Archive for the “The Farm Report” Category

To our American readers, Happy Labor Day.

We’ve had several happy laboring days on the Fat Head farm lately, mostly because daytime temperatures have dropped from the 90s to the 70s. It’s one of the many reasons I look forward to this time of year. Football season kicks in, the days are cooler, and a string of holidays and special occasions are around the corner, starting with Chareva’s birthday in October.

Not that the weather has been all pleasant. We were pounded with heavy rains shortly after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. No real damage to speak of, but another widow-maker branch fell near the creek.  It will be added to the firewood collection after I cut it up it with a chainsaw.

The creek, which is normally not impressive, rose and flowed with enough force to dump a gazillion extra rocks along the banks. The end result is that the creek is narrower in some spots.

My bridge also tried to float away. I learned my lesson after the one and only time it did float away, so now it’s tethered to a big tree with a heavy chain. I don’t mind having to move it 10 or 15 feet as long as I don’t have to go find it downstream somewhere.

One of the annoying features of jungles is that after you cut them down, the derned things grow back. I use The Beast to keep them at bay, but The Beast was out of commission for most of the summer. That’s because last fall, something jammed in the recoil starter. When I pulled on the cord, it came out and stayed out.

As you may recall if you’re a long-time reader, I only recently became a Born-Again Tool Guy. The Older Brother has been tinkering with engines and such since he was a teenager, but for most of my adult life, my toolbox was virtually identical to my dad’s … that is, it consisted of a hammer, a wrench, a flathead screwdriver and a Phillips screwdriver stuffed into a drawer.

When we started doing weekend farm work, I decided I needed to drop the limiting belief that I don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout no tools. I am capable of learning new skills, after all. So now I own an impressive collection of tools and have managed to do some good work with them.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how to remove the top of The Beast’s engine to get to that pesky recoil starter. I unscrewed every bolt that looked like it had anything to do with keeping the engine covered. Thumbing through a book on small-engine repairs didn’t help, because the pictures and instructions were for common lawn mowers.

So some weeks back, I rolled The Beast up a ramp and into the back of the van to take it to a repair shop. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous while driving to the place. I imagined an embarrassing scenario:

“Help you, sir?”

“Uh, yeah, I’ve got a Swisher Predator brush-cutting mower, and the starting cord came out and stayed out. Can you take a look at that?”

“Certainly. Can I have a credit-card for the deposit?”

“Sure. Here you go.”

“And can I see your Man Card?”

“Uh, let’s see … here it is. Hey, what are you doing?! I just got that thing!”

“Sorry, Buddy. We have rules here in the South. If you can’t fix your own engines, we have to cut up your Man Card.”

But when I pulled up to the repair shop, I saw plenty of mowers, chainsaws, weed wackers and other man-stuff in various states of repair. I also saw customers driving banged-up pickup trucks, wearing baseball caps, and otherwise demonstrating that their Man Cards were intact.

Anyway, with The Beast repaired, I spent part of last weekend taking down my least-favorite jungle. It’s my least-favorite because it runs parallel to one of my disc-golf holes. If I sling a driver too hard and it drifts right, it can end up in the stuff you see below, which is full of nasty thorns and varies between knee-high and chest-high. Even if I find the disc, I’m usually bleeding from somewhere afterwards … and if I didn’t remember to spray my clothes, I’m also going to be scratching at chigger bites later in the day.

The Beast just chews up that jungle and spits it out. But perhaps to reassure me I can keep my Man Card, The Beast ran over a sharp stone I didn’t see in time, and the belt that turns the blades snapped. That gave me the opportunity to break out the tools and replace the belt. After beating my chest and chanting a bit, I finished taking down the jungle.

Chareva and I mostly finished constructing the new chicken yard a few weeks ago. But we still had to tie down the nets and figure out how to keep raccoons from digging their way in. She also decided it was time to combine flocks. We built the new coop for the nine chickens who survived Rocky Raccoon VI. Meanwhile, we had another flock coming along as part of a 4-H project. Alana selected five from that flock to auction off at the county fair, but we’re keeping the rest.

Up until this weekend, they were living in another coop. Chareva opened the chicken moat so they could wander near the other flock. Apparently chickens need time to get used to each other before sharing a coop and a yard.

While the chickens were getting acquainted, we expanded the new coop to accommodate the combined flock without overcrowding. After all, we don’t want them accusing us of being chicken slum-lords.

To keep raccoons from digging under fences in the past, we put chicken wire along the ground on the outside of the fence. But in the spirit of reduce, re-use, recycle, it occurred to me that we had another option.

The previous owner tried to extend the driveway with paving bricks. That might have seemed like a good idea, but she let pretty much everything on the property go, and poison ivy grew up among the bricks. It was such a nuisance, we eventually pulled up all the pavers, and I used the tiller to root out the poison ivy. The pavers have been sitting there ever since, waiting to be useful again.

I told Chareva that while raccoons are nimble and clever, I don’t see them lifting paving bricks, which are quite heavy. Why not just surround the new fences with a double-layer of paving bricks? Unlike the chicken wire, I won’t fail to spot the bricks and accidentally run over them with a mower.

She liked the idea. So we spent a good chunk of yesterday piling pavers into the back of the van, driving them up to the chicken yard, and surrounding the fences.

The chickens, meanwhile, decided it’s okay to share the new chicken yard, perhaps because the big ol’ rooster in the younger flock finally led the way in and the hens followed.

The pavers are in place and the nets are tied down. I’m not saying a raccoon couldn’t possibly find a way in, but he’d have to be quite determined.

The older chicken yards are of course empty now, thanks to the raccoons. Without chickens pecking at the ground, they’re already turning back into jungles. Looks like we’ll have plenty of happy laboring days ahead of us.

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Last March, we had a pine tree fall very close to the house:

For obvious reasons, we made cutting it up and getting it away from the house a priority. There are still big chunks of the trunk sitting in the side yard, waiting for us to figure out what to do with them. The current plan is to use the big ol’ stumps as seating around our (seldom-used) fire pit in the front yard.

Months before pine tree threatened the house, another big tree fell in our side field:

Quite a supply of firewood there. The smart approach would have been to cut it up in the winter, before the grass grew up around it. Unfortunately, that task fell below finish a version of the film in time for the cruise on my priority list, so I didn’t start dragging my chainsaws out there until June. I’ve been cutting it up a bit at a time since then – with the grass growing up all around it, of course.

I finally finished cutting it into chunks last week. (Sorry, I neglected to take pictures.) We figured we’d drive the van into the field, load up the chunks of wood, and drive them over to the barn to be stored until we rent a splitter.

That idea lasted until Chareva said, “These stumps are covered with ants. I don’t want them in the van.”

Our girls have a well-deserved reputation for using the van as a combination clothes closet and garbage bin, so I replied, “How would you know the difference?” But I had to concede the point.

So we ended up piling wood into a garden cart, with each load weighing somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple hundred pounds, then pulling the cart out of the field, up onto the driveway, out towards the barn, through another field, and finally stopping at the barn door. Then we tossed the wood into the barn. Lather, rinse, repeat. By the time we were done, I’d already given myself permission to skip my weekend workout at the gym.

Also last weekend, we made progress on building the new chicken yard. We got the fences up and strung some Paracord atop the 10-foot poles.

This weekend, we finished stringing the Paracord from pole to pole.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Paracord is there to hold a net, which meant it was time to figure out how to unfurl a giant net and get it draped over the cords.

The net comes in a box, all rolled up.

My plan was to take the net into the nearby field, unroll it, start raising it over one end of the chicken yard, then work our way across.  Chareva’s plan was to not go with my plan.  She said we needed to start by tossing the net over the pole and cords in the middle of the yard, then work our way out. I didn’t see how that was feasible, with the net still rolled up and all.

She tried it explaining it to me, but it had something to do with vectors she learned while working with Adobe Illustrator, or female intuition, or something else I couldn’t grasp. As a result, my role was reduced to holding the ladder steady while she worked the net outwards. I was also allowed to offer as many suggestions as she cared to ignore.

Slowly but surely – and obviously due in no small part to my ability to hold a ladder steady on hilly ground – she got the net unfurled and draped over the poles and cords.

We still have some work to do before we’d consider the chicken yard a safe haven at night. The net has to be tied down on all sides, and we need to attach chicken wire along the ground to deter predators from digging under the fences.

But the net is up, and as you can see, it’s way above our heads – just where I wanted it.

We also got a door attached to Chareva’s signature cattle-panel archway, so the yard is safe enough during the day for the chickens to run around the yard and look for bugs. They seem quite happy about that.

I’ll be happy as long as a raccoon doesn’t figure out a way in.

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The Whatever Happened To Rocky Raccoon VI? mystery is no longer a mystery.

It was two weeks ago that we realized our efforts to keep a chicken-killer out of the chicken yard had failed because the killer was a raccoon living somewhere in the coop.  Rather than try to hunt down a raccoon in tight quarters, we constructed a new coop in one day and moved the chickens.

I set a trap for the raccoon inside the chicken yard, but he just knocked it over without going inside.  So a couple of days later, I set two arm traps, the kind that snag a paw when the critter reaches in for food.  Nearly two weeks went by with no sign of Rocky.  There were also no signs that he burrowed his way out of what is now the Fort Knox of chicken coops.  I began wondering if we’d been dealing with a ninja raccoon all along.

Nope.  We went out yesterday to begin working on a new chicken yard, and there was Rocky VI, arm snagged in a trap.  He was also quite dead, so I’m guessing he finally went for the bait out of desperation and died soon after being caught.  I would have preferred to catch him in the big trap right away and dispatch him quickly with a shot to the head, but so it goes.  At least we know he won’t be coming back and attempting to break into the new coop.

The new coop is fine, but those chickens need a secure yard where they can run around, so we started that project yesterday.  The plan was to build the yard between the garden and the chicken yard where Rocky lived.

Any project that Chareva plans, you know there will be cattle panels involved.  The only two panels we hadn’t already used were inside the pen where the hogs once lived.  It’s reverted to a jungle, so I had to use the brush attachment on my weed whacker and hack a path to the panels.

As I’ve mentioned before, the previous owner left a lot of stuff behind, including some big ol’ dog pens.  We decided to use the last two sections of a dog pen for the fencing closest to the garden.

You can be sure I was quite careful when working with t-posts and the t-post hammer for this project.  One near-death experience while building chicken yards is quite enough.

Now that we’ve done this a few times, we have a better idea of what we want when building a chicken yard.  High on my list is keeping the net far above my head.

When building the other yards, I sunk poles into buckets of concrete and buried the buckets.  Later, doing that thing wives do where they come up with the easy solution after you’ve nearly killed yourself with effort, Chareva suggested we could just strap the poles to t-posts.

Son of a ….

Anyway, now that putting tall poles around the yard doesn’t involve concrete and lots of work with a shovel, we decided we’d strap one fence on top of another to create plenty of head room.  That way the net won’t have to drop to 48 inches above the ground.

Another lesson we learned from our previous efforts was to dig a trench.  That way we’re not trying to bend a fence over mounds and dips in the ground.

With the poles attached to t-posts and the trench dug, we strapped on two levels of fencing.

Like I said, it just wouldn’t be a Chareva construction project without a cattle-panel arch somewhere.   The door to the chicken yard (also made from a cattle panel) will close against the arch.  We’ll have to surround the fences and the doorway with heavy-duty chicken wire pegged into the ground to keep critters from trying to dig under.

When everything else was in place, we started stringing Paracord from pole to pole.

We still have to do some crisscrossing with more cord, but when we’re done, the 50 ft. x 50 ft. net should fit over the entire yard … although I have a feeling raising the net over the 10-foot poles and draping it over those cords will make for an interesting weekend experience.

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Here’s the brief version of the latest chapter in the chicken-killer story:

#$%@ing @#$% *&@#$% @#$$#@!!

Glad I got that off my chest. Now for the longer version.

My theory about a weasel turned out to be tragically (for the chickens) wrong. We spent Friday afternoon closing gaps around the door into the chicken yard, but still had a dead chicken on Saturday. So I figured it had to be a weasel or some similar critter that can squeeze through 2 x 4 inch openings in the fencing. We spent Saturday covering those openings with chicken wire. I also set a trap outside the fences, figuring the weasel would find he couldn’t get into the chicken yard and go for the bait.

I went out Sunday morning to check. Nothing in the trap. Well, okay, maybe Mr. Weasel finally gave up.

Then I went into the coop and found another dead chicken. (For those of you keeping score at home, that means we’ve lost more than 30 chickens in the past few months.  The entire older flock disappeared first.)

Okay, I said to myself, there’s no way some critter burrowed into this Fort Knox chicken yard without leaving evidence of the break-in, so what the …?

After I finished sharing my expansive vocabulary with the nearby trees and wildlife, I remembered some bank-heist movie I saw years ago. The cops were going batty trying to figure out how a master thief had escaped the bank. They couldn’t find the route. The punchline was that he’d never left. He was simply hiding inside the bank and waiting for the investigators to give up and leave.

Son of a …. we’ve been trying to keep a critter out, but the critter is already in. It probably burrowed its way under one of the wooden pallets in the coop and set up living quarters.

Fortunately, I’d finally had the good sense to put my trail cam inside the coop on Saturday.  Sure enough, I got some mug shots:

Not a weasel.  Another @#$%ing raccoon.  Now it all made sense. I was mystified as to why the electric fence surrounding the coop wasn’t discouraging the chicken-killer. The fence hadn’t been disturbed, so I had visions of a critter either squeezing through and taking the shocks or jumping over it.

Nope. The critter didn’t care about the electric fence because he was already inside the coop, living in a basement apartment and coming up at night for water, chicken feed for an appetizer, and a fresh chicken for the main course — all provided free of charge by us. It also explains why the predator never wandered into my trap, which I’d set outside the electric fence. His dinners were inside the electric fence, and so was he.

I imagined two scenarios if we lifted the pallets and exposed Rocky Raccoon’s den: 1) he attempts to run to the fence and dig his way out while I blow him apart with a shotgun, or 2) he charges and attempts to bite me while I try to blow him apart with a shotgun without blowing my own foot off with a shotgun.

Being the sensible sort, Chareva suggested a third option. She’s been planning to move the surviving chickens to fresh ground anyway.  She pointed out that to avoid an up-close-and-personal showdown with the raccoon, all we’d have to do is build the new chicken coop in one day and move the chickens. Nothing to it.

So that was our Sunday. We’ll eventually want a whole new chicken yard, complete with nets overhead, so we stocked up on materials at Tractor Supply and Home Depot. We plan to double the height of the fences this time and string the nets 10 feet over our heads.

But that’s later. Sunday’s goal was to build a secure coop. Fortunately, the shell was already in place. Back in the spring, Chareva had created an arch with cattle panels as a trellis for green beans. She intended all along for that arch to be converted to a new coop.

The gaps in a cattle panel are too big to keep out predators, so the first task (after pulling down the beans) was to cover the entire structure with 1 x 2 inch fencing.

Then we covered the whole thing with a tarp.

When we do get around to building a new chicken-yard, it will have a door. In the meantime, we had to rig one for the coop itself. It’s not easy to see in the photo below, but Chareva also staked down some fencing in front of the coop to discourage predators from burrowing under the door.

I cut 2 x 4 planks and attached braces on the ends for roosting perches. With that done, the last task was to move the chickens out of the yard that now features a basement apartment occupied by a nasty tenant. Since the electric fence is portable, we positioned it between the chicken yard and new coop and let the chickens wander, then moved the fence closer and closer to the new coop.

I counted the surviving chickens. There are only nine, which means we lost 15 from that flock. Good grief.

Thanks to all the reinforcing of the chicken yard, Rocky Raccoon VI is probably locked in there now. With the chicken dinners gone, he’s bound to get hungry in the next day or two. So I set out what I hope is his last meal – a can of cat food in the trap, with no electric fence to discourage him from going for the bait.

 

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One chicken-killer down (the raccoon we trapped last week), but still one to go. After Rocky Raccoon V was sent to raccoon heaven, we lost three more chickens, but all were eaten from the middle. Raccoons typically tear the head off and eat some breast meat, then leave the rest.

Last week we closed the window we accidentally left open – the 4 x 5 inch openings in a gate – so whatever is getting in there now, it’s a small critter. Based on comments from readers and some online research, the best guess is a weasel. I wondered why a weasel would need to eat so many chickens, but then read online that weasels can’t store much body fat and therefore need to eat nearly half their body weight per day. Yup, that would make a critter hungry for a constant supply of chicken dinners.

The most obvious entry point for a small predator was the gap around the door Chareva uses to enter the chicken yard. So on Friday, we closed those gaps with some additional wire. I was of course hoping that did the trick.

Nope.

Last night one of our Rottweilers jumped the fence (she does that now and then) and ran off barking in the direction of the chicken yards. When she announced her presence at the front door of the house later, she smelled a bit like skunk. Being an incurable optimist, I figured perhaps our predator was a skunk and it had wandered into my newer, bigger trap. Perhaps the dog got too close to the trapped skunk and was hit by a bit of spray.

Wrong again. The dog probably was reacting to a chicken-killer, but there was nothing in the trap this morning, and Chareva found another dead chicken in the coop. When I read online that weasels 1) are small and 2) can release stink bombs that smell like skunk, I became more convinced it’s a weasel that’s still killing our chickens.

So we spent a good part of today turning the chicken yard into a poultry version of Fort Knox. The fencing on the uphill side of the chicken yard came from a big dog pen the previous owner left behind. The gaps are 2 x 4 inches – again, enough to keep out raccoons, but perhaps big enough to let in a weasel. So we had to cover that entire fence with chicken wire. We also went around and attached chicken wire everywhere there was a gap more of more than two inches.

Man, I hope this works. Just a few weeks ago, there were 24 chickens in that flock – and that’s after the older flock disappeared, mind you. Now it’s down to 14. I put my trail camera inside the coop, but I hope all it captures is chickens sleeping peacefully.

If not, I may be sitting in my car out by the coop at night with a .22 rifle on my lap.

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I believe we finally got rid of one chicken-killer.  I wasn’t convinced there was just one predator going after the flock because of how the chickens were killed.  Some were headless with meat missing around the chest and neck.  From what I’ve read online, that’s a typical raccoon kill.  But others were eaten from the middle.  The online guides say that’s likely a possum or a skunk.  Also, we were losing them at the rate of one every day for a while.  I can’t imagine one predator being that hungry.

Anyway, this has a been a real head-scratcher.  Chareva kept looking for signs of burrowing under the fences.  I kept setting my trap with no luck … although the trap was moved a couple of times and some of the cat food I use for bait was gone.  Probably some critter reaching in from the side instead of going inside.

When we lost two more chickens from the young flock last week, I declared war.  First thing we did was get out the electric netting we used before we built the chicken yards.  We surrounded the coop with it.

The next day, Chareva found the net knocked over and another dead chicken.

What the @#$% kind of animal isn’t afraid of an electric fence? I wondered.

So we bought a bigger trap with a better mechanism.  I put it inside the chicken yard, hoping a predator would be tempted to go for the easy meal.  No takers yet.

Fortunately, we also bought two traps that are steel tubes with a spring.  Put bait inside the tube and set the trap, and if a critter reaches in for the bait, the trap springs and closes on the paw.  I set one of those traps near the very young flock (which amazingly hasn’t been attacked yet) and another inside the other chicken yard where the older flock resided until they all disappeared.  I had a suspicion at least one predator was coming through that yard.

Sure enough, I went out to check on Saturday morning and found a raccoon in the empty chicken yard, snagged by a paw.  It’s been my job to send the predators to predator heaven – four raccoons, four skunks and one possum since we started raising chickens — but I said to Chareva, “One of these days, you’re going to have to kill a critter while I’m out of town at a conference or something.  You want to just get it out of the way?”

She agreed, so I gave her a quick refresher lesson on my .22 rifle, then she took care of Rocky Raccoon V.  He was by far the biggest of the five we’ve had to kill.  Well, no kidding.  He’s been feasting on chicken dinners.  I’m pretty sure that’s also why he didn’t go into my old trap.  It would have been a tight squeeze.

Unfortunately, we lost another chicken on Sunday.  Like I said, it’s probably more than one predator doing the damage.  The good news is that Chareva believes she spotted where they’re coming in.  The chicken yard has a gate at the far end that we don’t really use, and she thinks the openings are too big to stop predators from squeezing through.  So she reinforced the gate with chicken wire.

Meanwhile, we decided it was time to deal with the nets.  I originally propped them up on poles with plastic bottles at the top.  Seemed like a good idea at the time, and it did work for a couple of years.  Then the net finally frayed just enough to slide over the bottles.  As a result, walking around the chicken yard – say, to collect another dead chicken – was a pain in the butt.  Try bending over and walking under low-hanging nets, and the derned things yank at your hat, your ears and your glasses.

Chareva suggested we try running a strong cord or wire from pole to pole.  That way the pressure wouldn’t all be on the spot where the net sits on top of the pole.  Cords would also prevent the net from sagging between poles.

We weren’t quite sure how we’d connect the cord to the poles.  Sometimes coming up with a solution is just a matter of poking around a hardware section and waiting for inspiration.

I had the inspiration at a Tractor Supply store when I saw these tent stakes.  We’d taken a section of a pole that I’d cut down two years ago with us, so I knew the stake would slide into the pole.  The cords would easily slide through the tube on top of the stake.

We cut away the plastic bottles and slid a stake into each pole.  Then we strung Paracord through the tube and connected the poles to the fence and to each other.

Now we can walk around in there again without ducking in most areas.  Let’s just hope we don’t have to walk around to pick up any more chicken carcasses.

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