Archive for the ‘How-To’ Category

Sustainability at the Flying T Ranch


Solar PanelsOur family mission is to glorify God in all ways.  We live this out at the Flying T Ranch as we raise, manage, and use His creation in a healthy, sustainable, humane, and respectful manner.

Over the past years, we have found the “sustainable” goal to be one of the most elusive.  Sustainable practices with our livestock began with the species and breeds we chose for the farm.  Some of these have been successful, and others not so much.

For example, our first few years with Muscovy ducks were very productive.  We chose them for their hardiness and reputation for being good at reproducing and raising young on their own.  However, when we later ran into significant problems with predators, we found that they didn’t do well at all under such pressure and when we penned them for protection, they weren’t nearly as happy, and thus not nearly as productive.

Likewise, our journey towards better stewardship of the natural resources involved in producing energy for electricity and heat has been rocky at times.  Some of our ventures have been less productive than others.  However, over the past few years, we have steadily improved in this area, primarily by reducing demand.  Much of what we have done has been relatively “low-budget”: improving our energy use practices, installing energy-efficient lighting, using timers and thermostats for heat lamps during the winter and kidding season, and servicing our heating systems for instance.  Others have cost more: programmable thermostats, installing better insulation and replacing some old leaky doors, and swapping out some appliances for more efficient ones.  These have all combined to reduce our demand significantly.

Recently, we took a step towards the supply side of sustainable energy, through the installation of a solar photovoltaic (PV) system.

We originally considered solar several years ago, but at that time, it simply wasn’t affordable, and the time for us to recoup our investment was almost beyond the life expectancy of the panels and inverters themselves.  Since then, the efficiency of panels has gone up significantly, while the cost per kw has gone down as well.  Though that ratio of performance-to-cost continues to climb, we had saved the money we needed and felt we were in a “sweet spot” this year to go forward.

We approached three companies who do business in New Hampshire to evaluate our needs and potential and to submit bids.  Each of these companies came up with similar project proposals, but with a significant difference in cost.  Two of the companies particularly impressed us with their organization, professionalism, and other aspects of their proposals, and after negotiations that brought the bid down considerably, we signed a contract with Tesla/SolarCity.

Because our energy use increases in the winter (and especially in late winter during kidding) while available solar energy decreases, the system we have installed will not supply all of our needs in the winter.  However, in the summer when our energy consumption decreases while solar energy increases, we should exceed it by quite a bit.  Over the course of the year, we should come close to providing all of our electricity needs, and as we continue to lower our consumption, we hope to have a net positive yield.

As part of the project, our utility company installed a “net meter” that keeps track of electricity we draw from the grid vs what we send back.  On months that we produce more than we consume, we will receive a credit in our bill for the excess.

The system has been in operation for just over a week at this time, the calculations in our project proposal forecasted our production to be roughly equal to our consumption in April.  Weather has been relatively typical, with intervals of sunny days and complete overcasts.  We have had a day of heavy rain and two of light snow.  And the results?

Here’s a snapshot of our best day this past week:

Screenshot_20180411-094407.jpg

Now, granted, every day hasn’t been that sunny.  Our worst day was a low overcast where we only saw 7kWh of production, and the others have ranged from the 20s to the low 60s.

But, over the past week, the average has been more production than consumption, and her is what our meter looked like a couple days ago:

Meter

Yes, it’s rolling backwards from zero.  Our current meter reading is negative 111 kwh (and it’s dropped more in the past couple days).

If you’re looking to install solar (or to buy a Tesla vehicle), consider using our referral code: (https://ts.la/patrick34826).  Doing so through that link will qualify you for incentives from Tesla/SolarCity, which currently include a 5yr extended warranty for solar panels or free supercharging for certain Tesla vehicles.

Full disclosure: Doing so will give us a referral bonus (currently a credit towards our next project, which we hope to be a PowerWall battery system).

We continue working towards more sustainable and resilient practices at the Flying T Ranch, and we would love to hear from you.  What are you doing at your home and/or farm to increase efficiency, reduce consumption, and incorporate renewables?  Comment below!

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Ready for Kidding – DIY Pens and Warming Huts


We pasture bred our two older Boer does in October, so we don’t have a tight date on when they’re due but it’s going to be soon.  The girls are double-wide, their udders are filling out, and Jessie in particular has started to spend a lot of her time lying down, moaning softly.  Good thing I got some time today (after the 4-H activities this morning) to finish up the kidding stalls and warming huts.

The girls were a bit nervous about the new digs, and squished into one stall together for a bit. They calmed down later.

As I wrote earlier, we made the stalls primarily out of recycled hard plastic pallets.  However, I got preoccupied with other chores and projects once I got the walls up, so it wasn’t until this week I was able to get the doors completed.  I made those doors out of new lumber, mostly because I wanted them to be relatively clean and nail free.

A better view of the door.

You might notice that the center “bar” is connected differently.  My plan is, once the kids are older, to remove that center piece and add another one offset to the side to make a barrier for our creep feeder.  The idea is to have an opening small enough for the kids to get through to free-feed on grain, but tight enough to keep the greedy adults out.  The next trick is to design a feeder to put in the stall that the kids can get to, but the ducks and chickens can’t.  That will be a trick.

One of the two warming huts

The warming huts are salvaged 55-gallon poly drums, cut at the 2/3 point.  I cut a circular hole in the top for the warming lamps, then used sheet metal screws to mount the brooder lamp fixture.  The huts are screwed into the stall divider (which is made of dimensional lumber) to keep the adults from knocking them over.

So now we wait…

Latest Projects at the Flying T


We took advantage of the long, though very cold, weekend to get a passel of projects done.  The biggest job was digging out the goat’s stable – like many goat folks, we let it build up relatively thick during the winter, allowing the hay to compost and produce warmth.  The disadvantage is that when the cleanup happens, it’s a lot of work.  If we could redesign the barn, we’d make it so we could push the tractor’s bucket right into the stalls!

I actually got a reprieve from that big job, and instead was busy with some construction projects and maintenance around the farm.  Yesterday I did some light jobs – fixing the chicken coop doors, rearranging the feed room to make room for the brooders, modifying the new duck house.  Today, I did a couple more projects while the rest of the family worked their butts off on the goat stall.  To keep the goats busy, we gave them the rest of our Christmas Tree – we’ve been handing them sprigs every day, but they made pretty short work of the tree today.

Oh, Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree! How tasty are your branches…

The first project today was to build the kidding stalls, as our two older goats, Gracie and Jessie, are due in March.  Our plan is to open up the wall between their stall and the adjacent one (formerly the duck stall) and let the momma’s use the extra space.   That wall is easy to remove – it’s dimensional lumber that slides in/out of brackets.

Instead of buying plywood and 2x4s (have you seen lumber prices recently?) to make a wall sturdy enough for goats, I salvaged some heavy-duty plastic pallets and put them to work.  The resulting stalls are about 5′ x 5′, taking up about half of the 10’x10′ stall and giving us room to make 3rd or even 4th kidding stalls in the future.

Voila! Kidding stalls! I cut a couple rectangular holes in the pallets to let the girls see each other.

I wanted to make walls that would be sturdy, but still could be removed relatively easily, and came up with the idea of hinged walls that folded against the side of the stable.

Jasper watches the walls unfold.

Wall stowed

All that’s left is to make the doors themselves, for which I plan to use some scrap lumber, or maybe wooden pallets.  We’ll also make some lamb warming huts with some surplus 55-gallon poly drums I’ve salvaged.

The next project was simple – a tray to catch the hay from the feeder.  Goats are notorious hay wasters – once hay hits the floor, they’re not interested anymore, and it becomes bedding.  My hope is that this tray will reduce that a little bit.

Stand by for the next Flying T contest – guess the birthdate, #, and genders of each doe’s offspring!

The girls don’t care, as long as the hay tastes the same

Collapsible Goat Milking & Grooming Stand


Earlier this year, we found a great deal on Craigslist for an old metal double milking stand that has worked great.  Both of our girls can work simultaneously on their goats, whether clipping hooves, trimming hair, washing, or whatever.  However, with the county fair coming up, we realized that the stand (which is about 10′ long and probably a good 100lbs+) wouldn’t work for that.  We needed a stand that could handle a 200+lb Boer yet still fold up small enough to fit in the truck when our goat transport box was in the bed.

We found a good number of options.  There are some great portable folding milking stands available, and their prices reflect their quality.  The ones that fit in our budget didn’t look like they’d handle one of our goats for too long, and the ones that could stand up to heavy use were well outside our budget.

But I’ve got OK handyman skills, and woodworking and welding tools out in the garage, so I started to comb the net for plans.  I had to cut the metal ones out of the picture pretty quickly because of how expensive steel is right now.  The wooden plans I found weren’t quite what we were looking for.  I did find an interesting plan made from PVC, but though that might work well for a smaller milking breed, I think one of our does would make short work of it.  With the fair fast approaching, I still didn’t have an option.

That’s what graph paper, rulers, and pencils are for.  So, after a literal trip back to the drawing board, and another to Home Depot, we were ready to start.

We used plain-jane 2x4s and plywood for construction (with the exception of the legs, which I cut from pressure-treated lumber).  Total cost for supplies was about $45, including a pound of screws and two long bolts used as the pivot and adjustment pins for the stock.  Here’s the result, with Gracie locked in.

And here are the girls taking a break to pose while putting the stand to work as they trim Gracie’s hooves.

Because I tend to overdesign things (the kids were joking that if the hurricane in Florida moves North, they’ll use it as a shelter), it’s probably a bit heavier than it needed to be.  In fact, as I realized how stout it was, I actually took a few of my planned structural reinforcement pieces out of the plan.  The magic of the stand, however, is that it disassembles to pack flat – into a space about 3′ x 4′ x 10″ by sliding the legs and stock assembly out of the base.

The four legs slide out also.

The kids are in the process of painting and decorating, so this is how it looks right now.  I’ve still got a few tweaks to do (the stock is a bit too narrow and I plan to add a feed tray and some equipment hooks) but it’s ready for the fair.  It took most of a day to get the project from concept to paper to assembly, and we’re pretty happy with the payoff for the effort!

Barnyard Bandits


It’s been a hot and dry summer up here, and I think that’s why the predators have started to become more of a problem in our area.  Our vernal pools are low or empty, meaning that the peepers (what our forester calls “Nature’s little protein pills”) and other small prey animals are scarce.

Though we’ve seen a fox around the neighborhood, it hasn’t been a problem.  Our chief invaders right now are raccoons.  A week ago, one of our neighbors lost all but three of their layers when a raccoon broke into their coop.  They’ve since caught the bandit, but that doesn’t bring back their flock.  The next night, I shot another raccoon in our barn that was breaking into one of the feed bins.  Since then, I’ve killed three more.  Today, we found out that another neighbor lost a good portion of her flock to raccoons.

Then this morning, we discovered that one of our Barred Rocks, who chose the corner of an unused goat stall to set her nest, had five of her nine eggs stolen from right underneath her when a predator dug under the walls and grabbed them.  Fortunately, she was unhurt.

So, instead of getting some more wood put up, I had to do some modifications to the building to prevent further loss of either the chicken or her eggs. Here was my solution: hardware cloth attached to the base of the building and spread about 1′ outward.

In the pic above, you can see that this is the corner they dug under.  Hopefully this will help.

After securing all four sides, I buried the cloth in dirt (actually composted manure, because that’s one thing we have a ton of).

Finished project below… topped off with a live catch trap to hopefully snag the next bandit.

Hopefully, this keeps our future momma hen safe!

NPIP – Exam Time for the Flock


Yesterday, at our request, a representative from the Department of Agriculture came out to visit and test our chickens in conjunction with the National Poultry Improvement Program.  NPIP is a voluntary program that provides testing for common ailments in home and commercial flocks.  NPIP helps us to ensure a safe food supply and avoid the transfer of disease through other means (after all, taking care of chickens is not a hands-off activity here at the Flying T).  In addition, it allows those who raise chickens to avoid unnecessary medicines and antibiotics.  Finally, by working exclusively with NPIP-certified hatcheries and home producers, we can reduce the chances that our healthy flock is infected by birds or chicks we purchase as replacement stock.

Some of the NPIP tests are required for 4H and other shows.

The actual process is quite simple for a relatively small flock like ours (23 birds)… or at least it should be.  First,  you need to make sure they’re contained.  To accomplish this, we simply turned off the coop’s automatic door after the chickens had gone to roost for the night.  Simple, right?

However, about an hour before the NPIP representative arrived, our son went to change the chickens’ water, and six of them slipped out the door.  The three kids and I had a heck of a time chasing them down.  Free range means no fences, and lots of places for them to hide, squeeze under, and run through.  It also means that trying to entice them back into the coop with grain doesn’t work well, because there are lots of other, more tasty things to sample out in the woods.  However, after a bit of running, diving, and even climbing the compost pile, we managed to get our escapees back into the coop.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t anticipated the exercise, and so I have no pictures to share.  They would’ve been worth sharing!

OK, it is a simple process, once you’ve got the chickens back in the coop!

We enlisted the kids to help, and they crammed into the grain room along with the NPIP tester, Tara.  One kid would go into the coop and pick up a chicken, then bring it out to Tara, who would start by banding their legs with a numbered tag (for our older chickens, this also required removing their previous NPIP tags).

Then, she turned them onto their backs, and plucked the feathers from a small area under the wing.

A quick scratch with a scalpel to draw blood, a few drops in a plastic vial, and the chickens were released to go .

Within about an hour and a half, the vials were filled and the process was complete.  Tara said that she recently did a flock of 250 birds, and that took all day (with several helpers).


The chickens were none the worse for wear (though they were a bit indignant).

We should get our NPIP renewal certificate in the mail in a few weeks!

Starting Seeds Indoors


We can tell Spring is here because both the jobs that keep the bills paid and the jobs around the farm have really gotten busy! Almost a month since my last post tells that story.

One of the things that we’ve been working on is getting our garden ready.  Though the weather has been unseasonably warm the past few weeks, we still have some frost in the forecast and we even woke up to a light dusting of snow this morning.  Last year, we got hit with a snowstorm on April Fools day.

But, that doesn’t mean we can’t start planting, especially because my parents didn’t need their seed starter this year, so they gave it to us.  My dad made it, and if you’re looking for a relatively simple project, you might consider building one yourselves.

Materials list:

  • One metal rolling audiovisual stand
  • Four sheets of 30″ x 14″ sheet metal (he used galvanized ducting sections, that are bent in 90 degree angles)
  • Four 24″ florescent light fixtures with grow bulbs
  • Eight lengths (about 2′ each) of light chain
  • Four pieces of chicken wire, cut 9.5″ x 19.5″ (to fit in a 10 x 20 planting tray)
  • Four lengths of 5-6′ each of insulated soil warming cable (this is not cheap to buy new!)
  • Six lamp cords/plugs and wire
  • Lamp timer
  • Six-outlet power strip
  • Assorted screws, washers, and nuts.

Dad took the galvanized sheet metal, folded the short edges to keep them from cutting hands (the long edges were already folded for the joints), overlapped each pair to make the center double-strength, and bent the sides down to form two simple reflectors.  He then mounted a pair of florescent lights on each.

They’re suspended from the shelf above by four chains, allowing you to move them upwards as the plants grow.  He spliced the cords for each set of lights into a single plug just for convenience (you could also use a second power strip).

The soil-warming wire is fastened in loops to the chicken wire grids with zip ties.

The simple lamp timer saves a small bit of electricity – we’ve got it set to be off during the day later in the growing cycle when the plants should be getting some natural light through the windows.

That’s “it.”  The soil warming grids fit nicely into our 10×20 seed planting trays.  We’ve currently got a flat of tomatoes, a half of peppers, 4 basil plants taking up a corner, and a few “empties” waiting for some seeds we need to start in a week or so.  We’ll start two more flats a bit later.

Hopefully, we’ll get a good jump on the garden this year, since last year’s was a bit of a bust until very late in the season.