventually removing one and finally the other. We’ll be sure to share photos and our review once they arrive. Our current chicks should still be small enough to make good use of them, and we are also interested in seeing how they do on a natural day/night light cycle. Even though the red heat lamps are supposed to minimize disturbances, they are still bright enough that chicks are up all night, eating, peeping, and pooping.

Here is the Premier1 heating panel in action, from their website. premier

And here is the Brinsea EcoGlow 20, from their website. brinseaFingers crossed for happier healthier chicks, and less-stressed humans, with the help of some modern technology.

Chicken math

GotChickens‘Chicken math’ is an inside joke amongst modern flocksters. You start out with a few peepers and a cute little coop, only to realize that you ‘need’ more. More hens, more eggs, more space. So you buy a few more, add on to the coop, maybe buy an incubator to hatch your own, or <shudder> start keeping roosters. Next thing you know, you’ve spent $1000 for a few dozen eggs and some cackling poop-machines. CastleCoop

One antidote for that kind of chicken math is record-keeping – obsessive, daily, microscopic tracking of any data you can collect. At Seven Trees Farm we track feed consumption & costs, egg production, egg sales, hatch rates, date of lay, pedigrees, color, conformation, and so on. While rustling through a pile of spreadsheets can get old, it really helps in visualizing the difference between chickens as pets/hobby and chickens as livestock.

Hens2Today we sold 3 pullets that didn’t meet the cut for our breeding program. They laid perfectly decent olive green eggs, and were pretty hens, just not what we needed. So we listed them as a trio for $50 and they sold immediately. Judging by all the inquiries we can also tell that there is a solid market for these flock fancies, at least in springtime.

Looking over our records, we know that it takes us an average of $10 to raise a pullet to point-of-lay, about 5 months. Over the next 6 months each hen eats about $15 in feed, but earns about $36 in egg sales if we assume a production rate of 60%. This kind of chicken math tells us that each of those 3 hens brought a net profit of $27!
Not too shabby, considering that our household supply of eggs is basically free (we don’t count labor costs).ChickenMath

Industrial-sized ‘pastured’ poultry producers look for a production rate closer to 75-85%, but they use breeds and methods that are too close to factory farming for our liking. There is still much room for improvement though, and upping the ante with our ‘math’ is the key. Next up is a serious program of trap nesting, meaning each nest box gets a special door that closes when a hen goes in to lay, so we can see who lays what and how many.

This will allow us to cull (sell or eat) hens whose egg numbers don’t add up, and also to see which hens lay eggs that we want to hatch (no funky shells or off coloring). Another benefit to trap nesting is being able to sell a specific hen that lays a specific egg. The deeper you fall down the flockster hole, the more important it is to have just the right colors in your egg basket, and that translates to a value-added product for us. EggBasket

Another way to push the math is to supplement bought feed with homegrown goodness. Maintaining the right nutrient balance is critical, so we can’t just toss them bread from the outlet store or past-prime lettuce and hope to keep the eggs coming. Since we live near a dairy with excellent (and cheap) milk, we’ve started feeding our flock kefir a few times a week. The process of culturing the milk makes it digestible to chickens and adds protein, calcium and probiotics. They absolutely love it. As an alternative we cook up a pot of beans mixed with dried nettles, full of protein, vitamins and minerals, which is great in winter when there isn’t as much green food to forage. The beans need to be cooked to neutralize an otherwise harmful enzyme, but in the winter it’s easy to get a pot bubbling on the woodstove.

In the evening we throw a few handfuls of homegrown wheat and corn into their bedding so they can scratch and fluff it, keeping it fresher longer, and providing them with a little exercise. If the nights are cold, some bedtime carbs help with egg production, but in the summer they get only a scatter of treats.

We’ve also experimented with pellets vs. crumbles to minimize waste, and are working on trapping the food-stealing, biosecurity-breaching English sparrows that plague our flock.

Chicken math doesn’t have to be boring. Make it into a story problem with lots of interesting variables to solve for, and both you and your flock can prosper.

Here is a downloadable Excel template for the chicken tracking spreadsheet – Blank Chicken Tracker

From peeps to pups

Spring in our part of the PNW comes in fits and starts. Intervals of cold, soaking rain and invigorating sun. And the sunny weather rarely happens on a weekend or day off. So we’re only now getting ramped up for our main planting. We took a risk and moved most of the raspberries to an expanded area in the garden. They were about ready to flower, so the rain was really helpful in keeping them alive. I think we’ll get a good crop again this year, but we’ve also expanded our blueberry and strawberry plantings this spring too, just in case.

The first batch of peepers is a couple weeks old now and doing great. We’ll be doing four hatches total this year, and selling some hens and pullets in the fall. The experiment continues…

We also got a few extras from the feed store, including this mystery breed peeper.ChicksThe wild critters are getting into the season too. Pacific tree frogs, in a range of colors from brilliant mossy green to deep chocolate, turn up in unexpected places. This one was on the garage wall.GarageFrogAnd we have a steady stream of hummingbirds, at all three feeders, from pre-dawn to blue-dark. RufousSunsetHildegard is a year old now. She has grown up to be a very sweet, wiggly, protective gal, and still has a bit of growing to do. BabyHildeShe was 80lbs. at her last vet visit, but still takes care to compensate for Fergus’ short legs and old age. He absolutely loves playing tug with her, and the exercise is good for both of them.