Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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12/4/2014

This week I helped my Dad get the winter quarters ready for the chickens to move in. During the summer, the chickens live in mobile chicken houses, surrounded by electric net fencing to keep them safe from all of the critters that might eat them. We move them to a fresh area of grass each week. The chickens love eating the grass and bugs! Unfortunately, during the winter the grass goes dormant. To protect the grass, we move the chickens into certain areas, which limits the harm they can do. Since it will soon be time to move them (we have to do it before the ground freezes or we can't move the electric net fencing poles), Dad and I inspected the winter houses to find out what needed to be done to get them ready for winter.

Preparing the Chicken Houses for Winter

To help the chickens stay warmer, we use hoop-houses, simple wooden frames with a cattle panel bent across the top and covered with plastic, that work like mini-greenhouses to keep the chickens warm. This year we realized that the plastic needed replacing. We took off the tattered old plastic, cut new pieces to fit, and fastened them in place. The biggest problem with these houses is the lack of ventilation, so we cut a small hole in the plastic in the back. Ventilation is very important to prevent frostbite because lack of ventilation can cause moisture buildup in the house. If this settles on the chickens' combs and wattles, it may freeze, causing frostbite — more on that later.

Putting on the plastic tarp

Next we cleaned out the old bedding and replaced it with new pine shavings. You can use straw, but sometimes the chickens will try to eat it and that can cause digestive problems. We use the same feeders in winter, but we have to switch the waterers. The plastic ones that we use in the summer would crack and break if water froze in them, so we use rubber pails instead. It is easy to turn them over and stomp on the bottoms to push out the ice.

House is Finished

Molting and Frostbite

The chickens are ready to move in! They are pretty funny looking now because they are molting. Chickens molt (lose) their feathers once a year. Not only do they look awful, but since they need to use their energy for growing new feathers, they stop laying eggs. (I had to tell my egg customers that I probably won't have any eggs to sell until next year.) This is a hard time of the year for my business because I still have to pay for chicken feed even though I am not getting money from selling eggs. Luckily, it should only last about six weeks or so.

Chicken breeds with large combs and wattles like the Leghorn need extra care during cold winters. Putting lard or coconut oil on their combs and wattles can help prevent frostbite. Other breeds with smaller combs and wattles, like the Chanticler, are very cold-hardy and need little help avoiding frostbite. In my experience, chickens like the choice to go outside, whatever the weather, so I let them out during the day. They may not stay out long but, even for a short while, the fresh air and sunshine is good for them.

Big Bird's Origins

Remember last time when I asked you, "What species of animal is a Giant Runt?" The answer is ... a pigeon! Yes the Giant Runt is a breed of pigeon. The Giant Runt was named during Colonial times, when the word “runt” was often used to describe something that was “common." Since there were so many of them at the time, it was named the giant, common pigeon, or Giant Runt.

Did you know that the character of Big Bird from Sesame Street was modeled on a particular poultry breed? Yup - this post's question is, which poultry breed was the inspiration for Big Bird? 


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


12/3/2014

Winter in the hills of old Vermont is serious business for me and my cows. In years past I have seen the thermometer drop to 47 degrees below zero with four feet of snow on the flat. As it always seems to happen, my day job at Bob-White Systems demands most of my time and seems to leave me with less and less time for the farm, especially during the winter. In the winter, it likely will take you an extra hour per day to do chores in the winter than it does during the summer. I recommend being prepared and to work as efficiently as possible.

dairy cows

Cows Can Enjoy Winter. My cows don't seem to mind the coming of winter nearly as much as I do, as long as they can rely on me to keep their feed fresh and their barn clean. Cows are fairly simple creatures and, as long as they are comfortable and well fed, they don’t mind staying inside for several days in a row. My cows don't like to go out in a cold rain nor do they like to be out for very long when there is snow on the ground because they don't like to lay down in the cold white stuff. Most cows would prefer to be inside on their mattresses enjoying their feed or chewing their cuds. And they prefer to be left alone so they can eat sleep and make milk. My cows only like to see me twice a day when I milk and feed them.

Trim a Cow’s Tail Switch. One thing I do to prepare my cows for winter is to trim their tail switches.When the cows lay down in the barn, the “gutter” is right behind them. If their tails drop into the manure their switches absorb the manure like a sponge. There is nothing worse than getting hit in the face by a manure soaked tail when milking first thing on a cold morning. Their tails stay relatively dry and harmless as long as you keep them well trimmed. When spring rolls around let their switches grow back out so they can once again be efficient fly swatters when the cows return to their pastures.

Cows Want a Clean Barn. No matter how careful I am with the cows during the winter I have to spend much more time cleaning the barn and keeping it clean. Usually when a dairy farmer speaks of “cleaning the barn” he or she means cleaning the manure out of the gutter and putting down fresh bedding for the cows. In my case we have a lot of people visiting our barn so I have to make sure everything, not just the gutter, stays relatively clean. I spend time cleaning the pipeline, stall dividers, walls, window, lights etc., etc. Even if you have a small barn—typical on a micro dairy— it still takes much more time during the winter than it does during the summer to clean.

dairy cows

Cows Can Catch a Cold. No matter how well our barn is ventilated it still stays relatively warm and humid compared to outside. Under those conditions it is easier for the cows to catch and spread respiratory diseases. For that reason I have my cows vaccinated every fall. It can prevent a disaster. There is nothing worse than having a barn full of cows with pneumonia.

Cows and Ice Don’t Mix. When I do let my cows out during the winter I have to be careful they have good footing and don’t have to walk on ice. Cows hate ice. Their hooves are hard and slippery and cows can slip and fall down fairly easily. Worse yet their hind legs can “split” on ice and do tremendous, even fatal damage to the tendons in their hindquarters. It is a dreadful sight. I recommend keeping a couple buckets of salt in the barn during the winter and spreading it liberally if there is ice in the barnyard. If the ice is too bad or extensive just keep the cows inside for a bit. They don’t mind.

It seems that no matter how much hay I have on hand I always worry about running out feed for my cows. I have the same worries about the firewood I use to heat my house. Do I have enough? The old saying goes that you should still have 1/2 of your hay and firewood left come February 1st in order to make it through the winter. It is always a big relief to me when I do. I can dare to think that I may survive another winter.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



12/2/2014

Did you know that most rooster combs don't need any special frostbite preventatives during the winter months?

Contrary to popular belief, most breeds are very well equipped to deal with the cold. But good husbandry skills will ensure very little frostbite irritation for your rooster and other large-combed chicken breeds. This blog post is about protecting your chickens' comb, but frostbite can also afflict the feet, mainly on snowy days. (This is a topic for another day.)

There are a few things that you can do for your chickens this winter, especially for your rooster, without having to apply anything to his comb, and without having to put a heat lamp in your coop (which I do not suggest), in order to keep combs and wattles healthy and your birds happy.

Here are a few things you need to consider before the frigid winter months set it.

It All Starts in the Coop

Yep, you read that right. Preventing frostbite on combs all begins with good husbandry skills. Chickens are extremely warm animals due to their down feathering under the larger feathers that you see with the naked eye. They huddle together in their coop at night to generate their own warmth. If you go into the coop on even the coldest of evenings and stick your hand under a wing, your hand will instantly be warmed. However, their combs are extremely sensitive because the main portion of their body heat is from the breast to the tail. Frostbite can occur when there is compromised ventilation and heat, allowing the chickens breath to create ice crystals and moisture around their heads.

The Deep Litter Method for Raising Poultry

This is where a deep litter method coop floor comes in handy, and one of many reasons that I do not endorse sand flooring in coops. Deep litter method is simply the method of not cleaning your coop out during the Winter months. However, you must tend to it often in order for it to be safe and effective.

First, I start by deep cleaning the coop one last time as the weather starts getting fairly cold (fall). I lay a final thick layer of straw down on the floor and in the nesting boxes. This works well if you have a dirt floor or a laminate/linoleum floor. We have linoleum over a plywood floor in our coop.

Next, I use a rake or shovel to stir the straw around each morning after the chickens have been let out. I add new straw to the floor as needed, on top of the straw that has already been in the coop. I also clean out the nesting boxes as needed and freshen with new straw (take the old straw out of the nesting boxes and add to the coop floor). You are basically layering the straw as the Winter progresses and moving it around daily. Your chickens will also aid in the stirring process as they move about in the coop during the day.

The decomposition of the straw and chicken feces generates a safe heat inside of the coop. During the winter time, the ammonia is not typically an issue, as the cold weather zaps it out of the atmosphere. However, you can prevent ammonia in the coop by sprinkling Sweet PDZ all over the hay every day or as needed. You can find this online (it is free shipping for Amazon Prime members) or at your local feed store and co-op. If deep litter method is managed properly, you will have zero smell and ammonia issues, and should not need to use Sweet PDZ at all.

You do not need to start your deep litter method in the Spring or Summer and then transport to your coop floor. Deep litter method starts in the coop and ends in the coop. You do not add food compost to your coop floor, however, you can sprinkle your chicken feed and food scraps onto the floor so that your chickens can turn the deep litter over for you. You can also add pine needles and leaves in with your straw on the floor. Other deep litter options are leaves, pine shavings, and yard material (grass clippings, etc). Whatever is most convenient and efficient for you. The key to safe deep litter method is to continuously add straw (or whatever material you are using) as it is needed, and to continuously stir your straw throughout the winter, especially in the morning. Your deep litter flooring is a living being, with tons of awesome microbes and good bacteria breaking everything down. Take care of it!

Lastly, you'll need to make sure the chickens have proper ventilation in their coops; however, it cannot be drafty. I cover up any windows with a tarp or clear plastic, so that sunlight can still come through during the day. Make sure that there is still some proper ventilation — be it ventilation holes in the sides of the coop near the roof, or ventilation holes above your nesting boxes. It vastly depends on the design of your coop. The biggest priority is making sure the air can circulate, but that it is not drafty inside.

Deep litter method combined with proper ventilation will generate quite a bit of heat for your chickens in the wintertime, which very much helps prevent frostbitten combs and wattles.

 

Choose a Hardy Chicken Breed

As with gardening, you want to choose a "product" that is native or thrives well in your region. You can certainly manipulate things to help them thrive better, but ultimately, they must "belong" here. With that said, if you're like me, you love all kinds of breeds that don't belong in your zone. This means we must take extra responsibility, whether they are cold-hardy or warm-hardy, or if you're lucky, both.

In the same respect, do not choose birds, such as the Hedemora, if you live in a climate that reaches 100+ degrees. While they are extremely cold-hardy, you will cause yourself quite the electric bill to cool them in the summertime.

If you simply want homestead chickens and don't plan on breeding them for a purpose, then choose a breed that does well in regards to your climate throughout the entire year. If you live in extremely cold winters, try finding a breed with a smaller comb and wattles. For example, Andalusian chickens (large fowl) aren't necessarily the best fit for those who live in temperatures that reach -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Their big, floppy combs are a recipe for disaster unless tended to very tediously. In fact, they are even considered in the "Mediterranean" class of birds.

I'm extremely excited about the Icelandic Chickens that we have added to our flock. They are incredibly tolerant of cold and hot climates. You can find out a little more about them on our homestead website.

Let Nature Do Its Thing

It's very hard for people to understand this, but chickens were created to be outdoor creatures. If you've followed all of the above steps, there should really be no concern with frostbite. Sure, you'll see a little here and there, but nothing to be concerned about. In fact, you're probably more concerned about it than your rooster is.

However, sometimes humans decide to go against all odds and make drastic decisions. This includes putting a heat lamp in their coop. I cannot tell you how to run your homestead, however, I can tell you that it is extremely dangerous to place a heat lamp of any kind inside of your chicken coop. If you wish to turn a light on for your chickens, find an old regular watt light bulb that puts off a little heat. It won't heat your coop up, but it can knock of the chill a bit. With that said, make sure it is secured to the roof of your coop and surrounded by wire or an encasement of some type so that your chickens cannot fly into it and break it.

Chickens, especially roosters, are equipped to handle frostbite like champs. I have several friends who live in the -30 degrees Fahrenheit locations, and never once have to treat chickens for frostbite. With that said, there can be extreme cases, but for the most part, a comb or wattle may get a bit of frostbite on it, and will simply heal over and flake off on its own. Under no circumstance should you pick at or peel off the affected areas. Allow nature to do its own thing and heal itself.

If You've Done it all....

...and your rooster still gets some frostbite, don't worry. There are plenty of all-natural ways to heal your roosters comb if you are extremely concerned or it is a rare threatening case of frostbite.

One of my favorite ways to help my roosters and other large combed chickens through the frosty months is to apply Vaseline to their combs. You can also apply olive oil with oregano or tea tree essential oil mixed in if your frostbitten comb becomes infected or severe — an over the counter antibiotic ointment is also an alternative, but we prefer all-natural methods. These two all-natural methods are tried and true, and worked for us in Virginia during two weeks of extremely bitter cold days and nights (below zero temps and even worse wind chills). Vaseline and oil will not prevent frostbite, so I do not suggest using it unless treating frostbite.

If for some reason you have the ultimate extreme case where the chicken’s tissue becomes severely infected and becomes noticeably painful, you will need to separate the chicken from the rest of the group in an effort to prevent pecking and further tissue damage. In this situation, I would place the chicken in a small area with a regular watt bulb that puts off heat, however, do not put off too much heat, as your chicken will then get used to it and will be in shock when placed back into the coop with the rest of the flock. Many suggest cutting the highly infected areas off of the comb and wattles, I have never had to deal with that, and I don't think you will either if your coop is properly built. I have many chicken friends who live in the coldest of areas and have never had to deal with frostbite to these extremes, because they know how to take care of their chickens and their chicken housing.

These are several, very simple, ways to help prevent comb and wattle frostbite this winter. All-natural methods work wonders, and frostbite isn't really anything to freak out about. Most chickens will get specks of frostbite on their combs and wattles this winter. It is almost inevitable. However, it is not an issue that should be overly exaggerated in an attempt to sell chemical medications that chickens do not need, which I have seen too much of recently.

Please understand, as I stated before, that chickens are nature's creatures, not ours. And they adapt very well, if taken care of properly, to climate changes. As always, make sure they constantly have plenty of water and food, and that their run is free from snow and ice during these winter months. It will help their winter time experience drastically over these frigidly cold days!

Want even more information about deep litter method flooring? I highly suggest reading Harvey Ussery's deep litter method article at The Modern Homestead.

Photos by Amy Fewell



11/25/2014

Man Milking A CowFor the past three years, we at MOTHER EARTH NEWS have collected nominations from our readers and fans to name a handful of self-sufficient superstars as our Homesteaders of the Year. We're back at it this year, seeking wiser-living families and individuals who deserve to be honored in our 2015 edition. (You can find past profiles by reading our collection of Star Modern Homesteaders.)

Do you know someone who has embraced the DIY lifestyle by raising nearly all of their own food, building their own home, installing renewable-energy systems, and otherwise blazing a path toward self-reliant living for others to follow? Perhaps you and your family fit this bill! 

Nominate those you know — or your own family — to be one of our 2015 Homesteaders of the Year. Submit at least 500 words explaining why your nominee deserves to win along with at least three photos to Letters@MotherEarthNews.com with the subject line "homesteader of the year." Entries are due by March 1, 2015.

Help us find folks out there inspiring others to do more with less — and love it!

Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can connect with Jennifer directly by leaving a comment below.



11/24/2014

Man Gardening In Community GardenWe at MOTHER EARTH NEWS are proud to announce our fourth-annual Homesteaders of the Year contest. For the past three years, we have sorted through nominations of incredible modern homesteaders and selected those we felt were the most inspiring. In 2013, we looked at folks who teach others self-reliance skills, and in 2014 we focused on DIY builders. For the coming year, we’re going to try something a little different.

Because our article about an incredible homestead hamlet in Lincoln, Neb., struck a nerve with our readers, our 2015 contest will feature Homestead Hamlets of the Year. Instead of accepting individual nominations, we’d like to hear about communities who have set up shared homesteading spaces, including community gardens, small-scale livestock, education classes and workshops — any and all of these neighborhood endeavors are welcome. Sustainable living is a lot more fun and a whole lot more achievable when you go into it with friends and neighbors. We know there are many projects out there — urban, suburban and rural — that can serve as inspiration to others.

To make a nomination, please send 500 words explaining your homestead hamlet — or a homestead hamlet you know of in your area — along with photos to Letters@MotherEarthNews.com with the subject line “Homestead Hamlet Nomination.” You can mail letters and photos to Homestead Hamlet Nomination; MOTHER EARTH NEWS; 1503 SW 42nd St.; Topeka, KS 66609. The deadline for entry is February 15, 2015.

Photo of Tim Rinne of the the homestead hamlet in Lincoln, Neb., gardening with his neighbors; taken by Jeff Larsen.


Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can connect directly with Jennifer by leaving a comment below!


11/21/2014

solar panels

In 2008, my husband and I made the decision to install solar panels whose production would roughly match our energy-use. Although our main aim was to make our homestead more sustainable, I believe investing in a solar system is also a wise economic decision.

The following article contains facts about our solar energy, which includes solar panels and a solar hot water heating system. I’ve included an online resource to show what financial incentives are available in your state. Whether you choose to invest in renewable energy for the health of your pocketbook or for the health of the planet, the following information may help you begin.

Why we decided to stay on the grid: Being “off the grid” has the great appeal of self-sufficiency, but we don’t have storage place for batteries and neither of us wanted to add non-biodegradable batteries to our homestead. Additionally, it just seemed simpler to stay on the grid in our semi-suburban area.

Affordable solar includes cutting energy consumption: Our goal of sustainability had already included reducing the amount of energy we used. We had re-insulated the walls of our small farm house, changed windows and re-insulated and ventilated the attic. Clothes are hung outside in the summer and on a rack by the woodstove in the winter. We heat and cook with wood and the windmill pumps water for the animals.

solar hot water heating system

Another big deduction from our electric bill came with installing a solar hot water heating system whose total cost was less than $900. This system includes two large panels which we installed on the house roof. Propylene glycol is heated in these panels and pumped to an exchanger in the basement where water absorbs the heat. An insulated tank stores this very-hot water which is then diluted to the hot water we use. All the energy this system requires is provided by a small solar panel.

A solar water heater system typically saves about 18 percent of a household’s energy bill and is independent of the grid. Solar hot water heating seems like a great place to start in reducing energy bills and making a meaningful, ecological statement.

After getting that far with reducing our energy consumption, we were ready to see if the sun could power our homestead.

Cost of solar: We bought our original 20 solar panels five years ago and an additional four, more-efficient panels, this past summer. Efficiency of solar panels is going up as prices are coming down, but the combined package was still around $30,000. That sounds like an impossible sum, but we actually had it mostly covered with the following help:

• One-third of our cost was paid by a state grant, available at that time.
• Another third was paid by federal tax incentives (see “incentives,” below).
• Five thousand dollars of the final third was covered by carbon credits. Although still available, these credits are no longer as generous for the “RPS” reason listed below.

Remember, too, that your most immediate reward (besides feeling good about helping the planet) is the money you save on your electric bill. It’s fun to get a bill of $16 if it used to be $160!

Ohio currently gives little support to renewable energy. I’ll explain state and federal incentives, but you can find what support your state offers by going to SolarPowerRocks.com.

Financial incentives in Ohio for solar and remaining on the grid: Ohio’s meager financial support for renewable energy is found in these three points:

1. There is a property tax exemption. The value of a home goes up when renewable energy is installed. In Ohio, this increase in value is totally exempt from additional property tax.
2. The solar equipment itself is 100 percent exempt from sales tax.
3. Net metering requires the utility not only monitor and report how much energy a solar system generates and how much energy is used, but requires they pay us for the difference.

Financial dis-incentives in Ohio for solar and remaining on the grid: The renewable energy laws in Ohio are weak, but in May of 2014, even the weak goals for the alternative energy standard were pushed back by two years. Here is the current situation:

1. The Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) in our state only requires that 12.5 percent of energy comes from clean, renewable energy by 2026, and only .5 percent need come from solar! Without having a strong RPS, energy companies won’t invest in renewable energy because, of course, they don’t want to cut into current profits.
2. This RPS is so weak that solar companies no longer pay customers for putting in solar.
3. Ohio gives NO solar power tax credits. At least the federal government still gives a 30 percent tax credit for installation, and this makes investing in solar especially wise if you receive a lump sum from inheritance or retirement.
4. A weak RPS also resulted in lower price for carbon credits.

Does it pay to go solar? It does for us. I personally need a way to tread softly on this beautiful planet, and not using energy from petroleum is allowing me to live more consistently with my values. Because of the financial help available, we also had most of our costs covered while we continue to save on our electric bills.

Mary Lou Shaw homesteads in Ohio. Her book, Growing Local Food, can be purchased through MOTHER EARTH NEWS' books.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


11/21/2014

For anyone eating on a budget, or living in a food desert where it is difficult to get to the grocery store, protein and fresh vegetables become luxuries. Without protein and fresh vegetables human health is compromised. Access is particularly limited where fresh vegetables cannot be grown outdoors during the winter. Carbohydrates like beans, rice, potatoes and pastas come cheap in bulk and store easily but animal protein and vegetables are best eaten fresh. A greenhouse is an option for winter vegetables but any savings can be lost if you have to heat the greenhouse.

We are developing ways to address these issues by designing for a relatively inexpensive structure that can be attached to the south side of a building to produce protein and fresh vegetables year round. To avoid the expense of gas or electric heat we are enclosing enough thermal mass to absorb extra heat when the sun is shining and release it when the sun goes down. The formula from the passive-solar greenhouse literature is that we need between 2 and 5 gallons of water, or equivalent, (masonry gives you about ¼ of the heat storage as the same volume of water) for every square foot of glazing. It also turns out that the type of glazing is less important than how well we are able to seal the structure against air leaks. We also get credit if the wall to which we attach the structure is heated from the other side.

We are not purists so we do not mind adding “active” elements to the system and we like to have each element serve multiple purposes. We like to try things and see how they work. Also, this structure is a part of our wider explorations into how we can work with nature and use natural processes to reduce our work load.

Integrated Closed Loop Production Systems

Nature works in cycles that have no cost and produce no waste. That is what makes natural systems sustainable. To reduce our cost of inputs to zero we have to close the loops and produce all of our inputs as a part of the production cycle. To reduce our waste to zero we have to integrate the processes and find a use for all the byproducts of each process. Those parts of the cycle that cannot survive freezing can be enclosed in a shell designed to retain the sun's heat during the day and release it at night.

Our first prototype is attached to the south wall of an occupied residential dwelling. We used two layers of greenhouse film over 2-by-4 framing. The north wall of our structure is constantly 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and we have no heat loss in that direction. We built raised beds 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep in order to increase the ratio of thermal mass to air space. In the raised beds we installed a pipe attached to a fan that takes air from the top of the structure and blows it through the growing medium to actively transfer heat into and out of the growing medium. The growing medium is wood chips and horse manure like our outside gardens. The fan runs all winter long pumping heat into the bed when the sun is shining and pumping heat out of the bed at night. This heat storage system is called a climate battery and is based on designs developed at the Central Rocky Mountain Research Institute in Basalt, Colorado.

We next installed an aquaponics system built from three food grade 55 gallon drums. We built a tray lined with pond liner 3-feet-by-11-feet-by-1-foot (deep water culture). We cut one of the drums in half vertically and suspended the halves over the deep water culture. In those halves we installed a bell siphon so that the containers would flood and drain and then filled them with river rock (media beds). The rock hosts the bacteria that change the ammonia the fish produce into the nitrates that plants need. The two remaining barrels that hold the fish were plumbed to overflow into the media beds. We pump water from the deep water culture into the fish barrels. We plant directly into the river rock in the media bed and float insulation panels on the deep water culture to hold additional plants.

In the floor of the structure we set cinder blocks to support a walk way about 8” above the ground level. In the space under the walkway, we use worms to process chicken waste from our deep litter chicken operation. Nine weeks after adding chicken waste to the worm bed we can sift the worms out of the worm castings. We feed the worms to the fish and the chickens and we use the worm castings as a planting medium in our gardens.

A Food Cell: More Than a Greenhouse

In integrated closed loop production (ICLP) systems the primary design requirement is balance. We cannot produce more of any one thing than we can process all the products. Systems designed to produce a product for sale in the market are generally designed to produce as much of one thing as possible. That lowers costs through economies of scale but leaves an imbalance of by products that are not cycled in the design. ICLP can achieve economies of integration, meaning zero costs and zero waste, but there may never be enough of any one product to justify taking it to market. Instead, there is a constant production of a small amount of many products. That is perfect then for providing a varied diet of protein and fresh vegetables to the humans who are integrated into the system.

We have yet to reduce our input costs to zero. We still purchase chicken food and small amounts of fish food and some of our seeds. We are buying a small amount of electricity from the grid to run the water and air pumps and fan. We believe it is possible to close the loops but we have to integrate more processes. Still, in a structure 9-feet X 24-feet plus the space for our chickens, we can produce enough protein and fresh vegetables for maybe 8 families year round. That is not all the required calories, that is what you are missing if you are eating on a budget or live in a food desert.

Consider that taking care of chickens is easier than caring for a dog. Feeding the chicken waste to the worms is more pleasant than picking up after a dog. If you ever had a fish tank, this one even cleans itself. Growing plants in this structure is no more difficult than growing house plants. You will have to spend some time each evening picking a salad for dinner but you will spend much less time in the produce aisle at the grocery store.

Now think about dividing the necessary tasks among the members of eight families. How much of a time commitment are we really talking about? The more people involved the less any one person has to do. Everyone can still do all the other things they like to do and keep their jobs. That makes this structure much more than a greenhouse. We call it a food cell as it is a membrane with enclosed metabolic processes.

The Food Cell Challenge

We have spent maybe $2,500 on the entire system. We have done all the work with volunteer labor and we keep changing things as we experiment with different approaches. With the right design we could be talking about a reasonable investment spread over 8 families that results in essentially free food for the indefinite future. Any 8 families with jobs can certainly afford one. People in greater need may be able to apply for grants to build these systems.

What we have been able to accomplish to date is just the beginning. In a stand alone system we might want to add a supplemental heat source, such as a rocket mass heater, for those polar vortex days. We want to incorporate a sprouted barley feeding system for our chickens that will allow us to go 100 percent organic and GMO free. If I had sufficient time I would be looking to integrate raising insects as both animal and human food. We can do a better job of processing the byproducts from butchering the chickens and fish. We can work to incorporate more of the waste streams generated in our community such as the food scraps from a restaurant.

We are interested in sharing what we know with anyone willing to collaborate in the design, prototyping and testing process. If you would like to build one and share your results we are interested in working with you. You can start with information about a Basic Food Production System on our web site and we have a more advanced stand alone design we can share.

Combined with a neighborhood habitat improvement project using a deep mulch gardening system and incorporating seed saving and line breeding we begin to prepare for the potential of economic collapse and climate change while making important strides toward healing nature and ending poverty. This is how we will end hunger in the world.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.









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Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

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