Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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7/10/2014

The is the second part in a multi-part blog following our "adventures" as we build our much anticipated new pole barn. Click here to read Part 1. We made the decision NOT to build the barn ourselves and are using the same building supply and contractor who built our beloved pole barn house and tractor/hay pole barn. In this post, you will see we are making changes and adapting our plans:

As it turns out, where I thought the barn should go is not where it needed to go. We staked out the dimensions, pulled the diagonals to check for square, and drew a string level.  One diagonal was nearly 48” below the upper corner. That is quite a bit of fill to move around.

In the meantime, we got our first quotes on the project. Realizing we needed more lean-to space and a little less interior, we trimmed the barn to 28x36 adding two 12’ lean-tos on the 36’ sides.  Total footprint will be 52x36’.

barn plans

The bid came in at approximately $14,000- labor included; the 12’ lean-tos are a significant extra, 10’ would have been much less but we already have 10’ lean-tos on the tractor barn, and they “almost” cover equipment, round bales, etc.  The extra 24” will be worth it in the long run.   Plans include two sliding end doors, 4 skylights, insulated roof (prevents that irritating condensation “rain”) and two walk through doors.  We may pour a 10x10 concrete slab in the corner of the barn or outside on the north lean-to for a future milking area.

run off ditch

(Right) The ditch to prevent run-off from flooding the new barn.  After a 2” rain we found the ditch works as planned.

Glenn mowed the paddock with the brush hog, then began to ditch just uphill of the site.  Our soil is thin, on a layer of crumbling sheeted rock, with a layer of clay underneath.  Water will soak into the soil and run off, following the rock layers.  Once the ditch was completed, we saw how much more level the paddock is at the new ditch.  Easy enough, we moved the corners of the barn west 60’.  Now the lowest diagonal is only 12-18” below the highest corner.

The cows will have 3-12’ bays to shelter in during the winter and we will easily be able to put two round bales under the lean-to roof for them.  The goats will be able to go inside the barn.  The actual floor space they will have is about the same as the current goat barn.  We could not see any reason to make it larger, which breaks the number one rule of barn building- always build larger than what you think you will need.

Sitemapped 

The picture is from an old satellite image before we even divided the field into 16 grazing sections.  The dotted lines represent the peak of the roof.  The working pens are currently adjacent to the old goat barn and the pipe panels, 10 and 12’ sections, are easily moved.

With the barn moved uphill to the west, the original paddock is now divided into two- the working area with the sweep tub and holding pens will all need to be rearranged and configured, but this is actually a very good thing.

Now we need to get up with the dozer operator.  Our neighbor has a dozer but he is behind on his hay and hay always comes first.  We figure a half-day (less actually) is all that will be needed.  We could use our tractor to push the topsoil around, but a trained professional is called for at times.  In the meantime, we will continue to do what we can to better tweak the plans.  We are even thinking that the site of the old goat barn would make a great greenhouse, and that we can definitely build ourselves!

Next blog post:  Dozer work



7/9/2014

Hi everyone! It’s hard to believe that this internship is already a month in. We only have three months left! The time has passed so quickly and it’s pretty amazing to reflect back on how much we’ve all learned. I definitely have a lot more to learn, but we as interns have come a long way.

Monday, June 23rd

Shade Structure 2

Monday morning began my week of moving broiler shelters as my morning chore. I had mentioned a few weeks prior that I had gotten the hang of moving the broiler pens. After this week, in the essence of full disclosure and to not create an image of myself as this rock star intern that can do everything extremely well, I want you all to know that while I have a good grasp of the technique involved, I am slow when it comes to actually moving the coops. As I get stronger, I am confident this will change. I like to be good at everything immediately and am sensitive to keeping things running efficiently, so I will admit to having a tiny meltdown because I was flustered by my lack of speed. The way our system operates is we have three interns assigned to move the broiler and pullet shelters and two interns who come behind the movers and feed and water the birds. I felt bad that I was keeping the feed/water people waiting and Tim, one of my fellow interns who was a feeder/waterer, stepped in to help me move the coop. He reminded me we are a team, that everyone is still learning and to not get upset about timing. I appreciated his bringing me back to reality and his assistance that day and the rest of the week in moving the shelters when time was of the essence. We at Polyface are a team and it is nice to work with people who will help you when you need it, be it a hand moving something heavy or a kind word when you need it. Or both.

After breakfast, we headed to one of the properties Polyface manages to set fence posts for some cattle fencing we are building. The property had recently been logged and the fencing configuration needed to be changed entirely. We had brought the hydraulic post pounder, and because the pounder was attached to the tractor (The pounder is time consuming to take on and off), we went directly to another site that needed some fence posts redone once we were done at the first property. It was a busy day of sharpening posts, installing the insulators (plastic pieces that hold the wire in place on the fence post), pulling old posts, installing new posts, removing old cattle fencing panels and installing new wire. We got back to the farm in time for evening chores and after dinner we had a seminar with Joel Salatin on the concept of Cow Days. Those of you who have read Joel’s book Salad Bar Beef will already have an understanding of what a Cow Day is, but for those of you who don’t, a Cow Day is essentially how much one cow will eat in one day. It will take experience for us as interns to get an eye for how much that is depending on the quality of the grasses, but the Cow Day concept is very important in determining how much acreage to give your herd so they can properly mob graze it. This also helps one plan the year; figuring out how many animals one can have, where they can go and for how long.

Tuesday, June 24th

Tuesday morning entailed moving broilers, helping with the buying club load up (we pull meats from the freezers based off an inventory sheet which summarizes that day’s orders), stacking hay in the hay loft and moving one of the pigs and her piglets into a separate corral. Polyface doesn’t farrow piglets, but unbeknownst to anyone, this particular sow had a litter of piglets one night and thus needed to be separated from the rest of the herd. Those of you who have worked with mother sows before know they can be a bit protective, so we had to make sure we had a solid plan of how to get her and the babies from Point A to Point B before proceeding. Everything went well and the pig family is currently enjoying their new digs.

After lunch, we went to a property Polyface manages to make hay. Joel, Daniel and some of the others had gotten to the site earlier, so there was a baler and hay wagons going and bales that were on the ground as some of the wagons were full when they were being made. My job was to drive the truck and trailer while some of the others threw the bales that were on the ground onto the flatbed to stack them. There were some good songs on the radio, but I felt bad that I was in the cab while the boys were trying to throw bales and keep up with the moving vehicle, so I shut it off. We ended up in the property owner’s barn unloading and stacking what we’d collected. We were able to bale and stack over 700 bales of hay for the property owner that afternoon, so it was a productive day.

Wednesday, June 25th

As you all may remember, Wednesday is processing day at Polyface. This was the first time I had been involved with collecting the birds to be processed, so immediately after moving the coops, we set to gathering. We ended up collecting over 500 birds and since we were just one crate shy of what we needed, I got to ride back to the farm on the back of the trailer with a chicken under each arm. I think the birds enjoyed the scenery and I enjoyed their company.

Most of the rest of the day was consumed by processing birds and packaging them. During the processing, I bounced between eviscerating and quality control, both of which I enjoy and we were done by 12:30. After lunch, we packaged the birds based on orders that had already been placed being completed first, parts and pieces needed for inventory and prepping the rest of the birds to be frozen. We were done with this by about 3:30, spent a fair amount of time cleaning up and did evening chores.

Thursday, June 26th 

GobbledegoThursday, for me, revolved around the construction of a new Gobbledego, a roosting and shade structure Polyface uses for turkeys. After morning chores and breakfast, I helped Daniel and one of the apprentices clean the bearings in one of the axles we needed while the other interns went with Joel to measure the existing Gobbledego, get a better understanding of the concept and pull the right amount of wood from the saw mill inventory. During the construction, I was otherwise occupied with the bearings, but once the pieces were done, a lot of us were needed to hold the pieces in place while they were connected.  When it was all said and done, the Gobbledego looked great. The turkeys will be pleased. The rest of the day included clearing away some encroaching walnut trees, chopping thistles, getting caught in a rainstorm while chopping thistles, and moving cows at two of the other properties Polyface manages. After the Cow Days talk, I had a better understanding of why the apprentices place the fences where they do.

Friday, June 27th

Every third Friday at Polyface, we have an extra day of processing. After moving broilers, we collected +/- 460 birds and got to work processing them. I was in the same processing capacity as I was on Wednesday, which was fun. I enjoyed being able to practice and am definitely getting better. As a group, we are definitely getting faster and finished earlier than we did on Wednesday. (Granted, there were about 60 less birds, but still…) Evening chores went smoothly and we had enough time to quickly change before dinner, which is always a treat.

I hope you all are enjoying reading this blog as much as I enjoy writing it. Polyface Field Day is July 19th, which we’re all looking forward to. I hope some of you will be coming so you can see what I’ve been talking about in person. Happy July 4th! See you after Week Five!

Turkey Shade Structure



7/8/2014
IMG_0268.JPG

Feeding established hives sugar water or high fructose corn syrup is almost never necessary—nor is feeding necessary when creating nucleus hives (nucs). In this article, I hope to convince you that feeding your bees is not only bad for the health of the bees and bad for honey production, but is bad for your bottom line! By learning about nectar flows, forage plants, and how the beekeeping season progresses in your area, you can increase your honey yields, your hive numbers, and the health of your bees.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that my bees know how to feed themselves and are healthier and more productive when I don’t interfere with their nutrition by feeding them “candy” or processed pollen paddies. When fed sugar water and corn syrup, the bees get lazy and do not forage for more nutritious fare. They use the artificial feed to make and store honey, thus greatly decreasing the quality, taste, and nutritional composition of the honey. The bees build up quickly when artificially fed, but then are addicted to feeding. When the beekeeper quits feeding them and the bees must forage on their own, the momentum and any jump on the season are lost.

Some beekeepers think taking away all of the honey and then feeding back sugar syrup is more economical because the profit from the honey outweighs the cost of the syrup. I believe feeding ends up costing the beekeeper more in the health of the bees and in overall honey production. A healthy, strong, well-fed hive produces far more honey, and the honey is of better quality and taste.

Currently, normal yields for my area are 40 to 50 pounds of honey per hive. Each established hive in my apiaries consists of 2 deep brood boxes and what I call 1 “eternal” shallow super. It’s always there. The nectar flow has finished here, and after pulling honey for the last time a couple of weeks ago, I left these shallow supers filled with mostly uncapped honey. With this honey and what’s in the deeps, the bees will make it through the dearth of summer until the fall bloom. By that time, these top supers will be mostly empty and the bees can refill them in the fall with the bloom from asters, goldenrod, and other fall flowers for their winter stores.

In addition to not feeding the hives, I took eleven 3-frame nucs from the strongest hives this spring during the nectar flow. So how did all this “hurt” my honey harvest? I averaged 73 pounds per hive! Yes, I could have squeezed out that last super of honey and increased my yields even more, but I would have paid for such folly in next years yields. In addition to my honey crop, the bees produced the new nuc hives.

Not Feeding Nucs

IMG_1454.jpg

Of the 11 nucs created this spring, 9 went on to make queens and are now thriving. The bees have mostly filled all the bottom deep hive bodies and, in most hives, are working to fill a second deep hive body (see photo below).

I started the first 6 nucs just as the nectar flow was beginning and fed each nuc a partial frame of comb honey (frozen from last year) and then did not feed them again. Five of 6 of these were successful. I made the last 5 nucs a few weeks later at the height of the nectar flow and did not feed them at all. They had only the honey and pollen that were stored in the 3 frames taken from the original hives. I NEVER fed these nucs. Four of 5 of these were successful.

When I checked on these hives yesterday, I could not tell which hives I had fed with comb honey and which hives I had not fed until I looked back at my notes. They have all built up well. I urge you to learn about the seasons in your area, learn when your nectar flows begin and end, learn what your bees forage on, and then adjust your timing for making nucs and for harvesting honey accordingly. You’ll be benefiting yourself and your bees.

Pictured here in the foreground is the first deep hive body with the second deep in the background. The bees have expanded from the original 3-frames into most of the bottom deep and are now expanding upwards into the 2nd deep. This hive was created on April 24, 2014 (picture taken July 5, 2014) and received no supplemental feeding.



7/7/2014

hay loftHi everyone! I hope you all enjoyed your week and are enjoying reading about my exploits at Polyface Farm. This past week was pretty much devoted to hay. We have made so much hay, 1,300 bales on Monday alone and many more the rest of the week. I didn’t get a hard tally on the total number of bales, but I can assure you, it was a lot of hay.  I’m also not so tired anymore. Daniel said it would take a few weeks for our bodies to acclimate and he was right. (Daniel is always right.)

Monday, June 16th

Starting this week, we were assigned a certain chore for the entire week. I was assigned to work with the turkeys (currently the object of my affection) and the pullets at the feathernet. We move the turkey and the pullet nets every three days so the birds can all get fresh forage. Moving the feathernets is pretty straightforward. We set up a new net, open the old one, let the birds in and pull in their shelter with the tractor. The turkeys have a roosting/shade structure called the GobbledyGo and the pullets have a mobile coop. After moving the nets and getting everyone fed and situated, we headed to breakfast. I then spent the rest of the day helping Polyface’s garden manager work in the various hoop houses and garden beds. We weeded, weeded some more, and then weeded some more. I was happy to work in the garden for the day though. We always are eating vegetables from the garden at dinner, so I enjoyed tending to them. It was a big hay day for everyone else. A lot of the interns spent time either on the hay wagon with the baler or unloading the wagons and stacking the bales in the loft. I ended up joining those unloading bales around 3pm until chore time. For evening chores, I went with Greer, one of my roommates and the one who takes most of the photos I am in that I post here, to gather and wash eggs for our evening chore and then headed to dinner.

Tuesday, June 17th

Since we had moved the nets the day before, my morning chore was spent just feeding and checking on my turkey and pullet friends at their respective feathernets. The corral project was still ongoing, so after breakfast we built wooden gates needed to complete the project (using Polyface’s own sawmilled lumber), stacked more hay and I backed up the tractor for the first time with one of the apprentices. There was a film crew onsite while I was having my tractor lesson and I remember fervently hoping I wouldn’t crash the tractor into the barn or something catastrophic of that nature while they were filming me. Don’t worry, I didn’t.

Feathernet

After lunch, I went with one of the contract farmers to help set up cross fences for some new herds of cattle he’s expecting the next week. I really enjoyed being able to tag along for this trip. It was good to be able to practice one on one Polyface’s method of setting up wire fencing. Once I get better practiced in their method, I’ll take some photos and do a little how to here in the blog. This took a few hours and by the time I got back, everyone else was on hay, either loading or unloading, so I did the broiler and egg collecting chores while they wrapped up their hay duties. It’s nice to be part of a team; you always know someone is doing what needs to be done in some way or another.

Wednesday, June 18th

Wednesday is processing day for us here at Polyface. Last week, we processed birds on Tuesday, but that was a bit of a fluke. After feeding the turkeys and pullets (and myself), it was time to report to the processing shed and get to work. I was on the gutting station again this week and am pleased to say I had a much easier time of it than my first go a few weeks ago. We were able to process and package about 230 birds in a few hours, which seemed fast to me, but I’m assured we’ll be even faster in the next few weeks.

After lunch, we spent a few hours stacking the hay that was harvested on Tuesday The bales were light and there were a lot of us, so the time went by quickly. I also took a brief interlude mid-afternoon with Tim, one of the other interns, where we went and filled the water for the broilers. It was a hot day, so we need to make sure all the animals are cool and hydrated. Someone does this every day when the temperature gets up there. It’s not only the broilers – the pigs get in on the water fest too. I wish I could have gotten a picture of Daniel misting the pigs with the hose- they were so happy! We did wrap up stacking hay and evening chores a little bit early today, which was appreciated.

Thursday, June 19th

Collecting Eggs

Thursday morning, we moved the turkeys and pullets to their new pastures. It took a little longer than I would have preferred because I kept tangling up the nets, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. The rest of my morning was spent at one of the properties Polyface manages. I went with one of the apprentices and we moved +/-430 turkey poults (So cute! They kind of look like tiny dinosaurs.) from their brooder onto pasture. Turkeys are delicate, so it takes longer to move them from their brooders than it would with broiler chicks. At first, they seemed a little confused about what to do in the grass, but they soon set up pecking at bugs and leaves. After lunch, I went for another round on the hay wagon with two other interns. This went much better than my stint the first week I was here. The bales were lighter than the ones prior, but I still can’t get them over my head. I stacked rows to about 5’6” high (I know that because that’s about how tall I am. I didn’t measure the height of the stack, don’t worry.) and then ended up climbing to the top of the wagon to arrange the bales that get tossed up high. We went for three wagons, finishing the pastures that had been mowed and avoiding the rain. After hay, I got a chance to ride along as one of the apprentices spread compost with the manure spreader over the fields and was trying not to laugh as Michael, Polyface’s livestock guardian dog, ran around rolling in the newly dispersed very fragrant compost piles. We wrapped up the day with broiler chores and washing eggs.

Friday, June 20th

Friday morning chores went pretty smoothly and had the added bonus of giving hay to the new calves Polyface is keeping. These guys will be added to the herd but could use a week or two of time to bulk up before being sent out. With the general populous  After breakfast, we went to one of the more remote pig pastures on the Polyface property and prepped the fences for the new pigs that will be heading out there soon. A fair amount of the fence posts had come loose, so we interns divided up into teams of two and set to digging new fence holes and replacing posts. The apprentice we were working with checked all the wires and tightened them where necessary. By the time we wrapped this project up, it was time for lunch.

After we ate, we went to one of the properties Polyface manages and chopped thistles. You may remember from last week’s entry that I love to chop thistles. Getting a big backswing (making sure you’re not going to maim those you’re working with, of course) and taking out a massive thistle in one fell swoop is surprisingly cathartic. This field was pretty big, so it took five interns a few hours to clear everything out. Our apprentice manager also ended up mowing one field that was choked with thistles while we handled the less densely populated sections. It was a nice way to end the week.

The Weekend

I won’t usually write about what I do on weekends since it’s generally not farm related, but I went this past Sunday to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s residence in Charlottesville, VA. Besides all the great artifacts, art, architecture and history, the gardens, orchards, plant nursery, and vineyards are really something to check out. It was affirming to learn that the author of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia, secretary of state, vice president and third president of the United States thought of himself as a farmer. I took a lot of photos of how he made his trellises and such so I can copy him when I get back to New Hampshire. I highly doubt my house will ever look like Monticello, which is fine because I’m sure it would take a lot to heat a place that big, but my gardens can look like theirs! Enjoy your week everybody!



7/2/2014

Your honeybee queen is the most critical member of the colony. She is the egg layer, work director, and it is through her pheromones the colony knows they are a cohesive unit. Without her the hive dies. Periodically, it is good to have a queen sighting just to know she is alive and well. If you have trouble spotting the queen, you can always tell by larvae and eggs that she is present. But it is much more fun to spot her yourself.

Frame Holder

The queen honeybee is distinctly different from the other bees in the hive. She has a longer body that appears more narrow than other bees in the hive. Her wings look shorter because of her longer abdomen. Do not confuse the larger drone bees with the queen. They are shaped like the workers but larger. There will be several drones in the hive but only one queen.

When looking for the queen, remember you are looking for one bee to stand out among tens of thousands. Sounds impossible, right? Like a proverbial needle in a haystack. It is kind of like that but there are some clues to narrow down the search.

Check the Brood Boxes

Most of the time, the queen is on a frame in a brood box. Remember the brood box is exactly what it sounds like: where the colony is raising brood. To examine the frames, start on one side, pull out the first frame and inspect both sides closely. Handle frames gently and complete the inspection over the open box. If the queen does happen to be on this frame and drop off, she will fall back into the hive.

Do you see capped cells in an arch pattern? If so, your queen has been there. You may see open cells with a small "c" shape in the bottom. Congratulations. You have spotted an egg. You will also note developing larvae in uncapped cells. It is helpful during these thorough inspections to have a frame holder on the outside of the box. As you inspect the hive, place the first two frames on the holder after you ensure the queen is not on those frames. As you move through each frame after the first two, simply slide the next frames to the empty space. After inspection return the frames to the original positions.

Look for a Retinue

Another clue that the queen is in the vicinity is a "retinue". This is a small contingent of attendant bees who follow her in a semi-circle with a space between her and the rest of the colony. I find it easier to spot the queen directly than the retinue and notice the retinue after the fact. If you have the opportunity, snap a photo when you do spot the queen. Studying pictures helps you learn what to look for the next time.

Marked Queens

If you know you have a marked queen this will make finding her bit easier. A dot of paint is placed on the queen’s thorax. Once you find the dot of paint you are assured this is the queen. You will also know her age by the color of the paint. An international marking system specifies the color used to mark honeybee queens by the year of birth. Since queens are typically viable for only 2-3 years, five colors are used.

Year Ending in: Color

1 or 6: White
2 or 7: Yellow
3 or 8: Red
4 or 9: Green
5 or 0: Blue

The key to finding the queen is patience and careful examination. It also takes some practice. The first few times, I was able to spot eggs and larvae but no queen. Now a queen sighting is much more routine.

Check out these three pictures to see if you can find the queen.

Queen 1

Queen 2

Queen 3

Happy Hunting.

Don’t forget to stop by our website www.FiveFelineFarm.com or Facebook page www.facebook.com/fivefelinefarm for more information about this Central Illinois hobby farm. There is always something new on the farm.



7/2/2014

Back before petrochemical fertilizer cocktails, farmers weren't monocroppers. They ran a closed system, and part of that system included animals. The animals ate the crop waste and silage. They helped work the land. And their waste helped keep the soil healthy. As synthetic fertilizers became the norm, animals and crop diversity fell out of favor. Monocropping huge expanses of land was less work than having multiple crops and caring for animals.

Before we had animals in the garden, we couldn't produce enough of our own compost to amend the soil. On top of that, because the pile was fairly small, it was nearly impossible to keep it hot enough. Instead, we relied on bringing in commercial compost. Unfortunately, with commercial compost, you don't know what's in it. Studies report that persistent herbicides are showing up in "organic" compost. On top of that, there's no way of knowing what persistent pesticides and fertilizers are also in your commercial compost. Think of all the grass clippings that go into yard-waste bins. Now think about all the crap many homeowners put on that grass to make it green and weed-free. I wasn't entirely sure that was something I wanted around my food.

Rachel's goats and chickens in the garden

To be able to amend all of our soil with just compost, we had to bring in at least five full truckloads of compost every season. This wasted quite a bit of gas, time, and money. It wasn't cost effective for us and it simply wasn't sustainable.

When we got chickens, I wasn't prepared for what they could do to my compost pile. Because their manure is hot, it literally made our compost hot. Steaming hot. But being busy, we found we weren't able to turn the pile as often as we should. So we handed the job over to our chickens. They got all of our kitchen scraps and nontoxic yard waste. They ate what they wanted then turned and shredded everything else. They kept the compost aerated and added their manure to it. When we got the goats, they joined in the fun.

This black gold they gave us was beautiful and plentiful. We completely stopped bringing in compost. With the manure, we needed less material overall because it was more concentrated. This made it easier to spread, taking an afternoon rather than several weekends. It is the perfect balance, as we have all that we need and don't have any extra. And we feed our animals organic feed, so we know what goes in and out of them.

After our final harvest each season, we spread the black gold over the bed to allow it to continue to compost down further before we planted the next crop. When we got the rabbits, they added a new dimension to our soil amending. Because rabbit manure is not hot, it can be added directly to the plants without being composted. This allowed us to amend the soil while the plants were actively growing. We don't use it on root vegetables, of course, unless we amend very early, allowing at least 60 days before harvest. With heavy feeding crops, such as melons, squash, and corn, this homegrown compost was a godsend because it insured that we could continue to feed the plants throughout the growing season without worrying about burning them.

But it's not just fertilizer that the animals provide. The chickens and turkeys, in particular, help with keeping weeds down and also with pest control. When the beds are dormant, the birds get to go out and dig around, eating mountains of cutworms, potato bugs, earwigs, and basically anything else that moves. When we start planting, we fence the birds off from the beds, but they still have access to the area on the north side, where our orchard is. We allow the weeds to grow there as a trap crop for insects, which the birds eat while they also keep the weeds from getting out of hand.

The animals around here definitely earn their keep and provide us with food, directly and indirectly. I can't imagine doing it without them now.

This post originally appeared on HOMEGROWN.org, by Rachel of Dog Island Farm.

Photo by Rachel

Rachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of arts and crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!

Photo by Rachel


6/30/2014

compost pileSummer on Deer Isle, Maine, is an absolutely magical time with an incredible fireworks display of colors and flowers. One of many good things with summer here at our homestead is that our outdoor shower is warm enough to provide that quick shower we so often miss in the winter.

Solar Water Pump

Last year we installed an electric water pump that runs off our solar electricity. It's a supplement to our hand pump – our only source of water until then - and the main purpose was to be able to develop an alternative and sustainable water-heating system through a compost pile for our outdoor shower. A comfortable and convenient shower with warm, running water is highly sought by our Hostel guests and the pressurized water enabled us to set up a system that was all that, but still met our standards for low maintenance, sustainability and use of alternative technology. And our guests seem to love it – how many other inn's have photos taken of their shower?

Making Compost for Heating Water

shower hoses

We build the compost pile 6 feet at the base and 6 feet tall, using natural materials found right here: seaweed, grass cuttings and wood chips. We layer the materials flat like a stack of pancakes so it takes the shape of a cylinder. We use a 100 foot roll of 1/2 inch black water line and as we build the pile we lay one circle – about two and a half feet in diameter – of the pipe between every 6-8 inch layer of material. The pile quickly heats up to 140 to degrees 150 Fahrenheit and that thermophilic process is what will heat up the water in the pipe. The small pipe diameter allows the water to pick up the heat even more efficiently and it makes for a flexible line that is easy to work with.

Inside the shower we have two taps – one coming from the pile with steaming hot water and one coming directly from the well with cold water to temper the hot water down with. We use a 2 gallon watering can that we fill with water and a rope and pulley to hoist it up with. A cam cleat typically found in sail boats secures the rope and we simply tip the water can with our hand to create the shower. I find those 2 gallons to be enough for a good wash, including my hair. Surely one could fill the water can again and again, but this is an encouraged limitation and most of our hostel guests are surprised to find that one can is sufficient. The water can can be refilled just about every 10-15 min with hot water – perfect when we have a lot of guests here.

Our well is deep with plenty of water even in the dry season and a conventional shower system with the pressurized water going straight to the shower head would not be a matter of too much water being used, but could have a negative impact on the vegetation around the shower stall and make the ground muddy since the water drain right down on the ground.

Not taking the water tank and the installation of that in account, we spent about $25 on plumbing parts for the shower, including the pipe.

Ongoing Maintenance

outdoor showerIt takes two of us the better part of a day to gather materials and build the pile for the first time and last summer we found that within a month, the pile cooled off and needed to be rebuilt. We're still learning how to create a pile that burn slow for a long time – last year we had problems with the pile first being too dry and then too wet. One theory is that the rich seaweed acts as rocket fuel and burns very hot but for a limited time. An alteration of the proportions of seaweed to grass for example might be one way for a longer lasting heater.

Summer is to me the season of easy living. No wool socks to dry by the wood stove, no damp winter coats, mittens and hats to deal with after every work day, no trudging through knee deep snow to the wood shed. And no hour long project of heating water on the stove, thawing out the rubber tub and mopping up the mess on our kitchen floor afterward when all you want is just to get clean. Fill the water can, shower, done. A homesteader's life just got so much easier and a hostel guest's stay so much more memorable.









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