Nov 16, 2011

Farming at Forty Below

Well, it's not really Forty Below, yet, but that's the low end of the range I heard it would be this week, here, due to the wind chill.

Wind chill caused by really high winds, of course; maybe not hurricane level but 40 to 50 mile-an-hour gusts that turn last week's 24 inches of new snow into ice-balls of grit that cut my eyes with a thousand knives. Try crossing the street in traffic with your eyes closed; either way, open or shut, it seems dangerous.

Mom's Home-Health Nurse had asked me yesterday how my hens were doing in the cold.

This is an exciting subject for me (I hear my dad saying, "Simple Things for Simple Minds") but it is so important - how do you manage farm animals in an environment that is normally outside their biological temperature range? I have a modicum of success at this process; my hens are only five months old and I have one which laid her third egg this week; last year I was getting seven eggs a day from eight hens. How do I do that?

Gather, children, and you shall hear, of low-temp composting; winter with no fear.

Seriously - if the power goes off, and my hens are under lights, the cold might kill them or at least frostbite their tender parts.

Does the power go off in this huge metropolis, the Gotham City of Alaska, the population center of the earthquake capital (the clitoris of the world) "South Central Alaska," otherwise known as Anchorage? Yes. More than we would like it to - we are vulnerable to coastal, sea-borne weather; maybe not as much as those cities on the Aleutian Islands, but enough to keep us on our toes.

I digress. Winter low-temperature composting is not only easy, and practical, it is obviously a lifesaver. Well-planned, it can work for large animals, too.

My dad, my beloved dad, was a practical guy, an engineer, energetic, busy, always on-the-go, always trying things, a gadget man, a man's man, "Ace" they called him, during his semi-pro hockey days, a winner, a handsome man, a lady-killer hopelessly devoted to my mother.

He was also an organic farmer, following the principles taught by Rodale's Organic Gardening magazine, and even maintained his hydroponic greenhouse for years.

My dad bought me chickens, let me raise them and sell the eggs to the neighbors - he bought the feed and let me keep the profits - I was a teenager, but, What A Guy! to let me have that kind of fun.

It was in the Rodale magazine that I learned that the immune system of chickens does better in deep litter. The concept of 'deep litter' is that you keep adding bedding to the barn, not removing the old bedding, at least not all of it, as long as those chickens are in that area. For practical reasons, you only need to maintain it to three or four feet deep.

As the chickens live and scratch, eat and drink, and obviously, defecate, the litter begins a low-temperature composting process, developing the appropriate microorganisms that will maintain the hens immune systems at a healthy level. The additional advantage is that it keeps their barn at a comfortable temperature of 60 degrees F, when our outside temperatures, for example, right now is at minus nine Fahrenheit.

An additional concern with chickens, as with elderly quadriplegic mothers, is hydration. I take advantage of the composting process. I partially bury a three-gallon bucket in the litter, adding two gallons water each day. The dirty water is added to the litter - because a proper compost relies on moisture, as well as the waste matter of carbon (hay, sawdust, shredded paper) and nitrogen (fecal matter and kitchen scraps). The brilliance of this plan uses the habit of hens to scratch and turn the bedding, adding air to the process.

Successful composting depends on the four elements: fire-earth-air-water. Earth is the bedding, the carbon base, and nitrogen; water is self-explanatory; air is provided by the constant turning by the chickens, and fire is the biological process of microorganisms that actually break down waste turning it into usable soil.

Low-temperature composting creates a higher quality product. A compost process that exceeds 110F will cause the desirable components to be turned to ash, rendering potential nutrients unusable to your plants.

The last two parts of my hen management is light and nutrition - hens need a minimum of 14 hours of daylight to ovulate, that is, to lay eggs, and a feed that contains at least 16 to 20 percent protein. I use a heat lamp for the light and pellet layer mash.


Akathunder said...

Excellent information, well written as always... :)

IndependentCuss said...

Thanks. Around here (which be coastal Maine) we use oak leaves for litter, not so deep as yours, and try to keep it dry, as the birds like to go out except in deep snow, and you know what happens to wet wattles... they turn into politicians brains.