Reluctant Rebels

Two Years Off-Grid: Chickens

Jack Fernard

Egg birds

Having learned our lesson with "The Dangers of a Straight Run," we decided to avoid the whole eight rooster scenario again and ordered ten hens — five Australorp and five Plymouth Rock. At a little over a year, we have half of our flock left (predators love chicken!).

But despite the reduced numbers, I'm happy to say we are enjoying lots of eggs — enough to share with four other families. That being said, here are a few things I hadn't read about and really wished I had known.

feeding chickens

Egg defects

It seemed like forever before we got our first egg. The event was monumental with the whole family gathered around the kitchen counter as we cracked it open. There was a moment of silence as the contents sloshed around the bowl, followed by, "That's fairly repulsive." The memory of it still gives me the shivers!

FYI, it takes a little while for the hen's plumbing to really get going. We had meat spots, we had discolored yolks, we had shell deformities of every kind imaginable. Yuck!!

One particular morning, I let the girls out to find two eggs on the floor of the coop without hardened shells. Apparently, hopping down off of the roost was too stimulating and their eggs popped on impact. For the first few weeks it looked like eating home grown eggs wasn't really going to happen. And then, the girls finally got the hang of it and started laying the tasty eggs we've come to love.

Nesting boxes

I've read there is a ratio of bird to nesting boxes and I'm certain that the experts have a real science to things. Unfortunately, my hens don't do science. There are three nesting boxes for the five birds... and still there are problems.

Everybody wants to lay their egg in the same box, whichever box it may be for the day. This works until two girls want to lay an egg at the same time. Commence the ruckus!

chicks

Meat bids

Confident in our abilities to raise chickens, we decided to give meat birds a try. Eight Cornish X's and seven Rangers found their way into my newly built chicken tractor.

To be honest, I'm not sure the Cornish X breed can actually be called a "chicken." Ours didn't seem to scratch or peck. They never tried to fly. Actually, I can't think of a single thing that resembled chicken behavior.

And these birds are LAZY! Towards the fifth week mark, it was pretty common for me to find them to by laying on the ground with their heads in the feeder. More like pigs with feathers if you ask me. Also, the Cornish X's were not the healthiest birds. I lost two to, what I assumed were, heart attacks.

The Rangers behaved much more like chickens. They would peck and scratch a little, hopping around in a flurry of flaps pretty much like you would expect a chicken to behave. But they never got as big as the Cornish X's despite the extra three weeks of growing time.

The Rangers did appear to be the heartier of the two breeds. Though, I did loose one bird to "malabsorption syndrome." The poor little chick never grew and after a few weeks, it started looking like food to the bigger birds.

Butchering

Harvesting the birds wasn't as bad as I expected. It's not my idea of a good time, but with the right tools, the birds are dispatched fairly quickly. I chose to skin mine as plucking looked to be more time than I could afford.

Both of the breeds produced a fair amount of meat and I was quite happy with the yield. After letting them sit in the fridge for 72 hours, I promptly froze them. All was looking well until I actually cooked one.

For whatever reason, the meat was tough. Both the Cornish X and the Ranger were tough to chew. I tried slow baking and low in the crock-pot for 5 and 6 hours. Yet the meat was always the same toughness. Not sure what I did wrong, but that wasn't the result we were hoping for.

General thoughts

Cons

I've read many times that chickens are a low maintenance animal. And in many respects that's true. You provide them food and water and they pretty much take care of the rest.

What I hadn't read was how much they get into things. They will scratch and peck at anything. And if your birds are free-range like ours, then nothing is sacred. I did not anticipate the amount of chicken-proofing I would have to do... and still continue to do.

Also, despite the flock having free access to the yard, I've seen more ticks this year than I have in the past. I'd like to think that they're making a dent in the tick population, but I don't have any evidence to support that.

Pros

Chickens are fun. It is beyond entertaining the way they'll run from clear across the yard when they see you — hopeful that you'll have a snack. And it doesn't matter whether they know you or not. Chicken logic states that "If it walks on two legs, then it must have something to eat," — just ask the delivery man.

The eggs they give us are the real deal. No antibiotics or steroids in our birds. Just a high grade feed, the occasional toad and a whole lot of bugs. It is truly rewarding for me to know this!

coop

So to those who are considering a backyard bird, I say this: "Buying eggs at the store is definitely more convenient, but caring for a small flock of birds is both responsible and rewarding... for all of your family."


Photos property of Jack Fernard.

Two Years Off-Grid: Home Power

Two Years Off-Grid
Part One: Home Power

We are fast approaching the end of our second full year of living unplugged from the electric grid (yeah for team solar!). It has been a phenomenal experience so far and, after a few initial tweaks, the house has performed better than expected. Our home is completely normal, being an 1,800-square-foot two-story with three bathrooms (yeah for flushing toilets!!!) and central air. In fact, the house is so "normal" that almost no one believes it is battery powered...that is until we show them the battery bank in the garage.

“How can a house this size be off-grid?” is a question we often hear.

The short answer: because technology has outpaced awareness. There are two major factors to this gap between preconceived notions and reality. The first is cost and the second is efficiency.

 

Grit-House-Pic_1

Cost:

Over the last 40 years the price of solar panels have come down... A LOT! Our home power system consists of a 7.8kW array with batteries and a backup generator. After rebates, the cost was $28,000 installed. To put this in perspective, the 7.8kW array alone would have had a purchase price of $598,026 in 1977. Sort of makes you wonder about the next 40 years.

“But how long will it take for the system to pay for itself?” we’re often asked.

“Depends,” is the only answer we can give.

In a worst case scenario, let’s assume that we’re only saving $1,000 a year. At $28,000 that would be 28 years. This is admittedly a long time. But, that’s 28 years we aren’t supporting another pipeline or another lobbyist. It’s 28 years of us living by our convictions and not adding to a system that seems to be so intent on wrecking this beautiful planet we live on.

So for us, the cost is totally worth it. But let’s say, for sake of numbers, that we trade one of our gas powered vehicles for an electric car. How much do you spend every month in gas? Suddenly, that 28 years to payoff gets much smaller.

Efficiency:

As I write this, our house load is showing 1.3 kW of demand. The outside environment is hot and humid with a projected heat index reaching close to 100 degrees. The upstairs mini-split is keeping things cheerily cool and the dehumidifier is set at 50 percent. There is a whole host of phantom loads that I can’t get rid of, including a fridge, but the main pull on power is the mini-split and the dehumidifier. I don’t know what kind of wattage it would have required to run central air and a dehumidifier for 1,800 square feet of living space 40 years ago, but I’ve got to think it would have been significantly more.

Between LED lighting and hyper-efficient appliances, engineers have made incredible accomplishments in energy reduction. (Honestly, I don’t think they get enough applause.) But thanks to their efforts, they have made it so that if you do your homework and know exactly what your load is — both at peak startup and run — you can really reduce your dependence.

I am convinced that as awareness comes inline with reality, more and more people will take advantage of home power systems. Current capability and cost are to the point that if you are building a new home right now and not planning on it powering itself, you are building yesterday’s home. Think of it as building a house without a garage — which is totally acceptable, but not always the best for resale.

For us, powering our own home and living unplugged has brought more than just reassurances against natural disasters or even a zombie apocalypse (lol). It has brought a new mindset; one of responsibility and caring. I would have never guessed when this adventure started that I would be tending chickens everyday or eyeing a dirt-covered rototiller and wondering if it’s really going to work on my cover crops come next spring. But the mindset that has come from this new "techy" reality of solar power has moved me as an individual closer to the character of my amazing, "make-it-on-your-own" grandparents than I would have ever thought possible.

Stumps Suck!

Jack Fernard“That tree has got to come out.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

I groan, rubbing my face in frustration as we’d had this conversation before.

“Do you want to buy a new septic tank?” I ask.

Now it’s her turn to growl.

“But it’s the nicest tree we have.”

And for the record, she’s right. It IS the nicest tree on the property, shading the yard and the house late in the afternoons — right when we need it most. But unfortunately, the builders had put the septic tank just 15 feet away from the base of the tree. And considering its 43-inch girth, I was betting the roots would find their way there.

“I don’t know about you, but I like toilets that flush,” I countered.

“You are soo totally in the doghouse.”

Realizing that was about as much as a concession as I was going to get, I nodded and waited for my opportunity.

Fast forward a few days and I’m standing on the porch waving goodbye as she’s off to the grocery store for a few hours.

“Time to cut a tree down.”

Being deathly afraid of chain saws, I grab my trusty ax and set to chopping. Progress was slow, with a couple of low branches being right where I wanted to cut. But nine blisters later, I heard that cracking sound I had been working toward all afternoon.

“Yes,” I shouted as it slowly started to fall. And then I saw where it was going.

“No, no, NO!!!”

The tree was clear in every direction but one...and that’s exactly where it went. I had managed to drop the tallest tree on the property directly on top of her favorite flower bed. Paul Bunyan couldn’t have lined it up better.

Just about then, I hear the sounds of tires rolling across our long gravel driveway.

“So much for the doghouse. A dog would have it good compared to what’s coming to me.”

Pulled-over

After the inevitable fallout, I thought it best to leave things be for a while. They say that time heals all wounds, but I’m guessing whoever said that was never married. Fall gave way to winter and soon snow blanketed the pulverized flower bed, hiding the trenches dug as weighted branches were pulled away. But as much as it snowed, it wasn’t enough to cover the stump; a standing testament to my fantastic failure.

It felt like every time she looked out the window and saw that jagged reminder, the temperature in the room jumped 5 degrees. Obviously, waiting for the stump to slowly rot away was not going to be an option.

I could have hired a stump grinder to come in. But then I’m too cheap; and I hate paying for things if I can do it myself! So I started researching and soon came to the conclusion that burning would be the quickest way to be rid of this bane to household peace.

Armed with a bag of charcoal and some lighter fluid, I started my fire and went inside, fully believing that my trouble would soon be over.

The charcoal burned great, right down to fine gray ash. The stump did not. Point of fact, it didn’t burn at all.

Not to be discouraged, I bought a second bag of charcoal, this time adding a healthy dose of kindling to the endeavor. Wood would burn for sure this time!

And the kindling did...but not the stump! Smokey the Bear would have been impressed. Burning was clearly not an option.

Winter gave way to spring and with it came a new idea. “I’m going to dig that thing out,” I announced.

She looked at me perplexed. “You know we could just hire a stump grinder.”

“That’s too much money.” (Now THERE’S an argument we’re familiar with.) “I’ll just dig it up,” I countered.

This idea must of amused her as she just shook her head and went about her business.

So off I go, armed with my trusty shovel and ax.

For the record, hiring a stump grinder would have been worth every penny. Digging this stump out turned out to be the mother of all projects! I would dig, clearing away the dirt and then chop my way through a layer of roots...only to turn around and do it all over again. For three weekends I did this. When I finally got about waist deep, I stuck a garden hose in and let it run for awhile, getting things all soft and mucky. Only then was my truck able to budge it. Back and forth I tugged, digging more trenches in the yard, before it finally leaned over.

“Yeah!” I told her. “Did you see that? I told you I’d get that thing loose.”

“Good job,” she complimented. “So how are you going to get it out of the hole?”

Talk about raining on my parade.

The weight of a stump that size with all of those roots is pretty substantial. Anything short of a chain and a tractor was going to be a challenge. And seeing that I have neither of those, some thought was going to be required.

While pondering this dilemma, I came across an article about hugel gardening. “What if I just bury it?”

For those who are not familiar with hugelkultur, this involves burying logs in such a way as to form small mounds and then planting vegetables on top. The idea is that the wood absorbs the spring rain then slowly releases it throughout the summer, requiring less watering for the vegetables. Also, as the wood decays, the logs collapse, moving the soil and aerating things in the process. It’s a great concept for the low maintenance gardener.

Another two weekends of digging and I was good to go. I pulled that troublesome stump back over, threw in some scrap wood that needed disposing and covered everything up.

Almost-done

Finally, after all of the drama and hard work, it was finished. The septic tank was safe, the flower bed was put back together, and that eyesore of a stump was finally gone. Would I recommend this process? Not unless you have a tractor. And even then, I’d probably urge caution. The root structure of a sizable tree can be surprising and knocking the stump loose is no small feat. But whatever you do, don’t even think about cutting a tree down and leaving a jagged stump standing in the yard. Take it from me...stumps suck!!

Not Your Father's Stove

Jack FernardHaving grown up splitting and stacking ... and stacking and splitting ... and splitting and stacking, I had an ingrained concept of what it means to heat with wood. Between the bee stings, pinched fingers, and countless slivers, it’s a concept I was determined to put behind me. But fast-forward a few decades, and wood heat has, once again, found its way into my home. Only this time, I’m loving it!

Enter the wood pellets.

Pellet-Stove

For the record, wood pellets and firewood are not what you would call an ‘apples-to-apples’ thing. Sure, they both come from trees, but that’s about where the similarities end. With wood pellets there is no going into the woods, felling a tree, sawing it into a bazillion chucks, throwing these chunks into the back of a truck, driving to the house, tossing the logs back out of the truck into a big pile where you can later split and stack ... stack and split ... (Get the picture?) Instead, pellets come in relatively clean, 40-lbs bags that line up ever so nicely in the garage. No bee stings, no pinched fingers, and no slivers!

Another great thing about wood pellets is the low ash content. Shoveling out ash was a daily routine with burning firewood. By comparison, I’ve emptied out the ash pan of my pellet stove twice this season.

My particular pellet stove ignites electrically. This means no chopping kindling, no trying to get the newspaper in just the right spot in order to get the kindling going, and no back-drafts into the room when it’s really windy outside.

Of course, I do need electricity to run my pellet stove — something a lot of firewood stoves do not. This would be especially important for those occasions when the power goes out for days at a time. But, seeing as I’m already off-grid, I’m not too concerned with the utility grid.

Also worth noting: The wood used to make the pellets I purchase actually come from waste that would normally end up in a landfill. So not only am I using a renewable source of fuel, but I'm re-purposing trash.

About the only thing wood pellets and firewood have in common is the fire. I love watching the flames dance in the evening when the only other light in the room is coming from the Christmas tree.

This is our second winter heating with the pellet stove, and I must say I’m impressed with how well that little stove keeps our whole house comfortable. It is our primary source of heat and it has performed wonderfully. So, if you're considering a wood pellet stove, I highly recommend them. Just understand, they’re not your father’s stove!

Over Already

Jack FernardAnyone else seriously bumming these days?

Quiet backyard

I looked out at the backyard this morning and found myself giving a heavy sigh. “It’s awfully quiet out there,” I complained to no one in particular.

Fall has always been my favorite time of the year. The trees change colors, the salmon (or "kings" as the locals know them) start their spawning run upriver, and hunters pull out of their summer withdrawal and head to the woods en masse. Fall is a great time to be outdoors!

But today, I’m kind of bummed. The chicken coop has been vacated, its door locked for the winter, and my gardens have been given their winter blanket of weed barrier — the cover crops so carefully sown now peacefully laid to rest. Am I imagining things, or does my tumbling composter actually look lonely?

Right about now, I am seriously contemplating one of those hoop greenhouses — AGAIN!

But the break from the growing season gives me time to contemplate the successes and the failures of this year’s efforts. My Yukon’s did great — best harvest ever! But my red potatoes did nothing ... as in, not even a single sprout. Frustrated by this, I grabbed the last two red spuds, chucked them out in a field, threw an arm full of straw over them and walked away. Guess what grew just fine? (And here I actually thought I knew what I was doing!) That oddity has me wondering if I shouldn’t try leaving some potatoes above ground next year. Wasn’t a whole lot of work involved. No weeding, no tilling, I didn’t even have to water them.

Oh well, I’ve got another five months or so to think about it!

Fairs, Ponies, & 4 Year Olds

Jack FernardIn the summer of 1953, a little four-year-old boy took his very first pony ride. It was at the local fair, and it was magical!

 

 Pony ride

Fast forward to the summer of 1977 and a little, red-headed, four-year-old girl took her very first pony ride. It was also at the local fair, and it was magical!

Pony ride

Jump ahead yet again, and it’s the summer of 2016, where another four-year-old boy finds himself atop a pony for the very first time. It was at the local fair ... and it was magical!

Pony ride

What do these random spots in time have in common? They were experienced by members of my family.

It’s mind-boggling to me to think of how much the world has changed since 1953, and yet the magic of these humble steeds has remained so strong. Who would believe these gentle creatures could imbue such powerful memories as they slowly carry their precious passengers around and around a simple circle. Even with all of the hype this modern age can produce, it does not hold a candle to the pleasure of a pony ride.

To all of the people who work so hard to make these experiences possible, I offer you my sincerest thanks. And if I can echo the words of my father …

“Happy Trails” to all of you.

The Dangers of a Straight Run

Jack Fernard"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." ~ Mark Twain

 

 

Comb, Bantam

Just before Easter, my family and I brought a box of baby chicks home to raise. We were full of excitement, anticipating raising these little birds to maturity and hopefully seeing them raise baby chicks of their own.

Right around five weeks or so, I began to notice the differences in the birds and enjoyed pointing them out to the family. Some had lighter coloring, some were much bigger and one had a very pronounced comb. Having bought these chicks "straight run" -- or for those who are not familiar with this chicken terminology, not sexed -- I was really hopeful for at least one rooster. And upon seeing the comb, and how it was different from all of the rest, I assumed the best. I just knew it would be a matter of time and there would be a new generation baby chicks running around the yard.

I was wrong.

At right around ten weeks, the birds started fighting...and I mean REALLY fighting. I began to wonder if they weren’t trying to kill each other. As it turns out, they were!

After consulting with other chicken owners, I realized that what I had was one rooster of mixed heritage and seven thoroughbred males. So much for the baby chicks!

It’s actually kind of unbelievable to think that I could reach into a bin of 100+ birds and pick out all males, but that’s exactly what I did. (One more reason you’ll never see me at a casino!)

Lesson learned: If you want hens, then make sure you’re buying hens!