Feast of the Virgin of Guadeloupe

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Tonight I lit a candle to honor today’s feast of the Virgin of Guadeloupe as my little way to begin the holidays. Catholics recognize her as the first apparition of the Virgin Mary in the New World. She chose to appear not to a colonizing friar, but to a native Aztec. She spoke his language, not Spanish. And back in 1531, when the doubting bishop was told of the holy lady had appeared in a field and asked that a chapel be built in her honor, demanded proof, she gave the humble Aztec Juan Diego roses in winter.

There’s not much room in modern times for miracles. Historical evidence may not support the legend, and perhaps this Mary was actually a co-opting of an Aztec goddess to bolster the Spaniards’ religious conversion. In the faith of my ancestors, that recasting happened just about everywhere throughout the centuries. It doesn’t matter to me. The story of the Guadaloupe simply reminds me that grace is always possible and when bestowed on the least of us will come in a language we understand. Like roses in winter.

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On our way to somewhere that’s just like where we were

American Buff geese attempting to fly

American Buff geese attempting to fly

First thing in the morning and several times throughout the day, the geese decide they are in a hurry to get somewhere. Unless they have a strong head wind, they skim a few inches off the ground. Jack got some lift on this flight but it happens so irregularly that he hasn’t learned how to steer.

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Starting now to grow a Thanksgiving feast

Greens and lettuce in the hoop house, still looking presentable after dropping to 15 deg

Greens and lettuce in the hoop house, still looking presentable after dropping to 15 deg F

I want to talk about Thanksgiving food. I don’t want to talk about the gap in the blog. But here it is, there was a month or more that pretty much sucked. My father passed away unexpectedly. My mother was in the hospital at the same time, different city. R was doing the road-warrior thing. Holding things together doesn’t always look how other people expect. Some of them let me know I didn’t measure up. I drove more miles than I have since I finished the book. I watched a lot of tv with my mom. By the time it came to cook the feast, I was really thankful to be home with my guy.

In 1991 or so I read a Texas Monthly article about what Houston star-chef Robert del Grande would cook if his family would let him. We’ve used those recipes as the basis for our feast for the last two decades. (Am I really that old that I have been cooking Thanksgiving for over 20 years? Awk!) The turkey gets cut up into breast and dark meat-the first year in Houston I asked the butcher’s assistant to do it for me. He was flummoxed and the exasperated boss looked at him and said “do it like a big chicken.” The white meat gets a cinnamon-chile rub; the dark meat goes into a cranberry-ancho mole. Everything comes out properly cooked, nothing too dry or overdone.

In years past, we purchased an organic turkey from a yuppie food market, something that needs to be ordered ahead. Nearling the order cut-off this year, I called R from mom’s house: “Do you want turkey or one of our chickens?” In the end it was clear: we honor the animals we harvested from our land by using them and not something from the store. I had cleaned out their guts, I could certainly break them down into parts and use them in the turkey recipes.

The chicken was fantastic. Cooking with these birds has had a learning curve. The meat is much denser than store-bought, even organic store-bought chickens. The muscles on the breast have more grain, like a beef roast. The first time I checked a chicken for doneness by cutting into it, I thought it wasn’t ready because the meat was glistening with internal fat and it looked raw. I should have believed the thermometer, because I really overcooked that one. Figuring out how to handle these birds is like when we bought a share of bison meat. Our first few bison steaks were pretty black on the outside because they took so long to heat up in the middle. Turn the heat down and be patient! It seems the same is true with these older birds.

I say older, as if a 15 week old bird is past her prime. Grocery store birds, nearly all the Cornish Cross breed, generally die of heart attacks if you try to keep them around that long. They are bred to grow fast, harvest by 8 weeks, and their hearts wear out quickly. Heritage birds, especially those that have enough room to forage like our Jersey Giants did, grow slower, use their muscles and develop meat with flavor and texture.

Planning ahead for a weekend of sloth and leftovers, we prepared two chickens. I wasn’t so sure how the breast roasting would work out, but our fancy oven came with a thermometer probe that shut the oven off when the meat reached temperature and it was perfect. The crockpot mole is easy to get right-cook it until the meat falls off the bones. I have brought magazine-cover-worthy turkeys to the table, but never with as much pride as the meat we raised ourselves.

We tried to use what we grew as much as possible for the rest of the feast. I put the blame for the store-bought components squarely on the fact that I was watering 300 trees all summer and not tending the garden. But I know from experience that we can and will do better. The idea of growing everything we need for a feast is an inspiring gardening goal for next year. Here’s what we cooked and what I need to grow:

  • roast white meat (I put sliced apples and onions under the bird in the pan instead of a roasting rack to add flavor to the drippings. We haven’t given up the garden space to onions so far, just leeks, shallots and walking onions. Leeks would probably work even better.)
  • dark meat mole (all store-bought except the meat. It calls for cranberries, ancho chiles, onions and pecans. I can do the veg and have to think of a substitute for the cranberries.)
  • mashed potatoes (fail this year due to lack of weeding, easy to fix) and gravy (the drippings from the breast work out ok even with the cinnamon rub),
  • cornbread dressing with mushrooms, apples, pecans, poblanos and goat cheese (we still had some corn for cornmeal left from last year, the apples came from the Capitol Reef National Park orchards. I had to buy the onions, celery, parsley, peppers and goat cheese. I can grow the veg, and if we start early enough we could grow the mushrooms. Goat cheese I’m leaving to Randy in Caineville, but I can plan to buy it ahead. It will be years before we have our own nuts though.)
  • green salad (from the hoop house),
  • Brussels sprouts (skipped this year, but if I’d had them in the garden this year, we would have had them, or parsnips, or broccoli, or any other seasonal veg),
  • blackberry applesauce (We like this better than cranberry sauce. I made it from apples from the park and blackberries from the SLC farmers market. Will our berries ever fruit?)
  • stuffed celery and olives (there’s not an olive tree for 500 miles and that’s ok. I haven’t ever grown celery, not sure it’s worth the bother but R really likes it.)
  • winter squash pie (bought the squash from the SLC winter farmers market. I prefer butternut and haven’t been able to get one to finish here (yet). Last year I grew another squash I liked just as well, but I lost track of what was in which bed, so I have to repeat that test and figure it out. Another weeding/watering fail in 2014.)
  • hard cider and 2011 Seghesio Home Ranch Zinfandel (hard cider is possible; Zinfandel is in my opinion the perfect match to Thanksgiving and it won’t grow here.)

There’s a garden planning list right there. I need to grow potatoes, squash, peppers, onions, celery, Brussels sprouts, parsley and greens. That’s doable, I’ve done it before. More Painted Mountain corn must go in to restock the pantry. We need to start mushroom logs early to have any hope of harvesting them in time. Fingers crossed, we should harvest apples and berries next year. There might even be honey. Nuts and dairy aren’t in the cards, but I can get most of the dairy locally. And if we can’t make the cider, we have friends that will hook us up with the good stuff.

What I see from writing it all down is that work isn’t the barrier. I just really need to plan ahead to achieve the level of self-sufficiency represented by a homegrown Thanksgiving meal. The Brussels sprouts and parsnips have to be started in May. If the berries aren’t going to fruit again, is there a strawberry or rhubarb applesauce we want instead? Back-up plans like that have to be executed in season, at least by putting extra strawberries in the freezer. If I want mushrooms, we need to cut logs in March and get them inoculated with spawn before spring busyness overwhelms us. And for the centerpiece of the meal, we have already decided next year it will be turkey. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, I placed an order for 15 turkey hatchlings to be delivered in June.

Yup, we are adding turkeys to the menagerie next year. We liked raising the chickens, but we think turkeys might do even better at grasshopper control in the orchard. Besides, I got them cheap on an early-bird special.

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The Chickestoga, our new mobile chicken coop

R opening the Chickestoga, a mobile chicken coop built from a trailer kit and some livestock panels

Instructions and construction pictures below, after the story on why we built such a contraption and how it’s working for us.

We started keeping chickens for meat this year. The goal is more to add fertility to our soil; the meat is a welcome but secondary yield. Chickens have done an amazing amount of work for us already in the orchards. If we had an easy market for eggs, I would have added more layers, but we don’t. And meat birds spend their winter in the freezer, not eating sacks of organic feed. As short term summer residents, their housing needs are minimal compared to the year-round residents: something dry, a place to roost and protection from predators.

Our first batch of meat birds came out of the brooder into this three sided shelter, made out of four 2x4s, two livestock panels we had lying around, and a 12×16′ tarp. Total new household expense was less than $30 (the panels run about $60 a piece, but we already had them). We made a 4′ circle out of concrete reinforcing mesh and stuck some branches through it for a roost. Technically, the shelter is portable. I can drag it on my own, just not easily. We protected the flock with an electronet fence. The whole thing worked quite well until it came to move the flock. With no way to contain the birds, we moved them from one part of the property to another by stretching out electronet in the direction we were headed, moving the coop, then moving the net again. And when it came to slaughter day, we had a great time catching birds since we couldn’t shut them up.

What we did learn after our first home-grown chicken is that they are tasty! And that if we ever wanted to transport them to the new orchard down the road, we were going to have to build them a deluxe version of the mobile coop. They need to be fully enclosed for the transport, but on wheels. Typical chicken tractors are meant to be dragged a tractor length or two every day. By the time we moved them a block and half, we might as well set up the killing cones and process them at their destination. And while we can push the first layer coop I built across the pasture, it isn’t road-travel worthy. A towable coop is what we need, and that’s what we built.

The base is an 8′ trailer kit from Harbor Freight. Once we assembled it, we framed up the base for one of our livestock panel shelters right on the trailer bed. Since the chicken wire floor has to support some meaty birds, we added floor joists to the bottom frame. We added end panels and a door so the chickens stay put when we move the coop. Our neighbors said it looks like a Conestoga wagon, so we dubbed it the Chickestoga.

We learned one lesson the hard way – chicken wire is not raccoon proof. When we transferred the second batch of chickies into the Chickestoga, they hadn’t learned to roost yet, so we spread out some feed bags on the chicken wire for them to rest on until their instincts kicked in. Well, a raccoon figured out the second night how to poke its evil little paw up into the chicken wire, nabbed a chickie and bit its head off through the floor. I heard the commotion and drove it off, and it circled back two more times. Finally, at 3 in the morning, R and I pushed the Chickestoga into the garage (we had designed it to fit but hadn’t tested it, had a 1/2 inch to spare). When we brought the coop out the next morning, we redeployed it within an electronet paddock. It took some persuading to get the chickies to go back in the next few nights! Now that they use the roosts, the raccoons can’t reach them, but the chickies are still under double protection at night, since we are putting the geese in the paddock for the night anyway. Do not be deceived by their sweet little faces, raccoons are killing machines.

Other than the raccoon incident, the Chickestoga is working great. There isn’t any bedding to change, we just move the coop to wherever we want the fertility. We have 23 birds using it now. The recommendation is a foot of roost space if they only sleep in their shelter, and they certainly have that, although they all seem to huddle up in one corner anyway. We hang the food and water inside to keep the geese from bothering it, so the chickies go in and out all day; sometimes they hang out on the ground underneath for shade. Next year, I think I will spread a tarp on the floor and hang an electric heat lamp inside and see if it will work as a brooder after the chicks are a week or so old. If we wait until the weather is warmer, it should work, and we can always wheel them into the garage at night if needed. I like the idea of the birds not having to stress over moving digs.

Is it frugal? Even though the trailer base wasn’t cheap, it meets my definition of frugal, in that it is pure function designed to last. My first coop is heavy, and we already had to upgrade the wheels to foam filled monsters that would actually travel across the rough pasture. One person can roll the Chickestoga by hand. And while the cattle panels are about $100, have you priced plywood or OSB lately? You’d probably use 8-10 sheets to sheathe and roof a 7’x8′ coop. The other savings is in bedding, both in avoiding the cost and eliminating the work of shoveling it out at the end of the season (we use deep litter on all our other critters to great success). If the droppings build up during use and once the birds go to the freezer, we can just hose it out and spray some bleach on it at the end to disinfect it for next time.

Things we want to improve: the trailer kit did not come with a jack; we need to install one. We also need to add some kind of flip down rear bracing so the wind can’t tip the unit backwards when it is parked. The ramp needs an attachment point, right now it’s just balanced on some logs. If I were throwing money around, I’d buy a trailer hand dolly. A raccoon-preventative upgrade would be to use hardware cloth on the floor and sides, but that would add to the cost and the cleaning job.

Could we house laying hens in it? Yes, but it would add complexity to the build. If I were going to, I’d make the lower part of the end wall (closest to the hitch) out of plywood and mount laying boxes with outside hatches. I’m not sure how I’d support it, since the sleeves we put the uprights into aren’t in the right place. It would take some figuring. Our layers winter in the hoop house, so we could make one work here, but I wouldn’t want to keep birds in the Chickestoga over the winter in our climate. It’s dry enough in the rain, but when it drops to below zero, I want to give them a little more shelter. But all my animals are spoiled. It probably would be fine, especially if some straw bedding were tossed in and the open end was pointed out of the wind. The Chickestoga works just fine for the meat chickens and that project ends long before winter sets in. If someone tries it, I’d like to know how it works.

Since the build depends on the trailer base, I’m not going to give step-by-step instructions and measurements. What follows are some photos and notes of how we built our first Chickestoga. I suspect it won’t be our last-maybe we could house a few Thanksgiving turkeys in one of these. R will be glad to know it’s too late in the season to start that project.

Base built to fit the trailer frame. Width (parallel to axle) is 8'. Length of base is 7'. The frame is temporarily screwed to short pieces of 2x4 in the manufacturer's sleeves provided to install trailer walls

Base built to fit the trailer frame. Width (parallel to axle) is 8'. Length of base is 7'. The frame is temporarily screwed to short pieces of 2x4 in the manufacturer's sleeves provided to install trailer walls.

The trailer base came from Harbor Freight. Anything under 8′ does not have to be licensed in our state. This craft is under 8′. The kit comes with a full electrical package. We figured the chickens would only fool with and destroy the wires, so we didn’t bother installing it. The idea of trailer wiring repair is hideous under any circumstances, but under a used traveling chicken coop, it ain’t going to happen so why bother? The maximum distance traveled will be a quarter mile down a dirt road. Give me a ticket.

Putting the trailer kit together was easier than a simple farm wagon kit we had assembled earlier this summer. It took most of a rainy afternoon to do.

We cut chicken wire and secured it on the base before installing the panels, which are ready to be arched.

We cut chicken wire and secured it on the base before installing the panels, which are ready to be arched.

I bought a 150′ roll of 3′ wide chicken wire because that’s what the local hardware store had in stock and we have other uses for leftovers. We probably used most of it, or would have, but a friend gave us a roll of 4′ wide in the middle of the project, and we used that to cover the panels with 2 laps instead of three.

Three long, 3′ wide, overlapping pieces cover the bottom and end walls. I didn’t make a picture, but we screwed down lengths of 2×2 where the chicken wire made a 90 ° bend at the front and back. The blocking wood let us pull the fencing much tighter than we could have with just staples.

It took some experimentation to figure out how to safely arch two panel. What worked for us was to lay one panel onto the frame and nail in one edge, then flip it out 180 ° out of the way. We nailed in the second panel’s first edge on the same side. This position is shown in the photo above. The chicken wire was a nuisance while working with the panels.

Installing the last of the fencing nails to secure the panel

Installing the last of the fencing nails to secure the panel under close goose supervision. Note the list of the arch to the side. The rear uprights will resolve that.

Once one edge of both panels were nailed down, we carefully flexed the second one into position, secured it temporarily with some cable ties. We attached a rope to the first panel’s free end, and used that to pull the panel over the arch of the one already in place (have cutters ready if you need to remove a temporary cable tie to slip the second end in place.) I don’t even want to think about these panels springing out of position under travel, so an excess of u-shaped, barbed fencing nails and cable ties hold it in place.

I thought about covering the panels with chicken wire before arching them, but in the end, it was easier to do it afterwards. More cable ties, staples and blocking boards hold it in place. The aviation snips are awesomely overkill for cutting chicken wire.

Two 4' wide livestock panels

Cable tying the panels together adds a surprising amount of rigidity

Replace the temporary braces with door frame uprights.

Replace the temporary braces with door frame uprights.

We wanted the Chickestoga to fit into the garage if possible, so we compressed the panels as much as we could when we installed the end uprights. It fit! Barely. The door itself is made from 2x2s, field measured to fit after the frame was installed.

Tools: hammer, heavy snips, surgical shears, cable ties in two sizes, cable tie tightener, staple gun

An aside on the tools we used: R buys cable ties from Deer Busters because they are incredibly strong and unlike any imitation at a big box store. The surgical shears come from Lee Valley. Lee Valley calls them clamshell scissors because they are intended to open those awful anti-shoplifting plastic packages, but they are extremely useful around the homestead. I buy them by the handful every now and then because they are cheap, safe and will cut the neck off a chicken but won’t poke a hole in my pocket while I carry them or my thigh if I take a tumble. R also likes these aviation snips well enough that we have a second set in the hoop house. They are tough! And they are about the only thing that can easily cut through a Deerbuster cable tie. The cable tie tool came with our Deerbuster fence kit. Amazon sells a similar one. The staple gun is nearly an antique, made out of genuine aircraft aluminum, or so it says on the body.

For the roosts, we used the same sleeves to hold the uprights. The base is secured to the front roost

For the roosts, we used the same sleeves to hold the uprights. The base is secured to the roost uprights as well as at the rear door frame. Slate wanted to help once the geese left.

I did all the interior decorating before wrapping the end walls with chicken wire. I gathered some downed cottonwood branches for the roosts. There’s no easy way to cover an arched shape with a rectangular piece of chicken wire. I just tugged and pulled and cable tied it in place. I did give special attention to the corners: they are stitched up with thin wire (the piece that is sandwiched into the chicken wire roll, in fact) so that there were no chickie-sized gaps. I didn’t fuss much about the panel covering since the tarp would cover any sins of omission. The only fiddly bit was the piece above the door. We tipped the trailer up and down as needed to work on the uppermost parts.

Tarped up and ready to roll.

Tarped up and ready to roll.

A 16’x12′ heavy duty tarp covers the Chickestoga. Spreading it out without trashing it on stray loose bits of chicken wire is a two-person job. More cable ties and two lengths of rope crossed over the arched hoops hold it in place.

The panels are strong enough to hang a feeder and waterer. We use a 5 gallon bucket with a Gamma seal lid and chicken nipples for the waterer. The lid became necessary when one genius pullet decided to use the bucket as a roost. A bungee cord holds the door open during the day, a carabiner in the latch holds it shut at night.

And that’s it, a pretty simple weekend DIY project to build a mobile chicken coop. If you build one, I’d love to hear about it. If you have questions, let me know and we’ll figure it out.

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Cheap utility farm shelters from livestock panels

Ameracauna hen from this year's first batch of chicks raised on pasture, watched over by Apollo, the Jersey Giant rooster.

Ameracauna hen from this year's first batch of chicks raised on pasture, watched over by Apollo, the Jersey Giant rooster.

Frugal is a word I fully grasp, so when it came time to make some rain and shade shelters for our animals, it wasn’t going to be elaborate. But it wasn’t going to be flimsy either – goats will destroy anything they can get their mouths around. And they needed to be somewhat portable, because we want to move the goats around to eat what needs eating. I saw somewhere on the interwebs that folks were making chicken coops out of livestock panels, and realized we could turn this into a general purpose idea.

 

The second batch of chicks using a mobile shelter for shade. on this version, we overlapped the panels but did not trim down the base 2x4. The excess timber works as an additional grab point when moving the structure and a convenient anchor point for sand bags, missing in this photo.

The second batch of chicks using a mobile shelter for shade. on this version, we overlapped the panels but did not trim down the base 2x4. The excess timber works as an additional grab point when moving the structure and a convenient anchor point for sand bags, missing in this photo.

The basic plan is to build a rectangle out of four 2×4 boards and two 4′ x 16′ livestock panels. For this application, the cheaper ones are better, easier to bend. The panels overlap by a foot to add rigidity, so I cut two of the boards to 7′, the other two are just standard 8′ lengths. We add some corner braces to counteract the tension of the panels. Fencing nails (barbed and shaped like a U) secure the panels to the inside of the frame. We cable tie the two panels together then add a tarp. A 12×16 tarp will make a three sided cover to the ground; the goats got a 6×8 tarp that they couldn’t reach to destroy. Because we are dealing with winds that regularly exceed 40mph, we add some guy ropes over the tarp, which adds some rigidity to the structure as well.

The lip created by the way the 2x4s are butted together gives a more solid base for the livestock panel to push against.

The lip created by the way the 2x4s are butted together gives a more solid base for the livestock panel to push against.

In our winds, lest we simply launch a wonky and dangerous parasail kite craft across the orchard, once in place we weight it down with whatever’s available. Sandbags would be ideal, but we have used large rocks and buckets of water. If we really wanted to permanently locate it somewhere, I could imagine securing it with something like duckbill anchors, but I like the flexibility of being able to move it wherever I need it.

Now that we have a couple of these around, I see no reason to produce anything more costly to keep things and critters out of the weather. In fact, our next project is to build two longer versions, at least 3 panels long, to shelter hay and firewood. And in my next installment, I’ll show how we used one to create a deluxe mobile chicken coop, a contraption we call the Chickestoga.

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