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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Greenhouse heated by compost - amateur experiment

I have had a compost pile on the farm or in my backyard since I was old enough to know better.  My grandfather, an avid gardener and phenomenal green thumb, had a compost pile in the corner of the garden where we would deposit our cat litter, onion trimmings, banana peels and more.  Every spring he would turn the pile over and arduously spread it across his garden and then turn it in - all by hand - with no mechanical intervention.  He did this in our backyard in Greenwich, Connecticut, of all places.  It never smelled, it was always the warmest spot in the garden and I can't ever remember it having snow on it.  He also had a greenhouse.  It was heated with propane, to my grandmother's dismay.  He spent hours out there every day in his retirement.  His goal - to have tomatoes on the 4th of July.  I think he missed one year by three days between my 8th birthday and when he passed just after my 22nd.

Next to the garden, I have a huge compost pile.  It accepts almost all of the shavings and manure from the chicken coop, the remnants of the garden after it is cleaned out in the fall and any other large deposits of vegetation, grass, leaves and weeds that are collected here on the farm.  This year, I also started a compost pile in the greenhouse.  I had read one of the many articles on free heat for a greenhouse.  There are some pretty impressive systems out there where you run pipes through and around your pile and then run water through those pipes to heat the greenhouse.  My system is much more low tech.  In the greenhouse, I built a compost pile (meaning I took a corner of the greenhouse and started piling up organic material).  Recently, I renewed my efforts, to collect coffee grounds and food stuffs unfit for the chickens and pigs so that they be added to my pile in the greenhouse.

I can report some moderate success.  The outside temperature today did not exceed 32 degrees and it was 45 degrees inside the greenhouse.  The true test this week will be to see if the pile can keep the inside temperature over 32 degrees as the outside temperatures are forecast to remain in the low teens for highs and close to zero for overnight lows.  If I can maintain a temperature close to freezing, then it will be time to start some early spring crops like spinach, greens and radishes for personal consumption.

Later this year I hope to add some radiational heat retention with bricks found on craigslist for a new floor and perhaps a water barrel painted black.  Always a work in progress.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


This farm has two female pigs, a gilt and a sow.  Little One came to us shortly after Labor Day as a nine week old piglet.  Sally joined us the week after Thanksgiving as a three year old sow.  Our goal is to breed both of them for the next couple of years to put pork in our freezer, trade for beef and lamb, and sell a few of the piglets to cover feed, bedding, housing etc.

Two weeks after Sally arrived, and reportedly one week before she was supposed to go into heat again; Sally lifted the wooden fence separating her and our boar Zeb.  They did not have any rules about waiting until the third date, sealing the deal at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of their first date.  This early encounter would result in March piglets; a little to early for my liking, but if Sally got pregnant from that first date then that is what I will be looking at.

In the weeks since, I have been diligently watching for Sally to come back into heat.  I didn't notice any in December so I figured, yep, March piglets it is!  Then New Year's weekend Sally was definitely in heat again.  Unfortunately, even though she stood for Zeb, he didn't seal the deal.  She should have come into heat again this past weekend and although she was extra social on Friday, she showed no other signs that she was ready for another date with Zeb.  

Little One - at just over six months old - came into her first heat yesterday.  Thankfully a lot of reinforcement was done on the fence after Sally broke through.  The calendar has been marked and I will watch again next month for a good heat.  If she starts to have a regular cycle I may get Little One and Zeb together in March for late June or even piglets on her birthday - the 4th of July!
Two and a half years ago, after an attempted artificial insemination on a five year old sow, I went searching the interweb for a tell-tale sign that a sow/gilt was pregnant.  Sally's hind end doesn't look like this.  Again, I may be forced to go the high tech route to see if Zeb and Sally are proud parents to be.  Little man's father seems to see something different than I and thinks that the pregnancy 'indicator' is positive.  Ever pessimistic, I will wait and watch for the next 21 days and if there is no sign of heat and no significant, noticeable change in her weight, then I will resort to the high tech route.

In the meantime I will start gathering materials for a corral and sourcing a better farrowing hut on higher ground so that if Sally is pregnant, the pasture is ready for the little ones in early March.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

January thaw

Mother Nature usually teases me in January.  She will give me a day or two of rain and warm temperatures just long enough for my brain to turn to incubators, seeds, soil, and spring farm projects.  This winter we have been hovering in the upper 30s for daytime highs and dipping not too far below freezing at night for almost two solid weeks now.  This past weekend it was warm enough for sap to run and a few sugar makers I know have put up over 20 gallons of Fancy.  (It’s called something different now like Grade A fluffy delicate, the VT Maple Sugar Makers Association will help you with the official grade names).

Usually it doesn’t take more than two or three days and we are back in the deep freeze.  Not this time – Mother Nature is being especially cruel.  While my mind knows that it is only January and starting tomatoes in my unheated greenhouse is not too smart, the weather and my heart are thinking it is more like March than January.

The pigs have been feeling their oats with the warmer weather.  They have been talking and nudging the fence in their version of courting.  The last time this happened was New Year's Weekend.  Sally and Zeb were pretty excited for their midnight kiss.  Alas, I didn't notice the heat until Sunday morning and missed our opportunity.  This weekend and early this week I will be keeping watch for signs of another heat in hopes of having mid-April piglets.

Ten-day forecasts are predicting more seasonable temperatures for the coming weekend with daytime highs in the upper teens and low 20’s.  Seed starting will take place on a limited basis inside the house this weekend for the longest season veggies.  A recycled heater could be coming soon for my ramshackle greenhouse.  That would allow me to start everything a little earlier and perhaps add a second farmers market to calendar this summer.  I would be in heaven if I could bring a low tunnel onto the farm this year, but baby steps!

Until then I will enjoy a little less humming from the circulating pumps as the thermostats don’t demand as much heat in the warmer temperatures.  Inside projects will continue, like finally painting the wall that we tore down three years ago.  Spring projects will come soon enough.  In the meantime I will use the cooler temperatures this weekend to prune the fruit trees while the sap isn’t running!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Remodeling on the coldest day of the year

My horoscope for the beginning of 2017 says that the stars are aligned for successful home remodels, general home repairs and making my bedroom and oasis for better sleep.  Well, neither of my pigs are Libra's so I am not quite certain why they picked the coldest week of the season so far to remodel theirs.
It only took them two days and they managed to do enough damage that I might as well have put them in the middle of the ice-covered front lawn with a bed sheet and they would have been just as warm.  Saturday (almost the coldest day of the season so far), they decided to knock out the back wall removing four or five of the boards.  Not terrible since the back wall faces primarily west and is up against a hill, but still far enough away that they lost the wind break from that direction.  It was late, there was very little wind and they were buried deep in the hay so I knew they would be fine for the night.  

Sunday morning, with temperatures hovering around zero and a steadily increasing wind, I went out to find that they had taken boards out of and the tarp off the north wall.  Almost all of our weather comes from the north and west.  They had now removed about all of their protection from the elements.  If you have livestock, or want to have livestock, you will learn that it doesn't matter if the wind chill is 15 below and dropping; when your animals need attention, you take care of it.

At those temperatures the battery operated circular saw and drill wanted nothing to do with me.  The drill went inside to warm up.  I went out to the hut to take measurements albeit at the displeasure of the girls who had to move from their warm pile of hay so I could measure the back wall.  Back to the garage and the OSB (composite plywood) was cut to size.

Over the past couple of weeks we have had up and down temperatures with snow one day and rain the next.  Anyone who lives on a dirt road or has a dirt driveway in Northwestern Vermont has honed their ice walking skills this winter.  When you also take almost the same path each morning and evening over to feed and water the pigs, it gets pretty slick as well.  42 x 90 sheets of OSB make great sails against a steady wind - oh the you tube video might have gone viral if there had been a camera.

We climbed back inside the hut, unseating the girls, again!  The pieces slid in with only a little chopping of frozen hay and some nudging where it was too thick to be chopped away without bigger tools.  A bale of fresh hay to the girls and one to Zeb to top them off against the extra chill and it was over to the garage to clean up my mess.  

One thing that seems (knock on wood) to be working in my favor this year over last is that pre-planning, thinking it through, and triple checking that the materials and tools needed are on hand or procured before the first cut is made, has exponentially decreased the amount of time spent on farm projects.  Proper maintenance or checking that proper maintenance was completed before enlisting a particular tool to a task has also decreased the time that these projects are taking.

Perhaps, I am finally learning!