Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dakota Rocket Silo

We've been looking for a way to move canning operations outside during the heat of the summer.  Not only does it help keep the house cooler, there's just something especially liberating about processing food outside.  Maybe it's because there's so much more room than in our tiny kitchen.  Maybe it's because we use combustion heat directly, which is more efficient than, say burning coal to produce heat to boil water to generate electricity that generates heat on an electric stove.  Or maybe it just feeds the soul of our inner caveman...

Anyway, until recently, we had no such capacity around The Lab to do outdoor canning.  Then we cobbled together a couple projects to remedy the situation.  On the docket for today: the Dakota Rocket Silo.  It's a combination of one well-known homestead technology (the rocket stove), and a similar, but lesser-used technology (the Dakota fire hole).  Essentially we built a Dakota fire hole and added a cinder block chimney to turn it into an underground rocket stove.  But anything related to underground rockets has to be called a silo.  Hence the full name.

Profile view of what the Dakota Rocket Silo (DRS) would look like if we sawed right down the middle of it and a couple feet deep into the yard.

Here's what it looks like in real life.  The two pieces of angle iron hold the pot off the cinder blocks so the air can still flow well.  Wait!  No!  Katie, that's not a biffee!! (EDIT: Katie says, "You can take that part out right now, buster!")

Before starting a fire, it's a good idea to make sure the bricks are level--we don't want a pot full of hot jam becoming unbalanced and tipping over!  Then we'd have to lick off the grass.

...Fire in the hole!

How long does it take to boil a quart of water?  When the DRS is still heating up (and making smoke), a little under 12 minutes.  Once it's good and hot, considerably less than that.  Accompanying the fire is a wheelbarrow full of old fence wood and our mobile kitchen.  All in all, not a bad way to start a Thursday.  Ok, Jake.  Time to go into work.

Later that night...

Hey, look! A successful batch of plum jam, cooked outside over a wood fire. It was so tasty, Katie let herself be persuaded to have a piece of toast, even though it was way past her bedtime.  We didn't take any pictures during this batch, but we learned quite a bit.  We'll do a follow-up post on that soon, but for now, suffice it to say that cooking jam outside by flashlight, and then coming back into a nice cool house is one of the more awesome sensations we've had all summer.

Have you canned outdoors?  What is your setup like?  Let us know in the comments below!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Spring Chickens 2014: Final Stats

We finally had a chance to compile the final numbers on our spring batch of chickens, so we wanted to put the numbers out there in case anyone besides us would find this kind of stuff useful.  Be forewarned: this is a data-heavy post!

Here's the pretext: we got 27 chickens from McMurray Hatchery on May 5.  The box of fluff that arrived in the mail contained 10 Cornish Cross Roasters (the slightly slower-growing version of the Cornish Cross), 9 Pioneers, and 8 Eggers.  For the Eggers, we ordered a Red Star, a Rhode Island Red, a New Hampshire Red, a Columbian Wyandotte, a Black Star, and an Easter Egger; two free rare breed "mystery chicks" came along as stowaways, which we've now figured out are a Silver Leghorn rooster and probably another Easter Egger. 

We had to cull one of the Pioneers at eight weeks, so we were left with 18 meat chickens.  We found a new source of organic feed, which, combined with the better conversion ratio of the Roasters, brought our cost of production down quite a bit from where it was in the fall.  We didn't keep the meaters and the eggers separate, so we had to make some assumptions about how much of feed they consumed.  After about three weeks, the Eggers made up about 15% of the total chicken weight, so we assumed they were eating 15% of the food. In reality, they probably ate less than that. But with that assumption, the final price came out to $4.93/lb, or $2.12/lb (30%) less than in the fall.  Considering how excited Katie gets about a 30% off coupon at Kohl's, this chicken should make her positively ecstatic!  Here's the breakdown:

For what it's worth, changing the assumption of feed consumption from 85% to 95% increases the price to $5.35/lb, so still quite a bit better than our fall batch.  Comparing to the fall, we also benefited from cheaper chicks ($2.38/each vs. $3.77/ea) and warmer temps (less electricity for the heat lamp).  Had we been lucky enough to be able to process the chickens in our own backyard, hatch them from our own eggs, and realize that hardware stores also sell grit, but in 50 lb bags (aka, construction sand), we could have cut our costs to a best-case scenario of $3.71/lb.  We had both the Roasters and Pioneers on pasture (in a tractor) for multiple weeks at a time and increased the ratio of kitchen scraps (and bathroom spiders) in their diet toward the end, but clearly the main cost driver is the feed.  We'll be embarking on a mission shortly to decrease the feed costs by growing much of our own protein, so stay tuned!

The other interesting thing about raising multiple types of birds side-by-side is a final weight and growth-rate comparison.  The Cornish Cross is far and away the fastest growing breed, but we were much heavier are they than other 'meat' breeds? And just how fast do they grow?  We butchered at about 10.5 weeks, and the roasters ranged from 7.7 to >11 lbs (the top bird maxed out the scale).  The Pioneers were between 4 and 5.7 lbs, which was less than the Rangers we had in the fall (despite McMurray's claim that the Pioneers grow faster and get larger.  Maybe next time we'll grow the Pioneers and Rangers side-by-side and see what happens).  But for the Cornish Cross, apparently you have to butcher them before 11 weeks or they start to gobble.

From the graph above, it's clear the growth curves were pretty linear for both breeds, meaning that they would have probably gotten a little bigger if we waited even longer.  But it's also interesting to compare these two breeds to the Eggers, just for fun.  The Eggers grew, on average, 17 grams per day. That number is skewed a little by one of the Easter Eggers, which hung tough with the Pioneers, the hefty girl.  Even now, she's the only one who can't fully fly up to the roost!  The Pioneers were almost twice that growth rate, at 33 grams per day, on average.  And the Roasters were nearly twice that again!  Holy smokes!

One other thing we wanted to mention was the health of the Roasters.  They are like the standard Cornish Cross in that they are thoroughly disgusting birds, apparently living solely to eat and poop.  They're dirty and poopy, but they grow fast.  So fast, in fact, that the high growth rate can cause problems if they get too old, or at high elevations (we live at about 5,600 feet, which counts as "high").  We took a chance on the fact that McMurray recommends against the standard Cornish Cross at elevations about 5,000 feet, but had no such warning for the slightly slower-growing Cornish Cross Roasters.  We had multiple days over 90 °F toward the later weeks, and lost nary a bird.  Keeping them outside nearly the whole time certainly helped, but we're happy to report that our batch did fine up to 10.5 weeks in high elevations and high temperatures.

So, there you have it! A breakdown of our spring 2014 chicken experience.  How do our chickens compare to yours?  Any questions you have that we didn't address in the post?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Update on the Row Cover Chicken Tractor

Last fall, we wrote about a chicken tractor we built to fit directly over our (at the time) only garden bed.  We hypothesized that the inherent stiffness of the woven wire fence top would provide some structural integrity, and help shed the snow off to the sides before it could pile up.  Unfortunately, we put too much faith in the fencing material, and one heavy snow was all it took to buckle it.  When we got some time this spring, we made a few improvements to it that will hopefully help it survive this next winter in a little better shape.

When it happened the first time, we put a stick in the middle to hold up the wire.  It worked for a while, as long as we only got snow in increments of one inch or less.  (Also, we didn't figure out a good way to close off the ends in time, and our kale died. :-(  In the spring, we found that covering the ends with garbage bags and holding them in place with sticks was a workable redneck solution for the coldest nights.)

When the heavy snow came, it pushed the stick right down into the dirt and buckled the fencing anyway.  (An unintended consequence of double digging in the fall!) Time for some repairs!

In the spring, we bolstered the structure with a 2 x 4, in which we cut grooves in the ends and screwed it into the hoop parts.  We couldn't find one quite long enough, so the far end has a couple of bridging pieces to cover the extra distance.  A real craftsman would have found the right length board, and put it in the center of the hoops!

We also upgraded the mechanism for moving the chicken catcher piece.  It's now fixed to a rope that goes from end to end, suspended from the main beam by screw-in eyelets.  Now we can just pull on one part of the rope to herd the chickens toward us, and on the other part to give them more room...and all from the comfort of the door side of the tractor!

Here's a shot of how the eyelet hangs at the door end.  Doesn't look like much, but it was cheap, and it works pretty slick.  Those are our two primary concerns.

How do your chicken tractors or row covers hold up in the snow?  Have you had to make any improvements to their structural integrity?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Buffalo Strata

Recently, Katie's been making a recipe for buffalo cauliflower to take to potlucks, and it's pretty good.  If she drives to the potluck (i.e., Jake is in the passenger seat keeping the crock pot from tipping over), about half makes it there.  None ever makes it home.

For the last couple weeks, we've had chicken on our minds.  We put almost 100 lbs in the freezer (details coming soon), and we've been thinking about what we can do to clear out a little space.  (We had to eat all the ice cream that was in there to make room for the chicken.  Now we've got to eat some chicken to make room for more ice cream.  It's a delicious cycle.)

Then, we remembered that we hadn't posted a strata recipe for July yet!  Keen observers will notice three things at this point: 1. a typical strata recipe for us includes at least one type of meat and one type of vegetable, 2. both chicken and cauliflower are excellent when seasoned with a little Essence de Buffalo, and 3. chicken and cauliflower in a buffalo-flavored strata would be awesome!  Ok, let's get to it.

This is what our freezer looks like right now.  Ice cubes, schnitzelbank, chicken breasts, chicken drumsticks, pulled chicken, whole pioneer chickens for roasting, and a few cc's of air.  There's more chicken in the door, and even more chicken in the freezer in the garage.

We started with a bag of pulled chicken, a little over 1 lb.  It came directly out of the freezer, where we used it as a sculpture titled, 'inside of a ziploc bag.'  We put it in a bowl with 4 Tablespoons butter and 0.25 c hot sauce, but in the future, we'll probably just make a big batch of buffalo sauce (we like 50% butter, 50% hot sauce) beforehand and use half a cup of it here.  This whole mix went in the microwave until the butter was melted and the chicken had thawed.

We cut one head of cauliflower up into pieces (it weighed about 2.7 lbs), and added another half cup of buffalo sauce in the form of 4 Tablespoons butter and 0.25 cup hot sauce.  This went in the microwave until the cauliflower was cooked.  After cooking, both the chicken and the cauliflower are buffalo flavored, but it's a little more subtle than we were hoping for.  We could increase the sauce-to-chicken (or cauliflower) ratio, or add extra sauce to the finished product.

We made the layers in a 9" x 13" pan as usual: bread, cauliflower, chicken, cheese.

Then more bread, cauliflower, chicken, and cheese.

And then the egg mixture.  It's normally 3 cups milk, 6 eggs, and a bunch of seasonings.  We replaced half a cup of milk with more buffalo sauce, but the milk dilutes the buffalo flavor quite a bit.  We'll definitely need some more buffalo sauce to pour over the finished product.  The seasonings we added were 0.5 teaspoon each of salt, black pepper, and onion powder, and 1 teaspoon garlic powder.  Beat the mixture well and pour into the pan over the bread-cheese-cauliflower-chicken layers.  Set it in the fridge overnight or for several hours to let the buffaloes get accustomed to their new range.

Bake at 375 °F for 50-60 min, until the middle is pretty solid and the top looks toasty brown.

Cut into pieces, and top with appropriate sauces.  As we mentioned above, the seasonings added to the chicken and cauliflower weren't quite as in-your-face as buffalo sauce is meant to be, so we added some extra buffalo flavoring.  Then the buffaloes were really in our face, so we added some feta cheese sauce (blue cheese sauce would also be good).  Mmmmm.  It's like a stampede in your mouth.

What do you do when you have an abundance of chicken?  What else is good with a buffalo sauce?  Let us know in the comments section below!

The recipe:
10 slices of bread (at least)
1 lb shredded cheese (we used Monterrey jack)

1 lb pulled chicken
1 head cauliflower (2.5-3 lbs)
1.5 cups buffalo sauce
0.5 teaspoon each salt, black pepper, and onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
6 eggs
2.5 cups milk

Cook cauliflower and chicken, season with half a cup of buffalo sauce each.  Layer the bread, meat, cauliflower, and cheese in a 9" x 13" pan, starting with bread and ending with cheese. Beat together remaining buffalo sauce, eggs, milk, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, and black pepper. Pour over layers and set in fridge for several hours or overnight. Bake at 375 °F for 50-60 min, until golden brown and delicious-smelling. Serve with additional buffalo sauce and bleu or feta cheese sauce if desired.  Fall into food coma, reflect deeply on the recipe and any improvements that could be made, and post comments on this page.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Berry Strata

It's that wonderful time of year on the homestead, when, if you're lucky enough to have established berry bushes, the berries are coming in as fast as you can pick them (i.e., you are regularly achieving a Berry Modulus of much greater than 1).  If you're also lucky enough to have laying hens, there's a good chance that you are inundated by both berries and eggs.  What to do with such a bountiful harvest?  We humbly suggest this month's strata recipe.

This is a lot like a regular strata, except the meat has turned to fruit, and the shredded hard cheese has turned to chunks of cream cheese.  The bread is the same as usual, making up the bottom layer.  In this iteration, we used a pound of strawberries and about 0.75 pound raspberries, each split into two layers (or strata, if you prefer).  Almost any kind of berry would probably work, so if you've got cherries, apricots, peaches, or whatever else coming ripe, toss those in, too!

A regular 9" x 13" pan will probably fit two layers each of bread and cream cheese/berries.  This is going to be good!  We seriously considered calling this month's version PolaWyle Strata, after the authors of the famous Christmas song The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, but decided to be less creative at the last minute.

Once the layers have been formed, it's time to fill in the cracks.  Six eggs, three cups milk, a teaspoon or so of vanilla extract, and a few pinches each of salt, cinnamon, and cardamom (if you've got it).  Beat the liquidy part well and pour over the solids.

Then everything has to hang out in the fridge for a few hours and get to know each other.  Hi there, I'm cardamom.  One of the egg yolks was saying we should work together on this project since we bring complementary skill sets to the table. Nice to meet you!  I'm strawberry and I completely agree.

Once everything has mingled, it gets baked at 375 °F for 50-60 minutes.  Are those graham cracker chunks on top?  Yes, those are graham cracker chunks on the top.  They replace the cornflakes in the regular strata recipe.

This one came out a little messier than our other versions, but the layers are still apparent to the trained eye.  As a meal, it's kind of like a french toast casserole, and it would go well with sausage or bacon. (Ok, everything goes well with bacon, but this definitely would, too).  The berries add quire a bit of sweetness on their own, but if you're feeling really naughty, you can eat it with maple syrup.  We found this strata a little less filling than our other versions, so definitely consider serving with a proteinaceous side dish.

The recipe:
10 slices of bread (at least)
16 oz. cream cheese, cut into cubes
2 lbs berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cherries, peaches, etc. in any combination)
6 eggs
3 cups milk
0.25 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon each cinnamon and cardamom
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1.5 cups graham cracker chunks, lightly crushed

Layer the bread, berries and cream cheese in a 9" x 13" pan, starting with bread and ending with cheese.  Beat together eggs, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom and salt.  Pour over mixture and set in fridge for at least 12 hours, preferably overnight.  Spread graham cracker chunks over top of the bread-berry-cream cheese layers.  Bake at 375 °F for 50-60 min, until cream cheese chunks look a little like toasted marshmallows and center begins to set up.

What do you do with your eggs and berries this time of year?  Have you made a similar strata recipe before?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book Review: Thrifty Chicken Breeds by Anna Hess

In the third book of her Permaculture Chicken series, Hess does a nice job of synthesizing chicken breed recommendations and statistics from other chicken authors (Gail Damerow, Harvey Ussery, Jenna Woginrich, Robert Plamondon), chicken surveys (Mother Earth News, Backyard Chickens forum), and hatchery catalogs, as well as her own experience.  This book has fewer external citations than some of her other books, but that may be because the content she would need to cite isn't out there--the main point of the book is that a homesteader needs to experiment for himself and find or make chickens that work well in his particular flock.

Hess is quick to note that different folks choose chicken breeds for different reasons, and folks who pick breeds for the same reasons in different climates might get different results. In short, take everyone's advice on chicken breeds (including hers) with a grain of salt: your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, with that context set, Hess' own experience is especially valuable because she's worked with many different breeds, and has refined (is refining) her flock as one big optimization exercise with the following variables:

•Egg production
•Meat production
•Foraging ability
•Predator resistance
•Flightiness-friendliness spectrum
•Broodiness/chick-rearing ability

Because there is a lot of overlap (and some mutual exclusivity) among these variables, prioritization is necessary. For example, light (weight) breeds might produce more eggs and forage well, but can be flighty enough to escape fences and wreck gardens, while only providing minimal meat after egg production drops. Are the extra eggs worth these drawbacks? If you don't like meat or vegetables with your eggs, they might be!  Fortunately, we put together a handy dandy chicken breed selection chart to help out.  It tries to combine some of the content of the book, and some from our own experiences.  Of course, some simplification is required in the conversion to flow chart format, so you'll have to read the book for more details.

The key to finding the optimum for your own flock is genetics, which Hess feels is best worked out at home. That is, don't rely solely on commercial hatchery strains to get what you want--do some experimenting on your own! A diverse flock is one way to balance these variables, and gives the homesteader more genetics to choose from when refining preferred traits across generations of chickens. Of course, many hatcheries carry their own genetic lines, and, if you're going to start with hatchery birds, it helps to start from hatchery strains that have been geared toward production rather than appearance.  Or, another way to look at choosing your chickens:

However, for all the emphasis on selecting and refining good genetics, the 'how-to' of implementing these points is the weak part of the book. Hess mentions hatcheries (especially non mainstream hatcheries), swap meets, and trades with neighbors as suitable ways to introduce new genetics, but she doesn't say which overall method or which hatcheries she prefers.

Similarly, although to a lesser extent, the section on refining flock genetics could be expanded. The book doesn't say explicitly how often new genetics should be brought in, although Hess' Incubation Handbook recommends bringing in a new rooster every year. Also, Hess clearly records a lot of observations about her chickens. Maybe it's just us and our nerdy love of data, but we thought it would have been helpful to see a photo of her 'chicken lab notebook' or a screen shot of her chicken spreadsheet to see what kind of system she's worked out to discern chicken performances in terms of feed consumption (and egg yolk/chicken fat color), egg production, and behavior traits.

However, these shortcomings are overall quite minor. The information on different breeds and the approach Hess lays out for getting the most bang for your chicken buck make this book another great addition to the Permaculture Chicken series and an outstanding value, especially considering the price. We highly recommend it!

What kind of chickens do you raise on your homestead?  Which breeds, varieties, and strains have you found to be most productive for meat and eggs?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Gate Brace Math

Sooner or later, a homestead will need a gate.  Or a door on something.  Or some other swinging rectangle.  It's inevitable.  The part that swings is usually constructed by building a rectangular frame with a diagonal cross piece for stabilization and support, and then covered with boards or pickets, or whatever.  The dimensions of the perpendicular pieces are fairly straightforward, but what about the diagonal brace?  What size should that be and what angles should it have?  Many folks just lay a board across the frame, mark where the edges should be, and cut along a line between the marks.  But what if the frame is slightly out-of-square when the board is set on it?  What if you're building with old warped wood (or twisty-turny, cool-looking logs) and the brace won't sit right on the frame?  Wouldn't be nice if there were a way to calculate what the dimensions should be?  Fortunately, there is!  Time to pull out some triangle math and get measurin'.

The first step is to decide on the dimensions of the gate.  Once you know the height and width, and thickness of the wood (or other material) you're going to build it with, you can build the frame, minus the crosspiece.  Then decide what type of diagonal brace you want.

Three common choices are the trapezoid (left), the parallelogram (middle), or the 'skinny hexagon' (right).  As a side note, the brace should be positioned with the bottom on the side with the hinges (i.e., in the figure, the hinges should be on the left side of each gate).  That way, the weight of the gate compresses down on the brace, which gives more support than nails and screws can provide on their own, and helps mitigate sagging over time.

Now it's time to do math! Yay!  Fortunately, we can get all the dimensions we need with just three equations: the Pythagorean theorem, SOH CAH TOA, and the law of sines, since we know the inner dimensions of the gate frame and the thickness of the wood we're planning to use for the brace (e.g., 1.5" for the thin side of a 2 x 4).

Case 1: Trapezoid brace.  Easy peasy.  The length of the brace is the hypotenuse of the frame, z, which we calculate from the Pythagorean theorem, with L1 and L2 as the side lengths.  The angle Θ1 is the arctan of L2/L1.  The angle Θ2, which is the angle to cut the board at, is calculated by subtracting Θ1 from 90°.  The length, d, is the quotient of the brace board width, w, and tan Θ2.  The length d is often the most useful measure since we can measure down d from one corner, draw a line to cut along from there to the opposite corner (on the same end of the board), and the angles and other dimensions will take care of themselves.  As a check that everything's kosher, x and y can be calculated as shown.  Note: similar, but not the same, equations apply at the opposite end of the brace.  There, tan Θ1 = w/d.

Case 2: Parallelogram brace.  Probably the most common, but also the most math-intensive to figure out.  The hypotenuse of the gate frame, z, is now the long diagonal of the parallelogram. The angle between z and L1 is Θ1; the angle between y and L1 (the angle at which to cut the board), is Θ2. z and Θ1are calculated as in Case 1 above.  Next, the SOH part of SOH CAH TOA means there are alternate equations for Θ1 and Θ2; namely using L2, w, x, and y, which will be helpful in the next step.  For the triangle with x, y, and z as sides, we can use the law of sines, substituting for y and sin Θ1, to find the difference between Θ1 and Θ2, and from there, Θ2;.  Once Θ2 is known, substituting back into the equations from SOH makes for easy calculation of x and y, and since d is one side of a right triangle with w and x as the other sides, we can use the Pythagorean theorem to calculate d, which is what we really wanted in the first place.  Phew!  One advantage to this design is that it's possible to use a slightly shorter board (by, like, fractions of an inch) since the hypotenuse of the frame is the diagonal of the board instead of the length.  But if you've got a piece of scrap 2 x 4 that's a quarter of an inch too short for the other brace designs...

Case 3: Skinny hexagon brace.  This one is kind of like Case 1, with two trapezoids back to back.  The hypotenuse of the frame lies along the centerline of the board, which means that to calculate d1 and d2 we can use the tangents of Θ1 and Θ2, which are the ratios of the sides and also of half the brace board width and one of the d's, as shown.  As a check, x1, x2, and y can be calculated from the Pythagorean theorem and the SOH or CAH parts of the right triangle with (L2 - x2), (L1 - x1), and y as sides, respectively.

With the equations above, it's possible to make perfectly-fitting braces every time on gates, doors, and lots of other swinging rectangles around the homestead. (Within the experimental error of the craftsman's skills, of course).  Clearly, the chickens appreciate the extra effort, since they're always crowding into the door frame when the chicken tractor door opens.  They're probably eager for a chance to admire the gate brace from a new angle, and not at all excited that they suddenly have more space around the feeder.

We've also compiled this information into a handy Excel-based calculator, free for download here.  Let us know if you have any suggestions to improve it!

How do you size the diagonal braces for your gates, etc.?  What was the last thing you attached a gate to?  Let us know in the comments section below!