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!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Squirreled War I: Quick and Dirty Strawberry Cage

**NOTE** This strawberry cage didn't actually do much to deter the squirrels.  The holes in the woven wire fence seem to be too big, or our squirrels are too small.  But please! on for an epic adventure in cage making nonetheless.

One of the more important tasks on a homestead is defense against destructive marauders, those pests that pass through a homestead, wreck a bunch of stuff, then move on to the next victim. Appropriately enough, if the homestead contains a Dad, the task of critter defense usually finds its way onto his to-do list.  So, this post is a happy father's day tribute to those dads who tirelessly defend their castle against livestock-eating predators, driveway-destroying burrowers, and crop-destroying varmints.

Earlier this spring, we noticed that our strawberry patch was coming along nicely--the plants were lush, green, and full of flowers, followed shortly by green and increasingly large berries.  In short, the type of stuff homesteaders dream about all winter and spring.  Then, one day, almost all of the berries (without even a hint of red), were gone.  We were shocked and angry.  And although we were anticipating a perpetual battle with the neighborhood varmints, we knew this meant that the squirrels had struck the first blow.

What to do?  Having not yet perfected our squirrel flinger design and with the everbearing plants already on their second crop of flowers, we needed something quick.  Something that could be built in a couple hours while a frying pan of delicious root crops with rosemary graced the wood-fired grill on a Saturday evening.  And thus was born the quick and dirty strawberry cage.

The damage.  The berries, all but one plucked from their stalks.  What kind of monster would do such a thing?  They were just babies!

We constructed a 2 x 4 frame from free Craigslist wood to fit around the strawberry bed, then drilled holes just large enough to fit the wires of a welded wire fence (5/64") at the required spacing.  We figured out the spacing by holding the fence on the board and drilling next to the wires.  The wires are a little flexible, so it doesn't have to be perfect.  Remember, this is a quick and dirty project!  Also, it takes some care to not break off the drill bit, and it's probably a good idea to have an extra (or two or three) handy.

Same thing with the wire fencing on the ends, which are trimmed to wrap around the arced part.  The most tedious part is getting all the wires to line up in the holes of the frame, but once they do, the slight variations in angle make it surprisingly sturdy.  i.e., don't use a drill press! :-)  Ours can actually support the weight of the frame just from the wire cage (which also probably means a squirrel won't be able to pull out the wires, either), but we made handles for extra support.  The handles are just more pieces of 2 x 4, screwed into the frame at an appropriate spacing.  There's one on each end, partly because the frame is large and awkward to move with one person, but also partly because we don't trust each other to not eat all of the strawberries as soon as they turn ripe.  Come to think of it, we didn't actually see a squirrel in the strawberries, we just assumed it had been there because the berries were gone.  It could just as easily have been Katie!  There are no droppings to confirm one species or the other.  Now it seems like the cage is an even better idea.

Here are the strawberries, now fully protected.  Where the sections of fence come together, we "sewed" them together with one of the wires we trimmed off the fence.

How do you protect your berries from destructive marauders?  How would you do it if your strawberry patch was a lot larger (which we eventually hope ours will be)?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Chicken Crop Trouble

UPDATE ON THE CROP TROUBLE: Although the chicken was always pooping regularly, the crop problem didn't go away.  That is, the blockage appeared to be toward the back end, and internal.  We ended up having to cull the chicken at about 8 weeks.  Culling is an unfortunate but inevitable part of raising livestock, and has to be done when the quality of life of the animal begins to decline.  We updated the flow chart below with additional steps one can take before resorting to culling, but, as in our case, they don't always work.

But, for a happier note, read on!


Last week marked the first time we were able to enjoy fresh garden-grown veggies this year (excluding the dandelion and mallow we've been eating from the yard since April).  It also marked the completion of several chicken-related projects, which we'll cover in upcoming posts.  Some of those projects became top priority when it became clear that the chickens were outgrowing their expanded brooder box much faster than the fall batch did. (Due in part, no doubt, to the fact that there are ten more chickens this spring!)

Although this post is mainly about chickens, we couldn't help but include a picture of our first spring produce: radishes and green beans!  The latter actually came from our seed sprouting experiment, and grew in pots outside our bedroom window. We've never had green beans this early before!

For the most part, the chickens are happy and healthy, and some even seem to be getting used to their weekly weigh-in on Tuesday nights.  Actually, as of the writing of this post, there is only one chicken on the fritz--one of the McMurray Pioneers has an impacted crop.  So, we had to ask ourselves, 'what does one do when one has a chicken with an impacted crop?'

There are options ranging from isolating the chicken from food all the way up to surgery.  The flow chart below summarizes, in a simplified way, a collection of the advice from various places on the internet.  There are additional considerations if the impacted crop becomes sour or pendulous, so don't take the chart as gospel and do some additional reading up on the matter!

These are the most instructive videos we found on how to "vomit" a chicken (be sure to read the comments for improvements on the technique shown), inject water or oil into the crop (see also part 1), and perform crop surgery.  The key indicators seem to be a change in the size/feel of the crop and whether or not the chicken is pooping, which indicates that things are passing through the digestive tract.

Here's our troublesome chicken.  You can see her accentuated crop hanging down between her neck and feet.  This picture is after having 'vomited' her the previous night.  Not having an appropriate needle, and since her crop was already full to bursting, we skipped right to the 'vomit' stage in the chart.

Through the process, we also tried giving her a little R&R, away from food and other chickens.  We had never seen her attempt to fly, so we figured this setup would be fine while we were away at work for the day.  When we got home, she was in here, just like we left her in the morning.

We soon discovered, however, that finding her in the tote when we got home was merely a coincidence.  She had clearly been wandering around the kitchen, dining room, and office all day.  On the plus side, her digestive tract seems to be working just fine now.  Fortunately, she stayed off the carpet! 

A labyrinth of wood scraps makes it a little harder for her to escape the tote, but still gives her some light.  Unfortunately, she's an even better flyer than we thought, and managed to burst up out of the tote through the labyrinth.  Looks like we'll have to set something a lot heavier on top.  We haven't made a point of naming any of the chickens beyond a simple description of their appearance or what breed we think they are, but this one has certainly earned the moniker 'Trouble.'  Fortunately, she'll only be causing it for another six weeks or so.
After a day of isolation, her crop seems to be decreasing in size, she's still active and alert, and she seems to be pooping properly.  But she doesn't take kindly to spending her time in the kitchen, instead of outside with the rest of the chickens (and the food).  We'll update this post if things take a turn for the worse, but for now it looks like Trouble will be able to rejoin the flock in a few days.

How do you deal with impacted crops in your chickens?  Do you use a proper poultry needle when flushing the crop, or do you get by with an eyedropper?  Let us know in the comments section below!