Monday, December 28, 2015

Heated Chicken Waterer

If you have chickens in a cold climate, odds are high that you'll eventually want a device to keep their water from freezing. (The alternative is to take them fresh, unfrozen water multiple times per day, which quickly loses its novelty.)  That's the situation we found ourselves in last winter when the temperature suddenly dropped to overnight lows of -10 °F.

A quick search of the internets revealed a ton of potential solutions, especially for bowl-type waterers and relatively mild climes.  There are fewer solutions to keep nipple-type waterers from freezing, but a few options we've seen include adding poultry nipples to a heated bucket and heating a larger reservoir that then gets circulated through a tube-type waterer and across the poultry nipples.  We also saw mentions of using a heat tape, an aquarium heater, and a stock tank de-icer to keep a bucket waterer thawed.  Those latter two options sounded pretty good to us.  Time for some research to decide which one is better for us!

There are many opinions on using aquarium heaters in chicken waterers.  Some caution against it because water can sometimes leak into the chamber with the heating element (leading to electrified water that can shock chickens or chicken keepers) and the glass on some models can shatter if the water level gets too low.  Other folks say they work great for several years and encourage the chickens to drink more water during cold weather (which, they claim, leads to better egg production and healthier--or at least, more hydrated--chickens).  The risk of electrified water can be minimized by using a GFCI outlet (which really ought to be used with any electrified chicken waterer), and the risk of shattering glass can be minimized by using non-glass or shatter-resistant glass heaters with automatic shutoff features (although, be careful about using titanium heaters in a plastic bucket because they can get hot enough to melt some plastics).  A 50 W heater is often times spec'd out for 5-20 gallon aquariums, so it should be plenty powerful enough for a normal-sized chicken waterer.  Also, while we're certainly not experts on aquarium heaters, we noticed that the opinions cautioning against using aquarium heaters in chicken waterers tended to be based on years (and years and years) of experience using them with fish, which doesn't necessarily account for many of the features that have become standard in recent years (i.e., plastic, metal, or shatter-resistant glass construction and automatic shutoffs).  Many aquarium heaters now carry lifetime warranties.

Meanwhile, stock tank de-icers keep the chicken water just above freezing, the smallest ones are 250 W, and they carry a 2-year warranty.  For those of you who keep track of such things, that means the power consumption is equal if the tank de-icer is on for one-fifth the time of the aquarium heater.  Also for folks living in the coldest climes, there is some anecdotal evidence that keeping the bulk of the waterer slightly above freezing isn't enough to keep the nipples from freezing.

Both a 50 W aquarium heater and a 250 W stock tank de-icer cost about the same, but in our minds, the aquarium heater seemed like a slightly better option.  Phew!  Decision made.

Ok, with all of that discussion out of the way...on to some pictures to demonstrate the reduction to practice!

This is the model we went with.  Last year, we had it in a 2-gallon bucket, and it was too long to sit flat along the bottom.  It worked fine (keeping our water at about 70 °F with outside temps frequently at 10 °F and lower), but we wanted to get it into a 5 gallon bucket so it would stay covered with water until the bucket was almost empty, and so that the heater would be close to the nipples, making it easier to keep them thawed.  NOTE: As luck would have it, our heater was probably breaking as we typed this.  We were home in Wisconsin over Christmas, and returned to Colorado to find an empty water bucket with a small hole melted in the bottom and a burnt rubber smell inside, and a cracked (but not shattered!) aquarium heater.  We didn't have it on a GFCI plug (do as we say, not as we do...), but obviously we can't recommend this heater anymore.

We drilled holes and installed the poultry nipples in the bottom of the bucket, leaving a space for the heater in the middle.  Also, for what it's worth, lots of folks seem to recommend drilling 11/32" holes, but we usually go with 5/16".  It's a little snugger fit, which makes it harder to thread the nipples into the bucket, but might help with preventing leaks. Also, 5/16" is a lot more common drill bit size.  For real cowboy construction, it's possible to slightly enlarge the hole by making the drill bit sightly off-perpendicular and rotating around, but be careful not to make it too big!

Next, in goes the heater!  You're not imagining it--we cleaned it up between the first picture and this one.

We picked this spot to cut an opening for the cord in the lid.

A few snips with a wire cutter, and voilá! Cord-accessible.

The cord goes out the bucket and trails off through the hole that provides access for the garden hose in the summer.  On the outside of the coop is an extension cord, eagerly awaiting a plug.

A couple S-hooks make it easy to connect the bucket to the chain it's hanging from.

And here's the finished product.  The chickens are clearly intrigued with the new deluxe model.

What's your heated chicken water solution?

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Are Our Nachos Healthy?

When we wrote about our one-year meal plan a few months back, we had nachos in the mix for a not-insignificant number of meals.  After all, they take only a few minutes to prepare, are undisputedly delicious, and, with all the vegetables we tend to heap on top of the chips and cheese, surely not a poor choice nutritionally...right?

While the first two points are self-evident (and/or subjective), the last point was an assumption (or hypothesis) that we could put to the test.  A few minutes with the nutrition labels on our ingredients, and some additional help from the ol' internets, and we could actually see (with numbers!) how our nachos stack up.

First, we need an approximate recipe, so here's a what makes up a fairly typical 8" plate of nachos for us:

THL Plate O' Nachos
21 tortilla chips (a couple handfuls)
2.5 oz. shredded cheese
0.5 cup salsa
0.5 cup plain yogurt (instead of sour cream)
1 cup chopped greens (often, lettuce)
0.25 cup chopped avocado
0.25 cup chopped tomato
0.25 cup chopped sweet red pepper
0.25 cup chopped chicken

Now, if we pull the nutrition info off the chips, cheese, salsa, and yogurt in our pantry and fridge (Sprouts brand for the first three, Mountain High brand for the yogurt), along with nutrition info from the Self Database (for romaine lettuce, avocado, tomato, pepper, and chicken), we can put together a sort of nutrition label and compare to the recommended daily values from the FDA.

So, if we're eating the nachos for one of our three meals (i.e., if we should hit about a third of our %RDV for each category), it looks like we're pretty close for calories, a little high on the fat, cholesterol, sodium and protein, and a little low on the carbs.  We're also rockin' the vitamins A and C, thanks to the lettuce and peppers.  But can these nachos make up a significant fraction of a healthy diet?  The nachos obviously aren't perfectly balanced, but if our other two meals of the day are a little more carb-heavy (like oatmeal and PBJ sandwiches!), it looks like we probably won't get too far out of whack.

But for some extra perspective, we could also compare our nachos to other entrees that we might eat instead, if we weren't so lazy busy.  We found data for another version of chicken nachos grande, and also for taco salad, quiche, spaghetti, chili, and the quintessential example of nutritionally-challenged food, a Big Mac.

Somewhat surprisingly, even with the veggies, our nachos don't stack up particularly well against anything but the other nachos, except for vitamins A and C, and calcium.  (Normalizing everything to 100-gram portions makes our nachos look better, but that's not very realistic if we're actually eating the whole plate!)  Guess we better not make a regular habit of nachos for supper, unless we cut back on the chips and cheese, and ramp up on the other toppings. 

New house rule: nachos cannot be an entree if chips and cheese are initially visible through the layer of vegetable matter on top.

Thanks for keeping us in check, science!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Monday, December 14, 2015

Rescuing Renegade Fudge

The other day, we made our first batch of fudge for the year.  We've got a pretty robust recipe, so the ingredients normally yield a flavor that's to our liking.  But with the first batch of the year, we often get humbled on the mechanics of making it perfect. Such was the case this year, when it set up too quickly as we were pouring it into the pan.

"No problem!" we thought. "We'll just stick it in the oven for a few minutes to get it to soften up again, and when it cools down, it'll have a nice smooth top like a lake frozen on a clear, windless night."  So, we stuck it in the oven.  And it would have been alright if 1. we had set the oven to the lowest setting (170 °F) or 2. we had stayed focused on the fudge and not sat down to eat pizza, assuming we'd only need five minutes to scarf it down.

By now, you can probably see where this is going.  When we checked on the fudge, it was nearly boiling over the pan like an angry chocolate lava pit, and the top was anything but smooth.  Fortunately, we're happy to report that we didn't have to throw out a single crumb.  (House rules: don't waste chocolate!)  Here's how we brought our overcooked fudge back from the brink.

First, check to make sure it needs saving.  Ours was definitely overcooked, but the middle was more like a Tootsie Roll, and the edges had a slight S'more flavor because the sugar started to caramelize.  Not necessarily bad flavors.  We ate almost half the pan as it was before we decided we really ought to to something else with it.  Of course, if it had tasted burnt, it might have been better to stick it back in the oven and take it all the way to biochar.  (Well, maybe not the indoor oven.)

Option #1: Put it on oatmeal.  Katie added peanut butter to hers.  Actually, this works with good fudge, too.

Option #2: Make fudge sauce!  We chiseled out about 9.85 oz. from the pan, and added half a cup of milk, then put it on a low heat.  To be honest, if we had wanted to, we probably could have omitted the milk and just reprocessed it into straight fudge again.  This article suggests that fudge can sometimes be rescued that way, and if it came back with a non-fudgy texture again, then we could have gone the sauce route.

After a little while, stirring frequently, it had all melted and was nice and homogeneous.  We transferred it to a 1-pint canning jar and stuck it in the fridge.

Right out of the fridge, it was pretty stiff.

With about a minute in the microwave, it was much more saucy.

Perfect consistency for banana fondue!

Or, you know, other types of fondue, too.

How do you rescue overcooked fudge?

Saturday, December 12, 2015

How to Set Up Automatic E-mail Notifications for a Craigslist Search Using IFTTT

A while back, we wrote about the wonders of IFTTT, which automatically updates us when a new posting for something cool shows up on Craigslist.  Shortly after, Andrew from Green Machine Farm took it one step further, showing how to make more sophisticated Craigslist searches that filter out unwanted results and capture related searches in a single IFTTT recipe.  Today, we wanted to run through the steps of how we actually set up an automated notification for a Craigslist search.  Just in time to pick up some last-minute Christmas bargains!

Start out by going to, and clicking on either sign in (if you've been here before) or sign up.

If you clicked 'Sign In,' it should take you here (assuming you remembered your login).  If you clicked 'Sign Up,' you'll have to click through a few pages to get to this page.  Once you're here, click 'Channels.'

Then scroll down until you see the Craigslist logo.  Click on the peace sign.

Then scroll down until you get to the Triggers option, and click it.

The one we like the best is on the far left, which tells IFTTT to send us an e-mail when a Craigslist search results page is updated.  Click that button.

That should take you to this page, where it gives a spot to enter the url of a Craigslist search.

Now open a new tab in your browser and navigate to your local Craigslist.  Enter in a search term or click on one of the subcategories.  Today, we're going to look only for free stuff.

Search for something you'd like to find.  Katie says, "why would you eat pancakes you found for free on Craigslist?!"

Good point, Katie.  Let's use some of Andrew's tricks to search for free windows instead so we can make a greenhouse!  Then, copy the url from the browser address bar...

...and paste it into the IFTTT form, then click 'Add.'

Success!  Now click 'Done.'

That takes you to a page where you can give the recipe a title.  That's helpful if you set up more than one search, because they all default to the same title.

That's better!

Then, scroll down and click 'Update.'   You're done!  You'll get an e-mail from IFTTT whenever the results page for your search is updated.  Normally, we get the e-mail about an hour after something has been posted.  To see stats on your recipe, scroll back up to the top and click on 'My Recipes.'  Happy Craigslisting!

Do you have another tool for getting automatic notifications when a good deal pops up on Craigslist?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

THL Giveaway: Win a copy of Weekend Homesteader by Anna Hess!

Since we're right in the midst of the holiday season, we'd like to give one of our readers the perfect gift for an aspiring homesteader: a real live paperback copy of The Weekend Homesteader by Anna Hess. We love the book to pieces, and we recently acquired a second copy. (Thanks, Anna!)  We're grateful for the duplicate, because it allows us to host the first ever Homestead Laboratory giveaway! How exciting! (You can read more of our thoughts on the book here.)

Now hopefully, y'all are in a giving mood, too, because you (our readers) can help us out immensely with a very simple gesture. You see, the biggest item on the Homestead Laboratory wishlist this year is to grow the community here, and we can't do it without getting additional eyeballs on the blog.

So, here's the deal: take a few seconds to share your favorite Homestead Laboratory post on your favorite social media platform, then copy the link to your shared post and enter it into the widget below to earn an entry into the giveaway.  Next Monday, we'll randomly select a winner and drop the book in the mail, hopefully getting it to you by the end of next week (for United States addresses, anyway).

Thanks in advance for helping spread the word about THL.  Ok, ready, go!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, December 7, 2015

New On Our Reading List: Critter Tales

Leigh Tate's new book, Critter Tales, is out! 

In it, she chronicles her first-hand experiences with many types of livestock on her five-acre quasi-rural homestead in the southern Appalachian mountains. If you read Leigh's blog, you know that she is working to maximize self-sufficiency for herself, her husband, and their animals. Most of her livestock-related posts are on goats, chickens, and more recently, bees, but the book also covers llamas, pigs, guinea fowl, guard dogs, and farm cats.  

We're regular readers of Leigh's blog because she does very good research and combines that research with valuable insight from her own experiences. We're definitely looking forward to reading her new book.  

In the interest of full disclosure, we're helping her promote the book partly because we're hoping to win a copy.  The other part is because we dig her stuff and think you would, too.  If you're interested in winning a copy yourself, check out her announcement post for more info.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Hose Storage Solution: The 30-gallon Metal Trash Can

As we noted in our garden lessons learned post the other week, we're starting to accumulate quite a bit of garden hose infrastructure.  And with that infrastructure comes the need to store it over the winter.  A quick Google image search shows that there are lots of interesting home-made apparatuses to wrap a hose around, but most look to hold about 50-100 feet of hose.  We've got two 6-footers, a 15-footer, six 50-footers, and easily another 100 feet of drip irrigation hoses.  We needed something nearly as compact as the tight-as-a-tiger wonder-coils the hose manufacturers create by some sort of sorcery.

Enter: the 30-gallon trash can.  With a base diameter of 18", a top diameter of a 20.625", and a height of 27", they can hold an awful lot of hose coiled up inside (even without the help of sorcerers).  How much? Time for some math!

We need some dimensions to get a ballpark figure.  In the United States, most hoses are 5/8 inch (0.625") in diameter, meaning that if they were stacked perfectly, 43 coils would fit in 27".  If the diameter of the can increases from 18" to 20.625" over those 27", each coil gets an extra 0.061" in diameter.  The circumference (which is the length of hose that fits in one coil) therefore increases from 4.71 feet at the bottom to 5.38 feet at the top.  In sum, that equals just over 217 feet of hose!

Good news: we should be able to fit all our hoses in just two trash cans.

More good news: the hole left in the center has plenty of room for holding hose accessories like sprayer nozzles, unused drip irrigation parts, motion-detector sprinklers, or a five-gallon bucket with even-more-tightly-coiled hose.

Even more good news: the garden-irrigation season and the meat chicken-growing season are mostly concurrent, meaning that when those metal trash cans are empty of hoses, they can be full of chicken feed.

The last two are also advantages over the arguably-better-looking plastic box hose reels of similar capacity.  Plus, the cans are less-expensive and are American-made!

Hose storage solution: success!  Not quite as cleanly coiled as our theory predicted in the first picture, but chalk this one up in the win column.

How do you store your hoses for the winter?

Monday, November 30, 2015

Fall Broiler Stats

In mid-November, we put our fall batch of broilers in the freezer.  Now that the books are closed on them, we wanted to take a look and see if we came out any better than our previous batches of meat chickens on a price per pound level.  We stuck with the same feed source we had for the previous batches, but we had a slightly different feeder setup that probably saved some wasted feed.  We also raised all Cornish Cross this time around instead of Red Rangers or Pioneers (or a mix of those and Cornish Cross), and the birds came from Meyer Hatchery instead of McMurray.  Ok, here's the numbers!

We ordered 25 birds, and one came free, so we started with 26.  We lost two as chicks, and had to cull three more at the six-week mark due to leg injuries, so 21 birds made it to the butcher date at eight weeks.  That's a mortality rate of 19%, or 8% if we don't include the six-week culls, although 26 birds is a pretty small sample size.  The butchering price increased from $3/bird to $4/bird for us this year.  The dressed-to-live weight yield is 72%, and the feed conversion ratio is ~2.5:1.  For comparison, the industry figures are 4-5% mortality rate, 71-74% dressed-to-live weight yield, and just under 2:1 feed conversion ratio.

The feed again accounted for the major portion of the overall cost, but the initial cost of the chicks and the butchering were also significant costs.  If we lived in a place where we were allowed to butcher them ourselves, we could have decreased the price to $3.34/lb dressed weight.  Some day!

To compare with other organic whole chicken prices, we're right in the range of what's available online (sources here and here), and a little above what's available in our local Sprouts grocery store.  Of course, if we got it from them, we wouldn't get any fertilizer for the garden!  We're also $0.54/lb less than our batch last year, even with the increased processing price, so we're definitely moving in the right direction.

Now that's a happy freezer!

Next steps for us? Start growing our own feed and get better set up to do our own butchering!

How do your home-grown chicken prices fall out?

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Trellis Review

Earlier in the summer, we wrote about a multitude of trellises we were trying; some were based on well-thought-out designs, others were the fastest thing we could put together with what we had on hand.  Now that it's the end of the season, which designs performed well, and which crashed and burned?  Let's take a look.

The only ones that really worked well this year were the woven wire fence ones, which provided good support of the cucumbers and some of the beans, and were really quick and easy to set up.  The only drawback is that they're a pain to clean off at the end of the year, since things wrap around the wires so well.  Cleaning these off should be the perfect justification for building a flame thrower, but Katie doesn't' seem to be completely on board.

Our wooden bean trellis fell over in the wind, and although we could have maybe kept it upright by adding screws (rather than rely on friction) and pounding the legs down into the ground, the beans didn't climb the legs very well anyway (maybe because they had to keep being reset when it tipped over).  In any case, we probably won't do that one again.

Our other bean trellis, the UFO on a stick, did ok.  The beans didn't have trouble climbing the wires, but we just weren't overly thrilled with it.  Katie didn't like it right from the start, so she won't miss this clever and functional (Jake's adjectives), but tacky and less-functional-than-Jake-implies (Katie's words), work of art.

The two-tiered tomato lines didn't do well, mainly because our tomatoes were so stout and bushy this year that they never got tall enough to add cross-pieces like we planned.  But even if they had, we'll probably try to fashion some other design next year.

Similarly, the big tomato trellis was too tall for the stubby little romas.  But it would have done better with our Mr. Stripey tomato, which tendrilled out of control and encroached on the peppers and eggplants.  We'll probably use this trellis again, but be more careful to only plant indeterminate varieties on it.  We'll also position the plants on the outside next time.

What's your favorite trellis design?

Friday, November 27, 2015

Reader Tips: Neill's Bike Tube Wood Clamp

Today's post is a tip from reader and whatchagotics expert, Neill Goltz, who came up with a great way to repurpose old bike tubes.  He says:
I just had a wonderful result repairing an old bureau (with mirror) where the laminate exterior had gone bad, i.e., was coming up off the underlying wood on the surface of the main drawer.

Not shilling for a particular product, but I used Gorilla brand wood glue. (I'm sure that Elmers would work just as well here. Or perhaps readers of this site already know how to make their own? Horses' hooves? Not going there…)

Anyway, two possible points of interest to your blog-readership.

How to apply a clamp - and what kind to a large drawer. Didn’t want to take it apart…

Working with glue is messy, and it extrudes from the seams once the clamp is applied.

The solutions:

As a clamp item I used old bicycle tires freely given by the owner of the local shop. They wrap beautifully around any unusual configuration and can be adjusted to any lengths and tension all the way around the project, in this case the drawer.

I just put a loop in one end, and thread the other end thru and pulled to desired tension. [I] recommend that you put "Shoe-Knot loop" thru on the second tie off so as to release it very easily when glue is dry. 

  I wanted to create a barrier-layer between the glue (which would extrude) and the tubes. A magazine cover or ordinary cardboard would be adhered to by the glue, so I tried the cellophane wrapper from a box of Cheerios.

Photo credit: Neill Goltz.

Voila! The results could not be better. [Excess glue can be removed with] water-based OOPS or GOOF-OFF. It's water-based, but I still use rubber gloves.

Photo credit: Neill Goltz.

Jake's Note: there are multiple formulations of those paint removers; some are water-based, some are not.  Definitely wear gloves with all of them!
Great work repairing your bureau drawer, and thanks for sharing the story, Neill!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

HAP, November week 4: Happy Thanksgiving from THL!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!  We wanted to make a slight variation on our normal homestead Happiness-and-Progress posts and give a quick rundown of some of the things we're thankful for.

First: you! THL broke the 50k all-time-pageview barrier this week.  While that's pretty small compared to most real blogs, it's still humbling (and motivating!) to realize we have an actual audience outside our immediate family.  So, thanks for reading!

Second: a yard in which to do all our goofy experiments, and which also looks nice and scenic while being coated in gently-falling snow.

Third: Craigslist, which not only lets us find great deals like this trailer, but also lets us meet lots of friendly and interesting people in the process.  It's easy to forget when watching and reading the news, but there's a lot of good people in this world.  There's also a lot of good free horse manure, and this little beauty will be hauling a significant portion of it to our yard.

Fourth: a not-empty freezer and pantry.  See also: item #2.

Fifth: the holiday season, with its abundant homemade treats.  Sugar high will be in effect from now through the new year.  Hooray for the holidays!

What are you thankful for?