Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bees Be Gone

Technically, my bees aren't gone, they are dead. Not all three hives, just the weaker of my original two hives. It was disappointing to find out, but not a total surprise. The health of this hive had been up and down this past fall, although the last time I had looked, the population was up and it seemed that it was going to pull through.

Seeing a dead hive can really bring you down, after spending all the time and money to feed the hive and nurture it with the hope of receiving a honey crop the following year.

After taking off the hive bodies, I searched through this pile of dead bees for the queen, but she was no where to be found. She may not have been there, or I may have just missed her. There was very little if any brood on the frames, which might mean she was already gone and this was a queen less hive, and without any eggs, they couldn't raise a new queen. Then as the numbers dwindled, they might have gotten cold and died without being able to cluster and stay warm.

Having a bunch of bees in the comb like the photo above makes it look like they starved. There was a lot of honey in the frames of the top hive body. If you look closely in the top right corner of the above photo, you can see bees head first in the comb on both sides of the honey, which doesn't make sense for the starvation theory.

This photo shows dead bees all over the frame, and on top of the honey that was available. That makes me think that they may have gotten cold and froze to death. The honey cappings that look torn open above were probably from the strong hive doing a bit of robbing. When I checked on the hive last Thursday afternoon, there were a few bees coming and going from the hive, but they weren't the native bees from this hive. They were already dead.

When I checked the strong hive, and pulled the top hive body off the hive, and set it across the outer cover on the ground, I noticed that there were some brood exposed. If you look closely, you can see some of the brood in the photo below.

The hive had built some comb between the two hive bodies and the queen had laid eggs and there was drone brood in that area. After putting the top hive body back on the hive, there were a couple drone larvae that had fallen out of the upper hive body laying on the outer cover. Looking closely, there were four varroa mites on the larvae. This makes me think that there was a heavy mite load on the weak hive since they were in the same environment and came from the same nuc supplier.

Whatever the cause, it is one hive down and two remaining. With the crazy winter weather we have been having in Virginia this year, I am going to do my best to keep an eye on my last two hives. If this is the only one I lose, then I am average with approximately 30% loses over the winter. The good thing is that at least I was able to recover two full deep hive bodies of drawn comb, some with honey and pollen. And as bee keepers say, drawn comb is worth it's weight in gold!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Meat Chickens - Part II

My BIL, a friend and I have gotten the ball rolling.  The chickens are ordered and the clock is ticking.  76 chicks will be calling our place home in a couple weeks.  The chicks will live in a brooder for a couple weeks, but they will grow quickly and need a place to live outside on the pasture.

Again, the internet was researched to learn from the great chicken farmers that had gone before us.  Why make the same mistakes others have made?  I'm all about letting others make mistakes.  It was narrowed down to the flat rectangular chicken tractor that Joel Salatin made famous, or try a more hoop-house type of shelter that would allow me better access to the inside.  Even while getting materials at the big orange box, the decision wasn't finalized.  That probably accounted for the excess of wood and supplies that were purchased.

After getting the cattle panels from Southern States and seeing how flimsy they were, the decision was made to go hoop-house style.

I started out by laying out the cattle panels slightly overlapping.  I nailed the short ends of the panels to a 12' 2x4.  All the wood was pressure treated to hold up to the outdoor weather.  Once that was done, an 8' 1x4 was connected between one end of the 2x4s.  Then an 8' 2x4 was connected between the other ends of the 12' 2x4.  This made the basic frame of the chicken shelter.

I chamfered the front ends of the 12' 2x4s to make it easier to drag.  A 1x4 was also connected in the center to keep the 12' 2x4s from bowing out too much.

The next step was to put some framing on the back side to help make it more rigid and hold up the chicken wire that would enclose the back side.  A couple 1x4s would do the trick.

The edges of the cattle panel were nailed to the supports along with a few zip ties for good measure.  Surprisingly for looking so flimsy, it is actually quite rigid and strong.

The next step was the front side.  I wanted a door that I would be able to walk into easily.  Using a few more 1x4s to make the door frame along with another 1x4 on the sides for lateral support, the door frame was created.  (The top of the side supports are 48" above the ground, so the 48" tall chicken wire would fit perfectly between the bottom board and the lateral support board.  A couple hinges and some more 1x4 framing and the door was attached.

A note for others to learn from my mistakes, be sure to wrap the chicken wire around the shelter before attaching the door.  This will save you from installing the door twice.

The two door cross members are for the chicken wire.  The top support is 48" from the ground, and the bottom support is 48" from the top.  The middle section has overlapping chicken wire.  The front and back top sections were covered in chicken wire and secured to the cattle panels using zip ties.  This was done first so the bottom chicken wire would overlap the top.  Then a bottom row of chicken wire was put all the way around the shelter.  On the front and back it was staple gunned to the boards.  On the sides it was staple gunned at the bottom and zip tied at the top.  The top of the cattle panels are open as it will be covered by a tarp.

You can see it was dark when I finished.  The Good Wife and her sister came home from the boys swim meet and helped finish up the zip-tying process.  It only took two trips to the orange box (1 more 1x4 was needed for the door) and one trip to Southern States.  It was a beautiful day this last Saturday, and surprisingly (to me at least) I got it finished in one day without any plans drawn out.  It is 12' x 8' and a little over 6' high in the center.

The next day, the weather turned as it seems to happen whenever I have a project to do.   I got the tarp on the top of the shelter for a full out weather check.

Five plus inches of snow later, it help up great!  It kept this inside snow-free, and it held up to the weight of the snow.  It can easily support a waterer or feeder hung from the top of the panels.  I added two eye bolts on the front 2x4 to place a rope for dragging it around the pasture.  It could be dragged by one person with some weight, but I would like to add at least a couple wheels on the back to make it easier.

Overall, the cost was about $175 or so.  The cattle panels were on sale and were $60 for the 3 panels.  The 48" x 50' of chicken wire was $40 and I still have about 10' left as I started with a left over roll from the original chicken run.  I also had to buy some all weather screws.  I used about half a box of the short screws and only about a dozen or less of the long screws, so that cost gets counted towards stocking up the garage supplies.  The rest was lumber, two hinges, two eye bolts and a door latch that I need to take back.  The tarp was something that I had.

Other than the tarp, this should last for several years at the least and probably more than five.  Overall, the cost wasn't too bad for such a sturdy and durable shelter.  As each dollar gets spent, we are becoming more and more committed to raising more than our initial batch of meat chickens.  What are we thinking?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Meat Chickens - Part I

So from the title of this post, you can guess what decision has been made.  My BIL from Knoxville along with a local friend have decided to raise some meat chickens this spring.  Our original intent was to just raise a few to try it out for ourselves to 1) Rely upon ourselves for more of our food, 2) Have food that is more natural and not stuffed with antibiotics, hormones or any other unnatural food stuffs, and 3) Take our chicken loving to the next level.

Once the decision was made to do the chickens, there was the discussion of what chickens to raise.  There is the common Cornish Cross that is the Franken-chicken of the industry.  It grows out to butcher size in about 8 weeks and has the best conversion rate of food to meat.  This is the type of chicken that you buy in the grocery store and that Tyson raises.  But again, this is a chicken that can't breed on its own, and because it grows so fast, the rest of its body can't keep up, so they often have a high mortality rate while growing and can have leg problems and heart failure.  From a production stand point, sounds good, but it isn't why we were trying this.

After looking around, we settled on the Freedom Rangers, or Red Rangers, or whatever variant that people call them.  We won't go into all the naming nuances, but it is more of a heritage breed of chicken that takes a bit longer to fill out, but will tend to forage more on its own if given the opportunity.

Please remember though, this is all information coming from someone who hasn't done this before and has just read a lot of information on the internet.  For this reason, I will try to keep you posted on all our adventures in the meat chicken front as we progress.

After the breed was selected, it was time to place our order.  Again, more internet reading and research.  We finally decided on MT-DI Poultry Farms.  To get the price break, we ended up buying 76 chickens!  (Remember the beginning of this post of wanting to do a "few" chickens?  Oh well.)  Now we are committed.

The chickens should be arriving the second week of March with the anticipation of having our big processing celebration on Memorial Day weekend.  That way my BIL can come up with his family from Knoxville to guide us, as he is the only one of our group that has done this in the past.  It may be a long weekend!

Time is running out before the chickens arrive.  They need food, a place to brood, a place to pasture.  Oh my.  What have we gotten ourselves into?  Tune in to find out if we are over our heads or can handle the pressure of being chicken farmers processors.

Friday, February 17, 2012

And Let There Be Light

This weekend a task finally got done that has been waiting to be done for almost a year, at least since we got the Chicken Condo built.  Permanent electricity has been run to the coop.

It is permanent because it is run underground through conduit that has been installed.  This was required because when we had temporary electricity (several extension cords strung together between the house and coop) the neighbor's yellow lab decided that a couple of them were chew toys.  And no, the power was not on at the time.  I'm not sure it would have mattered to that dog.

It has been mentioned before, but it will be said again, it is so nice having a neighbor that owns an excavating company and is willing to loan you heavy equipment.  The request was put in and a Cat Skid-Steer was delivered to my driveway with a bucket and a separate trenching attachment.

Before the photo, let me explain that it isn't as easy as it seems.  First, you are trenching backwards, so you can't see where you are going.  Next, the skid-steer pushes at an angle when you are trenching, making it difficult to go straight.  And lastly, well, my day job is behind a desk.  Need I say more?

 The first path was from the coop, and I quickly realized I was not heading directly towards my target.  I also learned a bit about controlling the depth of the trench.  Lets just say I explored the limits of the skid-steer.  The second path was from the house towards the coop.  And finally, it took two attempts to connect the initial two trenches.  Basically I chewed up my yard pretty good.  But I did successfully miss the buried propane tank, so I call it a success.

The wires were connected to the house and fed through the PVC conduit.  One additional connector was needed to finish the connection at the coop.  In true Haphazard Countryman fashion, I didn't have all the parts for the project, so it was off to the big orange box.

As I was leaving the big orange box, the Middle Son called me to tell me to get home quick, it was snowing!  Looking at the thermometer in the truck, it was 49F and sunny outside, and we are only about 15 miles away. The boys must be playing a joke on me. I got about 3 miles from the house and the temperature plunged to 33F and I drove into a white-out!

It only lasted a little less than an hour, but it left a nice white layer.  It even thundered while it was snowing, which in WI where I grew up, means a big snow.

The snow was fun, but it ended my electricity project for the day.  The snow was mostly gone by the next day, and the project was able to be completed.  A timer switch was even installed in the house so we can set it to go on at dusk and stay on until a set time.  That will help next year during the winter to give the ladies some extra light and keep them laying all winter, hopefully.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chicken Down, Chicken Down!

 Friday night, after getting home from the spaghetti dinner and silent auction fund raiser at the elementary school, the chicken coop was needing to be closed.  After dropping my stuff in the house and grabbing a flashlight, I headed down to the coop to lock up.  There is a routine: close the fence door and flip the latch, look through the gap in the door of the Guinea Ghetto with the flashlight to count the ladies, walk around to the Chicken Condo to collect any eggs, and then head back to the house to deposit the eggs in the fridge.

This night was different.  When counting the ladies with the flashlight, there were only five.  Five?  There were supposed to be six.  Occasionally one will split from the crowd and go upscale and roost in the Chicken Condo.  After checking there with no luck, my attention went back to the Guinea Ghetto.  A couple times one or two would sleep on the floor of the Ghetto.  After opening the door to the Guinea Ghetto, and counting to five again, it was time to look elsewhere.

First up on the deck, where the lone guinea usually hangs out.  Not there.  

Then under the stairs of the deck where some of the ladies hang out during the day.  Not there.

Then a thought came to me.  When I picked up Oldest Son at the house after work before heading to the school for the big event, I noticed the dog sniffing around the garden.  He seemed very interested in something.  Being in a rush before, not much attention was paid to the anomaly.  

Upon arriving a the garden, the hen was discovered.  It was the Buff Orpington.  The head was gone and a bunch of feathers were off and around the body, but that was it.  The rest of the hen was still intact.  Not sure who the guilty party was, but we are now down to five laying hens.  

It's a good thing that spring is in the air and Southern States usually has a deal where you get six chicks if you buy a bag of feed.  We are going to need to replenish our flock to keep the eggs coming.


Buffy will be missed.  She was one of the friendliest and didn't mind being held, even by guests.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Radio Silence

 You may have wondered what happened to me to go silent for almost two months.  Or maybe not since I didn't get any email about it.  My SIL from Knoxville did mention that my BIL, her husband, was missing my posts, but that was about it.  My basic explanation is that Christmas came along, and then I didn't really feel like posting.  Everything I thought about writing about seemed trivial.  I had to rethink the topics and how I write.  The early posts seemed fun, and the last posts felt more like a diary entry.

Not to bore you, but the focus is now going to be on projects undertaken by the Haphazard!  Things that may enlighten others and help others learn from my mistakes, of which there will probably be many.

So please stay tuned, and feel free to tell your friends about this blog if you find it useful, interesting, or if you are just a very social communicator, like my boys in school.  But that is a whole other topic that probably won't be discussed here.

One milestone that did arrive during the silence that needs to be celebrated is the 2003 Ford Expedition hit the 200K mark.

And it is still going strong.  Ok, maybe not strong, but definitely still going.  The Good Wife and I hope it keeps going for a while so we don't have to spend the money to get a new vehicle yet.  It still works!  And any minor repair is less than a car payment.  So we are going to keep driving on!