Archive for the “The Farm Report” Category

My apologies for the recent lack of activity. It’s been … how do I put this? … an interesting couple of weeks.

A few months ago, I started getting occasional pains in my left shoulder when I raised my arm with my elbow bent. It just seemed to come and go. After a workout at the gym one weekend, it came to stay. So I went to see the same orthopedic surgeon who operated on my knee back in 2012.

He of course started with the conservative approach: a cortisone shot and a stretching program. That actually worked on my right shoulder some years ago when I had pain and tightness in there. But this time around, the stretching program just caused my left shoulder to throb. I went back for an MRI so the doc could get a deeper look. Here’s what he found:

That round protrusion shouldn’t be there, or at least not so close to the top of my humerus. It’s probably a kinder, gentler version of the big ol’ bone spur I had surgically removed 14 years ago. When that spur dug into the joint, it felt like being stabbed with a dagger. This time it’s more like a hard pinch when I raise my arm and the bones collide.

It’s not an emergency situation, so we scheduled a surgery for November 3rd. The surgeon will shave away some of that bony mass to create more room for the top of the humerus. Looks like I’ll be wearing a sling when my birthday rolls around. And here I was, all happy with myself for not looking or feeling my age …

I’m right-handed, and the pain only kicks in when I raise my left arm to shoulder height. Being a male and somewhat hard-headed, I concluded this means I could continue doing work around the farm on weekends.

After making great progress on Sara’s cabin a year ago, we got sidetracked with the holidays and then with finishing the book and the film.  We haven’t done any construction since.

I’d like for Sara to enjoy the finished cabin before she heads off to college in four years, so last weekend, I took a Dremel saw and cut back the sections of wood that join the 2 x 4s in the ceiling. With the excess wood gone, we’ll be able to finish nailing planks to the 2 x 4s. I managed to do that without raising my left arm to the pain point.

This project we had planned for this weekend was to toss the rotting stumps that surround our front-yard fire pit into the forest, then replace them with fresh stumps from the big ol’ pine tree that nearly hit the house some months ago.

After we tossed the rotting stumps, I asked Chareva to help me drag the bridge that crosses our creek back into place – it had floated several feet downstream during the last heavy rain.

As I was dragging my end along, my left foot slid down the bank and into the creek, which put me in a bit of an awkward, partly-sideways position. Now, the smart move at that point would have been to set the bridge down and get into a comfortable position before lifting again. But being a male and somewhat hard-headed, I decided I could just yank the bridge into position with my upper body.

I don’t think my back made any actual sound, but if the scene had been captured on video and I were in charge of sound effects, I’d probably use the violin-pluck DOINK! sound made popular by the Three Stooges. Then I’d follow it with whatever sounds are appropriate for masking a long string of curse words.

I straightened up slowly, hoping it was just a passing tightness in the lower back. Nope. I’d twisted something out of position, and bending in any direction gave me a stab of pain near my spine, just above the belt.

Well, that certainly changes the weekend project plans.

I ended up spending the rest of Saturday and Sunday either in bed or sitting in my well-padded Lazy Boy recliner. I only moved when I had to. Chareva and the girls brought me food and drinks. I numbed the pain with red wine on Saturday and acetaminophen on Sunday.

Today I paid what I’m now calling The Dumbass Tax to my chiropractor. Fortunately, he’s very good and offers a hefty discount for patients who pay with cash. He confirmed what I already suspected: I’d yanked my lower spine out of position a bit.

The second manipulation on my lower back gave me a little pain spike followed by rather a lot of relief. I still have pain and swelling from a strained muscle back there, but it no longer feels like a nerve is being compressed.

I’ll pay The Dumbass Tax again on Wednesday, then see how I feel. At least I can get out of my chair and walk a bit now without wincing in pain. That’s good news. After all, I have to walk into the surgery center next week to have a bony mass shaved from my shoulder.

You’ll understand if my posting schedule continues to be a bit sporadic.

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When we moved the chickens to the back of the property a couple of years ago, we kept the old chicken yard in the front pasture. I had visions of maybe putting a goat out there someday. A nice little barn, a barnyard with a secure fence, netting overhead … what’s not to like?

What’s not to like is that this part of Tennessee is apparently ideal for growing jungles. When I had time, I kept the jungle at bay. Heck, I even tilled the ground inside that chicken yard last year (picture below) and planted some tiger nuts, which have the reputation of being so prolific, they take over an area.

The area was indeed taken over, but not by tiger nuts. The chicken yard became home to a huge variety of tough plants, along with bees, wasps, and countless other insects.  Any time I got near the yard, I heard a cacophony of chirping, buzzing, trilling and rattling. We had such a complicated ecosystem thriving in there, I’m surprised the EPA didn’t stop by to tell me I could never touch it.

Since I didn’t relish the idea of having to periodically get in there under the nets and whack down the jungle, I decided it was time for a long conversation with Chareva to discuss the future of the chicken yard. The conversation went like this:

“Are we ever going to use that front chicken yard for anything again?”

“No.”

“So can we just get rid of it?”

“Sure.”

Just get rid of it sounds easy. Of course, there was rather a lot of work involved.

First, I had to remove the fencing. I snipped away the aluminum ties that clipped the fencing to the t-posts, then yanked and yanked to no avail. The weeds had become intertwined with the fence all along the base, and it was like trying to pull up a tree.

After reciting some ancient curses known only to farmers, I had an inspiration. I looped a chain through the fence and attached the other end to the back of my car. Then I drove sloooowly away from the chicken yard. Sure enough, that ripped the fencing out of the ground.  It also left behind some impressive furrows.

The universe seems to have certain rules about which kinds of people are attracted to each other. A night person will usually marry a day person, for example. That’s the case in our marriage. Someone who wants to throw away  everything not being used will marry someone who wants to save everything. That’s also the case in our marriage.

I would have chucked the fencing since much of it had gotten torn, but Chareva spotted long sections that were intact. We had a long conversation to determine the future of the fencing. The conversation went like this:

“That’s good, strong fencing. We can’t just throw it all away. That would be a waste.”

“Okay, Honey.”

So we unrolled it all in the pasture and removed the weeds, then she cut away long sections to save. Then we rolled those up again and stored them in the barn.

With the fencing out of the way, I was able to remove the t-posts. I like cranking away on the t-post remover because it’s good exercise. There’s also very little chance I’ll whack myself in the head with a heavy chunk of steel.

I don’t mean to sound like an advertisement for the Swisher Predator (a.k.a. The Beast), but man, that thing was a real find. The picture below should give you an idea of how thick and tall the jungle was in front of the barn.

Here’s the same area after I pushed The Beast through there. It just kept chewing up the jungle and spitting it out.

That’s The Beast in the foreground below. The jungle is officially whacked, and the chicken yard is gone. I’ll till the ground one more time, then we’ll toss some grass seeds in there.

I sent the picture above to Jimmy Moore to make his day. During our disc-golf tournaments, he’s had quite a few shots drift into the nets that covered the chicken yard. Now all he has to worry about is hitting the barn — which he assures me he’ll do.

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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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