Gene Logsdon and Friends

Archive for the ‘Garden Farm Skills’ Category

Let’s Train the Next Generation of Farmers…

In Garden Farm Skills on June 25, 2014 at 10:02 am

From Grange Farm School

The crucially important purpose of the Grange Farm School is to help aspiring farmers learn the skills they need to pursue their dreams as small farmers and to provide healthy local food to their communities.

You know the bad news:

America’s farmers are aging, and their children are not replacing them on the farm. American commercial agriculture is good at producing huge quantities of mono-crops laden with GMOs and chemicals; but wholesome, healthy food is hard to come by. And conventional agriculture gulps fossil fuels and water and depletes the topsoil at alarming rates.

Here’s the good news: More…

Backyard Clotheslines and Washboard Secrets

In Garden Farm Skills, Gene Logsdon Blog on June 27, 2011 at 10:50 am

The Logsdon Farm Clothesline

From GENE LOGSDON (1985)
Garden Farm Skills

Most people would not want to be without their clothes dryer, but there’s something lost for every gain. What you lose with a dryer, besides the money and the energy it costs to run it, is that heavenly fresh smell of clothes and sheets dried out in the fresh air and sunshine. For both economical and aesthetic reasons, folks with yards like to hang the wash out during the warmer months, even if it is more work.

For a clothesline, use nylon rope, not wire. The wire will rust and the clothes will get stained from it. The easiest way to erect a line is to tie the rope from tree to tree, if possible. Otherwise you have to set poles in the ground — and very solidly, since the weight of a line full of wet sheets is considerable.

Steel or wood posts are fine. If wood, use a kind that resists rot. Put the posts 3 feet in the ground and pour cement around them to a thickness of 3 to 4 inches. By notching a crossarm solidly in the top of each wood post, you can run two parallel lines. If using threaded pipe for a post, a T-union and extensions of pipe at the top will provide a sturdy crossarm.

How far apart the posts should be will depend, of course, on how much wash you need to dry at one time. The distance between posts should hardly exceed 40 to 50 feet, or the line will sag too much or get too heavy to prop up easily. The prop is a necessary addition to the line. It is set in the middle between posts to make sure a loaded line does not drag on the ground. The tops of the posts where the line ties on should be at least 8 feet from the ground. The prop should be about 10 feet long. A branch with a Y tip to accept the line, or a 1 by 2-inch board with a V notch in one end will work fine. The prop is set under the line and, on a windy day, should be somewhat pointed toward the wind. The weight of the clothes will hold it up. More Gene…

Making Wooden Kitchen Spoons and Similar Utensils

In Garden Farm Skills, Gene Logsdon Blog on June 20, 2011 at 6:58 am

From GENE LOGSDON (1985)
Garden Farm Skills

There are only two little secrets to making spoons, ladles, and forks out of wood. The first is that you don’t carve the spoon from a block of wood; rather, you find a branch with a spoon in it.

Nothing mysterious about that advice. A proper spoon or ladle must have a curve in the handle to be designed for easy use — those straight-handled wooden spoons you can buy cheap are almost unusable except to stir with. You might be able to steam bend a straight piece of wood to the proper curve, but that would be hard work. What you dare not do is cut the curve into a piece of wood across the grain. Such a spoon easily breaks. Therefore, when he is cutting firewood or when he is in the woods, a spoon maker keeps a sharp eye out for branches that have a natural curve in them to make the curved handle. It becomes, in fact, great sport to find the spoons in the wood.

Then there’s the second secret. Having once found a proper branch or crotch, never carve your spoon from the very center of it. Again, that would make a very weak spoon. Instead, cut the branch in two along the centerline and carve a spoon in each half where the grain is thick enough, widthwise, to make a strong handle.

Rough out the spoon with a handsaw or, if available, a band saw or table saw. In fact, I do most of the rougher carving on the band saw, cutting away little by little, with my eye on the grain of the wood, which determines the curve of the handle, until the spoon begins to appear. I even roughly shape the bowl on the band saw.

Carve out the rest with a sharp knife and perhaps hollow out the spoon bowl with a chisel or gouge. Because I have a drill press at my disposal, I do most of the finish carving with a rasp bit, especially nice for hollowing out the bowl and rounding the bottom. I level, balance, and thin the spoon down to proper proportion, trusting my eye rather than measuring. I rasp and look, rasp and look, making sure that the drill press is so set that it cannot rasp down through the spoon bowl and out the bottom. I finish up with pocketknife and sandpaper.

Walnut is the best of the good hardwoods for carving because it carves easily despite its hardness. More Gene…

Simple Homemade Toys

In Garden Farm Skills, Gene Logsdon Blog on June 13, 2011 at 7:54 am

From GENE LOGSDON (1985)
Garden Farm Skills

The toys most of us really remember playing with as children weren’t really toys but things we turned into toys. My earliest recollection is a matchbox of multicolored and multisize rubberbands I played with by the hour when I was about two. I don’t know why they fascinated me only that they did. Even the matchbox was a wonder — the way it slid so neatly open and closed.

My next favorite toy was a big tin box full of all kinds of buttons that my mother gave me occasionally after I was old enough not to try to eat them. I sorted buttons by size and shape and color for hours — my first crude notion of what would later help me understand the idea of classification by genus and species.

At the age when children like to have a playhouse or any small place to hide in or feel secure in, corn shocks in my father’s fields were the perfect answer. They looked like tepees. We could push aside the stalks tied upright together and hollow out a room inside. When my children were that age, I shocked the sweet corn stalks after harvest in the garden More Gene…

An Easy Practical Farm Gate

In Garden Farm Skills, Gene Logsdon Blog on June 6, 2011 at 7:22 am

From GENE LOGSDON (1985)
Garden Farm Skills

Hundreds of gate designs have been devised to ease the passage in and out of fields and barnyards. Almost all of them depend on hinges to carry the weight of the gate swinging open or closed. The light aluminum gates today are the nicest but they carry a nice price tag, too. And even these will eventually suffer from the weakness of all large hinged gates — the weight is too great for the hinges. Even with a diagonal brace through the gate and up to the post above the hinge, these gates eventually sag and drag on the ground. To prevent the sagging, an enormously sturdy and solid hinge post must be set in the ground.

The simple board gate shown here avoids the problem and expense. To open, the gate is slid back on its bar hinge to about halfway, where it balances on the bar. Note that it can only open one way. Even if made of heavy boards like oak, the gate is very easy to lift, open or closed. If grease is smeared on the slide bar occasionally, even a child can open it. The most durable wood is rough cut hardwood from a sawmill. Red oak, being the longer lasting of commonly available cheaper woods, is preferred around where I live. More Gene…

A Pigpen for the Backyard

In Garden Farm Skills, Gene Logsdon Blog on May 31, 2011 at 5:28 am

From GENE LOGSDON (1985)
Garden Farm Skills

[Please visit the upgraded pages for Gene's Books here and Post Archive by Title here. -DS]

Loose talk about pigpens in the yard will send the blood pressure soaring in the veins of local zoning officials, if not your neighbors. It’s perfectly all right in our culture to keep a dog half the size of a cow in the yard, letting it bark all night and running all over town dropping manure in its wake. But a quiet, clean hog producing something useful like pork chops? Heaven forbid.

People think hogs are dirty because hogs will survive in crowded conditions. Because hogs will survive in crowded conditions, humans have always raised them that way, the better to make a buck. Try raising cats like we do hogs, and you’ll know what dirt and stench are really like.

A neighbor woman has for twelve years raised a hog every summer in a pen in her yard. The pig and its pen are so clean I doubt close neighbors, if there were any, More Gene…

Training Cows

In Garden Farm Skills, Gene Logsdon Blog on May 23, 2011 at 6:39 am

From GENE LOGSDON (1985)
Garden Farm Skills

I am personally not enchanted with the idea of training horses because if one wants to use animal power in place of a tractor, I’m prejudiced in favor of cows or oxen. Cows and oxen, I believe and shall try to show, are better geared to the smaller homestead farm. This belief is based partly on psychology rather than technology — I do not have the proper temperament to work horses (especially to train them!) but I get along well with bovines. It so happens that my earliest recollections of fear come from three runaways involving horses —  two I merely observed as a child, and one that I was the principal participant in. I have no romantic notions about horse farming. I have also been thrown from riding horses, one of which I was “breaking,” so I have a dim view of horseback riding as a sport. It almost always turns out to be a luxury only the rich can really afford, if anyone can…

Training Cows to Lead

It is not always necessary that a cow be trained to lead, More Gene…

The Garden Farm Guide To Beekeeping

In Garden Farm Skills, Gene Logsdon Blog on November 25, 2008 at 1:26 am

From Gene Logsdon (1985)
WIth Update – November 2008
Garden Farm Skills

I hesitate to describe the way I produce the 8 to 10 quarts of honey we eat every year (we use honey, maple syrup, and sorghum molasses for sweeteners but seldom use honey in cooking or baking). I ignore almost all the rules in bee books about producing honey, and I have done so for eight years without any ill effects at all. Commercial beekeepers will say I’ve just been lucky, and I suppose to some small degree that’s true. But you, too, can easily be that lucky while reducing the complications of beekeeping to a very simple, low-cost, and low-labor activity.

The reason I can ignore the “right” ways of beekeeping is that I allow the bees to perform their natural functions as naturally as possible in the domesticated environment I provide them. Bees in the wild take care of themselves quite well, and so long as there are places for them to live and nectar for them to gather, they go right on living, even though individual colonies occasionally die out.

The “right ways” that I more or less ignore are the necessary steps the beekeeper must attend to when he is manipulating this natural bee activity for the highest possible honey production, that is, when he or she wants to produce enough honey to make the operation commercially profitable, possibly even as a way to make a living. Almost all how-to books consciously or unconsciously assume this kind of profitability as the ultimate purpose of home-based work: If the work is cottage industry, then it must make dollars and cents in the so-called real economic world. This assumption even insinuates itself occasionally into how-to gardening books even though the salvation of gardening is that it is a noncommercial type of agriculture. The reason I harp and carp on this point is because the very essence of traditional skills and crafts is the avoidance of and freedom from the profit motive. My bees do not make money for me. But being free of the time and equipment I’d need to manipulate them to “profitability,” my bees certainly do not lose money, either. The 10 quarts of honey would cost us, retail today, about $40. We bought a $150 extractor, an extravagance already paid for out of that yearly honey income. We’ve bought little else except honey frames and wax foundations and the usual veil, gloves, and hive tools. I made the hive bodies or received them free from other beekeepers simply by being patient and alert.

There are always bees in hives for sale in the fall in rural newspapers, or to be had for free from someone who went into the bee business for money and lost interest, or from swarms free for the capturing. Hardly a year goes by that I am not called to capture a swarm, usually by a frantic homeowner scared to death of the bees, although when swarming, bees seldom if ever sting. I got my start with a colony owned by a man who found he was becoming dangerously allergic to bee stings. He had three hives. I knew nothing about bees (still know very little). I called a beekeeper. Would she help me get the three hives in exchange for two of them? Gladly. The owner graciously gave us the hive bodies and supers (hive boxes), too (all were in bad shape). We wrapped up the hives in burlap sacks (I watched) and carted them off in a pickup truck. I was in the bee “business.” The old saying is that you have to move a colony either just a few feet, or you have to move them a few miles so that the bees will not return to their old location. We were beyond the 3-mile limit, so no worries.

I put my hive up on bricks and doused the bricks with used oil to discourage ants from raiding the hive. I cleaned and refurbished the honey supers that I would eventually add on top of the brood chamber. I must confess that in eight years I have never looked into the brood chamber. To be quite honest, I’ve been afraid to root round down in there and get on a first-name basis with the queen, or do any requeening or such complicated maneuvers. My theory is that she will do her job if I just don’t bother her too much. And I never have. Every June I add a shallow super over the original brood chamber and original deep honey super that I never monkey with. In recent years I’ve added a second shallow super. In late October I take off this top super and remove the honey. Next June I put it back on again. That is the entire extent of my beekeeping efforts.

What happens, of course, is that when the colony gets overcrowded, because I do not add more supers in the summer, they swarm. The commercial beekeeper goes to great lengths to avoid swarming, so that hive population increases and produces more honey. I welcome swarming. It is the bees’ natural way to increase themselves. The old queen and old bees leave the hive. A new queen and new workers build up in the hive — renewing the vigor of the colony, and, I’m now quite sure, helping to avoid diseases and other problems that come with the unnatural buildup of huge colonies.

The reason my careless beekeeping methods work is because there is always plenty of honey in the hive for the bees. I’m convinced that feeding them sugar water is not a healthy substitute.

But since I’ve never taken very good care of the hives (I don’t even insulate them for protection in our often subzero winters), I’ve believed that sooner or later my hive would develop problems — at least needing the brood chamber cleaned or replaced. Rather than do that, and also so that I would have to take even less honey out of the one hive, I started a second by capturing a swarm (see below) that issued from the first one. Now, if something goes haywire in the first hive, I will simply destroy it, clean out the brood chamber, and start a new hive from another swarm from the newer colony. But nothing has gone haywire in eight years, as I’ve said, and the two-hive arrangement works well for me. When production is down in one due to a recent swarm, production seems to be up a little in the other. So now I’m preparing a hive to start a third colony, after which I will (I tell myself) destroy the oldest one right after it swarms, since two healthy hives is all I wish to keep.


My two hives are not up to professional standards. In one there is no hive cover under the lid as the books say is necessary. One hive has a queen excluder over the brood chamber; the other does not. In neither of these cases does there seem to be any difference in bee activity or honey production. I don’t have a proper bee entrance on either hive — just a little piece of wood to block part of the entranceway so the bees have less doorway to defend in case of intruders. Ants try to get in the hives (which are not up off the ground far enough) but when I’ve watched an ant raid, it always seems to fizzle. The bees carry the ants away as fast as they try to come in. I suppose some day I will get wax moths, but not so far. There’s a buckeye tree nearby, the pollen of which is supposed to be poison to our to bees (although the honey bees make from it is OK), but this has seemed to pose no threat either. I continue to operate on the theory that the bees know what they are doing.

I have no very professional way to remove the supers and frames full of honey. I wear protective clothing and use a smoker, of course, puffing smoke all over myself, as well as at the entrance to the hive before i pry off the lid. I puff more smoke over the exposed frames, but not too much. Too much just upsets the bees. I’ve never found an easy way to drive the bees down into the hive farther, since I have no air blower. I merely pry up a frame at a time, shake the bees off of it, or brush them with my gloved hand (I have no bee brush, either), and carry the frame back to a pan or bucket sitting beyond the range the bees consider their own private territory — about 30 feet away. Then I go back and take out another frame, and so on until the super is empty. Then I lift off the empty super and put the lid back on the top of the super below.

Then I carry the pan full of frames to the house. The bees remaining on the frames I can now brush off with impunity and they fly away. There’s always a couple that get crushed in this transfer. Back at the hive you should be very careful to try not to crush a bee. This can arouse coworkers. But never panic! I’ve injured bees at the hive, without disaster. I puff a lot of smoke if they start up that certain angry kind of buzzing you soon learn to recognize. I’ve only been stung twice in eight years.

The caps have to be cut off the combs. We don’t have an electric decapper either, but use a butcher knife, the blade kept reasonably hot by dipping it into hot water now and then. The hotter the blade, the easier it cuts through the combs in the decapping process. It’s a messy job no matter what, and you should put down newspapers everywhere, because no matter how careful you are, honey will drip on the floor, you will step on it, and then track it elsewhere.

Some of the frames are filled with sheets of foundation wax reinforced with wires that run through them; other frames have wax sheets that are not reinforced. The former are stronger and better, but with the latter, we can cut out large squares of comb honey. I use these unreinforced sheets for comb honey rather than fussing around with the little boxes and special supers used for production of comb honey in commercial apiaries. I first read about this in the books by Ormond and Harry Aebi, The Art and Adventure of Beekeeping and Mastering the Art of Beekeeping, which are, in my opinion, the two best and most readable books on bees (the former now published by Rodale Press, 1983, the latter by Unity Press, 1980, now out of print). The sizes of the squares, once cut from the frame, are just about right to fit on a saucer. We put a piece of wax paper over each square, so they are protected until they are eaten.

The frames with the “windows” cut out for comb honey can be put back in the hive, and the bees will fill them in with comb and honey again so that I can extract the honey from them. If I want more comb honey, I cut out the entire comb in the frame, rather than leaving enough margin around the “windows” for the bees to work from, and I put a new sheet of foundation wax in the frame.

Most of our honey gets extracted in our stainless steel extractor. This operation is very simple. Two frames that have been capped are placed in the wire basket inside the extractor (one at each end). A few twists of the hand crank begins the centrifugal force that throws the honey out of the outside combs of each frame. Then the frames are turned around, the process repeated, and the other sides of the combs emptied. The honey flows slowly down the sides of the extractor to the bottom and then is drawn off through the spigot into jars. Bits of comb wax in the honey float to the tops of the jars and can be skimmed off. The only honey that we strain is that from the comb cappings taken off in the decapping.

In some frames, the honey is occasionally of such poor quality that it crystallizes right in the comb, something none of the books warned us about. As far as we can learn, this is honey from certain wild weeds and flowers. You can’t do much with it, and the taste is not very good, so we put it back for the bees to eat. We also put back the cappings and old combs and the bees clean up every bit of honey on them. We then use the wax for an occasional candle or to coat thread for sewing or for grafting. Fortunately, that poor-quality honey is a rarity, and in most years we don’t find any of it in the frames. The best source of good honey in my area is now soybeans, vast acreages of which are a great boon to beekeeping, so long as the crops aren’t sprayed with lethal insecticides.

But the honey is different every year. Some years it tends to crystallize in storage more than in other years. Some years it doesn’t crystallize at all. When it does, we put a quart as needed in a pan of water and set the pan on the wood stove. It takes about half a day to melt the honey back to a clear liquid.

Capturing a Swarm of Bees
If you decide to start beekeeping by capturing a swarm, have your empty hive, smoker, and veil ready at all times. After you have informed local beekeepers and everyone else that you are looking for a swarm, you will almost surely get more calls than you want. But if you follow my advice, be patient and choosy. I believe you should wait for a swarm that is clustered close to the ground. Those high in a tree are too difficult to capture. Banging on a pan will not bring them down after they have clustered, although strange as it seems, there are beekeepers who insist a swarm in the air can be brought down by this ancient custom. Also if there is a hive of bees in a house or building, leave their removal to experts, I say. Such bees are usually not swarming but are a working colony, and they will not take kindly to capture the way a swarm will. In these cases, you can often get a beekeeper to capture the swarm for you (or move the housebound colony).

A swarm you can reach from the ground is fairly easy to coax into a super. Set the super on the ground next to the swarm and take the lid off. Bend over the branch the bees are clustered on (or cut it off) and gently shake and brush the bees over the super and in front of it. Keep your smoker handy but use it sparingly. Swarming bees rarely sting. I was scared to death the first time I hived a swarm. They were on a fence post, and the best I could do was brush them into a cardboard box and then pour the full box over the open super. Don’t waste time trying to locate the queen. She’s down in the middle of the cluster and is difficult to pick out. Usually she crawls right on in the hive with the other bees. You will soon be able to tell, because if she inadvertently crawls under the super or is still back on the post or wherever the cluster formed, the bees will come out of the super and crawl or fly around aimlessly and eventually back to wherever she is. When I had most of the bees in the super — don’t try to get all of them — I closed it up and carried it back to the stand I had prepared for the occasion. I was amazed at how easy the undertaking had been. And more than anything else, the adventure cured me of being overly afraid of bees. After you have raked fistfuls of them into a box right under your nose, they just don’t ever seem so awesome again. Bystanders will think you tremendously courageous or possessed of some gift. They will never believe that bees in swarm are so gorged with honey they hardly ever think about stinging.

A Bee-Hiver
A very old tool can be helpful in capturing a swarm. It is called a bee-hiver and is easy to make. Take an 18 by 14-inch board of regular ¾-inch thickness. (This size of board fits easily inside a super.) Drill about half a dozen holes in the board, sized to accommodate a corncob tightly. Make a sort of hood on the board by nailing another small board, 3 or 4 inches wide and 14 inches long, at one end of the bigger board, with two little triangular wood braces at each side to strengthen the connection between the two boards and to complete the hoodlike structure. Then nail or bolt a long handle to the back of the hood. The handle can be from an old broom, or even better, a longer piece of 1 by 2-inch lumber. Stick corncobs through the holes you have made in the original board. The tool is now ready for use.

Lift the hood up to the swarm and gently work it in amongst the bees. Or tap the branch they are on with it. Invariably, the bees will begin to crawl onto the corncobs, which have a very nice texture for them to hold onto tightly. When the swarm has clustered onto your bee-hiver, lower it to the ground, lay it flat, and set the super over it. The bees will go up into the frames and then you can set the super back on its base.

The original use of bee-hivers was more to lure a swarm than to capture one. Two or three were kept stuck into the ground at a slight angle in the vicinity of the beeyard. When a swarm left a hive, it would most often alight on the bee-hiver.

Some Bee Wisdom
Since there is almost always some grain of truth in the most ridiculous of folklore, I have often wondered about the ancient superstition that when someone dies in the family (i.e. who has been caring for the bees) the bees have to be told. Although literally the notion is ridiculous, I have a hunch it began as a sort of clever or droll way to underline the much less ridiculous belief that bees know their keepers quite well and even distinguish friendliness in humans from fear, if not dislike. This kind of differentiation is well documented in animals, particularly dogs, so why not in so intelligent a being as a honeybee? The hive I started from the swarm I capture has always been friendlier to me than the other hive. Or perhaps I unconsciously am more comfortable around this hive, and so the bees respond in kind. In any case, folklore that teaches us, however drolly, to treat bees as if they were almost human is not ridiculous in the least.

Locate hives in an area where they are protected from harsh winter winds, but where in summer they are shaded in the afternoon. Nearness to water is not as important as some books insinuate. Bees can get plenty of water from dew. But it is important to have your hives located near nectar sources. The farther a bee has to fly for nectar, the less nectar it can gather. Bees are in bad humor on cool days when they can’t find much nectar, but when there is a good flow of nectar, as from an apple tree in full bloom, you can brush the bees in the blossoms without fear. They are too happy to sting. Around the hive, however, try not to get between the hive entrance and the airways the bees generally travel. Approach the hive from the rear.

To lessen the danger of being stung when working around the hives, as in mowing grass and the like, hang a piece of your clothing — any cloth with our scent on it — close to the hive so that it flaps in the wind. The bees get used to this “intruder” in their midst and are less wary when you walk close. Don’t wear perfume, after-shave, or anything of that sort around bees; they’ll go right for you, thinking you’re a big, juicy flower.

Update November 2008: I still take care of my bees the way I described twenty some years ago, that is, by just leaving them alone. Every year I take off the top frame for our honey and every spring put the empty one back on again. I have not had any problems with the new diseases that are plaguing beekeepers. However, I am now down to one hive again, and the bottom brood chamber really does need to be replaced or cleaned up. The hive seems to be declining a little and I fear wax moths will attack. That is one of my jobs for this winter: to get another brood chamber ready and put it on top of the old one or replace the old one next spring.  ~Gene

The Garden Farm Guide To Feeding, Catching, and Butchering Chickens

In Garden Farm Skills, Gene Logsdon Blog on November 11, 2008 at 9:36 am

From Gene Logsdon (1985)
WIth Update – November 2008
Garden Farm Skills

Commercially-Fed Chickens
Every so-called how-to book I’ve read assumes that chickens must be fed milled grains. Malarkey. Little chicks that cannot yet swallow whole grains need milled grains (unless they are following their mothers around the barnyard eating bugs and worms and bits of grass and tiny weed seeds). Hens and broilers do not. They will eat more if fed milled grains, which may mean a few more eggs and certainly more weight in a shorter period of time, but what do you care, in the backyard, if your broilers mature in ten weeks or twelve, or if your hens don’t lay the absolute maximum they might be capable of? You aren’t on the commercial treadmill, working on 14% money, with expenses so high for all that automation that you have to scrape up every possible penny.

This brings up another of my pet peeves: almost all books and articles on raising poultry will admonish you to keep a light on in your henhouse—that your hens will lay more eggs if the amount of light remains fairly constant for 14 hours a day. This practice is total absurdity for the backyard chicken grower. My chickens have never seen an electric light. We have never run out of eggs in eighteen years, never had more than twenty overwinter layers, usually less, and indeed have eggs to sell every month except December.

Home-Fed Chickens
Since chickens have a wonderful digestive system for grinding grains, you can just feed them whole grains as I do. But if you insist on grinding grain for chickens, you’ll be way ahead if you take your grain to the mill and have it ground there instead of buying commercially ground grain. I hear you saying, well, my grains won’t have all those vitamins and minerals and protein supplements in them, all scientifically mixed to give the chicken a “perfectly balanced” ration. I don’t want to get into an argument about the relative merits of these “perfectly balanced” rations,… but in some feeds there are still various antibiotics and drugs…

If your hens have access to the outside at least a few hours every other day in nice weather, they will balance their own rations quite well with bugs and worms and grass and leaves (and your garden fruits if you aren’t careful). If you can’t let your chickens out for part of the day once in a while (the best way is to turn them out 2 hours before sunset—they won’t stray far and will come back to roost at dark), you can bring them grass clippings, table scraps, and garden surplus and provide them with a salt-mineral block, oyster shells, and water. Along with your grains, and in winter a bit of high-quality clover or alfalfa hay (you can dry the clover right off the lawn), you will have provided as balanced a ration as any you can buy. It may be a sight more balanced, in fact, because your egg yolks will have a rich orange-yellow color, denoting a higher carotene and vitamin C content than those pallid-yolked eggs from the egg factories.

If you are into grinding grains, the ration formulas you can use are myriad. The conventional mixture is invariably about 2/3 corn and 1/3 oats or wheat, or oats and wheat. Barley, wheat, and oats can all take the place of corn, but in larger amounts, because corn provides more energy. You can also mix in a bit of protein supplement. If you have good-quality alfalfa, you can feed that instead of the supplement…

Here’s what I feed my chickens: When there are eighteen chickens in the coop, they get six ears of corn per day, a pound or less of wheat, and four seed heads of sorghum, all grown and harvested on the place. If they don’t clean that up, I reduce the ration a bit. In addition, they get a bit of leafy green alfalfa hay regularly in winter, plus lots of table scraps, garden surplus, scraps from butchering, and a bit of salt-mineral block and oyster shells. They roam the woods for part of the day for about 250 days of the year.

Chicks and young broilers get some ground corn alone, but every year I feed the broilers less ground feed and more whole grain, and they get fat just as well, only a bit slower. Speed of fattening is influenced by genetics, by the way. Some animals get fatter quicker no matter what you feed or don’t feed them.

A Simple Chicken Catcher
To butcher a chicken, first you have to catch it. Unless you take it off the roost at night, this first step in butchering should not be taken for granted. You can chase the chickens around the coop trying to corner one, raising dust and pandemonium, stumbling, perhaps falling among the squawking biddies. Each subsequent attempt at capturing becomes more difficult as the chickens get wilder and warier. Both you and your flock get bruised and hypertensive in the process.

There is a time-honored, easier way. Cut a piece of heavy wire about 4 feet long. No. 9 will do, but heavier stuff is better if you can find it. Bend one end around into a longish loop for a handle and bend the other end into a hook shaped like the one in the drawing. The width of the hook at the closed end should be about the width of your little finger or the approximate width of a chicken leg, opening wider at the mouth of the hook.  Then all you do is walk quietly to within striking distance of your unsuspecting feathered friends, hook a leg, and all in one motion, pull the chicken toward you. While keeping tension on the leg with the hook, grab the leg with your free hand. Works like a charm.

Butchering a Chicken
Butchering anything is disagreeable work. But if a person is going to eat meat, he can hardly avoid the work just for that reason and not be a hypocrite. And because chickens are the one animal eminently practical for all homesteads (even the smallest), knowing how to butcher them can be a very handy skill to acquire. Once the technique is learned, the time involved is fairly little. My wife and I can kill, scald, and butcher four chickens in half an hour, if we’re in a hurry.

There are other ways to do it, but I kill chickens by chopping their heads off on a stump. I use a regular axe, not a hatchet, as the heavier tool does the job quickly and more accurately, and the poor animal is dead, as far as anyone knows, instantly, without pain. Nevertheless, it will jump around a lot and bruise the meat after decapitation, so for a few seconds I continue to hold it, with both legs and the wing tips grasped together in my left hand, after delivering the death blow with the ax in my right. If you do not hold the wings, too, they will flap uncontrollably. I stick the chicken, neck down, in a bucket, so the blood does not spray on me. It is necessary in butchering anything to get a good “bleed,” and decapitation does that as well as the more surgical methods of just cutting the veins in the throat.

The next step is to scald the feathers off. Again, there are other ways to remove feathers, but I can assure you that my way is the best way for the homeowner with just a few chickens. Theoretically, the water should not be quite boiling—about 180° to 190°F. is just right. But we let the water come to a boil, then let it sit a bit. Our water is usually a bit too hot, and it cooks the skin a wee bit but this is no problem other than the skin might tear in the defeathering process. A bit of torn skin is no catastrophe either, and eventually you will learn to avoid it. I like to start with the water a bit too hot, so that if we are butchering four or more chickens at once, which we usually do, the water will not be too cool by the time we get to the last one. Better too hot than not hot enough.

Slosh the chicken around in the scalding water for about 20 seconds (less in very hot water, more in not-so-hot water), making sure the water soaks through the feathers to all the skin. Then let the water drain out of the feathers a few seconds and lay your chicken in a pan or bucket or on a sheet of paper while you pluck the feathers. The wing and tail feathers have to be pulled off, sometimes rather forcefully, but the rest of the feathers can practically be rubbed off with the heel of your hand. I generally strip down the thighs first, then pull the wing and tail feathers, then rub down the back, and then the belly and inside of the wings. I do the neck last. With practice you can get 90% of the feathers off in a few seconds. The last 10% takes a bit longer. The hairy pin feathers and the stout feather sheaths that did not come off with the plucking can be scraped with a knife later. My mother used to singe off the hairs that remained after scalding in the time-honored way—over a candle, a kerosene lamp, or with a burning piece of newspaper—which is a good way to set your own hair on fire.

You can scald the lower legs and feet and peel the skin off easily enough. We did so when I was a child, even though there was little meat on the legs. In these days, when we think we are richer, we give the feet to the dog, though this may actually be more economical, since if he is eating chicken feet, he is not eating store-bought dog food.

The plucking finished, the chicken carcass is ready for the actual butchering. Make yourself some kind of work table about waist high and put a pan or bucket under the edge where you will be working. (I use a step of the stairs going up to our outdoor deck.) Set the chicken on its back on a clean piece of paper. A grocery sack is fine; newspaper is not because the print comes off on the chicken skin. Cut off the lower legs first—they are sticking up in your way. Press the heel of the knife blade into the leg joint while bending down the leg with your other hand. The joint will snap open and you can easily cut down between the bones, severing the leg.

Next, turn the chicken around, still on its back, so its neck is over the bucket below. The bulge under the skin at the base of the neck is the crop, and it is full of whatever the chicken had been eating. Cut the skin open over the crop. Be very careful because it is easy to cut into the crop, and then the contents spill messily down the neck. (If that happens, don’t panic. Clean the mess out and pour a little water over it to flush the grain, digestive fluids, or whatever, into the bucket.) I pinch the skin over the crop between my left forefinger and thumb and raise it up (see photo), slicing horizontally and very shallowly through the raised skin. With a slit of an inch or two made, I use my fingers to peel back the rest of the skin and pull the crop out and down, slicing behind it with the knife as I pull crop and windpipe down the neck and into the bucket.

Now turn the chicken around again, on its back still, with the back end facing you. Spread the legs apart with your left hand, and cut crosswise toward the head just under the breast-bone and slightly upward. Do not cut down or even straight in horizontally or you will cut into the intestines nestled inside (see photo). The slit should extend across the chicken from side to side. There will usually be a layer of fat under the skin, and you will have a hard time knowing when you have cut into the interior of the chicken far enough, but not so far as to cut an intestinal lining. If you do cut through an intestine, don’t panic. The mess will clean up.

Next, punch the knife straight downward at one end of the slit you made, holding the knife perfectly vertical, and cut between the entrails and the flesh. With an up and down motion, like using a jigsaw, cut through the skin and fat layer down past the pelvic bone, staying as close to it as you can, down around the anus. As you come around the anus, your knife should come down from its vertical position to almost horizontal as you cut under the anus and the intestine just inside it. Halfway past the anus I stop, go back to the other end of the original slit, and come down in a similar fashion on the other side, passing in under the anus till I meet my first cut. If you have cut correctly, you will not have punctured any intestine.

Now lay the knife down, grasp the chicken across the breast with your hand, and reach your left hand into the interior cavity of the chicken until you feel the oval gizzard—about the size of a large egg. Grip the gizzard and pull out and down. With the gizzard and part of the entrails hanging outside the chicken, reach in again and gently grasp the liver and pull it out, too. Cut the gizzard off and lay it aside. Cut the liver out, being sure to remove the gallbladder (that green gland you see in the middle of the liver), and lay it aside. Now pull the entrails on down into the bucket. The last to go will be the intestines right at the anus, and you may have to loosen these gently so that the whole falls into the bucket cleanly—without a speck of manure getting on the carcass. If the latter does occur, no sweat. Just wash it off.

The heart, lungs, and probably part of the esophagus will still be in the chicken. The heart comes out easily. The lower esophagus, which looks something like the heart, needs a hard pull. The lungs lie over the rib cage and are a bit tricky to remove. Feel the rib cage with your fingers, then slide one finger between two ribs at the deepest groove, under the soft cushiony mass of lung, and the lung will pop loose, at least it will on older chickens. This technique works better if you slide your finger between the ribs from the outside toward the center of the chicken. On younger chickens, the lungs sometimes seem to get lost, and you have to look up in the chicken several times to find them. With practice though, you can remove them quickoy by feel only. The light pink color of the lungs distinguishes them from other vital organs.

I clean everything out of the inside of the chicken. Some folks I know prefer to leave the kidneys in along the back because they like the taste of them. To each his own.

The next step is to turn the chicken over and cut the oil sacs off the tail. About 1 inch forward of the tail, cut in about 1/4 inch and then down toward the tail, pulling on the flap of skin you have cut with your other hand. The idea is to cut under the oil sacs, but the first time (and many other times) you will no doubt cut right into them. You’ll know because the sacs are yellow and exude a yellowish liquid. Tradition says a chicken should not be cooked unless these sacs are removed and as far as I know, everyone follows that tradition.

You still have the gizzard to clean out. It is full of half-digested food. The ideal method is to slice into the edge of the gizzard but not through the inner pouch containing the digesting food. Once you have an opening of about an inch into the gizzard lining that surrounds the pouch, use your fingers to peel the gizzard away from the pouch. Housewives of my mother’s generation prided themselves on their ability to get the pouch out without breaking it. They would say they’d get a new dress for every unbroken pouch. But especially on young fryers, this pouch tears so easily I don’t even try to remove it in one piece—what would I do with a new dress anyway? I simply cut the gizzard open and then, holding it over the waste bucket, peel the pouch off the inner gizzard lining (see photo). Then I wash off the gizzard.

In putting the finishing touches on a butchered chicken, my wife scrapes or picks off any bits of feather missed, and cleans out any particles of windpipe, esophagus, or lung I might have carelessly left inside the chicken. She washes the carcass well inside and out, cuts off the neck to freeze separately, but does not cut up the rest of the chicken before freezing it. In cleaning up the chicken, she is, as old farmers say, very persnickety. There is no untidy speck of anything left on the carcass. For example, on the last joint of the wing, there is a tiny clawlike appendage left over no doubt from the long-ago evolutionary era of pterodactyl flying reptiles. She cuts this tiny claw off. Why? She shrugs. She has no reason. The claw to her is unseemly, that’s all.

Update November 2008: I agree even more with what I wrote here twenty-some years ago, and I hardly ever can say that. Right now I am feeding 16 hens about a quart of whole wheat a day plus table scraps. That’s all. I’ve learned that they eat lots of weed seeds which are richer in nutrients than domestic grains. In winter I will add four ears of corn as whole kernels to that daily feeding plus a handful of very high quality legume hay. ~ Gene

A Chicken Coop for a Small Flock

In Garden Farm Skills, Gene Logsdon Blog on October 14, 2008 at 12:20 am

coop house

From Gene Logsdon (1985)
WIth Update – October 2008
Garden Farm Skills

A backyard henhouse for only a dozen or so chickens year-round should be commodious, a minimum of around 5 square feet of floor space per hen, which is much more than a commercial poultryman can afford. My henhouse design, based on what I’ve learned so far by building three coops of my own, differs from the standard designs in a few other ways, which you might find interesting to think about when building your own.

1. Predator Proofing. I would have preferred that my latest chicken coop be built on a concrete footing to make it more or less predator-proof. But pole construction was cheaper and easier. The bottom wall boards are of treated wood for rot resistance, and the wall is sunk into the ground 6 to 12 inches. Cats will not dig that far under to get in, and cats have always been my most troublesome predator—not my own, though, which I train not to bother chickens, but feral cats. I keep the dog tied next to the coop for further insurance.

2. The Size. I knew that for part of the year I would house approximately forty-five to fifty chickens, although there would be less than twenty year-round. Every year we buy six Rhode Island Red chicks and about thirty White Rock broiler chicks, the latter for meat, the former to add to the laying flock. The broilers are butchered when about ten weeks old, and later on I’ll butcher some old hens as they quit laying, so that the flock dwindles to around fifteen through winter. We buy chicks in June so have no need for brooder facilities. (The first few nights I might use a heat bulb on the chicks.) Anyhow, by my own idea of space requirement, a 10 by 20-foot building is more than ample. And it is tall enough so I can walk inside without hitting my head, as I did in the old coop.

3. The Roof. A slanted shed roof is adequate for a chicken coop, though if it pleases you, you can build a gable roof. The coop should face south with ample windows on that side for winter warmth. Ideally, the roof should extend out far enough over the windows to cast shade on the glass to keep out summer’s piercing sun. On a slant roof, that means adding a cowl-like extension on the front.

4. Divided into Two. The coop should be divided into two sections, with a door between, and a door for each section to the outside—three doors altogether. The divsion allows you to raise young chicks on one side separate from the adult hens on the other. Old hens drive young chickens away from the feeder, and so it is best to keep them apart. When the broilers are butchered and the pullets grown, I open the door between the two secitons and let the chickens meld into one flock. The dividing wall is of chicken wire fencing only, so the two groups of chickens have had a long time getting used to each other—growing up across the fence from each other so to speak—and this cuts down on the ferocity with which the older hens establish a pecking order when the two flocks are joined

The division of the coop is handy another way. Occasionally, a chicken will get out when you don’t want it out. Then you can run the inside chickens all to one side, close the between door, open up the other outside door and run the errant hen back in, close the outside door, and then open up the between door again. Without the division there is no way to open an outside door without all the other hens running out. You will find this feature very handy on occasions. You can also use one side in an emergency for other animals. I had a pair of quail in one section last spring. Occasionally I have had a need for a place to put a lamb or a pair of ducks.

5. The Roosts. I do not have catching boards for the manure from roosting hens to drop on. I don’t need one, with all the space in the coop, and the small number of hens. Catching boards for manure are only necessary when you crowd hens into a coop at a ratio of something like one per square foot. My roosts are two 2 x 4s, one in each section, nailed across a corner of each section, hardly 2 feet off the ground and about 12 feet long. With plenty of bedding, the hens scratch the nightly manure deposit under the roosts into the straw, making of the whole a crumbly moist compost that does not stink. Catching boards, on the other hand, collect putrid piles of pure manure where flies can breed and disease infections begin if not cleaned out often.

In a situation like mine, if the bedding gets wet and foul, you either aren’t putting enough down or you have too many chickens for this system. I hardly use two bales of straw per month for bedding. If the coop were as small as customarily built, relative to the number of hens, I’d have to spread more straw than that, so with straw at $2 a bale, eventually my extra space will pay for itself. The compost the chickens make of the bedding is garden-ready for use every June—and the most effective fertilizer I know of.

6. The Floor. I have no floor in the coop other than the dirt nature put there. I strongly advise against floors in chicken coops. Rats and mice get under wood or even concrete unless there is a good, deep footer around the concrete. Rats kill baby chicks. But the rodents will not live in coops without floors because there is no place for them to escape to when a hen takes out after them. My hens eat mice if they can catch them.

If you have to build up the floor above the surrounding ground level to keep it high and dry, I advise dirt rather than gravel. I made the mistake of putting limestone dust gravel in mine, and in summer the chickens scratch through the gravel, which sends clouds of dust into the air. And gravel is not the best material for hens to ruffle their feathers in to protect themselves from lice, either.

7. The Windows. The windows have to open for summer ventilation. Rather than installing elaborate sliding windows and screens, I used old windows I got for next to nothing—most builders have a supply they don’t know what to do with. I made the openings in the wall a little larger than the size of the windows. Then I (actually my son did the work) built a frame on the outside of the wall that these old windows would fit against from the inside, the way a picture fits into its front frame. To hold the window vertically in place, all that is needed is a bit of sill on the bottom and two door knobs from scrap wood at the top. When I want to open the window for ventilation, I turn the knobs at the top and lean the window back about 6 inches. To hold it there, I either nail a board across the studs for the window to lean on, or I attach two pieces of string or light chain between the window and wall. Very little rain can get in with windows tilted open in this fashion.

8. The Nest Boxes. Nest boxes need to be installed, of course, in one of the sections. Five-gallon buckets turned on their sides make nest boxes in a pinch. Nest boxes should be semi-dark inside to discourage hens from examining the eggs too closely and getting a notion to peck one open. We built our nests with slanting tops so the chickens can’t roost on top of the nests, which they otherwise will invariably do. Our nest boxes are a little too open, as you see in the photo. If I run into problems of egg eating, I will drape the fronts of the boxes halfway with pieces of burlap to make it darker in the nest. (Chickens have poor eyesight in the dark.) My nests are too big, too. Ten inches square is enough. I built these bigger as an experiment. It seemed to me that with only twelve to fifteen hens laying, more than three nests was ridiculous, but my hens, which continually remind me of people, all decide to do everything at the same time, including laying eggs. This resulted in two chickens trying to occupy the same space at the same time, which anyone who has taken physics knows is impossible. So I decided this time to build the nests big enough to accomodate two hens. The result? You guessed it. Three hens trying to occupy the same space at the same time. Whether they step on and break more eggs with a bigger nest than a smaller one I don’t know yet.

9. The Waterers and Feed Troughs. You can spend money for a fancy waterer, but I prefer the bottom half of a plastic jug. One or two of these, refilled morning and night, suffice for a small flock. Such waterers are practically imperative for me in winter, since I think it is silly to go to the expense of a heated waterer for so few chickens. The water freezes in my plastic jug, but all I have to do is rap the container sharply on a solid surface and the ice cracks out. Simple and cheap. If the plastic cracks, I make a new container from another jug. For feeding troughs, I have built some out of boards, with a broomstick above the trough, inserted by way of nails driven into each end into holes in the ends of the trough. The broomstick rools over if a chicken tries to roost on it. But mostly, I use two metal troughs I’ve fallen heir to over the years that have wire covers over them. The larger one is handy not only for feeding but to set the container of water inside. Then the chickens can’t spill the water.

My neighbor hangs his feed trough (and waterer) from the ceiling, regulating the height to the size of the chickens—chickens do not like to roost on a swinging perch. Also, as the layer of bedding builds up, you can raise the trough. Mostly though, the reason for a hanging feeder is to keep the hens from scratching bedding into it.

10. The Door. One goes in and out of a henhouse frequently, in most cases needing to close the door afterward. So a door latch is needed that can be worked from inside or out, but still be cheap and uncomplicated. My son built one that answers the requirements. It is a sliding bolt of wood, with a handle that extends on through a slot in the door so it can be worked from either side.

Curing the Egg-Eating Hen

There are various folkways proposed for curing the egg-eating hen, the only foolproof one being to roast her for Sunday dinner. However, the problem is often solvable by other less drastic measures. Some hens, for example, will just quit eating eggs all of a sudden and then maybe start up again four months later. Hens usually get started on their addiction because of a soft-shelled or weak-shelled egg being laid by the sisterhood. As hens scramble in and out of the nest, such eggs break. Pecking at the yolk, the hens learn soon enough that they can break weak eggs easily with their beaks too.

Therefore, to avoid the problem in the first place, it helps if the chickens are getting enough calcium in their diet—through good wholesome grains and greens (alfalfa hay) plus oyster shells or bonemeal. Bonemeal is one of the folk remedies for egg-eating hens. In my experience, it doesn’t cure the addiction, but the increase in shell strength tends to cut down on egg eating or the incidence of broken eggs that leads to egg eating. By the same token, having enough nests so none are crowded with three hens at a time is helpful. And providing fine particles of sand or gravel, which allow the hen to digest her food better (and thereby makes nutrients like calcium more available to her body) is a part of the regimen for curing egg-eaters.

A neighbor says that bedding the nest with torn strips of newspaper will cure egg eating. The newsprint gives the eggs an odor hens dislike, so the theory goes, ruining their appetite. Newsprint often does that to me, so there may be some truth in this.

I haven’t tried the newsprint remedy because I’ve found a couple of other ways that suffice. If hens can range outside, egg eating diminishes rapidly. Instead of standing around in the coop bored to death, the hens can chase flies and scratch for worms and get their minds off their addiction. Or perhaps they balance their diet better and have no urge for an egg.

Penned in the coop, a hen can be discouraged, if not cured, from egg eating by putting curtains (pieces of old burlap bag) over the front of the nests, or otherwise making the nest boxes dark. The explanation given is that hens can’t see well enough in the dark to aim a good shell-cracking peck into a solid egg. But I’m not sure. I think the reason has more to do with psychology. The hen likes a dark, hidden corner for a nest, and it prompts her to act more according to her nature, which is not to eat eggs. And while she likes the darkness for laying eggs, she wants afterward to get back off the nest and out into the light of day quickly. Perhaps instinct still rules in such a situation, and the hen does not linger there so as not to draw the attention of predators to the nest. Or maybe she is a bit afraid of the dark.

A modification of the darkened nest box theory has proved to be my most effective way of curing egg eating. I discovered it by accident. One day I decided to move a 4 by 4-foot piece of plywood that was in the coop—left there from construction days for reasons I don’t rightly recall. I started to carry it out of the coop, but it began raining and I didn’t want to get the plywood wet. So I leaned it “temporarily” against the wall. It will probably stay there forever. What happened is that the hens loved that dark, narrow lean-to. Most of them began laying their eggs behind the plywood and avoided the nest boxes. And for unfathomable reasons, they do not eat these eggs. What’s more, you can’t build a faster, cheaper, or better set of nests than leaning a piece of plywood against a wall. Just tip it back and pick up the eggs.

Lights in the Henhouse

Here’s the history behind this henhouse lighting business. Back when utility companies were stretching elecric lines out into the country, there wasn’t much money in rural electricity. To remedy this situation, the utilities went to all lengths to get farmers to increase the amount of electricity they used. (It took a great deal of social pressure just to get some farmers to “take the electric”—which is another of those facts the speechifiers of wonderful technological progress never mention in their biased histories. There was a whole class of country people who didn’t particularly want electricity.) Since it was known that the egg-laying season in nature is influenced by the amount of available sunlight, wouldn’t egg production increase if the chickens were kept awake longer in the shorter winter days? Agricultural researchers (with money from the utilities) leapt into the breach, and sure enough electric lights did increase egg production… for a while. So what if the hens suffered egg “burn-out”? Get new hens.

So egg production was increased at an increased cost in chickens, in electricity, and in feed because the hens ate more. The increase in egg production (which actually was more the result of up-breeding chickens) only made the price of eggs go down so badly after World War II that farmers sold their small commercial flocks because eggs “don’t pay no more.” Of course not. The poor farmer had been duped into spending his profit on off-farm supplies, including foolish things like lights in his henhouse.
Update – October 2008: What I wrote in Practical Skills still stands. Still using the same coop, even the same feeders. A tree fell on the coop a few years ago in an ice storm and I had to replace some roofing and patch some more. What I would add is that when a “make-do” coop like this gets to be 30 years ago, it develops holes which need to be covered with hardware cloth. Otherwise, as happened, mink or weasels will get in. The boards next to the ground started to decay even though it was treated wood, so I put a row of old concrete blocks all around the bottom of the coop, dug in a little, sort of like a makeshift footer. Keeps raccoons and skunks and possums out, so far. ~Gene

See also Gene’s Garden Farm Guide to Feeding, Catching, and Butchering Chickens