Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Frugal Homestead

For most of us, frugality is a foundational principle of homesteading. We simply can't do what we do without an understanding that a dollar saved is a dollar earned. Whether you work a day job too or you make all of your income on your land, we all tend to be rather frugal.

My oldest son spends his summers working for his grandpa, my dad, doing whatever work I would have done if I didn't have my own property to worry about. My dad is an interesting contradiction, really. He grew up dirt poor on a farm in North Dakota. His dad was a penny pincher like no other. Anyone who farmed in the 70s and 80s and made money at it had to be very tight with money, and grampa ran an operation that was successful and grew substantially while his neighbors were failing left and right. Dad grew up making whatever he had work. When he moved off the farm and started working, he still didn't have much, and he spent as much time fixing things as using them. He always told me as a kid "When all you have is junk you get really good at fixing things." He still tells me that, as though I haven't yet figured that out. So my son spends his summers helping out his grampa, who after many years of working and saving now has the best of everything. I didn't know that there was such a thing as a $13,000 lawnmower, but apparently there is.

One day earlier last summer, I talked to my oldest while I was at work and told him I needed him to mow the lawn that day. He went out, my old STX 38 wouldn't start, he got frustrated and gave up. He went in the house and played XBox the rest of the day. Now, maybe I didn't handle this the correct way, but I got upset with him. I said "So why didn't you fix it?" And he said "Dad, it's a piece of junk. I can't fix it. I don't know how you make it run but I can't."

This conversation continued, and in the end it came down to this one statement, and I will never forget this because this is the central point of much of what I do.

"I'm tired of having junk, why can't we buy a new mower that will just work?"

At this point, about 2000 different ideas go through my head, specifically my recent discovery that one can spend more on a lawnmower than both of my pickups and my wife's van are worth combined.

Now, mind you, I don't have a problem with nice things. I think that people should treat themselves to good things when they can. I don't fault my dad for having a ridiculously expensive lawnmower. He can afford it and he wants it. That's his life and I wouldn't ridicule him for it any more than I'd want him to ridicule me for mine. I do have a completely different view of things, however.

In the end, this all boils down to a matter of priorities. For every dollar I make, I sacrifice something to earn it. If I want to move up in the corporate world, I need to work more, put in more hours away from my family and my mini-farm. I'm perfectly capable of making more than double what I do at my day job. I work in a field where if I was willing to sacrifice other aspects of my life, I could easily increase my day job income by 100% or more. Money has not and probably never will be my priority. I am not on a quest to get rich, and I don't have aspirations of financial wealth. For me, the price I would pay for that money is too high.

If you'll bear with me while I digress for a moment, I'm going to bring up the concept of minimalism. Now, I'm not a minimalist, but there is one aspect of minimalism that we all should take a lesson from. Minimalism, as a philosophy or lifestyle teaches the concept of "living deliberately". To live deliberately means that you have a goal and your actions support it. I have an over-arching goal for my life, I know exactly what I want. Not every single action in my life is towards that goal, but all of my big decisions are. I can't exactly put that goal into words, but it's clear to me what it is, and that is what drives me. My goal includes things like spending as much time with my kids as I can, cuddling with my wife around a fire, being an example of strength and independence for my children, earning every thing I get, because I believe this is the way things should be. Without a goal and without deliberate acts towards that goal, we drift aimlessly from one idea to another, from one identity to another.

Is this trash? Or parts?

Most people I know think I'm a little (or a lot) weird. I pick up free pallets, I tear apart old sheds, I cut up any tree anyone will let me have, all to save a few bucks. A junk pile is like Christmas. Cleaning out abandoned buildings (with permission of course) is even better than Christmas. A family member recently remarked with a little surprise when he saw me putting used screws in my pocket. I said "man, those are stainless, they're expensive!" to which he replied "not THAT expensive."

What is THAT expensive? Where do we draw the line? Is picking up trash on the curb taking it too far? Do you pull over on the highway when you see a bungee cord laying on the shoulder? Do you save milk jugs just in case? Do you pound nails straight so you can use them again? I think for each of us, we have our own reasons for what is too far. For my grandparents, there was no such thing as too far. They grew up in the dust bowl, and often times didn't even have a bent nail and a hammer to pound it straight. They weren't "too good" for something if it meant getting something they needed or wanted. We seem to have developed a collective social snobbishness, compelling us to want new, or at least nicer than what we had or what our neighbors or family have. It's a fundamentally flawed competitiveness that leads us down a dark road of sacrifice to all the wrong gods. What is the satisfaction that comes from spending $70,000 on a vehicle? Does such a person drive around any differently than I do in my $1200 dodge? Are we too detached to realize what that means about us?

I realize that this all could very easily be interpreted as jealousy, which, in a way only proves the point that I just tried to make. When someone spurns materialism, greed, competitiveness and finds happiness in something simple, they are labeled for it. We're usually called "cheap" or "stingy" or sometimes "poor" or worse, "dirty". If we drop out of society, those still in it assume that we can't hack it, that we failed to accomplish the American Dream. They can't imagine that maybe, just maybe, we don't give a shit.

I don't care if my "lawn" has dandelions or isn't mowed, that's all chicken feed and I don't have to spend money and time to mow it.

I don't care if my driveway is gravel, because I like it that way and I don't have to spend thousands of dollars on pavement.

I don't care if my house is an ugly color, that paint was cheap and I'm not going to spend money on more paint just so people who drive by aren't bothered by it.

I put recycled steel on the roof of my garage. It doesn't match my house and it looks like crap. But it keeps the rain out and didn't cost me anything.

I don't need to dress my kids in new clothes, or even trendy used clothes. They will ruin them all the same. Grass stains and mud holes don't care if their clothes came from The Gap.

Visitors (the few we get) always note how cold our bathroom is in the winter. I must apologize, our wood stove doesn't know how to blow its heat into that end of the house.

I suspect that many of you feel the same way. Maybe you don't. Maybe I really am as weird as they say I am (And I'm ok with that, really). I do know for a fact, though, that there are other people out there who think this way. They're not lazy or stupid or disadvantaged in any way, they just don't want to be part of the rat race anymore. They don't want to have to live up to someone else's arbitrary standard for success.

It's one thing to say you want to move towards simplicity, and it's an entirely different thing to do so deliberately. There should be no confusion, simplicity is not easier. I work more hours than most people I know, but I do much of that work on my terms. This means that when I'm building something, my oldest son is helping me. My wife and my three youngest help me feed and water chickens, and weed the gardens. We all help turning compost piles, raking up and collecting whatever we can to add to them. Everyone pitches in when we do some construction project. Yes, it's work, but it's meaningful work. That, I think, really is the key. At least for me. Wherever we go, whatever we do, no matter our age or financial situation or health, there will always be work to do. For me, it's essential that the work be meaningful. Frugality is meaningful work, because it brings me closer to my family, and further from wage slavery, making someone else rich at the expense of my family. The "sacrifices" we make don't seem like sacrifices to us, because what we're doing actually matters.

DIY Incubator version 2

You may remember my DIY incubator project from a couple summers ago, which you can read here:

It was actually quite effective, but after much tinkering and testing over the last two years, I've made some adjustments that I believe have made a significant improvement in the design.

Key Changes:

First off, the cooler I used in the first version was good, but I've found an even better one. There is a HUGE difference between those thin walled (3/4-1 inch) foam coolers and the heavy duty ones that are used for shipping perishable medical supplies. Yes, there are some thin walled ones that are used by pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies for overnight shipments, but there are also some very heavy duty foam coolers out there. I honestly don't know what the one I found was intended for, but the walls are a solid 1.75 inches thick, and made from very dense, strong foam. I would say that if you can't find something with at least 1.25 inch thick sides and bottom, you're going to have to do something to improve its insulating ability, and that's a huge pain in the butt. Alternatively, keep it in a warm, climate controlled room. Mine stays in the garage all spring, and it still maintains temperature easily even when temps in the garage get down into the 20s F. Your best bet for finding a good one is to talk to someone who works at a hospital, clinic, or who gets medicine shipped to them.

Ideally, your cooler should be as small as it can be to hold the number of eggs you want to hatch and fit the light and fan and water bowl in. Bigger incubators have less stable temperature and humidity. I have tested designs as large as 24"x24"x36" and they just don't hold a stable temperature without a much more involved heating and air circulation setup than what you can use in the small ones.It's impossible to underestimate the importance of insulation. Large temperature swings outside the incubator WILL impact the temperature and humidity inside the incubator, despite your best efforts and a good thermostat, and the larger the incubator, the more pronounced this effect will be.

Keep the window small. I made this same mistake in this version as well (partly because I didn't have a smaller piece of glass), and I've learned that the window loses so much heat from the incubator that I actually cover it with a 2 inch thick piece of foam when I'm not actually looking through it.

Chicks hatched from my DIY incubator.

Lessons learned:

Spend the money on a high quality 40w light bulb if you're going to have the incubator someplace where it isn't nice and warm. If mine was in my house I'd go to a 25w bulb, but the 40 ensures that I hold temp even if it gets down to 20F overnight. You want the candle style bulb, so that you can fit it through the hole that the light fixture sits in. You can change the bulb in the event of a burnout without completely emptying the incubator this way.

Keep a spare bulb on hand at all times. A burned out bulb can cost you the whole batch in just a few hours. This is why quality bulbs are important. Don't skimp on this part.

The eggs should always be above the heat source, on a shelf/rack made of 1/4 inch wire mesh, or something similar. I've seen a few designs recently where the eggs sit on the floor of the incubator next to the heat source. I've tried this and I guarantee you that few if any eggs will hatch. There is insufficient air circulation to ensure thorough mixing and thus even temperatures throughout the eggs.

If you can, get a hygrometer. Yes you can learn what is correct humidity through trial and error, but it's easier if you don't have to. If you insist on learning it the hard way, here's a suggestion as a starting point. use a bowl about 1/12 the size of the floor of the incubator full of water for the first 17 days. This should get you close to the necessary 40% humidity. On day 18, pour a very thin layer (about 1/16 inch deep) of water right on the floor of the incubator, and also refill the bowl. Do not cover the whole floor, you just want to increase the surface area of water by about 4x. This will probably cause the humidity to climb to near 100% at first, so a few hours after doing this, lift the lid just slightly and let some of that extra water out. After this, do not add more water. So long as you're not opening the lid constantly, the humidity should stay about right - 70% or so - until day 22 (or 23) when you should be removing chicks and removing failed eggs.

If the fan seems a little too big, it's probably about right. You need a lot of airflow to make sure that no areas of dead air form in or around the eggs. A 3-4" computer fan seems to work pretty well in an incubator that holds 20-30 eggs. I've tried smaller 1.5 inch fans and they are clearly inferior for this purpose. The fan should also be towards the top of the incubator, opposite the heat source. This makes it so the fan is forcing air down and around the light, spreading the heated air out under the eggs, leading to more even heating, and also avoiding a hot spot directly above the light, which could burn those eggs nearest the bulb.

All the literature says the best temperature in a moving air incubator is 99.5. I've done a fair amount of research on this, and I have decided to set my thermostat so that as it cycles, it averages about 100.0 F. This is partly because developing eggs are less tolerant of temperatures below 98 than they are of temperatures above 103. Using 100.0 F puts me right in the middle of their temperature tolerance, keeping a little more cushion against the lower temperatures that happen if a bulb burns out or you lose power. That extra .5 degrees can mean as much as a half hour of time for you to catch such a problem.  It also accelerates the hatch by about 10 hours, by my best guess.


After much tinkering, many successes and almost as many failures, I've worked out a design and system that is currently achieving an 86% hatch rate. I candle on day 7 and discard the clear eggs (infertile or failed to develop at all) and the last batch that just finished, 8 out of 9 eggs hatched on day 21, and the batch before that, 11 out of 13 on day 21 or early on day 22.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Homestead Garden - Efficiency and Production.

One thing I've learned with age is that the word 'garden' means different things to different people. My neighbor down the road thinks it means a massive spread of tulips. An acquaintance of mine the other way down the road thinks it means a big patch of dirt that he plants way too much sweet corn into because it reminds him of farming when he was a kid. My European friends I've met through the internet think it means "the place with grass where the dog pees" or something like that.

For your average person, though, a garden is a place where they grow some stuff, usually vegetables, that they eat some of and give most of away because they don't know what to do with way too much of something. We'll all meet someone trying to give away a bucket of massive zucchini, sooner or later.

So here it is late June and I'm going to talk about garden planning. Yes, really. I won't be offended if you stop reading and bookmark this for January reading. Promise. There are some things that I've learned over the years that I need to put down, so here goes.

Philosophy of Gardening

From a homesteading perspective, your garden is a significant portion of your food for the year and must be very well planned and very efficient. That will probably mean different things to different people. For some it probably means that it needs to be laid out and organized to allow mechanized cultivation and maybe even harvesting. If your family goes through a lot of potatoes and you have heavy clay soil, nobody on this planet would argue with using a tractor and potato digger. I can't think of a worse job on this planet than hand digging 1/4 acre of potatoes in gumbo. Mechanization is efficient in this situation.

But, here I'm going to talk about what I do. If you've read much of this blog, you've probably realized that I'm a bit of a luddite when it comes to my gardening and animal raising techniques. I despise rototillers, I'm probably a bit snobbish about use of any chemicals, and I take great pride in the fact that between my gardens and my chicken setup I haven't spent $500 combined in the last 5 years. All of my tools were homemade or obtained secondhand. Much of our seed is saved from the previous year. To me, this is what it means to be functional and productive. What am I gaining by growing all this food if it costs me hundreds or thousands of dollars to do so? I can buy a whole lot of veggies at the farmer's market for the cost of a rototiller, expensive seed packets, commercial fertilizers, etc.

Garden Design

In keeping with the ideals of efficiency and productivity, my gardens are designed to all be hand worked. Most of the garden is made up of raised beds 4 feet wide by 25 feet long. These beds are easily worked by hand. Some of it is made of 10'x10' patches that corn, melons, squash and potatoes are rotated through. These beds are small enough to reach into with a rake or hoe to cultivate, minimizing foot traffic and compaction, but still square to help make better use of space for vining plants like pumpkins.

Spring Prep

The first thing I do with all garden beds in the spring is rake them off. There's usually some debris and certainly some mulch still laying on the raised beds. This gets raked off and becomes the beginning of this year's compost pile. Step 2 is to test for compaction and do a light aeration of the soil with a fork. I use my big fork for this, if I can bury all 10 inches of tines in the soil easily, I consider the soil ready to plant. If there is some compaction due to foot traffic or excessive rain, I'll lightly lift soil throughout the bed with the fork, but don't turn it over. I don't want to destroy the soil structure by tilling unless it's absolutely necessary. After all that, I pull any remaining weed stems or old plant stems and rake smooth and the bed is ready to plant.

Seed Starting

Under no circumstances should you ever put yourself in a situation where you have to pay $2 for a plant to put in your garden. Learn to start your own plants indoors. Even if you only start them 3 weeks early by putting them outside during the day. Seeds are cheap - free if you save them yourself. If you get good enough at this, you can even sell some of your starts to pay for some of the soaker hoses you're going to need later on.

Planting Planning

If there's one thing we've learned from Square Foot Gardening, it's that plant spacing recommendations on seed packets are pretty much wrong. For example, you do not need 36 inches in all directions between tomato plants. Most other vegetables will behave similarly. I have great looking broccoli heads right now, with plants spaced about 10 inches apart in a grid compared to the standard recommendation that broccoli be planted 18 inches apart in rows spaced 24 inches. What an astounding waste of space that would be. Use your head when it comes to plant spacing. Don't let the seed packet think for you. If you know the plants you're growing, why don't you decide how far apart they should be?

Intensive Planting

I think that generally, plant spacing recommendations are designed to get the maximum yield from each individual plant. If I had only one tomato plant, I would probably keep everything at least 3 feet away from it. Thing is, I don't. I can plant as many as I want. I can blanket an entire garden bed with tomato plants if I want. Why would I want to do this? Well there's a few reasons. Every bit of soil that's not growing a plant is lost space. Think for a moment - would you rather have 2 tomato plants that yield 20 pounds of tomatoes each, or in the same space, 3 tomato plants that yield 15 pounds of tomatoes each? You can do this with just about everything in your garden. Currently, I have two garden beds dedicated to tomatoes. That's 200 square feet that contains 60 tomato plants. By staggering the grid and pushing the plants to about 18-20 inches apart, I make better use of the space. No, none of my individual plants will compete with someone else's plants when it comes to individual yield, but overall, I'll take more tomatoes out of that 200 square feet than I could using traditional plant spacings. There are other benefits to this too - A dense pack of tomatoes that keeps weeds down by choking out light penetration to the ground. The ground on the entire bed is shaded as the tomatoes mature, meaning I lose way less moisture from the ground during the heat of July and August. Mulch helps, living mulch is even more help.

This applies to most things in the garden. Cabbage don't mind being packed together at all. Stagger them and you can get stonehead cabbage to grow well even if planted 3 across in a 4 foot bed. That comes out to something like 30-40 cabbage heads in 100 sq feet of garden. Maybe more. As with tomatoes, does it matter that each cabbage head be the biggest it can be? Or do we want the most cabbage per area of garden? I don't know about you, but I'm not trying to win any state fair ribbons. This is food, man.

A lot of what we're talking about has been said repeatedly by those espousing the benefits of square foot gardening, but we're not going to exist in such a rigid structure. If I have a spot where a pepper plant dies, I'll drop some radishes or lettuce there. Maybe a handful of turnips. Just remember, efficiency is the goal. I have to weed the whole garden, I might as well be growing something on the whole thing.

Companion planting

This is a great way to make better use of space. Do you really need a dedicated space in the garden for short season crops like radishes and spinach? Why not plant them between your slower growing plants like tomatoes? All that garden just sitting there in between those 3 inch tall tomato transplants, waiting to be used. You have to weed it and water it and mulch it. You should grow something on it too.

The whole sun-facing side of your corn patches can be planted in beans, pumpkins, squash, etc. I have planted 'connecticut field' pumpkins IN a corn patch (6 feet from the edge) and so long as they're started early enough, they find a way to send vines out of the patch and find sunlight to feed themselves. Train the vines around the edge of the corn stalks and you'll take 100 pounds of pumpkin out of your corn patch too. Free chicken feed if nothing else.

Homestead Garden Pumpkins
Pumpkins harvested from a companion planting with corn

Mulching Early and Often

Man, I could go on about mulch for days. You know how you manage a garden that's enormous in minimal time? Mulch it. There is no single thing you can do to reduce the amount of time and effort required to maintain a garden that is more effective than mulching. Minimize weed growth and moisture loss at the same time. I have only one concern about mulch and that is that you don't want to mulch too soon. Cool season crops can be mulched immediately after the soil warms to about 60F. In fact, keeping the roots of your broccoli and cabbage cool will actually help them grow faster. Warm season crops like tomatoes and corn need to be mulched a bit later to prevent stunting their growth waiting for the soil under that mulch to warm up. Typically I mulch cool season crops as soon as they're 3-4 inches tall, and I mulch warm season crops as soon as we have a few 80 degree days to warm the soil.

Mulch everything. If you've got a lawnmower with a bagger, you have all the mulch you need.

*Safety note - Don't use grass clippings from sprayed lawns.

*Advice - In fact, don't spray your lawn either. Clover, dandelions, dock, wild lettuce, they're all infinitely more beautiful and rewarding than a monoculture of tall fescue or kentucky bluegrass. If your neighbors complain about the big native bumblebees and the pretty yellow or white flowers, remind them that the flowers and bees were there first.

Water Efficiently

Ideally, we would all have nice gravity fed drip irrigation systems fed by rainwater catchment. If you do, that's great. This is the most efficient way to water that I can think of. There is cost associated with the drip supplies, but it pays for itself if you're not paying for water. If you're like most of us that water with a well or a municipal/rural water supply, your best bet is soaker hoses. Soaker hoses are better than all other types of watering. They're better than overhead sprinklers because there's no water waste due to wind and overspray, and because you're keeping the water off the foliage, reducing dramatically the risk of fungal growth. Soaker hoses are better than sprinkler hoses for the same reason. Soaker hoses are better than hand watering with a wand because it requires almost no time, and because it waters deeper and slower. Hand watering is ok for very small plants, but your more mature or larger plants will not develop properly without adequate deep watering. Hand watering almost always results in soaking the top 2 inches of soil and leaving the rest dry. If you don't believe me, go try it. Soaker hoses are one of the reasons that my garden beds are 25 feet long. A 50 foot hose goes down and back. If I need to water a bed that is planted in an edge-to-edge grid as would onions be, I use 2 hoses down and back. There's a hose about every 8-10 inches that way, and it fully waters the bed in about 45-60 minutes. I advise you check the flow rate of your soaker hose so you know how much water is coming out of it. You can then use this information to calculate how long you need to leave the hose run in order to properly water a particular area.

Harvest Time

If you've established a mindset of efficiency, getting as much out of your garden as you can based on what you put into it, you're already a step ahead when it comes to harvest. Not all your tomatoes are going to be pretty. If it's split or scarred, so what. You can trim those right up when you can them. The same goes for everything else. Don't let cosmetic flaws turn you away from part of your harvest. It's important to get out of the grocery store mindset, not all veggies look the same and meet the same standard of shape and size.

Even those things that are damaged beyond the point of salvage can go to good use. My chickens eat anything that doesn't go into the basket. If you don't have chickens or pigs or horses you should be composting anything that can be composted. There shall be no waste.

Food Storage

Treat the fruits of your labor with respect. Don't waste something because you didn't get around to freezing or canning it. Plan your harvest so that you can invest the time to properly store everything. If you can't take the time right now to can it, you can probably at least blanch and freeze it. Tomatoes don't even need to be blanched before freezing if you're going to can them or make sauce later. If you're harvesting large amounts of something, learn different ways to store it. Consider drying and freezing as alternatives to canning.

Seed Saving

Many of the vegetables we grow are very easy to save seeds from. The more seeds you save, the less you have to buy. A brief and partial list of things I save seed from: spinach, lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, pumpkins/winter squash, summer squash, cucumbers, melons, peas, beans, corn, potatoes, peppers and probably other things I can't think of right now. This will take you back to your planning phase - the more open pollinated heirloom-type varieties you use, the more seed you can save and the less money you spend next year.

Do it all again

Gardening is an interesting situation we put ourselves in. We don't get many repetitions to get it right. How many times are you going to plant tomatoes in your life? We only have so many summers to practice these lessons. It's important that we learn from what we do every year and then make improvements year over year. Besides, everything is more fun if we're successful at it.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Cheap Chicken Feed?

This is a pretty common question, and something that I think many of us think about at least once in a while. If we subscribe to the ideals of homesteading at all, I think most of us have come to the conclusion that if we're buying chicken feed, we're probably paying more for our eggs than it would cost to buy them in a grocery store. Without going to far into the obvious differences between homegrown eggs and grocery store eggs, I'm going to go over a few things that I've learned over the years that help me cut my feed bill down to almost nothing. How close to almost nothing? It costs me about 90 cents to produce a dozen eggs during the summer, and about $2.00 during the winter. Considering the recent spike in egg prices thanks to bird flu, that's pretty darn good.

So how do we accomplish this?

First of all, you will have to reference a post I wrote a couple years ago about growing your own chicken feed, and the followup post I wrote last year. You can find those here and here. They will get you a good start on storing up homegrown chicken feed for winter.

Today, though, we're going to talk about summer feeding and production. There are a lot of different ways you can save a ton of money on feed.

First of all, let's start with a baseline - assume we buy commercial feed and feed our birds nothing but that. Very easy, very safe. Also very expensive. Various sources put the intake of a laying hen on commercial bagged pellet feed at about 1.5 pounds per week. Let's assume we have 10 birds. 1.5 x 10 is 15 pounds of feed per week. Now if we start counting on April 1 (which is about when I can start letting the birds out in a tractor) and go until about November 1 (which is when it gets too cold to leave them out in the tractor overnight), that's about 30 weeks, give or take a few days. 30 x 15 is 450. So during the pasture season, if you just feed bagged feed to birds in a coop/run setup, you need 450 pounds for those 10 birds. That comes out to a little over 11 40 pound bags of feed. For me, quality chicken pellets are about $17 for that 40 pound bag. $187 to feed those birds for that 30 weeks. Ok now let's figure the cost per dozen eggs. Let's assume that your hens do about what my barnyard mix of cross breeds do, and assume you get 6.5 eggs per day average from those 10 hens during the summer. I'm not going to factor for molting, just for sake of simplicity. That comes to 1365 eggs in that 30 weeks. Round to 114 dozen eggs. Of course you aren't going to actually get that many. Some will be cracked, some will get eaten, then there's the molt to think about, but we'll just use that number to figure. Using $187 as feed cost (and we won't even start to talk about other costs here) that comes to $1.64 a dozen using my rather optimistic numbers. Reality is going to be closer to $1.80-$2.00 in the summer. And then how about winter when your egg production is cut in half or worse?

So what can we actually do about this? Well, Let's start making a list.

1. Feed kitchen scraps - Instead of putting it in the compost pile, feed it to the birds. They'll ultimately turn it into a more concentrated fertilizer anyway.

2. Get them out of confinement - A chicken tractor is one of your best friends here. Not only does it allow the birds some freedom to forage, while still being generally safe from predators, it also gives your birds some freedom to choose what they eat. This is important for happy, healthy birds. If you have the room and a safe area, let them roam during the day.

3. Start gathering feed - I'm going to break this section down further.

I have an astoundingly low-brow method for this. Much of my yard area is has gone from grass to clover over the years. Also, tons of dandelion, dock, and other edible plants that chickens love. I run over a patch of this with a bagging lawnmower and dump the contents into the tractor or run, and let them sort through it. There's lots of greens, not to mention a good handful of grasshoppers and other insects that get mowed up, and they clean it up nice.

Use a maggot feeder - yeah, gross I know, but it's important protein. I've also written about that here.

Your land is probably full of things chickens like to eat. Go pick it and throw it to them. Every pound of that they eat is one pound of expensive commercial feed you don't have to feed them.

Talk to grocery stores and restaurants and ask if they will save waste produce for you. Some will, some won't. Here in my town we have a bread store that sells expired or nearly expired bread, I can buy about 25 pounds of stale bread for $5. That's about half the cost of commercial feed.

4. Find a grain elevator - This is the best way for you to separate yourself from commercial feed. Our local farmer's co-op elevator sells grain in 50 pound bags, and in bulk if I want to have them load up the back of my pickup with a skidloader. Depending on where you live, you might have one of the keys to this system available to you at your local elevator. Current prices here in town put cracked corn at about $6.25 per 50 pounds, whole corn at $5.50 per 50 pounds, whole oats at about $8 per 50 pounds, and then my favorite. Something commonly referred to as DDG or "Dried Distiller's Grain". DDG is a waste product of ethanol production. It's what's left of the corn after the fermentable sugars are used up. DDG is about 25% protein - a key to a balanced diet when you're not buying more expensive feeds like soy meal, fish meal, or alfalfa meal. DDG usually costs about $5.50 for a 55 pound bag.

5. Everything that comes out of your garden - including weeds - goes to the chickens. They'll eat 75% of it if you offer it to them.

Dried Distiller's Grains

Putting these ideas into practice

So by now you're feeding everything edible that comes out of your house to your chickens. You're either pasturing, tractoring, or harvesting/gathering available greens/nuts/seeds and bringing them to your chickens in their confinement. You've stopped buying commercial feed and you want to use bulk grains to make up the difference between what they get from the above methods, and what they need.

It's important to consider nutrition here. I know I've talked a lot about bulk of feed, but quality of feed is important. If you're pasturing/tractoring your birds, they will probably get a lot of the nutrients they need on their own from grazing. A common problem with this model of "feed scrounging" is that many of the greens, scraps, and grains are low in protein on their own. DDG will do a lot to alleviate this problem, being very high protein. There is a potential pitfall here, though. There is more than one type of protein, and you will find that if you feed your hens nothing but DDG and wild greens, they'll eventually start eating their eggs to try to make up whatever protein deficiency they have. This is why it's important to have an alternate source of protein. Whether this be insects they catch at pasture, a maggot feeder, or maybe you just go collect nightcrawlers after a rain and toss them to the birds the next day, you need something. I have one friend who traps minnows from a local pond and then feeds them to his hens. It's really about using your imagination and being resourceful.

For my hens, this breaks down something like this.

Sometimes the hens are in the run, when they are I mow up greens and feed them that. When they're in the tractor I do this too, but much, much less often. I keep 10 birds in a 10x10 tractor and move it twice a day to make sure there's enough there for them to find to eat.

I feed all kitchen scraps I can find.

Any time I'm about in the yard and I find something they'll eat, I grab it and throw it to them.

Everything that comes out of the garden that doesn't go to the kitchen goes to the birds. This includes rotting/damaged/waste veggies.

In addition to this, I give my birds free access to a mix of whole corn, DDG, and whole oats. I mix this as 2 parts DDG, 1 part each of whole corn and whole oats. Some of this corn I grow, some of it I buy, depending on the time of year. On average, I spend approximately $12 per month at the elevator on those grains. This is what it costs to purchase the amount of grain that the hens eat from the feeder that supplements their foraging and the feed-stuffs that I collect for them. If I could expand my corn growing operation I could probably cut this down to $8/month, but I don't find this to be worth the extra space and work.

$12 per month comes out to $84 over the course of that same 30 weeks that bagged commercial feed costs someone else $187. If I use the same formula I used above, that means that hypothetically my cost is about 73 cents per dozen eggs. In reality it's about 90 cents - which is why I can safely say that the $1.64 I mentioned above is a low estimate. In the end, though, I spend slightly less than half to feed my chickens of someone who buys bagged commercial feed. And here's the kicker - the more hens you have, the more real dollars you can save. If you have 30 hens, you could easily cut your summer feed bill by $300. Whether this is worth it or not is a big question that you'll have to answer for yourself.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Bucket Gardening 101

Gardening is big. And getting bigger. This is a great thing, really. Fresh food grown at home, no mysteries, loaded with good stuff and tastier than anything in just about any store. What's not to like? Oh, gardens are also big. There's no reason that this should leave anyone out of the fun, though. It's not necessary to have 1/4 acre of yard to till up just to grow your own veggies. Because.. buckets!

Ok, yeah I know a lot of people have tried buckets and failed for various reasons. No offense intended, but that's not the fault of the bucket. It's important to remember that a bucket full of dirt isn't the same as the ground. It has strengths and weaknesses compared to planting directly in the ground, and if we know what some of these are we can actually use buckets to our advantage, whether we have a 1/4 acre garden or an apartment patio.

What to plant?
Well, that's really the big question, isn't it? Not all plants are well-suited to containers. Sweet corn, for example. I suppose you could do it, but there are more reasons this idea will fail than will succeed. Potatoes are another idea that sounds great but doesn't work very well. In a sense, potatoes do work in containers, but only much larger ones such as large trash cans and the various forms of potato towers. Since we can't really make an all-inclusive list of what does and doesn't work well in containers, particularly 5 gallon buckets and other things we tend to have easily available, I'm going to lay out some basic factors and guidelines that I use when considering something for a container.

Size - Generally, nothing larger than a determinate tomato plant will thrive in a 5 gallon bucket. There are some exceptions to this, as I've seen lemon trees and other things growing in them, but generally, nothing bigger than an average tomato plant.

Root penetration - Obviously, a bucket is a limited space in which to grow. This goes hand in hand with plant size, although there are some plants that just can't make it in such a limited space. This is more of an issue with perennials as they are more and more likely to become rootbound the older they get.

Moisture requirements - Maintaining adequate soil moisture is harder in a bucket than in the ground. Generally, you combat this issue by simply watering more often. For some plants, however, this still isn't enough. Especially for plants that require consistent soil moisture. Plants that can't tolerate even slight drying will have problems. I don't think I would try to grow something like celery, and even many herbs and greens will have problems if you forget to water for a day. Even lettuce. Yep. I've forgot a pot of lettuce before, followed by a 90 degree windy day and it's wilted down to the ground by mid afternoon the next day. There are things we can do about this, though, which I'll address later.

Soil temperature requirements - The soil temp in a bucket will be much higher than in the ground, and though there are things we can do about this too, the options are limited. Personally, the only issue I've seen as a result of this is general stress on plants, as well as some tendency for tomatoes to drop blossoms. Generally, though, this is a manageable issue for most garden plants. In some cases, it's a huge advantage.

So where does that leave us? Well, honestly, most things can be grown with at least some success in buckets or similar containers. Keep these factors in mind when choosing plants, and you can then find ways to deal with the disadvantages of buckets for each plant. Or you can just keep reading...

Choosing Containers

Size - My rule of thumb is that the width of the container should be at least half of the recommended plant spacing for any given plant, and the height of the container should be about 1/2 the mature height of the plant. Remember, you aren't going to fill the bucket all the way to the top, so the depth of the soil mix in the container should meet this requirement. Obviously this doesn't always hold true, but generally it will at least be close. As an example, if your tomato plant says 24 inch spacing, then a bucket is about right. When you get into large indeterminate varieties like Brandywine and Amish Paste, these do better with a spacing closer to 30 inches. I have successfully grown both in buckets, with reduced yields vs what they would have seen in the ground. I'm not saying it's not worth it, just know what you're getting into if you plant a Brandywine in a bucket.

Applying this, we get that things like tomatoes go in 5 gallon buckets, peppers go in 2-3 gallon containers, greens can go in just about anything that's at least reasonable, and many herbs can be planted in large coffee cans. I like to stick with buckets, so this usually means I grow two pepper plants in a 5 gallon bucket, although I'll plant in just about anything. I've used old litter boxes, old glass coffee pots, those tubs that Legos come in, and whatever else I can think of. Just stick to the basic size recommendations and you'll have some level of success.

Color - White. Unless you live in an area that is perpetually cold, overcast, etc, white is the best color. There are exceptions to this, but in most cases, I use white buckets or some other light colored container. I wouldn't say don't use dark colored buckets, but know ahead of time that they are going to get very, very hot if the sun beats on them in August. NOTE: Color won't matter if you're using wood containers.

Material - With the exception of building your own wooden containers, plastic is the best. A lot of people talk about using food grade plastic, but my opinion is that there's no need for this. The amount of any chemical that is going to leech from a plastic bucket into even a carrot is likely very, very small. Obviously things that have previously had toxic chemicals in them are out - no old diesel tanks or metal paint thinner cans. No treated lumber or similar materials. Not so much because you might get sick, but because your plants won't thrive. Use your head on this one, and if in doubt don't use it. I'm also going to take a moment to talk about tires. I've written bits about this before, so I won't go deep into it. Don't use tires. Under no circumstances short of starvation would I suggest using tires. If you want to read more about my very strong opinion on that matter, you can go here: Old Tires as Garden Containers?

Shape - Watcha got? Just about any shape container has a use, somewhere.

Media - What to fill them with?
Oh, I suppose you could just dig up some of your soil and use that. I've done it. It kind of works. You can do a lot better though. One of the issues with planting in containers is that there is a limited amount of nutrients in that container. If your soil isn't great, you're going to handicap your plants right from the start. Especially if the container tends to be a bit smaller than it should be. Lots of people will tell you to go buy potting mix or potting soil or composted horse manure or something else like that. You really don't need to, although you do need to do something to both lighten the soil and add nutrients. My method for doing both of these is to add finished compost. My container mix is 1/2 soil and 1/2 finished compost. I also side dress the plants at least once per summer (preferably several times) with another cup or so of finished compost. My finished compost contains considerable amount of composted chicken manure, so it's pretty rich compost. If yours isn't, or if you don't have any at all, go buy a bag from your local garden shop. I hate suggesting anyone buy anything, but you'll be glad you did if you have no other source of good compost.

I'm going to point out here that there is a specific reason that we want to lighten the soil, aside from simply allowing roots to grow better. Containers dry out faster than soil, therefore we water them more often. The more we water, the worse the soil compacts. If you just use soil, by the end of the year, it will be harder than the soil under your walking paths in your garden. When soil is that compacted, it doesn't matter how much you water, the water doesn't penetrate and nothing grows. It's MORE important that we maintain a workable porous soil in a container than it is when planting in the ground. This leads us to some other things worth mentioning.

Properties of planting containers
It's time we go over the nature of the "container ecosystem" if you will, and discuss how the characteristics inherent to growing something in a container can be both strengths and weaknesses.

Soil temperature will almost always be higher, during the growing season. We generally see this as a stressing factor on plants, and generally that is true. We can deal with this in a few ways, but the simplest is to shade the buckets. Don't shade the plants, just the buckets. For me this means that I line up all my buckets north to south, and I have a couple 24 inch wide lengths of plywood that I lean up against the west side of the buckets. Aside from just keeping the sun off the container, this creates a cool area behind the board, allowing heat to dissipate from the containers. You can also accomplish this by grouping your containers, using each of them to shade each other.

This elevated soil temperature can also be a big advantage, especially early in the season. My container plants almost always grow faster than the same varieties planted in the ground, through the months of April and May. I live in zone 4, and many years we don't get the kind of heat necessary to grow nice peppers. I plant many peppers in containers, and then set them along the west side of my house. The heat radiating off the side of the house warms the soil leading to much, much better growth than my peppers planted in the ground. In fact, last year, almost all of my pepper harvest came from those in containers even though I had twice as many pepper plants in the ground. It just wasn't warm enough for peppers to produce well last summer.

It's important to add some kind of fertilizer throughout the growing season. As mentioned earlier, containers have a limited amount of nutrients in them. In the soil, plants can send roots out laterally and vertically looking for moisture and nutrients. This isn't the case in a container, and the soil mixture in a container can become nutrient deficient rather easily even if you start out with a rich compost mixture in the spring. My method to combat this is to add either finished compost or composted chicken manure as a side dressing several times through the growing season. You could use any other fertilizer as well.

We've already discussed watering, but it's worth going a little further. Containers lose moisture faster than the soil for various reasons, so plan to water your containers every day during most of the year, and even twice per day during the hottest parts of the growing season. Anything you can do to automate this process will help considerably. I've seen watering globes used with success, although drip irrigation would be even better. Whenever possible, you should have a catch pan under your containers. Later in the season when plants have deep roots you can simply bottom water. This has the advantage of compacting the soil mixture less, also.

If you do experience soil compaction in your containers, do something about it. The first thing I usually notice when this happens is that the water runs down the sides of the container and right out the bottom, never penetrating the soil. I know most people will cringe at the thought, but if this happens, take a small stake and make some holes around the plant for water to soak into. I use a length of 3/8 rebar for this. Loosen the soil as much as you can without damaging the plant and its roots. Even add more soil around the inside edge of the container to keep water from running down the sides. Whatever you can do to make the water soak into all of the soil mixture in the container. Starting with a good soil mixture is really the best way to prevent this problem, though.

Preparing containers

Whatever container you choose, it needs to have some drain holes. If it doesn't already, drill a few 1/4 inch holes in the bottom of it. Slightly larger holes work too, although once you approach 1/2 inch, that's too big, soil will wash right through those holes. I use 1/4 inch holes because if I want, I can still use the bucket for chicken feed or something else, just by putting a little duct tape over the holes. For a 5 gallon bucket, you're going to need at least 4 holes, and probably more like 6 or 8. I like to place these holes generally in the center of the container rather than around the edges. Water should drain freely, and too few holes means that they could become plugged. Inevitably, there will be a heavy rain or two throughout the summer that will fill your containers right up to the top with water. This should drain within 15-30 minutes or so. If it doesn't, you have too few drain holes in that container.

Containers should be clean, at a minimum spray them out with a hose, and if you aren't sure just what was in them last, scrub them out with some soap and a brush before rinsing.

Add soil mixture as described before. 1/2 good soil and 1/2 finished compost, pre-mixed in another container. If you prefer, yes you can use commercial potting mixtures or make your own mixture. I use dirt and compost because it's readily available and works well for me. Containers should be filled at least 3/4 full, regardless of what you're putting in them. Initially, they should be more full than your goal, because the mixture is going to settle some. I will usually fill the container and then water it well to see where it will settle to, and then plant into the wet mixture. This also helps make sure you don't wash your seeds away when you plant. Under filled containers shade small plants and create a mini-greenhouse climate that can be way too hot for plants in the heat of the summer. For me, 3/4 full is perfect for a 5 gallon bucket. This allows me to put saran wrap or similar plastic over them to retain moisture and heat for very small plants early in the year, too.

You're ready to plant! I direct seed most plants, or you can transplant too. Direct seeds, I cover with plastic to keep the soil moist for the first few days until germination. If you direct seed, plant a few extra seeds, just in case. Transplants and small plants will benefit from being in a container as the lip of the container shields them somewhat from the wind, vs being planted in the ground.

The rest of the growing season

One of the best things about container gardening is you have FAR less weeding to do. Last summer I had about 40 containers, and I was able to weed all of them in 10 minutes a week.

Have I mentioned yet that you need to be diligent with watering? At least check the soil every single day. If you have to leave your plants for a few days, make sure the containers are shaded somehow and soak them really well before leaving.

Supporting plants, especially tomatoes, can be interesting in containers. Typically, I use a stake to support the main stem, although in a large enough container a cage is certainly an option.

Many plants grown in containers will not yield as well as they would in the ground, this is especially true of larger plants. This doesn't mean you shouldn't plant them, just know ahead of time that you might want two plants instead of one.

Growing in containers brings some challenges to gardening, as well as some advantages. Understanding what you're getting into will help increase your chances of success dramatically.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Garden Weeding - What is a weed anyway?

Not all weeds are actually weeds

Most gardeners are doing it wrong. Yes. I said it. They're doing more work than they need to and spending money to correct the mistake they're making without even knowing they're making it.

When I was a kid helping mom in her gardens, I learned to pull anything that I (or she) didn't plant there specifically. Anything. A perfect garden bed was an organized grid of clean rows with bare soil between them. That meant hand pulling, hoeing, tilling, whatever is necessary to prevent weed growth. This makes perfect sense when we consider that most gardening practices of 20-30 years ago in the midwest USA were simply scaled down row crop farming practices. In the 1980s, a farmer with a field of corn and nothing else had something to be proud of. Many (probably most) gardeners still use these practices. Oh sure they've added a few other tricks, but I'm betting that for most gardeners, the sight of a dandelion between their tomatoes triggers a compulsion to pull it.

I understand, the same thing happens to me. But is that really the best response?

What is a weed?

I think, before we can go too far into this, we need to define what a weed is. Traditionally, anything that wasn't intentionally planted was a weed. This could even mean volunteer tomatoes or squash. I can't tell you how many volunteer tomato plants I pulled over the first 10 years of gardening. I almost feel guilty about it now. But is that a fair definition of a weed?

How about we change that a little? Let's say that a weed is anything that doesn't contribute to the garden or benefit us in a way. Does that change what we pull and what we don't? Doesn't it make sense to let a beneficial situation persist? If that dandelion growing between the tomatoes is actually helping us somehow, should we still pull it? Some will say that dandelion isn't helping, it's robbing nutrients and water from the tomatoes. That may be so in some cases, but it's also doing something that tomatoes don't do very well.

Dynamic Accumulators

Many of the plants we consider weeds are called Dynamic Accumulators. This means that they gather nutrients of some sort in their tissues, locking it up for later use. For you, a dynamic accumulator is a reservoir of nutrients. A plant that has locked up a quantity of something you want to store for later.

Many of these dynamic accumulators also send deep roots. Deeper than most things we plant in the garden. That's why they're so hard to get rid of. They're weeds, right? They survive when nothing else does. Have you ever dug up a dandelion? A dandelion tap root can go 18 inches or more into the soil. Most of our garden veggies don't reach deeper than 6-10 inches. What that means for you is that the dandelion is pulling moisture and nutrients from a depth of soil where nothing in your garden can use it. Woah.

No Man's Land (Or No Plant's Land)

Most typical garden plants don't push roots deeper than 8, sometimes 10 inches. This means that any nutrients that have leeched deeper than that are usually lost. They're just gone. Untouchable. Unless you have a few dynamic accumulators in your garden salvaging them. The sweetheart of dynamic accumulators, Comfrey, can grow roots up to 10 feet deep. This guy is the deep sea salvage diver of the plant world, going deep and bringing back valuable nutrients to be stored in leafy growth at the top of the plant. Clovers of all types are nitrogen fixers - they absorb nitrogen from the air and lock it in their tissues. This is free fertilizer, and most people pull it and throw it away.

Not all weeds are beneficial

Certainly, not everything that finds a home in your garden is going to benefit you or your garden in some way. In general, plants that grow a deep root system and do not become invasive are going to help you, and plants that spread rapidly, choking out other growth with spreading shallow root systems are not going to be beneficial. This means that while a dandelion or three is a good thing, grasses of nearly all types are still undesirable even under our more lenient view of what a weed is. To help clarify this a little more, I'll attach some lists of dynamic accumulators at the bottom of this post.

Putting the pieces together

So just HOW do we take advantage of dynamic accumulators in our gardens? By composting. Whether you grow plants specifically for composting as many people in the permaculture world do, or you're more like me and you go pull all those dandelions in the fall and throw them in the compost pile, you're turning something that is traditionally viewed as a scourge into something beneficial.

Let's take a walk through my garden, and I'll tell you what I'm doing now, and how I think all this applies to me and also to you.

The first thing you notice when you enter my garden is that there isn't much bare dirt. There are some areas where crops have been finished and are sitting with a layer of finished compost on top, waiting for fall plantings of garlic, but for the most part, everything is green. The first raised bed we come to has different varieties of tomato plants in cages, some laying on the ground. The area right around the plants is mulched with grass clippings, but the spaces between the plants are filled with different varieties of clover, dandelion, curly dock, wild lettuce, and probably some elm tree seedlings. I leave these plants go until they get so large that they crowd or shade the tomatoes. At that point I grab on and pull. The whole plant goes into the compost bin. Otherwise, I leave them to grow. This doesn't hurt yields one bit. My Amish Paste plants are still approaching 5 feet tall in mid August, even though they were direct seeded (I don't use many transplants, but that's a different story). That carpet of green in between them is helping to preserve moisture and collect nutrients from deep in the soil. The only real management I do, other than removing plants that have started to crowd or shade, is to deadhead anything growing a seed pod. For dandelions this means pulling all the flowers off. On wild lettuce I remove any flowers before they form seeds. I like to leave the flowers as long as possible for the pollinators. Deadheading is easier than weeding, takes less time, leaves a beneficial plant to do its job, and keeps it from overtaking your garden, all at once. Plus, deadheading wild lettuce with a machete can actually be kind of fun.  :)

You'll notice that there is no grass. I hate grass. I've let my lawn go mostly wild, it's up to about 30% clover, which is where the chicken tractor sits most of the summer. But the lawn around the garden is still grassy, meaning grass finds its way into the garden. I pull all the grass I can find inside the beds. Grasses in general, though they have their place in nature, have no place in a vegetable garden.

So let's review:

1. Let beneficial plants grow as long as they don't crowd crops.
2. Deadhead them so they don't produce seeds.
3. Pull them all in the fall and put them in the compost bin - or let them die on their own and work them into the soil in the spring.

And you thought these were just weeds.

Can we take this further?

Certainly! Imagine for a moment, a garden where most of the nutrients that leech too deep to be used by vegetable plants are captured by dynamic accumulators. They're brought back to the top, captured in foliage for you to compost or work back into the soil, releasing those nutrients to be used again. Such dynamic accumulator plants are intentionally placed around and in the garden space just for this purpose. To the passerby they look like weeds, but you know they're doing a job that you can't do any other way, rescuing nutrients, preventing soil compaction, and saving you fertilizers.

Chop and Drop

Many gardeners have learned to add perennial dynamic accumulators (such as comfrey) to their garden areas. One possible method to incorporate this into your garden would be to grow an accumulating plant in your garden, and periodically chop it down, leaving the leaves and stalks on the ground. Done early in the year and the comfrey becomes mulch to spread around your tomatoes. Done in the fall, the material will compost over the fall, winter and spring and become nutrients for next year's growth. Comfrey in particular can be chopped several times per year. You can apply this to other plants as well. Large, broad dandelion leaves make great mulch. Pull the leaves off the top of a dandelion, leaving the root in the ground, and throw them down as mulch around the base of a plant. A few dandelions won't make much difference, but if you have a few hundred around the garden like I do, it becomes almost enough to mulch a whole bed of onions.

To Summarize

Take some time to think about whether those plants growing between your cabbage are helping or hurting your efforts. You just might be shooting yourself in the foot by pulling them all.

List of Dynamic Accumulators - Courtesy of the Oregon Biodynamic Group.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

DIY incubator

How I built a $6 incubator that achieved a 71% hatch rate.

Important Note! Please use your own common sense. You'll be working with electricity, water, sharp tools and heat. If something doesn't make sense, or seems unsafe, stop and consult an expert before proceeding. Please don't hurt yourself.

A few months ago, I was standing in my local farm supply store, looking at the tanks of chicks, pondering what I wanted to do to expand my flock of laying hens. This is a pretty common place for me to find myself in April, to be honest. I stand there, thinking about how ridiculous it is to spend $2.69 on a chick that someone else hatched. Am I going to keep buying a few chicks every year like this? I go to great lengths to avoid buying a $15 sack of feed, but I spend the same on a few chicks every spring? Not to mention the risk associated with introducing outside birds to the flock year after year. Compound the risk over several years, and the odds that a disease outbreak could wipe out my back yard flock go up dramatically.

After some thought, this seemed like a simple enough decision. Yep, I was going to get an incubator and hatch my own eggs. Amazon, here we come! Aaaand hold on a minute. Cheap incubators have terrible reviews. They just don't work that well. Good incubators are EXPENSIVE. Well, $150 might not seem expensive, but to me that's a fortune to spend on something that is supposed to save or make me money. I could buy a whole lot of eggs from someone else for $150.

At this point my mind shuts down. This is a dilemma. I sit at the table and explain the situation to my wife and she looks me square in the eye and says "Why don't you just make one?"

Uh. Hm. I dunno. I mean, I hadn't thought of that. Here I spend every weekend tinkering with stuff, building things out of salvaged and scrounged materials and it never occurred to me to just build one. My wife's brilliant, really.

So, I did a lot of research on incubators. I read a TON of inexpensive DIY incubator plans, most of which had never been tested, and those that had been were used to hatch only a couple eggs just to prove that they could hatch an egg. I researched good commercial incubators. I read up on hatch success rates and the science of hatching chicken eggs as told by universities and commercial hatcheries. I talked endlessly to the two people I know well who have lots of experience hatching chicken eggs. And this design, though simple, is what I came up with after all that. A low cost homemade incubator that has been tested with documented results.

chicks hatched in DIY incubator
These are the chicks hatched in this incubator, at 3 weeks old.

Things you need:
Please note: Links are to show you what we're talking about. In true homesteader tradition, I recommend and even expect that you will scrounge this stuff from junk piles, clearance racks, and beg/borrow the whatever else you need. If you buy all this stuff you aren't saving money.

Styrofoam cooler  - something like an Omaha Steaks cooler is perfect for 15 eggs or so. It should have thick walls. It should look like this
Bottle lamp kit - Something like this or you can salvage an old lamp.
25w light bulb - Like this
Computer fan - One of these will work
Thermostat - This is what I used
12v DC adapter - Here's one that works with the fan I linked
Digital thermometer with probe - One like this works and this has a hygrometer too.
Piece of glass out of old 8x10 picture frame, or similar sized plexiglass, plastic, etc. As long as you can see through it and it's reasonably rigid.
small plastic bowl
1/4 inch galvanized steel mesh. You only need about 3 square feet of it, so if you have or can locate some scrap, that might work.


flat and phillips screwdrivers
wire stripper (or whatever tool you're comfortable doing this with. I use a small sidecutter)
Duct tape
Electrical tape
A couple feet of tie wire or string
Something to cut styrofoam with. I use an old steak knife.
Heavy duty scissors, tin snips, or something to cut wire mesh.

First, I'm going to talk about each of the components, as some background on what their purpose is, and how to help yourself select the right parts.

Styrofoam Cooler

This is the incubator, really. The size is only important as far as it allows you to fit all the components into it, and that it will hold enough eggs for your purposes. I used an Omaha Steaks cooler that I had laying around, but you could easily use a foam shipping container or even a larger plastic cooler if you want. I'm not saying you should go buy this, but something like this is what I'm talking about. Just make sure that it's not smaller than 10x10x10 inches inside. Any smaller than that and you won't be able to fit the components. That size would probably be appropriate for 8-10 eggs or so. Ideally, you'd have 12x12x12 inches inside, or larger. You don't want the entire space filled with eggs, the chicks need a place to stand and dry off after hatching where they won't be standing on eggs or in broken eggshells. The sides of the cooler should be thick enough to insulate well and be strong enough to handle being worked with. Anything thinner than an inch is probably going to be too weak to be durable.

Bottle Lamp Kit

This is your heat source. Honestly, you shouldn't buy a bottle lamp kit. You should find an old junk lamp that's ugly as all heck and take it apart. Hit up a yard sale or auction and you can probably get one for $1 or maybe even free, if you don't already have one laying around.

25w Light Bulb

Find the chandelier style 25 watt bulb with the normal large end. I found a pack of 4 of these at walmart for $2.50 just recently. It's a good idea to have a spare bulb. If you use a particularly large cooler or box, you may need to go to a 40w bulb, but in my tests 25w worked fine as long as the temp outside the incubator was above 60F.

Computer Fan

This is any old 12v fan you can find. Take apart an old computer, stop by a computer shop and they might sell you an old used one for $2. Just make sure it's 12v and 1 amp (1000 milliamps or ma) or less. The simplest fan is the best, you don't want thermostatic controls, speed switches, or anything else to complicate the wiring. Just a plain old 12v fan.


This is probably the most important piece of the project. The basic idea is that the thermostat turns the light on and off to create heat, withing a pre-set temp range. The thermostat we use is normally used in a water heater, and isn't designed for fine tuning the way we need to for this project. Ideally, I would use a wafer-type thermostat, but this is what I could get easily so I used it and it really did work quite well. Commercial forced air incubators in the $150-$200 range typically hold about a 2-3 degree temp range, and mine with the water heater thermostat did that or better.

12v DC Adapter

This is to power the fan for circulating air. I'm betting you can scrounge up an old one for an ancient blackberry (sorry bb fans) or some other obsolete phone or electronic device. I say 12v, but most computer fans will run on lower voltage as long as there is sufficient amperage to start the fan. You can play around and see what works for you with your fan, but it's best if you just find a 12v 1 amp adapter and use that.


This is to make a window in the top of the cooler. You can use whatever you want for this. I used an old piece of plate glass, which is probably not the safest. Clear plastic would be best. You could probably even grind the edges off an old CD jewel case to make it flat, and use that. You just need to be able to see inside so you can monitor progress without removing the lid.

Small plastic bowl

About a 2 inch high tupperware or similar bowl that will hold about a cup of water. This goes under the screen shelf to ensure proper humidity during incubation.

1/4 inch mesh

We are going to make the egg shelf with this. We can't just lay the eggs in the bottom of the cooler, so we'll be making a shelf elevated about 3-5 inches off the bottom of the cooler that the eggs will sit on and the chicks will stand on after hatching. Nothing larger than 1/4 inch mesh, or the chicks will have a hard time walking on it. I use this mesh because I can cut it and shape it to whatever I need.

So how does this all go together?

1. Prep the cooler and test fit the light socket

Well, first of all we need to prep the cooler. You're going to make 3 holes in it, two of them near the bottom. and a third next to the fan. The first is for the lamp and the second is for the thermostat wires to come out. Please see the picture below to get an idea of the component layout. I strongly recommend following that layout. We'll be putting the lamp near a corner, but not so close to the corner that the heat from the bulb might melt the styrofoam and to allow better heat circulation. It should be positioned so that the light bulb is at least 1 inch away from the adjacent side. Position the hole for the lamp so that the bulb is about 1 inch above the bottom of the cooler. Not the center of the bulb, the edge of the bulb. If the cooler bottom is 1 inch thick, you'll need to go up about 2.5 inches to get this clearance. Once you know where the lamp and bulb go and you've double and triple checked your clearances, make your hole. I did this with a steak knife, slowly carving away the foam until I had a snug fit. Once you have a hole, insert the lamp socket and make sure it goes far enough in that the bulb won't be touching the foam. If so, you may need to insert the light socket further, or possibly countersink the whole arrangement so it goes in far enough.

The 2nd hole is for the wires that go from the light socket to the thermostat and back. You can make this hole just by pushing a screwdriver through the foam. The thermostat will turn the light on and off as the temperature fluctuates. The thermostat and its wires will be positioned along the same side of the cooler as the bulb is, in the other corner. We want the thermostat far enough from the bulb that it's sensing air temperature and not radiant heat from the bulb, and raised off the bottom of the cooler. So, the hole for these wires should be about 2 inches off the bottom of the cooler and should be about 1/8 to 1/4 inch in size. Just enough to push the wires through.

The hole for the fan wires should can go pretty much anywhere close to the fan, you can see where the fan is positioned in the picture below, as well as the location of the thermostat and the light bulb. The thermostat is lifted off the bottom of the incubator using a chunk of the leftover foam cut out when the window was installed in the lid. These are small wires, so you can probably make them by pushing a screwdriver through the foam.

Note, since this is a salvaged cooler, it's got some staining and looks pretty dirty. It would also look pretty similar after hatching a batch of chicks, so make sure before starting a batch of eggs that you wash everything thoroughly. I use a cup of water with just a splash of bleach to decontaminate. This rig isn't pretty since it's all scrounged and salvaged materials, but I'm too cheap to pay for pretty. Your exact installation may vary, depending on what materials you are using, but this is the basic idea.

It should be mentioned that the placement of the fan, light, and thermostat are what they are for a specific reason. The thermostat under the fan because it ensures a steady stream of airflow so that it can react quickly to changes in temperature inside the incubator. The light across from the fan so that it has continual airflow over it to keep temperatures near it cool and to circulate warm air quickly. The thermostat is as close to the level of the eggs as possible while still being under the mesh shelf, but raised to keep it away from water in the bottom of the incubator, with the adjustment screw facing up so that if you do need to adjust the temperature after starting incubation, you can reach through the mesh shelf with a small flatblade screwdriver to do so. With the lid on, this makes a nice clean circulation with pretty much no areas of low or no air flow.

Once you have a hole for the light socket cut, test fit the light. It should fit snugly enough that it won't fall out. Remove the light socket and set it aside.

2. Wire the thermostat to the light and install the light and thermostat

Please do all wiring with the light unplugged. Don't kill or injure yourself by electrocution over an incubator. Seek advice from someone who knows electricity if you don't understand how to do this part.

The light socket's power cord will have 2 wires. A plain colored one and a striped one. Split the two wires apart, and trim about 12 inches of wire off the striped wire and set aside. Strip the end off the non-striped wire and connect it to the #1 terminal on the thermostat. Strip the ends off the 12 inch cut off wire and connect one end to the #2 terminal on the thermostat. Connect the other end to the brass colored screw terminal on the light socket. Connect the remaining end of the striped wire (still attached to the plug) to the silver screw on the light socket. Wrap all exposed connections in electrical tape for safety. The terminals aren't covered in tape in my picture so that you can see it, but before testing or operation, I cover all connections in electrical tape.

At this point, we need to test the light. Make sure you aren't touching any of the wiring, and that it's not touching any conductive surfaces. If you plug it in and you did everything correctly, the light should come on. If you did something wrong, the breaker will either trip, or the light will simply fail to come on. If it trips the breaker, your wires are probably backwards somewhere. If the light doesn't come on, check the switch on the light socket. If after this it still isn't working correctly, seek the advice of someone qualified to work with electricity. Please don't hurt yourself over this!

Assuming that everything works correctly, it's time to unplug the light, disassemble whatever wiring is necessary and install the light and thermostat into the incubator. You should only have to remove the wires from the thermostat to do this. Remove both and install the light socket into the hole you cut, and install the bulb. Next, insert the thermostat wires through their hole, place the thermostat inside the incubator in its corner, and reattach the thermostat wires. Re-tape any exposed connections and then test the light again.

3. Install the fan

The fan should be placed as close to the top of the incubator as possible without hitting the lid. This makes the air circulate top to bottom. Figure out where the fan goes, and if necessary use a strip of folded cardboard to space it 1/4 inch from the side of the cooler, so that it can draw air from the back side. Make sure that the fan is blowing away from the wall of the cooler, into the middle. Once you identify the location, make 2 holes on each side of the fan and attach it to the cooler by running a loop of wire through the holes, and around the face of the fan. Twist the wire (or tie the string) on the outside of the cooler, securing the fan in place. Quick and dirty. You can spend more

Strip off the ends of the fan wires, and strip off the ends of your 12v adapter. connect the wires of the adapter to the wires of the fan. Temporarily wrap in electrical tape and test the fan by plugging the adapter in to an outlet. Make sure the fan works and is turning the proper direction. There's only two options here, so if the fan doesn't work, unplug the adapter, and switch the wires, re-tape and try again. If it still doesn't work, it's possible that your adapter is the wrong voltage or amperage for the fan, or either the fan or adapter doesn't work at all. Ask for experienced help at this point if it's still not working. Assuming everything works, unplug and disconnect the wires, insert the wires through the hole you made for them. Re-connect the wires and wrap in electrical tape. Test the fan once more just to be sure.

4. Install the window in the lid

Lay the window piece, either glass or clear plastic on top of the lid. Make a mark around the outside of the window piece. Set the window aside and make a new line 1/4 to 1/2 inch inside the existing line. This is the line we will cut along to remove the foam. Cut out the foam with a knife, set the window over the hole. Secure the window with electrical tape or duct tape. I used electrical tape on mine, but would use duct tape if I did it again.

This is what mine looks like. Again, not pretty, but functional.

5. Test run #1

We're ready for the first test run. Set up your thermometer and hang the probe into the incubator. Using a small flatblade screwdriver, turn the temp setting on the thermostat all the way down. Put the lid on and plug the light and fan in. The light should come on and the fan should be moving air. Note the temperature in the incubator and make sure it starts heating up. Monitor it until the light goes off. It will probably turn off at about 96 degrees, depending on your thermostat. Keep watching until it comes back on. Let it cycle a couple times to make sure it works. There's no need to adjust the temperature at this time, we're just trying to make sure that all the components work. We'll do tuning in the 2nd test run. What you are looking for  is a narrow temp range. If the temp swing from low to high is less than 4 degrees, you should be ok.

Temperature discussion

At this point, we should probably talk a little about temperature control in the incubator. Once we're running, we want to hold a temperature as close to 100.0 F as possible. This doesn't mean that there can't be some temp swing as the thermostat goes on and off, the important thing is that the average temp inside the egg stays there. An egg is mostly liquid, at first, and therefore it holds heat to some extent and doesn't fluctuate temperature as fast as the air does. What this means for you is that if your thermostat turns the light on at 98 F and off at 102 F, that gives us an average temp of exactly 100 F, which is perfect. The temp inside the egg may swing between 99 and 101, but that's still ok. What we really want to avoid are large temperature swings, or extended temp swings. Just saying that the low is 98 and the high is 102 isn't necessarily good enough, if the incubator spends most of the time at 102 and only drops to 98 briefly before the light comes on. The best way to test the temperature would be to put the temp probe inside something that has the same mass and heat retention properties as an egg. One way you can do this is to put some water in 2 ziplock bags and sandwich the temp probe between them. Another would be to wrap the temp probe in plastic and submerge it in a small cup of water, about the same amount as an egg, inside the incubator. This will give you a good idea of what the actual temp inside the egg will be as the incubator goes through its cycle.

We know that chickens, and birds in general don't hold perfect temp with their eggs when setting on them. We don't expect to have a perfectly stable temp throughout the incubation. What we want to avoid are long periods of low temperature or any periods where the internal egg temp rises above 103 F.  According to my research, the IDEAL temperature for incubation is 99.5 for the first 17 days, and then approximately 100.2 for the last 4 days. Without an expensive digital thermostat this would be pretty tough to accomplish, so we aren't even going to try. We'll shoot for an average temp of between 99.5 and 100.0 F, and the only adjustments we make will be to stay within that range. This is where the memory settings on your thermometer come in handy.

5. Final Assembly

Now we need to get things buttoned up and ready for a longer test run. First, cut a chunk out of that foam you removed when making the window, and make a stand for the thermostat. You can glue it in if you want, but you want the thermostat raised off the bottom of the incubator for two reasons. First, so it doesn't get wet, and 2nd so that it is closer to the level that the eggs are in the incubator, so that it reacts to the same air the eggs are exposed to. Once you've got the thermostat situated, it's time to make a shelf out of the 1/4 inch mesh. This is simple, so I'm just going to show you a picture of one.

Excuse the dirty table, I took the pictures at our soap making station since it has the best light.

To make this, you measure the inside of your incubator. Say it's 12x12 inches. You cut a piece of screen that is 13 inches by 18 inches. You fold a half inch of mesh down on 2 sides, so there are no sharp edges, and you fold the other 2 sides down 3 inches each, to make a shelf that's 2 inches high and fits snugly inside the cooler. Now, this isn't necessarily easy. I recommend wearing leather gloves while working with this stuff, as the wire is sharp and will cut you. Also, the mesh won't make a nice perfect shape for you. If it fits snugly, though, you can make it hold its shape once it's inside the incubator. There are some considerations with this. Before you put it in place, set your bowl in the bottom of the incubator. No sense in having to take the shelf out later to put the bowl in. The shelf should fit under the fan and over the lightbulb with some clearance between it and the lightbulb. Preferably about an inch between the bulb and the screen. It sucks getting it in there, trim and re-bend until you get a snug fit all the way around. You don't want a chick getting its foot stuck in a gap. Once you've got it fitting properly, it's staying there until after you hatch your first eggs and need to disassemble for cleaning. Note: I bend the mesh over the edge of a table or workbench, with a chunk of 2x4 to act as a break of sorts.

Next, we're going to cut one more small piece of mesh to make a screen that goes over the fan. Cut a piece of screen 1 inch larger than the fan in both directions. Fold the edges over all the way around to make a box, slide this over the fan, and wrap with duct tape to cover any sharp wire edges. This guard is not installed in any of my pictures, so I apologize. The point of this is to make sure that chicks don't stick their body parts into the fan. The fan is blowing out, so it wouldn't suck them in and severely mutilate them, however they could still get injured without a screen over the fan.

6. 2nd Test Run

For our 2nd test run, we're going to focus on monitoring temperature, humidity, airflow and function over a longer period. Assemble your incubator, plug everything in, add water to the bowl under the screen (you can pour the water through the screen or use a small tube and funnel to fill. Either way works), set the temp probe on the screen at the egg level and close it up. Let it run for a half hour and check the temp. Adjust up or down using the screw on the thermostat. You need to make VERY TINY adjustments. It may not even seem like the screw moved. Remember, we're making fine adjustments with a device that wasn't designed for such fine adjustments. Tinker with this until it will run at a specific temp for a half hour without fluctuating below 98 F or above 102 F.

If your temp probe also does humidity, you can measure it there. If not, no big deal. Our target is 50% relative humidity for now, and the bowl of water and the moving air should make sure we achieve this without issues. If you want to test it, that much the better. I don't measure humidity in mine. I just try to make sure that it's humid for the first 18 days, and then REALLY humid until hatching is complete. If you're measuring humidity, you'll need to run it for a couple hours or even overnight to really know what the humidity is. If you've got the temp right, leave the lid closed for a few hours and then check the humidity.

Let the whole thing run for at least one day. Don't remove the lid during this time. If after this time the temp is still stable, you're ready to hatch eggs.

Operation Instructions and Concepts

Our incubator does not have an egg turner, so when you load your eggs, mark the top with a pencil so you have a point of reference for turning. You'll be opening the lid at least once per day, preferably twice, to turn the eggs. You don't need to turn them much, I just roll them slightly over, maybe 15 degrees each time. Back and forth until you get to day 18 and lockdown until hatch is complete. Try to keep the time the lid is off to a minimum, and after closing you should monitor for a few minutes to make sure the temp comes back up to where it should be. When you go to turn eggs, always check the max and min temperatures in the memory of your thermometer. If necessary, this is the time to adjust the thermostat. You should not have to, but just in case, this is when you do it. Make sure that if you do, you monitor the incubator for at least 30 minutes to make sure the temp is stable and correct. Remember, it's better to be 0.4 degrees off target than to keep opening and closing the incubator over and over again, constantly messing with the thermostat.

If you know anything about incubators, at this point, you're probably wondering how we increase humidity at the end of the incubation cycle. Understanding that humidity is critical while chicks are hatching, we know we need to get above 70% humidity. If we don't, the membrane inside the shell will dry out, shrink, and effectively shrink wrap the chicks inside the egg, killing them. So how do we do that? I thought about that a lot, and decided that the best way to increase humidity is to increase the surface area of the water so more evaporates. For the first 18 days, the water in the bowl has enough surface area. On day 18, I open the lid and pour about 1/4 inch of water in the bottom of the incubator. This increases the surface area of the water dramatically, and makes sure there's enough humidity. Also top off the water in the bowl at this point if we need to. After day 18, you're in lockdown mode and the lid of the incubator should not be opened. You should have enough water in the bowl and in the bottom of the incubator at this point to last until hatch is complete. Expect to see condensation on the window after day 18 with the increase in humidity.


I built this incubator hoping that it would hatch something, anything. I didn't expect it to be perfect, I only expected it to be functional. Honestly, I'm very happy with the results.

I started with 21 eggs from my brother's mixed flock. He hatches eggs for his own flock in a $200+ incubator that isn't much different from this one, except it has an egg turner. His results with his eggs after 3 hatchings this spring were about 65-70% hatch rate, after subtracting infertile eggs. He has 1 rooster and over 30 hens, so some eggs will be infertile, and many of the hens are older, meaning the eggs aren't as likely to hatch. In my batch of 21, there were 4 that showed no development when candled at 5-6 days. I left those eggs in the incubator, just to see if I was right, however none of those 4 ever developed. Of the remaining 17, 13 of them hatched. 12 of those chicks survived past 3 days, and all are still running around the coop, now 4 weeks old. The one chick that hatched but did not survive did not absorb the yolk sac correctly, and when it hatched it was covered in yolk and blood. It was unable to stand and could barely move even after 8 hours. It passed shortly after that. Among the 12 that survived, there were no deformities in feet or beaks, all the chicks are healthy and growing. My success rate is 12 out of 17, for a rounded 71%.

The gross part

I decided to analyze the 4 eggs that showed development at candling but did not hatch. Of those 4, 1 looked to have quit at around day 10. There was nothing significant about day 10, I couldn't find a cause for it other than that it was a weak egg. The 2nd quitter looked like it made it to around day 15-17. Again, there was no directly attributable cause for this. The remaining 2 held fully developed but dead chicks. I shut off the incubator on the morning of day 23. It's possible that these chicks might have still hatched. I don't know. I do know that a chick hatching on day 23 has a low chance of survival. I made a note to let the incubator run to day 24 next time, just to see.


Overall, this was a successful experiment for me. I feel that this incubator can achieve the same hatching success that most of the small incubators that those of us with backyard flocks would purchase, and certainly better than the cheap incubators would do. My next plan is to build a scaled up version of this using the same principles in an insulated cabinet.