Spring Homestead Projects

With a long winter just about wrapped up, it’s time to get to work.  What a busy time of year this is for those who grow their own food, enjoy beautifying their yards,  or just plain over commit to how many things they want to get done around their house.  That is me.  By early April, I already have too many projects going on.  I have no shortage of things to do but for those still looking for ideas to fill their time I have provided a list of things that likely need to get done in spring on your homestead as well as some things I am doing on mine during my first year.

1.  Spring Cleaning

Winter seems to find a way to wreak havoc on a yard or garage, or even in your house.  Take this simple and quick step to have your homestead starting off on the right foot and cleanup all the garbage and debris in your yard.  In the garage or whatever buildings you have, work is so much easier when everything has a place and is in it.  Start off this season with a good working area by making sure it’s organized.  Also, this is the time to clean animal pens and pastures from the winter buildup.  It’s not a pretty job but sure is nice to get out and enjoy nice weather.

2.  Start Seeds

Of course you need some plants ready for the ground when the time comes.  Depending on your typical last frost date and what kinds of plants you are going to grow, spring is the time to make sure you have everything pre-started that you will want when planting time arrives.  For some lucky people out there, Easter is the time to get plants in the ground but for us up here in the North, we are patiently waiting for sometime in May for much of our planting.

3. Setup a Beehive

This isn’t necessarily on my list this year but now would be a good time to establish a colony in your yard.  Let these hard workers increase your garden’s productivity and get some free honey while you’re at it.  Setting it up in spring gives your bees time to settle and then provides their use for the upcoming season.

4. Replant Grass

Many of you are firm haters in grass, but for those that maintain yard areas with the stuff, spring is in excellent time to do any repairs necessary.  A well maintained lawn is a great addition to your homestead’s appearance.  A dog is a great adversary to that well maintained lawn.  For me, its sticks all over the yard and a bunch of dead spots.

5.  Create a Pasture for the Chickens

Free range is great, but the mess around the house is uncontrollable.  We will be fencing the coop into a pasture area for the chickens to still have the ability to freely range, but won’t have complete access to the whole yard.  Also, to separate the chickens and ducks.  Our Pekins will not leave our chickens alone, they have been plucking the hens feathers off of their necks.

6.  Till the Garden

This is my first summer here so there is no garden space and one will need to be tilled.  While I am waiting for the right time to plant, I will take a few passes on the future garden space so that it is ready when nature is ready for the garden.  Unfortunately for me, the area for the garden is currently grass so it is a lot of work.  I just rent a rototiller from the local hardware store.  For $35 I can have it overnight and a few times of this and we are good.  I am becoming a strong supporter of renting versus buying.

7.  Build a Smoker

I don’t actually have time for this but sure would love to do this and have it ready for summer.  I don’t want to just buy one because I want something a little bigger than I can find in my area and a little more durable.  I also consider a small smoking shed instead so that I could also try a cold smoke but really I just want to be able to smoke some ribs or brisket so the smoke shed isn’t really all that important.  In the meantime I have had some success just in my charcoal grill and will keep doing that.

8.  Egg Hatching

We have chicks, ducklings and now some turkey eggs in the incubator.  The turkey eggs were bought from someone in my area and they are the Red Bourbon variety.  We also purchased some chicks locally and have the brooder running already.  This is the time of year for new life so we are embracing that around here.  We wanted to purchase some chicks because all of the ones we have are just mixed varieties, we don’t really know what kinds.  I would like to maintain some specific varieties to possibly be able to sell some chicks in the area.

9.  Handle the Drainage Around the House

This is one of the most import homestead projects for me.  Our sump pumps very often and it seems that no matter what I do water ends up leaking on the outside of the house where the hose runs off.  The dirt around our house is just always drenched and the water just seems to keep cycling through the ground back through the sump pump.  I am adding about 100 foot run of buried pipe underground which is removing the water even further from the house, into a small pond and then running off into the drainage ditch along our property.  This pipe is also collecting water from a few of our downspouts from the house.  The pond serves as a place for the poultry to get their water so it keeps us from having to provide it all of the time.  With the dryer soil by the house, everything just seems more under control and cleaner!

10.  Learning

This will be on the list all year.  There is so much to learn about self sufficiency, growing, raising animals and just taking advantage of the country life.  I will continue to investigate and add to my knowledge and experience.  This is truly fun for me.

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Our First Hatching Day

New life is always exciting on the homestead.  Whether its seeds sprouting, eggs hatching or animals being birthed its an amazing process.  It also represents sustenance for many people, who rely on their own abilities to grow and raise their own food.  It can also be a little scary when you are trying something new for the first time.  For us, this is our first stab at hatching eggs.

The hatching day has arrived and our 21 day old eggs are ready to go.  But are they?  We have no idea.  This is the first time trying to hatch eggs for us and we are a little skeptical.  We tried to do everything right but there are just so many things that people say to do that are so specific it seems next to impossible.  I tried to keep a good humidity range but sometimes it wavered.  I set the right temperature but it didn’t always maintain perfectly.  I don’t know if I stored the eggs right while I was collecting them and waiting to set them.  I didn’t confidently know whether or not to sanitize them before putting them in the incubator.

Trying to learn how to do something on the internet is difficult because everyone has an opinion and it sure can make it difficult to decide on how to go about it the first time.  We are excited to see the results of this and to have some experience under our belts.  We have 3 hens and a rooster left from some chickens we bought about 8 months ago when we first moved to our home in the country.  The chickens have been a wonderful experience and the kids are excited to have some chicks again.

Don’t judge us but our lack of confidence in this process has caused us to also purchase some chicks from a few different places locally.  This helped us to make sure the brooder was ready to go and that we could tackle any problems before our chicks arrived.  We don’t want to be rushing to get something setup when the chicks finally come.  This has also helped tone down the excitement just a little so that if the day were to bring no chicks, we still have the excitement of the purchased ones, especially for the kids.

I’ve found it difficult to candle the brown eggs.  Maybe the light that came with my incubator just isn’t that great.  I had no problem candling the white pekin eggs and have found life in every single one of them.

Well, I will follow up with a review to let everyone know how it goes.  We are crossing our fingers.  We also have 15 more chicken eggs and 2 pekins due in 5 more days.  Then 5 more pekins 5 days later.  And in 25 days I have 8 red bourbon turkey eggs I bought from someone.  I am pretty excited about that!

Tip #3 – Renting Versus Buying

Two of the largest costs for your homestead are equipment or the time spent doing by hand what could be done exponentially faster by machine. It feels good to hand dig that 100 foot trench but 15-20 hours later, you could have spent $200 to rent machinery that would have given you back much of your precious time.

The decision to rent or buy is a very personal one.  It all depends on where someone’s excess lies.  If it is in the resource of money, then buying is often a very good approach. If all you really have to spare is time though, then its possible your time is still better suited for something else and a small rental fee may be manageable.

Recently I was trying to decide about purchasing a rear tine tiller.  The basic starting price was $500 and that was for small and basic.  The one’s that would be more durable, longer lasting and better performing are all closer to $1000.  I only need to use the machine about a day a year, or a few days every few years.  It would take me  so many years to earn back the cost of purchasing.  After ten years I may have spent the same renting but each year I am using relatively new equipment rather than aging.  In this scenario it sure makes sense to rent.

On the flip-side I need a lawn mower every week and the mower can last years, so at about the same rental rate it wouldn’t make sense to rent.  In general, the things you use weekly or even monthly will not make sense to rent.  But equipment needed annually or only project based may very well be better to rent.

No one likes paying a fee for borrowing something, but often it just makes sense.  It would be ignorant to refuse to at least run the numbers and see if it makes sense.

Tip #2 – Easy Watering Solution for Animals

We happen to live on a piece of land that has a very wet ground.  This leads to our sump pump running fairly consistently around 10 months of the year, even when temperatures are freezing.  We decided to make good use of that water that we are already pumping and that we want directed further away from our house to fill a small pond for our chickens and ducks.  Over winter, this provided clean water for the birds until about mid-January and resumed again in early March.  This method took no work for us other than setting it up and didn’t require adding any additional fresh water line runs.  We also added some of the downspouts from our house into the pipe that leads to the small pond to get additional water.

This was the easiest winter watering solution I can think of and made use of already existing water and energy to pump that water.  Unfortunately you need to live somewhere with relatively wet ground for this to work most of the year.

Tip #1 – Jump Start Your Compost Cooking

Compost piles need some specific conditions before they start to “cook”.   The compost process relies on the heat generated by the breakdown of items in the mix to speed up the process.  Without the right activators though, this can take a long time especially if the pile is very dry or very cold.  That is why you see compost bins for sale, often dark in color to absorb heat from the sun to help cook the concoction placed inside.  If you want a larger compost pile though, these small bins are not often sufficient.  A good way to solve this is by placing a portable green house over your pile to help the sun set the cooking in motion.  These can be available for under $100 and have many different uses around the homestead.  Keep it over your compost pile over winter, start your seeds in spring, grow some late season leafy greens in fall.

Compost is gold for your garden.  If you aren’t saving kitchen scraps for this free and wonderful fertilizer than you should consider starting.

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My Jointer Restoration Project

I picked up this old jointer at a Restore in my area which now means I have a jointer restoration project.  I didn’t need any new projects right now but  I have wanted a jointer for awhile to help me work with the woods than I typically find…rough and warped.  I just can’t pay the cost for the nicer ones and I hate paying $300-$400 for the cheaply made little ones.  So I found something about the smallest size I would want but very heavy duty for $130.Jointer-Restoration-03

It is an old Delta.  Can’t figure out yet how old but it sure looks old.  It’s in wonderful condition behind the tarnished metal and will look great when I am finished.  The stand needs to be rebuilt and I need to find some new blades.  Then clean it and polish and I will be ready to go.  I am very excited about this and hopefully Jointer-Restoration-01have something to brag about when it is finished.

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Add-on Wood Furnace Install – Quick and Dirty

After moving out to the country and seeing the high cost of heating a house on propane, we quickly decided to install a wood burning add-on furnace to our home.  There were many steps involved and this is just meant to quickly list everything that we had to go through.  To see a more detailed recap of the installation, check out the full wood furnace install.

Disclaimer: This post is not intended to tell you how to install a wood furnace but rather to help understand all of the general steps involved.  Consult your local building inspector, product installation manuals, and local building code to make a plan for what it will take for you to install a wood furnace.

Wood-Furnace-Install-55 Acquiring the Furnace

1.  Purchased the wood furnace.  We bought a Daka 521FB because of its affordable price and claim to heating  a home with our square footage.

2.  Position furnace in basement.  Since it will tie into our central HVAC system, we position it to conveniently access the cold air return and the plenum as well as good output for the stove pipe.  Assemble as necessary.

Wood-Furnace-Install-Roof-ViewInstalling the Chimney

3.  We  need to install a chimney from the basement, through the first floor living room, second floor master bedroom closet, rafters and then out the roof.  It took quite a bit of planning to figure out this spot with the least invasive living space locations.

4.  Cut hole through first floor.

5.  Install the ceiling support as well as the first chimney section with the stove pipe adapter.

6.  We chose to install a roof support on the first floor to basically clamp the whole chimney in place because it is difficult to trust how much weight they say the ceiling support can hold.

7.  Build up chimney towards ceiling in first floor, level it and find where to cut through the second floor.

8.  Cut the hole and frame in for the radiation fire stop which protects the joists from heat.

9.  Build chimney up toward ceiling on second floor.  Again, level it and find the center to go through the ceiling into the attic.

10.  Cut hole through ceiling to attic and frame in the attic insulation shield.

11.  Build up towards roof.  Level and pound a nail through the center where the chimney should pass through the roof.

12.  Go on roof ( I am chicken and it was winter so I rented a boom lift).  Cut hole where the nail is sticking through.

13.  Install roof flashing.

14.  Place final pieces of chimney to finish off the run making sure it is 3 feet higher than the roof it passes through and 2 feet higher than any other point within 10 feet.

15.  Place rain cap on and perform all necessary caulking to seal it from the weather.

Wood-Furnace-Install-53Connect Furnace

16.  Connect the furnace to the chimney using stove pipe.

17.  Connect the furnace cold air intake to the house cold air ventilation system.

18.  Connect the furnace heat outputs to the plenum.

19.  Wire furnace

20.  The main furnace needs a way to kick in the fan when the temperature rises.  There are ways to use a temperature sensor in the plenum but I chose to hook a relay up to the wood furnace fan.  When that fan kicks it, it automatically kicks in the main furnace fan.

Start the Heating

You’re all set.  Start a fire if everything is safely connected according to manufacturer installation instructions and local building code.

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First Fruits…errr Eggs

Early September of 2014 was when we surprised our children with some chicks and ducklings.  So far, it has proven to be a wonderful experience for them participating in the process of raising our own food.  Only there really wasn’t much food out of these chickens, just a lot of food going into them.  Until  3 weeks into January of 2015 when they finally started laying eggs.  That puts our chickens now at about 5 and a half months old based on what we were told when we bought the chicks.

I think most kids in the United States today are so far removed from what it takes to create the food we serve on our tables.  That’s just true of Americans in general I guess who often take food for granted.  I often wonder what percentage of the population would starve to death if restaurants and grocery stores just disappeared.  Hopefully I gift my children with something more than how to work to buy food, but also how they can grow/raise/harvest/gather/hunt their own.  That takes me learning a whole lot more though as well but I am up for the challenge.

first-eggs-01At this point, the kids hadn’t been looking for eggs because everyone told us that they wouldn’t start laying until they had about 14 hours of daylight each day.    Well that doesn’t hit for about 2 more months here in Wisconsin but ours definitely started laying.    At the first egg sighting there was an egg in the nesting box, a few eggs under the roosts (not all cracked even!) and others just scattered on the coop floor.  The kids were bursting they were so excited to tell me but waited until I got home from work.

We had no idea of how long some of the eggs were sitting out there, so we didn’t use them.  Although with our Wisconsin winters they likely stayed colder than they would in our fridge.  We cracked a few of the first batch to see what they looked like and found they looked just like eggs!  Wow.  A family of city-folk raised chickens through winter and got some eggs out of them.  (and meat too if you missed that experience about Jelly Bean and Meanie).  It has been great fun, great stories for the kids to share and new responsibilities for them first-eggs-02to be given.   Since the first egg find, they have wanted to check quite often for new gifts left by then hens.  Our hens have fairly consistently been laying an egg each per day now as we are a week in.  With three hens that isn’t much but it works for how much we eat.  We do have a rooster and believe that if we wanted to incubate the eggs we would likely get some more chicks out of it.  We are saving that until it gets just a little warmer outside though.

I’ve found that chickens seem to be extremely difficult to pay for themselves with their contributions to our table.  I know people usually raise animals so they know where their meat comes from more so than because it’s cheaper.  I think chickens could get to the point where they give us more back than they cost us but only once we have a permanent and well thought out coop and have maintained for a few years with out any major investments.  Our chickens are not any sought after variety as far as I know.  When we bought them they were just referred to as barnyard variety.  I think that means they are mutts.

I’d love to hear about your first egg experience for those with chickens.

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My Almost Carbon Neutral Home Heating

About a month ago, I embarked on a journey that would make some pretty big holes in our recently purchased home. It would also make some good sized holes in our savings account.  Hopefully it keeps me from making that big theoretical hole in the ozone any bigger.  That’s what carbon neutral is all about, right?

After our first start to a typical Wisconsin winter on propane heat, it didn’t take long for me to want to find alternative ways to heat the home.  Conserving heat would bring the biggest savings, but with kids and a puppy the cold air is constantly finding ways to rush into the house while someone is standing in the open door way trying to remember what they wanted to ask on their way out.   I like the idea of being environmentally friendly but only so much control is in my hands.

So I installed a wood furnace and it was a lot of work.  In our two story house, the made in USA DAKA furnace sits in our basement and is tied into our forced air furnace to distribute the warm air.  With no existing chimney we had to go up through our first floor living room, second floor bedroom closet, through the attic and out the roof.  This meant about 30 feet of insulated, chimney pipe and 4 holes each about a foot wide in the house, 1 for each floor and the roof.  Some hardwood floor was pulled up, some carpeting and obviously had to cut through that very important moisture barrier called the roof.

This whole process would have been much easier had I decided to do it in summer where I could take my time and work in better climate.  Of course that isn’t what I did though and I found a wonderful 40 degree day in January in Wisconsin to do the roof work.  If you are not familiar with the frozen tundra up here, that isn’t very typical.  So I’ll take it and appreciate it!  My determination was to quickly get the furnace in so that I could take advantage of it as much as possible in this winter.  With it being done mid January I think that means I have about 7 months of winter left!

ok.  It’s not really that bad here.

After blood sweat and experimentation with an AC current relay, the furnace is now running and we had a pile of wood delivered.  I think we may have gotten less than we thought we should have but unless I am willing to stack it all, I can’t really prove that.  The logs sure go into the furnace faster than I would have thought too.  I am still trying to figure out the balance of the damper control and the draft regulator to prevent heat that I could capture and use for heat from escaping through the chimney.

And if you are wondering about the picture of the lift…I am a wimp. I hate heights and there was no way I was risking climbing from a ladder onto a slippery roof.  So I splurged and rented a boom lift.  Even more so than the convenience was how much fun it was for my brother, my brother in law and myself.

Yes, with the gas to pull the lift to my house, it wasn’t very carbon neutral.  And the electricity to power the blower motor is not very carbon neutral.  So as the haters are hating I would just like to be thankful for the nice wood furnace I have and think about the fact I might be making some positive difference.

Check back for more specific details on the installation process.

Dad getting up with baby in the middle of the night

New Dad at Eight Months

More months have passed than I had hoped to report on the adventures of being a new dad. My son is now eight and a half months old and I will talk about what has been happening for about the last month I assume. It’s funny that as fast as reality changes, old realities become distant memories. It’s difficult to remember my son when he wasn’t forming any syllables, holding his own bottle, and laughing at almost everything I do. I love getting a reaction out of him. I have him trained now that when he thinks I’m about to tickle him, he starts screaming. It’s really funny because it is like clockwork. I make a quick move towards his ribs and he thinks he knows what’s coming and screams accordingly. A happy scared scream, that is.

I think he actually has me more figured out than I have him. I am still trying to find the secret formula to get him to sleep through the night. I often think I have a new plan that will keep him satisfied and asleep, but it never works. Either my wife or I are waking up with him to rewrap him in his blanket or feed him at night. If I haven’t mentioned before that I can be kind of a bear at night when woken up, then now is the time to admit my level of irrationality in the middle of the night. I sometimes think that I could maybe get him to stop crying before I will feed him because he gets so worked up. He wins. There is only so much I can take before I just give him what he wants. At 8 months old, he isn’t as open to logic and rationality as I might hope for by this point.

But he has the beginning of a tooth!

My wife and I have been waiting for a while to see something poke through his gums and we finally have. If I thought he was irrational before, I think I am in for a treat. Now he’s not only in charge, he doesn’t even know what he wants. Like a crazy dictator!

Now let’s talk about sleep again. I used to take a full night’s sleep for granted. Even when my son was born through the first 6 months or so, sleepless nights seemed expected. At 8 months old my expectations were that he would be sleeping through the night by now. With that not being the case, my appreciation for little things in life continues to grow. It’s a good thing. I am grateful that sleeping continuously from midnight to 9:00 AM on a Sunday morning means so much to me. I want to enjoy little things more and having a baby gives a man so many opportunities.

The joy that my son brings though is the biggest “little” thing I’ve learned to enjoy. I get home from work and always enjoy the way he smiles at me as if acknowledging that he’s happy I’m home. My other kids often do the same only their smile is in the form of seeing how much weight I can have thrown at me as I walk up the stairs. I usually cannot even hit the couch before they have a request they’ve been waiting for hours to ask. My wife reminds them often that their chances are better for me to say yes when they give me more time to settle in. I often say no because I really need some time to wind down after work, but it is fun that they ask.

So what is 8 months? It’s appreciating that you still don’t get as much sleep as you want and watching the little one really start to blossom. It’s beginning to chase your son or daughter around the house. There isn’t much cuter than them kicking it in high gear, scurrying across the floor when they realize you are about to stop their current pursuit of the curtains. Or the TV. Or the outlets. Or the crumb you just dropped. Or the ball of yarn. Or the scissors. It’s enjoying all of that.