Thursday, January 28, 2016

Frozen Eggs - What's the point of chickens?

It's an egg-sickle!  As you can see by the state of my eggs (frozen solid!), the weather has been a bit chilly of late.   

The egg on the left was thawed before it was put in the frying pan, but the egg on the right was mostly frozen.  It was thawing so fast I barely had time to grab my camera.  Turns out, frozen eggs cook up pretty good.  I'm not sure if this would be a good way to store eggs or not, since they might dry out in the freezer, but being frozen for a little while doesn't hurt them.  

The most recent preferred nesting location for my hens is in in an old groundhog hole filled with straw under the mower in the shed.  This makes it a little difficult to retrieve the eggs, since I have to either get down on my knees to see them, or reach blindly into the creepy darkness and feel for them, all the while hoping the groundhog doesn't think I'm trying to get fresh.   

After I finally collected this egg cache, and Brandon saw that they were all frozen, cracked, and grungy from being stepped on by the hens, he asked me if I had forgotten why we even have chickens.  I thought it was so I could watch them, feed them, talk to them, and worry about them.  But no, apparently we have them for the eggs!  Good to know.     

When we first got chickens, we would feed the dog or the chickens the eggs with cracks, since germs might have contaminated the egg inside.  Then we decided it was safe to eat them as long as they were freshly laid and the membrane inside the shell wasn't compromised.  But since these eggs were cracked with the cold, but still frozen, we decided that germs were probably too cold to grow in them, so I washed them off, and we ate omelets for lunch.   We made sure they were cooked through, just in case.  So far, so good.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Frost Bite

I think Poncho and Lefty have frost bite on their combs and wattles.  Just a little, on the edges.  The very tips of their combs have turned black and crusty.  

I knew this was a danger since they both have such big combs.  The hens, whose combs are smaller, don't seem to have any frostbite.  I'm not sure if the frost bite on the roosters is painful, but they don't act any different than usual.  

The thirty little chicks that live in the barn survived the cold weather just fine under their heat lamp.  When it's cold they get closer to the warm bulb.  I've been keeping a big piece of pink foam insulation board over the lid during the cold weather.  It blocks a lot of the light they would get through the barn windows, but I think they would rather be warm even if it means their world is only illuminated by a eerie red glow.  

The brooder that Brandon built (he seemed to be quite motivated after I brought guinea keets to live in our bathroom!) has made raising little chicks much easier than when I raised them in a box in the house.  The brooder is deep enough that the chicks have room to flutter about.  Chicks make a lot of dust, so I'm glad they are out of the house, even though I don't get to spend as much time with them.  

Brandon used plywood he salvaged from the trash in the art building at the university where he works, so our brooder used to be someone's painting.  I like the funny characters that decorate the walls.  

Silly guineas.  Of the five, only one of them has the white feathers on it's neck and belly.  It also has lighter colored wattles and feet.  I like that I can tell this one apart from the others.  I could give this one a name!  Any suggestions? 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Snow, Mud, Wind, and Heat

It rained last night.  A warm rain, so this morning almost all of the lovely snow was melted away to reveal the mud.  So much mud!  I hope I'm not becoming a broken record, but I've been complaining about the mud since we moved to the farm.  I've never lived on a clay patty before, and I'm continuously frustrated by mud management.  Anyplace we walk frequently becomes a muddy trail.  The mud doesn't seem to bother Puck at all.  I wonder if dogs can learn to wear muck boots?

Not only is the mud more intense here at the farm, the wind is unbelievable!  Just look at the wind patterns in the snow.  We had snow dunes several feet thick on the leeward side of the house and outbuildings, but on the side of the wind, the snow was so thin we could see the grass.  Any object poking up in the yard had a wind excavated trench around it.  No wonder we could feel wind blowing through the outlets on the west side of the house!  

We've been slowly plugging up gaps and figuring out how to stay warm here.  We always have a can of that expandable spray foam insulation at hand.  Did you know they sell insulated inserts for under the outlet covers?  Even with the insert and the spray foam I ended up taping the little holes for the plug on the outlet in the living room on the west wall because the wind was blowing in so hard I could feel it when I was on the couch.  Burrrrr....  But, I was only late for work one time because the water pipes under the house froze during the night and we had to cut a hole in the kitchen floor and thaw things out with the hair dryer.  You know, like the pioneers did it.  Ha!

The chickens and guineas stayed in the coop during the deep snow days.  They seemed content to stay near the food and water.  One of the guineas did brave the snow briefly, and flew to the top of the barn.  Brandon poked his head inside the house to ask me if we should do something to help it, since it was pacing and making funny noises above his head while he worked in the barn.  I'm not sure what Brandon had it mind, but we didn't have to rescue it after all because it launched itself from the tallest point on the barn roof and flew all the way to the top of the chicken coop!  Like a real bird!

Our rocket mass heater experiment wasn't very helpful during this cold snap.  We never could get it to draft well, and we spent some time each day trying to tinker with it and were always dissapointed.  We have enough electric heat to knock the deep chill out of the house in the main living areas, but to really warm the house without the wood fire, we have been relying on our kerosene heater.   We bought it for if the power ever goes out, as a back up to our wood fire back up.  I didn't really want to use it, because I had memories of a kerosene heater from my childhood that included a toxic smell.  Once Brandon showed me our electric bill though, I was ready to open the box the kerosene heater came in and give it a try.  Maybe it's because this heater is new, but the only time I catch of whiff of toxic smell is the instant it's lit and maybe when we fill up it's tank.  Otherwise, it makes wonderful scent free heat.   

Can you see the trails in the snow in front of Puck and Brandon in the picture above?  These are deer trails.  It's fun to follow the trails and see where the deer go.  One came almost all the way the house.  Sometimes I would see them in the mornings, since they stand out against the snow when they move.  

Monday, January 25, 2016

Playing in the Snow with the Tractor

We didn't get the plastic sled I wanted before the big snow, but we did break out our other toy - the little tractor.  

The deep snow meant that we got to try out one of the tractor implements that has been patiently waiting near the barn.  The scraper thing - ooooh... 

Brandon compared using the tractor implements to an erector set.  Nothing we have came with instructions, and since we've never used this implement before, it was a game of trial and error to get the scraper thing attached to the tractor in a way that looked like it would work.  This task was extra complicated because the hydraulics on the tractor were so cold we couldn't make the parts that move up and down, move up or down.  

The scraper thing attaches to the tractor in three places.  Two of the places were pretty straight forward - we just had to force heavy, rusty, and cold finger-pinching pins in the right places to hold it together.  The third attachment point wasn't so easy to figure out.  We had two options for fitting the extra bits that hold it all together. We don't know what these pieces are called, but I'm sure it's something like "Wedge Shaped Thumb Crusher", or "Long Rusty Curse Extractor".  We opted for the thumb crusher, and it worked like a charm! 

He's off!  Since Brandon couldn't raise or lower the scraper, we weren't sure he would be able to scrape the snow from the entire long driveway without getting it jammed.  

While Brandon was scraping, I stayed warm by wearing some of our Christmas presents - a Yoda hat and hand made face muffler - and dancing to pop music playing in our ear protector/radio.  I love snow days.  

I could tell Brandon was enjoying his snow day as well.  Who needs a sled when you have a tractor!

I drew Brandon's portrait while he scraped.  Looks just like him, doesn't it?  

The scraper thing is angled so that the snow continually falls out to one side.  Once we saw how this worked, Brandon was able to plan his route so that the snow dropped to the outside edge of the driveway.  

Unfortunately he did such a good job that I was able to drive my little car to work today.  We learned a few things during this tractor play.  By the time he was done with the driveway the hydraulics on the tractor were warm enough that they began to work.  Good to know.  Also good to know that if you forget to put the cotter pins through the holes in the big bolts that hold the scraper on, it comes right off when you back it up into a snow pile, and it's really hard to get it unstuck from under the tractor!  

Monday, January 18, 2016

Rocket Mass Heater - Making Heat!

We had a successful firing of the rocket mass heater!  We kept a fire going for over six hours Sunday evening, and didn't fill the house with smoke a single time.  Whew... What. A. Relief.  Not that I was that worried that we built a giant mud pile in the house for no reason.  We weren't ready to give up on the rocket mass heater, but we had such a smoky experience the last time we fired it that we were hesitant to try it again until we understood what was going wrong.  But this time, we got it so hot that the dragon had steam coming from his nostrils - and the house was warm enough for a t-shirt, on a night when the temperature dropped the single digits, even.  I kept trying to take a picture of the dragon's steam, but it doesn't show up very well.  Maybe if you use your imagination you can see the cloud of steam coming from it's nose and hear the gentle roar of the fire.  Imagine warmth on your face and body while you stand near the hot barrel.  

It wasn't until our potter friend, Joe, explained the Venturi effect to Brandon over lunch recently, that we formulated a plan of action.  Joe suggested that the thin metal pipe that exits the house and carries the slightly warm exhaust up and away, was so thin that the cool from outside was invading our pipe and we were loosing pressure.  Joe explained that when a kiln looses the Venturi effect, it's like someone inside the kiln blows out the fire.  That's exactly what it was like in our rocket mass heater!  Joe suggested a gas pilot light in the exhaust pipe, like they use in kilns.  We did some research on pilot lights, and Brandon even took apart an old gas stove that came with the house, but we could never get comfortable with putting gas into our exhaust system.  Instead, we wrapped the exterior pipe with hot water heater insulation and a put a heat lamp inside the cap of of the clean out.  It worked beautifully.  I have hopes that once the cob bench is dry and warm that we won't need the heat lamp, especially now that the pipe is insulated.  

But for now, I'm happy to have a fire, even if the heat lamp wasn't something we planned for.  The cob bench is still drying, and the surface is cracking like we predicted.  I spent a few minutes playing in the mud and patching the cracks.  Once it's bone dry, we hope to treat the surface with something less crumbly.  

It's so cold outside!  There's nothing like frozen mud and sprinkles of snow to make me appreciate a burning log in the dining room. 

The baby chicks in the brooder have a heat lamp of their own, and an enclosed brooder box tucked into the barn.  But the big chickens and the guineas don't get any heat.  Since this was the first single digit temperatures of the winter, Brandon and I stapled a tarp to the chicken coop, so they would be protected from the wind on three sides.  

The guineas had their first day of freedom on the farm yesterday.  They started out their adventure with the chickens, but it wasn't long before I saw them exploring the yard on their own.  Thankfully they didn't take off for parts unknown.  At dusk, I was happy to see them near the chicken coop trying to find their way back inside.  It took them over an hour to finally figure out how to go in the door.  They walked in circles around the coop, went under it, jumped on the side, tried flying through the walls, and finally figured out the door.  I tried no to watch since it was making me crazy.  Just go in!

My toes are warm!

Brandon seemed to be enjoying himself as he split firewood in the back yard.  Puck thought it was great fun too.  I have some thoughts about a back rest for the rocket mass heater, and some cushions.  In the mean time, a cardboard box and some afghans come in handy.  So far, only the area near the barrel is warm to the touch.  

Just ten minutes on top of the barrel, and a plate of nachos and cheese with a foil cover becomes crispy, crunchy, cheesy "rocket nachos".  

Happy dragons have steamy noses.  

Perfect Sunset

I saw the most perfect sunset.  I was home from work with just enough daylight to quickly do the chicken maintenance chores before dark.  After I finished making sure the tiny chicks in the brooder had food, water, and warmth for the night, and before I locked the guineas and the big chickens safely inside their coop, Puck and I stood in the front yard and watched a golden glow reflect on the clouds. 

I had to breath on my finger tips to keep them from going numb with the cold, but I still managed to take pictures.  I couldn't decide which part of the sky was the most photogenic.  

The camera turns the sunset colors a little more orange than they looked to the naked eye.  To me, the clouds appeared neon pink, with a bright orange nucleus.  

The neighbors pond reflected the swirling lights in the sky like a tiny mirror.  

The yucca stalks and pods that grow near the driveway inspired me to take pictures of the sunset with silhouettes.  

Even grass seeds look pretty against the setting sun. 

I started to frame shots with the little mulberry tree branches, but Puck gave a little whine to let me know he was getting cold paws.  

We made sure to lock up the chicken coop before we cocooned ourselves in the house.  The sunset was reflecting on the glass of the chicken coop as well.  All the windows and reflective bits around the farm had miniature sunsets to admire.  It was perfect.  

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

So Many Things To Tell You

I hope you know that just because I haven't been writing to you, doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about you!  We've been busy, as always, but also focused on the holidays, visits with friends and family, days away from the office, projects, and recovering from the annual post-holiday germ invasion.  But, you are always there, in the back of my mind.  Even when Brandon was learning his first song on the guitar, on one of those raining days while we sipped hot tea and enjoyed the lights on our tree.  If you would like to see the short short video of his song I made for you, click here.  

There are so many things I though you might like to see.  Like the little Christmas trees that my sister in law made, with Oreo cookies and strawberries.  Yum!

Or my beautiful nieces, posing with the mountain of presents for our family gift exchange, holding gifts from Santa - a ukulele and a robotic cat, of all things!

Jamie gifted the family some lights that we could wear on our fingers.  The day was so warm, we could go outside to play without our coats!  We may have had a rave, but I'm not sure.  Check out my video and let me know -  Is this a rave?  

The past few weeks haven't been only parties and flashing lights though.  Brandon built a woodshed on the back of the barn using tin that used to be on the roof of the house.  Not that we have any firewood collected, other than the sticks I gathered in a tub.  We're still working the kinks out of the stove, for sure, but on the day that I collected this tub of sticks, I had a true love for the rocket mass heater.  I stood near the edge of our property by a large pile of branches from a landscaping cleanup we did earlier in the year.  I could hear the chirp of birds, and the cluck of the chickens as I peacefully snapped twigs with my hands.  There was no loud and scary machine.  I wasn't afraid that I would loose a limb, or smash a finger, injure my back, or go deaf, like I feel when anyone near me is using a chainsaw, ax, or log splitter.  I didn't have to lift any heavy logs.  I could carry all my sticks back to the house without a strain.  What if this is what harvesting fire wood was always like.  Clean, quite, and light?  Too good to be true! 

Santa left me brand new bibbed over-alls under our tree!  The rocket mass heater was way more fun to plan and build than it has been to operate, so far.  The cob bench is still wet clay, and even has some wheat grass stalks sprouting on it.  The few times we've tried to burn wood in it, we ended up filling the house with smoke.  It worked much better before we had the cob bench, so I have hopes that once the cold clay is dry and warm, it will draft well.  Last night, we decided to burn it is as long as we could, hoping to speed up the drying process.  This may not have been a great idea, because we are both still coughing from our recent after-holiday germs anyway, so smoking our lungs about five times in an hour didn't feel so good.  It's a strange beast - it would be working like it supposed too, and then all of a sudden the draft sputters, the flames go out, and the smoke billows up through the fire box.  Very frustrating.  And stinky!  We're still tinkering with it, and have some thoughts on how to improve it, but until it's good and dry we aren't going to do major alterations.  Cross your fingers!  

Guess what came in the mail?!  A box of baby chickens!  I ordered thirty baby chicks from a hatchery, and they came through the post in a cardboard box.  The post office called at five in the morning to make sure we would be there when they were delivered.  I was very glad we've had such warm winter weather so I didn't feel too bad for shipping chicks in December.  I ordered three different kinds of chickens, Plymouth barred rocks (like Helen and Mrs. Hall), Easter eggers (like Pork Fat - oh no!), and buff orpingons.  It's a mix of boys and girls so I can share some hens and roosters with my chicken loving friends.  Extra roosters will go in the freezer, and hopefully I will have enough hens that I will have an abundance of eggs.  I want to be that person that makes you take eggs home if you come for a visit.  I want to have so many eggs that we eat omelets for dinner and make angel food cakes on a whim.  

I want to have so many eggs that when I drop an entire basket of them and break them all, I don't cry.  At least not for long anyway.  Doh!

The easter eggers are the cutest chicks.  They are striped like chipmunks and have dark eyeliner.  

If you looked at my cell phone pictures right now, you would see how much time I spend looking at birds.  I have a giant box of adorable fluffy chicks, plus my four lovely white hens with their graceful rooster Poncho and their beefcake rooster Lefty, to admire, but I also have five silly guinea's too.  They live in the coop right now and have figured out how to roost with the chickens, but they are separated from the chickens by some wire.  They have pretty feathers - dark with white spots - and ugly heads.  They remind me of Worf, the Klingon from Star Trek.  Beautiful, as long as you can't see his head.  

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